Wednesday 25 February 2009

Pan Mac book pr0n

Received some tasty morsels this morning from Pan Macmillan...
Starting in the top left, we have Nights of Villjamur, by Mark Charan Newton (at last...been waiting a while for that one), then Twisted Metal by Tony Ballantyne (know nothing about it but it sounds cool), and then lastly Shadow of the Scorpion by Neal Asher (that's not some sort of mystic light seeping from it, but merely the glare of the camera flash...). 

Thanks to Chloe for sending the above. I was slightly alarmed when I saw the Royal Mail sticker on the front of the package that said "OMG WE'VE DAMAGED YOUR GOODS. HAVE A NICE DAY." Fortunately the contents escaped mostly unscathed, save for a tiny scuff on the front of Nights of Villjamur (would have to be that one...). Still, that might have already been on there. Proofs have a tendency to be a bit knackered, it's all part of their charm!

Adrian Tchaikovsky podcast

There's an interesting podcast with Shadows of the Apt author Adrian Tchaikovsky over at the Pan Mac site.

In the podcast, Adrian talks about his latest novel, Dragonfly Falling.

Comment: Richard Morgan on Tolkien

There was a bit of a kerfuffle recently, after The Steel Remains author Richard Morgan wrote an article about why he doesn't like The Lord of the Rings.

I don't have the time or inclination to regurgitate Morgan's argument here, so I'll just give my thoughts on the debate.

To put it quite simply, I think the whole thing is a bit of a storm in a teacup. So Richard Morgan doesn't like The Lord of the Rings. Who cares? It's not like he's alone - in fact, he's not even the first genre author to say so (Moorcock and Miéville have both gone on record in their criticisms of Tolkien and LOTR, although Miéville did later retract his initial statement).

Still, I understand why the article pissed plenty of people off - it carries a discernible "if you like Tolkien you're a bit of a simpleton" undertone. For example, take the following quote: "I only wonder why on earth anyone (adult) would want to read something like that."

The impression I got was that the article was just a cheap attempt by Morgan to get people wound up and create a bit of controversy, as the argument was rather simplistic and didn't take into consideration The Silmarillion - a vastly different book to LOTR.

I like Richard Morgan very much as a writer, however I have to say that if I was only allowed to read one more novel in my life, and had to pick between LOTR and The Steel Remains, I know what I'd choose (clue - it's got a fellow called Gandalf in it).

I note that Adam from The Wertzone has been particularly hacked off at various people's denouncements of Tolkien as not being dark or gritty enough, and in response he's posted a very good review of The Silmarillion, in which he crushes such accusations like ants... ;)

It's interesting that so many people that deride Tolkien haven't actually read The Silmarillion, which is what Tolkien considered his greatest achievement and his main project throughout his life...

Saturday 21 February 2009

Book review: Twelve


Jasper Kent

(Bantam Press, 1 January 2009)

Comparisons between Twelve by Jasper Kent and the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik are perhaps inevitable: both are set during the Napoleonic wars, and both make significant use of fantastical creatures (dragons in Novik's case, vampires in Kent's). But there the similarities end. Where the Temeraire series is generally quite lighthearted, Twelve is much darker. Where in Temeraire the reader somehow always feels slightly detached from the violence, in Twelve the violence is often brutal and far more visceral. Twelve is therefore a novel that needs to be assessed on its own terms.

The premise is simple: Napoleon's army is marching into Russia, with the intent of capturing Moscow and breaking the spirit of the Russian people. Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov is a Russian officer and a member of a four-strong secret group of saboteurs, whose sole task is to use their guile and stealth to slow the French advance. When all looks lost, Dmitri - one of Aleksei's comrades - sends an urgent request for help to the Oprichniki, a group of mercenaries from the fringes of Christian Europe. They prove hugely effective against the French...almost too effective. The more that Aleksei sees of his new allies, the more he doubts them. Eventually, he finds himself in a desperate struggle against not just the French, but an old enemy of mankind.

There's no doubting that the vampires are the star attraction of Twelve, so it was satisfying to see that Kent neatly avoided cliché. His vampires are far closer to the version found in eastern European folklore; they're not melancholy, beautiful figures in velvet jackets and frilly cuffs. Instead, they're brutal, almost primitive, killers that are devoid of any traces of humanity. They can't be reasoned with; they're relentless, efficient killing machines - a far cry from the general depiction of vampires in speculative fiction. This distinction lends a certain freshness to Twelve, which - had Kent perhaps used the more familiar stereotype - could have become stale very quickly.

As good as the vampires are, they don't steal the show from the human participants. Without some solid characterisation, Twelve could have ended up being a lopsided affair with vampires battling a host of paper-thin characters. Again, Kent avoids this pitfall by carefully developing the protagonist, Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov, and his relationships over the course of the novel. As cool as the vampires are, it's this strong human factor that really makes the book what it is. Aleksei's changing relationships with the prostitute Domnikiia and his comrade Dmitri - and the personal turmoil this causes him - adds some stark realism and emotional impact to the novel.

The plot itself is simple but well-constructed, building up nicely in both tension and pace. Kent manages to through a few curveballs into the mix as well, keeping the reader on their toes, and his prose is clean and accessible. Despite the setting, Kent manages to avoid getting bogged down in military detail, with just enough information given to the reader to further understanding and atmosphere.

The novel does have its flaws. Certain characters, at times, display a rather muted emotional response that I found unconvincing. For example, more than one character - when discovering the true nature of the Oprichniki - didn't seem too bothered or surprised. Sure, folktales carried far more resonance two hundred years ago than they do now, but still...I expected a bit more of an emotional response from some people. This problem extends to Aleksei as well; sometimes he seems too fearless, and on more than one occasion he makes decisions that seem utterly ludicrous (and clearly only for the sake of the plot's advancement). It's hard to go into much detail, as I don't want to spoil anything, but I also felt that he seemed rather too adept at dispatching the extent that the vampires sometimes didn't come across as fearsome as maybe they should have done. Then again, perhaps this was deliberate. I do quite like the idea of Kent's vampires being somehow more vulnerable...

