Friday 28 November 2014

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Omnibus, Vol. 6 / review by Stephen Theaker

The seven volumes in this series look very smart lined up on my bookcase, but that made me forget that I hadn’t yet read Buffy the Vampire Slayer Omnibus, Vol. 6 (Dark Horse, tpb, c.400pp) (or its sequel), so I’ve put that right with great pleasure. Taken as a set, the seven omnibus volumes make a fantastic companion to the television programme, especially since their contents have been arranged in chronological order. The stories in these issues come from around the time that the Initiative was in town, so Buffy is dating Riley, Spike has a chip in his head, Willow is exploring witchcraft and romance with Tara, and Xander is with Anya. On television that felt like a sad time in the characters’ lives, even if they were all falling in love, because Buffy, Xander, Willow and Giles, the original gang of four, were drifting apart, and frequently unhappy with each other. That made perfect sense in the show, but it’s nice that here in the comics everyone is still good and chummy. The writers include Christopher Golden, Tom Fassbender, Amber Benson and Jane Espenson. It’s odd that the kind of three-issue stories that seemed trivial when gathered together in flimsy graphic novels of under a hundred pages are satisfyingly substantial when run together as big, long stories in these books. It helps that this volume comes from the later, better period of the comic. The art, mostly by Cliff Richards, is good to great, the dialogue funny, the plots, well, maybe not brilliant but in the right enough ballpark that it felt authentically like Buffy.  ***

Monday 24 November 2014

John Brunner by Jad Smith / review by Stephen Theaker

Sarah Pinborough once said that “anyone who thinks any writer, bestseller or on the breadline, writes for the money, is a fool”, but it would be equally foolish to think money has no effect on what they write – and especially on what we get to see of their work. This book on John Brunner (University of Illinois Press, hb, 196pp), who gave up scholarships and well-paying jobs to concentrate on writing, but frequently focused his efforts on fulfilling the particular needs of the market, illustrates both sides of the coin. Smith draws a picture of him as a writer often stranded in “interzones” (a word used here so frequently that a review in these pages was surely inevitable): too pessimistic and unpredictable for American readers, too market-orientated for the new wave; a devoted fan (after leaving the RAF he hoped to “spend a year at home writing ... and fanning”), but apparently unpopular on the convention scene.

Though coming from a university press – it forms part of the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series from the University of Illinois – this book isn’t steeped in literary criticism or swamped in jargon; general readers interested in the subject will find it perfectly accessible. Where it is polemical, it’s in support of the author’s ideas rather than his politics, in particular his thesis that Brunner’s whole oeuvre is worth studying, not just the books that won awards; he wants to situate “his better-known works within the larger arc of his career”. He shows how Brunner’s writing career did not progress neatly from Ace entertainments to hardback Hugo-winning literature. Rather, the two types of book intertwined throughout his career, as he rushed some books out to fund the concentrated spells of attention that more ambitious works required.

That Stand on Zanzibar was released to a hostile reception, and treated as a commercial, American appropriation of the New Wave, may be a surprise to readers accustomed to regarding it as a well-established part of the science fiction canon. A review of Telepathist in Vector described it as the kind of affected intellectualism “one might expect from an author who sports a goatee and a wine-coloured corduroy jacket”. Although the book is very much on Brunner’s side in such matters – Moorcock, Aldiss and Platt are portrayed as nothing short of schoolyard bullies – it does acknowledge his moodiness and, for example, Zanzibar’s immense debt to Dos Passos. Asides such as that describing “John and Marjorie’s relationship as sexually open and emotionally tumultuous” suggest a biography proper would be worthwhile.

Given that this is a book which, very usefully, draws on several hard-to-find primary sources – fanzines, letters and convention speeches, for example – it’s disappointing that it is so parsimonious with its quotations, rarely providing more than a line or two of Brunner himself. While that contributes to its readability, it does mean the reader is left to accept the author’s paraphrases and interpretations of Brunner’s words, rather than being able to come to their own conclusions. A short interview is included, from 1975, but that gives us only a snapshot of a particular period of his writing, a single mood. An extensive bibliography takes up the book’s last quarter, so at least signposts to the original texts are there for those who want to investigate further.

The book doesn’t provide a radical new way of looking at Brunner’s work – the overall effect is of a well-crafted and lengthy encyclopaedia entry written by someone with a slight bias towards to the subject – but it argues well for the continuing interest and relevance of his work. Hard to argue with that when Smith’s summary of The Sheep Look Up sounds like a week’s worth of headlines from The Independent: “Fish stocks are depleted. Natural bee populations have collapsed ... Human bodies fester with once-controlled but now drug-resistant diseases.” Smith is also right to highlight the strangeness of such a book coming from the same writer as, say, The Super Barbarians and its goofy portrayal of human exceptionalism.

