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

Reviews: Places in the Darkness

Places in the Darkness,

Chris Brookmyre,

Orbit Books

(cover artwork by Steve Stone)

Welcome to Ciudad de Cielo, or CdC, a city in the sky, orbiting high above planet Earth, a shining beacon to the blue world below. Home to the Quadriga, a consortium of four mega corporations and the brightest minds humanity has to offer, working on the most advanced research on – well, near – the planet, with the ultimate aim of preparing a generational starship. This is technology not just to better life on Earth, but to prepare the human race to expand out into the stars. An orbital city of thousands, a crime-free utopia of brilliant minds high above the Earth, bringing knowledge and technology to the world below, like some modern Prometheus, while the other foot is readying the long walk to deep space. The pinnacle of human civilisation’s evolution.

Or so the brochures and corporate PR would have it. As anyone who has ever studied utopias knows, they are rarely perfect, human nature just doesn’t allow for it. And human nature is at the core of Places in the Darkness. Brookmyre is a long-established member of the “Tartan Noir”, the brace of internationally bestselling Scottish crime writers (along with the likes of Ian Rankin, Denise Mina and more), but here he’s going science fiction, although for lovers of his more Earthbound crime novels, there’s still much here they too can enjoy.

CdC started as a floating lab facility, with the “wheels” at either end being added as it grew, that central shaft offering micro gravity facilities for some advanced research and manufacture, the wheel sections simulating gravity. And “ideal society” claim or not, like every other human city in history it is stratified and with a hierarchy from the corporate suits and top scientists at the peak, down to mass of regular workers low down. The people who do the actual work – cleaners, joiners, electricians, medics, cops (well, private corporation cops), and where you have all of this population there will be a dark economy – bootleg booze, underground clubs, prostitution, and most regualr folks working two or three jobs just to make ends meet. The side of life the CdC like to pretend they left below on Earth; this is more Babylon 5’s Down Below than Star Trek’s shiny Federation.

And it’s into this Alice Blake is sent, a representative of the federated world governments, who keep a close eye on the CdC, the corporations forever wary of too much oversight, or intrusion into how they run things. Alice, adopted child of high flying government types, has been raised and schooled to fit perfectly into her niche and she actually believes the PR blurb about this idealised society and the selfless work leading to the stars and humanity’s destiny. But she is also enough of a political animal to realise her boss is sending her to take over the security gig so she can get a close look at how the corporations are running things. But the myth of the crime-free orbital society is about to be brutally shattered – the low level crimes the CdC can hide, but murder? An especially cruel murder and mutilation? No, that’s going to leak out. Hell of a first day for Alice, paired with the security team’s Nikki Freeman, a former homicide detective and only one on the private security force with the experience to work such a case.

But Nikki is also known as “Nikki Fixx”, a go-to, a fixer, a grifter, working both sides of her badge. Everything Alice despises; Alice, in turn is looked down on by Nikki as a privileged and rule-bound type who has no real idea how things work. In the best mismatched cop-buddy tradition they’re going to be flung together and find themselves spiraling down a far deeper rabbit hole than either could have anticipated, an investigation that will snake around itself, from conspiracy theories and power politics at the highest echelons down to the dive bars and hidden underground elements of society, from criminal smugglers to secretive elite scientists and everything in between, Alice is going to get a first-hand view of the reality of the society on this orbiting citadel of humanity.

I’m not going to go too much into the murder investigation and where it leads, far too easy to blow some spoilers that way, but for anyone who has read Brookmyre’s crime novels, you’ll already know that you are in very fine hands here regarding a good murder mystery, with plenty of twists and turns. But as with his terrestrial novels, Brookmyre delights as much in the details and the way these details and the events around them can reveal human nature in all of its many facets, and that is compelling, from the highest, elite segments to the lowest, and the elements of life that connect them all, one way or the other.

It’s a story which also questions the nature of humanity, from Alice, brought up in a very different setting from the likes of Nikki, with her by the rules, idealised view of how it should all be, to Nikki, who has seen how much of it really works, the dirty, oily engine under the gleaming bonnet of the car, and then those in positions of power, from crime gangs to the corporate and scientific leadership, and what they want their orbiting society – and eventual starship colony crew – to be. And it questions if you can really make people into moulds or if human nature will always assert itself – and if that is a good or bad thing, while also, like much of science fiction, using that future society as a mirror to observe aspects of our own contemporary world, from the haves and have-nots, the corporations straining to be free of government oversight, the bulk of people waiting for the “trickle down” effect, the role of technology in society (for good and ill) and more. It’s a rich brew, giving a real feeling of a near-future society you can believe in, humanity in a warts and all way, allied to a compelling and twisting narrative of murder and conspiracy.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Provenance: Ann Leckie returns to her Ancillary universe

Provenance,

Ann Leckie,

Orbit Books

Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice seemed to come out of nowhere and conquered all before it, scooping the Arthur C Clarke, the Hugo and the Nebula awards among others, and for my own part it (and the following two books in her Radch trilogy) made my annual Best of the Year lists (in fact I recall Justice also made a few of our guest Best of the Year selections too, it impressed a lot of people). Her new novel, Provenance, is set in the same universe, but isn’t directly connected – it’s a different world and society (outside the imperialist Radch space), and different characters, and I think that was a wise move by the author, giving fans something fresh but at the same time also expanding the universe she has built previously.

