Monday 30 June 2008

Book review: Kéthani


By Eric Brown

(Solaris 2008)

While I'm a fantasy fanboy at heart, I do like to dip now and then into the other speculative genres. Having come across one or two favourable reviews for Eric Brown's Kéthani - and realising that I really ought to read more sci-fi - I thought I'd give it a go.

Now, I'll freely admit that I don't know much about the current state of sci-fi. I'm not really sure what authors are popular, what kind of stories are the 'in' thing, and so on.

What struck me about Kéthani however was that it was remarkable for being a sci-fi novel that was more about mankind than alien life/advanced technology.

The premise is wonderfully simple: the alien race known only as the Kéthani have descended upon earth and offered the gift of eternal life to mankind. The way it works is as follows: a minor operation is carried out on the subject human to insert an 'implant.' In the event of the human's death (whether by natural causes or accident) the implant will be activated and will automatically alert the (human) staff at the nearest 'Onward Station' who will come and collect the body. The 'soul' of the person will then be beamed up to the Kéthani spaceship orbiting the Earth, and in six months the individual will be returned to Earth in full health (and usually a decade or so younger). The individual - or 'returnee' as they're known - then has the choice of staying on earth permanently or voyaging among the stars as an ambassador for the Kéthani, bringing their message of goodwill to the other races of the universe. While what happens to the returnees during their six-month absence is not fully known, it is agreed that all returnees demonstrate more humanity than they did when previously alive. For example, they are often more caring, compassionate and understanding.

Rather than taking a sweeping, global look at the impact of the Kéthani on mankind, Brown instead focuses on a handful of people in Yorkshire. Each chapter focuses on a different character, sometimes narrated in the third person by the primary character Khalid, or in first-person by the character themselves. Interspersed between chapters are interludes - always told from Khalid's perspective - that detail how much time has passed since the coming of the Kéthani and often serve as an introduction to the next character's story.

The small-scale focus works extremely well. What we get - rather than a big diorama - is a stripped-down, personal look at how these peoples' lives have been affected by the Kéthani and their ability to grant immortality. The stories are by turns sad, uplifting and extremely thought-provoking. Brown raises a number of philosophical questions: what role does God play in all this? What are the implications of not having the implant operation? Is the prospect of eternal life really as good as it seems? If you personally are against the implantation process (as many humans are), should you refuse to let your child be implanted? Is life suddenly made worthless by the fact that death is no longer something to be feared?

Subsequently Kéthani is a novel that resonates with real meaning, as each character struggles with their own problems caused by the arrival of the Kéthani, often having to look deep within themselves to find the solution. The decisions they come to are not always what you'd expect.

There are some flaws with the novel. The story does have a slightly disjointed feel to it, the result of many of the chapters originally being written as short stories. There is also a problem with repetition later on (the imagery used to describe the 'Onward Stations' and the scenes set in The Fleece pub are the main offenders here). Furthermore, the stories of some characters are more interesting than others and some of the individuals are not quite as well developed as some of their fellows.

Nonetheless, Kéthani is for the most part an absorbing, thoughtful read that serves as a good reminder why fantasy kids like me should read more sci-fi.

Rating: dddd

Sunday 29 June 2008

Comment: Diablo III

Thanks to Aidan for the heads-up on this one...

It's been a long time since I got excited about a video game. I used to be a pretty hardcore gamer, having started at the age of 5 with the awesome old Commodore 64. Like many others, I progressed through the evolving consoles: Gameboy, Megadrive, Gamecube, Xbox, Xbox 360, etc...

But I've always been a PC gamer at heart. I've played some damned fine RPGs: Ultima VIII (well, I think it's good), Daggerfall, Baldur's Gate 1 + 2, Icewind Dale, Guild Wars and Diablo I + II...

Diablo II was a particular favourite. I liked the way it concentrated on combat without ever becoming boring. So when I found out that after several years Diablo III is finally going to be released, I got rather excited. 

I have to say, from watching the promo videos, that the game looks awesome. It's distinctly Diablo, looking similar to Diablo II, but totally next-gen at the same time. But everything just seems to have been taken up a notch: the graphics, interface, storyline...all promise to be superior to the last game (which is no easy feat - Diablo II is a bloody good game). Right from the start where the Barbarian says in his tomb-deep voice "This place has the stench of ghouls" I was totally hooked. And then the combat started...and it was, to be blunt, total carnage. Plus, the new witch-doctor character looks damned cool. 

I don't play many video games these days, as in the spare time I can cobble together I tend to focus on my writing projects. I might have to make an exception here though. Having beaten back the forces of Hell in Diablo I + II, I think it's time to take my axe again...

