Tuesday 30 September 2008

Book review: The Scar

The Scar

By China Miéville

(Tor; New Ed edition 4 April 2003)

Recently I've become somewhat disillusioned with much of the fantasy that's currently on offer: the amount of bubblegum/popcorn fantasy novels seems almost suffocating at times. I felt the urge to read something different, a more innovative novel with a more stylish prose than many fantasy authors display these days.

China Miéville was a name that I was familiar with and was a long-standing fixture on my must-read-before-I-die list. Given that Miéville once dismissed Tolkien as the "wen on the arse of fantasy literature", I thought that perhaps his own novels might give me the innovation and sophisticated prose I was craving.

The Scar gave me that...and much more besides.

As you would expect - given his dislike of the fantasy inspired by Tolkien's legacy - Miéville's world (named Bas-Lag) bears very little resemblance (if any at all) to Middle Earth and the countless other clones. In a genre bloated by fantasies set in bland, pseudo-medieval worlds, Miéville has deliberately created something markedly different: an industrial world populated by many different races (cactus people, anyone?) where magic and science exist independently. It's an impressively big world with an intriguing history, which Miéville skilfully reveals without the need for large info dumps. The city of New Crobuzon (the focus for Miéville's first novel, Perdido Street Station) doesn't actually appear in The Scar however; instead the story takes place mostly at sea, on board the pirate city of Armada.

Armada is probably one of the most innovative cities in genre literature: a huge, sprawling 1000-year-old pirate city created from hundreds of boats, all lashed together and pulled across the oceans by tug boats. The huge variety of ships that make up Armada lends the city a diverse cityscape, mirrored by the inhabitants who are drawn from a number of different races. The districts are all governed by different rulers, and the fact that they are not always willing to co-operate creates a tangible political undercurrent. Miéville also throws in some other exotic locations, with the island of the mosquito men being particularly memorable.

Yet if Miéville's world is impressive, his characterisation is even more so. From the chief protagonist Bellis Coldwine to the indomitable Uther Doul, Miéville's characters are deep and extremely well realised. Coldwine is far from your usual protagonist; at first she appears aloof and possessing of a brooding cynicism. Yet when she's captured by pirates, taken to Armada and forced into a new life, she also becomes fragile and vulnerable, struggling with the situation she finds herself in. As the story unfolds it's surprisingly easy to feel sympathy for her cause as she battles with her alienation. Tanner Sack, another prominent character, acts almost as a foil for Bellis; like her, he finds himself captured by pirates and taken to Armada, but for him the consequences are totally different. A prisoner, he suddenly finds himself a free man, as all the 'pressganged' (as the pirates' victims are known) are given a chance to join Armada as free citizens and subjects, rather than slaves. There's a nice irony in that Bellis goes from free citizen to (in her own mind) virtual prisoner, while Sack goes from prisoner to free citizen. Their individual journeys later become entwined, and it's fascinating to see Sack struggling with his conflicting loyalties.

Miéville fortunately took time to ensure that the secondary characters are just as interesting as the protagonists, and subsequently we have an enthralling cast. Uther Doul is both mysterious and enigmatic, and his 'probable sword' is quite possibly the coolest weapon ever to appear in a fantasy book. The Brucolac - the vampiric leader of the Dry Fall district - and his relationship with Doul and the other leaders adds some spice, while the so-called 'Lovers' (who have a fetish for slicing each other with matching wounds in orgies of passion) are another fine example of Miéville's imagination.

The novel's plot actually makes use of a significant fantasy trope - the quest. Yet Miéville never criticised the genre's tropes, just the way they are used. In The Scar he manages to take a familiar concept and use it in a completely different way, to impressive effect. The plot is fairly straightforward, yet still contains one or two surprises. It generally moves at a good pace, though there are odd moments where it seems to lull. There's plenty of thematic depth though, and subsequently the novel can be read on two different levels. You can read it simply at face value - the story of a prisoner who wants to escape her exotic prison - or you can dig deeper into the political undercurrent, which adds a whole new aspect to the story.

