Friday, September 28, 2007

Winterbirth - Brian Ruckley

Winter is coming. A half-forgotten menace in the North is rising again, overlooked and underestimated by the power-hungry lords of the South, whose only goal is to increase their holdings and do away with their local rivals... if you are finding all this suspiciously familiar, you're not the only one, but stick with it. While Winterbirth uses the same basic template that's currently popular among epic fantasy authors (Martin, Bakker, Abercrombie...), he makes a damn fine job of it, and it's much less cliché'd than you'd expect. This is the first volume of a gritty low-fantasy trilogy, set in a dark world of clan rivalry and inter-species war, and there's plenty here to enjoy.

The various clans ("Bloods") are the lesser successors to the kingdoms of yesteryear, which were diminished in a series of apocalyptic wars. One of the weakest of these is the Lannis Blood, charged with defending the northern passes against the return of the fanatical Black Road cultists, banished northwards a century and a half ago (in the prologue). No-one seriously expects the Black Road to return, so their bloody attack on the Lannis strongholds takes the town by surprise and leaves the ruling family decimated. Orisian, the Thane's nephew, barely escapes the massacre and is forced to flee for his life, seeking help from the dangerous and unpredictable woodwights, and from the half-breeds whose mixed blood gives them access to strange powers. And, among the enemies, there is Aeglyss, another half-breed whose powers are the strongest anyone's seen in several generations, but who is twisted from childhood trauma and has the potential for devastating harm...

Ruckley writes with a rather dry competence; it took a little while to get into the story, as we are dropped, Erikson-style, right into the middle of events with strange jargon and few signposts. However, once you figure out what's going on and who all the characters are, it's a pretty good read; the pace is fast, the worldbuilding is solid and he doesn't shy away from a complex background - all the sides, good, bad and neutral, seem to be warring amongst themselves just as much as they are fighting each other. Of the recent books that are similar, this is probably closest in tone to Bakker's Prince of Nothing series (with Aeglyss taking the Kellhus role), though more accessibly written; there are also hints of Tolkien in the landscape, as the characters pass through the ruins of older, greater civilisations. He's done a good job with the elves, too - the woodwights may superficially resemble Legolas with their forest-dwelling arrow-shooting ways, but there's nothing Orlando Bloom-like in their stone-faced savagery and inter-clan warfare.

2006 was a good year for debuts, and Ruckley's book stands up well in some tough company. There's nothing massively original here, but the world is very well realised and the story is interestingly dark, and seems to be heading for darker places still. The next part is called Bloodheir and will be out sometime next year; it's definitely one I'll be picking up.


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Tricks of the Mind - Derren Brown

I was late to the Derren Brown party and missed most of his earlier series, but luckily I've caught up now. Like Penn and Teller across the pond with their cable show Bullshit, Brown is more than just a great entertainer; he is also known for using his stage-magician skills and psychological tricks to demonstrate and expose the tricks of fraudulent psychics and mediums (media??) which makes him OK in my book. Tricks of the Mind is a disjointed but tremendously entertaining mishmash of personal anecdotes, practical advice on sleight-of-hand and memory tricks, and scathing critiques of religion and pseudoscience; there's nothing particularly mind-blowing inside, but it's all worth a read.

There really isn't much structure to the book at all, but what little there is covers Brown's decision to become a stage magician, the tricks he learned on the way, and how these have affected his outlook on life. Among the anecdotes and practical tips, we hear how he studied the ways in which people actively fool themselves, eventually leading to his own exit from religion; there is also a lengthy discussion of bad science in the final chapter - as with the Brookmyre book, readers of Ben Goldacre will have heard it all before, but Brown has a nice way with words and gives a good, concise overview of the issues.

This isn't a book to read on the train - quite apart from the practical difficulties of practising the mnemonics and coin-palming tricks, there's also the fact that it's laugh-out-loud funny in places, and will get you some odd looks. Brown has quite a wicked sense of humour, and though it occasionally falls flat (I wasn't sure how to take all his mock-pompous declarations of how great his show was; certainly tongue in cheek but still rather uncomfortable), it makes for a very entertaining read. The memory tricks are also very useful, and I've even started using a few of them. You won't find out how to control anyone's mind, but there's plenty of good stuff here nonetheless.


Haikus of Truth

Contributors: Muttering Bill, VigoTheCarpathian, Deornoth, me, Mossman, Dycedarg, Jaxom 1974
Stupid Death Choosers!
Richard's mighty thing rose up,
Small girl's jaw explodes...

