Thursday 30 September 2010

A few excerpts from upcoming releases

I'm currently 200-odd pages into Joe Abercrombie's The Heroes. Still under a third of the way through, but one thing I can say is that I've laughed more already than I did during the entirety of Best Served Cold. And this is undoubtedly a good thing, since one of the elements I liked most about The First Law trilogy was the wry humour that permeated the story - a trait I felt was noticeably lacking in Best Served Cold. Anyway, more thoughts later once I've finished the book (won't be long, given the speed I'm ripping through it).

A sample chapter was made available a while back, and incidentally it's one of the ones that so far has made me chuckle the most. Particularly the exchange between Corporal Tunny and his hapless new recruits:

“Damn it,” muttered Tunny, shouldering his way into his bracers. “We’d best get ready to move.”
“We just got here, Corporal,” grumbled Yolk, pack half way off.
Tunny took hold of the strap and tugged it back over Yolk’s shoulder, turned him by it to face down towards the general. Jalenhorm was trying to shake his fist at a well-presented officer and button his own jacket at the same time, and failing. “You have before you a perfect demonstration of the workings of the army – the chain of command, trooper, each man shitting on the head of the man below. The much-loved leader of our regiment, Colonel Vallimir, is just getting shat on by General Jalenhorm. Colonel Vallimir will shit on his own officers, and it won’t take long to roll downhill, believe me. Within a minute or two, First Sergeant Forest will arrive to position his bared buttocks above my undeserving head. Guess what that means for you lot?” The lads stayed silent for a moment, then Klige raised a tentative hand. “The question was meant to be rhetorical, numbskull.” He carefully lowered it again. “For that you get to carry my pack.”

Another book I've had on my radar for some time is Corvus, the sequel to Paul Kearney's The Ten Thousand, and an excerpt has recently surfaced.

Of particular interest (and amusement) is the 'praise' for The Ten Thousand on page two:

“I can certainly see why many people
consider Kearney to be criminally under-read:
poetic prose; a visceral, I’m-really-there sense
of battle; a sly eye for exposing the
realities of being human.”

Amusing because said quote is from none other than Aidan at A Dribble of Ink, who didn't actually like it that much. Funny old world. Then again, I remember talking to the agent John Jarrold and he mentioned how, in his editorial days, he used to like taking the one positive line from a bad review and using it as a cover quote, just to piss the reviewer in question off... I'm sure that's not the case here though!

Lastly, because he told me a really, really crap ghost story today via Twitter, I'll link to the recently released prologue of Sam Sykes's Tomb of the Undergates courtesy of Pyr.

"To consider the term “adventure,” one must consider it from the adventurer’s point of view. For a boy on his father’s knee, a youth listening to an elder or a rapt crowd hearing the songs of poets, adventure is something to lust after, filled with riches, women, heroism and glory. For an adventurer, it’s work; dirty, dusty, bloody, spittlefilled, lethal and cheap work."

Interestingly (or not so interestingly) the US cover for Tome is almost identical to the UK cover, save for the fact that the blue of the sky and waves is lighter. Now, I know the US and UK markets are different, but the point of this minor difference is beyond me...

Tuesday 28 September 2010

What's next from Daniel Abraham...

After loving Daniel Abraham's The Long Price quartet, I am really looking forward to his next project: another epic fantasy series called The Dagger and the Coin.

The first book is currently titled The Dragon's Path:

"The dragons are gone, the powerful magics that broke the world diluted to little more than parlour tricks, but the kingdoms of men remain and the great game of thrones goes on. Lords deploy armies and merchant caravans as their weapons, manoeuvring for wealth and power. But a darker power is rising – an unlikely leader with an ancient ally threatens to unleash the madness that destroyed the world once already. Only one man knows the truth and, from the shadows, must champion humanity. The world’s fate stands on the edge of a Dagger, its future on the toss of a Coin."

Already this series sounds far more traditional than Abraham's more original Long Price series, but this is hardly surprising given that the Long Price - despite its brilliance - failed to sell as well as hoped (which is presumably why Tor decided to pass on this new series). Fortunately, Orbit have picked it up, as Abraham has elaborated:

"My agent shopped the new proposal around, and we got a fair amount of interest from other publishers, with the upshot that Orbit (my UK publisher) bought world rights to the new series in what the trade papers are calling "a good deal." One thing I thought was particularly interesting: there's a clause in it that dock's a fair percentage of my advance if I don't turn the books in on time. So just be aware that the guys at Orbit have got all y'all's back."