I felt that at times the atmosphere of the time period didn't come through as well as it could have done (this is one area where I am happy to cross-reference with Novik - I think she does better than Kent at capturing the atmosphere of the Napoleonic era). Some snippets of language seemed a little modern, and subsequently a little jarring. I would have liked more description at times, as I had trouble picturing one or two places. Some passages did feel a little stark in terms of the prose.

Verdict: Flaws aside, Twelve is a solid, engaging novel and a promising start to the quintet that Kent has promised. There's plenty of good action, solid character development and a decent plot that manages to surprise on more than one occasion. I'm already looking forward to the next novel, Thirteen Years Later, both to see how the story progresses and to see if Kent can improve on the areas that I think could be done better.

Jasper Kent's website.

Friday 20 February 2009

GRRM speaks out about Dance

George R. R. Martin has spoken out about A Dance with Dragons, after receiving another flurry of emails from fans who 'helpfully' pointed out it had been a year since his last update. 

Here's his post in full:

"No, it's not done.

Yes, I am aware that more than a year has passed since my last update. A lot of you have been emailing me to point that out. Thanks, but really, I did know. Unlike many of you out there, I got my copies of the Song of Ice & Fire calendar, so I knew what date it was.

No, I'm not planning to update the update, for reasons stated in the update itself. Until such time as I can write, "It's done," it will remain the last update... aside from what I may say here from time to time, on my Not-A-Blog.

I made a lot of progress on the book in the first half of 2008. So much so that I was optimistic that I would be done by the end of the year. Unfortunately, I did not make much progress on the book in the second half of 2008. Indeed, I made some regress. (That Sansa chapter I talked about finishing, for instance. It's still finished, but my editor and I decided it belongs in THE WINDS OF WINTER, not A DANCE WITH DRAGONS, so it's been moved into the next book. Sansa will not appear in DANCE.)

Some of the reasons were literary, arising from problems in the narrative itself. I'm not going to discuss them here, because I really do not like talking about questions I am still wrestling with on a work in progress. It never helps. Art is not a democracy, and these are problems I need to solve myself. Having a few hundred readers weigh in with their thoughts and opinions -- which seems to be what happens whenever I post here about DWD -- does not advance the process. I'm sorry, but that's true. I know that many of you would like to help me, but you can't. I have editors and I have two capable assistants, and that's sufficient. I'm the only one who can dance this dance.

Some of other reasons for the delay have nothing to do with the book itself. They're extra-literary, arising from other things in my life. I could sketch out some of them here, sure, but what good would it do? Those who are inclined to understand would send me messages of sympathy and support. Those are not so inclined would dismiss them as "excuses," or even "feeble excuses." A few will even go so far as to accuse me of lying.

That's the part that really bothers me. For the record, I have never lied about anything having to do with A DANCE WITH DRAGONS or the series as a whole. I have been wrong, yes. I have been wrong lots of time, especially when I've tried to predict how long it will take me to complete the book, or when it will be published. Being wrong is not the same as lying. Since the very beginning of this series, I have been guilty of being over-optimistic about how long it would take me to finish the next book, the next chapter, or the series as a whole. I cannot deny that. I have always been bad with deadlines... one reason why I did my best to avoid them for the first fifteen years of my career. That's an option I no longer have, however. Or at least will not have until A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE is complete.

That's the main reason why I no longer want to give any completion dates. I am sick and tired of people jumping down my throat when I miss them.

This latest flood of emails has worn down my resolve, however. So in hopes of quieting it, once more I will step into the breach --

I am trying to finish the book by June. I think I can do that. If I do, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS will likely be published in September or October.

(Yes, I am aware that I have previously said that I hoped to finish by the end of 2008. And before that, I said that I hoped to finish by June 2008, before I went to Spain and Portugal. And before that, I said I hoped to finish by the end of 2007. I know, I know, I know. No, I was not lying. I was wrong. And wrong again. And wrong before that. This time I hope that I am right. But you know, I can't swear that in blood. I write one chapter at a time. One page at a time. One word at a time. And then the next.)

That's all I have. But it's more than Amazon has, or anyone else.

The INSTANT that I finish the novel and put it in the mail to Bantam, I will post that fact here, just as I did for SUICIDE KINGS a few days ago. Until and unless you read that announcement here, believe nothing you hear from any other source.

I have made a lot of progress on the book since August 2007. Thanks for your continued support... and for your patience."

GRRM has covered some issues raised in articles around the genre blogosphere; he's stated that yes, he's made mistakes, and no, he's not lied about anything (as some deluded individuals seem to think). He's highlighted some of the difficulties he's faced in the writing and has explained why he chooses not to share these problems. Perhaps most significantly, he's - somewhat reluctantly, I feel - given a prospective publication date of September/October 2009, which is good to see. 

So, you anti-fans have got your precious update - happy now? 

GRRM has also posted a message to his 'detractors' (as he calls them - I told you he was a real gent):

"If you are not one of my detractors, this is not about you. Thanks for your support.

I have to admit, the rising tide of venom about the lateness of A DANCE WITH DRAGONS has gotten pretty discouraging. Emails, message boards, blogs, LJ comments, everywhere I look (and lots of places where I don't), people seem to be attacking me, defending me, using me as a bad example of something or other, whatever.

I can and do avoid most of the online discussions, although I do regularly get emails from people eager to point out the latest URL where DANCE and I are being hashed over. I can do that, and I can screen the trollish comments here on LJ, but there's no avoiding the emails.

