Delightful chills in The Secret of Marrowbone

The Secret of Marrowbone,
Directed by Sergio G Sánchez,
Starring George MacKay, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Heaton, Mia Goth, Matthew Stagg, Nicola Harrison

My first movie at the world’s longest continually running film festival, the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and it is one I have been eagerly anticipating, arriving with some good word of mouth. It marks the directorial debut of Sergio G Sánchez, who also wrote the story; although this is his first time as a director many film-lovers will know his name from writing the likes of the superbly creepy The Orphanage.

Marrowbone itself is the name of an old, semi-derelict, sprawling house in an isolated rural part of America, the family home of the mother (Nicola Harrison). She returns here after decades away, bringing her young family, fleeing some horrible catastrophe which has left a trauma on them all, some terrible event way back across the ocean in Britian. She draws a line in the dusty floor and declares to all of them that when they cross it and join her they leave their past and memories behind, and even their family name, for now they will take the surname of their home estate and be the Marrowbones, starting a new life, a free life, a new beginning.

Brave words and at first it seems they are starting a new chapter, the youngsters coming out from that dark cloud, almost literally as Sánchez has them exploring the nearby countryside and beach in glorious summer sunlight, meeting Allie (the remarkable Anya Taylor-Joy from The Witch) at a skull-shaped rock where she is one of the few to get to know the withdrawn, secretive family, to become close to them. For a few scenes it seems they have turned that corner, playing with delight in the sun with their new friend, smiles, laughter.

But the family has run away from a terrible past and harbours a horrible secret, and the past never really releases us, no matter how we try to move on. Their mother knows she is dying and fears what will happen – Jack, her eldest, must reach his 21st birthday to claim his inheritance and to be legal guardian to his siblings. She makes him promise to always keep the family together, even though it means concealing her death until his birthday allows him to legally take over. He vows to keep his family together, but it is not going to be easy.

Their lawyer is suspicious of this family which rarely leaves their dilapidated home, keeps itself to itself, he is jealous too of Allie’s obvious attraction to Jack, and he wonders why their mother is always too ill to see him to sign important papers. He also hints ominously to Allie about the dark secret the family is running from, that their father was a monstrous figures who was eventually brought to justice back in Britain for his crimes but later escaped. Jack tells her he was indeed a monster, hence their flight to Marrowbone, to changing their name, trying to keep a low profile, but he also adds that their father is dead.

If he is dead, though, what are they hiding from? And what is the ghost that young Sam talks about hearing in the middle of the night. Why are all the mirrors in the home taken down and shoved into one room they never enter, save for a couple too large to move, instead covered up, including a huge one on the staircase, which seems to drop its dustcover by itself? What are those many noises? The soundscape here is exploited well, Sánchez mines the old, wooden country home location for maximum effect, every creaking floorboard, and sigh of wind through gaps in windows serves to immerse the viewer into the film, building layer upon tense layer, crafting an atmosphere of wrongness, a sense of something unnatural, disturbed.

Even when nothing obvious threatens the chill of fear and menace is palpable. And there are questions outside the family – their lawyer wonders why the mother is always too ill to see him, and he is increasingly jealous of the obvious love growing between Allie and Jack. He knows a little of their secret, but not all of it, there are layers here, to be excavated like an archaeological dig; the past does not let go with a simple act of starting again, but neither does it give up its secrets easily or quickly…

Sánchez avoids the cheap “jump scares” too many modern horror film-makers use to get a quick scare (I don’t count those as real scares, it’s just reflex, real scares are when they storyteller plants unsettling ideas right into your mind). Instead this film takes its time to patiently build that disturbing atmosphere, giving more hints at the secrets the family is hiding from, slowly cranking it up, trusting the viewers to invest into it until they too are permeated with that atmosphere and almost feel like they too are in that old, creaking house, slowly building to a climax, which I will not ruin here save to say it was, refreshingly, not what I expected and again show trust in the audience to interpret much themselves.

