Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Heads Up! | The Three of The Two of Swords

K. J. Parker is to my mind one of the best writers writing right now, so I was all sorts of excited when Subterranean Press announced Savages, the author's first novel proper since Sharps three long years ago. I still am; I dare say I'm delighted. But—be still my beating heart—Orbit has gone and beaten Savages to market with a serial novel project called The Two of Swords.
"Why are we fighting this war? Because evil must be resisted, and sooner or later there comes a time when men of principle have to make a stand. Because war is good for business and it's better to die on our feet than live on our knees. Because they started it. But at this stage in the proceedings," he added, with a slightly lop-sided grin, "mostly from force of habit." 
A soldier with a gift for archery. A woman who kills without care. Two brothers, both unbeatable generals, now fighting for opposing armies. No-one in the vast and once glorious United Empire remains untouched by the rift between East and West, and the war has been fought for as long as anyone can remember. Some still survive who know how it was started, but no-one knows how it will end.
Initially, The Two of Swords will only be available as eight ebook "episodes" released between now—as in RIGHT NOW, readers—and September, but collected print and digital editions are of course on the cards for some undisclosed date after the fact.


To tell the truth, I'd really rather have the whole novel in hand before I begin... but hey, you won't catch me waiting for new K. J. Parker if I can help it. And I can! And at 99 pence a pop, or less than a dollar across the pond—the perfect impulse purchase price—I've already bought a copy of the first installment of The Two of Swords, and I plan to crack open my Kindle just as soon as I've put the finishing touches to this post.

P. S. Done... and done! :)

Friday, 10 April 2015

Book Review | The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall



For almost a decade, Rachel Caine has turned her back on home, kept distant by family disputes and her work monitoring wolves on an Idaho reservation. But now, summoned by the eccentric Earl of Annerdale and his controversial scheme to reintroduce the Grey Wolf to the English countryside, she is back in the peat and wet light of the Lake District.

The earl's project harks back to an ancient idyll of untamed British wilderness—though Rachel must contend with modern-day concessions to health and safety, public outrage and political gain—and the return of the Grey after hundreds of years coincides with her own regeneration: impending motherhood, and reconciliation with her estranged family.

The Wolf Border investigates the fundamental nature of wilderness and wildness, both animal and human. It seeks to understand the most obsessive aspects of humanity: sex, love, and conflict; the desire to find answers to the question of our existence; those complex systems that govern the most superior creature on earth.

***

Between land and sea, day and night, life and death and the like, there lie those borders that, much as we might try, we cannot deny. Equally, though, there are those we impose: make-believe borders drawn to defend against that which we fear, as well as to keep what we want for ourselves within.

Set in the pristine wilderness split down the middle by the border between Scotland and England—as powerful a haunt here as it's ever been—in the run-up to and the aftermath of 2014's hotly fought Independence Referendum, Sarah Hall's fifth work of fiction is a sumptuous study of truth and trust some are sure to slight because it seems slow... but no. The Wolf Border takes longer than I'd like to find its feet, but before long it's toddling confidently, then running rampant—not unlike the near-mythical infant its protagonist produces.

An age ago, wildlife biologist Rachel Caine escaped this close-knit community—most notably her suffocating mother—to run a sanctuary of sorts in Idaho. There, she learned how to live and how to love—not by befriending her fellows, but by watching the wild wolf packs that prowl the plains of the reservation.

At the outset of Hall's novel, Rachel has to head home for her first visit in what feels like forever:
The last ended badly, with an argument, a family riven. She is being called upon to entertain a rich man's whimsy, a man who owns almost a fifth of her home county. And her mother is dying. Neither duty is urgent; both players will wait, with varying degrees of patience. Meanwhile, snow. The Chief Joseph wolves are scenting hoof prints, making forays from the dent. The pups have grown big and ready, any day now they will start their journey. (pp.3-4)
See how the author suggests something of Rachel's situation in the same breath as introducing the wolves? That's not an accident. Next to nothing about this book is. The Wolf Border is almost impossibly purposeful: its every element is meticulously measured, developed with painstaking consideration, before being brought to a carefully controlled conclusion.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Book Review | Harrison Squared by Daryl Gregory


Harrison Harrison—H2 to his mom—is a lonely teenager who's been terrified of the water ever since he was a toddler in California, when a huge sea creature capsized their boat, and his father vanished. One of the "sensitives" who are attuned to the supernatural world, Harrison and his mother have just moved to the worst possible place for a boy like him: Dunnsmouth, a Lovecraftian town perched on rocks above the Atlantic, where strange things go on by night, monsters lurk under the waves, and creepy teachers run the local high school.

