Tuesday 29 June 2010

Book review: Shadow Prowler

Shadow Prowler

By Alexey Pehov

(Simon and Schuster, 1 April 2010)

Alexey Pehov, by all accounts, is something of a genre superstar in his Russian homeland. His books - which have sold over a million copies - have won various awards, and are among the most popular fantasy novels in Russia. His first book Shadow Prowler - known as Stealth in the Shadows in his native Russia - has been heralded (rather bizarrely) by X-Men creator Chris Claremont as "an exciting take on classical themes." According to Pehov's website, Shadow Prowler was sold to both Tor in the USA and Simon and Schuster in the UK, both in six-figure deals.

Not bad going for a book that allegedly began life as a piece of fanfiction based on the popular Thief video games series.

Then again, perhaps 'began life' is a spurious phrase - by all accounts Stealth in the Shadows was still fanfiction when it was published in Russia; the main character - a thief - was even called Garrett, which is the name of the protagonist from the Thief games. The protagonist's name was changed to 'Harold' when the book was picked up for US/UK publication (presumably for fear of a lawsuit), though amusingly they didn't quite manage to eradicate all the references to his former name: on page 374 of Shadow Prowler, Harold is referred to by another character as 'Garrett' - a jarring reminder of the novel's dubious origins.

Still, to judge any book based on its background is to do it a disservice; as we all know, you have to review the book itself, not the noise that comes with it.

So, Shadow Prowler. A book in which the RELUCTANT HERO™ - a thief by the name of Garrett Shadow Harold - must embark on a DANGEROUS QUEST™ to retrieve the MAGICAL ARTIFACT™ in order to defeat the EVIL DARK LORD™ known as THE NAMELESS ONE™ who wants to DESTROY THE WORLD™.

You think I'm joking? I wish. I try not to be too sarcastic in reviews, but in this case I think I'm justified. It's no exaggeration to say that Shadow Prowler is probably the most derivative, clichéd fantasy novel I think I've ever read - and given some of the rubbish I've read in my time, that's saying something.

Honestly, the extent to which Pehov has just trotted out the same old tropes - not to mention ripped off other sources - is staggering.

Don't get me wrong; clichés are not necessarily a bad thing - they're clichés because they've been overused, and they've been overused because they're popular. There's nothing wrong with using them - so long as you do something different with them. You don't have to reinvent the wheel, just riff on a familiar trope and try and spin it in a different direction.

In Shadow Prowler, Pehov makes no such attempt to freshen up these overfamiliar tropes. And that's easily the novel's greatest failing: it just regurgitates the same old storyline that you've seen hundreds of times before and brings nothing new whatsoever. Oh sure, Pehov's dwarves don't have beards and his elves have fangs, but so what? These are merely token gestures that serve no purpose whatsoever and are classic examples of "change for change's sake" which is never a good thing. Regardless of their appearances, the dwarves and elves still act much as you'd expect them to.

As if this reliance on such a tired premise wasn't bad enough, Shadow Prowler is further undermined by what appears to be sheer laziness on Pehov's part when it comes to the history of his world, and the novel's backstory.

For example, we're told that the Nameless One (who was once called Grok, so he's not actually nameless at all) refused to aid his noble brother (who, bizarrely, is also called Grok) during a battle, and so was executed for treason. Except that we're not told why he failed to aid his brother. Apparently, "history is silent on that question." Indeed. Nor is a valid explanation offered for why the one artifact that can stop the Nameless One (who has somehow survived his execution, though that's not explained either) was hidden for 'safekeeping' in one of the most dangerous, hostile locations in the kingdom. Perhaps it's just me, but taking the one thing that can help you against your enemy and hiding it in a location that will be extremely difficult to recover it from, just strikes me as unbelievably stupid. Yet this is one of the fundamental problems with Shadow Prowler - so much of the backstory has clearly been devised to support the plot, leaving gaping holes in the novel's internal logic.

The laziness doesn't end there. Not content with falling back on the most clichéd premise in the epic fantasy genre, Pehov has also ripped much of his world's magic straight out of D&D: we have fireballs, we have one-use scrolls, we have fire- and cold-imbued crossbow bolts, and we have wizards that have to memorise spells before they can cast them. All lifted straight from the annals of D&D. It's brazen to the point of being appalling. Embarrassing, even.

The writing is no better. Admittedly, given that Shadow Prowler has been translated from Russian, it's hard to know how much of the prose's fluency has been lost in translation. The answer is either a hell of a lot, or that the writing was just poor in the first place. The actual prose is not that bad; it's rather stiff at times, but ultimately it's serviceable. Unfortunately Pehov has no idea how to handle exposition, with the result that the first few chapters of Shadow Prowler descend into a truly terrifying mess of info-dumps that completely ruin the flow of the narrative. Worse, Pehov feels the need to tell the reader everything about a particular creature when we meet it for the first time. So, Harold will find himself in a confrontation with a peculiar creature, but before the action can commence, we have to put up with several paragraphs giving us a brief run-down of the creature's habits and characteristics (get used to it, as this trait appears as early as the second page). It's painfully amateurish and only serves to suck whatever tension there is straight out of the scenes.

Shadow Prowler's plot offers little in the way of excitement. The first half of the book is set-the-scene stuff (quite literally; we have pages and pages of endless exposition) and also sees a rather odd sub-plot play out (which seems to have no apparent relevance to anything important). The second half witnesses Harold and his bunch of companions setting out on their venture, with a distinct lack of twists and turns on the way. There's a few incidents here and there, but for the most part it's all rather pedestrian and almost entirely lacking in excitement or tension. There's nothing interesting to be found in Pehov's world either. It's a depressingly bog-standard world of kings, wizards, orcs and elves. There's even a place called the 'Desolate Lands'. Well, the dark lord has got to live somewhere, right?

Characterisation is perhaps the one aspect where Pehov shows a glimmer of ability, and the likability of his characters was the only thing that kept me reading. Harold, as a protagonist, lacks depth and possesses no intriguing quirks or flaws. Yet he does possess a certain wry humour, and as the story is told in the first person, his narrative does inject a bit of lighthearted humour to the proceedings. The goblin jester Kli-Kli brings further humour; he's a genuinely amusing little fellow that is good fun to read about. The gnome and dwarf duo of Hallas and Deler, and their constant sniping, provides further entertainment.