Abraham's also talked a little about the inspiration for his new series:

"In the way that The Long Price Quartet was a semi-tragic meditation on the epic scale of an individual life, The Dagger and the Coin is a love letter to fantasy adventure intended to keep the reader from getting enough sleep..
I’m very conscious of the influences I’m cultivating going into it – Walter Tevis, Alexandre Dumas, Tolkien, J. Michael Strazinski, Joss Whedon, GRRM, Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, Dorothy Dunnett, Tim Parks – and I’m trying to take the things that I love about each one of them and make a stew out of it. It’s set right at the friction point between the medieval period and the renaissance, so we’ve got knights and kings, but we also have merchant houses and finance. There’s some magic of the understated sort. There’s political intrigue. There’s a girl who was raised as the ward of a Medici-style bank, there’s a high nobleman who’s gotten himself and his family in over his head, there’s an emotionally scarred mercenary captain straight out of Dumas.
The point of it all is to make a book that reads to me now the way that the Belgariad did when I was 16. I’m going to be swimming in everything I think is cool for the next year, and I’m really looking forward to it."

I'm really intrigued to see what Abraham can do with a more familiar setting. The Long Price books were very much rooted in the human experience, and I'm expecting this new series to be no different - except that this time the genre trappings are more pronounced. But I fully expect the characters to drive the story, and having seen how good Abraham is at both characterisation and plotting, I have very high hopes for The Dagger and Coin.

More news when it surfaces, but even at this early stage this is a series to keep an eye on. In the meantime, do yourself a favour and check out the awesome Long Price quartet. It's such a shame that it didn't do as well as hoped, but with this new series Abraham has another chance to attract the audience his talents deserve.

Monday 27 September 2010

Book review: The Price of Spring

The Price of Spring

By Daniel Abraham

(Orbit omnibus edition, 2010)

A Shadow in Summer review
A Betrayal in Winter review
An Autumn War review

With the first two books in The Long Price quartet - A Shadow in Summer and A Betrayal in Winter - Daniel Abraham introduced his intriguing world where poets turn thoughts into human form, and laid the complex foundations for the later events that had such devastating consequences in An Autumn War. The third book in the sequence took a different direction to its predecessors, and the same is true of The Price of Spring: whereas the first three novels were primarily based around conflict, the final book of The Long Price is concerned with the rehabilitation of a world that has been torn apart.

Some fifteen years or so after the events of An Autumn War, Otah - now bearing the title of Emperor - faces his greatest challenge yet: repairing the political and social divisions that have taken hold of the world following the war with Galt. Otah's task is utterly thankless - to build for the new world's future, he needs the support of his former enemies, the Galts, but unsurprisingly such support is not willingly given. With pirates raiding the fringes of the fledgling empire, and friction at court, it seems the old powers of the world will fall. As if this wasn't enough, an old adversary is plotting to overthrow Otah's vision for the future, by seeking redemption from the very thing that ruined the world in the first place. As the world descends once more into chaos, Otah must ally with a former enemy in his attempt to prevent the new empire's fall.

The focus of The Price of Spring differs from the previous books in the sequence: whereas they were largely based around conspiracy and conflict, the final instalment in The Long Price quartet focuses on serious social and political issues, and Otah's attempts to resolve them as he fights for his future vision. Much like the first novel in the sequence, A Shadow in Summer, there are no epic battles or particularly dramatic sequences, yet Abraham still manages to deliver a novel that shocks and enthralls in equal measure.

The characters are the driving force of this novel, as has been the case with each book in the series. Maati is at the heart of events; he's very much the tragic figure of the story. The once fresh-faced poet is now an ill old man, his conscience crushed by guilt. His attempts to seek redemption for the failures of his past proves a moving, emotional journey. Otah's own struggles are no less troublesome - he pivots between his role as emperor and father, and struggles with the conflicting loyalties this inspires within him. The emergence of an old foe lends an interesting dynamic to the proceedings, as do the actions of Vanjit, whose background and emotional fragility make her both a complex character and a major catalyst for the shocking events that unfold. Vanjit is an excellent demonstration of Abraham's ability to create utterly believable characters that have a profound impact on the story he is telling; as I've said before, The Long Price quartet is a very human story. The world may be very different from our own, but the emotions and complex psychologies of its inhabitants mirror our own reality.

While the underlying premise of The Price of Spring may differ from the earlier novels, the characteristics that made the earlier books such a rewarding experience are present and correct. Abraham's skill at plotting remains as strong as ever, and once more he demonstrates his ability to generate surprise - often without warning, and via subtle details. His prose remains evocative, combining with the touching introspections of his characters to leave a streak of melancholy throughout the novel. There's a real sense of nostalgia at times, a haunting sadness left by the passing of time, yet this is countered by a genuine hope for the future that the characters strive towards.