Some of you are angry about the miniatures, the swords, the resin busts, the games. You don't want me "wasting time" on those, or talking about them here.

Some of you are angry that I watch football during the fall. You don't want me "wasting time" on the NFL, or talking about it here.

Some of you hate my other projects. You don't want me co-editing WARRIORS or the Vance anthology or STAR-CROSSED LOVERS or any of the other projects I'm doing with my old friend Gardner Dozois, and you get angry when I post about them here. For reasons I don't quite comprehend, the people who hate those projects seem to hate WILD CARDS even more. You really don't want me working on that, "wasting time" on that, and posting about it here.

Some of you don't want me attending conventions, teaching workshops, touring and doing promo, or visiting places like Spain and Portugal (last year) or Finland (this year). More wasting time, when I should be home working on A DANCE WITH DRAGONS.

After all, as some of you like to point out in your emails, I am sixty years old and fat, and you don't want me to "pull a Robert Jordan" on you and deny you your book.

Okay, I've got the message. You don't want me doing anything except A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE. Ever. (Well, maybe it's okay if I take a leak once in a while?)"

Here's my reply."

It's pretty clear that GRRM's pissed off and upset about all this bullshit abuse he's had, so all you anti-fans can congratulate yourselves on a job well done. You've managed to upset a guy whose only crime was to write a brilliant fantasy series and give you hours of entertainment. I hope you all feel proud of yourselves. Perhaps now you'll actually go and do something constructive, rather than hurling juvenile abuse around (well, we can all hope - no doubt some of you will leave some bullshit in the comments section below, as you're wont to do).  

Thursday 19 February 2009

Proof that sometimes...

...US covers are better than UK covers! In this particular case, I think the US cover for Robert V. S. Redick's Red Wolf Conspiracy is far superior to the UK version. Check them out below and see for yourself.

First up is the UK cover...

And then we have the rather nice US cover...

Tuesday 17 February 2009

Guest post: Adrian Tchaikovsky

I was frantically wondering what to blog about this afternoon, and was on the verge of throwing a frilly-cuffed strop (not strictly fact, not true at all. I just try to use/abuse that phrase as much as possible) when I was rescued by Shadows of the Apt author Adrian Tchaikovsky, who emailed me to submit his guest article that he'd kindly agreed to write a short while ago.

Adrian's debut novel Empire in Black and Gold was published by Tor last year, and the next two novels Dragonfly Falling and Blood of the Mantis are to be released this year.

So, without further delay, here is what Adrian thinks of that much-maligned beast - the fantasy film.

Enjoy - I certainly did.

- - - - -

The Empire (in Black and Gold) Strikes Back.

Out of the blue, in the middle of an interview for SF London: "So... what are your thoughts about a film?"

To which my automatic response was, "Well, a good film of the books would be Best Thing Ever, but..."

Fantasy films have a dodgy pedigree. Until quite recently it was entirely defensible to say that there were no unqualifiedly good heroic fantasy films: any list of their virtues would always have to qualified by "but..." or "except..." There was a golden age of cheap fantasy films riddled with poor special effects(1), wooden acting(2), ludicrous villains(3), muddled concepts(4), ill-chosen music(5), chauvinism(6), bad plotting(7) and sheer all-round gut-cringing awfulness (8). The only thing that saves most of those bad old films is their very cheapness. It makes them enjoyable because you know that, between their soaring ambition and their plunging budgets, nobody was going to do any better than Hawke the Slayer. Once you get past the "except..." many of them are actually quite good, and all of them are watchable.

More recent bad films are less amusing to watch, because they stand as clear demonstrations of the adage that you can't just throw money at a problem, and that's a waste. It may seem incredible but had the right writer, director and producer been given the brief "Dungeons and Dragons Movie", they could have pulled something decent out of the bag, given the enormous budget they had to work with. After all, if that's not a free-form brief I don't know what is. Make sure there's a dungeon and a dragon in there somewhere and, if you cared a damn about the project, you could have something worthwhile. The result: Joint Worst Fantasy Film Of All Time. Worse than Hawke the Slayer? By several hundred miles, because you can always go further with more money behind you, especially in the wrong direction.

Some of these films are adaptations, some are not. Others claim to be adaptations but really, really aren't. Whether Conan the Barbarian kept the spirit of Howard is arguable either way, it certainly didn't keep the text. And this is the basic problem for an author, of course, because, JK Rowling excepted, it would seem to be a pretty shaky business handing over the film rights. The princess in Rumpelstiltskin had the same contract: a stack of gold for your firstborn (10). A number of writers have been quite vocal about the quality of adaptations of their work, notably Ursula le Guin, on whose behalf the Sci-fi channel (11) failed to seize the opportunity to present her timeless masterpiece, and of course Alan Moore, who goes into vitriolic detail about his clashes with the film industry in the interview published in Jess Nevins' Impossible Territories. However the most sublime author commentary on film adaptations comes in The Last Watch, the fourth book in Lukyanenko's Night Watch series, which has spawned two films that diverge exponentially from the plots of the books. In his latest work, Lukyanenko has several characters refer to events in the films as particularly disturbing and inexplicable dreams that they had, putting continuity firmly in its place. Should it matter to the author what Rumpelstiltskin does with his child? Phillip Pullman has said, talking about the film The Golden Compass, that it doesn't. The book is still there on the shelf, he points out. The text has not been changed by the film. I'm less convinced of the church-and-state separation that he claims. After all, more people will see the film than read the book, most likely. If the film is a dog, and if it acquires that particularly odiferous reputation that bad films do, then the title is surely tainted by association. A really bad film can cast a long shadow.

