Thursday 31 July 2008

Film review: The Dark Knight

Batman Begins (2005) was a damned cool film for many reasons but the best thing about it was the fact that it made Batman cool again. After some woeful Batman films in the 1990s - including a horrific attempt by Jim Carey to single-handedly destroy the franchise with his embarrassing interpretation of The Riddler (Batman Forever) - what was required was a film that gave Batman the respect he deserved. Batman Begins hit the nail on the head in this respect and turned out to be one of the best superhero movies in living memory. Maybe even the best.

The question for the sequel was simple: could it deliver amid the heightened expectation? Now that we knew what to expect, would the impact be quite the same? Perhaps more importantly - given that so many Hollywood sequels fall flat on their faces - could director Christopher Nolan deliver a sequel worthy of the first film? The simple, immediate answer is yes to all three.

The premise for The Dark Knight is simple: the Joker has arrived in Gotham, and is looking to - putting it rather bluntly - fuck some shit up. And fuck some shit up he does - in great style. There's no doubt that Heath Ledger delivers a brilliant performance as the Joker and almost completely steals the show. He allegedly spent a month alone in a hotel room getting into character, and it shows. Every giggle, every gesture, every word: all are delivered perfectly. Subsequently, his interpretation of the Joker is one of the most psychopathic, unnerving and entertaining performances of a villain in film history. That the Joker makes this movie is in little doubt - he's the ultimate criminal, because he cares about nothing - not even money, as we see - and that includes his own health and safety. His only goal is to prove that no one is incorruptible, no one is so pure they can't be soiled and dragged down to his level. It's an interesting slant, and Ledger works it very well indeed - as do the director and writers.

That's not to say the other cast members don't play their own significant roles as well. Christian Bale is as good as ever as Batman, Aaron Eckhart turns in a very strong performance as Harvey Dent (his character progression is handled very well and makes for riveting viewing), Michael Caine is once again perfect as Alfred, while Oldman and Freeman shine as Lt. Gordan and Lucius Fox. Only Maggie Gyllenhaal failed to convince for me; believe it or not, I actually preferred Katie Holmes more as Rachel Dawes. I never really sensed any real emotional connection between Gyllenhaal's character and Batman, but then again perhaps this was deliberate.

The plot itself is well constructed, with quite a few threads and one or two surprises. There are some extremely cool sequences, and once again we get to see the Batmobile in all its well as a rather cool bike. Despite the impressive effects and set-pieces, it was the human element that really worked for me. For example, the sequence with the two ferries was a brilliant idea, and when that scene finally resolved itself I felt like standing up and applauding there and then. The script is also strong, with some good lines (most delivered by Ledger).

Another strong element is the way Batman is presented. He's not an out-and-out superhero, and the movie reflects this. He does things other superheroes wouldn't do, and subsequently he possesses a dark edge that materialises as the film progresses. I've never really read any of the comics, but I understand that the Batman of this movie (and the first film) is far closer to the actual character than any of the previous films. The film crew should certainly be applauded for this, and also for managing to largely steer clear of CGI.

So, great set-pieces, good script, some excellent acting and a strong plot - sounds like The Dark Knight is a complete triumph, right? Well...not quite. Not for me. I'm not even sure why I think this, apart from being aware of a few minor quibbles (didn't really like Gyllenhaal as Rachel, as I said, and thought that the film lacked the truly climatic ending that the first film had). Maybe I just enjoyed the development and creation of Batman that the first film offered, as opposed to him already being established. I'm not sure really.

Still, The Dark Knight is a very good film and a worthy sequel. Like most others, I look forward to the inevitable next instalment...

Rating: dddd

Wednesday 30 July 2008

Download Black Gate issue 12 for free!

Just a quick heads-up: you can download the latest issue of Black Gate magazine for free here.

Black Gate is a high-quality genre magazine featuring plenty of short fiction, so be sure to check it out.

Tuesday 29 July 2008

Comment: The sustainability of online book reviews

Jonathan McCalmont has raised an interesting question about whether bloggers that review genre books online are perhaps being a little short-changed by publishers. He suggests that given the amount of time and effort that are involved in maintaining an active blog, publishers should perhaps be offering bloggers more than just ARCs. Gabe has also posted a thought-provoking article about the idea. I thought I'd add my own views to the mix...

Firstly, I feel we need some perspective here.

As much as bloggers may not like to admit it, we ultimately reach a very small percentage of genre readers. Probably less than 10% of fantasy fans actually read online blogs, and so the blogs don't really have any influence on books sales. Even a popular blog like Pat's Fantasy Hotlist, which attracts over 1000 visits a day, probably doesn't affect book sales much. If Pat gives a book a bad review, it certainly doesn't mean that 1000 people are now not going to buy that book. Using David Bilsborough as an example once again, his book got slated almost universally online but that doesn't appear to have really affected its sales that much.

So, why should publishers have to offer more than ARCs when in reality genre blogs don't really help their sales that much? I'm actually surprised that some publishers are happy to send out ARCs to blogs that only receive 15 hits a day (no offense intended here - we all have to start somewhere). Is the potential audience really worth the cost to the publisher? Personally I regard a free book as more than adequate reward for my time and effort. I've already saved a considerable amount of money by receiving ARCs rather than having to buy the books. Plus I often get the book months before it is published - for a genre fan like myself, that's another bonus.

Gabe has suggested that by posting reviews and interviews, we're performing a service for publishers. I'm not sure I agree. I run this blog because I love the genre and I enjoy writing reviews and features. Perhaps I am by default providing a service for the publishers, but I certainly don't think of it like that and it's not the reason I do it. I doubt the publishers seriously view it like that either.

