Friday 23 May 2008

Lazy linkage

I'm heading down south tomorrow, to visit my family in leafy Surrey. Hopefully there'll be plenty of sun, chilled beers and walks in the deep woods. Mmm. It's always good to go home, especially when it looks like this: 
Nice. Incidentally, that pic actually is of Guildford, where I was born, not some random photo I nicked from the internet. The castle is actually of Norman design and offers a pretty good view from the top...but I digress. I could ramble on about the place of my birth for many hours, and probably bore you all to death in the process. So I won't. In fact I'll just say what I originally meant to say: as I'll be away for a while, posting here is likely to be sporadic at best. I will of course have access to teh internets, but whether I'll find the time to post is another thing. So just don't be too surprised if nothing new here appears for a few days. Normal service will resume next weekend hopefully. 

In the meantime, here's some links for you to get your canines into: 

Graeme's posted an interesting interview with horror author Gary Braunbeck HERE.

Aidan's discovered some cool artwork for the special edition version of Erikson's Gardens of the Moon. While the piece is very nicely done, the characters aren't right (when are they ever?). I like the gore though. Poor Hairlock. No wonder he went mad. Check it out HERE.

Chris has posted up a review of Sarah Ash's Lord of Snow and Shadows. Always kinda fancied this one and it certainly sounds worth checking out. The review is HERE.

Sara has read a real golden oldie - Heinlein's Starship Troopers. Review HERE.

Dark Wolf has had a run-in with a self-published novel with a rather crap-tastic cover...HERE. I'm slightly surprised he managed to last 100 pages. The last self-published book I glanced at had two grammatical errors in the first line and I made it to page 4. It was complete crap. 

Neth has read Stephen Hunt's The Court of the Air and posted his thoughts HERE.

Finally, Thrinidir over at Realms of Speculative Fiction (one of my favourite genre blogs) has read Ted Chiang's The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate. Check out his review HERE.

Right, that's all folks. Have a cool week and I hope to see you all again soon. 

Thursday 22 May 2008

Recommended reading: Terry Brooks

They say you always remember your first time. I certainly do. I was about fourteen, on summer holiday somewhere in France. I was a little apprehensive at first, as my partner was pretty big and was older than me, having been born some time in the late 70s. Nonetheless, I took a deep breath and plunged in and within minutes a passionate relationship was forged. 

The partner in question was The Sword of Shannara, by Terry Brooks.

I devoured the book in about two or three days and enjoyed every word. Having finally left behind the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks that had sucked me into fantasy and had fed my imagination for a number of years (see my previous post here), I decided it was time to maybe try a 'proper' fantasy book. Sword came recommended to me by a friend. I had no real idea what to expect. 

Perhaps that's why I enjoyed the book so much; I wasn't affected by expectation or pre-conceptions. Here was a novel that took all the things I loved so much about fantasy - adventurers, monsters, epic quests and magic - but took it to a completely new level that I had never experienced before. I was hooked. And thus my love affair/addiction with fantasy was sealed. 

Years later, looking at Sword from a more world-weary, cynical viewpoint, I can understand why this novel - and Brooks himself - has attracted criticism. Yes, it is almost a carbon-copy of The Lord of the Rings. You'd need several hands to count the similarities between the two novels. Yes, some of the writing and structure is clunky in the extreme; the huge lecture given by Allanon early on is one of the most poorly-managed info-dumps ever. But despite the huge debt it owes to LOTR, and the prose and structural problems, Sword is a hugely fun quest novel, with all the right ingredients. No doubt this is why it proved so popular, landing on the New York Times bestseller list shortly after publication. Like it or not, to some extent we owe the modern resurgence of epic fantasy to Terry Brooks (and his editor, Lester Del Rey). 

Brooks was no one-hit wonder. His next book, The Elfstones of Shannara was better still, and to my mind, Brook's best novel. Mixing epic battles with a riveting quest storyline, it to some extent broke free of Tolkien's shadow and established Brooks as a fantasist in his own right. The Wishsong of Shannara - the third Shannara novel - was a decent book but by this point the quest formula was beginning to wear a little thin, resulting in Brooks writing the more complex, four-book Heritage of Shannara sequence. This series features some great passages, one of my all-time favourites being the Four Horsemen besieging the Druid castle of Paranor. Wonderful stuff. 

Brooks went on to write many more Shannara novels, as well as the Magic Kingdom novels (lighthearted, humourous fantasy), The Word and the Void trilogy (a darker, contemporary fantasy) and also The Phantom Menace Star Wars novel. Over the course of two decades, Brooks established himself as one of the giants of the epic fantasy genre.

These days Brooks is often derided as being a Tolkien clone, and his works probably don't get the respect they deserve. It's a shame that much of the negative opinion on Brooks focuses on the shortcomings of Sword. There's no doubt Sword borrows heavily from LOTR, but Brooks has proved his originality and versatility in his later novels. 

For example, the later Shannara novels focus a lot more on the old-world technology found in the world of the Four Lands, often mixing sci-fi elements with fantasy. The novel Antrax is a good example of this approach. His contemporary fantasy trilogy - The Word and the Void - moved away from the tropes of traditional epic fantasy and proves that Brooks can tell a decent story in a different sub-genre.

Most recently, his Genesis of Shannara series bridges the gap between The Word and the Void and the Shannara novels, revealing that the Shannara novels are actually set on earth, long after a nuclear war has reduced the world to a medieval-esque level of technology. The Genesis books focus on the human survivors as they struggle to survive in a harsh landscape littered with nasty predators. Tolkien rip-off? Hardly. 

What I like about Terry Brooks - apart from the fact that he writes cracking adventure stories - is that his books are without pretension, he's just looking to tell a decent story, rather than trying anything too clever or ambitious. Subsequently, his books are enjoyable, pacy reads. 

If you fancy some absorbing, epic quest-fantasy, some slightly darker contemporary fantasy or a tale of survival in a bleak, post-apocalyptic world then you could do a lot worse than Terry Brooks. Plus, I've met him and he's a very nice bloke. :)

Recommended first purchase: The Elfstones of Shannara 

Brook's best novel. A riveting tale of magic, adventure and sacrifice. You'd be hard pressed to find a better traditional epic fantasy adventure. 