Sánchez and some of his young cast were at the festival screening last night, and he commented that he never set out to be a screenwriter (I am glad that he did though!), and that he and his regular film-making partner had been looking for something just like this to be his first directing gig, and what a wonderfully disturbing, chilling debut it is, moving from the sunny moments of friendship at the start (reminiscent of some old Enid Blyton tale of children’s adventures away from the adults) to the increasingly shadow-laden, creaking sound infested house and a feeling of the past closing like a noose around them and a secret that just cannot be contained. There is a timeless quality to the film, it feels like it could be set in 1860 as easily as the modern day for much of the running, until we see a 1960s wall calendar in one scene and 60s cars on a rare trip into the small town nearby.

Sánchez praised his young cast saying how lucky he was to have them for his debut, and indeed they were superb, despite their youth. It is a lot for such young actors to carry most of a film, but they do it so well, not least the youngest, wee Matthew Stagg, who takes little Sam from wide-eyed childish joy playing with Allie or his big brother Jack showing him how to send Allie morse code signals by light at night to her nearby farmhouse, to wide-eyed fear at this “ghost” and the sounds and movements in the old house, and grief at the loss of his mother. This is a slow-burn film, trusting the audience to wait, to slowly let themselves be immersed into that ever more disturbing atmosphere, leaving you wondering how much is true, is there a supernatural element here or is it all in their traumatised imaginations? What is the secret they must contain, what causes those noises, why does the top staircase end in a bricked up doorway? This is a delicious chiller that draws you into film beautifully. It is on general release in mid July.

Glasgow School of Art

Devastating news from my birth city of Glasgow today, her gorgeous gem, her world famous, Mackintosh-designed School of Art has suffered a terrible blaze, even worse happening while it was still undergoing restoration from a previous, smaller fire that damaged this artistic and cultural and historic prize. This fire is far worse, some architects are already thinking it may be beyond repair.

This is a dreadful event; this isn’t just the destruction of a cultural and historic site, Mackintosh’s famous design is live history, it is woven into the pulsing, live heartbeat of the vibrant artistic, creative soul Glasgow nurtures across decades, across social and class and ethnic divides. It’s heartbreaking to see the devout restoration work go up in flames after the last disaster, it seems unbelievable it could happen a second time, let alone while many struggled to repair and restore the damage of the last fire.

My beloved Caledonia has, for centuries, punched above her weight: a small kingdom of mountains surrounded by the cold northern seas we have generated philosophers, artists, writers, scientists, doctors and engineers far beyond the sum of our small population, our Scottish Enlightenment has been a beacon of civilisation, and the Glasgow School of Art has been a part of that, fostering, nurturing talent from all walks of life in that egalitarian way Glasgow does (growing up in Glasgow one lesson I learned was that it considered that art and culture was for all its citizens, not just the prosperous chattering classes, our museums and galleries served all, encouraged all).

Glasgow School of Art, designed by one of the world-famous Scottish artists and architects, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, has produced a seemingly endless stream of cultural and artistic greats across the century and half, from Doctor Who’s Peter Capaldi to poet and dramatist Liz Lochhead, the great John Byrne, Scottish comics god Frank Quietely, and Norman McLaren. Glasgow’s famously egalitarian approach to both science and the arts has helped foster and produce world-class creative talent, nurtured in an environment designed by a fellow artist and architect.

This is heartbreaking, it feels like someone has pierced the heart of my vibrant, beating heart city that suffered so much from the decline of its great industries and rebirthed itself partly through these same arts and cultures. This is beyond damage to our shared culture and historic and artistic heritage, it’s a blow to the heart of a vibrant, living artistic culture that, from a small land on the far northern edge of the world has nurtured and encouraged creative genius in so many walks of life: world-wide reputation artists, Nobel winning writers, engineers, scientists and more.

It’s a horrible wound to our nation’s remarkable cultural heritage. Glasgow has suffered worse. Scotland has suffered worse. New creators will arise from the burnt ashes like a magnificent Phoenix and spread their fiery wings across our skies to light a way to the future while illuminating the shadows of the past. This is heartbreaking, devastating news, this blaze, this destruction. But Glasgow School of art is about creation, not destruction. Like its home city which survived the loss of its mighty industries which made it, which remade itself afterwards, it will too remake itself and it will be a beacon once more to artists we don’t even know yet but will one day nod proudly at when they are named in great international awards and say, aye, they trained at Glasgow School of Art. I’m horrified at the lost of so much of of our gorgeous, built, designed, crafted heritage.

