Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Best Of | Beginnings

How many times have you started a fantasy that began with this sort of thing?

"Prologue: In the beginning, the Great God Vsfdghkj created... blah... great evil... blah..."

While thankfully that shouldn't be too many, once is enough - especially since most authors have a problem with the tone of mythology, so this sort of opening sounds cliched rather than poetic. Thankfully, most novels begin more originally - some more than others. This post is dedicated to those 'some'. And, of course, to providing you with a few choice examples... Well, without further ado: my (as always, subjective) picks!

The Chronicles of Amber
Author: Roger Zelazny

Amnesia is a staple of fantasy - characters lose their pasts with astonishing regularity - so you might be a little surprised that such an opening is one of my picks. The Chronicles of Amber, however, is an exception in that respect: Corwin not only attempts to recover his memories, but bluffs without them. Without knowledge of whether those he's pretending to his memories with are old allies or old enemies, it's a dangerous, amusing, and very entertaining opening. Corwin is a very active protagonist, and the Chronicles of Amber shows him at his best: piecing together the clues without letting anyone else in on the fact that they're missing. Not to mention the mysteries that surround said clues are engaging by themselves. Because they suggest that Corwin's family is - well - a little unusual. Not to mention homicidal.

Memories of Ice
Author: Steven Erikson

...In which Steven Erikson proves that a distant-past prologue can be done well - in fact, brilliantly. While the first section is merely foreshadowing, the second is as nearest as fantasy comes to the real, not the common, use of 'awesome'. A burning continent crossed by three Elder Gods? Sounds good, yes. Well, said Elder Gods meet with Kallor, the High King who chose to burn rather than lose his empire - upon which a god has just been summoned and broken, just to kill Kallor. The Elder Gods curse Kallor - then he curses them back. Subverting our expectations utterly, and showing Kallor, one of the series' antiheroes, to the full. It's a truly awesome moment: well-written, unexpected, and part of what gives the Malazan Book of the Fallen its deserved reputation. Honestly, who wouldn't read on after that (well-deserved) first impression?

The Name of the Wind
Author: Patrick Rothfuss

Okay, so maybe I've espoused Rothfuss before. But regardless of his other virtues - or flaws - Rothfuss' first page of The Name of the Wind is one of the finest in fantasy. Poetic, striking, and compelling, it merely relates Kvothe's presence in the inn he's made his home - and the home of the titular 'silence of three parts'. It doesn't sound interesting, I know: and in content, it's not. But Rothfuss' writing is what's compelling here, and this is one of the most compelling openings I've read - melancholy and hinting at Kvothe's pretense at normality... As well as how said pretense is becoming reality. However, the beginning of Kvothe's story proper, within the frame story, is also engaging - and amusing. Kvothe's intimate style of narration is quickly made apparent, as he quickly skips over the rest of human history to the only story, as he says, of any real importance: his. Heh.

Well, those are my picks - but what are yours? Comment and tell me below!

Monday, 27 February 2012

Review | Cetaganda - Lois McMaster Bujold

...Accompanied by the audiobook cover, because I cannot in all conscience expose anybody else to that paperback cover. Even Lovecraft can't do that justice.

So, anyway - the third novel in my Vorkosigan review-through, Cetaganda is where Bujold begins to show her genre-bending propensities. While its two (Miles-related) predecessors could easily have been classed as military space opera with a twist, Cetaganda is a mystery with the trappings of space opera. Well- I say a mystery: if anything, crime novel describes it better - because this is firmly Miles' story, and both he and the reader are let in on what's truly happening rather late. But with Bujold, subgenre rarely means anything, so the best description is the novel's most dominant feature: Miles.

If you've read my previous Bujold reviews, you'll know that Miles is - in my opinion - one of the most unique, and certainly the best cliche-busting character of SFF. Disabled, manic-depressive, and an occasional genius with more than one large flaw - including a tendancy to plan relationships in rather military terms, but we'll get to that much later. He's wry, witty, and the driver behind this profoundly character driven novel.

Miles has encountered mercenaries, conspiracies and invasions before - but now he's faced with a new challenge. Diplomacy. Attached to the Barrayaran Ambassador on Eta Ceta, homeworld of their ancestral enemies, the Cetagandans, the visit rapidly begins to go awry: a murder attempt upon docking, a servitor's suicide, and the disappearance of an important Cetagandan device all incite Miles' interest. He's not dragged into the investigation, he jumps! ...And in a genre of reluctant heroes, it's nice to have one that gets out of his depth so readily.

Of course, there's another reason: Miles' growing infatuation with one of the Cetagandan haut, the genetically engineered upper caste. Foiling plots for who are - technically - the enemy, trying to avoid some exceedingly artistic murder attempts, and attempting to keep Ivan at his side... Miles is quickly juggling both schemes and responsibilities. And when Miles is under pressure, it's a treat for the reader, because it's only then that his characteristic clever (and frequently entertaining) solutions come into play.

The weakest element of Cetaganda is definitely, for me, the romantic involvement between Miles and Rian - who, while interesting, is difficult to see as interesting Miles. It seems to be little more than physical, and while Miles acting the idiot seems to be partially the point, for me, that came off as a little shallow. Fortunately, the rest of the novel more than makes up for it. I've mentioned Bujold's strength at character development, and this shows: Miles and Ivan, his cousin, are as enteratining as ever. Ivan in particular gets a far larger part than previous novels, and plays it to the full - lazy, likeable, and attempting to keep his cousin grounded in someone's version of reality. Ivan plays the straight man (to an extent!), and he's good at it.

Though the mystery itself exists more as playground than focus, it's engaging - especially when viewed through the distorted lens of events. However, the embassy scenes are, too, from amateur attempts to ebarass the Barrayarans to the genuine trouble Miles liberally coats himself with. Simply put, Cetaganda manages to keep the fun factor throughout. A rare achievement.

Written with Miles' customary self-deprecating narration, Cetaganda marks the first major genre shift of the Vorkosigan Saga - showing this to be a series which not only manages a range of tones, but of content as well. This is truly a sequence it's hard to get bored with, and while Cetaganda has its weaker elements - the love interest, Rian - its events are fascinating, and represent a period that not only is interesting in the present, but provides a key continuity point and reference later in the series. If you've read The Warrior's Apprentice and The Vor Game, continue to Cetaganda - you won't regret it.

