Thursday 31 January 2008

Martin McKenna and other illustrators

While I may have absolutely no artistic talent whatsoever, I can at least appreciate the work of those who do. One of my favourite genre artists is Martin McKenna, whose work has graced hundreds of speculative publications over the last twenty years. While he is skilled with all mediums, it is his pencil drawings that truly excel, at least in my opinion. The atmosphere that some of his illustrations evoke is fantastic.

You can check out his website here:

While I'm on the subject, I'm also quite partial to Ted Nasmith's illustrations, particularly those of Middle Earth/Lord of the Rings. I even have three decorative plates with some of his Lord of the Rings illustrations on. I'm not so keen on his Lord of the Rings-inspired musical compositions stick to the paintbrush, Mr Nasmith.

His website can be found here:

Who else...ah, how could I forget Jelly, my brother and faithful reading troll. He happens to be an illustrator too, and while he is still learning his trade he has produced some tasty genre artwork, such as this little gem below:

You can check out the rest of Jelly's artwork here:

Wednesday 30 January 2008

Comment: Bitterwood

I mentioned before that I didn't enjoy Bitterwood, but didn't say why. As promised, I thought I'd explain why the novel just didn't work for me.

The first problem was the world. I remember reading an interview several years ago with former editor-turned-agent John Jarrold, who was asked how he knew when a new manuscript just wasn't going to make the grade. Jarrold answered that in many fantasy manuscripts, the world just doesn't come across well enough. Of course, for novels where the story takes place in a different world, this is an instant nail in the coffin.

This was one of the problems I had with Bitterwood. The world just didn't grab me. There was nothing interesting about it. It was a bog-standard medieval fantasy world. The only difference was the fact that it was run by dragons and the humans were in servitude. A potentially interesting twist, but it couldn't hide what was for me a bland world with little to hold my interest.

Maxey's novel was praised by some for a 'unique' take on Dragons, but I found little to back this up. I suppose it was the dragon society that Maxey had created that was meant to impress, but it was a typical hierarchical society, the only difference being that those involved were dragons rather than humans. Personally I found the notion of dragons living in a castle and acting in a human-like manner rather unbelievable.

The main characters failed to win me over. I liked the names of some of the dragons, but that was about it. The main human protagonist, Jandra, failed to interest me and I couldn't engage with any of the other characters. I found Maxey's writing to be workmanlike at times, with some stiff dialogue. Some of it bordered on juvenile, such as the moment where Bitterwood tells Zeeky to call him 'Hey You.' I still can't quite figure out the point of that.

I don't like putting novels down unfinished, but I also don't like reading novels that fail to entertain or interest me on any level. To be fair, I don't put down many but Bitterwood was one of them.

Other readers must have thought otherwise, as I doubt Solaris would have signed Maxey up for the next couple of books in the sequence unless Bitterwood did well. As I didn't finish the book, I don't think it's fair to give the novel a score out of ten. Best of luck to Maxey, but I for one won't be reading any more of his dragon novels.

Tuesday 29 January 2008

Interview: John Marco

A while ago I promised that an interview with fantasy author John Marco would appear in the near future. That time, I'm delighted to say, has now come. John has kindly taken some time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions about his up-coming Skylords series, his new fantasy epic The Black Mirror and the writing life in general.

What more can you tell us about The Skylords series in terms of the storyline?

The Skylords is one of those stories that pulls together different ideas from various parts of my brain, some of which I’ve been harboring for years. Although each of the books is going to be shorter than any of my previous books, it’s still a deep story with lots of interwoven plot elements.

Basically, the first book is about a boy named Moth living in a city at the very edge of a world like our own during the turn of the last century. This is a world with steam trains, gaslights, and most importantly to the story, airships. Industry and science are just starting to awaken in mankind, and Moth wants to be part of it. Like a lot of kids he dreams about flying, and all he wants to do is get away from the secluded city he lives in so that he can become a Skyknight someday. The problem is, the world of humans borders a forbidden fairy world ruled by creatures known as the Skylords, and the Skylords aren’t too keen about humans taking to the sky. So it’s not just a story about Moth coming of age, but also about humanity coming of age as well.

That sounds fantastic. This is your first book that is aimed a little more at younger readers - how different was it to write when compared to your previous works? Did you find writing for a younger audience difficult?

I thought it would be very difficult to write for younger readers, but it wasn’t. It was challenging, because I had to tweak my usual voice a little bit, tone down the violence some, and really focus the story on one or two main characters. But a funny thing happened when I was doing this—I found that it made me a more disciplined writer. Instead of having a huge cast to work with, I had to make the story work with only a handful. And instead of being able to go on and on, as is so typical of the “epic” model of fantasy writing that I’m used to, I had to bring the world alive with fewer pages. I had to keep the action moving too. Every day before starting to write, I said a little mantra to myself, to remind myself of some key points about writing for younger readers, all of which involved keeping the story moving forward and engaging readers on an emotional level. Really, those are good points to bear in mind no matter who the audience.

You've mentioned that you hope The Skylords will appeal to older readers and your established fanbase, as well as a younger audience - was this a difficult balance to achieve?

In a way, because I don’t want to alienate the readers I have, who’ve always been so supportive and loyal. But what’s interesting is that I already have a lot of young readers. I get emails all the time for teenagers who’ve been reading my books, so it shouldn’t be a big stretch for many people.

Your previous works are very thematic in that they deal with a wide variety of themes such as redemption, loyalty and duty to name but a few. Can we expect more of the same from The Skylords series or will the emphasis be more on action and adventure?

Readers will still find a lot of the same kind of themes they’ve always seen in my books. I don’t think a writer can ever get away from that, in that there’s always a “John Marco” feeling to everything I write. I remember a person saying to me once that all of U2’s music sounds the same. And I thought to myself, yeah, I guess it does, but that’s okay with me because I like what I’m hearing.

People who’ve read my previous stuff should be happy with Skylords. I hope so, at least. Besides the coming of age theme there’s also a strong thread about abandonment running through the story, and how the idea of being left behind or being unloved can change a person’s whole view of the world. Despite all the airships and mythical creatures in the story, it’s still all about the characters for me.