I think one of the reasons why compensation beyond ARCs has been mooted is because many bloggers receive unrequested books from publishers, and thus feel pressured into reading books they don't want to read simply because they've been sent a copy. In these cases, I understand why the free book may not feel like suitable compensation for the time invested.

I think the solution here for bloggers is simple: don't read the books that you don't want to read. If you've not requested a book that has been sent to you, then you have no obligation to read it. I don't have nearly as much time to read as I would like, so I'm very careful about which books I read. I turn down must books that are offered to me because I want to avoid exactly the sort of situation I've mentioned above.

Overall, I personally feel that the time and effort I have so far invested in this blog has been more than compensated by the free books I've received (not that I care much about compensation - I started this blog just for fun and it always will be just for fun).

The bottom line, I feel, is that perhaps bloggers who feel they should receive more from publishers in return for their efforts are forgetting why they started blogging in the first place, and are making unrealistic demands that don't tally with the actual influence they really wield.

As always, feel free to give your own views.

Sunday 27 July 2008

Interview: Adrian Tchaikovsky

Something of a buzz (bad pun fully intended) has been steadily building over the last few weeks with regards to Adrian Tchaikovsky's insect-influenced fantasy debut Empire in Black and Gold. As promised earlier, here's an interview with the author of what could be the fantasy debut of 2008.

1) Empire in Black and Gold is your first novel and no doubt represents the final product of plenty of blood, sweat and tears. How long in the making was this novel? How much of a struggle was it to get from conception, to finished draft, to publication?

Well, I can trace the original concepts that went into Empire back to 1990, around the time I went to university. The world has been evolving for a long time. That's a different story to the actual writing game, though. I'd been writing all kinds of fantasy stuff for years, some of it quite unprintable. It was a happy marriage of ideas that saw me finally decide to bite the bullet and write an Insect Tribes book or three - Insect Tribes was the original series title, although it got less and less appropriate as the books went on. The first draft took somewhere between 9 months and a year to complete, about average for me for a full-length manuscript. After submitting it, though, I think it was a good many months of sitting on my hands before I was contacted by my now-agent, and again before he got me signed with Macmillan.

2) Every writer seems to have a different approach to writing - some plan everything out in fine detail beforehand, others prefer to just plough ahead and work it out as they go. What is your preferred method?

I tend to start out with (1) a title (2) some key scenes (3) some characters, and (4) the set up for the final scene - although not usually its resolution. Around that I build a kind of scaffolding of a chapter structure, although this tends to expand and contract as the writing goes on, and then gets put through the mill when the first draft gets reviewed. If I set out without knowing either the title or the end diorama then often I'm never quite happy with them.

3) Linked to the above question, have you already got the next books in the series mapped out in terms of plot, or are you still toying with the possibilities? Are you envisaging a trilogy, or a longer series?

Ah well, books two and three are already written, and were before I submitted book 1. This was a bit of a departure for me, but I knew that the initial plot arc needed three books to do is justice, so I sat down and wrote three books, over three years, before I submitted the first. The series will hopefully go on, because there are plenty of questions, and plenty of unresolved issues, by the end of book 3.

4) One aspect of Empire in Black and Gold that immediately stands out is the fact that the human races all possess some insectoid characteristics. Two words - why insects?

I have been waiting for someone to ask me the "WTFinsects?" question since the book hit the shelves. Honestly, if I'd just made them all horse and wolf people I could have produced something like Clan of the Cave Bear and nobody would have batted an eyelid. Seriously, though, insects are very useful as a way of exploring humanity. Because insects themselves are very focused creatures, using different insects for different cultures allows a lot of cultural diversity, and makes the various human sub-races instantly recognisable. Plus I like insects.

5) Characters are the heart of any novel, so how did you go about creating deep, memorable characters? How do you get under a character's skin and get them to connect with the reader?

You have to live your characters. When I write, I'm always behind one pair of eyes or another, feeling their emotions, listening in on their thoughts. The other thing is that if your characters are fully realised, then you sometimes have to let them have their head. I've had characters survive attempts to kill them off, characters fall in love with the wrong people, characters who just refuse to do what the plot demands of them - which sounds all very pretentious, but if your characters are properly fleshed out, then they come with their own responses, priorities and prejudices, and sometimes you have to accept that he just wouldn't do that.

6) The world you've created is also different from many of the secondary worlds that currently litter the epic fantasy genre, as you've used elements of steampunk (airships and a railroad). Was this a desire to try and create something a little more innovative, or were you naturally drawn to including a different level of technology?

I wanted to create something new. Not so new that it would alienate the bulk of my readers, but something that, whilst it had a few familiar tropes(evil empire, lost age of magic) was also a completely distinct creation. Things like the technology follow logically (logically to me, anyway) from earlier choices, such as the insects themselves. I've always been fond of a bit of steampunk, for example, but the inclusion of a whole technology stems just as much from syllogisms like: ants are industrious, therefore the Ant-kinden are industrious, and so what have all those industrious Ant-people been doing. Inventing airships, for one.

7) Following on from the above point, do you think fantasy authors should feel a responsibility to try and be innovative, rather than just creating bog-standard worlds and cliched storylines? Or does it not matter as long as the story is well told and entertaining? Surely for the genre to truly thrive there needs to be some authors that are willing to push the boundaries?

Well, it's true that if your characters are cardboard then the most innovative setting and ideas won't save you. However... well... the genre has a poor reputation, and much of that reputation is based on the large slough of derivative books that fail to do anything with the genre. After all, this is speculative fiction, fantasy fiction, an area of writing that should be unlimited in possibilities. That doesn't mean that every book must throng with the surreal and the bizarre, but it means that each new book should at least try to do something new, rather than repeat the mistakes of history without learning from them.

