I decided recently that I ought to actually make use of the Xbox 360 that's been sitting in the corner of my spare room gathering dust for the last twelve months, so I asked Santa if he'd kindly bring me Gears of War and Oblivion for Christmas.
Gears of War really hammered something home that I've been thinking for a long time - games these days are often just way too short.
Perhaps the younger generation of gamers don't mind this, as they might not be used to anything else, but I'm afraid I'm a bit old-school when it comes to games. I've been playing them since I was about five or six, and spent most of my younger years waiting for Commodore 64 games to load (that computer was awesome), before progressing onto other platforms (Megadrive, PC, Gamecube, Xbox and Xbox 360 + various Gameboys).
Let me put it into some sort of context. A Commodore 64 game would cost me about £3.99, and would last me months. That's right, months. Some of them were extremely hard and I never completed them (I'm still rankled by only achieving 99% completion rate on Batman). The same was true of many PC games in the early-to-mid nineties (Syndicate Wars was one tough mother). Yet these days you can breeze through some games in a few hours.
Gears of War only took me about 10 hours to finish on casual mode. Sure, I was playing it on the easiest setting but for a game that cost the better part of fifty quid when it came out, I think that's a pretty poor return. Perhaps it's more about the online experience these days, which is all well and good, but some longevity in single player mode would be nice.
As for Gears of War itself, I have to say I was rather underwhelmed by it. The visuals and sound were teh secks (as you'd expect), and the gameplay was solid (the 'cover' aspect really works and totally makes the game) but it all just felt a bit flat. Maybe it's because I've played Halo 3, and to be honest any shooter comes off badly when compared to that Behemoth of the genre. But Gears of War frustrated me because it could have been so much more.
For example, we learn early on that the player character was in jail for four years after a trial that was a complete sham. Yet this is never developed upon, and this chance for plot development ends up being totally wasted. Another gripe is that there are some really cool monsters - but we don't see nearly enough of them. Halo 3 had epic confrontations coming out of its ass, but Gears seems to shy away from them - another missed opportunity.
Still, it was a decent experience and as I said from a visual point of view it's wonderful.
Well, it's that time of year when everyone starts doing their 'best of the year' lists, so I thought I'd join in the fun and list the best five novels that I read this year. 2008 was something of a slow year for fantasy, with major novels by the likes of Rothfuss, Lynch and George R. R. Martin being pushed back into 2009. This is reflected by the fact that none of my top reads for 2008 were actually published this year. Next year promises to be a belter, so I expect it to be a very different story in 2009.
Before we continue, here's some stats for Speculative Horizons in 2008 (all at time of writing):
Total visits: 26, 714 Most visits in one single day: 278
Average per day: 122 Total page views: 39, 244 Average per day: 160 Books reviewed: 30 Authors interviewed: 4 (plus one editor!)
It was an eventful debut year for the blog, but the highlights include:
A snippet from my article on the Worlds of Fantasy TV programme appearing on the BBC4 website.
A tongue-in-cheek dig at self-appointed (apparently) 'Tolkien heir' (you at the back, stop sniggering!) Christopher Paolini, which attracted a huge amount of traffic to the blog. I'm far from the only person to have a serious issue with Paolini and his books...
My infamous (well, I like to think so!) rant about fantasy authors that don't read fantasy, that seemed to spread across half the genre blogosphere and caused one or two frilly-cuffed strops. Even the likes of Joe Abercrombiejoined the fun.
Getting to know loads of new folks - authors, editors, and readers. There's a lot of good people in this genre.
Anyway, on to the main attraction. Here are the best five novels that I read this year (in no particular order).
What I said: "...the lukewarm final chapters don't spoil what is a gripping novel. Well-researched and brilliantly written, The Terror is a harrowing tale which is
This might just be the best novel I read this year, and certainly contains one of the strongest opening chapters I've ever read. The writing is superb and oozes atmosphere and tension. The characters are impressively drawn and the plot masterfully constructed. Purists may whine about historical inaccuracies, but they're missing the point - this is a stunning historical horror novel, and when you write as well as Simmons does, the odd historical inconsistency doesn't matter. Quite simply, a brilliant novel.
What I said: "The Scar is one of those rare books that makes you ponder on the state of the genre, and causes you to wonder why more authors don't push the boundaries of fantasy. Beautifully written and populated with some wonderful characters, The Scar is a real tour-de-force that demonstrates the potential of the fantasy genre. Admittedly it won't appeal to everyone, but if you find yourself tired of bland fantasies and craving a more literary, innovative novel then look no further."
This novel changed the way I looked at fantasy. It made me realise just how wide the parameters of the genre are, and really reinforced to me the potential of fantasy literature in terms of innovation and adopting a more literary approach. I was also in awe of Miéville's style of prose; it makes 95% of other fantasy novels look bland in comparison. Innovation and style aside, what The Scar does is deliver an excellent story that explores the nature of freedom and democracy. There are some memorable characters - LOVE YOU UTHERDOUL - and fantastic sequences that (due to Miéville's style) are wonderfully visceral and cinematic. Not everyone will like this novel, but everyone should read it.
What I said: "I could go on about Gardens of the Moon all day. I could extol the masterly characterisation, ramble about the epic, war-torn world that is steeped in history, babble about how damn cool some of the events are in this novel, heck I could even blabber about how awesome Anomander Rake's sword is.
But I won't. Instead, I'll just make a suggestion: read Gardens of the Moon. It's not for everyone, but at least you'll know whether it's for you after a short while. And if it is, the epic fantasy genre will never be the same again."
