Monday, 28 October 2019

Joker | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Other comic book-based movies laughable in comparison to masterpiece that emphasizes character, explores social stigma on mental illness

A Joker movie poster depicts the villain dressed in his full regalia and leaning back triumphantly at the top of an outdoor staircase. However, near the film’s beginning, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), depressed, tired and undernourished, sluggishly ascends that same staircase. Thus, director Todd Phillips establishes a pact with the viewer: I will show you, he implies, the transformation of this struggling nobody into Batman’s vibrant archenemy.

Gotham is a crime-ridden, depressing city in the midst of a garbage strike. Clown-for-hire Arthur lives in a rundown apartment building with his shut-in mother Penny (Frances Conroy). Arthur gets beat up, lied to, made fun of, taken advantage of… and on top of all that, he suffers from severe mental illness, including a “condition” that causes him to laugh uncontrollably, even in circumstances that he doesn’t necessarily find funny.

Abandoned by society, Arthur fights back against his oppressors and begins to embrace his mental illness. Phoenix’s masterful performance renders a character with mesmerizing unpredictability. Arthur’s individuality manifests in everything from his unorthodox humour and extended bouts of laughter to his clownish run and the ever-shifting expressions on his gaunt face. When Arthur laughs hysterically after he discovers tragic news about himself, the viewer feels competing emotions – it’s funny, but it’s intensely sad. Throughout Joker, the viewer experiences something rare in today’s films: empathy with the bad guy.

Historically, Joker has been portrayed as a criminal mastermind. Phoenix’s deranged version seems incapable of such elaborate planning. Arthur, his sights set on becoming a stand-up comedian, has no grand philosophy or goal – he just wants to be noticed. Thus, it’s fascinating to watch as Gotham’s underprivileged citizens misinterpret his actions and establish him as the symbol of a movement against the rich and powerful.

During the film, Arthur does a great deal of ascending and descending of staircases. Fitting, since his journey involves a descent from the “higher ground” of how the world wants him to act down to the pandemonium of the streets, where he will be king. As a film, Joker also steps down from Hollywood’s comic book pedestal dominated by one-dimensional characters, silly banter, clichés, and overblown special effects. Batman and Iron Man have their expensive technologies. Captain America and Wolverine have their strength. Spider-Man has his acrobatics. But Joker has the most potent power of all: his eccentricity.—Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Lone Wolf 30: Dead in the Deep | review by Rafe McGregor

Lone Wolf 30: Dead in the Deep by Vincent Lazzari and Ben Dever
Holmgard Press, hardback, £19.99, June 2019, ISBN 9781527240797

Given the many trials and tribulations experienced by Joe Dever in securing a reliable publisher for the New Order series (21 onwards) of his Lone Wolf gamebooks from the mid-nineties, my main concerns whenever a new book is released are whether I will receive it and what kind of production values it will have. The details of the first two decades of Joe’s struggle can be found in my review of Lone Wolf 21: TheVoyage of the Moonstone and the last two years in my review of Lone Wolf 29: The Storms of Chai. While I was writing the latter in November 2016, the series and its considerable fan base suffered the ultimate setback in Joe’s untimely death and it seemed like his Holmgard Press would close after less than a year in operation. The press has, however, been relaunched at www.magnamund.com and appears to be run by his son, Ben, who is jointly responsible for the completion of the series (books 30 to 32) with Vincent Lazzari. The ordering process from the website is simple with safe if not speedy delivery following. Dead in the Deep is a hefty tome (there are no page numbers in consequence of the sections used for gameplay, but it is over two inches thick) and although the paper used is of lower quality than the Collector’s Editions published by Mongoose and Mantikore, the finished product makes for a neat fit with the rest. In keeping with almost all of the series to date, Dead in the Keep consists of three hundred and fifty sections and you can perhaps imagine my disappointment when I discovered sections 319 to 330 were absent from my copy, a repeat of sections 233 to 251 appearing in their place. I contacted Holmgard about the problem and received a very quick response to the effect that a replacement would be sent to me without any extra charge or a requirement to return the defective copy (I always resent either of these inconveniences if the fault lies with the publisher or the supplier). I received the replacement in due course and I only relate the complication as evidence of why I am confident in recommending Holmgard Press to any and all potential readers. At present, they also offer the Collector’s Edition of Lone Wolf 23: Mydnight’s Hero (£16.99) and twenty-five very attractive art prints that look like alternative book covers. The Collector’s Edition of Lone Wolf 24: Rune War (also £16.99) is the next book due for release (no date given).

