Friday, 31 August 2007

'Fluke' - Christopher Moore (Orbit Books)

I like whales, I think they're great. I like watching them on TV and when that whale swam up the river Thames (a while ago) I found myself willing it to turn around and swim back the other way. Unfortunately, my psychic powers aren't fully developed (yet) so we all know how that one turned out. What I'm not interested in though is what whales do and why they do it (just doesn't do it for me I'm afraid) so when I read a book with big info-dumps about whale behaviour a little part of me ends up setting the alarm to go off when something interesting happens…
Nate Quinn is a marine behavioural biologist who is very surprised to see a whale with the words 'BITE ME' written in foot high letters on its tale. Things are about to get even more weird though. Crucial photos go missing, Nate's research facility is trashed and strange grey figures are seen sinking his boat. And why does the strange old woman (on the hill) keep asking Nate to take rye and pastrami sandwiches out for the whales? All answers lie at the bottom of the sea…
Humorous fiction is a funny thing to write about (get it?) because if it doesn't cater to your own sense of humour then you're on a losing streak right from the start. While there were some funny bits (Kona the white Rastafarian made me laugh every time he appeared) the rest felt like a Robert Rankin novel but without the jokes. I just didn’t get it I’m afraid. As I already said, the whale behaviour ‘info-dumps’ were a turn off and (for me) verged on the overly ‘preachy’. I already know that whale hunting is a bad thing; I don’t need it rammed down my throat in a book that I just want to read and enjoy.
‘Fluke’ offers plenty of evidence of a man with a fertile imagination having a fine old time writing about something dear to him and if you’re already a fan then I reckon you’ll lap this one up. I just didn’t get it though and I don’t think I’ll be reading any more of his books.

Four out of Ten

Thursday, 30 August 2007

‘The Elves of Cintra’ – Terry Brooks (Orbit Books)

A lot of great stuff has happened since I started this blog and one of these things has been discovering how much I enjoy reading Terry Brooks’ ‘Shannara’ books. I could never really get into this series and will rather shamefacedly admit to being one of the people who say things like, “Shannara just rips off Lord of the Rings.” This was until I read ‘Armageddon’s Children’, was completely enthralled by the story (because that’s what counts) and left impatiently waiting to see what happened next. It was a good job that ‘The Elves of Cintra’ came through the door a couple of days ago (thanks Orbit!) as I was able to pick up where I left off and get some answers…
Brooks ties up the cliff-hanger straight away and takes the reader back to the more pressing concerns of various groups of characters trying to make their way in this post-apocalyptic world. While the Ghosts leave the demon-infested streets of Seattle behind, two elves and a Knight of the Word battle an unseen enemy in an attempt to save the Elvish people. In the meantime, a young man is discovering his true heritage and what his burgeoning powers will mean to the world.
‘The Elves of Cintra’ is the second book in the ‘Genesis of Shannara’ trilogy and we all know that ‘middle books’ run the risk of being seen as filling a gap between the story’s beginning and an explosive finale. Brooks cleverly avoids this by bringing closure to a number of ongoing storylines while also making it clear that the story is not over yet. There are some spectacular set pieces that leaves the reader in no doubt as to the sheer power of the magic used in Brooks’ world, in particular Logan Tom’s fight with the rogue knight and Angel’s face off with Delloreen. It’s also clever how magic is introduced more and more as the world begins to move away from the technology that doomed it and towards the magical setting of future novels. Brooks’ characters are very boldly drawn with a clear distinction between good and evil that won’t be to everyone’s taste in a genre where ‘grey morality’ is fashionable. What saves them though are the detail invested in each character that shows the reader just exactly why characters act the way they do. The level of detail in the rest of the book is astonishing and helps to ground the reader in the story. Brooks really excels in the incidental details that flesh out a story and keep a reader interested, the Senator and Larkin Quill are two examples that spring to mind.
The only thing that grated (slightly) was the unmasking of the enemy within the Elven people. It felt to me that questions arising from this were brushed off (under the guise of evil chuckles and the enemy being rather smug) and I was left thinking, “but…?” This was only a minor complaint though in a story that left me feeling elated at the events but already impatient to see how this one finally ends…

Nine out of Ten

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

'The Princes in the Golden Cage' - Nathalie Mallet (Nightshade Books)

As soon as I said that I thought I'd found my fantasy debut of the year I had this weird feeling that the next book I read was bound to be great and I would end up eating my words. While Nathalie Mallett's book didn't quite manage to edge 'Acacia' off its lofty position it ran a very close race and I enjoyed the tale immensely.
From the very first page, we are made aware that all is not well in Prince Amir’s world. Not only does he shut himself away from everyone but he also uses his two mad brothers as an early warning system against attack. Prince Amir is one of a hundred princes imprisoned until the Sultan dies and a successor is chosen from among them. Life is harsh in this ‘Cage’ where Machiavellian scheming is the norm and death a certainty and now things are about to get even worse. Sorcery is striking down Amir’s brothers and he is the prime suspect. Not only must Amir deal with daily life in the Cage but he must now clear his name (and save his brothers) as well. The arrival of a beautiful princess only makes matters worse…
Nathalie Mallet writes like a seasoned professional and I did not believe this was her debut once I had finished reading. The fact that this is her debut book can only bode well for the rest of the series that she has planned. ‘Princes’ is a tightly crafted tale where no plot device is wasted and only an over reliance on secret tunnels stops this book from being perfect. Sometimes it felt like there were more secret tunnels than actual palace and how secret can a tunnel be if everyone uses it? Making the hero an ‘excellent swordsman who only fights when he has to’ also came across (to me) like Mallet was covering her hero against all odds and not actually making him work for it. However, when the rest of the tale grips you in the way that this does then repeated use of the ‘get out of jail’ cards can be excused. The sense of paranoia within the Cage almost leaps off the page and grabs the reader by the throat and I don’t think I’ve read an ‘Arabian Nights’ style fantasy novel where the stereotypical Grand Vizier, dashing swordsman and beautiful princess have felt more at home. Considering this is a relatively quick read (298 pages), the characterisation has to be spot on and Mallet handles this superbly. Each character is vividly drawn and I really felt for the three main players in the tale and what they had to contend with. Mallet plays with the reader by raising expectations only to turn them on their heads a few pages. The climax in particular is a real twist in the tale that I guarantee you will not see coming. I thought I had it figured out but I was completely wrong on that score.
‘The Princes in the Golden Cage’ is a rip-roaring yarn, in the style of Sinbad the Sailor that I think anyone would be hard pressed not to enjoy. There’s a taster (at the back of the book) of what is to come and I’m looking forward to seeing more.

Eight and a Half out of Ten

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Who fancies a copy of 'Crystal Rain'?

I don't normally just give away books without having reviewed them first. After all; if I'm going to give away books then I want them to be as good as possible, what would be the point of giving you guys rubbish? This one's a little bit different though... A few weeks ago I reviewed Tobias Buckell's 'Ragamuffin' and thought it was bloody brilliant (no holds barred space opera with big guns never fails where I'm concerned), so brilliant in fact that I took advantage of a post on Tobias' blog to ask him for a review copy of 'Crystal Rain'. Now I'm not sure what happened next (personally I'm blaming Royal Mail) but the upshot is that I now have a hardback and paperback copy of 'Crystal Rain'. I only need one copy to read/review and this is where you come in. Who wants my other copy of 'Crystal Rain'? You do!
You know what to do, just send me an email (address at the right hand side of the screen) telling me that you want the spare copy. Also let me know if you fancy the paperback or the hardback copy, the hardback has a slight tear to the cover (on the spine) where a feral postman thought he heard the word 'rook' instead of 'book' and decided to have a nibble...
I'll print out all the entries and the winner will be whoever's entry is nibbled by the mouse that is evading all my attempts to capture it, I'll tell you who won next Monday.

Good luck!

Saturday, 25 August 2007

Previously, on Graeme's Fantasy Book Review...

I was looking at my first post for August and realised, with some embarrassment, that I've read hardly any of the books that I said I was going to look at this month (stupid job, getting in the way!) So, when Chris asked what kind of things I've got coming up I really wasn't sure what to say...
I'm reading Nathalie Mallet's 'The Princes of the Golden Cage' right now and am will be posting a review tomorrow. All I'll say for now is, "it's a great book, get yourself a copy". After that, I'll be getting stuck into Terry Brooks' 'The Elves of Cintra' and Christopher Moore's 'Fluke' amongst others. 'The Name of the Wind' is giving me reproachful looks, every time I look at my bookshelf, so expect to see a review on that at some point.
"What else?" I hear you say, "will there be anything else?" As a matter of fact there will. I'll be talking to Mike Carey about his latest Felix Castor novel ('Dead Men's Boots') in the next couple of weeks so be sure to pop back here and see what he has to say. I'm also looking at possibly meeting up with Terry Brooks when he comes over to England in September.
There's going to be some great stuff happening here in the next few weeks so don't go away! (And if you do have to go away, make sure you come straight back afterwards...)