Even though I'd already read Gardens of the Moon, even on my second read through it was still better than most other books I read this year. I was sorely disappointed by Deadhouse Gates, partly because Gardens is such an amazing novel. Erikson imbues his world with so much depth, and some of the sequences are truly epic in every sense of the word. Like The Scar, this book won't appeal to everyone, but also like The Scar, it's ambitious, innovative, and undeniably cool.
What I said: "I've considered the novel from several different angles, looking for flaws, but I just can't find any. The plot is masterfully constructed and totally gripping, the characters possess great depth and the story itself echoes with all the hallmarks of genuine legends, with an intense climax.
Midnight Falcon is not my favourite David Gemmell novel, but it's undoubtedly one of his best."
I've read most of Gemmell's novels, and I didn't think he could surprise me anymore, but I was wrong. Even by Gemmell's standard this is a fantastic novel. I didn't really likeSword in the Storm, the first novel in the Rigante series, but Midnight Falcon made me very glad I trusted the quality of Gemmell's work and stuck with the series. Probably one of the most perfect novels I've ever read, a real masterpiece. Gemmell is sorely missed.
What I said: "What Altered Carbon essentially boils down to is a tough, gritty detective storyline fused with original sci-fi elements that combine to make an enthralling, addictive novel. The superior prose, twisting plot and wonderfully human characters make this a book that's very hard to put down. It's a sci-fi novel for people that don't normally read sci-fi, and a damned good one at that."
This book makes a very good argument for why you should read SF, a genre which I've never been that keen on. Quite simply, this novel blew me away. As I said, this is a SF novel for people like me who are perhaps a little scared by the prospect of having to try and understand reams of information about gravity and highly advanced technology. There's plenty of technology here and some great concepts, but Morgan doesn't bludgeon you over the head with it. A massively impressive, addictive blast. I'll definitely be reading more Morgan novels and will probably check out some other SF as well.
So, those were my top five reads of the year. Honorable mentions go to:
And that's about it for 2008. Thanks for all the support, comments and banter throughout the year - I very much look forward to doing it all over again in 2009, which promises to be a cracking year for fantasy.
Feel free to post your own favourite reads of the year in the comments section!
I've mentioned before that David Gemmell is one of my all-time favourite fantasy authors. Gemmell was an inspiration to so many people (the online book of condolence had thousands of entries) and his contribution to the genre was huge. Such a legend of fantasy is deserving of some sort of official legacy.
"The DGLA will be presented for the very first time in 2009 for the best Fantasy novel of 2008. The award will be given to a work written in the 'spirit' of the late, great David Gemmell, a true Master of Heroic Fantasy. And, we want YOU - the readers who love the genre to VOTE to decide who makes the Short-list! Just scroll down this page and click on the poll to vote for the book you enjoyed the most in 2008."
You don't have to sign up for membership to vote, but there's an added incentive to do so:
"One lucky Member will be chosen at random to WIN A SIGNED COPY OF ALL THE BOOKS ON THE SHORTLIST!"
Not a bad prize at all! Voting opens on 26 December 2008, so make sure you take five minutes to register your vote!
PS Publishing, the fantastic independent UK genre publisher, celebrates its 10th anniversary next year, so to celebrate they've got some special offers lined up...
"Just for a start, all books added to the ordering pages of the website from 1 January 2009 onwards will be free of any postage and packing charges when you order and pay for them prior to publication. The postage charges will be applied to the titles as soon as they're received from the printers."
"We’re also giving folks a grand opportunity to get their hands on some of our back catalogue for a special 10th anniversary knock-down price. We’re offering 10 trade-edition novellas at £40 (instead of £100) plus postage* or 10 of the jacketed-hardcover editions for £100 (usually £250) plus postage.
On our bigger books (collections, novels etc.), we’re offering 10 of the trade editions at £100 (they were originally published at £20, £25 and £35 each) or 10 of the slipcased editions at £200 (these first saw the light of day at £50 and £60)… both plus postage to be added. Please note that orders for specific titles cannot be considered — we’ll pick them, but they’ll all be different. This Anniversary Gift Box offer applies only to PS titles published before January 2008 and it’ll be available all year long throughout 2009… or while stocks last."
Check out the PS Publishing website for further details!
"One of the youngest branches of fantastical literature acquired its name only in 2003, although ancestral instances of the mode can be found from much longer ago. But at that not-too-distant date the long-established, well-regarded U.K. author M. John Harrison kicked off an online discussion with the questions: "The New Weird. Who does it? What is it? Is it even anything?" The sound and fury that filled the subsequent five years settled many of those issues, while raising others. But it seems impossible any longer to deny that the catchy tag can be hung with some justification and critical utility on a certain type of story."
The article offers some suggested reading for anyone that fancies dipping their toes into the abstract world of the New Weird. Be warned though, as there are one or two spoilers.
Back in February I got rather excited when I found out that Ian Graham - after seemingly 'disappearing' for several years - was in fact hard at work on a prequel to his debut novel Monument. While I was disappointed to hear that his mooted new novel Blood Echo had been abandoned, I was really pleased to hear that Ian was returning to the character of AnhagaBallas in this new prequel. Curious to find out more about Ian's new novel, not to mention what happened to Blood Echo, I fired off a few questions that Ian very kindly took the time to answer.
Welcome Ian! For those readers who are not familiar with you or your work, perhaps you'd like to introduce yourself? My name is Ian Graham; I write dark medieval fantasy. To date, my oeuvre comprises a single novel, Monument, published in the UK by Orbit, the USA by ACE and by Bragelonne in France. I live in a village in the north of England. I am currently working on a prequel to Monument . . .
