Review Round-up: The Outlaws of Sherwood and Moon Knight

Outlaws of SherwoodRobin Hood retellings all tend to blur together - possibly because, after a lifetime of exposure to film, television, books, more books, comic books, and post-apocalyptic comic books, the core cast of characters and plot twists all become a bit predictable. Robin McKinley's The Outlaws of Sherwood (1988) adds a fresh perspective to the mix because it is spends the most time scrutinising what an outlaw thinks, as opposed to what one does. McKinley's Robin Hood isn't so much the grand adventurer or iconic rogue as much as an accidental - if thoughtful - leader.

McKinley sets the scene in the opening pages when Robin - who is actually a rather mediocre archer - accidentally kills another forester. It is in self-defense and it is a poor shot, but, nevertheless, a panicked Robin flees into the woods to hide. It is Marian and Much, Robin's two closest friends, who see the bigger picture: a new Saxon resistance, an icon of freedom, a beacon of hope, etc. etc. Robin is mostly concerned with staying alive.

Moreover, that's always Robin's concerns. If anything, Robin is the least "Robin Hood"-like member of his own band: he's pragmatic, slightly paranoid, and far more focused on the day-to-day elements (digging latrines, for example) than fighting for the greater good. McKinley is clever in how she weaves in the traditions of Robin Hood - the green cloth, the archery competitions - in a way that seems both natural historically and natural to Robin as a character.  It is perhaps this commitment to making Robin an ordinary, nice guy in extraordinary, superheroic circumstances that makes him such a compelling character. Through the other characters' eyes, we start to see what he's becoming, and what he is a symbol. Through Robin's own... we only experience the worry, maturity and self-sacrifice that comes with being responsible for the lives of others. 

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Friday Five: 5 Favourite Books of 2014

My first seven drafts of this post had a long waffly introduction, but, you know what? The only criteria here is that these books are my favourites. (Oh - and published in 2014.)

So with that, let's get to it... 

The-feverMegan Abbott's The Fever

Rather appropriately, I can't get this book out of my head. Is that because of me? Is that because I hang out with people that also really like it? Is it because of the book? Or what I want the book to be? [See what I did there?] [If you haven't read The Fever... probably not.]

Still, we can always resort to the facts of the case: Abbott is one of the most captivating contemporary noir writers, with a penchant for unconventional settings and unexpected perpetrators. She's also one of the most harrowing - with a knack for writing the mind of the completely ordinary. And there's nothing scarier than the normal.

The Venn diagram of her awesomeness intersects at The Fever - in which an inexplicable thing (a seemingly incurable disease) strikes an utterly banal location (a high school). This is a mystery (wtf is happening, y'all) but also apocalyptic SF at its best: people dealing with the end of the(ir) world. A book about priorities and teleology and adolescence and fear.

The closest comparison would be Jenni Fagan's soul-rending The Panopticon - another novel that stretches the reader's perceptions and our definitions of what constitutes speculative fiction. If the characters believe they are living in the impossible, why shouldn't we?

Becky Chambers' The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

I've said it before (a lot) but it probably bears repeating: this book makes me feel good about the world (broadly) and science fiction (specifically). For space opera - an algae-powered wormhole-drilling pan-species space opera at that - this is a book that ditches the grumps and humpfs of science to focus on the important part: the characters.

The Long Way is an episodic, meandering book that never feels 'bitty' or in any way dull - thanks to its cast of electic, electric and brilliant characters. It is effortlessly progressive as well, both graceful and heart-warming. Truly wonderful. 

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Review Round-up: Science Fiction Video Games and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

Science Fiction Video GamesSadly eclipsed by the self-devouring #gamergate monster is a simple truth: computer games are fun. Like, really, really fun. And, as fortunate as we are to live in a Golden Age of processing power, it was almost more fun for us to have shared gaming's gangly teenage years. By 'us', I mean the first generation of folks that got to grow up with fairly easily accessible computer games - an era where there was visible, palpable improvement with every new release.