Friday, 24 August 2007

'The Jennifer Morgue' - Charles Stross (Orbit Books)

Fighting Cthulu just got sexy! Well, it would if you were a geeky demonology hacker working with a gorgeous blonde who's part mermaid and part succubus. And if you're forced to work under a geas that is modelled on the fictional stories of a certain super spy then there are certain rules that have to be followed… Welcome to the world of Bob Howard, harassed civil servant and occasional field agent for a top secret government agency that exists to make sure that the Earth is not swallowed whole by tentacle faced monsters. An insane billionaire trying to get hold of forbidden technology from under the sea is far from conducive to the fragile peace that exists between humans and, erm… slimy sea dwelling monsters. Cue Bob Howard along with explosions, high stakes baccarat, beautiful women, double crossing intrigue and a particularly damning (and accurate) view of the British Civil Service. It’s more of the same (not a bad thing!) if you’ve read ‘The Atrocity Archives’ but it’s also a good place to start if you’ve never read anything by Stross and want to give him a go.
Having spent a large part of my life working in various government/council departments, I fully sympathise with Bob’s efforts to negotiate his way around Human Resources, back stabbing colleagues and mountains of needless paperwork. Stross asks the reader ‘which battle would you rather fight?’ I have to say that at least you know where you are with a squid faced demon that wants to eat your soul! Without spoiling things, I will also say that I’ve long had my suspicions about PowerPoint presentations and I will be careful around these in the future…
Stross is full of ideas and views and wants nothing more than to share them with his readers. The end result is that ‘The Jennifer Morgue’ has a little something for everyone whether you’re a fan of thrillers, conspiracy theories or you just want something that will make you chuckle. A slight hitch to this approach is that if you blink (or get otherwise distracted) you will find yourself lost very quickly and have to go back and read several pages again! It’s a book that demands your attention but it’s worth the effort.
The use of the ‘James Bond Geas’ (a spell that forces everyone to obey certain conventions) could have easily turned ‘Jennifer Morgue’ into nothing more than a cheap pastiche. While the book is essentially a pastiche, Stross avoids the obvious pitfalls by introducing a plot twist (right at the end) that forces the reader to re-evaluate everything that they have been told. I never saw it coming but it made so much sense.
Stross also pokes fun at the ‘James Bond theme’ by giving his own little twist to certain scenes that you would expect to see in any of the films. My favourites were the ‘evil megalomaniac explains the plan to his captives’ and ‘our agent is kitted out for the field’ (some of the gadgets are pure genius)
Where ‘Jennifer Morgue’ fell down for me was Stross’ insistence on showing the reader on how much he knows about the ins and outs of computer technology. I know nothing about this kind of thing and really struggled with some of the more ‘information dense’ paragraphs. On the whole though, Stross does this sort of thing very well and it has really whetted my appetite for ‘Halting State’. A fast paced read for the beach that will make you think at the same time.

Eight and a Half out of Ten

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Author Interview - Brian Ruckley

You know how it is, you spend all day waiting for a Brian Ruckley interview and then three turn up at once! Aidan and Chris have already done a couple of really good interviews with Brian, now it's my turn!
So, without further ado...

Hi Brian, thanks for agreeing to take part in this interview, how's life treating you at the moment?
Life is pleasant right now, thank you. Appropriately, as I look out of my window I see blue skies, which in itself is a rare and mood-enhancing sight in the context of the miserable monsoon that has been Britain’s summer. (Later: the world outside has reverted to its 2007 default setting of grey and wet. Someone, somewhere owes us all one summer. Maybe it’ll be delivered next year.)

'Winterbirth' has now been released, in mass market paperback, is there still a little buzz to be had from seeing your book on the shelves or did the trade paperback edition get this out of your system?
I guess seeing the UK hardback in the shops was probably the high point, but there’s still plenty of buzz to be extracted. I assume that at some stage a writer gets used to all this stuff, but for me that stage is still some way off. Plus with the mass market paperback, there’s the whole quantity issue. I don’t think I ever saw more than half a dozen of the hardback gathered in one place in the wild, but I saw an entire pile of paperback Winterbirths in a bookshop the other day. Admittedly it was a smallish pile, but it doesn’t take much to put a smile on the face a new, still vaguely disbelieving author …

You've got to sell your story to a potential reader but I'm afraid you only have ten words to do it in! What are you going to say?
Ancient hatreds, conspiracies, betrayals, scoundrels, heroes, pursuits. No Gods. Snow.

I'm a big fan of the cover for the new edition.If you had to make the choice, which cover (for 'Winterbirth') would you choose as your favourite, trade paperback cover or the new one for the mass market edition?
Yeah, I really like the new cover. I liked the original UK hardback and tpb cover too, though – I thought it was a striking image, with the whole blood on snow thing it had going on. On balance, I guess I’d pick the new edition, as much because I prefer the title font and the way text is used on the new cover as anything.

How's work going on 'The Bloodheir'? Do you keep a tight rein on the plot or are you finding yourself surprised at where the story takes you?
It’s just ‘Bloodheir’, actually. We’re doing the whole snappy one-word titles thing with this trilogy (temporarily ignoring the fact that I have yet to come up with a satisfactory snappy one-word title for Book 3 …). Anyway, Bloodheir’s written, and consigned to the mysterious state of semi-existence in which the publishers perform whatever questionable, and probably dark, rituals they perform in order to prepare it for publication. I envisage them all gathered in their office by candlelight, dancing round the manuscript in tattered robes, making arcane gestures and muttering dubious invocations.
I’ve had a pretty clear idea of the overall plot for the whole trilogy from the start, so there haven’t been any enormous surprises. A lot of the details change as I go along, though. Some characters muscle their way a bit more to the fore, some recede a little. A couple of events I thought would be in Book 2 have relocated themselves to Book 3. Come to that, one scene that was in an earlyish draft of Book 1 has, over time, migrated all the way to Book 3, in heavily altered form.

What can we expect to see in 'The Bloodheir'?
If my agent’s response is any guide, the answer to that is ‘dark’. I’ve always thought of the trilogy in fairly straightforward beginning, middle and end terms (scriptwriters would call it the ‘Three Act’ structure, I think). In ‘Winterbirth’, the main characters are presented with a set of problems; in ‘Bloodheir’ the problems get worse, for pretty much everyone, and some possible solutions are (faintly) hinted at, and in Book 3, the problems get resolved. Or not.
That’s the long answer. The ten word answer is: Bigger battles, reversals, faltering alliances, assassination, Anain, Highfast. More snow.

There is a strong Scottish/Celtic influence running through events in the north. Do you intend for this influence to encompass all areas of your map or will the Southern Kingships be different?
For some bizarre reason, that question puts a smile on my face. It’s like I’ve unconsciously been waiting for someone to ask it. Perhaps it’s because it’s one of those rare questions I know the answer to without having to think about it.
Yes, there are different influences in different parts of the world. The north, where the Black Road hangs out, I always envisaged as more Nordic than Scottish (possibly a subtle distinction to everyone except Scots and Scandinavians?). The southern Kingships are more different. One of them (Adravane) has a bit of a Byzantine Empire thing going on. And there’s a gigantic Kyrinin clan who are nomadic warrior-herdsmen rather like the waves of horse-riding invaders who kept coming out of the Central Asian steppe for centuries. Oh, and Tal Dyre is culturally a sort of early version of Venice. I could go on, but my world-building nerd is getting over-excited and needs to go and lie down in a darkened room. (Come to think of it, that’s probably why I got a kick out of the question – my world-building nerd got to come out and play briefly).
Very little of this stuff, by the way, shows up in the trilogy in a major way. Bits of it get referenced here and there, but not much more than that.

Talking of maps, other authors have expressed a preference not to use maps in their books (saying that these can distract a reader away from the story itself). You've included a map at the beginning of the book, do you have any feelings on this (either way) or was this something that the publisher requested?
Whether or not to include a map did get discussed in the run up to publication, but it was a pretty short discussion, to be honest. For better or worse, the general feeling was that this was one of those books where a map was advisable. I know they’re frowned upon in some quarters. I think sometimes maps are seen, generally by those predisposed to such a view, as one of the markers (along with things like glossaries and a certain type of cover art) that identify fantasy as an infantile or repetitive genre. Occasionally, I suspect, they’re omitted from a fantasy book because it’s feared their inclusion will deter potential readers who think that way.
As it happens, I like maps as objects, so I’m never likely to complain at the presence of one in a book. I think in most cases they’re a perfectly reasonable and useful aid to reader comprehension: no one complains about the inclusion of maps in historical narrative non-fiction, where they serve a similar function (not exactly the same: a map in a fantasy book is clearly not solely serving a utilitarian function).
Equally, I’m perfectly happy to do without one if it’s not necessary to following what’s going on in the story. I don’t at all see them as an essential requirement in all cases.