There was a considerable amount of confusion when, after Monument was released in 2002, you 'disappeared' for six years...before emerging earlier this year with the news that your long-awaited novel, Blood Echo, had been shelved and that you were instead working on a prequel to Monument. Two words: what happened?
With Blood Echo, I made a monstrous mistake: I created a world that I liked but a protagonist whom I found it enormously difficult to do anything with. I liked the idea of the central character, Tredegan; yet he proved more or less unwritable - at least in that stage of my career. When writing about AnhagaBallas, the antihero of Monument, everything flowed incredibly smoothly: it felt natural. But with Tredegan, I suffered a mental block. So for the six years, I struggled to write about a character whom I liked but who refused to transfer himself onto the page. From this fundamental difficulty, assorted other difficulties inevitably sprang. The plotting became forced; the story's internal logic groaned like a jammed waterwheel. Writing ceased to be a joy; it became a mix of drudgery and self-torment. If I'd have been sensible, I would've abandoned the project much earlier. But I was determined to see it through to the end.
A popular topic of debate in the online community is how publishers react when a writer falls behind deadline. This is perhaps something of a loaded question, but how did Orbit handle the news about Blood Echo?
Orbit were terrifically patient. They understood that I was struggling and saw no point in applying unnecessary pressure - which, I think, is the best approach. They remained approachable throughout, always on-hand to discuss my troubles with the story. But there is only so much a publisher can do, if the problem resides with the writer himself. Once Blood Echo was done, they recognised it was something that I had to get out of my system - rather like some ghastly furball.
Having to abandon a project that you'd spent so much time on must have been very tough. Did the fact that Blood Echo didn't work cause you to doubt your own ability as a writer?
To an extent, yes. I knew from some favourable reviews and bits of fanmail that I was capable of writing a good story - but as the years slipped by, and I grew older, I began to wonder if the Ian Graham who wrote Monument had faded away, to be replaced by an equally dedicated yet inexplicably less capable version of myself. This, I understand, is a common fear amongst writers. Mercifully, once I junked Echo, and started writing about Ballas once more, I discovered that this wasn't the case at all: I'd merely been hobbled by a doomed project.
Why did you decide to return to Ballas and the world of Monument, and - without giving anything away - what can fans expect from the upcoming prequel? When I was struggling with Blood Echo, my editor at the time, Tim Holman, suggested that once Echo was done with, I should go back to Ballas as he was clearly a character I was comfortable with. At first, I was a touch doubtful: when I finished Monument, I couldn't envisage any more tales centring on the character. Yet whilst I worked on Echo, tiny ideas kept cropping up. I kept thinking, 'Ah yes, I could do this with him. And this. Oh, and this as well . . .' I realised that I missed writing about Ballas. When I set out on the prequel, it was like being reunited with an old friend . . .
In the prequel, Ballas is around thirty years old - fifteen years or so younger than in Monument. He is employed as a Hawk, one of the Pilgrim Church's elite soldiers. He speaks several languages, and is widely travelled. Moreover - and perhaps most surprisingly - he is teetotal . . . He has been sent by the Church to locate Helligrane, a Blessed Master - one of the Church's highest ranking clergymen - who, years earlier, was kidnapped. For a long time, it was believed that Helligrane was dead. Yet the Church has discovered that not only is he alive but translating heretical texts . . .
One of the reasons that I enjoyed Monument so much was because Ballas was such a brilliant anti-hero: repulsive in so many ways, yet ultimately inspiring real sympathy. What was the inspiration behind Ballas? Did you set out to deliberately create such a character?
Years ago, when I was twenty one or so, I wrote a novel with a secondary character who was superficially similar to Ballas. He was a fat, greedy, selfish drunkard; but there was a big difference: this character lacked physical courage. Once I gave him a bit steel, he transformed into Ballas. It was quite startling how easily it happened.
I certainly didn't set out to create an antihero; whilst working on Monument, I didn't think of the story in terms of heroes or villains at all. In fact, moral notions of any sort didn't crop up at all. I simply saw a group of characters, acting mainly out of a mix of self-interest and desperation: I considered them no more moral or immoral than wild animals.
However, when Monument was released, I was a tad surprised by how much people disliked Ballas - not as a character but, as if he truly existed, a human being. I actually didn't mind him all that much. Certainly, I would avoid his company. But he didn't seem quite so repellent to me as readers seemed to find him. I suppose there is a difference in how a writer perceives his characters compared to his readers. I loved Ballas because I found him interesting to write; looking upon him in a wholly different way, the readers found him quite a different quantity. Maybe, to an extent, a reader understands a character better than the writer himself . . .
Another aspect that I liked is the Pilgrim Church and the zealous stranglehold that it has over the land, with the Penance Oak a real focus of its power. Was this simply a feature of the world, or was it your intention to make a statement about organised religion? Organised religion, like any phenomenon, has its good points and bad. I dislike religious militancy of any sort; it seems rather stupid to bully, harangue or otherwise mistreat people over what are fundamentally metaphysical - and therefore irresolvable - disagreements. I certainly didn't have any intention to make a statement of any sort; the Oak was merely something I found aesthetically and dramatically pleasing. Then again, who can say what my subconscious was up to? Interestingly, for all its nastiness and sadism, the Pilgrim Church isn't all bad. Ultimately, the Masters' efforts to capture Ballas are wholly justifiable; they are pursuing him not out of a desire for revenge - he mutilates one of the Masters - but because the safety of Druine depends on his death.
The world of Druine is pretty bleak; the countryside is wild, the towns are decaying and rundown. Was there a particular reason for this? Was it a reaction against many of the more 'cushy' secondary worlds that appear in fantasy?
