Saturday 29 March 2008

Some lazy linkage...

There are plenty of genre blogs out there, too many to name. Some great folks that run them too, and given that many take the time to link to Speculative Horizons I figured it's only fair I repay the favour.

So, here's a few links for some cool stuff that has been posted in the blogosphere recently:

Graeme over at Graeme's Fantasy Book Review has joined the party very late indeed, after he finally got around to reading Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind. He's still beaten me to it though, as I'm yet to read it. You can find his thoughts here:

Chris over at The Book Swede has been lucky enough to get his mitts on an ARC of Brian Ruckley's Bloodheir, and has posted an interesting review:

Aidan at A Dribble of Ink has the honour of being one of few people to get their hands on Joe Abercrombie's Last Argument of Kings. Unsurprisingly, he liked it. Who doesn't? Check out his thoughts here:

Neth over at The Neth Space has subjected Steven Erikson to his famous 'Questions Five' feature. Erikson reveals his perfect cup of coffee, and discusses what archaeologists in the far future might make of the Malazan books...

Finally, Wert from The Wertzone has read and reviewed the first books from the legendary David Gemmell's final Troy trilogy. Always good to see Gemmell getting a mention.

Friday 28 March 2008

Pile o' Shame - Part 1!

Aidan over at A Dribble of Ink came up with the amusing idea of revealing what he calls his 'Pile o' Shame'.

In his own words: "That secret pile of novels, so very well regarded by the literary world, sitting in a dark corner of [your] house, sadly neglected despite assurances by so many others that “you’ve got to read them!” It’s a secret Pile ‘o Shame that haunts readers, always calling out longingly to be conquered but always growing bigger."

The Pile o' Shame is a rather embarrassing reflection of the gaps in your genre knowledge, and is nothing to boast about.

So I thought I'd go ahead and join the fun by revealing mine. Admittedly, the pile is far too large to include all authors and books in one post, so I'll start by looking at three of the most glaring (in my opinion) holes in my genre reading.

So, here's my Pile 'o Shame - Part 1!

H. P. Lovecraft

While I'm a fantasy kid at heart, horror has always fascinated me. I can remember the moment it first grabbed me; I was at a friend's house and we watched Romero's Creepshow, a film consisting of five individual stories. The one that for some reason struck a chord with me was 'Father's Day' in which an irritable old sod repeatedly demanded his cake, only to be shut up by his daughter who caved his skull in with an ashtray.

A while later, she's lying next to his grave, enjoying the serenity of the cemetery.Then comes the classic moment when she murmurs, "So peaceful." A second later a decayed hand bursts from the earth, and her father drags himself out of his grave, screeching "I want my cake!" And then strangles her. There's just something about a zombie demanding his cake that just stayed with me...

Anyway, to the point. There's no denying that Lovecraft looms like a colossus over the horror genre; so many authors - both those working in the sub-genre and many without - have expressed their admiration for him, such as Stephen King, Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman. Lovecraftian themes and elements are prevalent in so many different art forms, from movies to books to video games.

Yet I've only ever read one story by Lovecraft - Herbert West: Reanimator - which allegedly does not even rate anywhere near his best work. Must read more...

Michael Moorcock

An author that frequently pops up when readers discuss the most influential fantasy authors writing in the genre. If you read John Marco's character of the week contribution, then you'll know he's a fan.

Best known for his character Elric of Melniboné, Moorcock allegedly wrote the Elric novels as a direct response to what he perceived as common fantasy tropes that proliferated the genre after the success of Tolkien (whose work Moorcock has derided). He's apparently not a fan of H. P. Lovecraft either.

As far as I understand, Moorcock's Elric stories mix magic and adventure with deeper themes, moving away from the idea of fantasy being purely escapism.

He also has a considerable haul of awards, which simply makes it all the more embarrassing that I've never read any of his work. Still, I've just picked up a volume of Elric stories, so hopefully that will be remedied in the near future...

Fritz Leiber

Yet another legend of the fantasy genre whose work I have utterly failed to read.

I mentioned above that H. P. Lovecraft influenced many writers and Leiber is meant to be one of them. He wrote plenty of acclaimed horror stories, however it is his fantasy novels featuring the characters Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser that proved to be his most popular work.

Leiber effectively created the 'sword and sorcery' sub-genre, and while today such a term conjures images of muscle-bound warriors and the infamous 'chicks in chainmail', just think how exciting and exotic these sort of stories would have seemed in 1939, when Leiber's first story featuring the adventuring duo was published.

Many of the books and games I read and played in my younger years were directly influenced by sword and sorcery and dungeons and dragons, and so therefore the sub-genre has left its mark on me (even if I don't tend to read many such works these days). It's therefore kind of ironic that I've neglected to read the works that gave birth to the whole sword and sorcery sub-genre.

Guess I'll have to rectify that as well.

Check out Aidan's own Pile o' Shame here:

Thursday 27 March 2008

Ghost in the Machine podcasts

Just thought I'd point out that Gail Z. Martin has got a great series of podcasts up on her website, featuring herself discussing books and genre writing with a number of authors. The podcasts are not so much interviews as informal conversations, and are well worth a listen. A new one is uploaded every two weeks.

The most recent podcast features Solaris author Paul Kearney, author of the upcoming gritty fantasy 'The Ten Thousand.'

You can check out the podcasts here:

Wednesday 26 March 2008

Character of the week: Gail Z. Martin

Yes, I know there was no 'character of the week' feature last week. Or, um, the week before either. The reason is simple: deadlines and busy diaries. Rest assured, I've had a number of enthusiastic responses from the authors I've contacted, and a wide variety of possible characters have been mooted by the respective individuals. However, they all have stated that due to current work commitments they won't be able to submit their contributions just yet. Hopefully these articles will surface over the course of the next few weeks, so keep checking back.

In the meantime however, I'm delighted to say that Gail Z. Martin - author of the popular Chronicles of the Necromancer series - has ridden to the rescue with her own contribution.

Here's what Gail had to say about her favourite character...

I was very pleased when James asked me about my favorite character, but hesitant, the way you’d feel if someone asked you to name your favorite friend. I’ve read and watched science fiction and fantasy since I was 12, and discovering it was literally life changing. So narrowing it down to one character is really very hard.

