Wednesday 30 September 2009

A few interesting interviews...

Thought these might be of interest:

New interview with Steven Erikson at Fantasy Book Review.

New interview with Sir Terry Pratchett at The Telegraph.

New interview with John Jarrold (literary agent extraordinaire) at Fantasy Book Review.

Tuesday 29 September 2009

Two-book deal for Paul Kearney

Paul Kearney's The Ten Thousand received plenty of plaudits last year for its excellent prose, visceral battle sequences and intriguing world remeniscent of Classical Greece and the Persian Empire. Fans were excited to hear that Kearney intended to write further novels set in the same world, only for disappointment to set in after Solaris was put up for sale and any future plans put on hold.

However, Kearney fans can now rejoice following this statement:

"Jonathan Oliver, the commissioning editor for Solaris Books since it was acquired by Rebellion has confirmed a two book deal with Paul Kearney. The novels, entitled Corvus and Kings of Morning, are due for delivery in 2010 and early 2011 respectively and are set in the same universe as Paul's successful The Ten Thousand, previously published by Solaris.

Paul's agent, John Jarrold, was quoted as saying “The immediacy of Paul’s prose and characterisation always puts me in mind of David Gemmell, who I was lucky enough to publish in the mid-1990s...With The Ten Thousand he has created a world ripe for re-visiting. Can’t wait to read these books! And I’m very pleased to have concluded my first deal with Jon Oliver and the ‘new’ Solaris.”

Great news. I really enjoyed The Ten Thousand, so it's fantastic to know that we're going to get some further novels about the warlike Macht race. That the new Solaris team have got the contract sealed so quickly is a strong indication that they regard Kearney as a key author for the imprint (unsurprising, given his qualities as an author and also the commercial success of The Ten Thousand).

Looking forward to these novels very much indeed...

Sunday 27 September 2009

Gollancz Autumn Party 2009

I had an awesome time at the Gollancz Autumn party in London last Thursday night; it was great to meet a load of authors, editors, bloggers and other industry folk that I'd never had the pleasure of meeting before. The free drink was nice too! The event was held in the refined surroundings of the October Gallery in Bloomsbury, moving on later to a pub around the corner. As well as meeting my fellow bloggers Gav, Graeme, Adam and Mark, I managed to have a chinwag with James Barclay, Joe Abercrombie, Chris Wooding, John Jarrold, Gollancz editor Simon Spanton and publicity guru Jon Weir, and a new author called Gavin Smith whose first book is due out next year (and who is clearly as crazy about A Song of Ice and Fire as me!). 

So overall, a great evening. Here's some photos!

The three blogateers: yours truly, Graeme (Graeme's Fantasy Book Review) and Adam (The Wertzone)

James Barclay and myself

Myself, some small-time author called Joe Abercrombie, Gav (NextRead) and Mark (My Favourite Books)

Mark, Gav and myself

Chris Wooding, myself and a rather inebriated-looking Adam(!)

My fellow bloggers have already posted their own reports of the event here, here, here and here.

Many thanks to Jon from Gollancz for organising such an enjoyable evening (and kudos to him for managing to keep 100+ authors/editors/bloggers from trashing the gallery, despite all the free booze!). 

Wednesday 23 September 2009

GRRM announces Irish book signings...

GRRM fans in the Emerald Isle rejoice, for the man himself has just announced a couple of book signings in Ireland.

From his Not A Blog:

"On Tuesday, November 3, I will be speaking and signing at Eason's Bookstore in Belfast. The event begins at 1:00 pm. Or 1300 for you European types.

On Thursday, November 5, I will be at Eason's on O'Connell Street in Dublin. This event begins at 5:00 pm, or 1700.

More details when I have 'em."

I highly recommend going along to see GRRM, even if you've not read any of his novels. Aside from the fact that it's a great chance to meet one of the true greats of speculative fiction, GRRM's also an entertaining speaker who is always interesting to listen to. Proper gent as well, unlike some of his anti-fans...

