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Niall Alexander "The Speculative Scotsman" (Scotland)

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Mile 81: A Stephen King eBook Original Short Story featuring an excerpt from his bestselling novel 11.22.63
Mile 81: A Stephen King eBook Original Short Story featuring an excerpt from his bestselling novel 11.22.63
Price: £2.48

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Few Miles Too Far, 8 Sep 2011
Stephen King has spent what seems a disproportionate amount of time and energy writing about evil cars.

Not, I think, the strongest of concepts in the first place - though there is, admittedly, a certain material menace to these multi-tonne monsters with metallic grilles for grimaces - nor have any of Christine, Under the Dome, From a Buick 8 and so on and so forth convinced me that I'm missing something pivotal. In any event King has systematically mined this minor idea for what little it's worth, and then some.

And then a modicum more!

And yet. In Mile 81, an exclusive e-book released this September to whet appetites for 11.22.63, the latest tome to come from the undisputed King of pop horror, the man's at it again; albeit on a much more minor scale. Mile 81 is at heart the story of one Pete Simmons, a little fella to his chagrin abandoned by the rapscallions his big brother runs with. Thus on his lonesome one afternoon, and armed only with a magnifying glass which he may or may not use to terrorise ants, Pete steals along to a legendary rest stop he's heard whispers about - signposted as per the title of this short story, and of course abandoned to the hijinx of experimental children - where who knows what adult delights await him?

He finds a half-full bottle of vodka on the road there, and more spread-legged centerfolds pinned to the walls of the rest stop - an eerie Burger King gone to grime - than a ten year old (going on eleven) could ever imagine. Pete takes in his fill of both of these things and promptly falls asleep, sated.

But in the parking lot an old station wagon rolls up, with an unholy appetite fit to put Pete's to shame. Covered in muck and empty, so far as anyone can tell, the car's door creaks open... but no driver steps out.

Mile 81 he is long enough by short story standards, but only that because in place of proferring a single victim to demonstrate the inhuman hunger of this vile vehicle, King devotes one, then another, then a practically a whole family, by which point the point has been so belaboured as to test one's patience. Only then do we return to Pete, who's slept like a baby through all this awfulness. Saying that, Pete has a trick or two up his sleeve, and for once the last of Mile 81's six quick chapters claws an amount of the narrative's early mystery and tension back from the great car showroom in the sky.

Mile 81 is never, however, better than it is during that first chapter, which brings - yes - The Body (aka Stand By Me) to mind, and moments of Joe Hill's Horns. But this short story is also symptomatic of the worst of Stephen King: count among some truly terrible product placement, including tips of the hat to Christine - the film rather than the novel - and the comic book American Vampire, which King is of course also involved in. I could have stomached these metatextual references with little ill will... even the heads-ups to Harry Potter and Doctor Who have their place, I suppose.

But this:

"The beauty of the parked cruiser, at least in Maine State Trooper Jimmy Golding's opinion, was that you didn't really need to do anything [...] All his attention was on the iPad propped against the lower arc of the steering wheel.

"He was playing a Scrabble-like game called Words With Friends, his Internet connection provided by AT&T."

I'll thank you not to do that EVER AGAIN, Stephen King!

I am not much amused, obviously. But Mile 81 does feature an excerpt of 11.22.63, King's forthcoming tome about time travel and the assassination of JFK, and it's actually not half bad. So there's that.

That and the first chapter, which for all my criticisms is legitimately interesting. Would that Mile 81 had remained so...


The Map of Time
The Map of Time
by Félix J. Palma
Edition: Paperback

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Sometimes Tiresome, But a Terrific Feat in the Final Summation, 24 Aug 2011
This review is from: The Map of Time (Paperback)
Imagine a tray of cupcakes.

Cupcakes are delicious, you think, so you eat one. Perhaps you earn your icing by nibbling away at the sugar-sweet sponge first, or perhaps you just pop the whole thing into your mouth -- how indeed do you eat yours? It actually matters a great deal. But whatever the method to your particular madness, your suspicions are borne out: the cupcake was indeed delicious. In fact you enjoy your first cupcake so much you take a second; you've hardly eaten anything else today, so in a sense, you've earned it. In short order, if you're anything like me, a second has turned into a third, a fourth into a fifth and finally a sixth...

...and just like that, all the cupcakes are gone! How did that happen?

To make matters worse, now you hate the taste of cupcakes, you've eaten so very many of them. Now the thought of even the sight of one more cupcake makes you nauseous.

The Map of Time can be like that, if you read it unwisely. As I did, when I realised what a delicious (if not strictly nutritious) treat it was. I couldn't get enough of The Map of Time, until one marathon reading session later, I realised I had had enough. But if sheer greed does not spoil your appetite for it - if you can tame the temptation coiled tight inside you like a sugar high - you will find in award-winning Spanish author Felix J. Palma's first novel to be translated into the English language a thing of some decadence, indulgence, and delight.

The Map of Time is not so much a story in three parts as it three stories, told as one - though each enriches the next to a certain extent, incrementally feeding in to a single greater tale as Palma raises curtain after curtain, by and large the three phases of The Map of Time function in isolation. In the first, beginning in the late 1800s, disillusioned young cad Andrew Harrington falls for the prostitute Marie Kelly - none other - then into a decade of despair after Jack the Ripper claims the last of his victims. Andrew wants nothing more than to be able to turn back the clock that he might somehow save his dearly departed from a fate worse than death... and if the writer H. G. Wells is to be believed, there may be a way.