Recommended follow-up purchase: The Sword of Shannara

If you like Elfstones, you should like Sword. The original classic adventure that admittedly is very derivative, but is still an enjoyable story in its own right. 

Recommended wildcard purchase: Various

Take your pick. If you don't fancy vintage quest-fantasy, you could start with The Word and the Void for some contemporary fantasy action. Or the Genesis of Shannara, with its apocalyptic setting. Or The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara trilogy, the start of Brooks' more recent Shannara efforts, which features plenty of cool things like airships and a higher technology level. Or you could even try one of Brooks' Magic Kingdom novels, an attempt at lighthearted, humorous fantasy. There's plenty of variety, which is why Brooks is a good author to check out and probably deserving of more respect than he receives. 

Monday 19 May 2008

On the horizon...recommendation for 2008

Paul Kearney is something of a genre stalwart, his first novel The Way to Babylon having been published back in 1992. Given that he's the author of ten novels, I was rather surprised that I'd never heard of him until earlier this year. 

His five-book Monarchies of God sequence has been praised by the likes of Steven Erikson, while his most recent series The Sea Beggars has received some very positive reviews. Yet I've not seen Kearney's name mentioned as much as perhaps it should be. I do therefore get the impression that Kearney is one of the many genre authors that doesn't get the recognition their work deserves.

It's possible that this will change with the release of his new novel, The Ten Thousand, due from Solaris in September 2008. Here's the  blurb: 

On the world of Kuf, the Macht are a mystery, a seldom-seen people of extraordinary ferocity and discipline whose prowess on the battlefield is the stuff of legend. For centuries now, they have remained within the fastnesses of the Harukush Mountains. They have become little more than a rumour.

In the vast world beyond, the teeming races and peoples of Kuf have been united within the bounds of the Asurian Empire, a continent-spanning colossus. The Empire rules the known world, and is invincible. The Great King of Asuria can call up whole nations to the battlefield. His word is law across the face of the earth.

But now the Great King’s brother means to take the throne by force, and in order to do so he has sought out the legend. He hires ten thousand mercenary warriors of the Macht, and leads them into the heart of the Empire.

This is their story.

Straight away I find myself drawn to this novel (and not just because of the stunning artwork, which I've come to expect from Solaris releases). I'm a bit of a sucker for ancient history, and the world Kearney has created in this novel sounds like it has been strongly influenced by the classical world rather than the medieval. There are definitely not enough fantasy works featuring such worlds, so it'll be a nice change to read a novel with different influences. The title is reminiscent of the movie 300, and from what I understand the story itself bears a number of similarities. Think blood, sweat and plenty of grit. Think battles. Think heroism. It all adds up to a very potent mix indeed, one which I'm very much looking forward to sampling. 

In fact, you can all sample it right now! Well, one chapter anyway. The eternally generous gentlemen at Solaris have posted a sample on their website for your perusal! I like what I've read very much, Kearney's style reminds me somewhat of David Gemmell which is definitely a good thing. Only time will tell if The Ten Thousand will bring Kearney the exposure some would no doubt argue he deserves, but from this sample I think the novel is going to be very good indeed. 

You can check out the free sample chapter HERE.

Sunday 18 May 2008

The Ballad of the Dark Prince, the talentless plagiarist and the ghostly ghostwriter

This sordid tale actually came to light several months ago, but for those of you who didn't catch it first time around, here's a brief overview of what happened: 

A 'writer' by the name of Lanaia Lee stole the first chapter of the late, great David Gemmell's novel Dark Prince and passed it off as her own work. Her 'book' was called Of Atlantis. 

Naturally, she was found out. When confronted, Lee denied all knowledge. When she realised no one believed her claims that it was pure coincidence, she then changed tact and invented a bullshit story about how she had hired a ghostwriter to work on her novel, and it was he who had committed the plagiarism. She then went on to accuse her detractors of orchestrating a smear campaign against her and promised - and this is in her own words - "divine pagan retribution" against those trying to 'frame' her.  

But if all this is old news, why am I bringing it up again? Well, apart from the fact it's fun to take the piss out of idiotic, deluded, talentless liars, I thought I ought to mention this because Lanaia Lee is once again doing the rounds, hawking this shitty book of hers, published by some vanity press. She posted a shameless plug on sffworld, which was thankfully locked shortly after.  Apparently the Gemmell material has been removed from the book, but that still doesn't excuse her pathetic previous actions. 

If any of you - and I'm thinking of my fellow bloggers here - find yourselves with a copy of Of Atlantis, then I urge you to burn it/piss on it/eat it/feed it to your dog/rip it up/ jettison it into outer space. Apart from the fact that Lee is a deluded moron with serious issues, her book is probably so bad it'll cause your eyes to burst into flame. I've only read the excerpt she provided, which given that it's written by David Gemmell is not much of an example of her work. I did however find a short story she had written, and it was terrible. It's logical to assume that Of Atlantis is just as bad. Furthermore, anyone that steals the legendary David Gemmell's work and pretends its their own - and then denies all knowledge of the plagiarism, AND gets Gemmell's name wrong (Gemmel, she calls him) deserves nothing, which no doubt is what she'll get. 

Oh dear, I've probably said too much. No doubt I'll get an email from Lee, like other people have done, threatening the wrath of her 'famous publicist' that she 'can't reveal the identity of until the time is right.' 

Whatever. Check out this amusing article for further information, a comparison of Lee's chapter and Gemmell's chapter, and a photo of Lee with a rather funny caption.

Friday 16 May 2008

Book review: Night of Knives

Night of Knives

By Ian C. Esslemont

(Bantam Books, mass-market paperback 2008)

With the success of Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen novels, and the plaudits his writing has earned, it's easy to forgot that the Malazan world was co-created by Ian C. Esslemont, who was Erikson's gaming and screenwriting partner for many years.

It's therefore fitting that Esslemont's first foray into the world he co-created has finally received a mass-market release, after originally being published in hardback by PS Publishing, a small UK press.