In the end, the choice of Vanyel Ashkevron from Mercedes Lackey’s The Last Herald-Mage trilogy comes because of all the many characters I have loved and who have become a part of me, Vanyel is the only one for whom I grieve as if he were real. I first read Magic’s Pawn many years ago, and this character haunts me. He is more real to me than many people I have known. I have no explanation for that. It just is.

When I think of Vanyel, it’s with the same emotion I feel remembering friends who have died. There is such a mix of tragedy and nobility in his character, of moving forward in the worst of circumstances, of being willing to sacrifice everything for love, honor and duty. I love the way he struggles throughout the books to reconcile himself to who he is and who he was meant to be. Although his family tries to crush his differences and force him into their mold, he refuses to compromise. He makes peace with himself and his past through the love of people who accept him as he is. And he has the courage to take a stand, knowing the price, because it’s what he must do. In the end, duty, love and honor transcend even death.

A good book makes you feel as if you know the characters in real life. A great book makes you sad to close the pages on the last chapter because the people you have come to love are going away. A favorite book never leaves you. Favorite characters become a part of you. And so it is with Vanyel.

Many thanks to Gail for her excellent contribution! If you've read my previous reviews of The Summoner and The Blood King, you'll know that by and large I enjoyed them very much.

For further info, check out Gail's website:

Tuesday 25 March 2008

Film review: The Spiderwick Chronicles

Ever since the success of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, Hollywood movie bosses have been squealing for more fantastical movie scripts as well as scrabbling to option the movie rights to fantasy books they think will make them plenty of money. The Spiderwick Chronicles is the latest film to rumble off the production line.

Based on the children's books of the same name, The Spiderwick Chronicles follows the story of the three Grace children - Mallory (the sensible one), Jared (the rebellious one) and Simon (the boring one) - as they move into a spooky house (yes, that old chestnut again) with their mother. Jared finds an old book - a "fieldguide" to the fairy world by Arthur Spiderwick - and then before long the siblings find themselves up against the evil denizens of the fairy world, who want the book for their leader, the evil ogre Mulgarath can destroy the world. Or something.

The bog-standard plot is fairly indicative of the entire film; other than the solid CGI (which, let's face it, is expected these days) everything about this film is just so mediocre. The plot, the characters, the script, it's all just kid's fantasy by-the-numbers. Evil villain, check. Half-arsed critters, check. Half-baked action sequences, check. Totally unexplained plot device that fails to paper over the cracks in the story, check. It's all just so mundane, which is rather ironic given the supposed fantastical element.

Some aspects, other than the CGI, are good - Hogsqueal the Hobgoblin and Thimbletack the brownie with anger management issues - add the odd moment of humour, and...that's about it.

Some aspects, as mentioned already, were not so good. The character of Simon is barely developed at all and he hardly serves any purpose, while the scene where the trio visit some token 'magic glade where time doesn't exist' is not even explained at all (in terms of where and what it is).

Perhaps I'm being a little harsh; The Spiderwick Chronicles is a kid's film after all. But then again that doesn't mean it can completely ignore character development and plotting in favour of CGI set-pieces.

Kids will probably enjoy it, as will perhaps fans of the books, but anyone else would probably do well to steer clear.


Monday 24 March 2008

The Tolkien debate continues...

Not content with just posting my little article on Tolkien's influence on this blog, I also posed the same question on sffworld.

The result was a detailed discussion with plenty of forum-goers giving their opinions on the shadow of Tolkien. Quite a range of opinions were voiced, so it's well worth checking out.

You can find the debate here:

Sunday 23 March 2008

Comment: Has Tolkien lost his crown?

Last night I was giving my nominations for the SFX "best genre authors ever" poll. In the end I aborted my entry, as I realised that I haven't read nearly enough of the 'classic' authors - or even the likes of Erikson - to be able to give a respectable answer. Oh sure, I could just vote for my favourite five authors, but that isn't what the poll is asking. Just because I like JV Jones a lot doesn't mean I should be putting her forward as a vote for best author ever. I've been meaning to read more of the older authors anyway, so will use this as a motivating factor. I'm sure there's plenty of exciting books out there that I have yet to discover.

Anyway, to the point. I briefly touched upon this in a previous post, but looking at the nominations put forward by SFX readers really got me thinking about Tolkien and his position as the undisputed master of fantasy.

While the views expressed on the SFX forums are only one way of registering your votes (you can send an email or leave a comment on the original article) it's fair to say that 90% of votes will be cast this way and that the results will be largely indicative of overall trends.

So, to put it bluntly, it doesn't look good for Tolkien. Dozens upon dozens of readers' nominations don't include Tolkien at all in their five choices, let alone as their number one choice. This of course got me thinking why this might be the case.

I thought at first that maybe some of the readers who didn't include Tolkien might be younger than those that did, and perhaps were not so much under his influence when growing up with fantasy (or not reading books that were as obviously influenced by him). This quickly proved to not be the case. A number of voters included the likes of Jules Verne, John Wyndham and H. G. Wells without including Tolkien, so this doesn't seem to be the issue.

No, I believe the issue is simpler: The Lord of the Rings - undisputed classic as it is - doesn't manage to stand quite so tall over some of the more recent works. The huge success of the likes of A Song of Ice and Fire, The Wheel of Time and the Malazan Book of the Fallen have proved that you don't need to rely on The Lord of the Rings if you want imaginative, diverse fantasy on an epic scale. Martin hasn't been called the 'American Tolkien' for nothing.

Furthermore, while The Lord of the Rings is a brilliant story, Tolkien was not a brilliant writer. The plot for The Lord of the Rings plods along interminably at times and I don't feel that he got under the skin of his characters as well as more recent authors have done with theirs. I'm not disputing his world-building, which is magnificent, but I feel - although some will consider it heresy to suggest this - that some - no, many - of the more recent fantasists are superior writers.

Let's face it, Tolkien never constructed a plot as tight or enthralling as Martin's Storm of Swords. He lacked the characterisation of David Gemmell. His writing doesn't possess the close-up focus on characters that the likes of Abercrombie and Lynch provide.

