Friday, 2 October 2015

Article | Thinking About Series

What's in a series, anyway? Most of us would agree that it's simply a linked set of books, but might vary wildly on how they might be linked. Most conventionally, they would be sequential, and follow similar characters through an elongated arc - like Lord of the Rings, or even Game of Thrones. Recently however, I've been finding that many of my favourites follow another model.

As you might have guessed, I'm about to talk about Bujold and Brust. A lot. Bujold's longest series is the Vorkosigan Saga, a set of books that mostly follows the Vorkosigan (and future Vorkosigan) family of Barrayar, a galactic backwater with some interesting quirks (it was colonised, cut off, then rediscovered after reinventing feudalism - then its new spacefaring neighbours tried to invade, leaving in their wake a rapidly modernising planet with an odd social structure and extreme taboos against mutation, the visible sign of the radiation weapons used in the war). It switches between a number of different protagonists - chiefly Miles, who I adore (you can read about my adoration for him plenty elsewhere, though pointing out that he is a disabled, brilliantly flawed man who doesn't escape his own consequences as well might give you some clues), but also Cordelia, his mother, and even one book with the amazingly lazy Ivan (usually suffixed with "you idiot"). But the freedom in not being bound to follow one particular plot arc between books means each acts fundamentally as a standalone - if changing character, genre, and setting needs to happen, then it can. Which makes for a far more varied read, while still preserving the advantages of a series: greater character depth, familiarity and development. By the latter books of the Saga, Miles is one of the best characters in modern fiction, with remarkable complexity - but if we'd had to read a similar number of books all structured as The Warrior's Apprentice, most of us would have stopped reading long ago. The freedom to retain worldbuilding and character while changing genre and plots gives it the best of both worlds.

Another author doing similar work is Steven Brust in his Vlad Taltos novels, following the life and times of the titular character. It takes similar freedoms to Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga, but with an additional one: chronology. The Vlad Taltos series is far looser chronologically than Bujold's - Vlad will mention a story as an anecdote in one book, then eventually tell it as its own story. The events of Taltos, the fourth book, are referred to in Jhereg, the very first. This is important in two further ways: firstly, it allows the series as a whole to start in media res - the Vlad Taltos series informs us where it is going with Jhereg, making the reader willing to tolerate more buildup in its beginning when eventually told - and secondly, it gives us a far firmer impression of Vlad-as-narrator. For first person stories, this is definitely an additional benefit: Vlad will allude to other stories, shared anecdotes, then tell them in other books altogether, making us believe far more in him as a character telling the story himself. Kvothe, while a good storyteller, rarely gives this impression - his story is far too well structured.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Review | Three Days in April - Edward Ashton

Most books I can recommend for some aspect of their writing - even if the whole ensemble falls short. Sadly, Three Days in April is one I can't recommend at all.

But let's rewind a little. Three Days in April is a fast-paced technological thriller set in a future Baltimore where government surveillance is everywhere (and they have a network of orbital kinetic energy weapons for when they stop merely watching), and a significant proportion of the populace are genetically modified, most along fairly standard models (the Pretties, for instance, or the Neanderthals).

The trouble starts when a plague runs through Hagerstown - and the government quickly starts wiping the public newsfeed of the disaster. Anders, a mouse-DNA'd-teaching-assistant  is caught in the middle of the coverup, along with irritating hacker roommate Gary, and new-acquaintance-and-Neanderthal Terry, when Terry's sister is discovered to be trapped within the killzone. Then... things get weird.

It doesn't sound like a terrible premise, but the problem is in the execution. The plot, simply put, doesn't work. It's fast-paced, yes, but few of its developments are explained, nor do they have any meaningful foreshadowing, making the resolution seem like deus ex machina to an absurd degree. There are some interesting links, but unless I'm missing a great deal of the novel, it utterly fails to satisfy in this respect: it's a rollercoaster of meaningless twists. I was left wondering where the last twenty percent of the novel was. Our heroes were saved? How?

