Launch portal

The subway that runs under the road connecting the Potterrow student union to the back of the Old College and the National Museum of Scotland has often caught my eye because of its shape and the perspective it creates. Walking past it at night, though, it made me think of something from an old sci-fi movie – the concrete underpass where the Droogs beat up a man in Clockwork Orange, perhaps.

Portal from Light to Dark

Or, on a lighter note than that, it reminds my geek brain of the fighter launch tubes from the 1970s Buck Rogers, or Battlestar Galactica (albeit a much more monochromatic one!).

The Hod King

The Hod King,
Josiah Bancroft,
Orbit Books,

(cover art by Leino)

I described the first of Bancroft’s remarkable Books of Babel series, Senlin Ascends, as “an engrossing, intoxicating delight”, back in 2017. Now into its third volume (of a projected four, I believe), I stand by that description. There can sometimes be a tendency for series to flag slightly in the middle volumes, but both this new third volume, The Hod King, and the previous tome, Arm of the Sphinx, have been, for my money, even better than the first book. I confess, I am smitten with this series, its main cast – poor rural headmaster turned reluctant adventurer Tom Senlin, his missing wife Marya, the irrepressible Voleta, the strong, determined Edith, the mighty yet surprisingly tender-hearted warrior Iren – and its astonishing setting, no less than the Tower of Babel itself, each massive round floor its own “ringdom”, the mysterious upper levels lost in clouds, the original builders and the maintainer – the Sphinx – now almost legend and myth.

Having encountered the mysterious Sphinx in the previous book and finding that person to be far from a myth, our reluctant adventurers are now sent forth on new business – Tom, having overcome his accidental drug addiction, is removed from his former crew and sent ahead to the ringdom of Pelphia, where the missing wife he has been seeking to find and rescue is now known to be living (married to a noble of the ringdom and apparently content, her old life and husband forgotten). He has strict instructions to carry out business as a spy for the Sphinx, although it is made clear to him his personal goal of communicating with his wife, to see if she is truly happy in her new life or wishes to be spirited away, will be supported later by the Sphinx. Naturally Tom gets himself into all sorts of trouble fairly early on – we would expect no less! The question arises, however, when he goes off-mission, is he really breaking the Sphinx’s commandments, or is he merely doing exactly what the Sphinx expected and planned for him to do?

The rest of the crew returns to airship life, although not their tatty old ship, but the fully updated and restored flagship of the Sphinx, the State of the Art (I did wonder if that was a nod to Iain Banks?), with Edith, now fitted with a new “engine” by the Sphinx (a mechanical arm, making her one of the Sphinx’s “Wakemen”, a group of augmented beings spread through the ringdoms and, nominally at least, agents of the Sphinx), becoming captain, much to the approval of the rest of the group. They are to tour the ringdoms, to show off the gleaming, powerful ship as a form of diplomatic gun-boating (behold the power of the Sphinx) and they are to dock at Pelphia, where Voleta will be passed off as an aristocratic lady to this pompous society, in an attempt to contact Marya while also obtaining items the Sphinx requires.

Of course, no plans survive contact with the enemy, and it isn’t long before both strands of this two-pronged tale, Tom’s trials and Edith with the airship crew, start to unravel, forcing them to adapt to often brutal changes or perish. And then, behind the scenes – almost literally, in access shafts and trails hidden behind the walls of the ringdoms – there is another plot brewing, Luc Marat and his army of zealot Hods we encountered in book two have more going on than anyone, even the Sphinx, suspected, and who is the Hod King they acclaim in secret, away from the free people of the ringdoms? There’s a real sense of a mighty storm brewing here, of conflicting forces that have been hidden for many years about to erupt, which may dictate the future of all the people in all of the ringdoms of the Tower, or even, perhaps, if there will still be a Tower…

They’ll say no, no, no, women are weak. They’re foolish. They need looking after and direction. But I think deep down they can’t forget they came out of a woman, were nursed by a woman, and had their little minds sculpted by one as well. When they grow up, just the thought if it makes them uneasy. But rather than face their fear, they look for ways to dominate and possess us, to create proof we are weak and they are strong. I’ll tell you this: the harder a man brags about his thunderous escapades in the lady’s boudoir, the more frightened he is...”

This growing urgency in the narrative goes hand in hand with strong development and growth of the main characters (the huge, powerful warrior woman Iren is especially nicely handled), in a way I found most satisfying. As with the first two volume though, the intriguing characters (who I have totally fallen for) and increasingly complex conspiracies and plots, while a delight, are only a part of the pleasure of Bancroft’s writing – his way with words, his assured, lyrical descriptive passages (he was a poet before he was a novelist, and it shows in his beautiful way with words), and the mischievous sense of humour, and some nice gender moments (he has some very formidable female characters, often far more capable than the men, as the themselves note), all combine to make this one of the best forms of books – the type you can totally lose yourself in.

This review was originally penned for The Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction

The first of the Books of Babel, Senlin Ascends, is reviewed here, and the second volume (Arm of the Sphinx), is reviewed here on the blog.

Thin Air

Thin Air,
Richard Morgan,
Gollancz

Welcome to Mars, soak.

For the first time in several years, and the first time since the well-received Netflix adaptation of his debut Altered Carbon, Richard Morgan returns to science fiction and, I am glad to report, delivers everything a Morgan fan could want. Since that powerhouse debut years back Morgan has enjoyed – relished, in fact – bringing a Hammett or Chandler-esque Noir quality to his science fiction, and with Hakan Veil, a disgraced former gene-tweaked deadly enforced for a mega corporation, dumped on the Martian colony and making a living anyway he can, he continues that tradition, mixed rather interestingly with elements of the classic Western in this High Frontier colony, but also suffused with a burningly angry take on unchecked market forces and runaway corporate capitalism, the vast inequalities it creates, the needless, grinding poverty and anger, and those who exploit it, on all sides of the political spectrum, from the holier than thou supposed revolutionaries to the oily “man of the people” governor in his superbling mansion (with more than a passing comparison to several contemporary politicians of our troubled times).