In short, I think readers have started to realise that there are writers out there who are not just capable of telling stories no less enthralling than Tolkien's, but who are also superior writers. This is possibly why Tolkien does not appear with as much frequency in the SFX poll as you would probably have thought.

Has he lost his place at the head of the fantasy table? Only time will tell. I don't think his influence will ever fade - his work inspired far too many people for that - but I think it's fair to say that perhaps his star doesn't shine quite as strongly as it once did. Perhaps this is a good thing; it shows we have a number of highly-talented authors writing exciting works, and this can only be good for the genre.

Friday 21 March 2008

Crap fantasy book covers # 6

Ladies and Gentlemen, it's time for yet another trip into the horrific, sordid world of crap fantasy book covers. Prepare the sick bags. Onwards!

James Barclay's Raven novels, not so long ago, were re-issued with a selection of highly impressive covers; a mix of silhouette with bold, single colours. In short, they looked damned cool. See, for example, the cover of Demonstorm:

Nice, isn't it? It's bold and quite sophisticated. More than that, it's mature. Businessmen commuting to work in the morning wouldn't be afraid to read it on the tube. It kind of says "Yeah, I read fantasy and I, like this book cover, am cool."

Which is less than can be said for the covers of the earlier editions of Barclay's novels. Take, as a sample, the cover for Noonshade:

Yes, Noonshade - like all Raven novels - involves liberal use of magic. There are also plenty of battles and adventure. Yet this doesn't mean the novel should have been degraded with this sub-dungeons and dragons cliched imagery that is both hilariously dated and woeful in equal measure. I mean, this looks like a novel that was published in the seventies or eighties, right? Actually, it was published in 2000. Yes, that's right. 2000. So why the publisher used such an eighties genre relic like this picture is anyone's guess.

It's all just so awful; the 'dramatic' pose, the 'epic' vista and the 'adventuring party' combining warrior and mages... It looks like something out of He-Man. If I could have found a decent-sized picture for the original cover of Dawnthief, I would have shown that also. It's even worse.

Let me just make it clear that I really like D&D and owe it for my love of fantasy. Yet much of the associated artwork I'm not so keen on, and that also goes for some artwork influenced by D&D. Such as this piece.

What's depressing about it is that it's this kind of artwork that causes the mainstream to regard fantasy readers as snivelling morons.

In a single word: dire.

Crap-o-meter rating: 9/10

Hugo 2008 nominations

The nominations have now been publicised:

No surprise to see Brasyl by Ian McDonald up for best novel, as I've only heard good things about it. Must pick it up at some point...

Also fantastic to see Solaris get a mention, with the story "Last Contact" by Stephen Baxter (which appeared in the Solaris Book of New Science Fiction) up for best short story. Congratulations are in order, dear sirs!

As for the John W. Campbell award for best new writer, it's cool to see Joe Abercombie up for the gong. He's up against stiff competition (including Scott Lynch) but it would be fantastic to see him take it down. Although you have to question the criteria for determining which authors can be entered for this, as Joe's hardly a 'new' writer. Nor is Lynch for that matter.

It's a crazy world...

Thursday 20 March 2008

Book review: Empire of Ivory

Empire of Ivory
By Naomi Novik
(Harper Voyager - paperback edition 2008)

I said recently that the best ideas are the simple ones. Nothing proves this point more succinctly than Naomi Novik's Temeraire series.

The premise, in case you've somehow managed to avoid the buzz surrounding the series (or been living on Mars), can be described as this: Napoleonic War plus dragons. That's it. Simple, but extremely effective.

The first in the series, His Majesty's Dragon (or simply Temeraire) in the UK) was only published in 2006, and yet barely two years later we're already on to the fourth book in the popular series: Empire of Ivory. Despite managing to produce four books in a relatively short space of time, Novik has commendably managed to not just maintain the standard she set in the first book, but actually improve on it in books two and three.

So the key question; does book four continue this pattern? The novel certainly opens promisingly, right in the thick of the action. These aerial battle sequences are one of the most thrilling aspects of Novik's series; they have a real cinematic quality. You can just imagine, in your mind's eye, these huge dragons swooping and twisting in the air, talons raking, as their human crews cling on for dear life. Wonderful stuff. So it's a disappointment that they don't feature much in Empire of Ivory. In fact, there's not a big aerial battle in the whole novel, which is a profound disappointment. The sense of exhilaration is therefore mostly absent, which is a shame.

Whereas the third book (and the best) in the series - Black Powder War - featured a frenetic final third, it seems that Novik wanted to leave behind the military confrontations for a while and focus on something a little different. The plot for Empire of Ivory therefore follows Laurence, Temeraire and their allies as they travel to Africa to search for a cure for the illness that is spreading rapidly through the ranks of British dragons. It's an interesting idea that allows for more exotic locations and adventure, but the plot is not as strong as that in Black Powder War, or even Throne of Jade. There are one or two surprises, but it lacks the tension and anticipation of the previous books. The last part of the book throws up the most intriguing scenario of the whole novel, but this is crammed into a few pages where much more could have been made of it. Furthermore, the novel's ending is a little abrupt, not to mention leaving an infuriating cliffhanger (which admittedly isn't a bad thing, just irritating as you don't want to have to wait to find out what happens next). The sort of epilogue that follows the novel's end is arguably pointless and you wonder why it was included at all.

Themes that are mooted in the previous books are evaluated in more detail in Empire of Ivory, lending the novel some real depth as we are shown the evils of the slave trade. The points made about the Admiralty's views towards the provision of the dragons (and their snooty attitude to the 'beasts' themselves) can be interpreted, perhaps, as a reflection of the war in Iraq and the fact that the US (and UK) governments are sending in troops without properly equipping them. Perhaps this simply coincidence and I'm looking at it too deeply, but it certainly seemed to reflect this to me. While the Temeraire novels can be read purely on an entertainment level, it's good to have this extra thematic aspect and it certainly adds depth. Including historical characters such as Nelson and Napoleon also helps to establish the setting; one of my criticisms of the first novel in the series is that the setting isn't fleshed out enough. This is not a problem in Empire of Ivory.