8) Which authors would you cite as your main writing influences and why?

Mary Gentle, China Mieville, M John Harrison, Mervyn Peake, people who have carved out completely new territory for themselves. Peter Beagle, as well, because his style is so poetic. I wrote my first ever really readable story under the influence of Peter Beagle.

9) Does the cynical portrayal of fantasy in the mainstream media bother you at all?

Genre snobbery does annoy me, especially as where the line is drawn is constantly being adjusted to include or exclude books depending on the most recent fashions and fads. I mean, yes, there is a lot of fantasy fiction that's not worth the candle, but then there's a lot of fiction, and probably non-fiction (celebrity biographies anyone?) that's just the same, but fantasy fiction suffers particularly from the "look at the funny people" school of journalism.

10) Finally, as a writer that's achieved the Holy Grail - getting published by a 'proper' publisher - what advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Two key points. (1) Don't give up. Keep writing. Keep submitting. There is a hell of a lot of luck involved, so just keep pluggin' away. (2) Take criticism where you can. It's a hard lesson to learn, but everyone can be improved by outside input.

Many thanks to Adrian for his time. Be sure to check out his new website here. UK readers rejoice, as Empire is available for £4.99 from Amazon.

I'm nearing the end of Erikson's Deadhouse Gates (finally) though I'm going to take a break from epic fantasy by delving into The Inferior by Peadar Ó Guilín, of which a nice signed copy was delivered by my surly postman yesterday morning. Then, hopefully, I'll be delving into Empire...

Friday 25 July 2008

Lazy linkage

Here's some Friday linkage...

Joe Abercrombie has waded into the 'genre authors that don't read genre' debate (yeah, I'm bored of the whole thing now as well but it's a good post and worth reading)...

...and he's joined by Adrian Tchaikovsky, who has also written a well-considered post on the subject...

and also S. M. Duke, who has also voiced his own opinions on the matter (and has quite possibly the best blog header I've ever seen).

Rant-related blogging aside, here's some other links:

Trin has reviewed Unholy Domain by Dan Ronco. I was offered this book for review but was put off by the clunky, impersonal, generic email. The inclusion of praise from Harriet Klausner also shot the credibility of the book to pieces...

Graeme's been reminiscing about Tad Williams's Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, which never worked for me...although it is still one of the coolest series names in epic fantasy.

Aidan has reviewed The Ten Thousand by Paul Kearney, and drew very different conclusions to those of both myself and other bloggers...

Adam has reviewed George R. R. Martin's The Hedge Knight, which I really need to check out at some point...

Hope you all have a good weekend...

Thursday 24 July 2008

Adrian Tchaikovsky website and cover art

Just thought I'd point out that new author Adrian Tchaikovsky - author of the newly-released Empire in Black and Gold - has got a new website up, which can be found here.

As I've mentioned before, I wasn't that impressed with the cover art for Empire in Black and Gold, but the artwork for the next novel, Dragonfly Falling, is very cool indeed (see left).

I've actually seen an alternative cover for this second book, but I hope that this is the one to be used as in my opinion it is far superior.

I'm currently organising an interview with Adrian, so hopefully that will materialise in the near this space.

Wednesday 23 July 2008

Crap fantasy book covers # 9

I wasn't sure whether it was a good idea to have a look at yet another crap fantasy cover so soon after the last one - there's only so much you can take before your eyeballs melt, after all - but I thought I'd risk it.

There's only one redeeming feature that this cover possesses and that's the nice sky in the background. Mmm, pinky and orangey clouds. Nice.

The rest is pretty dire. Not sure who the chap in the centre is (Rand? I'm sure someone can correct me) but he's got crap fashion sense. The shirt is about three sizes too big for him AND he's tucked it into his trousers, which are clearly too small. Clearly, finding a decent tailor in Jordan's world is pretty difficult.

Then there's someone - a young boy? A young girl? An Aes Sedai? - who is clearly freaked out by the distinctly nonthreatening bat creature in the top right corner.

The whole thing is just totally dull. I kind of wonder what sort of discussion the publishers had regarding this cover. Perhaps it went something like this:

Publisher A: "Ok guys, any ideas for cover art for book seven of Jordan's series?
Publisher B: "Book six."
Publisher A: "Damn, you're right. Book six then. Any ideas?"
Publisher C: "Uh, I'm not sure. What about one of those things...what are they called? A trollop?"
Publisher B: "No, a trolloc. Hmm, I'm not sure whether that's a great idea..."
Publisher C: "Um...well, maybe we should base it on a pivotal event from the novel."
Publisher B: "Yeah, good idea. So...what does happen in the novel?"
Publisher A: "Nothing."
Publishers B + C: "Oh."
Publisher A: "Sod it, I'm bored now. How about some bloke in an over-sized shirt and tight trousers with a boy/girl freaking out over a harmless-looking bat?"
Publisher B: "Great idea! Now, where are the donuts?"

Well, it might have been something like that.

Crap-o-meter rating: 8/10.

Tuesday 22 July 2008

Fighting Fantasy geek-out

I posted a few months back about how influential the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks were to my teenage self, and how they paved the way for me to embrace fantasy. The article is here. I seem to recall threatening to post a picture of my complete Fighting Fantasy book collection, so here it is in all its glory... 

The above collection of all 59 books took several years to assemble and burned a hole in my wallet. As I mentioned before, some of the books are extremely rare and it's not easy to get hold of them. I had to import some from Australia and the US because they just weren't available in the UK (and when a copy did surface, the price rocketed). Still, it was worth it - I have to admit I feel rather geekily proud of my collection. 

I thought I'd also post pics of some of the rarer books, along with some of my personal favourites.