Much of the events in Provenance rotate around or involve Ingray Aughskold, a young woman from a highly privileged, important and influential family on the world of Hwae. These kinds of mover and shaker families don’t operate just like a classic dynastic model though, they also frequently foster and adopt other children, raised to be part of the family and with them competing to be the one who will be named as the heir. In her case she suspects her brother is their mother’s favourite to inherit her name and title, he simply seems more devious and determined and scheming. Not terribly pleasant characteristics, but for the sort of political wheeling and dealing class, quite useful. And so at the opening we find Ingray, somewhat out of her depth, on a station in another system, where she has used all of her remaining resources to have someone secretly rescued from what is euphemistically called “compassionate removal” (essentially a prison planet where undesirables are dumped and have to fend for themselves).

Ingray’s world is obsessed with “vestiges”, historical artifacts and documents which are used to prove worthiness and rights, both on the personal level to the family history to the entire planetary society itself (not unknown in our own history, think of the supposed Wallace Sword in the Stirling monument, or Henry VIII’s Arthurian round table). The person she has had broken out of imprisonment, Pahlad Budrakim, also comes from a powerful family like her own (actually one her mother, the current Netano, has contested against for political office). And he was put away for stealing the family vestiges and replacing them with clever forgeries. Ingray’s plan to get Pahlad free, return to Hwae and find the never-recovered vestiges and present them to her mother as proof of her abilities is a bit desperate, even to herself, a last-ditch, all-or-nothing approach. So she is already filled with self-doubt as she embarks on this mission… And then when she finally gets Pahlad Budrakim delivered, removed from stasis, the person who emerges, despite looking like Pahlad Budrakim, claims not to be that person or even to know them. It seems her plan has fallen apart right at the first hurdle and all that remains to do is go home, broke and resigned to failure and the inevitable gloating of her brother.

Needless to say, this is not exactly how Provenance plays out, or it would be a very shot read. Instead Ingray finds that her travels and her scheme have brought her into wider plots, involving some of those she meets in her journey, her family, her planet and other powers. She will find herself again worrying about being out of her depth, of attempting to form plans in response to strange new turns of events, then finding her plans don’t always work and she’s going to have to have a wee panic but then settle down and think again. There’s actually something very pleasing about this – Ingray isn’t some superbly-gifted character, highly-trained and with capabilities normal people can only envy (the sort of character we see all too often), she’s a regular person, and a young one, inexperienced and learning as she goes. It’s as much a coming of age story as it is a mystery and conspiracy tale, and Ingray feels quite natural and believable, and increasingly likable as the story progresses.

In the Ancillary series the imperial Radch normally use the pronoun “she” for any citizen, they don’t differentiate in language between genders. Here in the Hwaen and other cultures which come into play here, Leckie expands that, with Hwaens using three gender pronouns, he, she and e, and eir instead of their, while different cultures also follow different naming conventions (much as some Earth cultures do – for example, not every culture follows the Western model of forename and surname in that order). My only problem with “e” is as a British person when I see “e opened the airlock” I can’t help but imagine it in a Cockeny or Yorkshire accent, or another which drops the “h”, which I imagine isn’t a problem American readers have. And this and with exposure to these other cultures, including the alien Geck and people from various walks of life, Provenance feels more rounded socially than the Ancillary trilogy – a part of that universe, of course, but showing us whole different parts of that universe, and hinting at more to explore. And that’s something we SF geeks do love, for sure, a good bit of world – or universe – building, and it expands that setting from the original trilogy nicely, widening that set for more future tales (I sincerely hope) set in that universe. An extremely satisfying and enjoyable read.

The Corporation Wars come to a cracking conclusion with Emergence

The Corporation Wars Book 3: Emergence,

Ken MacLeod,

Orbit Books

(cover design by Bekki Guyatt)

I’m always a happy reader when I have a new Ken MacLeod book waiting for my attentions, he has, consistently, been one of the most interesting and thoughtful science fiction writers in these islands for the last couple of decades. As well as intriguing thoughts and gripping stories, Ken is also adept at doing what the best science fiction does – using SF to address the problems of human nature. And in the Corporation Wars trilogy that’s no mean feat, considering, for the most part, the various characters in this series aren’t actually human. We have robots who have achieved sentience, we have computer AIs which oversee much of the Earth policy in this distant proto-colony system, and we have the emulation of human minds running in digital simulations or, to interact with the real universe outside the computer reality, downloaded to mechanoid “frames”.

The first two volumes have seen these deceased humans – fighters and terrorists from two rival factions, the Axel (accelerationists) and the Rax (reactionaries, basically racist, Nazi, power-hungry types), their memories and minds digitally resurrected to man combat machines for Earth, as compensation for what they put the world through during their millennia-gone battles. But twenty light years from home and thousands of years into the future, not even in flesh bodies, these groups can’t help but revert to their previous behaviour… And yet some are starting to learn, starting to look back on what they did before their (usually violent) deaths, on how Earth society has evolved since then, and, importantly, to think about the now sentient robots they have been tasked with dealing with.

After much evolution and interaction – not to mention some spectacular action – in Dissidence and Insurgence, Emergence continues seamlessly (the overall effect, I found, is less that of reading a trilogy but one long tale with small restful pauses), all of the characters now very firmly established, developed. There are no ciphers or stock characters here, even the robots, the newest intelligent beings in the story, are evolving rapidly, showing individuality, wit, even friendship and care for others. And then there is the massive “super habital” world the colonising corporations have been orbiting for so long, finally brought fully on stage, and opening up yet another avenue for exploring how diverse and rich, and astonishing, life, in any form, can be.