Aviation is clearly going to be a big aspect of The Skylords, so again it sounds like you're writing a fantasy with a strong technological element much like your first trilogy, Tyrants and Kings. Is this just a coincidence, or do you deliberately set out to try and push the boundaries of people's expectations and write something a little different from the usual fantasy tropes?

I don’t ever set out to push any boundaries. There’s a lot of writers out there already doing that excellently. I just write about things that interest me. The idea of technological elements in a fantasy world always juices me up. There’s something about that paradox that’s fun for me to mine. A love the anachronism of a knight on a horse leading a mechanical war machine into battle, for example. Seeing that image on a book cover makes me want to pick it up.

As for aviation, that’s something I haven’t had a chance to explore until now. I’ve always had an affinity for planes, particularly early aircraft like zeppelins and World War I fighters. I’m sure readers will see those influences in Skylords. The Skyknights in the story, for example, are really an echo of those early fliers. Beyond hearing a call to duty, these guys were just plain ballsy. They knew the risks of getting into those dangerous planes, but they wanted to fly. With their goggles and scarves and leather jackets, they just looked cool. I just had to work that into a story somehow.

What came first - your desire to write a book aimed at a younger audience or the actual idea for The Skylords?

Hmm, I’m thinking about this and I’m not really sure. They sort of grew up together in my mind. I’ve wanted to write a story for younger readers for years, really since I started writing professionally, so I guess that came first. But it seemed like a natural to have a theme of flying go along with it. There’s always that innocence when a little kid looks up into the sky and sees a plane or helicopter and wants to be up there too. I see it in my own son, and I see it in myself still, after all these years.

What about your other project, The Black Mirror? You mentioned that your editor has said the manuscript needs some substantial re-writing?

The Black Mirror is one of those sprawling, really epic fantasy stories with lots of different characters and settings, battles, politics—all the things I love about epic fantasy. I turned it in to my editor and DAW about a year ago, where it took a while for her to read it. After she did she felt that the story had problems and needed work. In some places she feels it’s not fleshed out enough, and in other spots it feels too long, apparently. I haven’t gotten a formal editorial letter about it yet, or even had a real conversation about it with her, so I don’t know exactly what the perceived problems are. I say perceived because I still feel very strongly about the book that I wrote. In fact, I love it. I’m not saying it doesn’t need work, because all manuscripts do, but I think there’s an excellent story in those pages that readers will enjoy, and I’m going to keep pushing it along. One way or another, readers will get a chance to read it, I’m sure.

You once remarked that trying to write a novel while working a 9-5 day job was a "horrible grind" - does it get any easier once you make the leap to becoming a full-time writer? How do you deal with any distractions?

I want to be careful here, because I don’t want to discourage any writers out there who are working a regular day job and then coming home at night to write. They already know how hard that is, so there’s no need for me to pile on. I stand by what I said—it was extremely tough for me to go to a day job that I didn’t enjoy and then work on my first Tyrants and Kings book in my spare time. I’m not even sure I could do it now if I had to go back to that situation. For one thing I have a child now, and he takes up a lot of my time and energy and my love, and you’ve got to love writing to keep at it.

As far as distractions go, here’s how I deal with them—I rant and complain, get it out of my system, and get back to work. If you want to succeed in anything, you have to stop moaning about it and get it done. Distractions plagued me all of my life. They kept me from staying in college and finishing other things I started, but they don’t keep me from my writing very often because being a writer is what I really want out of life. Becoming a writer—like anything else—is a decision.

What, in a writing sense, would you do differently if you had to go back and start your writing career all over again?

I’m going to answer this question a bit differently, because I find the way you phrased it interesting. A lot of times people ask “what would you do differently if you could go back and start over again.” Instead, you asked what I would do differently if I had to start over again, and that’s a completely different question when you stop to think about it. My life has been full of ups and downs, and so has my writing career. There were times when it would have been easy—maybe even smart—to walk away from it and do something else. In a way, it’s like you’re asking if I would start over again if I had to, and the answer to that is definitely yes. Writers have to write. I don’t know why! Sometimes it’s a blessing, sometimes it’s a curse.

I can’t honestly say that I’d do anything differently. I made mistakes, I fumbled the ball sometimes, but that’s bound to happen in any endeavor. All that really matters is that I try to learn from my mistakes, keep striving to get better as a writer and keep moving forward.

- - -

Many thanks to John for giving such an interesting and engaging interview. You can check out John's own blog here:

I for one think the Skylords sounds fantastic and can't wait to read more.

Monday 28 January 2008

In the arms of sleep...

Today I spent the better part of 5 hours in a largely comotose state in which I managed to answer one phonecall before falling asleep at my desk. All because I just had to watch another episode of Band of Brothers before crawling into bed the previous night. Sigh. As I'm not eager for a repeat tomorrow, I thought I'd leave my comments on Bitterwood until Tuesday. For now, here's some other information that might be of interest:

Firstly, Jeff over at Fantasy Book News and Reviews has decided to re-invent his book review blog into a one-stop review database. If you click on an author's initial, it provides a rundown of all authors whose names begin with that letter, and a list of their books with links to different reviews on the net. I for one think it's an awesome idea, so I thought I'd share it with everyone. Jeff's database can be found here:

Secondly, the 2007 Preliminary Nebula Ballot shortlist has been announced. Harry Potter gets the obligatory nod even though it won't win. As for the other titles, I've not actually read any of them so can't comment. I understand that some of them are available for free download though. In any case, here's the link:

Finally, I picked up Gail Z. Martin's The Summoner today and am 40 pages in. I'm enjoying it so far, the first chapter makes a decent impression. Certainly better than Bitterwood in any case. Hopefully have a full review up in a few days.

Sunday 27 January 2008

Solaris announces new deals

Solaris, the mainstream imprint of Games Workshop's Black Library publishing arm, have announced some new deals.

Most recently, they have confirmed they will be releasing a new novel by British author Mark Chadbourn, called The Lord of Silence.

Here's the blurb: "The Lord of Silence is a thrilling new epic fantasy. When the great hero of the city of Idriss is murdered, Vidar, the Lord of Silence, must take his place as chief defender against the mysterious terrors lurking in the dense forest beyond the city's walls.

"But Vidar is a man tormented—by a lost memory and a vampiric jewel that demands the life energy of others. Now, with a killer loose within Idriss, and the threat from without mounting, Vidar must solve a three thousand year-old religious mystery to unlock the terrifying secrets of his own past."