Miéville's writing is sublime; he has a real knack for writing baroque prose with poetical flourishes. I often found myself reading certain sentences three or four times just to fully appreciate the writing. His prose is highly evocative at times and possess a real visual quality. There are a couple of pretty epic sequences that - when I was reading them - I could clearly see in my mind as if I was watching them happen. Miéville is easily one of the best writers working in the genre today (not to mention one of the most humble).

The Scar is one of those rare books that makes you ponder on the state of the genre, and causes you to wonder why more authors don't push the boundaries of fantasy. Beautifully written and populated with some wonderful characters, The Scar is a real tour-de-force that demonstrates the potential of the fantasy genre. Admittedly it won't appeal to everyone, but if you find yourself tired of bland fantasies and craving a more literary, innovative novel then look no further.

Verdict: ddddd

Sunday 28 September 2008

Christopher Paolini talks about bollocks

It's becoming increasingly popular for authors to release promotional videos for their upcoming novels. The success of these depends largely on the personality of the author. Subsequently, some are good and worth watching, such as Scott Lynch's video for The Lies of Locke Lamora. Others - like Karen Miller's woeful offering - are a complete waste of time (Miller's video actually made me not want to read her novel, and is probably one of the dullest videos I've ever watched in my life). 

Still, there are no shortage of authors willing to sit before a camera lens and talk crap if it helps to sell their book. Christopher Paolini, author of the depressingly successful but much-maligned Inheritance trilogy (well, it was a trilogy but now that it's making him plenty of money, it's magically become a quartet), delivers one of the most pointless videos yet. Let's just take a look at some of the really interesting things he reveals in it. 

"I enjoyed writing Brisingr a great deal, and once it's done I'm just going to sorta launch it off into the world..."

Really? Groundbreaking stuff. I mean, that's only what every contracted author does once they've written a book. 

"It was very difficult to name the third book in the Inheritance cycle. I considered many, many different names..." 

Firstly, who gives a shit? Secondly, despite clearly having plenty of names to choose from, Paolini still managed to pick a crap one. Though the apparent sub-title is even worse: The Seven Promises of Eragon Shadeslayer and Saphira Bjartskular. Medic!

"I'm not going to tell you why I named the third book Brisingr..."

That's a shame, because no doubt there's a fascinating story behind that. 

"Brisingr itself is a word from old Norse, and the word means 'fire.' 

Then again, maybe not. 

"Actually, I've heard that - at least a few years ago - in Norway they still call bonfires brisingr. Which is kind of cool."

Those crazy Norwegians, eh? Fancy that - they still use an old Norse word. Hardly surprising given their modern language derives from old Norse.

"I was just looking at my file of names and places...and I've got fifteen pages of character names."

That doesn't make your penis any bigger. Are all the names as shit as 'Galbatorix', by any chance?

"Brisingr ended up much, much larger...I still have a large chunk of the story to finish...and that's why, of course, the trilogy is now four books."

Shut up, boy. I can see the dollar signs in your eyes. SEE THEM OMG

"There's a couple of characters who die...but I'm not going to say who...there's some things that pop up...but of course I can't tell you what they are."

Well, you could do and save everyone the trouble of actually having to read your book and stomach crap writing such as this: 

"Behind the priests trudged a double line of young men swathed in gold cloth. Each carried a rectangular metal frame subdivided by twelve horizontal crossbars from which hung iron bells the size of winter rutabagas. Half of the young men gave their frames a vigorous shake when they stepped forward with their right foot, producing a dolorous cacophony of notes, while the other half shook their frames when they advanced upon the left foot, causing iron tongues to crash against iron throats and emit a mournful clamor that echoed over the hills. The acolytes accompanied the throbbing of the bells with their own cries, groaning and shouting in an ecstasy of passion."

It never ceases to amaze me that so many of the most popular fantasy authors can't even string a decent sentence together. Or a meaningful promotional video where they actually talk about something interesting. Still, you could argue that the very fact that I'm talking about this crap video means Paolini's achieved what he set out to do. Damn. 

