Saturday 30 August 2008

The state of epic/secondary-world fantasy

There's been some interesting discussion recently about the rise of urban fantasy and what it means for epic/secondary world fantasy.

James over at the Accidental Bard has written a thought-provoking article that looks at the current state of play in the genre: 

"Publishing houses are emphasizing urban fantasy to the extent that epic and high fantasy have been sidelined and newly classified as "traditional" and "old-fashioned." Authors producing epic fantasy of the type that dominated the marketplace even a few years ago are scrambling just to get published in the current climate."

It was Aidan that kicked the debate off, however, when he revealed that epic fantasy isn't really floating his boat at the moment, and that he's finding himself drawn to other sub-genres - something that other readers seem to be doing: 

"As mentioned earlier, Urban/Contemporary Fantasy is taking the market by storm, forcing aside the stalwart Epic Fantasy not only in terms of sales, but also in terms of publisher interest."

So what does the rise of urban fantasy mean for epic/secondary-world fantasy? 

Well, not much in my opinion. Let's nip this one in the bud straight away: the rise of urban fantasy does not mean that epic fantasy is declining as a sub-genre or becoming unpopular. Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind sold over 40,000 copies in hardback alone, while Gail Z. Martin and Karen Miller both achieved similar sales in paperback. Miller's novel - The Innocent Mage - was apparently the best-selling fantasy novel in the UK last year...and it's a secondary world fantasy. The truth is that epic fantasy is just too popular to fade away. 

Let's just re-wind a few months and see what Solaris editor Mark Newton had to say when I interviewed him and asked whether epic fantasy was being ignored by publishers in favour of urban fantasy:

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

In his article, Aidan highlights the difficulties that two aspiring fantasy writers - Patrick St. Denis and Shawn Speakman - have had in getting their epic fantasies published. Speakman runs an interesting blog, and has suggested that his novel - and those of other writers he knows - was rejected primarily because it was epic fantasy, rather than urban fantasy. 

What about other genre publishers in the UK? Are they ignoring epic fantasy? Hardly. The UK wing of Tor seem committed to publishing a new epic fantasy author every year - David Bilsborough in 2007, Adrian Tchaikovsky in 2008 and Mark Charan Newton in 2009. Hardly the sign of a publisher sidelining epic fantasy in favour of urban fantasy. 

James raises a specific point in his article about the rise of urban fantasy forcing would-be writers into adapting to the market: 

"Genre fiction presents its own unique problem: what do you do when what you want to write most in the world just isn't selling? Fantasy authors, especially first-timers, face a difficult choice: adapt to the market, or remain unpublished."

Aside from the fact that epic fantasy is selling, I agree with his suggestion that aspiring writers need to adapt to the market. But I don't agree with the apparent assertion that if you want to get published you need to write urban fantasy. If you write an epic fantasy that is brilliant - good, as agent John Jarrold says, isn't enough - and you are reasonably well-connected, then you stand a good chance of getting published. 

As for urban fantasy as a genre, it'll probably reach the same saturation point that secondary-world fantasy experienced recently (some would say is still experiencing) and then a new fad will come along...and we'll probably have this debate about epic fantasy dying off all over again - and come to much the same conclusion. 

So let's lay this one to rest. Urban fantasy is making the genre more diverse and it's giving readers more choice...but not at the expense of epic fantasy, for which there is still a large and hungry readership. 

Thursday 28 August 2008

Richard Morgan competition

Just stumbled across a rather tasty competition courtesy of Gollancz...

From the Gollancz website:

Richard Morgan’s new novel The Steel Remains is set to be a landmark in modern fantasy. Here’s your chance to be a part of its future success. And to win an all expenses paid weekend trip to Glasgow, with two nights, accommodation in the exclusive One Devonshire Gardens Hotel. And to have lunch with Richard Morgan!

We’re looking for someone to draw a map of the world described in The Steel Remains (The Yhelteth Dominions and their surroundings). Entries will be judged by Richard. The person whose map is the closest approximation will win the hotel break and their entry will form the basis for the map that we include in the mass market paperback edition of The Steel Remains to be published in 2009. The map, artworked by professional artist Dave Senior, will be credited to the competition winner; ‘Based on the original map by Your Name’.

Now that's a pretty cool prize.

For more info, check out the page on the Gollancz website.

Tuesday 26 August 2008

Spot the difference...

Thanks to my brother Jelly for the heads-up on this one.

*Apologies for those of you who only saw a blank square for the second picture, should be fixed now. Damned technology...

Check out the UK cover for Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains:

Then have a look at the cover for Swedish metal band Opeth's fifth album Blackwater Park.