Mmmm, sounds interesting. What is perhaps a little unusual about this is that apparently epic fantasy is not in demand by editors at the moment. Urban Fantasy is all the rage, we're told. Either that is a crock of shit, or Solaris are willing to take a punt. Chadbourn however seems a safe bet, given his previous success, and I have to say this new novel sounds intriguing.

Not only that, but Solaris have also announced new deals for James Maxey and Gail Z. Martin. Maxey is the author of Bitterwood, while Martin's The Summoner was Solaris's bestselling title in 2007. Clearly the work of both authors has performed well enough to warrant these new deals.

I have to say I'm a little surprised at the deal for Maxey, as I really didn't enjoy Bitterwood. In fact, I didn't even finish it. But I'll make a separate post about that later. Martin's series however looks interesting, and the cover art of her books is especially attractive.

One other Solaris author catches the eye: Paul Kearney, whose novel The Ten Thousand focuses on the struggles of an abandoned army...sounds interesting.

All in all, 2008 is already shaping up to be a decent year for Solaris.

Crap fantasy book covers #1

Fantasy fiction has been around for a long time. We've seen some great books and some not so great books. The same goes for the covers. I thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the worst fantasy book covers out there. I'm sure everyone knows the old saying "Never judge a book by its cover", but some of these covers are so horrific you'd be forgiven for dropping the book and running out of the bookstore screaming. So without further ado, the cover that has the unfortunate honour of being the first in our little series, is the cover for The Bonehunters by Steven Erikson. Here it is in all its glory:

Look at it. It's horrible. It looks like Santa's sleigh plowing into the side of a mountain with presents spilling everywhere, two of Santa's helpers and four of Gollum's younger brothers all flailing around in disarray. Not just that but the colours just seem too bold as well; the red text for the title borders on being offensive. They should give away free sick bags with this version of the book. The worst thing of all is that Erikson is a fine writer and it must hurt to have this turd of a cover on one of his books. Still, the one redeeming feature is that at least something is happening in the picture. There's far worse than this cover out there...

Crap-o-meter rating: 8/10

Friday 25 January 2008

Book review: Last Argument of Kings

Last Argument of Kings
By Joe Abercrombie
(Gollancz 2008)

Let's get a couple of things straight before we continue: the first is that this review does not contain any spoilers whatsoever. The second is that although Joe Abercrombie very kindly judged my humble entry to his competition as worthy of a prize as fantastic as an ARC of Last Argument of Kings, that never meant I was going to kiss his ass and wax lyrical about this book if it was crap. When I started this blog it was with the intent to provide objective reviews without bias, despite any acquaintance with the author in question. Even if it made me feel like an ungrateful bastard. Rest assured that what follows is the truth, and nothing but the truth. So, let's get to it.

As I said in an earlier post, this book is a monster. Weighing in at a hefty 672 pages (200 or so more than each of the previous books) , you can't help but feel a tingle of anticipation at the artwork and the back cover blurb. The end is coming, the blurb proclaims. Oh, it is indeed. All 672 pages of it.

Forget what went before. The battles won and lost, the treachery, the journeys and the hardship. As fantastically entertaining as the first two books were, it was all a prelude to the final chapter, where the fate of a nation (and much more besides) hangs in the balance...

I mentioned in my review of Scott Lynch's Red Seas Under Red Skies that I was worried it wouldn't live up to the brilliance of his debut novel. I never had that concern with Abercrombie - his second book had already proved to match and even surpass the first, so I had no doubts that the final instalment in The First Law trilogy would meet my expectations.

How wrong I was. Last Argument of Kings didn't meet my expectations. It shattered them. Scaled them effortlessly and then for good measure, sprouted glorious golden wings, flapped lazily upwards and then shat on them from a great height. Believe me when I tell you, this book is something special. I hardly even know where to start.

Characters. Let's start with the characters. Always one of Abercrombie's strongest points. Usually in works of epic fantasy, you often find a character or two that you think are a bit dud and so when you turn the page and find it is another of 'their' chapters, you roll your eyes and plough through as quickly as possible. This is one pitfall Abercrombie skilfully avoids. I love all of his characters, from the major players down to the minor ones that make a brief appearance and disappear again. At no point did I find myself tiring of any of them. They are all so wonderfully rendered, so deep...all with their flaws, their strengths, their secrets, their vices, their own voices. I felt their horror, their joy, their sorrow, their pain. Abercrombie does a brilliant job of painting his characters in varying shades of grey. There is no real evil here. Every character has their goals, their motives, all caused by forces beyond their control. Subsequently there is a real human quality to Abercrombie's cast, and it is this that makes his characters so funny, so memorable, so believable. Some get what they deserve and some don't. There's the realistic aspect again. You have to be realistic after all.

What of the plotting though? Some critics derided the first two books in the trilogy as being too pedestrian, too much style and no substance. Too much scene-setting, too much building up and not enough resolution. I don't agree, but I see where this argument comes from. These critics are about to eat their words. Last Argument of Kings is one of the most tightly-weaved, thrilling plots you'll have the pleasure of enjoying. Despite the book's bulk, there is no gristle - it's all meat. If Last Argument of Kings was a steak, it would be massive and rare: plenty to tear into, with plenty of blood. A lot of blood.

Abercrombie weaves the various plotlines together with stunning skill and an undiminished knack of being able to surprise. Some things you will see coming. Some you most certainly won't. And even the ones you do see coming you almost think that maybe you were meant to. As always, Joe delights in taking standard tropes and turning them upside down. And it all works so well. The first 100 pages are a little gentler than the rest of the novel, but then it explodes. Some advice: write 'BREATHE' on your thumb so you don't forget to as the action hots up.

Abercrombie was once accused of 'writing like an eight-year old.' That person is going to feel very, very foolish indeed. Abercrombie's writing, always smooth and engaging, just reaches a whole new level in Last Argument of Kings. He just makes it look so damned easy. You almost start to expect that he writes a couple of novels before breakfast. His dialogue is as smooth as ever, but it is his battle scenes that really impress: rarely do you read such hard-hitting, visceral prose. You can smell the blood, feel the press of bodies and hear the shouting and screaming. You're almost there yourself, and damned glad that you're not.