There’s plenty to chew over here, from the rights of any sentient being (human, posthuman, robotic or otherwise) and how we deal with them (our behaviour to them saying much about our own moral faculties – or lack of them) to the use of economic and military power. In the Rax I thought I detected more anger than in the preceding volumes; here they are not just the far-right, but quite clearly Nazis, right down to the arm salutes as one group makes a grab for power, and I thought perhaps this was a quite understandable reaction to the hideous growth of such hate groups in the real world. But as well as the thought-provoking elements and the cracking sense of pace and action which pushes events along at a gratifying clip, there is also some humour here – the nasty space-Nazi trying to justify racial superiority when he is nothing but a digital emulation of his old mind in a robotic frame (ah, but an emulation based on a white brain! Yes, that’s how stupid and bigoted these people are). It’s a superb casserole of ingredients, building to the boil at just the right moment.

Emergence is out now from Orbit Books, you can read about the first volume here, and volume two here, while we have a recent report on some of the science fiction events Ken had as a guest selector at the Edinburgh International Book Festival here.

Reviews: the Doctor will see you now – Strange Practice

Strange Practice,

Vivian Shaw,

Orbit Books

Oh now this was an absolute delight to read. There has been a large trend in the last couple of decades for  urban fantasies, depicting a world that is recognisably our own, everyday realm, but where, usually in the shadows, unsuspected by most people, fantastical elements secretly exist. Charlaine Harris with her Sookie Stackhouse Mysteries (True Blood as it was for the TV version), Jim Butcher’s brilliant Harry Dresden novels (a gumshoe in Chicago who also happens to be a wizard), there has been an explosion in this area of fantastical fiction. So much so that these days I find myself a bit wary of new ones sometimes, but I had my bookseller’s Spidey-sense tingle when this arrived from Orbit, and I trust that little gut instinct. And I think Will Staehle’s cover (and some nice matching interior illustrations with a wicked sense of humour) had much to do with that too, a nice mix of woodcut style, with contemporary elements that also nods to those wonderful old Penny Dreadfuls.

And I’m glad I listened to those instincts, otherwise I would not have met Doctor Greta Helsing (her medical family long since dropped the “van”), a GP in London – in the famous Harley Street locale, no less, although unlike most their Greta is not exactly well-heeled. Except Greta’s practice takes in a very unusual set of patients – she, like her father before her, offers medical care to London’t community of preternatural creatures. Vampires, ghouls, were-creatures, vampires (and indeed vampyres, slightly different blood drinkers), even creating prosthetic bone replacements for elderly Egyptian mummies or treating a ghoul leader with clinical depression problems, it’s all in a day’s work for Greta. It’s long hours, like any GP, but it is very satisfying to her that she is not only helping people, but helping creatures that would never otherwise be able to access medical care.

However, London is a city in fear – a serial killer is stalking the city, the body count is rising, each victim found with cheap, plastic rosary beads. And those are just the ones the public and police know about – there are other victims, victims hidden from society, supernatural beings also being stalked by strange, monk-like figures, seemingly human, but stronger, with oddly-glowing blue eyes and a burning desire to destroy anything “unclean” before their god. And that includes some of Greta’s patients and anyone who helps them…

I’m not going to blow any spoilers by going any deeper into this tale here – it partakes as much of the detective novel as it does fantasy, and as such I don’t want to risk revealing any of the twists or turns here before you get a chance to read it. But I will say this is – especially for a first book in a series – this is a remarkably well-realised world and cast of characters; it really isn’t very long before you find yourself not only enjoying the story but the world demi-monde Greta moves in, a world where you can take the regular London Bus or Underground but which also has ghouls in the sewers, or Lord Ruthven in his Embankment House grand home.

Ruthven is just one of a number of literary characters who populate Greta’s world (in face Ruthven is a close family friend), we also meet the likes of Sir Francis Varney – as in Varney the Vampire (aka The Feast of Blood), one of those great penny-dreadful schockers of the 1800s), although, pleasingly, Shaw doesn’t drop in such famous Gothic characters in the way say Moore would in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, they feel far more realised and realistic as actual, believable people (who just happen to be centuries-old sanguivores). That’s not me taking a swipe at LOEG, by the way, I do enjoy those too. And if, like me, you have a long-standing fondness for old Gothic novels and characters, this is a lovely extra layer to Greta’s world and its details. Vivian also gets extra vampy brownie points for me for referencing the likes of the Croglin Grange Vampire,

There is also a nice strand of social commentary running through this book – the religious fundamentlism of the “monks” who think they are doing the will of god (while overlooking breaking important commandments like “thou shalt not kill”) has more than a few echoes in the real world, from terrorists to religious zealots who refuse equal rights for those they disapprove of, those who consider themselves so right that they feel they can use bloody violence to enforce their will. The supernatural community that Shaw sketches out nicely here also hints at social problems in the real world – the segments of society that are Different, Not Like Us, Other, and therefore feared, hated, often turned on as easy targets.