Coincidence? Or something more sinister... ;)

Friday 22 August 2008

Book review: The Steel Remains

The Steel Remains

By Richard Morgan

(Gollancz, 2008)

I'll be honest here: I didn't want to like this book. The huge hype that surrounded the novel (which has been discussed enough elsewhere), the really positive reviews, the fact that a sci-fi writer was attempting - or so it was suggested - to redefine the secondary-world fantasy genre...all of these made me hope that I didn't like the book. Perhaps that's rather petty, but it's the truth.

It only took me a few pages to realise that I was going to like The Steel Remains, whether I liked it or not. 

Let me get something straight right now: The Steel Remains has not redefined the fantasy genre, it's not turned it upside down or set it alight. Yes, the violence is pretty brutal at times, there's plenty of swearing and some very full-on sex. But nothing that hasn't been done before. Well, except for maybe the sex. I wouldn't call these scenes gratuitous, but they are pretty intense. I must admit I actually found myself grinning like a naughty schoolboy when reading one of them, simply because it was so full-on. But that aside, I don't think there's much here that hasn't been done before in some shape or form. I would even go as far as questioning what the hell the hype was all about. I don't mean that in a negative way - just in the sense that by what was said, this novel was being made out to be the gritty (argh, that word again) fantasy novel to end all gritty fantasy novels. Which it's not. So, now that the hype issue has been kicked into touch, let's talk about the book itself. 

As has been mentioned in other reviews, The Steel Remains is clearly driven by the characters. The undisputed star of the show is Ringil Eskiath, a former war-hero trading on past glories and living in something of a rut in a backwater village. Ringil's black sense of humour, basic sense of decency and open disdain for the society that he helped to save makes him a thoroughly engaging protagonist. The fact that he has a cool sword and knows how to use it also helps. The other POV characters - Egar the Dragonbane and the kiriath half-breed Archeth - are less absorbing, but still work well. Only Poltar - who appears but briefly as a POV character - seems rather one-dimensional, simply because his POV stint is used simply for plot reasons, as is his character. 

To be honest, I actually found some of the minor characters more interesting than the POVs (Ringil aside). The young Emperor Jhiral is good, seeming at first as nothing more than a petulant, over-sexed incompetent, before revealing his canny intelligence later on. Ringil's mother, with her waspish demeanour and amusing conversations with Ringil, is also a lot of fun to read. 

Morgan has also created an intriguing world for his story to unfold in, generally managing to achieve that sometimes tricky balance between sufficient detail and over-saturation. His world is instantly accessible, being at first fairly familiar but later revealing more diversity. There are some clear sci-fi influences as well, the most obvious being the Helmsmen. The sense of history is well-worked too, with references to various lost races and old battles. The fact that no less than three non-human races are referred to lends further depth and intrigue, and at times there is a decidedly political/social slant (which never becomes overbearing). The world-building takes a clear backseat to the characterisation (and rightly so) but Morgan still creates a detailed, believable world with one or two nice touches. Lemonade, anyone? 

I'd not read a Richard Morgan novel before The Steel Remains so wasn't sure what to expect in terms of style. As it turns out, I like his style of prose a lot. His descriptive writing possesses a certain flourish and his action scenes pack a decent punch (though perhaps suffer from an abundance of detail - I don't really need to be told the exact positions/angles of weapons as they are swung - and the internal monologues add an extra dimension, as well as often being rather amusing. Dialogue is at times good, at other times a bit clunky. Readers who don't like modern dialogue in fantasy will probably not find Morgan's to their taste. Personally, I didn't have much of a problem with it (though certain words were jarring, like Ringil calling his father 'Dad'). There are some good one-liners though, particularly Ringil's response to his father after a certain incident in the kitchen...

There are some other flaws. The plot is serviceable but fairly thin on the ground, which wasn't so much a problem for me but will no doubt be for other readers. I did feel that Archeth and Egar lacked the depth of Ringil and were less interesting overall. At times when I reached the end of a chapter I'd find myself hoping the next one would focus on Ringil, as he was way more fun to read about, and easily has the more significant character progression. At times it feels like the other POVs have just sort of been tacked on to provide a foil for Ringil. There are some clear dynamics between them later on, but it's too little too late. Maybe in the next book we'll see more of their relationships...

I would have liked more background on certain things. On occasion items/events are referred to without sufficient information, for example the Helmsmen are referred to a number of times without any explanation as to what the hell they are, which is a little frustrating (although we do find out more later). Another aspect would be the Revelation - the dominant religion in the Empire, which is referenced a number of times but could have done with a little more exposition. 

Still, complaints aside, I thoroughly enjoyed The Steel Remains. If you read this novel expecting fantasy to be redefined, you'll be disappointed. If you read it hoping for an enjoyable, black-humoured fantasy with plenty of violence and sex with a political undercurrent, then you're in luck. 

The Steel Remains is not deserving of the hype that preceded it and doesn't add much to the genre that's not already there, but it's a damned fun ride for all that. Now, bring on the sequel...