But it's not just blood and guts and political treachery. There are themes here as well. The first two novels didn't really achieve this, but Last Argument of Kings makes you think. There are numerous questions here, if you look for them. What is the true nature of evil? Is it possible to change, to be a better person? Can you escape your past? Is the grass always greener on the other side? And so on. There are themes too, big ones: love, redemption, destiny. But above all, finding the courage to do the decent thing. The right thing.

With Last Argument of Kings, Abercrombie has cemented himself at the top of the fantasy genre. He deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the other titans on top of the ever-increasing pile. He's written something not far short of a masterpiece, something special. Last Argument of Kings has everything you could ask for: huge battles, political intrigue, masterly characterisation and surprises by the bucket-load. This book will by turns shock you, excite you, make you laugh, and above all entertain you.

Mr Abercrombie, I salute you.


Thursday 24 January 2008

Film review: 28 Weeks Later

Although this blog will primarily focus on speculative fiction and authors of the genre, I watch a lot of films and so the odd film review will slip in now and again.
When 28 Days Later was released back in 2002, it breathed some fresh air into the zombie genre. On first appearance it looked much the same as previous zombie movies; a band of survivors struggling to stay alive in a world now filled with the living dead. Except 28 Days Later was different.

It wasn't the 'zombies' that took centre stage. Sure, the 'infected' as they are referred to in the film, are pretty terrifying. Yet it is the horror of a post-apocalyptic United Kingdom that took real prominence. The amazing shots of a deserted London were both beautiful and harrowing at the same time. It was these scenes that generated the real fear. If a real virus broke out that caused the world we know to end, this is what the aftermath would look like. The gritty, visceral production just added to the realism and, subsequently, to the horror of it all. There was no cheap supernatural terror here, which is why the film is so powerful. It depicts the results of what happens when science goes too far. This is the real power of the film: a nightmare future that could realistically happen.

Of course, it doesn't matter how well the setting is portrayed - if the plot and characters are crap then the film will suffer. Fortunately the plot held up well (albeit with a weaker final third) and the characters had real depth. The script managed somehow to insert moments of humour without ruining the overall effect (in fact, the only threat to the atmosphere was the actress that played Hannah, whose acting could give you splinters). In short, 28 Days was a triumph - a relatively low-budget British film that managed to be utterly harrowing and dispense with one or two cliché s along the way.

So when news of a sequel - 28 Weeks Later - surfaced, I was pretty excited. Then I saw the trailer and thought it was...ok. But not what I expected. For a start the focus seemed more on action and big explosions, which was exactly the opposite of the first. Still, I kept an open mind. I didn't actually manage to see the film at the cinema (I rather dumbly forgot to attend the viewing that I had free tickets for) but finally picked it up on DVD. And finally, I got around to watching it.

The story to 28 Weeks starts - yes, you guessed it - 28 weeks after the first film ends. Under the supervision of the American army, survivors that fled abroad are now being returned to London, to a 'safe zone.' The infected are all dead, we are told. The war against infection has been won. It's safe. But of course, it all goes horribly wrong. The infection returns and the Americans lose control. The film then follows a young boy and his older sister as they try to make their way to safety amidst the carnage.

28 Weeks starts promisingly with a scene set during the original infection, where a group of survivors - hiding in a boarded up farmhouse - try to continue life as normal. They sit down to dinner. They open a bottle of wine. There is small talk. It's extremely unsettling and for me is the most unnerving part of the film; the idea that the whole country - perhaps the world - has gone to hell and all these people can do is try and block it out and act as if everything is normal. This is the closest 28 Weeks gets to the atmosphere of the first film. Unfortunately, after the first fifteen minutes the film slowly goes downhill.

Too much of the film takes place in the ‘safe zone’ - a kind of hybrid military/civilian compound. When the action does move outside into London, night has fallen and so we don’t get to see much scenery. There is precious little of the haunting footage of a deserted London that made the first film so effective.

Secondly the characters are just not as engaging as those from the first film. Jim and Serena, the main protagonists from 28 Days, had real depth: Serena was resourceful and brutally pragmatic, yet her steely exterior hid a kind personality. Jim overcame his early emotional fragility to risk everything to save his companions. Together, with Hannah, they were merely survivors, yet they formed a bond that made them more like family.

Tammy and Andy, the two main protagonists in 28 Weeks, are family: they are brother and sister. But there’s no real connection there, their closeness never really surfaces. The most interesting character is Don, their father, who hides a terrible secret but crumbles when the past comes back to haunt him. Don aside, the rest of the characters are disappointingly flat. The American soldiers in particular could have just been snatched from any random Hollywood film.

Speaking of Hollywood, although 28 Weeks is a British film, like its predecessor, the plot could have been ripped straight from a mainstream Hollywood blockbuster: brother and sister try to escape a city full of crazies, enlisting help along their sadly one-dimensional way. A strength of the first film was that you couldn’t see where it was going, or how it would end. 28 Weeks is in this regard far more predictable. The plot is a lot more action-orientated, perhaps to make it more mainstream. Again, a strength of 28 Days was the focus on the characters, whereas the focus in 28 Weeks is on the big explosions and the chase scenes.

There are some weak moments in the plot as well, for example Tammy and Andy’s decision to sneak out of the safe zone to visit their old family home just seems so unlikely and is little more than a plot convenience. There are good moments however: their trip into the underground for example is particularly unnerving, and ‘the helicopter scene’ is pretty cool. And, to the script-writers’ credit, the explanation for how the infection returns is completely credible and not just some cheap crap.

28 Weeks Later isn’t a bad film. It’s entertaining and manages to give the odd scare, but the overall effect falls short of the benchmark set by the first film. Hopefully, the third film - 28 Months Later (no, seriously) - which allegedly will be set in Russia, will restore the series to its former horrifying glory.


Tuesday 22 January 2008

Book review: The Grand Design

As I'm only halfway through Joe Abercrombie's Last Argument of Kings, and not expecting my interview with John Marco to conclude until later this week, I thought just to tide us over I'd post another older review - this one of The Grand Design, the second book in John's Tyrants and Kings trilogy.
John Marco set himself very high standards with the first novel in his Tyrants and Kings trilogy. The Jackal of Nar breathed new life into the genre of Heroic Fantasy, introducing a wealth of well-defined characters and intriguing technology. The problem with this was that he would have to reproduce this same standard of excellence in the second book in the series, The Grand Design.