Saturday 28 June 2008

Lazy linkage

Here's some links to a few interesting things from around the blogosphere this week.

Aidan has conducted an in-depth interview with Winterbirth author Brian Ruckley...

Graeme has reviewed Tom Lloyd's The Twilight Herald, the current book in a series I'll freely admit didn't work for me...

Dark Wolf has reviewed The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón...

Thrinidir has reviewed Old Man's War by John Scalzi...

Chris has reviewed Goblin Quest by Jim Hines...

Rob has reviewed The Born Queen by Greg Keyes over at sffworld...I've heard good things about this series. Will have to check it out.

Finally, Adam has reviewed Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

Thursday 26 June 2008

The Ten Thousand giveaway winner!

Folks, the waiting is over. I'm sure it's been a nervy week for some of you, with sleepless nights, temper tantrums and all the rest. No doubt many of you lay awake at night, wondering whether you would be the lucky person to win a sleek, shiny copy of this sterling novel. 

Well, the time has come to reveal the winner. 

Before I do so, can I just say that the response to the giveaway was terrific, with dozens of entries. Clearly a lot of you fancied this one. There can only be one winner though...

And the winner is...

Christophe Gouardo!

Congratulations Sir! You should find an email in your inbox shortly.

As for the rest of you, if I could give you all a copy I would. But I can't. All I can do is thank you for your interest and wish you better luck next time. 

Waterstones 3 for 2...

I dropped into Waterstones yesterday to pick up my Steven Erikson tickets (w00t, etc) and was rather excited to find that they're currently running a '3 for 2' promotion on books by a number of genre authors, including David Gemmell, Terry Brooks and, uh, Trudi Canavan...

Subsequently I walked away with Gemmell's entire Troy trilogy, and will no doubt be returning shortly to pick up more Gemmell novels while the offer lasts...

Few things in life are as good as free books...

Teh goodness.

Tuesday 24 June 2008

Book review: Midnight Falcon

Midnight Falcon

By David Gemmell

(Corgi, 2000)

Until recently I knew what to expect when picking up a Gemmell novel for the first time. Moreover, I knew I would enjoy it. Then I read Sword in the Storm and my perception changed.

Sword was the first Gemmell novel I've read where I felt the characterisation was (surprisingly) a little weak in places, where the plot was sluggish in parts and where - most significantly of all - I wondered, as I read, whether I really cared what happened. Upon completing Sword I realised that it wasn't a bad novel (Gemmell didn't write bad novels) but that it didn't work for me in the same way that his other novels (particularly the Drenai books) did. Of course, part of this could be explained by the fact that Sword was a bit different in the sense that Gemmell was introducing a new world, a completely new setting, and of course this would take time to bed in. Still, I did hope that the second novel in the Rigante series would be a significant improvement, a return to the sparkling form he showed in some of his earlier novels.

Any fears I had upon starting Midnight Falcon quickly proved unfounded.

The story picks up around seventeen years after the events of the first book. The main focus of the novel is Bane, the bastard son of Connovar, a young man capable of great humanity and yet struggling with the bitter resentment caused by his father's rejection. His path takes him to the corrupt and decadent city of Stone, capital of a huge empire, where a single act of violence changes his life forever.

Bane then trains as a gladiator, honing his skills and waiting for the chance to take his revenge. Little does he realise that only he can save the Rigante - his own people that previously rejected him - from the onslaught of Stone's armies. But to do so he'll have to face the ghosts of his past and accept the burden of his own heritage.

I mentioned in my Sword review that one of the main positives of the novel was the character of Connovar, who in my opinion was one of Gemmell's best characters. Bane however, is even better. Possessed of a great warmth, yet driven by bitterness and anger, he's an unpredictable character yet instantly likable. Watching his development over the course of the novel is hugely satisfying, and an example of Gemmell's characterisation skills at their peak. Characters have to change for a story to be believable, and the Bane at the end bears little resemblance to the Bane at the start.

Pleasingly, the supporting characters in Midnight Falcon are equally good. From Rage, the former gladiator given to introspection; to Jasaray, the mild-mannered general; to Voltan, the merciless leader of the Knights of Stone, Gemmell has created a strong cast of characters with believable, complex relationships. I'd even go as far in saying that the characterisation in Midnight Falcon eclipses any other Gemmell book I've read.

The plot was a bone of contention in Sword. Not so in Midnight Falcon. Gemmell has crafted an absorbing story of love and loss, loyalty and treachery, blood and conquest, with a surprising number of twists and turns. It's epic, pacy and utterly enthralling. As always Gemmell uses his characters to explore a variety of themes, in particular looking at the futility of war, the nature of revenge and how mankind can rise above conflict and bloodshed. Gemmell has always imbued his novels with meaning, but in Midnight Falcon he took it to a whole new level. Quite simply, it's hugely inspiring.