There’s a lovely moment where Varney asks Greta why she does what she does, even for beings like him, a monster, damned to the Pit should he be killed. And Greta tells him he’s not a monster, none of them are, she sees them all as people, and she thinks all people should be able to access medical care. It’s a nice pairing of messages, that being a person is more than simply being physically human, it is qualities of being that define someone, and that medical care should be something anyone who needs it can obtain. In a world where many give into the darkness of bigotry and see even other humans as less than human (and therefore deserving of awful treatment) and many can’t get even basic healthcare, these are very welcome, warm, human messages to weave into the story, and nicely done via the medium of non-human beings. They also made me love Dr Greta all the more. As I said right at the start, this was an absolute delight to read. I look forward to more time spent with Greta…

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Monkey Magic! The Epic Crush of Genie Lo

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo,

F.C. Yee,

Amulet/Abrams Kids

Genie Lo is a very driven, very organised fifteen year old Chinese-American high school student in the Bay Area. Like more than a few similar kids she’s ferociously organised and dedicated to her studies and coping with the pressure of exams, good grades and the even higher pressures of transmuting those grades into a good university (and then more exams, more organisation, more studies, more pressure to achieve the best grades there and then onto a career and…). Yes, it’s a hell of a lot of stress put on young shoulders, as anyone who has ever been a student will recall, and the target audience for this YA fantasy will be more than familiar with, I’m sure. And quite a lot of those kids will also empathise with feelings of being different, awkward. In Genie’s case this is exacerbated by being quite tall (although this has its uses on the sports field sometimes). Adding to the pressure of school, possible colleges and career choices (why do we expect someone to be able to deal with all of that at 15???) home life isn’t ideal either – her mother is uptight and precious about her achievements, her father is more easy going but now estranged from her mother.

And into this mix she’s about to discover something remarkable about herself, and find this surprise comes with even more responsibilities, the type she can’t tell anyone else about (even her bestest friend Yunie) and dangers. And she’s going to meet a boy, which sparks all of this change. No, not in the normal teen way of first finding out about the attractions of other boys or girls. Quentin may be handsome and terrifically fit (although short), but this isn’t some Romeo and Juliet deal. Quentin is… Well, he’s not human. In fact he is Sun Wukong – the fabled Monkey King of legend, as depicted most famously in Wu Cheng’en’s classic of Chinese literature, Journey to the West. I’m guessing that “Quentin”, the name he adopts as he pretends to be a new student at Genie’s school is a nod to Qítiān Dàshèng, one of the titles Sun Wukong took on in his many travels and adventures (meaning something along the lines of Great Sage). Born of a stone egg on a mountain top, who through many adventures (and misadventures) slowly became more of a hero and less selfish, more enlightened and a protector against evil. A character that those of us of a certain age probably first encountered in the bonkers 1970s TV series Monkey (“the nature of Monkey was…. Irrepressible!!!”)

What is such an ancient – until now mythical being, as far as Genie knew – Chinese celestial being doing in 21st century West Coast America? Well, he wants Genie. He thinks he knows her, knows her well of old, that she may perhaps be a reincarnation of a very important element of his own past, one that he has been watching the Earth for any sign of reincarnation in a new form. And it seems others too have similar ideas, a few good, emissaries from the Jade Emperor in Heaven, but most bad, demons escaped from hell and after power on Earth (gained through very nasty means). Many of these are demons Quentin fought and sent to hell himself centuries before as part of his penance for past misdeeds, and he is more than a little surprised to find so many of them back on Earth, a demonic jailbreak, it seems. And like it or not, Genie is at the centre of this. Just as well she’s clever and a quick study…

Teen girl finds herself chosen to be part of an eternal struggle between mythic or supernatural forces she hadn’t even dreamed were real. Yes, it does evoke memories of Buffy, of course it does, but the youngster suddenly exposed to a wider world and realising they are part of it and they have to take part in it even if they don’t want to has been a part of countless coming of age tales long before Buffy. And to be fair here, Yee does a terrific job of creating in Genie and Quentin something very different from Buffy, and indeed from a lot of the modern trend for urban fantasies where we have our regular, everyday world with some “magic is real” layer (some of which is terrific fun). Genie herself feels like a real girl, especially a real girl from that particular slice of Bay Area society, and Yee depicts her with a lot of sympathy and understanding; of course she has faults, but regardless it’s very hard not to become very fond of Genie quite quickly.

And then there is the choice of mythology deployed here, the fantasy dropped into the otherwise realistic family and school and social life of a teen Chinese-American teen. Although Journey to the West is one of the great treasures of world literature, a classic alongside Beowulf or the Iliad or Gilgamesh, it hasn’t been used as much in Western fantasies, making it ripe for drawing on its rich tapestry of characters and adventures, not to mention the coming of age element of Genie’s story being reflected in Sun Wukong’s own (rather slower!) learning curve towards being more enlightened. I was reminded a bit of Ashok Banker’s fascianting Ramayana series, which drew on the great Indian myths and tales and reworked them into a rich fantasy that Western readers, even those with little or no knowledge of the Ramayana cycle, could easily understand and enjoy.

I read this book with a huge smile over my face for most of it. Quentin is cheeky, full of himself but also heroic, funny and capable of sudden understanding and compassion, the Monkey King. Genie is self doubting, troubled but also determined, very clever and she’s not going to be pushed around, especially as she learns more about this hidden world around her, because when a student like Genie learns, she realises she can control more, and Quentin may have met his match. As an adult reader I enjoyed the heck out of this and adored mining the Sun Wukong tales for inspiration and details (sudden urge to revisit my Penguin Classic edition of Wu Cheng’en), it felt fresh and colourful. The target Young Adult audience will, I think like it even more. Yes, there are some standard elements of the Journey of the Hero in there, but those are there in so many tales over the centuries, it’s what you do with those elements that counts, and here Yee’s crafted an utter delight.

And just because I couldn’t get the “monkey magic” theme tune out of my head, the opening credits to that wonderfully madcap 70s TV version of Monkey (not as cool as Quentin tries to be but so much fun):

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: the Laundry is changing – the Delirium Brief

The Delirium Brief,

Charles Stross,

Orbit Books

The latest volume in the brilliant Laundry Files arrives from the delightfully warped brain of Charlie Stross. I’ve enjoyed Charlie’s books for many years, but I have an especially soft spot for his Laundry novels; in fact they’re a particular favourite of mine, a delicious mixture of fantasy-horror, laced with dark humour and some fine satirical sideswipes at society and organisations, and, in the form of husband and wife team Mo and Bob, characters that grow on you very quickly and who you become very fond of and invested in.

