Thursday, 29 November 2012

Review | A Little Pratchett!

Oh dear, that was a lot more than three weeks - but I'm back at last, and apologies for taking so long about it! So let's get started with a new review in one of my favourite series: Discworld.

Lords and Ladies - Terry Pratchett

I've always had a soft spot for Granny Weatherwax as a character, and it's clear that Pratchett writes her ever better over the course of the 'Witches' subseries. And since Lords and Ladies is several books into said series, Weatherwax is pretty fleshed out indeed - hard-headed, prideful, but with a reason for it (she believes she's the best because, well, she is).

Lords and Ladies takes place just as the three witches return to Lancre following the events of Witches Abroad - only to find that there are (guess what?) problems. It looks like the elves might be coming back. And this is typically Pratchett: taking a common fantasy concept, even cliche, and deconstructing it. Or at least giving it a hard yank. Pratchett's elves use glamour, are capricious, and everyone remembers them as 'nice' because... Well. See the 'glamour' part.

There are younger witches - not quite so businesslike or hatchet-faced - moving in, Magrat's preparing to marry the King (and endeavour to discover what exactly a queen does), and Casanunda and the Wizards are planning on a visit too (dwarven and the world's 'second greatest lover', another favourite of mine). A lot of elements collide here, and if you're a fan of one of the other plotlines - the Unseen University crew, for example - it's definitely worth taking a look for the crossover (Ridcully and Weatherwax's discussion of old age is particularly hilarious as an interaction)

Not to mention Magrat. Okay, I mentioned Magrat, so let's discuss her. For a while, her character was rather passive, but in Lords and Ladies she becomes far more of a protagonist. At first trying to discover what exactly a queen does (entertainingly), then fighting the elvish incursion in the armour of a queen who... Well. You'll find out, but it's silly and amazing simultaneously, like a great deal of Pratchett. Magrat is a great deal more likeable in Lords and Ladies, and I'm hoping that continues into my reread of Carpe Jugulum. Fingers crossed!

But as always, it's Ogg and Weatherwax who run the show - their characters perfectly complement each other, perfectly hilariously. Weatherwax's confrontation with the elves is one of my favourite Discworld moments. They're polar opposites: the Queen is small minded and appearance-obsessed, while Weatherwax... can be small minded too, but otherwise is quite the opposite. Pratchett plays these characters, from Ridcully to Casanunda, off perfectly, and it's a pleasure to read.

It's not the funniest Discworld novel, that accolade has to go to Going Postal for me, but it is certainly the best in the witches subseries so far on my reread. But there's two left to go, so perhaps that's empty praise. But this isn't: it's a truly enjoyable book, and definitely worth your time, particularly if you're familiar with the witches and the Lancre characters. However, it's not an ideal starting point to either the subseries or Discworld as a whole. If you're unfamiliar with the witches, Wyrd Sisters may be a better starting point.

I do miss Greebo, though.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Blog | May Absence

Okay, so I was hoping to squeeze in a few more posts before this - but as you've seen, this didn't happen, so apologies for not getting the news out sooner. All currently scheduled reviews are still coming, but I'm going to have to push them back a few weeks - unavoidably, I'm going to have to take about a month off from the blog. Apologies to all my readers and fellow bloggers: but never fear, I'll be back!

...In fact, I've already (Shock! Horror!) got an article or two planned on lazy tropes and storytelling. Here's hoping to see you all in a few weeks!

Saturday, 28 April 2012

News | Authors & Anthologies

I promise to stop pestering you about these soon - but I think this anthology really deserves a look in. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer are running a fundraiser on Kickstarter to create a feminist speculative fiction anthology. As someone who's been wondering about the dearth of strong female characters recently, this seems like a great idea to focus on these disparities. While I suspect there'll be a slight slant towards SF rather than fantasy (don't quote me on this!), they probably describe the project best themselves. I quote:

"The anthology will emphasize women's speculative fiction from the mid-1970s onward, looking to explore women's rights as well as gender/race/class/etc. from as many perspectives as possible. The contributors are not yet established so we hesitate to name names, but rights to reprint stories from Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia E. Butler, Joanna Russ, and James Tiptree Jr. would be sought in addition to a wealth of newer voices in the field."

 Ursula K Le Guin hasn't always been consistent for me, but I loved The Left Hand of Darkness (as well as several other works of hers), and the other inclusions look equally interesting. Why not give it a look? You can find it HERE.

In other news, Robert J Bennett has won a (richly deserved) Edgar! The Troupe, one of the best coming-of-age stories I've read, thoroughly impressed me (can you tell? I think you can) - and I'm glad to see he's getting this kind of recognition.

Catherynne Valente has also signed for two more novels with Tor. While I haven't yet read any of her books (I plan to, but so far haven't glimpsed them in a bookshop - I may have to brave online retail :p ), the Little Red Reviewer's reviews (which, by the way, are pretty brilliant!) have definitely put her on my list.

Finally, I'll be running a guest post as part of the series over at Bookworm Blues. No date yet, but look out for it! It's an important issue that's often overlooked, especially in SFF, where most protagonists are pretty physically ideal, so kudos to Sarah for running this project.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Subgenres | Two Historical Fantasies You Should Be Reading

...If you want to, that is. I just can't seem to make these bold claims without caveats.

But over the past two years, I've read several great historical fantasies. In fact, not merely great - absolute must-reads: and since I'm asked for recommendations relatively often (it's part of that whole book reviewer malarky. Keep them coming, it's fun!), here are two of my favourites in post form. Though my standard recommendation of (almost) all things Kay still stands.

Guess what? I recommend it.

Aliette de Bodard - The Obsidian and Blood Series

The concept alone was enough to drag me into reading these - and I'm glad  I was so-dragged! Historical fantasy, but set in the Aztec civilisation (and not the oft cliched 'human sacrifice people', either. These are Aztecs with their own culture, their own beliefs, and their own civilisation), and with a substantial mystery component? This is a wonderful degree of genre blending, and I love it.

Also, remember my wish for more non-Eurocentric fantasy? This definitely counts.

That's not to neglect the plot and characters. Aztec politics and Aztec beliefs both come into play, believably written into the characters - including our protagonist, the high priest of Lord Death. Convention defied? I think so. While it wasn't quite so emotionally engaging as Lyle's writing, Obsidian and Blood definitely gets a 'must read' from me. And if you don't believe me here... Well, read my review. Or, you know, someone else's.

Robert J. Bennett - The Troupe

I debated whether to place this one under historical fantasy. Admittedly, the era in which it's set is far more recent, approaching urban fantasy, than my other picks: but in the end, the period is one of the most fitting and evocative aspects of Bennett's novel - so it stays.

The Troupe is set in the time of vaudeville (which I knew little-to-nothing about) - and the eponymous troupe are simultaneously part of it and something more. This is one of the best coming-of-age stories I've read. Hard-hitting at times, George's growth is just as painful as you'd expect at points. A wonderfully mysterious UF setting, the best take on Fae (or however you like to name them) I've seen in an age - seriously, they're wonderful - and an extremely satisfying ending. You want more praise? Then you'll just have to read my review. ;) It does have a few flaws, but it's a lovely novel in general.

Well - those are my three 'must-reads'. Any thoughts or additional suggestions?

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Thoughts | Three Things I'd Like to See (More Of)

This post brought to you from the tired mind of a book blogger. No review for today - though I will be reviewing Earth Girl (a concept I loved; an execution that wasn't quite as brilliant), as well as the previous reads I mentioned over the next few days - but instead a quick list of a couple of things I'm enjoying, and that I'd like to see more of in fantasy.

As always - it's subjective, and thoughts are welcome!

1. Fantasy cultures based outside of medieval Europe. I may have ranted about this before - in fact, I know I have. But the point still stands: walk into the fantasy section of a bookshop, pick a title, and nine out of ten times - it'll be based on medieval Europe (and not, for that matter, much of Europe at all - Eastern European influence often doesn't get a look in). I've massively enjoyed fantasies based on other cultures and influences in the past, and thankfully, this is starting to change - Aliette de Bodard's fantastic (Aztec) historical fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood, comes to mind.

2. Female characters who aren't constrained by their society. Those who are have been written well, and often have considerable agency despite that - but sometimes, being historically accurate is used as an excuse to have them be (essentially) passive, or just to leave them out entirely! But what's this excuse - historical accuracy? To what, exactly? With the exception of historical fantasy, fantasists have little duty to be historically accurate. And indeed, they're often most lauded for not being so. So if your fantasy civilisation is ruled by superintelligent squid, is making your society not conform to patriarchal values (if you don't want your characters fighting their society) really that weird? I don't think so.