But that’s not the real heart of Glasgow, nor her School of Art, it’s heart is the urge, the need to create, express ourselves. That cannot be restrained by fire and demolition. Wood burns, even stone fails eventually, fire claims and burns, but the desire, the urge, the need to create is never quenched. Writers will write, painters will paint, sculptors will sculpt, film-makers will craft their imagery. Fire does not, will not stop us. It is not just stone and wood and carvings and buildings. As long as we dream, and think and feel and create, the School of Art exists. Creativity exists. Glasgow breathes and her heart beats and continues.

High tension in Adrift

Adrift,
Rob Boffard,
Orbit Books

(cover design by Charlotte Stroomer)

With a history degree and little chance of going straight from college to a nice museum job, and reluctant to take a post with her oh-so-successful older sister or parents, Hannah has, like many a young undergrad or graduate, decided to travel and take on a low-level job to pay her way, get some work experience and fund that travelling. In her case it isn’t tending a bar in Ibiza though, but becoming a tour guide at Sigma Station, a massive station which serviced trade and mining processing for the outer colonies, but which is now also a luxury hotel and tourist destination, boasting spectacular views of one of the galaxy’s greatest sights, the Horsehead Nebula.

It’s not going well though – she’s not even settled in and gotten used to the place before she is put to work, and like many low-paid jobs she gets tossed right in with hardly any training and, unsurprisingly feels overwhelmed, clumsy and out of her depth. Hardly how any of us want to feel at any time, harder still for a young woman in her first job and her first long distance trip away from home on her own, hardly a confidence booster. One of her first tasks is to be the perky, cheery guide for some of the station’s tourists who are taking a local trip on the Red Panda, a basic small vessel, the space equivalent of the wee converted fishing boat that you get at the seaside, all aboard the Mary Jane, twice around the lighthouse and back in time for fish and chips!

It’s not helped by a surly Russian captain who refers to her only as “Guide” rather than by name, or that the small group of tourists are made up of bored, or grumpy types, and several are the type who seem to like belittling anyone in the poorly paid service post below them (we’ve all seen plenty like that). Oh, and then there’s the sudden, violent destruction of the station and the mass slaughter of the thousands of unarmed civilians within just after the Panda had launched…

(the Horsehead Nebula, some 1500 light years from Earth, infrared image from the Hubble Space Telescope)

A ship of unknown origin appears and attacks the station with weapons unlike any they’ve seen before. Who are they? Why have they attacked such a huge civilian outpost without warning? The human worlds have been putting themselves back together after a costly war between the Earth-lead planets and the colonies (as with such wars throughout terrestrial history, the colonial power expands to take in more resources, but when those colonies become successful, strangely enough they start to question why they should be breaking their backs to send most of their hard-earned resources back to the motherland). But the war is over, peace returned, hence the return of tourism to the frontier. And that strange attacking ship didn’t look like anything from the colonies, or Earth, and the tech seems too high… Who are they? Why are they attacking? Are there more of them?

And meantime the small, disparate group of tourists and Hannah have to survive on a tiny ship designed only for short, local sightseeing trips – this is a small pleasure craft, not an interstellar starship, it was never meant to be far from support. Assuming they can avoid meeting the same fate from the mystery ship they’re still in desperate straits, cut off from any support, on a ship with limited supplies and systems, light years from the next base. A mixed group flung together, it isn’t long before the divisions and arguments start, making an awful situation worse. And this is all just in the first few chapters…

This is a tale that stamps on the accelerator right from the start, launching our characters from an everyday situation into a terrifying position in an instant, and then taking that situation Boffard expertly turns the crank on this emotional rack, tightening the ropes, increasing the tension in a desperate fight for survival mixed with conflict and conspiracies. It makes for a read as gripping as a hungry anaconda. It’s a story that has a lot of DNA in common with the likes of Hitchcock’s classic Lifeboat, and like that film it cleverly maximises the almost single-setting to its advantage, building tension laced with claustrophobia and rising panic, anger and division. I hate using a cliche like “page turner”, but oh boy, this is indeed a page turner…

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

First Man

I didn’t know there was a film about Neil Armstrong coming until I saw the trailer for First Man today. Ryan Gosling is playing my boyhood hero Armstrong, and I can see him being a good fit: Neil was famously cool, calm, quiet, even when almost out of fuel hovering over the surface of the Moon, and Gosling really has a quality of quiet and stillness. First Man is due out in the autumn.