I think that I rather like the aesthetic of decaying cities! Then again, Ballas spends much time amongst society's lower echelons. By and large, these people exist in places that are rundown and often downright squalid. I suspect there are some opulent, cosy and well-cared-for places in Druine. But Ballas tends not to encounter them. As for the countryside: I grew up and continue to live on the edge of the West Pennine Moors. Consequently, that sort of landscape - haggard, wind-blasted and not at all cheery - is imprinted on my imagination. There was certainly no sense of reacting against the gentler worlds of fantasy fiction. Druine was simply the sort world it felt natural to create.
One criticism I've seen levelled at Monument is that the novel is male-dominated, and that the women are mostly - to put it bluntly- whores. I think this unfair given that Heresh – a young lady - often displays more sense than most of the other male characters. Plus she's not a whore! How do you feel about this criticism?
It is an understandable criticism: many of the women Ballas encounters are either whores or serving girls. But they are precisely the types of women Ballas would run into in daily life: he exists primarily in taverns and brothels. To throw in female characters of a sort Ballas wouldn't realistically rub shoulders with would be dishonest.
I have to ask you about the scene with the eels, which is one of the most evocative and memorable scenes I've read in fantasy literature. What I like about this scene – other than the prose itself – is the way Ballas, for once, finds himself hopelessly out of his depth. Was this a factor in including this scene?
The eel sequence, like any sequence in the book, was written instinctively, with no thought about its greater significance. In hindsight, it did produce the only situation in which Ballas was utterly at a loss. Ballas can deal with more or less any situation. Yet in the marshes he is overwhelmed - as overwhelmed, perhaps, as the other characters are by the violent situations they find themselves in due to Ballas' intervention. He gets a taste of his own medicine, perhaps - though, naturally enough, it fails to instil him with either sympathy or compassion . . .
Before Monument was published, you attended a writing course and had the fortune to be mentored by the late, great David Gemmell. What was he like? How did he help you? How did you react to news of his passing?
In the winter of 1992, I attended a 5-day writing course at Fen Farm in Norfolk. Dave was the writer-in-residence for the course. After the course we stayed in touch. And it was Dave who eventually put me in touch with Orbit Books . . . He was a remarkable guy. Very generous with his time and advice - and an extraordinarily acute critic of manuscripts. I can remember being grilled by him about various aspects of my first - and unpublished - novel. I had to justify everything in the story: why a character behaved in a particular way, how the various institutions functioned and so forth.
I visited his home on numerous occasions. He was a terrific conversationalist. One moment he'd be talking about some incident from his time as a doorman; the next, he'd be analysing the political dimension of the Biblical King David. He was incredibly dedicated to his craft, too. Whenever he watched a movie, he'd be analysing the interaction between characters, the way the plot was structured and so on. And I can remember watching a football match on television with him: he dissected the psychology of various players as if they were characters in a novel . . . His death came as a big shock, of course. He was in real-life exactly what you'd hope for, if you'd read his novels. There was no discrepancy between the man and his writing. He believed in what he wrote; it wasn't 'mere' fiction, but a rendering of his own moral beliefs.
In more general terms now, who are your literary influences? Do you read in the fantasy genre much, and if not is there a particular reason why?
Wow. I have a huge number of influences. Everything I read, I suppose, has some impact. The names which spring immediately to mind are Dostoevsky, Graham Greene, Ted Hughes, Dickens, David Gemmell of course . . . Too many to list, I fear! I don't read much in the genre any more. When I began reading fantasy, I did so because it scratched a certain psychological itch; now, that itch is being scratched by the writing of fantasy . . . Also, after a day at the writing desk, I tend not to feel like reading fiction of any sort. I've read part of the first draft of SF writer Andy Remic's Clockwork Vampire fantasy trilogy, which looks as if it'll turn into something amazing. Otherwise, though, I tend to read a lot of poetry, history, philosophy . . . I've just finished a book on Anglo-Saxon medicine. Apparently, if you want to avoid being pestered by mad women, you've got to eat a radish before breakfast . . .
Better stock up on the old radishes! How do you feel about the literati and much of the mainstream dismissing fantasy as a genre?
It is a great shame. Perhaps part of it is snobbery; another part of it, I think, is a tendency to look at the surface elements of the genre - the magic, the pseudo-medieval settings etc - and ignore, wilfully or not, the deeper aspects of the genre. In truth, though, it doesn't bother me very much. I rather like being misunderstood . . .
In this online age, how important do you think it is for an author to have a web presence? Do you read any blogs, genre-related or otherwise?
I guess that the web is a useful advertising tool for authors. I know that now and again, if I am curious what a certain writer is up to, I'll check out his or her website. But I am not a great user of the internet, to be truthful. I don't read many blogs - though Speculative Horizons is amongst those I take a peek at now and again. No doubt I am missing out on an awful lot of good reading...
As something of a writer myself, I'm interested to hear about the writing habits of authors. Do you write every day? Do you have a daily word target? Any peculiar habits?
No peculiar habits, alas - though at the moment, I've taken to lighting a candle at the start of every writing session. Not sure why: there isn't much atmospheric or inspiring about a measly little t-light, but it seems to help.
I write every day. If I take a day off - which is occasionally necessary to remedy burn-out - it can be difficult to get started again. I used to set myself word counts; but I discovered that depending where I was up to in a story, and what type of scene I was writing, my ability to produce a particular number of words varied enormously. Also, some days it is necessary to simply think about where the story is going, rather than actually lay down any words. A word count can be comforting, as long as you are hitting the target; but personally, I prefer to make sure I work hard each day, and trust that I am doing enough.