3. Universes and shared worlds - like Brandon Sanderson's Cosmere. When a work has an appreciable history and world, it's more enjoyable for me - so when one work references events or consequences (or even contains characters from) another novel, such as the recurring character Hoid in the Cosmere, it's a fair bit of fun. It also helps with consequences - if an event is still having referenced repercussions, then it's evidently significant: and if it's, for example, the cause of the events of another novel, it really shows. It's one way of really showing a fantasy of change. (Juliet E Mckenna does this too - her series often aren't directly connected, but their events affect each other)

Well, those were just some topics on my mind at the moment. I'll be returning to regular reviews and articles next week!

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Fantastical Intentions | Mentors

For those of you who didn't see last week's post over on Once Upon a Time (and believe me, you really should have - go and remedy this! :p ), a new reviewer has joined us for Fantasical Intentions - Naithin! I'd like to welcome him to the blog, being a cool fellow - after all, he likes The Way of Kings. That's evidence enough.

Anyway, the topic: mentors. Mentor characters are a favourite inclusion in fantasy - and your mental image is probably of the cliche. But mentors don't have to be traditional, and they've been done uniquely too. And hopefully, our choices will show some of the more interesting examples of this...

And who can argue with Naithin's choice of Elodin?

“It was only then I realized I didn't know the name of Elodin's class. I leafed through the ledger until I spotted Elodin's name, then ran my finger back to where the title of the class was listed in fresh dark ink: "Introduction to Not Being a Stupid Jackass."
I sighed and penned my name in the single blank space beneath.”
There isn’t any pressure quite like the kind accompanied by the thought, ‘If I screw this up, I will likely be attacked before bed by a swarm of aerial piranhas’. You see, Jacob also wanted to do Elodin. But I called dibs first. And now the pressure is on to do the character justice- or else! (If you don’t hear from me for next week’s Fantastical Intentions, we can suppose that I did not rise to the occasion.)
 
But, yes, Elodin. Such a character. Cracked enough to be institutionalised at the University, clever enough to escape inescapable rooms in said institution. Following which he reclaims his old title of Master Namer as if none of it had ever happened.
 
Quirky barely begins to scratch the surface, yet for all that there is a vast depth to his knowledge. At times displaying a childlike glee in his mischief, at others more serious than a storm cloud that would like a word with you, personally, at this very moment. Through it all, always trying to provoke Kvothe to think. He is teaching Kvothe – or attempting to, at least – long before it ever becomes formalised.
 
Elodin isn’t just a favourite mentor character for me, but a favourite character in over all. Reading about him will make you think, will make you laugh and not least of all, make you wonder, just what lies beneath?
 
 
...Naithin can rest assured that the piranhas are safe abed for tonight!
 
Mentors are penny-a-dozen in fantasy fiction, so it's no surprise that it's hard for one to stand out. Nevertheless, a character who's partiularly unconventional to my mind is Cotillion - the Patron of Assassins from Steven Erikson's rather acclaimed Malazan Book of the Fallen.

We might argue over the definition of mentor, but I think he fits: he's a teacher of a rather darker kind to Apsalar. After he ceases possessing her - in a magical sense, that is... She begins to gain snippets of Cotillion's memories and skills following this, and is taken under his wing. What makes him unusual, though, is that much of the time he is discouraging Apsalar (and Crokus, her frequent companion) from following his own path - and that despite this, he and Shadowthrone (god of, yes, you guessed it - Shadow) both use them as their tools. The Malazan series is known for its intricate gambits and plotting, and the Crokus/Apsalar pair frequently get involved.

He's sympathetic, yes, but as we've mentioned - he has a darker side. And it's this twisted mentorship which makes me appreciate him as a character: a likeable God of Assassins mentoring a young pair, who he is forced to manipulate towards a rather inscrutable goal? Sounds like my cup of tea.


We've said our pieces - but what are yours? Feel free to comment and tell us below!

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Review | The Overlord Rising: Dragon Touched - E W. Scott

I think all reviewers are a little wary of small press fiction. That category has provided some reads I couldn't even finish (for me a rarity) - but also a fair amount of briliant fiction. Thankfully, The Overlord Rising falls more into the latter category.

If you've ever read Michael J Sullivan's Riyria Revelations novels, you'll know what I mean when I say that traditional fantasy can still be done well - very well, in fact. And The Overlord Rising goes further to prove the point. It's an epic in a more traditional vein than those I've read recently: following for the most part the family of a Duke, Nolan, and featuring a cast of nobles and townsmen, a hinted-at larger, possibly-returning villain (the Overlord - who, fingers crossed, will subvert a few more expectations to avoid the cliches), and naturally, the Duke's children: Wren and Sara being the two we see most frequently.

Before you start muttering about deja vu (or at least deja lus),Wren evades the 'rebellious princess' archetype - her father is (gasp!) actually supporting her as heir, and martial training is part of that. By contrast, Sara is her mother's daughter, raised in the Csillite faith. Which, naturally, demands that all touched by magic be burned. It's a familiar construct, but Scott fleshes it out - and by the novel's end, there are clues that there's more to the Csillite faith than a radical church. Both, as well as Nolan and his spouse Mirabel, become dragged into a growing conflict when Wren herself consumes dragon's blood - leaving her both blessed and cursed by the new gift. A King powerless to stop the feuding, Mirabel's own Csillite beliefs, and conspiracies in the neighbouring duchies all contribute to the struggle - and trust me, it's unpredictable. I'd elaborate, but it's difficult to do so without spoilers.

Which is a good thing. Traditional fantasy worlds suffer most from the twin evils of familiar, even cliched tropes, and predictability. Give me a farmboy dumb enough, and I'll guess he'll rule the world - and nine times out of ten, he'll have a secret destiny, a hidden heritage, or whichever synonym you care for. The Overlord Rising averts this. One thing it doesn't possess, however, is much ambiguity: while some conflicts are more subtle, there are some clear villains of the tale. (Though the relationship between Nolan and his wife is never so black and white when they come into conflict - both are flawed). And once in a while, that's nice. Not all fantasy needs to be grittily grey-versus-grey like Martin, and sometimes we like a clearer - if not too black/white - conflict.

A minor qualm was formatting - particularly the map at the novel's beginning seemed a little rough (in a 'just scanned' way) - but this wasn't a major issue.

That's not to say the novel is perfect. It does suffer from some predictable (or at least well-known) elements if you're familiar with traditional fantasy worlds, and the setting - a similar medievalesque Europe analogue to the conventional - isn't the most original. Nevertheless, this is an entertaining read: a fantasy in the older vein minus the cliche. Likeable characters, an engagingly unpredictable plot, and a weighty sequel hook - what's not to like?

I'll certainly be waiting for the sequel.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

News | Some News and a Pleasant Surprise

This post brought to you by the idea of piranhas attached to gasbags. Contrary to popular opinion, this would in fact be amazing.

Anyway! Leaving aside half-baked thoughts of world domination, some news. I've just finished The Overlord Rising, a very satisfying fantasy in the more traditional vein - proving that even the traditional can still be done extremely well. So look out for a review over the next few days. Likewise, I've been reading a new historical fantasy ('new historical' sounds an oxymoron, I admit :P ), so a review of that will be coming up soon - along with one of Issue 4 of Bourbon Penn, a new-ish speculative magazine.

What about the pleasant surprise? Well, that one's more personal - when looking at the finished version of The Alchemist of Souls, I found that Angry Robot actually quoted my review inside. Might not sound like much (or the inverse - might sound very egocentric), but I'm pretty amazed! It's been great running Drying Ink, and I hope to keep doing so for the forseeable future (and thanks to all my readers and fellow bloggers for following along - and hopefully my posts have been vaguely useful along the way! Heh)

Monday, 16 April 2012

Review | The Hammer and the Blade - Paul S Kemp

Modern sword and sorcery isn't as common as you'd think - but The Hammer and the Blade definitely qualifies. Tomb robbing protagonists? Check. A pair of unusual heroes against a sorcerer? Check. Fun? Definitely.