I mentioned my intense emotional (and, once or twice, extravagant financial) investment in the franchise in previous reviews and this investment is at its greatest now when it looks like the cycle, which Joe originally envisaged as consisting of thirty-two books, might actually be completed. I reproduce the first two paragraphs of Ben’s short foreword here:

Two weeks before my dad passed away he asked Vincent and myself to complete the Lone Wolf series. It’s a huge honour to finally be able to share with you the first part of the epic conclusion to his unique saga.

A life’s work underpins this book, and the details of the story were dictated in the palliative care ward at Whipps Cross Hospital. And so, although the first draft was produced by Vincent, and the final draft by myself, we both feel that this book is as much a creation of my dad’s imagination as any other Lone Wolf story. This is his book.

Bearing in mind the outstanding calibre of The Storms of Chai (which really was worth the seventeen year wait), the stakes for someone who has followed the series for as long as I have, and such a touching and tasteful tribute from Ben, it is very difficult to approach this gamebook with any kind of critical objectivity. So, let me cut to the chase… in summary, Dead in the Deep does not live up to the promise of its prequel. I saw my options as to either explain my evaluation in a mixed review or to stop reviewing the cycle. I decided on the latter for the Autumn Snow series following my for the most part negative review of Autumn Snow 2: TheWildlands Hunt last year. Obviously, I decided on the former for the Lone Wolf series – on the basis that, with only two books left to go, I shall buy and play them no matter what and because while Lone Wolf is partly for lifelong enthusiasts like me, it is also for a younger generation of players who deserve an honest review.

The Storms of Chai began in the early spring of MS 5102, seventeen years after the conclusion of Lone Wolf 28: The Hunger of Sejanoz, with Lone Wolf holding a council in which he revealed that Magnamund was under a coordinated attack by an unknown force. There were six armies attacking six different locations and the six Kai Grand Masters were despatched accordingly. Mine, True Friend (whose deadly Kai powers are only exceeded by the silliness of his randomly-generated Kai name), proceeded to the remote Bhanarian city of Bakhasa with the intention of recovering the new Claw of Naar before the Nadziranim sorcerer Zashnor could use it to create a weapon of mass destruction. There was a real sense of urgency in The Storms of Chai, the feeling that the Kai were fighting to save the whole of Magnamund rather than just Sommerlund (as was the case in the consecutive Kai and Magnakai series, books 1 to 12). This urgency and import created the expectation of a rapidly-paced push to the conclusion of the whole cycle in the last four books and the expectation was exceeded to the extent that my only criticism of The Storms of Chai was that it took several attempts before True Friend survived to the very end.

The first indication that Dead in the Deep will not continue to meet these expectations is in “The Story So Far...” section, which is quite simply not as well-written as in previous books. This is not a major flaw in a gamebook aimed at a young adult audience, but it makes for a disappointing beginning.  Lone Wolf’s Grand Masters have been reduced in number from six to three (including True Friend) and the survivors are all sent on missions whose goals are deliberately withheld from one another. True Friend is despatched on a rescue mission, to find missing Grand Master Steel Hand. Unfortunately, this plot has already been used thrice in the cycle (in Lone Wolf 14: The Captives of Kaag, the graphic novel The Skull of Agarash, and Lone Wolf 25: Trail of the Wolf) and takes him to the Maakengorge, a location that has already been used twice (in Lone Wolf 4: The Chasm of Doom and Lone Wolf 16: The Legacy of Vashna). The combination of these factors put me in a pessimistic mood for play, pre-primed for sensitivity to a lowering of quality and lack of originality. My pessimism was exacerbated by the fact that the adventure has a slow start, with very little action and a largely linear narrative.

Dead in the Deep nonetheless grows on one as the game becomes progressively more exciting and challenging. As such, it is very much a narrative of three parts. The first, which is slow in comparison to The Storms of Chai, involves the journey to Emolryia. The second involves the exploration of Emolryia, the Hidden Citadel, the Maakengorge, the Lake of Blood, the Underworld, and the Chaos Prison. As soon as True Friend descended beneath the lake to the Underworld, I felt I was back in the midst of the an original, complex, tense, and exciting game that might reach at least some of the promise of The Storms of Chai. The third and final part involves the escape from Emolryia, which returns to the frenetic pace of its predecessor and has obviously been crafted with great style and skill. In this part the pace literally never lets up, continuing right to the final section of the adventure. Dead in the Deep cannot compare to The Storms of Chai, but in retrospect it is entertaining, satisfying, and well worth the cost in both money and time when judged on its own merits.