The details of the everyday life and troubles, from the disgruntled and often corrupt (some more so than others) cops and politicians in the vast colony city in the great trench of the Valles Marineris (crudely referred to by locals as “The Gash”) and gangs to the everyday colonists – many of whom, being several generations into Mars life, don’t see themselves as a colony any longer, they see themselves as Martians, and bridle at the oversight by Earth authorities (a fact played on by various political operators on Mars). And with an oversight committee coming into town from Earth, feelings are running high – some see it as an overdue accounting to hold the corrupt governor and local authorities to rights, others see it as outside influence in Martian affairs. And some suspect there is far more going on in the shadows than a simple audit and rooting out of corruption (shades of the current corruption crackdown in China), that there may be deeper, more sinister motivations behind the entire enterprise.

Freshly sprung from Bradbury police’s jail, police officer Nikki reluctantly hires Hakan, still “running hot” (his genetic tweaks include a hibernation cycle, from which he awakens sharp and ready for violence, a handy thing for his former employer who may have had him on ice on a ship sent out for months to intercept another ship and needed their people to come awake instantly and at full tilt), to be a minder to a junior member of the Earth oversight committee, Madekwe. She seems curiously compelled to investigate a minor missing persons case from several years before, out on the much rougher uplands (think the Wild West of Mars, complete with a Marshall service trying to maintain a rough law and order), and Hakan, while agreeing to take the job on, is left wondering what she is really looking for.

To discuss the plot any further would lead to spoilers, and besides, as with Raymond Chandler, the plot, which satisfyingly twists and loops around in conspiracies, political and economic intrigues and sheer bloody violence and double-crosses, is only part of the enjoyment here, much of the satisfaction also comes from the way Morgan tells the story. Like Chandler he has a gift for descriptive flair which manages to be both hard-boiled yet elegant and evocative. As with most of his previous works Morgan delivers some remarkable – and often very violent and bloody – action scenes, and yet this is no mere action-thriller, even the violence has a subtextual layer to it, from the political to the personal levels. And the view of life in the colony for the many is no mere adornment for background colour, there’s a feeling of authenticity, of a real community, of real people struggling to get by, and great empathy for the situation created by those at the top of the heap, over which the many have little control, despite the illusion of elections, and they all know it.

Despite the length this is a tight, fast-paced, high-octane read, with intelligent use of action mixed with some fine science fiction elements, adorned with colourful clothes from the Noir and Western genres for added atmosphere, unafraid to offer us main characters who are not heroic and commit questionable (or downright awful) acts, and yet beneath the powerful action segments, beneath the science fiction of a future Mars and genetically enhanced trained corporate killers, as with most of Morgan’s work it is about fallible, flawed people in a bad situation, trying to get through situations they didn’t ask for.

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of science fiction

Red Moon

Red Mars,
Kim Stanley Robinson,
Orbit Books

(cover design by Lauren Panepinto, art by Arcangel Images)

I’ll confess right away to being biased here: I think Kim Stanley Robinson is one of our consistently most thought-provoking and intelligent science fiction writers we have working today, and any new work from his pen is most welcome. In Red Moon we’re roughly three decades into the future, with well-established Moon bases – numerous nations have a presence, from Brazil to Britain, the Americans, the Russians, but the biggest player by a Lunar mile is China. Robinson imagine the vast monetary surpluses China already has today, much of which is invested in gigantic infrastructure projects, and plays that out on the astronomical scale with huge investment in colonising and exploiting the Moon. Among the various nation states there are also freebooting prospectors, 49ers in spacesuits and Lunar rovers and a form of free town, a domed settlement run on co-operative lines where the architecture takes advantage of the lower gravity (humans leaping and swinging from structure to structure like orang-utans).

American Fred Fredericks works for a Swiss technology firm, tasked with taking a special communications device to a customer, a senior Chinese official on the Moon. The device is quantum-entangled, it will only talk to its paired device back on Earth and is pretty much un-hackable. On the shuttle to the Lunar surface Fred meets a fellow traveller Robinson fans will remember fondly from Antarctica, Ta Shu, now quite elderly but still up for exploring a new destination for his much-loved travel shows. Ta Shu takes a shine to the awkward Fred (who is better with systems than people, it’s hinted that perhaps he is on the Spectrum), and when his young friend finds himself mixed up in a mysterious assassination of a Chinese official (which almost kills Fred as well), he does his best to help, which draws him into the orbit of Chan Qi, daughter of a high party official, who needs to get off the moon quickly after breaking the rules big time – she’s heavily pregnant.

Ta Shu, Fred and Chan Qi find themselves soon treading through a labyrinth of conflicting ideologies and movements, some local, grass-roots (Qi is involved with a people power movement across China), some internal party politics (leader succession time beckons and different groups want a different direction for China), and global conspiracies (America is even more in debt to China than it is today, but trying to compete and play the Great Game against a backdrop of economic chaos at home). It’s an incredibly rich stew of the political, economic and scientific, but as with his previous works Robinson is good at ensuring there is always a personal level here that isn’t overwhelmed by the events going on around the characters.

These are characters you come to love – the brave but brittle and testy Chan Qi, the awkward but trying his best Fred, and, for me most especially Ta Shu. There are some beautiful little emotional moments, such as Ta Shu meeting an old friend, who takes him to the best spot to watch the Earth Rise above the Lunar surface, after which the two old gentlemen, in the traditional, refined Chinese manner, each compose a poem for the moment. Fred forced into close contact with Qi for a long period on the run, has to deal with his problems in interacting with others, while Qi is slowly forced to realise that individual friendship is as important as the Great Cause she is fighting for.