I've considered the novel from several different angles, looking for flaws, but I just can't find any. The plot is masterfully constructed and totally gripping, the characters possess great depth and the story itself echoes with all the hallmarks of genuine legends, with an intense climax.

Midnight Falcon is not my favourite David Gemmell novel, but it's undoubtedly one of his best.

Rating: ddddd

Sunday 22 June 2008

On the horizon...recommendation for 2008

This one caught my eye recently. Empire in Black and Gold is the debut novel from Adrian Tchaikovsky, due to be released by Tor on 4 July 2008. 

Here's the blurb:

Seventeen years ago Stenwold witnessed the Wasp Empire storming the city of Myna in a brutal war of conquest. Since then he has preached vainly against this threat in his home city of Collegium, but now the Empire is on the march, with its spies and its armies everywhere, and the Lowlands lie directly in its path. 

All the while, Stenwold has been training youthful agents to fight the Wasp advance, and the latest recruits include his niece, Che, and his mysterious ward, Tynisa. When his home is violently attacked, he is forced to send them ahead of him and, hotly pursued, they fly by airship to Helleron, the first city in line for the latest Wasp invasion.Stenwold and Che are Beetle-kinden, one of many human races that take their powers and inspiration each from a totem insect, but he also has allies of many breeds: Mantis, Spider, Ant, with their own particular skills. Foremost is the deadly Mantis-kinden warrior, Tisamon, but other very unlikely allies also join the cause.

As things go from bad to worse amid escalating dangers, Stenwold learns that the Wasps intend to use the newly completed railroad between Helleron and Collegium to launch a lightning strike into the heart of the Lowlands. Then he gathers all of his agents to force a final showdown in the engine yard...

It's not the best-written blurb in the world, and the cover is pretty crap. The world sounds interesting though, with the insect aspect and the steampunk trappings. Not your standard, run-of-the-mill fantasy. For that reason alone, it's probably worth keeping an eye on. 

Adrian Tchaikovsky runs an entertaining livejournal, which you can find here.

Friday 20 June 2008


It's true. I have the dubious honour of having been tagged by not one, but TWO of my fellow bloggers (Aidan and Thrinidir). It's nice to be so popular. ;)

The requirement of the subsequent 'tag' was to pick up the nearest book, turn to page 123 and write down the fifth sentence. 

The nearest to me was the book I'm currently reading: David Gemmell's Midnight Falcon

The fifth sentence of the 123rd page is as follows: 

You, they knew, cared only for yourself, and could not be relied upon.


Given the tagging festish that has rapidly overwhelmed the blogosphere, there's a lack of potential victims, so I can't 'tag' the normal five people. I'll settle for these unfortunates instead:

Graeme's Fantasy Book Review

Mark Charan Newton

The Wertzone

Rob's Blog O' Stuff

Thursday 19 June 2008

Giveaway! The Ten Thousand by Paul Kearney

Yes, that's right. Thanks to the ever-generous gents at Solaris, I have one shiny, hot-off-the-press advance copy of what has been widely heralded as one of the gems of 2008: Paul Kearney's The Ten Thousand. 

Now, here's a chance for one lucky person to see what the fuss is all about. The rules are the same as before: if you would like to be in with a chance of winning and indulging in some Kearney goodness three months before the novel is released, then all you need to do is send an email - with the subject 'TTT giveaway' - to speculativehorizons AT googlemail DOT com

Obviously, you'll need to substitute the above characters. No need to include your mailing address, as I'll contact the winner and obtain the details as and when. 

The giveaway will run until around this time next Thursday.


This made me laugh the other day...


Wednesday 18 June 2008

Result of SFX's 'Top 100 Authors' poll

Thanks to Wert for the heads-up on this one...

UK sci-fi/fantasy magazine SFX have released the results of their 'Top 100 Authors' poll, as voted for by SFX readers/forum members.

As with most polls it's rather subjective and there's no real idea of how many people voted. Still, it's always interesting to see the results.

Here's the top 10:

10. Robert Rankin
9. HG Wells
8. Philip K. Dick
7. Iain M. Banks
6. Isaac Asimov
5. George RR Martin
4. Douglas Adams
3. Neil Gaiman
2. JRR Tolkien
1. Terry Pratchett

To be honest, I'm glad Tolkien didn't come first. As much as I admire LOTR, when you see Tolkien topping similar polls you do wonder whether the genre has moved on at all. It's nice to see Terry Pratchett get some fully-deserved recognition. I'm pleased to see George R. R. Martin at number five as well.