Meanwhile, Claire Haggerty seems a modern woman out of time in a city of old: in turn-of-the-century London she feels desperately disconnected from the high society that clamours on incorrigibly around her... that is until until she takes passage on Gilliam Murrary's magnificent Time-Travelling Train, a startling expeditionary voyage which deposits Claire and her fellow passengers in the year 2000, when the fate of the human race is decided in a duel between the courageous Captain Shackleton and the evil automaton called Solomon. With the past fast receding and the present dead to her, maybe - just maybe - she will finally find love... in the future!

In the third of The Map of Time's three parts, Wells himself takes charge of the narrative; moreover, he takes charge of his own narrative at last, as he becomes embroiled in a murder investigation in which all the evidence points towards an impossible perpetrator: a time-travelling serial killer. But what does this man from the future want? That is besides a trail of bodies that should not be? And what has H. G. Wells of all people got to do with it?

The Map of Time is a delightfully digressionary novel: at once a whimsical send-up of all things Victoriana, an rip-roaring, old-fashioned adventure and a lovingly throwback scientific romance, a la the novels of Wells himself. On all fronts, it succeeds to a certain degree, but each, I think, is ever-so-slightly held back by a sense of irreverence; a notion that perhaps there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Palma's prose is knowingly purple, and often prone to disappearing down the rabbit-hole of its own inspired imagination, so The Map of Time tends to drag when it is not in full flow. In those moments where the narrator - an affable, all-seeing sort perfectly pleased at other times to rudely intrude upon affairs - seems content to revel in his own cleverness, or expound upon this or that (occasionally fascinating) aside at disproportionate length, almost as if he were a non-fiction novelist dedicated to the details... in those moments - and there are a fair few such moments - Palma's long-windedness can come off as not a little over-indulgent, and pace-breaking besides.

Then again, Palma has what you might describe as an "undeniable talent for using very long sentences in order to say nothing at all," (p.437) and there is too a great deal to The Map of Time. I would not suggest it is at all understuffed -- and perhaps if Palma had not, by way of his mysterious narrator, stopped so often to take the measure of one flight of fancy or another, his novel would have proved more exhausting that it is. The Map of Time is a tad bloated, assuredly, but it is at no point truly tiresome. Testing, yes, and yet it will repay your meagre investment a hundredfold by the end, if you stick with it, and consume it correctly. In short bursts, then, Felix J. Palma's first novel to make it across the straits between Spain and our English-speaking territories is by turns funny, witty and winning. And - to paraphrase Palma's easily-distracted omniscient narrator - other such pronouncements.

I would also add that as The Map of Time hopscotches merrily from the Great Fire of London to the Autumn of Terror to the ultimate millennial conflict between man and machine, by way of Jack the Ripper, Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker and Timecop - or at a least time-travelling detective inspector out of Scotland Yard (so much of a muchness, really) - Palma is tremendously well serviced by his translator, erstwhile BBC Radio 4 journalist, presenter, author and man of many talents Nick Caistor. He provides Palma with what feels a pitch-perfect translation, capturing the light touch of the original author wonderfully, with none of the awkwardness or the imprecise turn of phrase one must typically tolerate in fiction first written in another language. As the pioneer Gilliam Murray says, "aren't there lies that make life more beautiful?" (p.418) I dare say Nick Caistor's fibs fall ably into that category.

The Map of Time is a terrific feat, in the final summation, full of twists and turns and surprising reversals of fortune, which touches - tangentially - on questions of fate and predestination, of life imitating art and art imitating life in return. It is sometimes very lovely, and though on occasion it can be slow-going, heed my advice: take no more than three chapter-sized measures of The Map of Time a day until your prescription is finished, and I guarantee you'll come away from Felix J. Palma's fabulous farce a healthy, happy specimen of humanity indeed. In fact, since I do not know you will be able to help yourself, shall we say... doctor's orders?

That goes for the cupcakes too.


Cowboys and Aliens
Cowboys and Aliens
by Joan D. Vinge
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.15

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Very Elegant Adaptation, 24 Aug 2011
This review is from: Cowboys and Aliens (Paperback)
I don't tend to read terribly many novelisations.

In my admittedly limited experience, those novelisations I have read have been tolerable at best, and at worst... well, there's no need to be rude. But something about Joan D. Vinge's adaptation of the script for Cowboys & Aliens - originally written by far too many people to list here, but numbering among them Fringe show-runners Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, as well as Damon Lindelof of Lost fame - something about the Cowboys & Aliens novelisation spoke to me of promise. Vinge, after all, though absent the genre and in fact the fiction industry entire since Tangled Up In Blue came out in the year 2000, because of an horrific accident, is a Hugo award-winning novelist, and fondly remembered by many for The Snow Queen, her take on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy-tale which took the trophy home twenty years before the new millennium.

Passing strange, then, that Vinge would opt to tie her return to an adaptation of a speculative Summer blockbuster; passing strange, but only that, thankfully, because though I haven't as yet caught the movie proper, having been with Jake and Ella all the way through to their last hurrah courtesy this very graceful novelisation, it's easy enough to see the attraction of what is in short a rollicking good example of action-oriented sf.

Do I really need to tell you what Cowboys & Aliens is about? Well, no, probably not. But having followed the film's development from the early stages on through its recent release, it still took half of Vinge's novel for the penny to finally drop -- that Cowboys & Aliens isn't just a random pairing of things, a la Snakes on a Plane or some other such silliness, but a play on cowboys and Indians, the children's game... of course!