Of course, it would be a remarkable book that could be turned straight into a film without the slightest changes, and probably not a very satisfying book at that. There are bad reasons to deviate from source: for fleeting fashion, or because of some executive producer's idea of "what the kids want", or some committee somewhere decides that people are far too stupid to get the original. However a different medium will always require some tinkering. I'd even venture so far into heresy as to say that sometimes the plot of a book, for whatever reason, can benefit from medium-scale changes when being filmed. After all, and against tradition, we have actually had some good adaptations on screen recently. Fantasy films based on books have been enjoying a moderate renaissance. Leaving aside the ubiquitous Mr Potter and his misadventures, and other adaptations of young adult books such as Spiderwick Chronicles and Inkheart (12), the scope of adaptations runs the gamut of faithfulness. Lord of the Rings is the big one, and is mostly both very good and also true to the original, save that Jackson made the wise decision to cut back and forth between the divided characters in instalments 2 and 3, and took a few other liberties to make the fights more cinematic (13). It does make great cinema and it's a very subjective call, depending on how much you like the original, whether that kind of change is justified or not. At the further end of the scale is last year's Prince Caspian, which was an extremely successful adaptation precisely (imho) because it replotted the original quite a bit, bringing the Pevensies in a lot earlier in the fight, making Caspian himself a lot more capable (14), and adding a cracking castle assault in the middle. Of course, the Narnia stories are getting on a bit now, and expectations of a fantasy action film are such that the original would probably have come across as plodding and light on incident and emotion. The film isn't perfect, but I was very taken with it. I'd go so far as to say that even the romantic subtext, that Lewis would surely rather have stabbed himself than written, was a Good Thing. However, as an example of doing things by the book, there's always Stardust, an extraordinarily good film that manages to stay spot on with Gaiman's original almost all the time. It's also an unparalleled example of a film that balances serious and comic elements to the detriment of neither, a rare thing indeed. A key factor here, I suspect, is that Gaiman is writing now and has a good knowledge of the film industry himself. It makes one long for an American Gods TV movie...

It's worth putting a word in here for cartoon adaptations, which like the films are an odd lot. Aside from Bakshi's troubled Lord of the Rings (or, given that he never finished it, Lord of the R) there's a halfway decent cartoon of Beagle's The Last Unicorn with a cast including Christopher Lee, but marred by some unfortunate Disneyesque musical numbers. Moreover Studio Ghibli, doyennes of the Anime world, have now had a crack at both Diane Wynne-Jones and Ursula le Guin and, whilst both adaptations were wide of the mark on accuracy, they were still good in and of themselves. As I'm currently presiding over a series of books that checks the boxes [1] strong female leads [2] steampunk tech; and [3] giant insects, I'm watching with interest.

So I suppose the final word comes down to: good films are good, even if they diverge from source, bad films are bad, but cheap bad films are just funny. As for me, well, the film rights are still up for grabs, and everyone's high-faluting principles are soluble in sufficient sums of money...

And if Empire in Black and Gold subsequently ends up filmed under the title A Bug's Life II you'll know what happened.

(1) James Earl Jones turns into a snake in Conan the Barbarian for, let's face it, no reason whatsoever. Plus there's the magical travelling gate the heroes enter in Hawke the Slayer which is clearly, when they exit it, not only the same gate, but the same gate in the same piece of forest with the same distinctive tree to one side of it. That's just lazy. Good old Hawke also gives us the world's shortest giant and the world's tallest dwarf.
(2) The hero of The Beastmaster is out-acted by his own ferrets, whilst the elf in Hawke the Slayer is apparently on valium for the entire film, save when he's loosing arrows at a rate of fire that would impress an AK47.
(3) Poor aging Jack Palance in (yes, again) Hawke the Slayer who stands like he's on a horse even when he's not, whilst Rip Torn in the Beastmaster chews the scenery enough to give it rabies.
(4) Krull, whose producers, terrified by the success of Star Wars, tried to turn it into a SF film in post-production.
(5) Poor, poor Ladyhawke which was doing so well until someone decided that all that star potential would be wasted without a disco soundtrack.
(6) Of which the best/worst example is surely Conan the Destroyer whose lesbian villainess gets somewhat graphically impaled.
(7) The party of heroes in Legend which, Eddings-like, actually outnumbers the villains (9) considerably, are so utterly clueless that Tim Currie's marvellous villain actually has to explain his own fatal vulnerability in their earshot, apropos of nothing, before they have a hope of defeating him.
(8) Hawke the Slayer. Hawke the Slayer. Hawke. The. Slayer.
(9) The Fortress of Darkness in Legend is almost completely empty. Its complement of staff appears to consist of two ogre jailers, who double up as chefs. The goblins that received a disproportionate amount of screen time in the first half of the film have apparently hightailed it, and there are some druids or something who are presumably kept in a box until the last scene, wherein they accomplish absolutely nothing.
(10) Guessing the name of the holding corporation will not get you out of the contract.
(11) Whose adaptations of Dune were so damned good, for the lord's sake!
(12) Where's the Frances Hardinge film or TV adaptation? That's what I want to know.
(13) In the books the Steward of Gondor had the sense to evacuate the city before the orcs arrived, for example.
(14) You'll recall that originally Caspian basically makes an utter fist of the war before the kids turn up and save his useless ass from his own shortcomings, for which he's jolly dashed grateful, what?

- - - - -

Many thanks to Adrian for his excellent guest post! I heartily agree that Hawk the Slayer is easily the worst fantasy film of all time, for the reasons Adrian mentioned but also for the fact that Hawk himself has no personality - at all. And because the evil dark lord is his brother (and has a comedy 'evil' name - Voltan). And because the director thought using dozens of luminous bouncy balls would work as a 'magical' effect (it doesn't). And because there's a woeful attempt at a 'comedy interlude', where the giant and dwarf have an argument about holy bread. And because almost the entire film takes place in a murky wood. And because the plot is unbelievably dire. And because...well, you get the idea.