I've only actually read two out of the above ten authors, which perhaps needs to be rectified...

You can check out the rest of the results on Westeros.

Tuesday 17 June 2008

Comment: The Wolfman by Nicholas Pekearo

I came across this sad story while browsing on Westeros.

Nicholas Pekearo's debut novel, The Wolfman, was accepted for publication by Tor last year. Just days after reaching the agreement with editor Eric Raab over dinner in Greenwich Village, New York City, Pekearo - an auxiliary police officer - was killed in action.

Displaying some genuine decency that some would argue is often lacking in publishing these days, Tor honoured the deal (even though no contract had been signed) and released The Wolfman on 13 May 2008.

The novel has already drawn some very positive reviews:

"The too-short life of Nicholas Pekearo was both triumph and tragedy. He died a hero's death, sacrificing his own life to save others. And now comes The Wolfman, a brilliant, insightful, overpowering debut from a writer who studied, listened, and learned before he took his shot...and centered the bulls-eye. Published posthumously, this "debut" novel is a triumph."--Andrew Vachss

It's a tragedy that an aspiring writer, who had just fulfilled his dream, lost his life just days later and will never see that dream come to fruition.

I think it would be great to honour Pekearo's memory by purchasing a copy of his one and only novel.

NY Times article

Amazon entry

Monday 16 June 2008

Author interview: Paul Kearney

Having read and enjoyed The Ten Thousand (check out my earlier review HERE), and also being aware it was some time since I'd done an interview, I thought who better to interview than Ten Thousand author, Paul Kearney. Fortunately Paul very kindly agreed to answer some questions about - among other things - the influences behind The Ten Thousand, how he felt about losing his publishing deal with Bantam and what his next project will be.

The Ten Thousand is clearly influenced by the exploits of the historical army of the same name. What was it about this story that appealed to you?

I think it was the idea of a stranded army, and the fact that they faced insurmountable odds, and yet they somehow prevailed. Also the fact that in a way they were a moving democracy. They voted on everything, and were determined to maintain their ‘Greekness’ in the midst of a foreign, hostile Empire. And of course, the story is a road-movie too, making its way across thousands of miles of the middle-east. It pretty much has everything, right down to the heart-lifting cry of ‘The Sea, the Sea!’ at the end.

Was the writing of, or your approach to, The Ten Thousand influenced in any way by the film 300?

Honest to God, no. I enjoyed 300, but it was so outlandish, so over the top, and so divorced from anything approaching historical reality, that it didn’t even impinge on my imagination when it came to writing The Ten Thousand. 300 is a fable, a myth with a tenuous connection to real events. It’s done superbly well, but for me it’s so stylized that it’s almost the antithesis of the way I work, and the characters I try to convey. I had been thinking about doing a story based on the Anabasis for a long time before I had even heard of 300.

The basic premise of this novel could have worked well in any setting (medieval, steampunk, even sci-fi), but you decided to stick closer to history by setting it in a world that echoes ancient Greece and Persia. What was your reasoning behind this?

Well, I hadn’t seen a fantasy novel based on that era before. It was new and different, and incredibly rich. I’ve been interested in that period for decades and I knew the history of it inside-out. I’ve studied it academically, I’ve wargamed it, and it felt familiar to me, something that I knew I would be comfortable with.

Related to the question above, do you think there are too many fantasies set in feudal medieval worlds? Do you think, to avoid becoming stale, the genre needs novels where the secondary worlds are based on the ancient world and the early-modern world, rather than the medieval?

Well, I hesitate to generalize, but what the hell. The Dark-Age / Medieval milieu was pioneered by Tolkien, and then people got used to thinking of that level of technology as being your ‘typical’ fantasy setting. So much so, that I think a large section of the fantasy-reading public feels uneasy outside that comfort zone of horses and swords and feudalism. Me, I was bored silly by it. I loved it when I was younger, and still love much of it, but it truly has been done to death. When a writer of Martin’s calibre gets ahold of it, you can still see the sparks fly, but for a lot of fantasy, it’s lazy and tired thinking on the part of the author. I will name no names! I think we truly are moving beyond that era now though. Writers all over the place have stepped out of that box, which is a good thing.

In The Ten Thousand, war seems to highlight all that is good and bad about humanity. Was this always intended on your part, or did this aspect develop as you worked on the novel?

War is an extremity of experience, and has always traditionally been assumed to strip away the fluff and baggage of a person’s character, leaving them stark and alone under the unflinching scrutiny of their fellows. For that reason, it’s an interesting tool to utilize in a novel. It also is an engine of change, and can be used to hammer at society and see what remains standing afterwards. In that sense, if you put martial conflict in a book, you’re always going to get characters revealing aspects of themselves which might otherwise have remained hidden. A cliché, but true.