Readers unfamiliar with Brunner’s novels would find this a perfect introduction to them (except in so far as it gives away the plots, but that’s only to be expected in a critical study). Even those who have read the award winners may find their interest piqued by discussion of fringe titles: The Atlantic Abomination sounds much better than the title would suggest. Smith mentions in places that certain works were never reprinted, and it’s a sad fact that Brunner was almost entirely out of print at the time of his death, but one pleasure of reading this book is knowing almost all of it is now available (albeit, in some cases, marred by appalling typos) via the SF Gateway. This book left me keen to read more Brunner, and also to read further titles in the Modern Masters range.

After a bit of editing, this review appeared in Interzone #245, back in 2013.

Friday 21 November 2014

Adventures with the Wife in Space by Neil Perryman / review by Stephen Theaker

“… imagine if you could convince someone who hasn’t seen the episodes to sit through them all? Someone who wouldn’t know if a story was supposed to be good or bad before they’d even sat down to watch it; a person who didn’t know what was coming next; a person who’d agree to watch the whole thing with an open mind and without prejudice. That’s where you come in, Sue.”

In 2011, Neil Perryman persuaded his wife Sue to watch all of Doctor Who, from start to finish, going so far as to watch fan-made reconstructions where the originals remain lost. While the viewing marathon was underway, one or two stories being watched a night, Sue’s reactions and ratings were being recorded on a blog, Behind the Sofa, quoted here in small chunks. Adventures with the Wife in Space (Faber and Faber, ebook, 3179ll) is the story behind this adventure.

I found that a bit disappointing, in that I was more interested in reading about the adventure itself. But that’s the blog. This is more The Making of Behind the Sofa, a behind-the-scenes book, packaged in a way to make it seem of more general interest. More than the story of watching the series, this is the story of Perryman’s relationship with the series, and although he’s a few years older than me (his first memory – “of anything” – is from the month I was born: the drashig in “Carnival of Monsters”), it’s one very similar to my own. Love for the Tom Baker years, interruption during the Davison years (rugby for him, cubs for me), not watching much of Colin Baker, and then, at university, realising that he had missed the renaissance of Sylvester McCoy’s second and third years and that leading back into enjoying the programme as a whole.

This will be an enjoyable if unsurprising read for fans of Doctor Who, and it may also appeal to fans of Nick Hornby; it reminded me a lot of Fever Pitch. But it’s not essential, and those intrigued by the book’s pitch who haven’t heard of the blog will probably be disappointed by what’s not here. In the early chapters I was thinking, okay, that’s enough build-up, let’s get onto watching the episodes, but it never really happens. Plenty of life, but could have done with more wife.  ***

Monday 17 November 2014

Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck / review by Stephen Theaker

Karin Tidbeck is a Swedish writer who, frustrated by a lack of local opportunities, began a few years ago [before this review was originally published] to translate her own work into English, leading to appearances in Weird Tales and other US magazines. A previous Swedish collection – Vem är Arvid Pekon? – included all but four of these fourteen stories, but this is her first book in English. There are many points of similarity here with Ekaterina Sedia’s similarly strong collection, Moscow But Dreaming. Both write stories set in parts of the world and featuring legends and character types not yet reduced to cliché by English and American writers, stories that can be rather miserable, about ground-down people and the difficulty of finding love and support in a heartless world; both are part of a tradition of fantasy that takes in Kafka but sidesteps Tolkien.

While Moscow But Dreaming tends to focus on the women being damaged, Tidbeck’s collection is interested in the effects of their absence. Some characters never even met the person they needed. “Arvid Pekon”, for example, who spends his nights alone and works among telephone operators who frustrate the public for unknown purposes, or “Herr Cederberg”, hurt by the casual cruelty of other people – when people spoke of him, “the most common simile was pig, followed by panda, koala, and bumblebee, in no particular order” – and tries to fly away from it all. “I might have gone mad,” Pekon tells his terminal after losing control of his behaviour: that’s a sentiment shared by many of Tidbeck’s characters. The protagonist of “Beatrice” seems equally sympathetic at first, falling in love with an airship. Unfortunately she has been sold, and he settles for Beatrice II. By a landlord’s accident they come to share a warehouse with Anna Goldberg, a printer’s assistant in love with a semi-portable steam engine. This all seems cute and quirky, but an unexpected ending resets the reader’s expectations for the rest of the book.