Cowboys & Aliens stands thus as a neat inversion of the balance of power, a reversal of roles which casts the cowboys are prey rather than predator. As Jake - he isn't a mysterious stranger for long - puts it: "The whole damned United States had nearly killed itself over the right to own someone else's life, back in the War. And now demons were trying to claim this piece of Hell. It made as much sense to him as anything else. Maybe more." (p.173)

Jake is the lone ranger of the piece; a gunslinger wanted dead or alive, but for what? Well he can't rightly recall, and in point of fact we're as in the dark as he, because the book opens on him waking up from some untold trauma on the road to Absolution, whereupon his talents are immediately taken advantage of. Poor Jake can't seem to remember anything other than how to shoot his six-gun -- though he sure can shoot that thing. Which comes in darned handy when - would you credit it? - aliens arrive.

In the Old West.

So it is that he becomes "a running man, fleeing demons... or a wanted man, riding straight toward them." (p.104) And for all that this novelisation seems sometimes beholden to the strictly straightforward structure of the film, as I understand it, to a linear series of set-pieces strung end to end like scalps on a rope, Cowboys & Aliens really is a great read, particularly on those rare occasions when the roaring action subsides for a while, and Vinge can indulge in measured descriptions of the sights and sounds of "this land only an Apache could love." (p.47) She remains, needless to say, an excellent storyteller, squeezing real feeling and meaning out of even the simplest encounters, and offering up such spare but beautiful prose in each and every quiet moment as to leave one lusting after the next lull.

Of course there's a bit of melodrama, here and there, and some inexplicable exposition, and I would've been happier if the narrative's breckneck pace had come part and parcel with a few more moments for the author to work out her wonderful wordsmithing -- but these are really no more than niggles. Cowboys & Aliens by Joan D. Vinge is not then a perfect novel, nor do I expect the film proper to be such a specimen; what it is is easily one of the very best novelisations I've ever read. A very elegant adaptation, in short, marking the return of a talent too long gone from our beloved genre.


Before I Go To Sleep
Before I Go To Sleep
by S J Watson
Edition: Hardcover

5 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Before I Go To Sleep is Brilliant but Botched, 5 Aug 2011
This review is from: Before I Go To Sleep (Hardcover)
It's a thankless task most days, and an impossible ask on others, but I do try and stay on top of all the Next Big Things in fiction. The comings and goings of debut authors; the latest from our greatest writers; and the hot button books that seem ripped from the headlines like episodes of the late, lamented Law and Order. The way I figure it, where there's smoke, there's usually fire.

Turns out that's something of a misconception. There is such a thing as smoke without fire -- and huge fusses over silly nothings. Here's looking at you, Stephanie Meyer! Oh, would that I could take back all the interminable hours and days I've wasted reading the likes of Twilight and I Am Number Four and The DaVinci Code, and all the other fluff I've suffered through because however-many million people couldn't possibly be wrong... could they?

Well, yes. Yes they could. Yes indeed, they often are. But not always, for equally there are a handful of truly incredible authors I'd never have found were it not for the will of the unwashed, and the general consensus seems to suggest that S. J. Watson is one such. His debut novel, Before I Go To Sleep, has been a huge hit, both here in the UK, from where Watson hails, and further afield. Before I Go To Sleep is variously described as "mesmerising," "a tour de force," and "quite simply the best debut novel [Tess Gerritsen has] ever read."

So what's it all about? In a word: memory. Twenty-some years ago, a horrendous accident left our (unreliable) narrator Christine an amnesiac who can retain only her early childhood and those new memories she makes on any given day. When she sleeps each night, the slate of her life is wiped quite clean, to be remade in the morning. It "is like dying every day. Over and over," and so Christine exists in perpetual "limbo, balanced between possibility and fact."

"As vulnerable as a child," her only solace, her only hope, is her husband, Ben, who reminds her who she is whenever she awakens... who she is, and what her life has become. But when Christine starts keeping a journal, at the urging of a doctor she's been seeing in secret, she begins to understand that Ben isn't telling her everything. In fact there are things, important things, that he's outright lying about. For her own good, he explains on those rare occasions when Christine catches him out. But how can that be true? Even if her history will hurt her, is it not still hers to have?

Who can you trust, Before I Go To Sleep asks, when you do not even know yourself? An excellent question, and one Watson seems poised to answer smartly through the first two thirds of his impressive debut. Furthermore, the novel's neat structure - composed as it of diary entries, buttressed in the first and at the last by longer scenes set "Today" - lends itself ideally to a feeling of disconnectedness, of an anxious isolation the reader has in common with Christine. For we are with her as she wakes each day with no recollection of who she is, or what she has achieved the day before; we are in her corner, and only ever hers, as she pieces together her fragmented past, on each occasion practically from scratch; nor is there any retreat from her discomfiting perspective when at night her husband tries to make love to her - a love she does not often feel, because of course she remembers nothing of it. Through the good times and the bad, the hard times and the sad, Christine is the reader, and the reader is Christine.

So too is Watson's spare prose a feat of form and function. Before I Go To Sleep is rarely beautiful, per se - and what beauty there is in its icy exposition, with its scalpel-like precision, is I think rather undercut by the wearisome repetition of certain images and descriptions - nevertheless there is a pristine quality to Watson's words which works well to set one on edge. Gripping in that regard, provocative yet not at all challenging in its characterisation of Christine and her hopeless husband Ben, and often thoughtful without falling to cod-philosophy, Before I Go To Sleep feels ready-made to deliver on the goods Watson promises.

