Picturing the year

As usual I took a ridiculous amount of photographs through the previous year, people watching shots, landscapes, the festivals, whatever caught my eye, so here are a few of my favourites I took in 2017:

Singing to the Sea 01

Back in March I was down at Portobello beach on a windy, cold afternoon, and this group in white robes descended from the promenade onto the sand, and proceeded to sing towards the sea. I have no idea why, although it sounded and looked religious in nature, the singing in a language I didn’t know, but it sounded quite happy, joyful even.

union of cloud and hills blessed by last rays of the day

The end of an early spring day, last light hitting the peaks of the Campsie Hills, diffused through a band of cloud along the summit line.

Forth Rail Bridge 015

Looking down the Fife side of the Firth of Forth, past Inchcolm island (you can just see the silhouette of the 12th century abbey on the island), towards the mighty Forth Rail Bridge through the mist, with the mid-2oth century suspension road bridge behind, then the (at the time still being constructed) new cable-stayed road bridge.

taking the wedding one step at a time

Simply walking round town one day, saw this newly married couple who had decided to pose for their photos on the Vennel steps, which cut up from the Grassmarket, past the Flodden Wall, towards the Meadows, so I grabbed a quick candid shot from the hip as I passed.

a stroll through the market

Street market on a bright, spring day in the Grassmarket, I was taking candid people-watching shots, and got this young couple pushing their baby stroller, just as the light and shadow came together.

The Wild, Wild West 03

I finally visited a spot I have meant to for ages – there is an Old West street hidden away behind some tenements in Edinburgh, not the sort of thing you’d expect to see here! The “cantina” door is actually the fire exit for the Morningside Library. It was built as a promotional stunt by a local firm several years back, and is now slowly decaying, although to be honest it looks more authentic now it is somewhat distressed. The things you can find if you go looking…

world's cutest jedi padwan 02

At the comic con, bumped into one of my colleagues and her husband, there with their wee girl, who was dressed up as Rey from Star Wars and having great fun. Cutest Jedi padawan ever!

Edinburgh Comic Con 2017 031

Another from the comic con, this couple had matched up their cosplay costumes, which I just loved.

March for Science Edinburgh 02

I went on the March For Science in the spring and took a bunch of pics, but I especially loved this one with the student waving her sign and giving the camera a great, big smile.

spring tango 06

Walking through the Grassmarket one bright day, and there was an open-air tango class going on, right there in the middle of the square, underneath some trees, so the light through the leaves was dappled. I was taking several pics when one of the dancers saw the camera and just as I clicked she smiled right at me, and I was lucky enough to capture it. Sometimes you get lucky and grab a little moment like this.

Meadows Festival 2017 033

Slightly different weather in this one! I was going around the Meadows Festival when it started to rain. As I scuttled for cover I managed to snap off a couple more candid shots of people at the fest in the rain, including this one with the lady and her umbrella.

Canal Festival 2017 021

Singer with her band at the annual Canal Festival and Raft Race, on the nearby Union Canal.

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2017 - The Last Photograph 01

As I came out of one of my film festival screenings I saw actor and director Danny Huston on the red carpet, about to go into the cinema for the festival screening of his own new film, The Last Photograph. The camera is always in my bag, so quickly out and click.

Cloisters 04

Something I have been meaning to photograph for ages – the beautiful cloisters in the Neo-Gothic Glasgow University.

A Visit to the Trossachs 02

Out with dad for a day in the Trossachs, a day of constantly shifting light and shadow as sun poked through clouds to illuminate patches of the landscape in shafts of light, while casting large cloud shadows over the rest. Gorgeous.

Carnival 2017 038

How colourful is this costume on this wee chap at the Jazz and Blues Festival carnival??

Carnival 2017 079

Close up portrait of one of the performers at the carnivale.

clan gathering 01

Clan gathering in summer when all of our Canadian relatives were over, rest of the family all got together for food, drink and chat, while the kids played in the garden. Someone brought out soap bubbles, and one little cousin, Wee Joe, was mesmerised by them!

clan gathering 017

All that playing can be tiring though, one of the kids curled up for a wee nap!

Fringe on the Mile 2017 020

Fringe on the Mile 2017 021

Festival time on the Royal Mile, and on a whim I wandered behind the bustle of the main drag, behind the cathedral, and saw these two performers. They were rehearsing before going out onto the Mile, and didn’t see me at first, so i was clicking away merrily.

Fringe on the Mile 2017 028

Fringe on the Mile 2017 041

Fringe on the Mile 2017 053

Some street portraits of performers strutting their stuff on the Royal Mile during the Fringe, trying to attract an audience to come to their shows, always a happy hunting ground for taking photos.

relaxing in the sun

Fringe bustling all around, but this one young woman had found herself a quite spot on the edge of the cathedral, in the sunlight, to take a wee break.

wet night in the New Town

Freehand night shot, coming out of the Book Festival on a rainy night, wet streets reflecting the lights.

Fringe on the Mile 2017 073

Saw this musician and her partner several times on the Mile during the Fringe, and took several shots, but I really liked the way this one came out, think it caught something of the joyful exuberance she was showing as she sang.

