Thursday, 25 November 2010

A parting, of sorts

"Well, here at last, dear friends, on the shores of the Sea comes the end of our fellowship in Middle-earth. Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil."
- J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

All good things come to an end, they say. Sadly, the time has come for me to finish my blogging at Speculative Horizons.

My reasons are simple: soon I will be joining the editorial team at Orbit, to take on the role of editorial assistant. I've wanted to work in publishing for a fantasy imprint ever since I was a teenager, so this really is the fulfillment of a long-held ambition. A dream, even. And I can't wait to take on the challenge.

Of course, this means I can't continue with my blogging here. I've always tried to blog with honesty and integrity, and there's just no way I could continue blogging while working for a major genre publisher - it would bring my personal and professional credibility into question.

So this post marks both the end of the blog, and the end of an amazing journey.

I started Speculative Horizons back in January 2008. The previous year had been a pretty horrendous one for me personally, and I felt I needed something to focus my creative energy on. With my love for fantasy books, and my enjoyment of the fledgling blogosphere, I figured a book review blog would be a great thing to do - a focus for my energies, and a challenge at the same time.

It's safe to say, on that cold January night in 2008, I didn't have the slightest sense of the journey I was about to embark on when I clicked 'create blog'.

The truth is, this blogging experience has been wonderful. No, more than that: it's been life-changing - quite literally.

As a direct result of my blogging endeavours, I have met dozens of wonderful people - authors, editors, agents, bloggers, fans - and have formed some friendships I have no doubt will last a lifetime. I've received hundreds of free books - a dream for any book lover - and that's something I am still grateful for. I've managed - with my reviews, articles and the occasional rant - to reach a global audience, and accrue more than a quarter of a million visits (although the true figure, I imagine, is even higher than that). I've had hundreds of emails from readers of the blog, like the one from the US soldier stationed in the Middle East, who told me that Speculative Horizons was one of his favourite websites to surf when on a break from patrols. Needless to say, that really made my day - and also brought home exactly what I'd achieved with this blog.

Of course, none of this would have been possible without you guys, and your undying enthusiasm. Whether you first stumbled across the blog yesterday, or have been here right from the start (and I know one or two of you have), I'm immensely grateful that you've taken the time to read my writings here and share your own thoughts - it's been a real pleasure interacting with you all, and I offer my heartfelt thanks. The genre community is wonderful, and I've been fortunate enough to experience it first hand.

And I hope to continue interacting with the community in my new role at Orbit. While I will be relinquishing my blogging status, you won't be getting rid of me that easily - I will still be attending conventions and will probably show my face here and there in the online scene from time to time, though in a purely professional capacity.

I've had an absolute blast with Speculative Horizons, and I hope you all did as well. I'm really proud of what I've achieved with this blog, but the time has come to pass the blogging flame on to a new generation - there's a lot of new blogs out there, and some of them are very good indeed.

So, that's about it. Cheers...and hopefully I'll see some of you in the bar.


Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Book review: Perdido Street Station

Perdido Street Station

By China Miéville

(Pan Macmillan, 2000)

China Miéville has been winning numerous awards for his novel The City and the City, but his ability to attract awards like a magnet attracts iron filings is nothing new: his second novel, the sprawling Perdido Street Station, also won plenty of plaudits, including the Arthur C. Clarke award and British Fantasy August Derleth award (among others; it was also nominated for the Nebula and Hugo). Aside from the hugely positive critical response it received, Perdido Street Station is notable for being both the first book in Miéville's Bas-Lag sequence of novels, and also one of the major works of the 'stillborn' New Weird genre. The second Bas-Lag novel, The Scar, totally redefined the landscape of secondary world fantasy for me; it really opened my eyes, and I've never looked at the genre quite the same ever since. I figured therefore that it was time I delved into Perdido Street Station, to see whether it would have a similar effect on me.

I mentioned that Perdido is a sprawling novel, however I don't mean that purely in terms of size (although at 867 pages it certainly is that too). No, I mean more in terms of subject matter: there's a lot going on in this book, with the story merging romance, action and tragedy together in a heady mix, whilst also riffing on politics, science and artificial intelligence. All of this plays out against the industrial backdrop of New Crobuzon, a teeming industrial metropolis where trains shudder along skyrails above the sluggish Tar river, and where numerous bizarre races co-exist with humans in the crumbling buildings that cower beneath smog-tinged skies.

New Crobuzon will probably go down as Miéville's greatest creation, and rightly so: it's a stunningly well-realised setting, and can comfortably stand alongside other great cities and urban settings of secondary world fantasy such as Viriconium and Gormenghast (tellingly, Miéville name checks both Harrison and Peake in the acknowledgements). Miéville really does imbue New Crobuzon with a character all of its own; it feels more like a sentient creature than a mere passive setting - though it works perfectly well as the latter. It really is a fascinating place, and often evokes interest just as easily as the unfolding story does.

Speaking of the story, it intrigues from the very first few words:

Veldt to scrub to fields to farms to these first tumbling houses that rise from the earth. It has been night for a long time. The hovels that encrust the river's edge have grown like mushrooms around me in the dark. 
We pitch. We rock in a deep current. 
Behind me the man tugs uneasily at his rudder and the barge corrects. Light lurches as the lantern swings. The man is afraid of me

I'll gladly go on record and say that I've read few more effective opening lines than those above. The bulk of the novel is written in third person, however the prologue and occasional interludes are written in first person from the perspective of one of the major characters. It's a neat ploy that enables Miéville to really get under the skin of the city and its people in these first person segments, demonstrating what an alien place it is to an outsider.

The outsider in this case is Yagharek, a garuda who has come to New Crobuzon with an impossible request, and it's this request that inadvertently sets into motion a terrifying chain of events that have dire implications for the entire city.