If for some sadistic reason you want to watch Paolini talk crap for three whole minutes, check the video out here
. Alternatively you may wish to spend that time cleaning your bathroom, which would be far more exciting.

Monday 22 September 2008

Cover art for Conrad A. Williams' Decay Inevitable

Love this cover art for Conrad A. Williams' new novel, Decay Inevitable. Solaris have built a strong reputation for excellent cover art, but this raises the bar to a whole new level.

Darius from Solaris seems to think the teeth are the most unnerving thing about this stunning artwork by Dave McKean. I don't agree - I think it's the hands. That, and the fact the dude's head is on fire.

Wonderful stuff.

Sunday 21 September 2008

British Fantasy Award winners 2008

Sadly I wasn't able to make it to Fantasycon 2008 in Nottingham this year, as I'm busy hoarding all my pennies to pay for my wedding next year. Rather than mingling with the great and good of the UK genre scene, I was looking around wedding venues.

Still, there's always next year. In any case, here are the winners of the 2008 British Fantasy Awards:  

The Sydney J. Bounds Best Newcomer Award:

Scott Lynch

BFS Special Award: ‘The Karl Edward Wagner Award’:

Ray Harryhausen

Best Non-Fiction:

Peter Tennant
(Whispers of Wickedness)

Best Artist:

Vincent Chong

Best Small Press:

Peter Crowther, PS Publishing

Best Anthology:

Stephen Jones

Best Collection:

Christopher Fowler
(Serpents Tail)

Best Short Fiction

Joel Lane
(Black Static #1, TTA Press)

Best Novella:

Conrad Williams
(PS Publishing)

Best Novel: ‘The August Derleth Fantasy Award’:

Ramsey Campbell
(PS Publishing)

I must admit I do find the eligibility rules for 'best newcomer' rather strange, as Scott Lynch is not exactly a new author given that his debut novel was released in 2006. Still, despite Red Seas being a disappointment, it's hard to think of any other author that has made such an immediate impact as Lynch has in recent years. The reward is probably well-deserved, as Lies is a brilliant novel after all. 

PS Publishing were the big winners on the night, winning Best Small Press, while two of their novels - The Grin of the Dark by Ramsey Campbell and The Scalding Room by Conrad Williams - won best novel and novella respectively. Never read any of Campbell's work, but I enjoyed Williams' short story in the Solaris Book of New Fantasy, so I have no doubt that his win was deserved. 

Thursday 18 September 2008

Release date confirmed(?) for Lynch novel

According to a source on SFFworld, Lynch's anticipated next novel is now due to be released on 16th July 2009 in hardcover and trade paperback.

This info apparently comes straight from the publishers, so should be accurate. Whether it will change again is another matter entirely...

Wednesday 17 September 2008

Some other notable releases lined up for 2009...

I posted yesterday about some of the books I'm looking forward to next year, but there's plenty of other significant titles as well that are due to be released.

Here's a list of some of them:

The Judging Eye by R. Scott Bakker

Watcher of the Dead by JV Jones

Fall of Thanes by Brian Ruckley

The Adamantine Palace by Stephen Deas

The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

City & The City by China Mieville

A Memory of Light by Jordan and Sanderson

Dust of Dreams by Steven Erikson

2009 looks like it's going to be massive for fantasy...

A note on Tim and the Hidden People CD...

I posted back in February about how the series Tim and the Hidden People got me into fantasy at a very young age, and mentioned the fact that I have a CD containing scans of all the books. Despite the post being made some time ago, I've received several requests in the past few weeks from folks that would like to obtain a copy of the CD.

I thought it would be easier to respond here, rather than sending loads of emails.

While I can easily understand that fans of the series would love to get their hands on a copy of the CD I have, I'm afraid that I'm not willing to make these copies. I'm not going to explain why, because I don't feel the need. Please however don't send me any more emails requesting copies, as they'll be ignored.

If you do desperately want to get your hands on the original books, you'll just have to keep an eye on ebay, where copies sometimes crop up (for eye-wincing prices).

Tuesday 16 September 2008

Anticipated releases for 2009...