Marco however has gone one better. Not only has he written a fantastic sequel, he has bettered the first novel in almost every respect. The Grand Design is a very different book from its predecessor. Whereas The Jackal of Nar focused on the effects of war on one man - Richius Vantran - The Grand Design is concerned with the destructive forces of revenge on a variety of people. Richius was undoubtedly the main character of the first book, yet while he features prominently in The Grand Design Marco has shifted the emphasis to include other familiar characters, giving them more significant roles in the story. The result is highly impressive - a novel that revolves around several distinctive figures, all pursuing different goals. The Machiavellian Count Biagio really comes to the forefront of proceedings, with what he calls his Grand Design - his plan to seize back control of Nar from the Archbishop Herrith. This plan expertly reflects Biagio's cunning, intellect and ambition.

Yet nothing is black and white in Marco's world of Nar. While Biagio is no doubt an unscrupulous manipulator, at the same time he is revealed as being helplessly in the throes of the life-sustaining drug that he relies on. More than once his good side temporarily shines through, where he shows he is capable of treating people fairly and with genuine care. Archbishop Herrith, who has now seized control of Nar and is Biagio's mortal enemy is portrayed similarly. Here is a man who orders the death of thousands, yet shows his caring side when he takes pity on the fragile Lorla Lon, a young woman trapped inside a girl's body. In fact it is Lorla Lon who is arguably the most tragic character of the novel; Marco's skill with character development enables the reader to feel the pain of Lorla, as she struggles to understand her role in the proceedings and why she has been trapped in a child's body. Unsurprisingly, Count Biagio has much to do with her pitiful situation.

Many of the other characters are presented as being similar to Biagio and Herrith in that they are multi-faceted. Simon Darquis, sent by Biagio to steal Richius Vantran's child is loyal to his master yet at the same time riddled with guilt, while Prakna, the commander of the Lissen Navy, is an honourable, proud man who at the same time possesses a violent hatred of Narens that often clouds his better judgement. This variety of multi-faceted characters is what makes Marco's novels so successful - few of the novel's characters are purely good or sickeningly evil, with the result that they seem startlingly real. As with The Jackal of Nar, it is impossible not to sympathise and care about most of the characters, even the manipulative Biagio. Readers who enjoyed the violent, bloody battles of the first book will not be disappointed. Whilst the emphasis in The Grand Design is more on subtle political maneuvering and backstabbing, there are still plenty of conflicts - including, for the first time, sea battles.

As ever, Marco proves adept at creating battles, setting the tension at a perfect level. By concentrating on the characters in such situations, he makes each battle seem more personal, therefore carrying greater implications. The Grand Design is more violent, bloody and destructive than its predecessor. Countless people meet their ends - few of them pleasant - and this emphasizes the brutality of the world that Marco has created. Yet we are also introduced to the islands of Liss, which illustrates the subtle beauty of Marco's world, mostly obscured behind the black clouds of war.

The Grand Design is a masterclass in plotting, character development and action sequences. Few novels can match the twists and turns of his plot, his well-developed characters and his fluid writing style. The Grand Design will keep you guessing right until the end, and with the cunning and secrecy of Count Biagio, and the desperate heroics of Richius Vantran, there is never a dull moment.


Sunday 20 January 2008

The monster is loose...

My ARC of Joe Abercrombie's Last Argument of Kings arrived in the post yesterday, after being delayed for a week because when originally delivered it wouldn't fit through my letterbox. Now I can see why - the book is a monster, far longer than the two previous books in the trilogy.

I've never received an advance reading copy of any novel before, so this was a pretty cool experience, made all the more exciting by the fact that the ARC in question is a copy of Last Argument of Kings.

In the picture to the left you can see the personalised message Joe wrote. It says "To James, best of luck with your writing. With all my love, Joe Abercrombie."

Ah, he's a real sweetheart. Actually, in case anyone thinks there's some sort of secret tryst between Joe and myself I ought to say that Joe only wrote that because I asked him to. As a joke, of course. There's nothing more to it. No, really.

As for the story itself, I'm about 80 pages in and things are warming up nicely. I'll get a review up as soon as I finish reading.

Joe incidentally has just announced some live appearances, so go check out his website for the details.

Saturday 19 January 2008

Book review: The Jackal of Nar

Given that I've been posting about John Marco recently, and considering that my review of Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie will be delayed by a week, I thought I'd post up a review of John Marco's debut novel The Jackal of Nar. The review (like the book) is a few years old now, but if a couple of people check out John's work as a result then it's well worth it.

First novels are not meant to be as good as this. It is rare to find such epic grandeur, deep characterization and well conceived plotting in a debut novel. Yet this is exactly what is to be found in The Jackal of Nar, by John Marco.

The Jackal of Nar is a breath of fresh air in the genre of epic fantasy. There are no enchanted forests, no magical swords or dragons. Instead, Marco has created a very human-orientated fantasy, centering on the struggle between the oppressive Empire of Nar and the proud nation of Lucel-Lor. The novel centres around Richius Vantran, Prince of Aramoor, who finds himself fighting in the Naren campaign against Lucel-Lor. Yet it is a war that he does not believe in, and when he falls in love with Dyana, a woman of Lucel-Lor, he is suddenly torn between his loyalty and his heart.

The decision forced upon Richius is representative of the novel as a whole - Marco is excellent at placing his characters in difficult, often terrible situations where they are forced to make impossible, heart-breaking decisions. The characterization is what really drives The Jackal of Nar. Richius Vantran is a wonderfully flawed hero - a man who is both loyal and brave, yet who is also plagued by guilt and self-doubt.

There are plenty of villains in the novel - the manipulative, cunning Count Biagio, the shallow, demanding Emperor Arkus - yet it is Blackwood Gayle, Baron of Talistan, who easily steals the show with his rage and sadistic taste for violence. Even the minor characters, such as Nang, Warlord of the Fire Steppes, and Voris the Wolf are given depth and detail. Refreshingly, the female cast is equally well developed, with Dyana proving to be a loving, yet headstrong woman.