- - -
Many thanks to Ian for giving such an informative and interesting interview! Ian can be found on the interwebs at his website.
John Jarrold has concluded a four-book World rights deal for Canadian fantasy writer Ian Cameron Esslemont with Simon Taylor of Transworld Publishers in London for a strong five-figure sum in pounds sterling. The first book, called STONEWIELDER, is due for delivery in September 2009, and publication in 2010.
Esslemont created the Malaz world with Steven Erikson, and joined his co-creator in writing novels set in the world with NIGHT OF KNIVES, followed by RETURN OF THE CRIMSON GUARD. Both of these books have been published in the UK by Transworld and are being published elsewhere in the world.
‘I’m really delighted about this deal,’ said John Jarrold. ‘Simon Taylor and Transworld have shown their long-term belief in Cam Esslemont, at a time when much of the publishing world is wringing its hands over its shorter-term problems.’
Fans of GRRM'sA Song of Ice and Fire series have always discussed potential casting for a TV/big screen adaptation, a debate that has intensified since the announcement that HBO are to film a pilot episode.
The cool news is that - to some extent at least - the folks in charge are willing to listen to the fans' opinions. So, if you have some ideas for who should play Jaime Lannister and Bran Stark, get yourself over to the new forum at Westeros and make your feelings known. According to GRRM, David Benioff and Dan Weiss from the production team are regularly dropping by the forum to check out the suggestions, so it's a chance to have your voice heard.
Personally, I don't have any particular recommendations - my knowledge of TV/film actors/actresses isn't good enough. However, I would like to see Cillian Murphy in some sort of role, because I think he's a top actor.
There's also a new unofficial blog dedicated to the TV adaptation of the series, so check it out for news and opinion.
Altered Carbon is one of those novels that is like a bad penny - it just keeps surfacing in online conversations and recommendation lists. The novel itself won the Philip K. Dick award for 'Best Novel' in 2003 and was widely hailed as an excellent science-fiction debut by an exciting new author. It wasn't long before the film rights were picked up, with a big-screen adaption allegedly set to surface in 2009, directed by James McTeigue.
Naturally, when I decided it was time that I read some decent sci-fi, I turned to Altered Carbon to see what had inspired all the buzz in the first place.
The novel itself - set four or five centuries in the future - is told entirely in the first-person from the perspective of TakeshiKovacs, who is a former UN 'envoy' (an agent from an elite military unit).
Kovacs is sent to Earth and is hired to investigate the murder of Laurens Bancroft, a so-called 'Meth' (after Methuselah, as 'Meths' are humans that have lived for hundreds of years). The investigation quickly becomes very murky and tangled, with Kovacs being forced to rub shoulders with the pimps and criminals of Bay City. The closer he gets to the truth, the more people there are that want him dead. As the stakes get higher and higher, Kovacs is forced to rely on his special military training in order to survive.
The plot is greatly enhanced by the distopian vision of Earth that Morgan has created. In this future world, humanity has achieved some sort of immortality via the use of highly sophisticated technology. The personality of an individual can be stored digitally on a device called a cortical stack, which can be removed from the body in the event of death. The stored person can then be 'uploaded' into a new body (referred to as 'sleeves').
Though they will retain their memory, intelligence and personality, the individual will be forced to adjust to the demands and drawbacks of their new sleeve. The quality of the sleeve varies, depending largely on the wealth of the person in question. The rich are able to afford young, healthy bodies (some even change sleeves on a bi-monthly basis) while poorer individuals are stuck with sleeves of a lesser quality (they might find their new sleeve used to belong to someone who smoked, meaning they have to endure nicotine cravings).
This makes for an interesting slant on the murder investigation plot. The victim in Kovacs' investigation - Laurens Bancroft - was killed, but was re-sleeved a short time later. Kovacs is therefore investigating the murder of a man that is actually still alive (the reasons why Bancroft can't remember who killed him are made clear in the novel, so I won't go into them here). This is a particularly interesting twist on the usual murder plot, and further twists are added by the fact that the technology available means characters that die in one scene may re-appear later on...and not always in the same body. This adds a totally new dynamic to the story, which Morgan takes full advantage of.
The use of technology in Altered Carbon gives rise to a number of ethical and philosophical questions, which Morgan does well to explore without encumbering the plot. In fact, one theme that crops up is the objection that Catholics have towards the re-sleeving process, and this goes on to become a fundamental part of the plot. The actual pacing and structure of the plot is first class; it's like being strapped to a rollercoaster that only ever gets faster. The novel starts in explosive fashion and barely lets up from then onwards.
The characterisation is equally impressive, particularly when you consider that this is Morgan's debut novel. The protagonist, Kovacs, is a character of considerable depth. Capable of both brutal violence and surprising tenderness, it's interesting to see how he struggles to adapt to the unfamiliar sleeve he finds himself in and how his relationships with other major characters develop, Ortega in particular. Ortega herself is a finely drawn character, and it's fascinating how she struggles to deal with the fact that Kovacs is wearing the sleeve of someone she is closely connected to.
One of the aspects of Altered Carbon I liked the most was the writing itself. Morgan's stylish, noir prose is perfect for this sort of story and characters. The action scenes are powerful and exhilarating, yet Morgan also displays a more subtle, atmospheric side to his writing which he uses to excellent effect to flesh out the world. My favourite sequence in the entire novel is a segment where Kovacs goes out on a drunken, drugged-up bender - the spaced out, trippy prose is brilliant. Morgan's also particularly skilled at exposition, always managing to provide the necessary details without making the story clunky (something that many popular genre authors are pretty useless at).