Anticipation is already building ahead of what promises to be a huge year for fantasy, with a slew of big novels slated for release (several of which were meant to surface this year). As readers and bloggers are already starting to discuss which titles they're looking forward to, I thought I may as well do the same. Here then are some 2009 releases that have got me rubbing my hands together in an unnerving manner and giggling slightly hysterically...

A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin

The big one. I don't think anyone can deny that this is the release of 2009. That's if it gets released of course. Several years in the making now, this next volume in the Ice and Fire saga perhaps carries even more weight given that its predecessor, A Feast for Crows, was not received as well as the series' previous instalments.

For many readers - myself included - Feast was a bit of a disappointment, with the exclusion of several major characters and plotlines a controversial sticking-point. For the first time, some readers began to express doubts: was Martin getting bogged down in the storyline? Was he including two many POV characters? Was the series losing focus? To some extent, Martin is the victim of his own success: A Storm of Swords is arguably the finest epic fantasy ever written, so it was inevitable that the follow-up would fail to reach this lofty height.

With Dance, Martin has a chance to set the record straight and show that he's still in control of the series. Fortunately, this novel will focus on characters and events in the Summer Sea and beyond, as well as up in the bitter north, all of which were sorely absent from the previous novel. Hopefully Martin will deliver a belter of a book and get the best epic fantasy series of all time firmly back on track.

The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

Make or break time for Scott Lynch. The Lies of Locke Lamora was a brilliant debut novel; an imaginative and amusing veneer, concealing a steel centre. It was quite simply excellent entertainment. Red Seas Under Red Skies, by contrast, was over-long with a clumsy plot that plodded along for several hundred pages before being resolved in a mere twenty or so at the end. Flashes of Lynch's imagination were revealed here and there, but the novel was - for many - a disappointment.

So, one excellent novel and one average novel. This third instalment should give us some indication of which way the series is going to go. The horrifically amateurish blurb that surfaced a while ago gave away a number of needless spoilers, so we have some idea of the storyline (too much of an idea, in truth) but hopefully Lynch can spring some surprises. Republic was due out this year but Lynch was late with the manuscript, so it's been delayed. Hopefully it will be worth the wait...

Dragonfly Falling by Adrian Tchaikovsky

As mentioned in my recent review, I really enjoyed Tchaikovsky's epic fantasy debut Empire in Black and Gold, which combined solid world-building with strong characters and a well-worked plot. The next book in the Shadows of the Apt sequence is already written and due for release next year. It could well cement Tchaikovsky's place as one of the UK's most exciting new fantasists.

Some other books (that as of yet don't have front covers!) that I'm looking forward to:

Nights of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton

This is Tor UK's epic fantasy debut release for 2009, and having been fortunate enough to read the first few chapters I can say that it sounds very promising. Somewhere between Erikson and Miéville in terms of style, it's a more literate fantasy than many offerings we see these days. It's due out around June and is definitely one to watch. Mark talks a bit about his upcoming novel on his blog.

The Cold Commands by Richard Morgan

The sequel to The Steel Remains, which I thought was a really decent fantasy. Am looking forward to perhaps seeing a bit more of a plot in the second one, as well as plenty of sex and violence. :)

Starfinder by John Marco

Marco's first book aimed at a younger demographic, Starfinder has a really intriguing premise and promises a rich, dynamic world. Marco is one of fantasy's more innovative writers, so I'm looking forward to see what he serves up with this one.

Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

Abercrombie is one of fantasy's most recent and significant success stories, with his The First Law trilogy receiving much critical acclaim. But the question now is can he replicate this success with a stand-alone novel? Will his new cast of characters prove to be as enthralling as his last bunch? Should be interesting to see how this one turns out.

Feel free to comment on your own anticipated reads for 2009!

Sunday 14 September 2008

Book review: Empire in Black and Gold

Empire in Black and Gold

By Adrian Tchaikovsky

(Tor UK, 2008)

It's good to see that - in amidst all the authors who are content to trot out the same old tripe about farmboys and reluctant princes in dull secondary worlds - there are still some writers that attempt to produce something a little different. Writers who actually understand that some degree of innovation is required for the secondary-world fantasy genre to avoid stagnation...and care enough to provide it. British author Adrian Tchaikovsky is one such writer.