Verdict: dddd

Thursday 21 August 2008

Jackson to co-write Hobbit script

After spending some time trying to find a decent script-writer for the Hobbit movie, producer Peter Jackson and director Guillermo del Toro have decided to do it themselves, along with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens who both worked on the LOTR scripts.

This is probably a good thing, as it'll ensure consistency with the LOTR films.

Full article here.

Wednesday 20 August 2008

The Book of Clav - a fable in blog form

Received this press release from the indie publisher Omnibucket earlier today:

Omnibucket presents…The Book of CLAV, a modern illustrated fable serialized in blog form. Start reading at

How it works
The book’s posting has just begun and commenting is open. The first ten pages of the book (and two tracks of the soundtrack) are online now. We will post a new two-page spread every Tuesday & Friday (along with over a dozen free music tracks) until the book is complete.

Story Synopsis

A frustrated artist, in the absence of his muse, finds a series of discarded paintings and becomes an accidental author, detailing the rise of an envied, yet anonymous painter. Since its original publication, The Book of CLAV has gone on to become the defining account of La Belle Oublié (“The Beautiful Forgotten”) modern art movement that both captivated and shamed the fine art world of the 1990s.

Haunted by the paintings’ omnipresence,the artist-turned-diarist simultaneously documents the rise to fame of the erstwhile art-star known only as “CLAV,” as well as his own fall into existential despair.

The unnamed journal, mysteriously abandoned, is presented here alongside CLAV’s paintings, reprinted with permission by La Musée de la Belle Oblié. Together, they comprise a fable of human envy in the guise of a first-hand account of art’s affective power. The book is the only historical account of a unique, if minor, art movement that characterized how art and artists are “made” and how hype and circumstance can define them throughout history.

Crap fantasy book covers #12

I'm not sure whether August's just been a slow month, or whether I'm subconsciously feeding some perverted crap fantasy book cover addiction, but either way I seem to have found myself gazing - dumbstruck - most of the time at crap fantasy covers. 

They just keep on coming...and keep getting worse. 

Look at this one. The young lady in the middle isn't so bad (if you ignore her hairstyle, which resembles a dollop of shit) but any chance the cover had of actually being anywhere approaching decent is ruined by the figures on either side of her. I mean - if you're going to have characters on the cover, make them look cool for heaven's sake. 

But no. Instead, we have Rumpelstiltskin on the right, sporting a woeful pudding bowl haircut. On the left, we have the result of what happens when you crossbreed an Ewok with Bungle from Rainbow

The only figure that looks ok is the bird, which you can't see anyway because someone thought it would be a great idea to put the author's name over it. Still, it would have made little difference - you can't polish a turd, after all. 

Crap-o-meter rating: 8.5/10

Monday 18 August 2008

Richard Morgan on sex and swearing in fantasy

Richard Morgan - author of the acclaimed SF novels Altered Carbon and Black Man/Thirteen, and most recently The Steel Remains - has written an interesting article on the Orion blog about swearing and sex scenes in his books.

He's not best pleased with one reader who wrote to inform him that he'd given up on Black Man due to the repeated use of the word 'fuck':

"Physical beatings, stabbings, shootings, the odd bit of enforced cannibalism – hell, nothing wrong with any of that, right? All part of the ride. But throw in a few four letter words, and suddenly this guy’s throwing down the book – a book he’s enjoying, mark you, a book he bought and paid for – and will not finish it....I confess this kind of selective prissiness is utterly beyond me. How can you derive vicarious narrative enjoyment from the kind of things I’ve just described – and then freak out about the language the characters use as they struggle and slaughter each other? I mean….how does that work?"

I'm totally in agreement here. Swearing in fantasy is a topic that crops up time and time again in online forums. It does seem odd that some readers are happy to read graphic descriptions of violence and torture, but take offence at what ultimately is just a word.

I personally have no problem with authors using expletives in their novels. In fact, sometimes it bothers me when they don't. There was a couple of times when reading Erikson's Deadhouse Gates when it really irked me that a battle-hardened soldier would call someone a "pile of horse dung" or whatever. Come off it - would a soldier really say that? In this sort of situation swearing is an effective tool to add realism, which these days is a standard staple of many epic fantasies. That said, when the same expletive is used repeatedly in a short space of time it can grate a little - there's a scene in The Steel Remains which falls victim to this in my opinion, but I'll touch on that in my review.

Morgan also has a bit of a rant about how some reviewers have accused his sex scenes of being gratuitous:

"Are we really so emotionally stunted as a readership that we can thrill and rejoice vicariously at the spurt of blood from an enemy’s severed artery, the hack and grainy slice of vengeful steel in flesh, but can only squirm with embarrassment when our protagonist experiences the deep, explosive joy of orgasm in a desired partner’s arms? Is that release so unacceptable to our appetite for narrative experience, so unpalatable beside the savage pleasure of combat and murder, that it has to be banished behind a barrier of tasteful euphemism and elision, or a chaste trailing lines of dots?"