So. Much. Fluffiness

Walking home a couple of weeks ago along the Union Canal at Fountainbridge I came across the lovely sight of Mr and Mrs Swan taking their new fledglings along for a wee paddle, a flotilla of fluffy cuteness:

So Much Fluffiness 01

So Much Fluffiness 03

Then this afternoon I found this little natural wonder: the fluffy cygnets all curled up together in their nest in some reeds by the edge of the canal, dozing in the warm afternoon sunlight as their parents floated in the water nearby, keeping an eye on their young charges. What a lovely little wonder to just come across…

Nest of wonderfulness 01

Nest of wonderfulness 03

And here is one of the proud parents:

Proud parent 02

Proud parent 01

Ant-Man and the Wasp #1

Ant-Man and the Wasp #1,
Mark Waid, Javier Garron, Israel Silva,
Marvel Comics

I must confess I’ve not read a lot of Ant-Man comics over the years, and I was among the doubters when Marvel announced the film a couple of years back, thinking ah, is this the moment where they stumble with a character not as widely known as others? And of course that film turned out to be an absolute joy (putting so much fun into superhero movies again, which was good – much as I love many of the recent crop, too many are dark and forget comics are also meant to be fun). So with Mark Waid, Javier Garron and Israel Silva starting a brand-new Ant-Man and the Wasp just ahead of the new movie I thought it would be a good time for someone like me, relatively unread in this character, to dip a toe into the microverse.

And I am glad I did, because this was so much darned fun. The first page starts with the original duo, Hank Pym and his wife Janet Van Dyne, what an awesome team they made as superheroes, as scientists and also as a loving couple. Before then tripping up the reader with “this is not their story” and flipping us into their daughter, Nadia muttering “I hate you”. Second page and we see her ire is being directed towards Scott Lang, the current Ant-Man, currently calling her on a video screen from the headquarters of the Nova Corps. Scott had been on an adventure helping the Guardians of the Galaxy (a good fit of characters!) and now needs a ride home, so he asks Nova Corps to call the smartest person he knows.

Of course Nadia is still annoyed with Scott, but she still helps him – “give me… ten minutes, forty-five seconds,” she tells him and true to her word when she comes back after this she has worked out a way for Scott to use his miniaturisation powers to travel at a quantum level via the signal carrier (in a technobabble speech that is up there with Brannon Bragga’s in Star Trek!). But it must be timed precisely, otherwise Scott will miss her and could end up anywhere in time and space and the various states inbetween everything. And naturally you know Scott will get distracted and things will not go according to plan. I mean it wouldn’t be much of a story if it did now, would it? And I will leave it there on the narrative as I have no wish to spoil it for you.

As I said earlier this is just so much fun – yes, I know I am harping on about that a bit, but face it, far too many of our comics and comics-based films dwell way too much on the dark side, gritty, full of troubled souls. Yes, I have no problem with that, it makes for more drama quite often, but I think both comics and comics film have too much of that kind of thing, there is room for the simple joyful fun and still have good characters you care about and an adventurous story to follow. I miss that quality in too many modern mainstream comics and film, it’s why I’ve loved comics like Kelly Thompson and Leonardo Romero’s Kate Bishop, Hawkeye series – they remind me that we can still have smile-inducing fun in our comics.

And I think Waid, Garron and Silva manage that rather nicely here too. The relationship between the bumbling former thief Scott and the brilliantly gifted genius of Nadia is deliciously handled, even that oh-so-awkward third party moment – you know when a couple are arguing in front of you and you stand there feeling very much that you don’t want to be there as they do so? Garron depicts the unfortunate Nova Corps officer in this scene so well, sighing as he stands behind Scott at the video screen, clearly not wanting to be involved, almost forgotten by both of them and knowing it but not able to just walk out; the comedy and character here comes out so much in the art depicting these scenes as it does the verbal sparring.