Alas, at the point at which Before I Go To Sleep must make good on all the developments it's dangled - and there are as many sticks as carrots - it all goes a bit Pete Tong, because Watson properly botches the denouement. Attentive readers will see the unlikely twist in the tale signposted a mile off, and if it weren't disappointing enough in its own right, Watson spends the larger part of the last chapter twisting the narrative knife: explaining at some length how his explanation really does make sense, if you think about -- presumably in case you weren't quite convinced. Disappointment is one thing... insulting your reader's intelligence with such tedium another entirely. It makes for rather a crude anti-climax, I'm afraid to say; an almighty disservice to all that's come before.

I'll give Before I Go To Sleep this much: whatever my feelings for literary sensations such as those I spoke about at the beginning of this review, it had my hopes up... high up indeed. Alas, what is otherwise a pacey, considered and often impressive - if never quite incredible - first novel proves in the final summation its own worst enemy.


Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti
Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti
by Genevieve Valentine
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Steampunk Masterpiece of Measure and Imagination, 5 Aug 2011
There are fantasy novels I love, space operas I adore, and horror stories that will haunt me till my dying day; there are tomes of magic and myth and mystery I don't expect I'll ever forget. Long story short, I'm an undiscriminating reader of speculative fiction -- and that's a fact I take heart in.

But.

(You must have know there was a but coming...)

Among the many, one sub-genre - though perhaps I should rephrase, for I do not presume to have read of each and every one - one sub-genre among the many I've experience of, then, has left me cold on every occasion I've spent time with a book of its oeuvre. Perhaps I've just been reading the wrong books... perhaps it's as simple as that. Yet I began to suspect that I'd finally met my match: that steampunk and I were simply, sadly, never going to get on.

It wasn't that the idea of steampunk didn't do it for me, either. Quite the contrary: the notion of worlds and people remade according to anachronistic laws and technologies delighted me. The thought of pitching the irreversible crawl of progress via industry and enterprise in another direction entirely appealed on a level precious few premises tend to. That the idea of steampunk excites the reader in me I am not at all ashamed to admit, but in practice... alas. Till now, all the steampunk I'd given the time of day to felt more about the tech and the time than the tale or its texture; all cogs and wheels and divots where there should have been characters to care about, arcs to invest my interest in.

Then I read Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine, and all that changed.

The company has been travelling for what feels like forever. Perhaps it has been -- after all, "the circus makes an enemy of time." Led on a lazy circuit around a world of "children raised up on roots and scrounge-meat" where some far-distant day there may again be merit in a school - a vast continent of countless governments at war with one another and themselves - if the Circus Tresaulti and its machine/man/animals acts are not welcomed in every place they pitch their tents, then at least they are free to come and go with little outside interference, for "a circus always finds a home; everyone wants a show."

And theirs is a show like none other, such that the very "life of a city flickers and trembles when they are near." The circus' enigmatic ringmaster Boss - an ageless woman whose ability to breathe new life into tired old acts by way of leftover metals is both a gift and a curse - has made sure of that, embellishing those waifs and strays who come to Tresaulti to escape the forever war raging around them with such parts and roles as to make new people of them. "Their real names don't matter; no one in the circus is real any more," so they are Bird and Stenos and Elena and Ayar; the Grimaldi Brothers, Alto and Altissimo; the aerialists Ming and Penna and Ying; Big Tom and Big George, the living trapezes; and Little George - just George at the last - who tells the tale.

That is, Little George tells the tale insofar as any one character does. As it happens, Mechanique is a tale told in the first and the second and the third person, in tenses past, present and future. Stylistically, and so narratively, Genevieve Valentine's astonishing debut can be a challenging thing -- hard to get a handle on, especially at the outset, when spread all around the reader there is a staggering array of such sights and sounds as to practically overmaster one's imagination. But through it all, Little George is our foothold; chronological and largely uncomplicated, his is certainly the most traditional path of narrative through the events of Mechanique, though I do not know if it is the most powerful, for those fleeting glimpses we are allowed of Bird and Boss are haunting... breathtaking... beautiful in a way very few voices could capture.

In any event Valentine seems to have little interest in tradition, in the art of storytelling as we have been given - perhaps mistakenly - to understand it. She comes at things from a million angles, with an attitude wholeheartedly her own, and at a pace I expect some readers may take issue with. Mechanique will be their loss. It is true that Valentine takes her sweet time setting the scene and arranging the stage for the entertainments to come, but one's introductions to all and sundry in the company are a redoubtable delight, and the Circus Tresaulti a thing of blistering, black-blooded wonder.

Perhaps there's something to the fact that the Circus Tresaulti began its whistle-stop tour in several short stories published in Fantasy Magazine and Beneath Ceaseless Skies (all of which you can read for free here). Assuredly the sense of the episodic carries through the first half of Mechanique and in some senses beyond, and so too does the self-containedness of many of the eighty-odd chapters speak to the abbreviated origins of this far grander narrative, but though Valentine communicates her debut's essential character in an unusual way, her weaving together of all these assorted strands is a supermassive success; her carefully-wrought words and workings so fine and precise as to guarantee it is not merely some happy accident that Mechanique works so very well.