Robinson, as he often does, uses his future fiction to address many of the ills of today’s world – the vast economic inequality (both individual and national level), the importance of equal rights for all, the problems of mass, illegal migration (although of a different type from what you may think), and weaves in an environmental aspect to it all. Red Moon also echoes his much earlier Antarctica novel (written after Robinson himself travelled there, part of a writer and artist’s programme by the National Science Foundation), not just in having Ta Shu, but also echoes its feel in some places, the Lunar colonies reminiscent of the scientific bases on Antarctica, the stark, barren beauty of the landscape also evoked by the Lunar surface. But at its heart this is less about the science or the politics but the people involved, and that is what makes it so compelling.

This review was originally penned for The Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction

World on a Wire

World on a Wire (Welt am Draht),
Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder,
Starring Klaus Löwitsch, Barbara Valentin, Mascha Rabben, Karl Heinz Vosgerau, Wolfgang Schenck
Second Sight Films

The world in a nutshell...”

Here’s a remarkably unusual 1973 film by famous (and often infamous to some) film-maker Fassbinder, an intriguing slice of science fiction that’s very much ahead of its time. Based on the novel Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye, this German language film (originally made for television and shown in two parts), a production I’ve heard mention in discussions about science fiction history, but never seen. World on a Wire (Welt am Draht, to give it its original title). The German government (or the West German government as it would have been back then) funds a cybernetics research programme which has developed a next-generation computer, which they intend to use to model events and trends in society.

That may sound fairly normal to our modern-day sensibilities, given organisations and governments have used detailed data on computers to run predictions, trends and modelling to help predict what resources may be required in the future – are birth trends indicating we will need more schools and teachers in a few years, for instance. Simulacron, however, is indeed some next-generation level modelling – this computer has created a virtual world, a small town of around ten thousand digital inhabitants (“identity units” as the programmers refer to them), all effectively living their lives, the programmers able to observe them, tweak their personalities and world. Modelling the real world, combined with some unusual anthropology.

The programme is a high priority for the government, but hits a stumbling block when the main creator, Vollmer, dies in mysterious circumstances (is it an accident or something more sinister?), his friend Dr Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) is asked to take over the project, reluctant at first but soon persuaded by the oily Siskins (Karl Heinz Vosgerau). It’s just the start of his problems though – a a party hosted by Siskins his friend Günther Lause (Ivan Desny), the head of the project’s security vanishes, just after talking to Stiller about his misgivings about Vollmer’s death not being an accident. And I mean vanishes – one minute he is there in a chair in the middle of the crowded room at the party, Stiller turns away for something, turns back and he is gone.

It becomes increasingly peculiar after this – Stiller reports Lause’s disappearance to the company and the police, but only a few days later nobody even remember the man existed, and he is introduced to another man who is the head of security, and has been for years. Even the police detective he reported it to has no memory of Lause or of Stiller telling him of his disappearance. His regular secretary takes ill and is moved away, to be replaced by a new assistant appointed by Siskins, played by Barbara Valentin (one time paramour of Freddie Mercury), and he can’t help but feel despite her being very friendly to him, that she is perhaps there to keep an eye on him.

As he continues to investigate the death and disappearance while working on the Simulacron project, Stiller becomes increasingly agitated and disturbed – he has himself linked into the simulation, effectively riding one of the virtual people’s lives, to observe, but while there the entire street blanks out on him several times. A glitch or something else? A colleague discusses the “reality” of the virtual lives lived in the simulation, commenting on how Vollmer spent so long programming every aspect of humanity into them, wondering if it could create something akin to actual consciousness. And then he finds a record of Lause – not by name in the database, but by searching through descriptions, there he is in the Simulacron database, programmed by the deceased Vollmer himself.

This is a real slow-build into a series of increasingly disturbing concepts (it’s over three hours, you can see why it aired over two evenings, originally!) – Stiller starts to lose his grip on what reality could be. Is he the puppet master, the god of this virtual construction and the digital lives within, or is he another puppet, but a puppet who is starting to see some of the strings? Is he even real? He is so sure at the beginning that he is in the real world, crafting Simulacron, but as the discrepancies pile up he starts to wonder if the digital beings from Simulacron are somehow crossing over to the real world, taking over the bodies of the programmers who enter the simulation. Or is it even more complex, can he be sure he is the one running the simulation? What if he himself is in a simulation (and running a simulation?). It sounds like psychotic delusion, but really, how do any of us know, much less prove, that the world we see around us is real?

Bear in mind this is some three decades before the Matrix introduced the wider cinematic audience to concepts like this, this is pretty high concept for 1973, and really it’s still high concept today, in my opinion, because it is a great piece of drama laced with philosophy, and that philosophical question about the nature of reality and perception is, as the Matrix and others have shown, still one which perplexes us to this day, and is the subject of scientific debate too as our computing abilities become ever more powerful, it is a legitimate question to consider if a more advanced species could be running what we perceive as the real world and our lives as a vast simulation. How would we know? Imagine if that thought got into your head as it does with Stiller, how would it affect you? Would anything matter anymore if you thought none of it was real?

I can’t be alone in thinking nothing really exists.”

 

While the concepts are both disturbing and perplexing, the visuals are highly stylised – many of the actors move in a very unnatural manner, posed in scenes almost like carefully arranged mannequins in a display, many conversations are shot with one actor reflected in a shiny surface or through a distorted lens, scenes are framed in non-realistic ways (one actor on top of the stairs talks to someone below rather than walk down to talk to them as you’d expect). At first I thought this was mostly Fassbinder choosing a deliberate, non-natural style of acting and framing for his cast, but as the film goes on I started to feel perhaps it wasn’t just a style but a deliberate move to create a feeling of wrongness, that the people and places simply aren’t quite real, and it does add to the increasing sense of disconnection and confusion Stiller is experiencing.