Except that before these events unfold, we have a couple of hundred pages of build-up. We're introduced to the gruff, affable character of  Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin and his lover Lin, an insect-like Khepri, as well as a host of other colourful characters, such as the shady Lemuel Pigeon and the horrifying gangster Mr Motley. Miéville takes his time to develop the complex relationship between Isaac and Lin, as well as the setting of New Crobuzon, while simultaneously laying the foundations for the story to come. He manages this balance extremely well, though at the cost of pacing: it's only after 200 pages that the story really kicks into gear and momentum starts to build. And then after a series of events that crank up the tension and excitement, the electric pace suddenly winds down again and the story meanders along for another 100 pages before once again sparking into life. Such unpredictable pacing may prove a negative point for many readers, though for others - and I include myself here - it gives the novel a more organic, lifelike feel. Because life, of course, doesn't happen at a steady pace.

The story itself is equally unpredictable. As mentioned above, Miéville spends a lot of time laying a lot of foundations: there's the romance between Isaac and Lin, played out while Isaac undertakes a demanding research project and Lin takes on the artistic commission of her career, there's the underground newspaper that's trying to take on the government, and this is before we even get on to the political strikes or the strands being woven by the mysterious, enigmatic Weaver. Yet just when you think these various strands are being merged into some deep, multi-faceted story, they're all suddenly condensed into one major storyline: that of a hunt for some terrifying creatures that pose a threat to the entire city. It's a strange transformation, one that perhaps indicates that Miéville didn't quite know what he was initially shooting for with this novel. It could be argued that the simplicity of the novel's eventual premise isn't deserving of the pages of careful build-up that precede it, but ultimately it doesn't matter - the simple fact is that this is one exhilarating monster hunt.

The subjects of said hunt - the slake moths - are a wonderful creation: terrifying, yet strangely beguiling at the same time. The menace they exude dominates every scene they appear in, and fortunately there are plenty of those. But the moths are not the only strange creatures to make an appearance - the Weaver is another intriguing creation who lends a degree of unpredictability to proceedings, while the Construct Council is quite simply a brilliant idea that I will say nothing more about for fear of spoiling it. Of course, this being Miéville, there's some utterly bizarre stuff in here - not all of which works, yet there's rarely a dull moment.

Despite the weird and wonderful creations that Miéville cooks up in Perdido, the novel remains human-centric. The overriding premise may be that of the monster hunt and the bid to save the city, yet the love story between Isaac and Lin plays a huge role, and it is this element that really ignites the novel's emotional fires. Miéville really nails the characterisation of these two figures, and carefully builds their complex relationship before giving it a firm shunt in the direction of tragedy. The end result is emotionally powerful and leaves a lingering impression long after you've put the book down.

Verdict: Having already read The Scar, I had a rough idea of what to expect from Perdido Street Station, so the fact that it still managed to surprise and enthrall me speaks volumes. It undoubtedly has issues, most clearly with pacing and length (caused largely by Miéville's tendency to sometimes get too self-absorbed in his own world) but this is forgivable when you take into account what Miéville has achieved here. He's created a striking, memorable setting, and has then told a story worthy of this grim, industrial city: a story that combines love, beauty, horror and tragedy, told in the wonderfully evocative, baroque prose that Miéville has become famous for. In short, it's an excellent novel that showcases both the New Weird genre and Miéville's own individual talents. Compulsory reading for those who wish to see what secondary world fantasy can do when the pseudo-medieval shackles are well and truly cast off.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Valhalla Rising

On the surface, Valhalla Rising seems like a fairly straightforward viking action romp, with plenty of blood, beards and...metaphysics? 

Ok, so not so straightforward then.

In truth, the only thing that is straightforward about this film is the premise: mysterious mute viking warrior (named One-Eye by his young companion, though that's clearly not his real name...if he even has one) escapes his pagan captors and falls in with a bunch of Christian crusaders who are en route to Jerusalem. One-Eye joins their crusade (for his own reasons that are not divulged) and things go pear-shaped when the crusaders somehow end up in America as opposed to the Middle East. From then on, things get very weird indeed...

While it's trendy these days to paint vikings as rather more civilised people than the popular legends, the fact remains that they were quite partial to spilling blood and crushing the odd skull. This is certainly the angle that Valhalla Rising takes, and subsequently the film is packed with eye-wincing brutality. It's not gratuitous - the violence is necessary and appropriate, though it is certainly visceral.

Don't mistake Valhalla Rising for a dumb action film though, because it's much more than that. For a start, the cinematography is excellent; the first third of the film in particular is wonderfully bleak and moody, and the rugged landscape is used to impressive effect. The early parts of the film are shot through with strong sense of realism; it all just looks so authentic, which is something that historical films don't always achieve.  The final third of the film, set in America (or is it? Yeah, it's that kind of film) lacks the brooding intensity of the earlier scenes, but makes up for that by cranking up the weirdness.

Another aspect worthy of praise is the sound; it's been a long time since I've seen a film where the soundtrack plays such a huge - and effective - role in promoting the tension and paranoia that percolates through the film. It's utilised so well that even in apparently static scenes where not a lot is happening, the skittering beats and discordant notes keep the tension levels high. When combined with the obscure 'dream' sequences that repeat throughout the movie, the overall result is pleasingly unsettling.

It's difficult to say for sure what exactly Valhalla Rising is trying to say or do (if anything at all), yet the religious undertone is clear, and the film can be said to be riffing on the idea of faith (and faithlessness). The mist-shrouded journey certainly has an element of the supernatural, and the film ranges into metaphysical territory when the crusaders arrive in the New World. If that all sounds a little weird, then that's because it's a strange film - yet absorbing too, especially earlier on.

Mads Mikkelsen is excellent as One-Eye; despite not having a single line of dialogue (hell, he doesn't even have a single grunt) he manages to imbue his character ('the creature' as the crew members refer to him in the 'making of' feature) with a strange, detached ferocity. Yet he's curiously enigmatic at the same time, which provides an odd counterpoint to his brutal side.