Fringe on the Mile 2017 091

This lady in traditional Korean costume was dancing on one of the small stages on the Mile, where the Fringe performers can put on excerpts from their shows to try and entice audiences to come along. I shot a lot of photos of her and her fellows, but kept zooming in closer, only to find her moving just as I lined up the shot. Finally I got one, very close up, in focus and in frame. Quite pleased with this one.

Fringe on the Mile 2017 0107

Another Fringe performer on the Mile – I loved her smile and her sign!

Fringe on the Mile 2017 0109

Juggler on the Royal Mile.

Shoreline of Infinity evening 05

Author Ken MacLeod reading from a book of his and the late Iain Banks’ poetry at the regular Shoreline of Infinity science fiction evening in Edinburgh.

Elcho Castle Doo'cot 06

This is standing inside an old doocot (dovecot), at Elcho castle, looking straight upwards, but the effect, especially in monochrome, seems otherworldly.

Scott Monument at dusk 02

Blue Hour on an autumn evening 04

“Blue Hour” in Edinburgh in autumn, when the sun has set below the western horizon but there is still some pale, blue light in it, not yet the full black of night sky. One of my favourite times for taking night photos in Edinburgh. Here it’s the Scott Monument silhouetted against that sky, and the Castle and the National Gallery.

Shoreline of Infinity November - Aurora Engine 05

Musician Aurora Engine was playing the harp and singing at a Shoreline of Infinity evening. I took several pics of her, then on a whim I zoomed in to try and capture her fingers moving deftly over the harp strings. It was in an underground venue in fairly low light, and I didn’t expect it to work, but I got this fairly sharp image and was quite pleased with it.

Commercial Quay, winter night 01

Walking around Commercial Quay at Blue Hour – these were all old dockside warehouses by the Port of Leith. Once left neglected after their working life ended, they have since been beautifully restored and are now home to apartments, businesses and many restaurants.

The Shore, winter night 08

Same evening, little later and darker, freezing evening, taking night photographs along the Water of Leith, by The Shore, a regenerated area near the docks which boasts lots of very nice pubs, cafes and restaurants, plus the sight of the buildings at night reflected in the river. Been meaning to take some night shots down this way for ages.

The Tower 02

Spur of the moment shot – I was zooming in on the weathervane at the top of the steeple on the Auld Kirk in Kirkintilloch when suddenly the skies darkened and these crows descended on the steeple. Suddenly it went from a detail of some old architecture to a brooding, Gothic photo that looks like a scene from a Poe novel.

me and my shadow

A couple of weeks ago, walking past Edinburgh University, bright but cold day, sun so low in the winter sky it cast as many shadows as it did light. I passed one student sitting on this bench by a stone wall, the sun casting sharp shadows and it was just begging for a black and white shot.

Schoenstatt at Christmas 015

Boxing day, 2017, dad and I drove over to Schoenstatt, a religious retreat by Campsie Glen, under the shadow of the hills. Freezing but bright and clear, snow had started falling on Christmas night and by next day it was crisp and frozen, crunching under foot as I walked through it, while the foliage was encased in ice, with the low winter sun shining through it.

sky snow clouds and hills

I can never resist taking yet another shot from the parental mansion looking out to the Campsie Hills. No matter how often I have taken pics of this landscape, it changes all the time depending on time of year, time of day, weather, and when the bright, low winter sunlight hit the snow-covered hills, while the clouds drifted by in front, I had to take another one…

The Modern Prometheus still sparks fire from the Heavens

January 1st marked the 200th anniversary of one of the first and most influential works of science fiction and horror, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, first published, anonymously, in January of 1818 by the small press of Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones, a run of only 500 copies. Two hundred years on and Frankenstein remains unbelievably influential, in storytelling, as a cautionary note in scientific research, of the dangers and responsibilities of human knowledge and abilities. Of all the books ever published over the centuries many, even those which were huge bestsellers in their day, fall into obscurity, remembered only on the odd literary course. A few, a very few, achieve a form of literary immortality, remaining in print, still read, translated into other languages for even more readers around the world.


And of those few only a handful penetrate and suffuse the popular culture to such an extent that ideas and terms from the books are borrowed regularly and used even by those who haven’t read the novel, but who are still aware of what the ideas are. We are still, to this day, borrowing from Shelley’s novel – when reporters write a piece on genetic modification, her creature is evoked: GM crops become “Frankenfoods”, the possibility of genetic manipulation of the building blocks of our human DNA raises dire warnings drawn from Victor Frankenstein and his unfortunate creature (Frankenstein is tormented by visions of any female mate he makes for his creature joining with him to breed a new race that would outstrip by design mere, naturally evolved humanity). These also go hand in hand with worries about the pace of discovery and advancement, which often seem to move to fast for us to adapt to and outstrip our ability to moralise and legislate upon – the Universal film’s cry of “In the name of God. Now I know what it feels like to be God!” remains a pertinent warning to us that we always need to consider what we are doing and why.