Esslemont however was faced with a problem that 99% of first-time writers don't have: a large, hungry readership with high expectations. This put him at a disadvantage right from the start, and the unavoidable comparisons with Erikson's own novels meant that Esslemont's debut offering was sadly never really going to be assessed on its own terms.

Comparing Night of Knives to Erikson's established novels, is in my opinion, both subjective and unfair. Yet at the same time, given that Esslemont is writing about places and characters that have appeared in Erikson's own works, it is to some extent unavoidable. In this review therefore, I shall endeavour to be as objective as I can but there will be times when comparisons are made.

Night of Knives focuses on an event that has previously only been hinted at by Erikson - the assassination of the Emperor Kellanved and his companion Dancer, by the would-be Empress Surly. Set over the space of a single night, the action takes place on the backwater Isle of Malaz, during a once-in-a-generation event: the Shadow Moon. As dark beings stalk the streets and the barrier between worlds is blurred, a brutal conflict breaks out between a number of factions...and the events that unfold will change the world. Into this maelstrom of treachery and deceit come Temper, a war-weary veteran, and Kiska, a young thief and would-be Imperial spy.

Straight away you can see that Esslemont's writing is very different from Erikson's. Esslemont writes with a real sense of urgency, and his style is more accessible and less dense. It's also, if I'm honest, not as good as Erikson's. Esslemont is by no means a bad writer; his action scenes pack a punch and he can conjure up some nice atmosphere with his descriptive prose. However there's just not as much going on beneath the surface as there is with Erikson. Esslemont doesn't manage to convey the sense of history of the world or the importance of the unfolding events as well as Erikson does in his own work. In addition, some of the dialogue is a little stilted at times and some of the language is repetitive. To some extent I think Esslemont was held back by the plot, which doesn't really allow for much variation in the locale. It's no coincidence, to my mind, that the best writing in the book is in a flashback chapter, detailing a well-known siege and the events the occurred there. When given the chance to do something more epic in this chapter, Esslemont manages to deliver much more convincingly. This definitely bodes well for his next book, The Return of the Crimson Guard, which should give him plenty more scope.

Esslemont's characterisation in Night of Knives is hit and miss. Temper, the weary veteran, is a well-rounded character who is easy to sympathise with and whose background is sufficiently explored. Kiska, on the other hand, is a rather shallow character whose sole purpose in the book seems limited to constantly getting captured by the various factions, and then expressing her irritation at her own limitations. While Temper has a reason to get involved in the night's proceedings (old scores to settle), Kiska is a bit of a spare part with no real point as to her involvement, other than to explain her background a bit, as I understand she appears in Erikson's later novels. Her character is at times unconvincing. For example, there's one scene where she "forces down some bile" as she witnesses a soldier get torn up by a shadow hound, before the beast then chows down on him. That just isn't realistic at all. She's a teenage girl with no real survival or combat experience, for goodness sake. Yet she handles the situation like a seen-it-all veteran. Unconvincing to say the least. The two protagonists aside, we do get to see some other familiar characters from Erikson's books (I had a bit of a 'geek' moment when Hairlock made an appearance). Generally however Esslemont's characters are just not as appealing as Erikson's; they aren't as world-weary, or as cynical, or as wryly amusing.

There's no doubt that Esslemont tells his story well enough, and the plot does allow for one or two twists and surprises. There are certainly a number of important events, and some very cool aspects (I loved the Riders, for example, and am looking forward to reading more about them in Erikson's The Bonehunters). The pacing of the novel is probably its strongest part. It is disappointing however that the two most important confrontations of the novel both occur 'off screen' and so subsequently we don't get to witness them. It doesn't defeat the point of the novel, but it certainly lessens the intensity of the story's impact on the reader. One or two of the plot's more minor events do come across as a little contrived. For example, when a brash young soldier threatens Temper and his companions, it seems the only point of the soldier's actions is to give Temper a route out of the situation he finds himself in.

Given Esslemont's more accessible writing style, I thought that perhaps Night of Knives would be a better starting point for newcomers to the Malazan world, rather than Gardens of the Moon. Having read both books, I firmly believe Malazan virgins should start with Gardens. It is likely that if you read Night of Knives first, much of the importance of the events will be lost on you. Plus you probably wouldn't have a clue what was going on. In any case, Gardens is a superior novel in every respect.

Overall, Night of Knives is a decent novel with good pacing and one or two solid characters. There's plenty here for Malazan fans to get their teeth into. It's let down though by some weak characterisation and one or two problems with the plot. As harsh as it may sound, you do kind of wish that Erikson had written this book. Erikson makes it clear in his foreword that Esslemont's book isn't fanfic, but at times it does feel a bit like it. Perhaps this is to be expected when an author writes a story in the same world as a more established, popular writer. In any case, Esslemont has shown enough in Night of Knives to convince me that there is more to come from him, and hopefully his next work will be a more convincing example of his ability.

Verdict: ddd

Recommended for fans of: Steven Erikson

Thursday 15 May 2008

On the horizon...recommendation for 2008

The Inferior by Peadar Ó Guilín was actually published in 2007, but there's been a bit of a buzz building up around it recently.

Here's the blurb:

There is but one law: eat or be eaten. Stopmouth and his family know of no other life than the daily battle to survive. To live they must hunt rival species, or negotiate flesh-trade with those who crave meat of the freshest human kind. It is a savage, desperate existence. And for Stopmouth, considered slow-witted hunt-fodder by his tribe, the future looks especially bleak. But then, on the day he is callously betrayed by his brother, a strange and beautiful woman falls from the sky. It is a moment that will change his destiny, and that of all humanity, forever.

Love that first line: "eat or be eaten." That's a brilliant hook. From what I've read, The Inferior takes place in a world far removed from the usual fantasy trappings, where a tribe of humans - living amid the ruins of some long-forgotten city - fight a daily struggle against all manner of nasty critters. There is also a vague sci-fi element as well, with the strange globes that travel in the skies, just to mix things up a little.

Quite a lot has been made of the book's 'young adult' tag, which some reviewers have found surprising given the cannibalistic, survival themes that pervade the story. Still, that's marketing folk for you.