The first is number 40, Dead of Night. Awesome cover and a great adventure. Brilliant gothic illustrations by Martin Mckenna as well.  

The next is number 44, Legend of the Shadow Warriors. Not one of my favourite books, but the cover is extremely cool. OMG EVIL PUMPKIN HEADS. Note the names of Jackson and Livingstone are in shiny gold as opposed to matt black (not sure why some books were like this).

This one is number 31, Battleblade Warrior. Average gamebook, but lovely cover.

This one is pretty rare: number 56, Knights of Doom. Never actually played this one, but again a nice cover. 

The one that started it all, for me at least: number 50, Return to Firetop Mountain. Great adventure, with fantastic illustrations (as always) by Martin Mckenna. 

Number 59, Curse of the Mummy. Carries a very hefty price tag when it crops up on ebay. The last gamebook to be published in the original series.

Lastly, number 47 - The Crimson Tide. The bane of every collector's life, as for some reason this one is rarer than unicorn shit and subsequently very hard to get hold of. Not played it so I can't vouch for the actual quality of the adventure. One of the more obscure gamebooks though, being set in a Japanese-esque land rather than the standard medieval Europe lands of most of the other books. OMG IT HAS TEH SHARKMENS ON TEH COVER. Well, one of them is a shark...I think. Not sure what the one on the right is...a sealman? W00t. 

Monday 21 July 2008

A response to Gabe Chouinard

I was intending to do some writing tonight, but instead I was made aware of this interesting piece by Gabe over at Mysterious Outposts, which questions the validity of some of the points I raised in my recent rant about genre authors that don't read genre books. Given that I don't agree with all of Gabe's points, I thought I better write a response.

Gabe kicks off by saying: 

Interestingly, one of the points repeatedly made in the commentary is that Bilsborough is somehow "insulting" his prospective readership by saying he's disappointed with much of the drek.

This concept of insulting the readership is pure bullshit. That some writers have expressly said they do not read fantasy likewise is nowhere near an insult to the readership.

I absolutely agree, and ought to point out that at no point have I actually leveled this charge at Bilsborough or any other writer that criticises the fantasy genre for the number of lacklustre novels being churned out. There is nothing wrong with such criticism and it is certainly not insulting. 

He [Joe Abercrombieis one of the writers James refers to in his post as an author that does not read fantasy... yet, need I point out that Joe is also one of the widely-lauded new writers of fantasy? Why is it perceived as insulting that Joe doesn't read fantasy, if the end result are novels that many find enjoyable (like myself) and many others find "groundbreaking"?

I did indeed refer to Joe Abercrombie, however I did not explicitly state that he doesn't read fantasy. I was simply regurgitating Steven Erikson's comment, which is his belief, not mine. Again, I never said that such a lack of genre reading was 'insulting' (not sure if Gabe is suggesting that I did, or whether he is just making a more general point here. But I wanted to clear my side of things up). 

We'll ignore the fact that James clearly missed the line in Bilsborough's response that blatantly said: "I've read a fair few fantasy books in my life"

No, I didn't miss this. I just thought Bilsborough's comment here completely lacked sincerity. A fair few? How many is that? Four? Five? He certainly didn't give the impression that he was well-read, and subsequently I still have to assume he's not capable of commenting objectively on the genre. For the record, I've read hundreds of fantasy books and barely consider myself worthy of making comment. 

And indeed, James relies on Steven Erikson to point out that Richard K. Morgan "doesn't read fantasy", which is patently absurd, since in the acknowledgements of The Steel Remains Morgan points to Michael Moorcock, Karl Edward Wagner (someone I doubt many current fantasy fans and reviewers have read) and Poul Anderson as influences. Likewise, Bilsborough points out his own acknowledgement to several authors in the interview as well.

Firstly, I'm not saying Morgan doesn't read fantasy: I'm simply showing that Erikson doesn't seem to believe he does. Secondly, just because he's read Moorcock doesn't mean he reads fantasy regularly, or is widely-read. I've read Dan Brown, but that doesn't mean I like thrillers or read them all the time. Thirdly, Bilsborough only refers to two other genre authors in his interview, which is hardly a glowing endorsement of his genre reading. 

The other fallacy lies in the belief that being a good fanboy of fantasy is the only way to write good fantasy. That way lies pure idiocy.

Agreed. This is not at all what I'm suggesting. I simply pointed out that - in my opinion - the two greatest living epic fantasists are both big fantasy fanboys, and I then asked whether this was a coincidence. I never said that being a fanboy was a pre-requisite for being a good fantasy author (though I firmly believe it helps).

Which is not to dismiss his point outright. I think he's wrong, to be honest, in believing these writers are somehow insulting their readership.

For the third time: I did not at any point say that genre writers that don't read genre are insulting their readership. I'm not sure where Gabe has picked up this idea from, because not once do I make this point. The only time I refer to someone being insulted is when I mention Bilsborough's idiotic comments about American readers/writers. 

Perhaps Gabe - and others among you - thought that my main argument was that authors that write but do not read fantasy (and then speak critically of the genre) are being insulting. If so, perhaps I didn't make myself clear enough (it was an off-the-top-of-my-head rant after all, not a carefully considered essay). My main point was simply that I was wondering why so many genre authors don't read genre, and that those - like Bilsborough - who comment on the genre without having much knowledge of it are probably not worth listening to. 

Crap fantasy book covers # 8

Saw this book cover recently and immediately thought it was another entry on the crap fantasy book covers list.

On first inspection you might think that this cover is not half as bad as previous ones I've featured, and to some extent that is true. But if you consider this cover in more depth, it becomes apparent just how crap it really is.