In part this is due not just to the longevity of the original novel, but the way it and its themes have drawn other creators to adapt it, or to be influenced by it, for other media. Within just a few years of publication Frankenstein was on the stage. In the dim, early days of flickering light from the first motion picture cameras, the Creature was there, right at the beginning of the medium, in a short silent from the Edison Company in 1910. And the, of course, that first golden age of horror film from Universal in the early 30s, bringing us first Lugosi’s Dracula then Karloff’s wonderfully nuanced creature in Frankenstein and the Bride of Frankenstein, with Jack Pierce’s iconic make-up. A couple of decades on and Hammer would revive both Dracula and Frankenstein for a new audience, in colour, with plenty of “Kensington gore”, and another iconic actor in both roles, the great Christopher Lee. Endless film adaptations, even more films and television programmes inspired by the themes in Frankenstein, the new medium of video games, and comics – notably the superbly illustrated work by the late Bernie Wrightson – those classic Aurora famous monsters model kits, even humour (think Herman Munster, or Mel Brooks’s wonderful young Frankenstein), Frankenstein has permeated our culture.

(above, the great Bernie Wrightson’s superbly detailed, iconic comics take on Frankenstein. Below, horror legend Karloff, whose subtle playing through Jack Pierce’s visually iconic make-up, gifted the cinematic monster with humanity, emotion and empathy. Bottom, Johnny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch in a modern stage version of Frankenstein, in which both actors took it in turns on different nights to play either Victor Frankenstein or the nameless Creature)

It’s not hard to see why – one of the keys of great writing is that it remains relevant to readers long after the time in which it was written. New decades and new centuries roll on relentlessly, new readers pick up the book and see in its themes comments and warnings applicable to their own contemporary world (again think of the conflation of Frankenstein’s creation with the worries over genetic research today). Of course it isn’t just the theme of humans dabbling in areas they shouldn’t, or the classic “mad scientist” who goes too far just because he can, it’s also the personal elements, the human elements – love, hate, responsibility, life and mortality, the powerlessness we have in the face of the death of loved ones, the duty we have to others, all are aspects of human nature that do not change, and so still resonate with us today. Guillermo Del Toro once described the book as one of the best “teenage” stories ever, as the unfortunate, rejected creature bemoans his state; he never asked to be created, didn’t have a choice in this life, is left rejected and alone and wondering why do I exist, why was I brought into this brutal world, what am I meant do to, what meaning is there to any of this?

We’ve all wondered that, especially in those formative teens years. I was to be your Adam, the creature tells its creator, instead I am your fallen angel. Milton’s Paradise Lost was a major influence on Shelley, the creature wants to be good, but his constant rejection and the fear others show him drives him away; can he be good? He’s not naturally created, does that mean he lacks a soul that God would have given any naturally born person? Does that mean no matter what he tries to do he can never be good, that he will always be a damned creature, except instead of being banished by his Creator to the Pit, he is rejected by his human who tried to steal the fire of creation, banished to the wastelands where no human feet walk, bereft, rejected, alone.

Other elements that remain very relevant to us: the gender roles of men and women – here a man who defies nature by creating life by himself, rather than from the womb of a woman. Is it hubris or is it fear of woman’s sexuality that drives him to try and become a creator of life himself, to take that power of generation for his own? And what does it say about relationships between men and women, about birth, death and creation? Gender even shows in the original publication, the first editions nameless, and while the first couple of editions generated mostly good reviews, some, now aware who wrote it, would sniffily dismiss it as an overwrought work of ‘a woman’, and therefore not worthy of contemplation. Two centuries on and how many women writers, especially in the fantastic fiction fields, have written under names that use only androgynous initials, or a name that could be male or female, because of the publisher’s fear that SF&F by women won’t sell as well? We’re getting past that a bit more now, but it still happens, and we still have a number of female writers who have had to do that to build a readership. Some elements, it seems, will remain with us for quite a while. At least we’re talking about it now.

Even the circumstances of the creation of Frankenstein fascinate us. The macabre experiments of Luigi Galvani with early electricity, notably the gruesome public experiment that saw him applying electrodes to the corpse of an executed criminal, creating spasmodic movement, grimacing facial expressions, all in a dead body. What was this power? Could it actually restore animation to the dead? Nobody knew, imaginations ran riot, and some of this is captured in Shelley’s dreams of an artificial being (along with, possibly, a visit to Castle Frankenstein, rumoured to once have been home to an alchemist who tried to find the secrets of life). And bear in mind this is a time when mortality, especially among children, was far higher than today, a sad fact Mary had horrible first hand experience of, even dreaming once that her dead little baby came back to life in her arms as she warmed him by the fire. Oh to have that power… And yet, nature clearly didn’t intend for us to have those powers, what would happen if we did? It all feeds into this rich novel, coming out of a fevered competition between Shelley, her poet husband, Doctor Polidori and Lord Byron as they sat bored in their villa during the “year without a summer”, trying to entertain one another.

Something opened in Mary’s mind that evening, those experiments, her reading of Milton, her own awful losses, all being fed into this story, a story that has lasted two full centuries, and which new readers are still discovering for the first time, and which has inspired countless other science fiction and horror writers across the centuries and continues to do so (what are modern fictional fears of AI outstripping its human creators, if not a modern Frankenstein tale?). If you’ve never actually read it, only watched the films or the comics, I’d urge you to go back and read it, it’s a different experience, taking in the novel; you think you know the story, but really, you only know it if you read the original, even the best film or play versions are interpretations and adaptations.