On Harrison's first day at school, his mother, a marine biologist, disappears at sea. Harrison must attempt to solve the mystery of her accident, which puts him in conflict with a strange church, a knife-wielding killer, and the Deep Ones, fish-human hybrids that live in the bay. It will take all his resources—and an unusual host of allies—to defeat the danger and find his mother.

***

Not an author to dare wearing out his welcome in any one genre, Afterparty's Daryl Gregory turns his attention to tentacles in Harrison Squared, a light-hearted Lovecraft lark featuring a friendly fishboy and a ghastly artist which straddles the line between the silly and the sinister superbly.

It's a novel named after its narrator, Harrison Harrison—to the power of five, in fact, but around his mom and his mates, just H2 will do. Whatever you want to call him—and you wouldn't be the first to go with weirdo—Harrison has a paralysing fear of the sea. A hatred, even, and for good reason, because when our boy was a baby, his father—Harrison Harrison the fourth, of course—was swallowed by the waves, one dark day; a day Harrison has forgotten almost completely:
Some images, however, are so clear to me that they feel more true than my memory of yesterday's breakfast. I can see my father's face as he picks me up by my life vest. I can feel the wind as he tosses me up and over the next wave, toward that capsized boat. And I can see, as clearly as I can see my own arm, a huge limb that's risen out of the water.
The arm is fat, and gray, the underside covered in pale suckers. It whips across my father's chest, grasping him—and then it pulls him away from me. The tentacle is attached to a huge body, a shape under the water that's bigger than anything I've ever seen. (p.12)
In the lifetime since that nightmarish sight, Harrison has reasoned his strange recollections away. He knows, now, that he imagined the monster:
Yes, we were out on the ocean, and the boat did flip over, but no creature bit through my leg to the bone—it was a piece of metal from the ship that sliced into me. My mother swam me to shore, and kept me from bleeding to death. My father drowned like an ordinary man. (p.12)
Little wonder, really, that Harrison isn't keen on the sea. His marine biologist mother, on the other hand, is obsessed with it—as his father was before her—which is why she and her son have arranged to spend a couple of months in Dunnsmouth: a creepy coastal village where Harrison's mother means to meet Mr. Mesonychoteuthis Hamiltoni.

(That's a forty-five foot long squid "whose suckers are ringed not only by teeth but sharp, swivelling hooks," (p.22) for those of you who haven't been practising your Latin of late.)

Monday, 30 March 2015

Book Review | The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers


Somewhere within our crowded sky, a crew of wormhole builders hops from planet to planet, on their way to the job of a lifetime. To the galaxy at large, humanity is a minor species, and one patched-up construction vessel is a mere speck on the starchart. This is an everyday sort of ship, just trying to get from here to there.

But all voyages leave their mark, and even the most ordinary of people have stories worth telling. A young Martian woman, hoping the vastness of space will put some distance between herself and the life she‘s left behind. An alien pilot, navigating life without her own kind. A pacifist captain, awaiting the return of a loved one at war.

Set against a backdrop of curious cultures and distant worlds, this episodic tale weaves together the adventures of nine eclectic characters, each on a journey of their own.

***

Self-published in the wake of a successful Kickstarter campaign before being picked up by a traditional genre fiction imprint, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet makes its move into the mainstream this month: a real rollercoaster of a path to market I urge you to ride when it arrives. 

Not for nothing did the Kitschies shortlist this progressive piece de resistance. Imagine smashing the groundbreaking, breathtaking science fiction of Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch saga against the salty space opera of The ExpanseThe Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet lacks the wall-to-wall action of that latter, and some of the former's finesse, yes—nevertheless, Becky Chambers' debut is a delight.