The worst thing about it is that it looks so dated, like its come straight out of the 80s. Intrepid adventurers riding boldly towards an ominous's just dull. Nothing about this cover excites me, or makes me want to read the book (thought admittedly it's not helped by the novel's boring title either).

Given the standard nature of the book's storyline (magical daggers, dragons, good vs evil, etc) perhaps such a bland cover is no surprise. After all, the book is clearly aimed at those readers that enjoy more 'traditional' fantasy, so it makes sense to have a cover showing the heroes and their destination.

The thing is, surely it's not difficult to - if you're going to have a cover like this - at least do it with a bit of style. Look at what Solaris did for Gail Z. Martin's books - they feature the most standard fantasy characters (a wizard and a king) and yet they're done extremely well. The above cover however is just half-arsed.

Perhaps the publisher ought to take a leaf out of Solaris's book...or better, look at their covers and see how it should be done.

Crap-o-meter rating: 7.5/10

Sunday 20 July 2008

150 posts and 10,000 visits

Got back home earlier today, after a cool weekend down in leafy Surrey. 

Bit of a milestone here. Two in fact. Firstly, this is my 150th post and I thought I'd use it to mention that the blog has recently passed the 10k mark with visits. 

I just wanted to thank you all for your support and interest so far, it's been a lot of fun and I hope you enjoy dropping by. 

In terms of what's coming up: 

- I'm still reading Erikson's Deadhouse Gates and am just under halfway through (the book is a monster) so it'll be at least another week or so until a review of that surfaces. 

- As I mentioned earlier, Stephen Hunt is kindly arranging some copies of his books The Court of the Air and The Kingdom Beyond the Waves for me. Reviews of these should appear in the relatively near future. 

Peadar Ó Guilín, author of The Inferior, has kindly been in touch and offered me a review copy of his debut novel, so I'll also be reading this at some point and am interested to see whether it lives up to the good reviews I've read. 

Anyway, that's all for now. 

Once again, thanks for dropping by. :)

Wednesday 16 July 2008

Lazy linkage

I'm heading down south for the weekend, so no update until Sunday night at the earliest. In the meantime, he's some linkage for you to help satisfy your genre cravings...

Thrinidir has reviewed The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski. Interestingly, we seem to often draw very similar conclusions about books and this one is no exception. 

Graeme has indulged in yet more Gary Braunbeck, this time reviewing In Silent Graves.

Adam has made a fashionably late entrance into the enjoyable world of Temeraire, and has reviewed the first novel of the same name. He's also written a good article about online blogs, with some helpful recommendations. 

Chris has reviewed Stephen Hunt's The Court of the Air. Stephen has kindly arranged a review copy for myself, so I'll hopefully have a review up in the near-ish future...

Ken has reviewed Steven Erikson's latest offering, Toll the Hounds...

Dark Wolf has reviewed Corsair by Tim Severin...

Aidan has reviewed The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi...

Hope you all have a good weekend. :)

Tuesday 15 July 2008

A rant about genre authors and genre reading

Something which has become increasingly common in recent years is the number of fantasy authors who, when asked what other genre writers they read/admire, give a reply along the lines of: "Oh, well...I don't really read fantasy, you see."

Take, as an example, fantasy author David Bilsborough. When asked whether he thought fantasy would ever be accepted by the mainstream, he replied:

"I don't see why it should be respected. With the obvious JRR exception, (and possibly Bernard Cornwell's "Starkadder / Vargr Moon") I have to say that I'm not the greatest fan of fantasy, at least not the swords & sorcery tradition with all its preposterousness and banality. I've read a fair few fantasy books in my life, and am always surprised that such stale, hackneyed and vapid pulp should get published at all. I particularly have problems with US fantasy; there are definite exceptions, of course, but in my opinion the Americans just don't get it, with their phoney Olde-Englishness, green tights, bucket boots, square-jawed 'Rone Garet' heroes, pretty-but-with-a-hidden-fire 'Fern Leah' love interests, hissing insidious black-robed 'Sith Mordax' villains, or whatever it is they harp on about in their hollow regurgitations of Conan, Star Wars or Buffy."

While I was surprised that Bilsborough was dumb enough to insult 75% of his potential readership with his embarrassing comments about American writers, what made my blood boil was the fact that he freely admitted not liking fantasy. Ok, he's referring specifically to Sword and Sorcery, but you get the impression that he's far from a fantasy fanboy. Why the hell does he write in the genre then?

The thing is, he's not the only author to happily write fantasy and then distance himself from the genre (yeah, Goodkind, I'm looking at you).

So why don't some fantasy authors read fantasy novels? Are they embarrassed to read fantasy (but not to write it)? Do they not have respect for the genre? Perhaps it's because after spending a day working on their own stories in their own worlds they don't want to then get lost in someone else's world, but I think that is just an excuse. I spend every free waking moment thinking about/working on my own project, and I still love to read fantasy on my daily commute.

I'm not the only person to notice this trend, as Steven Erikson recently mentioned it as well. When asked whether he thought his and Ian Cameron Esslemont's Malazan books were influencing new authors, Erikson bluntly replied:

"I'm not sure anything we're doing is influencing anyone. Abercrombie's stated he doesn't read fantasy. In my few conversations with Richard [Morgan] via email, he too was unfamiliar with the Malazan series. He told me he was taking "Deadhouse Gates" with him on vacation, and I haven't heard from him since."

Is it just me, or was Erikson having a bit of a dig at his fellow authors there for their lack of genre reading?

I'm not saying that those fantasy authors that choose not to read fantasy are at fault; at the end of the day we can all read what we want. It just seems strange that some authors are happy to write in the genre but choose not to read other genre works. After all, aspiring writers are always advised to read deeply in the genre (and without). Does this advice not apply to writers who are already published? I don't think that just because they are already published, they can simply ignore what else is going on in the genre.