(painting of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell, from the National Portrait Gallery)

As with other cornerstone works of the fantastic with which Frankenstein is often grouped, Stoker’s Dracula, Stevenson’s magnificently psychological Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, you have to go back to the actual books to truly know these stories, their nuances, their layers, their themes that haunt us still and likely always will. Mary’s Frankenstein will, most likely, remain one of those select novels which will be read for as long as people pick up books. In a way she has created her own being through her words, drawn down the vital spark of creation, and its lumbering shadow still stalks our dreams and nightmares in the twenty first century, and will continue forever…

This was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Dismal days

Turning of the year also marks my birthday, and yes, it is a bloody rubbish time of year to have a birthday as everyone you know is busy with their own Hogmanay stuff, so it gets largely forgotten, even when it is one of those tedious “landmark” birthdays when you hit some supposedly socially important age. Quite why it is important, I have no idea, and given that, as usual on my birthday, I spent most of it on my own, it doesn’t exactly feel special, in fact it feels like a waste of bloody time, an event more likely to make me feel depressed and isolated than inspire celebration.

And yes, there are people with far more pressing problems than that, I know, but it still does little for one’s sense of self or self-worth or mental health, quite the reverse. What a bloody rubbish day. Birthdays, I wash my hands of you, especially “landmark” ages (Ohh, that’s a special age, you must be doing something big to celebrate!)  Yeah, right. What? With whom?). It also really doesn’t help when someone tells you to “pull yourself together” or “others have it worse, what’s your problem”. That really doesn’t help when someone is in a depression spiral, in fact you make them feel worse with that well-meant but idiotic nonsense, instead you make them feel even lower – they’re right, I’m pathetic, I don’t even deserve to feel included or happy, no wonder I am like this, I deserve to be like this. And so on, the black spiral feeds itself, you turn in on yourself and see nothing but mistakes and wrong and it is very hard to pull yourself out of it, in fact you often then attack yourself thinking how pathetic you are to be so lost like this, everything feeds the black dog.

Time for some self pity cake, which of course I had to buy for myself and eat by myself. Wow, birthdays are such fun!

Festive lights

Charlotte Square, the elegant Georgian space in the West End of Edinburgh’s historic New Town. Over summer this is the home of the largest literary bash on the planet, the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which I love going along to and indeed have been fortunate enough to take part in for quite a few years. At this time of year though it is back to being private gardens for those who reside in this very wealthy square, save for this lovely Christmas tree. It’s actually a “memorial” tree – you can donate to have a light in the name of a loved one to help Saint Columba’s Hospice, so you can light a light for a departed loved one and help a good cause at the same time, a lovely idea:

Light up a Life

Register House in the East End of the New Town is being used as a giant Advent Calendar this year, the Advent windows being projected onto the building are alternated with all sorts of animations and images and music. It’s rather wonderful to just see as you are walking home from work on a winter’s night:

Register House at Christmas 01

This blue and white, dome-shaped light installation is at the western end of George Street, lighting up the area – it’s large, covering the whole of a junction space in the temporarily closed road, so you can walk under and around it:

Christmas lights, George Street 01

Christmas lights, George Street 02

Tombstone shadows

Walking through historic Greyfriars kirkyard recently, the winter sun now very, very low in the sky. Clear but freezing day, low angle of sun creating a lovely, soft, golden light quality and casting long, long shadows, such as here where it stretched long shadows from the old tombstones out across the kirkyard.

low sun and long shadows in the old boneyard

Normally it’s not good practise to point the camera lens towards the sun, but I needed an angle looking in that direction to get these shadow strips into frame as I wanted, so I simply moved around a little until from my perspective the sun was blocked by a tree trunk just enough that I could get the shot without flaring out the image. Some days you get lucky…

Hellboy: Kramupsnacht

Hellboy: Krampusnacht,

Mike Mignola, Adam Hughes,

Dark Horse

Now here’s a very timely seasonal treat for all the good readers (the bad ones aren’t allowed, they’re on a list and it has been checked twice): Hellboy in Krampusnacht. Actually this is a double treat as it sees HB’s creator Mike Mignola teaming up with superstar writer Adam Hughes (and I’m guessing Adam was most likely delighted to get to play in the Hellboy sandpit). The long winter nights are ideal for spook stories, and there is a long tradition of a ghost story around Christmas – just the other evening my long running SF book group enjoyed some classic M R James ghost stories for our final meeting of the year, in dark, wintry Edinburgh. And here we not only have a nice spook tale for a dark, winter night, but one with a distinctively Christmas theme but, thankfully, not the type of festive theme that lays on the sugar and heartstrings, no this is one more suited for us, thank you.

Krampus himself is an ancient piece of folklore, in latter centuries associated more as a dark partner of Saint Nicholas, but while jolly old Nick delivers presents to the good girls and boys and non-binary children of the world, Krampus punishes the wicked. As is often the case with such folklore, the origins stretch far further back, and more than likely the modern version of the last couple of centuries lifts from several earlier, pre-Christian fokloric versions. In the modern day Krampus has become better known in the Anglophone world, becoming something of a pop-cultural figure in horror and fantasy circles as a nice antidote to the artificial sweetness of much of Christmas, but his roots are much more steeped in that Mittel-Europa culture (the same that has been home to all sorts of wonderful mythic archetypes, from the vampire to the Baba Yaga), and this offering from Mike and Adam draws on that background.