Beatrice is not the last female lost in these stories: wives, mothers, friends, and in “Reindeer Mountain” a sister: “Cilla was twelve years old the summer Sara put on her great-grandmother’s wedding dress and disappeared up the mountain.” The loss, strangeness and confusion in that sentence give a good sense of the book as a whole. “Some Letters for Ove Lindstrom” are written by a daughter after his drunken, lonely death, his life ruined by his fey wife’s disappearance from the commune in which they lived. “Rebecka” is a friend lost first to pain and then to divine judgment; it begins with her outline scorched against a wall, “arms outstretched as if to embrace someone”. God exists, but let a horrific attack last three days before interceding. The “Aunts” are three immense women fattened by Nieces until their grotesque bodies are ready to produce the next generation. As so often here, an interesting idea is pushed that little bit further, showing how the Nieces try to cope when the Aunts fail to reproduce, reflecting our own efforts to deal with tragedy and bereavement.

Like “Aunts”, many stories have the feel of dark fantasy but can be read as science fiction. One such is “Brita’s Holiday Village”, where the narrator stays in a resort unchanged since the seventies. In May, “white, plum-sized pupas hang clustered under the eaves” of the bungalows, and in June she dreams of distant relatives who stay in the cottages and hold increasingly odd summer parties. “Pyret” takes the form of an academic article, presenting evidence that this mythical mimic is not “a cryptid but a real being”. After examining historical accounts of the creatures, including, most eerily, the Sjungpastorn, who held mass and sang a wordless song to isolated churchgoers, the writer comes to worrying conclusions. Title story “Jagannath” is the last in the book, the second longest (albeit at just eleven pages), and the most straightforwardly science-fictional, in which the much-altered survivors of a great disaster live and work inside Mother – but she can’t survive forever. She’s the last and most important lost woman of the book.

Ann and Jeff VanderMeer are highly respected editors, and their first publication as proprietors of Cheeky Frawg is sure-footed, from the intriguing cover onwards. The print edition is handsome, the ebook perfectly set up (rarer than it should be, even with major publishers), the introduction ideal, the author’s afterword fascinating. The print version is perhaps slim for its price, so the cheaper ebook may prove attractive for UK readers, but the stories are so intensely emotional that you wouldn’t necessarily want it to be any longer. I spent much of my last holiday reading the much shorter books in the Penguin Mini Moderns series: Barthelme, Calvino, Petrushevskaya, Borges, Jackson, and so on. The remarkable stories of Jagannath (Cheeky Frawg Books pb, 160pp) would be perfectly at home in that company.

After a bit of editing, this review appeared in Interzone #244, back in 2013.

Friday 14 November 2014

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #49: now out!

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #49 is now out, at last! Sorry to all the contributors for how long it’s taken me to finish this one off. It features novellas by Ross Gresham (“Ut in Fumum!”) and Michael B. Tager (“Nebuchadnezzar”), and an Oulippean story by Antonella Coriander (“Beatrice et Veronique: Tunnel Panic!”), plus cover art by Howard Watts, reviews by Tim Atkinson, Jacob Edwards, Rafe McGregor, Stephen Theaker and Douglas J. Ogurek, and an interview with Kathryn Allan and Djibril al-Ayad.

Reviewed this issue: Adventures with the Wife in Space by Neil Perryman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Omnibus Vol. 6, City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett, Daredevil by Mark Waid, Deliver Us from Evil, Glorkian Warrior: The Trials of Glork, Guardians of the Galaxy, I Killed Rasputin, I Need a Doctor: the Whosical, Infidel by Kameron Hurley, Lucy, The Making of Star Wars by J.W. Rinzler, Mr Mercedes by Stephen King, Penny Dreadful, Season 1, Return to Armageddon by Malcolm Shaw and Jesus Redondo, The Seventh Miss Hatfield by Anna Caltabiano, The Spectral Link by Thomas Ligotti, Turbulence (the audiobook) by Samit Basu, The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar, World of Fire by James Lovegrove, and Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress.

Here it is: free epub, free mobi, free pdf, print UK, print USA, Kindle UK store, Kindle US store.

Here are the artisans who wove those wonderful tapestries:

Antonella Coriander has (in this reality, at least) only ever been published in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, to her great dismay. Her story in this issue is the third episode of her ongoing Oulippean serial.

Douglas J. Ogurek’s work has appeared in the BFS Journal, The Literary Review, Morpheus Tales, Gone Lawn, and several anthologies. He lives in a Chicago suburb with the woman whose husband he is and their five pets. In this issue he reviews the film Deliver Us from Evil. His website:

Howard Watts is a writer, artist and composer living in Seaford who provides the cover art for this issue.