Regarding gameplay as opposed to the literary or narrative elements of the volume, Dead in the Deep is much easier to survive than The Storms of Chai, with combat less frequent and for the most part less challenging. There are nonetheless several other ways to fail the mission – too many, in my opinion. Where a tedious opening can be forgiven and forgotten in the heat of a climactic dénouement and resolution, gameplay problems are of greater concern. With the gaming pleasure of future players in mind, I thus offer the following advice:

1.      You cannot gain access to the Hidden Citadel without an Amulet of Fealty, but by the time you arrive in Emolryia it is too late to secure one.

2.      You must hang on to the Platinum Amulet at all costs.

3.      You must give Steel Hand your Nyaxator armour when presented with the opportunity to do so.

4.      The New Order Kai Grand Master Disciplines of Assimilation and Kai-Alchemy are very important for successful completion of the mission.

I noted my reservations about writing this review above and I hope that neither Ben nor Vincent will feel that my criticisms have been unfair should they read it. No, Dead in the Deep is not nearly as good as The Storms of Chai, but when one considers the tragic circumstances of its conception and publication, it is a truly remarkable achievement by the two authors.

As with all the other Collector’s Editions, there is a bonus adventure, “Kaum Before the Storm”, written by Vincent and long-time Lone Wolf collaborator August Hahn. I was hoping that the supplement would pick up where the previous bonus adventure left off, with Lord Elkamo Doko, a Vakeros warrior-mage, but the player adopts a new persona here, that of Kai Grand Master Blazer. I cannot comment on the game as the publication of Dead in the Deep found me in the middle of my first house move in nearly fifteen years and I only had time to play the main game before bubble-wrapping the book. The penultimate adventure in the cycle is Lone Wolf 31: The Dusk of the Eternal Night, which will be published by Holmgard, but for which no publication date has yet been announced. With Ben and Vincent at the helm, I’m cautiously optimistic that True Friend’s next mission won’t be too long in coming. In the meantime, my next mission is to work out which box I put Dead in the Deep in…

Sunday, 20 October 2019

British Fantasy Awards 2019: the Winners!

The British Fantasy Awards have just been announced, at FantasyCon 2019 in Glasgow. I had a go at reading this year's nominees and failed abysmally, only finishing three categories. All the other half-finished blog posts will be repurposed into reviews for a future issue!

The British Fantasy Awards are decided by juries, who before reading the nominees have the option of adding up to two additional items to those placed on the shortlist by the votes of British Fantasy Society members (including me) and FantasyCon attendees (not me this time).

Note that the jurors given below are those that were originally announced to BFS members. I haven't seen any announcements that anyone dropped out or was replaced, but it does happen sometimes, when people realise that there's a conflict of interest.

Here are the winners:

Anthology: Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Vol. 5, ed. Robert Shearman & Michael Kelly (Undertow Publications)

The jurors were Roz Clarke, Ian Hunter, Susan Oke, Steve J. Shaw and Joni Walker. Always a bit disappointing when year's best volumes win this award, after cherry picking the best of work that was already eligible the previous year, but despite much debate they are still eligible and so you can't blame the jurors, who have to pick the best of what's on the shortlist.

Artist: Vince Haig

The jurors were Astra Crompton, Alexandra Gushurst-Moore, Kaia Lichtarska, Catherine Sullivan and Paul Yates.

Audio: Breaking the Glass Slipper (www.breakingtheglassslipper.com)

The jurors were Alicia Fitton, Thomas Moules, Susie Pritchard-Casey, Abigail Shaw and Neil Williamson. I only got around to listening to one of the nominees in this category, Blood on Satan's Claw, based on the film. It had terrific sound design.

Collection: All the Fabulous Beasts, by Priya Sharma (Undertow Publications)

The jurors were Ben Appleby-Dean, Amy Chevis-Bruce, Marc Gascoigne, Laura Newsholme and Chloë Yates. The only book I managed to read in this category was Lost Objects by Marian Womack, which was excellent. Looking forward to reading the winner and other nominees.