One of my friends once watched Hawk the Slayer twice in a row, back-to-back, and barely escaped with his sanity intact. It's that bad.

Krull actually isn't too bad, if you excuse the fact that - as Adrian points out - the makers clearly thought "Shit - we should be making a science-fiction movie, not a fantasy!" halfway through production. And also if you excuse the fact that the evil bad guy is called 'The Beast.' (No, really. He is. Seriously).

Monday 16 February 2009

Jasper Kent/Twelve video interview

Jasper Kent has released a short video where he talks a bit about his novel Twelve (one of my anticipated reads for 2009) and its influences. I particularly like the fact that Twelve is the first novel of a quintet, that will cover a period of over 100 years from the Napoleonic war to the First World War. And I'm looking forward to finding out which character it is that survives to the last book...given the time-span involved, it's clearly not a human! ;)

I've almost finished reading Twelve, and will have a review up shortly. In the meantime, check out the video:

SF Site's official 'Best of 2008' list

The SF Site has now released their official editors' top-10 books of 2008 list, which you can find here.

As usual I've not read any of the novels listed (although I do own two of them - Toll the Hounds and Busted Flush).

The overall best novel goes to Anathem by Neal Stephenson.

Sunday 15 February 2009

Book review meme...

I missed out on the last meme conjured up by John from Grasping for the Wind, so I'm making up for that by taking part in his latest link-up party. 

In John's own words: "Find a favorite book, movie, or videogame review (Science fiction and fantasy related) that you have written, no matter where it was posted, and add it to the following list. Make sure to repost the whole list, because in doing so, we accumulate what the reviewers themselves think is their best work, and give each other some linkages, increasing everyone's rankings."

So, here's the list so far...with my own review added at the bottom. I like to think that book reviews are one of my blog's strongest points, but it's hard to pick a favourite. Still, I always quite liked my review of The Terror, so I've linked to that. 

The Book Review Meme @ Grasping for the Wind

1. Grasping for the Wind - INFOQUAKE by David Louis Edelman
2. Age 30+ ... A Lifetime of Books - A COMPANION TO WOLVES by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear
3. Dragons, Heroes and Wizards - ASSASSIN'S APPRENTICE by Robin Hobb
4. Walker of Worlds - THE TEMPORAL VOID by Peter F Hamilton
5. Neth Space - TOLL THE HOUNDS by Steven Erikson
6. Dark in the Dark - GHOST STORIES OF AN ANTIQUARY by M.R. James
7. A Dribble of Ink - THE SHADOW OF THE WIND by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
8. Fantasy Book News & Reviews - EMPRESS by Karen Miller
9. Fantasy Debut - ACACIA by David Anthony Durham Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Overall Review Afterthought
10. Speculative Horizons - THE TERROR by Dan Simmons

Thursday 12 February 2009

The Dance goes on...

Just wanted to bring to your attention a well written article over at Finish the Book, George, which is about the other side of the A Dance With Dragons argument (in other words, why fans should feel entitled to be angry with GRRM).

Now, I'm not one to normally publicise any anti-GRRM stuff, but this is a rational and coherent article and well worth a read. I don't agree with many of the points of course, but I can understand and respect the reasoning behind them. It's good to have intelligent people giving their opinions from both sides of the argument.

Naturally however, the tone is drastically lowered by some of the comments, one or two of which are rather amusing. Here's my two favourite comments:

"I agree with everything written here, I went and checked out the crap written by those other wankers and felt sick reading it. How can so many people be so far up 1 fat ass?I can't wait til the next book comes out, more to the point, I can't wait til the next book becomes available for free on a file sharing network, because i'm not paying 1 cent to that fat lazy rude arrogant sloth.Finish the Book George you fat fuck.All you other wankers that defend him, get a fucking life and grow some balls. Peace out nerds."

If this is the sort of juvenile, idiotic bullshit that GRRM gets every day in his mailbox, no wonder he doesn't bother to update us anymore. No surprises that the person that wrote this posted anonymously. Grow some balls? I suggest you do the same, mate, and come back when you're brave enough to post under a proper name. Stop hiding behind the anonymous veil of the internet.

"Shawn, Aidan, Wert & Peter V Brett have written good articles the odd one out is James who quite frankly seems like another o GRRM's numero ANO-fan. But they are all focussing on the same fact which we choose to harangue Gorgie boy on.... that he is undisciplined & needs more focus... of course they call artistic merit & other fancy words... still Pie-boy is lazy no matter what epithets you grant him."

Ah, recognition at last...though I'm not sure what ANO-fan means exactly - though I suspect it has something to do with the assumption that I've got my cock firmly lodged up GRRM's ass. Sorry to disappoint you folks, but I'm the other side of the Atlantic from GRRM, and - as well endowed as I am - I can't quite stretch it that far. Note yet more juvenile name-calling by the poster. That seems to be a characteristic of many of these sort of posts.

I have absolutely nothing against people that can present a logical and thoughtful argument as to why GRRM's fans have a right to feel aggrieved. In fact, I'd encourage it as it makes for some great debate. But all this petty name-calling is just pretty foolish - not to mention ironic. How can these 'fans' demand to be treated with more respect when they're hurling names at GRRM in the same breath?

Tuesday 10 February 2009

Book review: Stormrider


David Gemmell

(Bantam Press, 2002)

An interesting quality of David Gemmell's work is the addictive quality it has. As I've probably mentioned at some point, I once read all 11 of his Drenai novels in a row, and after finishing I'd quite happily have started all over again. There's just something about his novels that inspire genuine involvement on behalf of the reader, and it's easy to become addicted to his unique brand of storytelling. So after finishing Ravenheart, I figured I'd just jump straight into the final novel in the Rigante quartet - Stormrider.