Plot aside, Novik's writing flows as well as ever. It's hard to describe, but there's just something about her novels that makes them so damned easy to read. In fact, it's one of the strengths of the series that the books are so accessible. You can plow through one in just a few hours of reading, which is a nice change to getting bogged down in an epic fantasy. Novik just manages to capture the atmosphere of the age so well, and both her writing style, and her dialogue, really fit the mood of the historical period. Her characters always sound like contemporaries would have sounded, rather than speaking like modern people in a historical setting.

As always, it's the dragons that steal the show. Novik has done tremendously well to take such a standard fantasy creature and make it work so well. The relationship between Temeraire and Laurence is by turns heartwarming and humorous, as are the relationships between the dragons themselves. It's notable that the dragons get on with each other generally much better than many of the human characters do, and this plays on the theme of how the dragons are treated by mankind (and how Temeraire thinks they should be treated). Novik has always relied on the youthful naivety of the dragons to lighten the tension with moments of humour, and once more she uses this to good effect, especially when the dragons concoct amusing plans to try and achieve something contradictory to their captains' intentions.

In Empire of Ivory the writing, humour and characterisation are as strong as ever; it's just the plot that lets it down a little. Just one big aerial battle would have rounded things off nicely. Of course, Novik's novels are about a lot more than these impressive sequences. Without them however, you can't help but feel their absence.


Wednesday 19 March 2008

Alt.Fiction Convention - 26 April 2008

If any of you readers in the UK find yourself with an empty diary for April 26th, and you are able to get to Derby, then you could do far worse than go along to Alt.Fiction, a one-day genre convention.

There'll be discussion panels, Q&A sessions, readings, author signings, workshops and plenty of drinks in the bar. Nice.

I'll be there, so feel free to say hello. If you recognise me. Which, given that I've never posted a picture of myself on this blog, is pretty unlikely. Perhaps I'll have to wear a special costume so I stand out. Suggestions on a postcard...

You can check out the Alt.Fiction blog for the latest news:

Tuesday 18 March 2008

Robert V. S. Redick promo video

I mentioned a while ago that authors are increasingly turning to promotional videos to publicise their works, all of which invariably end up on Youtube (doesn't everything?).

The latest is author of The Redwolf Conspiracy, Robert V. S. Redick. It's always interesting to hear authors discussing their books, and here Redick discusses the influence behind his debut novel and the urge that drove him to write in the first place.

Here's the link:

While we're on the subject of Redick, there's a new interview with him over at the Gollancz website:

Monday 17 March 2008

Vote for your favourite genre authors of all time at SFX

SFX magazine has started a new poll, with the idea of determining the fans' favourite genre author of all time.

What's the point when Tolkien will blatantly win, I hear you say? Well...perhaps he won't. Having had a quick look at some of the submissions on the forum over at the SFX website, it's interesting to see that the great man doesn't make the top 5 on many fans' lists. Come to think of it, he wouldn't be my first choice either.

If you'd like to take part, head over to the SFX website:

Sunday 16 March 2008

Recommended reading: Raymond E. Feist

In 2003 the BBC undertook a huge survey called the 'Big Read' to discover the UK's top 100 favourite books. The works of a number of fantasy authors appeared in the final list, such as Terry Pratchett, Philip Pullman, J. K. Rowling and C.S. Lewis. To the literary world’s irritation (probably) the public voted The Lord of the Rings as their favourite book. But there was another fantasy author - somewhat surprisingly - whose book crept in at number 89.

The book was Magician, and the author was Raymond E. Feist.

Feist later stated that with Magician, his main aim was to simply tell a ripping yarn, and he certainly achieved that. Set in the world of Midkemia - created by Feist and a host of his role-playing friends - Magician on first glance seemed like dozens of other Lord of the Rings clones. The elves, dwarves and wizards were all present and correct, as was the classic ‘coming of age’ story arc.

But a number of aspects set Magician apart. There was no dark lord desiring to destroy the world; instead, the conflict was between two races of men. The elves and dwarves added a touch of flavour and depth but there’s no doubt that humanity - and all its flaws - was the main focus of Magician. Furthermore, the action didn’t just take place on one world, but two. This added an exotic element, as the second world - Kelewan - was far removed from the standard European quasi-medieval settings that proliferated the genre at this point.

Still, a story is nothing without strong characters, and this is another area where Feist delivered. From the likeable, young protagonists Pug and Tomas, to the amiable Amos Trask, the brooding Prince Arutha and the devious Jimmy the Hand, Feist created a rich cast of characters that readers could easily relate to and sympathise with, as they struggled towards an uncertain future.

To this day, Magician remains a classic epic fantasy. Feist set down a marker, both for himself and the genre as a whole. It was almost inevitable however that his subsequent works wouldn’t match the excellence of his debut. Silverthorn was a competent, if slightly under-whelming sequel, while A Darkness at Sethanon managed to complete the so-called ‘Riftwar trilogy’ in a satisfying fashion.

As the years passed Feist demonstrated his versatility, writing a number of solid stand-alone novels like The King’s Buccaneer that showed he could tell an effective story on a smaller canvas. Yet Feist has always had a flair for the epic, and his masterly storytelling was once again showcased in The Serpent War saga, a four-book series that was impressively ambitious in scope, and featured many of his earlier characters at later stages of their lives.

While the plot did become somewhat convoluted in the latter stages, the series remains a fine example of Feist’s epic storytelling and vivid imagination. Furthermore, the second book of the series - Rise of a Merchant Prince - moved away from the epic plot and instead focused on the double-dealing and treachery of the mercantile world, highlighting the fact that fantasy doesn’t always need to be about epic battles and political manouvering.

It’s not all been plain sailing however. After completing the Serpentwar Saga, Feist’s ability seemed to desert him (probably linked to troubles in his private life) and he turned out the worst work of his career - the trilogy known as the Riftwar Legacy’. These books are, in part at least, based on the earlier computer games ‘Betrayal at Krondor and ‘Return to Krondor.’

Unfortunately, it shows. The first novel, Krondor: The Betrayal is a terrible book, with a one-dimensional plot that plods hopelessly along, with dull characters and a general lack of the usual spark that permeates Feist’s work. The second novel, Krondor: The Assassins is better, but still distinctly mediocre. The final book, Krondor: Tear of the Gods is a considerable improvement, but isn’t able to salvage the trilogy.