Valhalla Rising is unflinchingly brutal, unsettling and bizarre. This violence and weirdness is merged seamlessly with often gorgeous visuals and a hugely effective soundtrack. A very strange film, but also a curiously good one.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Weekend linkage

Time for a few links to assorted items of interest within the genre...

...but first, a funny:

Now, links...

First up, a couple of posts about a recent topic of debate: the piracy of ebooks. Niall from the Speculative Scotsman kicked things off, with an article that looks at the pirating of Celine Kiernan's The Poison Throne, after the author herself requested on her blog that people stop pirating her books. Adam of Wert then wrote a typically assured article about the problems of ebook piracy and what exactly can be done about it.

It's an interesting topic, although some perspective is required as the figures can be misleading. Niall, at the time his article was posted, quoted that 764 people had illegally downloaded Kiernan's book The Poison Throne from the single website he referenced. But does that mean that the author/publisher/bookseller all missed out on 764 copies that otherwise would have been bought legitimately? Not necessarily - it's highly likely that plenty of those people that downloaded the illegal ebook simply did so out of a passing interest; it doesn't follow that all of them would have bought a legitimate copy if they couldn't download it illegally. In other words, a fair few of them probably downloaded it because they could, possibly along with a dozen other books. But of course it can't be denied that genuine fans that would otherwise have bought a copy are also downloading illegal versions, and this is where the real problem lies. Authors, publishers, and booksellers are undoubtedly losing sales and profit because of it.

Fears that this may signal the end of publishing are premature though. Mark Charan Newton - who, as an author, is at risk of his books being illegally downloaded - was surprisingly dismissive of the fears surrounding piracy:

"I don't think pirates are killing a single thing about the genre. (Non-fic might be different.) People who browse torrent sites to buy my book are (off the record, my publisher probably disagree wholeheartedly!) not people who would have spent money on the book anyway. Who cares? I've got another reader. It's like when you lend your copy of a book to someone else for free. I'm not going to get all evil and KICK YO ASS on someone who reads my book for free. I like readers - they're kind of useful to authors. Maybe they'll spend money on my books in future, who knows.
Fucksake. If people who download torrents are killing the genre, then by that definition Cory Doctorow - who makes available all his books for free in a variety of e-formats - would not have a career. As I recall, he's not doing badly."

However you regard the threat that piracy poses, one thing is commonly agreed on: authors and publishers work bloody hard to produce these books, so to steal their products is seriously uncool (not to mention being illegal, for what it's worth in this digital age).

Moving on to touch briefly on to the major shitstorm of the past week, in case you've somehow missed it: Amazon selling a book for paedophiles. Naturally, this caused a tasty old uproar all over the internet, raising the issue of censorship among other concerns. My own feeling is simple: there's censorship, and there's censorship. I don't like censorship in general, but when it comes to a book that promotes something that is both disgusting and illegal, it's totally irresponsible of Amazon to offer it for sale.

Originally Amazon, predictably, stood their ground and tried to convince everyone that they weren't at fault and that the reader had a right to chose what products to purchase. Later (even more predictably) they removed the book from their website, presumably after someone higher up the company's foodchain saw the online response and choked on their cornflakes.

It's been well documented how bad Amazon are when it comes to regulating reviews (they hardly bother, in other words) and so it shouldn't come as much surprise that they clearly don't bother either to really regulate the products that third parties are looking to sell through them. Or alternatively they do, and decided that a book offering tips on how best to sexually abuse children was a good product to sell through their website. Bad, bad form.

Anyway, moving back to the genre...

Wert's been re-visiting a genre classic, with a review of H. G. Well's The War of the Worlds.

Niall has reviewed Alan Campbell's upcoming Sea of Ghosts, of which I have a copy that I stroke lovingly every few minutes. I'm hoping to start it soon, since it sounds like it's made of awesome.

Aidan's decided to re-visit The Wheel of Time (no small undertaking) and has posted a review of The Eye of the World. I loved this novel when I was fifteen; would be interested to re-read it to see whether, 12 years on, it still has the same magic.

Graeme has been busy as usual, and among his many posts there's this review of The Fall by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan.

Towers of Midnight has unsurprisingly generated a load of buzz recently, and Neth has posted his largely positive verdict. Larry, by contrast, wasn't that impressed.

Right, enough I think...if your thirst for genre action hasn't been throughly quenched, then check out the blogroll to the right and no doubt you'll find more tasty morsels to snack on.

As for blog content this coming week...probably a few words on Valhalla Rising, once I've watched it. Possibly, possibly, a review of Perdido Street Station. I'm still trying to rein in my thoughts on that one. We'll see.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

New two-book deal for Adam Nevill

From agent John Jarrold's blog:

"Julie Crisp, Editorial Director of Pan Macmillan in London, has concluded a World Rights deal for two further horror novels by British author Adam Nevill with agent John Jarrold, for a very good five-figure sum.
Adam Nevill’s novel APARTMENT 16 was published very successfully by Pan in May this year, reprinting three times and spending many weeks as’s bestselling horror title, and THE RITUAL will follow in 2011. The two new books are, as yet, untitled. They will be published by Macmillan in 2012 and 2013.
Adam Nevill said: ‘Since my early contact with books, no other kind of fiction has captivated me, or transported me, in the same way as supernatural horror. Many years ago, the idea of contributing to this great field of the weird tale became a dream. To interpret my influences and to add something fresh, became my main purpose as a writer. The dream has been realised; the purpose continues. It’s genuinely a wondrous thing to receive another opportunity to create original works of disquiet, that will be given flight by the engines of a major publisher.’
Julie Crisp said: ‘Pan Macmillan has a tradition of publishing great British horror and so we’re thrilled to be working with Adam on his next two books. APARTMENT 16 and THE RITUAL were both terrifying and exciting adventures into the macabre and I can’t wait to see what nightmare scenarios he comes up with next to chill his readers."