Find it here: UK US

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Article | Scientific Magic (and Why Most Isn't)

The table above (which is available as a poster from Sanderson's website) probably gives away one of my main examples, the Mistborn trilogy. But who could resist including something that amazing? Not I. 

In recent years, certain terms have been bandied about a lot - and occasionally, I was one of those doing the bandying. (Yes, I am aware that is a weird verb.) The terms in questions are those relating to magic systems, and particularly the new, Sanderson-esque wave of them: scientific systems, rule based systems, and the mysterious, unsystematic magic. Through writing my column on magic systems over at Grasping For The Wind, I've been forced to clarify what some of these terms mean in my mind. And because of this, you've probably noticed that scientific magic has become distinct from rule-based magic in my articles. And this is my attempt to explain why.

I've written articles on rule-based versus mysterious systems before - including one here. Rule-based magic systems, to my mind, is what it says on the tin. There's a scale, of course, but at its extreme, rule-based systems operate only according to fixed laws - and while these aren't always immediately known to readers or characters, they are explained eventually, or hinted at. We know how the magic functions, what it can do, and because of that the possibility for high-magic stories and non-deus ex machina resolutions which involve magic come about. That's the far end of the scale, but a lesser degree of 'rule-based' gives us magic not with strict rules, but at least with limitations or costs. Something akin to Jim Butcher's Dresden Files magic in the first book, before the reader learns more. And sometimes, this magic seems scientific - but to my mind, that's a separate category.

This isn't to say that they are mutually exclusive. Far from it. A 'scientific' magic system progressed to any degree is rule based, as far as I can conceive of it. But what would my - subjective! - definition be? Scientific magic systems, simply put, follow the scientific method. For much of rule-based magic, the rules are simply there, unconditional on the areas in which they've been tested, and if they had an origin, it's historical. In other words? There's no hint that these rules were researched; no trial and error; no extrapolation that's labelled as such. Conversely, a scientific system would be one where the rules are best guesses, approximated by testing and a hefty dollop of induction. And where 'universal' laws are just predicted to be universal, but aren't necessarily. Magic like early science, in other words.

Oddly enough, Brandon Sanderson's systems are some of the only rule-based I'd consider 'scientific': and as you might have guessed, I'm using Mistborn as an example once again. It's quasi-scientific - the initial rules are just presented as laws. But later on, characters make deductions based on these rules, and they test these predictions - combining new alloys of metals to test if they are 'burnable' via allomancy. And some of those initial rules and discoveries are disproved, just in the same way antiquated scientific theories are. It's not just limited to alloys, either - certain other predictions are put to the test. And yes, I'm being vague. But Mistborn is far from a universal read, so I refuse to spoil it. ;)

That's my take on the definition, at least - so here's hoping that we see more of this interesting brand of system.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Review | Triumff: Her Majesty's Hero - Dan Abnett

An alternate history with the modern day following the Elizabethan pattern, Triumff was a novel I had to read - and I'm glad I did. Set in 2010, the England of Sir Rupert Triumff - discoverer of Australia - discovered magic rather than the scientific method: so Battersea generates its power using cantrips instead, lutes remain the instruments of choice, and heavier-than-air flight is an inconveivable notion. Magick is strictly controlled by the church, which makes public interest in Triumff's new discovery all the more palpable: Australia... But Triumff has been holding off reporting on said continent for six months, and the Court is beginning to become vexed with the explorer. But with magick beginning to go awry, a plot in the place, and Triumff blamed, the explorer must play the hero once more to get himself out of a handy beheading. Unfortunately, this does mean a spot of disguise...

As you might expect from a swashbuckling Elizabethan fanhtasy set in 2010,Triumff gets a great deal of its fun from the humour this entails: references to the modern day. (Though some of the puns this involves are groan-worthy). Though Triumff is amusing, it's also a fun read in itself: mostly for the titular character. Sir Rupert Triumff, though not as distinctive a hero as some, is great fun to read - especially when forced to become an exceedingly amateurish spy. The constraints placed on him by the plot force his character into unusual situations, which of course makes it all the more amusing. One disappointment was his companionship - several characters introduced early in the novel could have played far larger roles than they did. I'd have liked to see more of the 'noble savage' - in actuality a member of a far more advanced civilisation - brought back by Triumff. Though all of these characters had a few significant scenes, the cast seems to skip almost from the protagonist, Triumff, to tertiary characters - and a stronger secondary figure or two would have improved the read.

While unusual and varied, Triumff rarely manages riotous. It's a novel which, while a fun and entertaining read, fails to go quite far enough to distinguish itself: it's amusing, but not as over the top as Rankin, adventurous, but fails to match - say - Butcher, and historically-based, but doesn't do anything amazingly unique with the era. Triumff is an entertaining, light read if you want an afternoon off - but don't expect it to dominate your thoughts.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Fantastical Intentions | Magic Systems


Fantastical Intentions is back, this time with a very snazzy new logo courtesy of Hannah.
For those of you who haven't seen the first few iterations, here's the lowdown. Fantastical Intentions is a weekly feature run by Hannah (from Once Upon A Time) and myself, in which we select an category from sheer whim, and then choose our favourite novels or fantasies within that category. Previously we've covered races, Christmas reads and fantasy worlds - and this time, we're adding 'Magic Systems' to that list. Feel free to comment below with your own picks - we'd love to hear from you.

So: magic systems. Both a staple of fantasy and a great love of mine, magic systems are part of what keep fantasy unque and interesting - so much that I even write a monthly column on them. The hard part wasn't choosing some: it was choosing one. Nevertheless, we've got our picks below:

Hannah's Choice:

 My pick is the magic system from Maria V. Snyder's Study series. A trilogy beginning with Poison Study, it follows Yelena as she is released from her death sentence to become a poison taster for the Commander and must learn how to tell if food is poisoned and with what from Valek, the Commander's personal assassin. This is one of those books that I believe could be called "new adult". It doesn't quite feel young adult but it's also not quite adult. Either way, I loved it, and the magic system was utterly fantastic. 