Scott comes across as the guy who manages to bumble his way through it all, infuriating the super-sharp, so-efficient Nadia. And in some way he is so much less able than her, not as skilled, certainly nowhere near as smart and yet there is a lovely moment where the thing that makes him a hero shines through, even to her, its his everyday humanity. He’s a good guy, and he’s been given this chance as Ant-Man to help others, and he really does try, because he’s a decent guy.

As I said, I’ve not read much Ant-Man over the years; I have some knowledge of the character, but not a lot of experience reading his stories. But even I found this first issue to be a perfect stepping on point, so if like me you are relatively new to reading Ant-Man and fancy trying some before the new movie, this is pretty much ideal. And it is (yes, I am using the “F” word again) fun.

“You shall go to the ball…” – Cinderella

Cinderella,
Directed by Beeban Kidron,
Starring Marcella Plunkett, Jane Birkin, Kathleen Turner, Gideon Turner, David Warner, Katrin Cartlidge, Lucy Punch, Leslie Phillips
Simply Media

The Cinderella story is pretty much an archetype – variations on the theme of the innocent, warm-hearted young lass who finds herself in awful conditions through no fault of her own, before finally finding good fortune and true love go back many centuries, with that scribbler of old fairy tales Charles Perrault in the late 1690s and the Grimms in the early 1800s crystalising the story into the form we’re familiar with today. This version is a television film from 2000, which aired on Channel 4, and boasts some solid British thesps like David Warner, Leslie Phillips and the late (and much-missed) Katrin Cartlidge, joined by Kathleen Turner (Romancing the Stone, Body Heat).

With such a well-known story there is always a question of why do another version? In this case it’s easily answered – because the film-makers have reworked it to be more relevant to the modern day, and in a manner that the younger viewers can enjoy, but which works well for the teen/YA and the adult audience. It is set in a sort of fantasy kingdom of strangely coloured skies, which has the traditional horse drawn carriages, palaces and country mansions, but also open topped cars and steam trains, royal orchestras but also a guitar playing, singing Prince. The Prince and his friends come across as a playful pastiche of the modern, hipper young Royals, the wicked stepmother (Turner) and her nasty daughters aren’t just nasty and spiteful to poor Cinders, they are also a nice comment on modern, super-shallow celeb culture, creatures who are empty inside but made-up exquisitely for outward appearance, the sort who appear in the pages of Hello and its ilk.

David Warner’s father returns from a business trip with a “surprise” – a new wife and step-daughters, to the shock of his daughter. Her shock is furthered by the way her new stepmother so obviously manipulates her widowed father and allows his new stepdaughters to bully her. This swiftly escalates from subtle manipulation to the far more obvious kind of control – Turner’s wicked stepmother is soon quite clear she is in this for money and the noble connections. Warner’s father has the noble title but not much money, so he is soon banished to sleep in the attic – “You know the rule: cash equals company.” despite this he still refuses to see what is going on (no fool like an old fool), and his daughter becomes increasingly isolated in what was once her own loving home.

A woman lives on her own and the whole world imagines she must be a witch…”

Cinderella retreats to the grave of her beloved mother on the hills, encountering a bird of prey who, in the best animal tradition in fairy tales, acts as a form of guide, leading her to a cave by the lake, a magical cave where the waterfall parts for her. Instead of a fairy godmother, here we have Mab (Jane Birkin), an odd being who is half-amused, half-offended when Cinders asks if she is a witch. She may not be a witch, but she does seem to have some magical abilities, and she helps Cinderella in her own peculiar way.

I somehow missed this when it was first aired, and I’m very glad I got a chance to see it now. While some of the effects are very early 2000s (not bad, just not as polished as you would expect today), that in fact adds to the charm here, giving the kingdom an other-worldly look that suits it quite well. And besides, it’s the story and characters which really matter here, and oh boy does Kathleen Turner clearly enjoy playing the wicked stepmother, in fact she seems to relish it, and she is delectably wicked here and, pardon the pun, having a ball with the role (as are Lucy Punch and Katrin Cartlidge as her nasty daughters).