There were suggestions, however hushed, that Feist had quite literally lost the plot. In 2002 however he returned with the first book in his new Conclave of Shadows trilogy. While the first novel in the trilogy, Talon of the Silver Hawk, didn’t reach the heights of his best work, it was nonetheless a real improvement on the awful Krondor series.

Having not read any of Feist’s books beyond this, I’m not able to comment personally on his most recent work, including his new Darkwar trilogy. It will suffice to say that his latest series has received largely positive reviews and seems to indicate that Feist has managed to recapture some of the magic that made his earlier work so popular.

If you fancy indulging in some more traditional epic fantasy, then you could do far worse than checking out Ray Feist.

Recommended first purchase: Magician

Feist’s best-known work and a classic fantasy novel. Epic in scope and masterfully crafted, Magician is an enthralling story packed with action and memorable, diverse characters.

Recommended follow-up purchase: Silverthorn

The sequel to Magician lacks the scope of its predecessor and is perhaps a disappointing sequel. Following Magician however was an almost impossible act, and Silverthorn at least manages to entertain and capably continue the riftwar story.

Wildcard purchase: Shadow of a Dark Queen

Despite being set in the same world and featuring a number of the characters from the Riftwar trilogy, you don’t need to have read any of Feist’s earlier books to be able to tackle the Serpentwar Saga. Epic and ambitious, Feist shows once again how skilled he is at creating diverse characters and interweaving complex plotlines.

One to avoid: Krondor: The Betrayal

Dire. It really is as simple as that.

For further info, check these links:

Wikipedia info with bibliography and general info:

Official site:

Saturday 15 March 2008

More Abercrombie goodness...

By all accounts it looks like Joe Abercrombie's Last Argument of Kings is about to explode onto the fantasy scene. Sure, Abercrombie's already made a mark on the genre but all the signs are pointing to this final instalment in the First Law trilogy being a huge success.

Joe's just revealed that, at the time of writing, Last Argument of Kings (LAOK) is the 12th most popular book on Amazon (including all categories and genres). And it's not even been released yet. There's no denying that this is rather impressive.

As the UK release of LAOK is only 5 days away (20th March 2008), I think it's time everyone started to get excited. Well, maybe just a little. So, here's some more Abercrombie goodness for you:

A new review of LAOK by Aidan over at A Dribble of Ink:
If that wasn't enough, this month's issue of SFX magazine contains an interview and a book review of LAOK (which awards the full five stars).
So there you have it; that should keep you all going until the book is released...although I'm afraid you guys and girls in the States will have to wait a little bit longer...

Friday 14 March 2008

Comment: Robin Hobb's attack on author blogging

Robin Hobb recently wrote an article in which she discussed the apparent evils of authors blogging. You can find the article here:

The general gist of the piece is that authors shouldn't blog, and should instead focus all of their creative efforts on writing their fiction. Hobb argues that blogging steals valuable energy and time and that an author's work will suffer as a result.

First off, let me say I agree to some extent. I - in my writer capacity - have often sat down to write, only to be lured away by the appeal of brain-free internet surfing. I can appreciate that blogging quite possibly presents a similar challenge - "Oh, just a quick blog entry before I start writing" and all that. Fine, I can see how it might become a problem.

But I feel that Hobb misses a vital point. It's alright for her to not have a blog, as she doesn't need one. Neither does George R. R. Martin (even though he does and insists it's not a blog). Erikson, Brooks and Feist don't need them. Why? Because they're all established authors. People will buy their books and spend hours discussing them, regardless of whether they blog or not.

But for new authors, those who are just starting out and have yet to build up large, loyal fanbases, having a blog is a crucial way of interacting with readers. It enables the new author to discuss and promote their work, without being seen to be intrusive (it's their blog after all). It enables readers to ask questions and make comments. It allows the author to get feedback and to answer any points raised. It enables authors to have proper discussions about their work with fans (check out Joe Abercrombie's blog for proof of this).

In short, the blog provides a vital link between a new author and readers that can be fundamental to forging a loyal readership. In this day and age, it's vital to have an internet presence and while a website is all well and good, a blog offers a far greater level of interaction. It can even serve to attract genre fans unfamiliar with an author's work - I visit Pat Rothfuss's blog all the time and I've not yet read his book, but I enjoy reading what he has to say.

This leads on to my next point: readers enjoy reading the views and observations of their favourite authors. When an author posts about the way they work, or the way they think, it gives the chance for readers to get inside the author's head and see how their mind works. If an author discusses the workings of the industry, it helps prospective writers gain a better understanding of how things work. Even if all an author does is talk about their day, it still gives readers an interesting glimpse into the life of that author. People enjoy reading about these sort of things. I know I do, and I'm willing to bet that thousands of others do too.

While author blogs can be time-consuming, if managed effectively they offer a wealth of enjoyment for both author and reader (not to mention all-important publicity for the former), and for this reason alone I suggest that authors should keep up the blogging.

Thursday 13 March 2008

Comment: Worlds of Fantasy (episode 3)

Last night's final Worlds of Fantasy episode was easily the best of the three. For a start it was more interesting, and arguably more relevant than the previous two episodes (given that it focused on fantasy in recent years). The programme traced the evolution of fantasy, thankfully glossing over the terrible Lord of the Rings clones that saturated the genre in the 70s, instead looking at the importance of Pratchett's Discworld series. I mentioned earlier that I was concerned that Pratchett and Pullman would perhaps get too much emphasis, but the episode managed to give Pratchett the respect he deserves without neglecting other important authors such as Gaiman and Miéville. It was cool to see Pratchett wondering around his (huge) house and garden, as well as typing away in front of his six - yes, six - monitors. He looked almost like some kind of scary evil mastermind. It was great to hear him talking about the genre and his own work.

The best thing about the episode was the fact that it finally hammered home the point that I - and many others I think - were anxiously hoping that it would: that fantasy is not just about escapism, but about a diverse range of issues that are totally valid to modern life. Sure, escapism is one reason why people love fantasy, but the fact that fantasy deals with real-life human issues (loss of faith, loss of innocence, nature of evil, redemption, etc) is another reason why fantasy is so popular and relevant to modern society. Thankfully the programme enforced this point; it even opened with such a statement, which was great to see.