I agree with Morgan on this one as well. I think it's pretty absurd that someone can have no problem with full-on violence but then takes exception to some full-on sex. The thing is, a sex scene can define and develop a character just as much as a combat scene (perhaps even more so), so I don't see why they should be portrayed in any less detail (unless of course the sex serves no purpose, in which case it shouldn't really be included at all). I think Morgan sums it up nicely when he says:

"But if we don’t mingle the pain in our fiction with life’s pleasures as well, then we are guilty of a crucial misrepresentation of the facts and, worse still, of perpetuating a po-faced, sanitised denial of what life is really about and who we really are."

I do think, however, that he goes into a little too much detail...

"Personally, I like sex. Excluding a couple of emotionally painful episodes here and there, pretty much all the sex I’ve ever had has been life affirming and delightful."

Well, um...that's great. Moving swiftly on...

I'm over halfway through Morgan's The Steel Remains, so expect a review in the next few days.

Thursday 14 August 2008

Crap fantasy book covers #11

Just when you thought it was safe to emerge from cover after yesterday's crap-tastic Russian cover...

This one is also Russian - I sense a theme developing here - and unbelievably it's even worse than the last one. This particular sample is apparently the cover for Erikson's Deadhouse Gates.

Words fail me, really. I suppose the one redeeming feature is the fact that I think it does depict characters/events from the novel. Other than that, it's pretty horrendous. The way they've dumped a small background template on top of another is odd (not to mention the fact that it doesn't really work) but by far the worst aspect is the pantomime villain with the impressive hat and total lack of fashion sense.

Seriously, what was wrong with just using the UK and US cover?

Crap-o-meter rating: 9/10

Wednesday 13 August 2008

Crap fantasy book covers #10

Oh dear.

Came across this shocker on the Westeros forums. Apparently, it's the Russian cover for The Lies of Locke Lamora.

If I'm right in thinking that the people that appear on the cover are characters from the books, then Jean Tannen seems to have been turned into a monk, swapped his knives for a pathetic-looking axe and obtained a swish golden mask from somewhere (for no obvious reason). He's also wielding some sort of crap, magic Orb of Doom or something.

The Berangias sister that's standing also appears to have had a sex change.

Now, I know that different markets require different marketing and so on, but that doesn't seem to be justification for putting a crap cover like this. Boo!

Crap-o-meter rating: 8/10

Universal Pictures acquires rights to Wheel of Time

Taken from

Universal Pictures has acquired film rights to the late Robert Jordan's best-selling Wheel of Time series of fantasy novels in a seven-figure deal, Variety reported. Big-screen adaptations of the books will begin with the first book in the cycle, The Eye of the World.

Rick Selvage and Larry Mondragon will produce for Red Eagle Entertainment, which published graphic-novel adaptations of Jordan's books. The Wheel of Time follows, among its dozens of characters, Rand al'Thor, the latest incarnation of a force for good called "The Dragon." Rand is born to fight an evil character called Shai'tan.

The Wheel of Time books have sold 44 million copies worldwide and have spawned computer, trading-card and role-playing games; a soundtrack; comic books; and numerous fan sites. The four most recent installments have reached number one on the New York Times best-seller list.

Jordan died last year at 58, but the final book in the series is still set for publication in fall 2009, with fellow fantasy scribe Brandon Sanderson writing the novel's conclusion from Jordan's notes and tapes.

I'm not really sure what to make of this. For a start - if any movies are made - it'll be years before the first one materialises. So, how will they work this? A film for each book? I can't see them making that many movies. Given that by all accounts some of the books contain minimal plot advancement, they could probably squeeze two or three books into one three-hour movie.

In any case, it'll be interesting to see what develops. While I'm not a fan of Jordan (did really like TEOTW though) I sincerely hope that the movies are good, as epic fantasy is still really poorly represented in film.

Tuesday 12 August 2008

Book review: The Inferior

The Inferior

By Peader Ó Guilin

(David Fickling Books, 6 Sep 2007)

It's not every day that you come across a genre novel compared to the likes of The Truman Show. Yet these are the similarities made by The Inferior's cover blurb. I first heard of this novel over on the Westeros forums and it intrigued me right from the start. Finding copies in my local Waterstones didn't prove easy (though perhaps I should have been looking under the YA section). In any case, I was pleased when Peader kindly got in touch to see if I fancied a copy.

Anyway, what drew me to The Inferior was the premise itself - a tribe of humans living in a sort of post-apocalyptic cityscape, constantly fighting for their survival against the various other beasts that inhabit the other parts of the city. That sounded cool enough, but it was made all the more interesting by the 'globes' that patrolled the skies, hinting at a deeper sci-fi element - and technology level - than was originally apparent.

The plot itself follows the story of Stopmouth - a well-developed character with a pronounced stutter - as the day-to-day existence of his tribe is shattered by a certain event (which the blurb rather carelessly reveals). After said event, Stopmouth finds himself embarking on a desperate journey - emotionally as well as physically - in order to secure both his own future and that of his tribe.