The first wizard says:
"Be true to your inner self
Rise up and live life!"

Get lost you hippies
Richard is coming through now
He cuts you all down

Mother Confessor
Gets kidnapped for the nth time
Almost raped again

Painting men as ghosts
Should never rout an army.
In Terry's world? Yes.

Richard's raptor stare
Shoots out like a laser beam
Burning the hippies

The lie of your own
Existence will be shattered:

Chicken McNuggets
This was no chicken, this was
Yummy incarnate

"Gratchh Luuuggg Rach arrg" may
Be quite a good excuse for

Deeds betray a lie,
Allow reason to rule you.
Deserve victory!

Passion rules reason,
Much harm from good intentions.
Magic in forgiveness.

People are stupid,
Contradictions don't exist;
Life is the future.

Charity will breed
Laziness and discontent.
Get a job, losers!

The Mord Sith torture
With an evil young princess.
Kick her in the face.

Fun molesting boys.
Confessor erases mind;
Feast of testicles.

Old man in forest
Has stolen our penises.
Burn him; he's a witch.

Not a fantasy,
But important human themes.
Beware the strawmen.

Lemmings of discord
Have no moral celery
You have chosen death.

The Mistress of Death
Concealed by her boob display
Blasts melon-sized holes.

Denna, oh Denna
Please hurt me so very good
My thing rises, love

Haiku is far too
Noble for SOT, plus
It's jibber-jabber

White snow on the ground,
I'll paint my men white like ghosts,
It'll work, really!

Judging by Ja-La
Jocks beat up Goodkind often
When he was in school

A pile of crap
Masquerading as the Truth:

Sisters of the Dark,
Stone of Tears, Blood of the Fold
Robert Jordan who?

Goats are noble and
Chickens, evil incarnate
Nobody knows why.

Transmetropolitan: The Year of the Yeard

”That’s what I hate most about this fucking city.” Richard Jerusalem shouted at his long-suffering editor Zeddicus R’oyce. ”Lies are news and Truth is obsolete!”

Crushing the nearest chair under his heavy journalists boot like a straw-filled dummy The Seeker Of Truth grabbed a wooden leg from it’s remains. The glass walls of the First Editors corner office trembled.

”You want to know about democracy? I’m here to tell you about democracy.” He continued, saliva spraying from his mouth and covering his editor and the glass behind him.
”Imagine you’re locked in a huge underground night-club filled with commies, hippies and weirdo cultural diversity freaks who like to gang-rape Gars for fun. And you ain’t allowed out until you all vote on what you’re going to do tonight.”

Richard pointed The Chair Leg Of Truth at his editor and R’oyce could tell from the dilated pupils and bulging veins that Richards Thing was rising within him.
The First Editor choose life by diving for cover under his desk. On the glass wall behind the desk his silhouette remained outlined in fine droplets of saliva.
"You like to put your feet up and watch 'Mud People Reservation'.” Richard raged. ”But they like to almost-rape normal people with Namble cocks.”

R’oyce, dared to sneak a quick look at the enraged columnist from under the desk.
Richard had been cramming drugs into every vein, pore and orifice of his body again. The resulting moral clarity had produced ten weekly installments of his column for The Yeard so far.
The last one had consisted of the word fuck repeated eight thousand times.
The one before that may or may not have been twenty pages ripped from another book with the names crossed out and changed with a ballpoint pen.
Thanks to the Editors First Rule both had sold like hot cakes.

”So you vote for television. And everyone else, as far as your eye can see, votes to fuck you with Agiels.” Richard continued, striking a manly pose.
”That’s democracy.” He concluded with flawless logic.

Writer of Columns, Zeddicus R’oyce thought in awe. Writer of Columns.

Richard climbed onto the desk. He had not had sex in four years. His thing had risen through the roof. It had taken flight. It was orbiting the earth, raining fiery death from above upon his enemies. He had many enemies, he could feel it in his head-bones.
His left hand produced a book from somewhere deep inside his journalists outfit. Waving the book in one hand and the Chair Leg of Truth in the other he felt another column coming on.

As Richard started a rousing speech on the Important Human Theme of inferior authors plagiarizing him, R’oyces moral celery finally abandoned him and he pushed the alarm button hidden under his desk.

Startled Richard ripped the spine from the book and sent it flying through the room. As dismembered pages fell like rain on the carpet R’oyce couldn’t help to note that that book had been published in 1954.

