Wednesday 28 April 2010

Pat Rothfuss confirms release date for The Wise Man's Fear

From his blog:
So that’s what happened today: I found out the publication date for The Wise Man’s Fear – March 1st 2011.
Honestly, it would be way easier for me to sit on this information for a while. I could wait until the date was a little closer, thereby avoid some of the great wailing and gnashing of teeth I expect will follow this announcement. That shit brings me no joy. It damages my calm and makes it harder for me to write.
But I promised y’all I would pass along the *real* publication date as soon as I knew it. So that’s what I’m doing.
March 1st 2011.
Rothfuss is risking incurring the wrath of some of his fans by making this announcement (we all know how some fans react when predicted release dates fall by the wayside) but you presume he's uber-confident of hitting his deadline of September 2010 (for handing in the manuscript to his editor), otherwise he wouldn't have made this news public.

I hope Rothfuss manages to keep to his promise, not so much because I want to read the book, but more because he's a really decent guy and doesn't deserve the flak he's received (or the flak he no doubt will receive if he doesn't meet his deadline).

Transformers 'origins' novel announced

Taken from Suvudu:
Del Rey, an imprint of Ballantine Books at the Random House Publishing Group, announced today that Del Rey Books will publish TRANSFORMERS: EXODUS. Telling one of the most important stories in the TRANSFORMERS canon, this novel explores and expands upon the origins of the supervillain MEGATRON, leader of the evil DECEPTICONS, and the rise of OPTIMUS PRIME to leadership of the heroic AUTOBOTS. TRANSFORMERS: EXODUS will be written by Alex Irvine and will release in Summer 2010.

In an exciting year for the telling of this important origins moment in the TRANSFORMERS story, TRANSFORMERS: EXODUS takes fans deep into the secret lore of the TRANSFORMERS universe, charting the creation of the DECEPTICONS and the AUTOBOTS—and chronicling the civil war that divided them. At the center of this thrilling history are OPTIMUS PRIME and MEGATRON, the ultimate hero and the ultimate villain, whose destinies are entwined with that of their home planet, CYBERTRON. Developed in close partnership with Hasbro, this is a canonical TRANSFORMERS tale that also relates to, and expands on, the story being told in the upcoming video game, TRANSFORMERS: War for Cybertron, from Activision. Fans will not want to miss all of the details, that can only be told in novel form, the moment OPTIMUS gains “PRIME” status, MEGATRON becomes his arch enemy and leader of the DECEPTICONS and their great civil war begins.
After being forced to watch Michael Bay completely disregard the rich history of the Transformers universe and failing to take advantage of numerous exciting possibilities (something I've touched on before) it's good to see a book aimed firmly at exploring this history in more detail. I don't know much about Alex Irvine, but as a long-time Transformers fan I'm certainly interested in checking this book out.

Tuesday 27 April 2010

Update + RSS + links

Just a quick update on the current state of play, blogwise...

I've adjusted the settings for the RSS feed, as I finally realised that only allowing subscribers to see part of each post completely defeated the point of subscribing to the feed in the first place. So if you haven't previously subscribed because of this issue, rest assured it's been resolved. Subscribers can now read each post in its entirety via their readers.

In terms of more general blog news...

What I'm reading

Kraken by China Miéville - I was one of the lucky few to receive a bound proof of this highly-anticipated novel (the 'thumbs-up' hand sadly wasn't included), which isn't the easiest thing to read, but it looks the business. Currently two-thirds of the way through; as with most of Miéville's books, it's not a quick read. I hope to finish it by the weekend, so a review may surface around this time next week. All I'll say at this point is that I'm enjoying it more than The City and the City.

Once I'm done with Kraken I'm rather hoping to start on City of Ruin, though that depends on how soon the review copy arrives (should be pretty soon, given the novel is due out in just over a month). Other books currently piled on my table that I intend to read at some point include Tomb of the Undergates, Thirteen Years Later, Veteran, and The Reapers are the Angels. I've also got copies of James Barclay's Elves - Once Walked With Gods, and Jon Sprunk's Shadow's Son, though not sure when/if I'll get to these two. So many books, so little time...

What I'm watching

Currently on a war films binge at the moment. This began with the excellent Blood Diamond, which was followed by Platoon (re-watch), Enemy at the Gates, Rescue Dawn, Tigerland and The Thin Red Line. Have a few more to watch, then will do a write-up.

What I'm playing

Nothing currently, though my copy of Oblivion pouts at me from its place on the shelf whenever I walk by. Just been a bit too busy recently...

In other blog-related news, I'll definitely be attending the triple signing at Forbidden Planet in London on 20 May 2010. Well up for post-signing drinks/chat/drunken brawling, if anyone fancies it.