For those not in the know, the Laundry is nickname for a very special section of British Intelligence, with a very unusual remit – like MI5, MI6 and predecessors like the famous SOE they track and attempt to neutralise threats to the security of the realm. Except the Laundry deals with what most would consider supernatural threats – vampires, portals to other realms, mind-crunching extra-dimensional parasites and unspeakable Elder Gods.But this is no Buffy-esque secret Watcher society, the Laundry may be super-secret (even most of the cabinet doesn’t know about this, and they operate beyond even the secretive oversight of the other intelligence services (which is going to be one of the problems in this volume) but they are still a part of the civil service, and that means procedures, HR requirements and lots of paperwork in-between trying to save the world from soul-devouring monstrosities.

After an enormous incident in the preceding novel though, involving many deaths and an invading force from another dimension in a major British city, the usual clean-up protocols are useless – the Laundry has been exposed to the public and government scrutiny, and as we open poor Bob, who has faced everything from unicorns (nasty buggers) to the skin-crawling horror of the The Sleeper, has an even more terrible foe to face – a live interview on Newsnight. With the Laundry exposed the media is diving on this once secret division and of course the government isn’t too happy either, and in best tradition both media and government are looking for someone to blame for the previous disaster. The media scent blood and the embarrassed government wants scapegoats to blame. And there is outrage that the Laundy has been operating beyond the oversight of the parliamentary intelligence committees (and the legalities that constrain just what more regular services like MI5 can and cannot do).

This is just the start of a seismic shift in how this organisation has been run for many decades, and enemies can scent a sudden weakness and opportunity. The fact that the Laundry has held off absolute nightmares from devouring our Green and Pleasant Land (not to mention the rest of the world and humanity with it) seems to count for little in this atmosphere. And some enemies are prepared to use the devious weapons of the political-corporate elites as much as they will use more fantastical means. Why use up your supernatural energies when you can manipulate government ministers and get them to go along with your ideas – privatise and outsource many operations to a private security firm, it’s more cost-effective and market-efficient, don’t you know! And the group pushing the prime minister for this has already successfully taken over entire sections of the Laundry’s opposite numbers in Washington. Bona fide government contractors, what could be better???

Naturally there is much more going on here, the dark forces using ideas dear to certain sections of the political establishment (supposed free-market competition and efficiency that usually actually means even poorer service – usually bailed out by the taxpayers – and contracts given to firms which just happen to have friends in government, and where many politicians go on to serve after retiring from political life), to infiltrate and quietly take over whole sections of the fabric of our society we depend on, without anyone even knowing they have ceded that control. The huge upset in the operations of the Laundry are also mirrored in Bob and Mo’s personal life – in the most recent volumes both have been through enormous changes that have left their marks. They are both still in love but unsure they can be together (not just in the emotional sense after the traumas they’ve endured, there is an actual safety issue, not least because Bob is now also the Eater of Souls).

I don’t want to go to deeply into the unfolding narrative here, it’s nice, tight, packed with tension and turns, as you would probably expect from one of Charlie’s books, but this set-up with the Laundry now in the open and being menaced as much by government rationalisation plans as it is secret societies and dark gods, is one ripe with potential, both for satirical humour and for dramatic tension, and Charlie uses it perfectly, giving a gripping new installment and quite a major development in the Laundry itself. If you are already a Laundry fan you know you need this, and you know you are in for a treat, if you are new to the series then get yourself started with the Atrocity Archives and the Jennifer Morgue and I think you will soon be as addicted as the rest of us. Clever, funny, gripping, inventive and with more than a few satirical comments on the state of our modern world, what more can you ask for? Except maybe a TV series? Constantly surprised there hasn’t been a Netflix or HBO type series based around the Laundry novels yet…

You can read an excerpt from the Delirium Brief on the Orbit blog. Charlie will be appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival with Jo Walton as part of Ken MacLeod’s guest selector strand on August 16th. This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Doing the right thing…

I do what I do because it’s right. Because it’s decent. And above all, it’s kind. Just that. Just kind.”

Peter Capaldi’s Doctor articulating a damned fine philosophy in Capaldi’s season finale of Doctor Who. I hope those words sink into many of the younger viewers of Doctor Who and stay with them. Fictional heroes and their examples can be as important to our development as the real world heroes, and it’s clear with this line that Steven Moffat understands this and is trying to make sure we got the hero we needed. Perhaps one day when they are older one of those former child fans will be faced with a difficult choice and they will think back on those lines, and they will know where they need to steer their moral compass.

The Boy on the Bridge

The Boy on the Bridge,

Mike Carey,

Orbit Books

I’ve long enjoyed Mike Carey’s writing, both his comics work and his prose, and his Girl With All the Gifts (also published by Orbit), was one of my Best of the Year selection when it came out (review here by Mal), and likewise the more recent film adaptation (scripted by Mike himself) also made my Best of the Year list. The Boy on the Bridge returns us to that post-apocalyptic Britain, but this is no straight sequel; if anything it is more of a parallel tale set in that ruined world where a fungal infection (like the one in the Amazon which infects insects and hijacks their nervous system) has brought down human civilisation, the infected – “the hungries” – a zombie-like shell of their former human selves, moving only when stimulated to feed. I think you could read this quiet easily on its own merits, without having read Girl, but really I’d advise reading Girl first if you haven’t already, because it will enrich your experience of Boy (and yes, there are some nods to the earlier story, which are very satisfying, but which I won’t blow here).