This is a very unusual, thought-heavy slice of 70s science fiction, and while the look – many of the offices are designed to look ultra-modern, except what was ultra-modern in 1973 looks unbelievably kitschy and dated now – has not aged well, the concepts and the depiction of a man losing his grip on reality, and perhaps even discovering that there is no reality, remains very powerful and compelling, even in our post-Matrix world (the film even boasts a scene where Stiller exits Simulacron via a phone booth – sound familiar??). Here is a remarkable piece of German film and science fiction history by a major cinematic figure, lovingly restored by Second Sight, collaborating with the Fassbinder Foundation, and being issued in a limited edition packed with extras (featurettes, interviews, documentary, booklet and more), this has clearly been designed for the serious lover of cinema.

The limited edition Blu-Ray of World on a Wire is released on February 18th.

The Labyrinth Index

The Labyrinth Index,
Charles Stross,
Orbit Books

The ninth entry in Charlie Stross’s fabulous Laundry Files arrives, and leads directly on from the events of The Nightmare Stacks and The Delirium Brief, which saw this most-secret branch of the old SOE, the intelligence service which deals with extra-normal threats (from vampires to unicorns – not as cuddly as they seem – to the increasingly likely Case Nightmare Green scenario which would see an unspeakable, Lovecraftian Elder God awakening and pushing into our world) exposed to the public after a cross-dimensional invasion of Britain reveals their existence. And then, worse, public scrutiny leads to meddling politicians interfering with the Laundry, neutering them just as a threat at the highest levels of government strikes, ending in a desperate deal choosing between the (slightly more approachable) lesser of two evils, leaving the British government now under The New Management – the Elder God N’yar Lat-Hotep is now the Prime Minister…

Now well into the reign of The New Management and his darkness summons Mhari Murphy to Downing Street. Despots are always hard to anticipate – underlings never know if they are still being favoured or summoned to be disciplined (and the new PM’s discipline includes planning a giant Mesoamerican temple to replace Admiralty Arch, all the better to show off the skulls of his enemies and those who have disappointed him (if you are lucky you will be dead by this point, if unlucky a still-living decapitated skulls), the old tradition of placing the heads of enemies of the regime on spikes taken to the max. In an impish move the PM has promoted Mhari to the Lords – creating her as “Baroness Karnstein”, a nice nice nod to her vampiric status. He has a special mission – in fact a pretty desperate, possibly one-way mission – for her and a small team in America.

It seems that while the UK – mostly unaware – has been slowly assimilated under the rule of a new Prime Minister who is just a human sock puppet for the Elder God, something else is going on in the US of A. Previous books had hinted at power struggles within the various agencies there which ran Laundry-style extra-normal intelligence services, and now it seems the main one, known to everyone else as the Nazgûl (which gives an idea of the sort of ethics they have) has pretty much cleared out agents of other services. But there’s something else – nobody has seen the President in weeks, not so much as a wave while boarding Marine One. And only those outside of the US have noticed this oddity, those in America not only haven’t noticed the absence of the President, they no longer even recall there was such a person or post. Somehow the entire nation has been enchanted into forgetting even the term “president”, and the PM sends Mhari and her small team covertly into the US to find out what is going on.

I’ve loved the Laundry Files since the beginning – they are an intoxicating mixture of spy thriller, supernatural horror and some wonderfully dark humour (you may be battling inter-dimensional dark gods but you are still in the Civil Service, so you need to fill out a Risk Assessment form and properly document any expenses claims). Over the preceding eight books Charlie has built up the world of the Laundry Files and its characters, and with the most recent few books there has been a strong sense of events spiralling ever more rapidly, the tempo is increasing, any victory may be short-lived, the darkness is spreading. It makes life hellish for our characters, but it makes the series ever-more engrossing for the readers. Covert espionage missions, power plays between different Dark Elder Gods coveted our world greedily, vampire agents, humans with special powers, Men In Black and even our old chums from the secret 666 RAF Squadron making an appearance again. As gripping as a hungry anaconda.

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading science fiction journal

Turning Widdershins: Finding Baba Yaga

Finding Baba Yaga,
Jane Yolen,
Tor Books


(cover image by Shutterstock, design by Jamie Stafford-Hill)

So, this is a tale
Both old and new,
borrowed, narrowed,
broadened, deepened,
rethreaded, rewoven,
stitches uneven,
re-plastered, re-harled,
rehearsed, reworked
until it’s my own.

Love comes through a back door,
leaves by the front.
Not all baptisms occur at the font.
Witches are made, of blood and bone.
Witches are made, not only born.
A story is, not always means.
We pass on our genius
as well as our genes.

You think you know this story.
You hope you know this story.
You want to tell this story,
perhaps now you will.”

Our many cultures in our world are rich in folklore and myth, tales and characters that persist for generations, centuries, even outlast the millennia; passed down, by oral storytellers originally, later through the written word, later still radio, film, comics, online. They never go away, prove an endless spring of inspiration to creators of each age because the old stories that have endured the battering winds of the centuries without eroding speak, at their heart, of very human conditions, of love and hate, isolation and belonging, fear and hope, youth and age, ignorance and wisdom, cowardice and bravery, treachery and loyalty. These tales can feature trickster spider gods like Anansi, or brave but flawed heroes like Achilles or Gilgamesh; gods, heroes, villains, talking animals, magical creatures like dragons. But all of them, really, are about us, about people. It’s why they still fascinate us.

We denizens of the 21st century are no different in that respect from any of the people who went before us, from that writing explosion fueled by libraries and journals in the 19th century back to the medieval monk in a scriptorium working by candlelight, the storyteller sharing his tales by firelight at night as the caravan camps in its desert crossing (a tradition still honoured in some remote places), the wandering bards going from town to town to spin their tales to the Classical Greeks, right back to our ancestors painting tales on rock walls (again, not entirely gone, the Aboriginal people of Australia still honour this practise, telling stories and singing them to the land and the people).