I personally grew up with (at? on?) my Apple IIe. I remember when we finally swapped to a (now) 286 - even though the new computer was functionally better in every way, I still made us cling to the poor IIe for another year, simply so I didn't lose my Ultima character. Poor computer. It didn't even get the dignity of breaking before being replaced: it was just obsolete. Given how hearty the IIe was as a machine, it probably still runs now.

All that means, of course, is that even as an amateurish (more 'sporadically obsessive') gamer, I have spent my entire life raising and destroying virtual civilisations. It reminds me a bit of the famous Denis Leary sketch about masturbation - "I have wiped entire empires off my chest with a gym sock". I'm afraid the metaphor, however distasteful, is apt. The vintage days of computer gaming were purely about self-actualisation: building, razing, winning, losing, all on one's own.

Enter Neal Tringham's Science Fiction Video Games (2014): a towering monument to our futility. I don't mean that to sound dismissive of this excellent (and absorbing) book - instead, it looms triumphantly, an exhaustive catalog of the tens of thousands of hours that have been spent in the company of that virtual gym sock. For those looking for a 1000 Games To Play B4 U Die printed Buzzfeed list, keep looking. Rather than merely remind the reader of games gone by, Mr Tringham tries to answer why? What is it about these games that makes them so damn good? He approaches the task with rigour: breaking down each game into its components and examining what makes them special, from 1995's  I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream ("presented with a great deal of angry passion, but offers no true moral choices") to 2012's Angry Birds Space ("the eponymous missiles remain endearingly cheerful despite the inescapable knowledge that every assignment is a suicide mission").

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New Releases: The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis

The Motherless OvenWelcome to a world where kitchens are populated by gods, where you know your death day well in advance, where children make their parents (yes, literally construct them), and where the best protection from a sudden downpour could actually be a table. Because it rains knives.

Scarper Lee’s schooldays are blighted by the imminence of his death day. Schoolmates and teachers alike treat him differently because of it, and that’s even before a new girl at school lands in his life, challenging all the givens and ready to turn what’s left of it upside down. At home his parents - a Bakelite hairdryer (Mum) and a brass and sail construction of indeterminate purpose (Dad, who’s kept in the shed) - remain his constant but slightly distant touchstones. How is a teenager supposed to deal with the last three weeks of his life in these circumstances?

There’s a lot to like in the world Rob Davis has created for The Motherless Oven (2014). To begin with it feels real - there’s a sense of establishment and history that’s completely believable, no matter how bizarre or unexplained to a real world sensibility the details are. Scarper’s life completely convinces, and Davis creates characters who fully inhabit their environment. There’s a danger in building a world around wordplay and bizarre quirks, a risk that all you get are a series of unconnected gimmicks. Not so here. Everything feels joined up and of a piece. Likewise the relationships, both established and new, work well and help to sell Scarper as attractive, put-upon protagonist in what’s in equal parts coming-of-age tale and exploration of free will and destiny.

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Review Round-up: The Twelve, Lazarus, This One Summer & Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong

The benefit curse of the One Comic Podcast is that now I'm back into comic book shops on a regular basis, with all the incidental shopping that entails. A few recent encounters of the graphic kind... The Twelve, This One Summer, Lazarus and Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong.

The TwelveThe Twelve (2008) by J. Michael Straczynski and Chris Weston begins in a simpler time - World War 2, where up was up and white was white. A dozen of America's finest superheroes, from mechanical men to reporters-with-nerves-of-steel, stumble into a Nazi deathtrap and wind up frozen in stasis. Years later, they wake up: only to face our chaotic modern world.

The series is roughly structured around each of the twelve heroes - following their attempts (successful or not) to blend in to the oh-so-morally-gray contemporary era. Set in the Marvel Universe, The Twelve is cleverly woven as a counterpoint to the drama of Marvel's 'main' storyline. In a world of Civil Wars and distrust and awkwardness, here are a dozen superheroes with a certain purity - superheroes that can be trusted again. Except, of course, they can't. 

