Monday, 30 November 2009
Robert Holdstock - RIP
I've never read any of Holdstock's novels (though I've heard very, very good things), and sadly did not get a chance to say hello at the Gollancz party last month. Judging from the highly emotional reaction from the online genre scene, he will be very badly missed indeed. My thoughts are with his family.
Here are links to some posts from around the blogosphere:
British Fantasy Society.
Friday, 27 November 2009
Book review: Knights of Dark Renown
By David Gemmell
While perhaps being most famous for his Drenai series of novels, David Gemmell also wrote a number of standalone fantasy books - Morningstar, Echoes of the Great Song, Dark Moon and Knights of Dark Renown. The main difference between these standalone books and the Drenai saga (aside from the fact that they employ different settings) is the much more pronounced use of magic in these individual titles, as well as more significant use of genre elements such as the undead, and so on.
They are also, in my opinion, distinguished from the Drenai novels by the fact that they're not as good (by that I don't mean they're bad, because they're not - they just don't match the sustained excellence of the Drenai novels). I therefore picked up Knights of Dark Renown expecting the same sort of experience.
To my considerable delight, the novel proved me wrong - Knights of Dark Renown may not be up there with Gemmell's best work, but it certainly matches most of the Drenai novels in terms of quality.
As is always the case with Gemmell novels, the premise is pleasingly simple. The Knights of Gabala were the shining light of justice and order in the Nine Duchies, until they disappeared through a portal to another world on a mission to defeat the ultimate source of evil. They never returned. In their absence, a new, sinister order of knights have emerged and have gained total influence with the king. As a result, the world is sliding into chaos - people of nomad descent are being slaughtered in their thousands in a bid to 'cleanse' the lands of their 'impurity', while law and order are non-existent.
Mannanan is the Coward Knight. A Knight of Gabala, he held back when his brothers rode through the dark portal, consumed by his own fear. Now he lives in shame, forever tormented by his failure. Yet as madness consumes the kingdom, Mannanan must confront his fears and finally ride through the portal in a desperate attempt to find the lost Knights of Gabala, who are the doomed kingdom's only hope. Meanwhile, in the Forest of the Ocean, a reluctant outlaw - Llaw Gyffes - finds himself the focus of a rebellion that he has no wish to be part of. But as the stakes increase, Llaw realises he must help spark the fires of freedom, even though it will mean his own death...
Mannanan is a classic Gemmell protagonist - he's a broken man hounded by his past failures, yet he refuses to accept his fate and is determined to do whatever it takes to make things right, even though that means confronting his greatest fear. The supporting cast are equally strong, with satisfying development arcs (particularly with regards to Groundsel, Lhamfada and Nuada). As always, Gemmell handles the relationships and emotional reactions between the characters extremely well, revealing how their own hopes and desires affect their choices and decisions, leading to some powerful scenes.
Gemmell books are known for their exploration of themes, and Knights of Dark Renown is no different. The predominant theme is heroism, with Gemmell asking the question of what constitutes a hero. Are they defined by who they are, what they do, or both? Is it possible for a murderer and a rapist to become a hero, or are they forever tarnished by their past deeds? The theme of sacrifice is also prevalent, particularly in relation to the characters of Nuada and Groundsel, whose respective storylines make for some poignant moments.
Though Knights of Dark Renown is one of Gemmell's earlier novels, the prose shows a distinct improvement over preceding novels such as Legend and Waylander, particularly in terms of the dialogue, which is more natural. Pacing is excellent with not a dull moment or a wasted scene, the plot is very well constructed, and the action scenes are - as always - vivid and gripping. There's even a good twist that no doubt plenty of readers saw coming, but I didn't (and I'm glad I didn't, because it was one of those moments when you momentarily put the book down and think "Yep, you totally got me there.").
My only real complaint with the novel is that I felt the conclusion (the last fifty or so pages) was a little rushed, not justifying the careful, gradual build-up. This also meant that the fate of some characters didn't perhaps carry the weight they could have done. There are also two duels that prove totally pivotal to the plot, yet they're over very quickly - these probably should have been beefed up a bit to justify the importance placed on them (or because of the importance placed on them).
Verdict: Knights of Dark Renown is the best of Gemmell's standalone novels, a potent mix of magic, battles and individual journeys of discovery against a backdrop of madness and disorder. With Gemmell's masterly grasp of characterisation, pleasing exploration of themes and plenty of action, Knights of Dark Renown is a hugely enjoyable, meaningful read - and yet another reminder (as if we needed one) of the gap that Gemmell's death left in the genre.
Monday, 23 November 2009
Cover art and blurb for 'The Sword of Albion'
Before the clamour starts, yes it's another 'hooded figure' cover, but to my mind this is entirely justified - the book is about a spy and subterfuge in general, so at least it's got a reason to use the over-familiar feature. Of course, it helps that it's a very nice cover indeed. While I like the little duel detail at the bottom, the two combatants do look rather static, as if they're both standing still - who stands still during a swordfight? But otherwise, very good indeed.