Jacob Edwards is a steward on Australia’s speculative fiction flagship Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, but he moonlights with us when in port. This writer, poet and recovering lexiphanicist’s website is at: He also now has a Facebook page (, where he posts poems and the occasional oddity. He can be liked and followed. (More than that, he should be!) In this issue he reviews The Making of Star Wars.

Michael B. Tager’s work has appeared in the Atticus Review, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Schlock! and The Light Ekphrastic. He likes Buffy, the Orioles and theatre. His debut appearance in the magazine is with a forty-page novella, “Nebuchadnezzar”.

Rafe McGregor, absent from these pages for far too long, reviews Mr Mercedes and The Spectral Link in this issue. So good to have him back!

Ross Gresham teaches at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. His stories have previously appeared in #34 (“Name the Planet”), #41 (“Milo Don’t Count Coup”), #44 (“Milo on Fire”), and #46 (“Wild Seed”). “Ut in Fumum!” is I think the longest in the Milo and Marmite series yet. You’re going to enjoy it!

Stephen Theaker is both human and dancer. Someone should tell The Killers that there’s no need to choose. His reviews have also appeared in Black Static, Interzone, Prism and the BFS Journal. His hobbies include watching television and reading books. His ambition is to completely clear his backlog of reviews in TQF50.

Tim Atkinson lives, reads and works in the West Midlands. Sporadically he jots down thoughts about SFF and more at". In this issue he reviews Infidel by Kameron Hurley and The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar.

Bonus! To celebrate this new issue, all our Amazon exclusive ebooks will be absolutely free this week: Professor Challenger in Space, Quiet, the Tin Can Brains Are Hunting!, The Fear Man, Howard Phillips in His Nerves Extruded, Howard Phillips and the Doom That Came to Sea Base Delta, Howard Phillips and the Day the Moon Wept Blood, The Mercury Annual and Pilgrims at the White Horizon.

As ever, all back issues of Theaker's Quarterly Fiction are available for free download.

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Forthcoming Theaker

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #49 will be with you on Friday. (Sorry for the delay!) While you're waiting, here is information on three other forthcoming publications that feature my work, as well as the contributions of many other people whose names you may recognise:

Interzone #255: includes my review of a fascinating book of essays, Black and Brown Planets, edited by Isiah Lavender III, plus columns by Jonathan McCalmont and Nina Allan, a story by Thana Niveau, and much, much more.

Black Static #43: includes my review of The Unquiet House by Alison Littlewood, as well as many, many more reviews by the peerless Peter Tennant, stories by Ralph Robert Moore, Andrew Hook and Aliya Whiteley, and loads more.

BFS Journal #13: will contain quite a few bits by me, thanks to a bit of a crisis at BFS Towers, including an interview with Lavie Tidhar, a piece going through the results of the BFS president's recent survey, an article about my experiences at FantasyCon 2014, and a round-up of responses from former BFS chairs to my questions about that hot seat. Almost two hundred pages of stories, poetry and articles! The link for this one will take you to the Join the BFS bit of the BFS website, because that's the only way you can get hold of this fine publication. I'll be sending it to press on November 17, more or less, so make sure you've joined by then to get onto the mailing list. The cover (selected by the outgoing editor) is by our own Howard Watts.

Monday 10 November 2014

The Wurms of Blearmouth by Steven Erikson / review by Stephen Theaker

Lord Fangatooth Claw the Render, insane lord sorceror of West Elingarth’s Forgotten Holding, celebrates dominion over Spendrugle village with daily tortures of his brother, his rule upheld by three iron golems with buckets for heads, at least one of whom took him five months to create. By his law, being a stranger is punishable by death, which suits the villagers since it leaves no survivors of the shipwrecks from which they draw their pocket money. But the new folks brought in by the tide are the kind that take a fair bit of killing. Most dangerous are the first to arrive: Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, necromancers, one sharp and expansive, the other taciturn and brutal, both ready to kill at the twitch of an eye.

The Wurms of Blearmouth (PS Publishing, hb, 124pp) is the fifth novella about this pair and their loyal servant, Emancipor Reese. The fourth, Crack’d Pot Trail, was quite brilliant but unusual, Bauchelain and Korbal Broach in the wings till the end as their pursuers preyed upon fellow travellers. Here, the necromancers play a more active role, rather like children poking an anthill. Chronologically, it seems to follow book two, The Lees of Laughter’s End, but knowledge of other books isn’t required for the enjoyment of this one. Characters enter the scene with colourful histories, battle-wounded and vengeful, and whether relevant events happened in previous novellas, Steven Erikson’s eleven colossal Malazan novels or collaborator Ian Cameron Esslemont’s four won’t matter much to anyone except fans trying to piece everything together.