Comic/Graphic Novel: Widdershins, Vol. 7, by Kate Ashwin

The jurors were Kate Barton, Emily Hayes, Steven Poore, Alasdair Stuart and Kiwi Tokoeka. I read everything in this category and this is an utterly baffling decision. How could anyone possibly conclude that this nice enough book was better than Hellboy: The Complete Short Stories, Vol. 1? Suppose it could have been worse: one of the other nominees in this category was a prose novella.

Fantasy Novel (the Robert Holdstock Award): The Bitter Twins, by Jen Williams (Headline)

The jurors were Sarah Carter, Shona Kinsella, Devin Martin, Pauline Morgan and Andrew White. I only read Empire of Sand in this category.

Film/Television Production: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Phil Lord & Rodney Rothman

The jurors were Rebecca Davis, Pat Hawkes-Reed, Rachelle Hunt, Robert S. Malan and Sammy Smith. My pick for this one, having watched them all, would have been Annihilation, but my guess was that Into the Spider-Verse would win. And for once I was right!

Horror Novel (the August Derleth Award): Little Eve, by Catriona Ward (W&N)

The jurors were Charlotte Bond, Emeline Morin, Gareth Spark, Mark West and Zoe Wible. Little Eve would have been my pick of the three I read in this category. I listened to the audiobook and Carolyn Bonnyman's reading of the audiobook added immensely to the atmosphere. The Way of the Worm is the one I haven't finished yet, but I'm enjoying it very much so far.

Independent Press: Unsung Stories

The jurors were Helen Armfield (chair of the BFS), Andrew Freudenberg, Daniel Godfrey, Elaine Hillson and Georgina Kamsika. I'm currently reading a new book from this publisher, Always North, by Vicki Jarrett.

Magazine/Periodical: Uncanny Magazine

The jurors were Jenny Barber, Peter Blanchard, Theresa Derwin, James T. Harding and Rym Kechacha.

Newcomer (the Sydney J. Bounds Award): Tasha Suri, for Empire of Sand (Orbit)

The jurors were Colleen Anderson, Rosie Claverton, Lee Fletcher, D Franklin and Peter Sutton. I'm stunned by this result: it's one of the most tedious, bloviated books I've ever read. My pick of the four books I read in this category would have been Marian Womack for Lost Objects, but my guess was that Tomi Adeyemi would win for Children of Blood and Bone, which was a lot of fun and packed solid with adventure. The books I hadn't read yet were Lost Gods and The Traitor Gods.

Non-fiction: Noise and Sparks, by Ruth E.J. Booth (Shoreline of Infinity)

The jurors were Laura Carroll, Megan Graieg, Katherine Inskip, Kev McVeigh and Graeme K. Talboys.

Novella: The Tea Master and the Detective, by Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean Press)

The jurors were Ruth E.J. Booth, Elloise Hopkins, Stewart Hotston, Steve Howarth and Laura Mauro. Unusual to have something I voted for actually win the award! And I guessed correctly that it would win, although my pick, after reading the other nominees too, would have been The Land of Somewhere Safe, by Hal Duncan. I'm glad the award didn't go to either of the ineligible nominees; that would have been awkward.

Short Fiction: "Down Where Sound Comes Blunt", by G.V. Anderson (F&SFMarch/April 2018)

The jurors were Donna Bond, Amy Brennan, Andrew Hook, Richard Webb and Mairi White.

The Special Award (the Karl Edward Wagner Award): Ian Whates

The jury for this award is the BFS committee (currently: Katherine Fowler, James Barclay, Andy Marsden, Lee Harris, Shona Kinsella, Tim Major, Helen Armfield, Karen Fishwick, Allen Ashley, Sean Wilcock and Christopher Teague; though not everyone necessarily participates and the decision could have been taken at any point in the course of the year). For the third year running, the BFS membership wasn't invited to make suggestions, contrary to the rules of this award, putting a question mark over its validity, but Ian Whates would be a deserving winner.

There was no mention on Twitter of a Legends of FantasyCon being awarded: I'm told the announcement was delayed as the recipient did not attend the convention.