Reading 'Winterbirth' it became apparent that you were building up a real air of moral ambiguity over the tale, no-one is truly innocent or evil. Is this something you intend to resolve, in the future, or are you going to let the reader make up their own mind?
There’s no external, absolute good and evil in the trilogy – in the absence of any Gods, what’s left is only what resides in each individual. Not many people are wholly good or wholly evil, either in real life or in this story, but it’s still possible to recognise good or evil acts. Even then, though, I’ve always figured that even people doing pretty despicable things tend to have some kind of internal rationale, however warped, or some reason in their personal or cultural history why they’re doing them.
So do I intend to resolve the ambiguity? In a way, yes, though not necessarily in a clear-cut good vs. evil sense. As the story progresses, I personally think it becomes clear that some of the possible outcomes would be really pretty grim for almost everyone involved. It’s fine to have an element of ambiguity or complexity, but sooner or later the reader has to have some kind of a preference for how each of the various struggles should turn out, otherwise why would they keep reading?

Without spoiling things too much, you spend the first part of 'Winterbirth' introducing the reader to a host of well drawn sympathetic characters only to kill off a large number of them during the initial stages of the Black Road invasion. I was surprised (even a little shocked) at your choices. How did it feel to kill off characters that you had obviously put so muck work into?
Well I knew from the start who was going to make it to the end of the book in one piece and who wasn’t, so it wasn’t too difficult to let them go. The Black Road (some of them, at least) have a very ‘total war’ kind of mindset – it’s all or nothing with them – so it seemed to me that once they get a bit of momentum going, the consequences are inevitably going to be serious for the folk on the other side. But you still have to write every character as if they’ve got a long life ahead of them – they, and those around them, usually don’t know what’s in store, so as a writer you have to try to make all of them convincing and sympathetic (or otherwise).
I’ll admit that, looking ahead, there’s one character (possibly two) whose fate at the end of the trilogy I’m having second thoughts about, so there’s at least one of them whose survival hangs in the balance of the author’s decision-making process … can’t be very comfortable for them.

It seems that all Aeglyss wants is to be loved and accepted but he is denied this for the whole of the book, even by those who are like him. As a writer, how does it feel to be in a position where you can give your characters what they want but have to hold it back for the sake of the story?
Ah, the God-like power of the author! To be honest, I don’t really think Aeglyss deserves to get what he wants. Not at the time of the story, at least – he might have been an undeserving victim as a child, but once he’s grown up he’s not a very lovable or easy-to-accept kind of guy. I know I’d be edging surreptitiously but rapidly away from him if I met him in a bar.
It’s pretty rare, in any genre, for all the characters to get what they want. An awful lot of fictional narratives (a majority, I suspect) depend in part on characters being denied their desires in one way or another for at least a substantial portion of the story. It’s a very standard way of developing plot and conflict. Stepping back and pretending to be ‘author as calculating, cold-eyed manipulator’ for a moment, all the characters are playing pieces on the board of the story and you move them about and bash them into each other to create friction and conflict. In that sense Aeglyss is the victim of my machinations as author. From the start, my idea with him was to try to create a damaged and bitter character who was that way for specific, plausible reasons in his personal history, and then work him into a position where the whole world gets to feel the consequences of how messed-up he is.
I should add, since I don’t want to sound too cold-hearted, that I like him as a character: I enjoy writing his scenes, and I do actually have a little bit of sympathy for him. He has every reason to be thoroughly annoyed at all the stuff I put him through.

An elf by any other name will still always be an elf. The Kyrinin definitely have elfish traits but you've managed to avoid the obvious fantasy cliches. Could you tell the reader a little more about the process behind the creation of the Kyrinin?
I think you called them ‘feral elves’ on your blog, which I thought was quite a neat description. They obviously borrow from the traditional elves of epic fantasy, though it doesn’t go far beyond their slightly fey physical appearance and the fact that the ones appearing in the trilogy have bows and happen to live mostly in forests. They’ve got no magic and on the whole they’re more likely to spear you than sing you a beautiful song or anything like that.
The immediate inspiration for them was certain pre-Columban Native American and even prehistorical European cultures. I thought it would be fun to have a more or less hunter-gatherer kind of society, to contrast with the (mostly) settled, agricultural humans in the trilogy. That’s a real-world dichotomy and conflict that goes all the way back to the dawn of civilisation. There are other Kyrinin elsewhere in the Godless World who have much more settled, urbanised lifestyles, as well as the horse-mounted nomads I mentioned earlier, but they don’t get to make an appearance in this story.

How do you feel about being one of Orbit's 'debut authors' for the launch of their imprint in the States? Is this going to involve a trip over there at any point?
It’s a very nice position to be in, of course, though also slightly nervous-making (that’s not remotely a proper word, is it?). Being one of the first out of the starting gate for the new imprint means I’m getting a lot of support from Orbit, and it’s good to feel your publisher is making an effort. I can’t help but be slightly nervous about it, but on the whole I’m quite good at not worrying too much about things I can’t control. The book’s what it is, Orbit are working to get it a bit of profile on the internet and in US bookstores: what happens next depends entirely on what readers think of it, which is as it should be for any book.
As for a trip to the States, not much chance of that in the near future, I fear. Author publicity tours, especially ones that involve crossing large bodies of water, cost substantial amounts of money and the economics of such things (for either the publisher or the author) don’t remotely make sense unless the author is much more successful and well known than little old me.

Thanks for your time Brian. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next with Orisian, Taim and Aeglyss…

‘Acacia (The War with the Mein)’ – David Anthony Durham (Doubleday Books)

I know there’s still a few months left to go before the end of the year but I think I may have found my debut of 2007. David Anthony Durham has already made his name as a writer of historical fiction (‘Gabriel’s Story’, ‘Walk through Darkness’ and ‘Pride of Carthage’) and now he has decided to try his hand at fantasy, something that I think fans of the genre will be pleased about for years to come.
The island of Acacia lies at the heart of a mighty empire but it is an empire with corruption in its roots. The royal children have been raised in blissful ignorance of this but an invasion from the north will force them to confront unpleasant truths and how they deal with these will determine far more than the fate of an empire.
I’ve read many books this year (with many more to come) but none have enthralled me in quite the same way that ‘Acacia’ managed to. With some books, you can skim a passage (and still get the meaning) but Durham seems to choose each word so meticulously that you cannot help but pay equal attention to each and every one. Reading ‘Acacia’ is like watching a flower bloom in slow motion, first you start off with the bud and then you get to watch it slowly become something beautiful. This is just how it is with the book; Durham starts off by focussing on a single event and gradually builds on this until you find yourself right in the middle of a complex and enthralling world. I found the characterisation to be spot on. A group of royal brothers and sisters can be one of the worst offending fantasy clichés (especially if they’re on the run from mortal danger). Durham avoids this pitfall by spending a great deal of time exploring the motivations behind each of the children and gives us fleshed out characters that we can identify with. Having said that though I found the format of the book (a chapter on each of the children with some lesser characters also grabbing the spotlight) encouraged me to concentrate on certain characters and not be so interested in others. I loved reading about Dariel and Corrin (which surprised me, I didn’t think she’d be that great) but Mina wasn’t quite so impressive, apart from the scenes with Maeben that is…
There seems to be a real trend for moral ambiguity in fantasy right now and ‘Acacia’ is no exception. Every character is painted in shades of grey (even the ‘so called’ worst of them), Durham turns all expectations upside down and then proceeds to… well, that would be spoiling things. Suffice it to say that the reader is kept guessing the whole way through and will finish the book with a different viewpoint to that which they started from. The only thing I wasn’t entirely sure about was how much of a social commentary (if any) was being made. A country whose growth was based on the slave trade and feeding narcotic substances to the natives, does that remind you of any countries (in the real world) that have done the same thing? I can think of a couple. The shape of the landmass is a bit of a give-away as well (I think). If there is a point being made here then it straddles a line where it could get in the way of the story itself, I think Durham gets away with it but only just.
‘Acacia’ isn’t perfect but then no debut is. What we’re given though, is the promise of many good things to come, I fully intend to stick around for more.

Nine out of Ten

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Graeme’s Retro Classics! ‘Labyrinth’ & ‘The Dark Crystal’

Normally I would only write about one film at a time but these two are so wrapped up together, in my childhood, that they are impossible to separate. I was a big fan of the Muppets as a kid, as with many other families they were essential Saturday night viewing. The thing was, no matter how entertaining they were I knew they weren’t real. When placed against a real life backdrop there was something cartoon-like about Kermit/Fozzie etc that meant while you enjoyed watching them you were never going to make a real connection. They were just puppets; bits of material on string, not real at all. At least that’s what I thought until I was taken to see ‘The Dark Crystal’ and ‘Labyrinth’.