Awesome on a stick. I really liked Apartment 16, and can't wait to read The Ritual. I'm delighted for Adam that he's signed a new deal, as he's a top guy and a very good writer.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Alt. Fiction - Other Worlds report

I had an excellent time yesterday at the Alt. Fiction - Other Worlds event, which was held in conjunction with Tor UK, and was basically a small-scale convention with a mixture of workshops, panels and book signing action.

The four Tor authors in attendance were Peter F. Hamilton, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Mark Charan Newton and Tony Ballantyne, and the first panel of the day was one they all took part in (above), in which they touched on a variety of topics: the differences between the fantasy and SF genres, the changing nature and importance of cover art, and the subject that is still rumbling on...the supposed death of SF. "Total rubbish" was Peter F. Hamilton's response to that. But it was all very good-natured, and in fact it was enjoyable to see Peter and Mark sparring on the issue.

Peter and Tony engaged in book signing duties

After a short break, the crowd split into two, some heading to the SF panel with Peter and Tony, others to the fantasy panel with Adrian and Mark. I attended the latter, which proved to be an entertaining, lively discussion on various aspects of the genre, touching on various subjects such as the use of religion in fantasy and the merits (and problems with) magic systems.

Following the panels, everyone reconvened for a book signing session and a raffle (the first prize of which was a year's supply of Tor books - not too shabby).

Mark and Adrian chatting to readers

No convention is complete of course without after-hours boozing, so I joined the lovely Tor ladies, the four authors, and some other like-minded folk, for a few drinks in a nearby bar. Beer and wine was consumed, geek talk was had. Happy times. This was then followed by a dash to the station, upon which Adrian Tchaikovsky and myself realised we both had a bit of a wait until our trains, so we relocated to a pub and talked books and video games until it was time for me to run for my train.

So, a really fun day. Many thanks to Chloe and Julie from Tor and the folks from Alt. Fiction for pulling the whole thing together, and to Peter, Adrian, Mark and Tony for being good sports and putting up with us fans. It was terrific to catch up with plenty of folk from the online genre scene too: Adrian Faulkner, Steve Aryan, Mark Yon and Mark Chitty.

As if that all wasn't enough, I found a copy of Mieville's King Rat in my swag bag, and a teaser book full of excerpts from Tor books - including Mieville's Embassytown.


Thursday, 4 November 2010

More Amazon review nonsense

I've blogged before about some of the ridiculous 'reviews' on Amazon. Despite some changes being made (you now only seem able to post reviews once a book has been released, thus stopping people from giving 1-star reviews as a protest at the delay with a book's publication) there are still major issues with reviews on Amazon.

Pat has highlighted the most recent issue.

"For some unfathomable reason, disgruntled e-book readers have had a stroke of genius and now leave 1-star reviews on various Amazon sites if the title in question is not yet available in electronic format. It's by no means the first novel to suffer from such attacks, but Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson's Towers of Midnight has been the target of a slew of 1-star reviews solely due to the fact that the e-book edition won't be released till February 2011.

Now I'm not proclaiming that every e-book reader out there is a moron. But those idiots leaving 1-star reviews to make their displeasure known certainly deserve the title. If the shoe fits and all that crap.

Say what you want about Amazon reviews, the sad truth is that they are a tool used by hundreds of readers shopping for books and other products. Granted, Towers of Midnight won't suffer much from this treatment, but a less popular midlist author could see his or her sales go down the crapper based on the fact that his overall average is down to two or three stars simply due to the fact that assholes are bitching about this or that novel not being available in e-book format. Not every customer will take the time to read every single review to realize, to their consternation, that a bunch of idiots left 1-star reviews without having read the work."

I couldn't agree more. The quality (or lack thereof) of Amazon reviews is well known within the publishing industry, but the simple fact is that thousands of people rely on them when deciding which book to purchase. It therefore follows that a load of negative reviews are going to make people less likely to buy a book. Not that there's anything wrong with that if the reviews are genuine, but when they're the result of some disgruntled reader who has not even read the book in question yet, there's a real problem there. Sure, readers that actually bother to read the 1-star reviews will quickly realise if those reviews are not genuine. But a lot of people probably just look at the average star rating without reading individual reviews, and so may not realise if many of the negative reviews are totally false.

I really do hope - for the benefit of everyone: readers, authors and publishers - that Amazon eradicate this sort of nonsense. You'd think they'd do something, given that it doesn't exactly make their own business look that great if they're happy to publish 'reviews' that are not at all authentic. I'm sure that it's not just a case of someone snapping their fingers and magically everything is resolved, but there must be some sort of safeguard that can be introduced.

Authors for Autistica

I like to support charitable causes where I can, so here's a quick heads-up on Authors for Autistica, which is basically an auction involving a slew of various authors, where you can bid for either a) your name to be included in an author's upcoming book, or b) some professional feedback on your own manuscript.

Authors taking part include Peter F. Hamilton, Ken Follet and Darren Shan.

The website can be found here if you're interested.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Dark Fiction Magazine launches

Dark Fiction Magazine is a brand-new UK webzine specialising in, um, dark fiction. Despite being early days, the magazine has got some great authors lined up for future issues.

Here's the press release.