Monday 21 September 2009

Graham Joyce on winning the British Fantasy award for 'best novel'

Graham Joyce on winning a BFA for Memoirs of a Master Forger, taken from an article on The Guardian website:

"It's extraordinary really: everything's quiet for a couple of years and then this," said Joyce. "I've been a professional writer for 20 years, and there are contours in that time, crescents and troughs ... This is a crescent.

Fantasy gets a mixed reception – a lot of fantasy is formulaic but most of the award-winning fantasy on the contrary tends to be the stuff at the edges of the genre, rather than swimming in the middle."

Other winners included Tim Lebbon, for his novella The Reach of Children. Full list of winners here.

Kim Stanley Robinson attacks the Booker prize

Award-winning SF author Kim Stanley Robinson has launched a broadside at the Booker prize, claiming the award neglects SF.

"Speaking as an outsider from California and as a science fiction writer I see these very brilliant writers doing excellent work who are never in the running at all, for no reason except their genre and who their publishers are – the so-called club members. It just needs to be said...

The Booker prize is so big, the way it shapes public consciousness of what is going on in British literature, but the avant garde, the leading edge, is being ignored or shut out of the process entirely."

The judges, Robinson argues, "judge in ignorance and give their awards to what usually turn out to be historical novels."

Interestingly, the response from the Booker judges is mixed. The Chair of this year's panel, James Naughtie, concedes Robinson's point but points the finger at the publishers: "There has always been a debate about whether the prize is sufficiently sensitive to all the forms of contemporary writing. He may well have a point. We judge books that are submitted. The fact is that the science fiction component this year was very, very thin. If it is the best contemporary fiction in this country then most publishers haven't yet tumbled to the fact."

However, another judge - John Mullan, Professor of English at University College in London - displayed the typical arrogance and disdain for the genre that we've come to expect from the literati - "When I was 18 it was a genre as accepted as other genres, but now it is in a special room in book shops, bought by a special kind of person who has special weird things they go to and meet each other."

It's all very well saying that the publishers are at fault for not submitting more SF novels for consideration, but why would they when the prevailing attitude of the Booker judges is probably well represented by Mullan's amusing ignorance? Simple fact is, SF is looked down on by the literati, and publishers submitting more of it to the Booker prize isn't going to make a shred of difference.

Friday 18 September 2009

Book review: Best Served Cold

Best Served Cold

By Joe Abercrombie

(Gollancz, 1 April 2009)

First things first: aesthetically, this book is - as the phrase here in the UK goes - the 'dog's bollocks.' In other words, it looks stunning. Abercrombie is very much the success story of British fantasy in recent years, with sales of his books rumoured to be around the 300,000 mark (and that figure, if correct, is drawn almost entirely from the sales of The First Law trilogy, so doesn't really include sales for Best Served Cold).

Gollancz, unsurprisingly, have thrown their full weight behind this novel, and this support is clearly demonstrated by the book itself. The excellent artwork is old news, but you have to hold the book to really appreciate its beauty - the embossed title, the crisp feel of the cover, the nicely-presented inlays (one at the start of each section, revealing a different part of the map - a very nice touch). Full marks for presentation then, but this only raises the question of whether the story itself lives up to the lovely dust jacket that it wears...

The focus is certainly narrower. Whereas The First Law trilogy is geographically expansive (taking in events all over the Circle of the World), Best Served Cold is set exclusively in Styria, a country made up of city states engaged in a state of perpetual civil war, reminiscent of Renaissance Italy. It is against this backdrop that the feared and reviled mercenary general Monzcarro (Monza) Murcatto finds herself undertaking a blood-soaked quest to avenge the death of her brother, Benna, who - like Monza - was thrown off a mountain by their erstwhile employer, Duke Orso, but - unlike Monza - didn't survive. Essentially what you've got is a revenge tale, imbued with Abercrombie's distinctive black wit and irony. And a lot of blood.

I noticed quite quickly that Abercrombie's writing has improved markedly. While I enjoyed Last Argument of Kings very much, after some reflection I do feel that some of the writing in it seemed a bit forced, a little rushed even. This wasn't a problem in Best Served Cold - the prose is altogether sharper, but also meatier when it needs to be. I've always found Abercrombie's prose to possess an almost cinematic quality, in the sense that I can for the most part visualise the world and characters very easily, and this trait thankfully continued in Best Served Cold.