Richard leapt down from from the desk. Swinging his chair leg like a club he cut the First Editors desk in half.
”Do not offend the Chair Leg of Truth; it is wise and terrible!” He fixed R’oyce with a raptorlike gaze.
”I have had a vision. It has been revealed to me that I am sexier than Buddha and harder than Jesus. I cannot die.”

At that moment, roused by the alarm and a generous helping of deus ex machina R’oyces secretary entered the room.
Despite being larger than most (though not all) men, Richard moved quicker than a ferret on methamfetamines.
The Chair Leg Of Truth tore a melon sized hole through her torso.
It had been the only moral thing to do. The silhouette of R’oyce on the glass, outlined in saliva, vanished beneath the righteous spraying of various bodily fluids from the wound.

Richard forgot what he was mad about and became gentle as a lamb.
He laughed. The secretary laughed. Everyone laughed. Then the secretarys jaw fell off and she died.

R’oyce secretly wondered where the hell he would get another secretary in an hot leather outfit from. Preferably one with large breasts so she wouldn’t get killed on such a regular basis.
Maybe he could borrow one of Richards filthy Mord’Sith assistants?

- danro

Insurance Salesman of Truth

C: = Customer
I: = Insurance Salesman of Truth

I: So as you can see with two armies raping and killing across the lands you will really need insurance one way or the other. I mean your daughters will be someone’s toy sooner or later but if you fit her with a chastity belt it might increase her chances of having someone thinking she has celery and not killing her out of frustration. Also it will lower your rate on your abortion clause of your policy. If you act now I’ll sell you the chastity belts for cheap!

C: Alright let’s do it, even though I’ll probably be moving my family away from this war ridden area as it seems no matter who wins I get fucked over.

I: Nonsense, with this new policy I am offering you can hedge your bet on who wins by guessing which faction will be the one to slaughter you and your fellow villagers for nothing more than sitting the battle out.

C: I can collect money for the death, pain, and suffering of my family and fellow man?

I: It’s the Midland way to exploit your neighbors for profit. You have to think of you unless you want to sign up for the profit sharing policy that some of your neighbor agreed to that way you all get to enjoy the gang rape benefits.

C: Look I’ll do whatever is the cheapest I am really just trying to survive in this war torn area I don’t care what army of philosophy wins out I just want to not have my family slaughtered even if it gets me money.

I: Careful there my friend you are starting to sound quite the lemming. Don’t look at it as losing your family, look at as making money, maybe. After all selfishness is the only true virtue.

C: You are starting to freak me out and you lack of empathy or willingness to realize that you aren’t some kind of star is making my stomach turn.

I: You need to realize that the “Searcher of Truth” is the only one who knows what is morally right for us all and the sooner you accept that the sooner your fate will be determined. Either you can resist and be killed and your lands salted or you can join the yeardites and if you survive being left leaderless and fighting naked in the freezing cold, maybe you could be turned into a plot device filled with straw to serve a purpose greater than yourself and if you are lucky you might even taste your own balls.

C: Let me get this right, you are saying that no matter what I do my wife and children are as good as dead no matter which side I choose and since I am not the “Seacher of Truth” I could be killed at anytime for any reason, filled with straw or not, and the best I can hope for is to be turned into a cheap plot device and made to eat my own testicles? How much do I stand to make off of all this sickening convoluted mess?

I: That really depends on you, I’ll write up your best chances to see cash money.

C: That sounds great I can’t believe how much better I feel about this. Wait why am I agreeing to this and why do I have the urge to start collecting ears?

I: Sounds like you have been selected to be the next Deus ex Machina stuffed with straw, it’s nothing I put in your tea.

C: Great here is a big old pile of money I am off to live my life.

I: Damn I forgot to sell him volcano insurance too. Oh well people are stupid I’ll get him next time.

- Higravity

(Rise Up,) Live (Your Life) and Let (Everyone Else) Die

Miss Boobyfanny, in the tradition of secretaries everywhere, was filing her nails at her desk when a hat whirled across the room towards the hatstand. With raptor-like accuracy, it knocked the hatstand to the floor and ripped out its spine. Richard was back from his latest mission. He stood at the door, striking a manly pose.

"Richard!" cried Miss Boobyfanny ecstatically. She batted her eyelashes at this avatar of manhood.