Whether Mechanique is a collection of loosely connected episodes in the life and times of a travelling circus and its oddment of performers, or a single story with a fistful of distinct threads enmeshed together, I would argue it matters little. And there can be no disputing that the ringside seats Valentine arranges for us around this unforgettable parade of "clockwork coquettes" and strongman machines are a marvel. We are so close to the action as to scent the mingled stink of sweat and sawdust and sweet treats in the air; to hear "the sound of feathers singing" as every bone in the wings sewn to the spine of Alec the flying man arrives at an impossible harmony; to gape up at and around and through every last incredible act, as if we were ourselves a part of them.

Truly, madly, deeply, readers: this first full-length Tale of the Circus Tresaulti moved me immeasurably. Here's to many more where it came from -- which is to say, from the mind of one of the most promising new voices in all genre fiction. Not since discovering the work of Catherynne M. Valente have I been so excited about a second novel; that for her first Genevieve Valentine has conjured such a masterpiece of measure and imagination as this - the performance of a lifetime! - speaks volumes as to why I may finally have fallen for steampunk.


Fenrir
Fenrir
by M.D. Lachlan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Novel of Primordial Power, 5 Aug 2011
This review is from: Fenrir (Paperback)
Say what you will about the bible - about Christianity and Christians through the ages, and all the works (righteous and otherwise) worked in the name of "the good book" - but you would not dispute, would you, that it is a gathering together of pretty stories? Of tales, whether they be tall or true, which evince a certain beauty; stories which overlay a certain roundness upon the world: a frame of moral reference though which not a few folks see their deeds defined.

I was raised a Sunday schooler, speaking for myself... baptised and brought to church on special occasions and all that jazz. I did not find God in all that time, if I was looking for Him in the first place -- and I do not know that I was. But though I am no good Christian soldier, faith, I think, has its place, even if it is not by my side.

Fenrir is a novel about faith, in large part. And little wonder, for in Wolfsangel - the first volume of this epic historical fantasy saga - an impossible love blossomed between a wolf, a wolfman, and a woman, the object of both the brothers' affections. Call it what you will... a love triangle or a triple knot... their affair was cruelly interrupted by the mad gods, who play a game tied inextricably to these three heartsick souls, in which the world entire is no more than a board, to be set and reset as Odin and Loki see fit.

But between the lovers is a connection which transcends time itself; they knew it then, and now, a hundred years on, if they can only keep the faith, they will come into this knowledge once more... for the game has begun again.

"It was under way - the twilight of the gods. Ragnarok was playing out on earth again, an event so cataclysmic that its echoes went backwards in time, its conflicts and terrors leaking out into the world of men as history spun towards the terrible day when it would happen for real." (p.286)

Needless to say, the stakes of this particular play are high -- perhaps the highest. On the one hand, you have the mad gods, whose grandiose schemes remain tantalisingly oblique till the final curtain call has come and gone... and I will not spoil them, for though they are old, and familiar as the finest fables, so too are they new, in a sense. Best not to fret terribly over the affairs of deities anyway!

On the other, however, there are the players, arrayed about the stage; among them the three old souls who loved and lost in Wolfsangel, reborn and remade, and though their identities are slowly disclosed, what is clear from the outset is that they each espouse a different strain of faith. We have Aelis, a prudish Frankish princess who only narrowly escapes the wrath of a legion of Viking invaders -- in no small part thanks to the intervention of Leshii, a sharp old merchant whose "mind was ever on profit." (p.93) Together and apart they travel, each for their own reasons, away from one war, and one certain death, into another, and another; from the primal machinations of man into the unfathomable games of gods they go.

With them, a cripple -- though he treads a different, if equally fraught trail to the terrible destination they share. Jehan is at the outset of Fenrir "the stuff martyrs were made of." (p.93) Whereas "other men, more able men, had the illusion of taking a hand in their fate," (p.68) the grotesque confessor, a living Saint, is free of that foolish illusion at least. And so he counts his blessings. Though his body is a broken temple at best, he is, he reasons, as his Lord wills: "a cork bobbing on the tides of God's mind, as all men were. God had just granted him the affliction that let him see it more clearly." (p.68) But as the great game plays out, and his awful role in it is revealed, piecemeal, Jehan becomes "little more than a hunger trapped in flesh." (p.325)

Jehan's journey is, I think, at the very heart of this bitter but winning successor to Wolfsangel, and his three-fold transformation it is a darkly remarkable thing to behold. He is a man of the old testament God whose unflinching belief defines him, specifically when it is tested. Ultimately, however, his faith proves in part his undoing.

It is a fascinating thing, to watch this good shepherd come apart, and M. D. Lachlan - the pseudonymous author of the piece - seems utterly in control of his painful, painstaking development: a mad god of his own stories, you might say, who wields character and narrative as Thor would a thunderstorm. Deftly, confidently - responsibly, too - Lachlan stitches together the disparate threads of a tale as powerful as any bible story you please into a single, brilliant thing. Then, like every other deity, he takes the creator's privilege and tears the entire asunder.

