Speculative Fiction Reviews since 2012

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Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge & No Harm Can Come to a Good Man by James Smythe

In Frances Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song, twelve year-old Triss wakes up in a hospital, with a fracturing memory of what has happened before. Slowly, she pieces together that she was in the ‘Grimmer,’ some kind of lake or river, and came back home dripping wet and ill. In a fantastically deliberate confusing opening we slowly learn the truth: that Triss is a ‘Besider’, a race of fairy-like creatures with a penchant for deals and a fury to those who break them. She is a simulacra, a doll made of twigs and leaves, a replacement for the real Triss, as revenge for her father, Piers Crescent. Piers made some dodgy dealings with head-Besider The Architect, and then broke his promises. The Architect got angry, and kidnapped his daughter. Not-Triss and her ‘sister’, Pen, must overcome Pen’s hatred of her sister and get her back.

No Harm Can Come to a Good Man by James Smythe follows Laurence Walker’s attempts to become President of the USA. By all accounts he’s got every chance of winning – in fact more than every chance. Walker is the titular Good Man, with a loving family, a good military record, solid political capital. He’s favoured by Democrat bigwigs, has the support of the current administration, and, most importantly, ClearVista thinks he’s going to win. This is a world where everyone uses ClearVista, a deep data mining algorithm, to predict everything from which car to buy to what job to apply for – to who will win the Presidential election. But there are some things that ClearVista can’t predict, like the drowning of Walker’s young son, and the impact it will have on the family, the Presidential election, and the good man himself.

Cuckoo Song and No Harm Can Come to a Good Man couldn’t be two more different books (well they probably could, but I’m making a point here). But there’s a reason for reviewing them together, and not least because I read them both recently – we’ll get to that below. Continue reading

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Above and below – Agency in Above by Isla Morley & The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks


Above by Isla Morley and The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks came to me at roughly the same point, from husband and wife team Anne Perry and Jared Shurin. Jared’s review of Brooks’ book made me buy that, while Anne sent me Above as part of the (neglected on my part) Hodderscape review project. In a case for trusting the reviews of people you know, The Bunker Diary is utterly fantastic while Above.. isn’t.

Both stories are broadly similar. Bastard kidnaps protagonist. Protagonist fights for survival. Both books follow that fight in powerful ways. Brooks’ Linus becomes the centrepoint of a group of 6, all taken by a mysterious kidnapper, for a mysterious purpose. He seems to be playing some kind of psychological game, taking an old man, a heroine junkie, a little kid, a drifter, a powerful executive, a fat estate-agent type. It’s the interplay between these six that really makes Brooks’ novel. The kidnapping sets the scene, gives an overarching villain, but it is the interpersonal relationships that make it. Continue reading

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Pavement Priests and Pied Pipers: The Conflict Between Magic and Culture in Contemporary London-Based Urban Fantasy

A word, if you will. The below is my undergraduate disseration for a BA in English Literature from King’s College, London. It’s not perfect, by any means. It could do with more critical commentary, and less close reading. It could have done with some more pieces of literature being studied in depth, particularly by women (of which there are none). In particular I was disappointed not to be able to include A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin in my analysis. But it is what I could fit in my 10,000 word limit. It’s also an academic essay, so if you’re not interested in them, don’t read further. I like it. So there.


Pied Piper


“Fantasy offers possibilities to create fictive worlds that are fundamentally different to our own, even in cases when the setting masquerades as a copy of the world we live in”

-Stefan Ekman, Here be Dragons

“Young man … understand this: there are two Londons.”

-Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere Continue reading

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Kim Curran – Glaze

Kim Curran – Glaze

It’s interesting to think about the power of social conformity. Having recently finished studenting and start being-unemployeding, I’ve spent far too much of my time playing Call of Duty. In it, one can create a ‘clan-tag’, a simple four character alphanumerical code before your gamertag. When friends play together, they often share a clan tag. And yet, one of the failings of multiplayer Call of Duty is that you are almost certain to win if you play as a team, not a bunch of individuals. And so when I come across a group who all share the same clan tags I leave that game, knowing that my chances of getting a good score are diminished by that much. By creating and a clan tag, players reduce the skill of those they are playing, because those who care about an in-game score will leave. Thus, they diminish their own challenge and potential enjoyment. And yet they do it anyway.