What does really annoy me is when the likes of Bilsborough bleat about fantasy being a load of tripe that's not worthy of respect. How is he qualified to make a statement like this when he doesn't even read in the genre? I think he ought to read some Erikson and Martin, and then see whether he still thinks the genre is undeserving of respect.

Another point of interest is that the two greatest living epic fantasists (in my opinion) - Martin and Erikson - are both fully-fledged fantasy fanboys.


Anyway, rant over and opinions welcome.

By the way, if you want to subject yourself to Bilsborough's boring waffle, then check out the interview that Pat did with him here.

The Erikson quote came from the interview on Fantasy Book Critic.

Sunday 13 July 2008

Film review: Cloverfield

I'm rather late to the party with this one, the reason being that I refuse to pay exorbitant prices to watch a movie in an uncomfortable seat while hordes of tracksuit-wearing teenagers proceed to talk all the way through the feature. Instead, I generally wait for the film to be released on DVD which is why the review will often appear here some time after the movie's release. Still, better late than never...

The premise of Cloverfield is pretty simple: Rob Hawkins' farewell party is interrupted by what seems like an earthquake. Chaos then ensues as it becomes apparent that some sort of huge monster is rampaging through New York City. As the rest of the populace try to flee to safety, Rob and a handful of friends try to reach the apartment of his longtime friend Beth, who is trapped there, as the monster fights a running battle with the military. 

The key selling-point for Cloverfield was the Blair Witch Project approach it took: all the action unfolds through the lens of a single video camera carried by the protagonists. I must confess that I like this style very much; it lends a very personal quality to the proceedings and a certain dose of reality. It worked brilliantly in Blair Witch and it works very well in Cloverfield. A subsequent aspect that works well is that the footage is filmed over previous material of Rob and Beth on a day trip, snatches of which crop up from time to time, emphasising the relationship that is at stake. 

After the obligatory slow opening (in which the scene is set and characters are introduced) the action kicks off with a momentary blackout accompanied by what seems to be an earthquake. From this point on, the tempo barely lets up. One of the most effective parts of the film is the sequence following the blackout and tremors, when citizens pour into the streets and watch helplessly as the Statue of Liberty's head rolls down the road. A glimpse of the monster follows and naturally panic spreads like wildfire. These harrowing scenes are reminiscent of the panic of 9/11, particularly with regards to the dust cloud that envelops the surrounding area as a building collapses. The result is hard-hitting and unnervingly realistic. At times you almost feel you're watching a real news report, such is the impact of these scenes.

As the film progresses we get to see more glimpses of the monster, and the CGI is absolutely first-rate. This sort of film often lives or dies by its special effects, but the Cloverfield team totally deliver. There are some stunning set-pieces (the Brooklyn Bridge scene is superb, as is the sequence where the group get caught in a fight between the monster and the military - to say the latter is realistic seems almost an understatement). While the monster is the star of the show, the human protagonists play their parts well and manage to effectively alternate between looking terrified and shell-shocked. Another strong point is the film's length - at 84 minutes it doesn't overstay its welcome, managing to pack plenty of action into its relatively short duration. 

The film is however let down by the human aspect. The actors/actresses do a decent job but they're given very little to work with. None of the characters are particularly interesting and the strength of their relationships doesn't really stand up to close scrutiny. Given that the entire plot revolves around the relationship between Rob and Beth, this is something of a problem. The plight of the characters doesn't really inspire any genuine involvement, though credit should be given for the attempts to provide some sort of emotional impact which is too often lacking from monster movies. 

Despite this, the weak characters and their shallow relationships do not spoil what is a hugely intense, enjoyable monster film that by turns excites and terrifies. The special effects are first-rate and the first-person perspective works brilliantly to create an exhilarating experience. 

Rating: dddd

Saturday 12 July 2008


These days many publishers seem quite keen to produce more 'mature' (some would say mainstream) covers for fantasy novels, so it's always nice to see the odd cover that just screams OMG TEH FANTASY GOODNESS. Like this one, which I think is extremely cool. 

I've not read any of Thompson's stuff myself, and judging by the mixed reviews I don't think that'll change any time soon. The covers for his books are nice though. 

Wednesday 9 July 2008

Book review: Stonewiser: The Heart of the Stone

Stonewiser: The Heart of the Stone

By Dora Machado

(Mermaid Press 2008)

I tend to get quite a few emails offering various books for review, and I usually turn them down. I don't have the time to read all the books that come highly recommended, let alone those I've never heard of before. Yet I was willing to make an exception for Stonewiser, simply because it had an intriguing premise that strayed away from the usual elements of fantasy.

The idea underpinning the novel is that the history and laws of Machado's secondary world have been imbued within stones, and are accessible only by those known as stonewisers. Subsequently, the world - or at least the 'Goodlands' that have not fallen victim to the destructive 'Rot' - is ruled by the 'Guild' - an organisation of stonewisers that distribute justice and teach the history of the world, as told by the stones.

Naturally, things get rather messy when Sariah - the most gifted stonewiser of her generation - enters a forbidden vault beneath the Guild and 'wises' the twin stones that she finds there. Soon she realises that the history that the Guild teaches is false, and that the Guild is corrupt to the very core. The novel then follows Sariah as she embarks on a quest to discover the 'stone truth' and learn the true extent of the Guild's lies and corruption.

It's a fresh idea and one that allows for plenty of twists and revelations. It also serves as a good driver for the plot, giving Sariah reason to fall in with the 'New-Bloods' - enemies of the guild - and enabling Machado to reveal more of her world, such as the 'Rotten Domain' which is afflicted by the Rot.