‘The Dark Crystal’ just blew me away when I saw it for the first time, it still blows me away when I see it now. There was no real life backdrop for the puppets to look fake against, everything that mattered was animated and that lent the affair a surreal and mystical air. At the time, it seemed like I had never seen anything more ‘real’ in my life, the level of detail (down to the tiniest insect) was astounding. The characters (actors?) were doing things that only human actors had done previously. They had families and a motivation to rail against the mortal perils they found themselves facing. They could even die. This was a world away from light Saturday entertainment. When faced with a world of such intricacy, what could I do but live in it whole-heartedly?

I thought ‘The Dark Crystal’ was a one off but it turned out that I was very wrong. A couple of years later; Jim Henson came back and did it all again but this time with a couple of differences. ‘Labyrinth’ was full of the same things that made ‘The Dark Crystal’ special. Again, everything that mattered was animated but this time with a sense about it; one that would appeal to children and adults alike. Who hasn’t laughed (at least a little) at the ‘perils’ Sarah faces when trying to find her way through the Labyrinth? Not everything was animated though, the real world finds its way into the film through settings and two of the main characters. This time, the ‘real world’ scenes, at the beginning, serve as a counterpoint to the ‘other-worldliness’ of the Labyrinth but (at the same time) the ‘real world’ comes across as slightly less real than the Labyrinth itself. Despite some wooden acting at times, I think the two human actors do a great job of interacting in a believable way with a bunch of puppets. David Bowie, in particular, hams it up superbly as the Goblin King and manages to look very impressed with a certain ‘enhancement’ given to him by the props department. Jennifer Connelly, well… I had a little crush on her…
How could I almost forget the songs? I’ll bet everyone reading this is humming one of the tunes as they do. I’ve got the ‘Firey’ song going through my head.
These films are one of the main reasons that I’m into fantasy films and literature these days. I’m just waiting for the ‘Dark Crystal’ sequel to be released and then the magic will begin all over again.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

Author Interview - Karen Miller

Hi Karen, thanks for agreeing to take part in this interview

1) These days, a typical fantasy series will either be a trilogy or a
multi-volume epic. What made you decide on a duology?

Long story. When I started the ‘Kingmaker, Kingbreaker’ story (way back when)
it was a single volume and that was its title. But for various reasons I
couldn't get it done. I had crises of confidence, real life got in the
way of writing. I started and stopped and rewrote the beginning instead
of getting to the end, a bunch of times. Eventually, just to make
myself finish the damned thing, I wrote it as a film script -- and
entered it in a script competition. Needless to say I didn't win, but I
got some good feedback on the characters and the dialogue. So then I
went back and novelised the film script and that got me to a finished
first draft of a real life novel. If memory serves, it came in around
120,000 words. The whole thing. I polished that and submitted it to
Voyager Australia. It was knocked back with an invite to resubmit after
a rewrite and a fantastic list of suggestions on how it might be
improved. So I had another look and promptly passed out from
embarrassment, since it was now abundantly clear to me how wrong I'd
been to submit it like that. Mostly I saw how much I'd short-changed the
story, and glossed over a whole heap of events. So I sat down, found
what I felt was the best 'break point' in the story, reworked the first
part into the first novel The Innocent Mage, worked up the outline for
book 2, known in Australia as Innocence Lost, resubmitted, and made the
sale. At the heart of all this palaver was my profound self-doubt. I just
couldn't believe I had that much story in me. I've subsequently
discovered that I do, that my natural story length is pretty long. But
that was something I had to discover by doing. I was also influenced by
my theatre background. I tend to think in either a 2-act or a 3-act structure, like a play.
At this point I don't have any really long connected series in mind, a
Jordan or Martin or Elliot 7+ act stories. The standalone series novel
or the two or three act structure seems to be my default construct.

2) In your introduction to 'Innocent Mage', you say that you "fervently
hope" this won't be your last fantasy series. Do you have others
planned? Are they also set in the land of Lur?

I do indeed have others planned. In fact I've been amazingly lucky.
Currently I'm working on a trilogy, Godspeaker. Brand new world, brand
new characters. Book 1, Empress of Mijak, released in Australia in June
and will start releasing in the UK and US next year with Orbit. Book 2
comes out here in December, and book 3 next June. Releasing in Australia
next April, under a pen name, is a standalone series -- The Rogue Agent
series, with book 1 The Accidental Sorcerer. No word yet on a US/UK
release there. I have another 3-book deal in negotiation at the moment,
for release in Australia, the US and the UK, but I can't announce the
particulars yet. I'm really looking forward to writing those stories,
though. I'm currently working on another Stargate novel, and will do
another one next year as well as the other mainstream stuff. Basically
I'm booked solid until 2010, writing-wise. I have other ideas simmering
on the backburner, but I'm not letting myself get ahead on those.
There's no point! My brain is already on the point of melting and
dribbling out of my ears.

3) Some authors have shied away from using maps in their books, saying
it distracts the reader from the story itself, but 'The Innocent Mage'
has one at the beginning. Was this a conscious decision on your part or
a decision made by the publisher?

Oh lord. Trust me when I say the maps aren't my idea!!! Voyager, my
Australian publisher, really likes to use maps. I hate them. I never
look at them in other books, I'm not geographically minded, I'm afraid.
I do bad maps. I draw them and someone else does their best to tidy
them but if I didn't have to have them I wouldn't. I could get someone
else to draw them from scratch but there's no point because I just
don't think that way. I appreciate enough to understand causal links
between geography and human civilisations but beyond that?
Aaarrgghhhh!!!!! I am held in deep disdain by other more mappish
authors, trust me. I do appreciate many fantasy fans love the whole map thing
and I wish for their sakes it was something I liked and could do halfway decently.
But there you have it. I'm crap with the maps.

4) Asher's 'rural' accent stands out right from the start and
illustrates clearly the divide between the Olken and Doranen people.
Where did the inspiration for this come from and ...

Probably from the time I spent living and working in the UK. I'm
fascinated by regional differences in accents. I think it's amazing
that even though the language is basically the same the musicality of
it is so incredibly varied in the same country. In any country -- look
at the US, for example. And here in Australia, there are regional
differences. Accents really do define communities and clans. And
especially for Asher, with his strong sense of identity and his
prejudice against the Doranen, holding onto his accent, playing it up
even, is his way of maintaining his identity and past, even as he tries
to forge a different future for himself. He's a bolshy character, quite
bloody-minded. It's his way of rebelling, of drawing a line in the
sand. I really enjoyed playing with that.

5) As a female author, do you find it difficult writing male characters?
Well, I don't think I do, insofar as I find it quite easy to relate to
the male psyche. In fact in many ways I find it easier to relate to the
male psyche than to the female, really. I've never been a particularly
'feminine' female. Never played with dolls, never been into fashion and
makeup and frills and so forth. With me it was always dogs and horses.
I mean, if I'm going out I scrub up okay, but I've never been the
maternal, nurturing type. And I tend to have a very pragmatic, logical,
intellectual approach to life and the world in general which --
although I might get shot for gender stereotyping here -- I feel is
more male than female. But I am female, not male, so I do worry that
I might be feminising my male characters. A good friend's husband,
one of my beta readers, always looks for that when he reads my works
in progress. So far he hasn't thought I've fallen into that trap. And quite
a lot of letters from readers have been from men, which is really gratifying.
Because often when I'm reading fiction written by women, using male characters,
I feel the men have been emotionally feminised. So I do try hard to
avoid that.

6) What made you decide to write fantasy as oppose to, say… political
thrillers? Were you a fantasy fan first (who decided to write a book)
or were you a writer who decided to write fantasy?

I was definitely a fantasy/SF reader who grew up wanting to write
stories, and so naturally gravitated towards spec fiction. Fantasy in
particular, because I'm also a huge history buff and I think history
and fantasy fiction have a natural affinity. Sadly, I've always been
pretty crap at science, which isn't so good if you're wanting to write
science fiction. I think, writing fantasy, you get the best of all
worlds. You can incorporate a lot of things when you're writing fantasy
-- it truly is the Big Tent of genre fiction. Mystery, romance,
thriller stuff, political intrigues -- it can all be used in the
fantasy genre.