Ó Guilin has created an interesting world, inhabited with plenty of nasty critters. I particularly liked the wetlane beasts that patrolled the canals. The human society is well-realised - I liked the way, for example, that humans that are no longer able to contribute to the tribe are expected to give up their own lives (and bodies) to support their fellows. The tribe's daily existence is pretty brutal and life is cheap. Some other reviewers have questioned whether it was right to publish/market The Inferior as a YA book, given the theme of cannibalism. For my money, I think the publisher got the YA tag spot on. While enemies are killed and consumed raw, I wouldn't say it is shown in a particularly graphic way. Furthermore, although several more mature themes are touched upon - such as sex and rape - these are not explored in serious detail. They merely add an edge to the story, a touch of realism - which I think is what Ó Guilin was intending.

The characters are, for the most part, well-drawn and engaging. Stopmouth makes for a strong protagonist and his character development is handled well. The same goes for Indrani and Stopmouth's brother, Wallbreaker. Ó Guilin builds a nice dynamic between these three main players. His prose is very accessible and the novel's plot is solid and moves along at a good pace.

Criticisms are fairly thin on the ground. The only real antagonist doesn't appear until quite late on and the sudden dynamic that this adds seems a bit forced. The desire to discover the secrets about the world is what really kept me turning the pages, but as The Inferior is the first novel in a trilogy it was inevitable that I wasn't going to get all the answers I wanted.

So - good characters, good premise, good plot. You probably think this was an easy book to give a rating for, but in truth I've found it really difficult. You see, while Ó Guilin has written a good book that's pretty strong in all areas, it never really grabbed me or excited me. I've thought long and hard about this, and I think the reason for my inability to get really drawn into the book is the fact that it is clearly a YA book. I kept thinking, as I was reading, "Oh, that's pretty cool but it would be seriously awesome if it was written for an older audience."

The problem with this of course, is the fact that it's therefore not the book's fault that it didn't quite work for me. It's my fault, because the book is good and I think that if I was ten years younger I'd have liked it a lot more than I did. So what am I meant to do? Give it two ratings - one for how much I enjoyed it and one for how much I think a younger reader would enjoy it? Or just one or the other? Tough one. I think, ultimately, that honesty is the best policy. My final rating is therefore based purely on my own enjoyment of the novel. However, younger readers might like to add an extra 'shield.'

In any case, The Inferior is an enjoyable book with engaging characters and a fresh premise. Well worth checking out if you fancy something a bit different.

Verdict: ddd

Monday 11 August 2008

Tagged again...

As I mentioned earlier, Aidan was kind/nasty enough to tag me with the latest meme...


Don't tend to keep books on my table, they normally end up on the floor. The table itself only holds my lamp, alarm clock, and a little blue jar with coppers/silvers in it. The tabletop is also home to a little plastic critter called Bleaker (after the character 'Paulie Bleaker' from the film Juno). Why's he called that? No idea.

Reading at the Moment:

The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan. Read the first chapter at lunchtime. Pretty good.

Can’t Put Down:

Well, I only ever read one novel at a time so I have to say The Steel Remains again. Although to be fair the opening chapter has got me interested and wanting to read on.

Gathering Dust:

Too many books on my to-read pile that have been there for a long time. Too long. To name but a few:

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

Elric by Michael Moorcock

The Children of Hurin by J. R. R. Tolkien

Secret Indulgence:

Nothing literary really. Well, I must admit I quite like Dan Brown's books. Yes, his writing is prosaic and his characters are paper-thin, but he knows how to work a good plot. I admire the way almost every chapter ends in a cliffhanger. Although that sequence with the helicopter and the bomb in Angels and Demons was one of the dumbest things I've ever read.

Musically, I'd say Blaqk Audio. I generally dislike dance/techno music but these guys are from AFI, so it's ok. Plus the music they put out with this band is fantastic.

Looking Forward To:

Getting up tomorrow morning at 6, getting a coffee and working on the novel. Always the best part of the day. Books - the next George R. R. Martin and Empire in Black and Gold.

Book splurge...

I wandered into an Oxfam 'Emporium' at the weekend, just to see if they had any decent second-hand genre books. As it happens, they had a lot. I therefore staggered out of the store with the following:

The Eyes of God (John Marco)

A Sword from Red Ice (J. V. Jones - hardcover for £2.99, when it retails at around £17.99...absolute steal)

Jarka Ruus (Terry Brooks - hardback)

Haunted (James Herbert)

In addition, my other half picked up the first two novels - both hardback copies - in Cecelia Dart-Thornton's Crowthistle Chronicles.

The above six books - four in hardback - came to under £20. I've said it before and I'll say it again - charity shops are awesome.