Richard flashed a rare smile, lighting up his face usually lined with the lines of his boiling hot rage. Miss Boobyfanny sighed. He really was as gentle as a lamb, apart from the whole uncontrollable fury thing.

"Z is waiting for you, you know. You're five hours late," she said archly, thrusting out her boobs and hoping Richard would notice her fifth and latest boob job. Richard gave them a glance, decided yet again that they were still too small for his large hands, and strode into Z's office.

"Ah, Bond, you're here at last," snapped the irascible Z, as he looked up from behind a pile of paper probably containing secret plans and copies of enemy technology and that sort of thing. "We need you to go on another mission behind the Iron Curtain."

"You mean the huge metal barrier that you single-handedly erected across the entire continent, and which protected us from all the horrors that lie on the other side until they found a way to break through last week?" asked Richard, unnecessarily.

"Exactly so," said Z. "Someone behind the Iron Curtain is plotting against us, and I need you to find out who it is and what they plan to do, and anything else you can find out. We fear they may be engaged in... Communism!"

"Wait," said Richard. His mind raced. "You mean my enemies are actual communists this time, not just badly-thought-out strawmen versions?"

"Well, not exactly," said Z. "We suspect that the ringleader may be a communist who plots to amass untold wealth, which sort of contradicts the communist ideal, but as contradictions don't exist then feel free to ignore it."

Richard did indeed feel free. Free, free as the wind blows, free from all care, all doubt, all responsibility for his actions, all semblance of logic. With this in mind, he glamourously jet-setted to a random exotic location to plan his next move.


Over the casino table, Richard's raptor-like eyes were glued to the magnificent bosom of the woman opposite; it was like a rain (of glue) on a campfire. He could feel her sky-blue eyes mentally undressing him as he rolled the dice, winning hand after hand with his Spy's First Rule trick of making all the other players think they had lost.

Roller of Dice.

The woman edged closer and whispered a filthy suggestion into his ear. Instantly Richard's thing rose, and the dice shot from his hand, causing needles to fall from the pine trees and red-hot shards to cascade around him. Throwing her over his shoulder, he swept her away to his magnificent penthouse suite, where they had raptor-like monkey-sex.

Shagger of Random Women.

Shortly afterwards, Richard was awakened from his post-coital snooze by a soft snicking sound in the room, like the sound of someone opening a pair of shears. He looked up to see his beautiful bed-companion standing above him with a pair of shears! His testicles were in danger! Richard's mind raced. Pretending to stretch, he grabbed the shears from her hand and instantly she had been overpowered and tied to the bed. She writhed and spat in anger.

"How dare you do this to me?! Filthy capitalist pig-dog!"

"I ask the questions round here," said Richard sternly, and tried to think of some questions to ask. His mind raced. "Who are you, and who sent you, and what do you want, and why did you try to cut off my testicles?"

The woman's beautiful face twisted into a sneer. "I am Nikita Kutchabolokov, super assassin hired by Jagang, the leader of the communists, to destroy you before you found out about our secret plans, hatched in our hidden base in the basement of the orphanage, to ban fire and take over the world, as well as becoming filthy rich in the process by blackmailing everyone with our sole control of fire! But I wasn't going to cut off your testicles. Normally this is my speciality but yours were so magnificent, I was instead only going to cut off your stupid-looking yeard."

Richard recoiled in horror. "Cut off my yeard? What kind of monster are you? But now, I know where your master lies hidden, and your plans will come to nothing!"

He turned to go, when an evil chortling came from behind him. "Not so fast, Mr Bond," said a voice whose foreign accent indicated its evilness. It was Jagang! "My Mord Sith will make short work of you. Girls!"

From the wardrobe sprang three beautiful large-breasted women, whose tight red leather outfits left nothing to the imagination, which is just as well because the author has very little of that.

"Richard, may I introduce... Bigboobina Fuxalot, Slutterella Bendova and Fellatio Suckov, my most trusted and skilled torturers! I leave you at their mercy - I hope your death will be a long and protracted one! Now I'm off to conquer the world! Mwahahahaha!" At that, Jagang twirled his moustachio, swept up his cape and vanished in a cloud of dry ice.

"You'll never get away with this, you fiend!" shouted Richard, and shook his fist.

The Mord Sith advanced, and began torturing Richard in a rather sexy way with lesbian overtones. But soon they were overcome by his manly pheromones, and lay there passively like good women should. Richard soon dispatched them to wash the dishes and do the dusting, and he was back on the trail of Jagang.