The Price of Spring does have more noticeable flaws than its predecessors. The pacing of the last third is rather slow, with a touch of monotony settling over proceedings as Abraham lines all his characters up for the final scenes. And while the outcome of the novel - and indeed the series - is superbly handled, there's an element of frustration as Abraham felt the need to add a largely pointless epilogue. Not only does this obscure what would have been a far more moving, natural ending to the novel, but it feels more like the start of a new novel than a true ending, and as such feels uncomfortably bolted on. It's a shame that the series ends on what feels like a weaker note than it could have done otherwise, but this doesn't detract from the overall brilliance of The Long Price quartet.

Verdict: The Price of Spring is an excellent conclusion to what is one of the best epic fantasy series ever written. It combines everything that made the earlier novels - and the series itself - such a joy to read: convincing characters, atmospheric prose, the ability to shock, and an emotional punch that stays with you long after you've put the book down. Like the very best fantasy, The Price of Spring invokes a sense of wonder, yet has its roots firmly in the sort of personal emotional struggles that readers will be able to empathise with. The result is an absorbing story of love and loss, loyalty and betrayal, shot through with streaks of both sadness and hope, and it must surely elevate Daniel Abraham to the pantheon of epic fantasy's best writers. The Long Price quartet is not to be missed. 

Wednesday 22 September 2010

A few quick words on 'Into the Wild'

It seems that there's two different perceptions of Christopher McCandless and his voyage of self-discovery that saw him end up in the wilds of Alaska.

The first suggests that McCandless was reckless to the point of stupidity, and that the hardship he endured was the unavoidable result of his naivety. The second argues that he is an inspiration, as he turned his back on materialism and the mundanity of life, and instead sought out a deeper meaning.

As always the truth is probably somewhere in between. The good thing though, is that the film Into the Wild - which charts McCandless's personal and physical journey - is not in the least judgmental. It doesn't hold back, and clearly shows the dangers of what McCandless subjected himself to, but the spirit of the film is very much one of adventure, discovery and self-develpment - and all the emotions that these things inspire.

Into the Wild is a deeply moving film. There are many touching moments, and it's inspiring (although of course is intimidating and tense at times). It's a real ode to adventure, to forging your own path, and to eschewing materialism and modern culture in favour of something deeper, something more timeless. Something more real.

Emile Hirsh turns in a deeply convincing portrayal of McCandless, while the soundtrack - much of which was provided by the inimitable Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam - fits the mood of the film perfectly.

In short, it's a great watch. Whichever perception you hold of McCandless, it's hard to deny how moving and inspiring this film is in its depiction of the triumph of the human spirit.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Alt. Fiction - Other Worlds, 6th November 2010

Tor UK are teaming up with the folks from Alt. Fiction to hold a one-day event called Other Worlds, on 6 November 2010 at the QUAD centre in Derby:

"Other Worlds offers a mixture of panel discussions, giveaways and signings and is an ideal event for both readers and writers of science-fiction and fantasy. Authors appearing include the UK's best-selling SF author PETER F HAMILTON, Shadows of the Apt writer ADRIAN TCHAIKOVSKY, rising fantasy star MARK CHARAN NEWTON and author of the Recursion trilogy TONY BALLANTYNE.
Workshop Sessions: Tickets cost £3 each.
11am-12pm Fantasy workshop with Mark Charan Newton
11am-12pm Sci-fi workshop with Tony Ballantyne
These will take place in The Box and the Meeting Room at QUAD.
Main event: Tickets cost £8/£6 concessions
1pm-1:45pm Panel: Other Worlds – The landscape of SF and Fantasy with Peter F Hamilton, Mark Charan Newton, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Tony Ballantyne (Cinema 2)
1:45pm-2pm Break
2pm-2:45pm Science-fiction discussion with Peter F Hamilton and Tony Ballantyne (Cinema 2)
2pm-2:45pm Fantasy discussion with Mark Charan Newton and Adrian Tchaikovsky (The Box)
2:45pm-3pm Break
3pm-4pm Signing with Peter F Hamilton, Mark Charan Newton, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Tony Ballantyne (The Box)
Books available to buy on the day from 12pm."

Hopefully there will be beer as well... I'll be attending, so I hope to maybe see some of you there. Tickets can be booked through the QUAD website.

Sunday 19 September 2010

Book review: An Autumn War

An Autumn War 

By Daniel Abraham

(Orbit omnibus edition, 2010)

While the first two books in The Long Price quartet - A Shadow in Summer and A Betrayal in Winter - are excellent, their underlying premises are perhaps a little too similar at times and there is a sense that the scene is being set for something larger and even more significant. The third instalment, An Autumn War, is therefore arguably the pivotal book in the sequence. With this novel, Daniel Abraham needed to build on the foundations he'd constructed and take the series in a new direction, without compromising the human element that has made his story so remarkable. Success would propel the series to the very heights of the genre, failure would mean that the The Long Price quartet would never quite achieve its true potential.