The novel is told through the single POV of the female stonewiser Sariah, who is well fleshed out and develops nicely over the course of the novel. As the plot progresses Sariah is forced to make increasingly difficult choices and sacrifices, and her developing relationship with one of the New-Bloods complicates things further. Machado really manages to get under the skin of Sariah and reveal exactly what it is that makes her tick, and how her mind works. As the story progresses a number of other characters are added to the mix, most of which are also well developed, such as Kael, the enigmatic New-Blood 'roamer', Malord the maimed wiser and Horatio, the 'Main Shield' who struggles with the horror of his lost youth.

Machado's writing is as competent as her characterisation, being vivid and often poetic. The plot itself is well devised and generally moves along at a good pace. As mentioned above, there are quite a few surprises and while I could - in the latter stages - see where the story was going and how it would end, the impact was not lessened in any way. I was surprised to find that the novel was often a little darker than I expected, and there are one or two quite brutal moments that add a nice (dare I say it) gritty feel, without coming across too heavily. Machado's world also comes across well in her writing.

I do however have a number of reservations. The most significant problem I had while reading the novel was the use of a single POV - Sariah. Perhaps this is just a personal preference, but generally I like a story to be told through the eyes of a number of characters. I couldn't help feeling that if we were able to see the events unfold from the POV of other characters - Kael and Horatio would have been interesting - it would have added a whole different perspective and kept it fresh. Being stuck in the mind of the same character - despite her depth - for 450 pages became a little dull, and it wasn't helped by the fact that certain phrases - the main culprit being 'Meliahs help her' - really started to grate after a while.

While the world came across well, I can't say it particularly intrigued me. I liked the idea of the 'Rot' afflicting the land and the idea of the imbued stones playing such a pivotal role, but otherwise the world seemed largely unremarkable - the usual medieval Europe flavour. I also felt the plot sagged a bit in the middle. The plot rattles along for the first third and builds to a satisfying climax at the end, but just seems to stutter in the middle and the tempo is interrupted.

Overall, Stonewiser: The Heart of the Stone is a good novel, with a fresh premise, intriguing story and a well-developed main character. It is however let down by the narrow perspective, the uneven plot and the world that just didn't quite manage to fire my imagination.

Rating: ddd

Tuesday 8 July 2008

Character of the Week: Mark Chadbourn

It's been too long since the last character of the week feature, but fortunately British author Mark Chadbourn - author of, most recently, the Kingdom of the Serpent series - has come to the rescue with a piece about why he loves Solomon Kane...

"Like many people, I found my way to Robert E. Howard’s astonishing cast of characters through Conan, specifically through the Marvel Comics adaptations of the late seventies. Some of his heroes were variations on the two-fisted man’s man transplanted into different time periods, but some of them were barking mad – Skullface! – so off the register you couldn’t fail to be intrigued.

And the most barking mad of all was Solomon Kane. A Puritan adventurer setting out to bring a little God-fearing justice to the world, this was not a sympathetic character. Let’s face it, Puritans are not known for their gut-wrenching sense of humour, but Kane was beyond sombre, a miserable git who hated fun, drink, probably women – although that was left to the sub-text – and, apparently, life in general. He put the loon in gloomy (okay, that doesn’t quite work, but you get my drift).

So why do I love Solomon Kane? For a start, he looked cool. Slouch-hat like the Shadow from the pulps, a pair of death-dealing flintlock pistols, a rapier, and a pair of cold, dead eyes. The truth is, by any modern standards, this hero is the villain. Then there’s the setting: the 17th century, with its inherent romance, and the wildness of a world still half-explored, with mysteries lurking around every corner. Kane was a man who had left the civilised world behind and travelled to the source of mystery and supernatural terror. There was a constant tension between his rigid Puritan world-view and the chaos of the shadowy places to which he found himself drawn. But like many religious obsessives, there’s a sense that he rails against the things he fears most within himself, the part that is really not pure at all.

The stories, frankly, are filled with all sorts of psychological craziness, and they say a lot about the very troubled Howard himself. That adds an off-kilter feel to the adventuring that you don’t get in Conan or Kull. They’re dark, conflicted, and really, really not well. I love them."

Many thanks to Mark for his contribution! If you missed Mark's recent big announcement, you can check out my post about it here. In addition, be sure to drop by Mark's website here and his blog here.

Saturday 5 July 2008

Wonderlands + Facebook

Just to help spread the word...

A new social networking site called Wonderlands has just been set up...yes, I can hear you muttering already - what is the point of another one? Well, this site caters exclusively for fantasy fans. Although a very new site, it's already got a growing member list, which includes plenty of authors. There's a forum, an events page and various other bits and pieces. It's pretty cool actually, and good to know that everyone is there for the same reason. 

If you fancy signing up, check out Wonderlands HERE.

My own page can be found HERE.

While I'm the subject of networking sites, I'm also on Facebook, should any of you guys also be on there. Feel free to friend me, if that's your sort of thing. Always nice to meet new people. I'd appreciate it though if you could introduce yourself, as I'm not one of these networking whores that adds everyone under the sun just to look popular. ;)

My Facebook page is HERE.

Thursday 3 July 2008

Event: Steven Erikson book signing

Tonight I went along to Steven Erikson's book signing/reading/Q&A session at the Waterstones in Manchester. 

There was a solid turn-out, around 40-45 fans showed up.

It was a really good session; Erikson read a number of passages from his new novel Toll the Hounds and explained the style and meaning behind each piece. 

Then came the obligatory Q&A session. It was a bit of a minefield at times, as people frequently mentioned spoilers - though to their credit they did ask the rest of the crowd whether they had read that far in the series first. Thing is, no one in their right mind was gonna stick their hand up and look like a total n00b. I certainly wasn't going to admit that I'd only read Gardens of the Moon. Unfortunately I did learn the fate of one major character, which was a bit annoying, but I guess it's my own fault for not having read as much Erikson as I should have. 