It’s 1975, and Hellboy is making his way slowly through a deeply snow-filled forest in rural Austria, when the ghost of a woman appears, and begs him to save her little boy, before vanishing, leaving only an old-fashioned, carved wooden child’s toy in the snow. Pushing further through the icy forest he sees the lights of a lonely house and on approaching, the inhabitant, an elderly man, opens the door and hails him by name – he is expected, won’t he come in for some food and drink and warm himself by the fire? Naturally it is not what it appears – the old, genial man had previously made an appearance in a local church, causing a supernatural incident, specifically to draw Hellboy’s attention, for he has something he wishes to get off his chest, and a favour to ask, something only Hellboy can do.

And I’m not going to risk spoiling this for you by going any further on the story front. But I will say I enjoyed the hell out of this, no pun intended. As you’d expect from Mignola, the story is littered with references to folklore and myth, from the mysterious, solitary house in the woods, the dangers of the dark forest, through the dead offering advice and help, to the Krampus figure himself. There are shades of Dracula too as “Herr Schulze” invites Hellboy into his lonely, isolated dwelling to take food and drink; I almost expected him to say “Welcome to my house! Enter freely. Go safely, and leave something of the happiness you bring…” Unlike the Count, however, Schulze does drink wine…

Hughes’ art creates a lovely contrast between the icy blue-white winter forest and the warm, yellow glow of the candle and fire-lit home, and you can almost imagine knocking the snow off your shoes before stepping inside. That contrast is also carried over to a lovely vingette back at the BPRD with his adoptive father and Liz, by a roaring fire, hot drink to hand and Christmas tree in the corner, again standing against the cold, blue of the winter forest (a scene which, intentionally I imagine, recalls the like of James telling his yuletide ghost stories to friends in his college chambers), with great use of colour here to convey mood and atmosphere almost as much as the art itself does. Hughes also does a grand job of deploying his own fine style but ensuring it visually fits with that iconic Mignola Hellboy imagery, which is not the easiest balance to strike, but he does so admirably.

A lovely little seasonal one-off Hellboy gift to readers – do yourself a favour, take half an hour out of the frentic festive frenzy, treat yourself to a copy of Kramupsnacht and a hot chocolate or a nice mulled wine, and sit back (preferably at night, by the fire) and enjoy a good read.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

After dark at the festive market

festive market at night 016

It’s dark by half past three now, but the festive market brings light and noise and scents and life to the winter nights, with people browsing, eating, drinking, the aromas of mulled wine and hot cider and cooking food, and the bustle of excited people. It’s also a happy hunting ground for me to take some people-watching shots after dark:

festive market at night 015

(look at the size of those frying pans!!! Handles the size of baseball bats!)

festive market at night 014

festive market at night 012

festive market at night 09

festive market at night 010

festive market at night 08

festive market at night 06

festive market at night 05

festive market at night 07

festive market at night 06

festive market at night 05

festive market at night 04

Who betrayed who? Judas #1

Judas #1,

Jeff Loveness, Jakub Rebelka, Colin Bell,

Boom Studios

Performing my normal early-morning perusal of the new titles at the start of New Comic Book Day, this one jumped out at me, something a bit different from most of the other four colour delights on offer this week. Judas is a character I have found fascinating since being forced to sit through excrutiatingly boring Bible classes on a Sunday as a child. I always found the simplistic portrayal of Judas taught in those classes to be very limited – they were, unsurprisingly for those kinds of indoctrination groups (because that’s what they really were, as far as I could see) it was presented in simple black and white, good and bad lines.

This always seemed to me to be skipping serious questions around the supposed greatest betrayal in human culture: was Judas just selfish and evil, and that is why he betrayed his friend (and saviour)? If he was evil then why on Earth did Jesus ask him to become one of his disciples? Or was it his plan all along to use Judas to betray him because he needed a sacrifice, even of himself (and how many tales of various gods involve some kind of sacrifice, deities, it seems, just cannot get enough of those) and here was the perfect man to use, his very own patsy, his own Oswald? If so that’s hardly the actions of a decent, moral person, is it?

Or was it that Judas knew this had to happen and only he could do it, knowing he would be damned for it, but he did it for the greater good, off his own bat or because his friend told him there was no other way, it had to thus and only he could do it? There are many complex moral and philosophical questions around that kiss, the thirty pieces of silver, that betrayal. And if all that happens is God’s will then presumably the betrayal was always ordained, and so poor Judas was a marked man from before he was born (and does that mean he is responsible for his actions then?). Indeed some gnsotic texts – beyond the pale to mainstream religious authorities – hail Judas for setting in motion what had to happen for human salvation.

Where the teacher in Sunday School was reluctant to engage, I have found over the years that many others have had similar thoughts, and the character of Judas has been explored many times in fiction, those complexities of the nature of morality, responsibility and destiny (free will or are we all following a pre-ordained script) and more have been fertile grounds for compelling drama, so it’s hardly surprising storytellers would pick up on it, from novels by Amos Oz or Tosca Lee, to the film Dracula 2000, which wove the myth into the vampire tapestry. Only a couple of years ago W Maxwell Prince and John Amor gave us the interesting Judas: the Last Days, which I found fascinating – review here. Loveness and Rebelka’s take, certainly in this first issue, continues that tradition of mining the motivations and actions of Judas Iscariot for some exceptionally compelling human drama.