The novel picks up the story some four years after the events of Ravenheart. The prospect of civil war between the King's forces and the Covenanters (only briefly alluded to towards the end of the previous novel) has now exploded into a grim, brutal reality. As it becomes ever more apparent that the ruthless Winter Kay and his zealous Knights of the Sacrifice are bending the course of the war to their own sinister ends, the Rigante and the Moidart - two sworn enemies - find themselves allied to a common cause.

At the centre of this bloodbath are Gaise Macon, the Moidart's son, and Kaelin Ring, now a respected member of the Rigante. Both are heroes in their own right and share a common ancestor, yet they are enemies and struggle to fight alongside each other. And as the war reaches its height, one of them is forced to make a terrible sacrifice to ensure the birth of a new world...

As with all of Gemmell's work, Stormrider is driven by its characters. Some old faces re-appear, alongside one or two new ones. Gemmell was always fascinated by the idea of redemption and the darkness that lurks in men's souls, and this is reflected in the character of Gaise Macon. The son of the Moidart struggles against his inner demons, and as the war turns against him, it's fascinating to wonder which Gaise Macon will triumph - the noble, dashing young cavalry officer, or the cold, ruthless killer of men. As always, you know pretty well how things will pan out, but this doesn't detract from the emotional impact of the ending (and what a good ending it is).

The Moidart really comes to the fore in Stormrider, and subsequently goes down as one of Gemmell's best characters. Gemmell shows wonderful skill at taking a man you think you know everything about, and then reinventing him. The process of the change to the Moidart's character is subtle and extremely well handled. Gemmell imbues this man with such sorrow and pain, that despite his obvious failings he's still a figure that inspires sympathy. His transformation, in the end, is very satisfying indeed.

Characters aside, Stormrider has the usual enjoyable mix of battles and adventure. The emergence of a powerful magical relic adds a further dimension and enables Gemmell to make use of a number of supernatural devices that were a staple of the Drenai novels. Like all Gemmell novels, various themes are explored deftly (this time around, we have redemption, the futility of war, and the question of whether evil is ever justified) without hindering the novel's plotting or pacing.

Quibbles are few and far between. You could argue that with the exception of Maeve Ring, the novel lacks a strong female character. Some might also find that the novel wears its influences a little too brazenly (Stormrider is very clearly based on the English Civil War, much as the earlier Rigante novels are undeniably based on the conquests of Ancient Rome) but this wasn't a problem for me. In fact, in Midnight Falcon it is revealed that the war being fought is in fact being mirrored on other worlds by similar factions, one of which is directly named as Rome. You could therefore argue that any clear connection to history in the Rigante novels was deliberate on Gemmell's part, as he seems to have viewed his worlds as being part of a larger multiverse that included Earth.

Probably the weakest aspect of the novel is the fact that Gemmell somewhat reverts to type and creates a climax based around his favoured defenders-facing-impossible-odds scenario. For me this didn't spoil my enjoyment of the novel at all, but admittedly the whole situation did seem rather familiar (as I've probably mentioned before, this plot device was used by Gemmell numerous times throughout his writing career).

Verdict: Not up there with his finest novels (in fact, out of the four Rigante novels I'd place it third in terms of quality, behind Midnight Falcon and Ravenheart) but still a solid novel, that encompasses the best elements of Gemmell's work. While at times certain elements seem over-familiar, Stormrider is an entertaining and meaningful read, with strong characters and an absorbing mix of magic, battles and political intrigue.

Monday 9 February 2009

My 10 most anticipated 2009 fantasy books - part 2!

Recently I posted the first part of my ten most anticipated fantasy books for here's the second part!

Dragonfly Falling

Adrian Tchaikovsky

(Tor, 6 February 2009)

I thought that Tchaikovsky's 2008 debut novel Empire in Black and Gold was a really solid first effort. Packed with innovation, it also had the extremely cool premise of human beings with insect characteristics. There were one or two glitches, but overall I saw more than enough quality and potential to look forward to the second novel in the Shadows of the Apt sequence...which is just as well, given that it's sitting on my read-as-soon-as-possible pile. Incidentally, while I never really liked the artwork of the first novel, the cover for Dragonfly Falling looks even cooler in reality than it does on the screen.

Blood of the Mantis

Adrian Tchaikovsky

(Tor, 7 August 2009)

You could argue that this is a bit of a speculative (no pun intended) inclusion, given that my anticipation of this novel depends almost entirely on how good Dragonfly Falling is. I'd agree with this argument, however I have real confidence that Dragonfly Falling is going to at least equal the quality of Empire in Black and Gold, and based on this I'm going to go out on a limb and slap Blood of the Mantis on my list. And what a cool cover that is...


John Marco

(DAW, 5 May 2009)

Regular readers will probably know by now that I'm a big fan of John's Tyrants and Kings trilogy, which mixes tradition with innovation (knights + flamethrowers = win!). Starfinder, the first in a new series called The Skylords, once more looks to try and push the boundaries of fantasy a bit, while remaining true to the genre's best traditions. This novel treads new ground for John, as for the first time he's writing for a slightly younger audience.

John was kind enough to send me an ARC of Starfinder, and hopefully I'll get around to it soon.

Nights of Villjamur

Mark Charan Newton

(Tor, 12 June 2009)

I've mentioned this novel quite a number of times over the last few weeks, namely because it's the debut novel I'm most anticipating this coming year. As I've mentioned before, I've read the first few chapters and like what I've seen very much. A fascinating world, and prose with distinct noir stylings. Nights of Villjamur looks set to be a very good debut indeed.