Marco is a military history enthusiast and therefore it is unsurprising that there is such a strong military aspect in The Jackal of Nar. The entire plot of the book concerns not just one war, but several. The harrowing experiences of war are clearly depicted, and the reader can sympathize with Richius as the young prince sees his own friends killed and maimed in brutal fashion, and everything that is dear to him destroyed. The technology of Marco's world is different from the norm - aside from the usual bows, swords and lances we also have flame cannons and acid launchers. While such contraptions seem to belong in the realms of sci-fi more than fantasy, Marco develops his world so well that they fit in flawlessly with the more familiar technology.

The same is true of the landscape - Aramoor is a lush, tranquil kingdom while the Black City is an industrial monstrosity. The result is a world that is both recognizable and at the same time unfamiliar. The plot itself is reasonably straightforward yet is also filled with constant twists and turns. All of the main characters go through immense emotional trauma and it is impossible not to sympathize with them. It is even possible for the reader to feel sympathy with the apparent 'evil' characters, due to their desperate, pitiful need of life-sustaining drugs.

Marco's writing style is slick and his dialogue is fluid and well-constructed. The Jackal of Nar is an epic book (916 pages in all) and Marco has subsequently divided the novel into different sections, beginning each one with a journal entry by Richius Vantran. This is an excellent touch as it gives the reader a deeper insight into Richius's mind, where the true horror of war and loss can clearly be seen.

The Jackal of Nar is about war, peace, love, loss, courage and redemption. Marco's novel touches upon all of these themes and the reader cannot help but feel moved by the emotions of the characters and their actions. The novel opens with a burst of hedonistic action, then slows down for a while, only to explode again, giving the novel a certain pulse. Hundreds of men die, alliances are both formed and destroyed, and the very power of heaven is called upon. And in the middle of this is Richius Vantran, riddled with guilt, plagued by doubt, but ultimately unbroken.


Wednesday 16 January 2008

Marco announces 'The Skylords' series

John Marco has announced today that he has struck a deal with DAW Books to publish his new fantasy series The Skylords, of which the first book will be called Starfinder.

The series will allegedly be aimed at a younger audience than his previous fantasy series and will include aviation and flying machines.

This is pretty cool news, not to mention completely unexpected. From the sounds of it, The Skylords will be a fantasy that includes a different level of technology than the usual medieval fantasy setting. This is of course is in line with his Tyrants and Kings series which I've mentioned previously, where he blended magic and technology.

All in all pretty exciting for Marco fans. Check out John's original post here:

And keep your eyes peeled for a John Marco interview which hopefully will be appearing soon...

Tuesday 15 January 2008

Artwork for 'The Bastards and the Knives'

Whilst trying to find the release date for Scott Lynch's forthcoming instalment in the Gentleman Bastards sequence, I stumbled across the artwork for his spin-off novellas due for release in 2009 - 'The Choir of Knives' and 'The Mad Baron's Mechanical Attic'.

It's immediately interesting to see that this release appears to be an omnibus, combining both novellas rather than releasing them seperately. I'm not sure about the reason behind this but if it means fans only have to pay for one book rather than two, then I'm fully behind it.

As for the actual cover, I have to say I like it a lot- the colour is alluring and the artwork further illustrates Gollancz's habit of publishing their fantasy books with more alternative covers.

I'm especially interested to see what sort of story Lynch can spin without Locke and Jean, who allegedly do not appear in these novellas.

Roll on 2009...

Sunday 13 January 2008

Book review: Red Seas Under Red Skies

Red Seas Under Red Skies

By Scott Lynch

(Gollancz 2007)

The problem with writing a much-hyped, highly popular and critically-acclaimed novel is that you then have to do it all over again. It’s a bit like the ‘second-album syndrome’ where a band releases an album that becomes an instant classic, struggles to write its successor and finally releases a turgid piece of shit before fading into obscurity.

So it was with some trepidation that I approached Red Seas Under Red Skies, the second novel in the Gentleman Bastard Sequence. If you’ve read my earlier review of The Lies of Locke Lamora, then you’ll know how great I think that book is. I was excited about reading its successor, but worried that it just wouldn’t live up to my (admittedly high) expectations. Then again, perhaps Lynch never stood any chance of writing a sequel that matched his first novel: the impact of Lies was that it was refreshingly different from most other fantasy on offer, not to mention hugely enjoyable. It was one of those rare occasions when the hype was justified. Red Seas subsequently had a lot to live up to.

The early signs weren’t good. I’d always had a lingering doubt about the idea of Locke and Jean, the main protagonists, going a-pirating on the high seas. They are sophisticated, highly-skilled conmen that plan and execute intricate scams, so to dump them on a ship and have them masquerading as pirates seemed completely at odds with their background. Furthermore, I had thoroughly enjoyed reading about their escapades in Camorr, and the notion of them gallivanting around on the ocean didn’t seem quite as appealing. Still, everyone likes pirates and so a swashbuckling yarn with liberal doses of Lynch’s witty one-liners surely couldn’t fail…could it?

Unfortunately, my early uncertainty turned out to be justified. The plot of Lies contained several twists and turns, with an overall effect that was both exciting and surprising. The plot for Red Seas is disappointingly pedestrian in comparison and labours over 550 pages to a rather predictable conclusion that is then swiftly achieved in the final 30 or so pages. There are still flashes of the familiar ingenuity that do not disappoint (Locke’s deck of cards spring to mind) but the plot seems clunky compared to that of its predecessor.

Locke and Jean’s exploits in the Sinspire (an interesting creation) and in and around Tal Verrar are entertaining, but their adventure on the high seas (which makes up the bulk of the book) is a fairly uninspiring pirate story. Without wanting to sound like an ego-surfer, I do know what I’m talking about here; I wrote my MA History thesis on Caribbean piracy from 1715 to 1723, and have to say that the real-life escapades of the historical pirates make for far more gripping reading. Still, many an average plot has been saved by the characters tangled up in it.

Not in Red Seas’ case however. To be blunt, the characterisation is another disappointment. Locke is annoyingly sulky at the start of the book and Jean’s aloofness seemed off-kilter with their relationship at the end of Lies. Sure, they both went through a hell of a lot in the previous book and some fall-out from the events in Lies was inevitable, yet both seemed almost like completely different characters at first.