I haven't read into this particular subgenre since Sam Sykes' Tome of the Undergates and Black Halo last year - and I'm glad I did. A rewardingly light, fun read, The Hammer and the Blade is to the weighty tomes of epic fantasy I've read recently as, say, Tom Holt is to Neal Stephenson - in other words, completely different and requiring a lot less investment from the reader. This is great for occupying an afternoon, and the traditional pair dynamic works well: Egil and Nix, though no Locke and Jean, nevertheless complement each other well. Egil is a priest of Ebenor (a dead god), and Nix is his partner - who learned magic for a single year before dropp- sorry, being expelled (as he insists). Though an engaging pair, don't look here for the comedic banter that have characterised other such characters (like the aforementioned Locke and Jean): the most you'll get here is a slight smile. But they make up for it in action...

The book begins with the duo involved in their usual moneymaker: tomb robbing. Killing a demonic guardian of the tomb, however, turns out a bad idea: this demon has friends. Or more accurately, business partners - it's involved in a pact with a local sorcerer, who now needs a replacement demon... And to get one, he needs an artefact from a local tomb. And guess who happens to have the most experience in the local grave-robbing industry?

I think you guessed.

The Hammer and the Blade mainly excels in its action sequences - which are, no doubt about it, a great deal of fun. It's a lean novel with little superfluous material, and though it evokes no lasting emotion, this is fun fantasy: short, to the point, and highly enjoyable. This is sword and sorcery without the cliche; and with the originality that a pair of guile heroes really should have.

Altogether? Though not up to the standards of The Lies of Locke Lamora and its like, The Hammer and the Blade provides an enjoyable afternoon of reading (with more than a few twists to keep even long term readers' predictive powers satisfied). A likeable duo, some inspired action - what more can you want from a sword and sorcery novel? Maybe a stronger female character would have been nice, but in a novel with so few central characters at all, The Hammer and the Blade can hardly be blamed for that.

A fun read - recommended.

Find it here: UK US

Friday, 13 April 2012

Why You Should Read | Lois McMaster Bujold

From my readthrough of the Vorkosigan series earlier this year, it's easy to guess that I'm a fan of Bujold's work - both science fiction and fantasy, in which genre she wrote one of my long-term favourite novels (The Curse of Chalion). Well, as always in my 'Why You Should Read' series, this is my take on what might interest you in Bujold's work.

- Character-driven novels in both genres. Like Rothfuss and Hobb, Bujold's novels are universally character-driven - while their plots, settings, and concepts are generally pretty compelling in their own right, it's the characters which are truly engaging, and which drive the narrative onwards through their development. These aren't just vehicles for conveying the story - Bujold's characters are some of the best (and most unusual) I've read. If you're a fan of Hobb's FitzChivalry-centric story in The Farseer, Bujold is an author you'll want to try.

- The protagonists. Fantasy frequently has a tendancy to limit itself to a very small subset of protagonists, and Bujold avoids this: Miles, to take an example, is far from usual. Crippled and stunted on a planet where visible mutation has become taboo; manic-depressive - and very, very driven. His very-almost-a-catchphrase is 'forward momentum'. That should give you an idea for just how these novels are driven by his character: they're driven by Miles diving head-first into the situation, then extricating himself through cleverness afterwards (which is just as fun to read). If you're fed up with passive protagonists, the Vorkosigan saga is a surefire remedy. (Well, it works for me!)

- The setting - for The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls, at least. Historically based on Spain (or Spain before unification - really Castile and León), it's a change from medieval fantasy settings based on a glorified medieval England: because rest assured, Bojold includes the nasty bits, too. I for one found it refreshing.

- Theology. You might be wondering at my sanity here - when have I, of all people, been a fan of religion in fantasy? Generally, I'm not - but Bujold's conception of it in The Curse of Chalion makes for an interesting discussion, as well as a deconstruction of the normal tropes. As I've pointed out before, if you have a benevolent, omnipotent deity on your side - as many older fantasies like to include - where's the conflict? I won't spoil it for new readers, but Bujold gets in an interesting take on the subject. Without including any of the usual cop-outs...

Well - that's my take on it! But if you're interested in specific reviews, just click the 'Lois McMaster Bujold' tag at the botton of this post and you'll get a few. More than a few!

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Review | The Troupe - Robert J. Bennett

An urban fantasy - and quite possibly the best such I've read this year - The Troupe is the story of, well, just what it says on the tin. George Carole, a pianist, leaves his theatre and home for the eponymous troupe. Why? He believes its leader, Silenus himself, to be his father - but what he finds is far stranger. The troupe are on the run, Silenus and Stanley are hiding something (well, the Silenus Troupe is hiding a number of somethings), and George's horizons are about to expand far beyond vaudeville.

The Troupe is an urban fantasy, yes, but it's not in the tradition of the recent generation; not the hard, rule-based fantasy of Butcher and similar authors. The closest comparison I can make is to a Guy Gavriel Kay novel set slightly less historically than his habit: The Troupe's world is a mysterious, dying era - introduced in a lyrical Kay-esque fashion, and featuring a similar element of tragedy. Because The Troupe is not a happy book. It's not light, 'fun fantasy', as I've previously described novels such as The Accidental Sorcerer - it's the story of a battered troupe with a goal, and naturally, of George himself. Who makes just as many mistakes, bad decisions, and cringe-inducing statements as you might expect of any young man in reality - but in a worse context. That's not to say it's all tragic, or at all unenjoyable: it's far from monotonous. And naturally, there is success as well.

I'd rather not spoil certain elements of the characters and worldbuilding for potential readers, but as I've mentioned, Bennett's world here follows an older urban fantasy tradition: mystery. By the novel's end, we're extremely familiar with certain fantastical elements, but others meanwhile are merely suggested, or just glimpsed. It's clear that there's a lot more of the fantastic out there than we get to see in the novel, and I like that - the world of The Troupe feels far from empty even when the story's done. Similarly, the characters of Silenus' company have hidden depths, and Frannie in particular became rather intriguing. Stanley, silent and simultaneously the most likeable character there, was also an engaging addition - and Silenus himself was a rather more ambiguous character.

The typical fantasy adolescent is a rare breed - apparently temperamental, while simultaneously being brilliant, faultless, and skilled at just about everything (not to mention the Chosen One). Thankfully, The Troupe averts this: George is just as flawed as any real chracter, and perhaps more so. He's not, however, that likeable in my mind. Though certainly sympathetic, his convictions and character changed too rapidly for my taste, and my only criticism would perhaps be that his actions are almost universally flawed, and a more even (and less wince-inducing!) balance could have been achieved. But that's a matter of personal taste.

The ending, however, is where The Troupe excels. I absolutely loved it - it's at times bittersweet, completely fitting, and simultaneously makes it clear that this is not a 'happily ever after'. Things will go on in the novel's setting. It's a pet peeve of mine when a novel succeeds in eradicating all loose ends from its own setting, and it's to The Troupe's credit that with such an easily-conveyed premise (which sorry, you'll just have to read and find out!) it doesn't do this. If you're looking for something Kay-esque with a more modern bent, I highly recommend this.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

News | New Site for Fantasy Mistressworks Needs Submissions

Just some news for today - but plenty of reviews and articles coming up, including Overlord Rising and the new Angry Robot titles. Look out for another venture into steampunk here on Drying Ink...

So - the news! In order to draw attention to classics by female fantasy writers, Amanda Rutter has created the Fantasy Mistressworks site, which you can find here. They're aiming to collect both nominations and reviews of titles from the 20th century and older fiction, and so - they need some help! Readers can both nominate additions and send in reviews for titles.

In all honesty, I think this is a great idea. While it would be nice not to need to do this - if classics by authors of both genders were equally well known - I think that presently, it'd be pretty useful! While I think the market is starting to even out (though that's just a dataless perception, I may be wrong), pointing out some classics by female authors that were passed over over the last few centuries is a great start, and a list I may well use myself - once I defeat my TBR Pile of Doom, that is.

Well - what are you waiting for? They need nominations...

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Review | The Iron Duke - Meljean Brook

Steampunk with (yes, you guessed it from the cover) a primarily romantic bent, The Iron Duke was a mixed read for me. You probably know that I'm not a huge fan of romance - romantic subplots, yes, but when it's romance with a little fantasy added rather than the reverse... Not so much. As a result, The Iron Duke had elements which I enjoyed, but as a whole just wasn't my kind of novel, and readers of romance will likely get more from it. Readers of Drying Ink will know this isn't something I can say often - I read everything from historical fantasy to far-future hard SF, and this is my one exception.

When picking up The Iron Duke, keep two things in mind. The first is that the primary focus of the novel is romance - and as such, a major action sequence might get a page or two, and a liason seven. The second is that despite this, The Iron Duke does have a plot and a world - an interesting one. An alternative, steampunk Europe, in which Britain has recently been freed from the control of the Horde by the eponymous Iron Duke, Trahaern. Europe is infested with zombies, and the formerly-inslaved British are infected with nanobots, rendering them able to survive - as well as stronger, able to have grafted tools onto their bodies, and generally better slaves to the Horde.