While the plot's premise is simple - Monza and her merry band of cast-offs and misfits attempting to kill seven men or die trying (well, in Monza's case at least) - Abercrombie manages to cram the story full of elaborate ploys, intense battles and plenty of did-you-or-did-you-not-just-poison-me? moments. In Last Argument of Kings, Abercrombie showed a knack for twists, and he's at it again here - some you will see coming, some you won't. Stylistically and thematically, Best Served Cold continues in the same vein as The First Law, yet it's even bloodier and more full-on than his first three books...put together. In years to come, if you look up the word 'visceral' in the dictionary you might find a simple statement: 'read Best Served Cold.' Naturally the entire bloody mess comes wrapped in Abercrombie's trademark blacker-than-death humour, with plenty of sharp one-liners being tossed about.

While Best Served Cold is technically a standalone novel, it maintains close links to The First Law - there are references to various factions and power struggles from the earlier books that are clearly becoming long-term story arcs, while many established minor characters make appearances, rubbing shoulders with plenty of newcomers. The US cover (left) makes Monza out to be an ass-kicking-hot-chick-in-leather but in reality she has much more depth than that, with nagging self-doubt and bleak world-weariness blending with white-hot anger to form a hugely flawed, interesting protagonist.

The northman Shivers, a minor character from the earlier books, makes for a solid sidekick - his character arc is well-handled and convincing, as his perception of both the world and himself gradually changes. Friendly, a former convict obsessed with numbers, somehow manages to inspire a degree of sympathy in the reader despite being a heartless killer. The most intriguing new character by some distance though is Shenkt, largely because he's hard as nails and possesses a strange ability that makes for some rather memorable fight scenes...

So - desperate battles, nefarious plots, wisecracking characters spilling gallons of blood, and prose shot through with gallows humour. Surely a winning combination?

Well...not quite. Best Served Cold has a number of flaws in my eyes.

The main issue I had was - surprisingly - with the characters. I just couldn't connect with most of them on any real level. Perhaps it's because the entire lot of them - to varying degrees - are cheating, lying, backstabbing scumbags with barely a redeeming feature among them. It was odd to read a novel where there was no 'hero', where it's not clear who you're meant to be siding with (none of them, I suspect). This is not to say that some of them are not likeable in their own way, but I found it so hard to invest in any of them because they are all so morally vacant. While I'm all for shades of grey rather than black and white, Best Served Cold almost takes it too far, with the end result that I found it hard to care what happened to any of them - hence my enjoyment of the novel was seriously hampered.

On top of that, some of the characters just didn't seem that interesting - many readers seemed to like Morveer, but I found him to be an annoying bore and felt my eyes glazing over in many of his POV scenes. It's disappointing, since the references to his childhood indicate that he has quite a dark background, but he never fulfilled his potential. His catchphrase 'Caution first, always' grated after a while, as did his assistant Day, who - as a character - did nothing for me at all. Giving a character an odd trait (constant eating in Day's case) might make them memorable, but it doesn't make them interesting. Sadly Ganmark and Shenkt - two of the best new characters - make only fleeting appearances.

There are issues with the pacing. Effectively, the story boils down to a linear series of big events. These are mostly handled well (more on that later) but now and again the story got bogged down in between them - I was never in danger of losing interest, but it did test my patience at times (normally when Morveer was prattling on to Day).

There's a minor issue with repetition in terms of the language. With a revenge story like this, you expect there to be plenty of violence and blood - that I have no problem with. But unfortunately there's only so many ways you can describe someone getting stabbed, or impaled, or maimed. And when people get stabbed, impaled and maimed as much as they do in this book, it means that the descriptions quickly become over-familiar: 'spots of blood', 'black blood spattered...' and so on. After a while it did become a little tiring - as did the frequent mention of 'runny shits'...