I didn't have many complaints. As I said, Morgan is adept at exposition, though arguably almost too good. Certain things are referred to early on and later become important to the plot, but because they'd been mentioned in such an off-hand fashion I did struggle to remember the finer details of them. Once or twice I did find myself flicking back, trying to find where something was mentioned, or who a particular person was. Still, a minor complaint and possibly my own fault for having a crap short-term memory. Some readers might find the ending a bit abrupt and bittersweet, though I thought it was fine.
What Altered Carbon essentially boils down to is a tough, gritty detective storyline fused with original sci-fi elements that combine to make an enthralling, addictive novel. The superior prose, twisting plot and wonderfully human characters make this a book that's very hard to put down. It's a sci-fi novel for people that don't normally read sci-fi, and a damned good one at that.
Apologies for the lack of regular posting in the last week or so; life is pretty crazy right now (try juggling a busy work schedule, wedding plans and Christmas shopping and see if you like it!). Plus the weather in the north of England is unbelievably cold right now. Snow > transport network.
Anyhow, I've found a few minutes to give a brief update on various things.
The most interesting news item is the 'Speculative Horizons' fantasy anthology that Pat of Pat's Fantasy Hotlist fame is going to be editing for Subterranean Press. Pat approached me to check I was happy for him to use the name, which of course I am as it's all for a good cause (breast cancer research).
The line-up for the anthology includes some impressively big names in the fantasy stable. Full details are here. Should be exciting.
I've finished Richard Morgan'sAltered Carbon and will post a review when I get the chance. Currently reading Elantris by Brandon Sanderson. The interview with Ian Graham is still in the works, hopefully that'll surface in the near future.
Finally, some linkies of interest.
Aidan's finally re-readPaul Kearney'sThe Ten Thousand. While it ultimately didn't work for him, he did acknowledge the fact that the second half of the novel is far superior to the first.
Graeme's readIan Graham's 2002 debut 'Monument' and had mixed feelings.
This is the third time the artwork of Darrell K. Sweet has appeared in 'Crap fantasy book covers' and it's certainly not third time lucky. In fact, this is probably the worst cover of the three, even blander than Lord of Chaos and Natural Ordermage (you at the back, stop sniggering at that book title!).
Cover your eyes...
I don't even feel the need to say why this cover is crap, as it's self-evident. Fortunately, Wert - in his recent review of Knife of Dreams - has done so for us, suggesting that the cover is "possibly one of the worst fantasy covers in history"and "not Darrell K. Sweet's finest hour."
In such novels as King Rat, Perdido Street Station, and Iron Council, China Mieville established himself as one of the most original writers currently working in any genre. In his latest, The City & the City, Mieville has outdone himself, giving us a multi-layered urban fantasy of extraordinary complexity and depth.
The story begins when TyadorBorlu, senior detective in the Extreme Crime Squad of the city of Beszel, is called to the scene of a particularly vicious homicide. When the victim turns out to be a young female student with dubious political connections and a controversial history, the investigation spills over into the neighboring city of UlQoma. Once there, Borlu enters a labyrinth of violence and corruption that will alter the course of his career.
The City & the City is a brilliantly conceived, masterfully executed novel whose intricate plot encompasses myth and legend, political and cultural divisions, corporate greed, and the arcane forces that move behind the scenes of a beautifully realized urban landscape. Effortlessly blurring the boundaries between mystery, fantasy, and mainstream fiction, it is the most impressive, fully developed work to date by a writer of vast ambition and seemingly limitless gifts.
Amazon.co.uk has a different blurb:
When the body of a murdered woman is found in the extraordinary, decaying city of Besel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks like a routine case for Inspector TyadorBorlu of the Extreme Crime Squad. But as he probes, the evidence begins to point to conspiracies far stranger, and more deadly, than anything he could have imagined. Soon his work puts him and those he cares for in danger. Borlu must travel to the only metropolis on Earth as strange as his own, across a border like no other. With shades of Kafka and Philip K. Dick, Raymond Chandler and 1984 , "The City & The City" is a murder mystery taken to dazzling metaphysical and artistic heights.
Sounds very promising indeed. No artwork as of yet, but a release date of 15 May 2009 is in place.
The first is the UK cover for James Barclay's new raven novel, Ravensoul.
I have to admit that it doesn't do much for me. It's alright, but it seems a bit halfhearted compared to the excellent cover that Gollancz served up for Abercrombie's upcoming release. In addition, it's not nearly as good as the silhouette covers for the previous raven novels...
Here's another new cover, this one for Mark Chadbourn'sDestroyer of Worlds. Not as cool as the recent covers for his Age of Misrule series, but still pretty striking.
Really interesting debate over at sffworld about why George R. R. Martin's epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire is so popular.
At least, that was what the discussion started as. But online genre forums being what they are, it rapidly descended into a heated argument about whether Martin's sex scenes are gratuitous or not, and whether Westeros is an accurate portrayal of the Middle Ages (minus the dragons, etc!).
I love seeing people get so passionate about this sort of thing; it's what makes the online genre community so absorbing. Not that I'm condoning personal attacks of course, but it's great to see someone throwing a proper frilly-cuffed strop about what constitutes 'gratuituous' sex.
For the record, I don't believe at all that Martin's sex scenes are gratuitous (Richard Morgan's favourite word) and I do believe that - if you take all the obvious fantasy stuff out - Martin's world is an accurate representation of Medieval Europe.
Just got back from Manchester Christmas market, which was fun, but - in the words of Doc Emmet Brown - it was "cold...damn cold!" Plus it was absolutely heaving with people, as usual. Still, it was fun to check out all the stalls and soak up the scents of roasting chestnuts, mulled wine, etc. OMG SANTA.