But what of the plot? It begins as a murder investigation, when a frozen corpse is dropped onto the doorstep of the Iron Duke - and Mina, an Inspector, is called to investigate. Soon it becomes apparent that there's a deep-reaching conspiracy at hand - secret, anti nanobot societies within Britain itself, pirates, and old enemies of the Iron Duke are all thrust into the mix. And naturally, the Iron Duke himself is an asset to Mina's investigation... Which, naturally, is where the romance comes in. The plot in itself is engaging, if somewhat thrust out of the spotlight; indeed, the world and story would make for a fun story by any measure. Along, of course, with the usual dose of surprising revelations and twists (and pirates. Who doesn't like pirates with airships?)

So I can certainly applaud these aspects. However, for me, the romantic focus was less a relationship between two characters and more the sexualised romance of a romance novel - not necessarily bad, but not my sort of thing. Rhys begins with pretty much the express goal of bedding Mina, and honestly, it's more than a little graphic at times (and as a primary goal, made me a little uncomfortable - although at least Mina is, for the most part, an individual character rather than a mushy pushover). If you're fine with that as the focus, and are accustomed to the genre's conventions, The Iron Duke is likely your sort of thing, mixing in (as it does) an original world and engaging plot, though given shorter thrift by the dominant romantic aspect. For me, it was a little too much.

So I'm unable to judge this beyond a certain extent!

Find it here: UK US

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Thoughts | Tension and the Superhuman Protagonist - (or, How Does Kvothe Get Away with It?)

Just some idle thoughts on Corwin, Kvothe, and their ilk:

I don't think anyone will argue when I say that Kvothe is a larger than life character - he 'could be the next Illien', enters the University as a near-genius at near-everything (well, aside from Naming), and is generally pretty damn good -or at least quick- at everything he tries. So he's a larger than life chracter: many are. So what? Well, a common complaint voiced about these sorts of character is that they remove any tension - 'if the character is so skilled, where's the conflict?' they ask (and for good reason).

I would argue that - well-written - this isn't a problem, and frequently gets confused with a different complaint, the 'author's darling'. My reason is this: however wondrously skilled the protagonist is; however larger than life, tension doesn't merely come through martial conflict or even competition. Maybe your hero can beat the best duellist in the world left-handed (though let's face it: that is going too far) - but other tragedies are still beyond his control, especially in the quasi-medieval world of most fantasy: where disease and starvation are rife.

But why does failure, or even just tension, have to come in the form of death at all? I've said it before, and I'll say it again - fantasy can be too focused on death as the sole consequence for anything. Fine - characters don't like dying. But really, there are other options, people! Maybe your character is near omnipotent - but does that protect his reputation? What others think of him? There are plenty of other motivators for tension in the story, even if we know the hero can't die.

That, for me, is why Kvothe can exist as a character. He's near legendary, yes: but do all legends end happily? Look at your folklore and mythology, and the answer is a clear 'no'. And if we take a look at the frame story, he ends up as an unhappy innkeeper, apparently waiting to die. Hardly your model 'happy ending'. For me, that's why he's acceptable. Yes, he's amazing; a genius of his time and all of that. But despite that, there are things beyond his control - he has neither blood nor money (which provides a fair amount of trouble when he makes enemies in the nobility), and it's evident that things don't end happily. On the other hand, Kvothe could easily have gone down this path. If he had been successful, and if the frame story wasn't present, I would long since have been naming Kvothe a clear 'author's darling'.

There are still flaws in making characters this way - conflict resolution even in the arena of their expertise shouldn't be too easy - but tension doesn't have to be one of them. Corwin, of Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber and its sequels, is a clear example: he's a near-demigod, can walk between/create worlds, and is a rather good swordsman. But because his problems are similarly sized (with his scheming family also near demigods), we can accept him.

Anyhow, that's my take on it...

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Review | Fated - Benedict Jacka

But first, a quick announcement - I'll be away for a while in the second half of May, so I'm looking for anyone interested in guest posting here. If anybody is, just drop me an email and we can sort something out!

Anyway - the review. I will admit that I first picked up Fated for the Jim Butcher recommendation, and immediately one can discern similarities between the two series - indeed, Fated even references The Dresden Files in its first few pages. However, since the novel introduces an abstructive Council immediately afterwards, I did feel that this reference stuck me into mentally setting Fated in the Dresden Files world for longer than it should! Perhaps because of how early it came.

But that's a minor quibble. As a whole, Fated has a distinct setting - and very distinct characters. Our protagonist, Alex Verus, is a London shopowner: but a purveyor of rather more arcane goods than the usual. In fact, he's a probability mage. Called by some a diviner or oracle, Alex is able to see and explore the possible futures which result from his actions - allowing him (with a little time) to bypass almost anything. Which is why he's now in demand by both Light and Dark mages, along with his assistant, Luna - there's an artefact both sides are looking for, but there's a problem: any attempt to open the way to said artefact has resulted in unfortunate consequences. Both sides want a diviner, and Alex looks like the only choice in town...

If you've read the Night Watch series, you may be able to detect some Lukyanenko influence in Fated. I certainly could - particularly in the Light/Dark relationship, with 'light is not good' being heavily used. Light mages can be just as nasty as their counterparts, and Jacka does a great job in making what could have been a simplistic divide become a little less so. After all, knowing your antagonists removes some of that tension...

...And in a fast-paced novel like Fated, that tension is necessary. Indeed, the novel relies on it: Alex's narration is light and wisecracking (if not quite so quirky as -say- Harry Dresden), the use of his talent is imaginative and avoids deus-ex-machina status with regularity - but the real driving force is the winding plot. It's unpredictable - and that provides much of the fun.

Initially, I was doubtful about Alex's probability-seeing ability - after all, where's the struggle if your protagonist can see everybody's actions? Thankfully, these doubts were unfounded. As anyone who's ever read one of my magic-related rants- sorry, posts - knows, my belief is that limits on fantasy magic systems such as this are essential. Jacka adds plenty: for one, Alex can't see past major choices people have yet to make. For another, he has to be actively looking - and for a third, the probability needs to be part of a viable future. If Alex hasn't rsolved to try a particular thing, it's generally not a probability - so he can't see its possible effects.

Naturally, this makes things more interesting. And with no other magical abilities aside from his artefacts, Alex's action sequences are more evely balanced than you might think - so generally, it's a matter of using magically acquired knowledge to outwit his foes. A rarety in itself, and one that's remarkably fun to read!

The resolution had a predictable element, however (which I won't spoil), and while less simplistic than immediately apparent, the Dark/Light divide was still fairly obvious. The slaving tendancy of the Dark mages made that fairly clear... That, and the came-too-early Dresden reference do introduce some minor flaws to Fated - but on the whole, it's what I call 'fun fantasy': a read which, while not perfect, is perfectly enjoyable. If you enjoy either Butcher's or Lukyanenko's work, Fated is highly recommended: an engagingly fast-paced read with refreshingly sympathetic characters.

Find it here: UK US

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

News | New Sanderson Novella and Malazan Novel

New new news - according to A Dribble of Ink and Tachyon Publications, we're going to be seeing a new Sanderson novel this December: The Emperor's Soul. However, like The Alloy of Law and unlike Sanderson's previous liking for elephant-squashing doorstopper epics, this one's a shorter foray - 30, 000 words (again, thanks to Aidan for pointing this out).

And it looks like we'll be seeing a new magic system this time round. I quote: 'Shai is a Forger, a foreigner who can flawlessly copy and re-create any item by rewriting its history with skillful magic' - so it looks like we'll be seeing a new location in Sanderson's Cosmere (the universe in which most of his books - except Alcatraz and the WoT continuations - take place. As one of Sanderson's main strengths is his in-depth and hugely original worldbuilding, I'm pretty excited!

There's more news in the world of epic fantasy, however. Adam over at The Wertzone has posted Tor USA's new announcement for another December novel: this time, Blood and Bone  from Ian Cameron Esslemont. Taking place on the previously unseen continent of Jacuruku (sensing a pattern here?), it'll feature both the Crimson Guard and the goddess Ardata. While several of Esslemont's Crimson guard novels have been disappointing, I have high hopes for this new release: both Stonewielder and Orb Sceptre Throne, his two most recent releases, were pretty great (just read my reviews!), and Ardata has been an interesting if minor figure in the main sequence.