Right, enough about's a few links of interest from around the blogosphere:

Wert got some interesting debate going about the inclusion/exclusion of "the story so far" sections in novels. He's also reviewed The Passage.

The Speculative Scotsman has already got his (excellent) review of Kraken up, as has Gav.

Neth has reviewed The Adamantine Palace (yet another book I really need to get around to).

Larry has one or two complaints about blogs that opt for a lot of images.

That'll have to do for the time being, though there's plenty more good stuff out there - check the blogs on the sidebar for more genre goodness.

Monday 26 April 2010

Ridley Scott reveals Alien prequel in the works

This is really cool news for fans of the Alien franchise: Ridley Scott (who directed the original film in the series, Alien) has confirmed he is working on a prequel:
As we speak, I've got a pile of pages next to me; it's like the fourth draft. It's a work in progress, but we're not dreaming it up anymore. We know what the story is. We're now actually trying to improve the three acts and make the characters better, build it up to something [we can shoot]. It's a work in progress, but we're actually making the film. There's no question about it, we're going to make the film.
Scott goes on to reveal what the focus of the story will be:
It's set in 2085, about 30  years before Sigourney [Weaver's character Ellen Ripley]. It's fundamentally about going out to find out 'Who the hell was that Space Jockey?' The guy who was sitting in the chair in the alien vehicle — there was a giant fellow sitting in a seat on what looked to be either a piece of technology or an astronomer's chair. Remember that?
He also hints he has little time for the Alien Vs Predator tie-in films:
Yeah, the thing about "Alien vs. Predator" is, I know it's commerce, but what a pity.
When asked if the designer of the original alien, H. R. Giger, would be involved, Scott replied:
Yeah, he's still around. Once I get more serious and get going, and the big wheels start turning, we'll certainly talk. And maybe we'll come up with something completely different.
All things considered, this is terrific news for Alien fans. The franchise seemed dead after the disappointing Alien 3 and rather ludicrous money-spinner Alien Resurrection, but if there's one man who can breathe new life into the franchise it's Scott. Alien remains a superb horror film to this day, so if he can recapture some of the spirit of that film, it will stand this prequel in very good stead.

You get the impression that Scott wouldn't even think about doing this film unless he felt he had a decent idea worth exploring, and he's certainly got that with the space jockey. The question of who this alien was, and why they were transporting a cargo of alien eggs was never answered, so it'll be interesting to see how this storyline develops. It's good as well that Giger is on board, and the possiblity that he might come up with a new alien design is a tantalising one (though tricky as well, since a brand-new alien type/appearance would raise continuity issues).

From what Scott has revealed, I get the impression the film will be more character-orientated and pyschological, as opposed to an all-guns-blazing action romp (in other words, more like Scott's own Alien, as opposed to James Cameron's Aliens).

We'll have to wait a while to find out, since the new film won't be released until 2011/2012, but hopefully it will be well worth the wait.

In related news - this is probably old news, but it's the first time I've heard of it - a third film in the Predator franchise has been confirmed, and filming is apparently already complete.

Friday 23 April 2010

Nicholas Sparks launches broadside at Cormac McCarthy

I must admit I love it when an author slaps another author down - especially when they make a bit of a prat of themselves while doing it. Especially when they risk committing career suicide.

Which is exactly what Nicholas Sparks has done, after revealing - among other things - that he's not the biggest fan of Cormac McCarthy:

"Cormac McCarthy? Horrible...This is probably the most pulpy, overwrought, melodramatic cowboy vs. Indians story ever written."

Sparks was referring to McCarthy's novel Blood Meridian - the same novel that Time magazine voted as being one of the top 100 English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005, and that finished as runner-up in the 2006 New York Times poll of the most important American fiction of the last 25 years. The same novel that - as far as I understand - is widely regarded as McCarthy's finest work.

Of course, Sparks is entitled to his opinion...though he really ought to have kept it to himself - attacking other authors (especially those with the stature of McCarthy) is generally considered to be poor form; you can only really get away with it if you're a highly successful and respected author in your own right (i.e, Stephen King dismissing Stephanie Meyer, and Terry Pratchett having a dig at J. K. Rowling). The general online reaction to Sparks's comment involves repeated use of the word 'douchebag'.