Even poor plots can survive scrutiny if they have sufficiently interesting characters to follow them, but Three Days in April fails to entertain in this respect either. None of the central three protagonists ever become more than caricatures: Anders seems to have little non plot-driven personality, and Gary seems to be intoxicated through most of it, barely developing beyond giggles. Terry comes closest to being interesting, with her relationship with her sister and her disliked partner, but still gets no development. Worse, the conversations between all involved read like laddish 'banter' - with the sexism that entails. This isn't limited to the dialogue, but also permeates the narrative - the 'Pretties' get a particularly heavy load, but the book as a whole reads as fairly male gaze-y

Friday, 11 September 2015

Review | Fool's Quest - Robin Hobb

And I'm back! Holidays have been had, bad weather weathered (ie. great holiday, but somewhat in spite of the weather - we had a nearby pool and some dogs that seemed to come with the house, which improved even rainy days immensely). Anyway, in the downtime, I've read a huge number of books as holiday reading, so expect a whole run of reviews!

Fool's Quest is book two in the Fitz and the Fool trilogy, and I clearly had to pick it up: the Fool has always been one of my favourite characters (not even mentioning my weakness for the general archetype), and Hobb is at her best when writing about him. But before I get into plot details, be warned - as a direct sequel to Fool's Assassin, there will be serious spoilers for that book.

Fool's Quest begins where Fool's Assassin leaves off - or, in fact, slightly before it. Bee, Fitz's daughter, has been kidnapped by the Servants, who believe her to be the Unexpected Son, a new White Prophet. Fitz... has no idea about this, and is in Buckkeep tending to the Fool, who has been severely injured. A good quarter of the book is felt playing catch-up in this fashion, and while the Buckkeep court has always been the most interesting location, the reader's knowledge being so far ahead of the characters' does lend the book a slower pace than usual, and can be frustrating at times when characters fail to jump to conclusions apparently obvious to the reader.

But starting there does remedy one of the previous novel's main deficits: a lack of the Fool, who appeared only in the finale, despite being alluded to throughout the book. His dynamic with Fitz has naturally changed, but it's nicely developed from those previous encounters. Admittedly Hobb has a certain recurring plot with her characters' recovery from torture, and much of the Fool's book is given over to that: regaining some of what he used to be, despite his old injuries and new blindness. It's uncomfortable but powerful reading, and the Fool is still one of my favourite characters - and one of the few mainstream canonically non-binary characters - in fantasy. Fitz also gets to interact with this element of him in more sensible fashion (aka: less face-in-hands, "Fitz, why are you doing this?" questioning), and there are some great moments that showcase the pair.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Interview | RS Belcher

To celebrate the release of Nightwise - a novel I've eagerly anticipated ever since reading the brilliant The Shotgun Arcana - I had the opportunity to ask RS Belcher a few questions on his new book. Welcome to the blog!

1. How different was Nightwise to write, as opposed to The Shotgun Arcana and The Six Gun Tarot? Does the different style/subgenre affect your writing process at all?

            Nightwise began as a novella called “The Greenway” years ago, around 2009-2010.  My natural “voice” for writing was originally a first person, noir-detective style.  It's very natural to me. I grew up on detective fiction and came to love Raymond Chandler and John D. McDonald  When I started writing Six-Gun Tarot, I realized that the  first-person voice didn't feel right for that story, so I went with a different voice.
            Nightwise was in some ways very easy and very fun to write—it felt like going back to the bedrock of my earliest writing and to the first genre I tried to write in, but in other ways it was hard after writing Six-Gun. I found difficulties in having a large, complex cast of characters and using a first person voice with that.  The Golgotha books ( Six-Gun Tarot and Shotgun Arcana) do have a different voice and style and I do have to do a bit of a “shift in gears” to go from writing one universe to the other.
            I actually finished Nightwise just before I started on Shotgun Arcana, and it took a little effort to change gears.  Detective fiction and westerns are two of my favorite genres and I feel really lucky to get the chance to work with both of them.

2. What's your favorite urban fantasy?

I am currently really enjoying the “Sandman Slim” series by Richard Kadrey.