This is an unusual, modern take on an old tale, played well, with some nice riffs on both popular culture and society (Turner inspecting her wicked daughters’ vast shoe collection and advising them “Remember the harder they are to walk in, the more effective”), while also tipping a knowing hat to the old folkloric tropes (“I hate happy endings”). This is a clever version of the Cinderella tale, with all the main beats given a nice, more contemporary twist (and yet still classic tropes), and it knows enough to have fun with it along the way, and take the viewer along too, with a big smile.

Cinderella is available now from Simply Media

Reviews: disturbing Gothic horror in The Atrocities

The Atrocities,

Jeremy C Shipp,

Tor.com


(cover art by Samuel Araya, design by Christina Foltzer)

Turn left at the screaming woman with a collapsing face. Turn right at the kneeling man with bleeding sores the size of teacups. If you come across a big-breasted bear with a child’s head in her jaws, you’re going the wrong way.”

Right from this opening paragraph Jeremy C Shipp’s novella The Atrocities crafts a delightfully, delectably creepy sense of unease. A tutor coming to a mysterious, isolated old home is, of course, hardly new in the fantastic genres – the governess in an old mansion with peculiar owners and even more peculiar children has been a staple of Gothic fiction since the 1800s, and the Old, Dark House has haunted our fictional nightmarescapes for just as long. It’s been quite a while since I came across someone opening up that particular playset again though, and I’m glad to report Shipp not only plays with an old generic type, he twists it and has fun with it; clearly he has a lot of love for some of those older tales, and that shows in the craft and attention to building mystery and atmosphere in The Atrocities.

The garden maze and bizarre, disturbing statuary could have come from the Addams Family mansion, but the constant, growing sense of unease, of things simply not being right, owes much to masters like Poe – there’s a feeling of dread growing throughout this book. On the surface it seems a very straightforward appointment: Danna has been engaged to tutor Isabella, the young daughter of Mr and Mrs Ever in Stockton House. There’s one somewhat unusual factor here though: Isabella is dead. Deceased. She has ceased to be, joined the Choir Invisible.

Mr and Mrs Evers, however, do not see this as any reason she should not have her education continued, like any proper young lady. Isabella is, according to Mrs Ever at least, still here, a phantom, and a playful impish one at that. Danna can see why previous teachers declined to stay, but is talked into giving the post a go, mostly because it may be emotionally helpful to Mrs Ever, who is unable to let her little girl go – has she lost the balance of her mind due to her grief, imagining that Isabella is still with her in her home, in spectral form?

Naturally there is much more going on here, but given how short this is, I’m not going to risk potential spoilers by dropping any major plot points. Besides, as with Poe the real prize here is the brooding, menacing, disturbing, Gothic atmosphere. That’s not to downplay the narrative here, which works beautifully – I’ve always thought shorter fiction is a good way to measure some writers, it is, contrary to what some think, harder to build a solid story, create characters and craft atmosphere in a short space, compared to a full-length novel. When someone does so, as Shipp does very well here, it is, to my mind, a mark of someone who really understands their craft.

Tor has been putting out some quite brilliant novellas and novelettes in the last couple of years, science fiction, fantasy and horror, and we’ve been loving them on here. A brilliant way to experience writers you may not have read before, also ideal for a quick read electronically, and The Atrocities is a very fine, hauntingly creepy addition to that range.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

A Study in Steel

Here’s an interesting one for those of us who turn into excited ten year olds when we see a classic steam locomotive, an old film documenting the building of an LMS Princess Royal class mainline loco. I’ve seen one of these engines under steam, they’re beautiful, elegant machines, fascinating to see one being built from pieces of molten metal and the hard work and sweat of the skilled workmen:

And here’s the Princess Elizabeth, a Princess Royal class in that lovely LSM maroon livery, under steam at Carlisle:

steam at Carlisle 013

Foghorn (no Leghorn)

This is rather satisfying: a short video of prepping the engines and then firing up the great foghorn on the Sumburgh Lighthouse on the Shetlands. (via BoingBoing)