LONDON, MIDLANDS AND MANCHESTER, UK, 26 Oct 2010. Dark Fiction Magazine ( is pleased to announce the launch of a new service for fans of genre fiction. Beginning Oct 31st (Halloween), Dark Fiction Magazine will be launching a monthly magazine of audio short stories. This is a free service designed to promote genre short fiction to an audience of podcast and radio listeners. A cross between an audio book, an anthology and a podcast, Dark Fiction Magazine is designed to take the enjoyment of short genre fiction in a new and exciting direction.
Dark Fiction Magazine publishes at least four short stories a month: a mix of award-winning shorts and brand new stories from both established genre authors and emerging writers. Each episode will have a monthly theme and feature complementary tales from the three main genres – science fiction, fantasy and horror.
Co-founder Del Lakin-Smith said: "I love reading short stories, and with the increased uptake of mobile and portable devices this really is a growth area. But like many I find I don't have as much time as I would like to read, so I tend to listen to many podcasts on the go. The idea of replacing my podcasts with high quality, well performed audio short stories is something I find highly appealing, so Sharon and I set about making that a reality."
Sharon Ring, co-founder of Dark Fiction Magazine, said: “From technophobe to technophile in less than two years; I spend a great deal of time working online. To while away those hours, I like to listen to podcasts and drink copious amounts of strong coffee. Now, while I don’t recommend you drink as much coffee as I, I do recommend you check out what Del and I have created. We love podcasts; we love genre fiction; we built a site to bring the two together.”
The theme of Dark Fiction Magazine’s first episode is The Darkness Descends and will feature four fantastical stories:
‘Maybe Then I’ll Fade Away’ by Joseph D’Lacey (exclusive to Dark Fiction Magazine)
‘Pumpkin Night’ by Gary McMahon
‘Do You See?’ by Sarah Pinborough (awarded the 2009 British Fantasy Society Short Story Award)
‘Perhaps The Last’ by Conrad Williams
Lined up for future episodes are Pat Cadigan, Cory Doctorow, Jon Courtenay, Grimwood, Ramsey Campbell, Rob Shearman, Kim Lakin-Smith, Ian Whates, Lauren Beukes, Mark Morris, Adam Nevill, Gareth L Powell, Jeremy C Shipp, Adam Christopher, and Jennifer Williams, among others.
With a team of dedicated and passionate narrators, a central recording facility and a love of genre, Dark Fiction Magazine delivers a truly outstanding aural experience.
Dark Fiction Magazine will also be producing special editions with seasonal stories and topical issues, competitions, flash fiction episodes and novel excerpts. Each episode aims to shock and delight, to horrify and confound as Dark Fiction Magazine takes its listeners on an aural tour through the world of genre fiction.
Dark Fiction Magazine is a collaborative project, created and developed by Del Lakin-Smith and Sharon Ring. For further information, contact Del or Sharon at

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

ConJour - a new UK SFF event

UK genre fans are spoilt when it comes to conventions, yet here's another event to add to the calendar: a new one-day convention called ConJour, which will take place in Leeds on Saturday 11 March 2011.

"ConJour is the first Science Fiction and Fantasy event to be based in Leeds in many years. It is a one day event taking place on Saturday March 12th 2011 and will run from approximately 9am to 5.30pm. The event is taking place at the Leeds Park Plaza Hotel and is being sponsored by Tor UK.

A number of fantastic authors will be attending ConJour and taking parts in panels, talks, Q and A sessions and signing sessions throughout the day. A schedule of the day will be posted on this website and emailed to all attendees closer to date. A copy will also be given to all attendees in the programme.

Authors confirmed to attend the event are:-

Mike Carey

Kate Griffin

Mark Charan Newton

Freda Warrington

Justina Robson

Adrian Tchaikovsky"

The official website can be found here.

Monday, 1 November 2010

The City and the City wins World Fantasy Award

Having already won a Hugo, the Arthur C. Clarke award, and the BFSA, China Miéville's The City and the City last night won a World Fantasy award for best novel. Rumours that Miéville, upon learning of his victory, swore loudly and muttered something about "another new mantlepiece" as of yet remain unconfirmed.

Congratulations to China - great guy, great writer.

You can find a list of the other award winners here.

Worldbuilders is back...

Pat Rothfuss - and everyone else who has previously got involved - has done a tremendous job in the past raising money for Heifer International via his 'Worldbuilders' campaign, which is both a fundraiser and a chance for fans to win some pretty cool swag.

Pat's confirmed the fundraiser will be going ahead again this year:

"Those of you who have been reading the blog for a while should remember Worldbuilders. For those of you who are new to the blog, here’s how the whole thing works:

1. Authors and publishers donate books.

2. I put the books up on the blog, and we all bask in the warm glow of their radiant awesome.

3. You donate money to the Worldbuilders team page on Heifer International’s website.

4. I (and hopefully a few other helpful sponsors) match a percentage of your donations.

5. You get a chance to win some cool books.

6. Heifer International uses the money to make the world a better place."

Pat's looking for donations from publishers and authors, so if you'd like to help out Pat's awesome cause, let him know.

More details to follow soon.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Stross attacks "trashy, derivative" steampunk

A rather interesting article on the problems with steampunk, from author Charles Stross.

The opening paragraphs are little more than a rather tetchy rant at the current popularity of steampunk - "the category is filling up with trashy, derivative junk and also with good authors who damn well ought to know better than to jump on a bandwagon" - but it's the argument that follows which is interesting.