There were minor flaws: modern epic fantasy was completely ignored, giving the impression to the non-genre watcher that this sub-genre has died a death (which would be totally false) and the episode went off on a bit of a tangent when it started looking at video games, however relevant they might be. I wasn't keen on the idea that video games were the future in that you can choose the narrative, rather than just reading what's on a page. This wasn't the main message of the programme but was hinted it at by one of the guest speakers. Personally I think it would be a sad day indeed if games ever did signal the death of the fantasy book (which I doubt will ever happen, regardless of changing technology).

Overall, a decent show that finally gives fantasy some much-deserved credit. If it made just one former sceptic realise that there is far more to fantasy than elves and dragons, then it was worth it.

Wednesday 12 March 2008

Stan Nicholls' Orcs to be unleashed on the US!

Orbit have announced that Stan Nicholls' Orcs novel - having already sold nearly 1 million copies worldwide - will now be published in the United States.

The novel takes a different approach to the usual portrayal of orcs as vicious and bloodthirsty killing-machines, treating them with more compassion.

The US artwork is to the left. Looks like Orbit are also embracing the idea of more 'mature' covers so as to appeal more to non-genre readers. I think the cover is pretty cool personally. Expect Orcs to surface in September.

Worlds of Fantasy reminder

The final episode of Worlds of Fantasy will be broadcast tonight on BBC4, allegedly focusing on fantasy in the last 10 years. A brilliant chance, you'd think, to give some publicity to the titans of the genre like Martin, Erikson, Gaiman and so on, however I have a horrible feeling it will focus largely on Pratchett and Pullman. Given the popularity of these authors this would be unsurprising, but a missed chance to highlight some of the other great authors out there that the general public might not be familiar with.

Fingers crossed anyway.

Monday 10 March 2008

Book review: The Terror

The Terror

Dan Simmons

(Bantam Books - 2007)

Ever since the doomed Franklin expedition set sail in 1845 and was subsequently never heard of again, a whole wealth of music and literature has been written in tribute to the ill-fated voyage, not to mentioned the odd television documentary.

It's easy to see where the interest comes from: two ships and 134 men disappearing into the frozen wastes of the arctic, leaving no real clue as to their fate. Subsequent searches have yielded a number of trinkets and artifacts, including human bones that show signs of cannibalism and scurvy.

There was always a fantastic story to be told here. Dan Simmons clearly thought so, as the fate of the Franklin expedition forms the basis of The Terror. Except that Simmons throws another ingredient into the mix - an unknown predator that lurks in the semi-permanent darkness beyond the two ice-bound ships, a predator that just happens to enjoy snacking on human flesh...

It is often said that the best ideas are the simple ones, and the premise of The Terror is both. The two Royal Navy Ships Erebus and Terror have become stuck in the ice deep in the arctic circle, and have been for almost two years. The conditions are horrendous, supplies are slowly running out and the crew are wasting away. On top of that, you've got the aforementioned predator lurking out on the ice. The scene is therefore set for both a riveting story and also for an interesting look at how mankind can survive such atrocious conditions.

Simmons wastes no time in jumping into the thick of the action; the first chapter begins the story long after the two ships have already become frozen in and the crews are already aware of the 'thing on the ice' as they call it. It also happens to be one of the best openings to a novel I've read in some time. While subsequent chapters do leap about a bit in the time line, after a while the story settles down and the chapters follow in chronological order.

Simmons' prose is impressive; clear and concise with barely a word wasted, he proves masterfully adept at re-creating the harrowing atmosphere of the men's icy surroundings. His descriptive writing is wonderfully evocative; you can almost feel the chill of the air and hear the screaming of the ice as it crushes the ships. In addition he manages to instill a real sense of claustrophobia and fear.

Despite the large cast, Simmons has opted to focus mainly on a small handful of characters. Some chapters are written in the standard third-person, though Simmons does deviate from the norm. The chapters written from Dr Goodsir's perspective are written in the form of Dr Goodsir's diary (and thus in the first-person) while some of the chapters focusing on Captain Crozier are written in the present tense. The latter in particular works very effectively, adding a sense of urgency and tension to the proceedings. Simmons really manages to get under the skin of his characters, leading to a number of touching scenes (as well as some horrific episodes) as the plot develops.

The story itself is the real strength of the novel. Harrowing, unpredictable and utterly engrossing, the horror of it all is increased when you remember that it's all based on a true story (minus the scary monster, of course). What the men go through is dreadful beyond belief, and seeing the main characters slowly unravel is fascinating, as are the crews' desperate attempts to stay alive. As the situation grows unbearable (well, more unbearable than it already was) you start to realise that the danger is not the creature on the ice, or even the weather conditions, but the darkness that lurks in the human soul.

With such a famous historical event, it was important that Simmons didn't let the addition of the predator overshadow the grim reality of the men involved. It would have been easy for him to simply turn the story into a slasher horror, but fortunately Simmons avoids this. The monster is terrifying, but the real enemy is the environment and - later - the men themselves. The predator just adds an extra level of tension, which works extremely well. The title of the novel can therefore relate to a number of things - the ship Terror, the creature on the ice, the terror of the men's descent into desperation, among others.

Having been riveted for over 800 pages, I was disappointed to find that the last stage of the book didn't match the excellence of the rest of it. The tension in these final chapters - with a couple of notable exceptions - just seemed to trail off a little, and the rhythm of the novel felt interrupted. The change in emphasis made these chapters feel almost like a separate story that had been bolted on to the rest of the novel.

Still, the lukewarm final chapters don't spoil what is a gripping novel. Well-researched and brilliantly written, The Terror is a harrowing tale which is masterfully told.


Saturday 8 March 2008

Comment: Worlds of Fantasy

Just thought I'd take this opportunity to post a few thoughts on the BBC's Worlds of Fantasy programme that has recently been shown on BBC4.

The first episode focused on the idea of the child protagonist in fantasy literature. There were two things I was hoping the programme would avoid: over-emphasis on Harry Potter (there's plenty of other decent young heroes in fantasy) and portraying fantasy readers as geeks.