The idea behind it was that it was basically like a large sheet across the world and when you used magic you took a thread and weaved it into your spell. In some places the magic bunches up, in some it's more sparse, and at all times there needs to be a kind of balance else it all collapses and it's highly important that young magicians are found and trained before they lose control of what's inside of them and cause serious damage. I loved the way this magic system was thought out and described so much. Of course, I'm also damn fond of the magic system within the Kingkiller Chronicles but I turn to Patrick Rothfuss way too much so I believe it's somebody else's turn.




Jacob's Choice: Sympathy

Did I mention this was a hard choice? I believe I did. There are a huge number of potential systems out there: rule-based, mysterious, and everything inbetween. And choosing a particular style as my favourite? I would rather read Goodkind. :P All the way through. So instead, my pick - though definitely a favourite - is chosen because it illustrates a few superlatively brilliant attributes. First, however, I should probably mention what I've chosen: Sympathy. For those who haven't read The Name of the Wind, read it now sympathy is one of the two central systems of the novel and the series, and by far the more systemised of the pair.

A common principle in all kinds of ritualistic practices, both fictional and historical, Rothfuss managed to turn this into a hard, rule based system: the user links two objects through a binding - anything from parallel motion to heat transfer! - using his or her will and belief. The more similar the objects, the better the link - so if a sympathist gets hold of a blood sample, get ready to worry. Because it's such a simple system, we know exactly what Kvothe can do: which makes his use of it both far more common and more interesting. When it's used as a resolution, it's not a deus ex machina - it's understood, which means anticipating said clever uses is a great deal of fun.

These are our picks - but what are yours? Feel free to comment and tell us below!

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Review | Orb Sceptre Throne - Ian C. Esslemont

Orb, Sceptre, Throne (apart from being a very awkward title) is a novel I've anticipated for a while. Though written by Erikson's co-author, Ian C. Esslemont, it concludes one of Erikson's most tantalising sets of plotlines: Darujhistan. Left dangling after Toll the Hounds - with clues to Tyrants, more than a few pickled Seguleh (long story), and Torvald Nom's connection to the Moranth. ...How I love Torvald. But that's another story. If you haven't read Toll the Hounds, be aware that this review is for its sequel - and as such will contain both minor and major spoilers. Beware!

 Orb, Sceptre, Throne picks up almost where TtH dropped us off: plotlines everywhere. We're back in Darujhistan, City of Blue Fire, and it's not a happy place. An unearthed tomb releases one of the city's ancient rulers, and the T'orrud Cabal is suddenly threatened (along with Rallick's lover, Vorcan). Torvald Nom is left in the unaccustomed - and unfortunately also unpaid - position of Councillor, but as the city prepares for war, is soon dragged into action. A good thing, since he's one of my favourite characters of the Malazan series. Predictably, old friends are soon tugged into the mix: the retired Bridgeburners at K'rul's Bar, Caladan Brood, and of course, the Malazan Empire itself.

That's the main plotline - though it more aptly describes dozens - but there's also Antsy's descent into the Spawns on a hunt for treasure. The Spawns, remnants of the original Moon's Spawn, are isles rumoured to contain more than just Andiian treasure - even the Throne of Night itself...

As you can see, Esslemont throws a lot into the mix for one of the shortest Malazan novels. Though Orb, Sceptre, Throne is a weighty tome in hardback, it's only 600 pages - far under most Erikson novels. Though it doesn't feel rushed, it's packed with tantalising clues, resolutions, and old friends. There are some surprising additions to the cast, and some of those moments are perfect: character humour in Erikson's vein. Scenes with Raest and Tufty come to mind - though make sure you've at least read up to Toll the Hounds before reading this.

What many readers will be looking for, however, are the characters. Esslemont has taken over writing many of Erikson's original characters in Orb, Sceptre, Throne - and fans may recall that many such felt 'off' back in Return of the Crimson Guard. Thankfully, this problem is almost entirely alleviated: most voices are handled perfectly, and I was particularly impressed by how even the more difficult Studlock and his ilk sounded almost exactly the same. Which, of course, is very desirable! Writing, likewise, has improved massively. Esslemont's prose has been increasing in quality for a while, but Orb, Sceptre, Throne is definitely his finest book yet: a talented hand for characterisation and a keen grasp of storytelling tricks make OST far superior to earlier ICE novels.

One thing that did fall short, however, was in the climax. While generally more than satisfactory - with many characters playing long-overdue roles and a great deal of resolution (far more than Erikson's last few novels) - Scorch and Leff's inclusion felt - well - wrong. I won't spoil it, but the comic relief-bearing duo are inadvertently responsible for a major event, and the way it's carried off comes off as uncharacteristic: while in Toll the Hounds the pair were amusing, Orb, Sceptre, Throne makes them merely annoying. In other aspects, however, it's a great deal of fun - and definitely include that expected Malazan convergence. Plotlines built up for books terminate in Orb, Sceptre, Throne, and while sometimes we're merely seeing the aftermath, learning what happened after the massive Toll the Hounds convergence is just as satisfying as a battle in its own right. OST isn't quite an Erikson, though - the convergence is smaller, as are the emotional stakes. While a great read, this is not Memories of Ice.

The finest Esslemont novel so far, and a superb Malazan novel in its own right, Orb, Sceptre, Throne is a book long-time Malazan fans will love: referencial, as well as offering considerable resolution. In Erikson's tradition there are still mysteries and dangling plotlines, but there are far fewer coming out than in - a welcome change. While not yet a Memories of Ice, OST definitely gives hope for another such...

Find it here: UK US

Stefan Raets (over at the fantastic Far Beyond Reality) has pointed out if a film of this was ever made, its soundtrack would be the OST OST. Which would be very amusing.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Why You Should Read | Patrick Rothfuss

Any SFF fan - and indeed, anyone who's so much as stepped into a bookshop for the last few years - has likely heard of Patrick Rothfuss. Reading his novels is a different matter, however (especially since much of the discussion you've heard of Rothfuss will be on how long he takes to put them out...) - and this is my attempt to say who might like to, and why you should read Rothfuss. Especial focus on the 'everyone'.