"We know about the real world of the era steampunk is riffing off. And the picture is not good. If the past is another country, you really wouldn't want to emigrate there. Life was mostly unpleasant, brutish, and short; the legal status of women in the UK or US was lower than it is in Iran today: politics was by any modern standard horribly corrupt and dominated by authoritarian psychopaths and inbred hereditary aristocrats: it was a priest-ridden era that had barely climbed out of the age of witch-burning, and bigotry and discrimination were ever popular sports: for most of the population starvation was an ever-present threat. I could continue at length. It's the world that bequeathed us the adjective "Dickensian", that gave us a fully worked example of the evils of a libertarian minarchist state, and that provoked Marx to write his great consolatory fantasy epic, The Communist Manifesto. It's the world that gave birth to the horrors of the Modern, and to the mass movements that built pyramids of skulls to mark the triumph of the will. It was a vile, oppressive, poverty-stricken and debased world and we should shed no tears for its passing (or the passing of that which came next)."
Stross goes on to argue that steampunk's failure to acknowledge the darkness and horror of the historical era that it is 'riffing off' is a major failing of the subgenre, and questions how different steampunk would be if it more accurately reflected the actual time period:

"Forget wealthy aristocrats sipping tea in sophisticated London parlours; forget airship smugglers in the weird wild west. A revisionist mundane SF steampunk epic — mundane SF is the socialist realist movement within our tired post-revolutionary genre — would reflect the travails of the colonial peasants forced to labour under the guns of the white Europeans' Zeppelins, in a tropical paradise where severed human hands are currency and even suicide doesn't bring release from bondage. (Hey, this is steampunk — it needs zombies and zeppelins, right? Might as well pick Zombies for our single one impossible ingredient.) It would share the empty-stomached anguish of a young prostitute on the streets of a northern town during a recession, unwanted children (contraception is a crime) offloaded on a baby farm with a guaranteed 90% mortality rate through neglect. The casual boiled-beef brutality of the soldiers who take the King's shilling to break the heads of union members organizing for a 60 hour work week. The fading eyesight and mangled fingers of nine year olds forced to labour on steam-powered looms, weaving cloth for the rich. The empty-headed graces of debutantes raised from birth to be bargaining chips and breeding stock for their fathers' fortunes. In other words, it's the story of all the people who are having adventures — as long as you remember that an adventure is a tale of unpleasant events happening to people a long, long way from home."
This gives rise to a number of interesting questions. Does steampunk fail to effectively deal with the horrific detail of the historical period it is so influenced by? Is the subgenre effectively a romanticism of what was actually a brutal time in history? If so, how much does this truly matter? Is Stross's argument even valid - after all, we're talking about speculative fiction here, not historical fiction (in which an attention to historical detail is vital). To what extent does a genre book based loosely on a real-life historical period need to reflect the zeitgeist of that era? More importantly, perhaps, do readers even care?

Questions, questions. Too many for a Friday, but food for thought. I've not been nearly well enough exposed to this subgenre to be able to comment, but if any of you have any points you'd like to make, then please go right ahead.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Save our forests

I grew up in a semi-rural area, and spent many hours in my younger years exploring the woodland near my parents' house. Whenever I go back, I always try to steal some time to walk those same woodland paths. I find the solitude of the woods almost intoxicating; it's a priceless respite from the rush and hustle of modern life. I've always found woods to possess a certain mythic quality that harkens back to a more ancient time - perhaps the same sort of quality that inspired the much-missed Robert Holdstock to write the classic Mythago Wood, in which he riffs on the mysteries and secrets of ancient British woodland.

So I was utterly dismayed recently to discover that the UK government plans to sell off much of our precious woodland to private developers, who will then no doubt build adventure parks and golf courses on this old land.

Our forests have been protected by the Magna Carta since 1215, so it's likely that ancient laws laid down over 800 years ago will be scrapped to make way for the sales. The British Isles used to be covered in vast swathes of forests, but over the last two thousand years we've lost most of it. Now we stand to lose a lot of what we have left - hundreds of thousands of acres of woodland, enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of people - just so the government can make a quick buck.

This should not be allowed to happen. I'd urge anyone who feels similarly to sign this petition.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Cover art, blurb and excerpt for The Ritual

I really enjoyed Adam Nevill's Apartment 16 earlier this year, so am excited for his upcoming novel The Ritual. Here's the gorgeous cover.

Not sure about the tagline, but I love the atmosphere that oozes from this cover. Wonderful stuff.

Here's the blurb:

When four old university friends set off into the Scandinavian wilderness of the Arctic Circle, they aim to briefly escape the problems of their lives and reconnect with one another. But Luke – still single and living a precarious existence – cannot identify with his companions any more. Lost, hungry, and surrounded by forest untouched for millennia, Luke figures things couldn’t possibly get any worse.

But then they stumble across an old habitation. Ancient artefacts decorate the walls; bones are scattered upon the dry floors. The residue of old rites and pagan sacrifice for something that still exists in the forest. Something responsible for the bestial presence that follows their every step. Death doesn’t come easy among these ancient trees . . .

Sounds very interesting, rather Blair Witch-esque, which is a good thing in my book. Apartment 16 was notable for the excellent prose and sense of terror that Nevill managed to evoke, so I'm expecting good things from The Ritual in this regard.

You can check out a short teaser excerpt here. And here's a very short story that Nevill wrote for the Tor website.

Tor UK author updates

Plenty of interesting news in the recent Tor UK newsletter.

First up, good news concerning Adrian Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt series:

"First up we’ve just signed another three books with author Adrian Tchaikovsky as he continues his Shadows of the Apt series. This insect-kinden world has been receiving fantastic praise since the first book Empire in Black and Gold was published so we’re thrilled that Adrian will be continuing his epic fantasy adventures with us."

Tchaikovsky has done tremendously well to keep the Apt books coming thick and fast, and it's great to see Tor tie him down to a new contract. That reminds me, I must get around to the two Apt novels I've got on my reading pile...

Next up, more good news, this time concerning Col Buchanan's sequel to the highly enjoyable Farlander:

"We just had the delivery of the second book in Col Buchanan’s Heart of the World series, carrying on the tale of the solitary Rōshun warrior, Ash. The book is full of action, pace, new characters and some wonderfully exciting plot twists. We’ll be publishing this second novel in August next year with the paperback of Farlander publishing in March 2011."

Farlander was something of a surprise for me; I enjoyed it far more than I had anticipated. Looking forward very much to the next book in the sequence.


Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns. - George Eliot

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Gollancz Halloween Party 2010

I had a fine time at the Gollancz party last Thursday. Just about managing to navigate the frenetic London rush-hour and inevitable tube delays, I (eventually) met up with Gav from NextRead near Marble Arch, before linking up with Liz from My Favourite Books and Mark from Walker of Worlds. Together we made our way to the party, braving the sardine-esque crush of the underground.

A suitably bloody Chloe from Tor UK, Mark from My Favourite Books (he had rather unnerving eyes that sadly don't show up here), and a ghostly Gav from NextRead.

The Gollancz party is quite the popular event these days, with plenty of industry folk crammed into the October Gallery. As is always the way, it was a struggle trying to find time to speak to everyone I wanted to see, but I managed to grab a few minutes with the lovely ladies from Tor UK, Voyager and Orbit, as well as the fine chaps from SFX magazine/Future Publishing. I was also pleased to meet Rob Grant, creator of classic British SF comedy Red Dwarf. It was also great to see my blogging comrades Wert (Wertzone...naturally) and Amanda (Floor to Ceiling Books), as well as various authors - Stephen Deas, Gav Smith, James Barclay, Chris Wooding and Joe Abercrombie. 

I stole this photo from Wert, but I'm sure he won't mind. That's yours truly on the left (with demon eyes that resist any attempt at red-eye reduction, apparently), a rather contrite-looking Gav Smith (with steampunk eyepiece), and blogger Mark Chitty.

After a couple of hours at the October Gallery, the party as usual moved to the Swan pub around the corner (I imagine the casual drinkers in there must have been rather unnerved by Stephen Deas, who was in full Ming the Merciless regalia). Various things were discussed, with the topic of embargoes cropping up again and again like a bad penny. Wert and I (rather slyly, it must be admitted) ambushed Amy from Voyager and subjected her to a 20-minute verbal assault regarding GRRM and A Dance with Dragons, which it must be said she handled extremely professionally(!).

So all in all, a very enjoyable evening. A special mention must go to Jon Weir, Gollancz publicity guru who heroically pulled the entire evening together and worked hard to make it such a success. Jon was also kind enough to let me crash at his place for what was left of the night, and he bought me breakfast the next morning. In fact, Jon was so good to me that I'm going to repay him by posting a picture of him once he had consumed plenty of alcohol.

Cheers Jon! Roll on 2011...

Friday, 22 October 2010

Cover art and blurb: Among Thieves

Here's the cover art and blurb for Among Thieves, a debut novel from Douglas Hulick due from Tor UK next year in April.

Rather like this cover. I think the figure's arms are a little rigid, but I love the colour scheme and overall I think it's a stylish cover with good commercial appeal. Here's the blurb:

Drothe is a Nose, an informant who finds and takes care of trouble inside the criminal organization he’s a part of. He also smuggles imperial relics on the side.

When his boss sends him to Ten Ways to track down who’s been leaning on his organization’s people, Drothe discovers hints of a much bigger mystery. Someone is trying to stir up trouble between lower-level criminal organizations, including the one Drothe belongs to. And there’s a book rumored to contain imperial glimmer (or magic) that a lot of very dangerous people seem to be looking for - including two crime bosses known as the Gray Princes.

When Drothe discovers the book, he finds himself holding a bit of swag that can bring down emperors, shatter the criminal underworld, and unlock forbidden magic…that's if he can survive long enough to use it.

From what I've been hearing, thieves are the new assassins, so be prepared to see plenty more novels like this. But Among Thieves seems interesting, even if the 'Grey Princes'  sound like almost a carbon copy of the 'Grey King' from The Lies of Locke Lamora...

One to watch, especially given the high quality of Tor UK debuts in recent years.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Book review: The Heroes

The Heroes

By Joe Abercrombie

(Gollancz, 27 January 2011)

Joe Abercrombie has undoubtedly been one of the fantasy genre's success stories in recent years. His debut, The Blade Itself, may not have generated the pre-release buzz that accompanied The Lies of Locke Lamora - another notable Gollancz debut - but word eventually filtered through the fledgling blogosphere and soon rave reviews were sprouting up all over the place. Fast forward a few years, and The Blade Itself has allegedly sold more than 100,000 copies in the UK alone. The other two books in The First Law trilogy - Before They are Hanged and Last Argument of Kings - met with similar acclaim and cemented Abercrombie's status as a big hitter in the epic fantasy genre.

Then the much-anticipated Best Served Cold arrived, and seemingly split opinion right down the middle: some readers loved it, others less so. I fell in the latter category, feeling that the book was ponderous, over-long and often lacking the wit that made the earlier novels such a success. There were good aspects of course, but for the first time it did raise a question in my mind, as I imagine it did in those of others: had Abercrombie peaked too early? Would all of his subsequent books gradually decline in quality, as happens with so many authors? Unfair questions perhaps, on the basis of one book, but questions that needed to be answered nonetheless. Questions that could only be answered when The Heroes arrived.

While Best Served Cold whisked the action away to Styria, marking a distinct change in setting compared to The First Law, with The Heroes Abercrombie turns the focus back on the wilds of the north where plenty of blood was previously spilled during the earlier books. This simple geographical change immediately made the novel more appealing to me; aside from the chapters featuring Glokta, it was the story strands that featured the northmen that I enjoyed the most when reading The First Law. Those readers that felt the same should be more than satisfied with The Heroes then, since the novel has more northmen than you can shake a stick (or a huge, bloodstained axe) at.

The novel focuses on a battle fought in the shadow of the Heroes, a ring of stones atop a hill near the town of Osrung. Black Dow, self-installed leader of the northmen, gathers his forces on one side, while the Union forces - led by Marshal Kroy, a familiar face from the past - prepare themselves on the other. Over the course of three days, the future of the north will be decided. There will be blood. And, as with any Abercrombie novel, a healthy dose of treachery.