Certain stories echo more frequently, prove truly flexible and adaptable to each new age, yet without losing their ancient roots, and that great figure of Russian and Eastern European folklore, the Baba Yaga with her iron teeth and chicken-leg house that wanders the forest is one of those. In very early versions of the Russian language her name can mean midwife. Or sometimes a seer or fortune teller, or a witch. Those multiple possible meanings nicely illustrate the complex nature of the Baba Yaga: sometimes she can be a kindly woman who helps a traveller, sometimes she is feared, flying through the air on her giant mortar and pestle, kidnapping children to devour. For others she is a protector of the wild nature of the land, or even a spiritual guardianr of the nation.

(Above:the Baba Yaga as depicted from the great Mike Mignola in Hellboy, published Dark Horse; below Ivan Bilibin’s 1902 illustration of the Baba Yaga)

The prolific and highly gifted Jane Yolen gives us all those aspects of the Baba Yaga and more; she plays both with the mythic tropes and archetypes and yet at the same time she gives us a rounded, real character we can believe in, not just a mythic figure, but a person. This is no mean feat and takes dexterous writing skill; to do it in verse takes even more ability, and I can’t help but wonder if it added to the difficulty for her in penning this story. But it was a good decision: some stories simply work better in verse. I’m not sure why, they just do. I think poetry, sometimes, can touch our emotions and immerse the reader further into a feeling, a setting, than prose can (I often find when prose creates those feelings so well in me that it almost becomes lyrical, poetic). Poetry can be like jazz is to classical music, or magic to science, a different perspective on the world, on people.

In Finding Baba Yaga, Jane Yolen gives us Natasha, a young girl in a troubled home, running away, going into that place that so many of our old stories warn us about, into the deep, dark forest that still haunts our collective dreams, and it is there, after walking by the silver moonlight, that she will find that famous chicken-legged house and the iron-toothed old lady inside. Had she been a pretty young lad she’d have ended up in the pot, but, grumpily and yet acceptingly, almost as if she (and the house) knew she would come, the Baba Yaga lets her enter, lets her stay, and as their relationship forms the young woman comes to understand more of the world, of its stories, of her place in those stories, of her own past, her future, and her own being, her own power.

There’s a strong element of the feminine throughout the verses in Finding Baba Yaga; there are a few male figures, such as the handsome (and crafty) prince, but they are very much relegated to supporting characters, ornaments there to help the story unfold. It is the women here who are the important characters, and with the arrival of pretty Vasilisa they become, for a time, a trio, which again harkens back to myths, some older than Baba Yaga’s, the three women who are also one (think the Kindly Ones in Gaiman’s Sandman or Medusa and her sisters or a thousand other takes on this ancient belief of a trinity of womanhood). It also manages to weave some sly, often dark humour into the tale – the Baba Yaga remarking about her sister’s house made of gingerbread and candy and how impractical that Hansel and Gretel house actually is (bears eat parts of it), and how dirty it is inside because she can’t help herself, she always bundles her young help into the oven and eats them…

It is, quite simply, a beautiful, magical, immersive piece of storytelling. I was extremely fortunate to find that the regular science fiction evenings in Edinburgh that the Shoreline of Infinity journal team organise had Jane as a guest earlier in the summer, and months before the book came out she read some of it to us. Poetry is, I find, often best when read out loud, especially by the original writer, so this was an absolute delight to hear Jane reading from her tale in verse. In a nice bit of coincedental timing I had just received an advance copy a few days before that event; it’s rather nice when coincidence turns into a little spark of magic like that.

Event Horizon June 2018 08
(Jane Yolen reading from Finding Baba Yaga at the Shoreline of Infinity’s regular Event Horizon evening in Edinburgh, photo from my Flickr)

This is another of the extremely welcome little novellas which Tor has been publishing over the last few years both physically and in digital form. We’ve reviewed quite a few on here, some by writers new to us, some by established favourites, but all a short but delightful dip into that writer’s world. I think Tor are to be commended for continuing to support and publish these novellas (which cover everything from hard sci-fi to fantasy to horror and even, as here, poetry); it’s a terrific way for readers to encounter new writing without the investment in time a larger book may require, and a good showcase for the writers (as are Tor’s regular short stories they post on their site). It’s also an ideal format for this unusual form of storytelling, of spinning a new take on the bones of old myth, a young woman’s journey seen through the magical power of poetry.

Plus Jane uses the word “widdershins” several times, which I find quite pleasing…

Finding Baba Yaga, a short story in verse, is published by Tor in October

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018

I’ve just been enjoying a couple of weeks at the world’s largest literary festival, the Edinburgh International Book Festival, seeing a number of fascinating author events and also being fortunate enough to chair several comics and science fiction events too, from Young Adult science fiction and graphic novels to graphic non-fiction covering science, gender and history, as well as taking in two very famous, gifted but different artists, Mr Alan Lee, and Scotland’s own Frank Quitely.

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 01

The comics folks were out in force on the first day of the book festival, with the Edinburgh Comic Art Festival gang organising a free comics fair for small press and Indy creators in the hotel right across the road from the main festival in Charlotte Square, which was a very nice touch, giving the small press comickers a chance to shine at such a huge lit fest, in the middle of a city buzzing as the Fringe and International Festival were also going on and it feels like half the planet has packed into our ancient volcanic city to enjoy the biggest arts and culture bash in the world, a terrific place for our fellow comickers to strut their funky stuff.

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - A Graphic Novel of Women 01

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - A Graphic Novel of Women 03

The opening day also saw the regular lovely old Spiegeltent being used for more events, with a talk involving BHP Comics’ Sha Nazir and Heather Palmer and 404 Ink’s Laura Jones discussing We Shall Fight Until We Win, an all-woman creator anthology celebrating the centenary year of (some) women in the UK getting the vote, with a female figure from each decade of that century explored by the different writers and artists. Both Indy Scottish presses, BHP and 404 Ink, had collaborated on this, and in a remarkably brief timescale – much of the writing, drawing and editing was achieved within a couple of months. Larger publishers would probably still be going over contracts at that point, but small publishers can be swifter and more nimble on this kind of turnaround, as the panel explained. The audience was pleasingly mixed, as far as I could see, comics readers but also a lot of regular book festival goers who had come along partly out of interest in the subject and also perhaps to help support local publishers.