Sparks can't have any complaints: he hardly comes across well in the interview. At times, he sounds alarmingly like that renowned ego-monster, Terry Goodkind:
"There are no authors in my genre. No one is doing what I do."
Sure, no one else is writing novels about people falling in love and then losing each other. Sparks must be some kind of genius to come up with such an original, groundbreaking premise. As if that wasn't enough, Sparks actually has the audacity to compare himself with Hemingway:
"A Farewell to Arms, by Hemingway. Good stuff. That's what I write," he says, putting it back. "That's what I write."
I doubt it. The only person that writes like Hemingway is Hemingway. Still, at least Sparks acknowledges his influences:
"I write in a genre that was not defined by me. The examples were not set out by me. They were set out 2,000 years ago by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides."
Come on...I mean, seriously. Likening yourself to the great ancient Greek tragedians is just...well, it's laughable.

Perhaps Sparks should stop writing his romance novels - sorry, love stories, to use his own term - and write a book called "How to Destroy your Reputation in Thirty Seconds", since he's clearly an expert on the subject.

Thursday 22 April 2010

Cover art and blurb: The Fallen Blade

Assassins and vampires seem to be all the rage at the minute, so it was inevitable that a book would come along that combines the two. While I'm not really into the whole vampire gig (at least not the whole Twilight-esque variety) and am not overly bothered about assassins, I still think The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood sounds like a lot of fun. Plus it's set in Venice, which is a wonderful setting. Anyway, artwork and blurb below.

In the depths of night, customs officers board a galley in a harbor and overpower its guards. In the hold they find oil and silver, and a naked boy chained to the bulkhead. Stunningly beautiful but half-starved, the boy has no name. The officers break the boy’s chains to rescue him, but he escapes...

Venice is at the height of its power. In theory Duke Marco commands. But Marco is a simpleton so his aunt and uncle rule in his stead. They command the seas, tax the colonies, and, like those in power before them, fear assassins better than their own...

In a side chapel, Marco’s fifteen-year old cousin prays for deliverance from her forced marriage. It is her bad fortune to be there when Mamluk pirates break in to steal a chalice, but it is the Mamluks’ good luck – they kidnap her...

In the gardens beside the chapel, Atilo, the Duke’s chief assassin, prepares to kill his latest victim. Having cut the man’s throat, he turns back, having heard a noise, and finds a boy crouched over the dying man, drinking blood from the wound. The speed with which the boy dodges a dagger and scales a wall stuns Atilo. And the assassin knows he has to find the boy...

Not to kill him, but because he’s finally found what he thought he would never find. Someone fit to be his apprentice...

The cover is typical of Orbit's recent approach, though I like it more than many of their other covers; I like the tone and the tint of blood red on the water of the canal. I think The Fallen Blade sounds like it could be a decent romp, so may well check it out.

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Awesome triple book signing at Forbidden Planet!

How about this for a book signing event?

From Forbidden Planet's website:

Thursday 20 May 18:00 - 19:00
London Megastore
179 Shaftesbury Avenue, London, WC2H 8JR
Three huge talents; one signing event - FORBIDDEN PLANET are delighted to be hosting a triple signing with China Miéville, Adam Nevill and Mark Charan Newton on Thursday 20th May at the Forbidden Planet Megastore, 179 Shaftesbury Avenue, London WC2H 8JR.
In China Miéville’s KRAKEN, a prize specimen has come to the Natural History Museum – a giant squid, whole and perfectly preserved. When it disappears, curator Billy Harrow finds himself in a city of warring cults and surreal magic – and the forthcoming end of the world.
APARTMENT 16 by Adam Neville is wonderfully written, deftly plotted tale of utter horror which will have you turning the lights on in the middle of the night. Follow and unravel the tale of Barringon House – and discover that the doorway to Apartment 16 is a gateway to something terrifying.
Two weeks in advance of publication date, CITY OF RUIN by Mark Charan Newton is the follow-on to the massively successful Nights of Villjamur, taking us back to the lands of the Red Sun. This time, we go to to Villiren, where Brynd and investigator Jeryd must fight to save a city that’s already in ruins.
Really hoping to make it down to London for this one...any of you game?

Bring it.

Tuesday 20 April 2010

The Guardian Books Blog on the "battle for meaning" in fantasy

Whether you agreed with my argument that the Gemmell award is bad for the genre, or whether you thought it was a load of 'bollocks' (as Mr Abercrombie succinctly put it!), you can't deny that it kickstarted some good debate and gave the award some decent publicity (regardless of what was being said about it).

It pleased me then to see that the Guardian Books Blog has sat up and taken notice, in a post called Fantasy fiction: the battle for meaning continues...