I had little doubt Abraham would succeed; soon after starting The Long Price quartet I realised I was reading something special, by a very gifted author. It therefore came as no surprise that An Autumn War surpasses its predecessors in every aspect. Yet what did surprise me was how effortlessly Abraham tore apart my expectations and delivered a novel that instantly goes down as one of the finest epic fantasy novels I've ever read.

Fourteen years have passed since the events of A Betrayal in Winter. The Galts, having seen their previous attempts at influencing the politics of the Khaiem meet with mixed success, have decided to take a more direct route: invasion. Such brute force was never previously viable; the Khaiem had the andat to protect them, and their wrath would be devastating. Yet a Galtic general by the name of Balazar Gice thinks he has found a way to nullify the andats' threat. If he is right, an ambitious military campaign could see the defenseless cities of the Khaiem conquered within a few months. If he is wrong, Galt will be erased from the map. Either way, the world will be changed forever.

In the first two novels the Galts were little more than a vague menace, yet with Balasar Gice taking centre stage they become a far more definitive threat. While most readers will view the Galts as the antagonists, Abraham is very careful not to paint them, or Gice, as blackhearted villains. Gice is simply doing what he thinks is best for his country: he sees the andat as a threat that needs to be removed from the world. He doesn't want to build an empire; he just wants to preserve the future of his own people by eradicating the threat that poses the most danger to them. He's an interesting character: likable, dedicated and tactically brilliant. Yet the ghosts of men that have died under his command haunt him, and the fear of failure - and what it would mean - constantly gnaws at him. His future, at least, is black and white: if he succeeds, he'll be the greatest hero in his country's history. Fail, and he'll be known as the man that brought destruction upon his own people. It is a predicament that lies heavily across his shoulders, and Abraham convincingly explores the psychological implications.

I realised while reading A Betrayal in Winter that what Abraham was trying to do was to tell the life stories of a select few people, and to show how their decisions and relationships affected the state of the world. It was no surprise then to find that many familiar faces return, although as before Abraham develops their characters and takes their lives in new directions. As always, they find themselves in a variety of difficult and demanding situations: Otah must lead a ragtag, amateur army against the finest fighting force in the world, knowing that defeat will cost him everything he holds dear; Maati must finally confront the failures of his past and attempt to perform an act that he was never intended for; Sinja - previously just a minor character - finds himself with conflicting loyalties, and trying to guess which way he will lean is one of the most intriguing aspects of the novel. As before, Abraham's characterisation is bone-deep; it's impossible not to engage with these figures and their various struggles.

The Long Price has always been driven by the characters, but it's only in An Autumn War that the subtleties and intricacies of their relationships - carefully developed over the course of the two previous books - really come to the fore, affecting the unfolding events in dramatic style. The plot pivots on such small details that originally appeared almost inconsequential, yet are now revealed to have far wider consequences. It's a rewarding experience watching these various elements slot into place, and is a testament to Abraham's plotting skills and grasp of characterisation. While An Autumn War loses none of the intimacy of the previous novels, it is nonetheless more epic in scope and the results of the unfolding events are even more profound than those of the previous novels.

Verdict: An Autumn War retains all of the elements that made the earlier novels in The Long Price quartet so impressive, yet takes the story in a fresh direction and raises the emotional stakes to dramatic levels. This is a truly remarkable story about love and sacrifice, with an ending that is both stunning and heartbreaking. A Shadow in Summer and A Betrayal in Winter marked Daniel Abraham out as a talent worth watching, but An Autumn War cements his transformation into one of the genre's most gifted authors. Make no mistake, this novel is amongst the best the genre has to offer.

Friday 17 September 2010

Peter F. Hamilton book signing

I had a wonderful evening last night at Peter F. Hamilton's signing at the Manchester Deansgate branch of Waterstones.

In truth, it was only on Monday that I found out about the signing, after Chloe from Tor UK very kindly invited me to dinner with herself and Peter afterwards. Despite the fact that I walk past Waterstones on my way to work every morning, I'd somehow failed to notice the large window display that said PETER F HAMILTON SIGNING 16 SEPTEMBER. Well, are you fully awake first thing in the morning? Exactly. 

Anyway, there was a decent turnout for the signing (as you'd expect for an author of Peter's standing), and a lively Q&A session followed Peter's reading from his latest novel, The Evolutionary Void. Peter talked about a number of subjects, including his approach to writing and how he balances the amount of science in his novels, and also told a few amusing anecdotes from his writerly experiences. Then of course came the obligatory book signing session (authors must have wrists of steel, that's all I can say). 

Afterwards I joined Peter, Chloe, the store's SF buyer Andy and events-organiser Vivien, for a drink in the swish new bar in the bookstore (alcohol and books is a great, but potentially wallet-bothering, combination), before we all headed to Rosso for dinner. 

As you can imagine, with Andy being involved in frontline bookselling and with Peter being one of the world's most popular SF writers, the ensuing discussion was lively and covered a wide variety of topics, from the decline of SF reviews in the broadsheets to the emergence of e-books, via how nasty it is having to wear a gruffalo costume at a kids' book event. One revelation that I found particularly interesting is that - despite the deluge of 'dark/vampire fantasy' in bookstores, this new subgenre is apparently not selling well at all (if you remove Meyer and Harris from the equation). Perhaps the vampires' dominance won't last that long after all...

I ought to close by saying that I enjoyed Peter's company immensely; he's quite simply one of the nicest people I've met since I've been involved in the genre, and after chatting with him for half an hour I felt like I'd known him for years. Top bloke. And the food at Rosso was excellent, I definitely recommend it.

So, an excellent evening. Many thanks to Chloe for inviting me (and for paying what must have been a hefty bill), and also to Peter, Vivien and Andy for their excellent company. 

Wednesday 15 September 2010

Fantasy trappings - is less more?

"Too much magic can ruin a fantasy. I was much more interested in the people."

Thus spoke George R. R. Martin in the recently released behind-the-scenes footage of the HBO Game of Thrones production.

This struck a chord with me, as recently I'd started pondering the same idea and the extent to which I agree.  I can't deny that many of my favourite fantasy series have moderate to minor fantastical elements: Martin's own A Song of Ice and Fire, David Gemmell's Drenai novels, John Marco's Tyrants and Kings trilogy, J. V. Jones's Sword of Shadows, and most recently Daniel Abraham's The Long Price quartet.

The reason I like these various series so much is because the focus is almost entirely on the characters; the fantastical elements add texture and depth, but aren't overbearing. These are fantasies that retain a very strong human element.

Yet that's not to say that I don't enjoy fantasies at the other end of the spectrum. I love the magic-intensive world that Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont have created for their Malazan tales, and have really enjoyed some of the epic sequences that spring from this more pronounced fantastical element. The same is true of Mark Charan Newton's Legends of the Red Sun sequence - I really like the world and all the weird trappings.

I guess this leaves me somewhere in the middle when it comes to the above statement. I certainly understand the angle that GRRM is coming from, but can't fully agree with it as I like many series that really do embrace magic and/or more fantastical elements. As long as a story has strong characters, I don't think it really matters how intense the magic and other supernatural aspects are.

That's how I feel at least - I'm quite interested to see what other readers think. Do you prefer books that really crank up the fantasy elements, or do you like the magic and whatnot to be more subtle so that the characters really take centre stage? Or maybe you're like me, and you don't really care either way so long as the author spins a ripping good yarn?

Interested to hear your thoughts.

Monday 13 September 2010

Book review: A Betrayal in Winter

A Betrayal in Winter

By Daniel Abraham

(Orbit omnibus edition, 2010)

I mentioned in my review of A Shadow in Summer that the novel, despite being epic fantasy, had a small cast and that by focusing on this small handful of characters and their relationships, the story had an intimate feel to it. The same is true of A Betrayal in Winter, the second novel in Daniel Abraham's The Long Price quartet. Yet only now have I realised what Abraham set out to do with this series: to tell the life stories of a few key players, and demonstrate how their actions affect the world around them.

The events of this novel take place over a decade after the struggles depicted in A Shadow in Summer, with the scene shifting from the summer city of Saraykeht to the winter city of Machi: a city famed for its imposing towers and winters so brutal that the city's population is driven into subterranean tunnels to escape the cold. A world away from the warmth of Saraykeht then, but Machi's political jostling and courtly intrigue are very reminiscent of the more illustrious southern city. As it happens, political machinations are very much at the heart of this novel.

A lot has happened in the intervening twelve years, yet much has also remained the same. Otah is still trying to escape his past - the past that came back to haunt him during his time in Saraykeht, and which continues to haunt him still. When he is assigned a task that requires him to travel north to Machi - the city of his birth - he finds himself in a desperate situation: returning to Machi may well bring him into contact with the old life he has tried to leave behind. And yet it's something he feels he needs to do; there is an urge within him to face his demons and see if the memories he holds are anything like the truth. Yet it's a dangerous time to be in Machi, as the reigning Khai's health is failing, and the bloodletting to see who will succeed him has already begun. And inevitably, Otah finds himself having to confront his past in order to build a new future, both for himself and for the city...

From a technical perspective, A Betrayal in Winter is an interesting novel. The actual plot - a political struggle in which a foreign power is secretly involved - bears more than a passing resemblance to the plot of A Shadow in Summer. Furthermore, while the novel is essentially a murder mystery, one of the main POV characters is one of the antagonists (if they can truly be called that), so we are presented with the perspectives from both sides. The enjoyment comes not from the gradual deducing of who the murderer is (we find that out very early on), but more from seeing how the plans of both sides fall into place, and subsequently fall apart. At times I did find myself wondering whether the novel would have been more absorbing if the reader wasn't aware of who the murderer was, yet it must also be said that it works very well the way it is. Abraham's plotting is both subtle and immaculate.

As with A Shadow in Summer, this novel is driven entirely by its characters. Otah and Maati are the familiar faces that return from the first book, and once again their relationship is at the heart of the novel. Their relationship is a complex one: they are both friends and enemies, their shared history tarnished by betrayal and unfaithfulness, yet they find they need each other more than ever as the political situation in Machi hots up.

Like the first book, the cast list is small, yet there are some new faces. Idaan in particular is an interesting figure: the khai's only daughter, she has broken free of the mould that high society has forced on her, only to find that the alternative existence she has fought so hard for isn't everything she expected. She's similar to Liat in the previous novel, in that her steely exterior hides a more fragile centre, yet she possesses a cold, unflinching streak that Liat never had. Abraham develops her character superbly over the course of the novel, and rightfully she plays a crucial role in the unfolding events. Cehmai the poet is another convincing figure, and like Otah in the first book he is forced into a situation where he has to choose between his heart's desire and the city's future.

One slight disappointment is the absence of Seedless, the star of the show in the first book. The andat had no reason to appear in this novel, but sadly he is missed. Stone-Made-Soft, the andat that does feature - while giving rise to one or two interesting moments - is bland in comparison. Yet such is Abraham's skill at manipulating his characters' relationships and placing individuals in difficult situations, this absence doesn't undermine the book.

Worldbuilding is once again kept to a minimum; Abraham only gives the reader what information is required to lend context to the story, and that's very welcome.  As before his excellent prose is vibrant and atmospheric. Like A Shadow in Summer, this novel is quite short (286 pages in this edition) and the events unfold at a steady pace that builds to a satisfying - if slightly predictable - conclusion.

Verdict: A Betrayal in Winter is an enjoyable continuation of the story that started with A Shadow in Summer. The underlying premise may be a little too similar to its predecessor at times, but this hardly matters as Abraham delivers the same excellent characterisation and subtle plotting that made the first book such a joy to read. Once again we have a tale of passion and friendship, lust and betrayal - the consequences of which will affect an entire city, and perhaps even a continent. A Betrayal in Winter is an intelligent and entertaining read, though I hope that in An Autumn War Abraham takes the story in a different direction. 

Sunday 12 September 2010

An Amazonian call to arms

I saw this ridiculous 5-star 'review' on this morning, in relation to Brent Weeks' The Black Prism:

"After the brilliant Night Angel trilogy, i'm really looking forward to this book.
It arrived today in the post and what a book! It's a proper book. this hardcover version is like a large dictionary, love that. looks like an epic and it's only part one!!
I just wanted to comment on the physicalities of this book, it's awesome! gonna start this off now and will post my opinion on it when i'm done."

Whoa - a proper book? Who would've thought?  And like a large dictionary, eh? Gotta love those large dictionaries. 5 stars!

Seriously though, this is yet another example - there are countless others - of the appalling standard of reviews that blights Amazon. In fact, this drags the standard down even further, since the dude has not even reviewed the novel, but the physical book. And sure, anyone with half a brain cell can see this, but that doesn't stop it affecting the overall rating afforded to the book.

And the thing matters. So many books are bought online these days, yet the standard of customer reviews is shocking (did anyone from Amazon even check this review? Doesn't look like it). Sure, I imagine it must be tough moderating so many reviews, but if you're going to do it then it should be done properly. Permitting people to post 5-star reviews of a book's physical properties is a joke. There are all sorts of horror stories from people who bought a book as a result of dreadful (or even fake) reviews.

This is why I now post all my reviews on Amazon, and why I think all reviewers and serious readers should do the same. It's important to try and drive up the quality of the reviews available. If each new release has four or five well-written reviews attached to it from prominent members of the online genre community (or from anyone that can write a considered review), then it's offering consumers a far better idea of what to expect from the product.

Please do take the time to post your quality reviews on Amazon - you'll be helping the author, the publisher, and most importantly the consumer (because without the consumers, there's no publishing industry!). The well-read, intelligent members of the online community have the ability to drive up the quality of reviews on Amazon, but only if we all take the time to post our reviews.  

So let's do it.

Saturday 11 September 2010

Glimpses of a mercury summer

"I walk without flinching through the burning cathedral of the summer. My bank of wild grass is majestic and full of music. It is a fire that solitude presses against my lips." - Violette Leduc, Mad in Pursuit

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Book review: A Shadow in Summer

A Shadow in Summer

By Daniel Abraham

(Orbit omnibus edition, 21 January 2010)

There are a number of aspects that can help one fantasy novel stand out. Excellent prose. Deft, inventive worldbuilding. Believable characters that possess genuine human qualities the reader can relate to. A new take on a classic theme that lends freshness to the story. Fluid, realistic dialogue.

Most novels achieve a couple of the above, others maybe more.

A Shadow in Summer possesses all five. The fact that it is American author Daniel Abraham's debut novel makes this feat all the more impressive. Yet what pleased me the most is that Abraham deliberately set out to write something different:

"I wanted to do something to reset people's expectations. I wasn't trying for a traditional epic fantasy, and I thought that would be one way to alert readers that this one might be a little different."

"A little different" being something of an understatement. There are no dark lords, epic battles, magic swords or commoners discovering they have royal blood. In fact, many of the obvious trappings of the fantasy genre are conspicuous by their absence.

And A Shadow in Summer is all the better for it. Don't misunderstand me; there's nothing at all wrong with any of the above elements. It's just nice to read a fantasy book that doesn't immediately feel like two-dozen other ones you've already read. What we have instead is a character-driven story that delves into both the light and dark sides of the human psyche.

The city of Saraykeht is the greatest of the cities of the Khaiem: one of the world's great trading hubs, whose ruler commands a power to rival the gods. This power is the andat Seedless - a captive spirit, formed from thought - who is controlled by the poet Heshai. Seedless is crucial to both the city's cotton trade, and to protecting it from the threat of external enemies.

Yet a plan is in motion that could destroy Saraykeht's influence, and leave it at the mercy of foreign powers. A plan that will cause the collapse of old friendships, betrayals of trust and abuses of power. A plan that will send shockwaves around the world.

And all that is required is the death of one child...

Despite the large-scale repercussions of the secretive machinations in A Shadow in Summer, the cast - unlike many epic fantasies - remains reassuringly small, and each and every character is fleshed out and developed very well. Liat possesses an outward confidence that hides a fragile sense of self-belief, Maati struggles to balance his desires and loyalties, while Otah discovers that you cannot raise barriers against the past. Heshai the poet convincingly flits between wry humour and bleak depression, while Amat and Marchat - two old friends - struggle to understand the changes in their lives as they find themselves on opposing sides in a confrontation that is both political and ideological. The relationships that Abraham builds between these various figures, and the way those relationships grow (or collapse) is utterly convincing, and often touching.

The star of the show, however, is the andat Seedless. Quite simply, he's a wonderful creation, and steals pretty much every scene he appears in. Secretive one moment and painfully honest the next, he's utterly unpredictable - and this is what makes him such an absorbing character. This unpredictability, coupled with a sly wit, means that he oozes menace. Yet the flaws in his binding - the fault of Heshai - are largely to blame for his mindset, so he's far from a simple black-hearted villain. Like everyone else, he has his motivations and reasons to explain them.

Abraham has developed a colourful, vibrant world for his story to unfold in. The land of the Summer Cities possesses a distinct Eastern flavour that provides a refreshing break from the Western European-esque setting of so many fantasies. There's little exposition, as the story doesn't really call for it. Instead, Abraham prefers to breathe life into his world through little touches and flourishes. The use of poses is a good example (characters adopt various physical poses when conversing, almost like a second language). This feature - so easily implemented - adds texture to the world and society.

Another element that makes A Shadow in Summer stand out from other epic fantasies is the speed at which the story unfolds. The plot develops well and at a steady pace, with no unnecessary fluff: the book itself is only 304 pages long. Abraham's prose is also worthy of praise, as it's sharp and precise, yet very evocative:

"To his left, dawn was breaking, rose and gold and pale blue of robin's egg. To his right, the land was still dark. And before him, snow-covered mountains - dark stone showing the bones of the land. He smelled something - a perfume or a musk that made him think of women. He couldn't say if the vision was dream or memory or something of both, but a powerful sorrow flowed through him that lingered after the images had gone." 

Perhaps the most striking aspect of A Shadow in Summer is the lack of large-scale set-pieces (as mentioned earlier, there are no battles or epic confrontations). In fact, there's very little physical violence at all - and I found this rather refreshing. This is a novel that - despite the large-scale consequences of the conspiracy at its heart - is very much about the emotions of a select few people, and their respective struggles to maintain their identities and relationships as they try to resolve their own problems. I'll draw a parallel with George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire here, another epic fantasy series that is inherently driven almost entirely by its characters (Martin himself acknowledges Abraham's very "human tale" in his cover quote). And, based solely on this evidence, I don't think mentioning Abraham in the same sentence as Martin flatters him at all.

Verdict: A Shadow in Summer is the sort of novel that we need to see more of if the fantasy genre is truly going to thrive. It's fresh and intelligent, beautifully written and introduces some wonderfully believable characters. In essence, it's a convincing demonstration that you don't need to fall back on the same old familiar tropes in order to write a good fantasy novel. Abraham may not get the exposure that many other more prominent authors in the genre receive, but he certainly blows many of them out of the water in terms of ability. I'll definitely be reading the rest of The Long Price quartet - of which all four books have been released, and recommend that if you're hungering for something a little different, you give A Shadow in Summer a try. 

Monday 6 September 2010

Genre novels up for the Guardian's "Not the Booker" award

Just a quick post to say that a healthy number of genre novels  have been nominated for the Guardian book blog's "Not the Booker" award - and voting for the shortlist ends at 12:00 am GMT, so you've not got long to get your vote in if you want to do so.

The genre novels nominated are as follows:

Dan Abnett – Triumff

Tom Fletcher – The Leaping

Peter F Hamilton – The Evolutionary Void

Guy Gavriel Kay – Under Heaven

MD Lachlan – Wolfsangel

Margo Lanagan – Tender Morsels

Ian McDonald – The Dervish House

China Miéville – Kraken

Mark Millar and John Romita Junior – Kick Ass

Bryan Lee O'Malley – Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour

KJ Parker – The Folding Knife

I think that's all of them, but do feel free to point out any I've missed.

A quick thought on cover art

Seems the paperback cover for City of Ruin has really split opinion amongst fans.

Mark has highlighted some of the negative reactions to the image, and I've added a few more:

"The Harlequin dude must go. It’s not as bad as the infamous Patrick Rothfuss gay cover...”

"It looks absolutely dreadful, almost like a Harlequin Romance mated with and Urban Fantasy novel."

"It's horrendous. An utter failure. An abomination. My eyes are bleeding profusely as we speak."

"Wish publishers would steer away from this obsession with main characters on covers. It messes with the reader’s heads. We can do our own imagining thanks, that’s what we’re here for."

And so on. Now, I don't have a problem at all with these comments - everyone reacts differently to cover art (although the first comment is misguided in suggesting the cover would be better without the figure - it would be worse off both commercially and artistically if the figure was removed). But whatever.

It's the last comment that interests me though - why do readers hate it so much when an artist's representation of a character doesn't fit with their own?

I just find the psychology interesting. Everyone reacts to things differently - two people can read the same book and have two very different experiences. Hence why an artist's representation of a character won't fit everyone's image of how that person looks: it's their depiction.

Furthermore, it hardly matters does it? Just because the character on the new cover for your favourite book doesn't look at all like you imagined them, doesn't mean your own image is made redundant in any way. The depiction on the cover is just one person's image of that character - it doesn't have to be yours. You remain free to envisage that character however you like. And the publisher isn't trying to brainwash you with regards to what the character looks like, or spoil your own interpretation in any shape or form - to think that is just ridiculous (the only thought in the publisher's mind is to make the depiction of said character as widely appealing as possible).

I guess the point I'm trying to make here, is that I think it's unfair to slate a cover just because you don't like the depiction of the character.

Personally, I like the above cover. And no, Brynd doesn't look at all like I imagined him - but that's utterly irrelevent to me.

Cover art and blurb for 'The Wolf Age'

The "bloke-in-a-cloak" cover done the right way, in my opinion. Come on, how can a black-clad dude with a magic sword, surrounded by werewolves, not be cool? Exactly.

The Wolf Age sounds like it could be good fun: 

Wuruyaaria: city of werewolves, whose raiders range over the dying northlands, capturing human beings for slaves or meat. Wuruyaaria: where a lone immortal maker wages a secret war against the Strange Gods of the Coranians. Wuruyaaria: a democracy where some are more equal than others, and a faction of outcast werewolves is determined to change the balance of power in a long, bloody election year.
Their plans are laid; the challenges known; the risks accepted. But all schemes will shatter in the clash between two threats few had foreseen and none had fully understood: a monster from the north on a mission to poison the world, and a stranger from the south named Morlock Ambrosius.

Pyr has got plenty of sword-and-sorcery goodness lined up: check out this article from their blog for info on more titles.

Sunday 5 September 2010

Hugo win for The City and the City

China Miéville's The City and The City - already a winner of the Arthur C. Clark and BSFA awards for best novel - has now gone and won a Hugo award as well. The City and the City was named joint best novel at the 2010 Hugo awards, along with The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi.

Congrats to China; great to see his undeniable talent being recognized and rewarded.

As an aside, it's been interesting to see The City and the City receive so much critical acclaim over the last year or so. Out of the three Miéville novels that I've read, it's easily my least favourite (the other two being the superb The Scar and the more recent tentacle-tastic Kraken). I wonder whether the fact that The City and the City is more mainstream than his other novels played a role. Then again, why should this matter for genre awards?

You can find the rest of the Hugo winners at the official website.