Fenrir is a powerful novel - primordial, elemental even - and make no mistake, but I would warn those readers faint of heart or weak of stomach to keep their distance, for it is by that same token an overwhelmingly unpleasant thing. What morbid fascination one would have for Fenrir is as that of an onlooker over a scene of death and destruction, whereupon those things we and the three star-cross'd lovers at the core of this story care about are littered like bodies on the site of some vile battle. Lachlan takes no prisoners in the telling of this age-old tale forged anew in the blood of the mad gods, and though there were moments, I admit, when I would have happily given my left leg for another chapter in the cheery company of Ofaeti - a fat Viking fellow who represents the only real glimmer of light amongst a cast of horrible or hapless men and women driven like horses by the darkest of destinies - in the end I am heartened that the author resolved to brook few such compromises. For Fenrir, already a bleak and unremittingly miserable thing when it begins, resolves into a singular specimen as its endgame approaches, growing darker and darker still so that by the denouement one is left light-headed; reeling, stunned, as if struck by the hard flat blade of a Viking battleaxe, and the world went and ended while you were out of the count.

Fenrir is a book about faith, yes, but not perhaps the conceptualisation of faith modern readers will be familiar with, to this or that degree. Its gods are passionate, crazed brazen creators who will heave the heavens and the earth in service to their elaborate schemes, which humanity is caught in the middle of. But "When Helgi spoke of the wolf and of Odin, she felt the truth of it in her bones. Look around at the world, she thought, and say it was made in the image of a gentle god." (p.477) The idea of faith M. D. Lachlan outlines in this novel, then, is as resonant and as relevant as it is, admittedly, brutal, and cruel. Some readers may find it difficult to subscribe to, or sympathise with, but even if you do not enjoy certain moments of Fenrir overmuch, be assured: this book is very, very good for you.
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Queen of Kings
Queen of Kings
by Maria Dahvana Headley
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.96

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Much Better And More Beautiful Book Than It Sounds, 20 July 2011
This review is from: Queen of Kings (Paperback)
"Once, there was a queen of Egypt... a queen who became through magic something else." (p.219) The queen - the Queen of Kings - is Cleopatra, of course. Her from the history books. And the something else?

Why, it's funny you should ask. Cleopatra becomes... a vampire!

Well, sure she does. Don't tell me you were thinking she'd get her mummy on. Imagine: a cinnamon-scented corpse, swathed in toilet paper and slowly crisping. That's just not very sexy, now is it? And Maria Dahvana Headley's second novel after The Year of Yes is very sexy. It is also - and this last might surprise - superb. Spellbinding, even.

In its first phase, the events of Queen of Kings go much as records suggest. Around 30 years before Christ arrived to put a spanner in the works the world over, Cleopatra is ruler of an Egypt under siege by the mean old Romans, led by Octavian (later Augustus) Caesar himself. When she loses her beloved, Marc Antony, Cleopatra can bear life no longer, and commits ritual suicide, inducing an asp - or a cobra - to bite her breast... or somewhere else.

Here, needless to say, the historical accounts begin to differ. And here, too, is where Queen of Kings diverges from the facts, such as they are, of Cleopatra's rise and subsequent fall, for in Headley's novel - apparently the first in an epoch-spanning saga - the queen of Egypt does not die at all. Instead, tormented by the loss of her one true love, or else - depending on who you ask - "broken by her hunger for power, and by her desire to be the queen of more than her own country," (p.241) she summons the goddess Sekhmet, who rises from Hades to inhabit her.

What follows, as Cleopatra comes to terms with an unspeakable lust for blood, and the state of her soul if soul she still has, is a supremely satisfying hybrid of historical fiction and dark, deeply sensual fantasy sure to seduce all comers this Summer. Possessed of a hunger for vengeance only inflamed by the insatiable wrath of the warrior goddess in her heart, Cleopatra is become a "tear in the tapestry of the fates" (p.293) which in Octavian's pitiful wake rends a bloody swathe across Egypt, then through Rome, and thereafter... the world.

"With every move, she lacerated skin and wounded innocent victims, without conscience, without care. Nowhere in the stories, nowhere in the histories, was there anything comparable." (p.272)

Well, perhaps not in the stories of Cleopatra's era, or the histories, but in ours, there are comparable narratives to that set out in Queen of Kings, and no shortage thereof; see the hot vampire heroine of any one of a vast selection of contemporary paranormal romances seducing her way to victory or vengeance.

However, Headley's novel is not so straightforward, nor so single-minded. For one thing, the reader is not always in Cleopatra's pocket as Queen of Kings powers on, ever onward: though she is certainly the star of the show - her perspective is paramount - from the outset we also watch the legendary Egyptian from eyes other than her own. We are with Antony when Octavian sends a false messenger to cheat the Roman's fate, and with the weaksauce Caesar when he discovers, to his horror, her tomb empty and despoiled. When a terrible Cleopatra comes a-calling to collect on Octavian's mortal debt, our point of view is with him and the three witches he has enlisted in his defence, as much or more than it is with the resurrected queen.

Some advance reviews have criticised Queen of Kings for its variety of perspectives. I would counter that without them - if Headley had us spend the whole novel in Cleopatra's company - there would be no moral ambiguity to her, no mystery, as there is: only wickedness. Without Octavian and Antony, the queen's daughter Seline and the scholar Nicolaus, we would know Cleopatra, when in practice her unknowableness is among her most effective character traits.

So too does the author treat Cleopatra's curse with more delicacy than I'd anticipated. Her affliction is rather more complex than simply: she's a sexy vampire, so there. Instead, she is a creature "dead and yet not dead," (p.103) violated by her own hand and robbed of children she never cared much for in the first place. Though I'm afraid she does, in what is surely Queen of Kings' weakest section, go through the usual vampire rigmarole, wherein "She must learn what she was. She must understand how to control [her power]. She could not afford to surrender completely, to lose herself in the hunger and fury." (p.128) That done - or not; I ain't saying - Queen of Kings pounces on towards its denouement, and I for one was with it all the way to the bitter end.