The assembled cast list for Red Seas proved to be a disappointment as well, in that none of the characters really grabbed me in the same way as some from the first book did. The three main players in the plot, Requin, owner of the Sinspire, Stragos, Archon of Tal Verrar, and Captain Drakasha of the Poison Orchid, all play out their roles solidly but without being particularly engaging. None possess the menacing aura of the Falconer from the previous book, or the mystery of the Grey King or even the roguish charm of Father Chains. In short, they are just not as interesting as the main characters in Lies. This goes for most of the other characters as well, save for the odd exception such as the brass-handed Selendri, who live a little longer in the memory.

Arguably the best character in the first book was the city of Camorr itself, but the same is sadly not true of Red Seas. Tal Verarr just doesn’t seem as exotic or atmospheric, and fails to come alive as Camorr did. The Sinspire, as mentioned above, is an interesting idea and the scenes set in it tend to be among the best in the book. With Locke and Jean voyaging south to the Ghostwind Isles, there was a great opportunity for Lynch to include some intriguing locations, but Port Prodigal, the pirate stronghold, is a bit of a let-down. I was hoping for a settlement in the style of Port Royal (the so-called ‘Wickedest City on Earth’ in the 1700s) but Port Prodigal is tame in comparison.

One of the biggest disappointments was the lack of sea-life in the novel. We had a taste in Lies of the fearsome creatures that inhabit the seas of Locke’s world, but apart from the appearance of a few Death-Lanterns we see precious little of the oceanic wildlife, which feels like a missed opportunity.

I’ve probably made Red Seas sound like the worst book ever written, which of course it isn’t. Lynch’s writing is as witty as ever and there are some genuinely inventive creations in the novel, however it just has the hugely difficult job of following Lies, which as I mentioned earlier is almost an impossible task. If you take it on its own, Red Seas is a good, enjoyable book. Put it next to Lies however and it pales in comparison. By rights the book should be reviewed completely on its own merits, but this was something I found impossible to do. However, Red Seas’ final score tries to reflect the quality of the book and not the fact that it isn’t as good as its more illustrious predecessor.


Thursday 10 January 2008

The Black City

I picked up John Marco's The Jackal of Nar on impulse several years back, and it turned out to be a good decision. His Tyrants and Kings trilogy is right up there with the best of epic fantasy. The second book in particular, The Grand Design, is one of the best novels I've read in recent years.

Although I've not read his Eyes of God trilogy (I still have that pleasure to come) I've always kept tabs on what John's been up to, as I really liked the refreshing slant he worked with Tyrants and Kings, where he mixed both magic and technology. How many books do you get that have both magic and machines that launch cannisters of poisonous gas? Not many.

Anyway, to the point of this post: I just thought I'd point out that John maintains a great blog where he talks about many things, including the writing life. It makes interesting reading for both fans and those (such as myself) who also aspire to write fantasy. John's a really nice guy and more than willing to discuss points that readers raise on his blog.

John's now looking to get a new website up and running, so that's something else for his fans to look forward to.

Check out John's blog, The Black City, here:

Tuesday 8 January 2008

Book review: Winterbirth

By Brian Ruckley
(Orbit 2007)

With the sad passing of fantasy titan David Gemmell, a large void was left in the field of British fantasy. With America and Canada producing so many leading lights in fantasy literature, which new British authors are ready to step into the light and raise the flag for British fantasy? One of the first genuine contenders is Brian Ruckley with his debut novel Winterbirth.

Ruckley’s novel focuses on the centuries-old feud between the Bloods of the Black Road and the Lannis-Haig Bloods. After years of apparent peace, the Bloods of the Black Road, for so long exiled in the icy wastes beyond the Vale of Stones, are on the move south. The Lannis-Haig Bloods need to unite in order to oppose them, however grudges amongst the various thanes threatens to seriously undermine their efforts. As the shadow of war descends, a young man by the name of Orisian flees the wreckage of his former life and takes his first steps towards his destiny.

The above overview of the story might seem fairly standard; after all, the fantasy genre is littered with tales of war and young boys pursuing their destinies. In truth, Ruckley doesn’t stray too far from the standard formula. The result is a plot that is fairly pedestrian, with few twists or surprises. You get the impression that Ruckley created his world and its history first, before then working out a plot that links all of the places and people together.

Still, the world of Winterbirth does make up somewhat for the plot’s deficiencies. Ruckley has created a harsh, bitter world where the gods have left long before, leaving mankind to fend for itself. The departure of the gods is touched upon in the brief preface, which comes across as a rather awkward info dump. The idea, however, of the gods abandoning the world due to the genocide committed by the Huanin (humans) and Kyrinin against the Wherein race is intriguing, and the decision to include inhuman races adds diversity.

The world itself boasts a Scottish influence, both in the ruggedness of the landscape and the names of the people and places. Location names such as Tanwrye and Car Criagar, and those of characters such as Gryvan oc Haig and Aertan oc Taral-Haig add real atmosphere and realism to the world. The religious background and history of the clans are detailed and absorbing, while the ‘Shared’ (the closest Winterbirth gets to any sort of magic system) is well-devised in that only the na’kyrim - those born out of the union of Huanin and Kyrinin - are able to draw upon the supernatural power, and even then it can have unpredictable results.

Ruckley’s writing is crisp and his descriptive prose paints a vivid picture of the bleak world of Winterbirth. It does however lack the humour and witticism of other new authors, such as Lynch and Abercrombie. Then again, Winterbirth is a much darker and grittier book than those of Ruckley’s fellow authors and the more serious tones of his writing match the sombre events of the book. Nonetheless there are moments where a touch of humour may have provided some relief from the relentless graveness of the novel.

Winterbirth’s main failings however lie with the plot and characters. As mentioned earlier, the plot is fairly linear with few real surprises and some subplots, such as Osirian’s journey, do drag in parts. You very much get the feeling that things are being set up nicely for the sequel, which bodes well for the next book but doesn’t really do Winterbirth any favours.

More significantly, the characters perhaps do not do the world and history justice. There are one or two intriguing figures, such as the serpentine Wain and the unpredictable Aeglyss, who seems unable to control the growing power of the Shared within him, but otherwise none really stand out. Osirian is likeable enough and while the reader can sympathise with his predicament, he is never really that engaging in his role as the main hero.