The post touches on the Gemmell award and the debate surrounding it:
As the recent announcement of the David Gemmell Legend award, and the less-than-positive response it engendered shows, contemporary fantasy is seeking to do more than just entertain the masses. While the Gemmell award highlights fantasy novels at their most commercial and generic, and has been accused of doing little more than rewarding publishers for their marketing strategy, contemporary fantasy is becoming more experimental, diverse and exciting.
Interesting to see the author of the piece refer to the books 'highlighted' by the award as being 'commercial and generic.' I think that's too much of a generalisation, as you can hardly call Abercrombie's Best Served Cold generic, but it's an indication that the author agrees that the award focuses on books that are high in populararity but perhaps not necessarily quality.

The main thrust of the article though is to argue that - despite the increasing popularity of the genre and the commercial opportunities it offers - it's important to look beyond mass-market entertainment and keep the innovative, experimental elements of the genre firmly in sight:

JRR Tolkien referred to fantasy writing as mythopoeia, the creation of myth for the modern era. The best of it achieves exactly that, and deserves to be rewarded whether it be a multimillion-selling novel or a short story published in a fanzine. But as fantasy becomes more heavily commodified, it is more important still that we keep sight of what the genre can achieve beyond mass entertainment.
I couldn't agree more. And the fact that it's a mainstream book blog saying this only makes it all the sweeter.

Monday 19 April 2010

Book review: On Writing

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

By Stephen King

(New English Library, 1 September 2001)

I'm pretty sceptical about books on writing; I think you learn how to do something by doing it. You don't learn how to swim, or do ballet, or play a musical instrument, just by reading a book. And I don't think writing is any different. Prior to purchasing On Writing, I owned two books about writing fantasy and SF, and neither of them did much for me. Much of the advice seemed rather obvious, and the tone used in both books was distinctly that of a teacher lecturing a student.

Despite this, I'd always been intrigued by Stephen King's On Writing, since it appeared to be widely regarded as the best book written about the craft of writing. Furthermore, King's probably the most popular author to have written such a book (certainly in the speculative genre) and so it was likely that he had plenty of interesting advice to give.

On Writing doesn't disappoint. I burned through the book in a couple of days, which is highly unusual for me - but that's what an addictive, absorbing read it is.

The first part is an autobiography, providing a glimpse of King's life from his childhood days through to his adult writing career. King pulls no punches, writing openly and honestly (and with a constant sense of wry humour) about his drug and alcohol addiction ("There was one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing"), as well as the difficulties he experienced while trying to get his career off the ground while struggling to pay the bills with a poorly-paid job and two kids. These revelations are entertaining and fascinating in equal measure, though most importantly they act as a context for the writing advice that comes later - King is effectively saying "Look, this is how tough it was for me. If you want to pursue a writing career then you better be prepared." It's perhaps the best lesson in the entire book, one of sheer perserverance. Nowhere is this perseverance more apparent than in the closing section of the book, in which King talks plainly about the day he was hit by a truck and almost died. The fact that he was back writing a mere six weeks after this horrific accident is testimony to his own determination and spirit, and his love of writing.

The book's middle section about writing is equally absorbing. What really struck me as being different about this book, compared to other books on writing, is the tone: King talks to the reader in a chatty, informal manner, which is preferable to the teacher/student tone of other books on writing that I mentioned earlier. Another difference is that King abstains from throwing numerous 'assignments' at you, prefering instead just to give his thoughts, opinions and suggestions on various elements of writing.

One of the books I own about writing is Orson Scott Card's How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. I always thought that title is misleading, as it seems to suggest that the book contains some sort of secret about how to become a writer. This idea of some sort of secret formula is one that King pounces on and dismisses straight away. If you want to be a writer, he says, you just have to read and write - that's it. I liked the emphasis he placed on this idea of practice and self-improvement - that the best way to learn is by doing - as it seems more genuine than suggestions I've seen elsewhere. 

King goes on to touch on the usual subjects such as grammar, dialogue, and description, but also takes time to discuss the importance of having your own 'place' where you can lock yourself away to write without distraction, and the need for a regular writing schedule. He includes brief samples to demonstrate good and bad dialogue, as well as showing a sample of his work in both first and second draft form, so the reader can see what changed the second time through (King includes notes to explain the reasoning behind each edit). All the while, King manages to avoid lecturing the reader and going into too much detail; each section is relatively brief and cuts straight to the chase. Subsequently On Writing is full of useful ideas and suggestions, yet is a book that can be read like a pacy novel, rather than a textbook.

Verdict: If you want some advice on the craft of writing then this is the book you should pick up. King covers all the important areas, from language to agents, via the psychology of discipline. His advice is simple and easy to comprehend, and it's all delivered in a friendly, unintimidating tone. Fans of King (and anyone wondering what it must feel like to be skint and then receive a phonecall telling you that the rights to your first novel have just been sold for $300,000) will no doubt also enjoy the brief biographical sections, which vividly portray some of the most significant moments of King's life and writing career.