There are moments in Queen of Kings where it seems situations are complicated for the sake of complicating situations, and a few broad strokes where the characterisation does suffer, but this is fantasy with a swish of alt. history, and as such, it astonishes. As one of the witches - Chrysate - admits, "beauty was a tremendous part of her currency," (p.310) and much the same could and should be said for Maria Dahvana Headley's genre debut. It is well structured, wonderfully judged and lavishly crafted.

Queen of Kings is, in short, a much better and more beautiful book than perhaps it sounds. Read it. Weep, even.


Valhalla Rising [Blu-ray]
Valhalla Rising [Blu-ray]
Dvd ~ Mads Mikkelsen
Price: £5.75

15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Truly, Madly, Deeply Masterful, 20 July 2011
Movies are a lot like meals, if you think about it. Most will go in one end and - pardon me for saying so - out the other; these are sustenance of the basest variety. They keep you going, but the memory of them is never more than a trace, and not even that for long. However, there are also those films, and those foods, more about the art than the end result... those experiences which will remain with you for years to come, imprinted upon your memory like scars - fading with the passage of time, perhaps, but never to disappear entirely.

Valhalla Rising is an experience squarely of that latter variety, and it is powerful enough to leave a festering wound in its wake.

Shot entirely on location in Scotland - my own back yard at that! - Valhalla Rising is an elegaic chronicle of a quest for vengeance, and redemption. Danish writer/director Nicholas Winding Refn, whose oddball work on Bronson you will surely recall, bids us follow a mute warrior known only as One-Eye from a time spent in wretched captivity, through an escape aided by visions, and finally on a pilgrimage to the holy land. But when One-Eye arrives in the country his lurid dreams have heralded, he and the men who follow him - including Are, a boy slave of the same Norse chieftain who caged One-Eye for so long, and Kare, who hopes to see his dead sons again - they find not heaven, but hell.

Valhalla Rising is only loosely narrative-driven, and I dare say it is no more character-driven than that, though Mads Mikkelsen's bravura performance gives One-Eye an emotional arc of sorts. Rather, it's all about the land, and the life of the land; about a time and a place so forbidding that men and all they strive to do, and die for, are meaningless - so much miserable drizzle in the wind, which seems unceasing throughout Valhalla Rising.

Or perhaps not, for Refn's latest and surely greatest resists such pat understanding at almost every stage. What it is one moment is not at all what it is the next. It is, thus, a difficult film which demands a certain cerebral investment in order to appreciate on any level, but be sure your devotion will pay a handsome dividend when all is said and done.

Now I do not mean to suggest Valhalla Rising is devoid of action. Skulls are crushed, insides are aired out, and at least one head is detached from its traditional resting place and mounted on a pike. When the violence comes - in sudden, shattering bursts set to a spare soundtrack by PeterPeter and Peter Kyed momentarily swollen to an oppressive cacophony of churning - you will not mistake it, nor soon forget it.

Yet I cannot imagine action fans will come away from Valhalla Rising satisfied. Life for those folks One-Eye comes to blows with proves nasty, brutish and short, and the violence which inevitably results from these close encounters is not so much satisfying in itself as it is sickening. Add to that: there is no clear thread to grasp at in the intervening periods between one fight and another. As to how devotees of Refn's more visceral (and rather less artful) Pusher trilogy will react to this film, it's really anyone's guess.

And the hatchet swings both ways. Just as Valhalla Rising's transcendent tack is sure to dissuade one vast camp of viewers, so too will the occasional explosions of gruesome gore and industrial grinding offend such sensibilities as to inspire another - the arty and the farty - to prepare precious arguments about bad taste and the state of entertainment today.

Yet there will be those who can both stomach the sight of stomachs, and invest in the contemplative interim in the stirring sights and sounds of Scotland as was. Those folks - though there may only be a few of them - will come away from Valhalla Rising staggered, as I did, and single-handedly sold on anything Nicholas Winding Refn sets his sights on going forward, as I am.


Who Goes There?: The Novella That Formed The Basis Of "The Thing"
Who Goes There?: The Novella That Formed The Basis Of "The Thing"
by John W Campbell
Edition: Paperback

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Great Edition of a Small Novel, 20 July 2011
Was The Thing the first movie I ever bought on Blu-ray? I think it might just have been...

I'm an unabashed fan - what can I say? I must have seen John Carpenter's adaptation of Who Goes There? twenty times or more, all told - any excuse is a good excuse - and without fail, whenever in recent memory the credits have scrolled I've made a mental note to hunt out the tale upon which The Thing is based. Oh, and Howard Hawks' 1950s monstrosity The Thing From Another World. That too.

Yet till now, I never did...

...and I'm kind of wishing I never had, at all.

Because it's a pretty tepid novella. Even having made the usual allowances one must for fiction from another era, Who Goes There? seemed to me forgettable pulp - certainly not the "timeless genre classic" (p.10) Logan's Run author William F. Nolan describes in his punchy introduction. Its characters, of which there's something of an over-abundance, are to a one so thin as to appear transparent; and though the notional concept at its core, of an alien desperate to see its species survive after untold millennia frozen in a glacier, still hits home - particularly the shape-shifting and the subsequent paranoia Carpenter made so much of - Campbell seems leagues more interested in exploiting every last drop of the melodrama the premise entails, and haplessly documenting some talking heads talking nonsense.