That infamous betrayal is handled economically but efficiently and powerfully within the first few pages – this is a well-known story, and both writer and artist know they need only call forth a few specific scenes, such as the bag of silver coins, the leaning in for that kiss to mark out Jesus, the carrying of the cross by the scourged Christ, then the suicide by hanging of a bereft Judas, and those are sufficient to conjure forth the story in the mind of the reader. It’s a lovely bit of efficient and yet powerful storytelling by Loveness and Rebelka, and those few panels have real power, even to a non-believer like me (because this ancient story is a powerful one, regardless of faith or lack thereof, its human aspects make it endlessly compelling). Especially that single panel of the kiss, only half of the faces visible, below the eyeline, the intimacy and the betrayal so close they are interwoven, the colours muted, save for hints of bright red highlights that hint at the blood to be spilled.

No… Not here. I don’t belong here. But the voice comes… And whispers the truth:

‘Yes. This was always the end. This was always your story‘”

By only the third page we have seen the kiss, the betrayal, the thirty pieces of silver and the sad, lonely suicide, dangling from a solitary tree as a blood-red sunset stains the evening and night falls. And then Judas opens his eyes to find himself elsewhere, somewhere dismal, horrible – the Pit. Where else would the great betrayer go but Hell, of course? But does he truly deserve to be there? As he starts to walk through this nightmare landscape and the damned souls and the demonic entities that reside there to torment them, his dialogue continues and we see flashes back to his life on Earth, before meeting Jesus, and then also as a disciple.

And he asks the questions many would ask? He believes in his Lord, but if he can truly heal the sick, why are so many ill? If he can feed the hungry why do so many starve? If he can raise the dead, why then do we endure the immense pain of losing our loved ones? And if he was his friend and the source of all forgiveness, couldn’t he forgive Judas? But as Judas recalls the overpowering call from his very first encountered with Jesus, of hearing that voice calling him forth, he also recalls another voice, one which sowed doubts, that told him to question, which would lead him to this path in life and the hereafter and even now, in Hell, he can hear that voice still…

This is a hugely thoughtful and compelling piece of storytelling, and beautifully handled by both writer and artist here. There are some lovely touches too – in a lot of early Christian art (and indeed still common in the likes of the Eastern Orthodox Church art), the disciples and saints are often depicted with their golden halo (usually like a bright, golden disc behind their heads), and here Judas too has such a symbol behind his head, but his is jet-black instead of the glittering gold of a saint, a small detail, but a very telling and clever one, or little changes in lettering by Bell (Jesus’s lettering in red, seems to infer a voice different to normal ones, a voice that cannot be ignored, that compels, reminiscent of Jesse Custer in the Preacher comics). One of the more unusual comics of the year, and one which not only spins a good narrative, but which will leave you arguing with yourself over morality, the nature of free will and more questions that have been asked for eternity and which we rarely can answer completely.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

The Curios of the Paper Moon

The Curios of the Paper Moon,

Kat Hall,

One Little Apple


Kat Hall’s charming fantasy The Curios of Paper Moon is available as a regularly updated webcomic, but I must confess I hadn’t come across it (more interesting webcomics out there than there is time to browse them all!), before chatting to her at the recent Edinburgh Comic Art Festival. While we were nattering at her stall I was having a browse of a collected print edition of the series, and my initial impression made me want to buy it right away, which is usually a good sign.

Having had a wee chance to sit down and read it now, I am once more glad I listened to my instincts and picked it up, as this was just a lovely, lovely read, the sort of one that charmed me and left me smiling. The print version includes both the Prologue, which sets up the basics of what you need to know about Kat’s fantasy world of Little Garden, and the first chapter of the webcomic, which delivers a decent, self-contained story, the pair of them combining to give you a tale which you can take on its own, but more likely will leave you interested in reading more.

In this world there are treasures, monsters and dungeons, and treasure hunters like Clair who enjoy questing for them – for financial gain, either on behalf of a client, or to claim the treasure for their own. Clair, who between adventures has her own small store, also has a bit of an advantage on these quests as in addition to her formidable treasure hunter knowledge and skills she is also a witch. When she comes across the diminutive form of young Marina, the young woman persuades her to help find her friend, Barrett who unwisely ventured into a dungeon himself, seeking a special treasure. Clair isn’t indifferent, but she’s no charity case either, and agrees to help, for a fee.

I’m not going into too much detail on the quest here, because it would be a shame to spoil it for you. Suffice to say there are some elements you’d expect – and indeed, want – in a dungeon quest: the experienced, confident leader, the younger sidekick who has to learn fast (but is better than they think), surprises and twists, some very lovely tea cups (well, even a dungeon questor need to sit down and have a cuppa now and then). And, oh boy, some fabulous dungeon locations – not just the dark, dank caverns under the earth, but terrific fantasy architecture, bridges over chasms, Kat embraces the fantasy element to let her visual imagination indulge itself, and why the heck not? I mean if you can’t indulge yourself with wonderful visuals in a fantasy tale, where can you?? And that also includes some cracking fantasy creatures to encounter (yes, including dragons, I mean come on, you can’t have a proper dungeon quest and no dragon, can you? Just not the done thing!).