Rosemary Harper is on the run. Whether from someone or something, she won't say—not today—but whatever the shape this danger takes, she's taking it very seriously indeed. She's frittered away her life savings on Mars' black market, the better to lay claim to a new name, and gotten herself a job as good as guaranteed to see her light years from the only home Rosemary has ever known.
Never in her life had she worried about credits or having a place to go home to. But with the last of her savings running thin and her bridges burned behind her, there was no margin for error. The price of a fresh start was having no one to fall back on. 
No pressure, or anything. (p.14)

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Coming Attractions | Speak Easy by Catherynne M. Valente

As fine as the four Fairyland books have been, I've been keen for a period of years for Catherynne M. Valente to get back to the sumptuous standalone stuff that led me to love her work in the first. Happily, it looks like she's doing exactly that in her "fanciful" new novella. Readers, meet Speak Easy:
If you go looking for it, just about halfway uptown and halfway downtown, there's this hotel stuck like a pin all the way through the world. Down inside the Artemisia it's this mortal coil all over. Earthly delights on every floor. 
The hotel Artemisia sits on a fantastical 72nd Street, in a decade that never was. It is home to a cast of characters, creatures, and creations unlike any other, including especially Zelda Fair, who is perfect at being Zelda, but who longs for something more. 
The world of this extraordinary novella—a bootlegger's brew of fairy tales, Jazz Age opulence, and organised crime—is ruled over by the diminutive, eternal, sinister Al. Zelda holds her own against the boss, or so it seems. But when she faces off against him and his besotted employee Frankie in a deadly game that just might change everything, she must bet it all and hope not to lose...
Multiple-award-winning, New York Times' bestselling author Catherynne M. Valente once again reinvents a classic in Speak Easy, which interprets "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" if Zelda Fitzgerald waltzed in and stole the show. This Prohibition-Era tale will make heads spin and hearts pound. It's a story as old as time, as effervescent as champagne, and as dark as the devil's basement on a starless night in the city.
The cover art is an ornate affair, which is fitting, in that "ornate" is as apt an adjective as any to describe Valente's ridiculously pretty prose. It's what's inside that counts, of course, but it's nice, nevertheless, when what's outside also factors into the mathematics.

Now I have a confession to make before I say good day. When I saw Speak Easy mentioned in the Subterranean Press newsletter, my first thoughts were: What? Haven't I read this already?

I haven't. I have, however, read—and reviewed—a very similar story in recent years. Like Speak Easy, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is a prohibition-era reimagining of The Twelve Dancing Princesses.

To maker matters worse, this is far from the first time I've mixed Catherynne M. Valente up with the author of The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, Genevieve Valentine. Why? My best guess is because their surnames make them shelf-friends in my lovely library, leading to a little confusion that Speak Easy's existence only exacerbates.

I won't hold that against it, though. Roll on Speak Easy's publication in the States this August!

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Book Review | The Glorious Angels by Justina Robson


Mixing science fiction and fantasy with elements of horror and erotica, as well as the weird, The Glorious Angels is Justina Robson's first non tie-in novel since Down to the Bone—the conclusion of the Quantum Gravity quintet—fully four years ago. I don't mind admitting that I had high hopes it would represent a return to form for the oft award-nominated author, but despite its dizzying ambition and a few glimmers of brilliance, to be blunt, it doesn't. A syrupy slow opening sees to that from the start.

The first few hundred pages of Robson's cross-genre odyssey take place in Glimshard, a magnificent city of crystalline stems and spires at the very tip of which sits the Empress Shamuit Torada, who has in her infinite wisdom waged a war of sorts against the Karoo, a strange and essentially alien race "from so far away they were considered beyond civilisation, as elusive as the two-headed wolf of legend," (p.21) and at least as dangerous, I dare say.

As to why she's set her sights on such a terrible enemy when her people are pitifully unprepared for conflict of any sort beyond the wars of words fought in coffee shops across the capital... well, some among the citizens of Glimshard wonder as we do, and some among them think they've arrived at an answer: in brief, because the Karoo's territory takes in a dig site beneath which several surviving scientists have seen evidence of something special; something which the Empress desires so dearly that she's ready to risk the survival of all her beloved subjects to recover.

The exact nature of this purported prize is an enigma wrapped inside of a riddle—buried, to boot, fathoms below the surface of the world—even to Tralane Huntingore, Professor of Engineering at the Glimshard Academy of Sciences.