Wednesday 26 May 2010

Book review: City of Ruin

City of Ruin

By Mark Charan Newton

(Tor, 4 June 2010)

It's one thing to write a critically-acclaimed novel and make a name for yourself. It's another thing entirely to follow up this success by writing another book that meets everyone's heightened expectations.

Mark Charan Newton has already achieved the first part: his novel Nights of Villjamur received widespread praise, with reviewers impressed by its brooding atmosphere, the scope of its ambition, and its accomplished prose. This excellent critical reaction was backed up by very strong sales figures, heralding Newton as a rising star of the genre. At the recent book signing event at Forbidden Planet in London, Newton barely had a moment to himself as he was besieged by eager fans.

But ultimately a question had to be answered: could he do it again? No, more than that: could he surpass his earlier effort and deliver another epic fantasy that would - like its predecessor - feature heavily on everyone's 'best books of the year' lists?

Personally, I was confident that Newton would deliver. A year ago I read the first few chapters of City of Ruin in draft form, before they were even professionally edited. Even at that early stage, their quality was evident. I therefore expected City of Ruin to be a good book. My expectations - already high after reading Nights of Villjamur - were raised even further.

The fact that City of Ruin still managed to blow me away therefore speaks volumes.

Following on directly from the events of the previous book, the bulk of the story takes place in the city of  Villiren - a very different environment from the often elegant Villjamur, Villiren is an urban sprawl of sin and corruption: a city bloated from black market economies and shady business dealings, where gangs rule the streets and nightmarish creatures lurk in the shadows.

Yet a shadow has fallen over Villiren: the unknown enemy responsible for committing genocide on the fringes of the Jamur Empire's territories now has the city in its sights, and is determined to raze it to the ground for reasons that remain incomprehensible.

It falls to Brynd Lathraea - commander of the empire's troops - to formulate a strategy to defend the city: a thankless task, given its fractured and impoverished society. Brynd's troubles are compounded when an elite soldier goes missing, and he calls on the exiled inquisitor, Rumex Jeryd, to lead the search. Jeryd's investigations take him into the vile underbelly of Villiren, where he uncovers a horrifying truth. As the battle for Villiren's future commences, one question arises: how do you save a city that is already a ruin?

Newton readily admitted that with Nights of Villjamur his creative wings, to an extent, were clipped. He spoke of the need to make his innovations and beloved weirdness accessible. This time around, he faced no such restrictions. Subsequently, his potent imagination has been given free reign in City of Ruin. The little touches and flourishes that gave his first book such a dark, rich texture are all present and correct, but are ratcheted up several notches. The results are beguiling, exciting, and often spectacular. Make no mistake, Newton has a vivid and fertile imagination.

More impressive still is the extent to which Newton has developed as a writer: with City of Ruin, he has improved on practically every aspect that made Nights of Villjamur such a success.

Once again, he weaves several story strands together, though this time there is a much greater sense of urgency and relevance, and the end result is far tighter and much more cohesive. This in turn benefits the pacing, which pleasingly increases throughout the novel until it explodes in an exhilarating climax.

Characters are more clearly defined this time around, particularly so in the case of Brynd who really takes centre stage after being a rather peripheral figure at times in the first book. Some of his personal preferences - touched upon previously - are this time explored in far greater depth, and actually play a more relevant role in the unfolding events. Jeryd is the same affable, nostalgia-tinged character who is still enjoyable to spend time with, while Randur transcends his playboy trappings to become something harder and colder. There are a host of new characters as well, of whom Malum is the most noteworthy: a superbly-crafted figure whose aggressive, impregnable exterior hides a softer centre. The relationships Newton builds between these characters are eminently believable and often extremely touching; once again, he shows he has a real understanding of how human emotions play out.

Newton has always been a confident writer; his noir-tinged style infused his previous novel, and with City of Ruin he has really refined and honed his prose. Few writers can imbue their work with such atmosphere - this is an aspect of Newton's work where the influence of China Miéville really shines through, and the comparison does not flatter Newton at all (a notion shared by Miéville, whose positive words adorn the back of City of Ruin).

Newton doesn't just tell a good story though; he also deftly explores a number of themes, touching on racism, sexuality and masculinity. In fact, he doesn't just explore these themes: he often uses them to drive the plot, lending the story a contemporary edge that resonates throughout the book, and in many ways defines it. Via subtle means, he also reveals more of the history of his world, lending it further depth and vitality.

There are flaws of course, but they're minor and their effect is negligible. One or two events seemed a little contrived, and in one particular scene a certain character's reaction doesn't quite ring true. Some language is recycled a little too frequently, but this is ultimately just nit-picking. None of these perceived flaws detract from the book's excellence.

Verdict: City of Ruin is the kind of book you'd expect an established author to turn out whilst writing at the top of their game, perhaps as their career-defining moment. You wouldn't expect a twenty-something, fledgling novelist to deliver a novel of such quality - and for that Newton deserves special credit. This is an enthralling tale of bizarre technology, lost civilisations and the various facets of human nature. Masterfully constructed, potent with meaning and wrapped up in wonderfully evocative prose, City of Ruin has propelled Newton into the ranks of epic fantasy's finest writers. 

Cover art and blurb for 'Black Lung Captain'

This one is next on my reading pile, after I'm done with City of Ruin (which I should finish tomorrow night, so hopefully review will be up before the weekend).

Here's the blurb:
Darian Frey is down on his luck. He can barely keep his squabbling crew fed and his rickety aircraft in the sky. Even the simplest robberies seem to go wrong. It's getting so a man can't make a dishonest living any more. Enter Captain Grist. He's heard about a crashed aircraft laden with the treasures of a lost civilisation, and he needs Frey's help to get it. There's only one problem. The craft is lying in the trackless heart of a remote island, populated by giant beasts and subhuman monsters. Dangerous, yes. Suicidal, perhaps. Still, Frey's never let common sense get in the way of a fortune before. But there's something other than treasure on board that aircraft. Something that a lot of important people would kill for. And it's going to take all of Frey's considerable skill at lying, cheating and stealing if he wants to get his hands on it . . . Strap yourself in for another tale of adventure and debauchery, pilots and pirates, golems and daemons, double-crosses and double-double-crosses. The crew of the Ketty Jay are back!
Retribution Falls, the first novel in this sequence, was one my top five novels of 2009, and I'm really looking forward to reading Black Lung Captain. Lost treasures, monsters, more rogues than you can shake a stick at...what's not to like?

Monday 24 May 2010

Exclusive look at the UK artwork for Scott Lynch's 'The Republic of Thieves'

During my brief stay in London to attend the Forbidden Planet signing, I managed to grab a quick coffee with Jon and Simon from Gollancz. Not only were they kind enough to give me some exciting books (including The Iron Lung Captain by Chris Wooding, the follow-up to the wonderful Retribution Falls), they also gave me a glimpse of the UK artwork for Scott Lynch's highly anticipated novel The Republic of Thieves.

Jon and Simon kindly gave me permission to post the artwork for you all to see, so behold!

I really like the Venetian influence - the masks are very reminiscent of those you see worn by revellers in Venice during the carnivale. This is the work of the same artist that provided the covers for the first two novels, though as you can see this design differs from the previous covers in that there's figures featured here (Locke and Sabetha, I think) and subsequently there's more of a focus. I like the colour scheme as well, the rather ominous reds and blacks work rather well.

While we're at it, here's the very rudimentary blurb (warning: contains minor spoilers for the previous novel)

After their adventures on the high seas, Locke and Jean are brought back to earth with a thump. Jean is mourning the loss of his lover and Locke must live with the fallout of crossing the all-powerful magical assassins the Bonds Magi. It is a fall-out that will pit both men against Locke's own long lost love. Sabetha is Locke's childhood sweetheart, the love of Locke's life and now it is time for them to meet again. Employed on different sides of a vicious dispute between factions of the Bonds Sabetha has just one goal - to destroy Locke for ever. The Gentleman Bastard sequence has become a literary sensation in fantasy circles and now, with the third book, Scott Lynch is set to seal that success.
So...opinions on the cover?

Saturday 22 May 2010

Forbidden Planet signing photos

Well, it was billed as 'Three of the Best' and it certainly was. All in all, it was a terrific evening of GENRE GOODNESS.

Here's me with China Miéville:

Before the signing I was offering odds of 4-1 on twitter that I would kiss China's nice, shiny head, though was advised by Amanda that the chances of that happening were in fact evens. Thankfully I managed to contain my excitement when I met the man himself, and even managed to have a reasonably intelligent conversation. Plus I gave China my 'business card', which no doubt he has framed and hung above his bed.

Here are some other photos of the event, courtesy of the lovely Chloe from Pan Mac, which I've cunningly STOLEN from the Pan Mac Flickr page.

Me regaling Jason from Kamvision and a lovely chap called Alex with witty asides, while Michelle, my chaperone and bodyguard, looks on.

This man grows his own vegetables, you know. He's the man you need to talk to if you want to know what a marrow is. He also happens to write rather good fantasy novels. His handwriting is crap though.

Adam Nevill, Mark 'Sharon' Newton and China Miéville. Fine writers all. I'd love to see a scrap between Adam and China, they're both big and buff. 

Three of the best, indeed. 

In all seriousness though, it was a really good event. Very informal, so the three authors mingled freely with fans and signed whatever books they'd bought/blagged/stolen (I dragged my heavy Kraken proof all the way to London to get it signed). Afterwards, a bunch of us stalked  accompanied the authors to a local watering hole and we all spent a good few hours drinking and chatting. I got to meet some old friends, as well as plenty of new faces, which was fantastic. As always, events like this really drive home  what a brilliant spirit the genre community has; the enthusiasm is utterly infectious. I was especially pleased to grab a few minutes with Adam Nevill, since we'd exchanged a few emails and it was great to have a chat face-to-face. While I think of it, Jason's just done a good interview with Adam which you can find here.

Anyway, a great night. Next stop - Alt Fiction next month! 

Tuesday 18 May 2010

Book review: The Adamantine Palace

The Adamantine Palace

By Stephen Deas

(Gollancz, 19 March 2009)

Dragons have become increasingly humanised in the last couple of decades. Their popularity in the speculative fiction genre certainly hasn't diminished (you only need to look at the popularity of Naomi Novik's Temeraire novels for evidence of that) but their primal ferocity has been gradually replaced with intelligence and docility. Which is fine as far as it goes, but this transition perhaps left some folk longing for dragons to return to their roots as the terrifying beasts of legend. Simon Spanton at Gollancz certainly felt this way, and more importantly he thought others did as well. Subsequently he commissioned unknown author Stephen Deas - on the back of a synopsis and a few sample chapters - to write a trilogy that placed dragons back in in their rightful place: the top of the food chain.

Spanton turned out to be right. The first novel in Deas's trilogy, The Adamantine Palace, apparently sold over 8000 copies in its first month of release.

Yet while this is a novel that unmistakably revels in the sheer destructive force of dragons, it is one where the story is actually largely driven by the human factor. To say the dragons are mere window-dressing would be wide of the mark, but The Adamantine Palace, at its heart, is a novel about human emotions and foibles - lust, greed and ambition chief among them. Make no mistake, the dragons play a prominent role, but this is essentially a tale of shady politics and political intrigue, where a number of factions jostle for the ultimate prize - the empire itself.

Chief among these competitors is Prince Jehal, a pleasingly cunning and sardonic individual, driven by his insatiable ambition. Jehal is easily the most engaging character, not just because of his witty personality but also because of his determination to attain his goals by means both foul and fair. He's both repulsive and riveting in equal measure - the sort of character it's hard not to cheer for, even though he's a lying, murdering bastard.

The rest of the cast lack Jehal's magnetism, though despite this there are some other engaging figures. Hyram is one, a man who is fighting both his failing health and the political machinations of the rivals that want his position. Zafir is another; a newly-crowned queen with an ambition and ruthlessness that matches Jehal's. In fact, the relationship between the two is particularly intriguing - it's enjoyable to consider whether their remarks and acts towards each other are genuine, or all part of yet another political game.

Some of the other characters could have done with a little more development and depth. The background of Sollos and Kemir could have done with more exploration to really clarify their motivations (and why the POV for their scenes switches from Sollos to Kemir halfway through the book, rather than just sticking with Kemir from the start, is a little bewildering). Queen Shazira doesn't come across quite as strongly as some of the other players and her relationships with her three daughters may have benefitted from some added tension or conflict, just to spice them up a little. Meteroa is another character that would have benefitted from more exposure, as he shows hints of being an interesting customer, though perhaps his time will come.

The strongest aspect of Deas's debut is the pacing (perhaps born from the speed at which he sketched out the basic framework for the trilogy, which allegedly took him only a single weekend). The chapters are pleasingly short, meaning that events unfold at a relentless speed that holds the reader's attention. Furthermore, the lean, brisk prose ensures the narrative doesn't get bogged down in the reams of detail that sometimes derails epic fantasy novels. At times it's easy to forget you're reading an epic fantasy, such is the direct approach that Deas takes. And this is a good thing - it's refreshing to see feasts and other typical events dealt with in the space of a paragraph. The focus is very much on the characters and the events, not on superfluous detail. The downside of this is arguably a lack of historical detail; a touch more depth to the world would have been welcome. Yet it should be said that there some very neat ideas here, particularly with regards to the methods that humans use to keep the dragons in check - and the consequences when these methods cannot be implemented.

Verdict: On the whole, The Adamantine Palace is a strong debut, mixing intriguing politicking with the brute force of dragons. Uneven characterisation is made up for with excellent pacing and deft plotting, and the result is an absorbing, satisfying read with plenty left in the locker for the future instalments (of which the second, The King of the Crags, was released last month). Dragons are back at the top of the food chain, in all their fire-breathing primal glory.

Wednesday 12 May 2010

The Book Habits Meme...

...because it's been a while since I've done a meme, and it's either this or watch our new Prime Minister waffle about the economy on the TV.

Courtesy of The World in the Satin Bag.

Do you snack while you read? If so, favorite reading snack:

I don't tend to eat while reading. The eye/jaw co-ordination is too much. I'd need a ring of Multi-tasking +2 to even begin thinking about it.

What is your favorite drink while reading?

Don't tend to drink while reading either, but when I do it's normally coffee (Douwe Egberts 'Pure Gold', always black), fruit juice or water.

Do you tend to mark your books as you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you?

I've not marked a book since I studied English literature at college (screw you, Jane Austen - your shitty, yawn-tastic Mansfield Park cost me an A grade). I have no need to annotate books these days.

How do you keep your place while reading a book? Bookmark? Dog-ears? Laying the book flat open?

I've got a soft, woven bookmark that I picked up in Rhodes several years ago. It has a depiction of the Colossus of Rhodes on the front. I would never fold the corner of the page or whatever - seeing people do that actually makes me grit my teeth... And I never place a book face-down, probably because of a childhood incident when I accidentally broke the spine on my friend's American copy of The Sword of Shannara. Afterwards, every time you opened the book, it fell open on an illustration of Paranor. I found it funny. My friend didn't.

Fiction, nonfiction, or both?

95% fiction. I do like to dip into non-fiction now and then, normally books on ancient history when I do. The last one I read was Persian Fire, an account of the Persian invasion of ancient Greece (I was slightly disappointed that Darius wasn't an eight-foot, bald androgyne like he is in 300).

Are you a person who tends to read to the end of a chapter, or can you stop anywhere?

I always try to finish at the end of a chapter where I can. Really don't like stopping halfway through a scene, it doesn't feel right. You wouldn't stop halfway through a dump, would you?

Are you the type of person to throw a book across the room or on the floor if the author irritates you?

I once tore a book up and set fire to it. The book was Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. I had to study the sodding thing for GCSE English, and I absolutely hated it. Read it until my eyes bled, then once the exam was over I tore it up in a fit of youthful exuberance and took a match to it. Happy days.

Otherwise, I don't tend to chuck books about. If a book is pissing me off, it tends to get slapped down on the table accompanied by a stream of choice words, the last of which is usually "off."

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop and look it up right away?

Sometimes. It depends on the book. If I did that whilst reading a China Miéville book, it would take me a week to read one chapter (I jest of course, don't let his dense prose put you off checking him out. His work, I mean. Though he is admittedly quite buff).

What are you currently reading?

I'm between books, waiting for City of Ruin to show up in the mail. Didn't want to get stuck into something else and then have CoR turn up halfway through.

I share my living room with a pile of books that just grows and grows. Soon it will probably achieve sentience, a book tyrant. Omg, how awesome would that be? Unless it made me read crap books.

What is the last book you bought?

I bought several in one fell swoop: A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks (his novel Birdsong is wonderful, check it out), Thirteen Years Later by Jasper Kent, On Writing by Stephen King, and Shadow Prowler by Alexey Pehov (that last one was in the 3 for 2, so I thought I might as well pick it up).

That represents quite a book-buying binge for me, I don't tend to buy that many books these days.

Are you the type of person that reads one book at a time, or can you read more than one?

One at a time. If you're not going to give a book your full attention, why bother reading it? The only exception to this iron-clad rule I've got are non-fiction books or short story collections. I'll dip in and out of these while reading a novel, but otherwise my focus is entirely on the one book.

Do you have a favorite time/place to read?

I read when I've got the time, wherever I might be. I read books for years on crowded trains; these days I get to read at home a lot more, which I definitely prefer. But anything goes really.

Do you prefer series books or stand alones?

I don't really have a preference. It's exciting to find a new series that you really enjoy, but it's equally satisfying to discover a one-off novel that works for you. Ultimately it's all about the characters and the story, not the format or medium.

Is there a specific book or author you find yourself recommending over and over?

David Gemmell, who is probably my all-time favourite author. In addition, George R. R. Martin (not just ASOIAF, but his wonderful short-story collection Dreamsongs as well) and China Miéville.

How do you organize your books? (by genre, title, author’s last name, etc.)

I like the way the question assumes I bother to organize my books! On my bookshelves I manage to retain some facade of order (though there's no real theme or structure) but otherwise books are just piled all over the place. I've actually got a pile in my living room that I use as a foot rest...

Tuesday 11 May 2010

US covers for James Barclay's 'Raven' novels

Really quite liking what Pyr are doing with some of their fantasy book covers, and these are some more decent examples. I like the colour schemes on these, and the way they make better use of the 'figure' on them.

Courtesy of Lou Anders over at the Pyr blog. Barclay's novels are due for release late 2010/early 2011.

HarperCollins part company with genre imprint Angry Robot

Press release from the Angry Robot website:

Following an acclaimed first year of publishing, the revolutionary science fiction imprint Angry Robot Books has parted company with HarperCollins UK. It will now run as an independent publishing imprint, with the full backing of niche publishing experts, Osprey Publishing.
Angry Robot will continue to operate from its Nottingham base and with its existing team under Marc Gascoigne, its founder and publisher. Marc said: “With the support of HarperCollins UK, my team and I have worked very hard on Angry Robot since it was founded. We have a great publishing programme in place and a dedicated bunch of supporters, the Robot Army, as well as some excellent sales of our first titles in the UK and an imminent launch into the USA. We are very pleased to have become part of the burgeoning Osprey empire. They understand our business and the enthusiasts who drive it.”
Chris Michaels, HarperCollins Digital Publisher, Fiction/Non-Fiction, who helped set-up Angry Robot, said: “Having helped build the foundations for a successful future, we are delighted that the Angry Robot team has found a new publishing partner in Osprey. We believe this will help them develop their niche offering, supported by Osprey’s specialist sales and marketing teams. We wish them good luck for the future.”
Marc Gascoigne added, “Our publishing programme for 2010/11 will be basically unaffected by these changes. There will be a short break while the transition is sorted out, but we will be re-launching in September 2010 and then it will be business as usual.”
Osprey’s move is a reflection of the company’s continuing strategic drive into niche communities that share a deep enthusiasm for their interest or hobby, whether it be military history (Osprey Publishing), heritage (Shire Books), or science fiction and fantasy.
Richard Sullivan, Marketing Director at Osprey commented: “We have a great deal of experience of serving specialist niches with a very tight product focus. Angry Robot is a great fit with our existing businesses. We are very excited about the opportunity to enter into a new market and we are looking forward to helping Angry Robot, its authors and its readers go to some exciting places.”
Make of that what you will...I do wonder why HarperCollins were willing to sell up if Angry Robot had indeed had an 'acclaimed first year' of publishing, but they can't have done that badly if Osprey were interested in taking on the imprint.

Will be interesting to see how things develop.

Monday 10 May 2010

Gran Torino

I've now concluded my war films binge (or at least, I rather hope so - there's only so many explosions and flying limbs that you can take in a short space of time), so will begin a full write up of the movies I watched (might take a while, there were nine of them). In the meantime, a few quick words on Gran Torino, which I finally got around to watching last night.

Put simply, Gran Torino is an excellent film. Not only did Clint Eastwood direct and produce the movie, he also starred in it. His performance as Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski is superb - the blurb on the back of the DVD calls it 'bone-deep' and I think that's spot on. He portrays Kowalski as a brooding, prejudiced and aggressive individual, yet also as a man who has a kind nature and surprising sense of humour. The way Eastwood pivots between these different sides of the same character is both subtle and utterly convincing.

The story itself focuses on Kowalski's dislike for the Hmong immigrants that have moved in next door, and how his perception and attitude towards them gradually changes as he forms relationships with the younger members of the family. As a gang starts to terrorise his new friends, Kowalski finds himself helping the very people he initially disliked, and as events come to a head he realises that only he can save the family's future...but that a sacrifice will need to be made.

It's an absorbing story, covering a number of themes: prejudice, loyalty and the importance of staying true to yourself being just three of them. The script is very good and the plot itself is constructed well. I felt that the middle third lagged slightly - perhaps could have done with another run-in with the gang just to keep the tension going - but overall the pacing was good. The relationships between Kowalski and his Hmong neighbours are rendered very well, and the final climax is both surprising and powerful.

Highly recommended.

Sunday 9 May 2010

GRRM on fanfic

Really interesting article on fan fiction from George R. R. Martin:
Consent, for me, is the heart of this issue. If a writer wants to allow or even encourage others to use their worlds and characters, that's fine. Their call. If a writer would prefer not to allow that... well, I think their wishes should be respected. 
Myself, I think the writers who allow fan fiction are making a mistake. I am not saying here that the people who write fan fiction are evil or immoral or untrustworthy. The vast majority of them are honest and sincere and passionate about whatever work they chose to base their fictions on, and have only the best of intentions for the original author. But (1) there are always a few, in any group, who are perhaps less wonderful, and (2) this door, once opened, can be very difficult to close again. 
Most of us laboring in the genres of science fiction and fantasy (but perhaps not Diana Gabaldon, who comes from outside SF and thus may not be familiar with the case I am about to cite) had a lesson in the dangers of permitting fan fiction a couple of decades back, courtesy of Marion Zimmer Bradley. MZB had been an author who not only allowed fan fiction based on her Darkover series, but actively encouraged it... even read and critiqued the stories of her fans. All was happiness and joy, until one day she encountered in one such fan story an idea similar to one she was using in her current Darkover novel-in-progress. MZB wrote to the fan, explained the situation, even offered a token payment and an acknowledgement in the book. The fan replied that she wanted full co-authorship of said book, and half the money, or she would sue. MZB scrapped the novel instead, rather than risk a lawsuit. She also stopped encouraging and reading fan fiction, and wrote an account of this incident for the SFWA FORUM to warn other writers of the potential pitfalls of same. 
That was twenty years ago or thereabouts, but that episode had a profound effect on me and, I suspect, on many other SF and fantasy writers of my generation.
GRRM's article was in response to a post on the same topic by Diana Gabaldon, which caused a bit of a  shitstorm.

It was quite interesting to read what people think does and doesn't constitute fanfic, and their various explanations/excuses for why they write/read it. It's such a complicated issue that even GRRM has subsequently admitted he's not totally clued-up on the legalities of it all.

My own feelings towards fanfic are pretty straightforward: I think it's pointless.

If you want to be a writer, write your own material. A lot of people have argued they write fanfic to develop their writing ability, but I think you'll improve much more quickly and to a greater extent if you're creating your own characters. After all, characters are the heart of every story, and pissing about with characters that someone else has devised and developed isn't going to help you develop a strong grasp of characterization. And yeah, perhaps by writing fanfic you can develop your skills in other aspects of writing - but you can do so equally well by writing your own original material.

As for the reading side of things, I just don't get it. I don't have enough time to read all the 'proper' books I've got sitting on my living room table, let alone time to trawl through countless poorly-written, ill-conceived fanfic. Furthermore, fanfic isn't canon - so what's the point? You're reading stories about events that - as far as the original creator of the world/characters is concerned - never happened. So why bother? I just can't see the sense of it.

No matter what angle I look at it, 'serious' fanfic just appears to me to be masturbation in prose form.

Friday 7 May 2010

The speculative genre, from a newcomer's perspective

Really interesting article from genre newcomer M. D. Lachlan, in which he discusses some of the differences between the speculative genre and the mainstream from a writer's perspective:
"Fantasy authors are much less up their own bums than mainstream authors. They’re approachable and friendly . I can honestly say I’m yet to encounter a bad attitude from anyone at all. I arrange to meet other authors for drinks in town, I go to dinner with them, sit on panels with them at conventions and talk about writing. 
The judge of someone is how they treat you when they have nothing to gain, and nothing to lose from acting badly towards you. Take the Advanced Review Copies for Wolfsangel. When I published my first comedy novel in 2000, ARCs were sent to a number of writers to see if they’d be willing to comment. One did - the lovely and gracious Jill Mansell. Another famous author phoned me up to tell me how much he’d enjoyed the book. ‘Can we use your quote on the front?’ I asked. ‘Are you joking?’ he said, ‘you’re a rival now’. 
Wolfsangel was sent to about 12 authors. Eight replied with quotes. I was staggered, not so much that people had agreed to say nice things about my work but that they’d read it in the first place. That’s a serious commitment of time to a new author. But this is the thing about fantasy – the authors tend to be fans. They actually love the genre they write in and are baying to snap up anything new."
You can - and should - check out the full article on the Gollancz blog.

Thursday 6 May 2010

The 'Bear Pit'

From an article on Mark Charan Newton's blog:
With great power comes great responsibility – little do online commentators realise how fragile creative egos can be. You might chuckle, but to some, a damaging comment can prevent a writer from doing his or her job properly. Some might crumble for a week, who’s to say? I’ve been pretty lucky, but I cringe at reading scathing reviews of other authors’ work. So whilst I was full of snark at the start of this post, I do actually understand how such things can harm writers. And yes, some writers really do care about what people think of their work. Yes, they receive Google Alerts about the fruit of their labours. Surely that’s a good thing, that they give a shit? I suppose if you’re the kind of person who enjoys attacking creative works for kicks, then you need a little more help than this blog post can offer.
There's no doubt that the arena for book criticism and reader feedback has grown hugely since the advent of the online forum, Amazon reviews, blogs, etc. And how a writer copes with this bombardment of criticism, and how it affects them, is an interesting topic.

Author Mark Chadbourn delves deeper into the issue; here's a few snippets from his article:
The net now is like a city centre pub. You’ve got the group getting drunk and having a laugh. The intense couples ruminating over a glass of claret. And you’ve got the swivel-eyed, shaven-headed men in brown leather jackets at the end of the bar who bellow at anyone who will listen. And they’ve all got an opinion, and they all want to tell you.
This analogy isn’t just about bloggers. It’s about anyone who chimes in with their take on a book – on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Waterstones, Good Reads, wherever. If you’re a writer, it’s nigh on impossible not to hear what people think about your book.
It didn’t use to be like that. You’d get a flurry of print reviews when the book came out, and then silence for months while you worked on the next one. Now they come in a torrent, every week, every day.
Back then, reviews were carefully considered. Today some are still carefully considered. But as in that city centre pub, some are rants, abusive, vitriolic, opinions filtered through prejudices. And that’s how it should be – the net has given people a voice, and it’s up to them what they want to say...
So, yes, I pity the new writer. If your first book is coming out, you’ve got it harder than I ever had. You’re going to be judged. You might be torn apart. You might be built up so fast your head is spinning, and then torn apart. It might just be the death of a million tiny pinpricks. Or you might ride that upward trajectory for the rest of your life. But it’s going to be out of your hands, and it’s going to be very hard to ignore it.
I like Chadbourn's use of the term 'Bear Pit', which he uses to describe Amazon reviews but which could easily be applied to online genre fandom as a whole. The truth is, the blogosphere has grown to such an extent now that a lot of it is just white noise. While I believe the majority of serious fans are capable of discerning between good and bad reviewers, there's so many opinions from so many different commentators flying around that it's often difficult to know who is worth listening to. I suppose for authors it's twice as bad - because the opinions are about their books, which adds a personal element to it. I don't doubt that it must be tough for new writers to see their book hurled out there and set upon by hordes of ravenous reviewers, many of whom fail to give considered, constructive opinions.

Yet it's important not to view the online genre scene too negatively. Yes, it has its flaws. Yes, it probably puts new writers through a whole gauntlet of emotions (many of them undesirable). But we need perspective here: the online scene is just a small representation of the book-buying public, and the vast majority of reviews and reviewers have barely any influence on sales. Most of the opinions flying around carry very little weight or authority (and I include my own, here), so a writer that sees their book attract a flurry of negative reviews should try not to get too downbeat about it (though admittedly this is far easier said than done, I'm sure, especially when some of those reviews are badly-written).

We should also consider the fact that the online scene allows for a great deal of interaction between authors and readers, and this sort of thing - when handled properly - can help launch careers. Joe Abercrombie is a good example of an author who successfuly used the myriad of online possibilities to his advantage. While we're a small crowd, it certainly doesn't hurt if you can win us online fans over.

So while I fully understand how it must feel to be a new writer being dragged into the Bear Pit, we mustn't lose sight of the positive aspects that online critiquing offers both writers and readers.

Ultimately it's a double-edged sword.

Wednesday 5 May 2010

Book review: The Reapers are the Angels

The Reapers are the Angels

By Alden Bell

(Tor, 3 September 2010)

One of the most pleasing things as a book reviewer is to find a novel that spectacularly demolishes your expectations - especially when it seemingly comes out of nowhere with no hype attached to it. I had a strange feeling about The Reapers are the Angels from the minute I pulled it out of the padded envelope; there was just something enticing about it, though even now I'm not quite sure what it was. Perhaps it was the moody artwork (presented in a much darker tone to the one shown above), though I doubt it. Perhaps it was the style of the prose that I glanced over. Maybe it just connected with my like of post-apocalyptic fiction. Whatever. I just knew that I had to read this book as soon as possible.

So I did, and was rewarded with what will surely be one of this year's best genre releases.

Post-apocalyptic novels full of zombies are a dime a dozen, and it takes something special to truly stand out in this sub-genre (special like World War Z). But the best books are often those that attempt to take a familiar formula and inject a little bit of ingenuity into it in order to freshen it up. This is what The Reapers are the Angels does very well indeed.

Rather than focusing on the zombie outbreak and the sudden collapsing of civilisation, the story starts some twenty-five years after the zombie ("meatskin") uprising, in a world where humanity has been brought to its knees and yet somehow still holds out. More importantly, the main protagonist - a young woman by the name of Temple - was born after society collapsed. This bleak, ravaged world is all that she knows - and this lends a very interesting perspective to her character.

Temple makes for an excellent protagonist. Haunted by some hidden horrors from her past, she's fighting a constant battle against the evil that she is convinced lurks in her soul. She's more afraid of herself than she is of the walking dead, and this self-loathing and introverted anxiety causes her to shun the remnants of society - she's a wanderer, a wayfarer that seeks her own company almost like some sort of penance for a perceived crime that - to her mind - she committed and that God won't forgive her for.

Yet when she meets Maury - a helpless mute - Temple sees a chance to right some wrongs. A chance to rekindle the flicker of humanity inside her. And so she sets off across the southern states of what was once America, in an attempt to try and rebalance the scales. Unfortunately for her, the walking dead are the least of her troubles. There's a man on her tail, seeking a revenge that can only be achieved with her death. It seems that her past isn't willing to let her go so easily...

There is a wonderful dynamic underpinning the relationship that forms between Temple and Moses, her pursuer. There's an affinity, an understanding between then and it's interesting to see how it affects them and their actions. Moses is perhaps the only person that really understands her, and he performs a dual role - as both her potential murderer and surrogate father-figure. It's a beguiling mix, but one that works superbly. Temple's traits and quirks are also developed via her relationship with Maury: we see her iron resolve and the utter fearlessness she possesses, yet we also see flashes of the young girl that she is - glimpses of the carefree girl that she might have been in a different time. The result is both convincing and touching. Temple's ultimately a tragic figure, forced into a brutal, lonely life so different from the one she may have led had she been born decades earlier (the 'date' scene towards the end of the book is a wonderful hint at this very point).

The strong characterisation is matched by the prose. The use of the present tense lends a real sense of immediacy to the proceedings, while the lack of conventional dialogue and the fluid writing almost makes you feel like you're listening to the story rather than reading it: as if someone is telling it to you. Subsequently it takes on the feel of a modern fable. The style of the writing fits the subject matter perfectly - there's often a pleasingly whimsical undertone to the stark grandeur of the prose, an undertone that speaks of hope.

And there is hope in this ravaged world. Temple can see it; in a way it's what drives her on, this desire to see the beauty that can still be found if you know where to look, although she regards her enjoyment of such beauty as some sort of sacrilege. Yet this isn't a world where the undead hordes cover every square inch of the earth, but one where at times the living dead are almost an irrelevance. Often Temple will drive for miles and miles without seeing a single meatskin. And there are people traveling the country on the roads like they've always done: there is friendship and trust amongst them, and it's pleasing to see such virtues exist in a world where society is on the verge of collapse - it perhaps paints a different picture to many other novels with similar subject matter.

Verdict: The Reapers are the Angels is a real triumph, a literary fantasy where the zombies are mostly window-dressing. This is a novel more concerned with people and their relationships, with the human spirit and all its flaws and frailties. It's a story driven by the characters' needs to establish some sort of order in their lives, some sort of goal to cling to, and all the pitfalls that arise because of this need. It speaks of resilience and belief, of hope and sorrow, and the need to look for the beauty in life, no matter how hard that might be. An instant post-apocalyptic classic. 

Tuesday 4 May 2010


Yep, I finally caved in and can now be found on Twitter, where I am engaging in the active genre debate and also spouting a load of nonsense.

Feel free to say hello if you're also tweeting.

Sunday 2 May 2010

Book review: Kraken


By China Miéville

(Macmillan, 7 May 2010)

You think you know London? You don't. Forget the black cabs and the red letter boxes, forget the London Eye, the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace. In Kraken, China Miéville reveals a secret London of abandoned parking lots, deserted warehouses and desolate urban wasteland, where every dark alley might hide something terrible, where every flicker of a streetlight might convey a hidden message. A London where dozens of bizarre cults wage war on each other, in the hope of bringing about their own version of the apocalypse.

And that apocalypse is much closer than anyone realises.

It is this nightmarish underbelly of London that Billy Harrow, curator at the Darwin Centre, unwittingly finds himself dragged into, after the Darwin Centre's prize exhibit - a giant squid - somehow vanishes without a trace. As Billy finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into the horrors and micro-politics of this hidden London, he gradually learns that the stolen squid is somehow central to the unfolding events... and that the link he possesses to the creature is the only hope of averting the impending apocalypse.

Miéville's last effort, The City and the City, was something of a departure for him in the sense that - aside from the premise - it was a novel notable largely for its lack of speculative genre elements, with its roots much more firmly in the hardboiled, noir crime novel. At times, it did feel that that novel's setting inhibited Miéville's natural creativity, that to some degree his imaginative wings were clipped.

Not so in Kraken. In his new novel, Miéville unleashes the full power of his imagination. The result is often spectacular.

The secret London that provides the setting for most of Kraken's events is superbly realized, full of distinctive characters and imaginative flourishes that remind the reader time and time again just how creative Miéville can be. Few writers can evoke the brooding grandeur of a city as well as Miéville, and the desolate nature of his urban structures lends a suitably oppressive tone to much of the proceedings.

Yet this is by no means a bleak novel, as there's a surprising amount of humour thrown in, along with numerous references to geek/internet culture that lend the novel a very contemporary edge. Furthermore, there's a certain wryness that permeates the entire story, and surfaces from time to time: it's never quite clear how seriously you're meant to take it. A lot of the time the novel is a ludicrous geek-fest (how could a novel about a giant squid not be?) but at other times it's dark and unflinchingly brutal. A strange mix perhaps, but it's one that Miéville judges to perfection.

Billy Harrow makes for a solid protagonist; it's interesting to see how he adapts to this secret London that he was blissfully unaware of before, and Miéville handles his development well. Collingswood is amusing as the straight-talking police officer with attitude (not to mention a few tricks of her own), while Wati's inability to take physical form and subsequent need to inhabit objects is often hugely entertaining. The stars of the show though are Goss and Subby: surely the finest antagonists Miéville has ever created. The duo are a wonderful creation, exuding real menace and injecting tension into every scene they're in. Put simply, they're terrifying. It's no coincidence that they're involved in some of the novel's best moments.

With Kraken, Miéville has adopted a different style of prose that is less baroque than that of the Bas-Lag novels, though more vibrant than that of The City and the City. Sometimes it's a little dense and overbearing; now and again the narrative struggles beneath the weight of the prose. Miéville is a wonderful stylist though, and Kraken contains some sublime prose that is both poetic and evocative. The speculative genre is badly in need of more writers with Miéville's eye for style and love of words.

Kraken isn't an easy read; at times early on in the book the story flounders a little and struggles to get going. However, once it does there's no stopping it: the plot may be fairly simple, but the story itself is full of twists and surprising revelations. After a lumbering start, it moves along at a decent pace that builds to a satisfying climax.

Verdict: After the mainstream appeal of The City and the City, it's great to see Miéville fully embracing the weird and wonderful again. Kraken is an excellent example of the potential that the fantasy genre possesses when its boundaries are pushed and pulled. It's also the sign of a writer working at the height of his creativity; in terms of sheer imaginative power, Miéville blows most other writers away. Despite its minor flaws, Kraken is an absorbing story that is by turns amusing, shocking and utterly enthralling, and is all wrapped up in the weirdness that Miéville is famed for (along with a healthy dose of gleeful wit). The result is both bizarre and wonderful. Who said the New Weird was dead?