Kim Curran’s Glaze explores this natural inclination toward social conformity. The titular Glaze is a social network implanted directly into the brain. Like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, but with direct streaming, 24/7. However, it exhibits a disturbing amount of influence. Our heroine, Petri (named after her father. Geddit?) is caught in a protest that turns sour. Daughter of the creative head of Glaze, she is made an example of by police – her access to Glaze is prohibited. She’s not yet 16, so she can’t get on at the moment, but this has been her dream, her way of conforming. In fact it’s everyboody’s way of conforming, and so its loss is an enormous blow. Continue reading

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Mars Evacuess by Sophia McDougall


Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall


Two boys, two girls and a genderless robot go for a wander across the semi-terraformed martian landscape. Of course that wandering isn’t exactly chosen, and of course that landscape is hardly meadows and butterflies, and of course the alien Morrors and some strange beasties called space-locusts are going to make the trip a little different to the usual stroll in the park. Whatever the plot was, however strange and fascinating and brilliant fun, Sophia McDougall’s Mars Evacuees was exactly what I needed.

I was feeling jaded. I’d read a fair bit in January and February, core genre, mostly fantasy. That fantasy was adventurous, yes, fun, yes – Neverwhere and The Copper Promise – but McDougall’s work soothed me in a way these didn’t. Part of that is the voice. The book is marketed for 9-12 year-olds, but apart from the protagonists age and a more clipped, crisp air, more similes than metaphors, you wouldn’t know it. Told from the world-weary perspective that only a twelve-year-old has, particularly one who is so much like I was, Alice Dare (yes, the Alice Dare/Alistair joke gets played out. And made funny. It’s quite impressive) is the daughter of a high-ranking, world famous fighter pilot in the war against the Morrors, an invisible race of aliens who have reversed global warming to the extent that the polar ice-caps are encroaching on Nottingham, and the whole world is slowly freezing.

Sent to Mars, as an evacuee (surprising that, considering the title), Alice meets Justine, an insanely intelligent (black) Londoner, and Noel and Carl, two (Filipino-) Australians. When life at the base falls apart, they are forced to attempt to flee across the wasteland of Mars in a dodgy spaceship with barely any training. At points, it’s the base scenes in Ender’s Game as the world come apart, as factions form and fight and children are reduced to their most tribal states. Then, on the journey, it is an exploration of friendship, of reliance on one another in adversity, and, importantly, of finding value despite difference. The portrayal of Morror society is different in the extreme. Not only are Morrors physically alien, they are sexually alien too – possessing five sexes, different sense perception, different emotional capacities, different ways of experiencing culture, art, communication. And yet despite this most extreme of difference on the surface, similarities are found. The Morror kid Thsaaa that our gang meet is also just a scared kid in a war situation. They have lost a mother-equivalent, as Justine has. They (and the use of ‘they’ as Thsaaa’s correct pronoun is a really interesting descriptor of McDougall’s progressive take on sexuality, presented on a level understandable to your average pre-teen reader – no mean feat, and one can see the foundation of accepting fluid gender in everyday life) are different, yes, but they are accepted, embraced, become ‘one of the gang.’ Just as Justine, Noah and Carl’s race does not impact on Alice’s perception of them, once she gets used the normalcy of the Morror she accepts their differences and allows them into her trust.

Let’s talk about the humans for a moment. McDougall has been a very public supporter of gender equality among books, on the screen, in reviews – indeed in her brilliant piece in The New Statesmen last year, she references the selling of Mars Evacuees and the problems it faced being equally gendered. To all intents and purposes, without going in depth on background characters (though I’m fairly certain that there would be parity there, this being a world-wide evacuation with a lottery system involved) Mars Evacuees is great with gender. But, more importantly, it’s great with race. You probably saw my parenthetical ‘black’ above when describing Justine? Or ‘filipino-’ [I originally believed Noah and Karl to be aboriginal Australians. Either way, the point remains.] when describing Noah and Karl. Maybe you thought ‘why the hell does he need to highlight that???’ Understandable. The reason I highlight it is for the exact reason it isn’t highlighted in the text. It is normal. The black character is smart, sassy, interesting, flawed, loveable, essential, without her blackness being necessary as a plot device.