Wednesday 14 April 2010

Why the Gemmell award is bad for the fantasy genre

Today I came across this comment on Westeros, which is in relation to the Gemmell award:
I'm not sure I see the point of an award that's more 'in touch with the common fantasy-reading crowd'.
There already ARE awards for the novels most in touch with the common crowd - they're called bestseller lists. They come with a rather larger cash prize attached than most awards!
To me, literary awards should provide an alternative voice to that of bestseller lists, not just echo them. A writer like Sanderson can already put "bestseller" on his adverts, he doesn't need "winner of the legend prize" as well. It's the people who don't have the massive sales and the endorsements by famous novelists on their back covers who need the prestige and attention of an award.
I completely agree.

Those of you that have been following this blog for a while will have probably gathered that I'm not the biggest supporter of the Gemmell award, mainly because I think it's a glorified popularity contest. But there's another reason why I'm not a fan of the award - I think it's bad for the genre.

I can almost hear the question on your lips: how could an award that promotes epic fantasy - a subgenre largely ignored by other awards - be a bad thing?

Well, like this...

The books that make the shortlist are the books that gained the most votes. But why do these books gain the most votes - because they're innovative? Because they're superbly written? Because they all tell a gripping story in a wonderfully-realised world?

Ideally, this would be the case. But most of the time the books that make the shortlist share a certain attibute: they've all sold plenty of copies, and/or have been written by an author who has a large, established fanbase.

And as we all know, just because a book is popular doesn't mean it's any good. Much of the time, the quality of a book has little to do with how popular it becomes; there's a whole host of other factors (release schedule, cover art, etc).

But the main additional factor is money.

Publishers often pay a lot of money to help a book become a bestseller. Special offers in bookstores, 30% discounts from online retailers - publishers can pay thousands of pounds/dollars for those. More money goes on adverts in the genre press; an advert in SFX magazine for example will cost you a few hundred quid.

In other words, to spread the word and maximise potential sales of a novel, publishers are often spending tens of thousands of pounds.

Not there there's anything at all wrong with this. But here's the key point: they don't do it for every book. In fact, very few books receive this sort of treatment (many new releases are simply put on the shelves and left to battle it out with hundreds of others for a potential buyer's attention). Publishers just can't afford to pump thousands of pounds into every book they release, and many smaller presses can't compete with the big boys in this regard (hence why you rarely see small press releases on the three-for-two offer table - they just don't have the money).

But why does this matter?

Well, because much of the time - not always, but a lot of the time - a book that has a load of money thrown at it, tends to sell more copies than a book that doesn't. I'd cite The Name of the Wind as a perfect example - a reasonably good book that received serious financial backing from its publisher, and went on to sell around 40k copies in hardback. Perhaps that's being unfair to Patrick Rothfuss, as there is plenty to commend about his debut novel. But don't tell me that it would have sold as many copies without the financial backing it received, as it wouldn't have. Much of the time, a bestseller becomes a bestseller because of the money behind it.

Let's get back to the Gemmell awards. Look at this year's shortlist:

The Gathering Storm - Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson (Tor US)

Empire - Graham McNeill (The Black Library)

Warbreaker - Brandon Sanderson (Tor US)

Best Served Cold - Joe Abercrombie (Gollancz & Orbit US)

The Cardinals’ Blades by Pierre Pevel (Gollancz)
All of these books have sold well (in Pevel's case, in France), and all of these authors have large, established fanbases - partly because their publishers have committed resources, time and effort into supporting them.
So what does this mean?
Well, it effectively means the Gemmell award shortlist will be dominated by books that have had a lot of financial support, which has played a large role in helping these authors achieve a high degree of popularity. Subsequently, the actual quality of the books plays second fiddle to money and marketing.
The Gemmell award will therefore be won by one of the following:
1) A book that - regardless of its quality - will have received considerable financial backing
2) A book that has been written by an author who - thanks partly to financial backing in the past - has managed to obtain significant popularity.