7) How do you feel about the reaction, so far, to 'The Innocent Mage'?
Enormously gratified. Enormously grateful. See, I knew this book wasn't
startlingly original. I knew I was playing around with some pretty
standard fantasy tropes. But for me it's always been about character.
Being startlingly original is fantastic, but if I learned one thing as
a spec fiction bookseller it was this: your mainstream readership wants to
fall in love with the characters. They'll accept you haven't done
anything gobsmackingly new if you give them characters they can love
and hate and cheer for. I love to fall in love with characters, in all the books
and TV dramas I adore, at the end of the day it's all about character. How many cop
shows are there? How many medical shows? Lots and lots. What keeps people
watching them are the characters and their relationships, and that's what I try
to do in my work. I am madly in love with my characters, even the bad guys,
and I just hope like hell that love translates into the work and readers fall in love
with them too. So far, that seems to be the case -- and I am so relieved, and so
happy about that. Which isn't to say I'm not looking at ways to grow as a writer.
I think it's safe to say that the Godspeaker trilogy is a lot less safe, a lot
more startling but I started out with baby steps. I wanted to walk
before I tried running. And regardless of what else I do, I'll always
try to keep the focus on character.
So yes. The Innocent Mage has done well in Australia and the UK, and I
am beyond thrilled. Both Voyager and Orbit have taken such a chance on
me, an unknown author. It's so wonderful that I haven't let them down
so far! The Innocent Mage releases into the US in September. So my
fingers are crossed American readers like it too.

8) Can you give us any hints as to what we might expect to see in 'The
Awakened Mage'?

Well, without getting spoilery, readers are in for a bit of a roller
coaster ride. There's less humour and more angst, given the events at
the end of Innocent Mage. You know the saying: things are always
darkest before the dawn! And it's safe to say that life gets pretty
dark for our heroes as they fight to save Lur from the ravages of evil.
One of the themes of the story is sacrifice, after all ...

9) It's the night before 'The Awakened Mage' is released. Will you
still feel nervous about how it's received or has that feeling gone now
you're a published author?

Absolutely. Being published doesn't change a thing, I'm afraid! Not for
me, anyway. Every story is a new adventure, every new audience is a
new chance to fall on my face. Even though these books have done
well in Australia, I was terrified before the release of the new
series, with Empress. I was terrified when Innocent Mage launched in
the UK, and the nerves are starting up again knowing that in two weeks
it'll hit bookshelves in the US. Waiting for the UK reaction to The
Awakened Mage is nerve-wracking. Every time, I feel nervous. Every time,
I'm worried I'm going to disappoint people and that they're going to feel
let down.
For me, I think it's part of the process. I'll just have to get used to
it. And maybe if I stop feeling nervous it'll mean I've become
complacent -- and that would be awful. I don't ever want to take
readers for granted. If that looks like happening I want people to hit
me with a lump of 2 by 4!

10) How does it feel being a part of this surge of Australian authors
suddenly gaining recognition in the genre? Do you have a favourite? Do
you guys all hang out together?

It feels fantastic. I am so incredibly proud of what Australian spec
fiction authors have achieved. We're such a small population, and yet we
keep on producing great sports teams and individuals and great genre
writers! I also consider myself incredibly lucky, since I've come into
the game after other writers like Sara Douglass and Trudi Canavan and
Margo Lanagan have really paved the way internationally for Australian
spec fiction writers to be noticed and taken seriously. I think we're also
hugely indebted to publishers like Orbit, who've so strongly championed
new Australian writers.
We're pretty geographically scattered, so mostly we meet up at
conventions a couple of times a year. And of course there's the
Internet! We're only ever an email away.
As for favourites, well, I never answer that question. Sorry. Hand
on my heart, I'm in awe of every Australian writer on the scene. They
all contribute something amazing and uniquely Australian to the
international spec fiction literary community, and I consider myself
privileged to be counted among them.

Thanks for answering my questions, hope you have a great day!
You're welcome. If you need any clarification of answers, just let me
know! And thanks again for this wonderful opportunity.

A couple of things coming up this week...

Orbit Book's big fantasy debut, for this year, has been Karen Miller's 'The Innocent Mage'. I reviewed it and although it wasn't greatly original the depth of characterisation made this a novel that I really enjoyed. I was very suprised to get an email from Karen, thanking me for the review I gave her book, and I thought I'd chance it and see if she was willing to do an interview. Not only was Karen willing but I had the answers back a matter of mere hours after they had been sent! Karen says some really interesting things about the process behind her writing and why her debut series is only two books long (unlike others I could mention). I'll be posting the interview tomorrow so be sure to stop by and see what Karen has to say.

I'm also deep into David Anthony Durham's debut fantasy novel 'Acacia'. I've heard a lot of good things about this book and wanted to check it out myself. After a couple of hundred pages I'm in awe of how good this guy is (so much in fact that I'm wondering if this really is his debut novel and he hasn't got a couple more hidden away). I'll be posting a review sometime this week.

As well as these two bits, expect to see more book reviews and a tantalising glimpse into my state of mind as I crumble under the relentless pressure of the daily commute...

Saturday, 18 August 2007

‘Stealing Life’ – Antony Johnston (Abaddon Books)

After reading ‘A Kind of Peace’ I was a little dubious about picking up the next in the ‘Dreams of Inan’ series. Like I’ve said before though, I’m made of sterner stuff than to let a mere book beat me (although I’ve still to pick up anything by Terry Goodkind…)! In the end, I read ‘Stealing Life’ over a couple of days spent wrestling with fellow commuters on the London Underground. Like it’s predecessor it has it’s flaws but makes for a more entertaining read.
Nicco Salarum is a thief who is about to bite off more than he can chew on his latest job. How can one act of theft start a holy war? You are about to find out and Nicco has his hands full trying to stop what he has unwittingly started.
While there are still large chunks of text dealing with background history (and economic climates off all things, not something that interests me…) more attention is paid to the story this time. ‘Stealing Life’ is modelled on the classic ‘crime caper gone wrong’ scenario and is full of beautiful women, crime bosses, and double crossing people who aren’t what they seem. It’s a cracking read for the morning commute and had me thinking, about what was going to happen next, while I was meant to be doing ‘work stuff’. I also liked the ‘flashback’ sequences that gave us an insight into Nicco’s motives.
The only problem though is that any sci-fi/fantasy ‘crime’ novel written these days is immediately going to be compared to a certain other fantasy ‘crime caper’ sequence that has laid down the marker for other books to aspire to. You know the one I mean! When faced with such illustrious competition, the flaw’s in ‘Stealing Life’ become apparent. I’ve said already that there is a lot of padding that (although it’s crucial for setting up a series) can be cumbersome for someone who’s just after a quick read. I also found it slightly irritating that a lot of what Nicco did was based on inspiration to start off with but, a couple of pages later, the author would give a detailed explanation of Nicco’s thinking. I can understand why Johnston did this but, to me, it seemed that he couldn’t make up his mind whether Nicco functioned in instinct or rational thought. This confused me and meant I didn’t enjoy the book as much as I could.
‘Stealing Life’ is a definite improvement on ‘A Kind of Peace’ and hints that maybe the series will pick up in the future. It’s another good read for the train but there are better books out there that do exactly the same thing.

Six and a half out of Ten

Friday, 17 August 2007

'El Sombra' - Competition Winner!

Thanks to everyone who entered. Unfortunately there could be only one winner and that lucky fellow is Gordy McClean (Pope Gordy on the SFX Forum) from Greenock, Scotland. The book is on it's way Gordy!
There will be more competitions in the future (can't say when for the future is a funny thing…) so stick around if you fancy your chances at winning quality Sci-Fi and Fantasy books!

Have a great weekend everyone!

‘The Changing of the Guard’ – Another Perspective?

One of Aidan’s first posts on ‘A Dribble of Ink’ was a very interesting article called ‘The Changing of the Guard’, a piece about the rising stars of the fantasy firmament. There were a few names that we would expect to see on any such list but also a few names that were so fresh as to be almost unheard of. Looking at Aidan’s list, everyone can agree that the future of fantasy literature is in safe hands.
Pat has questioned Aidan’s article in a post that draws heavily on his knowledge and experience of the fantasy genre, publishing in particular. Pat quite rightly questions whether a ‘Changing of the Guard’ can happen in an environment where the ‘Old Guard’ are well entrenched and shifting a healthy number of units with each new release. Love or hate Goodkind and Jordan, Pat points out that they will always be the number one draw (as well as others) and that the ‘Old Guard’ aren’t ready to go just yet.
While Pat is absolutely right, I wonder if a slightly different ‘changing of the guard’ is taking place anyway. It may not be happening in the bookstores (in terms of units sold) and we may not see any real change for a long while but I would argue that a ‘changing of the fantasy guard’ is taking place in both readers and writers at this very moment. There are a number of new talents coming up with original ideas, they were readers (once upon a time) who thought, “I want to see more of [insert whatever] in fantasy, I’m going to write it!” This in turn strikes a spark with the reader who thinks, “I like this, where can I get more?” While there is still a great deal of mileage left in more established authors, change is happening slowly and the evidence can be seen everywhere. People using on-line forums slate a particular member of the old guard and some may then go on to writing workshops where fresh ideas are discussed and tested. A lucky few may then have their work published and could end up inspiring more readers to have a go themselves (and so the cycle continues). The guard is changing but it is happening so slowly you don’t even realise it. I’m looking forward to seeing what the ‘fantasy landscape’ looks like in ten years time. While some areas will have been fully explored, there will be mountain ranges on the horizon that are awaiting exploration. I for one cannot wait.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