Anyway, back to business. I'm halfway through Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon, so anticipate a review at the tail-end of the coming week. I've also sent some questions to Ian Graham, so look out for what promises to be an interesting interview appearing in the near future...
Right, some linky-links for you all. Some cool/interesting stuff from around the blogosphere this past week.
Jeff has posted a review of David B. Coe'sThe Horsemen's Gambit.
Graeme has been partially cured of his aversion to shared-world fiction, after reading and reviewingPaul S. Kemp'sShadowrealm.
John has also read and reviewedShadowrealmover at Grasping for the Wind.
Those of you that are interested can check out a new trailer for the new Harry Potter film. Seems darker in tone, in keeping with the last couple of films.
Adam's reviewedScott Bakker'sThe Judging Eye, which has been getting cracking reviews in the blogosphere so far. One to watch for 2009.
Dark Wolf has got the winners of the 2008 International Horror Guild Award. Good to see Dan Simmons win 'Best Novel.' Damned good novel that.
Joe Abercrombie has continued his series of posts about cover art (and very interesting they are too). The latest concerns the finished proofs of the artwork for Best Served Cold. Another book to watch for next year...
Right, that's enough...my shoulder's started aching - the legacy of a childhood spent hunched over a video game console...
Interesting post by Joe Abercrombie over at his blog, where he discusses the inclusion of a map in his upcoming novel Best Served Cold. Joe also wrote a piece about maps in fantasy a year or so ago, which can be found here.
Joe indicates that while he loves maps as much as the next person, he's also wary that sometimes they're unnecessary and, at worst, can spoil a reader's perception of the secondary world in question. This is a view that I share myself.
On the one hand, I love maps. I like looking at them and I like drawing them. When I'm working on my own projects, I often feel that my secondary world doesn't feel real until I've drawn a map of it. I think when done properly, maps can be a valuable tool in lending further depth and weight to the world in question. It's a way of instantly making the place seem real before the reader has even read a single word of the novel. It's also a way of drawing readers in - I readily confess that in the past, an intriguing, well-drawn map has tipped the balance for me in terms of whether I bought a book or not.
For example, I picked up A Game of Thrones and - while I already planned to buy the novel - it certainly helped that one of the first things I saw was the map, more specifically the part that said 'The Haunted Forest' and 'The Wall.' That instantly appealed to me (namely, um, because I like spooky forests) and this sort of instant connection with the world can be invaluable. Maps can therefore serve as a real draw to potential readers - I think if someone picks up a book and the map within really appeals to them, then there's a stronger chance they'll consider purchasing the novel. In some ways it's like a second front cover, another chance to sell the book. Often, I'll look to see if a book has a map before I even sample the writing. From this perspective, maps can be invaluable.
Yet you do have to consider the other side of the issue. While a good map can draw readers in (and serve a more practical purpose during the reading of the novel), a bad map can have the opposite affect. Again, I'm happy to admit that if I'm undecided about whether to pick up a novel, a bad map can by the decisive nail in the coffin. The most recent example of a poor map I can think of is the one for Brent Weeks' debut novel, The Way of Shadows. I've already knocked this novel enough, but I have to say that the map is horrible. It's just a mishmash of names and boundary lines. It didn't instill any sense of awe or interest in me whatsoever, which I think is a fundamental failing. That said, it did serve its ultimate purpose as a reference, as I did refer to it once or twice during my reading of the novel.
As Abercrombie says, sometimes a map can destroy your personal imagining of a world. He cites the classic David Gemmell example, which I agree with wholeheartedly. Gemmell novels, for years, didn't have maps. There wasn't really any need for them, but eventually - for whatever reasons - a map was included with the Drenai novel White Wolf. All well and good, but it was crap. The world looked absolutely nothing like I'd imagined it, and other fans were also up in arms about it. The map had been drawn by a fan of Gemmell, which makes it all the more bewildering - if you're going to include a map, at least make sure the map has been drawn (or is based on a drawing) by the author! This sorry episode does serve as a warning that sometimes maps do more harm than good.
So, while I appreciate the potential drawbacks, I'm still in favour of maps in fantasy books.
What do you all think? Interested to hear other opinions!
I've unashamedly stolen this beauty from Pat's Fantasy Hotlist...simply because it's too cool not to post here. I dribbled like the pathetic fanboy I am when I saw the below depiction of Anomander Rake. 'Awesome' doesn't do it justice...
I liked the covers that Gollancz did for Abercrombie's First Law trilogy, and this definitely meets the same standards. Good stuff. The fact that its got a map on the front is rather ironic though, given Simon Spanton's (Gollancz editor) anti-map stance... ;)
You can check out the full hardcover wrap-around cover in all its glory here. I tried to upload the picture, but Blogger didn't like it and refused to play ball. Damned technology...
I stumbled across this rather horrific cover courtesy of Graeme's review.
Graeme clearly found himself unable to review the book without first mentioning the cover:
"Cover art is a funny thing isn’t it? It’s such an important part of the book as it’s the first thing you notice in the bookstore and could potentially put someone off buying the book itself. Everyone has different tastes though and this must make it difficult for a publisher to come up with cover art that will appeal to plenty of people... On this occasion, the cover art for ‘The Queen of Stone’ really didn’t work for me..."
It doesn't work for me either. No wonder people look down of fantasy when you have this sort of appalling cover on display. Those unfamiliar with the genre, after seeing this cover, could be forgiven for thinking that all fantasy fans are sexually-frustrated, pimple-faced loners.