It could be argued that the overriding tone of The Ten Thousand is one of cynicism, both regarding war and the human soul. How would you react to this statement?

I don’t know about cynicism. I’m a realist. I’ve read a lot of history, and I tried to make the characters in the book behave as I thought ‘real’ people would. I wanted them to be authentic human beings. They were not shoehorned into pre-assigned roles, or conjured up to delineate some kind of allegorical truth. They were just men under pressure. I think there’s a fair bit of idealism in the book too; in the emphasis on friendship, on loyalty, and even love.

The world of the The Ten Thousand is notable for completely lacking magic of any sort. Was there a reason for this? For example, were you concerned that the involvement of magic could detract from the focus on the physical battles and the overall impact of them?

Swift answer; yes. I wanted the emphasis of the book to be on sweaty, muscle-tearing physical struggle, and magic would have just clouded the issue somewhat. I don’t like the ‘easy’ use of magic in books; I prefer it downplayed. Tolkien, again, got it just right, hinting at hidden powers rather than having wizards casting firebolts across battlefields. It was far more effective. I write fantasy, but my main concern is, oddly enough, to make it ‘realistic.’ Also, if you want to be pedantic about it, The Ten Thousand is actually science fiction. It’s set on a planet which is clearly not earth, since it has two moons, and it has alien species co-existing with mankind. In that setting, magic would be out of place. I actually have a full back story for the origins of the Macht, but am forbidden by my publisher from revealing it, because it’s pure science fiction!

One of the strongest aspects of The Ten Thousand is the way you portray human emotion and the relationships between the soldiers. Were you able to draw on your own personal experiences of the army here?

Yes. Soldiers, I think, have been in some ways the same all down the centuries. I have an inkling of how that works, for which I’m profoundly grateful.

The Ten Thousand is your first novel for Solaris, as until fairly recently you were without a publisher. How real was the prospect that you might have to seek alternative employment and, as a full-time writer, how did that make you feel?

In some ways it was oddly liberating – and scary as hell of course. I already had a decent ‘other’ job lined up, but I knew that it would not be the same. There’s an element of ego in it of course – the thought that I’d never see my name on another book-cover – childish but true. It was about seven months between bantam and Solaris, so it really wasn’t much of a gap; but it was a fair old jolt to the system.

Any more plans for another novel set in the world of The Ten Thousand? If not, then what next?

No. No more Ten Thousand books. This one is a one-off. I’m now trying to come up with an idea for a whole new epic series – this time with gunpowder, and a more ‘modern’ feel. Plus, I still have to finish the Sea Beggar series at some point.

With the themes and the various concerns that you deal with in The Ten Thousand – and those I’ve seen other fantasy authors deal with – it seems that fantasy is far more substantial than the “orcs, elves and wizards” portrayal of the genre in the mainstream media. As an author, does it bother you that fantasy generally gets looked down on?

It makes me spit with rage. I look at what passes for ‘literary’ fiction, getting all the space in newspaper reviews, on cultural review programmes, and the major prizes, and I feel like throwing something. What really galls me is when authors who are clearly writing science-fiction or fantasy, such as Margaret Atwood, refuse to admit that this is what they do, and come out with weaselly self-justifications to keep themselves from being contaminated by contact with the genre. The advent of the LOTR films has helped a little; all those Oscars were not awarded on a whim. But there is still an infuriating snobbery abroad. All the more irritating when you see the same people who scoff at fantasy delving into Harry Potter, and finding no hypocrisy in their outlook. Ah, I could go on, but now I have to get up and kick something…

Many thanks to Paul for his time and enthusiasm. Incidentally, The Ten Thousand has received some glowing reviews so far from my fellow bloggers. Check them out at Realms of Speculative Fiction, The Wertzone and Graeme's Fantasy Book Review.

For further info on Paul Kearney, and for a full bibliography of his novels, check out his website.

Saturday 14 June 2008

News on HBO adaption of A Song of Ice and Fire

The latest from George R. R. Martin's blog on the HBO adaption of Ice and Fire: 

"The latest news on HBO front is that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have turned in the second draft of the pilot script for A GAME OF THRONES, and their rewrite is presently being read and evaluated by the powers-that-be at HBO. In other words, it's the normal process, which is long and often slow. So far, the reports are good, and HBO seems to like what they're seeing... but no, there's no greenlight yet, A GAME OF THRONES remains a script in development, not a series in production. 