‘Command & Conquer – Tiberium Wars’ – Keith R.A.Decandido (Orbit Books)

Hands up if you’ve never played ‘Command & Conquer’? Oh, looks like it’s just me. Apparently it’s a really great strategy game where futuristic soldiers blast the hell out of each and try to take over the world (but you knew that already). This week I’ve been choosing books that are quite short (as they don’t take up too much room on a packed commuter train), ‘Tiberium Wars’ fitted the bill so ended up making the arduous trek across London with me…
The story of ‘Tiberium Wars’ can be summed up in two words, both of which are found in the title. Tiberium is an alien substance that’s slowly taking over the Earth. Some want to get rid of it while others want to embrace it’s radical potential. Cue loads of gun battles as the heroic 22nd Infantry Division take on the evil Brotherhood of Nod (perhaps the least terrifying name for a terrorist group, ever).
This is a tie-in for the computer game and unfortunately it shows. There is a lot of background information that is clearly intended to fill in the gaps in the game and give the reader/gamer a better picture of the world that these events take place in. While this is great news for a ‘C&C’ fan it’s not so great for the casual reader. There’s a lot of stuff that will only really make sense if you’ve played the game (for example all of the military terminology and ‘name dropping’) and the rest of it gets in the way of what is actually a fast paced and exciting tale of futuristic warfare. The characters are entertaining in a ‘Starship Troopers’ kind of way, loads of bluff camaraderie and ‘gung-ho’ troop movements. For a book that is relatively short (289 pages) you end up getting quite attached to some of the soldiers and feel all the appropriate feelings when they ‘buy the farm’. The journalism ‘sub-plot’ is interesting but fizzles out with no real sense of closure, maybe this will be revived in later books.
‘Tiberium Wars’ is a good quick read for the journey into (and out of) work but, unfortunately, I reckon this is one solely for fans of the game as it seems this is what the book is aimed at. Go play the game first, see if you like it and then (maybe) pick this book up.

Five and a Half out of Ten

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Here’s a question for you…

I’ve done it and I’ll bet you’ve done it too. You start off reading a series of books and you think they’re great. A few books in and things aren’t looking so good but you think, “I’ll keep going, things are bound to pick up in the next book.” At least, that’s what you think; little do you know it but you’re just about to enter the ‘twilight zone’ in every series, that one book that perhaps represents the lowest point of the author’s career. You hate it and cannot believe that you shelled out money, that you worked for, in order to buy it. You go on as many on-line forums as you can and go on at length about how rubbish you think it is. But when you think no-one is looking, you gather together your hard earned cash, sneak off to the bookstore and buy the next book. This one may be just as bad (or even worse) than the last but you will still go to the bookstore, when the next one comes out, and keep buying.
Why do we do this? Is it force of habit? Is it a need to see the completed series on the bookshelf? Are we trying to make some kind of ironic point? Why do we keep buying books, in a series, when the last one was so bad it makes us want to cry?
I’m just as guilty of this weird behaviour; I’m collecting the ‘Wheel of Time’ series. For me, the series started off looking very good indeed. And it kept getting better; peaking at book four, slumping a little on book five and then perking up again for book six. Then things started to get ropey. Far too many characters and sub-plots, and Jordan seemed to feel compelled to follow each one through to the bitter end. It also got to a point where I felt like breaking something if one more female character folded her arms, pulled her braid or said something bad about ‘the menfolk’. And then ‘Crossroads of Twilight’ was published… It had everything I hated about the last few books only it was all described in far greater detail this time. Fifty pages on what an Aes Sedai campsite looked like. Whole chapters where all a travelling circus did was travel a few yards up the road. It’s safe to say that there are only a few books that I have enjoyed less than ‘Crossroads of Twlight’. But you know what? As soon as ‘Knife of Dreams’ came out in mass-market paperback I made sure I had a copy. Why did I do this? For me, I think it was a case of sheer bloody-mindedness. I looked at the reams of paper that I had trawled to (to get to this point) and thought, “I can’t stop now, especially as there’s only supposed to be one book left after this!” The other thing was that, despite my confusion at some of their actions, I had invested a lot of time in watching certain characters grow and wanted to see how things ended up for them. Oh yes, and the bookshelf wouldn’t look right without the whole series sitting on it…
That’s my confession, what about yours? Why do you continue to put money in the wallet of an author that you really don’t think deserves it anymore? You don’t have to name any names if you don’t want to!

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Joe Abercrombie to write more books!

Joe Abercrombie has announced, over on his Website that he has just signed a deal with Gollancz to write two more books set in the same world as 'The Blade Itself' and 'Before They are Hanged'.
In the man's own words,

The first is going to be called Best Served Cold, is set in the warring city-states of Styria, and, in case you hadn't guessed, is about revenge. It's largely planned out and the first couple of chapters drafted. If forced to sum it up I'd probably call it a fantasy thriller, light on the magic and heavy on the blood, treachery and poison, with the usual hefty portions of dark grey characters and black humour. And there'll be elves. An awful lot of elves.

Only kidding.

This is the kind of news that brightens up a particularly grim day in the office! It's a shame about the elves though... ;o)

‘A Kind of Peace’ – Andy Boot (Abaddon Books)

I’ve read a few books from Abaddon and have enjoyed all of them so far. They’re short, sharp slices of gutsy pulp fiction that are good for an hour or two’s read in the garden with a cold beer and can also make a sticky Tube journey a lot more bearable. It was with this in mind that I took Andy Boot’s ‘A Kind of Peace’ to work with me this morning, a nice quick read that I could have finished by the time I got back. While it was a quick read, unfortunately it wasn’t actually that good…
The planet of Inan has only just found peace after five hundred years of war. A world where magic and technology co-exist has realised that Mages aren’t just very old wizards, they’re the ultimate weapons and their use can only result in mutually assured destruction. If this were the case, why would anyone risk an already fragile peace by kidnapping the Mage of Bethel? Simeon 7, the bodyguard, must find out and clear his own name at the same time.
As I’ve said, Abaddon books are known for being fast paced, over the top affairs where the main focus is on action and huge explosions. ‘A Kind of Peace’ takes all these elements and decides that it can do perfectly well without them. What we’re left with is a decent story that pretty much collapses under the interminable slowness of it’s own pace. If a book is going to be under 300 pages long then it needs to know what it’s about and get on with the job in hand. Boot concentrates on giving the reader loads of background history and when I looked at what was supposed to be happening in the story my first thought was, ‘there isn’t enough time for this, things are meant to be happening right now!’ The uneven bias towards exposition leaves us with little room to get to know any of the characters and we’re left with a bunch of people who look like they’ve been given one distinctive characteristic each and left to get on with it. While the mixture of technology and magic is always an interesting concept, it sometimes looks as if not enough attention has been paid to what this actually means for the inhabitants of Inan. If you were looking for an escaped convict in an academy of magic but couldn’t find him, you’d probably assume that magic was being used to hide him wouldn’t you? Well, you might but it certainly doesn’t occur to the Inan security forces that are carrying out the search…
For me, this was a story with potential that could have been so much more. Give this one a miss and pick up one of the ‘Tomes of the Dead’ or ‘Afterblight Chronicles’ books instead.

Three out of Ten

Monday, 13 August 2007

‘The Innocent Mage’ – Karen Miller (Orbit Books)

It seems that everywhere you look these days there is an Australian sci-fi/fantasy author with a book for you to read. Let me say right now that this is not a bad thing! Glenda Larke’s ‘Heart of the Mirage’ was pretty good and I really enjoyed Fiona McIntosh’s ‘Odalisque’. Right now, the jury is still out on Trudi Canavan (although I’ve still to read her ‘Age of the Five’ books). I just finished reading Karen Miller’s ‘The Innocent Mage’ and I think she could be the best of the bunch.
Asher is a fisherman with dreams of finding his fortune in the magical city of Dorana. However, it isn’t so much fortune but destiny that awaits him…
Stop! Don’t go! This may sound like your regular run-of-the-mill fantasy novel (and it is to an extent) but stick around for a little longer and you may be pleasantly surprised.
What Miller’s tale perhaps lacks in originality is more than made up for by the freshness of it’s characters and the attention paid to the world building. By the time you have finished reading you will feel like you have known Asher, Gar and the rest of the characters all your life. Asher’s character, in particular, is difficult to get to grips with (at first) as he speaks and thinks in a thick ‘countrified’ accent that will have you re-reading certain passages in order to get their meaning. Once you get used to this though, you will enjoy being privy to the thoughts of a fisherman who is more intelligent than the nobility he works for. The issue of prophecy, in fantasy novels, can be a tiresome cliché but Miller appears to successfully side-step this by concentrating on the effects the prophecy has on those who must make sure that it comes to pass. Dathne’s character initially comes across as a shrewish woman but once you understand what she has to deal with then you will feel for her.
I did feel that the magic system wasn’t really explained fully and I’m hoping this will be resolved in the next book. How does the use of weather magic help to maintain the wall and why aren’t the Olken folk allowed to practice their own magic?
The story itself is told in a deceptively simple style that makes it easy for you to get into the book and then to just keep reading until you’re done. I polished this one off in a weekend and I’m keen to see what happens next.
Like I said, ‘The Innocent Mage’ isn’t the most original work of fantasy that you’ll ever read but after you’re done you will have enjoyed it too much to care. An assured debut which promises good things to come.