Because manipulative spider goddesses are obviously the best. ;) But if Ardata's turning up, it suggests Mogora might also feature in the new novel - and if Iskaral Pust turns up as well, it might just make my day. He's hilarious.

So anyway, two anticipated releases!

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Why You Should Read | Low Fantasy

Low fantasy is a contrary subgenre to pin down. Is it high fantasy minus the knights and dragons? Or high fantasy where the knights are less shiny paragons of good than brutal monsters? Or something else entirely? The definition I'm going to be using is - for just that reason - going to be pretty subjective. For me, low fantasy can be two things. It can be fantasy on a smaller, muckier scale - maybe the objective is to save the family farm, rather than an empire. Or it could be epic fantasy minus the trappings of medieval romances: for that reason, a fair bit of A Song of Ice and Fire would count as low fantasy, because it's medieval fantasy where the world is far closer to mucky old reality - and the battles really aren't much fun for anyone. By contrast, authors like Guy Gavriel Kay are far as can be from low fantasy: because while distasteful events do occur, the portrayal is rather more poetic. So, to me, those are the two key traits of low fantasy. (Let me emphasize that 'to me' a minute. There. Duly emphasized!) But why should you read it?

Lucky you asked...

- Avoiding deus-ex-machina. It's possible to have one in any novel - whether it's a goddess or a convenient stranger with a gun who enters just as the hero's on the floor... But let's face it: the problem is most common in high magic fantasy, and especially those with active deities. (Forgive me a pointed look at the Belgariad here) And correspondingly, you'll find fewest in low fantasies. If you want your characters' action, not their magic to matter most - as in KJ Parker's Engineer trilogy, try low fantasy.
- Grit. While you'll find realism in most subgenres, low fantasy is particularly known for it - especially with authors such as Martin. If you want your fantasy to evade that particular limit; if you want your characters and protagonists to experience life in a real medieval period - rather than a romanticised lookaline - low fantasy is likely the genre for you. Take Martin as an example: battles in his novels are brutal, short and vicious - and they stink of blood, sweat, and everything else you'd expect. Compare that to the heroic charges of Rohan in LOTR, and you'll find more than a few differences.
- More personal conflicts. While I love epic fantasy, sometimes it sets the stakes too high - heroes fight for ideals, of the fate of the world, or the fall of an empire. What have they got in common? They're impersonal. If you want your fantasy to be truly character driven, for conflicts to be on the personal level, a lot of the time you'll be looking to low fantasy. This isn't necessarily true - the Kingkiller Chronicles, for example, are profoundly character driven and to my mind are by no means low fantasy.
- Mundane solutions. For this, I'm going to use KJ Parker once more to exemplify the point. In the Engineer trilogy, Vaatzes' victories are through manipulation, engineering (but you probably guessed that part) and genuine cleverness - something that's fun to read. By contrast, if he had done the same by blowing someone away with a magical firestorm from the Goddess Vjiuyuui'yfhm, would it have been as interesting? There is a balance to this, though: cleverly applied magic (see Matthew Swift in A Madness of Angels), or mundanity against magic can be just as interesting (it's the underdog complex again). Still, this is a big attraction of the subgenre.

So, despite an eerily vague definition - my liking for low fantasy explained! But feel free to add your own...


Monday, 2 April 2012

Q&A | V M Zito - Author of The Return Man

 As part of the blog tour for the release of The Return Man (for which you can find my review here), VM Zito has kindly agreed to answer a few questions on the blog! The Return Man is a zombie novel with a twist (or several), and it's highly recommended - go check it out!

1. The Return Man combines a zombie novel with a uniquely emotional climax - sometimes a rarity in the subgenre. Have any other authors particularly inspired your approach?

I'd have to say Ray Bradbury in that regard, one of my writing heroes. He's among the greatest genre authors of all time, but really his stories aren't about sci-fi or horror. They're about people, and the genre elements serve to tell the character's story -- somebody identifiable and sympathetic, with real emotions. A perfect example is Bradbury's "All Summer in a Day." Yes, it takes place on Venus, but only as a crucial backdrop to the heart-breaking ordeal of a young girl. While writing THE RETURN MAN, sometimes I'd remind myself: You're not writing about zombies. You're writing about a man dealing with tragedy.




2. The Return Man was originally a serial novel - how much did you change about the book between its initial release and its new publication? And as for the interesting format, do you ever intend to experiment with it again?

There were a few notable changes from what I'd planned. I'd outlined the novel at the start, but about a third of the way through the chapters, I suddenly had a new idea; it added another layer to the relationship between the characters and raised the stakes for everybody. It also meant going back and doing some rewriting, but it was worth it, no doubt. Along the way, I also expanded a few sequences in the original chapters, added extra details to the story world. Anyone who might have read the first six chapters online should definitely start the published novel from Page 1. There's new stuff you'll need to know!

As for the format, it had pros (like immediate exposure and motivation from readers) and cons (like inflexible weekly deadlines that can take over the creative process if you're not careful). In the future, I'd like to use the online medium to release new short fiction from time to time, but for my next novel, I'll hopefully take a more traditional, straight-to-the-publisher approach.

3. Which character did you find most enjoyable, interesting, or just plain unusual to write?

I always enjoyed the chapters told from Wu's point of view; he's the Chinese assassin sent to intercept the hero Henry Marco. Early on, the book sets up the expectation that Wu is the "bad guy", but I never saw him that way. He's a foil to Marco, but his goals are really just to serve his country and honor his family. Wu's perspective was interesting to me; I liked being able to show readers the side of him that we don't see in the chapters told through Marco.


4. Aside from your own release, are there any 2012 novels you're anticipating?

I'm still catching up on a stack of books from 2011, but looking ahead... I've recently gotten hooked on the NIGHTFALL series by Stephen Leather, a great occult horror-thriller. The third book, NIGHTMARE, comes out later this year.

I'm also curious to check out IMMOBILITY by Brian Evenson, sort of a post-apocalyptic mystery noir which looks pretty cool.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Review | The Minority Council - Kate Griffin

The fourth novel of Urban Magic; The Minority Council features Matthew Swift in one of his less usual scrapes- okay, who am I kidding? I don't think there is a usual in this particular series of urban fantasies - which make Neverwhere look tame. But in The Minority Council, Griffin finally deals with an underlying subplot of the series: the Aldermen.

Matthew Swift is Midnight Mayor - arcane protector of London, and ostensibly served by the Aldermen (rather more deadly than their daytime counterparts). In practice? It doesn't work out quite like that. The Aldermen are obstructive - and the have no incentive to trust a leader who's partly what they're sworn to protect the city from. Meanwhile, there's a new and deadly drug for magicians on the streets - and Matthew's just declared war against it. Not to mention an insect that's been eating the minds of antisocial youths...

Reading The Minority Council right after my reread of the series' first novel, A Madness of Angels, is an interesting contrast. The first novel has hook and concept: but to read this fourth novel is to see Griffin as a writer at the very top of her craft. At this stage, it's clear that she knows what works: and, as readers, we get just what we want. But if you're read the series' earlier novels, don't be concerned that the aspects you enjoyed have gone - they haven't. And naturally, Matthew makes a similarly cool boast regarding his identity...

The Minority Council deseves a lot of credit for bringing continuity to the fore. While the other novels in the series have been connected, the dilemmas have largely been isolated. Here, that's different: one of the problems Swift has to deal with is the Aldermen - a possibility that's been built up in previous novels. And there are more clues towards an underlying narrative - including retroactively (without spoiling things, the events of The Midnight Mayor get an alternative context...).It's a nice thing to see develop in this series.

In my review of the previous novel, I had concerns that the series could be developing a pattern - a mould; a formula - call it what you will, anything that defies unpredictability isn't such a fun thing in fantasy. Well - those concerns are gone. The Minority Council brings new magic, new enemies, and mostly, new developments: and new opportunities for Swift to dive into trouble, then dig himself out in fantastically inventive ways. For those who don't know the series, its magic runs on the simple premise that 'life is magic': so everyday urban rituals acquire mystical significance. So Swift's spells run from the use of a red light as a shield to the magic of the blue electric angels, entities created from leftover life poured into the telephone system... (Which if you think about it, is quite a lot) It leaves the system endlessly inventive, yet not rife to deus-ex-machina - it's all based on the weirdly familiar. (Though you'll get more from it if you know London - or at least Britain) Which makes them a lot of fun - and that hasn't changed. Indeed, they're ramped up considerably from The Neon Court.

The Minority Council does have its flaws - but they're minor. Swift's narration sounds fantastic in first person, but when some of his phrasings are put into Penny's mouth.... Well, the mysticality sounds a little out of place - and silly. Thankfully, though, the series has also picked up another strong female character - hopefully a surviving one.

An enjoyably dark ride through the streets of a London weirder even than Neverwhere, The Minority Council shows the series keeps fresh even into its fourth novel. The Minority Council is a polished work by a writer at the top of her craft: and an unconventional protagonist - as well as a healthy dose of the weirdest UF magic I've seen - helps to cement that. If you've read the first three novels, there's no question you'll enjoy this one. And if you haven't? Well, they're highly recommended.

Find it here: UK US


Saturday, 31 March 2012

Thoughts | Rereading The Wise Man's Fear - and News from Berkley UK

Firstly, a little news from Berkley UK: for fans of the I Am Number Four series, the promotional campaign for the April 12th release of The Power of Six has begun. Which means, naturally, competitions! I haven't read the novels myself (yet, anyway - my bibliophilia may still grow all consuming!), but for those who have, Berkley have a new game over at this Facebook page, where fans have a chance to win copies of both this novel and advance copies for the next release in August - as well as some other great prizes. For those who know the series, this could be a nice chance to get your hands on the upcoming books.

Secondly, less in the realm of the newsworthy, my personal reread of The Wise Man's Fear. Patrick Rothfuss' second novel, and the sequel to the acclaimed The Name of the Wind, The Wise Man's Fear inspired a few mixed thoughts from me on first readthrough. That, and the fact that Rothfuss writes some of the best prose in modern fantasy, inspired this reread. This isn't a review, but just a few thoughts on what I found!

- It's as episodic as I recalled. As opposed to Name of the Wind, which had a single overriding narrative, Wise Man's Fear could just have easily been 'Selected Adventures of Kvothe'. (Or even 'Kvothe Learns a New Skill (Or Two, Or Three, Or Five)' Because - my, does Kvothe garner new abilities fast. He was rather a genius already, but with Wise Man's Fear, Rothfuss takes this to new levels - which unfortunately negate some of his more interesting problems (the swordfighting being one such - because his existing improvisation in the case of armed conflict was far more interesting). Still, it is mitigated by the fact that Kvothe is explicitly the legendary figure of his time - intentionally larger than life, if you like.

- The traipsing after bandits in the woods wasn't nearly as wearing as I recalled. Although that would be pretty hard (my memory being of constant repetition of firemaking and storytelling). In fact, I actually rather enjoyed it as something new, this time round.

- Rothfuss' prose is incredible as ever. While I know some dislike the term 'lyrical' for writing, here it genuinely applies: his words have a very poetic, storytelling quality to them unlike any other author I've read - excepting possibly Kay. He's by no means perfect, and these words from the mouth of a few characters sounds  alittle incongruous, but it is a pleasure to read.

- By contrast, the aftermath of the Felurian sequence seems as silly as ever. [Spoilers, beware!] Okay, perhaps Kvothe learns - well, the art of horizontal romantic liasons - from Felurian, but he has only to step into an inn and people see it in his eyes? And it gets sillier. And as for when he gets back to the University? He's a larger than life character, yes, but the Fela's description of him makes the whole sequence sound more like a wish fulfillment fantasy than a novel - whiich it isn't.

- Finally? I yearn for that third novel as much as ever.

...And those were my chief discoveries.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Review | Costume Not Included - Matthew Hughes

Apologies for the brief slip in posting this week - I'm now back with the regular array of reviews and articles! Costume Not Included is the sequel to The Damned Busters, which I reviewed last year - which was an enjoyably unconventional novel. And as the title would suggest: yes, there are superheroes. Or rather, one superhero in particular - Chesney Arnstruther, an actuary with high-functioning autism. In The Damned Busters, said actuary accidentally make Hell go on strike: which was rather more devastating than it might seem. While negotiating the settlement - and discovering that the world is in fact a very messy novel being written by, apparently, God - Chesney manages to negotiate a clause of his own: a demon sidekick, Xaphan, and the powers to go crimefighting. And, to skip over the rest: a lot of other stuff happened.

In the sequel, Chesney faces new problems. Specifically, the Reverend Billy Hardacre is attempting to become a cowriter on the new edition of the world - it's a very literary theology - and unfortunately, that involves casting Chesney in the role of prophet. Chesney's new girlfriend, Melda, also wants in on the action: she's thinking more along the lines of corporate sponsorship. And rumours abound of a new draft of the book; the police are investigating Chesney's crime fighting persona; and many things are fairly stuffed (to summarise).

Unfortunately, with these additions,  Costume Not Included neglects one of the key aspects of the original title. Damned Busters was a flawed but enjoyable deconstruction with a quirky literary view of theology. Its sequel neglects that first part - the 'enjoyable'. Subplots, such as the struggle against the city's corruption, are left dangling as the focus turns solely to the 'new draft'. Which, as it turns out, really isn't sufficiently interesting to sustain a novel - particularly with the likeable Chesney's role slightly peripheral. Costume Not Included tries for a complex plot: subversions, schemes, and nested betrayals. It's only unfortunate that to the reader, it looks like a mess.

Long-time SF readers are likely wary of time travel: as a plot device, it's known for introducing plot holes as well if not treated carefully. Costume Not Included introduces this once more - and in my opinion, it doesn't work. Chesney's arrangement with Xaphan was previously powerful, but limited: he had the powers he asked for, but it was entirely possible to beat him for lack of those he didn't. (The pepper spray being a particularly amusing instance of this). But if your protagonist has the (apparently unlimited) ability to time travel as well? That was the sound of tension draining away.

This isn't to say Costume Not Included is all bad: far from it. Hughes writes as engagingly as ever; Chesney is a likeable if flawed protagonist, and the core concept did have potential - it's a quirkily interesting worldview, if nothing else. But the series suffers from the derailment of its key premise in this particular sequel; and the lack of a truly characterised female (Chesney's mother is severely flawed; and Melda's enthusiasm for sponsorship of crime fighting really says it all) lets the novel down. Original and concise, but this sequel wasn't for me.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Thoughts | Tales of the Emerald Serpent

Shared world anthologies are commonly viewed as a thing of the past - although the Wild Cards series was, last I heard, still going strong. For those who haven't come across the genre, shared world anthologies are pretty close to what it says on the tin: anthologies composed of multiple authors' stories set in a single shared setting.

Well, a new project is promising a new anthology of its kind: a fantasy shared world collection called - you guessed it - 'Tales of the Emerald Serpent'. The problem is that funding's been insufficient - so they're attempting to secure the $10, 000 needed through Kickstarter (a website throught which individuals pledge money to fund projects in return for rewards if the project succeeds in gaining the sum - if it doesn't, no money is lost).

So, why am I so excited about this? Partly, it's who's taking part. The page lists 'authors like Lynn Flewelling, Harry Connolly, Juliet McKenna, Martha Wells, Robert Mancebo, and Julie Czerneda' - just one or two of whom would, as a dedicated fantasy fan, excite me! Juliet McKenna, in particular, has written some extremely interesting titles and takes on old tropes before, so I'm looking forward to witnessing this new effort.

Secondly, it's what could amount to the revival of the trend - an entirely new shared world anthology, rather than merely a continued series. And as a result, mainstream publishers could begin to take a chance on such anthologies once more - something that's been lacking in recent years. As an interesting concept (I enjoy the indea of interlinked short stories - which have possibilities that novels rarely explore), I'd like to see a new take on it - and as always, more books by such great authors are welcome. So I'd encourage people to take a look at, and consider supporting this new anthology - which you can find here.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Review | The Court of Dreams - Stuart Sharp

An abrupt genre shift from my last review, The Court of Dreams goes for the markedly more amusing subgenre of comic fantasy. My personal view is that comic fantasy is the hardest subgenre to pull off: when done well, it's hilarious - but much of it is trite or just unfunny. It's easy to slip up. The Court of Dreams goes for the route which I have a slight preference for: humour through writing and character, rather than world (a setting where worldbuilding is based entirely upon amusement value and how many puns can be obtained thereby often comes off as pointless).

 From the first chapter, which introduces Grave, it's easy to see that Sharp is aiming for a style squarely between Pratchett and Rankin - witty and frequently absurd. What's more surprising is that - generally speaking - he succeeds, and Court of Dreams is one of those few genuinely funny comic fantasies. Don't judge it from the first chapter, however: the initial two pages suffer slightly from trying too hard for the style I mentioned, and while they manage it, the constant Pratchett-style digressions are distracting. Thankfully, the novel soon sticks with a more soberly comic tone. And it works well.

An urban fantasy partially set in a secondary world, the titular Court of Dreams, the novel follows a pair of students - well, finishing students (don't be picky or I'll settle on 'whippersnappers') - as they're drawn into the eponymous Court. When Thomas Greene witnesses a murder - or, by Grave's insisistent terminology a hunt - he becomes rather a liability to the Court's scheming Princess, Siobhan - so naturally, Grave (the Court's huntsman) is ordered to dispose of him. Greene, who happens to be breaking up with his girlfriend Nicola at the time, seems curiously averse: and when the assassination attempt goes awry, it catapults both into the Court of Dreams.

Which, of course, is utterly bizarre and frequently attempts to eat them. This is urban fantasy, after all.

From the nature of the Court, you might well expect the setting to be utterly incomprehensible. Not so. It is, as I've mentioned, bizarre at times - but on the whole, it's a fairly clear setting, and the novel benefits immensely from this. Thomas is a convincingly sympathetic protagonist, though not hilarious in and of himself: it's generally the narration that provides the comedy value here, as the plot is fairly sober (coups, chases, and rather large Wars - capital included - feature prominently).

On the other hand, Nicola - while appreciable - is a little less sympathetic than Thomas: she's not as strong a female character as some, and has a tendancy to randomly blame him. Thankfully, she's counteracted by Melissa, who's entirely more reasonable. And Grave, who isn't (but is much funnier). It's an interesting cast, and most aren't particularly humorously by themselves - the comedy comes through combination and narration. And to be honest, I like that. A frequent problem with comic fantasy is pointlessness: if the world is just a cosmic joke waiting for the author's punchline, how are we meant to take anything seriously? Maybe we're not, in some - but most try for a range of tones. Court of Dreams thankfully avoids this by infusing humour into the plot and setting, rather than relying on comedy inherent in them.

Some twists you'll see coming. Siobhan is hardly a sympathetic antagonist. But despite any flaws The Court of Dreams may have, it's an engagingly fun piece - not always laugh-out-loud funny, but at least look-weird-by-grinning-at-your-book amusing throughout! Getting a tone partway between Pratchett and Rankin, though slightly quieter than either in narration, The Court of Dreams is short, fast-paced, and well worth picking up.

Find it here: UK US


Saturday, 24 March 2012

Best Of... | SFF Detective Tales

Seems like a rarefied subgenre, doesn't it? After all - detectives hardly seem a common sight in the realms of SFF. But despite that initial perception, you'd be surprised to find how many there really are: from Simon R Green's Nightside tales to the archetypal Dresden Files. And as you've likely guessed, this is my list of the best (and as always, subjective!):


A Study in Emerald - Neil Gaiman

Shorter fiction than my usual habit, Neil Gaiman excels himself in A Study in Emerald - which readers will probably recall as a pastiche of the title of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tale, A Study in Scarlet. But in Gaiman's conception, the protagonists are working for Lovecraftian horrors, who have ruled Europe since - well - forever. (There's even a play about their rise to power... And the locals scoff at the thought of humanity ruling itself.)

In this memorable crossover with the Cthulhu Mythos, the duo are called upon to investigate the death of a member of the Royal Family. And from the quick introduction to the setting - well, you can guess the victim is rather less human than he seems, and the Queen herself is taking a close interest. If you're familiar with Arthur Conan Doyle's stories, you'll get much more out of it, but as with all - well, most - of Gaiman's work, it's pretty brilliant. Some nice twists and detective work make this one of my favourite fantasy shorts.

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

Who doesn't like a spot of Adams? Though obviously best known for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Adams' other novels are - in my view - equally good! The titular agency is quite possibly the weirdest - and most amusing - example of the fantastical detective in the genre.

Dirk Gently's method of detection of 'holistic' - it relies upon the 'fundamental interconnectedness of all things'. In practice, he relies on an elaborate chain of coincidence, science fiction, and plain weirdness to succeed: and it's frequently hilarious to watch his carefully constructed, entirely improbable conclusions turn out to be - well - entirely accurate. And as with all Douglas Adams, it's a great deal of fun.

While lacking the conventional draws of a mystery novel - because who could jump to the right conclusions in Adams' case? - Dirk Gently has more than enough to attract any SFF reader. Honestly, who doesn't love the idea of an Electric Monk?

The Dresden Files - Jim Butcher

And of course, the one long-time readers of Drying Ink will probably have guessed: The Dresden Files. Though occasionally straying from his primary occupation, our protagonist, Harry Dresden, is at heart a private investigator - especially a magical one. While involving at least as much action and - inevitably - magical showdown as mystery, The Dresden Files almost all begin with Harry taking on a case as an investigator. Though not always the case, mystery frequently plays the central role in the novels of The Dresden Files - this isn't a straightforward set of urban fantasies. And most of the time, that's part of the fun.

Though not as unfailingly logical or deductive as some, Harry Dresden's magical methods are always rule based - meaning that the cases are far closer to conventional mysteries than my other examples. And as always, they're great fun.

Well, those are mine - but feel free to tell me yours.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Review | The Darkening Dream - Andy Gavin

I've been promising a review of this for a while now, and at last we reach the inevitable conclusion: delivery! The Darkening Dream is a vampire novel. But before you start turning away with 'Jacob, what have you done?' expressions, let me say this: these vampires aren't sparkly. In fact, they're very much an antidote to the recent craze of likeable, sympathetic monsters who are the targets of teenage girls rather than grizzled vampire hunters.

That's a big point in The Darkening Dream's favour: its vampires are fearsome, powerful, and occasionally genre-savvy - at least enough to evade cliche, a common danger of the staples of the supernatural. Though my opinion of the novel as a whole is more complex, it's a good starting point.

The novel begins in Salem, in the year of 1913: immediately diving outside the norm with its choice of protagonists - Sarah, a young Jewish scholar, and Alex, a Greek immigrant (and according to the blurb, 'attractive': so you can guess where this is heading). And this is an area in which I can applaud the novel once more: while I don't dislike more usual choices, more cultural backgrounds provide more variety - and in the case of Alex, this is definitely true. Alex's family has encountered the undead in the past, so when a local is found murdered - and then comes back - the pair and their friends rapidly become involved. Both are likeable and Sarah in particular is a very strong character: and joyously proactive! (Passive protagonists are a pet peeve, I'll freely admit.) Soon, however, the plot becomes more complex: with the local pastor, a 900 year old vampire, and even an Egyptian god or two after the mystical artefact in Sarah's father's keeping.

While the novel on the whole is well written, one or two scenes were slightly confusing on a first read - and required another look to work out exactly what had occurred. Whether that's desirable or not is a matter of taste, as these were near the tail end of the book. The plot on the whole was compelling, with the antagonists sufficiently threatening, and even - dare I say it - intelligent. (I wouldn't be surprised if one or two had read the Evil Overlord List). And fortunately, the romance subplot doesn't dominate - this isn't paranormal romance.

On the other hand, I'm of mixed mind about the magic used. While the supernatural is close to that of real myth and legend, the setting was firstly slightly confusing in that regard - though the rules for what was used were relatively clear. The Jewish faith was used a lot - and angels definitely stuck around. But so did witchcraft and the Egyptian gods - including the memorable Khepri - leaving open the question of what the limits were. As always, I also had my qualms regarding a magic rooted in theology and prayer. Though making it slightly fresher by basing it on the Jewish faith, it does somewhat take away the tension - after all, if you've a deity on your side... Well. Like real stories of the supernatural, magic is also rooted in a fair amount of blood and *cough* horizontal romantic liason, so while interesting, The Darkening Dream definitely isn't recommended as a YA read - there are some fairly graphic scenes.

All in all? The Darkening Dream is a refreshingly dark urban fantasy that will wipe any trace of vampiric sparkle from your literature. With some original choices as protagonists - both of whom dive, rather than stumble into the supernatural - and a delicious twist or two, this novel is recommended (with the caveats mentioned) to fans of dark urban fantasy who've wearied of the subgenre's conventions. Though no Neil Gaiman, this is more than worth a look.

Find it here: UK US

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Why You Should Read | Epic Fantasy

Perhaps I'm preaching to the choir here: after all, I'm a fan of epic fantasy, and most likely so are most of my readers (who are much appreciated in this, naturally!) But for those of us who have yet to give it a try, and for anybody who just wants a quick refresher: well, here's my crash course on Jacob's Reasons to Read Epic Fantasy. (There will be a test; please write in black ink or blood only; complete your name in block Elvish - the usual). Review of The Darkening Dream tomorrow!

- Scope and scale. I've talked a lot about escalation - and mainly in a negative sense. Escalation turns a great character-based story into an (often poor) fate-of-the-world one, but sometimes we want high stakes: the destiny of species, the death of gods, and the rest of the drama which epic fantasy brings with it. Personal, character driven, or simply smaller scale stakes are great, too - but sometimes we want more to be at stake, and more to be changing: and that's where the epic comes in.

- Worldbuilding. Urban fantasy, steampunk, and historical fantasy have their great worldbuilders: and some upcoming debuts like Chris F Holm's Dead Harvest spring to life. But these are rarely secondary world fantasies, and as such they're somewhat constrained by the limits of history or reality: limits which - despite the traditional nature of much of the subgenre - don't have to apply to epic fantasy. As such, epic and other secondary world fantasies have the possibility to be far more radical in their settings: Brandon Sanderson's alien ecologies and storm-beaten world (even the plants have shells!) in The Stormlight Archive and the demons of Carol Berg's Rai-kirah trilogy could belong only to the epic. Although epic fantasy can be traditional at times, it has the potential to be the least so of the subgenres. And at times, it achieves that.

- Complexity. Though part of epic fantasy's 'scope and scale', I thought it deserved a point of its own - because for me, this is one of the big draws of the subgenre. Fantasy has a tendancy towards long novels and longer series (the Wheel of Time alone will reach its conclusion this year at fourteen books), and despite its flaws, there is an advantage to that: complexity! Many points of view often mean that variety's preserved within a single novel, but the main advantage is simply that connecting plotlines, complex intrigues, and subtle interconnecting hints are all possibilities. And they're very viable, as any George R R Martin fans will know...

- Variety. There's a lot which can be done with epic fantasy. Far from popular belief, it's not all 'wizards and dragons': there's low-magic and high-magic, high and low, and as many tones as you can name - from the melancholic if glorious of Guy Gavriel Kay's work to the grittiness of Martin's. Which means, of course, that it's great fun to read. And very, very changeable - so by not reading epic fantasy as a broad subgenre, you might be missing out on much that suits your tastes.

Well - that's my personal ode to the subgenre. Coming up tomorrow is my review of The Darkening Dream, a rather intriguing urban/historical fantasy of the Jewish faith, vampires, and Egyptian gods. One thing I can promise you: it won't be short!

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Review | Death Most Definite - Trent Jamieson

Things were rather quiet on the blog front last week, but never fear - posting schedule should be back to normal now (for anyone missing their dose of raving)! Due to the busyness of the last week, reviews for Court of Dreams and The Darkening Dream are going to be pushed forwards a little, and today will be a slightly older read: as you've almost certainly guessed from the whopping great picture (and the title), Death Most Definite.

An Urban Fantasy set in Australia, Death Most Definite takes as its hero one Steven de Selby, a psychopomp in the family industry: death. Under the Regional Manager of Mortmax Industries, Mr D, Steven pomps the dead into their afterlife: but now someone is murdering his family and fellow pomps, Mr D is missing, and Steven is next. In fact, he would have been out of the game already if not for one Lissa, a dead girl who's just saved his life. And now both are on the run...

I likely expected too much from Death Most Definite, to be honest: it's been compared to The Dresden Files in the past, so I anticipated a sort of cross between Harry Dresden and Johannes Cabal, two of my favourite UF protagonists. Unfortunately, the resulting novel subverted said expectations - immensely.

Steven de Selby is a likeable protagonist, but the problem is that he's passive. He spends almost the entire novel responding to the actions of the antagonists - and by 'responding', you've probably guessed that I mean 'dashing for his life'. I'm not a fan of that: yes, Harry Dresden is fun when he's fleeing, but would you want an entire book of it? I think not. What's fun is when heroes stop responding, when they begin to act on their own; do something surprising and surprisingly awesome. Steven's relationship with Lissa was - to me - similarly unconvincing. She's a much more interesting character, but I honestly couldn't see the depth of the connection that the author was pushing us to accept. Perhaps I'm just inept at detecting these hints. But honestly, I think this felt like a superfluous element, or one that should have been developed more subtly than continuous mentions of Steven's attraction to her. We got it the first time...

And besides, she's dead. Which makes it just a tad disturbing in context.

I was also a tad underwhelmed by the psychopomps' abilities. In urban fantasy, the expectation is that the supernatural will be toned down from - say - epic fantasy, and there will be more combination of magic and technology. It's part of what I enjoy about a subgenre I rarely used to read. In Death Most Definite, on the other hand, the abilities weren't so much subtle as disappointing: psychopomps can touch souls to send them into the afterlife, and can stop reanimated bodies by touching them with a pomp's blood - along with a couple of peripheral abilities. And to me, because they're always used in the same way, that got tedious fast.

See Stirrer ---> Make small cut ---> Wrestle ---> Slap with blood

As the only component of the supernatural, it's underwhelming: although the environment of the afterlife I did like, as an impressively neutral, bleak end.

This isn't to say that Death Most Definite was all bad - the worst that can be said is that it is bland. It's still a relatively enjoyable read. It's fast-paced, occasionally dramatic, and does have some rather nice twists. If you're into urban fantasy, this might well be worth a read, but not as a first choice. As a rainy afternoon novel, though, it's fine.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Worldbuilding | Video from Open Road Media and Some Thoughts

Open Road Media, who are rereleasing some classic fantasy titles as ebooks (one of which I reviewed here - Patricia C. Wrede's Caught in Crystal), have released this video on worldbuilding: featuring Barbara Hambly, Alan Dean Foster, and of course Wrede's own take on the subject. It's relatively short - so naturally, there's no excuse for not watching it below!


Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Surpassing Conventions | ... Back From The Grave

The article, not the trope - because I'll once more be running a couple of surpassed conventions on the blog. Those who missed this series of articles last time might be wondering exactly what I'm on about - so for you, an explanation! There are certain features of novels which are considered overused: cliche, stereotype, or simply too typical - and this feature is to name those which we enjoy despite it. Whether it's because the feature in question is justified (for example, magic glows in The Stormlight Archive because it's stormlight - captured and rereleased), subverted (as with Aliette de Bodard's Obsidian and Blood series), or simply driven up to such a scale that it's fun despite its previous use. Whatever the reasons, Surpassing Expectations is dedicated to finding the novels which do this with specific tropes - so if you have one, don't hesitate to recommend in the comments.

So, without further ado: the overused.

Token Human Sacrifice Civilisation
Maybe the term I'm using is a little vague, but we've all seen them: a slight detour to a location, generally tropical, where the native people, generally Aztec-based, sacrifice visitors by the boatload. And it's boring. Not only is it overused, it's trite and simplistic: in only one or two cases has the civilisation in question turned out to have anything else to it than the flowchart of:      Find visitor -> Rip out beating heart -> Repeat

 And this stereotyped version of the Aztecs has coloured our own perceptions, which means the series in question - Aliette de Bodard's Obsidian and Blood - is even more welcome. As its civilisation, it takes a historical fantasy version of the actual Aztecs - not their Fantasyland counterparts. Which is rather wonderful! The sacrifices are justified, at least to them: in this historical fantasy, their gods do exist, and both appeasement and magic requires blood. Becoming a sacifice is even honourable for captured warriors, and human sacrifices are far rarer than their flanderised counterparts. Furthermore, this is the least part of their civilisation - which comes with (shock! Horror!) customs and traditions which don't involve casual homicide. 

Talking of homicide, the stories involve an Aztec priest of death solving mysteries. What's not to love?

Amnesia

Not so much a cliche as an overused plot device, amnesia is nonetheless a staple of fantasy. Thankfully, it's become less so, but it can be done well. Do I have an example for that? Why, coincidentially, I do... Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber, and specifically the first novel of that series. Corwin wakes up amnesiac in a hospital in New York. So far, so typical. What surpasses reader expectations is what he does with it: far from playing the typical amnesiac and attempting to regain his memories, Corwin bluffs that he possesses them, among people whose loyalties and histories are uncertain. And somehow, it works... And turns out a great deal of fun. If you haven't read Zelazny, he's a classic fantasy writer, and is well worth the investment.

And what of your own? (Be sure to check out the previous posts in this series if you're interested- which you can find by clicking the 'Surpassing Conventions' tag below)