The Cold Commands

Richard Morgan

(Gollancz, 17 September 2009)

No cover art as of yet. As I said in my review of The Steel Remains last year, I struggled to see where all the fuss came from about how The Steel Remains was going to redefine the term 'gritty.' Aside from some considerably full-on sex scenes, I didn't think there was much in Morgan's debut fantasy effort that hadn't been done before. Nonetheless, Morgan created a cool world and some decent characters, and the black humour and wit was very appealing. I did think the plot was a little thin though, so I look forward to seeing whether The Cold Commands is a bit more meatier in this regard.

Saturday 7 February 2009

Update and linky links...

Had a really cool day today; went to Buxton (the surrounding hills looked pretty spectacular in the deep snow) to meet up with Mark Charan Newton for a few coffees and plenty of chitchat. A pleasure as usual. Can't wait for my ARC of Nights of Villjamur to turn up...

I've noticed a bit of a surge in visits to the blog recently - yesterday saw more than 300 visits, which is a new record for a single day and something of a milestone. So to all the new folk, I hope you enjoy my little part of the interwebs and please do keep checking back. 

In terms of upcoming content, a review of David Gemmell's Stormrider should be appearing shortly, and I realised the other day I never posted my thoughts on Iron Man and 30 Days of Night, so I'll try and post them as soon as I can. Hopefully a couple more guest posts will materialize in the near future, so keep your eyes peeled for them. 

Right, here's some linky links to some interesting stuff from around the blogosphere:

Aidan's posted the artwork for Robert V. S. Redick's The Rats and the Ruling Sea. Personally it does nothing for me at all, so don't be surprised if it makes a 'crap fantasy book cover' feature in the near future... Incidentally, I won't be reading this novel as I read the first book in the series and didn't think an awful lot of it.

Graeme has posted a review of The Secret War by M. F. W. Curran. Saw this one recently, and thought it looked interesting. Graeme gives the book a solid thumbs-up, so I'll probably check it out. 

Jeff asks an intriguing question - does profanity belong in book reviews? 

Adam has some exciting news for us about Paul Kearney...

Dark Wolf offers his own opinions on the US artwork for Best Served Cold...

Realms of Speculative Fiction has a review of The Painted/Warded Man. Really want to try this one out at some point. 

Darren over at The Genre Files has posted up an interview with artist Alex CF.

Friday 6 February 2009

The Hunt for Gollum....

Some time ago it was announced in the British media that a bunch of Tolkien enthusiasts were filming a 'prequel' to the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies, on a paltry budget of £3000. I freely admit that I assumed that the film would be crap. I mean, most films of this type generally are (a bit like how 99% of fanfic is also total crap). 

Then I watched the trailer...and realised I was totally wrong. 

I have to say, given the tiny budget and the fact that the bulk of the production crew and actors are amateurs (and not doing it for money), this film - named The Hunt for Gollum - looks seriously impressive. Billed as a "film by fans, for fans", they've done a great job of recreating the tone and atmosphere of the Jackson films, and the cinematography is very polished. The orcs look fantastic, and the actors seem very competent indeed. Of course, we can only discern so much from the trailer, but I like what I see very much.

The film is going to be released only online, with a release date of 3 May 2009

The full trailer is on Youtube (naturally...) but the quality is inferior to the flash version on the official website, so I suggest you check it out here. There are also plenty of stills, as well as information about the film.

I'll be watching developments with interest...

Thursday 5 February 2009

Guest post: John Marco

Recently I decided that I'd like to try and get a bit more interaction going with authors on Speculative Horizons. As a fantasy fan, one of the things I enjoy most about the blogosphere is reading the opinions of authors on various aspects of the genre.

So I'm pleased to present the first in - hopefully - a series of guest posts by various authors. Kicking things off for us is John Marco, author of the excellent Tyrants and Kings trilogy, and also the Lukien trilogy (he's currently working on a new novel in this world). His most recent offering is the upcoming Starfinder, which sees John treading new ground as he writes for a slightly younger audience. John maintains an active blog here.

So without further delay, here's John's guest post.

Write What You Love

I’d like to start by thanking James for inviting me here to talk a bit about books and writing. I’ve been reading Speculative Horizons from the time it started, and it’s obvious that James loves both books and the genres of science fiction and fantasy. I mention this because what James does here—and what other bloggers all over the internet are doing—is important. In a time when print and in some cases reading in general is threatened, blogs like this one keep the flame alive and the genre vital. James left the door open for me to talk about any topic I wanted, and it took me a bit to settle on one. But then it occurred to me that some of the people who visit this blog are writers themselves—aspiring or otherwise—and that’s when inspiration struck.

A short while back I had lunch with my agent in Manhattan. This isn’t something I do often so I was looking forward to the meeting. And of course I knew the subject of the publishing industry’s woes would come up, and how epic fantasy was taking a back seat these days to urban fantasy and other genres. For a person like myself who writes epic fantasy, who’s made it his entire career in fact, this kind of talk is distressing. Publishing is full of ups and downs. Over the years I’ve gotten used to them (mostly!). But admittedly, things do seem to be on a downswing right now.

So what’s a writer to do?

Follow the wind, you might say. Writers are always being told to know the markets. And in fact that’s good advice. (If you’re planning to make a living writing Westerns, well…)
Give up completely, you might say. No one’s reading books any more anyway. They’re all online or playing with their Wiis. Find another dream. Find another outlet for your creativity. (As you might have guessed, I don’t subscribe to this one.)

During lunch my agent told me a surefire way to get published right now. Write about a girl who falls in love with some sort of super-natural creature, he said. Make sure it’s a girl, because publishers don’t want to see manuscripts about boys any more. Sex it up. Tattoos are good too. My agent being rather deadpan, I didn’t realize he was being facetious. I said with a touch of indignance that no, I wasn’t going to do that. I was going to keep on writing what I want to write, what I love to write. He looked at me and smiled and said, “That’s right. And if you didn’t, I wouldn’t represent it.”