Part murder mystery, part moral lesson, The Twelve is unfortunate in that it sits squarely in the shadow of two vastly better comics: The Ultimates and, of course, Watchmen. The former already addresses the awkwardness of generational collide with its reinterpretation of Captain America - 'old-fashioned' values in a new world, with all the hypocrisy and difficulty that come with. And the latter is an infinitely more nuanced and compelling approach to both superheroic murder mysteries and, again, the changing of the generations. Neither of these are, of course, The Twelve's fault - it is a perfectly serviceable comic that, to be blunt - has nothing new to add.

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New Releases: The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah

UK_Monogram_Murders_jacketVery nearly forty years after the 1975 publication of Curtain, the last (in both senses) Hercule Poirot story, a new Poirot novel, officially sanctioned by the Christie estate, has finally seen the light of day.

Poirot finds himself caught up in the baffling events of a triple murder in the Bloxham Hotel, an exclusive London establishment. The three victims are all found at the same time in separate rooms, each laid out identically and each with a matching monogrammed cufflink in their mouth. At the same moment as the murders are occurring, Poirot encounters a young woman in a cafe who confides in him her certainty that she will soon be killed, and that when it happens no one should try to find her killer. Are these two situations linked? Poirot is the only one who sees a connection.

Written by poet and novelist Sophie Hannah, the story is set in the 1920s, when Poirot was very much London-based and before the globetrotting, internationally-renowned later years of the Nile, Mesopotamia and Orient Express expeditions. But it lacks any of the regular London supporting cast which Christie established; no Hastings, no Miss Lemon, no Chief Inspector Japp. Instead Hannah has created her own companion character, Inspector Edward Catchpool, a fellow resident of the lodging house to which Poirot has temporarily, implausibly, relocated. Catchpool is assigned to the hotel case, and, in his disquiet regarding the situation, he confides in Poirot. Poirot ‘assists’ him in solving the case by taking charge and applying his usual methods.

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Review Round-up: Retribution and the Westmark Trilogy

RetributionLast year, in Drakenfeld, Mark Charan Newton introduced us to his Classically-inspired fantasy empire and the shadowy investigative body that kept it held together: the Sun Chamber. Drakenfeld followed one of the Sun Chamber's star (sorry) investigators, the titular Lucan Drakenfeld, as he foiled a series of hideous crimes in the nation of Detrata. In the best tradition of both fantasy and crime novels, Drakenfeld mixed the epic with the deeply personal: Lucan's actions swayed the fate of an empire, but he also wrestled with the demons from his own past.

In Retribution (2014), the second volume, Drakenfeld returns - as does his ruthlessly efficient assistant, Leana. The two leave Detrata for Koton, leaving the old for the new; a metaphor that spans many levels. Whilst Detrata is an ancient, seemingly-established (almost decadent) nation, Koton is a new one - just barely stabilised after years of turmoil. Similarly, whereas Detrata is deeply personally significant to Drakenfeld - a land weighty with his own family's past - Koton is new territory. Not only has Drakenfeld never been there, no Sun Chamber investigator has even been invited before.

Koton is a fascinating place. It has recently been united under the rule of Queen Dokuz, one of the book's most interesting characters. On one hand, she's brought order to a population of warring tribes and is busily trying to modernise her country into a player on the world stage. On the other, she's a ruthless dictator. Through Drakenfeld's eyes, Retribution treats her situation with the respect and moral ambiguity it requires - there are no easy answers to Koton's future, and whether or not Dokuz will be seen as a saviour or a demon will be determined by posterity.

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Review Round-up: Nigerians in Space and The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

NigeriansDeji Olukuton's Nigerians in Space is part noir, part political thriller, part heart-breaking literary fiction - all packed up with a vaguely science fictional gloss. A futurist raison d'etre. The plot itself is meandering: Dr. Wale Olufunmi is in Houston, working on moon rocks, when he gets the call from a mysterious political figure back in his country of birth, Nigeria. Wale, seduced by the dream of a Nigerian space programme, obeys: he steals a sample, uproots his family, and heads to Nigeria. Unfortunately, reality and politics intervene - also, assassins. Wale drags himself all over the world trying to restore some balance to his life, but only gets deeper and deeper in trouble.

