Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Why You Should Read | Widdershins - Kate Ashwin

I've ventured into SFF-y music before, but today it's time to take a look at a webcomic, and one of my personal favourites at that: Widdershins, by Kate Ashwin. And as for why this isn't a review? Well, it's simply because I long ago decided that Widdershins is pretty wonderful indeed, so this'll be more in the nature of a recommendation. A very long recommendation.

Widdershins is a steampunk-flavoured fantasy webcomic set in the eponymous town - a city where the presence of an 'anchor' amplifies supernatural talents, allowing spirits to be summoned and imbued into various devices (impatience really does help the trains run on time - at least when the rails are imbued with it). And as expected, it's rather a hub for weirdness of all sorts. The webcomic tells its story in short arcs - and while there are only five so far, it's clear that the short stories are linked (and two have been direct sequels), with recurring characters. I was initially a little worried about whether this would occur - while I do love a short story from time to time, my preference is always for a longer term character investment, and we're definitely getting that here. A
nd what's more, the linked tales form a larger arc. I won't be spoiling anything, but according to the author, there'll be seven in the first main plotline. The stories so far have ranged from 59 to 106 pages in length, so don't worry, there's plenty of time for development within each. In fact, the structure's always been a positive addition for me, giving plenty of aspects of Widdershins (from a run-down hotel seeking out chefs through rather... arcane means, to a company exorcising botched summons) their own space, and providing your regular dose of plotline resolution (something that can easily slip in a webcomic).

So, why should you read Widdershins? Here's a run down:

A moment involving giraffes.
- Did you not hear 'steampunk'? I kid, but Kate Ashwin's art really brings the aesthetic to life. While it's more 'Victoriana-with-a-flourish' than full blown 'airships for all' steampunk (ie. the occasional clockwork contraption), it's a wonderful look (and I doubt many could deny that a number of characters are looking very... dapper). More importantly, it's diverse steampunk - something the subgenre has often failed at in the past. Her take on magical England includes several protagonists who are PoC (including the rather awesome Alexa King), and of course, a number of wonderful female characters (I always look forward to Harry's moments. Especially those including giraffes - and further, she's allowed to exist without apology while representing a character type that's sadly normally portrayed as male-only, which I rather love). As far as LGBTQIA+ goes, it's also promising, though not to the same extent: Mal is asexual (Word of God here), Nicola - though not as yet a main character - lesbian, and there's a gay couple in Piece of Cake, the fourth story. Altogether, it's a very welcome addition, and I can only cheer it on!
Sidney's introduction. It's not hopeful?

- A unique magic system. I know, I know - I'm always interested in the magic. But Widdershins' sorcery involves the conjuring of spirits and emotions, and it's a rather interesting one (especially when rather nastier emotions - greed and sloth for example - get involved). Mechanical insects? Imbue them and maybe they'll fly. A bracelet for the King of Thieves? A bit of greed, and it won't leave its owner until they're dead. But unusually, it also deals with what happens, and who has to deal with it (hint: lowly council employees) when it goes wrong. 'Malforms', or more commonly 'buggerups' are botched summonings, and a major storyline involves some protagonists being enlisted to take care of them. What's more, it's apparent there's more to the system, and we seem to be learning more fragments with every story - and I'm looking forward to every word of it.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Review | Ancillary Justice - Ann Leckie

I first came to hear of Ancillary Justice through Alex MacFarlane's excellent series on Post-Binary Gender in SF, over at Tor.com - and next thing I knew, all my friends were raving about it. Of course I had to pick it up (that, and everyone was telling me I should - I can take hints :P ). And did it live up to the hype? I'm afraid it's an unequivocal yes, and I'm just going to have to join the queue in recommending it. Shoo, go read the thing already... Oh, you need a little more persuasion? Well, here's the actual review.

Ancillary Justice is the story of Breq, a soldier once part of a vast, artificial intelligence: the ship Justice of Toren. A military AI in the service of the Radch, a civilisation that conquered a large section of the galaxy, Justice of Toren was betrayed - and now Breq, the last of the ship's bodies, is poised to achieve revenge. But on her way, Breq meets Seivarden, a former (and much disliked) officer of hers, and suddenly things become complicated. Well, more complicated - there's already galactic politics, aliens, conspiracies and a multiplicity of bodies involved.

Breq's journey is an interesting one, and uniquely written - both from the perspective of an individual body (Breq, or One Esk), and from the other in the equation: the starship, controlling many such bodies. Leckie manages to pull both off well, with some distinction between the two. As a Radchaai-constructed AI, she's an outsider throughout much of the book, allowing an interesting perspective on the different societies. And that leads us neatly on to the interesting things done with gender... In Radchaai society, gender is not linguistically denoted - only a single pronoun is used, and it's (at least to me) unclear whether the majority of the Radchaai identify as non-gendered (at the very least it's implied that some do, and a welcome disassociation between gender and body implied by one brief explanation of the systems in place for parenting, though this might be me reading too much into it), or whether it's simply considered a private matter. At any rate, our protagonist finds the need to guess gender in the other societies glimpsed difficult. In the narrative, 'she' is used as a default pronoun, which I found rather striking - when 'he' is considered an acceptable default in so much of modern society, and even in other SF novels, it's a useful and rather powerful choice. However, you can read some much better thoughts on it in Alex MacFarlane's post on it here - I agree with her in that using a non-gendered pronoun would better reflect the society, and be more interesting in that respect. At any rate, Ancillary Justice does the matter - well, justice. Sorry. I couldn't resist that one.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Article | The Magic of Susanna Clarke's "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell"

If you've been reading this blog for a while (or if you know me in real life, in which case, have my commiserations as well ;) ), you probably know of my love for magic systems. You might even know of my love for Susanna Clarke's wonderful Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (which made one of my very first posts on this blog, back in the darkness of the Deep Archive In Which I May Not Look For Fear Of My Old Writing). Well, that fated day has come. Today, I combine the two!

The cover of my newly acquired
replacement copy! (Black page edges
 - does it get better?The answer is
Or, in less dramatic terms: I just finished rereading it, I'm full of excitement for the BBC adaptation, and talking about magic is always fun.

It's often stated that the more mystical magic systems don't get to play much of a role in plot resolution - pithily stated in Sanderson's First Law:

"Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic."

But what about Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell? For those who haven't read it, magic permeates the book - both of the titular characters are magicians, and involved in the return of English magic from its supposed demise. And yet, the magic is profoundly mystical: we're allowed to know a little of it, and a few of the spells that Norrell and Strange use most often (moving roads about, scrying, etc) - and yet, when it comes to the magic at the heart of it, the wonderful imagery of the Raven King and his alliances with stones, woods, and the elements, we know almost nothing. So how does Clarke manage it? The first part is in creating conflict outside the magicians' expertise, even conflicts of manners rather than magic. To quote: 
"Can a magician kill a man by magic?" Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. "I suppose a magician might," he admitted, "but a gentleman never could." 
While much of the time, magic could be used to circumvent a problem, its use is often prohibited - often by its public perception. When Norrell brings magic into the Strange/Norrell schism, magically wiping the contents of Strange's newly published book, he meets with massive public disapproval. A great deal of the conflict in the book is character-based, personal rather than public, and centres about their relationship, and so the novel is able to be soft magic-dense without removing any sense of tension.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Review and Thoughts | Words of Radiance - Brandon Sanderson

The US cover of Words of Radiance.
This one's been a while coming! But it's time to finally conjure up some thoughts beyond "SHALLAN BOOK YAY". For those who haven't read the first in the series, The Way of Kings, Shallan is the ward and pupil of Jasnah Kholin - a member of the Alethi royal family. Shallan's plotline in the first involved deceit, a great deal of scholarship, and some wonderful drawings of the local flora and fauna (included in the book) - a far more complex character than she at first seemed, she's also by far my favourite of the series. (Plus, libraries. What can I say? It's Lirael all over again). In the planned ten book Stormlight Archive series, Sanderson is giving each book a character focus, with a set of dedicated flashback chapters. For Words of Radiance, these are Shallan's, explaining my initial reaction. But there's a lot more to the book than that, so let's get started. A word of warning, however: as WoR is a direct sequel to The Way of Kings, there will be unavoidable spoilers for the previous book.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Review | The Copper Promise - Jen Williams

...and I'm back!

Jen Williams seems to have reinvented brevity in the epic fantasy. Okay, I exaggerate, but The Copper Promise easily works - and works brilliantly - as a standalone novel, something which in a genre of doorstoppers with "to be continued"'s affixed, I find entirely welcome! (I do love epic fantasy, and certain door and elephant stoppers are favourites of mine, but sometimes it's nice to reverse the trend. Don't worry, you'll get your Words of Radiance review soon enough...)
That said, it takes more than a few elements from the sword and sorcery subgenre, so fans there will likely find something in The Copper Promise as well.

The novel begins with our three protagonists breaking into the Citadel - a fortress where the long-dead mages imprisoned the old gods, as well as their choice treasures. ...And naturally, it's the latter that our heroes are in search of: Lord Frith searches for the key to retaking his family keep, whereas Wydrin and Sir Sebastian are more interested in being paid to help him out. But unfortunately, it's the former they inadvertently meddle with: releasing a god intent on destruction, and soon all three end up with roles to play in stopping her.

It's hard to give a plot summary without spoilers: The Copper Promise is an extremely fast-paced novel, and things change quickly. In fact, it's being released in three parts for the ebook edition, which is probably quite fitting, as it does read almost like a trilogy compressed into a single book. Whether you like this or not is another matter. I enjoyed it, as a refreshing change from the drawn-out epics that have dominated the subgenre recently (again, not that I dislike them, but variety is always preferable!), and also as a plot that gave us a great deal of resolution - if fewer sequel hooks, which leaves me wondering what aspects the following books will take up. However, the downside is: there is no status quo. Very little time is given to a single development, in fantasy terms, and while this makes for a fast paced novel, it does disadvantage some character development: Sebastian in particular changes very quickly, whereas Frith's character growth and regression becomes slightly frustrating if only due to their rapidity. Furthermore, one or two twists are a little too predictable. While in a book with many it's hard to balance when the reader realises an upcoming revelation, certain surprises were ruined by overly heavy hinting. That said, in a book with so many, a few early spoilers have little effect on the overall impression.

So let's talk about characters. Frith - well, another character describes him as a bit of a shit, and often this description is kind of apt. That's not to say he isn't a great character, though - he is. It's another good element of the book: we sympathise with Frith and his tragic past, but frequently disagree with his selfish actions. I rather like this aspect of the book, though it would be nice if his development was more stable, especially given the pace - expect frequent regression, which does provide the occasional moment of frustration. In general, though, he's a courageous decision on the author's part that plays off - not a loveable bastard, or a magnificent one, but simply a very flawed human being. Sebastian and Wydrin are more sympathetic and immediately likeable (Wydrin, the Copper Cat of Crosshaven, being my personal favourite - though maybe I just like thieves too much. Locke Lamora, Eli Monpress...), and I enjoyed the roles of both. Sebastian in particular pulls off a slightly Faustian plotline better than most - having solid reasons behind his actions. Williams also does a reasonable job on having a diverse cast, with at least Frith being a PoC, and also avoiding the all-straight part of the typical fantasyland - which is definitely welcome!

Next up, a favourite topic of mine: the magic. While I won't explain the system - what there is comes relatively late in the book - it generally falls on the mystical side, with enough rules explained that the protagonists' use is justified. With the recent trends in the genre towards firmly rule-based magic, it's nice to see that Jen Williams can so excellently preserve some mysticality in hers, proving that fantasy gods in particular can still remain... well, slightly terrifying.

In general, The Copper Promise fulfils its promises: a fun, fast-paced, sword and sorcery-esque epic that manages to provide a very satisfying resolution. Yes, it has flaws - but despite them, it remains a brilliant read, and one I'd highly recommend. While a very neat ending leaves me wondering where the sequel will pick up, I can't wait to see where Williams goes next. Rich, complex, and with a large dose of good S&S character-driven nature amidst the epic fantasy trappings, The Copper Promise is definitely a recommendation for anyone interested in exploring a traditionally-flavoured, but original epic without necessarily getting into a multi-book arc.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Blog | Meet Algernon (and a Quick Absence!)

Meet Algernon. He is possibly an eldritch abomination, and also kind of fluffy on the inside. His existence and name are due to two separate friends*, both entirely awesome.

Anyhow, now I've distracted you with the cute mini-Cthulhu - news! I'm off on a quick holiday from this morning, and will probably not be able to post/have internet til next Wednesday, though am bringing many books (you'll get a fresh batch of reviews). Hope you all have fun without me!

*Yes, I probably owe them a baked goods-debt as well! :)

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Music | High Noon Over Camelot (and the Mechanisms)

At the weekend, I went to see CN Lester and the Mechanisms in Oxford - and while both were entirely awesome, the latter is something I can talk about in an SFF way. (And yes, this is the first time I've used the music heading. Heresy!) For those who haven't encountered them before, the Mechanisms are a band of - as their website puts it - "immortal space pirates roaming the universe in the starship Aurora. Some say they’re from a steampunk future, others claim they’re from a cyberpunk past, a few even whisper that they may be from a dieselpunk alternate now. They are all correct.". And their musical storytelling is similarly varied! So far, they've written three sets, as well as assorted individual songs: Once Upon a Time in Space, Ulysses Dies at Dawn, and their most recent, which debuted in December (which performance I sadly missed, but thankfully am now all caught up!), High Noon Over Camelot. The first two can be streamed/purchased via their Bandcamp, while they've just completed a Kickstarter to record the third, which should be released this summer. You can listen to a live recording here.

I first ran into a selection of the Mechanisms performing, as I recall, at Catweazle - or at least I remember the words immortal, space pirates, and steampunk, which tend to be a rare combination. Much later, some friends to whom I will be forever indebted (so long as that debt is payable solely in baked goods*) suggested I come along to a performance of their second set - and it was appropriately enough, amazing.

Each member has their own persona, with the fictional crew usually participating to some small extent in the set stories - as well as telling it musically (in fact, they've even elaborated beyond the songs in some short fiction here). While not any full sets, there are also songs about the crew members themselves, some of which are featured in the Tales to Be Told album, but most of which are sadly unrecorded as yet. At any rate, said personas are generally extremely violent, have their own odd canon (involving the creation of their mechanical parts by their former collaborator, Dr Carmilla, as well as octokittens. I haven't really asked about them. I'm a little afraid to. Afraid and fascinated.), and of course, costumes.

The sets, meanwhile, each tell an overarching story - each with a unique setting. Once Upon a Time in Space is based on fairy tales (in space!), with a brutal King Cole facing rebellion after kidnapping a skilled soldier from her wedding to a princess, Cinders. It's a lovely mashup, with a unique take on every figure - and of course, some spectacularly creepy ones. I will never look at the three little pigs the same way again. Ulysses Dies at Dawn crosses genres again - a dark (cyberpunk?) retelling of Greek mythology in a planetwide urban sprawl, where those rich enough gain immortality as Olympians, and the brains of the dead are harvested to provide computing power in the Acheron. The most recent, High Noon Over Camelot (which I saw performed on Saturday) is a western-inspired version of Arthurian legend set on a space station. As someone who loves a little genre bending (it's one of many reasons the Vorkosigan series is a favourite), it's great to see so much here. They're also frequently tragic... the suggestion of a possible happy ending got a laugh from other audience members.

I shouldn't spoil too much for High Noon - after all, you can listen to it yourself. That said, bear in mind that the live recording doesn't yet compare to actually hearing it: you'll have to wait for the proper recording for that! What can I say? It's a fun twist on the Arthurian legends, an inventive setting, some stunning twists, and of course some horrendously catchy songs. Seriously. I still can't root Skin and Bone out of my head. It's been a week, dammit.

So, if I haven't persuaded you so far, what else can I say about the Mechanisms? Well, they're good at telling stories with a diverse cast, which is always welcome in SFF, and particularly in the steampunk/dieselpunk/cyberpunk blend (whichever they are right now!): lesbian romance, trans characters, and just a good range of stereotype-defying - all feature. Secondly, you can stream their music before buying, so it's well worth a go. Thirdly, those octokittens are really cute.

Anyhow, that's my brief take on the Mechanisms - you can find their website here.

*Okay, I pay all my debts in baked goods.