Where Girl started in the enclosed base and labs, encircled by hordes of Hungries (a deliberate nod to Romero’s Day of the Living Dead and the military-scientific besieged base), Boy is even more claustrophobic, mostly taking place in the Rosalind Franklin (Rosie, as she is known), sister research vehicle to the lost Charles Darwin expedition, a heavily-armed mobile fortress complete with onboard lab facilities, slowly traversing what’s left of Britain, picking up safely stored samples cached by the Darwin expedition and picking  up their own specimens, all in a desperate attempt to find out a way to stop or cure the infection. A dozen odd scientists and soldiers sealed in an armoured vehicle on a quest they all feel increasingly is hopeless. Even an upbeat crew would be stressed out under such prolonged close quarters, in this broken world though it is even worse, and the differences between them are becoming more and more obvious.

It’s probably not going to be a surprise that those stresses and differences are going to reach a boiling point sooner or later, you can almost cut the increasing tension with a knife. It’s a scenario rich with dramatic possibilities, and the real meat here is in how the writer takes those paths, twists those knives, turns that screw. And here, with a writer like Carey we are in exceptionally fine hands; Mike doesn’t just deliver an ever-increasing ratchetting up of dramatic tension, he weaves us into the confined, strained lives of Dr Khan and all of the Rosie’s crew. Within a few dozen pages you can practically smell the sweat of sharing a small, restricted space with others, the increasing sense of urgency mixed with desperation. Add in a new development found out in the field – after they had all but given up on finding anything new that might help them – and back at base, where the last remnants of humanity are packed in as badly as the crew of the Rosie, struggling among themselves almost as much as against the infected, and you have the Rosalind Franklin (good name) effectively turned into a pressure cooker.

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(Mike signing Girl With All the Gifts at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, pic from my Flickr)

The Boy on the Bridge oozes atmosphere – within a couple of dozen pages I found myself right back in that world Mike first conjured up in The Girl With All the Gifts, so richly described, the characters’ emotive responses to this world gone to hell echoing with the reader so well that you can imagine it, feel it, smell it. The differences, from small-scale bickering to an ever-escalating level feels all to plausible, people under severe stress, in a crisis, with no seeming end in sight (save for a hideous one), the cracks appearing like emotive metal fatigue and just as deadly in the long run. The internal politics of individuals and groups fighting among themselves as the world falls seems all to possible, the descriptions of what some have had to do – awful, unspeakable acts – also far too real.

And yet this is not entirely a book of doom and despair, there is a light there, a tiny, flickering candle of a light, and that makes the despair and death perhaps even harder to bear – if it is truly hopeless then the characters are better off facing the end, shortening the misery…. But when they may be a tiny sliver of hope then they have to struggle for it. It’s a deliciously baited hook for the readers, drawing us deeply into both hope and despair. I really don’t want to go to deeply into some of those elements for fear of spoilers, but, oh boy, are they effective in totally miring the reader into this world until they feel they are right there among the Rosie’s crew. A simply superb, chillingly plausible post-apocalyptic tale.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Kenstibec returns in Jon Wallace’s cracking Rig

Rig,

Jon Wallace,

Gollancz

Back in 2014 I was offered an advance copy of a novel by a writer I knew only from short stories in the likes of Interzone (still a great place for short SF). The publisher was excited and comparing Jon Wallace’s Barricade to Richard Morgan’s powerhouse debut novel Altered Carbon. Which is one of my favourite debut novels (it would also be the very first book my long-running science fiction book group covered). So it had a big claim to live up to and by the literary gods, it damned well did and then some. It went on to become one of my favourite reads of the year (in fact a quote from my review can be seen in the new book), as did the sequel, Steeple. Fast-paced and action-packed, but still managing to layer in plenty of commentary on everything from the nature of being to environmental destruction, the refugee crisis, the classic Frankenstein monster that humans make in their pride only to then turn on them. Yes, they gave us gripping, tight, rapid action but also a good deal of thought too – a perfect having and eating the cake situation.

Given how highly I rated the first two books you’ll understand I was more than happy for a chance to read the new book, Rig. In Barricade Kenstibec – often shortened to just Ken – was a Power 9, a model of Ficial, an artificial being optimised for specific work (Ken is an engineer, others are medics, soldiers, even “pleasure models” – one of several nods to Blade Runner’s Replicants). Human-looking but a little too perfect, kept in perfect repair by clever nanotech, able to heal even horrendous injuries. Which is quite handy given this near-future world is ruined, chemical and nuclear pollution, a devastated world where the few remaining Reals (actual humans) now live a short, brutal life more like something from the Middle Ages, and like our centuries-ago ancestors heir to every infection going with little or no medical help any more. But a Ficial? They can shrug off almost anything. Until Ken is hit by a special virus which destroys his nano, leaving him, physically at least, almost human. And he’s not happy about it.

Where the first two books took us from the ruins of Edinburgh to a demolished London, and saw the fall from Ficial grace of Kenstibec, Rig opens up the setting, well away from the wretched mess left of the British Isles, with a group of Reals and a couple of Ficials working together on a new plan out in the Atlantic, off the eastern seaboard of  what had been American and Canada, using a beautifully designed, hi-tech floating base – the Lotus – as a sort of ark, rescuing youngsters from the barbarous slave markets in surviving settlements on the coast, to train for a new, better world to rise from the ashes. Ironically this modern Noah’s Ark had originally been part of the Martello Project – as the more historically astute of you will infer from the name, these were a form of fort, designed to repel unwanted visitors from the coast of the UK (mostly desperate refugees – a Daily Mail reader’s wet dream, no doubt).