I also had an issue with the tension - or lack thereof. Some of the twists - and there are more than I expected - I never saw coming, others I saw from a mile away. One scene - arguably the most significant in the book - had less impact for me because I had already guessed what was coming. This was a real shame, since it would have been brilliant if it had occurred without forewarning. You can also argue that the final confrontation reveals a rather glaring hole in the plot, bringing certain characters' motives and decisions into question, though this didn't bother me too much (the twist that comes with it managed to make up for these shortcomings).

Verdict: It's frustrating really, because Best Served Cold could have been brilliant. It's chock full of action, has several surprising twists and there's some engrossing scenes. Abercrombie's dark wit is present and correct, and there are some well-judged comical moments, as well as some well-developed character arcs. But to my mind the pacing is sluggish at times and the characterisation isn't as strong as I've come to expect from him.

Still, Best Served Cold has given me the urge to re-visit the earlier books to read them again in the context of what happens in this novel, and I will certainly pick up Abercrombie's next novel The Heroes when it surfaces (the sections of The First Law that were set in the northlands were easily my favourite chapters, so I am really looking forward to this).

Wednesday 16 September 2009

Another cool Black Company cover...

I really like the recent covers for Glen Cook's Black Company novels (and for his other books, for that matter). I've not seen this one before, and while I don't think it's as good as the others it's still pretty cool:

In other news, I've just finished Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold, so look out for a review shortly...

Friday 11 September 2009

Forbidden Planet book signing photos

Only just found out about this today, but thought it might be of interest.

Forbidden Planet in London hold quite a few book signings, and have uploaded plenty of photos of the events to Flickr.

Check them out here, if you feel so inclined. :)

Tuesday 8 September 2009

I'm a coward, apparently...

As is Aidan from A Dribble of Ink, Dark Wolf from Dark Wolf's Fantasy Reviews, Larry from OF Blog, Jeff from Fantasy Book News and Reviews, Gav from NextRead, the entire crew at Fantasy Book Critic, and many other book reviewers throughout the genre blogosphere. As are many other book reviewers from other genres. And the professionals who get paid to write book reviews for high-brow publications, such as the Guardian - many of them are supposedly cowards too.


Well, because we don't put a little number at the end of our reviews.

Or at least, so says Paul Stotts from genre blog Blood of the Muse. In an interview over at Temple Library Reviews, Paul said the following:

" I think writing a review, and not giving it some sort of numerical score is a cop out; it’s cowardice—pure and simple—since many online reviewers don’t want to upset publishers or authors.

So they write reviews that are open to interpretation, using nebulous terms like good, overemphasizing the positive aspects of the book, trying very hard not to have an opinion. It’s okay, you’re entitled to have an opinion, you’re entitled to take a stand and let people know what you think.

See, words lie; numbers don’t. And I don’t want to lie to my audience. So I score every book on a scale of 100. Like any review, the number is completely subjective; there are no underlying components. I score books by ranking them against other novels I’ve read in the genre. It’s rather simple. But effective."

I beg to differ. To me, the suggestion that all book reviews that don't incorporate a numerical rating are a 'cop out' because said reviewer doesn't want to upset the author and/or publisher, is nothing short of ridiculous.

As those of you who have followed this blog from the start will know, I used to use a numerical rating for my book reviews. Eventually I ditched it because I felt I was not being consistent enough with my use of it, and I decided that in any case it simply wasn't necessary. To my mind, a good book reviewer should be able to make their feelings on a book clear without having to rely on a numerical failsafe. Now, that's not to say that I think reviewers shouldn't use ratings - personally I don't care either way. It's up to the individual blogger to decide. I just so happen to think that - along with a good many of my fellow bloggers - that they just don't add much value to a review, and can actually cause confusion when the number doesn't seem to correlate with the opinions expressed in the review.

Suggesting that us bloggers that don't use numerical ratings are being cowardly is bizarre - I just don't understand where Paul's coming from here, nor can I comprehend what possible evidence he has to support his theory. Just because you stick a number at the end of your review doesn't mean you're being honest and that your integrity is intact. Sure, there are some reviewers out there - probably - that are a little scared to be too critical, and maybe they don't use ratings as a result (note the emphasis on 'maybe'). Even if this was the case, they're still a distinct minority.