Jagang had a good five minutes' head start, but Richard was hot on his heels. After two weeks' chase, Richard saw Jagang enter a building up ahead and close the door behind him. That must be his secret lair!

Richard's mind raced. He decided the best thing to do would be to pretend to be a salesmen, so he combed his yeard, picked up a briefcase and headed to the door.

A nameless flunky answered. "Hello, I'm here to sell things," said Richard, with difficulty forcing his face into another smile.

"OK, what are you selling?" asked the flunky, with suspicion.

Richard's mind raced. "Er, weapons? And other items for world domination?"

The flunky's face broke into a beaming smile that lit up the room. "Ah, welcome then! Come right in!"

Richard's face sagged with relief, flaked out on the sofa and made itself a cup of tea. His plan was working!

Jagang entered the room, holding a button marked "Press for World Domination". He was cackling evilly to himself when he saw Richard.

Instantly a war broke out, but Richard won - apparently his pants could turn into a huge battle-droid which took out all of Jagang's orphan army. Jagang was pushed into his own vat of molten celery and died a traitor's death.

Nikita was waiting for his helicopter as it descended on the casino roof. "I've decided to defect, and not be a commie any more," she declared, the tears falling from her eyes like rain on a campfire. "Take me back across the Iron Curtain with you and away from all this misery!"

Richard swept her up into his arms and they flew off into the sunset.

Fear and Loathing in D'Hara

Note (V/O) means voice over, said in characters head.

Megalomaniac's First Rule -
"He who makes a beast of himself
Gets rid of the pain
Of being a man."

A desert wind moans sadly. From somewhere within the
wind comes the tinkly, syrupy-sweet sounds of the Sisters
of the Dark singing "My Favorite Things."

Dick (V/O)
We were somewhere around B'ars't'ow on the edge of the desert when my thing began to rise.

A red convertible -- THE RED GAR -- wipes the black

THE RED GAR races down the desert highway at a
hundred miles an hour. 'THE STONES of TEAR'
"Sympathy For the Devil" blares.

Dick (V/O)
Damn commie bastards are betraying the innocent. My thing is rising, where is a peace activist when you need one.

A series of sepia images of anti-war protests from the mid-last badly stuffed straw man argument appear one after another on the screen.

Dick's thing rises further as he relives the blood bath.



The music pounds Dick stares straight ahead with a Raptor like gaze.

GonZedd froths up a can of beer - uses it as shaving foam. It's a wizard thing, one that doesn't rise.

Dick (V/O)
I remember saying something like:
"I feel a bit lightheaded. Maybe you should drive..."

GonZedd starts shaving.

Dick (V/O)
Suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge chickens that were not chickens, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car...

Shadows flutter across his face, that means something bad is going to happen. The reflections of Chickens swirl within his eyes.



Dick (V/O)
... and a voice was screaming: Holy Confessor! What are these goddamn animals?

Dick, eyes rigid, flails at the air with thing in hand. No chickens anywhere.

GonZedd casually looks over...

What are you yelling about?

Dick SCREECHES to the side of the road. The sudden wrench
makes GonZedd nick his face with his razor.

Never mind. It's your turn to drive.

No point mentioning those chickens. I thought. The poor bastard will see them soon enough.

- help! I've forgotten who wrote this one...

Wizard’s First Riding Hood

Once upon a time, there was a naïve little girl, who read a lot of books (especially by Europeans), but knew nothing about the harsh realities of the world. Her grandmother kept and coddled her, telling her that the people of the world could get along with one another and work toward something better, and that spaghetti would bounce. The girl loved her grandmother with blind devotion, as only a blind devotee can do. She was called Riding Hood, because she constantly would jump onto the lord of death and ride him around*.

One day, her mother gave her a basket of treats that were made by the bakery around the corner to take to her elderly grandmother. The treats would be foul in the mouth of any child living in the Middle-lands, but Riding Hood did not know any better, as she lived in Imperial Soviet-land. The bakers who made the treats were lesbians and liked to hit men because they were kinky like that, and also liked to watch men eating balls. They also had handheld electric sex prods and wore skintight latex suits, which should make your wieners hard, but if it doesn’t, you’re gay or a woman. But this was not the reason the treats tasted bad: they were horrible because the sexy torture babes, Mord Sith** as they were called, protested wars at peace rallies, which soured everything they touched.