For the first time, we're given a map inside the book (the closest we've come previously were the artistic flourishes that adorned the cover and certain title pages in Best Served Cold), and a very nice map it is too. In a nice touch, the map is repeated at the start of each section of the book, with markers showing the positioning of the various forces. It's probably not strictly necessary, yet it certainly adds a bit of depth and helps the reader get some flavour for the locales involved.

The main complaint I had with Best Served Cold was that I didn't care for any of the characters - they were, as far as I was concerned, a bunch of scumbags so totally lacking in anything vaguely resembling morals, that I found it extremely hard to care one way or another what happened to them. Abercrombie made his name by inverting various tropes and painting his world in varying shades of grey, but for me he took it too far in Best Served Cold. Don't get me wrong; I enjoy reading about ruthless, uncompromising figures...but I also like to have one or two characters that I can empathise with and root for, and the latter were distinctly absent in Best Served Cold.

Thankfully, this is not the case with The Heroes. There are a lot of characters in this novel (in another first for an Abercrombie novel, we're given a cast list - and it's needed) and while there are plenty of figures for whom morals are an alien concept, there are a fair few who readers can root for and - perhaps surprisingly - even find sympathy with. Craw is one such figure; the leader of a band of northmen, he's tired of war and just wants to abandon it all for a quieter life. He's also a figure that believes in doing 'the right thing' (whatever that might be), and the weariness he shows towards violence and treachery is something that the reader can easily appreciate and identify with. Bremer dan Gorst - a minor character from the earlier trilogy - is another figure who is easy to empathise with; once the king's most trusted guard, he's fallen from grace and must go against his king's orders (by taking part in the fighting, rather than just observing) to win his former glory back. Worse, he lusts after a young lady that he has no chance of wooing. And just to top things off, he has an embarrassingly squeaky voice. Gorst's personal story, as the novel progresses, is an interesting one, mixing humour with bleakness and violence, and he serves as a good example of Abercrombie's unquestionable talent for bringing his characters to life.

Of course, there are plenty of less desirable types too: 'Prince' Calder being one of them. He's another character that Abercrombie portrays very well, somehow making him curiously likable despite the fact that he's as slippery as a snake. Beck, too, is a character with a strong - if predictable - character arc, while there are numerous other interesting figures - Whirrun of Blythe, with his apparent death-wish and huge sword, and Corporal Tunny, with his uncanny ability to avoid actually doing anything resembling professional soldiering, to name but two. If I have any complaints, it's that due to the extensive cast-list, certain people had a habit of blending together (the generals Meed and Mitterick, for example, I repeatedly struggled to tell apart). In addition, the female element is arguably rather lacking as well. Now of course, this is a war novel, so given this fact - and the structure of society in Abercrombie's world - it was inevitable that there would be a lack of female characters. Yet I still feel something more could have been done here. It has been remarked on before that Abercrombie's female characters have, to date, consisted mostly of pyschopaths and alcoholics. The main female interest in the The Heroes doesn't fit in either of those categories, yet her undiluted ambition and the coldness she often displays to her husband don't exactly make her an endearing figure. That said, another female character on the northern side, Wonderful, perhaps redresses this by establishing herself in a position of power solely on the basis of her martial and leadership qualities. Yet Wonderful's a character we regrettably don't see often enough.

The story itself is something of a slow burner - the first 100 pages are more or less used to move all the characters - and troops - into the places that they need to be in. Yet once the action gets going, The Heroes makes for an absorbing read. One aspect particularly worthy of mention is the technique that Abercrombie employs of jumping from one POV to another, often using several different perspectives in the course of a single chapter. We'll see events unfold, for example, from the viewpoint of a Union soldier. That soldier then meets a sticky end on the edge of an axeblade...and the action immediately switches to the viewpoint of the northman that swung the axe. This technique makes for a fluid portrayal of war, lending a very personal aspect to the action. Abercrombie has always been good at battle scenes, and he shows that ability again here with some violent, graphic sequences, that importantly always keep a close focus on the characters involved. It's not all just blood and guts though, as there's plenty of behind-the-scenes maneuvering going on: power-struggles on the northern side and petty politics on the Union side. And invariably there's treachery, and the odd surprise. Nothing comparable to the shocks that Abercrombie served up in Last Argument of Kings, but these twists nonetheless keep the story compelling. My only real criticism here is that I felt the novel could have done with a bit more mysticism - the background struggle between Bayaz and his opponents is hinted at, but doesn't really solidify into anything substantial. A touch more magical chutzpah would perhaps have been a pleasing counterpoint to all the gritty, physical violence.

As always, everything is delivered and bound up in Abercrombie's distinctive style. You know when you're reading an Abercrombie book, and that instant recognition is a very useful thing for any author to have in their locker. There's the dark wit that was often lacking in Best Served Cold, and this humour provides a nice counterpoint to the bleakness and violence. Furthermore, The Heroes is primarily a war novel, and is full of wry details and observations about the nature of war and how it affects people in different ways. The story arc of Beck, in particular, is a good example of this (even if it feels a little contrived and predictable). Subsequently, the use of the word 'heroes' in the title has various meanings: a reference to the physical stones, an ironic play on the nature of the men involved in the struggle, and so on. War, as The Heroes ably demonstrates, is a confusing, messy business.

Verdict: A well-constructed, absorbing war novel that returns to a familiar stamping ground and improves on the flaws of Best Served Cold. Abercrombie appears to have taken the criticism flung his way from some quarters, and has this time produced a more dynamic set of characters that mostly manage to be appealing despite their clear moralistic differences. Though the novel starts slowly, the momentum gradually builds into something unstoppable. There's satisfying character development, exploration of the ironies of war, and of course plenty of blood and treachery, all delivered with Abercrombie's trademark wry humour. The supernatural elements that do feature are handled very well, but it would have been nice to see a little more of them. Still, this doesn't stop The Heroes from being an enjoyable, absorbing read.