The programme got off to a bad start, showing a bookstore on the night of the last Harry Potter book launch. Sigh. Then, to make matters worse, it showed a group of young-ish fans gabbling with excitement, before unleashing their "fangasm" - which consisted of wiggling their fingers and making a rather ridiculous squealing noise. It was, to be honest, a little embarrassing and exactly what I was hoping the programme would avoid. But they didn't just show it once, or even twice, but three times. I wonder how many non-fantasy readers that were watching switched the programme off at that point and shook their heads, saying "I knew they were just a bunch of geeks."

Still, after the crap start the programme more or less recovered and while I didn't find it particularly riveting, it was nonetheless good to see the likes of China Mieville and Alan Garner airing their views on child heroes. But come on, what the heck was Phil Jupitus on the show for? And the random kid that was simply labelled as 'fantasy fan'? The main problem with the programme was that the child heroes it featured generally all appeared in books that are considered, by the media and general public, to be 'children's literature' rather than fantasy. So whether the programme really did much to boost the profile of fantasy is debatable. Still, it was amusing to see Garner launch a verbal broadside at C.S. Lewis (though a bit unfair given that Lewis couldn't respond, being dead as he is).

The second episode was better. Focusing on the fantasy worlds of Peake and Tolkien, it raised some interesting points. The Tolkien stuff was all fairly familiar, though it was cool to see the great man himself talking about his work, from a film made some 40 years or so ago. I found the material about Peake intriguing as well, as I knew little about him. I certainly had no idea how disturbed he was; some of his artwork was dark to say the least. Hardly surprising he then went on to have a nervous breakdown. Must get around to reading some of his work... Finally, it was again good to see Mieville and, this time, Joe Abercrombie offering their views. The fact that there were several gratuitous cover shots of Joe's novels was also quite amusing. And cool actually, because you won't see fantasy novels so willingly publicised anywhere else on the BBC. Or mainstream TV as a whole.

One thing I didn't agree with on the second episode was the rather snotty statement that 'Tolkien couldn't do ambivalence." I just don't agree with the idea that his work is solely black and white. Ever heard of Gollum? To my mind one of the finest 'grey' characters in fantasy. Boromir too, falls somewhere between the two.

The final (I think) episode is on next Wednesday, which is going to look at fantasy in the last ten years. This would be a great opportunity to give plenty of coverage to Abercrombie, Lynch, Erikson and Martin to name but a few, but no doubt it'll focus on the likes of Pratchett and Pullman, which is well and good but misses too much of the genre.

Thursday 6 March 2008

RIP Gary Gygax

I'm slightly ashamed to admit that until the other day I didn't know who Gary Gygax was.

Turns out that he was co-creator of a little game called Dungeons and Dragons.

You might have heard of it.

It was then I realised how much my life had been affected by this man who - until recently - I didn't know from Adam.

Without Gygax, probably no Dungeons and Dragons. Not the way we know it, anyway. For me personally, that would have meant no Fighting Fantasy gamebooks (which are basically D & D in book form). No Baldur's Gate or Icewind Dale. The whole fantasy scene would have been totally different.

Without this man's efforts, creativity and enthusiasm, I may never have embraced fantasy.

I suppose when you look it, I owe a hell of a lot to this guy.

So cheers, Gary, for the enjoyment you've given me and millions of others.

Rest in peace.

Wednesday 5 March 2008

Character of the Week: John Marco

It brings me a lot of pleasure to announce the start of a (hopefully) weekly feature: Character of the Week. The premise is simple: every week an author will reveal who their favourite genre character is and why.

To kick things off, John Marco willingly took to the hotseat...

When James first asked me to consider who my favorite character is in all of speculative fiction, I only had to think for a moment. The answer came to me in a flash of certainty--Elric of Melnibone. Like everyone else who loves science fiction and fantasy, I had a raft of possibilities to chose from, but my mind instantly sifted through years of books and movies to come up with Elric.

Some younger readers may not even know who Elric is, even though he's an iconic figure in fantasy. The main stories he appeared in were written by his creator, Michael Moorcock, way back in the sixties and seventies. It wasn't until the late seventies that I discovered these stories for myself, repackaged by DAW books in soft covers that literally seemed to leap at me from the library shelf. From the moment I picked up the first book, which as this point was simply titled "Elric of Melnibone," I was hooked. In fact, I can't remember ever reading any books so fast before or since, or ever really enjoying books more. I have fond memories of laying on an old coach downstairs at my parents' house, reading about Elric and his magical cohorts, yearning to pick up the books again every time I set them down.

It's hard to explain what appeals to me so much about Elric. More of an anti-hero than a hero, Elric is a doom-haunted prince of an ancient, decadent empire. Before Elric, the books I'd been reading all had typical, somewhat bland heroes. Then along comes Elric, who carries a sword that steals the souls of its victims, whose patron is a Duke of Hell named Arioch, who loses the love of his life early in the saga and never really recovers from the blow. And Elric is troubled by the things he does. He calls upon Arioch reluctantly, not with glee, and knows he's a pawn in the great war playing out between the forces of Chaos and Law. Pretty heady stuff for a teenager.

After reading the Elric books, I found myself in something of a wilderness, searching for another series that could make me feel the same way I did when reading about his exploits. After a while I got over it and discovered plenty of great books and characters, but I guess you never really forget your first love, and to this day I can't help myself from making comparisons. If the original Elric books seem quaint or out-dated now, I'm okay with that. I still recommend them to people, but I know that some won't find the same depth that I did in them. And even though publishers continue to produce them, I'll always have a fondness for those yellow DAW paperbacks from the seventies.

Blood and souls for my lord Arioch!

Worlds of Fantasy reminder

Just a reminder to all UK readers and anyone else that can get BBC4 - the latest instalment of 'Worlds of Fantasy' is airing tonight at 9.00 pm GMT.

While last week's episode was an interesting enough look at the role of the child hero in fantasy literature, this week the programme examines the more meaty topic of fantasy worlds, featuring Tolkien among others. Once again there will be a slew of fantasy authors offering their views, including Joe Abercrombie.

If you want to - in Joe's own words - see him "looking uncomfortable and talking bollocks in a darkened room" then this is your chance!