As for the blurb, it sounds very promising (please note this is only a blurb-in-progress, the final version may differ):
1588: The London of Elizabeth I is rocked by news of a daring raid on the Tower. The truth is known only to a select few: that, for twenty years, a legendary doomsday device, its power fabled for millennia, has been kept secret and, until now, safe in the Tower. But it has been stolen and Walsingham's spies believe it has been taken by the Enemy. This Enemy is not who we usually think of as our traditional opponent. No, this Enemy has waged a brutal war against mankind since time began, and with such a weapon they might take terrible toll upon England's green and pleasant land...And so it falls to Will Swyfte - swordsman, adventurer, scholar, rake, and the greatest of Walsingham's new breed of spy - to follow a trail of murder and devilry that leads deep into the dark, venomous world of the Faerie. As Philip of Spain prepares a naval assault on England, Will is caught up in a race against time in pursuit of this fiendish device...
Sounds exciting, looking forward to this one - release date is 1 April 2010, publisher is Bantam Press.
Interestingly, the novel has a different name and artwork in the States. Over there, it's called The Silver Skull, and the artwork is below:
So, the inevitable question - which cover do you prefer? Personally, I like both but think the UK version edges it.
Release date for The Silver Skull is 23 November 2009, which obviously is far earlier than the UK release date - I would urge UK readers not to import the US version, and instead wait for the UK edition to be released. Why? Because otherwise we run the risk of harming the UK version's sales and threatening the likelihood of future instalments being published over here. Chadbourn has advised that future instalments will be released simultaneously, so this problem hopefully won't arise again.
Saturday, 21 November 2009
European adventures: Krakow
While we were there, we visited the salt mines at Wieliczka (disappointing) and the most infamous Nazi concentration camp of them all, Auschwitz (harrowing). More on them later. First, some photos of Krakow itself. As usual, apologies if the formatting is a bit uneven...
View of Krakow's old medieval square (still the main hub of the city) from our hotel window. We stayed at the excellent Hotel Wentzel, which I highly recommend.
The Church of St Mary (14th/15th century)
Church of St Adalbert, the smallest church in the city. St Adalbert is said to have preached here before marching off to convert the Prussians in 997.
The Market Hall Tower, the only remaining part of the old town hall.
St Florian's Gate (late 13th century) - one of the few remaining parts of the medieval city walls
Church of St Andrew (11th century)
The statures of the Apostles, outside Church of St Peter and St Paul
A Krakow street
As I mentioned, we spent one afternoon several hundred feet under ground, in the salt mines at Wieliczka, which are no longer functional and have instead been turned into a museum. To be honest, I found the whole experience rather underwhelming. The highlight though was seeing the impressive salt-carvings, crafted by individual miners a few decades ago. Here's my two favourites.
Can't remember this chap's name, but I think he was one of the old kings of Poland. This carving for some reason reminds me of Moria, from LOTR. not sure why, since there's nothing like this in Moria...maybe it's because it's dark and it looks kinda like a dwarf. :)
A biblical scene, carved from salt by a single miner.
And now we finally we arrive at the nightmare that is/was Auschwitz. I've thought long and hard about how to describe this place, but words just cannot express how terrible it is. Seriously, even now - a week later - I still find myself getting angry when I think about what happened there. It was such a moving experience - you can't truly appreciate the horror of the holocaust and the pure evil of Nazism until you've experienced Auschwitz. Fortunately, I don't really need words to describe it - I think the pictures are enough. There's no pictures of the piles of shoes, glasses, suitcases, etc, because we were told not to take photos of them (otherwise it would slow the movement of tourists to practically a standstill). However, photos of them can be found on the wikipedia page.
The infamous slogan that looms over the gate of Auschwitz 1 - "Arbeit Macht Frei" - I've seen various different translations, but the general gist is "Work makes you free." Try telling that to the 70,000 people that died here.
Some of the blocks where prisoners lived (and often died)
I think the meaning of this is pretty clear, even without the words. Basically, if you stepped beyond this sign you could expect a bullet in your brain (to some prisoners though, this was preferable to other horrors of the camp).
Electric perimeter fence - some inmates threw themselves on it, clearly deciding death by electrocution was better than death by a dozen worse methods (like starvation, for instance).
Perimeter fence and guard tower
The infamous 'Wall of Death' - a wall between two blocks where inmates were shot by firing squads.
The railway track that dissects the camp, with the main entrance in the background. To the left, watchtowers. To the right, blocks where inmates 'lived'.
Blocks and guard tower
More 'residence' blocks. This is what it is/was like - row upon row of nondescript blocks, some housing up to a thousand people in horrific conditions.
See what I mean? The interior of a block. Sometimes up to four people were crammed into a single bunk. There was no heating, no insulation. This is my own favourite from all the pictures I took of Auschwitz. And by favourite, I mean most affecting and harrowing. I think it sums up perfectly what those people went through.