I just find it amusing that my credibility is being questioned simply on this basis. If I was a coward and was scared of upsetting, say, Gollancz, then why did I give one of their books a scathing review? What about Solaris - if I was worried about what they thought of me, would I have given one of their books a pretty awful review? As it happens - I have excellent relations with both publishers, and not once have either of them expressed annoyance at any of my reviews and not once have I compromised my own integrity or principles by writing a falsely-positive review in order to stay on good terms with them.

Perhaps Paul could kindly explain his theory a little further, maybe with some hard evidence. I'd also be grateful if he could explain his own rating system to me, because I'm afraid I don't understand what the difference between an 83% rating and an 86% rating is.

Anyway, I'll get off my soapbox now. In fact, I think I'll hide underneath it 'cos that's what a coward would do, right?

Monday 7 September 2009

Mark Charan Newton reveals blurb and artwork for his next novel...

Over at his blog, Mark Charan Newton has unveiled the artwork for City of Ruin - the second instalment in the Legends of the Red Sun sequence.

Here's the cover:

And here's Mark's 'attempt' at a blurb:

"Viliren: a city of sin that is being torn apart from the inside. Its underworld is violent and surreal. Hybrid creatures shamble through shadows and there is a trade in bizarre goods. The city’s inquisition is rife with corruption. Barely human gangs fight turf wars and interfere in political upheavals. The most influential of the gang leaders, Malum, has nefarious networks spreading to the city’s rulers, and as his personal life falls down around him, he begins to embrace the darkness within.

Amidst all this, Commander Brynd Adaol, commander of the Night Guard, must plan the defence of Viliren. A race that has broken through from some other realm and already slaughtered hundreds of thousands of the Empire’s people. As the enemy gather on next island, Brynd must muster the populace – and the gangs. Importing soldiers and displacing civilians, this is a colossal military operation, and the stress begins to take its toll.

After a Night Guard soldier is reported missing, it is discovered that many citizens have also been vanishing from the streets of Viliren. They’re not fleeing the city, they’re not hiding from the terrors in the north – they’re being murdered. A serial killer of the most horrific kind is on the loose, taking hundreds of people from their own homes. A killer that cannot possibly be human.

It is whispered that the city of Viliren is about to fall – but how can anyone save a city that is already a ruin?"

On the whole I really like the artwork, especially the way it has echoes of the cover of the first book (in terms of the urban background, and the colour scheme). You're always playing with fire when you place a character on the front in terms of representation, simply because everyone pictures them slightly differently. In this case, the depiction of the albino Brynd doesn't quite hit the mark for me, perhaps because he looks quite anime-ish...or maybe because he doesn't quite look 'hard' enough. Still, he looks pretty cool and overall I like the artwork a great deal.

As for the blurb, it sounds hugely promising with plenty of scope for some weird happenings. Mark has gone on record as saying that this book will be significantly more weird than the first, and having read the first few chapters I can safely say that it is. What I read was also a marked improvement on the first novel in terms of prose; the writing in City of Ruin is more confident (not that there was anything wrong with the prose in Nights of Villjamur!).

So anyway, very exciting stuff. June release for this one, I think. Looking forward to it...

Speculative Horizons featured in 'Sunday Night Spotlight'

Peter from the blog Ubiquitous Absence has introduced a regular feature called 'Sunday Night Spotlight' in which he conducts a bit of informal chit-chat with various bloggers from the genre blogosphere. This week it was my turn, so if you're interested in finding out a little more about why I started Speculative Horizons, my predictions for the genre in 2010 and various other bits and pieces, you can check out the interview here.

Previous interviews with Pat of Pat's Fantasy Hotlist fame and with Ken from Neth Space can be found here and here.

Friday 4 September 2009

Cover art and blurb: 'The Drowning City'

Orbit love their 'hooded figure' book covers (and with good reason - they sell books), but most of them haven't hit the mark for me. But I like this one, the cover for Amanda Downum's debut novel The Drowning City, a lot more - quite sleek and stylish.