The one hard bit of news is that HBO has reached agreement with the BBC for them to come in as a partner on the series... IF it goes ahead. That's very cool news, and I'm excited and pleased to have the BBC involved... but even so, we're still in the crossed fingers stage here, not the shooting-off-fireworks stage."

Sounds promising in any case. I hold little hope that a television version will come at all close to matching the brilliance of the novels, but then again HBO have produced some excellent series like Band of Brothers, so fingers crossed they'll do a good job. If they get the green light. 

You can read the rest of the blog entry here.

Hype is a double-edged sword...

A comment I made not so long ago appears to have ruffled the feathers of Simon Spanton, editor at Gollancz. The comment in question is one I posted on Pat's Fantasy Hotlist in response to Pat's review of Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains. 

In his review, Pat mentioned the hype that surrounded the novel, and said that it perhaps influenced how much he enjoyed the book. I posted a comment in which I said: 

"You can blame the Gollancz hype machine for the anticipation surrounding this book. They do seem to hype everything, and they went into overdrive for this one."

Since then, a dialogue has developed between Spanton and Pat regarding the nature of hype, on the hotlist. Spanton argues that the hype is no fault of Gollancz, and that sending out ARCs is not the same as hyping a novel. To believe otherwise, he says, encourages "the sort of misguided comment on your blog about genre publishers operating some sort of sinister ‘hype machine’".

Let's straighten things out here. 

With my own comment I was not suggesting that there is some sort of shady operation going on. I was simply referring to the fact that Gollancz releases seem to generate far more hype than those from other publishers. Lynch, Abercrombie, Redick, Morgan...the list goes on. While to some extent the hype is generated by the quality of the book, to think that the publisher has no part in it would be rather naive. For example, the Redick novel was accompanied by much fanfare and I just can't believe said hype was generated by the book alone, as it was a mediocre novel.

Spanton seems to be implying that Gollancz don't have a hand in the hype surrounding many of their releases, yet he sent Graeme from Fantasy Book Review a note with the ARC for The Steel Remains that said 'This will ruffle some feathers.'

To me, that sounds like hype. 

Anyway, the dialogue (and subsequent quotes, which are quite heated in parts) are well worth checking out. 

Thursday 12 June 2008

Charity shops are awesome...

I find it impossible to walk past a charity shop without going in and rummaging through the second-hand book section. Most of the books are normally nothing special: well-thumbed Stephen King paperbacks, the usual slew of John Grisham and Ian Rankin novels, etc. Occasionally you find some cool stuff though. 

For example, on a recent trip to York I wandered into a charity shop and dug around in the fantasy section, unearthing some 1980s editions of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Grey Mouser novels, complete with retro artwork. W00t. The fact that I'll probably never actually read them is not the point. ;)

I don't know why, but there's just something cool about these editions:

Tuesday 10 June 2008

Book Review: The Ten Thousand

The Ten Thousand

By Paul Kearney

(Solaris, projected release - September 2008)

If you read my feature on The Ten Thousand last month, then you might remember that I was quite excited by the sound of this novel. I'm not sure whether it was the cover art (yet another stunning Solaris cover), the premise (simple, but with real potential) or the prospect of epic battles that sparked my interest. It will suffice to say that something made this novel stand out for me, so when the ARC popped through my letterbox I was eager to see if my expectation was well-founded. 

The novel itself is clearly inspired by the historical 'Ten Thousand' - the legendary army of largely Greek mercenaries that marched at the behest of Cyrus the Younger who hoped to seize control of the Persian Empire from his brother, Artaxerxes II. Except instead we have Ten Thousand elite warriors of the Macht, whose services have been hired by a wayward Prince to try and depose his brother, the Great King of the Assurian Empire. The novel follows the story of the Macht, as they leave their own country to fight their way across a vast, hostile Empire. And when things inevitably go pear-shaped, the story focuses on their fight for freedom as they seek to return to their homeland. 

The first thing that struck me about this novel was Kearney's writing. I'd never read any of his novels before, and pretty soon I realised what I was missing. Kearney's writing style is very visceral and evocative; I was able to imagine some of the scenes extremely clearly, such was the atmosphere and emotions that were created. Yet he's versatile as well, as skilled at writing a huge battle scene involving thousands as he is writing a love scene. The pacing of the novel is solid and I particularly liked the short chapters, as they helped to emphasize and maintain this pacing. Kearney however is not just a very good writer, but a talented storyteller as well. I'd even go as far to say that there are shades of the great David Gemmell about him, in the way he handles human emotions and other themes like loyalty and courage. 