It’s a story of venal grotesques, each uniquely drawn, with whom we’re happy to see dark powers play. Lord Fangatooth, who has Todd Ingram’s way with a quip and a scribe on hand to record them. Whuffine Gaggs, the beachcomber who greets survivors with a smile, but hides a knife behind his back. Felooval, innkeeper, brothel owner, hiding a deadly secret in her bosom. Her daughter, dreaming of big city prostitution while stroking her lizard cat. The broken taxman who wants to take her (but not the cat). Ackle, who, hung by the neck, lives on, and worries about freezing solid in the winter. Hordillo, the sergeant who will never admit to an exceedingly unfortunate marriage. Tiny Chanter, Wormlick, Sordid: all distinctly – often uncomfortably – memorable.

Though its length would make this ideal for those unready to embark upon the ten thousand pages of Erikson’s Malazan novels, only fans and collectors are likely to find twenty pounds an attractive price for such a short book; those unsure should try the novellas collected cheaply as The First Collected Tales of Bauchelain & Korbal Broach. Those three are terrific, but this is even better, an entertainment for brain and gut; clever, vivid, funny and surprising, with a delicious tone, mining a rich, dark seam – “the delightful pleasure of evil”, Erikson calls it – producing murderously good dialogue. “What? What have you done to me?” asks one villain, to receive Bauchelain’s reply: “Why, I have killed you.” And like Erikson, he does it with style.

After a bit of editing, this review appeared in Interzone #243, back in 2012.

Monday 3 November 2014

Seven Wonders by Adam Christopher / review by Stephen Theaker

The supervillains of the world are gone – defeated, retired, arrested – leaving two to fight the bad fight: The Cowl, billionaire industrialist by day, conscience-free killer by night (and sometimes by day too), and Blackbird, his untrustworthy sidekick with a heart of ice. Gangs throughout San Ventura, California wear his omega tag with pride. The city cowers. With no other supervillains to battle, the world’s superheroes have retired too, leaving just the Seven Wonders – Aurora’s Light, Bluebell, Sand Cat, Linear, Hephaestus, SMART and The Dragon Star – to deal with The Cowl, a job they handle with staggering and apparently wilful ineptitude.

Into this comes Tony, who wakes in the night with energy powers, then gains strength, bulletproof skin and flight, that last while interfering with The Cowl’s bank robbery. New friend Jeannie trains him and creates a costume with her atomic sewing machine, but the question for Tony is: what to do with these powers? Take out The Cowl? But if that’s obvious to him after just a few days of having powers, why haven’t the Seven Wonders done it? That question also troubles Sam Millar, detective on the SVPD SuperCrime unit, her husband one of thousands killed by The Cowl.

From that point on, Seven Wonders (Angry Robot, pb, 480pp) by Adam Christopher could be admired for not going where expected – this isn’t The Boys – but where it goes instead could have been more interesting. Though the novel has a detective at its heart, it gives her very little to detect; she doesn’t get to unmask anyone, for example. Bluebell’s ability to manipulate minds casts doubt over much of the novel’s action, but if we take events as read this is a simple story of power that corrupts. The incorruptible heroes are those without character flaws. Those corrupted can be set straight by siphoning off their powers.

Recent comics dealing with similar themes have given us the superbly evil Batman of Nemesis, the genocidal Superman of Irredeemable, and Invincible battling his own father to defend the human race from enslavement. In Seven Wonders there are no grand revelations, no ethical conflicts, no great insights into the way power corrupts over time or the immense pressure that would come with such immense responsibility. Everyone is pretty much what they appear to be, and that’s generally either bland or angry. Had the novel’s finale revealed the Seven Wonders as Billy Batsons pretending to be grown-ups it wouldn’t have surprised.

Happily, an alien invasion ends the book on a high, its cosmic fire and fury playing to the strengths of the novel and its heroes better than earthbound plots. The heroes and villains that assemble in space are entertaining and imaginative (Lucifer Now! Lady Liberty and her team of android Presidents! Connectormatic! A Terrible Aspect!), as is, earlier, the explanation for Aurora’s Light’s awkward name: supervillain Red Tape’s “final act of bureaucratic terror”, a contract so binding it would wrench the West Coast apart if broken! It’s a shame such fun ideas don’t play a bigger role in the novel.

After a bit of editing, this review appeared in Interzone #242, back in 2012.