In other news, I've finished The Inferior and will post a review shortly. I also note that Aidan has tagged me in the latest meme frenzy, so I will be responding in kind...

Friday 8 August 2008

Recommended reading: J.V. Jones

I first read J. V. Jones a few years ago in my university days, when I picked up her debut novel The Bakers Boy.

It didn't do anything for me at all. It was a rather standard story (young kitchen boy and spirited princess on the run from nasty wizard) set in a bland medieval-esque world. There were the odd darker, more mature moments (I mean, it does start with a murder and a rape in the first chapter) but by and large it was a rather lacklustre reading experience. I never picked up the next book in the series.

Yet whenever I was browsing the fantasy section in a bookstore, my eyes would always be drawn to the cover of the second novel - A Fortress of Grey Ice - in Jones's second trilogy, Sword of Shadows (see left). You can't really appreciate how good this cover is from the image on the left, but I always thought it was a terrific image. The blurb on the back intrigued me as well.

So I thought, what the hell. I'll give the series a try. I therefore picked up A Cavern of Black Ice (the first book in the series) and was promptly blown away. Not just by the harsh world Jones had created and the wonderful characters, but also by how different her writing style was from the other novel of hers I'd read previously. Immediately it was evident to me that Sword of Shadows was a darker, bleaker and more serious series than the one that preceded it. The change was nothing short of astounding. Jones had gone from writing a book that failed to appeal to me at all by writing one that left me totally hooked.

I've not yet read the third novel in the sequence - A Sword from Red Ice - but from what I've read so far, I can safely say the only bad thing about the series is the series title - Sword of Shadows - which just does not do the series justice. Otherwise, the first two books just excel in every area. The part of the world that the series is set in is far more interesting than that of the previous series, while there are some truly outstanding, complex characters (my favourites being the two 'baddies' - Penthero Iss and Marafice Eye). Jones makes use of some well-known fantasy tropes (the nasties breaking free of their prison somewhere in another dimension) but handles it so well you barely notice. On top of that, you have plenty of battles, intrigue and action - in other words, everything you'd expect from a good epic fantasy. There's also a wonderful twist that I didn't see coming (though I'm not sure whether that was simply because I never finished the first trilogy, as they are tenuously linked).

Admittedly the latest instalment in the series doesn't seem to have been lauded quite as much as the first two novels, but I'm waiting until October to cast my own judgement on it.

Recommended first purchase: A Cavern of Black Ice
First novel in the Sword of Shadows series, and a cracking one at that.

Recommended follow-up purchase: A Fortress of Grey Ice
Second novel in the same sequence, even better than the first.

Recommended wildcard purchase: The Barbed Coil
A stand-alone novel that has received many positive reviews and comments, one from Robert Jordan no less. Probably preferable to The Bakers Boy (first novel in Jones's first trilogy) but then if you like more linear, traditional fantasy then The Baker's Boy might suit you better.

David Gemmell LEGEND Campaign

Just caught wind of this earlier today...

There's a petition going to try and get Orbit to publish a 25th anniversary, leather-bound version David Gemmell's classic heroic fantasy novel Legend.

Orbit allegedly have no plans at the moment to do so, but hopefully fan pressure can change their minds.

You can find the petition here.

Personally I think it's a great idea and nothing less than an author of Gemmell's stature deserves. I'd certainly pay good money to get my hands on a copy.

Thursday 7 August 2008

World Fantasy Awards Nominations

Taken from Locus:


Leo & Diane Dillon
Patricia McKillip


Fangland, John Marks (Penguin)
The Gospel of the Knife, Will Shetterly (Tor)
The Servants, Michael Marshall Smith (Earthling Publications)
Territory, Emma Bull (Tor)
Ysabel, Guy Gavriel Kay (Viking Canada; Roc)


"Cold Snap", Kim Newman (The Secret Files of the Diogenes Club)
Illyria, Elizabeth Hand (PS Publishing)
"The Master Miller's Tale", Ian R. MacLeod (F&SF May 2007)
The Mermaids, Robert Edric (PS Publishing)
"Stars Seen through Stone", Lucius Shepard (F&SF Jul 2007)


"The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy Tale of Economics", Daniel Abraham (Logorrhea)
"The Church on the Island", Simon Kurt Unsworth (At Ease with the Dead, Ash-Tree Press)
"Damned If You Don't", Robert Shearman (Tiny Deaths)
"The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change", Kij Johnson (The Coyote Road)
"Singing of Mount Abora", Theodora Goss (Logorrhea)


The Coyote Road, Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling, eds. (Viking)
Five Strokes to Midnight, Gary A. Braunbeck & Hank Schwaeble, eds. (Haunted Pelican Press)
Inferno, Ellen Datlow, ed. (Tor)
Logorrhea, John Klima, ed. (Bantam Spectra)
Wizards, Jack Dann & Gardner Dozois, eds. (Berkley)