On the way to the grandmother’s house, Riding Hood was spotted by the raptor-like gaze of a large forest wolf. This wolf was large, larger than another wolf who was larger than it, and the wolf in question was larger than most wolves. The wolf coveted and lusted after both Riding Hood and her basket of pacifistic pastries, for his own reasons, which were many and varied and too detailed to describe.

The wolf ran to the old woman who was related to the girls house, taking care to not use the term for the old lady, so it makes it seem like he owned a thesaurus. He easily swallowed up the old woman and dressed in her clothes, but not in a gay way, but more of a Robin Williams way, where it is okay to dress up as a woman but still considered manly, and promptly made a speech about how everyone should mistrust fire*** .

The wolf got into the grandmothers bed, and when Riding Hood came into the cottage she said

“Oh grandmother, what big ears you have.”
"The better to hear the lies of communists, my child," was granny-that-was-not-a-grannys reply.
"But, grandmother, what big eyes you have," she said.
"The better to see how a country called America is wrong.", said the wolf
"But, grandmother, what large hands you have."
"The better to rape and maim unbelievers with."
"Oh, but, grandmother, what a terrible big mouth you have."
"The better to devour your sweet lying self with!" exclaimed the wolf incarnate, and swallowed up the naughty little girl, smacking its lips in a very satisfied and sort of creepy sexual way that is titillating to readers.
A woodsman, who was in the neighborhood, heard the commotion at the pathetic, faith-having old lady, and dropped in. The wolf, whose belly was distended with the poisonous fruit of non-Randian thought, was sleeping on the bed. The woodsman, in his woodsman outfit, covered with symbols teaching him how to chop woods, tie vines into things, and what berries cure diarrhea****, leapt forward, and with a quick and silent and pretty badass swing, cut open the wolfs stomach with his Axe of Certainty. Out leapt Red Riding Hood, who was hurled across the room by a spectacularly executed roundhouse kick to her pale, frail, childish jaw.

She cried out, asking what she had done. The woodsman stared her down like the frightened little girl she was, and said “You represent people who follow ideologies that I don’t like.”, and chopped her in half.

The criminal grandmother emerged from the felon-sized hole in the wolf (who hadn’t woken up yet), and as her blood flew from her throat and arms and torso from a whole passel of axe cuts, the woodsman thundered “You represent the people who follow ideology I don’t like, and might have known better, and probably lead OK lives, but I know for certain have not, because I believe in my knowing!”

The wolf looked up from his sleep, and said “I tried to eat them, doesn’t that make me sort of like you in that we both tried to destroy them, and offered them an ‘our way or death’ choice?” The woodsman laughed, the corpses of the ladies laughed, all the trees in the forest laughed together.

The woodsman stepped forward and as his axe swished down in a manly fashion, he said “Nuances in thought do not exist because they might contradict something I believe. Wolves travel in packs, and since I’m an individual, that makes me right, so you die now.”

The End

*Hood, Lord of Death, © 2007, Tairy Goodkind Industries Incorporated LLC XXX. Suck it, Erikson

**Mord Sith, and any property rhyming with the phrase (e.g., Darth Vader, Lord of the Sith) are henceforth property of Sword of Litigation Enterprises.

***Mrs. Doubtfire is now owned (and pwned) by the Yeardi

****Blueberries: anyone ever who has had diarrhea, or knows what the word means, now owes Tairy Goodkind a picture of their grandmothers left nipple.

- VigoTheCarpathian

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Spirit Stone - Katherine Kerr

This is the latest in Kerr's Deverry sequence, now clocking in at 13 volumes; it emphatically does not work as a standalone book, so if you're a stranger to the world of Deverry then this will not be for you (start at the beginning and come back when you get this far). The current storyline is continuing the war between the human-elf-dwarf alliance and their false-goddess-worshipping Horsekin enemies, with the usual flashback section covering the events of a century or so previously, where the elves were much younger and the humans were in previous incarnations. Kerr has said that she intended her intertwining timelines to resemble Celtic knotwork, and it certainly feels like that as the tale loops back and forth, now giving us the roots of events that came about several books previously.

That being said, the strands are not tremendously complicated, and by this point it feels more like a lengthy soap-opera than a tightly-plotted thriller. Dallandra's pregnant - can she avoid making the same mothering mistakes that she made with her firstborn Loddlaen? Will Branna and Neb recover the memories of their past lives in time to save the world? Can Rori forgive the reincarnation of an old traitor, and will he find the secret of recovering his human form? For all the battles and magical death, this is the fantasy equivalent of a nice pair of comfy slippers; it's pleasantly familiar and not particularly challenging.