The second thread of the narrative takes place with the next generation: Wale's son (an inventor), a hypnotic refugee model (the daughter of another member of the failed Nigerian 'Brain Gain' plot) and an opportunistic mollusc dealer. Their lives orbit and, eventually, intersect those of Wale's, and their smaller plots become part of the larger one. 

What's beautiful about Nigerians in Space is that it is adamantly and aggressively earthbound - it is a novel of shattered dreams and failed launches. But it is also about the concept of space: a beautiful, unbounded future, filled with possibility and the (theoretical but not wholly defined) advancement of the human species. This is the shine of Golden Age SF - the magic and the mystery of the space programme - but with a wonderfully contemporary touch: a handful of people looking, aspiring, to live that dream in a world that refuses to accept it. Ultimately the idea of space is not unlike the stolen moon rock sample - infinitely valuable, but without practical purpose. It is about a dream, and what that represents.

A truly glorious book, that reminds the reader of what makes science fiction - as an idea - so very, very special.

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New Releases: Kirsty Logan's The Rental Heart and Adam Roberts' Bête

Beauty and the beast! The lady or the tiger! Kirsty Logan's The Rental Heart and Adam Roberts' Bête - two thought-provoking books about well... you'll see.

The Rental HeartKirsty Logan's The Rental Heart (2014) is a slim volume that packs a whale of a punch. Although the collection's 20 stories are all (to generalise wildly) on the theme of 'love', it captures a huge variety of emotional nuance: from heartbreak to resentment to loneliness to pure, unwatered desire.

Logan's style is deceptively ephemeral - the stories are often phrased like fairytales or delivered like children's stories, but they're neither: they're meaty, visceral and, on most occasions, utterly ruthless. Virtually all are genre-inflected: Logan captures twenty worlds where relationships are unbounded by the 'rules' - physical or otherwise.

One of my personal favourites include "Underskirts", the story of a beautiful countess who hand-picks peasant girls to become her lovers. Told from a dozen different points of view, the tale is alternately horrifying and uplifting - is the countess the saviour or the villainess of the piece? The story spirals in closer and closer, with every perspective adding something new to the mix.

Another, "The Broken West", is less ambiguously forlorn. Two brothers search for their missing father - in the most heart-breaking of ways. Their own lives degenerate into a haze of self-destructive sex and alcohol, as their (impossible) quest takes its toll. As with "Underskirts", "The Broken West" describes the lingering impact of a single person's actions - a domino effect of broken lives. 

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New Releases: City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

City of Stairs USACity of Stairs (2014) is the latest stunning effort from Robert Jackson Bennett. Having delivered ferociously unconventional interpretations  thrillers, dustpunk epics, small town horror, Lovecraftian entities and other speculative staples in the past, Bennett now tinkers with a fantasy world of his very own. His new book is combination of New Weird noir and fantasy epic, set in a universe where reality itself is a malleable concept.

The titular city is Bulikov, the once-glorious once-capital of an empire that once spanned continents. Now, Bulikov is a city of faded glories and a backwater outpost controlled by the city of Saypur. And "faded" is literal: with the untimely demise of Bulikov's deities, parts of the city simply disappeared. Now the city is a ramshackle disaster, a fusion of architectures, empires and, in some circumstances, universes.

The old empire was a religious one, based on the uneasy union of a handful of gods - deities with the power to restructure the world at a whim. Centuries ago the Kaj of Saypur, the champion of his people, developed a mysterious device that could kill gods. With that, the balance of power shifted. Now the rationalists of Saypur rule the world, the deities are verboten. Bulikov's history isn't being rewritten as much as it is systematically erased.

When a scholar from Saypur is murdered, "junior diplomat" Shara heads to Bulikov to solve the crime. As is quickly revealed, Shara has far more impressive credentials - she's a super-spy-secret-agent type from Saypur's enigmatic (and semi-omnipotent) foreign service. The scholar was a friend, and Shara's taking his death personally. More so as she starts to unpick the city's many, many, many secrets...

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