The physical award has changed this year: rather than the handmade bookends used from 2014 to 2018, the new award, also handmade, looks like this. They were created by Morag Hickman, who describes them as "a bolted sandwich of laser-cut acrylic, containing the archway and rocks in birch plywood and layers of hand-cut green vellum ivy leaves".

Congratulations to all the winners, and all the nominees, and as a BFS member, thank you to the jurors who devoted so much of their summers to helping out with our society's awards, and also to Katherine Fowler, the British Fantasy Awards Administrator, for doing a fine job again.

I don't think I will try to read all the nominees again next year. It was interesting to do once, but it was quite expensive and took a lot of time. Next time I think I will just pick out a few nominees that look good and review those as normal.

BFA Shadow Juror: Film and Television Productions

One last post in this failed series before the actual awards are announced!

An odd thing about this category is that it is an all-male shortlist, meaning that the jury was presented with an all-male preliminary shortlist, and despite the idea of egregious omissions being to rectify such situations, they decided to add two more items written by men. Perhaps they felt that the items they added were just so good that they had to be considered egregious omissions, regardless of the creators’ sex. Anyway, here's what I thought of the nominees:

Inside No. 9, series 4. This is such a great show. Innovative in its structure and storytelling, and telling a wide variety of stories. There's a wonderfully-observed story about a former comedy duo that went bad. Another about a house full of dead bodies, told in reverse. The problem with regard to this award, though, is that only one of the six is a fantasy story, and this is a fantasy award. A Halloween special out in 2018 was a supernatural story (and a very good one too), but isn't part of series four. Even if included, that would still only be two episodes out of seven: a typical example of the tendency of BFS and FantasyCon members to treat these as awards for things and people they like, regardless of genre. My rating: five stars. To-win rating: 1/10

The Haunting of Hill House, season 1. I started watching this when it came out but stopped after a couple of episodes, not at all grabbed. Watching it now for this project, it was definitely better than I had thought at first. Watching on my own late at night gave the scares quite a boost, but also it all become more meaningful once I had a handle on which kids were which adults. It had some extremely effective scares, both jump scares and slow creeping terror scares. Episode six, with what gives the impression of being one long shot for its first half, is an absolute tour de force. Some of the ghostly appearances are made even more frightening by being so subtle and unnoticed by the protagonists. But the ending isn't great: it gets quite soapy, there isn’t much of a pay-off for some things, and by the end the house starts to feel rather like a retirement home. My rating: three stars. To-win rating: 5/10

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. I thought this was very good fun, though it felt like the Superior Spider-Man was missing – it might have been hard to work him into the film, but the tension he created in the original comic was one of the best things about it. Maybe they’re saving him for the future. And where were the monsters eating spider-people? As a comics fan, it did feel a bit like this was praised to the heavens for doing things that actual comics have been doing for decades. It was a nifty film, though, and all the spider-people in it were a lot of fun. My children have watched it lots of times and still want to watch it again. My rating: three stars. To-win rating: 6/10

Avengers: Infinity War. Most of you have probably seen it. It’s a stunning achievement in film-making. It’s the culmination of a decade of big budget storytelling on a scale that cinema has never seen before. And it’s fine. I enjoyed watching it a lot. It made me laugh lots of times. It had lots of my favourite characters. It had that astonishing ending, the kind of ending you can only have when you know that there’s going to be a sequel. I appreciate that it showed me things no other film could have managed. But Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Thor: Ragnarok were just that bit better. My rating: three stars. To-win rating: 7/10

Black Panther. After watching this, I said to my family that what Jack Kirby was to comics in the twentieth century, he might well be for cinema in the twenty-first. Now we also have New Gods, Eternals and one hopes a real Fantastic Four film on the way. I thought this was by far the most Kirby-esque of Marvel’s films I had seen at that point, in look and feel and kineticism, and as well as all that it was a good adventure with an excellent villain and supporting cast. Black Panther himself was maybe a bit overshadowed. My rating: three stars. To-win rating: 7/10

Annihilation. I loved this film. It was beautiful and strange, with a tremendous cast doing brilliant work. More than any of the other nominees it addressed our future, and the likelihood that there will come a point where we’ll lose control of our environment and be faced with the necessity of adaptation. I really would love this to win. My rating: four stars. To-win rating: 8/10

Will that win? I’m guessing it probably won’t. It’s been a bit of a marmite film, and some people really don’t like the last bit. It would be barmy for Inside No. 9 to win, and I don’t think Hill House was quite good enough to win, but I think it could go to any of the three Marvel films. I’ll guess Spider-Verse, because the people who love it really, really love it.