Erikson proved to have a nice dry wit, and his answers got plenty of laughs. He revealed quite a lot of interesting stuff. For example, he has signed on for two trilogies after the Malazan series. The first will focus on the early mythology of the Malazan world, while the second will pick up on events after the end of the current series. He also revealed that he writes for four hours a day, which can result in anywhere between two paragraphs and twelve pages of writing. He is currently playing 'Age of Conan' online, and criticised the way the NPC characters so willingly provide the information the player-character needs. He suggested this was unrealistic, given that people in real life would mostly refuse to co-operate or lie. He said that if there was a Malazan MMORPG, he would want all actions taken by the player to have consequences and would want the history of the world to be tangible. He also admitted he gets frustrated when asked by mainstream journalists as to what relevance fantasy has to modern life, and confirmed that the gender equality prevalent in the Malazan world was totally deliberate, a reaction against the gender-specific roles in other fantasy novels. 

He talked about a whole lot more as well, but much I can't recall now. It was all very interesting though. Finally he signed plenty of books and took time to chat with everyone. Fortunately I managed not to make a total twat of myself in front of him. My fiancee was on hand to ensure that I didn't:

a) Squeal at Erikson
b) Hug Erikson's leg
c) Touch Erikson's balding head
d) Touch some other part of his anatomy 
e) Any combination of the above

Fortunately I managed to suppress my admiration, and instead settled for a photo (above) and a signed copy of Toll the Hounds. 

So, overall a good evening. 

In other news, I received my review copy of Empire in Black and Gold by Adrian Tchaikovsky in the post, so will try to get around to that as soon as possible...

Wednesday 2 July 2008

Artwork for Gail Z. Martin's 'Dark Haven' revealed

Yet another nice Solaris cover. They don't mess around, these chaps.

Tuesday 1 July 2008

Mark Chadbourn confirms major deal for Elizabethan fantasy

Received this press-release yesterday:

Two-time British Fantasy Award-winning author Mark Chadbourn has signed a major three-book deal with UK publisher Transworld for an epic Elizabethan fantasy.

‘The Swords of Albion’ will be published annually from 2010, in the UK and Commonwealth. The sequence has also been acquired by a US publisher (announcement forthcoming).

Chadbourn says, “This is an epic story filled with intrigue, mystery, adventure and romance, set against the rich backdrop of the Elizabethan era, that I hope will appeal to readers of both fantasy and historical fiction. I’m very excited to be working with Transworld for the first time on the launch of this new series.”

About ‘The Swords of Albion’:

‘Spies are men of doubtful credit, who make a show of one thing and speak another.’ ~ Mary, Queen of Scots

A devilish plot to assassinate the Queen, a Cold War enemy hell-bent on destroying the nation, incredible gadgets, a race against time around the world to stop the ultimate doomsday device…and Elizabethan England’s greatest spy!

Meet Will Swyfte – adventurer, swordsman, rake, swashbuckler, wit, scholar and the greatest of Walsingham’s new band of spies. His exploits against the forces of Philip of Spain have made him a national hero, lauded from Carlisle to Kent. Yet his associates can barely disguise their incredulity – what is the point of a spy whose face and name is known across Europe?

But Swyfte’s public image is a carefully-crafted façade to give the people of England something to believe in, and to allow them to sleep peacefully at night. It deflects attention from his real work – and the true reason why Walsingham’s spy network was established.

A Cold War seethes, and England remains under a state of threat. The forces of Faerie have been preying on humanity for millennia. Responsible for our myths and legends, of gods and fairies, dragons, griffins, devils, imps and every other supernatural menace that has haunted our dreams, this power in the darkness has seen humans as playthings to be tormented, hunted or eradicated.

But now England is fighting back!

Magical defences have been put in place by the Queen’s sorcerer Dr John Dee, who is also a senior member of Walsingham’s secret service and provides many of the bizarre gadgets utilised by the spies. Finally there is a balance of power. But the Cold War is threatening to turn hot at any moment…

Will now plays a constant game of deceit and death, holding back the Enemy’s repeated incursions, dealing in a shadowy world of plots and counter-plots, deceptions, secrets, murder, where no one… and no thing…is quite what it seems.

The entire world is the battleground – from Russia, across Europe, to the Caribbean and the New World. And while great events play out in the public eye, the true struggle takes place behind the scenes: the Spanish Armada, the Throckmorton Plot, the colonisation of the Americas, the Court intrigues, the battles in Ireland and against Spain, the death of Marlowe, the plagues, the art, the music, the piracy, the great discoveries…all are simply window-dressing as the great sweep of recorded history is peeled back to show the truth behind.

Praise for Mark Chadbourn:

'A contemporary bard, a post-industrial Taliesin whose visionary novels are crammed with remixed mythologies, oneiric set-pieces, potent symbols, unsettling imagery and an engaging fusion of genre elements. His work is distinguished by breakneck but brilliantly controlled plots, meticulous research, deft characterisation and a crisp, accessible prose style' ~'Reminiscent of Alan Garner (the highest compliment I can pay to someone working in this mythic mode).' ~

- - - - - - - - -

I have to say I'm quite excited by this announcement. Chadbourn gave us a glimpse of Will Swyfte in his story Who Slays The Gyant, Wounds the Beast, which appeared in the Solaris Book of New Fantasy. I enjoyed the story and hoped at the time that we might see a bit more of Will and the alternative Elizabethan world revealed in the story, so it seems now I got my wish...

Definitely one to watch out for.