There are other isolated flashes of Pehov's ability. The chapters of the novel set in the city's 'Forbidden Territory' are handled well and are vastly more interesting than anything else in the novel; Pehov can do tension and intrigue when he really tries. Furthermore, the 'flashback' chapters (depicting incidents that often happened hundreds of years before) are arguably the strongest in the book, and are written in third-person, which seems to suit Pehov much better. They're the only moments when the novel seems to get anywhere near to the quality you'd expect from a book that was sold for such high sums.

Speaking of the sums involved, I'm bemused by Simon and Schuster's decision to take this novel on. To my knowledge, they've not had a fantasy imprint since they closed down Earthlight, and this apparent lack of expertise appears painfully obvious with this particular deal. They've shown no understanding of the current state of the genre, and have offered a huge amount of money for the kind of novel that peddles a brand of fantasy that the genre has more or less left behind. Sure, no doubt some readers still go for this sort of thing, but if you look at the popular authors in the genre these days, none of them are writing this sort of book anymore.

Verdict: For the most part, Shadow Prowler is a mess of lazily-used clichés, uninspired worldbuilding, amateurish writing and linear plotting. Some relief is provided by a few of the more amusing characters, and now and again Pehov shows hints of genuine ability. Yet this isn't enough to save a novel that represents the end of the fantasy spectrum that the genre has thankfully been moving away from (in other words, sub-par, unimaginative Tolkien rip-offs). There's nothing new here. To some readers, that might be an attraction in itself. But even so, this is a story that has been told a million times - and far better than it is here. 

Thursday 24 June 2010

The allure of the assassin

As I mentioned in my review of Jon Sprunk's Shadow's Son, it seems that assassins are becoming increasingly popular in epic fantasy these days. Of course, they've long been a staple of the genre: from Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories (1939 onwards), to M. John Harrison's A Storm of Wings (1980, part of his wonderful Viriconium sequence), to the likes of Robin Hobb's Farseer trilogy (1990s) Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen (1999 onwards). No doubt there's plenty of other examples; I can't claim to be well read enough to be able to give a definitive guide.

Yet it's only in recent years that we've really seen a growing emphasis on assassins as the main protagonists in fantasy novels, perhaps most notably with Brent Weeks' popular The Night Angel trilogy. Col Buchanan's Farlander and Jon Sprunk's Shadow's Son have quickly followed, while Jon Courtenay Grimwood's The Fallen Blade is in the works.

This growing emphasis on the assassin - and the apparent popularity of such characters - has led me to ponder a question - why? What is it about these shady figures that readers find so appealing?

Assassins kill people in cold blood - for money. In real life, there's nothing remotely glamourous about it; it's a despicable way of making a living. Yet assassins are rapidly becoming the rockstars of fantasy literature; there seems to be a certain glamour about the way they live their lives on the edge, dicing with death every other night.

So how come there's such a distinction between real life and literature? Rapists are treated the same way in fantasy books as they are in real life: with disgust and contempt. Yet assassination in the real world is a heinous crime, it's murder, yet in fantasy literature it's somehow acceptable - cool even.

So how come? It's a question that I can't really think of an answer for. What sort of odd psychology is at work, that makes it acceptable to root for characters that kill in cold blood? Often these assassin protagonists have experienced traumatic events earlier in their lives that have shaped them into what they have become (this is true of both Weeks' and Sprunk's characters) but is this enough to justify what they do? Does it even matter?

Food for thought. If you've got any opinions or theories on the subject, I'm very interested to hear them.

Tuesday 22 June 2010

I am Legend: the darkest post-apocalyptic book ever written?

That's the question that's been asked over on the Orbit blog by Terry DeHart:
What is it about early postwar sci-fi that makes its worlds seem so dark and realistically shabby? Proximity to nuclear annihilation? The poorly forgotten horrors of World War Two? The rote mediocrity of peace after the time of global death and flame ended, the famished beginning of the age of mass consumption? Or is it only that we’ve been conditioned by the black-and-white movies of that time?
Whatever it is, Richard Matheson’s I AM LEGEND is shot through with it. This book is wonderfully dark. Neville drinks. He sweats and laughs and cooks and eats and cries and, in between bouts of near-insanity, he kills people. It seems as if killing is the most rational thing left to do. And Matheson puts the reader right there with him.
I'm not able to offer an answer as to whether I am Legend is the best post-apocalyptic book ever written (I'm not nearly well read enough to even begin considering that question) but having read Richard Matheson's famous novel I can certainly understand why it's considered to be a contender for this accolade.

Although I've only read I am Legend once, and that being several years ago, so many of the novel's scenes have stuck in my mind and even now I can recall them with clarity.

What I love most about this book is the psychology of it all, the way Robert Neville goes from being the hunter during the day to being the hunted at night. The desolation and loneliness of the urban landscape is wonderfully portrayed by Matheson, yet the sheer isolation and claustrophobia that he imbues Neville's nights with is even more striking and shocking. Imagining Robert Neville - the last man on Earth - sitting in his living room, drinking liquor and listening to classical music as the hordes of vampires shriek out his name and throw themselves against his defenses, is just such a powerful image - it speaks of both hope and hopelessness, determination and despair.

Matheson's prose is also wonderfully blunt, yet evocative. The opening sentence is one of the best I've ever read:
On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.
With that one line Matheson says so much: he reveals the significance of the sunset, the vulnerability of Neville in his inability to gauge it effectively, and of course the oppressive threat that he faces. One sentence, so much meaning. Brilliant.

I am Legend is available as part of the Gollancz Masterworks series, and if you've not read it - why not? - then you can pick it up for a fiver on Amazon.

Oh, and forget the recent film adaptation - it's total garbage and barely reflects the novel at all, let alone reflect its brilliance.

Monday 21 June 2010

Book review: Shadow's Son

Shadow's Son

By Jon Sprunk

(Gollancz, 8 July 2010)

Assassins seem to be becoming the dominant figures in epic fantasy these days. While they don't yet have a stranglehold over the subgenre the way vampires do in the paranormal romance sector, they certainly appear to be in the ascendency. Brent Weeks' popular Night Angel trilogy arguably started the recent trend, which has been carried on by new authors Col Buchanan, in his debut novel Farlander, and now US debutant Jon Sprunk in his novel Shadow's Son.

The novel's protagonist is Caim, a freelance assassin working out of the city of Othir. After one particular assignment goes wrong, Caim realises he's been set up - and the only person who might be able to offer an explanation as to who is behind it all is the daughter of the man he was meant to kill. Unfortunately for Caim, this unknown enemy also want to get their hands on the daughter - Josie - for their own sinister reasons. Before long, Caim finds himself embroiled in a sinister game of conspiracy, with Othir's future as the stakes. If he is to stand any chance of survival, Caim is going to have to look inside himself and unleash the darkness that he has been holding back all these years...

The greatest asset of Shadow's Son is the sheer pace at which the story unfolds. The story rips along at speed, aided by short chapters and a pleasing lack of unnecessary detail or exposition. Furthermore, the plot is crafted well and enough hints are dropped throughout to keep the reader guessing, with the pay-off coming further down the line as various revelations come to light. Sprunk also manages to engineer one or two twists that keep things interesting.

The other elements of the novel are much more of a mixed bag.

Caim is a solid protagonist and - despite his profession - is easy to empathise with. His motivations are believable and partly drive both the plot and his personal development, while his background - and unnerving ability to control shadows - creates an air of mystery about him. His companion Kit - an ethereal, spirit-like young woman - is another intriguing figure, at least in terms of what her possible origins are.

Josie on the other hand, is a walking stereotype - a whinging adolescent who quickly grows up and matures into a headstrong, independent young woman over the space of a couple of weeks. Needless to say she's also beautiful, and the way her relationship develops with Caim can be seen coming from a mile off. While generally this relationship is handled well, there are unrealistic moments (such as when she and Caim are falling from a pier towards the sea, yet Josie is strangely preoccupied with marveling at how taught Caim's muscles are beneath his clothes).

The rest of the characterisation is uneven: Levictus is a brooding, sinister menace, though his backstory is a little rushed and would have benefited from more exploration to fully flesh his motives out. In truth, this is true of many of the major players in the novel: Ral and Vassili are defined well enough, but lack sufficient depth to truly explain their motives and smooth their rough edges. They're engaging enough, just a little superficial at times. The worst culprit though is Markus, who rarely rises above the level of pantomime villain.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the characterisation though is the lack of strong female characters, with the arguable exception of Kit. Josie is little more than a damsel in (very frequent) distress and constantly requires rescuing, while the rest of the females in the novel are either tavern 'wenches' (a terribly clichéd word that I would be happy never to see used again) or prostitutes. I suppose you could argue that this merely reflects the male-dominated nature of Sprunk's world, though personally I prefer to see some strong females challenging such gender conventions.

Speaking of Sprunk's world, it's portrayed well enough but ultimately it's nothing you've not seen before numerous times. It's a feudal medieval world, with all the usual trappings. While not inherently a problem - and to be fair it serves its purpose - it nonetheless lacks the depth you find from those of other authors working in the genre. Sprunk does deserve credit though for placing the focus firmly on the story and characters, and not the world (which is the way it should be).

Sprunk's prose, on the whole, is a positive point: while he won't be winning plaudits for style, his writing    is sharp and flows well. As mentioned above, he doesn't allow unnecessary details to bog down his narrative, and he handles exposition well. The only flaw in his prose is his insistence on using similes in his descriptive writing - this is a reliance Sprunk needs to overcome in future books, mainly because many of the similes he uses in Shadow's Son simply aren't that good, and add nothing to the descriptive quality of his prose.

Other details niggle as well. The surfacing of a major cliché halfway through the book isn't particularly welcome, Kit seems to vanish on a whim when it suits the plot and for no other discernible purpose, while the book's climax is marred by over-dramatic dialogue and an encroaching sense of predictability. The ascendency of one character to a position of power, despite apparently having no evidence at all to support their right to that position, was also rather hard to swallow.

Verdict: Shadow's Son undoubtedly has its flaws, namely its uneven characterisation, a reliance on cliché and stereotype, and a rather generic world. Yet its story is constructed well (save for perhaps the predictable final act) and unfolds at great pace, with plenty of action and intrigue along the way. Caim is a decent protagonist, and his development and relationship with Josie are handled well. A flawed novel then, but a reasonably entertaining one. Hopefully the next instalment in the trilogy will tread less familiar ground. 

Saturday 19 June 2010

Interesting interview with Lou Anders...

...over at BSC. For those of you wondering who Lou Anders is and why you should bother reading an interview with him, Lou is the editorial director of Pyr in the States, a genre imprint with a very good reputation and various award nominations.

Naturally Lou has plenty of thought-provoking views on the current state of the genre:
"I’ve been very interested in the return of sword & sorcery to prominence. This dovetails with an opinion of mine that what the majority of genre readers want are “good stories well told.” I tend to avoid slipstream or literary fantasy in favor of recognizable science fiction and fantasy stories told at a higher level of craft. I think the reason so many adults are migrating to the Young Adult category is that they have a craving for action and adventure that isn’t being served, and I think the return of S&S is part of that trend, as is the fascination with steampunk."
Check out the full interview.

Friday 18 June 2010

Yet more Villjamur artwork, plus Friday links

Been a bit of a slow week blogging-wise, though I'm hoping next week will be a bit busier. As always though, there's been plenty of stuff going on elsewhere, so here's a few links worth checking out.

Before that though, here's yet another cover for Nights of Villjamur (this one's the audiobook version).

Now linky links :)

Wert has reviewed Chris Wooding's The Black Lung Captain and while his opinion generally matches my own, he seemed to enjoy it a little more.

Mark has reviewed Gavin Smith's Veteran (still got this one my reading pile...).

Aidan's reviewed The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (another author I've been meaning to check out).

The Speculative Scotsman has assessed the preview chapters that have been released of Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings, and his article is worth checking out as he's never read Brandon Sanderson before, so is unbiased. I didn't bother posting the info about these chapters that I received by email, since every man and his dog across the blogosphere had done so already...).

Neth has reviewed The Passage by Justin Cronin (get used to hearing about this book - it's not going away any time soon).

Graeme has reviewed the much-heralded Swords and Dark Magic anthology - might try and see if I can wangle a copy of this, sounds excellent.

The Jub Jub Bird has got an excellent write-up of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman.

Amanda has reviewed Courage and Honour by Graham McNeill.

Monday 14 June 2010

First glimpse of HBO's 'Game of Thrones'

And it's literally a glimpse.

The teaser doesn't reveal much, but we do get a look at the haunted forest - and I think they've totally nailed the atmosphere, which is encouraging.

Plus, Sean Bean looks totally boss as Eddard Stark.

Early days still, and it's hard to draw any serious conclusions, but these hints are promising.

Sunday 13 June 2010

Alt. Fiction 2010

Yesterday I made my way down to Derby for the one-day genre extravaganza that is Alt. Fiction. The journey from Manchester to Derby is fairly short (about 90 minutes both ways) and is a lovely one to undertake in the summer when the sun has deigned to show itself - miles of rolling green hills glimmering with an emerald radiance beneath the azure skies. Mmm, azure skies...not seen nearly enough of them recently. But I digress.

The last Alt. Fiction I attended was in 2008 and while it was a good day, it still had the feel of a fledgling convention that was still finding its feet. Pleasingly, this year's incarnation improved on pretty much every aspect: the events (panels/workshops/signings) were more plentiful and specific in their topics, the facilities (the con was held in Derby's QUAD centre) were superior, and the attendance was greater (with a very healthy blend of editors, authors, agents, bloggers and general readers). The free bag of swag wasn't too shabby either, with a nicely-produced programme, a couple of free books and few other bits and bobs.

Upon arriving (slightly later that anticipated, as I was relying on the map application on my iPhone for guidance...and naturally it refused to work for some reason) I nipped straight into the panel on publishing . I found it interesting that the bulk of the advice offered by the panelists (including agents John Jarrold and John Berlyne, PS Publishing supremo Peter Crowther, and Gollancz publicity guru Jon Weir) focused more on how to approach publishers and agents, rather than how to actually write a novel and get it published (let's face it, that's not something you can really teach). And in any case, knowing how to  approach publishers is a crucial element of the process - there's no point writing a brilliant novel if you then fail to use the proper etiquette when sending it out, as you'll just blow your chances. John Jarrold mentioned that he receives thirty submissions a week from writers who have completely failed to read his submission policy properly - and that he deletes such emails without reading them in full. As he said, "If you don't treat me in a professional manner, I won't treat you in a professional manner." Words worth listening to. Interestingly, the topic of how to behave at conventions came up - another important issue, as some people clearly have no idea how to present themselves properly (such as the writer who, despite attending the panel, clearly failed to pay attention as she spent twenty minutes after the panel bombarding Jon Weir with a load of guff about her paranormal romance novel). Needless to say, Jon was the consummate professional.

I then grabbed a quick beer with Jon, along with Veteran author Gavin Smith, and bloggers Amanda Rutter and Mark Chitty, before heading to the fantasy panel on sparkly vampires versus hack n' slash (a bit of an odd angle to take). The panel featured, among others, Mark Charan Newton and Alex Bell. To be honest, the resulting discussion was rather pedestrian at times - "Mark, what sort of fantasy do you read?" - and one gentleman in the front row actually fell asleep and began snoring. Still, you can't win them all.

Following the fantasy panel, I popped downstairs with Adrian Faulkner (nice chap I knew through Twitter) and we attended a podcast conducted by the tireless Adele from UnBound, featuring Mark and Alex (both fresh from the fantasy panel) as well as Kate Griffin. The resulting conversation was more lively than the earlier panel, though Adrian (unintentionally) did his best to distract the participants with his extremely fizzy bottle of coke, which threatened to drown everything out. ;)

After the podcast, Adrian and I accompanied Mark and his lovely editor Julie to the bar for some more drinks and decent chat. Then it was back upstairs for a final hour of mingling, in which I managed to grab a few words with Gavin Smith, M. D. Lachlan and John Berlyne, before saying my goodbyes at 5 pm (would have liked to stay longer, but the small matter of England's match against the US in the world cup was something I couldn't miss - although as usual it turned out to be a disappointment, so perhaps I shouldn't have bothered getting back for it).

So yeah, a good day in all, though as usual I didn't manage to chat with everyone I wanted to. Alt. Fiction is certainly establishing itself as a crucial convention, which is great to see, and I'll hopefully be back next year.

Friday 11 June 2010

Book review: The Black Lung Captain

The Black Lung Captain

By Chris Wooding

(Gollancz, 29 July 2010)

The first novel in Chris Wooding's Ketty Jay series, Retribution Falls, was one of my top five reads of 2009. A thrilling yarn of dastardly rogues, dogfights and double-crossings, it was a novel that succeeded on every level: the plot was finely crafted, the characters were well developed, and the world was vivid and intriguing. Of course, it helped that the novel resonated with wry humour and that the fun factor was well and truly cranked up to eleven.

Needless to say, my expectations when I picked up The Black Lung Captain were rather high - and that's rarely a good thing. When you pick up the sequel to a personal favourite, it's impossible not to compare the new novel to everything that went before. And more often than not, the latest effort struggles to emerge from the shadow of its illustrious predecessor, and you end up feeling disappointed.

Was this the case with The Black Lung Captain?

Yes. And no.

Fortunately, most of the factors that made Retribution Falls such a triumph remain intact. As before, the characters drive the story. Wooding explores some of their background details that were only hinted at previously, and pleasingly makes these details relevant (even crucial) to the unfolding events. These are all people that battle personal demons, and their individual struggles are convincingly portrayed. Their various relationships are also deftly handled - Frey's and Trinica's in particular is very well rendered, and their evolving emotions make for some genuinely touching moments. Wooding has a strong understanding for relationship dynamics, and this lends a very believable edge to those in The Black Lung Captain.

As for the characters themselves, most of the principle figures from Retribution Falls make a welcome return - including Slag the cat, who takes his personal battle with the nervy Harkins to amusing new levels (their entertaining escapades aren't just for comic relief - at one point they have a vital impact on the story, which is a nice touch). Wooding also throws some new folk into the mix as well, most notably the fearsome Captain Grist, whose gruff, almost affable exterior hides something altogether darker. The whispermonger Osric Smult is another new addition, and his unsettling appearance and personality leaves a lasting impression that belies his solitary appearance in the novel. Most of the characters that appear however are familiar faces, and with good reason - they're such an eclectic bunch that there's simply no need for a lot of new faces. This is borne out by the fact that arguably the most intriguing character is Trinica - charting her psychological journey throughout the book is extremely satisfying. 

As mentioned above, Wooding explores various facets that were only glimpsed in the previous novel, and as the story progresses a number of revelations come to light that develop both the story and the world itself, adding a welcome sheen of intrigue to proceedings. The pacing is good, and as with the first novel there are double-crossings and some frantic (and quite epic) aerial battles, while the familiar sense of wry humour is present and correct.

Unfortunately, all these positives are undone to an extent by the plot, which is limited and makes for a rather linear storyline (it effectively boils down to Frey and his gang chasing from A to B to C, pursuing a nemesis that is always one step ahead of them). The odd well-judged twists that proved so delightful in the first book are this time conspicuous by their absence, and while the story does allow for some exciting sequences and satisfying character development, it's just not as gripping as its predecessor was (see, I told you the comparison was unavoidable). Perhaps more to the point, it's not quite as much fun either, though it's hard to identify the exact reason for this. It will have to suffice to say that The Black Lung Captain didn't enthrall me nearly as much as Retribution Falls, though that's not to say that it's a bad book - it's not by any means.

Verdict: Perhaps predictably, The Black Lung Captain doesn't match the brilliance of its predecessor. The characters are as strong as before, but the sense of excitement just isn't quite there. Perhaps this is merely because of expectations heightened by Retribution Falls, but it's equally likely to be due to the plot, which doesn't allow for the surprises that the first novel managed to fling the reader's way. That said, aside from the good characterisation, the events are supplemented by some interesting revelations about certain people and other aspects of the world, while the humour - again, as before - is well observed, with plenty of amusing moments to lighten the tone (which is perhaps a little darker this time around). In all, an enjoyable read - it just lacks the panache that made Retribution Falls exceptional. 

Monday 7 June 2010

How to Train Your Dragon

I went to see this film partly because it received very good reviews, but also because the principle dragon kinda looks like one of my cats, which naturally I found quite amusing (obviously I'm referring to the feline on the left. And no, I don't still have that horrendous sofa).

Anyway, the film was very enjoyable indeed. The story is a classic misfit-comes-good gig: young viking is frustrated at not being given the chance to prove himself to his dragon-slaying peers, yet ends up playing a vital role in building bridges in dragon/viking relations and eventually becomes a hero. A simple, classic tale then, but it's a heck of a lot of fun. Let's face it, dragons and vikings are COOL, so what's not to like?

The relationship between our intrepid hero Hiccup, and his dragon Toothless, is very well portrayed and packs a surprisingly emotional punch, as does Hiccup's relationship with his father (there's no doubt this is a kids' film, but there's perhaps a few themes that are aimed at the more discerning older viewer). Toothless himself is an amusing creature, and the cause of much of the film's humour. The story moves at a good pace, with plenty of 'action' sequences to keep things ticking over. The climax is somewhat predictable (like I said, it's a film made for a young demographic) yet is pleasingly epic and handled well.

The soundtrack is one of the film's genuine surprises - some lovely classical compositions in the mix. Anyway, How to Train Your Dragon is well worth a look if you're stuck for something to watch at the cinema.

Last reminder for Alt Fiction!

Just a reminder that Alt. Fiction is this coming Saturday, at the QUAD centre in Derby.

The schedule for the day is packed with panels, readings, Q&A sessions and book signings, so there's plenty to get stuck into if you can drag yourself away from the bar. The full schedule can be found here.

There's a load of authors who have confirmed their attendance - Steven Erikson, Mark Charan Newton, Tim Lebbon, MD Lachlan and Mark Chadbourn to name just a few - as well as load of editors, agents, and general hangers-on like myself. If you're going, do say hello - always nice to meet other genre fans. If you're lucky, I might give you one of my 'business' cards (not that there's any point, but it makes me feel important). If you're really, really lucky, I might be persuaded to let you buy me a drink. Mine's a Guinness or a Jack and coke. Cheers.

Last I heard tickets were getting rather scarce, so you'll need to move quickly if you want to attend.

Saturday 5 June 2010

Twilight fan in amusing Wolfman rant

This made me laugh this morning, so thanks to Mihir over at Fantasy Book Critic for the heads-up on this one.

Latino Review have posted an email they received from an irate Twilight fan, who was fuming at the fact that Universal's film The Wolfman 'gives the werewolves a bad name.' No, really. You can find the full email here.

Here's my favourite snippets:
This movie was a complete waste and I feel that it offends ALL Twilight Fans around the world, that including myself. For one, it was a COMPLETE remaking of the Wolf Pack from the Twilight Saga: New Moon. 
Um...no. It was a re-make of THE WOLFMAN, a film that was released in 1941. Hence the name.
It gives the werewolves a bad name and makes them look like some deformed mutation of a rabid dog.
No shit, Sherlock. That's kinda what werewolves are, or were, before Stephanie Meyer pissed all over several centuries of European folklore and changed them into ludicrously buff blokes that turn into cute, fluffy wolves.
That was until I saw your crappy remake of what you call to be a "were wolf". I don't see how you live with yourself for making it the way you did. If I made this movie, I would be ashamed to even admit that I owned it. 
Gee, I don't know how Universal can live with themselves either. I mean, they only distributed a film that reminded everyone what werewolves are MEANT to be like, and which is a re-make of THEIR OWN FILM.
How can a werewolf be killed with a silver bullet?
Because werewolves are mythical creatures, and folklore suggests weapons constructed from silver can harm them. Was that really so bloody hard to figure out for yourself?
Better yet, have you saw the transformation of the man that is "supposed" to be the wolf? He sits in some chair and his entire body turns in to some mutated freak.
How inconsiderate of him. How dare he not pout moodily and flex his muscles beforehand.

So, there you have it. Universal are nefarious plagiarists that should be hung, drawn and quartered for ruining countless Twilight fans' precious werewolves. And let us state this clearly for future posterity: Stephanie Meyer INVENTED werewolves, and they look like this. Anyone that thinks werewolves actually look like this, and that they even EXISTED before Stephanie Meyer wrote the Twilight series, is a FILTHY LIAR.

Friday 4 June 2010

An interview with Mark Charan Newton - Part the Second

As promised, here's the second instalment of the interview with Mark Charan Newton. The interview turned out to be bigger than expected, so look out for a bonus third final part in the near future!

Here we go...

You’ve recently signed a new contract with Tor UK for another two books, along with a two-book deal in the US. Your first novel for Tor, Nights of Villjamur, received a very positive critical reaction both online and in print, and the early signs point towards a similar reaction to your new novel City of Ruin. As if that wasn’t enough, you recently took part in a book signing alongside China Mieville, who is one of your biggest influences. Surely, when you were living in that caravan all those years ago and first embarking on your writing career, you never expected to achieve this sort of success so quickly?

No. And I'm still aware that it could all disappear just as quickly. I've been very lucky to get where I am (but I essentially wrote off six years of my life to get here), and I've just got to keep doing what I'm doing. Though of course every struggling writer dreams of success, it was more of an issue while I was unpublished. Now I'm published, if I'm honest, I try not to think in terms of such things. I'm just focussing on hitting deadlines and keeping things ticking over.

You’re fairly young for an author – you were only 26 when you wrote Nights of Villjamur. Has this inspired any negativity towards you?

Hard to say. I think writing is one of those deeply personal and emotional pastimes, and one of the most popular "ideal" jobs, so to see someone younger make a success of things is bound to irritate some people. Combine that with the very British quality of not wanting others to succeed, then I guess you could understand mutterings from certain quarters, and - online, behind avatars - that has the potential to manifest in any number of bitter ways. But again, it's an abstract problem, and one that, ultimately, I can't really afford to worry about.

Can you pinpoint a specific moment in time when you first thought “Yeah, I want to be a writer”? If so, what proved the catalyst?

I never thought I wanted to be a writer. I just gave it a go, because I couldn't find the type of book I wanted to read, and tried writing it myself. Simple as that. There are a hundred tiny influences, other writers who inspire, but the main thrust was really a dissatisfaction with what was on the shelf. You want to write, then write. If you're lucky, you get paid for it, but it doesn't mean you can't enjoy the process. There wasn't really any other driver.

Tell us about that moment when the news came through that you’d first been offered a book deal – what were you doing, and how did you feel?

I was actually staying at my friend's house - George Mann, who's also a writer. We'd been out drinking, and I was hungover the next day. I tried reading my emails on my primitive phone (how do we cope without the iPhone?) and saw that my agent had tried to contact me the night before to tell me that Peter Lavery at Pan Macmillan wanted to buy my book. As you can imagine, I was delighted, though still hungover. In fact, I probably did a silly dance, but it was a while ago now. The buzz lasted for a good few days, and I still get after shocks: when I see my book on a shelf, or get a good review.

It’s said that writers need a thick skin, though personally I think these days a titanium-alloy full body suit would be more appropriate. You’ve been fortunate to have enjoyed a great critical reception on the whole, but how do you deal with the negative reviews that now and then come your way? Does it become easier to deal with them, or do they always hurt you as much as they first did?

I know I've been pretty lucky with reviews. If anything, this has created a cause for a few bad reviews on Amazon, from people who were surprised the book wasn't the Second Coming. Of course bad reviews hurt - writers have huge egos, and want praise by the hour, every hour - but I'm not ridiculous to think that everyone should like my books, and in fact, if I'm pissing a few people off too, then I think I've done a good thing. And yes, it gets easier - though for any new book, I think you want people to respond well - first month sensitivities, perhaps.

As mentioned, your first novel received an excellent critical reception, and you thank several reviewers – this humble blogger included – in the acknowledgements to City of Ruin. You’ve stated elsewhere that this online support was important to your early success, but exactly how important was it? Is it vital these days for a new author to win over the online reviewers?

It's not strictly speaking because of the reviews. Many bloggers have helped promote me - with interviews, or links or opinions on my own blog posts, and that has siginficiantly raised my profile. It takes an extremely egocentric author to think that they get where they are without help, be it from editors, agents, publicists, cover artists, or this newfangled blogosphere. But I don't think of it as winning over online reviewers - I just do whatever I do, and if people love it, great. If they don't, not so great. Besides, trying a charm offensive is ultimately fruitless, because there are hundreds of bloggers these days, and I just don't have the time. Those acknowledgements were exactly that - a thank you to the folk who helped me.

How surprised were you by the online reaction to, and the support for, Nights of Villjamur? It must have been a huge boost.

It's easy to look back and see the positive online reaction - but at the time, it was a slow, week by week, month by month, gradual - and very pleasing - process. The reviews were spread over a long period, so there wasn't an explosion. Mixed with that were grumpy forum comments, a disgruntled Amazon review or two etc., so it's all watered down. I can look back and just be very proud and know that I'm lucky. And realise - also - that it could turn against me at any moment...

You wrote City of Ruin mostly while Nights of Villjamur was awaiting publication, but now you’ve had to write the third novel in the series while all the praise and plaudits for Nights of Villjamur rolled in. Did this add extra pressure, perhaps a new-found need to meet people’s expectations? Do you feel like you’re specifically writing for an audience now, as opposed for yourself (if indeed you ever were)?

I'm always writing for myself. I'm conscious that an audience exists, somewhere, but it's a dangerous way of thinking to start writing for any other reasons for the enjoyment it gives me - because when I do that, it becomes a chore. Which isn't to say these elements aren't all mutually exclusive - I've got a bunch of ideas I want to write about, and I'm trying to persuade my perceived audience to buy into that.

What words of advice would you give your younger, unpublished self? Or would you just give yourself a good slap?

Quite simple: keep calm, be patient, and don't worry about what other people think.

Do you ever find writing a struggle, or is it all plain-sailing? Surely you must have days where you can’t find your mojo, or for some reason the writing doesn’t quite flow?

It's really not a struggle - and I don't mean that in any self-important way. Putting down creative stuff on paper is something that feels natural. Sure, I get days where I'm not in the mood - and I just don't do it, don't even think about it, and it's worth saying that the text I do put down is actually any good - it might get sliced out later - but putting the crap there in the first place certainly isn't an issue! No, the part I hate is editing...

Books on writing, and writing courses – worthwhile or a waste of time?

They have their place. There are a lot of things out there that actually stop people writing, that create fertile ground for procrastination, so I think it's striking a balance. Whatever works for people, really, though I'm sceptical you can learn all that much about an art from a book. As Neil Gaiman says, just write - and finish what you write.

Lastly, do you have any particular writing rituals? Certain music you listen to perhaps, or a certain place you like to write? Vegetable-fondling, perhaps?

I guess the only thing I try to adhere to is writing around a thousand words a session - no more, no less - if I'm in the middle of a great scene, I'll know exactly where to pick up the next day, which prevents writer's block. I think it was a Hemingway technique, but he also wrote standing up, and I'm not doing that. I tend to plan ahead during the day - often my lunchtime run in order to unpick certain plot knots.

I stick on iTunes. When I wrote City of Ruin, there was a lot of heavy music playing, though strangely for Book Three, I need either ambient stuff, soundtracks, or just silence. I go through fads. And I've started using Scrivener, for Book Three, which is a wonderful writing programme for Macs, and has helped me think in different ways, to plan more effectively.

- - - -

Many thanks to Mark for his time, once again. Final part to follow shortly!

Thursday 3 June 2010

Classic genre video games #3 - Barbarian II

Another golden oldie from my C64 days, Barbarian II: The Dungeons of Drax was the sequel to the surprise success that was Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior (a game that amusingly caused outrage over its cover artwork, which featured a scantily-clad tabloid model by the name of Maria Whittaker - a cover that by today's standards is utterly tame).

Barbarian II, like most games at the time, had a highly-complex storyline: the player, as either a buff barbarian or a lithe princess, had to trek through three levels (a desert region, a cave network, and a dungeon), battling various critters along the way, before confronting the evil wizard Drax in his lair and giving his sorry ass a good kicking.

When you're a six-year-old kid though, you don't much care for storylines - you're far more interested in killing things. And in Barbarian II, you got to do that quite a lot. Every level had different enemies to face, ranging from mere critters to larger, tougher opponents. Some of these enemies were fairly conventional, while others were...rather odd. The first level, for example, had hulking neanderthals wielding clubs, as well as apes and dragon-like creatures. But it also had EVIL CHICKENS (Terry Goodkind, eat your heart out) and these bizarre things that looked like giant peas on legs, which attacked you with what appeared to be a large, yellow penis. Hmm.

On a more serious note, the animation of the barbarian sprite was actually pretty advanced for the time, and you could pull of various moves - including a dramatic spinning axe slash, which if you timed just right would decapitate your enemy, and their head would fly through the air and then bounce off the screen. Naturally, to a six-year-old boy, this was the COOLEST THING EVER. Interestingly, the Kung-Fu masters on the last level were so huge that your axe only hit them in the chest rather than the head, so their heart would fly out and flop around instead. Almost as cool was the fact that enemies could decapitate you as well - the dragon-creatures had a nasty tendency to bite off your head and swallow it.

A Kung-Fu master, shortly before having his heart CHOPPED OUT

Sadly I never managed to finish the game (this was an age where computer games were a couple of quid, so you could buy a new one every week, leading to short attention spans) but nonetheless the experience of battling mutant apes and evil chickens - and squealing when I managed to pull off a successful decapitation - are still very clear in my mind...

Tuesday 1 June 2010

An interview with Mark Charan Newton - Part the First

Today marks the release of Mark Charan Newton's City of Ruin in hardback in the UK, along with the paperback of his acclaimed novel Nights of Villjamur (for those of you in the US, 29 June is the date of release for the hardback of Nights of Villjamur). I therefore thought it would be a good time to throw some questions Mark's way. This first part concentrates entirely on City of Ruin, while the second part will focus more on writing and the fantasy genre in general.

So, here we go...

You’ve freely admitted that you had to reign in your fondness for weirdness in Nights of Villjamur (NoV) in order to make it commercially viable, but that with City of Ruin (CoR) you were free to crank the weirdness up a few notches. Was CoR subsequently a more enjoyable book to write, and did your approach to writing it differ in any way?

City of Ruin was more enjoyable for so many reasons, really. This was the first book I wrote within a publication deal, with a contract, to a deadline. It felt fantastic, so yeah, it certainly helped with my enthusiasm. The release of that combined with the freedom, which was largely within my head, to just let go and enjoy the ride. It also combined with my natural competitiveness to want to do better myself, to see how far I could push myself - because what keeps this interesting is the challenge. On the other hand, it was also more difficult to write with the spotlight slowly turning towards me – there is something to be said for the writing conditions of being unpublished, without the surrounding fluff, but it's minor compared to the smile you have when you've got that first novel out.

The city of Villiren shares several similarities with Villjamur – it’s sprawling and rather oppressive at times, and has the same brooding atmosphere – but overall it’s a very different place. How important was it for you to set the bulk of the book in a different location – do you feel the need to keep things fresh, to maintain your own interest?

I enjoy the construction of a world, and the logical thoughts that come from the effort of creation. But yes, I certainly wanted to try my hand at a very different fantasy city, one which leans towards modern cities, than dwelling in the glories of yesteryear, and again that comes down to the challenges and hurdles being something that drives me to write.

There are strong echoes of M. John Harrison in CoR – most notably with regards to the often bleak atmosphere and the streak of absurdity that occasionally pervades the book. Would you say he was your primary influence when it came to writing CoR? What do you think you learned from reading his own work?

Much less so for this one, I think. In fact, I had fewer influences for CoR overall - I wanted to simply try my own thing and make an effort to create something fairly new, although I will always continue to give nods to books and writers who inspire - it almost seems rude not to do so. CoR was my quest for a significantly more modern epic fantasy - modern in the city, modern in the cultural and political references, modern in the character types. Viriconium does a very good job of distilling the essence of melancholy, of faded cultural glories - and there isn't't much of that to be found in Villiren. It's a brutal, forward-looking environment that embraces a more laissez-faire economy.

CoR reveals quite an epic history that was only really hinted at in NoV – since it drives the overall story arc in the first two books, you clearly had worked out much of these details prior to writing NoV. But how much did you know about your own world as you started writing CoR? Did you have a comprehensive knowledge of your own world, or did you fill in some of the gaps as you went along?

I had a fairly good idea of what I wanted, and a lot of these ideas have in fact been simmering away for years, though much of it was only sketched out. After selling NoV, I made a significant effort to flesh that out for the full four books. But part of the fun is creating a novel that can stand on its own, without needing the other books in the series to function fully, and I do enjoy the organic elements of creation at the start of each novel. So it's a bit of both.

It could be argued that NoV lacked a strong female protagonist, but CoR rectifies this with the character Beami who is a wilful, confident young woman. Were you specifically looking to subvert the gender roles so often found in epic fantasy, and did you find it difficult to enter the mindset of such a character?

Not so much as subvert gender roles - rather, I just wanted to write a realistic woman. I'm keen that, as a writer I want to develop, and I felt that female characters were my weak point, so I wanted a strong, independent woman, which didn't resort to the other end of the spectrum and be all ZOMG super kick-ass in tight costumes, since that's heading towards male fetish territory.

But yes, it's always difficult to write characters that aren't, well, oneself - and one of the great things about writing various characters with this in mind is empathising with various gender roles. For example, decisions such as how much does or should an intelligent woman trade on her looks to make her way in a culture that is, essentially, a patriarchy? And I know I'm not perfect at answering these questions - but it's important to try, surely.

Malum is particularly fascinating; an individual whose aggressive exterior hides his more fragile centre. Was there any particular influence behind the creation of this character?

He came from nowhere, if I'm honest, and he changed throughout. But one thing I was intrigued about was creating a tough character with deep flaws, and reason and fragility and purpose behind such brazen machismo - since one of the fascinating things about violent exteriors is exploring the reasons why people are like that. I refuse, for example, to see a barbarian as just a barbarian - there are reasons that person has become that way, and you can't ignore that.

Keeping on the subject of characters, you pay very close attention to your characters’ personal lives. Furthermore, their personal lives often clash with their professional careers, with a variety of results. The result of this approach is that it injects a real dose of realism to proceedings. Was this a specific intent of yours when you began working on the Legends of the Red Sun series, and do you think this approach is generally lacking in modern epic fantasy?

I'm glad you noticed that because yes, without a doubt that was my intention. From the outset, I wanted the personal lives to get in the way of the big events - because they do in the real world, too, and these things are very often glossed over. It's something that's common in most other genres, but I think occasionally gets sacrificed from epic fantasy because so much airtime is given to huge, culture-changing events, or to world-building. Which is not to say it happens all the time. I do want personal lives and vendettas and concerns to get in the way. Picking a gay character to be the head of an elite military organisation was a big declaration of this intent.

In CoR you explore a number of themes, along them masculinity, racism and sexuality. Did these themes arise as you began writing the novel, or did you have them firmly in mind beforehand and tailor your characters around them?

Most of it happens organically, throughout the shaping of the novel, and around half way through I'm usually aware of what the themes are. Though with CoR I wanted to write Malum as an examination of masculinity, and juxtapose him against Brynd as another examination of what it means - if anything. The racism - yes, that's often been lurking in the subtext, and it was a natural development in CoR - the story demanded it. And race doesn't have to be split down the colour line - race can be divided down the species line in secondary worlds, too. But I do think many fantasies shy away from confronting race issues (unlike the real world, in which they are very apparent), which is a problem with the genre, though there are good examples to counter this, and good writers are making efforts to talk about race. Is it a problem of the nature of escapist fiction to - often - avoid confrontation? Who knows.

It could be argued that organised religion is portrayed in a negative light in your world – does this reflect your personal beliefs, or is it merely a reflection of the way religion is regarded in a dying world where the sun is slowly fading?

I don't personally see religion as a negative thing, though yes of course there are problems - this is a subject that defies generalisations. Faith is hugely important to people, and I respect that. But the church in my creation (as we'll see in the next novel, as well as City of Ruin) is playing a special role. I won't go into details here, because that will give spoilers, but the problems so far encountered are more issues with power and influence of such an organisation rather than religion per se.

Two words: HUGE SPIDER. Was the inclusion of such a creature in CoR the culmination of some personal geek fantasy of yours?

Do I have fantasies about giant spiders? What kind of sick dude do you think I am?! More seriously: I love a good monster, and the giant spider has been used famously in the genre, but I hope I've put my own unique spin on things. I'm writing fantasy because I want to exercise my imagination, and I'd be too bored writing a pseudo medieval world that didn't possess a little weirdness.

I do think you're the kind of sick dude that has geek fetishes for giant spiders, hence the question! Moving on...like NoV, CoR is largely set in a bleak urban environment – what is it about such urban settings that appeal to you as a writer?

I have a strange relationship with the city. I admire many things about it (their multiculturalism for example), but I also find them hugely depressing places. It might be from having grown up in the countryside, and appreciating not inhaling Nitrogen Dioxide fumes or having thousands of shoppers looking for the Next Shiny Thing, so I suspect my opinion of cities sneaks through whether I like it or not. I don't think they appeal aesthetically - but they're certainly more interesting in which to create, and there are more types of people in one place, and more potential scenarios... The city, arguably, offers a lot to a writer.

Finally, I personally consider CoR to be a dramatic improvement on NoV in practically every aspect. How do you feel now that the book is finished – do you think it is a more comprehensive demonstration of your abilities as a writer?

I'm glad you think there was an improvement, too. After Nights, I still felt I wasn't writing quite as well as I could, that I had a few problems, though these things are always with the benefit of hindsight. Which isn't to say I'm not proud of NoV - I am, immensely so - but I can rest happy knowing that City of Ruin is out there, because it contains the weirdness I truly love with many of the cultural and political leanings that inform the work, more so than Nights. And writers grow - they get better at plotting and characterisation etc - but I think I've ironed out some flaws, and that comes with more practice. Though ultimately it's not up to me to declare whether or not the improvements are welcomed by all.

- - - - -

Many thanks to Mark for his answers; keep your eyes peeled for part two of the interview in the near future...