From what I've heard so far, I'm definitely going to be checking out The Inferior as soon as possible. A review will of course be up as and when. In the meantime, feel free to check out some of the reviews already posted throughout the blogosphere by my fellow bloggers:

Review at Realms of Speculative Fiction

Review at The Wertzone

Review at Graeme's Fantasy Book Review

Wednesday 14 May 2008

Fantasy worlds

I saw a thread on SFFworld about the best and worst fantasy worlds and thought it would be fun to talk a little bit about my personal favourites. In no particular order, my favourite fantasy worlds are: 


An old favourite from my Fighting Fantasy days. Allansia is/was one of three continents in the Fighting Fantasy world of Titan - the others being The Old World and Khul. Allansia was always my favourite however, and I spent many happy hours trekking through the Moonstone Hills, wandering the shady paths of Darkwood Forest, exploring the tunnels and caverns of Firetop Mountain and braving the twisting streets of Port Blacksand. To my older, more skeptical mind, Allansia is nothing special. In truth it is a standard Medieval-European feudal land, with the usual forests, rivers and villages. Yet it gave me so much enjoyment that it will always remain special to me.

The Forgotten Realms

I love the realms, mainly because I had so much fun playing Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale. I just got sucked in by the sheer scale, the sense of history and the myriad races. And the magic, which is unbelievably cool. Ed Greenwood tends to come under fire for his writing, but there's no doubting his world-building skills. The realms are dynamic, exciting and utterly absorbing; there's just so much depth there. If I could visit a fantasy world for real, this would be my choice. I'd become a bad-ass level 20 wizard who could cast level 9 spells with a flick of his wrist, whilst stifling a yawn with the other. Awesome.


As I briefly mentioned in my article on Martin, Westeros is a wonderful world. First off you've got the continent of Westeros, an old land with a bloody history. There are plenty of cool places there: the haunted forest beyond the Wall (a massive wall made from ice) is easily the most exciting and atmospheric place on the continent. But you've also got other places like the bitter Iron Islands, the cursed fortress of Harrenhal, the lush lands of the Reach, the mountainous Vale of Arryn, and so on. On top of that, we've got the lands of the east: the nine free cities, the ruins of old Valyria, the mysterious Asshai-by-the-shadow, the Dothraki Sea, and so on. One of my favourite characters from A Song of Ice and Fire is Dany, and this is largely because through her eyes and actions we get to see so much of these exotic eastern lands. Binding the whole world together is a sense of history that makes it all feel so real. Martin strikes the perfect balance between not overburdening the reader and book with detail, but providing enough information to build the world up in the reader's imagination. 

The Malazan world

Having only read the first novel of Erikson's Malazan series, I've not seen much of the world. But what I see I like very much. I like the war-torn nature, the constant power-struggles. I like the fact that the gods bitch and bicker just as much as the humans, and in some cases actually try to influence the human world even as the humans try to influence theirs. I like the magic system and the way magic is such a destructive force. I love the layers of history and legend that pervade the world, lending real depth to the surroundings and real meaning to the events. Great stuff, and I can't wait to spend more time there. 

Middle Earth

Need I say more? I don't think so. All I'll say is this: the Shire PWNS.  

Tuesday 13 May 2008

Recommended reading: George R. R. Martin

Another article on recommended reading is admittedly long overdue, and as George R. R. Martin topped the recent poll of 'Best F/SF authors' on Westeros (as admittedly subjective as that poll was), I thought it fitting to write a few lines about him and why everyone should read his books.

Martin is something of a genre legend. While most authors tend to stick to one genre, occasionally dipping their toes into another genre to test the water, Martin has had work published in all three major speculative fiction genres: fantasy, sci-fi and horror. Furthermore, he's equally skilled at writing in each one.

The recipient of a number of Hugo and Nebula awards, Martin has written a slew of short stories, novellas and novels stretching all the way back to the 70s. Some of these shorter works can be found in his Dreamsongs collection. It is, however, his epic A Song of Ice and Fire series that has truly brought Martin to the attention of genre readers and has earned plaudits from so many corners, not to mention winning him thousands upon thousands of fans.

It's easy to see why. With A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF), Martin has written one of the most thrilling, absorbing, shocking and unpredictable stories that the fantasy genre has ever witnessed. The series really does have the lot - battles, exotic settings, adventure, mysteries and political intrigue (and backstabbing) by the bucketful.

All good stories are driven by the characters involved, and ASOIAF is no exception. Shunning the multi-race worlds of many of his fellow writers, Martin has created a world where humanity is the dominant force, and as such the novels focus on these human protagonists. By telling the story through the eyes of a number of POV characters in alternating chapters, Martin brings us very close to both the characters and the action. We therefore get to see all of the foibles of humanity at first hand: pride, fear, jealousy, hatred, joy, courage. They're all in there. The best thing about Martin's characters is that they're so intricate, so flawed. All have their own goals, their hopes and fears, their needs that drive them on. So convincing is Martin's writing and characterisation, that for each chapter you feel as if you are looking through the POV's eyes, seeing what they see, hearing what they hear, feeling what they feel. Few writers handle human emotion as well as Martin does.

Subsequently, there are some fascinating characters in ASOIAF: Eddard Stark, the noble head of House Stark who is wracked by a mysterious guilt; Tyrion Lannister - The Imp - whose razor-sharp mind and wit makes up for his physical shortcomings; Varys the eunuch spymaster, who seems to have his fingers in more pies than a beggar in a bakery; Daenerys Targaryen, the innocent slip of a girl who becomes general of an army; Cersei Lannister, the devious she-serpent who will stop at nothing until she controls the throne...they, and dozens more besides, all have their parts to play, and will let nothing get in their way. One of the immense pleasures of the series is watching the sparks fly in often spectacular fashion.