Amen to that. I just hope nothing like this ever happens ever again.
Friday, 20 November 2009
Crap fantasy book covers #19
So anyway, check out the Danish cover for Guy Gavriel Kay's second Fionavar novel.
Now, admittedly I've never read this book but I doubt it includes pink dinosaurs...does it? I also like the fact that you can't see the rider's saddle, so it looks like he's just randomly stuck on the dino's back. Plus the scale is all over the place - the figures in the background look to be too small. To round it off, either they're standing on a river of blood or the grass in Kay's world is red...
Wednesday, 18 November 2009
Book review: Kell's Legend
Monday, 16 November 2009
Cover art for MMPB version of Nights of Villjamur
The inclusion of a figure is almost inevitable; it's pretty much a prerequisite for a paperback cover (the sole intention of which is usually to shift as many copies of the book as possible, and screw anything else).
That said, I quite like this cover - it's certainly an improvement on the rough version I saw some time ago. I like the colours, and the fact that Randur is cast in shadow. I was initially a little concerned by the cityscape background, as on the rough version it was quite blocky, but it's been tidied up nicely here.
The representation of Randur doesn't match the picture I formed of him in my own mind (too much Aragorn and not enough dandy, for me) but of course this is personal preference. I'm not sure I'm a fan of the photo-realism gig that artists seem keen on these days, but this is a pretty decent example I guess.
Still, the hardback version is far superior in my own opinion.
This paperback version will be released in June 2010, alongside the next book in the Legends of the Red Sun sequence, City of Ruin.
Update and linky links...
Tuesday, 10 November 2009
Cover art and blurb for 'The Left Hand of God'
The book itself sounds reasonably promising as well, certainly a bit different to some of the other 2010 debuts that mostly have failed to set my pulse racing. Here's the blurb:
The Sanctuary of the Redeemers is a vast and desolate place - a place without joy or hope. Most of its occupants were taken there as boys and for years have endured the brutal regime of the Lord Redeemers whose cruelty and violence have one singular purpose - to serve in the name of the One True Faith.
In one of the Sanctuary's vast and twisting maze of corridors stands a boy. He is perhaps fourteen or fifteen years old - he is not sure and neither is anyone else. He has long-forgotten his real name, but now they call him Thomas Cale. He is strange and secretive, witty and charming, violent and profoundly bloody-minded. He is so used to the cruelty that he seems immune, but soon he will open the wrong door at the wrong time and witness an act so terrible that he will have to leave this place, or die.
His only hope of survival is to escape across the arid Scablands to Memphis, a city the opposite of the Sanctuary in every way: breathtakingly beautiful, infinitely Godless, and deeply corrupt.
But the Redeemers want Cale back at any price… not because of the secret he now knows but because of a much more terrifying secret he does not.
One to keep an eye on, I think. The Left Hand of God is due for release in hardback on 7 January 2010.
Monday, 9 November 2009
Cover art and blurb for 'Thirteen Years Later'
Anyway, for the time being check out the extremely cool artwork for Jasper Kent's Thirteen Years Later:
And here's the blurb:
"In the summer of 1812, before the Oprichniki came to the help of Mother Russia in her fight against Napoleon, one of their number overheard a conversation between his master, Zmyeevich, and another. He learned of a feud, an unholy grievance between Zmyeevich and the rulers of Russia, the Romanovs, that began a century earlier at the time of Peter the Great. Indeed, while the Oprichniki's primary reason for journeying to Russia is to stop the French, one of them takes a different path. For he has a different agenda, he is to be the nightmare instrument of revenge on the Romanovs. But thanks to the valiant efforts of Captain Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov, this maverick monster would not be able to begin to complete his task until thirteen years later. Now that time has come: it is 1825 and Russia once more stands on the brink of anarchy, and this time the threat comes from within..."
Twelve remains one of my favourite books of the year, and I'm highly anticipating this sequel. As for the cover art, I think it's great - a good example of how do a 'figure' cover properly.
Wednesday, 4 November 2009
Cover art and blurb for 'The King of the Crags'
Here's the blurb:
"Prince Jehal has murdered, poisoned and betrayed his way to the top. There is a new speaker for the realms, his opposition has been crushed, now he just has to enjoy the fruits of power. And yet . . .
He feels more for the wife he married for power than perhaps he should and his lover knows it. And out in the realms those loyal to the old regime are still plotting. and there are rumours that the Red Riders, heralds of revolution and doom are on the ride. And still no-one has found the famous white dragon. The dragon that, if it lived, will have long since recovered from the effects of the alchemical liquid fed to the dragons of the realms to keep them docile, to block their memories of a time when they ruled and the world burned . . ."
Sounds very promising. Really need to get around to reading The Adamantine Palace so I'm ready for when The King of the Crags lands...