If you've come this far in the series, then you'll know what to expect, and it's really more of the same. The world is unoriginal but well-realised; the device of reincarnation is entertaining and all starting to come together; the characters are accessible and yet still authentic to the setting. One thing I'd definitely recommend though is doing a bit of homework before you start, and reminding yourself who's who (and what all the connections are) - I neglected to do this and so spent half the book being quite confused, having forgotten that Ebañy was Salamander's real name, among other things. As an addition to the series, it doesn't advance the plot a whole lot, but it does fill in some of the gaps in Deverry's history - not an essential read, but a pleasant one nonetheless.


Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks - Christopher Brookmyre

All too often, my favourite authors lose it after a few years, descending from their peak of greatness into churning out tripe, all the more depressing for the contrast with what came before. On reading the premise behind Brookmyre's latest, I was slightly concerned that he was also about to take the plunge - Parlabane talking to us from beyond the grave?? - but I needn't have worried. While the concept of a recently-deceased journalist debunking evil psychics is a bit hard to take at first, it's extremely well handled and much less supernatural than I'd been dreading.

Yes, as Jack Parlabane announces, he is dead. However, the circumstances behind his untimely demise are not revealed until very near the end of the book; the rest is the build-up of how it all came about, starting with his appointment as Rector of Kelvin University and subsequent task of overseeing a test of paranormal phenomena. An American scientist has found a psychic, Lafayette, who claims to be the real deal and is willing to be tested for it in controlled conditions; Parlabane is there to keep an eye out for cheating, because if the guy succeeds, it's the first step to establishing a Spiritual Science chair at the University and putting a nail in the coffin of serious science education. The thing is, Lafayette doesn't really appear to be cheating at all...

The theme of the book ties in very nicely with the anti-pseudoscience movement that's been gathering momentum recently, from Richard Dawkins and Ben Goldacre through the shows of Derren Brown and Penn & Teller. The "unsinkable rubber ducks" of the title are the fervent believers in the paranormal, who remain convinced no matter how strong the evidence, and Brookmyre paints a very vivid picture of exactly what these "psychics" do to reinforce that belief. Of course, as the bodies mount up, you know that Brookmyre's guys are going just a few steps further than is usual, but there's a lot of good research into normal spiritualist practice, and the profession as a whole comes off looking worse than even Dawkins can portray it.

Criticisms, then? Well, given the presence of Parlabane, we have the usual problem of having his potted history shoehorned in at the beginning, which also contains spoilers for some of the funnier surprises from Be My Enemy, so I'd definitely recommend steering clear of this book until you've read the previous one. Elsewhere, the anti-pseudoscience passages are a little didactic at times and look like they've been lifted straight from the Bad Science columns or the script for The Enemies of Reason - not to detract from the message, but for those of us already interested in the topic, much of this covers old and familiar ground. The style is also a little different from the usual Brookmyre novel - it's all first-person from the perspective of Parlabane, a couple of students and a Daily Mail columnist, the last of which is rather hard on the eyes, being written in stilted Mail-ese. Still, all minor points, and overall it was a damn fine read. Is Parlabane really dead? Well, honestly, do you believe in ghosts?


Monday, September 03, 2007

Stories of Your Life and Others - Ted Chiang

It's a damn shame that short stories rarely get the attention they deserve; for too many people, the length is off-putting and they go for something chunkier that they can absorb themselves in. I also like my doorstop-sized epics, but a good short story is a thing of joy, and the ones in here are some of the best.

Chiang's tales are far from being the science fiction of spaceships and technology - these are certainly present, but his main focus is on humanity. His particular interest appears to be language and perception, which he dissects and reassembles with great glee, and there are also a few tales written from perspectives and universes that give a very different view of reality. So, we have The Tower of Babylon where the Old Testament view of the cosmos is actually true, and you can build a tower to Heaven; Seventy Two Letters gives us a set of Victorian scientists dealing with golem-engineering and the practicalities of pre-Darwinian biology.

As ever, it's hard to do justice to short stories in reviews without giving away spoilers, so rather than continue, I'll direct you to one of the stories from this collection that's available online: Understand. Otherwise, I'll just state that these are some of the best short stories I've read in a long while, and there's not a dud among them - if the short form appeals to you, then you won't find much better than this. Go out and buy it now!