Of course, in epic fantasy worldbuilding is also rather important. Martin more than delivers on this front as well. He's created a world steeped in history and myth, a mix of both the familiar and the more exotic. Westeros, the continent where most of the action takes place, may on first sight appear to be little more than a feudal medieval Western-European land. The truth is somewhat different: from the sun-kissed domes of Dorne, to the frigid forests of the land beyond the wall in the north, from the mountainous Vale of Arryn in the east to the harsh Iron Islands in the west, what Martin has created is a dynamic, diverse land of extremes that is layered in history. The old houses and families are linked in a constantly shifting landscape of alliances as they all struggle for influence over the continent. While the focus is very much on the human relationships at the centre of the struggle, Martin has not forgotten that he's writing a fantasy. Subsequently, we have the haunted forest of the north, seemingly home to a terrifying race of supernatural creatures of snow and ice - the Others - that wield power over death itself. 

Westeros itself is a great setting, with plenty of scope for a terrific story. Martin however wasn't content with just the one continent, so we also have the nine free cities of the East; influenced by a range of real-world cultures ranging from Egyptian to Mongolian. These lands give Martin free reign to include all kinds of cool things, like the 'Unsullied' (undefeated eunuch legions), the Faceless Men of Braavos (secretive assassins) and the blue-lipped warlocks of Qaarth. Martin's world is also notable for other distinctions, such as the fact that seasons can last for many years.

The best thing about ASOIAF is the storyline itself. Epic and yet intricate, it is a masterful weave of twists and turns, secrets and surprises. None of Martin's characters are indispensable, leading to a number of deaths - some of which are immensely surprising, shocking even. There are so many brilliant set-pieces in the series and some scenes are brutally visceral. Martin's been hailed as the forerunner of the 'gritty' genre. While this is a fair comment, Martin also embraces the more exotic, fantastic elements of his world. No fantasy series has spawned as much discussion as ASOIAF, as thousands of fans discuss the various mysteries of the books online. 

The ultimate result of Martin's endeavours is an utterly absorbing saga of love and betrayal, ambition and vengeance in a dynamic, vibrant world. Martin's skilled characterization, masterful plotting and indomitable imagination have created a stunning fantasy epic that will do doubt remain a defining work for decades to come. 

Recommended First purchase: A Game of Thrones

The first ASOIAF novel. The best prologue ever written, and the whole book is an excellent start to the series. 

Recommended follow-up purchase: A Clash of Kings

The second novel, and a real monster to boot. Events really start to hot up in this second instalment. 

Recommended wildcard purchase: Dreamsongs

If you're still unsure whether to commit to ASOIAF, then check out Dreamsongs - a collection of Martin's short fiction from all through his career. Proof that Martin can write equally skilfully in any speculative genre, and in shorter fiction as well as novels. There are some brilliant stories in this collection, such as the award-winning 'Sandkings', and the wonderfully unnerving 'The Pear-Shaped Man.'

Hmmm, all that has got me craving some Ice and Fire action...with the next instalment due later this year, perhaps now is a good time for a (third) re-read...

Monday 12 May 2008

Top author poll from Westeros

Thanks to Adam from The Wertzone for the heads-up on this one.

A poll was carried out over at Westeros (the George R. R. Martin forum) asking members to vote for their favourite genre authors. The top 10 result was as follows:

1) George RR Martin

2) JRR Tolkien

3) R. Scott Bakker

4) Gene Wolfe

5) Robin Hobb

6) China Mieville

7) Steven Erikson

8) Stephen R. Donaldson

9) Joe Abercrombie

10) Frank Herbert

Admittedly the poll is rather subjective given that it was conducted on a George R. R. Martin forum, but to my mind Martin deserves 1st place. In short, he's the best writer of epic fantasy of all time. Although I do feel Feast was a let-down.

Abercrombie deserves his place in the top 10. He's written one of the most enjoyable fantasy trilogies of recent years, and deserves respect for managing to not just deliver books two and three on schedule, but also for maintaining the high standards he set with The Blade Itself.

Erikson was lower than I thought he would be. Bakker was much, much higher than I expected.

I'm always surprised by the popularity of Robin Hobb's works, especially given the poor reviews her more recent books have garnered from some quarters.

Notable absentees from the top-10 included:

Scott Lynch (11th place): while I thought Lies was a terrific novel, I thought Red Seas was a big disappointment. To my mind, he's not done enough to prove himself worthy of being in the top 10. If his next novel is as good as Lies (or somewhere close) then perhaps 11th place will be more justified.

J. K. Rowling, (no votes at all): I'm not surprised by Rowling's omission. I doubt many of the members on Westeros actually read Harry Potter and even if they did it's unlikely they'd vote for her. Plus, she's hardly endeared herself to serious fantasy fans, has she? First there was the "I don't write fantasy" nonsense that incurred the wrath of Terry Pratchett, among others, then the Hugo snub. On top of that, she's developed an alarming habit of suing the arse off anyone that so much as whispers "Harry Potter." So it's not hard to see why she's been ignored. In addition, she's not much of a writer. Great storyteller, certainly, but not a great writer.

Friday 9 May 2008

Lazy linkage...

As Friday is lazy can't-be-arsed day, here's some lazy links for you relating to cool/interesting stuff around the genre blogosphere:

Author Adam Roberts has posted a very funny review of The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan over on his BLOG.

Graeme's had a nasty week reading urban fantasy, and has written a rather amusing review of Laurell K. Hamilton's 'Blood Noir' HERE.

Realms of Speculative Fiction have reviewed The Red Wolf Conspiracy by Robert V. S. Redick, and come to much the same conclusion as myself...check out the review HERE.

Jeff over at Fantasy Book News and Reviews has reviewed Bloodheir by Brian Ruckley HERE.

Sara over at Jumpdrives and Cantrips has posted a review of Leviathan Rising by Jonathan Green, a book I'm quite keen on given that I loved Green's Fighting Fantasy work...check out the review HERE.

Thursday 8 May 2008

3 for 2 book deals will wreck my bank balance...

Went into Waterstones to pick up The Briar King by Greg Keyes, after having heard many good things about that series.

Instead, I came away with three books...none of which were The Briar King. It's these 3 for 2 book offers. I can't help it, I just have to partake.