I had the most people I’ve ever had on stage at any event I’ve chaired at the festival for a SelfMadeHero evening, which included John Harris Dunning and Michael Kennedy talking about the amazing Tumult and Javi Rey discussing his beautiful graphic adaptation of Jesus Carassco’s Out in the Open. Javi’s English was fine for one on one chats but on stage we had an interpreter, Carolina, so all in all there were five of us packed onto the small stage (Carolina is also an Indy publisher as well as interpreter, and she brought that to the proceedings too).

Both books were very different, but there was a lot of common ground too, especially in the way the two different artists had used light and colour, and rather nicely it ended up being one of those events where instead of just me asking questions the comickers all started commenting on each other’s answers and asking each other questions too. There was a lovely flow between Michael’s art and John’s writing in Tumult, the art achieving the difficult task of showing the same woman but hinting at the different personalities which manifest in her, while Javi chose to adapt the novel into comics by dropping most of the words, letting the art – including some stunning, Sergio Leone-esque landscapes – carry the story, more an interpretation than adaptation. Interestingly he told us the publisher in Spain approached him and asked him to adapt the hugely successful novel into comics form. At the post-event signing Javi produced his watercolours box and proceeded to paint colour art for every person who signed. I can’t recommend Tumult and Out in the Open highly enough, two of the most fascinating and beautifully crafted graphic novels I’ve read this year.

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - John Dunning Michael Kennedy and Javi Rey 01

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - John Dunning Michael Kennedy and Javi Rey 02

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - John Dunning Michael Kennedy and Javi Rey 03

I was delighted to see Darryl Cunningham, returning to the book festival (he was here previously for Supercrash), bringing his quite excellent Graphic Science from Myriad Editions (reviewed here) to the festival. He had been put on with computer scientist Ursula Martin, who had written on one of the woman pioneers of computer science, the great Ada Lovelace, which proved a good match as Darryl’s graphic work explores several scientists who are less well known and respected than they should be because of gender, class, income or colour, and it was a good reminder of the power of intellect and learning, for the individual of any kind, and the positive effects their work, if they are given the chance, can have on a wider society. I was also cheered when Darryl was introduced as writing graphic non fiction but in his talk he said some of the terms like that applied to creators were clumsy, and he said he simply thinks of himself as a cartoonist. I was very proud to hear him use the “C” word.

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Frank Quitely gave a great late night talk at the festival, taking his recent Drawings + Sketches art book published by Glasgow-based BHP Comics as the basis of the evening. Frank had pages of his work from the Drawings book on screen, and he and chairperson Stuart Kelly used those as a good way to explore not just Frank’s impressive body of work, from Broons parody The Greens in Electric Soup many years ago in Glasgow to major works from US publishers such as We3 with Grant Morrison and Jupiter’s Legacy with Mark Millar. The fact this covered everything, from the roughest doodles and sketches to variations in ideas for characters, costumes, layouts, all the way to the finished works, gave the large audience a terrific insight into the creative process.

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Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - Frank Quitely 01

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Frank was also generous with his praise for others, such as the writers he has worked with, the importance of work largely unseen by readers proved by editors and others behind the scenes, and discussing some of the other creators whose work he hugely admires. Dave Gibbons was one artist Frank singled out for praise, mentioning how every so often he likes to take out Watchmen and have a look at some specific scenes, to see just how Dave planned and drew them, except, he added with a smile, the story is so well done that he soon finds himself reading away, lost in it, before remembering he was meant to be studying Dave’s art and layouts from a technical point of view. Despite it being a late evening event the turnout was good and there was a solid line for the signing session afterwards (props to the bloke who arrived clutching a branded bag from the sadly now defunct Plan B Books in Glasgow).

I was very pleased to see Jean-Pierre Filiu returning to the festival this year. Jean-Pierre, a former French diplomat, now writer, lecturer and historian, wrote the absorbing trilogy of graphic history/politics books The Best of Enemies, a history of US-Middle East relations from the very creation of the American Republic in the late 1700s to the modern era. The series offers a fascinating insight into this complex history of competing influences and alliances, wrapped up in some truly astonishing artwork by one of France’s greatest comickers, David B.

Last time he was here Jean-Pierre explained there would be a gap between book two and three as the demands of the complex artwork had exhausted David B, and he required a break. The third volume was published in English by SelfMadeHero earlier this year (see my review here), and was one I was eagerly awaiting. Jean-Pierre commented how the third volume, covering the most recent years, was in many ways the hardest to do, principally because this was a period he had personally experienced (he was actually in Baghdad one evening as Allied airstrikes hit it, a planned outing to a classical concert changed to a cellar after the venue was hit by a Tomahawk missile), and how much harder it was to maintain balance and not become too emotionally entangled.

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He also explained the final pages, wordless images of a wide selection of men and women from across the Middle East, Arab, Israeli, young, old, all just looking out of the page at us, looking directly at us as if to say “what will you do? How will you help make this better? We’re just people like you and want to live with our families in safety and prosperity”. Fascinating and extremely compelling, and not a little emotional too.

I had the pleasure of chairing some events in the Children’s Programme this year too; I’ve chaired author events many times before at the festival, but this was the first time I worked on the kid’s programme events, and it really was fun. I had a terrific chat about YA science fiction with Barbados writer Karen Lord (who has one of the brightest and bestest smiles I’ve ever seen) about The Galaxy Game, a follow-up to The Best of All Possible Worlds, and Paul Magrs (who many of you will know for his Doctor Who and Big Finish tales) who was there with the third part of his Lora Trilogy, The Heart of Mars, following a young teenage girl’s journey to save her family and friends across a future, terraformed Mars.