The world of Kuf (not a name I liked at first, though it grew on me) is refreshing in the sense that rather than being influenced by the medieval, it clearly has its roots in the ancient world. The land of the Macht bears some resemblance to the Greek city states of antiquity, while the vast continent of the Assurian Empire - populated by a number of exotic races - is similar in many ways to the Persian Empire, with a geographically diverse landscape and numerous cities. I would have liked to have seen more of these cities and the culture within them, however the nature of the storyline meant that this was not really possible. Still, the world comes through well enough. It's not world-building on the Erikson scale by any means, but Kearney has nonetheless created an interesting, dynamic world with a definite sense of history. 

The characters, as always, take prominence and there are a number of interesting figures in this novel. From Rictus, a youth driven on by his troubled past, to Vorus, a man caught between loyalty and his own contrasting beliefs, to Jason, a commander who realises - amid the horror of battle - what he really wants from life. Kearney manages to give each character a motive and avoids the evil-for-evil's-sake problem that so often tarnishes other novels of the genre. Kearney's characters find themselves in many horrific situations, and part of the enjoyment of the novel is watching how they handle the oppression and how their beliefs grow and change. On a greater level, Kearney does a very sound job of portraying humanity, with all its strengths, weaknesses and quirks. There are some powerful moments here, though it's hard to discuss them without spoiling the story. Suffice to say the human lust for gold and its devastating consequences are brilliantly shown. 

The battle scenes are another strong point. Kearney manages to portray the fighting in agonising detail, right down to the beads of sweat on the soldiers' foreheads. It's gripping, brutal and horrifically realistic (I could use the word 'gritty' but I'm sick of hearing it). Though as good as the battles are, it was the relationships between the characters and their own personal journeys that I found more interesting.

The Ten Thousand is not without its flaws. The first half of the novel is not as strong as the second and there is a bit of a sense of waiting for something to happen (which is perhaps inevitable given the storyline). When said event did happen, it was like a switch had been flipped: suddenly I was engrossed, whereas before the novel - while holding my attention - was not as absorbing. 

I also think that some of the characters could have done with a bit more depth. Gasca in particular was one character who I felt could have benefited from a bit more 'screen time' and at times I wasn't wholly convinced by his relationship with Rictus. Their friendship seemed to develop very quickly, yet I'm not sure we see enough evidence to back this up (with the exception of one or two scenes). 

These relatively minor criticisms however don't spoil what is a very good novel indeed. An enthralling tale of epic battles and the strength (and weaknesses) of the human spirit, told excellently by Kearney through his vivid, evocative prose, The Ten Thousand could well be one of the best fantasy novels released this year. 

Rating: dddd

Recommended for fans of: David Gemmell, Steven Erikson

Saturday 7 June 2008

Crap fantasy book covers # 7

Gather around friends, as it's time again to delve into the craptastic world of rubbish fantasy art.

The crap fantasy cover featured this time is L. E. Modesitt's 'Natural Ordermage' (perhaps I ought to do a crap fantasy book title feature as well - that would be right up there).

The scene depicted on this cover is pretty amusing. In the centre we've got Action Man, striking a ridiculous pose with a truncheon. To the left there's some sort of military dominatrix, whose middle finger is evidently suffering from Pinocchio syndrome. Then there's the two comedy thief-types, the first of whom looks like he's trying to take a shit. The other one is no doubt groaning in ecstasy from being tickled by said dominatrix's overgrown finger.

The posture of the characters is terrible, and the apparent magic that is meant to be bursting forth from said dominatrix is about as exciting as the thought of getting up and going to work in the morning.


Crap-o-meter rating: 8/10

Wednesday 4 June 2008

Book review: Sword in the Storm

Sword in the Storm

By David Gemmell

(Bantam Press, 1998)

I realised recently that I'd not read a David Gemmell novel for quite some time, so decided to finally crack open the first of his Rigante novels that I bought on the cheap off Amazon well over a year ago. Gemmell's novels are a bit like a favourite old armchair; comfortable and reliable. You know you're always going to get a decent story with a plot that rips along and the fully-fleshed characters that Gemmell is so well known for.

I was surprised to find that Sword in the Storm therefore proves something of an anomaly. It's unmistakably Gemmell, but at the same time it feels slightly different.

Perhaps this perceived difference is the result of the secondary world that Gemmell created for the Rigante series. The flavour of the novel is heavily influenced by the Celts, both in terms of the scenery (woods, hills and mountains) and also in terms of the people. The Rigante of the novel bear many resemblances to the Celts. There are other influences too; the people of Stone for example are clearly modelled on the Romans, while the Sea Wolves share similarities to the vikings.