The books I walked away with were:

Reaper's Gale by Steven Erikson

Children of Hurin by J. R. R. Tolkien

Night of Knives by Ian C. Esslemont

I'm far away from being ready to read Reaper's Gale, but I'll get there eventually. The paperback copy of Children of Hurin is pretty cool and has plenty of excellent illustrations, both colour and pencil. As for Night of Knives, I'm very eager to see Esslemont's foray into the Malazan world. The fact that the novel is set over the course of a single night is also very interesting.

As I had some credit left on my voucher card thingy (kindly given by work colleagues for my birthday a few weeks ago) the whole total that I technically spent only came to around £5. Just as well really, otherwise my wallet would probably have burst into flame.

Wednesday 7 May 2008

Anomander Rake

I'm aware that this artwork of Anomander Rake from Erikson's Malazan novels has done the rounds before, but who cares. It's damned cool, and deserves to be shown again.

Tuesday 6 May 2008

Book review: The Black Company

The Black Company

By Glen Cook

(Tor, 1984)

Having read and enjoyed Erikson's Gardens of the Moon, I was curious about Glen Cook's work. I knew that Erikson had admitted the influence of the Black Company novels on his own work, so I was intrigued to check them out for myself. Plus, let's face it, The Black Company just sounds cool. I mean, a novel with that title just can't be rubbish, can it?

The Black Company of the title is an elite group of mercenaries, and the novel follows them as they flee from the troubles of the city of Beryl, only to find themselves dragged into a war between the Lady and the Rebel. As the war reaches its climax, the line between friend and foe becomes increasingly blurred...

It didn't take me long to realise that The Black Company was not at all similar to the other fantasy works of the same time period that I'd read. For example, when it was published in 1984 Terry Brooks was working on his epic Shannara series and Ray Feist had, just two years before, delivered the all-time great fantasy novel Magician. Epic was therefore big business, fantasies with elves and dwarves were all the rage. It was interesting to find out that The Black Company shied away from all this, heading in a very different direction.

For a start, it doesn't make use of the traditional tropes that Brooks and Feist indulged in. There are no elves or dwarves, no dark lords. In fact, Cook focuses intently on the men of the Black Company, exploring their relationships, emotions and beliefs. It's a stripped-down approach that portrays a world where everything is cast in shades of grey and evil is simply a matter of where you stand. In short, it's a more realistic take on things. You could even argue that it's the forerunner of today's 'gritty' fantasy novels (by today's standards it couldn't really be called gritty - no sex, no graphic violence, minor swearing - but by the standards of the 80s it sure as hell could).

The plot, as mentioned, follows the trials and tribulations of the Black Company as they find themselves - somewhat unwillingly - conscripted into a war. The story is seen through the eyes of Croaker, the company's physician and erstwhile historian, and the first-person narrative leaves plenty of room for introspection and exploration of various themes in between the action.

The characterisation is one of the novel's strongest aspects; Cook portrays the men of the Black Company - and their relationships - with commendable realism. Black Company novels are apparently popular among members of the armed forces, and it is easy to see why: Cook's soldiers act like real soldiers. They fight, bitch, argue, laugh and support one another. Their relationships add some real depth and realism to the novel. Lighter moments are also provided by the amusing antics of the wizards Goblin and One-Eye, who constantly strive to out-do each other with their little tricks.

Croaker himself is a likeable narrator, a regular guy who is just trying to do his job. His plain honesty and genuine love for his comrades endears him to the reader, and it's intriguing to see him slowly unravel as the stakes get higher. We see all the action through Croaker's eyes, and subsequently share his thoughts about the nature of evil, the hopelessness of war and the importance of loyalty and honour. It's impossible not to sympathise with the nasty situations he finds himself in, and to desperately hope that he makes it through as the screw tightens.

The human characters are only one side of the coin however. Alongside them, you have the 'Taken' - ten powerful wizards that were enslaved by the Dominator, and now live to serve the Lady. It's these figures that add a more fantastic edge to the proceedings, with their magical abilities and unnerving appearances. For example, Soulcatcher's voice changes from scene to scene, female one minute and then male the next, while Shapeshifter is - you guessed it - able to assume different forms. It's the Taken that to some extent drive the plot along, with their incessant infighting and plotting, despite all being technically on the same side.

The plot itself rattles along at a frenetic pace, giving few clues as to where it's going and managing to spring a few surprises as it reaches its climax. Cook shies away from the heroic quest aspect and instead tells an absorbing story of covert missions, assassination attempts and nefarious backstabbing. While the focus of the novel is relatively narrow, concentrating by and large on the fortunes of the Black Company and Croaker himself, the final battle is surprisingly epic. Cook makes good use of the events to highlight the horror and pointlessness of war, and the helplessness felt by those caught up in it.

There are some aspects I felt could have been handled better. Cook's worldbuilding doesn't match his characterisation and sometimes I felt I didn't have as good a grasp of the world as I could have done with a touch more exposition. Sometimes it feels like the war is being fought over place-names rather than actual cities. In addition, magic is prevalent in the novel but there is no explanation as to how it works, meaning it is hard to appreciate magic use, as you have no real idea how difficult it is for the users to summon the power that they do. Both of these points can largely be forgiven on the basis that this is Cook's first novel.

One thing you can't fail to notice - if you've read any of the Malazan novels - is how much Erikson was influenced by The Black Company books. For a start, Erikson has used similar names for his cities and characters (Cook has a city called 'Roses', Erikson has 'Tulips'; Cook has a character called 'Silent', Erikson has 'Sorry'). Furthermore, the camaraderie (and rigged card games) of the Black Company is a clear influence on those of Erikson's Bridgeburners. In fact, the Black Company are almost a prototype of the Bridgeburners, such are their similarities. Erikson has also clearly been influenced by the backstabbing and infighting of Cook's 'Taken', which is reflected in the treachery carried out by the various agents of the Empress in his own books. In addition, the Taken were obviously the inspiration for Erikson's own Ascendants.

All things considered, The Black Company is an enjoyable read and Cook deserves much credit. Not just for writing a novel (and its sequels) that would prove the inspiration for one of the greatest epic fantasies of all time, but also for shying away from the popular style of the time period and for writing a very human story about war that resonates with real meaning.