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - Karen Lord and Paul Magrs 02

While both books were very different they had a lot in common, both with complex and well-realised societies with rich traditions and customs, and both, I found as I read, avoided the “omniscient narrator” and gave the reader only the same information as the main characters, which had the effect of placing us right there in the journey with them, learning right alongside them, this process immersing us more into the book and cultures and also empathising more with the characters.

The theme of this year’s book festival was freedom, and Gutter Magazine had produced The Freedom Papers, a collection of personal essays on what freedom means to different people, by over fifty writers from around the world, including Karen and Paul, and instead of reading from their own books they both read their essays. Given some dozen important authors (many from African and Middle Eastern countries) were blocked by the incompetent, Kafka-esque Home Office from obtaining their visas to visit the book festival, this discussion on freedom was all too relevant to those of us at the festival – freedom of movement is important, denying it can be, in effect, a form of censorship, and for a government to stop so many lauded writers from entering the UK to its largest celebration of the written word was utterly shameful and hardly does much to enhance the UK’s reputation of being open to the world.

Also on the children’s programme I got to work not only with a pair of Nobrow/Flying Eye creators, Alexis Deacon, there with the first two volumes of his beautifully illustrated YA fantasy graphic novels Geis (pronounced Gesh, as in the old Gaelic term for a form of curse or enchantment), and Joe Todd-Stanton with the second of his Brownstone’s Mythical Collection tales, Marcy and the Riddle of the Sphinx, and The Secret of Black Rock. Joe’s work mixed elements of the classic children’s picture book format with elements of comics to create a delightful hybrid, and boasted some quite gorgeous scenes – in fact Alexis drew attention to a two-page spread by Joe depicting the Egyptian god Ra’s sunboat traversing the sky, all shown in a cutaway fashion, like those lovely Dorling Kindersely books, and the audience of youngsters all agreed with him how beautiful some of those scenes were. It’s always nice when instead of just you as chair asking the authors questions, they interact with each other and discuss each other’s work and processes on stage too, and it becomes more of a natural conversation rather than interview.

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Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - Alexis Deacon & Joe Todd-Stanton 01

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - Alexis Deacon & Joe Todd-Stanton 02

With so many young readers in the audience both Alexis and Joe were happy to discuss how they got into illustration and comics (in Alexis’ case this was his first proper comics works, his previous, award-winning works being picture books, but he had long harboured a desire to do longform comics), and how they create their works, from ideas for a story and little doodles to the finished page. Unsurprisingly many of the youngsters there liked the idea of making their own stories and comics, and they seemed to especially enjoy hearing Joe and Alexis explaining to them about how they go about making their tales and their art.

As part of the Scottish Government’s Year of Young People a group of schoolchildren – calling themselves Codename F – worked with the festival programmers on choosing events, and in fact Alexis and Joe were authors they had specifically asked to have at the festival (you can imagine how delighted they were to learn that!). Three of these youngsters took part in the event with us, talking to us beforehand in the Author’s Yurt, they then introduced the three of us at the start of the event (unusual experience for me, normally I am introducing the author, this time I was being introduced with them!) and they had lined up questions for the audience Q&A segment after our on-stage chat. The kids were so enthused at being part of the book festival, and over the moon at meeting some of the authors they had loved reading, getting to talk to them, getting their books signed (both Alexis and Joe did them lovely wee sketches too), they were absolutely beaming, one youngster telling us that this was the best day of his life. It was wonderfully sweet, even to a cynical old bookseller like me, and quite wonderful to see the children so involved and happy at book events. I think that was one of the nicest events I’ve ever done…

On the last day of the festival on the holiday Monday I had my last event, and boy, what an event to finish on: illustration royalty in the form of the great Alan Lee. HarperCollins are publishing the final JRR Tolkien tale, The Fall of Gondolin, this week and this was the first proper event in the world to celebrate that landmark. Ironically this final publication is the earliest Middle Earth tale – Tolkien himself noted in a letter to a friend that this was the first proper tale in his world that he ever started – begun during a break from the horror of the trenches in the Great War. Tolkien, as he often did, rewrote and changed his story over the years, so much so that although parts have appeared before, the full tale, as seen in this book, was thought unlikely to ever see the light of day. His son Christopher Tolkien painstakingly, forensically reconstructed the full tale from multiple versions and drafts (including one saved from destruction by his mother), and the book comes with copious notes on how he put it together and explaining how it fits into Middle Earth history, which is as compelling as the actual tale.

Who else could illustrate this almost lost tale of the First Age of Middle Earth, millennia before the time of Lord of the Rings, but already setting up ideas and sowing seeds that would come to fruition so much later chronologically, in the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings and Silmarillion except Alan Lee. An impeccable pedigree of world-class illustration in pencils, inks, charcoals, oil and watercolours and awards from the Kate Greenaway Medal to an Academy Award, he is one of the artists most responsible for how legions of readers worldwide visualise the rich tapestry of Tolkien’s Middle Earth (and of course that is why Peter Jackson asked him to work on the films with him).

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Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - Alan Lee 04

Instead of the usual Q&A session format, Alan had explained he had put together an illustrated talk, and I was happy to forego the time for the Q&A to hear it alongside the packed audience. Alan took us through his work in chronological order, from early works with the great Brian Froud in Faeries to illustrations for Rosemary Sutcliff’s acclaimed children’s takes on the Iliad and Odyssey, the glorious illustrated Mabinogion tales (I still have a copy of that edition, those rich, ancient Celtic myths, source material for much Arthurian lore, married to Alan’s paintings, just enchanting) and of course his many Tolkien works, sharing with us sketches and finished paintings from Lord of the Rings to the Fall of Gondolin, and also his works for the film adaptations with Peter Jackson.