Cynics might suggest there's little innovation here, that Gemmell has made little effort to build a more unique world. This argument rather misses the point that Gemmell's novels never have been about the world, but are always about the people that inhabited them. Gemmell wasn't interested in worldbuilding, he was interested in characters and the flaws that lurk in the human soul. The setting in his novels has always been a means to an end, and so it is here. There's nothing exciting about the world of the Rigante, but it serves its purpose well enough.

The novel focuses on the story of Connavar, following his story over the course of several years, charting his rise from mischievous youngster to fully-fledged hero of the Rigante. Gemmell displays his characterisation skills early on, introducing several prominent figures and building complex relationships between them. After this promising start I was surprised to find that as the novel progressed there were a number of problems with the characters.

The main flaw lies with Connavar, the protagonist. In many ways he's a vintage Gemmell hero: brave and bold, but also struggling with darker elements of his personality. There's no doubt he's a well-rounded character. In fact, he's arguably one of the best characters Gemmell ever created, as he manages to inspire such mixed emotions in the reader and is a clear demonstration that heroes aren't all golden-haired, pure and virtuous. The problem however lies in the fact that his rise from village boy to legend is in parts unconvincing. At the age of eighteen for example, he's already capable of taking on three grown men and killing them with ease. He demonstrates deadly ability with weapons, yet we never see him receiving any instruction or tutelage. His skill seems to come out of nowhere. We're told that he spends months with a foreign merchant, who allegedly teaches him many things, but this isn't enough to explain where his martial prowess came from. Furthermore, Connavar is skilled to such an extent that it means all the scraps he finds himself in have a pre-determined edge, as we know he's going to triumph without serious injury. This detracts from the tension generated by such confrontations.

The other problem with the characterisation is that none of the other characters are really that interesting. They're all fleshed out well, but only a few have any real appeal. Some could have maybe benefited from more 'screen time' while others had potential to become more absorbing but just don't deliver on their early promise.

The plot itself is also not without its problems. Strangely for a Gemmell novel, the story itself takes a while to really get going. This can be explained by the fact that Gemmell is introducing a new setting and new characters, but it still seemed to take a while for the momentum to build up. This momentum is then lost by a weak middle third, during which I actually felt my interest waning - a very rare reaction to a Gemmell novel, and one that I've felt only once before when reading his numerous books. The momentum and action picks up again in the final third and while the book becomes much more absorbing later on, it doesn't quite paper over the earlier cracks.

As always, Gemmell explores plenty of themes such as loss, loyalty and sacrifice. Few authors manage to evoke such themes as well as he did, and they give an extra layer to the characters and a more cutting edge to the events. The idea of sacrifice is represented particularly well.
Sword in the Storm is a difficult book to judge. There are many strong aspects, but also several weaker ones. I'd never before had reason to question Gemmell's characterisation but found myself doing so while reading this book. The plot, while picking up dramatically later on, is not one of his tightest. Nonetheless, Sword in the Storm is a solid, if unspectacular, read and there's enough here to please Gemmell fans. I'll definitely be checking out the rest of the Rigante series.

Verdict: ddd

Monday 2 June 2008

Comment: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls

This isn't really a proper review of the new Indy film, more a brief overview of my reaction. 

I have to say I was extremely disappointed with Crystal Skulls (is that the correct shortened version? It's not as easy as 'Last Crusade' and 'Raiders' and so on). 

Generally I felt the film was just a series of unexciting fight/chase scenes, many of which went on for too long. These were held together by a crap plot that sadly lacked the historical element of previous Indy films. In short, there was just nothing there that hadn't been done already in the earlier movies, and done much better. There were even some scenes that were too ludicrous even for an Indy film. The unbelievably dumb 'Tarzan' scene springs to mind. Harrison Ford was as good as ever, but the other characters were dull. I wasn't totally convinced by Shia LaBeouf as Indy's sidekick either. 

A big disappointment overall. There's bound to be more films to come, probably with LaBeouf as the main protagonist when Indy hangs up his whip. Hopefully they'll be better than this. 

Sunday 1 June 2008

Back again...

Got back last night after a fun week down in the south-east of England. The weather sadly wasn't the best, but we managed to walk the old woodland paths and take a few trips nonetheless. Here are a few snaps I took:  

Bodiam Castle, West Sussex. 

English countryside.

Assyrian (modern-day Iraq) statue, circa 1500 BC...or something. British museum, London.

Woodland path

Sunlit woods.

A meadow. No, really. 

Anyway, back on topic. I'm about 2/3 of the way through Gemmell's The Sword in the Storm, so hopefully a review of that will surface soon. I also received an ARC of Paul Kearney's The Ten Thousand, which I'm looking forward to very much indeed. 

Rock 'n roll.