Verdict: dddd

Recommended for fans of: Steven Erikson, David Gemmell, James Barclay

Monday 5 May 2008

Black Company artwork

As regular readers will know, I'm a sucker for a decent book cover. This one is not new or anything, but I got a kick out of it nonetheless...

Mmmm, evil horsey with teh molten lava breath... Seriously, I think this is a top cover. I just happen to be reading the first Black Company novel by Glen Cook, entitled, er, The Black Company.

Review up soon. Woot.

Sunday 4 May 2008

Orson Scott Card vs J. K. Rowling

This one's been doing the rounds throughout the genre blogosphere and online communities. In case you've not yet read Card's amusing rant about Rowling, check out the article HERE.

I think Rowling's response to Steve Vander Ark's Potter Lexicon is rather extreme. I do see why she would not be happy about it, but I think the way she has gone about settling the issue is completely over the top. Subsequently, I do agree with some of Card's points:

"Here's the irony: Vander Ark had the material for this book on his website for years, and Rowling is quoted as saying that when she needed to look up some 'fact" from her earlier books, she would sometimes "sneak into an Internet café while out writing and check a fact rather than go into a bookshop and buy a copy of Harry Potter."
In other words, she already had made personal use of Vander Ark's work and found it valuable. Even if it has shortcomings, she found it useful."

The above point is why Rowling's lawsuit should fail.

"Now she is suing somebody who has devoted years to promoting her work and making no money from his efforts -- which actually helped her make some of her bazillions of dollars."

True, and and it doesn't reflect well upon Rowling at all. In fact, it makes her look like a bit of a bitch.

"It's like her stupid, self-serving claim that Dumbledore was gay. She wants credit for being very up-to-date and politically correct -- but she didn't have the guts to put that supposed "fact" into the actual novels, knowing that it might hurt sales."

Definitely agree on this one. It was an utterly pointless thing to do and smacked of attention-seeking.

"Rowling's hypocrisy is so thick I can hardly breathe: Prior to the publication of each novel, there were books about them that were no more intrusive than Lexicon. I contributed to one of them, and there was no complaint about it from Rowling or her publishers because they knew perfectly well that these fan/scholar ancillary publication were great publicity and actually boosted sales."

Another fact that makes Rowling's court action look doomed to failure, and makes her look rather foolish.

"Rowling has nowhere to go and nothing to do now that the Harry Potter series is over. After all her literary borrowing, she shot her wad and she's flailing about trying to come up with something to do that means anything."

I agree to some extent here. I do think Rowling's future works will never achieve anything close to what the Potter books did, and the nature of the British media being what it is, she'll be slated for it.

"But now the Harry Potter series is over, and Rowling claims that her "creative work" is being "decimated."

This is a rather dumb remark by Rowling. I get the impression she's struggling with whatever she's writing right now, for other reasons, and simple needs a scapegoat. Pure speculation of course, but you do wonder.

However, I don't agree with some of Card's comments:

"Well, heck, I feel like the plot of my novel Ender's Game was stolen by J.K. Rowling."

If Card seriously means that, then he's off his rocker. J. K. Rowling probably hasn't even heard of Ender's Game. In any case, the plot from Ender's Game was old even before Card used it.

"I can get on the stand and cry, too, Ms. Rowling, and talk about feeling "personally violated."

If all authors got on their high horses and accused all those other writers who they believed had stolen their ideas, no new books would ever get written...and everyone would be accused by someone else. There are no new plots under the sun. In any case, you can't copyright ideas. You only have to look at the Dan Brown trial to prove that. He blatantly used ideas and theories from that other book, but the case was thrown out because - you guessed it - you can't copyright ideas. If you could, it would mean an end to genre fiction as we know it.

"Moreover, she is desperate for literary respectability. Even though she made more money than the Queen or Oprah Winfrey in some years, she had to see her books pushed off the bestseller lists and consigned to a special "children's book" list."

I doubt Rowling gives a toss about literary respectability. I know I wouldn't if my books were that popular and I'd made stacks of cash.

"It makes her insane. The money wasn't enough. She wants to be treated with respect."

Does Card actually know Rowling, or anyone close to her? No? Then how the hell does he know this? You can't make this sort of accusation without proof, and Card has no proof other than his own misguided opinions.

"People who hear about this suit will have a sour taste in their mouth about Rowling from now on. Her Cinderella story once charmed us. Her greedy evil-witch behavior now disgusts us. And her next book will be perceived as the work of that evil witch."

Who is 'us'? Who the hell does Card think he's talking for? Not me, for one. I'll form my own opinions thanks, and certainly don't need him to talk for me. In any case, I doubt any of the millions of Potter fans will give a shit about this lawsuit.

"What a pretentious, puffed-up coward. When I have a gay character in my fiction, I say so right in the book. I don't wait until after it has had all its initial sales to mention it."

A rather ironic comment given that Card has freely admitted that he thinks homosexuality is a sin. In his own words: "Laws against homosexual behavior should remain on the books, not to be indiscriminately enforced against anyone who happens to be caught violating them, but to be used when necessary to send a clear message that those who flagrantly violate society’s regulation of sexual behavior cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within that society." Of course, he'd never put that in his books. Why? Because it would hurt sales. Which is, funnily enough, exactly the same thing that he accused Rowling of when she didn't reveal Dumbledore's homosexuality in her books. Talk about hypocrisy.

"Rowling has now shown herself to lack a brain, a heart and courage."

Hilarious comment. One thing Rowling certainly does not lack is a brain; the Potter stories are clear evidence of that. Heart? Well, she wrote her first Potter book while on the dole as a single mother. She couldn't afford to heat her flat, and money was unsurprisingly tight. I think that shows plenty of heart. Courage? Well, who is Card to talk? It doesn't take much courage to slag other people off.

All things considered, while Card makes come valid points, he does come across as a bit of a whinging egotist, jealous of Rowling's success. Perhaps he thinks his position as a 'legend' of sci-fi gives him the right to launch childish rants towards other authors.

It doesn't.

Friday 2 May 2008

Steven Erikson UK tour!

I nearly wet myself when I read this. Well, that's not true. But I may have squealed a bit. Like a pig.