Perhaps it wasn't always nonsense they were talking... perhaps it's dreadfully crass of me to assert as much. But even allowing for the foibles of such fiction in the late thirties, Who Goes There? is unequal to any variety of comparison with Carpenter's masterful adaptation. The bare bones of the story are there, at least, but the film fashions a body around those bones - developing the potential of certain threads of character and narrative Campbell seems profoundly uninterested in, and abandoning those others than simply do not work - where the author of the original novella is content to present a picked-clean corpse.

Rocket Ride Books, however, have gone above and beyond with this edition of Who Goes There? Let's give the small press start-up credit where credit's been duly earned, because Campbell's novella is but one part of the classy package they've put together - and were it that alone, I might still recommend it, whatever its failings, as a curiosity to fans of either film version.

But the Rocket Ride reissue of Who Goes There? goes the extra mile, coming complete with the informative introduction aforementioned, and a whole other thing: the spec script William F. Nolan wrote for Universal Studios' consideration in the late 70s, when they were sniffing around the idea of another adaptation. So not the screen treatment John Carpenter used a few years later - that was from the pen of the late and lamented Bill Lancaster - but a third distinct take on Campbell's tale; an iteration more straightforwardly science fictional than either of the others, and wreathed in Americana. I'm glad, ultimately, that Nolan's script wasn't the basis of The Thing, but assuredly it makes for a fascinating what if?

For collectors, then, the value-packed Rocket Ride edition of Who Goes There? should make for a no-brainer of a buy. It'll be a harder sell to those with less interest in the cinematic lineage of John W. Campell's original story - poised to continue, against all odds, in a very promising prequel slated for later in 2011 - though those potential readers too would be well advised to look beyond the pulpy melodrama of Who Goes There? itself to the pitch-perfect extra features and deleted scenes of this bounteous re-release.


Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (DS)
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (DS)
Offered by Game Trade Online
Price: £11.39

2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars You've Never Played Anything Like Ghost Trick Before..., 20 July 2011
= Fun:4.0 out of 5 stars 
...and you mightn't ever again.

Ghost Trick is that rarest of treasures in the industry today: an honest to God original experience. It's not a first-person shooter or a third-person button masher. It's not a cutesy platformer or a character action game revelling in its own grim viscera. If it reminds one of anything, it's the pixel-hunting puzzlers of yore, but even that old genre, as we understand it, bears only a passing resemblance to Ghost Trick. From the creator, writer and director of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, and the selfsame developers who so memorably brought that franchise to life, Ghost Trick is a thing to be held high; championed and celebrated for its daring in an era when only the biggest and the smallest studios can in real terms afford to bring anything even remotely novel to the table.

However.

It won't be for everyone. In fact, I don't know that it'll be for many folks at all. The madcap whimsy of the Phoenix Wright series is in full effect here - in overdrive, even - and at times, it's positively unbearable, particularly considering the poor pacing, and the unique mechanics of Ghost Trick which regularly require that you play through a scene multiple times.

But let's get into those mechanics, before we get too far ahead of ourselves. Ghost Trick casts you as a recently deceased spirit. You don't know who you were in life, or how you died, or what the circumstances might have been -- and there's no going back, either. The goal of Ghost Trick isn't to win your way back to the land of the living, by hook or by crook, but to uncover the whys and the wherefores of your untimely expiration. In so doing, you'll unpick the component parts of a largely ridiculous conspiracy, stop an execution, and save a handful of lives. Just not your own.

You'll do that because you're a ghost, and ghosts... have tricks. But of course they do! Sissel - that's our man with the sharp red suit and the shock of blond hair - is able to move from inanimate object to inanimate object, manipulating each as he goes in order to somehow save and so interrogate certain characters who happen to know something about the murder with which Ghost Trick begins: yours. You'll find most objects, when possessed, have unique properties: you might be able to switch on a light, for instance, or swivel a chair, but you can't switch on chairs or swivel lights. Gameplay in Ghost Trick is thus a process of travelling from core to core through a series of arenas to find just the right object, or rather series of objects, with which to avert disaster.

If not in explanation, it's a simple enough concept in action. By the end of the first set-piece - of which there are about twenty in total - you'll have a firm enough understanding of how to play Ghost Trick that the next ten tutorial levels threaten to wear out one's patience. Only when the Rube Goldberg machines get to be mind-bogglingly complex and certain other ghost tricks start factoring into the equation does Ghost Trick represent a real challenge. And by then, which is to say after the halfway mark, it feels like too little, too late.

I game a lot of games, and as such, I want very much for the medium to embrace a greater breadth of experiences. Ghost Trick is a genuinely new sub-species of game, and few things would give me more pleasure at this point in time than to say, to hell with all its problems: pile on in. Because the more folks that buy Ghost Trick, the more Ghost Tricks there will be - is there a single industry more defined by supply and demand, I wonder? - and if you can tolerate the exhausting introduction, what lies beyond all the hand-holding is a fantastic new mechanic I'd quite like to play with again, please and thank-you.

But I don't know that I can honestly recommend this first flourish. Perhaps it's a necessary evil. Perhaps it's merely paving the way for better balanced things to come. However, if the thought of eight hours of camp-as-it-comes anime starring a proliferation of household pets interspersed with four of tutorials which will surely bore you just to get to that amount of time again of actual gaming goodness... if that doesn't sound like the sort of thing you're likely to appreciate, maybe best not to bother with Ghost Trick.


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