Ken, now sporting a hi-tech mechanical arm to replace his real one, lost in Steeple (now that he can’t regrow damaged parts like a proper Ficial) is finding himself somewhat adrift on this new ocean life (pun intended, sorry). One of the Ficials now co-operating with the Real crew calls him brother, despite the virus having stripped his Ficial physical superiority from him. But Ken doesn’t feel entirely Ficial anymore – like a human he gets sick, he has to eat, excrete and all the other messy processes of life. And feelings, he’s developing feelings that the brutal Ficial conditioning would have kept burned out of his mind as inefficient. But he’s not human either, and he knows it – like Blade Runner’s Replicants he really doesn’t understand his emotions too well, he’s simply not had the experience. Fortunately he has some of the crew who have taken to him, not to mention Pistol, a dog who has become very attached to our Ken. In some ways he’s suffering a form of PTSD, and like similar sufferers of that condition his animal chum is a powerful device for helping him to hold it together.

Naturally the new human-Ficial plan to create a new, young population trained to make a better society and world from the spoiled ashes of the old goes awry. There are disagreements between the crew as to the correct way to do this, not least from a moral point of view. But their arguments are about to be rendered irrelevant by events – someone has been watching their trips to the coastal slave markets, someone who has designs on both their population and on the Lotus (which may now be an ark, but still carries a substantial military payload from the pre-devastation days, a rare and powerful prize).

And I am not going to spoil it for you by revealing any more of what happens, because this is a beautifully-paced roller-coaster, with some gripping, tight twists and turns and some major revelations. We get a little more of the history of the final days before the world collapsed and see more of the violent, small communities which are surviving it in the finest Mad Max style (yes, including some dangerous driving, a nice nod back to the first book when Ken had become a specialist in such driving trips), and the ways in which some groups will use even the end of the world for their own ends, power, privilege and enrichment. Slightly longer then the previous two books, Rig still maintains a cracking pace, delivering a number of high-octane action scenes. As with those earlier books it still healthily mixes these with a lot of observation and commentary to chew over alongside that action, from politics to religion, taking in a number of very current hot topics, from the environment to the refugee crisis to politics (including a reference to the last US president who reminded me a little of President Booth in Judge Dredd history) to the greedy one percent.

This is a terrific slice of action-fueled science fiction, but Rig, and the previous two books, are also a journey, not just the physical one Ken takes from Edinburgh to London to the Atlantic, but a journey of the self; he’s not properly Ficial, not Optimal anymore, but he’s not quite human either. But he’s slowly learning to be himself, whatever that now is, and to realise if he does there are others who will be with him on that journey. And those people, those friends, are perhaps more important than any Ficial efficiency, more important than anything else. All this served up with brilliant post-apocalyptic action on the high seas and the roads, delivering thrills and even some outright horror along the way. The Tin Man had it a lot easier than poor Kenstibec…

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Boldly Go…

Star Trek: Boldly Go #1,

Mike Johnson, Tony Shasteen,

IDW

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I’ve been a Trek fan since I was knee-high to a Tribble, but I must confess I rarely dabble in the novels and comics spun off from the various incarnations of Trek, but every now and then one comes along that tractor beams in my attention. And right off the bat I will admit that this cracking cover artwork by George Caltsoudas was a part of that, I couldn’t resist picking it up for a wee peek, and once I did Johnson and Shasteen did a fine job of keeping my attention for the whole read.

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Set soon after the events of the recent Into Darkness movie, with the Enterprise destroyed our crew have been displaced – Scotty is lecturing at Starfleet Academy (and having to use put-downs on some snotty cadets in his class), Spock is on sabbatical on New Vulcan with his father (Uhura has decided to accompany him and learn about Vulcan culture as well as spend time with him), Sulu is now promoted to Commander is First Officer on the USS Concord (under the command of a young captain called Terrell – yes, as in Star Trek Wrath of Khan’s Paul Winfield) in a remote part of the galaxy. Meanwhile James T Kirk is the interim captain on the USS Endeavour, another Constitution-class starship.

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There’s a nice scene of the over-excited bridge officers of the Endeavour discussing their new temporary captain before he arrives. It’s a nice scene, reminding us that highly trained Starfleet officers or not, people are people and they love a wee gossip, especially about each other. And let’s face it, Kirk must have a hell of a reputation in the fleet by this point, some good, some bad, some true, some pure fantasy and it’s pretty understandable his new crew would be nattering about it, until his Federation-born Romulan First Officer, Commander Valas snaps their attention back to duty with a crisp “Captain on the bridge!”, followed by a wry “at ease, I promise I didn’t hear anything” from an amused Kirk.

All of these groups are about to have their new paths altered however – the Concord encounters a strange vessel approaching them at high speed, emitting an odd signal they can’t quite decipher. And then things cut off – on the Endeavour a garbled distress call is intercepted, and with both ships being so far out Kirk opts not to wait for orders from HQ (naturally, this is Kirk, after all), as they are the closest to the Concord, and they make haste to rescue their comrades, while Kirk has the strange message forwarded to Uhura to see if she can tease some meaning from it.