Dagger Key and Other Stories, Lucius Shepard (PS Publishing)
Hart & Boot & Other Stories, Tim Pratt (Night Shade Books)
Plots and Misadventures, Stephen Gallagher (Subterranean Press)
Portable Childhoods, Ellen Klages (Tachyon Publications)
The Secret Files of the Diogenes Club, Kim Newman (MonkeyBrain Books)
Tiny Deaths, Robert Shearman (Comma Press)


Ruan Jia
Mikko Kinnunen
Stephan Martiniere
Edward Miller
John Picacio


Allison Baker & Chris Roberson (for MonkeyBrain Books)
Alan Beatts & Jude Feldman (for Borderlands Books)
Peter Crowther (for PS Publishing)
Jeremy Lassen & Jason Williams (for Night Shade Books)
Shawna McCarthy (for Realms of Fantasy)
Gordon Van Gelder (for F&SF)


G. S. Evans & Alice Whittenburg (for Cafe Irreal,
John Klima (for Electric Velocipede)
Rosalie Parker & Raymond Russell (for Tartarus Press)
Midori Snyder & Terri Windling (for Endicott Studios Website)
Stephen Jones (for Travellers in Darkness: The Souvenir Book of the World Horror Convention 2007)

Tuesday 5 August 2008

Recommended reading: John Marco

In fantasy - as in most genres, I imagine - there are authors who seem to be overlooked, whose names deserve to be mentioned much more than they are.

To my mind, John Marco is one such author. I read his debut epic fantasy trilogy - Tyrants and Kings - several years ago (after buying the first novel, The Jackal of Nar, on a random whim), and it's easily one of the best I've read in that sub-genre.

The aspect that I like most about the trilogy is the way Marco included a totally different technology level to that which appeared in most other novels. In addition to the usual bows and swords, you have flamethrowers and poisonous gas, and an aristocracy that relies on man-made drugs to survive. This just gives the whole story an extra edge, a wholly different dynamic. Marco struck the perfect balance between innovation and tradition: his world pushes the boundaries without alienating fans of the sub-genre.

Yet the other reason why Marco's Tyrants and Kings series succeeds is simply because he's a fine writer and storyteller, who combines solid world-building with deep characterisation. There are some terrific characters in the trilogy, the best being the wonderfully Machiavellian Count Biagio. Rarely is a villain so engaging. His character progression is a joy to behold.
I've not read John's second trilogy, The 'Lukien Trilogy', but it's certainly on my read-before-I-die list. For some reason it doesn't seem to be too easy to get hold of in bookstores on this side of the Atlantic.Though I understand it is a more 'traditional' epic fantasy than Tyrants and Kings, I've heard good things about it.

More recently, John's gone back to pushing the boundaries a bit more by writing a fantasy series called The Skylords, which is aimed at younger readers and features a steam-punkish setting, with aviation and flying machines featuring quite heavily.

In any case, if you've not yet read any of John's books and you like epic fantasy, then you ought to check them out. He's one of the unsung heroes of the genre, not to mention the fact that he's also a very nice fellow indeed.

Recommended first purchase: The Jackal of Nar
First book in the Tyrants and Kings series. One of the best impulsive purchases I've made.

Recommended follow-up purchase: The Grand Design
The best novel in the trilogy, and one of the best epic fantasy novels I've ever read. Great plotting, great characters. Wonderful stuff.

Wildcard purchase: The Eyes of God
First novel in the Lukien sequence, check this out if you fancy reading something a little more traditional.

Feel free to check out the interview I did with John here, and John's own website here.

Sunday 3 August 2008

Book review: Deadhouse Gates

Deadhouse Gates

By Steven Erikson

(Bantam, 2001)

Steven Erikson's Gardens of the Moon is easily one of my favourite fantasy novels of all time. I've read it twice and enjoyed it even more the second time around. I love the frenetic pace of the plot and its numerous twists and turns, the characters with all their personal quirks and traumas and the sheer number of unbelievably cool scenes. I therefore had very high expectations for the second book in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series, Deadhouse Gates (DG). Unfortunately DG did not meet those expectations, nor did it actually come anywhere close to them. 

The first issue I have with DG is its length. At 959 pages, this is an absolute monster of a novel. The problem is, it really doesn't need to be this long. My feeling is that the story to DG could have been told in around 650 pages, maybe 700 at the most. The result is a plot - which, compared to Gardens of the Moon (GOTM), is relatively straight-forward - that becomes bloated and seems to stumble along interminably towards its eventual conclusion. I just felt there were some scenes that were too drawn out and some which didn't even really need to be included. Many readers complain about GOTM being a challenging read, but DG beats it hands-down on that score. I was never in danger of losing interest - something that Erikson should be given credit for - but there were times when I found myself wishing the plot would just move up a gear. 