Blurb doesn't sound bad either:

The Drowning City: home to exiles and expatriates, pirates and smugglers. And violent revolutionaries who will stop at nothing to overthrow the corrupt Imperial government. For Isyllt Iskaldur, necromancer and spy, the brewing revolution is a chance to prove herself to her crown. All she has to do is find and finance the revolutionaries, and help topple the palaces of Symir.

But she is torn between her new friends and her duties, and the longer she stays in this monsoon-drenched city, the more intrigue she uncovers - even the dead are plotting. As the waters rise and the dams crack, Isyllt must choose between her mission and the city she came to save.

While the premise sounds pretty standard - magicking and politicking - I'm drawn to the setting: a monsoon-ravaged Eastern-influenced city is pretty cool. Might check this one out.

Thursday 3 September 2009

Rebellion acquires Solaris

Received this press release yesterday:


This week, Rebellion, Europe’s leading independent games developer and owner of the iconic comic 2000 AD and sci-fi and fantasy imprint Abaddon Books, completed the acquisition of the Solaris book publishing imprint from Games Workshop for an undisclosed sum.

This well-known and highly successful brand offers a mixture of new and traditional science fiction, fantasy and horror books and has many bestselling titles from both upcoming and established names such as Brian Lumley, Gail Z. Martin, Eric Brown and Simon R. Green, amongst others.

Solaris will sit alongside, and be run in parallel with, Rebellion’s own Abaddon Books. Jason Kingsley, CEO of Rebellion said, “We’ve been aware of the Solaris imprint for some years now and have admired its success with fantastic stories and great writers. Acquiring Solaris will allow us to continue to push our publishing trajectory upwards and expand the quantity, whilst maintaining the quality, of all our titles.”

George Mann, Games Workshop’s Head of Publishing said, “We’re delighted that Solaris has found a new home with Rebellion. After a period of fantastic growth with our Games Workshop related titles, we decided the time was right for us to focus all of our attention on our Black Library imprint. We’re sure Rebellion will now take Solaris forward to even greater heights.”

Rebellion has also entered into a sales and distribution agreement with Simon and Schuster. Under the agreement, Simon & Schuster will continue to handle sales, distribution and fulfilment of all Solaris titles for all new and backlist titles to trade and specialty accounts. The agreement is effective August 31st, 2009.

Simon & Schuster, a part of CBS Corporation, is a global leader in the field of general interest publishing, dedicated to providing the best in fiction and nonfiction for consumers of all ages, across all printed, electronic, and audio formats. Its divisions include Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing, Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, Simon & Schuster Audio, Simon & Schuster Digital, and international companies in Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
For more information, visit our website

Distribution for Solaris will continue to be represented by Simon and Schuster.

I'm a little surprised that Rebellion bought Solaris given that they've already got their own genre imprint in Abaddon, and wouldn't be surprised if they merged the two together. Still, I guess they've got the media resources and the experience necessary to continue to develop the Solaris brand, and I really hope they manage to do so.

Tuesday 1 September 2009

Book review: The Magicians

The Magicians

By Lev Grossman

(Viking, 11 August 2009)

This is a novel that wears its influences brazenly (there's firm nods to J. K. Rowling, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and D&D) and yet despite that it's still a difficult novel to define. 'Harry Potter on acid' doesn't really come close; I've seen the comparison with J. K. Rowling's young wizard made too much for my liking, not just because Grossman's tale of a young man enrolling at a magic school is much darker and edgier than Rowling's work, but also because he asks a very good question that Rowling - to my knowledge - doesn't: what the hell do you do with yourself when you've graduated from magic school, wield considerable power and have the whole real world spread out before you?

Note the emphasis on the world 'real', since this is one of the fundamental points of Grossman's book - how the real and fantastical worlds come together to cause no shortage of problems for his protagonist, the young Quentin Coldwater. Quentin is a character that many of us will feel familiar with, (since many of us have probably been similar people at some point, or maybe even still are): a bored, depressed young man who can't see where he fits into the mundanity of modern life, and longs to escape into a fantastical world that he has become obsessed with (in Quentin's case, the Narnia-esque world of Fillory).