3. You've said that you've worked as a private investigator. Has that experience informed or inspired Nightwise at all?

            I think my life influences my writing quite a bit.  There's more of me in Nightwise than I'd care to admit.  I was a private investigator for over ten years and I definitely feel that job gave me some experiences and insights that have showed up in Nightwise and some of my other writings.

4. How much have your novels changed from their original concepts? Have they ever surprised you in that respect?
            Yes.  In the case of Nightwise, it was originally a novella with a different ending and most of the cast of the novel weren't even in that story at all.  After Six-Gun Tarot was purchased by Tor, I was encouraged to revisit the novella and make it into a novel.  My Agent, Lucienne Diver was very supportive of this effort, as were several of my close friends. 
            Quite often the core of what I'm writing about stays pretty consistent, but the way I get there and the characters involved may undergo change.  Many of the characters in the  Six-Gun Tarot were never intended to be major characters but that all changed during the writing and editing process.
            I work from a simple framework to keep me on point, but I often alter the details as I go.  That is part of the joy of writing for me; creating something much more than the sum of its parts.

5. We often try to avoid cliches - but do you have a favourite (or at the very least guilty pleasure) overused trope? 

            I started writing the Six-Gun Tarot with the desire to take all the old western cliches and turn them on their ear as much as I could.  I was great fun. Nightwise is, at its heart, a detective story, but again, I tried to take those old gumshoe cliches and present them in a new way. 
            I think my protagonist, Laytham Ballard, is stereotypical of the Urban Fantasy anti-hero but I decided if I was going to go down that road, I was going to make him as close to irredeemable as I could and at the same time make the reader like him, root for him and even sometimes understand his motivations, even if they didn't agree with them.

            Cliches can be useful tools for a storyteller—they're cultural short hand.  You can use them to summon a series of ideas and preconceived notions and then completely mess with that mindset in a way that will make the reader do a double-take.  It's both fun and also can be a pitfall if you lean too much on the same old things your reader has encountered a hundred times before.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Blog | Off on Holiday!

Hey all!

All good things must come to a very temporary hiatus, and as such, I'm off on holiday to France for the next two weeks. Never fear, I'm bringing (probably far too many) books, so anticipate a great many reviews when I get back (as well as some extremely delayed Nine Worlds enthusiasm, because I really cannot recommend that convention enough) - from the new Robin Hobb to ZerOes. I'll have limited internet access, so probably won't be posting on the blog, with the possible exception of an interview with RS Belcher appearing on the 19th.

Hope you're all having a lovely summer too, and see you all soon!

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Guest Post | FORBIDDEN Blog Tour - The Magic of the Sazi

Forbidden is an urban fantasy thriller set in the world of Hunter's Moon - where a shapeshifting people, the Sazi, have retreated into isolated communities. Naturally, these have their own problems, and our heroine, Claire, is sent to investigate the kidnapping of Sazi children in one such community, with the assistance of one of the local shifters, Alek. I'll be getting my own review up soon, but more importantly, to celebrate the release of Forbidden (now out, as of the 11th!)  Cathy Clamp has kindly contributed a guest post on one of my favourite topics: magic systems!

The Magic of the Sazi

In the world of FORBIDDEN, shapeshifters are magical creatures, tied to the moon phases. But that’s sort of a simplistic way to describe how the magic actually manifests in a shifter. People are different, even shifters. Some have a “talent” for magic, while others simply shift, become animals and then shift back at dawn. In the Sazi world, there are levels of magic ability. At the top of the heap are “alphas.” An alpha feels the moon all the time, regardless of the moon’s phase. They can draw on that energy to shift “off-moon,” pretty much any time they like. But it is taxing. The higher the alphic ability, the less difficult the shift is, so it doesn’t affect them physically. Think of an Olympic track and field athlete. Running a mile or two is just a warm up to the hard stuff. But to an average joe, the mile or two is the whole workout, and to a weekend warrior, a mile or two will have them spitting up their breakfast before the end of the second mile. So it is with Sazi magic. The shifters who are on the Sazi Council, and work for Wolven, the law enforcement branch, are the Olympic athletes. Shifting is a nothing—barely scratching the surface of their ability. Middle of the road alphas can shift off-moon, but will feel like a truck hit them by the end of the day. Most Sazi are in the middle. They’re not alphic, and only change on the full moon. And a “three-day-dog” or omega, who has the weakest abilities, can’t shift off-moon at all and must have help to shift even on the full moon. So, there are as many different levels as there are people. Just like humans!

But is shifting all the moon gives a Sazi? Not at all. The highest alphas can do lots of inherent magic. Not casting spells and such, but they have very clever defensive magic abilities. One is illusion, where a shifter can appear to be something other than a shifter. A wolf can influence people’s minds so they look like a dog of similar size. That wasn’t a wolf, it was a German Shepherd. Or a Bobcat can look like a big tough alley cat, or a cougar might look like a bobcat. The birds have it easiest. All they have to do is look a little smaller, and even then, a lot of actual predator birds are HUGE. An eagle’s wing span can reach seven foot, and an eagle owl’s wings can span NINE feet!

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Best | Mentors

In every fantasy tale, there are mentors - from the Gandalf-esque cryptic advice dispensaries to the more practical tutors. As always, I'm going to feature just a few of my favourites, for whatever reasons, so please feel free to add your own in the comments.

Chade Fallstar - Realm of the Elderlings series, by Robin Hobb

Chade numbers among my favourite mentor figures for one main reason: his relationship with Fitz is allowed to mature, and to develop complications. Fitz is allowed to learn of Chade's fallibility in time, and this is something that both parties find hard to accept and move on from: even the adult Fitz sees Chade as his old mentor, and Chade is often tempted to assume old authority - sometimes causing problems. It's a complex relationship and all the better for it. But I've jumped too far ahead. Who is Chade?

Well, he's the eponymous assassin of Assassin's Apprentice - the spymaster of King Shrewd, who sees in the royal bastard FitzChivalry both a potential liability and a useful tool. Chade is tasked with turning him into the latter, first by teaching the young boy using 'games' and then later more directly. And it only goes on from there, as more complications as well as genuine affection arise. He's also one of Fitz's many parental figures... Possibly explaining a great deal.

But while the ruthless Chade is an interesting mentor in his own right, it's the evolution of his relationship with Fitz that is truly fantastic - from young indoctrinated boy to questioning teenager to an independent man who still slips into old habits.

Lu-Tze - Thief of Time, by Terry Pratchett

Not so much a serious pick as a pastiche of the wise old mentor monk trope, Lu-Tze is one of my favourite Pratchett characters full stop. He is the man who inspires genre-awareness regarding little, smiling old men: Rule One's "Do not act incautiously when confronting little bald wrinkly smiling men!". He is a legend. And he presents himself as a harmless street sweeper, with a book full of the wise sayings of his former landlord. Why not? After all, who notices the sweepers?

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Games | Sunless Sea - Failbetter Games

So today it's a bit of a diversion from our usual topics - and into the world of games, albeit one that's largely interactive fiction. I've been playing a great deal of Sunless Sea this year (too much Sunless Sea? Never!), and thought I'd chat about it on the blog.

Sailing near Irem
Sunless Sea comes from Failbetter Games, the company responsible for the browser game Fallen London, and indirectly for all your sad feelings about bats (they're probably also responsible for that strange hunger you've been feeling lately, if you experience certain parts of FL content...). So they've got a pretty good - if a little grindy - interactive fiction track record. Sunless Sea is a different take on the formula, putting you at the helm of a steamship on a vast underground ocean and inviting you to explore. As the tagline "Lose your mind. Eat your crew." suggests, the survival expectations are not high.

At its best, Sunless Sea is an anthology. Each island or port on the Unterzee has its own stories, frequently its own entire plotline. Many are by guest writers. Richard Cobbett's spider-worshipping Saviour's Rocks, and Emily Short's haunting Station III are particular highlights. As a result, it reads as something of a collection of short interactive stories: drifting across the Unterzee using the roguelike mechanics to find the next island, each of which has a very different theme and feel to it. There are islands with one big event, one big choice, which affects what you'll find there on subsequent visits. There are islands that dole out their nuggets of story slowly, one visit at a time - like the island of Mt Palmerston, which has you taking letters from a rather homesick deviless. Occasionally - but to the game's credit, not very often at all - there are the disappointing islands, only there to serve as part of other plotlines. (That said, the game is still being occasionally updated, and there will be an expansion at some point - I'm still hopeful for more in places like Irem, which has the promising quirk of switching tenses from the main game as time distorts itself)

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Review | The Wilful Princess & The Piebald Prince - Robin Hobb

I've always loved Robin Hobb's Realm of the Elderlings books, and when a friend was kind enough to lend me The Wilful Princess & The Piebald Prince I was happy to have the chance to revisit. Through all the novels, especially the Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies, one story is repeatedly referenced: that of the seduction of a Farseer princess by a Witted commoner, and the subsequent disastrous reign of the Piebald Prince. So in a sense, this book is a defictionalisation, as we never get to hear the tale in full in the novels proper - as well as a record of what really happened, as opposed to the folklore's version. Predictably enough, it's rather different.

It's narrated by Felicity, the daughter of the wet nurse to Princess Caution, who becomes her childhood companion. Ah, the Farseers. Their naming conventions are possibly the worst for irony (as you might expect from a novel featuring Caution as the titular Wilful Princess). She's an engaging narrator - deeply flawed, very (even if unconsciously) ambitious, and nonetheless adoring Caution. It's a good mix, and you're soon drawn into her story, in which the myth of an evil witted sorcerer becomes a series of unwise decisions and a political quarrel. And very convincingly, too, making the anti-Witted prejudice of the Farseer trilogy even more tragic.

The Wilful Princess does assume a fair amount of knowledge of the existing books, despite technically being a prequel. It would make sense without having read the Farseer trilogy, but most of the broader implications would be lost - and many references, such as those to the Skill, go entirely unexplained. It's an engaging story, yes, but largely for its exploration of the origin of this tale in the wider setting, so even if it's set before the first trilogy, I would firmly recommend reading this later. Besides, that way you get the joy of those moments when you realise a beautiful explanation has just taken place.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Review | The Iron Ghost - Jen Williams

In April last year, I read, reviewed, and ultimately loved Jen Williams' The Copper Promise - a refreshingly fast paced, self-contained epic. As such, I was very interested to see where the sequel would take us, and happily, The Iron Ghost's journey is equally interesting. (Plus, I can hardly disapprove of the pun on the cover. Sorry.) There will inevitably be some spoilers for The Copper Promise, as with all sequel reviews, so be warned!

The Iron Ghost begins several years after The Copper Promise's rather grand finale - and more in the heroic than the epic fantasy vein. After their world saving exploits of the first novel, the Black Feather Three have been rather more mercenary, steadily building fame and fortune. However, not all is well between the three. Wydrin and Frith are divided by Frith's obligations - he feels he ought to marry strategically, as the last member of his noble family, and this is causing... understandable friction. Sebastian is dealing with the remnants of Y'Ruen's army - his own magically created daughters - and trying to find a way for them to live in peace. So when the Black Feather Three depart for their new job in Skaldshollow, we're far from the amiable status quo of The Copper Promise's ending.

The Skalds traditionally use stone golems - werkens - quarried from the magic-rich stone of the mountain to labour in their city. But their way of awakening the creatures has been stolen by a neighbouring people, the Nahrl, who view the Skalds' practices as harmful to the local mountain spirit. When the Black Feather Three are hired by the Skalds to retrieve their property, the conflict soon escalates - an ancient mage, Joah Demonsworn, is on his way back, and soon both parties' problems are overshadowed by this entirely non-ominous sounding addition.

So, first - what I loved. The Iron Ghost knows what it does well, and what is does well is Joah. Thankfully there's a lot of him. Yes, frequently I call out for more ambiguous antagonists. But Joah is a wonder: so assured in his own rightness, so anxious to ensure Frith is his brother in all of this... it's the combination of his utter amorality with his desperate affection for Frith that makes him such an engaging villain. Yes, it might have been interesting to have more of a possibility for redemption - but sometimes in heroic fantasy, what we need is a villain, and Joah is a fantastic one.

Another aspect I should mention is the care for diversity. Often, epic and heroic fantasies have failed on this front, but The Iron Ghost clearly does well here: there's a gay protagonist who gets a romantic subplot, others in background, and the world isn't using the typical all-white fantasyland (Frith, for one, is not). And honestly, I appreciate this. It's not what makes the book good by itself, but it's important to appreciate some decent inclusions here, given how the fantasy genre has often disappointed - able to imagine entire worlds, but no POC or LGBT people in them, at least outside stereotypes.

That said, The Iron Ghost suffers where its predecessor did: pacing. It seems to have difficulty in dealing with its subplots - the Frith/Wydrin issue, for example, barely gets touched before an attempted and rather hurried resolution (which is dramatic, yes, but I want character development rather than drama, which this lacks). Sebastian's romance meanwhile, gets almost shoved out of the way at the book's end, leading me to go back and search for scenes I'd accidentally missed. I can't help but feel that for a long book, The Iron Ghost could better allocate pages to these important interactions - just as I felt with the earlier Sykes novels. The action set-pieces are fantastic, yes, but it's the characters that make the novel, and the ending in particular does them a disservice. Sebastian's dragon-brood at least get the time they deserve, and their relationship is far deeper for it.

I do appreciate the novel's blend of epic and heroic fantasy tropes. The threat may be massive; the location is more confined, so we have a far richer sense of place. The fate of nations may be involved; the nations are frequently petty, squabbling, and decisions made for very personal reasons. It's a good mix.

All in all, I'd definitely recommend The Iron Ghost. Admittedly, it can be uneven in parts, and I hope the sequel allocates more time to gradual development, rather than the jolting resolutions that were used for certain subplots. But as a whole, it's a massively enjoyable cross between the heroic and the epic which won't fail to keep you reading, with engaging characters, a truly fun villain, and a climax that left me wondering: where next?

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Adaptations | Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - BBC Series

Adaptations are always a difficult business. I'm ashamed to admit I far more often come down on the side of the book purists - mostly not because the adaptations themselves are bad, but because the novels are far more expansive, it's very hard not to lose key elements when trying to stay true to the original, and alterations can be risky. That said, some really succeed in distilling the book's essence. I've even preferred one or two to the source material. While Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell isn't among the latter, it's a work I thought could never be adapted well (mostly due to its sheer length!) and I'm very glad to be proved wrong.

Strange and Norrell (image courtesy of BBC)
Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is one of my all time favourite fantasy novels. A historical fantasy set around the time of the Napoleonic Wars, it begins in an England with a strongly magical heritage - but in which practical magic died out centuries before. Magic is studied by theoretical magicians. Practical magic is the lot of charlatans, street sorcerers, and entirely ungentlemanly. Until two gentlemen begin its reintroduction. Predictably enough, it's the tw
o in the title, and the novel follows their lives, academics, quarrels and struggles - as well as that of Stephen Black, Sir Walter Pole's butler, who is caught up in the consequences of their actions. And it's wonderful. I've made this recommendation several times already, but it really is the best historical fantasy I've read - and one of the few books I find endlessly rereadable.

The novel itself is a vast, sprawling work, clocking in at over 1000 pages in my copy (a very pretty one I picked up in the Oxfam bookshop a few years back after losing my original copy - black page edges are definitely striking). In fact, that's a large part of its charm - it will happily devote page-long footnotes to telling old magical folk stories, and referencing fictitious academic texts. I'm (as you may have realised) quite a devotee of extensive worldbuilding, and this is one of the most delightful examples I've encountered.

So it must have been a difficult work to adapt. Thankfully, they managed to stretch it out: a seven part, one hour per episode miniseries. And in general, they do a great job. I'm going to split my take onto it into a non-spoilery and an intensely, flee-far-from-here-to-a-small-yurt-on-a-remote-island-inhabited-only-by-the-Hermit-Club-if-you-haven't-seen-the-ending spoiler