We human beings are gifted at the things we love. That’s how we identify what we want to do with our lives. That’s the seed from which the struggle is born. Maybe the odds of getting published have never been worse. Maybe epic fantasy is on a permanent slide. I don’t know. It had a pretty good run, and like I’m fond of saying every train comes to a station eventually. But if you try to write something you don’t love—and I mean love passionately—you’re not going to succeed. I could never write the kind of book my agent “suggested” because I don’t read those kinds of books. It doesn’t matter to me if editors are actively looking for them; I can never write one good enough because I don’t know the genre and don’t have the “juice” to sit down and write one.

Now, I’m not here to criticize urban fantasy or any other genre. A lot of fine writers are working in that area, selling books and keeping folks reading. Great. They do what they do, and if you’re a writer and that’s where your heart tells you to go, follow it there. But if not…
If you’re a writer of any kind you’ve probably heard the advice to write about what you know. And the genres you know best are the ones you read. Unless the lights go out completely, there will be an audience for epic fantasy. Maybe it will be smaller, but it’s not dead yet so don’t go writing any obituaries. If your fondest dream is to write a great big, sprawling epic fantasy novel, then writing a thin little YA book isn’t going to do it for you. You can try, but you’ll probably fail. On the other hand, if you write what you love you might just come up with something exceptional, something so good an editor just can’t say no to it.
A dozen years ago, when I first got serious about getting published, epic fantasy was in full bloom. It seemed like a good and viable genre to tackle, but more than that it was a natural choice for me, because I loved the genre and always had. Things have changed and the world has moved on a bit, but there are still new authors getting published. People are still reading books.

When I was a boy I spent countless hours in my local library, scanning the shelves of fantasy and science fiction paperbacks, in love with the cover art and challenged by the content. I knew I wanted to be a writer, and I knew what I wanted to write. I bugged my mother to drive me to the library, and rode my bike through traffic to reach it once I was old enough. I’m at that very same library right now with my laptop, writing this post. It still looks pretty much the same. It’s still filled with people, old and young. Recently I went downstairs to the fiction section and snapped a picture with my cell phone. They only have one of my books, but it’s there on the shelf, and now I have a picture of it to remind me why I do what I do. When I look at it I know I made the right choice. And I’m going to keep on writing what I love because that’s the only thing I can do.

Write what you love. Read what you love. Whatever it is, be proud of it.

Many thanks to John for writing such an engaging piece. I, for one, totally agree with what he says. Sure, aspiring writers need to take market conditions into consideration, but ultimately you have to write from the heart, not the head.

Wednesday 4 February 2009

Crap fantasy book covers #16

Not for one minute did I ever expect a Joe Abercrombie book cover to feature in one of these posts. Joe's first three novels have excellent covers that were widely praised. Indeed, the UK artwork for his new novel, Best Served Cold, had many of us drooling like a beggar in a bakery. Here it is, in case you've somehow not seen it yet:

Mmm, nice....very nice. The above cover is in-keeping with the style of the covers for the First Law trilogy, but adds a new dimension with the map and sword. All things considered, it's very cool indeed. So it's a huge shame for our American friends that Orbit US thought, "Hmm, not sure whether this is suitable for the market over here. It's missing something. What if we just did this..."

"Result! Secksy chick in leather and wider market appeal 4tw!"

Well, no. Not really. Sure, I understand the reasoning. Urban fantasy is huge right now, so slapping an image that has more in common with a story about some emotionally unstable, leather-clad heroine (who is the offspring of a demon and a werewolf, and is currently dating a vampire in the spare time she has inbetween 'assignments') does make some sort of skewed sense.

But not when you slap it on one side of the cover, leaving half of the original artwork on the other side. The result is a clumsy fusion of two elements that looks about as comfortable as a sober Amy Winehouse. They just don't match. The idea is clearly to try and get Abercrombie's novel to a wider audience, but I can imagine both urban and epic fantasy fans looking at the cover and thinking, "Er, no."

Still, only time will tell as to the success of this cover. I've little doubt that the novel hiding behind that terrible cover will be vastly superior in terms of quality. While we're on the subject, be sure to check out Aidan's article in which he examines Orbit's response to the online uproar (and which includes some of the other covers that were considered).

Crap-o-meter rating: 8/10

Tuesday 3 February 2009

Artwork and blurb for Mark Chadbourn's 'Lord of Silence'

Here's the artwork for Mark Chadbourn's forthcoming novel Lord of Silence (Solaris, 3 August 2009), and here's the blurb:

When the great hero of the city of Idriss is murdered, Vidar, the Lord of Silence, must take his place as chief defender against the mysterious terrors lurking in the dense forest beyond the city's walls.

But Vidar is a man tormented—by a lost memory and a vampiric jewel that demands the life energy of others. Now, with a killer loose within Idriss, and the threat from without mounting, Vidar must solve a three thousand year-old religious mystery to unlock the terrifying secrets of his own past.

I must admit that the cover doesn't do much for me (unusually for a Solaris novel, as normally I really like the covers they produce). I like the colours and the architecture, but the rather clichéd warrior image makes me wince a little. On a more positive note, I do find the premise of the novel quite exciting and will hopefully get my hands on a review copy later down the line.

Peter V. Brett wades into the GRRM debate...

Peter V. Brett, author of The Painted Man (or The Warded Man if you're in the States), has written an insightful article on his blog about writing, deadlines and how this relates to the situation that has evolved from the delay to GRRM's A Dance With Dragons.

Always good to hear the point of view from an author (especially when he agrees that the abuse aimed at GRRM is unfair).

Monday 2 February 2009

SF Site's 'Best of 2008' list

SF Site has released its list of best reads for 2008, which can be found here. I think this is the editor's choice; the readers' choice is still to come.

Number one spot is taken by Neal Stephenson's Anathem.