It happened last year, when Andrei Sapkowski won the award on the back of numerous votes from his huge European fanbase (despite the fact that his novel Blood of Elves hardly caused much of a stir in the Anglo-American online community). A similar thing will probably happen this year.
That is why the Gemmell award is bad for the genre: it rewards bestsellers regardless of their quality - books that are already popular and don't need the additional publicity of winning the award. Small-press releases don't get a look in, nor do books that are high in quality but only achieved moderate sales.
You could even argue that over a decade or so, the Gemmell award might contribute to killing off variety in the genre - publishers are going to want to publish books that are similar to the ones that make the shortlist, as these are the books that seem to prove popular with the book-buying public.
And forget the bullshit about the Gemmell award bringing new readers to the genre - this is a purely online award, and the only people that know about it - or care about it - are genre fans. Sure, it received some limited coverage in mainstream publications - which is great - but how many mainstream readers do you think bothered to check out the winning novel? Very few, I'd imagine. And of those that did, how many do you reckon thought "Whoa, this is amazing - why haven't I been reading fantasy all these years?" Even fewer.
No doubt plenty of you are thinking I'm just being really cynical about it all, but I make no apologies for this - I love the fantasy genre, and it pains me to see an award (in the name of my favourite author, no less) rewarding books simply on the basis of how many copies they've sold (and as we've seen above, quality is only one of many factors what helps to sell a book and raise and author's profile).
To return to the original quote I opened with, what is the point in having an award that just mimics the bestseller lists, that rewards who spends the most money? We should be promoting the books that are high in quality and really portray the best the genre has to offer, not some mediocre book that sold a million copies primarily because of funding and/or author popularity.
A guess a lot of people would say "Oh, well it's still better than having no award at all", but it's not.

I'm all for an award that celebrates the best of epic fantasy, that promotes excellence in the genre - the Gemmell award, however, isn't it.

Thursday 8 April 2010

Classic genre video games #2 - Gargoyles Quest

There's no doubt that video games have come a long way in the last ten years - in many ways, games these days are more of an experience than a game. In terms of gameplay and visuals, modern games are generally superior to their older counterparts. Yet there's one trump card that older games often still retain: the fact that many of them are very hard to finish. This is an element that I've found lacking in many modern games - the fact that they're over too quickly and too easily.

Video games used to be hard - some of them really hard.

Gargoyles Quest on the original Nintendo Gameboy was one such game. In fact, it was so tough that one magazine actually begged readers to send in a walkthrough, as none of the magazine staff could finish the game (this was in the days before the interwebs, where if you got stuck on a computer game you were pretty much screwed).

Me being a hardcore little gamer, I finished Gargoyles Quest without any help.

Like most RPGs from this time period, Gargoyles Quest had a delightfully clichéd storyline:
A long time ago, the Ghoul Realm barely escaped great peril. A large army of Destroyers came from a neighboring universe. The creatures of the Ghoul Realm were no match for the powerful Destroyers. Just when everyone had given up hope, a great fire swept over the Realm, wiping out the Destroyers' army.

Several hundred years have passed and the Realm is threatened once again...
The game itself mixed side-scrolling 'platform' action (used for dungeons) with a top-down 'world-map' view (which was employed as you travelled from location to location). The RPG elements were pretty thin on the ground, yet they did add a little bit of depth to what otherwise would have been a rather straightforward platformer. As mentioned, the game was notable for its difficulty level (if you died during any of the dungeon sections, you'd often have to start the level over). Difficulty aside, the game also boasted a decent, atmospheric soundtrack and suitably dark visuals.

One of the best elements - as was often the case with such games - were the 'bosses' that had to be defeated at the end of each major dungeon section, mainly because of their obscure names. For example, the demonic fish that guarded the end of the first level (see left) is called 'Zundo Druer' (wtf?) while the similarly demonic snail (yep, a snail) that lurks in the 'Desert of Destitution' (cheesy name 4tw!) is called 'Zakku Druzer'. Obscure.

Anyway, great fun. Great hard fun.

Tuesday 6 April 2010

Don't start a blog to get free books

Posts that offer blogging advice are pretty plentiful across the interwebs, though of course some are more worthwhile than others. I stumbled across this post recently, and I thought it warranted a post of my own as I'm not sure I like the tone of the advice being given.

The advice itself is all pretty standard, helpful stuff - no problem there. Much of the advice offered mirrors my own tips that I posted a while back.

But what bothers me is the emphasis that this particular article places on how to go about getting ARCs. For example:

5. Be consistent. If you are serious about being a book blogger and you want to get ARCs on a regular basis, then you need to be consistent in providing content to your readership and to those who are supplying you with the ARCs. Don’t ask for an ARC, especially in the beginning, and not review it.
This bothers me, because in my opinion running a book blog should not be about getting free books. As far as I'm concerned, a good book review blog will be a hobby, and therefore a labour of love by the person writing it. That's exactly what Speculative Horizons is. Forget the fact I get free books and that I get invited to publishing events - this blog is a hobby. I do it for fun - getting free books was never a motivation behind why I started it.