Monday 3 March 2008

Interview: Mark Newton (editor at Solaris)

As promised, here's an interview with Mark Newton, assistant editor at UK genre publisher, Solaris. As an 'insider', Mark has got his finger on the pulse of genre publishing and has plenty of interesting insights into the industry...

Solaris is a relatively new genre imprint. What is the general aim of Solaris? What do you hope, in an artistic sense, to achieve?

Solaris set out to bridge the gap between smaller presses and the big conglomerates. It was apparent that there was a gap which we could fill, for authors who don't achieve million-selling blockbusters and have fallen off publishing lists, or for new authors; and even more experimental titles. The small presses such as P.S. Publishing do a wonderful job, but don't have the mass market distribution. We're perfectly placed between the two, with distribution worldwide through Simon and Schuster.

Some Solaris titles have already garnered some acclaim, such as Gail Z. Martin's Necromancer Chronicles. What future releases are you particularly excited about?

Well, this year, there are some great things. Paul Kearney's THE TEN THOUSAND - a gritty fantasy if ever there was one, very much in the line of Gemmell. Eric Brown's KÉTHANI is a remarkable mosaic novel, written beautifully, and is of a highly literary nature. Powerful stuff. And we've got Lou Anders's SIDEWAYS IN CRIME anthology - alternate history mysteries from a Hugo nominated editor! I've probably missed out many more, but I thought these ones needed a special mention.

Solaris, like the majority of publishers, only accepts solicited manuscripts. What is the reason for this? Given that some popular authors have been plucked from the slush pile, is it not a worry that you might miss out on a possible gem?

Unfortunately, some people latch onto the headlines that a slush-pile author makes, and mistake that for the norm. And yes, gems to get in them, but it rarely happens. We still have a slush pile, despite saying we accept agent-submitted manuscripts only on our website. But the reason is quite simply a filter. We'd be inundated with hundreds of manuscripts every month. We couldn't cope with that. Most of the slush pile is badly written stuff. The books which agents submit are of a high quality, usually always publishable, just sometimes not quite what we're looking for at a given moment.

What's the main problem with the manuscripts you turn down?

They're badly written, not suitable for the market (sometimes any market), bad dialogue, a bunch of terrible, terrible clichés, or the most important one - the inability to tell a good story. Nearly every one we reject falls down on those factors. Sometimes we want to move on a submission, but for commercial reasons we have to say no, or simply that we're not the right publisher.

There's always a fair bit of discussion on the various internet forums about word counts. Is there a particular number that first-time authors should be shooting for?

In America, I believe the word counts asked for by majors are lowering. This, I suspect, is to keep expenses down for printing costs. Don't forget, the big sellers in epic fantasy have fat, 150k+ word counts, so I never understand why the readers are being short-changed in this way. In the UK, you need a novel ideally over 120k for an epic fantasy, perhaps a tad less for SF. But I think writers should concentrate on the story and not get bogged down thinking about word counts. An editor can always ask for more to be added, or bits to be cut. It's the writing they have to love.

What's more important: characterisation or world-building?

You need 'em both! But concentrate on characters, in my opinion. Stories are about people. You can build a world around people, as an when the story demands it, not big piles of info dumping of made-up histories.

You've mentioned in your articles about the importance of studying the genre, seeing what's popular and then working out where you fit into it. Doesn't this approach encourage writers to write clones of novels that have already become successful?

Perhaps, and it may inevitably happen, but all I hope people do is actually go to the shelves to realise what they CAN write. Even within fantasy, things are hugely wide ranging these days. Things change. You're not writing in a vacuum. Writing is a business. Things move on. A book that sold fifty years ago might not work now. That's why I encourage people to do more research in that way. It stops us editors receiving sub-Conan submissions, and it means that writers aren't going to be wasting their time.

The word on several blogs and forums is that epic fantasy is being rejected at the moment, in favour of other genres like urban fantasy. Is there any truth in these claims?

No. Epic fantasy is still one of the biggest selling genres. Why would you not want more if there's a thirst for it? The trouble we find is that there isn't enough well-written epic fantasy to publish. I've spoken to agents in the states, and even they seemed to think that there was a shortage of good new Epic Fantasy writers. I think the market is absolutely saturated with urban fantasy at the moment though, that it's become a separate and totally washed out genre of it's own.

How do feel about the claims that we are currently experiencing a 'golden age' of fantasy literature?

I think that any decade has wonderful books and awful books. I'm not sure this is a golden age more than any other. It's certainly more varied than it has been for a long time. But in terms of community, the online community, there is definitely a renaissance of sorts going on. Maybe that's what's helping things - these giant, online book groups spread across the world. The genre is really benefiting from that.

As an editor at a genre publisher, how do you view book review blogs? Do you worry that bad reviews on the more popular blogs might dent sales, or is all publicity good publicity?

Book blogs are wonderful. They're essentially online book groups, with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people, and those readers are then thinking about genre books. People talking about SF and Fantasy, appealing to the community nature of fandom. Few other genres have that support. That HAS to be a good thing, yeah? It keeps the genre alive. And negative reviews, in my opinion, are no bad thing, because you need to support good books. Besides, funnily enough, a bad review still gives a book air time, so it might appeal to someone, so yes, all publicity can be good. I still think that a mix along with more established review venues, such as newspapers, is essential. We still need those authoritative venues giving out recommendations....

Many thanks to Mark for taking the time to do this interview. Be sure to drop by Mark's blog at

Solaris website:

Saturday 1 March 2008

Good news for Abercrombie fans...

Joe Abercrombie has just pointed out a few dates that fans should look out for:

March 4th - Before They Are Hanged, the scond novel in the First Law trilogy, hits American shelves courtesy of Pyr. I know some American fans have expressed their frustration at having to wait while their UK counterparts enjoy the Abercrombie-goodness. Fortunately, there's not long to go now!

March 20th - The UK release of Last Argument of Kings, the third book in the First Law trilogy. UK fans, the wait is almost over. Of course, I've already read the book and can confirm that it is very good indeed. Check out my (spoiler-free) review here, if you haven't already:

If you've not yet checked out Abercrombie, and you like your fantasy gritty with plenty of black humour, now would be a great time to check him out.