Malazan Book of the Fallen author Steven Erikson is to embark on a rather rare UK tour!

Here's the full details!

Tuesday July 1st:12:30-1:30 Waterstones Leeds.
6:30pm Waterstones York, including talk and Q&A (TICKETED EVENT)

Wednesday July 2nd: 12:30-1:30 Waterstones Nottingham
6:30pm Waterstones Birmingham, includes talk and Q&A(TICKETED EVENT)

Thursday July 3rd: 12.30-1.30 Waterstones Derby
7:00pm Waterstones Manchester Deansgate, includes talk and Q&A (TICKETED EVENT)
Saturday July 5th: 1:00-2:00 Forbidden Planet, Shaftesbury Avenue, London
Wednesday July 9th: 6:30pm Waterstones Milton Keynes, includes talk and Q&A (TICKETED EVENT)
Thursday July 10th: 6:30pm Heffers Cambridge, includes talk and Q&A (TICKETED EVENT)
The above details were taken from the Malazan Empire group on facebook, so I'm not sure as to their reliability. If you intend to go along, best to check with your bookstore before you buy your ticket.
I'll definitely be going along to the Manchester session, providing I get a ticket of course...

Thursday 1 May 2008

Book review: Gardens of the Moon

Gardens of the Moon

By Steven Erikson

(Special edition published by Bantam Books, 2007)

It's slightly embarrassing that while I consider epic fantasy to be my favourite sub-genre, I'm not terribly well-acquainted with what many readers claim to be the best epic series out there: Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen novels. I actually read the first novel in the series, Gardens of the Moon, a few years ago. When I started to think about reading some more of the novels, I realised that I ought to re-read Gardens of the Moon because I couldn't remember much of what happens in the book.

So when I saw the special edition on sale for a paltry £3.99, I snapped it up (despite already owning a copy with the old cover). As it happens, I love the artwork for the new version even though it has sod-all to do with the story. The 'special edition' is not a revised version of the novel, but it does contain a preface by Erikson which is very interesting indeed. That's a story for another day however.

So, Gardens of the Moon. If there's a book that splits opinion more, I'd like to read it. Many readers have complained that this novel is just too damned confusing, that it just requires too much effort to read. I can see where they are coming from (and so can Erikson; he admits as much in his preface).

Make no mistake, there's a HELL of a lot going on in this novel. The premise is simple enough: The Malazan Empire is looking to conquer the ancient city of Darujhistan, the most powerful of the Free Cities of Genabackis and the only one not to have fallen to the Malazans. As the Empire and the movers and shakers of Darujhistan square up to each other, the remnants of an elite Malazan regiment - The Bridgeburners - do their best to avoid treachery on all sides and to come out of the whole conflict alive.

That doesn't sound too complicated does it? But then if you take the myriad of subplots - various gods meddling in human affairs, the awakening of an ancient power and the attempt by certain individuals to reinstate a fallen nobleman to his rightful place - suddenly you've got a bit of an epic on your hands. Make no mistake, this is a novel with the depth of the Atlantic Ocean. Admittedly at times there is almost too much happening. I did find myself having to pause now and again and think "Hang on, how do these guys know each other?" and other such things (despite the fact that I'd read the book once before). I'm not at all surprised that some readers are put off. Gardens of the Moon is not a lazy, easy read; it requires a lot of concentration. But the rewards are endless.

Take the Malazan world, for example. No half-arsed, European medieval world here. Instead, Gardens of the Moon reveals - bit by bit - a hugely detailed world, with a real sense of history. Remarkably Erikson manages to avoid large-scale exposition, yet the world still manages to come alive, gradually revealing the history, myth and legend that underpins it. It's all so epic and ambitious that you can't help but admire it. Of course, it helps that there is just so much cool stuff involved. There's a slew of races (all fabulously realised), a number of conniving gods, a well-devised magic system, ancient cities and an entire continent wracked by endless war. It's impossible not to get sucked in, not to enjoy seeing the glimpses of the world's past and realising the implications they have for the future. In short, it's a triumph.

World-building is not everything, of course (how many times have I said that before?). Fortunately, Erikson is just as skilled as characterisation and plotting as he is at worldbuilding. As mentioned above, the plot is rather convoluted but none the less engrossing for it, and there are some brilliant sequences that linger long in the memory. In fact, you almost wonder how on earth Erikson managed to cram so much action into one book. There are enough set-pieces to fill a trilogy, and their close proximity to each other means the pace of the book is relentless.

The characters are the other joy of Gardens of the Moon. Erikson is skilled at defining characters by their words and actions, rather than by use of exposition. His human characters are all wonderfully human, with their hopes and fears and flaws. Particularly impressively portrayed are Captain Paran, Sergeant Whiskeyjack and Adjunct Lorn. The horrors of war - the death, the suffering, the jaded acceptance, the steely determination, the secret hopelessness - are just reflected so well in this trio. There are a host of other memorable characters - Sorry, the recruit that hides a terrible secret; Kruppe, whose affable, bumbling manner hides significant power and Anomander Rake, probably the coolest anti-hero in epic fantasy. But the best character in the novel is Hairlock. What Erikson does with him is simply amazing, and the way his character changes is utterly engrossing to follow.

Another refreshing aspect is the prevalence of magic. Many epic fantasies make limited use of magic, but Erikson turns it up to 11. There is plenty of magic in Gardens of the Moon, and its effects are often horrific. It gives the world a dangerous edge and just raises the whole experience onto a whole different level. I mean come on, there's few things cooler than two hugely-powerful enemies engaging in an intense magic duel (unless you're one of the unfortunate soldiers to get caught in the crossfire).

I could go on about Gardens of the Moon all day. I could extol the masterly characterisation, ramble about the epic, war-torn world that is steeped in history, babble about how damn cool some of the events are in this novel, heck I could even blabber about how awesome Anomander Rake's sword is.

But I won't. Instead, I'll just make a suggestion: read Gardens of the Moon. It's not for everyone, but at least you'll know whether it's for you after a short while. And if it is, the epic fantasy genre will never be the same again.

Verdict: ddddd