You can follow Curios of Paper Moon online as a webcomic, but it’s far more satisfying to have the print version, so I’d highly recommend picking it up (it also means you give some money to the creator, which is always a good thing). It’s utterly charming and delightful, the art manga-tinged but not too much, and nicely coloured (giving depth and feel to the fantasy world without going over the top), with some lovely visuals, and a story which functions as a good, standalone tale but also as an introduction to this world and characters, hints at paths to follow further and histories as yet undiscovered, and a nice little bit of world-building (including nice touches like what look like magical talismans but which on closer inspection also seem to be a sort of phone and social media device too). Still smiling just thinking about this comics…

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: climbing the tower – Senlin Ascends

Senlin Ascends,

Josiah Bancroft,

Orbit Books


Sometimes I’m waiting eagerly for a new book by an author I admire, always a happy moment. And then some other times a book from an author you haven’t encountered before arrives on your desk, and you have an even happier moment of a new literary journey, a walk onto a new area of the fantasy map you’ve not explored before. And for me that was the case here when an advance copy of Senlin Ascends appeared in the Blogcave; the first in the “Books of Babel”. That caught my attention, the name of that great structure – real? Mythical? More likely a fusion of later myth overlaid over some actual historical root like one of the great ziggurats of the ancient world. Babel. The tower to the heavens, a combination of humanity’s ambition, ingenuity and unbridled hubris, it’s a symbol that has cast a long shadow over human storytelling for centuries, there is something irresistible about it, and when a writer has a new angle on this ancient symbol it’s always going to be intriguing. My bookselling Spidey-sense was tingling, and it rarely points me wrong.

Meet Thomas Senlin, headmaster of a small coastal town, until recently a bachelor and a rather upright chap, something of a fuddy duddy, perhaps, and a man who is, as you’d expect for a teacher, well-educated. At least in terms of what he has read, but he is about to learn that the wider world doesn’t always conform to what you may have read, no matter how eminent the source book supposedly is. And Senlin has surprised his local village by finally taking not just a wife, but Marya, not only a very beautiful lady, but one with an impish and playful, adventurous  streak, almost the polar opposite of the fairly austere Senlin. And yet Marya has seen something in Senlin the other villagers never suspected, and she has awoken something in him. And for their honeymoon Marya and Senlin have taken the train to the Tower of Babel, the famous site he has told his students all about in school, but never visited.

The base  of the vast Tower is surrounded by the huge and teeming market, which right away pitches our newly weds into an exotic casserole of merchants from all over the world and goods from every corner, bustling, vibrant, overwhelming to a couple from a small, distant town, especially to Senlin, while Marya, resplendent in her new bright-red Pith helmet (so he can always spot her in a busy crowd, she tells him with a smile) seems to revel in it all.  A wonderful wife, a honeymoon in an astonishing location he’s dreamed of, what could go wrong? Well, of course things do go wrong, I mean there wouldn’t be much drama if they just had a nice holiday and went home with some postcards. There are little warning signs – Senlin, from his history and guide books, expects a land of wonders, cultured, the pinnacle of civilisation, and instead their first impressions are more like a wild and disreputable souk, the sort of place where you tread carefully and watch your belongings. Or your wife…

Because just like that, a few pages in, barely arrived at their destination – in fact not even in the Tower itself yet – Marya vanishes. And this teeming place seems to have no real authority, no police to turn to (there are some security types, but most are thugs posing in uniform to take advantage of the unwary). When he realises he has lost her he searches, but the market surrounds the base of the Tower, so it is massive, and he has no chance. Eventually Senlin concludes all he can do is proceed up the Tower to the Baths, two levels up, where they intended to stay at one of the hotels – Marya is a capable and independent woman, chances are after realising she may never locate him in the busy market she’s decided to go there already and wait for him.

This is, of course, assuming she is merely lost. But soon Senlin starts to hear stories from others that they too have lost loved ones, and in fact the base of the Tower – the Skirts – is festooned with notes from those desperately seeking missing family members, a scene with disturbing similarities to those posters placed around the 9-11 site as people urgently tried to find what happened to their loved ones. Senlin, a man who lives a very conventional, straightforward life is totally unprepared for  the world he is about to enter when he first moves into the Tower, and into the Basement. Each level of the Tower is a world unto itself, each different, but related, each stage is a “ringdom”, and like any good quest, any hero’s journey, Senlin will need to traverse each of them and meet their individual challenges.

(a glimpse into the lower levels of the Tower of Babel, borrowed from the Books of Babel site)

Except Senlin is as far from anyone’s idea of a capable hero as you can imagine. Trusting in his guidebook soon proves to be a mistake – this is no reliable Baedeker, beloved of Victorian adventurers in exotic lands, it seems like an act of total fiction. Senlin is going to have to learn how to adapt if he is to survive. He’s the proverbial fish out of water, in fact he is often so damned wet you almost feel the urge to slap him and tell him to get with the programme, he’s the blundering idiot abroad, totally unprepared, no idea what he is getting into, no idea what the local customs are, how things work here and it doesn’t look like he has what it takes. The unlikely hero is not a new idea in fantasy, but here Bancroft handles that trope extremely skilfully. Senlin meets people, has encounters, and they slowly start to change him through the hardest of lessons. But he doesn’t transform into some great hero, he’s still Tom Senlin, the village school teacher. But he’s learning. And even from the raw beginning, even at his weakest, Senlin does show one spark of backbone – he will not walk away without his new wife, no matter what.