Which leads me on to the plot itself. What I like about GOTM is that there are so many different elements in the story, so many different threads and layers. The plot to DG is by contrast quite simple: rebellion has arisen in the Seven Cities, and the Malazan commander Coltaine is forced to undertake an epic 1500 mile journey to guide 50,000 refugees to safety, through hostile enemy territory. Meanwhile, Fiddler and Kalam - two characters from GOTM - embark on different paths, Kalam on a mission to assassinate the Empress of the Malazan Empire, Fiddler to guide home the fisher-girl-turned-god's-pawn Apsalar/Sorry to her homeland. At the same, two ancient warriors - whose purpose is unclear - enter the fray, as does Felisin Paran - sister of Ganoes Paran from GOTM - who has been caught up in a cull of the nobility and sent to the Otataral her sister Tavore, who is now Adjunct to the Empress. 

The plot for me just felt bloated and lethargic. This is undoubtedly partly due to the book's length. I feel a shorter book would have added a bit of pace to the various plots. But some blame must be laid at the feet of the plots themselves. The first problem is that 90% of the book takes place in a desert, and this lack of scope or variety quickly becomes repetitive - most of the action takes place in "ochre-tinged clouds of dust" which just starts to grate after a while. When the characters' paths take them - occasionally - into a warren, the escape from the monotony of the desert is refreshing. 

The second problem with the overall plot is that each sub-plot involves characters traveling. Slowly. Subsequently we have lots of journeying, interspersed with combat. Coltaine's march is the worst offender: his plot is just a long, drawn-out sequence of marching and battles that becomes rather tired after a while. Likewise, the journeys of the other characters - equally as slow - fail to really spark into life. There's the odd moment of excitement, but overall each plot thread just seems to plod along grimly to its distant conclusion. The last 100 pages or so pick up quite nicely and we get a bit more of the variety that the book was crying out for about 300 pages earlier. While the resolution of Coltaine's plot is good, it's not enough to justify the length of his plotline. Nor are those of the others (Kalam's in particular is rather disappointing). 

I also have to take issue with the characters themselves. The only ones I felt any attachment to were those that had also appeared in GOTM. None of the new characters really proved that interesting to me. Baudin is pretty cool, Iskaral Pust and Coltaine are well-worked, and Duiker has a sense of duty that is easy to identify with. None however really connected with me like those from GOTM did. The worst is Felisin, who is a smug bitch at the start and a smug bitch at the end. 900+ pages of story and yet she barely changes at all. I kept praying that Anomander Rake would appear and put her out of her misery in style, but sadly it didn't happen. Because I didn't really care for the characters, it meant that their respective journeys seemed even longer. GOTM is full of fascinating figures - Anomander Rake, Caladan Brood, Kruppe, Quick Ben, Raest and so on - but those in DG just seem - by and large - dull in comparison. 

On the more positive side of things, Erikson's writing is very good indeed and the fact that he managed to hold my attention - despite the fact I didn't really care for many of the characters - deserves some sort of recognition. There are some cool moments in DG - the Jaws-esque scene early on is brilliant - but they are just too few and far between. Perhaps I'm partly at fault, because what I really wanted was a continuation of the events started in GOTM (which is why I will definitely read the third novel, Memories of Ice) and DG doesn't really fit the bill in this regard. 

DG is by no means a bad novel, but in my opinion is inferior to GOTM in almost every aspect. My lasting impression is of a novel that would have been better had it been 300 pages shorter and ultimately is just a rather large obstacle I had to overcome in order to continue with the story that really mattered - the continuation of the events that occurred in GOTM.

Verdict: ddd

Friday 1 August 2008

Authors in strong opposition to age-banding scheme

Taken from the British Fantasy Society newspage:

Fantasy writers including Philip Pullman, Terry Pratchett, Alan Garner, Darren Shan and Neil Gaiman have expressed their opposition to proposals to add age bands to the covers of books published for children in the UK. One of their many issues with the proposals is that children may reject certain books for fear of being thought babyish, while others will find books of their "correct" age-group too challenging, and be put off reading even more firmly than before.

Pratchett had this to say: "When I was a child I read books far too old for me and sometimes far too young for me. Every reading child is different. Introduce them to the love of reading, show them the way to the library and let them get on with it. The space between the young reader’s eyeballs and the printed page is a holy place and officialdom should trample all over it at their peril."

Check out the official website for further info.

Personally, I'm against this age-banding idea. I think it could lead to kids unwittingly categorising books in a negative way - "Oh, no way I'm reading that book - I'm 10 and it says 6-9 on it." This could easily lead to kids missing out on books they would have otherwise enjoyed.


I know this has been mentioned already on plenty of other blogs, but seeing as though Stephen Hunt went to the trouble of emailing me about it I thought it was only fair to mention it on the blog.

Hivemind is a new social networking site for genre fans, so if that's your sort of thing then head over and check it out.

Interesting how until recently there were no real networking sites for genre fans, and now we have two - Wonderlands being the other.