Interestingly, this article makes the following point:
If you treat your blog as a hobby you cannot expect others to regard you seriously.
Now, while the author does go on to clarify this statement, I still have to disagree with it on a basic level. I think treating your blog as a hobby is crucial - after all, that's why you should have started it in the first place. If it's not a hobby, then what is it? A job? The minute a blog stops being a hobby (if it ever was one) then it becomes something else, and this possibly leads to issues relating to integrity and impartiality.

But increasingly I'm seeing people who seem to want to get into blogging not so much because they love books and reading, but because they want free books and a slice of the action.

To me, this simply isn't right.

Yeah, it's cool to get free books. I received two yesterday, and even though it's a common occurrence, I still get a litle excited when I open the packs to see what's in them.

But getting free books is a bonus, a perk. It's a sign that a publisher takes you and your blog seriously and thinks you're worthy of receiving a review copy. Quite often, it's the result of a mutual relationship between you and the publisher that's been built on mutual trust and respect - a relationship that may have taken some time to develop.

Which is why it pisses me off to see people offering advice about how to get ARCs as quickly and easily as possible - as if it's some God-given right that bloggers have and are entitled to.

Such advice also places far too much emphasis on ARCs, as if they're vital to blogging. They're not. They save you money, and sometimes help you review books before the public get to read them. That's it. But you don't need ARCs to be able to run a successful blog. For the first twelve months of running Speculative Horizons, I mostly bought my own books and reviewed them; I received very few ARCs. Did this make it difficult for me to blog? No. Did it hamper my enjoyment of blogging? No.

Hence why I'm growing increasingly irritated by the apparent obsession some would-be bloggers have towards ARCs. Forget about them - if you're thinking of starting a blog in order to get free books, then you're getting into blogging for the wrong reason. The best blogs are the ones that are run by people who love the genre, love books, and want to talk about them - which is why they started blogging. 

I'd question whether a blog that is started for any other reason would have the same integrity and spirit - somehow I doubt it.

So can we just kill this growing obsession with ARCs, before it becomes a serious problem for the blogosphere?

I could go off on a tangent about what I believe a blogger's role to be, but that's an argument for another day...

As always, constructive thoughts and comments welcome.

Monday 5 April 2010

Book review: Farlander


By Col Buchanan

(Tor, 5 March 2010)

When I first heard of Col Buchanan's debut fantasy Farlander, my interest was piqued: the story didn't sound particularly original, yet the blurb - talking of assassins, vendettas and a struggle against a nihilistic Empire - sounded quite Erikson-esque, and certainly appealed. Then a while later I read the sample chapter available on Buchanan's website, and it utterly soured my enthusiasm; I thought the writing - especially the opening paragraph - was often clumsy and uninspiring, while the intensive use of an invented language - one of my pet hates in fantasy - seemed unnecessary and, to my mind, cheapened the chapter.

Still, when I received an ARC of the novel from Tor I figured I'd give the book a chance, as despite the dodgy opening chapter I still felt it might deliver.

I'm glad that I did, as Farlander turned out to be a very enjoyable read.
The Heart of the World is a land in strife. For fifty years the Holy Empire of Mann, an empire and religion born from a nihilistic urban cult, has been conquering nation after nation. Their leader, Holy Matriarch Sasheen, ruthlessly maintains control through her Diplomats, priests trained as subtle predators.
The Mercian Free Ports are the only confederacy yet to fall. Their only land link to the southern continent, a long and narrow isthmus, is protected by the city of Bar-Khos. For ten years now, the great southern walls of Bar-Khos have been besieged by the Imperial Fourth Army.
Ash is a member of an elite group of assassins, the Rōshun - who offer protection through the threat of vendetta. Forced by his ailing health to take on an apprentice, he chooses Nico, a young man living in the besieged city of Bar-Khos. At the time, Nico is hungry, desperate, and alone in a city that finds itself teetering on the brink.
When the Holy Matriarch’s son deliberately murders a woman under the protection of the Rōshun; he forces the sect to seek his life in retribution. As Ash and his young apprentice set out to fulfil the Rōshun orders – their journey takes them into the heart of the conflict between the Empire and the Free Ports...into bloodshed and death.
Reading the first chapter again when I began the novel didn't change my mind about it - I still think it's a distinctly mediocre opening, with an annoyingly long opening sentence. While it's clear that Buchanan felt the need to open with an 'action' sequence, I don't feel it introduces Ash, one of the main characters, that effectively (looking back on the chapter later, I found it hard to connect the Ash I'd come to know with the Ash in this first chapter). Furthermore, the prose doesn't do justice to Buchnan's style and storytelling abilities.

Fortunately, the rest of the book is much better.