- The prose. This might seem fluffy and vague as a reason - it isn't. From the very first line of The Name of the Wind:

'It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.'

Rothfuss draws you inevitably into his writing. He's a born storyteller, and if you have - like most of us - a love not just for exquisite story but for exquisitely written story, give Rothfuss a try. You won't regret it - though his prose is too flowery for some, fans of authors like Guy Gavriel Kay should feel nicely at home.

- Larger-than-life characterisation. Much of modern fantasy strives for realism - at least in characterisation. But sometimes one gets, well, tired of that: sometimes we want the larger-than-life hero, the protagonists whose talents and failures are orders of magnitude larger than ours. If you want such a man, Kvothe is for you. He's a genius, a talented musician, and is running an inn after having killed a king. He's generally the antithesis to boredom, and while that may sometimes have its own problems, he's definitely a larger thab life character -he may have big talents, but his failures are pretty damn huge too.

- Sympathy - by which I mean not the virtue (which is very nice and all) but the magic system. I wrote a column on it over at Grasping for the Wind, but could hardly fail to mention it here: it's wonderful. Sympathy, basically put, is the rule based magic system which draws on the basic principle of binding two alike objects together. The more alike, the better the link - and something that was once part of the other object makes the best link of all. The binding can be anything: parallel motion to heat transfer (when one gets hot, the other - if the link was, say, though your hair that a sympathist got hold of - sets your blood to boiling. Ouch.) It's a firmly rule based system, which has advantages. Similarly to Sanderson's systems, you understand the system, so clever uses: a) Don't come off as deus ex machina resolutions and b) Are understood by the reader. Which might reduce the awe factor, but on the other hand does make high-magic tales (such as this) possible.

- And the big reason you shouldn't: time. Rothfuss' tomes are weighty volumes, but take a look at the publishing schedule. The Name of the Wind came out in 2007. Its sequel? 2011. That, people, is a long wait. If you listen to Rothfuss' explanation, it's entirely understandable - but the fact remains that there looks to be a similar wait for the third novel. If you like a series to be finished, or at least steadily progressing before you started - well, you might want to give Rothfuss a miss for now.

There are other flaws and other merits: but for those, I've written reviews. This is my toplist of reasons to read Rothuss - so why not give him a try?

Friday, 17 February 2012

Review | Heir of Novron - Michael J. Sullivan

Having previously reviewed - and loved - Theft of Swords and Rise of Empire, this was the obvious successor. The two-book finale to the Riyria Revelations sequence, said two books also made me reconsider an earlier statement: that the series took a traditional setting and made it wonderful through story, not worldbuilding. I've since changed my mind. While that's definitely true for Theft of Swords, and the world is traditional in terms of its trappings - expect elves, dwarves, castles and kings - the complex plotting of Heir of Novron most definitely ties into the setting. And there are more twists just in said setting than you could shake an Erikson at.

Wintertide, the first novel of the omnibus, begins at that typical 'darkest hour'. And it's pretty dark. Empress Modina's marriage approaches, and with it her death: her regents plan to murder her to secure their power. Royce and Hadrian have found the Heir of Novron, who could - possibly - save humanity: but he's imprisoned and awaiting execution. As is Princess Arista, so she is powerless to follow the deceased Esrahaddon's desperate warning: that something termed the Uli Vermar is ending...

While Theft of Swords was sufficiently adventurous that an astute reader could forsee some of the conclusion, nothing similar can be said for Heir of Novron. Both novels are packed with the twists obtainable only from some crazed Martin-Erikson hybrid - which, in case you were wondering, is a good thing. Partly character based, partly historical, I can guarantee than any attempt at an accurate forcast is doomed. Which of course makes the novel even more exciting; even more unpredictable.

Character isn't overlooked for plot, however. Royce and Hadrian are still one of the best fantasy duos around, although the sections where they're separate aren't nearly so much fun: they complement each other wonderfully.Royce in particular gets development, though neither are static. One of my pet hates is the character who remains unchanging - even through supposedly life changing events. Our two thieves are the antithesis of this, and that's why I like them. Plus the banter, which helps. One qualm I did have, however, was in the section where Hadrian is forced to pretend to knighthood. The constant praise for his 'natural nobility' feels almost an informed ability: yes, he's a good person, but he and Royce are thieves - and their methods can be dubious. I prefer a little more ambiguity - but that particular scene is a minor complaint, and easily overlooked for the development in - say - Arista. Sullivan writes breathing characters, and it shows.

But what about the biggest concern: an ending? I'm pleased to announce that in my opinion, Heir of Novron's conclusion goes far beyond satifactory - and into the superb. A well-crafted mix of twists (and entire U-turns), sacrifice and surprising revelation, it will more than satisfy readers who've made an investment into the series. I also enjoyed the mixed nature of the ending: yes, there was a lot of unambiguous occurrence, but it doesn't simply end 'happily ever after' - there are still problems, and that keeps the series grounded in realism. One thing I would have liked to see, however, is more of the Nationalists - remember them? The movement played a prominent role in the first two novels, but seemed to disappear in favour of Degan Gaunt as a character in the last. I'd have liked to see the future Nationalist struggle, especially with regard to Empress Modina - something I hope could be explored in future novels or short stories, as they go unglimpsed in the epilogue.

Heir of Novron is the conclusion to the Riyria Revelations, cementing it in a position as a new classic of modern fantasy: traditional in setting, but extremely unconventional in - well - everything else. The series won't be to everyone's tastes, but for those who like a dynamic duo, plenty of adventure (and skulduggery), and a story on a truly epic scale, you won't be disappointed.

Find it here: UK US

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Review | The Vor Game - Lois McMaster Bujold

The next novel of Miles' section of the Vorkosigan series, The Vor Game was second to face my ongoing determination to review the whole of this series. (I previously reviewed The Warrior's Apprentice here) While The Warrior's Apprentice is Miles' entrance, its sequel introduces us to far more of the series' recurring characters - and the reader to far more of Barrayaran society. If Warrior's Apprentice was Miles' book, The Vor Game is - by contrast - the Barrayaran book.

The first novel left Miles in military academy, but never fear - The Vor Game isn't a school novel, with the tropes that entails. It picks up as Miles is leaving the academy - whereupon, as one of its best and brightest, he gets... A commission as weather officer to Kyril Island, handily nicknamed 'Camp Permafrost' by its inhabitants. Miles can't help feeling that something isn't quite right: but there's a reason. If he gets through six months there, he can be assigned ship duty aboard the flagship, Prince Serg... Unfortunately, there's a small issue with chemical weapons and a just-slightly-insane commanding officer, and Miles is back in trouble. But there's more at stake: Miles must venture back into his former mercenary fleet, the Dendarii, and try to figure out the plotting in the Hegen Hub... Not to mention deal with the Emperor of Barrayar's disappearance. And even 'that idiot' Ivan isn't speaking to him.

A lot of important characters get much more substantial introductions in The Vor Game: from Captain Illyan (the head of Imperial Security - and who, thanks to an implant, really can remember everything) to a far larger part from Aral Vorkosigan himself, Miles' father. As one of - well, the main strength of these novels is characterisation - well, it's a great feature. I'm particularly fond of Gregor, the Emperor, who plays a far larger part: confused, occasionally brilliant, and very conflicted. Not to mention the way Miles has to deal with him - because calling your Emperor an idiot probably isn't such a good idea.

The novel might feature other characters, but nobody can drag Miles from his position as the driving figure. As I mentioned in my review of The Warrior's Apprentice, Miles is one of the most unique characters in SF: brilliant, struggling with physical deformity, scheming - and maniacally digging himself deeper into trouble. His solutions, likewise, are brilliant fun to watch unfold (or to go wrong: we readers take equal pleasure). It's like watching one of Kellanved's plans unfold from the closest perspective possible.

Likewise, there's more plotting and action than you might think possible in a charcter driven novel. Battles, betrayals, and the like take pride of place, and are among the best thought out I've seen in SF. (Then again, I'm not a big military SF fan - so don't think me an authority on this particular aspect). Miles isn't an action hero, however: he has exceedingly brittle bones. As such, expect the action to be viewed from a distance. For fans of close up or heroic action, this isn't your type of book.

Whether you're in need of the character driven, want a more unusual brand of SF, or simply want to see what everyone' talking about, The Vor Game is a worthy addition to the Vorkosigan Saga. It's a lot of fun, introduces a number of important characters, and explores far more of the conflict surrounding the Vor system - Barrayar's aristocracy. And even in SF, that's a rarety. What else can I say? Read The Warrior's Apprentice first, but this is a great novel.

(Seriously, though: what were Baen thinking when they designed the covers for this series? The one I posted for the review is the best of them...)

It's on Amazon here: UK US

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Q & A | Adam Baker

I'd like to welcome Adam Baker, author of Juggernaut and Outpost, to the blog - both horror novels prominently featuring the walking dead, and both great reads (you can find my reviews here and here). With Juggernaut out on the 16th, Adam graciously agreed to answer some questions on the blog. Welcome!

After Outpost, what inspired you to return to the same world for a prequel?
I grew up during the nineteen eighties, and spent many sleepless nights fretting about imminent nuclear war.  It was the era of Protect and Survive, Threads and When the Wind Blows.  My childish imagination was dominated by four minute warnings, mushroom clouds and lethal fallout.  Years later, when I sat down in front of a blank sheet of paper and began to map an apocalyptic wasteland, it felt deliciously familiar.  I’ve felt quite at home exploring the ruins of a post-human world, and feel no inclination to leave.

You’ve got some atypical protagonists in Juggernaut.  Whose POV was most fun to write, and why?
A character finds himself in charge of a bunch of Iraqi POWs.  Life-or-death power liberates aspects of his personality he would rather leave unexplored.  Call me weird, but I find human weakness far more interesting than cartoonish, one-dimensional embodiments of virtue. 

What are your future plans?  Do you intend to write any novels set after Outpost?
I’m writing the third novel in the series as we speak.  A rescue mission.  It takes our heroes into the post-apocalyptic ruins of New York.


Monday, 13 February 2012

Why You Should Read | Steampunk

Steampunk: it's slightly more than just (admittedly very cool looking) design, and since you're reading this post, you probably know it's also a subgenre. It's hard to define (and many have tried): it can be a type of alternate history (but doesn't have to be). In fact, by far the easiest is to leave it at this:

Steampunk is more than an aesthetic: it's the setting of cogs, gears, brass and steam, but it's also the attitudes and social conventions of the people found there - frequently a kind of alternate Victorian era. There are novels that are clearly steampunk, and those that are only ambiguously so - Kultus being one of the former; Geist one of the latter.

But one key question is left unanswered (aside from when Datamancer will make another of those all-too-awesome laptops): why should you read it? Let me fill the gap...

- The trappings. There's something very beautiful and uniquely exciting about steampunk's trappings: the brass, cogs, and steam from which its technology is (almost universally) composed. Yes, it's just a fun factor - but let me put this to you: no other subgenre has this many airships. So while the common features of the setting might be fun in themselves, they also lead into sequences that can really only belong to steampunk. If that seems entertaining to you - well, you might want to give this subgenre its chance.


- Intermediacy. Most fantasy is either set in a quasi-European variant of the Medieval period (or at latest Renaissance), or in the modern day (urban fantasy). Steampunk is an interesting midpoint between the two, and allows an interesting mix: no instant communications like UF, but a more developed and industrialised society. Of course, it's also part of speculative fiction. So if a story between urban fantasy and epic doesn't entice you - well, steampunk also mixes in some of the trappings of SF. Giant clockwork robots, anybody?

- Society. Steampunk is generally based on an alternative Victorian period, which is fairly rare in fantasy - and fairly refreshing. It also affects the characters, who will have different prejudices, different attitudes, and different occupations - all of which can lead the plot and characters blissfully far from the usual. Furthermore, economic development also plays a part: in steampunk, more characters can realistically have the time and freedom to take part in the average high-stakes fantasy plot. Of course, the era was still hard on many - but compared to your average serf, there's no contest.

- One final point? Who's writing it - to which the answer would take at least a page. Suffice to say, there's a lot of great authors writing steampunk right now, so why not give it a chance? From Richard Ford's recent debut, Kultus, to the more established series - if you haven't tried steam, there's a lot you could be missing out on.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Review | The Warrior's Apprentice - Lois McMaster Bujold

...And what a selection of covers this book has. Many looking remarkably like the result of Cthulhu taking up fingerpainting. But we'll leave that aside, as the old adage tells us to - and because The Warrior's Apprentice is the first novel of the Vorkosigan series' main sequence. In my stint as reviewer, I've covered a few of the Vorkosigan novels - space opera in a profoundly character driven vein - including the remarkable Memory, but never the series' first Miles novel. This, then, is the sovereign remedy for that particular omission!

I've described the Vorkosigan novels as space operas, but that isn't wholly descriptive - or accurate. Fans shouldn't expect the normal tropes, critics shouldn't expect the general complaints. The Vorkosigan books are shoehorned into space opera because it is soft science fiction, and has the right trappings: it's driven by the characters, not the science, and has some of the best figures in SF. Looking solely at The Warrior's Apprentice, you might forget that: there's more than a few space battles, mercenary double crosses, and a decent dose of -well - action.

The novel begins where its protagonist's plans end: a young Miles Vorkosigan fails to enter a military academy, his dream. The son of a great man, he has all the ensuing problems. And then some. Physically deformed on Barrayar, a planet where all mutation is despised, Miles' bones are weak - extremely weak. Which (as you can imagine) proves somewhat of a problem! Now, at this point you're probably guessing that Miles gets a chance. Of course he does - because if he didn't, there wouldn't be much of a story... Miles sees said chance on Beta Colony, when a pilot barricades himself on a ship about to be sold for scrap. He manages to secure the ship (with some artfully-mortagaged  radioactive land) and sets off on what promises to be an easy trade, paying off his new debt.

It isn't. Before long, Miles, Elena, and the all-too mysterious Sergeant Bothari are involved in a mercenary war - and on top of a mixture of lies, deceptions and sheer bravado that feels (to Miles) awfully like quicksand. Which, of course, is brilliant fun.

While the plot is interesting and - occasionally - thoughtful, at its heart, it's just an arena for Miles - the main focus of the novel. I've mentioned it was character driven, and Miles is definitely a driving character: manic-depressive, likeable, and somewhat of a genius, the reactions he inspires in others are likewise hilarious. (Arde's response when Elena is unable to tell the difference between Miles-normal and Miles-on-stimulants). Miles keeps on going, keeps on digging himself in deeper ('forward momentum'), and comes out with plans you'll never anticipate. And the best part of it is that they're human responses - not future pseudoscience. Not to say that's necessarily a bad thing, but when a cunning plan is in action? You want to see it.

It's not all fun and games, however. There are tragedies here too: The Warrior's Apprentice is enjoyable, profoundly character driven space opera with serious touches. Miles is one of the best characters in SF, and this is the beginning of his rise to prominence. It's easy to see why. If you're looking for a short, driven read - or simply an antidote to stereotypical protagonists - The Warrior's Apprentice comes fully recommended.

You can find it here: UK US

Thursday, 9 February 2012

News | Jonathan L. Howard Signs Up with Strange Chemistry

Pretty much what it says on the tin - but I'll elaborate. Angry Robot, one of my favourite publishers (for sheer originality if nothing else!), launched a new imprint a few months back, Strange Chemistry. And one of their first authors? Jonathan L. Howard. Who you may remember from my glowing reviews of his Johannes Cabal trilogy. Needless to say, I'm very excited about this: Howard is a fantastic author, and his new novel interests me. (Though I'm still hoping for more Cabal in the works - who isn't?)

You can find out more at http://strangechemistrybooks.com, but first, why not check out the blurb:




The distant and unloved colony world of Russalka has no land, only the
raging sea. No clear skies, only the endless storm clouds. Beneath the waves, the people live in pressurised environments and take what they need from the boundless ocean. It is a hard life, but it is theirs and they fought a war against Earth to protect it. But wars leave wounds that never quite heal, and secrets that never quite lie silent.

Katya Kuriakova doesn’t care much about ancient history. She is making her first submarine voyage as an apprentice navigator; the first nice, simple journey of what she expects to be a nice, simple career. But there is nothing nice and simple about the deep, black waters of Russalka and soon she will encounter pirates and war criminals, see death and tragedy at first hand, and realise that her world’s future lies on the narrowest of knife edges.

For in the crushing depths lies a sleeping monster, an abomination of unknown origin. And when it wakes, it will seek out and kill every single person on the planet…

Knowing Howard, this 'sleeping monster' won't be as typical as it sounds. And let's face it - who doesn't like the promised 'pirates'?

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Article | Progess in Fantasy Worlds (or: Why Hasn't Mordor Gone Industrial?)

Yesterday, I was reading The Alloy of Law for the second time when a thought struck me: that this book was something altogether new. Not for its genre blending, its magic systems, or even its characters - but for its evasion of stasis. For those who aren't familiar with the novel, The Alloy of Law is Brandon Sanderson's new(ish) standalone novel, set centuries after his bestselling Mistborn trilogy - a world which is now industrialised. And that is something unque: there is plenty of steampunk fantasy and even more medieval, but I can't think of a single other series that implies a transition. In the view of fantasy, era seems to be an inescapable barrier... And with (as ever) Tvtropes to the rescue, there's even a trope for this: Medieval Stasis.

But Brandon Sanderson seems to be one of the only authors who's shown one world not only beginning to advance technologically, but having already done so. And there's one simple question this begs: why? Yes, fantasy is known for its medueval roots - but it doesn't have to be. Yes, guns and instant communications throw out a number of the typical plots - but that doesn't have to be a bad thing. I find myself just a little baffled. this certainly doesn't suit all worlds, but considering that subgenres such as steampunk and urban fantasy are proliferating, it seems a logical step to show existing worlds in later time periods.

It doesn't suit everything. Although later eras are well matched with fantasy's traditional mix, I find it hard to envisage many epic fantasies making the transition to the urban type. On the other hand, just showing that a world will progress makes a difference. And this, in fact, was one of the things I loved in Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet. There are also periods that most fantasies can become compatible with: the later Middle Ages (think muskets and more) or even a steampunkish alternate Victoriana. I don't mean to say that an individual series should make these transitions - it could happen in a fantasy of social change, such as the Long Price Quartet, but otherwise there's no chance of that. But as Sanderson has done, other authors could too - allow readers to experience the world long after a first series. Show progress; show the remnants of the first series' events (because continuity is important) - to me, that sounds fun.

For me, this is one trend I'd like to see continue - and until it does, I'll be wondering why there haven't been many like this already. Any thoughts?

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Rereading | The Name of the Wind

I've reviewed The Name of the Wind before - who hasn't? It's made a couple of my 'Best Of..' lists. But how does it stand up to a reread? This question is, of course, rhetorical: because this post's contents are unchanging regardless of your wish to find 'em out. Anyway, here are some quick thoughts (but no review - I've done that). Rereading a favourite novel is always a worrisome business: it's irritating when it disappoints. Ruins all that nice nostalgia. Thankfully, that's one worry you can never experience reading Rothfuss - regardless of your read-or-reread status, his prose is just as amazing. From the first words of the prologue - even from its title, A Silence of Three Parts - I was drawn in. The prose of this novel is simply fantastic: Rothfuss is an artist of words, and it really shows. It fits Kvothe's character, too - since he's narrating the story as a storyteller, the intimate, reader-addressing narration really works.

Unfortunately, the second thing you notice is how close Kvothe steps to Mary Sue-dom. (Mary Sue-hood? Gah, nomenclature). I won't say he crosses the line, but he comes close. Fair enough, he's naturally talented: but that can only take you so far, and Kvothe is a genius at (seemingly) everything. The factor that saves this from bcoming a mash of cliches is that it's explicitly stated that Kvothe's tales have become similar to legend: he's deliberately a larger-than-life character. That, and the fact that his abilities don't always save him from the consequences. We know how his story ends, not as a hero but an innkeeper. We know something tragic happens, so Kvothe escapes the 'author's darling' category. (On the other hand, his colour changing eyes did make me roll my eyes - when I noticed on reread...)

I also like the University sections more than I used to. Yes, they're a little - well, regular at times. But Elodin and others are fantastic characters, and no matter how much University discipline procedures seem laughable, Kvothe's constant cultivation of his reputation never fails to raise a smile. The 'Bloodless' epithet? Because he drugged himself before a whipping. Brilliant.

With every reaction, there is one equal and opposite: so conversely, his interactions with Denna have begun to annoy me more. Or not, I should say, the conversations themselves - which are witty and occasionally wonderful (as well as convincingly awkward) - but the narration of them. Kvothe is meant to be older; jaded: so why does he narrate each encounter from the perspective of someone newly in love without interrupting? Jars me a little, considering his cynicism. But a minor complaint, all things considered.

Altogether, The Name of the Wind is as interesting on reread as it was originally wonderful - even considering my new jade glasses and cynical eyes. Yes, it has flaws, but Kvothe often lampshades them himself (he is a legendary figure so his genius - generally - avoids being irritating). So onto the Wise Man's Fear. And here's me hoping it's less episodic than I remember...

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Review | Restoration - Carol Berg

Another book picked up second hand, Restoration is a novel that's been recommended to me several times - so past time that I actually read it! The final book in the Rai-kirah trilogy, it's an odd mix: subverting some traditional tropes, but playing other quite straight. But we'll get to that. At any rate, the trilogy is notable largely for its protagonist: Seyonne, by the time of Restoration ex-slave, current sorcerer, and betrayer of his people's ancient war. I've always had a soft spot for a protagonist who goes against his initial convictions (those particular revelation scenes make some of the best), and Seyonne definitely counts. For centuries his people, the Ezzarians, have fought a war against demons: the Rai-kirah. Now Seyonne has found out their mistake, and joined his soul to a Rai-kirah - becoming what his people hate most. But now he must confront the origins of his people, and decide whether to free an imprisoned god.

His friend and former master (long story), Aleksander (Crown Prince of the Derzhi) is in worse trouble. Accused of the murder of his father and bereft of support, he's going to have to win his empire back: and confront the atrocities of his people. And to do that, he needs - well, Seyonne...

From that brief description, you might think Seyonne a typically martial sorcerer - casting Dungeons-and-Dragons-esque spells left, right and centre to solve his problems (albeit in a terribly stereotypical way). He's not. While Seyonne is a sorcerer, the resolutions to his problems rarely come through said magic: in fact, it generally causes the problems in the first place. Which is a good thing! While I enjoy magic in a story, using it for resolution feels like cheating. And Seyonne generally succeeds because he's careful, thoughtful - not because he can make bigger magical firestorms than everybody else.

...Although he can. But that's not the point.

I enjoy a good duo, and Seyonne and Aleksander definitely fit. They're practically opposites, both in terms of station and personality, which leads to a fair amount of conflict despite their friendship. For fans of humourous (or simply vitriolic) banter, there's not much: they're not as fun a couple as (to take an example) Royce and Hadrian of The Riyria Revelations.

There is one area in which Restoration falls short, however - though it isn't alone. Aleksander's struggle to regain his position, a main focus of the novel's first half, simply disappears for the duration of the ending. something that I find a little unwelcome: Seyonne is an interesting protagonist, but to focus solely on him for this long-ish period makes the following post-climax epilogue seem to come from nowhere - a little fairytale-ish. Despite this, Restoration isn't a bad book at all. It has a thoughtful protagonist, a tendancy to avoid magic for resolution (which is both rare and welcome) - and the epic trappings of falling empires, imprisoned gods, and a hefty dose of magic. It's not exceptional, but it is a worthy read.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Article | The Art of the Anthology

If you scroll back through Drying Ink's review archives, you'll find quite a selection: or, to use my favourite word once more, something remarkably eclectic. But there's one class of book I review far more rarely than any other. And you've probably already guessed it from the post's title -

It's the anthology. But why? If I had to give an immediate answer, I'd go for the fact that SF anthologies often fail to get me involved. Short, conceptually driven stories work - there's no doubt about it. But sometimes emotional involvement is forgone for the science. Fantasy short stories have, on occasion, the opposite problem. Taking the view that there isn't space to develop the intricate settings the genre is known for, some stories simply take as setting - well, Fantasyland. Fantasyland as in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: the most generic setting imaginable. Which, for a fan of original worldbuilding, isn't much fun.

But the fact remains that these are problems with only a small minority - thus my decision. This year, I plan to review more anthologies (and no, I'm not signing that in blood. Or even ink.), and I'm going to tell you why. Short stories offer experiences that novels don't, particularly when integrated into an existing setting. For me, I prefer it when short fiction is part of a setting I know. While in SF, one of the main strengths of the short story is that it can explore concepts which aren't novel-filling, in fantasy, the short story has a different advantage: most fantasy worldbuilding is intricate rather than high concept, and so short stories can often fail to give a sense of place. Set in a world that the reader already knows, however, is an entirely different matter. These short stories can explore plots that aren't worth novels: backstories, sideplots, and different tones from the main series. Take, for example, Jim Butcher's Side Jobs: an anthology of short stories set in the world of the Dresden Files. This particular book works very well. We don't need a huge introduction to Harry's abilities - it's assumed you've already read the main series, although there is some exposition. Instead, they focus on smaller events which are less momentous. And for me, that's good to see.

Although I'll admit a weakness for a built up setting shared between several novels - for reasons I've explained elsewhere - standalones can be good as well. (For example, Megan Lindholm/Robin Hobb's latest collection, The Inheritance). Short stories can, in both fantasy and SF, explore shorter, not novel-suited concepts. While fantasy isn't quite as well suited for this in terms of setting, it can match SF in plot. Maybe the setting isn't so fleshed out (as long as it isn't a cliche storm. Those are unforgivable...) - but the plot, the mystery, or the character can still be wonderful. Short stories work best with the unusual, and this can still be achieved with fantasy: but far more with short fiction than book length, originality is key. But this does happen, and so I must read more anthologies.

Another benefit? With shorter fiction, the author has invested less time, and the concept doesn't need to hold a book - or even, necessarily, all of their fanbase. This means that short stories do take more risks. They are, in other words, at the cutting edge of the genre: where new ideas often come first.

Also: there is a really lovely steampunk anthology I have my eye on. It has airships. What other reasons can I require? Not many.

Friday, 3 February 2012

News | Launch of Hodderscape

Time for a spot of news, people!

Hodder, who published more than a few of my favourite titles last year, are set to release a new online community: Hodderscape! It's due to be launched this weekend at SFX Weekender, and will include a competition for readers to submit their own 'Shelf of Glory'... Although mine would have to include a plural. Many, many shelves. Anyway, you can find their Facebook page here: http://www.facebook.com/hodderscape

Here on the blog, it should also be pretty busy. I'll be catching up on some more review requests this weekend, so if you haven't got a reply yet, hold on. I'm currently reading The Hunger Games - after narrowly escaping death for not having read it at the hands of the recommender - and, well, I'm enjoying it. It's nothing beautiful: no Hobb or Kay, but it is fun. So look forward to a review of that! I'll also be posting on Fantasy Faction and running my Magic Systems columns column over at Grasping For The Wind, this time venturing once more into Brandon Sanderson's Cosmere...

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Review | Caught in Crystal - Patricia C Wrede

A classic YA series - that I had never read - Open Road Media is re-releasing the books as digital editions. So when they offered me a copy? Well, I accepted: having never read the Lyra books when I was the relevant age, this was my chance to review one. My initial thought? Caught in Crystal is definitely YA, but of an unusual sort.

For one, it possesses an older protagonist: a mother and former swordswoman, Kayl. For another, her children are far from the stars of the story - even minor ones. (This might not have been intentional, but they certainly succeeded in irritating me). Caught in Crystal is a traditional fantasy world, geared for younger readers instead - and with the cliches stripped out. There is no chosen one (as yet, anyway), the plot is not driven by destiny, and the twists, though relatively small, are unexpected.

So we've dealt with what the plot isn't - but it's high time I started on what it is. Kayl, former member of the Sisterhood of Stars, is dragged from a life as an innkeeper when acquaintances from her previous life arrive at the door. And then there's the threat of iminent death... (So far, so traditional). But they don't want Kayl for her ability. She's one of the only surviving members of the expedition to the Twisted Tower, and the Sisterhood suspects the Tower is somehow linked to the problems they've been having with their magic. And for a sisterhood of sorceresses? That's a big problem. Glyndon, an old friend, and Kayl will have to face their memories of the expedition, the antagonism of the Sisterhood, and discover what truly happened there. Because there are some curious disparities: and clues that there's a hidden manipulator at work...

The only thing that makes me shoehorn this into YA is the writing style - and the attitudes. Aside from that, this could be regular fantasy. And as such, it's a great bridging novel, crossing the gap between the two subgenres. As I've mentioned, the characters are irregular. But they're also not quite fully fleshed out: Kayl is sympathetic, but by no means is she - say - Kvothe. Well, it would be odd if she was - but I'm sure you see my point.

The twists, likewise, are interesting - and the ending unexpected. Unusually, Caught in Crystal avoids succumbing to one of my pet irritations: the flaw of escalation, in which interesting small-scale plots increase in scope to mean the fate of the world - without the rest of the novel gearing up to match. Leaving you with a rather awkward construct. Caught in Crystal sticks to what it's good at, and that is an important, but not world-shattering, occurance.

For an adult fantasy, Caught in Crystal is acceptable, but doesn't stand out. For younger readers, however, it makes an excellent bridging fantasy. When I was younger, this is the sort of book I would have liked to read. Avoiding the pitfalls of fantasy for younger readers, but with prose that suits the genre perfectly, this digital edition is well worth a purchase as a gift for any younger relations... Pity it's February, not December.

Find it here: UK US