The Kyrinin race is also a disappointment and to some extent suffer from the ‘elves-in-everything-but-name’ syndrome. The most interesting race, the Wherein (some sort of wolf-like beings) sadly do not even make an appearance in the novel, having been exterminated long before the time in which the novel is set.

Another gripe, albeit a minor one, is in the names: while they do help add some atmosphere and depth to the people and places, at the same time they can be confusing. There are times when a character was mentioned and I’d have trouble remembering who exactly they were (although admittedly the character list at the back of the book does help).

All in all Winterbirth feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. Ruckley has developed a rich history and clearly-defined world, but the pedestrian plot and hit-and-miss characters ultimately let it down. Still, there is real promise here and I sincerely hope that the sequel delivers a more satisfying tale.


Monday 7 January 2008

Best Served Cold

Joe Abercrombie, author of the popular First Law fantasy trilogy, has revealed on his website that his next work-in-progress, Best Served Cold, is gradually gaining momentum. Joe is about 70,000 words in and is shooting to finish the manuscript in May 2008, with an expected publication date of April 2009.

As ever, Joe's entry makes fascinating reading not just for fans of his work but for fantasy writers in general, as he goes into some detail about the difficulties he has faced with his new project.

The final book in the First Law series, Last Argument of Kings, is due for publication this March. I however have had the utmost fortune to procure an advance readers copy, so expect a review of the final instalment in the near future...

Joe's website can be found here:

Sunday 6 January 2008

Book review: The Lies of Locke Lamora

The Lies of Locke Lamora
By Scott Lynch
(Gollancz 2006)

I hear what you are saying, and yes The Lies of Locke Lamora was indeed published way back in 2006. So why have I chosen it to be the first book review for Speculative Horizons? Simple - I rate it as the best fantasy novels of recent years. The fact that it was author Scott Lynch’s debut novel is all the more impressive.

What is immediately striking about the novel is that it goes against the most familiar tropes that have dominated the fantasy genre in recent years. There is no epic quest, no magic weapons, no stereotypical ‘Dark Lord’, no epic battles or elderly wizard mentor that appears at crucial moments in the plot. And Lies is all the better for it.

What we have instead is a highly entertaining story about an enterprising young thief/conman by the name of Locke Lamora and his close-knit band of thieves: the Gentlemen Bastards. Set in the colourful city of Camorr, we follow the Bastards as they undertake an audacious con to cheat a wealthy noble out of a large chunk of his fortune. Unfortunately for them and the rest of Camorr’s criminal underworld, a shady figure going by the name of the Grey King has a plan for the city, a plan with horrific consequences…and Locke Lamora soon realises that he is a pawn in the Grey King’s dark scheme. Lamora however refuses to be used in such a manner, and what follows is a riveting plot that twists and turns, as the Gentlemen Bastards desperately try to save both their city and their own skins.

Lynch has created a host of memorable characters, but one of the true stars of the story is the city of Camorr itself: an exotic, bustling metropolis partly resembling Renaissance Venice. Lynch has clearly spent a lot of time developing the city and it reaps rewards. As we learn more of the glittering Eldren towers, the smoke-stained slums, the splendour of the Shifting Revel and the other various islands and waterways, the city of Camorr comes to life as a living, breathing entity that just oozes atmosphere. The Shifting Revel in particular with its gruesome gladiatorial games involving deadly sea creatures is one aspect of the city that sticks long in the memory. Lynch adds other nice touches to his world as well, such as alchemy and its many uses.

Inspired world-building however is little use without interesting characters to drive the story. Yet Lynch manages to deliver here also, creating a large and intriguing cast. Locke Lamora is an entertaining main character, however he is more amusing and engaging in the ’interludes’ in which we witness the antics of his earlier years. Still, Locke - despite being a thief - proves he has real heart and values, and Lynch proves a dab hand at characterisation as the other main players are revealed: the intimidating, caustic Falconer, the amiable Father Chains and the big-hearted Jean Tannen are just some of the absorbing figures that play a prominent role in the story. Refreshingly, even the characters that appear only briefly are fleshed out well, such as Meraggio.

Lynch’s writing style is just as pleasing as his world and characters. He manages to create settings and atmosphere without too much exposition, and his breezy, witty style makes for some highly amusing dialogue. Yet this isn’t by any means a light-hearted caper - Lynch supplements the humour with intense doses of gritty realism which at times give the novel a harder edge. Still, the entertainment factor never wanes as the plot races along, twisting and turning until exploding in a frenetic finale. The odd moment of respite is provided by the interludes as mentioned earlier, which jump back to the past to develop the backgrounds of Locke and Jean. These are a success, adding depth without causing the plot to stutter. The interludes that focus on other subjects, such as detailing how the Meraggio family built up their fortune, are less successful in the sense that they serve little purpose and probably could have been excluded.

Other faults are few and far between. Some readers might find the often ‘colourful’ language excessive, while it could be argued that some elements of the plot border on being unrealistic. For example, Locke (who has only an average constitution) at one point takes a heck of a lot of punishment and yet seems to recover remarkably quickly.

Still, the one or two minor criticisms do not stop The Lies of Locke Lamora from being a joy to read. Fresh, exciting and unbelievably absorbing, it is quite simply a stunning novel. It might not be a novel with moralistic overtones, or with deep themes that make the reader think, but it certainly is a hell of a lot of fun.


Saturday 5 January 2008


There are already a number of good fantasy book blogs out there in the vast reaches of cyberspace. So why start another one? Good question, and one I don't really have an answer to. Maybe it's a need to make use of my creative energies that are otherwise numbed by the 9-5 grind. Perhaps it's all a facade with the ultimate aim of accumulating plenty of free books, or a cynical attempt to network with the dastardly intention of whoring my as-of-yet-unwritten fantasy masterpiece.

Or maybe, just maybe, I started this blog because I like writing and I like fantasy, and when I'm not writing fantasy I like writing about fantasy. So, I welcome you to my humble blog where I will endevour to explore the best that fantasy (and other speculative fiction) has to offer. I will post book reviews, opinion on the genre, news snippets of interest, as well as - hopefully - author interviews.

I hope you stick around for the ride.