This is dumbed-down fantasy art at its best. Sure, maybe it represents the actual book accurately (Graeme's review seems to confirm this) but it's still a totally crap cover.
After releasing both books of Karen Miller'sKingmaker, Kingbreakerduology within the space of a few months (and, it must be said, achieving considerable success with such a method), Orbit decided to do the same with Brent Weeks'The Night AngelTrilogy: all three books are to be released within a month of each other.
This is a particularly clever marketing ploy, as it means that fans don't have to wait long for each instalment, while the author's reputation and presence is built all the more quickly (or destroyed, depending on the books!).
Quite a bit of buzz has been steadily growing online around The Way of Shadows, so it moved rapidly up my reading list. I must confess I had my doubts about this debut, one being that it might veer too far towards bubblegum fantasy territory. Having finished the novel, I've found that some of my concerns were justified while others were not.
In short, The Way of Shadows is something of a mixed bag.
The weakest aspect for me was the worldbuilding, or to be blunt, total lack of it. What we have is a standard medieval-esque world of kings, princes, assassins and soldiers. There's even a magic sword and a prophecy. In short, there is absolutely no innovation whatsoever. For some readers this is not a problem; the issue of worldbuilding vs characterisation is an old one, and many fans of the genre are quite happy as long as the story and characters are good. That's fair enough, but personally I like fantasies where the author attempts to push the boundaries a bit, do something a little different. Failing that, the world needs to at least come through well in the writing; I need to be able to become absorbed in it. Weeks' world fails on both accounts for me - it's neither particularly interesting and it just never reeled me in. There were hints of a more Asian influence (rice paddies, tantos, etc) but this was never built upon. Subsequently, the world became a backdrop and nothing more, rather than a vibrant, living place.
The writing at first seemed little better. Again, this may just be my personal taste, but I found the prose a bit simplistic. There was some really clunky exposition and I felt certain events badly lacked context. For example - without giving anything away - there's a scene early on where a certain individual overhears two men discussing the dynastic succession. Maybe it was just me, but I struggled to really grasp the importance of the situation or what was at stake - there were too many names flying around for me to really appreciate exactly what was happening. On top of that, certain words - Momma, helluva - are too modern and are subsequently jarring.
Having said that, the writing improves considerably over the course of the book and the final third displays some much better descriptive prose. There was one scene in particular that I thought Weeks handled extremely well and was clearly the stand-out moment in the book for me, though obviously I can't reveal what it is. While I never fully took to Weeks' style, it is at least accessible and I saw enough to believe that the next books in the trilogy will contain superior writing to this one.
The characterisation was a little bit hit and miss for me. Some characters - DurzoBlint, Azoth/Kylar, Momma K (still don't like that name) - were handled and developed well, but others (Solon/Feir/Dorian/Duke Gyre) were less so. Azoth/Kylar does make for a good, engaging protagonist, and Blint is a very strong support act, so ultimately Weeks does manage to create an entertaining cast that hold the reader's attention.
The plot is what really saves The Way of Shadows from total mediocrity. To his credit, Weeks has constructed a plot that generally moves at a good pace and has a high number of twists, some of which most readers will never see coming. It's been a while since I've read a novel with this many surprises, so credit to Weeks for that. On the other hand though, I do think the best authors are able to drop hints prior to the twist/secret being revealed. For example, George R. R. Martin is very good at doing this, so you're able to flick back over the novel and think "Yeah, all the signs were there - I just didn't see them." The twists in Weeks' novel aren't as subtle, and for me one or two of the twists seemed a bit hollow. Still, when all is said and done Weeks has created an absorbing plot.
I had one or two other minor complaints: I would have liked to have seen much more of Azoth's/Kylar's training, as the plot jumps ahead by two years more than once, which threw me a bit. I did at times feel that Azoth/Kylar was too skilled - to the point where it lessened the tension. Still, relatively minor complaints.
In all, despite the world being rather standard (and not coming through as well as I'd have liked), the writing being clunky at times and the characterisation blowing hot and cold, there was something that appealed to me about The Way of Shadows. I can't quite put my finger on it, though the plot certainly helped me to enjoy the novel. I've read much better fantasy novels, but then again I've read far worse. For a debut, it's not bad at all and I think it has all the right ingredients to appeal to a lot of readers.
I've heard Weeks compared to Scott Lynch, though I think that has more to do with the similar nature of their debuts - Lynch, for me, is a better writer in all departments. That said, I'll probably check out the next book in The Night Angel Trilogy, as I think Weeks does have potential.
It's just...I don't know. Tired. A bland image - some generic dragon throwing a frilly-cuffed strop, with Iron Man (wtf is he doing there?) holding a couple of those cheap plasma balls you can get from all tacky novelty shops.
What interested me though, was Lloyd's response to whether he liked the artwork:
"I’m very happy with both the covers he’s done; I think they’re perfect for the market and just great images in themselves."
Disagree with the last point, but Lloyd's probably bang on the money with the first - and that is perhaps why although this cover is awful, it might be suitable. The difference between the US and UK markets has been mentioned time and time again.
Still, however suitable the cover is, it's still crap.
Speculative Horizons is a UK-based blog dedicated to discovering the best in speculative fiction. Here you'll find book reviews, author interviews, artwork for upcoming releases, and commentary on all aspects of the genre.
A child of the eighties, I was raised on a steady diet of Ghostbusters, Thundercats and Transformers. I eventually discovered fantasy books via the awesome Fighting Fantasy series, and my love of fantasy led me to create Speculative Horizons, a popular book review blog I ran for three years. In 2010 I joined Orbit to work as an editorial assistant.