Eight out of Ten

Sunday, 12 August 2007

'El Sombra' - Who wants it?

I've read Al Ewing's 'El Sombra' (review a little way further down the page) and I thought it was great. It's not a demanding read and it's certainly not the beginning of one of those really long series where you have to wait years for the next installment (you know the ones I mean... ) It's 300 pages of 'in your face' pulp entertainment, ideal for a quick read by the pool while you're on holiday.
What's that? You're going on holiday and you fancy something new to read by the pool or at the airport? Well, I think you may have come to my blog at just the right time...
I've got one copy of 'El Sombra' to give away to one lucky chap or lady, do you want it?
It couldn't be easier to give yourself a chance of winning, simply email me (address at the right hand side of the screen) and let me know your mailing address and if you frequent any particular forums. I'll announce the winner on Friday...
Good luck!

Friday, 10 August 2007

Shaun Hutson Omnibus Part Two - 'Nemesis' (Orbit Books)

The journey into work was a nightmare today so I ended up finishing this one quicker than I thought. It was a quick read for other reasons as well but more on that later...
What could possibly be worse than your four year old daughter being murdered? The knowledge that you were having an affair the night she was killed... That one night left Sue and David Hackett's marriage in ruins. They move to the small town of Hinkston in an attempt to salvage their relationship but their past will catch up with them and the town holds a dark secret of it's own...
Hutson injects this 'Midwich Cuckoos'/'The Omen' style tale with a creeping sense of fear and dread that will make you tense up and half close your eyes every time you turn the page. David's quest for redemption will initially make you feel disgust but I challenge you not to feel a little sorry for him by the end. The ending is a shocker in more ways than one. Again, you will be left gasping as this book is not for the even faintly sqeamish...
Hutson's penchant for 'full on, in your face detail' ultimately hobbles a story with potential. I've got a pretty strong stomach but to my mind there was no need for such a graphic explanation of how David's daughter died and what was done to her. We know she died and certain inferences were made at the time. Returning to it just smacked of cheap sensationalism.
A good book that was undone by something that was needless.

Three out of Ten

‘Shaun Hutson Omnibus’ Part One – ‘Shadows’ (Orbit Books)

I’ve never reviewed an omnibus before so wasn’t quite sure how to approach this one. In the end I figured I’d review one of the books today and the other one tomorrow. So without further ado, come with me gentle reader and dip into the nightmarish world of ‘Shadows’…
The human mind is a wonderful thing but there is so much that we don’t know about it. While Jonathan Mathias uses the power of his mind to heal the sick, psychic investigators are probing areas of the human that are best left well alone. What they discover will bring death and misery to thousands…
Shaun Hutson’s cautionary tale of astral projection shows the reader that, as in all the best horror, true evil lies within the hearts of men. It’s a shame then that he chooses to smother some genuinely tense moments (and a superb twist in the tale) with bucket loads of visceral gore. If you’re at all squeamish then there are several points where you may want to skip a few pages, that’s all I’m saying… Like I said though, Hutson provides several particularly tense moments where you can almost feel the hair on the back of your neck stand up and you end up shouting at the characters to… (sorry, don’t want to spoil it) You will not see the twist in the tale until it hits you between the eyes, I guarantee you’ll be left gasping in astonishment and thinking “what the…”
‘Shadows’ grabs you by the throat and drags you to a shattering climax. You may stop and think, “hang on, how did that work?” My advice here is not to think about it too hard; this book isn’t meant to be a deep read, just enjoy the ride.
‘Shadows’ is a great opening book to this omnibus. If anything, it’s a slight shame that Hutson felt the need to overdo it with the gore (I never thought I’d hear myself say that, must be getting old…)

Seven and a Half out of Ten

Thursday, 9 August 2007

‘Shadowbred’ – Paul S. Kemp (Wizard’s of the Coast)

I’ve only ever read one ‘Forgotten Realms’ book. Correction, I’ve only ever read the first few pages of one ‘Forgotten Realms’ book. Apart from one character with a particularly unfortunate name, I felt swamped by the level of background knowledge required and (as a result) stopped reading. It was with this in mind that I approached Paul Kemp’s ‘Shadowbred’, wondering what to expect and wishing I had the ‘Big Book of Forgotten Realms History’ with me… It turns out I needn’t have worried, although a level of background knowledge is required, Kemp is far more interested in delivering a quality tale than showing off what he knows.
All is definitely not good in Sembia, the Overmaster lies dead and his murderers use this to spread discord for their Goddess. Civil war is only days away and world shattering apocalypse not long after that. Erevis Cale is trying to honour his dead friend by being a hero but he is about to find that being a hero will lead him to places he had hoped never to return to…
I’ve never really been into D&D and mistakenly assumed that the tie-in books were just retellings of people’s old games. Maybe that’s the case with other novels but certainly not the case here. What you get here is a tight well-crafted tale of Machiavellian intrigue, high adventure and human drama. All the D&D staples are out in force but they’re doing stuff that you would normally expect from more (so-called) ‘high brow’ fantasy. Erevis Cale will soon assume iconic status (if he hasn’t already), he arrives in a scene that could have come straight from a Clint Eastwood film and proceeds to act in a similar manner throughout the rest of the book. He has a dark and tortured past but, in the way of all good heroes, strives to do what is right whatever the cost. I want to read more about him and his friends. The supporting cast all behave in a manner that is entirely plausible, no ‘get out of jail free’ cards are used to deal with tricky situations here…
The book isn’t without some minor flaws however. The sudden switch from third to first person perspectives proves detrimental to the flow of the story and had me skipping back to see if a page had gone missing. Although Kemp generally handles the background history quite deftly, large chunks of it can sometimes prove a little overpowering to the first time reader. To be fair, this is a rare occurrence.
‘Shadowbred’ is evidence of an author writing at (or very near) the top of his game in a world that he feels comfortable in (which I’m guessing could prove awkward for writers who write in a ‘shared world’). If Paul Kemp isn’t one of WoTC’s top drawer writers then I’d be very surprised…

Nine out of Ten

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

I was thinking…

We all read sci-fi/fantasy primarily for entertainment but also because it’s an escape from all the rubbish we have to deal with on a daily basis. I’ve just had a pretty awful day at work and the first thing I did when I left was to dive straight into ‘Shadowbred’ (by Paul S. Kemp, I’ll be reviewing it tomorrow) where I exchanged a world of office drudgery for a world of swords, sorcery and high adventure. By the time I got home things were already much better.
The thing that struck me though is that while we all want to escape into these fantastical worlds, we all moan if these worlds are lacking in realism in any way. My pet hate is names that blatantly look as if they have thrown together using the left over pieces from a game of scrabble. For example, “Qualhurg sank a pint of werghiz, stroking his battleaxe ‘Unfelliaz’ whilst watching the Trilladan in the corner”, a line like that is pretty much guaranteed to have me crumpling an otherwise decent book into a ball and throwing it out of the window. I’ll bet you’re the same, it may not be names but I’ll bet there’s something that makes you think, “that’s just not realistic”. My point though is how much realism is it appropriate to expect from something that (at best) may only have a very tenuous link to reality? Should the reader expect something that they can identify with on some level, something that grounds them and prepares them for more fantastical elements. Or should the reader be expected to just completely suspend their disbelief and take whatever comes?
What do you guys think? What do you hate seeing in genre fiction? Should a writer write with the reader in mind or should they stay true to the vision in their head and to hell with the consequences…?