Alan showed us a sequence of works depicting the great city of Gondor, explaining how as well as showing the city from the plains he would then make multiple sketches, effectively tools for himself, taking himself through the streets and buildings so he had a full understanding of how it all connected and worked and looked, inside and out. Part of this found him drawing the different levels and streets as Gandalf rides up to the summit of the city; flicking through these sketches quickly was reminiscent of an animatic used by film-makers to plan a sequence, and indeed Alan added that this eventually went on to be used in the film itself. Alan was also kind enough to include a plethora of sketches and other works which he hasn’t published or shared before, save showing to family or friends, including works from notebooks and sketchbooks he carried with him, and a number of landscapes which he liked to capture in a sketch then would often use later for inspiration for book illustrations, noting Tolkien would have approved given the landscape was such a huge inspiration to him and his writing.

The turnout for this event was huge – sadly we ran out of time and didn’t have space to do the usual audience Q&A session, but everyone agreed it was worth sacrificing those moments to let Alan finish his illustrated talk, and the round of applause for this master wizard of the brushes was enormous and heartfelt. The audience did get a chance to ask him questions at the signing session afterwards, and ye gods, what a line! The queue snaked out of the signing tent, down the walkway then doubled back on itself – by the time I had to leave, a full hour and a half after the end of our event, Alan was still signing for a line of people! Rather nicely I noted that he avoided the chair behind the table provided for the signing, and instead chose to stand in front of it to chat to each reader in turn, right next to them, then sign and sketch for them.

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Book Festival After Dark 03

We all know the “Roads go ever ever on, Over rock and under tree”, but here we were, at the end of our journey through Middle Earth, returned to the very beginning, a long journey Alan has also taken with his achingly beautiful art. Although we didn’t get time for a Q&A on stage I did get to chat to him beforehand as we were getting ready, and I asked him if it had been a bit emotional for him, as an artist, to have followed this long journey through Middle Earth, to end up on the final book and going back to the First Age, and yes, of course it had been. A remarkable journey, made all the better for Alan’s artwork keeping us company along the long road.

And now it’s all over for another year, the Book Festival village will be folded away, the Fringe and International Festival have finished, the thronged streets are suddenly passable once more, and the posters for the multitude of events hang slowly fading from walls and railings like ghosts. Always a peculiar feeling just after the festivals finish, a mixture of relief at reclaiming the city and an ennui at the party being over. Until next year, of course…

Clever Indy science fiction with 2036 Origin Unknown

2036 Origin Unknown,
Directed by Hasraf ‘HaZ’ Dulull,
Starring Katee Sackhoff, Ray Fearon, Julie Cox, Steven Cree

Mackenzie “Mack” Wilson (Katee Sackhoff) is one of the last of a dying breed – what used to be a highly qualified, highly trained role that took years of study and experience to achieve, a mission controller for the space programme. Except now that true AI has come along most of those roles are redundant, humans no longer required, the AI, ARTi (voiced by Steven Cree) is pretty much running the show, she’s there as a sort of failsafe, or for some unusual occurrence. Now working all but alone with ARTi in an underground command bunker Mack is overseeing a new mission to Mars, and it’s a project that is fraught with personal, emotional baggage for Mack. Quite aside from her understandable dislike of the new AI usurping the role of herself and all her former colleagues, the last mission to Mars crashed, killing the entire crew – including her father. Add into this mix the eponymous signal of unknown origin and you have an intriguing mix.

What starts as a pretty timely commentary – the threat of ever smarter expert systems and nascent AI being in the news again regularly as a threat even to highly specialised jobs- on humanity’s relationship with technology, adds layers as it progresses. Mack may have to put up with ARTi but it doesn’t mean she has to like it. And the more she works with him the more she finds herself questioning the AI, its motives, its very existence. How exactly did such a sophisticated AI come into being? How did it come to be running so much so quickly, to be accepted by most humans as the way to go? ARTi is using his vast cognitive abilities to create more new technology – including a hyperlight communication system that allows instantaneous communication with the automated new Mars ship and rover (a handy idea that gets around the several minutes of time-lag in normal plant to planet communications between Mars and Earth, obviously useful here for the film-makers too as well as the character). ARTi may seem polite and willing to help, but is he? He isn’t human and she isn’t sure of his exact origins, let alone what hidden motivations he may have…

This is clearly a small budget, Indy production, but Hasraf ‘HaZ’ Dulull uses his limited resources quite well – we do get some decent special effects sequences, such as the original Mars mission, the later one Mack is involved with, but the bulk of the film is Mack alone in the mission control bunker with ARTi. There is a brief visit from a former colleague and video call from her sister, but most of this film is Katee Sackhoff interacting with ARTi’s AI in a small, enclosed space. Much of this would work perfectly on stage and is nicely self-contained.

It also comes with overtones of Dave Bowman alone inside the Discovery with HAL 9000, and while it feels from his performance that Cree is obviously aware of that illustrious and influential predecessor, he gives a carefully nuanced voice performance, paying a little homage to HAL but still making ARTi very much his own character, and one who may have very different ideas about the mission that the humans (but is that a good thing or a bad thing?). The tight running time helps with this claustrophobic bunker setting with Mack and ARTi, building the tension increasingly until… Well, you’ll need to watch the film to find out.

The film-makers have been very fortunate in landing Katee Sackhoff for their film, I’d imagine a lot of science fiction fans will be more interested because of her presence (and as already mentioned she carries almost all of the human side of this movie). But a film still has to deliver good story and characters, and this is a clever piece of small budget science fiction that does deliver, using a nice combination of tightly wound emotions (Sackhoff mostly only has the screen of ARTi to act against, but she does it well) with layers of intrigue and mystery to good effect.

2036 Origin Unknown will be released on iTunes, other Video on Demand services and DVD from August 13th

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

“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