Yet unlike most people, Quentin gets his chance to fulfil his personal fantasy when he enrolls at 'Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy', somewhere in upstate New York. Soon he finds himself wielding power the likes of which he has only ever dreamed of. It all seems too good to be true...and of course, it is. With power comes responsibility, and even in the fantastical environs of Brakebills the consequences are terribly real.

The premise of a group of young people learning magic and then having to apply it to 21st century living is a very fertile one, and one that Grossman exploits fully, not least in the various issues and themes that he addresses. Quentin - an engaging protagonist that inspires effortless sympathy on the reader's part - learns a lot of lessons the hard way: not to abuse or toy with the power he wields, not to try and run away from the problems the real world throws at him, and to be very careful what he wishes for. Quentin's (mis)adventures also raise numerous questions - is it ethical to teach young men and women to harness such a potentially destructive force, that can (and does) kill? Is escapism just pointless wish-fulfilment that only leads to disappointment (or even worse)? What do you do when you've achieved the one goal you've ever had, and realise that life doesn't just end happily after like it does in the stories?

Despite the exploration of themes and the questions that they raise, The Magicians is fundamentally an accessible, enjoyable fantasy adventure in the great tradition of the influences it makes no attempt to hide - albeit a fantasy adventure laced with irony and disaffection, with its feet planted very firmly in the bitterness and bile of the real world. Grossman's prose is fluid and furnished with evocative embellishments, and he has imbued real pace and purpose into the story. Furthermore, Brakebills - clearly based on the English public school model - is the kind of school everyone wishes they attended, and is subsequently familiar and fun to read about (the English influence extends to even the characters themselves, as all have very 'classic' English names - Quentin, Janet, Eliot, Richard, Alice and so on), which creates an almost whimsical atmosphere.

Watching Quentin and his merry band of slackers struggle with their powers and their relationships - especially when they're trying to put them in the real world's context - starts out as enjoyable and swiftly becomes addictive. Grossman manages to inject real personality into most of the principal characters and is extremely good at depicting their emotions and relationships - particularly that between Quentin and his love interest, which packs a serious, realistic emotional punch. Yet there are moments of well-judged humour as well (I laughed out loud more than once - on the train, no less) and it's also fun to see how Grossman pays tribute to his influences (the spells 'Magic Missile' and 'Prismatic Spray', for example, are lifted directly from D&D).

As always, there are some flaws. I personally thought that Quentin was thrust rather too quickly into the magical world of Brakebills, to the extent that I found it hard at first to quite understand his resentment of the real world - simply because I hadn't seen enough of his life there. A couple more pages to demonstrate his poor relationship with his parents and his general disaffection would have helped. Furthermore, I found his transition to Brakebills - to a different world - rather subjective; even for someone so obsessed with a fantasy world that he almost believes in it, he accepts his new life far too readily for my liking.

Certain emotional events are not emphasised enough - the horrible fate of one student fairly early on is clearly hugely tragic and shocking, yet the pupils seem to forget about it very swiftly. 'Book three' (the novel is divided into four 'books') is probably the weakest, mainly because the story is at its most potent when dealing with Quentin's struggles in the real world. When the action moves to other more fantastical realms - mainly in book three - the impact seems somehow muted (with one notable exception). Some readers might take issue with the fact that there is no discernible magic 'system' and that it's sometimes hard to get a feel for what constitutes a serious drawing of power and what doesn't, though this wasn't much of an issue for me.

Verdict: Flaws aside, The Magicians is a very entertaining book. Grossman has delivered a creative, thought-provoking fantasy that is all the more powerful for its links to our own reality and the issues it raises (as I've said before on this blog, this is when the fantasy genre is at its most potent). Despite the obvious debt it owes to various genre classics, it still somehow manages to feel fresh. The Magicians is by turns exciting, shocking, amusing and heart-wrenching. Easily one of my favourite books I've read this year - highly recommended.