This is all too rare.To treat black as normal remains a radical idea. In my review of Zone One, I spoke of the effect of finding out that the view-point character, Mark Spitz, is black. Mark Spitz proclaims, and indeed revels, in his mediocrity. When he reveals his race, the reader is inevitably shocked. What is clear from that effect is that even to someone who considers themselves well-rounded, cultural racism is endemic. Because to me, and, I’d hazard, to most in Western society, normal = white. Justine’s blackness is subtle – mentioned once in passing on the ship to Mars, and again on base when a Nigerian girl fixes Justine’s hair because it is similar to hers. That’s it. That’s the only times that Justine is racially classified – in passing, non-judgmentally, as simple fact of what she looks like. It doesn’t affect the plot. It doesn’t affect other character’s views. It doesn’t affect any damn thing, and as well it shouldn’t. What’s more, Carl and Noah are aboriginal Australians. Again, the descriptors of this are subtle – some mild phrasing, using ‘kuya’ to mean ‘big brother’, and Alice’s initial confusion on seeing them. McDougall picks up on assumptions based on race here – Alice’s immediate reaction is that Carl is ‘Malaysian or Filipino or something’. When they are revealed to be Australian, happy days. It’s accepted blindly, without comment.

Perhaps the more innocent eyes of a twelve year-old can do this – I couldn’t – but the result is fantastic cultural blindness. Much like gender blindness, or sexual blindness, a cultural stereotype has built up, and McDougall is trying to break that barrier down, and succeeding to boot.

Oh yeah, and the book is bloody good. Which helps.

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The Copper Promise – Jen Williams

This post is part of the Hodderscape Review Project. Go look at what my project-mates think here! (They’re all clever folks, you’ll like what they say)

Jen Williams – The Copper Promise 

The Copper Promise is a welcome look back in a world where the norm for fantasy is hulking behemoths filled with blood, sex and gore. That’s not to say the Jen Williams’ debut novel isn’t big – it’s fairly whopping at 530 or so pages in proof – nor that it doesn’t have its fair share of blood and thunder – it starts with a torture scene, and there are bloody battles aplenty.  What it does to these, however, is infuse them with a sense of fun and adventure that is not as present in the more ‘realistic’ fantasy of the grimdark mode.

Wydrin and Sebastian are sellswords for hire, and hired they are by the crippled Lord Frith to explore The Citadel, a hulking building that dominates the city the live in. Split into four separate novella-sized parts (the book was originally self-published as a series of novellas, and Headline published each part individually on Amazon), we follow Sebastian, Wydrin and Frith as they basically balls up the Citadel, and end up unleashing an ancient God on the unsuspecting world.

Where Williams’ story really works is its depictions of its three characters. Each comes with their own set of issues, and the way they mesh together (or not) is a source of constant fascination. For a debut, she has a wonderful grasp of the ebb and flow of dialogue, and the elucidation of character through it. A particular favourite is Wydrin: spunky, fiery, a bit of a rogue, she is one of those characters who is both self-absorbed yet thoroughly likeable, ballsy and always with a quip to hand (think Locke Lamora, Tyrion Lannister). In a knowing nod to the history of fantasy literature, she is also a normal person, not half tits, half sword – there is a moment when Frith meets her and his comments show the old cliché to be idiotic.

While Frith and Sebastian pale in comparison to Wydrin, they are admirable support. Each has their complexities – Sebastian is honourable to a fault, and when that honour comes into conflict with his desire to do good, we see an excellent internal conflict in the latter half of the book. Frith is Sebastian’s polar opposite – selfish, obsessed with revenge, hell bent on getting it any which way possible. His character arc shows him slowly coming to terms with the fact that such selfish behaviour just makes you an arsehole. While these are well done, considering the books will be a trilogy (though standalone) one could ask that the arcs are too complete – does Williams’ have space for further self development in future titles?

The plot at times hardly seemed to matter – there’s a big bad, the ancient God in dragon form Y’ruen (who I’m reliably informed is simply a bad pun of ‘You ruin’), and our adventurers must chase around the world fixing their own shit before collecting the right amount of knowledge and equipment to defeat said big bad in a final, epic battle. This epic battle happens to be over far too quickly, and at time I felt that the way that the overarching plot was dealt with was a little hackneyed and already done. Yes, dragons are cool, and yes the lore surrounding magic is interesting, and yes, the final battle sounds good on paper, but there isn’t, to me, enough to make it last when reading. This is the kind of plot that would fill a whole trilogy in your average epic fantasy, though, and I applaud Ms. Williams for having the balls to squash it down and oh-so-nearly make it work.

The pace, throughout, is frenetic as a result of having to try and make this big plot work in a small space. The opening novella is basically an enhanced dungeon crawl, complete with set-piece rooms. This speed is one of the defining characteristics of what make Williams’ novel so fun. There is no navel gazing, no scene that are there just for the sake of it. It forces characters to be built through dialogue, through action rather than exposition. And it makes the book what it is – absolutely brilliant fun, and  a no-nonsense modern take on classic sword-and-sorcery.


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