And I’m not going any further into this narrative because I don’t want to risk spoilers – this is a journey, literally and metaphorically, and the reader needs to undertake those discoveries and challenges as much as Senlin does. The idea of the “ringdoms” is a great one, allowing for totally different worlds within worlds, and many different scenarios to test Senlin. And it also allows Bancroft much scope for some fabulous world-building and some lovely descriptions. It’s a world that feels like a mix of different parts of our own history – nice little details like people visiting from Ur, for example – and myth, and yet it is also so clearly not our world, and again this allows much scope for metaphor.

And then there is the style of writing – Bancroft has a remarkable way with words; workers in their faded finery for a night out have “collars the colour of cigar smoke”, while dancers have “mouths lurid as mashed cherries.” It put me in mind of those wonderfully evocative descriptive phrases in the Philip Marlowe novels, making Bancroft the fantasy equivalent of Raymond Chandler; I was not surprised to find out after finishing the book that he is also a poet.

An engrossing, intoxicating delight – I can’t wait to climb higher…

Senlin Ascends will be published by Orbit Books on January 18th, 2018; check out The Books of Babel site for more glimpses into this fascinating world, and you can read an excerpt from the book here on the Orbit blog.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

The blue fortress of winter…

One from my photo archives, taken on this day in 2010, during the very heavy winter and snowfall we had that year, and reposted here to mark 30th November, Saint Andrew’s Day:

Edinburgh Castle, Saint Andrew's Night

I came out of my book group that evening, Edinburgh was covered in snow. And the Castle atop its great rock above the city was illuminated Saltire-blue to mark the day of our nation’s patron saint. The skyline of my gorgeous city is remarkable at any time, but on this winter’s night, the Castle in blue, the city draped in snow, it was magical, and I just stood there in the cold taking it in. These are the sorts of sights you just come across living in Edinburgh, no wonder I love it so much. As I was out at my book group I wasn’t carrying a tripod, I improvised by jamming the camera between railings overlooking the Gardens to steady it, and with so much streetlight being reflected by the snow it was enough to get a clear night shot. I didn’t expect it to come out so clearly, being an improvised shot, but it’s digital so not wasting film, may as well try, because sometimes they don’t work, other times you capture a moment like this forever…

After dark

Had a nice photo walk around The Shore, the Water of Leith and near the Port of Leith recently, around dusk and then night. With the sun setting so early now it’s pretty easy to take some nocturnal shots without having to wander the streets late at night with the camera and tripod. I’m rarely down this part of town so this was a chance to take some night shots of an area I’ve not covered much of with the camera. Good, long walk, took a bunch of pics, got some exercise but man, damnably cold – okay when you are walking about, but very chilly when standing still to take a long exposure shot.

This is Commercial Quay at “blue hour” (when it’s dark but there is still a slight bit of pale light in the sky from the now vanished sun, one of my favourite times for taking night shots. This was a long series of old warehouse buildings – you can still see the attachment at the top floors for the pulley to lift up loads) for the nearby docks at Leith. They were very run down for a long time, but have, like the waterfront areas in many formerly industrial or commercial areas in many cities, been regenerated, which is preferable to tearing down those fine, old stone buildings, and it’s now a busy area of bars, cafes and restaurants:

Commercial Quay, winter night 01

Commercial Quay, winter night 03

Nearby is Teuchter’s Landing, which is the same company that has Teuchter’s in the West End of the New Town, which is slightly pricey but still a favourite pub of mine (also dog friendly, which is handy if I am meeting my chum and his hounds). This one is right on the waterfront, where the Water of Leith starts to meet the Port of Leith, and then the mighty Firth of Forth. In fact the back of the pub not only sits over the edge of a spur off the river by the docks, it even has its own floating outside beer garden moored on the water! Although understandably nobody was using it on a cold evening in November (although a couple of smokers were sitting outside the front of the pub, heavily wrapped up.

Teuchters Landing at night 01

Teuchters Landing at night 03

It wasn’t quite full dark as I walked back over to the Water of Leith, although it was darker than it appears here where the camera sat drinking in much more light on a long exposure. This is down at the very end of the Water of Leith, which winds its way through the city (it runs near my flat and offers a “countryside” walk to the National Gallery of Modern Art rather than walking through town) and eventually makes it down to Leith and the busy Shore area of bars and restaurants. This is by the Malmaison, and after this spot is just the old swing bridge and then it opens into the actual docks.

The Shore, winter night 02

Only a few moments walk later and by now, even though it was probably only about half past five, it was fully dark, allowing for some nice reflections of the lights and buildings in the now dark waters. For some reason this part of town often reminds me of parts of Belgium and the Netherlands:

The Shore, winter night 03

The Shore, winter night 010

The Shore, winter night 09

The Shore, winter night 06

The Shore, winter night 07

And this is Mimi’s Bakehouse, a family-run cafe, where I thawed out with some really nice hot chocolate and a delicious raspberry Nutella cake:

The Shore, winter night 011