My children (having seen everything but Hill House and Annihilation) reckon that Spider-Verse should win, but that She-Ra and the Princesses of Power should have been on the shortlist and it is better than any of them. ("Obviously!")

Saturday, 5 October 2019

Hunters & Collectors by M. Suddain | review by Stephen Theaker

The mother of Jonathan Tamberlain threatened to kill him if he ever squandered his gifts on criticism, and she wasn't just speaking metaphorically, he tells us, she told him exactly how she would do it. She was an art collector, his father a poet; the two of them met at a boxing match. Sparring with his father left Tamberlain in a coma, and he woke up with an amazing nose, one that can catch the scent of a wine from half a mile away.

So he did exactly what his mother didn't want: he became a food critic, though that's not what he calls himself. He follows the example of his hero, Eliö Lebaubátain, in claiming the title of "forensic gastronomer". It's not entirely clear why, since there's no legal aspect to his work – or at least there wouldn't be, if he didn't always get himself into so much trouble.

The book (Jonathan Cape pb, 506pp, £14.99) begins with snatches of writing from and about his early career, showing his rise to fame, but by the time the narrative settles down to its main adventure, he's had the time to develop a long and intense relationship with his bodyguard, the marvellously formidable Gladys. To her he's "like a grandpa you spend time with out of guilt", and for him she's like the annoying cousin your family takes on day trips, but they share an utter dedication to their respective jobs that is one of the novel's most interesting features.

Unfortunately, Gladys wasn't there the day he went to the Fair.

While Tamberlain grew up in the Western Hemisphere with a pair of liberal parents, the Eastern Hemisphere lived under the absolute control of Vlada Yinknokov, the Great Butcher. She had a billion people murdered during her revolution, including thousands of architects and doctors. She outlawed hospitals, declaring that from then on diseases would be cured by the will of the people. And she came to the Fair too.

Tamberlain only attended to make amends to an old friend. In that he failed miserably, and after a contretemps involving a bomb threat he didn't mean to make he was taken away to the Great Butcher's yacht, waking up to find a gas mask on his face and everyone including the dictator dead, following a nerve gas attack. Arrested and taken to the Eastern Hemisphere for interrogation, he fell into another coma, and it's when he wakes up that the story proper begins.

Dr Rubin Difflaydermaus is a batty psychiatrist with a habit of showing up in Tamberlain's head. He also has his book (Infinity Remastered: Engineering the Post-Human Species (and Why Our Great-Grandchildren Might Not Even Need Bodies)) delivered wherever Tamberlain is sleeping. The copy waiting after the critic's latest coma contains a clue: a laundry ticket from the legendary Hotel Grand Skies.

Tamberlain has long dreamt of eating at its famous restaurant, the Undersea. Nothing will stop him getting to the hotel, and once he gets there, nothing will stop him eating that meal. He'll literally wade through blood to get it, and he'll need to, because the staff have completely lost their minds and every interaction brings with it the threat of ultraviolence. Ace literary agent Daniel Woodbine and bodyguard Gladys will do their best to keep him alive as the severed heads pile up, but he won't make it easy for them.

Hunters & Collectors is quite reminiscent of Transmetropolitan, by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson, and may appeal to the same people. Instead of political writer Spider Jerusalem and his filthy assistants we have here a food critic, but he adopts a similarly misanthropic worldview ("To me the greatest possible horror is not that humanity might end, but that our Empire of Stupidity might last forever") to protect a heart similarly sensitive to the horrors of his world. Like that comic, this is not an entirely serious book, but it does have moments that are truly shocking, and others that feel surprisingly sincere.

The sf ideas at its heart, on the other hand, may not come as great surprises, at least not to people who have a holodeck episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but the book is after all being sold as modern contemporary fiction rather than sf, and it uses its rusty tools to tell quite a sharp story. Equally, what seems at first to be quite an experimental novel, beginning with a hundred-page flutter of notes, letters, fragments and diagrams, settles down after that to provide quite a conventional first-person narrative that nevertheless does the job.

That's the book in a nutshell: a bit less ambitious than it looks, but still quite good, and rather well executed. Just like the guests at the Hotel Grand Skies. ***

This review originally appeared in Interzone #265.