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As I said, I only occasionally read Trek novels or comics, despite years of following all the shows and films. Not sure why, I think perhaps while I liked some over the year there were some where the characters didn’t match the way I thought they were and it put me off. No such problem here, Shasteen does a fine job of creating some fine, sharp comic art and carries the likenesses of the modern Trek film characters very well (and adds in some nice visual references to Trek history – Uhura’s Vulcan garb being strongly reminiscent of Spock’s wife-to-be in the classic Amok Time episode, Spock’s attire also similar references some Nimoy-era movie costumes, little touches but they work and they also let you know the creators here are clearly familiar with Trek history and lore, which I’m sure fans appreciate).

The duo also really nail the characters – Kirk’s wry amusement at his own legend preceding him onto his new bridge is very in character, for instance, a young Sulu knowing he is experienced through his Enterprise days, despite his lack of years, but still pondering if he is really up to being a First Officer yet, Scotty’s smart smack-down of a cheeky cadet in his lectures, Uhura more than holding her own on Vulcan, it all rings very true and authentic, and that appealed greatly to me, as much as the actual story did (and let’s be honest, we love these characters, they are family to us and we love Trek as much for them as we do the stories).

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And there are numerous references to Trek history (great to see this timeline’s version of Terrell, also good to see a Romulan officer, given The Next Generation once pondered the fairness of anyone of Romulan descent being barred from serving). Add in this mystery vessel, as yet unseen but there are hints you will recognise (and no, I won’t spoil them by mentioning them here), and you’ve got a terrific first issue, establishing the post-movie scene for our various crew members nicely and setting their new adventures into place and leaving us with an intriguing situation and hook – pretty good going for a single issue.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Art versus reality – The Electric Sublime #1

The Electric Sublime #1,

W. Maxwell Prince, Martin Morazzo, Mat Lopes,

IDW

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I really enjoyed W Maxwell Prince’s unusual, thoughtful and intriguing Judas: the Last Days back in early 2015 (reviewed here), and Morazzo I was familiar with from the fascinating Great Pacific (first volume reviewed here), so I’ve been looking forward to this. We open with a guide conducting a tour through the Louvre in Paris, leading them towards that great museum and gallery’s crowning glory, La Jaconde – da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and vainly trying to persuade the flocks of tourists to put away their cameras and phones and instead actually look at all this art with their eyes, and, please, no flash photography, it isn’t good for the art (a long-lost war, I fear, tourists from every nation stand right in front of priceless paintings flashing away without a care in their heads, sadly).

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But their tour ends abruptly – something is wrong, very, very wrong. La Joconde still has her enigmatic smile on her small painting (it’s remarkable when you see it in person just how small this most famous artwork actually is), but now, somehow, she is winking at her admirers. The art guide runs, shocked, from the scene shouting “we’re going to need the Dreampainter! We’re going to need Art Brut!” The latter turns out to be an actual painter – in an asylum – called Arthur Brut, a nice little bit of word-play on an artistic term. Director Margot Breslin of the Bureau of Artistic Integrity has come to see this strange man, “dreampainting” in his padded cell. On various medications and art therapy, he seems to be out of touch with reality, mind warped by artistic excesses, unanchored in the real world, drifting, sifting, exploring the imaginary (some especially nice touches by Morazzo here, the way the asylum is almost monochrome, the colours so subdued, except for the vibrant art Brut is creating).

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But Breslin is desperate and even this seemingly wrecked psyche could be of some help, he may, in his fractured, kaleidoscope lensed view of the world have more understanding of what is going on than her team. Because it isn’t just that the most famous painting in history has suddenly, inexplicably altered to depict a winking Mona Lisa, there have been numerous other incidents around the entire globe, suicides, bombings, in one memorably horrific incident a couple who cast their own children in bronze, literally, killing them as well as transforming them into art, “claiming Neo-Dada conventions as their only defence.” And in each case a very simple image was found, the same image at each scene, in different nations, continents, a very simple line drawing of a human face, winking… Meanwhile we are also introduced to a young woman with a troubled child, Dylan, taking him to a new therapy home where art is used to help youngsters with mental health issues. There may be a connection growing here to what is happening in the wider world.

I really don’t want to say too much more about this first issue because I’m trying to tapdance around any potential spoiler landmines. And also because this is one of those stories that while I can summarise it a bit for review purposes to give you a rough idea, it is only the very roughest, this is really one of those works that you simply need to experience. It is only a first issue, so we’re only getting the briefest glimpse into what promises to be an unusual tale, but already it is pretty darned compelling – the idea of taking notions of what constitutes art, how we make it, how we react to it, the power it has, are all fascinating (as is the idea of using an artform – here the comic – to explore other ideas of art), and it reminded me in the good way of Doom Patrol-era Grant Morrison. Art has always been connected with ideas of power and even magic – even our oldest artworks, cave paintings some thirty to forty millennia old evoke not just our visual senses and our emotional states, they whisper of magic, of somehow capturing and conveying the power or essence of something else. And there’s also the sense of life within some art, or sometimes whole vistas of alternative realities.

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It is strange how sometimes the universe throws up variations on closely related themes around the same time, occasionally. In recent months I’ve been reading Shaun Simon and Mike Allred’s Art Ops for Vertigo (first issue reviewed here), and just in the last few days I have been lucky enough to be reading an advance copy of China Mieville’s next novel, The Last Days of Paris (out from Picador in February, James and I will be doing a joint review/discussion of it in the near future), in which resistance fighters in occupied Paris also interact with and use Surrealist art manifested into the real world in the desperate fight, the Surrealist art and manifesto being invoked like magical summonings almost. And then this first issue of Electric Sublime arrived on my desk… Of course all three would have been created by those different creators around the same time, without knowledge of the others, and by coincidence they would appear within a year or so of one another. Perhaps the art world is tapping on our window and trying to tell us something…

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This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog