Monday, 28 November 2011

Article | How to Kill Characterisation (in Five Easy Steps)

In my time as a reader, I have seen characterisation abused on occasion. Well, I have decided: no more 'unrealistic', or 'slightly unbelievable' characters! Here is my guide on going the whole way: the how-not-to list of characterisation. And as always, it is completely subjective.

1) Character-As-Ability
We've seen this with elemental mages. A lot. So, your fire mage is tempestuous, your wind-user flighty, and the earth magician (who's drawn the superpower short straw) 'solid'. Well done! Your characters have just become defined by their abilities. I haven't seen such blatant examples often, but it's not just magic this crops up in. Thieves, warriors, and scholars all seem to share the same stereotyped traits when done badly.

2) Character-As-Sob Story
I'm not saying that characters shouldn't have struggles in their pasts - that would be tedious. But what I am saying is that a abused, angsty past does not a character make. And that they should get over it. Childhood will affect your character later on, but characters who are still angsting about the death of their parents (fantasy parental fatality rate: 100%!) twenty years on are overdoing it a lot. There were some instances of this in The Last Stormlord and its sequels - not as awful as I described, but where characters are simply defined by their pasts.

3) 'Excuse Plot' Development Scenes
Yes, your character should develop. This development should work with the plot, not against it! If the scenes intended to unite your hero with their romantic interest need excuses, they shouldn't be let anywhere near the story. I know this seems harsh, but really, there should be enough momentum for development in your story without adding in a massage scene. I'm looking at you, Empire in Black and Gold...

4) Insane Motivations
This includes  'oh, but he actually is insane'. Unless the character has been built up so this is believable, then making insanity the justification doesn't really count. Although acts of astounding stupidity do occur in real life (the Darwin Awards, anyone?), fiction has a tougher job!

5) Darlings
The characters who can do no wrong, will come out of pitched battle smelling of roses, and even coming off as a sociopath to the readers (Richard 'he's a special person' Rahl, I look at thee), will be treated as a paragon by the author. This is horrible. For one thing, it gets rid of any ambiguity - the hero is right with a capital 'R', and everyone else is evil. For another, it destroys tension: we want  to fool ourselves into thinking (perhaps rightly) that the hero isn't going to win. If there's a character the author would never, ever allow to die... Well, that tension's gone. This is why i love George R. R. Martin so much: anyone can die.

As always, these are my pet dislikes - and as always, veeeery subjective. So let's add more into the mix: comment below and tell me yours!

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Review | Empire in Black and Gold

Apologies for the few posts this week! The posting schedule should be back to normal now, and you will despair of hearing me before long.

Empire in Black and Gold is a novel a started a long time ago - and never finished. Burdened with this sense of shame (hah), I have returned to vanquish my opponent with a review. Which will start with this:

Empire is very traditionally non-traditional. What do I mean by that? Well, it changes things that are easily changed: but leaves the core elements untouched. We've got new races, the Ant-kinden and Beetle-kinden and x-kinden, who draw abilities from their namesakes. Some new magic. But the tropes are mostly unchanged: we've got a band of assorted heroes struggling against an evil invading empire, the Wasps. Sound familiar?

That's not to say Empire is bad. Its protagonists are likeable, especially Cheerwell (is it just me, or does this sound a little hobbitish? Probably just me). It's set against a background of the Inapt magical races failing to keep up with the Apt, their former servants, who are able to use machines - a nice twist. But I can't help getting the feeling that we could have got a more interesting story out of this. In the beginning of the book, they visit an industrialised city struggling against raiders from the threatened Moth-kinden - which, if done before, could have been a starting point for something else. Stenwold Maker, ostensibly a master statesman and artificer, could have been a dazzling manipulator, rather than a more straightforward fantasy hero.

It was, nevertheless, enjoyable. it's well written, lengthy enough to give you plenty to think - and read - about, and has a cast sufficiently varied for most tastes. Unfortunately, that's also where another of my problems with the novel steps in. Whenever you define a fantasy race as having a particular trait, a set characteristic, there is a delicate line. This line is crossed when race or nationality starts being a shortcut to characterisation - or even the whole of it. For those of you who've read David Eddings, you'll know what I'm talking about. (And don't even get me started on the 'evil' races...)

Unfortunately, I do think this line gets crossed in Empire in Black and Gold. It's not far over, but several of the x-kinden and y-kindens do seem to define pretty big portions of character. Also, there is a scene in which one character gives another a massage as a special technique to 'awaken their art'. Really. I'm sensing some excuse plotting there.

As you can probably guess, Empire is - to my mind - far from perfect. A stock plot, a reliance on origin to guide personality, and just not going far enough prevents this novel from being great. What it is, however, is fun. If you can forget a few stock occurrences, the plot is not easily guessed, and there are some truly fantastic moments. This shouldn't be your first choice, but if you're looking for a lighter epic fantasy, this is worth picking up.

Find it here: UK US

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Coming Up | End of November

...Okay, that was a statement of the obvious! But what I'll do here is give you a brief summary of what's happening, and will happen, on the blog.
- I'm reading The Christmas Spirits, an ARC from Hodder - I've just started, so I'm not as opinionated as usual. Yet! Obviously, there'll be a review of that in the pipeline.
- I'm also giving Adrian Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt series another go, starting with Enpire in Black and Gold. I failed to get into the concept then, but with quite a few more released (plus some pretty ecstatic praise from some blog friends), I felt I should try it again. I was right: I'm enjoying myself in a with-caveats way. So, review coming!
- There are also interviews with two Angry Robot coming up, both of whom I recently reviewed - and enjoyed. A lot. Angry Robot is known for publishing the original, but when I get ARCs for both an urban fantasy Aztec murder mystery, and an intrigue rich alternate New York (with robots) in the same month... Well you know it's a lot more than that. Interviews with both Aliette de Bodard, and Adam Christopher will be up soonish (TM), and you can read my reviews of Master of the House of Darts and Empire State here and here.

So, that's what's happening soon: ie, a lot of reading.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Review | The Dragon's Path - Daniel Abraham

Daniel Abraham has already succeeded at writing non-traditional fantasy in my eyes: the Long Price Quartet is a fantastic tale of social change, hard choices, and two men who do what isn't necessarily right. (I loved it, and you can read my review here). So how does he fare with what initially seems like a more straightforward fantasy epic?

The answer is: very well. (Which makes me really regret not having picked this up when it came out!)

The novel follows three protagonists: Geder, a noble in military service (but more apt to pick up a good book than fight a war!), Cithrin, the determined ward of a bank threatened by invasion, and Dawson, a noble conspiring to protect his King and aristocracy against traitors.

The Dragon's Path is, of course, war: and that is what looms. Not the result of a prophecy or 'Chosen One': instead, a simple border skirmish escalates through a combination of (mis)fortune and conspiracy. And since all three characters are (at least indirectly) at odds for much of the novel, there's one thing we can immediately say:

Daniel Abraham is a master of characterisation. Making likeable characters that you empathise with is difficult. What Abraham does, however, is write empathetic characters who make the wrong decisions, who are flawed, who are even contrary to the modern reader's whole point of view. And it works. Brilliantly.

I did, of course, have some problems. In the first few chapters, the books does seem to suffer from extreme dragonitis: a disease which displays the following sympton - every second noun is named after a dragon. the Time of the Dragons, the Dragon's Paths... It seemed a little overdone. But this does cease around the third chapter or so, once we've had our introductions, so it certainly wasn't a major problem.

For those who love a little intrigue, there are some nice revelations and plots throughout the novel. Cithrin's plotline was of particular interest: a rather devious but determined ward of the bank, determined to succeed through any means? Good to me. These are, however, mainly for the characters: there are plenty of clues for perceptive readers to guess what's coming, including the identity of a side character. (I actually rather like this, although I'd have loved some unpredictable 'GoT' or Mistborn 3 style moments)

It's too early for me to comment on the role of the spider goddess. Although the apostate suggests 'she wants to eat the world', I am hoping that she doesn't become such an inexplicable villain of the series: I much prefer the human conflict, or more ambiguous magical. One thing I do enjoy regarding her, however, is the limited but powerful magic. Being able to tell truth from lie, and put apparent truth into your words. As I said: it's limited but powerful, especially in the conspiracy-rife society of Abraham's new universe.

Alltogether, this is an introduction with promise, and a lot of resolution. This is no Way of Kings - each of the three gets considerable development and movement over the course of the story. With low magic, intriguingly human conflict, likeable - if not always good - characters, and a heavy dose of the nontraditional, this is a must-have for any fan of epic fantasy.

Find it here: UK US

Read this book, or plan to? Comment and tell me below!

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Review | Juggernaut - Adam Baker

Back in August, I read, and (inevitably) reviewed Adam Baker's debut: Outpost: and liked it. I might have spoiled the review for you there. Juggernaut is its prequel: the threat - the speculative element - is identical, but the cast is not. And it makes for an even better story. And since I was impressed with the original debut: well, that means a lot.

But before we start, let's say two things: I am not a huge horror fan - in most cases. Cthulhu (and his reality warping family), yes. Johannes Cabal, yes. Regular zombies and things-that-go-bump-in-the-night? Not so much: I like my fantasies to be of discovery and a variety of tones. Juggernaut, however, takes a close-to-typical, if nasty speculative element, and makes it brilliant through the mundane. How? Well, we'll see.

The novel is set in Iraq (with the slightly melodramatic tagline: 'They searched for gold. They found death.'). Nevertheless, that is part of the hook. From the beginning, Lucy and her band of mercenaries are straightforward profit-seekers. Yes, they have redeeming features: but they're not the golden hearted, never-do-ill of fantasy either. And that's pretty refreshing! Outpost's cast always were a little passive at times: whereas Juggernaut's have the skills to pull off those believable moments of awesome-that-I-really-won't-spoil-for-you. Hah. At any rate, they're after stashed gold: but from the beginning, it's clear there's more going on. Koell's manipulative presence is everywhere (because who doesn't love a manipulator?) - he's no Baelish, but certainly an interesting villain. As bioweapons, metal-spined zombies, and the threat of apocalypse become involved, Lucy and her band of mercenaries are tested to their limits in a desert they'll have to escape.

The first fifty pages or so of the novel are slow and straightfoward: there's no speculative element, Koell's moves are obscure, and Lucy's band gets no chance to show off. Then we start getting some interesting (and nasty) revelations: and by page 100, I was gripped. The prose is sparse and factual - I'm mixed on whether I'm a huge fan of this type, but for this kind of horror, it really works.

There is a caveat, though: Juggernaut is a novel to read for the anticipation and action - not the characters. While Lucy's companions fit the story well, none of them were truly distinctive in the same manner as Koell and Jamil (the resident Mr. Exposition), who I found most likeable in context. You won't find huge variation in tone, either: this is focused on a short time period and atmosphere - you won't be finding comic relief. For those willing to accept this, however?

Juggernaut is survival horror at its best. With the spare prose giving it the feel of almost-fact, the feats seem all the more impressive: and relentlessly gripping. Filled with characters you might not love, but will certainly love to watch, this game of zombie bioweapon cat-and-mouse in the Iraqi desert is definitely worth your time.

Read this book, or plan to? Comment and tell me below!

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Fantastical Intentions: Fantasy Races

If you didn't see last week's post, here, Fantastical Intentions is a new collaborative feature between, well, me (obviously), and Hannah, who runs the fantastic Once Upon A Time blog.

At any rate, here's the lowdown. Each time, we're going to run on either mine or Hannah's blog with a new topic - this time, to take an example, it's fantasy races. We'll each post our pick here: our selections from the chosen category - and, of course, why. And if you've got your own choices, or just think we're wrong (bring out the incinerator!), feel free to write your own post and leave your link in the comments below, or simply comment with what your pick is!

But before we start, I'll let Hannah introduce herself:

"Hi! I'm Hannah and I write for Once Upon A Time ( I've always been a total bookworm and lover of all things weird, even during a pretty long reading slump I was playing fantasy MMOs, so I'm safe to say that fantasy is my thing. I love epic fantasy and recently I've been really getting into urban fantasy. My favourite authors are Pat Rothfuss, George R.R. Martin, Brandon Sanderson, Robin Hobb, Kelley Armstrong, Rachel Caine... to name a few! But I do also venture into historical fiction, chick lit, and literary fiction from time to time. It can be pretty rare though as I am a fantasy girl at heart."

So now you know everybody involved, onto the feature! Hannah's pick this week for favourite fantasy race is... um. My reviewer spoiler alert has cut in, so just read what she has to say instead...

I went through much deliberating over this week's topic because fantasy races is such a huge thing. At first I thought, "Well it has to be elves, doesn't it?" I always play elves in fantasy RPGs, always, and I love their cultures, but then I thought, "But what about dwarves?" Dwarves are so hearty and fun, I always love reading about dwarves, but saying that they aren't quite a favourite so I cycled through a few. The Istari of Middle Earth have always intrigued me, the idea that they're basically sent to watch over Middle Earth and protect it, and they are the closest thing to wizards that Lord of the Rings has, I always adored Gandalf. But no, I'm not so sure. What about Koloss or Kandra from Mistborn? No.. not quite. And then it struck me. Humans, of course.

There are so many fantasy stories, probably the majority, in fact, that focus on the human race in a fantasy setting. How they become corrupted and how they use magic and interact with this astonishing surroundings, and how the few set out on their quests to rid their world of evil. Humans in fantasy are amazing and I never tire of reading about them. Never. So really, for me, once it came down to it, it was a no brainer. Humans bring intrigue which is one of the tropes of any genre that I love the most. It is what I love about historical fiction and it is why I'm so engrossed in the Song of Ice and Fire and FitzChivalry's world. No other fantasy race is quite as rich in intrigue as the humans. Sure, they all have it, but humans have a breadth of real history to draw from which perhaps makes them feel that little bit more real.

Of course, I do love reading about different races. The variety and absolute otherworldliness is something that makes epic fantasy what it is, but I will always love humans.

And my pick is on - well - the other end of the spectrum. In other words? The K'Chain Che'Malle.

Favourite fantasy race? It's a hard choice - when modern fantasy is dominated by humanity, who we've got an unwavering empathy for (I wonder why...), which other races do we turn to? The answer, of course, is the K'Chain Che'Malle: because who doesn't like technologically-minded dinosaurs?

Nobody, that's who.
Rather awe-inspiring K'Chain art by Seraph777

The K'Chain Che'Malle are just that. A nearly-extinct race in Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen, they lived in matriarchal colonies: each one born to a specific purpose. The more perspicacious of you should now guess 'dinosaurs with blades for hands?' To which I will answer: YES. (I am not joking. The K'Chain Che'Malle really are this awesome). Joking aside, the K'Chain Che'Malle are truly amazing as a race: engineering floating fortresses, breeding a shorter-tailed version of their race as slaves, and then fighting the same in civil war. Insane and malicious on occasion, yes. But amazing.

Of course, there aren't many left. And as always with Erikson, part of the fun is piecing together the scattered clues you're given. And so, when you see a floating chunk of rock, or a plaza of grey stone hundreds of miles across... You'll be thinking: K'Chain Che'Malle. It's this fact which really makes the lizards such fun: even dead, their inventions are still key to the series. They're also surprisingly human, and flawed - no perfect precursors, these. And that makes the spoilerific events which occur a lot more poignant. And, since giant lizards are involved, unfailingly dramatic.

 We'll be moving back to Hannah's blog next time for a new topic, so keep an eye open. ;)
 So here are our choices: but what are yours? Comment below and tell us!

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Review | The Atrocity Archives - Charles Stross

Lovecraft, MI6, British bureaucracy and a lot of programming: doesn't sound like the best fit, but it really does work. Which just goes to show that either: A) Charles Stross can do anything brilliantly or B) Cthulhu really likes literature.

The Atrocity Archives is the story of Bob Howard, a programmer (and general IT dogsbody) for the Laundry: a secret UK agency devoted to tackling occult - and more particularly, Lovecraftian - threats. Which they tackle with a mixture of bureaucracy, budget cuts... And rather shocking schemes. Because it seems that in the modern world, even programming can cross universes (as Bob found out when he nearly summoned Nyarlathotep with a a renderer - and nearly wiped out Birmingham).

Bob has volunteered for active duty, but when his first mission goes awry - well, things start to escalate. Soon he's trying to cope with his boss' technophobic demands (microfilm? Really?) while, yes, getting involved with new levels of Lovecraftian danger.

Okay - a bad summary. But with The Atrocity Archives as fast-paced as it is, any summary will inevitably give away some spoilers: and I've saved you some very good moments unspoiled. (You'll thank me later. Really. Now come out of the dark corner and listen...)

The Atrocity Archives isn't perpetually serious: how could it be, given its nicely eclectic mix? But it's hardly comic fantasy either, though you will get a lot more out of the references if you're British, know a little about programming, or have read Lovecraft (maybe). Where The Atrocity Archives really shines, however, is in its characters. Bob, Angleton, and - on occasion - Mo all play brilliantly to the situation. A programmer as anti-Lovecraftian hero makes for an unusual combination, and one who won't simply resort to martial means. That, for me, is interesting: I want to see protagonists who don't cut up their problems with a sword, or blow them up with a gun or a firestorm. And Bob, frequently genre-aware as he is, is definitely not either of those.

The novel isn't padded, either. It's as long as it needs to be, which isn't enormous: but includes a novella/short story (The Concrete Jungle), which I found equally interesting. The Laundry setting works well in short form, so I'll be looking out for more of these... As indeed there are (at least in the next novel).

All in all? This is a fun novel: one which plumbs no deep depths, but is fast-paced, brief - a rarety - and original. Lovecraft plus spies and a lot of tech humour? I'm all for it. (And in fact, I've just finished the second novel: and it's just as good)

Read this series, or plan to? Comment and tell me below!

Monday, 14 November 2011

Collecting Protagonists | Interesting Occupations (...At least for fantasy)

The thought seems heretical: how can a protagonist not be a Beowulf-esque epic hero?

I'm exaggerating. But still, you'll have to admit that an awful lot of fantasy protagonists are still rather martially orientated. So, let's buck this already bucking trend: for here are my picks for the heroes who don't fit this mould. As always, subjective, subjective, subjective!

The Mosaicist

Caius Crispus is - as I've aready suggested - a mosaicist. (Oh, and thanks to Cursed Armada in the comments for reminding me!) I've always thought that artists and non-magical musicians are underused in fantasy, and this just proves my point: Kay writes Crispin's character wonderfully. A mosaicist seeking a work he'll be remembered for, Crispin is sent to Sarantium on both an artistic and profoundly political mission. Caught up in intrigue and tragedy that threatens the destruction of his art... Well, let's just say it makes a beautiful story - especially when the protagonist can't just hack his adversaries to pieces with his sword! The novels in question are Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors, both by Guy Gavriel Kay.

The Necromancer

Fantastic art of the necromancer himself from redEight
It's not often we get a villain protagonist. And it's rarer for the novel in question to be a comic fantasy. Johannes Cabal, the cold-blooded champion of the scientific method from Jonathan L. Howard's series of the same name, is one such: a necromancer who, having sold his soul to Satan, wants it back. He's half-protagonist, half-villain (well, perhaps more than half): and he's hilarious to read. Witty, utterly cold blooded (or sang froid - as a side character memorably dresses up the expression), and unfailingly pragmatic, his less violent but far more interesting 'solutions' will make you forget about the 'Chosen Ones' blowing their enemies away with firestorms. (Tedious or what? Cabal is far more fun to read).

The Programmer

Bob Howard, hero of Charles Stross' Laundry series, is a programmer and occult agent: in a world where the two professions are practically identical. After all, Bob was recruited for the secret agency in question when he nearly summoned Nyarlathotep to wipe out Birmingham... With a renderer. When he signs up for active service, Bob is a crazily improvising mix between agent and magical expert - which mainly involves computers. And quips about computers. And running Neverwinter Nights servers to trap Lovecraft- you know what, just read it. I'm going to do a full review soon, but explaining anything close to the insane mix of tropes The Laundry series is on would take days!

These are my hasily conceived picks - so what are yours? Comment and tell me below!

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Review | The Hermetica of Elysium - Annmarie Banks

I enjoy historical fantasy. The clever twists, the fact that history is more interesting than much fiction, and the potential for contextual humour... Well, they're all things I enjoy in the subgenre (although in particular, about Guy Gavriel Kay). So when I was offered a copy of The Hermetica of Elysium, I eagerly accepted.

Before I review it, however, I will say this. It's no technically beautiful Kay novel, no Martinesquely intricate doorstopper - what Hermetica is is fun and entertaining, and a change. It's not brilliant - but it is solid.

Hermetica follows an unusual - and interesting - choice of protagonist. Nadira is not a warrior, but a linguist. Not professionally: she's a slave, but her skills lie in that direction. So when she is, uh, forcibly bargained for by Baron Montrose as a 'reader' for the titular Hermetica they're looking for, it's clear that this is what they need. The book, and its apparently mystical nature, are sought by - well, pretty much everyone in Europe! With the Borgia pope, the King of France, and Baron Montrose himself seeking the book, Nadira is going to need her wits about her to survive.

I'm in two minds about Nadira as a protagonist. On the one hand, it's refreshing to see a protagonist whose strengths do not lie in combat - and who is forced to other means. Essentially a translator, a rare fantasy profession, Banks could have taken this a long way - purposefully manipulative mistranslations, anyone? On the other hand, Nadira just seems a bit passive as aprotagonist. She relies on others for rescue, and seems to always play by the rules, doesn't improvise... To be fair, she does improve towards the end - that's development for you! - but it was the other characters who were the engaging ones. (Conti and William in particular).

The magic, on the other hand, was both poweful and limited enough to make a convincing addition to history - always a tricky thing. However, I did prefer the original conception of the Hermetica - a book simply of true knowledge, rather than of magic, and the way this was revised was never entirely clear.

Although the supporting characters - Conti, the briefly-glimpsed Pope and Cardinals - were more interesting than Nadira, I was never entirely continced by the relationship between her and Montrose. (It's stated on the blurb, so no spoilers here!) He's gruff, rarely talks to her before they get together... Perhaps a little out of place.

That said, it's solidly written: Hermetica will never be one of my top novels, but it certainly passes the time - and checks the boxes for conspiracy and intrigue. If it had done a little more with Nadira, this could have been fantastic: but, well, passivity isn't good for a protagonist. Hermetica is a worthy read, however, but probably not worth a hardback purchase.

Planning - or have - read this book? Comment and tell me below!

Friday, 11 November 2011

Review | The Japanese Devil Fish Girl (and Other Unnatural Attractions) - Robert Rankin

Robert Rankin is one of my favourite comic fantasy authors: a tricky genre at the best of times. He's also one of the most... hit and miss.

This time, unfortunately, I think he might have stumbled. The Japanese Devil Fish Girl (I'll forgo the rest of the title - brevity's important!) is a step sideways for Rankin, away from the rampant insanity of his normal romps, and more firmly into the steampunk subgenre. This isn't to say that the novel is ordinary: not a bit of it! Monkey butlers, comic dialogue, Hugo Rune (the guru's guru) and the titular 'Japanese Devil Fish Girl' all come in. But it does have a plot, and is far more a farfetched adventure story than his previous titles. And it follows a typically clueless - if likeable - protagonist...

George Fox, zany assistant! to Professor Coffin (born Snodgrass). Possessed of a rapidly decaying pickled Martian as a spectacle, and of a desire to avoid caring for said foul-smelling Martian, Fox visits a fellow showman's booth: where he is predicted to locate the legendary Japanese Devil Fish Girl. What is this? Why, a legendary creature - and for Professor Coffin, a potential spectacle. So the manipulative Coffin, and George set out for Japan by airship - along with a stowaway Ada Lovelace, a monkey butler, and of course some actual passengers.

And after that? Well, let us merely say that British space supremacy, the fate of the solar system, and Professor Coffin's fortune become involved. I'm not faulting this - Rankin likes escalation, and setting a light-hearted steampunk adventure story instead of a plotless comedy is fine wth me. It's the ending, however, where he falls short: it becomes more serious, and with some of the cliches involved this time round, it just didn't work for me. Use of a deus-ex-machina is fine - for comedy. It's when things take a turn for the sober(er) that Rankin falters a little.

Still, it's fun. And as always, Rankin really brings George Fox, the enjoyably pragmatic (but villinous) Coffin, and ada Lovelace to life. Although I'll admit a preference for Darwin the monkey butler, who was more competent than most of the humans involved...

This is a light-hearted, fast-paced adventure with a lot of steampunk flavouring: not as funny as some of Rankin's previous, but it only really falters at the ending. It's well worth reading for the rest of the book. And, of course, for Darwin.

Have you read this book, or plan to? Comment and tell me below!

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Bibliophilia | Kindle Features I Can't - Well, CAN Read Without

I may have exaggerated slightly at first - it's perfectly possible to read without the Kindle's features. In fact, I mainly prefer to do so: there's a certain something to owning a physical book; a kind of tactile pleasure. Especially - I have to say - an older book, which are simply lovely. (Excuse me while I stroke this embossed cover... Ahem). Still - Kindles have one main advantage over physical books: they're practical. No longer do I have to break my back, lugging my Neal Stephenson tomes to Canada! No more!

Despite my relentlessly practical attitude, however, I do have to admit this: some Kindle features are just cool...

Test Subject Discovers Highlight Feature
 Okay, whoever's done this is clearly using the Twitter feature instead... But there's a highlight going on! At any rate, this initially seemed uninteresting - I don't use highlighters in real life, let alone in books (vandalism! :P ). But when I realised that highlighting a passage saved it to your clippings, I discovered a monster the best quotation tool in history.

...Maybe I'm exaggerating. But if you're anything like me, you love those 'wham lines': George RR Martin does them a lot, too. But I never remember to write my favourite quotes down, and for a reviewer, that has to be a sin (or something very like it). This tool is brilliant, and I've already highlighted a few choice passages in Swift.

Test Subject Discovers Free Internet

(--Image exceeds EU maximum 'stunned face' quote by 120%--)

...I thought it was a joke - but it isn't. Being able not only to save those juicy quotes, but to type them directly into a blog post? From the Kindle? For free? Heaven. Especially since the free 3G enables you to do so anywhere. Admittedly, it isn't perfect - and the battery life goes downhill. But if you're in a hurry, this is perfect.

Test Subject Discovers Project Gutenberg
I did know about Project Gutenberg before - but did you know that you can download ebooks directly through your Kindle's browser? That might sound like advertisement, but seriously, it's really useful - gets round the trouble of a USB cable entirely. My personal favourite is, oddly enough, the contemporary reviews section of Project Gutenberg. Pretty much what it says on the tin - reviews of books when they were released, which are very interesting to read (and remarkably insightful). I only wish I could write as engagingly as these predecessors!

Oh, and in other news: my latest monthly columns at at Grasping For The Wind, here - this time, on the magic system in A Song of Ice and Fire.

Any thoughts - or thought of another feature of quirk you'd like to pass on? comment and tell me below!

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Review | Empire State - Adam Christopher

Noir, alternative universe fantasy? I'm up for it.

...And that's probably the best description of Empire State there can be: except it's far more than just that. It's the story of an alternate New York, the Empire State - and of the 'real' New York, and what happened after its 'superheroes' turned against one another. But in the most part? It's the noir-inspired tale of Rad Bradley, private detective - and at the heart of the conflict. Because the rift between New York and the Empire State threatens to close, the Empire State is negotiating with its eternal Enemy, and nodody in the city seems trustworthy.

This is a heady mix of superheroes (who aren't so unambiguous), noir detectives (who really aren't cut out for metaphysics), and science fiction - which really works. You can't predict this novel, with its convoluted sides and treacheries: now put those two together with the alternate universe travel of this novel, and you'll see what I mean.

We've dealt with plot - what about character? Rad Bradley isn't so special: I've talked about the noir influence, and this is the dark side of that - he's pretty much the pulp detective. It's fun to read (the character type is so out of its usual context that it's original!), but don't expect any traits you won't have seen many times before. He's a familiar guide to a strange world, however, and the supporting cast are far more varied. Captain Carson - an explorer in a world where it seems impossible to have done so. After all, there's nothing outside the Empire State and their Enemy. The Skyguard and Science Pirate - superheroes who abandoned their duties to turn on one another. Kane - Rad's ambiguously loyal friend.

I've mentioned that Empire State is hard to predict - indeed, impossible! and that is a good thing. However, my one complaint would be between the different theories, lies, and loyalties, it quickly gets impossible to work out who's betraying whom at the present - and why. Even at the end, it took me a good five minutes to suss out who's actually succeeded... Still, if you've honed your plot-instincts on Martin's intrigue in A Song of Ice and Fire, this won't put you off.

In summary, Empire State is a fast, likeable novel which aims not only to surprise, but frequently to confound - with intrigue, superheroic subversion, and a few robots playing into the mix! There's also an airship. I mean, who doesn't love airships?

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Why You Should Read | Robert Rankin

Comic fantasy is a tricky art - either that, or my tastes are oddly specific. Whichever it is, Robert Rankin is one of those few authors who really hit the mark for me: he's not consistent, but when Rankin gets good, it's hilarious. Really. Side effects will include uncontrollable laughter, irrestrainable real-life use of running jokes, and a conviction that your best friends are being controlled via Air Loom...

So, why should you read him?

- The obvious: he's amusing. Rankin's humour is rarely the careful Satire of Pratchett (which I also enjoy): it's a madcap, eclectic mix of running jokes, plot holes, and pure absurdity. (Plus a healthy dose of steampunk). Zodiac made of the streets of Brighton? A real 'genre detective' who refuses to work outside three locations? Accidentically murdering the 'cockney work ethic' zeitgeist of the 60s? Okay, they're funnier in context...

- They're inventive. I've picked a number of novels out as subverting my reviewer-hardened expectations (I have special plotanium senses!), but Rankin takes this to a whole new level. Characters who know they're in a novel - and use that to their advantage? It's in there. And whenever things threaten to get predictable, Rankin throws a new spanner/Air Loom/General Electric minigun into the mix.

- They're cumulative. A lot of Rankin's humour is based on references to previous novels, and of course, the old running gag, and whatever you think of them... They have their moments. You might not love your first Rankin, but your second? That's a different matter.

- They're short. In a genre where, as I've mentioned before (and will do so again), most novels can be used for primitive masonry, 'short' is a refreshing addition. Though I love my long novels, Rankin's works will fill up an afternoon much more readily than a day - or a week.

Rankin isn't for everybody. After all, who is? His odd, absurdist sense of humour, love of the running gag, and affectionate twists on every trope in the genre make him a taste best acquired in moderation. And for the reasons I've listed, he's still well worth a go.

Read Rankin, or plan to? Comment and tell me below!

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Review | Tobacco Stained Mountain Goat - Andrez Bergen

The last surviving city of Earth is... Melbourne.

This, at least, is the setting of Tobacco Stained Mountain Goat - a setting in which the Dome segregates rich ad poor, and where the Bill of Deviations outlaws many as 'Deviants': to be hunted down by Seeker Branch. Floyd Maquina, our markedly unusual protagonist, is one such Seeker. He's also remarkably knowledgeable about film, and it shows: in the course of the novel, Floyd must reference at least a dozen noir films. And probably many, many more. The noir influence on the novel is similarly visible: though Floyd's hardly a detective, his narration takes a similar line to the 'hard bitten gumshoe'. And in an SF setting, that's pretty original - and correspondingly, pretty fun. A stubborn attitude (overly so!), witty dialogue, and some rather cutting insights combine to make Floyd the likeable protagonist that he is. Though occasionally it's overdone - Floyd is relentlessly stubborn, and frequently... Obstreperous. And occasionally you want to see some temptation. But minor qualm aside? He's good.

So when Floyd's life starts to change, we're watching eagerly: after he first chooses to 'terminate' rather than apprehend a Deviant, things start to go wrong. His incarcerated, ill wife dies. His new partner has trouble. And though this might seem a dystopian slice of life, it's far more: and seemingly disconnected events tie together in a fantastic ending. I had my doubts (who doesn't, with a debut? endings are hard), but Tobacco Stained Mountain Goat genuinely succeeds in both surprising and surpassing your expectations. And as a reviewer - we have secret plot-senses - that's rare.

So, what of setting? I'm not usually a fan of dystopias, or of the irrevocably down-and-out character. In this case, however, they work well - though Floyd does go to excess on occasion, playing the stereotype sometimes is just part of his genre awareness. Similarly, the government isn't relentlessly and unbelievably controlling. It's no 1984 - which I think is easily overdone. Instead, the Powers That Be are controlling, manipulative, and frequently appear corrupt. But they're not infallible - or overly fallible. We get a nice, cynic-bait compromise instead.

There is no central side character: Floyd becomes isolated, and the novel reflects this. Nevertheless, several strong secondary characters do appear: Laurel, Floyd's girlfriend, Dot, his sister, Hank - well, the list goes on. Their voices are distinct and memorable, which makes several losses or anticipated losses all the more tragic. Though don't worry, I won't tell you who.

All considered, Tobacco Stained Mountain Goat is a small press novel well worth your time - and not just for that cover. Referential, inspired, and occasionlly defying any expectation whatsoever, this is an odd read that you really should try, despite its slow start. But then, this is SFF: slow starts are par for the course!

Read this novel, or plan to? Comment and tell me below!