Upon first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking that Empire in Black and Gold is just another epic fantasy. An oppressive empire intent on taking over the world, some young heroes - guided by an older mentor - determined to stand in its way, and so on. Nothing special, nothing original there. Until you discover that the humans of this world all possess insect characteristics, and suddenly you've got something totally different.

It's such a simple idea, but hugely effective. Wasp soldiers (like the fellow on the cover) that can sting their enemies...and fly. Mantis warriors with bladed forearms and a furious bloodlust pumping through their veins. The spiders and their crafty intellect, the beetles and their industry...the list goes on. The result is something both familiar and yet totally exotic, a heady mix that just offers so much potential (which Tchaikovsky is quick to exploit). Couple these various insect-kinden with a curious world in which steam/clockwork technology features heavily, and you have a rich, vibrant setting which proves to be a real strength of the novel. There's no bland 13th century Europe replicas here.

Tchaikovsky proves an equally dab hand at populating his world with intriguing characters and competently builds up several believable relationships. The four young protagonists (Salma, Cheerwell, Tynisa and Totho) are perhaps a little stereotyped in parts - Cheerwell, for example, being the classic coming-of-age character - but they're all developed well. Refreshingly, all receive similar amounts of 'screen time' and Tchaikovsky flits smoothly from one POV to another (often within the same chapter, even paragraph). The antagonist - Captain Thalric - is the star of the show for me, a finely-crafted individual who fights a constant battle between his sense of duty and his conscience, a theme that Tchaikovsky handles with commendable depth and skill.

Plenty of other themes are explored as well, such as innovation versus tradition, which lends serious weight to two relationships in the novel. Various complex relationship issues are also probed, adding real depth to the characters involved and serving as a reminder that - for all their insect 'ancestor arts' - the characters are undeniably human. To complement his absorbing world and characters, Tchaikovsky serves up a solid plot with one or two twists that keep things fresh. His prose is admittedly more solid than stylish, and could have done with a bit more of a lyrical flourish at times. That said, the writing is competent, clean and - most importantly - instantly accessible.

The novel's not perfect: the first third is weaker than the rest of the novel and at times seemed a little lightweight, though my initial fears about Empire in Black and Gold straying into YA territory later proved unfounded. Other minor flaws persisted - for example, Cheerwell seeming to hold her own in one or two fights was a little hard to swallow given her clear martial failings earlier on. Such complaints however are minor and don't spoil what is a very promising debut from a bright new British author.

Ultimately, Empire in Black and Gold is as strong a debut as I've seen in some time, with some real innovation and solid characters and worldbuilding. A novel that is refreshing when compared to many recent books in the same genre. Well worth checking out; Tchaikvosky has real potential to become a big name in epic fantasy.

Verdict: dddd

The next book in the series - Dragonfly Falling - is due out early 2009.

If you missed it, be sure to check out the interview I did with Adrian a short while ago.

Adrian's website can be found here.

Friday 12 September 2008

Getting back into the groove...

Arrived back from Crete on Tuesday, but have been pretty busy since then with various things - wedding plans, mostly. Still, I hope to get back on track blogwise with a review of Adrian Tchaikovsky's Empire in Black and Gold soon. 

We were in York yesterday and once again I was unable to visit the city without walking away with some cheap books. This time I picked up Elantris by Brandon Sanderson and Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan, so hopefully will get around to them at some point. 

Am currently reading China Miéville's The Scar - a novel I've been meaning to read for a long time. It's proving to be rather good...

Monday 1 September 2008

Off to Crete...

Just to let you all know, I'm off to Crete for a week. Hopefully wander around some ancient ruins, drink plenty of Mythos and read a few books. OMG I MIGHT EVEN SEE A MINOTAUR. OMG. 

Anyway, assuming I don't fail where Theseus succeeded, I'll be back in a week to pick up the blogging once again.

See you later. :)