Blossoming

The cherry blossoms have been late this spring, after the unseasonable bursts of late winter weather a few weeks ago, but finally it warmed up, the sun shone, they came out, and now they’ve mostly gone already – for a few days the branches hang low and heavy with the petals, then with each breeze they flutter down, a soft rain of silk, carpeting the pavement below, and then they are gone again for another year. Naturally I snapped a few photos before the vanished…

spring petals 01

spring petals 02

spring petals 03

Reviews: Autonomous

Autonomous,

Annalee Newitz,

Orbit Books


(cover design by Will Staehl)

I’m sure many of you are familiar with Annelee Newitz’s name, being the co-founder of the major SF site IO9 among many other hats she wears. To that hatstand we can now add science fiction novelist with this, her debut from Orbit Books. An oh boy, what a fabulous debut. Robots, love, sex, pirates, copyfighters sticking it to giant mega corporations, shady morality and a future that’s drawn partly from the present and history, making elements of it sadly all too plausible. All of this wrapped up in a very well-paced narrative with flawed characters who work their way into your affections, flaws and all (perhaps more so because of their flaws).

Jack is a highly trained scientist with a lifelong hatred for the big megacorporations, especially big pharmaceuticals. In her younger days she and others pushed for free labs and works being published without copyrights, freely available to anyone to make themselves when needed, or for other scientists to take and twist and alter and enhance. It’s a stance which attracts a lot of other like-minded people and, predictably, the ire of these giant corporations, which use their agents to crush them and make an example of them, seemingly above the law around the world, able to get people imprisoned, or use coercion and violence on those who oppose them, and get away with it while authorities, hungry for the funds that can come with working with those big corporations, look the other way.

It’s a life which instead of cowing Jack has pushed her further into her beliefs – she’s become a pirate, hacking the drugs produced by these megacorps, which make obscene amounts of money and make drugs and therapies which only the well-off can afford. She hacks these, breaks them down and then makes her own versions which are distributed to a black market among various medical staff; it makes her a living (albeit one that gets her hunted) and at the same time people who couldn’t possibly afford those medications are able to get hold of them cheaply.

Except now, as her submarine nears the coast for a new drop, she is hearing news of multiple cases of problems with a drug, one she fears she sold – she checks, her work is good, but the original company’s drug she hacked has a serious flaw (or is it deliberate?), it is highly addictive. Her mission to do good has gone wrong in spectacular, if unintentional, fashion and she is going to need help to fix it. Worse, as this will draw the copyright agents closer to her – not motivated to make sure not only that her pirating is stopped but no news of their dodgy chemistry makes the news – she is going to be running from hiding spot to hiding spot to try and fix it while looking over her shoulder, and knowing she is potentially putting everyone she deals with in danger.

This is an absolute cracker of a debut – it runs along at a fine pace, keeping you glued to it. Where some may give you good heroic characters and their villainous counterparts, Newitz instead gives a much more satisfying mix of flawed characters – many of those on the “sticking it to The Man” side of things are not all entirely clean, and they are, basically criminals (even if some do it for a greater good – at least they think they do), while the agent hunting them, Eliasz, and his robotic companion Paladin, commit morally horrible acts to try and deal with some of those they are hunting, and yet neither is really a villain as such, they think they are doing the right thing, upholding rules and laws, stopping criminals, and there is a strange relationship forming between man and machine which starts as somewhat disturbing but soon becomes actually rather sweet.

It’s a disturbing future drawing on a lot of elements from our current world and our shared history, which makes it all the more terrifyingly plausible. Not only robots are indentured for years (earning their autonomy from those who created them by working off that debt), huge swathes of humanity are similarly indentured, recalling the way more than a few colonists came to the New World back in Colonial-era America, with no resources other than their own labour, selling themselves into an indentured contract, and with the erosion of worker’s rights to suit giant corporations (which have more power than national governments) it’s not hard to imagine a form of that being tried again. The hacking and pirating of chemicals and treatments from giant companies is something we have seen already – think of those Brazilian companies in the 80s and 90s making their own generic versions of big pharma companies’ AIDS drugs, illegal, sure, but on the other hand it made those drugs available to thousands who needed them and couldn’t afford them. That sort of moral ambiguity is laced throughout the book and makes it all the more engrossing. A must-read.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog