Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Contest winner!

As promised, here's the result of The Solaris Book of New Fantasy giveaway!

And the winner is....

*Drum roll*

Charles Hashem!

Congratulations to you Sir, and thanks to all of you who entered.

Charles, look out for an email winging its way over to you soon...

Keep your eyes peeled for further giveaways in the future!

McKellan confirmed to return as Gandalf in Hobbit film

More good news regarding The Hobbit film: Ian McKellan will be returning to play Gandalf in the two new movies.

Work on the script is due to commence in 6 weeks.

Check out the news article HERE.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Writing tips from Alt. Fiction

While many of the points made by the editors and agents at the Alt. Fiction con were ones I'd heard before, bandied around internet forums, it was still good to have them clarified by people who actually know what they are talking about.

As I'm sure some of the readers that stop by this blog like to consider themselves writers (like myself), I thought it would be worth repeating some of the advice that was given. So, here are the five most important tips - for aspiring writers - that were emphasised on the panels that I attended.

1) Know your market. See what's selling, and what isn't. Publishing is a business afterall, and it's important that - to a degree - your work is commercial. No-one writes in a vacuum. Trends come and go. See how you can make use of the current ones. At the end of the day, if your work lacks a commercial edge, then you'll probably struggle to find an agent (and by default, a publisher). No, this doesn't mean 'selling out.' It just means you have to be aware of the state of the market and where your writing fits in. For example, 'gritty' fantasy is all the rage right now. But in three years this may have changed, so writing a gritty novel then might be a mistake.

2) Don't write a stand-alone novel. Publishers ideally want a series or a trilogy. Or at least a second book set in the same world. Writing a one-off book with no room for a sequel will put publishers off. They're making an investment, and want to know that there is plenty more to come from where the first book materialised.

3) Writing a good book isn't enough. It has to be brilliant, full stop. Sounds obvious, but it's worth bearing in mind. Although with the number of crap fantasy books I've seen floating around that have somehow been published, I do wonder at the validity of this point. Then again, if you want to be successful and make a name for yourself in the genre, then your book clearly does need to be very special indeed. Therefore, what you produce must be your best effort. Don't settle for anything less.

4) You have to be prepared to self-market your work. In the age of the internet, there's no excuse for sitting back and letting the marketing department at your publisher handle it. Even authors lucky enough to have others doing it for them still need to do their fair share of the work.

5) Watch out for sub-plots that have no resolution. This is one that Christian from Solaris raised. He said that one of the most frequent (and frustrating) problems that proliferated the work of new writers was the inclusion of plots that just grind to a halt halfway through the book with no clear resolution. The bottom line: make sure your subplots go somewhere. If they just sort of trail off with no conclusion, sort them out or ditch them altogether.

I'm sure there were others, however these are the main ones I remember.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

Alt. Fiction

Had a fun day out in Derby today, at the Alt. Fic convention. While it is on a smaller scale to the other UK cons, it nonetheless had a number of interesting things going on and there was a respectable turn-out of writing/publishing folk.

Upon arrival, I dumped my coat in the cloakroom and made straight for the Q&A session run by Christian Dunn, the Commissioning Editor for Solaris. Many of the questions asked were ones I've seen online many times, so the answers were familiar. Still, the atmosphere was nice and informal and it was good to hear the answers coming straight from the horse's mouth, as it were.

After that I went straight to the panel discussion about publishing that included genre agent extraordinaire, John Jarrold, and George Mann, Consultant Editor for Solaris. A lively debate, with plenty of insightful (and blunt advice) from Mr Jarrold. "Writing a good book isn't enough," he deadpanned. "It has to be brilliant." Judging by the mutterings of some audience members afterwards, his words had ruffled a few feathers. I personally thought they were spot-on.

Keen to hear more from John Jarrold, I popped along to his personal Q&A session later in the afternoon. Again, most of the questions were those you see on most writing forums (I have to admit I did kinda wonder whether any of the other people at the talk actually bothered to use such forums) but it was good to hear them coming from someone with such a knowledgeable background. John Jarrold's got a fine sense of humour too, so it was a fun session.

In between panels I managed to grab a bite to eat and chat with Mark and George from Solaris, which was a pleasure, as always.

So, a long day (not to mention costly) but a good one.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Del Toro to direct The Hobbit!

Awesome news.
Guillermo del Toro, director of the stunning Pan's Labyrinth, has been confirmed as director for The Hobbit, plus the other related movie ("an original story focusing on the 60 years between the book and the beginning of the Rings trilogy").

Personally I'm delighted with this announcement, as del Toro is a fantasy man through-and-through and is a fantastic director and film-maker. I have absolutely no doubt that he will deliver a wonderful Hobbit film.

Peter Jackson however will also be involved in the project, acting as producer. Like the LOTR movies, these two films will be shot in New Zealand and will made back-to-back.

Expect Ian McKellan to reprise his role as Gandalf.

The other bit of good news is that the films should be released in 2010 and 2011, so not long to wait!
Check out the BBC article here!

Thursday, 24 April 2008

New John Marco website

US author John Marco has got a tasty new website up and running, which you can check out here.

Interestingly, John reveals a little more about his Skylords trilogy:

"Not only is it a story of coming of age for the two main protagonists, Moth and his friend Fiona, but it’s also about mankind’s coming of age. The world of Starfinder is very much like our own at the turn of the last century, with steam trains and electricity and budding technologies. And thanks to the inventive genius of Fiona’s grandfather Rendor, humans have finally taken to the sky, not only in giant airships but in small, ornithopter contraptions called dragonflies as well."

Sounds very cool indeed.

On his blog, John also revealed that for his next project, he may well revisit his character Lukien, main protagonist of The Sword of Angels, The Devil's Armour and The Eyes of God. Having only read John's excellent Tyrants and Kings series, I was secretly hoping he might be revisiting the world of Nar and Lucel-Lor again, but that doesn't seem to be on the cards right now.

Still, you never know what the future may hold...

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Giveaway! The Solaris Book of New Fantasy

Thanks to the kind chaps at Solaris, I have a shiny new copy of The Solaris Book of New Fantasy to give to one lucky winner.

My earlier review of the book is here, and you'll see that I was rather impressed.

To stand a chance of winning this enjoyable collection of short fantasy fiction, all you need to do is send an email to speculativehorizons AT googlemail DOT com (obviously substituting the necessary characters).

In the title of the email, please put "Book of New Fantasy giveaway".

And that's it. You don't need to provide your address, as I'll contact the winner to confirm those details later.

The winner will be picked at random and will be announced next Wednesday.

Good luck!

Monday, 21 April 2008

On the horizon...recommendation for 2008

Brian Ruckley's debut fantasy novel, Winterbirth, received rather mixed reviews when it was published last year. Some praised the gritty (yes, that word again) storytelling and bleak world, others criticised the linear plot and mediocre characterisation.

Those of you who checked out my review of Winterbirth will know that I fell somewhere between the two camps. I thought the plot was too pedestrian and dragged in parts, while the characterisation - good in places - was not strong enough overall, with the main protagonist Orisian one of the real culprits.

However, I also said that I felt that Ruckley's world was well developed, with plenty of interesting history and lore underpinning it. I knew there was a good story in there somewhere, it was just a case of whether it would emerge in the subsequent novels.

Well, the time has come to find out. The sequel, Bloodheir, will be published in the UK in hardback on 5 June 2008 and in the US on 3 June 2008.

Here's the blurb:

As ever greater battles are fought between the Black Road and the True Bloods, so each side in the conflict becomes ever more riven by internal dissent and disunity. Amidst the mounting chaos, Aeglyss the na'kyrim gradually masters the remarkable powers that have been unleashed upon him by his crucifixion. Twisting everything and everyone around him to serve his own mad desires, he begins to exert a dangerous, insidious influence over the course of events both near and far. Orisian, lord of the ruined Lannis Blood, faces not only the consequences of that malign influence, but also the machinations of his supposed allies and the stirring of the long-dormant Anain, the most potent race the world has ever known.

Sounds promising, I'll admit. Aeglyss was easily the strongest character in Winterbirth, so watching him slowly slip into insanity will be interesting. The return of the Anain as well will add another dimension to the plot. As I said, I think there is real potential here, in both the world and the story. I just hope Ruckley delivers, as I'm willing to bet there are a number of readers out there like myself who are sitting on the fence and just waiting to see which way this series will go. Hopefully with Bloodheir we'll get an indication one way or the other.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

George R. R. Martin Q & A

The great man himself, George R. R. Martin, has been doing a Q & A in the Centre Stage Forum of the Barnes and Noble Book Club.

The questions generally focus on the characters and events of A Song of Ice and Fire (including some ridiculous ones - "Will Arya have any significant impact on events later in the series?" Come on, as if he's going to answer that...)

But Martin does however answer some more minor questions, which as ever prove interesting. Only trouble for me is that I've not read the series for a few years, and it's so epic and complex that I can't even remember half the more minor characters. Must remedy that before the next book comes out...

One forum member actually asked a more objective question about characterisation:

"It seems as if the introduction of viewpoint chapters for the "villains" are intended to humanize them, or at least make them somewhat sympathetic. That seems to have not been the case with the recent Circe chapters where we learn that her actions weren't driven by her resentment over being a woman in a man's game, but rather over fear of a prophecy. To me it seemed like you were letting us into her head only to make her less likeable. What was your expectation for her chapters and how do you feel that your approach to her character differed from the way you've treated the more redemptive POVs of Jaime and Tyrion?"

To which Martin replied:

I don't concern myself over whether my characters are "likeable" or "sympathetic." (I had my fill of that in television). My interest is in trying to make them real and human. If I can create a fully-fleshed three-dimensional character, some of my readers will like him/ her, or some won't, and that's fine with me. That's the way real people react to real people in the real world, after all. Look at the range of opinions we get on politicans and movie stars. If EVERYONE likes a certain character, or hates him, that probably means he's made of cardboard. So I will let my readers decide who they like, admire, hate, pity, sympathize with, etc. The fact that characters like Sansa, Catelyn, Jaime, and Theon provoke such a wide range of reactions suggests to me that I have achieved my goal in making them human.

There's a lesson there for all would-be writers, myself included. Wise words indeed.

On a lighter note, my other favourite response was to the question: "Would polygamous marriage be accepted in current Westerosi society especially where the Targaryens are concerned?"

Answer: If you have some huge fire-breathing dragons, you can get people to accept a lot of things that they might otherwise have problems with.

Anyone know where I can get a huge, fire-breathing dragon from? ;)

Saturday, 19 April 2008

More Mckenna goodness

As I said before, I'm a big Martin Mckenna fan. I'm also a huge Fighting Fantasy fan, so it's great that they both go hand in hand. Once again, this artwork is not new or anything, but it rocks. I know I posted this cover before, but it's so good it deserves to be posted again, in its pure form (ie - without titles).

Can you feel the atmosphere? CAN YOU?

Friday, 18 April 2008

That George R. R. Martin quote in full...

I really like the George R. R. Martin quote that you can see above, beneath the blog title. That's why I put it there. ;)

I just thought I'd point out that what you see above is only the first part of a short piece by Martin, about why we all love fantasy.

Here's the piece in its entirety (thanks to Pat over at the Hotlist for originally bringing this to my attention):

The best fantasy is written in the language of dreams. It is alive as dreams are alive, more real than real ... for a moment at least ... that long magic moment before we wake.

Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true?

We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.

They can keep their heaven. When I die, I'd sooner go to middle Earth.

If anyone ever provides a more poetic reason for why we read fantasy, let me know. I'm willing to bet I'll be waiting a long time to hear it.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Read Stephen Baxter's Hugo-nominated story "Last Contact" online!

I mentioned in an earlier post that Stephen Baxter's short story Last Contact - which appeared in the Solaris Book of New Science Fiction Vol 1 - was nominated for a Hugo award.

Well, the chaps at Solaris - proving again what generous folks they are - have decided to publish the entire story online, so everyone can enjoy it.

You can find it HERE

Too much grit?

With Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains currently making headlines around the blogosphere for its full-on, visceral scenes of violence and whatnot, I'm starting to wonder whether anyone else - like myself - is starting to get tired of the 'gritty' tag.

It seems that over the last year or so we've seen an explosion of so-called 'gritty' fantasy, to such an extent that it's become not just a marketing ploy, but a bit of a cliche in its own right. Now, I like my hard-edged fantasy as much as anyone. I like realism, I like hard-hitting novels. I like blood, sweat and tears.

But I also like the fantastic element in fantasy, and I'm just wondering whether some releases seem to be lacking in that department. Brian Ruckley, for example, has written a gritty, realistic novel but it does rather lack any sense of wonder. I'm thinking that maybe the reason I enjoyed Gail Z Martin's The Summoner so much was because it was a refreshing break from the whole gritty thing, it reminded me - with its magic and adventure - why I liked fantasy so much in the first place.

I'm thinking gritty is all well and good, but not at the expense of the fantastic element. Some sort of balance is required. I believe George R. R. Martin does this well, striking a fine equilibrium between the grittiness of his world and the more exotic, fantastic elements. It means you can enjoy and appreciate the harshness of his world, but appreciate the more wondrous aspects at the same time.

The whole gritty thing hasn't run its course yet, but I can see readers getting tired of it eventually. Who knows, if The Steel Remains is as hard-hitting as it is reported to be, it may even kill off the whole thing altogether.

All of this remains to be seen, but I'd sure like to see some hard-edged novels that embrace the fantastic a little more.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Book review: Set the Seas on Fire

Set the Seas on Fire

By Chris Roberson

(Solaris 2007)

With the success of Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, it's not surprising to see more authors exploiting the wealth of background material and possibilities offered by the Napoleonic era.

One such author is Chris Roberson, although to say he delves deeply into the depths of this time period would be incorrect. Set the Seas on Fire follows the crew of an English navy vessel as they voyage into the uncharted waters of the Pacific, far away from the war in Europe.

The story starts well. The English crew - and the protagonist, Bonaventure - chase a Spanish ship and later discover from a survivor that the ship's crew disembarked at a distant island and were afflicted by some sort of madness. Naturally the lure of gold proves too strong, and the English crew set off to see if they can find the island and seize the galleon's gold from the crazed Spanish crew.

Roberson's prose is fluid and highly readable, and he generally manages to recreate the feel of the historical period quite well through his characters' dialogue. The early chapters flit between the crew's voyage and Bonaventure's childhood, adding some depth to the protagonist and helping to keep things fresh.

Then it all starts to go wrong.

I have a couple of major criticisms with Set the Seas on Fire, but I'll start with the biggest culprit: the plot. Or, to be more precise, lack of a plot. To be blunt, nothing really happens in this book. After the decent start and the promise of some sort of deranged zombie-like enemies, the English crew de-camp to a tropical paradise and for the next few hundred pages nothing that interesting really happens. Bonaventure develops a relationship with a native girl (handled in a completely unconvincing way), they get attacked by some bat creatures, and some kid steals a gun. That's about it. Sure, there's some interaction with the natives, the odd clash of interests and some shallow exploration of one or two themes, but it's all rather dull.

When the action finally hots up (far too late) it leads to a complete anti-climax of an ending, which just makes you wonder why you bothered reading that far in the first place (particularly as nothing really gets explained). The chapters that focus on Bonaventure's earlier years are disinteresting at best and utterly pointless at worst. You can't have a novel without a story, and Set the Seas on Fire is scuttled by the lack of any meaningful events or genuine excitement.

The other criticism I have relates to the characters. They're just so...boring. Bonaventure - a rather average protagonist - is fleshed out satisfactorily, but generally the rest of the cast have the collective depth of a paddling pool. There's little in the way of character development and most of the supporting characters are completely forgettable. There's not a memorable personality among them. The most interesting figures are the Spanish crazies, so it's disappointing they only appear at the end.

For a novel that has been mooted as "Horatio Hornblower meets H. P. Lovecraft" it is decidedly lacking in atmosphere, and there's no real tension - even when our not-so-intrepid adventurers approach their final destination. The dramatic finale is totally absent.

It's a shame really, as the idea is a good one and Roberson's prose is comfortably engaging. The novel just never builds on the decent start and the lack of entertaining characters and any real semblance of a plot ultimately results in a monotonous novel that doesn't really go anywhere, and offers little in the way of enjoyment for the duration.

Change to rating system...

Just thought I'd point out that I'm going to change the rating system I currently use to rate books and films. As regular readers will be aware, I used the 1 to 10 system (including decimal points) but I just started to feel this whole system was too subjective. What the hell is the difference between 8.25 and 8.5 anyway?

So from now on I'm using a more simple system. Books and films will be awarded one of the following ratings:

ddddd - Excellent
dddd - Good
ddd - Average
dd - Poor
d - Terrible

Hopefully this will make things a bit clearer.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Blurb for Dark Haven

Gail Z. Martin was kind enough to send me the synopsis for Dark Haven, the third novel in the popular Chronicles of the Necromancer series.

Warning: contains spoilers if you've not read The Summoner and The Blood King.

"In Dark Haven, the effects of Jared the Usurper's reign of terror go further than anyone imagined, striking at the stability of the Winter Kingdoms. Undead forces align against Lord Jonmarc Vahanian of Dark Haven in a struggle for power between mortals and the vayash moru. Magic has become a dangerous and unpredictable force. As King Martris Drayke prepares for his wedding, he must also prepare for war against rebels still loyal to Jared. Isencroft is on the brink of civil war over the looming reality of a joint kingdom. Only one thing is certain—the Winter Kingdoms will be changed forever"

I'm interested to see the direction Martin takes with this novel. While I liked the first two novels, I did feel they were too linear and predictable. I think however that there is real potential for Dark Haven. The vayash moru - vampires - are pretty cool and I'm looking forward to seeing them having a more prominent role in the plot. Hopefully Dark Haven will move away from the quest storyline and deliver something more varied.

Dark Haven will not be surfacing until next year, but rest assured I'll post a review if the kind fellows at Solaris deem me worthy of an ARC. ;)

Sunday, 13 April 2008

The Fantastic Appeal of Fantasy

There's a good article over at The Telegraph about the importance of fantasy as a genre, by Mark Chadbourn.

The article makes a convincing case for why fantasy should be regarded with a bit more respect, as well as denying that people are driven to read it merely for escapism:

"...fantasy charts the unconscious hopes and aspirations of our modern society through symbolism and allegory in story-forms as old as humanity.

It's about turning off the mobile phone and the computer and remembering who we are in the deepest, darkest parts of ourselves."

Thanks to Mark Newton for the heads-up.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

On the horizon....recommendation for 2008

I know that J. V. Jones' A Sword From Red Ice was published in hardback last year, but the paperback is not to be released until later this year and so it can still count as a recommendation for 2008.

Readers often moan about the length of time it takes an author to deliver the latest volume in a series, which in most cases is two years or sometimes more.

It took five years for A Sword From Red Ice to materialise. That's a heck of a long wait. Fortunately, I only started reading the series about two years ago so I've not had to wait as long, but that's still a pretty big delay. Apparently it's not all Jones' fault either, as there was some sort of problem at the publisher's end as well.

While it was finally released in hardback in October 2007, the mass-market edition is not due for release (in the UK) until November 2008. I have to say, this is extremely annoying. The book took far too long to come out as it was, so why the publishers insist on leaving a further year to put out the paperback edition is beyond me. Perhaps they hope desperate fans will cave in and, not wanting to face the prospect of another year in the cold, snap up a hardback copy. Whatever the reason, it's annoying in the extreme. I'm not a fan of hardback books (too hard to carry around and read on the train) and so I'm waiting for November.

Anyway, back to the book. Here's the blurb:

The Long Night has begun. The Endlords and their dark army of Unmade prepare to unleash untold destruction upon the world. Every Sull warrior must step forward and fight, or risk the North falling into eternal darkness. Key to mankind's survival is the sacred warrior Ash March. But for Ash to realise her true potential as a Reach, and become the Sull's greatest weapon, she must keep herself safe as the perils that surround her multiply. Raif Sevrance has an equally perilous task. The exile must travel to the barren wastes of the Red Glaciers and recover the legendary sword named Loss. For Sull legend decrees that he who wields the Sword from Red Ice will bring terror to their enemies. But fulfilment of these goals may yet come too late. In the remote reaches of the Bitter Hills, the Endlords' minions have made a cataclysmic discovery: a crack in the Blindwall, an ancient and unguarded passage leading directly into the realms of men.

I don't think the blurb really does the series justice; if you've not read the two previous books, this one probably just sounds like another quest novel. Obviously having not read it, I can't claim this viewpoint is false, however the story so far is a much more complex beast than that and I expect this book to continue this trend. Yes, there are several standard tropes, but Jones' has really excelled in creating a harsh, believable world that is both dangerous and absorbing at the same time. I read the first novel of her debut trilogy, The Baker's Boy, and thought it was a bog-standard fantasy with few redeeming qualities. Worse, despite some darker moments, it came across as a bit young-adult at times.

Something happened after Jones finished that trilogy, because The Sword of Shadows series is much more mature, with a host of interesting characters and a multi-layered story. On the one hand you've got the Endlords and their desire to break free from their dimensional prison to wreak havoc on the world, but you've also got the war between the human clans, the emergence of the Sull race, the politics of the city of Spire Vanis, and other threads. It's gripping story that, so far, has been wonderfully told. In fact, I would rate it as one of the best epic fantasies around at the moment.

My opinion my change after reading A Sword From Red Ice. Firstly, the novel has received rather mixed reviews. Secondly, it has been revealed that the series will now run to five books, as opposed to the original trilogy. Whenever you hear this, it does make you worry. One of the main criticisms of the new book is that there are portions where precious little happens, so I hope Jones has not fallen into the 'endless series' syndrome. That would be a massive shame.

A Sword From Red Ice is due to be released in the UK by Orbit in paperback on 6 November 2008.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Upcoming....and some linkage

I've just finished Chris Roberson's novel Set the Seas on Fire, but I've not got the time to post a review just yet. My parents are coming to stay, which of course has resulted in much last-minute cleaning, tidying and gardening. All rather tedious stuff, but a necessary evil. The review will hopefully surface on Sunday and there probably won't be any other posting until then (though you never know).

In the meantime, some links to keep you entertained:

Hop over to the Independent website to download an audio version of Iain Banks' novel The Wasp Factory (UK residents only) -

Graeme's got a Reaper's Gale giveaway on the go:

Aidan's got a review of R. A. Salvatore's The Ancient up at A Dribble of Ink:

Be back soon, hope you all have a cool weekend!

Thursday, 10 April 2008

On the horizon...recommendation for 2008

As I said in my last related post, there are plenty of genre novels due for release this year that are worth keeping tabs on. A Dance With Dragons is just one of them. Another that I have my beady eye on is...

The Steel Remains
By Richard Morgan
(Gollancz, 21 August 2008)

Now, I've never read any of Morgan's work (which appears to be largely sci-fi) but what I've heard about this novel has got me intrigued.

Here's the blurb:

Ringil, the hero of the bloody slaughter at Gallows Gap is a legend to all who don't know him and a twisted degenerate to those that do. A veteren of the wars against the lizards he makes a living from telling credulous travellers of his exploits. Until one day he is pulled away from his life and into the depths of the Empire's slave trade. Where he will discover a secret infinitely more frightening than the trade in lives.

Archeth - pragmatist, cynic and engineer, the last of her race - is called from her work at the whim of the most powerful man in the Empire and sent to its farthest reaches to investigate a demonic incursion against the Empire's borders. Egar Dragonbane, steppe-nomad, one-time fighter for the Empire finds himself entangled in a small-town battle between common sense and religious fervour. But out in the wider world there is something on the move far more alien than any of his tribe's petty gods. Anti-social, anti-heroic, and decidedly irritated, all three of them are about to be sent unwillingly forth into a vicious, vigorous and thoroughly unsuspecting fantasy world. Called upon by an Empire that owes them everything and gave them nothing.

Richard Morgan brings his trademark visceral writing style, turbo-driven plotting and thought provoking characterisation to the fantasy genre and produces a landmark work with his first foray.

The blurb, while interesting, is not what grabbed me. Instead, it was Joe Abercrombie's words that managed that. Morgan's world, Joe says, is:

full of the strange and unexplained...constantly in the shadow of old and terrible wars with lashings of religious bigotry, sexual oppression, messy executions, and slavery.

Now, that sounds a little more interesting. I do tend to favour more gritty, realistic storytelling, so this sounds promising. However, this novel doesn't just sound gritty, but positively barbaric. In Joe's words again:

What else can I compare it to? It has the explosive violence of, well, Richard Morgan (only about twice as explosive), the moral ambiguity of vintage Moorcock (but about three times as dark), with the explicit sexual content of Martin (only about ten times more explicit, and I'm not kidding), the harsh language of Scott Lynch (times about 1,000,000). If those things put you off, really, don't bother. The first couple of pages will probably give you a bit of mouth sick. The lyricism of Patrick Rothfuss? Not so much. The languid descriptions of Robert Jordan? No. The charming rural laughs of Eddings? No. No. No.

That's the paragraph that really grabbed my interest. Let's be honest, how could you read that and not feel intrigued to see exactly what The Steel Remains is like? It sounds totally brutal, to the extent that Joe admitted that:

sometimes I'd wipe the latest explosion of gore, shit, or spunk from my face and just think, "must we? Must we, again?"

Joe's books contain a healthy amount of sex, swearing and violence, so for him to think the above indicates that The Steel Remains is very violent and oppressive indeed.

Subsequently, I'm looking forward to this book to see exactly how 'brutalist' it is. Not only will it be interesting to see how well Morgan writes in the fantasy genre, but I also want to see whether it's all just mindless violence, intended to shock, or whether there is actually more depth to the story than that.

The Steel Remains is released on 21 August 2008. Check out Joe's full article here:

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Policeman lands £800,000 publishing deal

Nothing to do with genre, I'll admit, but I just came across this article on the BBC news website:

"A police officer has quit his job after landing a £800,000 publishing deal to write crime thrillers.
Pc Matt Hilton worked as a beat officer in Cumbria before securing the five novel deal with Hodder and Stoughton."

Not bad work if you can get it...

Every time I see a story like this it just makes me all the more aware that I've neglected my own projects for far too long...

On the horizon...recommendations for 2008

First Patrick Rothfuss declared that the sequel to The Name of the Wind will not see the light of day for some time, then comes the news that Scott Lynch has missed his deadline for The Republic of Thieves. Subsequently, neither book is going to materialise until 2009. This appears to have caused some readers in online forums to agitatedly squeal "what books coming out this year can I read instead?"

Plenty, as it happens. Even without Rothfuss and Lynch, there's plenty to look forward to. I thought I'd do a series of features on novels due to be published this year that are worth stockpiling your shiny little pennies for. So without further ado, here's the first:

A Dance with Dragons

George R. R. Martin

The big one, and not just for me. I think it's fair to say this is the most anticipated release of the year. That's not to say that it will be released this year of course. The mooted publication date - in the UK - is 3 November 2008, but past experience however suggests that this may be a shot in the dark. We can but hope.

Here's the blurb:

In the aftermath of a colossal battle, the future of the Seven Kingdoms hangs in the balance once again-beset by newly emerging threats from every direction. In the east, Daenerys Targaryen, the last scion of House Targaryen, rules with her three dragons as queen of a city built on dust and death. But Daenerys has three times three thousand enemies, and many have set out to find her. Yet, as they gather, one young man embarks upon his own quest for the queen, with an entirely different goal in mind.

To the north lies the mammoth wall of ice and stone-a structure only as strong as those guarding it. There, Jon Snow, 998th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, will face his greatest challenge yet. For he has powerful foes, not only within the Watch, but also beyond, in the land of the creatures of ice. And from all corners, bitter conflicts soon re-ignite, intimate betrayals are perpetrated, and a grand cast of outlaws and priests, soldiers and skinchangers, nobles and slaves, will face seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Some will fail, others will grow in the strength of darkness. But in a time of rising restlessness, the tides of destiny and politics will lead inevitably to the greatest dance of all…

I don't feel this novel really needs much introduction, other than it will be the latest instalment in what I would argue is the best epic fantasy series ever. Taking up the stories of the characters that were absent in the slightly disappointing A Feast For Crows (regrettably absent, I would say) it will continue the epic saga of the battle for the Iron Throne in the seven lands of Westeros. If you've read Martin before, then you'll know what to expect. If you haven't, there's plenty of time to rectify that grave error before this novel is released. The last novel drew some of the first serious criticism the series has thus far received, with detractors suggesting that Martin was in danger of succumbing to the longevity issues that afflicted The Wheel of Time. Expect Martin to come out all guns blazing in response.

It's been a bit of a wait, but A Dance With Dragons should be more than worth it.

The fickle hand of fate...

Apologies for the lack of posting in the last few days; the fickle hand of fate has meant that I've been rather busy with both work and personal life. Never fear however, as I'll resume blogging as soon as possible.

In the meantime, go and check out the amusing post Hal Duncan made in response to a homophobic twat that sent him an email:

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Book Review: The Solaris Book of New Fantasy

The Solaris Book of New Fantasy

Edited by George Mann

(Solaris - 2007)

Another Solaris book, another stunning cover. Fantasy is such a broad genre and Solaris could easily have plumped for - as some genre publishers are doing - a more 'mature' cover. This cover however makes no attempt to hide the fact that the stories within are fantasy stories. In fact, it's almost a proud statement of fact.

It was perhaps a risk for Solaris to publish this anthology. Short genre fiction - while having a long and proud tradition - is nowhere near as popular as the novel. It was important therefore that Solaris picked the right stories, and the right authors. Furthermore, given that the title of the book refers to fantasy as a whole, rather than a particular sub-genre, the collection would have to include stories from across the board.

Rather impressively, editor George Mann does a commendable job. The contributing authors are a mix of established and newer writers. Genre stalwarts that appear include Steven Erikson, Mark Chadbourn, Janny Wurts and Steven Savile. Among the relative newcomers (and those that are perhaps not as familiar to readers) are Scott Thomas, Chris Roberson, James Maxey and Christopher Barzak. Furthermore, a range of sub-genres are covered, such as urban fantasy, epic fantasy and dark fantasy.

Rather than examining each story in chronological order, I'll look at both the highlights and the disappointments of the anthology.

The anthology gets off to a strong start, with Mark Chadbourn's Who Slays The Gyant, Wounds the Beast, which is set in an alternative Elizabethan England that is at war with the Faerie Realm. An enjoyable tale that examines the problem of love and duty, it's over too quickly but is an excellent taster of Chadbourn's work and a solid start to the anthology.

For what Hal Duncan's contribution, The Prince of End Times, lacks in plot, it makes up for in the sheer style of his prose. Obscure, unconventional and often hugely evocative, Duncan's prose is often challenging to read but considerably rewarding. As mentioned above, there is not much in the way of plot in this offering but the atmosphere just drips from every word and there's some beautiful imagery. Easily one of the highlights of the anthology.

And Such Small Deer, by Chris Roberson, features a fresh version of the character Van Helsing who finds himself investigating a gruesome series of killings on a plantation, in a story that highlights the dangers of science. Well-written and engaging, it makes for enjoyable reading. Roberson has a good feel for the time period, lending a veneer of authenticity to his work.

The most emotionally engaging story in the collection is Steven Savile's offering, The Song Her Heart Sang. A bittersweet tale about a man who braves the ruins of an old library in search of an artifact to win the love of a lady, it is by turns unnerving and heartwarming, and very well written. This is the only story in the anthology that I could engage with on a personal emotional level, and for that Savile should be commended.

O Caritas by Conrad Williams takes place in a post-apocalyptic London, where the rich live closeted away in their towers and the rest of the city's inhabitants are engaged in a constant struggle for survival amid the ruins of the past. Williams manages to imbue the piece with real tension at times, and his visceral portrayal of the ruined London is hugely atmospheric.

Lt. Privet's Lovesong by Scott Thomas is a quirky, enjoyable tale about a young man and his misadventures with a love potion. Thomas manages to inject real depth into his characters - not easy when working within the confines of short fiction - and reveals an intriguing world. The story itself is clever, inventive and ultimately satisfying.

In anthologies such as this, you're always going to have a few turkeys and The Solaris Book of New Fantasy is no exception. There were a number of stories that just didn't work for me:

Reins of Destiny by Janny Wurts is a huge disappointment after Chadbourn's engaging opener. Plodding and dull, it says nothing and goes nowhere. Given Wurt's background and bibliography, I was expecting far more than this poor effort.

Jeff Vandermeer has won the World Fantasy Award twice, but with his dire offering - King Tales - it's hard not to wonder how he managed it. King Tales is seemingly an attempt by Vandermeer to tell some quirky stories with the atmosphere and fable of traditional fairy tales. It doesn't work. Compared to many of the stories in the book, this offering just seems hopelessly juvenile, not to mention pointless. I just couldn't engage with it on any level. The worst story in the anthology by some distance.

The Wizard's Coming by Juliet E. McKenna wins the award for worst title. The story itself is better, but far from the excellence of many of the other offerings. McKenna writes competently enough, but the characters, plot and bog-standard medieval setting fail to inspire. The story isn't helped by the fact that it ends halfway through, leaving you wondering what the whole point of it was.

There were two other stories that didn't work for me: Inbetween Dreams by Christopher Barzak (too long-winded and abstract) and Shell Game by Mike Resnick (not necessarily a bad story, but private investigator stuff just isn't my thing).

The rest of the stories in the anthology - Tornado of Sparks by James Maxey, Grander Than The Sea by T. A. Pratt, A Man Falls by Jay Lake, Chinandega by Lucius Shepard and Quashie Trapp Blacklight by Steven Erikson ranged from mediocre to relatively good.

Overall, The Solaris Book of New Fantasy is a success. While there are several stories that don't really deserve to be included, this notion is ultimately outweighed by the fact that there are some real gems in this collection, covering a range of authors and sub-genres.

This book is an excellent chance to enjoy some short fiction and to discover a host of authors that you may not have read before.


Upcoming book reviews

On Saturday I made the relatively short journey down to Nottingham and had a very enjoyable lunch with Mark Newton of the UK genre imprint Solaris.

Not only did we have an epic, hugely enjoyable 6-hour discussion of all things genre, Mark was also kind enough to supply me with a number of Solaris books to review.

So, look out for reviews of the following titles at some point in the future:

Set the Seas on Fire - Chris Roberson

Thief With No Shadow - Emily Gee

Dark Lord - Ed Greenwood

The Solaris Book of New Science-Fiction (Volumes 1 + 2) - Edited by George Mann

I also ought to point out that Mark is an author in his own right, and was kind enough to sign a copy of his debut novel The Reef for me. Incidentally, The Reef has been reviewed over at Graeme's Fantasy Book Review.

Mark's a top chap, and The Reef sounds exciting, so I suggest you all go and check out his book. I'll try to post a review soon.

So many books, so little time...

Thursday, 3 April 2008


I just had to post this artwork, taken from the cover of the Fighting Fantasy book Bloodbones. It's not new or anything, but I'm a big fan of illustrator Martin McKenna and this is possibly my favourite piece of his work. I love the colours and the sheer atmosphere. Brilliant stuff. Recognise the skull?

Scott Lynch on fantasy clichés

Scott Lynch, author of The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies, has written an article in which he examines the worst fantasy clichés and why they get used time and time again.

This is the article in its entirety, taken from the Spectra Pulse facebook page:

In an improbably comfy castle with more stained glass than the set of an Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera, a former potato farmer fulfills a divine prophecy, as he takes up the crown that would have been his had he not been spirited away at birth. Strewn in his wake are the corpses of the Dark Lord and the Dark Lord’s Moderately Threatening But Intermittently Competent Minions. Looking on from the wings are the heroic potato farmer’s stalwart companions, the wisecracking thief with a heart of gold and the plucky highland lass who shares a telepathic bond with a cute but lethal woodland creature. You can tell what sort of science fiction and fantasy reader you are by your reaction to all of this; by now, chances are you’re either vomiting your central nervous system into a bucket or preparing to feed me money with a shovel.

Such is the power of cliché! The power to compel . . . and the power to repulse.

Few things in SF/F are more subject to knee-jerk critical scorn than the stock characters and plot elements that form what you might call the genre’s “core clichés,” the utterly unkillable chestnuts that claw their way into story after story, year after year. Disinherited nobles, world-destroying dread lords, magic swords, prophecies, chosen ones, charming scoundrels, bug-eyed monsters. They’ll all be going strong when everyone reading this article has long since turned into fertilizer. Yet only those unfamiliar with my work should be surprised to learn that I really have absolutely nothing against them. In fact, I find some of them downright irresistible.

Clichés can only become clichés if they work, if they strike a chord in a relatively broad audience time and time again. In the grand evolutionary cycle of the SF/F narrative, clichés are like sharks--ideas so robust and effective that they survive indefinitely with their essential nature more or less unchanged.

Authors are often accused of laziness merely for using clichés in their work, but I’ve come to find that accusation rather obtuse. We don’t all pile clichés into our work because we’re lazy. We pile them in because, once having encountered them as readers, they fascinate us. We then burn with the urge (in some cases for years or decades of deep obsession) to apply our particular spin to the objects of those fascinations, and to make them seem new again. This is mirrored in the tastes of those readers that can never get enough of something that tickles their fancy, be it swashbuckling rogues or palace intrigue or the Hero’s Journey. The urge to chase favorite clichés from book to book is no lazier or more shameful than a preference for one kind of wine over another. Clichés are just objects. Considered strictly by themselves, they are morally neutral. They are tools waiting to be put to a use.

Therein lies the real secret of dividing good clichés from bad clichés. In fiction, execution trumps everything. Clichés cannot survive to become (in)famous without continual, skillful, and passionate reinvention. Likewise, they can’t acquire the power to repel unless they’re used time and time again in a thoughtless and turgid fashion. So you see, the worst clichés in SF/F can be anything, anything at all, whenever those clichés are used without flair or novelty, to undermine the importance of character decisions, to short-circuit genuine psychological insight, and to take the place of more difficult literary concerns such as plot, character, and having a damn point.

Consider the recurring cliché of the Chosen One, the Hero of Prophecy. This one goes so far down into the wellspring of human myth and psychology that you could spend a whole career exploring it and never come up dry. But when used without examination and without care, it becomes the most obvious crutch for slipshod narrative in literary history. When you can simply toss confrontations and climaxes onto the page In Accordance With Prophecy (in other words, whenever the author bloody well pleases), you can entirely subvert the need to have a plot at all. Unlike those poor characters in other books that are forced to actually think their way to the last page, and to make decisions that bring them into conflict with the consequences of other decisions, a lazy prophecy abuser can just kill chapter after chapter doing whatever they please until the final epic set-piece falls out of the sky and lands on them. Isn’t it nice how villains are always showing up in the oddest places for climactic duels when there are only ten or fifteen pages left to go? The fact that it’s Destiny! (capitalization and exclamation point always implied) excuses them from any need to have a plausible motivation for being there.

Another frequent medalist in the Misused Cliché Olympics is the Powerful Yet Mysterious Mentor, the character that traditionally provides or assists what Joseph Campbell names “the call to adventure” in his diagram of the universal Hero’s Journey. This character exists to clue the hero in to the whys and wherefores of their situation, to describe the opposition they face, and to help them unlock whatever powers or skills they might need for the coming struggle. But there is a fine line between the useful and the ridiculous, and SF/F is replete with mysterious mentor figures who refuse to unleash their vast cosmic powers or universal knowledge simply because their authors are cheating slouches. How many times must heroes plead to be given necessary information concerning their parentage, their enemies, and their destinies, only to be told that “the time is not yet right” or “they are not ready?” Not yet right, my posterior. Nine times out of ten, if a Mysterious Mentor bites their tongue, it’s because the book would be over in about ten pages if they spilled the beans. And don’t even get me started on Mysterious Mentors who possess the power to blast planets into atoms with a single fart, yet spend all their time wandering in the woods or being uselessly cryptic to the hero when they could just go deal with (Insert Dire Threat to All That is Bright and Wholesome Here) themselves and be back in time for a three-martini lunch. The desire to have it both ways with this sort of character, to withhold vital information or prevent obvious action for the transparent purpose of prolonging a flimsy plot, kills plausibility dead. J.R.R. Tolkien, in The Fellowship of the Ring, took great care in giving Gandalf a variety of solidly defined reasons, all but one of them purely psychological, as to why he let the One Ring languish in the Shire for many quiet decades rather than throwing it into the sea on general principle. It bemuses me that so many authors trying to emulate the Gandalf Mystique keep missing the fact that Gandalf’s author cared enough to provide him with a detailed set of motives for his behavior. Such motives, properly revealed, can allow the character to sit on as much information as the author likes without appearing to sit on it for the crass purpose of extending the page count.

And there you see how fine the balance point between thoughtful interpretation and ghastly regurgitation can be. The truth is that there are no bad clichés--only badly considered and badly applied ones. And yet, even if they can be said to exist in woeful abundance, then at least they help to make each instance of genuine novelty and reinvention in our genre all the more noteworthy and invigorating by contrast.

I like the fact that Lynch manages to discuss these clichés without being snooty about them, admitting that he actually finds many of them interesting.

Furthermore, I think he makes a key point when he suggests that there are no bad clichés - only badly applied ones. This is an argument backed up by the work of Joe Abercrombie, who takes pretty much every cliché and then twists them around to deliver a story that is fresh and engrossing despite making use of such well-trodden tropes.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Free Raymond E. Feist download

If you read the feature I wrote on Ray Feist not so long ago, then you'll know I'm a fan of his work.

So it was cool to find out that HarperCollins are offering the first novel in the Darkwar trilogy - Flight of the Nighthawks - as a free download from their website.

It does say that the offer is open to US residents only. Sigh. Still, if any of you US readers are yet to try out Feist, now would be the perfect time.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Pile o' Shame - Part 2!

Last time I discussed the authors - all of whom are legends within their respective sub-genres - whose work I have spectacularly failed to read, leaving embarrassing, gaping holes in my genre knowledge.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of more recent authors (and one not so recent) - whose works are no less influential - that I've also managed to somehow neglect.

So without further ado, here's the rest of my pile o' shame...

Patrick Rothfuss

Over the past year or so, I've watched with interest as hype started to build around a novel called The Name of the Wind. I listened as readers gushed about how brilliant the novel was, how much they'd enjoyed it and how disappointed they were that the sequel was to be delayed until 2009. I read, with some awe, about how the novel had shifted 40,000 sales in hardback alone.

I bought the novel, a nice first edition hardback copy. I read the blurb - which I thought was very promising - and gazed longingly at the map (I like a good map, oh yes indeed). I thought that Rothfuss' world looked interesting and that his places had cool names. I decided that I was quite excited about the story itself.

So I put the book on the shelf and left it to gather dust. Why? Simple really. I do a lot of reading on the commute to work, and my copy is a big bastard and just not practical to lug about all over the place. So I'm waiting for a chance to read it.

Hopefully that time will come soon.

Steven Erikson

I originally bought Gardens of the Moon several years ago, but after hearing that it was something of a difficult read, I set it aside "for later" and of course didn't get around to it for quite some time.

In fact it was only recently, after realising that the Malazan series has been garnering very positive reviews in some quarters and has developed a large following, that I dug the book out and took the plunge.

I can see what the novel's detractors mean when they say it is hard to get into. Erikson throws you straight into the action and expects you to fill in the blanks as you go along. It's not easy, what with the epic scope of the world and a plot that leaps about like a fish out of water.

Despite this, I liked what I read. Here was an author that wasn't afraid to make liberal use of magic and other aspects more normally found in RPGs. This of course led to accusations that Erikson was some sort of hack and that he had written just a glorified Dungeons and Dragons story, which is a false argument if ever there was one. What he has created is a huge, complex world full of diverse characters that are forced into desperate situations. There is some serious imagination at work here, such as the moon of the title and its Lord, Anomander Rake, who is such a cool character. Hairlock, the insane puppet with alarmingly powerful magical abilities, is also brilliantly conceived.

Despite only reading one book, I already feel a real affinity for Erikson's work, and will definitely be cracking open the next two books in the series, which are waiting patiently on my shelf...

China Miéville

I've had my eye on Miéville for a while now, and have almost purchased some of his books on more than one occasion. What attracts me to his work is his deliberate attempt to go against the grain, to write something challenging, something less conventional. To this end, his world mixes magic and technology, and is allegedly influenced by a number of different aspects from various sub-genres - a refreshing break from the ye-olde-medieval setting that domiates many works of fantasy.

In his own words: "I’m not a leftist trying to smuggle in my evil message by the nefarious means of fantasy novels. I’m a science fiction and fantasy geek. I love this stuff. And when I write my novels, I’m not writing them to make political points. I’m writing them because I passionately love monsters and the weird and horror stories and strange situations and surrealism, and what I want to do is communicate that.

But, because I come at this with a political perspective, the world that I’m creating is embedded with many of the concerns that I have... I’m trying to say I’ve invented this world that I think is really cool and I have these really big stories to tell in it and one of the ways that I find to make that interesting is to think about it politically. If you want to do that too, that’s fantastic. But if not, isn’t this a cool monster?"

Sounds good to me.

Stephen King

Yes, I know. But it's true. I've never read a Stephen King novel. As I mentioned before, I like my horror very much indeed. So it's pretty embarrassing that not only have I failed to read much Lovecraft, I've also failed to read the other most influential author in the genre.

I've meant to of course, but somehow have never got around to it. About the closest I've come is watching The Shining film (which is excellent in its own right, but hardly a substitute for reading one of the books).

Hopefully I'll get round to it one day, but with so many books and so little time, we'll just have to see.