One of the strongest elements is Buchanan's world, which is tricky to frame in real-world historical equivalents: it comes across as a fusion of Mediterranean, Middle-Eastern and Asian cultures, with a technological level roughly equivalent to the 16th/17th centuries, so we've got firearms and cannon (then again, we've also got airships!). It's a pretty heady mix and Buchanan has the deft touch when it comes to worldbuilding that all the best writers have: he manages to make the world come to life and feel genuine with a minimum of exposition. Make no mistake, this is not an easy skill - some writers drop place-names and they have no resonance, they don't feel like part of a living, breathing world (Brent Weeks, for example) but Buchanan has no such issues, as he manages to ascribe an identity to these various locales with apparent ease.

Of course, a novel is only as good as the characters that breathe within its pages. Pleasingly, Buchanan manages to create some decent characters to inhabit his world: Nico is a protagonist that is easy to engage with and his relationship with his master, Ash, has a believable dynamic. Ash is a solid character in his own right, and his backstory is effectively revealed in glimpses as the story progresses. Nico's relationships with Aléas and Serèse are similarly well rendered, as are Baracha's dislike of Nico and his rivalry with Ash. The best character though is perhaps Bahn, who shows signs of slowly starting to crumble beneath the pressure and responsibilities placed upon him. It is in him that Buchanan displays an understanding of human emotion and how desperation can affect people.

Another strong element is the pacing; the story rips along at a pleasing rate and Buchanan maintains this pace throughout. Although I didn't expect it after the opening chapter, he also shows the odd poetic flourish in his prose, and generally his writing is assured and fluid. His plotting is sound, being well-constructed and possessing of some exciting set pieces.

The are minor issues here and there, opening chapter aside: now and again Buchanan's sentences wander  a little endlessly, and cry out for a bit of punctuation. Ché and Kirkus did feel a little underdeveloped compared to the other characters, though in the former's case I think we might be seeing a lot more of him in the next book. Kirkus could have been fleshed out a little better; he shows hints early on of an obsessive personality, and it's a shame this wasn't explored further.

Verdict: All things considered, Farlander is a solid book and an assured debut from Col Buchanan, marking the start of what promises to be an exciting struggle between an overwhelming Empire and those nations that resists its advances. While it doesn't really bring anything new to the table, the story keeps you guessing, the characters are engaging, the prose is fluid and the plot is tight and pacy. From a debut, you can't really ask for much more, and I will definitely be checking out the next book in the series. 

Friday 2 April 2010

Book love - and its various symptoms

So I was glancing through the comments on one of Neal Asher's recent posts about book piracy, and I saw a comment from a chap called Andy, of which the opening sentences caught my attention:
"People who love reading often share a common trait: we want to have a copy of the books we read on our shelves, certainly the best ones anyway. It's like a trophy, you pull it out at some point after you read it, months or years later, and think about the story and maybe read it again if you can't remember all the finer details..."
I like the way Andy refers to the books as being a trophy - the use of that particular word really struck a chord with me. To some extent this is how I regard some of my books, as 'trophies' of my reading achievements - mementoes of some great reading experiences. I often find myself - I'd love to know how many of you guys also do this - standing in front of my book shelves, just flicking through my books randomly; picking up whichever title catches my eye, and just reading random segments. I don't even know why, but for some reason I can just stand there doing that for ages at a time. Sometimes I think about the story that the paragraph might be from, while other times I'll think more about the prose itself - the style, the technique of the writer.

Why do I - we? - do this? Not sure, but personally I imagine it's a physical symptom of my love for books and the written word.

Another habit that I've got - another symptom, if you will - is that I love to hold books, to touch them. I love the feel of the embossed title on the front cover, the texture of the paper, even the smell of the paper.  I'll stand there, almost in a semi-trance, running my hands over the book. And yeah, I do this in bookshops - normally without even realising it. People must think I'm nuts, and to a small extent I do as well. But there's just something so...enticing about the feel and scent of a book.

I guess this is why I really have a problem with e-readers. Sure, I can understand that they have their uses, but for me you just can't replace a physical book. Staring at words on a screen just doesn't do it for me; I have to have the book in my hands, be able to feel the pages between my fingers - hell, even the rustle of the pages is something I'd really miss if I was reading from an e-reader (hence why to date, I've refused all offers of PDF review copies).

I just love books - the actual, physical book.

So...what do you all think? Am I just a bit weird, or do you also have familiar symptoms of 'book love'? Do you also like to stand there, happily thumbing through whatever book catches your attention from your bookshelf? Do you love the feel of the book in your hands?

Would love to hear your thoughts and experiences - and I hope I'm not alone!