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Graeme’s Retro Classics! ‘Tron’ (1982)

Welcome to an occasional feature where I realise that I’m not reading quickly enough and try to fill in the gaps by waxing lyrical about the stuff I was into as a kid…
What’s the best ‘virtual reality’ film that you can think of? ‘The Matrix’? Don’t make me laugh… ‘The Lawnmower Man’? Oh please… Any other takers? Well, whatever you think the best film is, prepare to be trumped by a film that was ahead of it’s time and (according to the fanboy in me) will never be bettered. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you… ‘Tron’.
One of the best things about playing computer games, as a kid, was to pretend that you really were flying the spaceship that was shooting down hordes of alien scum. ‘Tron’ gave a generation of children a chance to experience at first hand what really goes on behind the computer monitor… It’s a world where every program ever written takes on the human characteristics of its ‘user’and happily exists to serve. It’s also a world where a power hungry AI can easily spiral out of control and threaten the safety of both the real and virtual worlds. A lowly security program and a disgruntled human are now everyone’s last hope. Matters will be settled by gladiatorial combat on the ‘Game Grid’…
What is there not to love about this film? Computer generated scenery that was years ahead of it’s time but still clunky enough that people could really believe it was the same as the graphics on their game consoles. A pseudo-religious philosophy that was original but close enough to ‘The Force’ so that people would ‘get it’. A soundtrack that was alien and haunting in it’s electronic simplicity. If that lot wasn’t enough then you also got a large slice of action packed computer games wish fulfilment for your money. The ‘light cycle’ races were tense adrenaline fuelled affairs while it was a real testament to the skills of the film makers that a fight between two guys with Frisbees could have you sitting on the edge of your seat. My favourite character was the ‘Bit’, an electronic version of a puppy that could only say ‘yes’ and ‘no’. The ‘Bit’ made me laugh then and still does now.
While ‘Star Wars’ will always be the film that had the most influence on my childhood ‘Tron’ definitely ranks up there in the top five at least. Any film that could inspire a seven year old me to pretend to be a ‘light cycle’ deserves no less.

Monday, 6 August 2007

‘The Heart of the Mirage’ – Glenda Larke (Orbit Books)

You’ve known me for a while now and you know that there are things that I really do not like to find in fantasy literature. If I’m going to read a book with made up ‘fantasy style names’ then they had better be damn good. When the heroine goes on a journey riding her Gorclak (or Shleth if there isn’t a handy Gorclak) then my hackles start to rise and the book is at an immediate disadvantage. If this wasn’t bad enough, one of the supporting characters does an impromptu impersonation of Robin when Batman is in peril. There has been a move in fantasy literature, recently, to make dialogue a little more gritty and edgy and this is not a bad thing at all (Cook and Erikson can take a bow for starters). However, when a character says, “Holy shit!” in the middle of a book that has based all its other dialogue on that of Ancient Rome then the effect is somewhat spoilt. Which is all a shame really because apart from these flaws the book itself isn’t that bad.
Ligea Gayed was stolen from her homeland as a child and raised as a citizen of the Tyranian Empire. Twenty years on, she is sent back to the rebellious province of Kardiastan with orders to deal with a rebel conspiracy. Glenda Larke then proceeds to take Ligea on a voyage of self-discovery as she is forced to confront the truths behind Tyranian rule and question her own position in society. As is often the case, there is more going on than is at first apparent and Ligea will soon be faced with decisions that are more far reaching…
It is nice sometimes to break out of the typical medieval Fantasy City and go somewhere different. Larke accomplishes this by setting her tale in the equivalent of Ancient Rome and the deserts of Africa and decorates the proceedings with some stunning imagery in the process. It’s hard to achieve any kind of rapport with Ligea as she is a pretty vile character to start off with. The downside of this is that any redemption can come across as forced and the end left me feeling pretty ambivalent towards her. Luckily the supporting characters are worth sticking with including the loyal Brand, enigmatic Mirager Temellin and the tragic Pinar. They provide some moments where Larke displays her main talent of being able to get inside her character’s heads and providing some quite intense emotional dialogue. Larke also has a talent for the whimsical as well, which can be seen in her depictions of the Mirage.
‘Heart of the Mirage’ proved slow to get going but (apart from the flaws already mentioned) does show signs of promise. Hopefully the next book won’t have any Gorclacks or Shleths…

Six and a Half out of Ten

Sunday, 5 August 2007

‘The Simpson’s Movie’ (2007)

Is this movie science fiction? Not at all. Is it fantasy? Only in the same way that any fictional work ultimately is. Is it horror? Errr… still no. What’s it doing here then? Two reasons; any cartoon show that borrows so heavily from popular culture will somehow find a little niche here and I thought it was really funny…
I’d be surprised if you didn’t know the story by now but here goes. Springfield faces ultimate disaster and the only person who can save them is the man who got the whole town trapped behind an indestructible transparent dome in the first place. Who is this man? I’ll give you a clue, his catchphrase is “d’oh!” You guessed it.
Take a regular episode of the Simpsons; multiply it’s length by three and the number of jokes (visual and otherwise) by the largest number you can think of. You now have the Simpson’s Movie; an hour and a half’s worth of prophecies of doom, Bart skateboarding naked, the death of Green Day, spider pig (great song by the way) and Maggie Simpson’s first word…
I’d actually gone off the Simpson’s recently (especially when Channel 4 keep repeating the same damn episodes!) so wasn’t sure what to expect. I’m glad I went though, as I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard and for so long. At it’s best the Simpson’s has always been irreverent and takes no prisoners, while the movie may not match some of the classic episodes it is still definitely the Simpson’s at its best. I could tell you all the bits that made me laugh the most but to be honest it would actually be quicker to go and see the movie for yourself, I’ll guarantee that you will enjoy it.
The story is a bit disjointed to start off with, as various plot strands converge, but soon hits top gear. There is so much happening on the screen that you will need to find a way to keep your eyelids propped open so you don’t miss anything. While this may prove uncomfortable it’s well worth it. The animation is no different from that used on the TV shows (how else could they do it?) but it’s still good and it makes a change to see an animated film where the story isn’t swamped by the animators trying to prove how ‘cutting edge’ they are.
In short, go and see the Simpson’s Movie (whatever it takes) for that warm feeling inside that you get when you’ve laughed so hard that you’ve almost ruptured something…

Nine and a Half out of Ten

Saturday, 4 August 2007

News from Pan MacMillan Books

If you're a Peter F. Hamilton fan then the odds are that you've already picked up a copy of his latest sci-fi epic 'The Dreaming Void'. However, the more discerning fan may be looking for something that's a little bit more special... Steven North, at Pan MacMillan books, may have just the very answer.
What's better than the new Peter F. Hamilton book? The new Peter F. Hamilton book that is boxed, signed and only available from Pan MacMillan. Have a click Here
for more information...

Also, for anyone after a bargain holiday read , Pan MacMillan are offering a 20% discount on a whole load of sci-fi/fantasy books including Peter F Hamilton, Neal Asher, Alan Campbell, Hal Duncan and David Bilsborough. Have a click Here for more information...

Thanks to Steven North (Pan MacMillan) for the heads up!

Have a great weekend guys!

Friday, 3 August 2007

‘The Walking Dead’ (Robert Kirkman) – Volumes 2-4

'Miles Behind Us' (Volume 2)
What’s the first thing you do after escaping a city filled with zombies and watching your little boy gun down the man who was sleeping with your wife? You pack everyone in your group into a camper van and set about trying to find somewhere (zombie free!) where you can settle down and wait things out. You pick up more travellers on the way and the unwritten laws of the horror genre start to come into play; the woman with the largest mouth will always be one of the first to die and teenagers will always be having sex when zombies attack!
Kirkman moves the action out into the countryside, builds up our hopes (for our band of travellers) and then takes them all away again. In this frightening new world a walled housing estate isn’t as safe as it seems and there is more to an isolated farm than at first meets the eye. Kirkman shows the reader, in no uncertain terms, that the problem is now widespread and will not be going away. Human reactions ranging from numb denial to grudging acceptance are shown along with their consequences. Can our survivors find safety anywhere? The answer may be just over the next hilltop… (Eight out of Ten)

'Safety Behind Bars' (Volume 3)
Prisons used to keep the dangerous people locked up but now the chain link fences of a prison may be the group’s only chance at living in safety. Or are they? Kirkman stays true to one of the zombie genre’s oldest tenets, ‘a zombie is only a mindless hungry corpse, it is humans that have the true capacity for evil’. Once the zombies have been cleared out of the jail, Kirkman finally has time to show us more of the motivations of each character. There is poignancy, frustration and rage. There are also misunderstandings that will have ramifications far into future episodes. We also learn that you don’t have to be bitten to become a zombie…
This is perhaps my favourite volume so far. The counterpoint of human drama, within the prison, and the ever increasing number of zombies outside makes for some tense moments which make you wonder if there is ultimately any point to what they are doing. Only time will tell… (Ten out of Ten)

'The Heart's Desire' (Volume 4)
The cliff-hanger from Volume 3 comes to a bloody conclusion that leaves the reader in no doubt as to what you must do to survive in this post apocalyptic world. Unfortunately, others are not so quick to catch on and this results in a falling out between friends that is almost apocalyptic in itself. Kirkman shakes things up by introducing an enigmatic new character who almost immediately sends established characters spiralling off in new directions. A radical approach to saving someone from zombie infection is hard hitting, graphic and will leave the reader gasping. Kirkman also has the knack of not letting things stagnate and always seems to be able to throw in a tricky situation to keep the impetus fresh. Rick’s speech, right at the end, is a real classic moment in the series and I’m looking forward to catching up and seeing what this means for everyone else… (Nine out of Ten)

In a genre that, at first sight, seems to overcrowded with superheroes (and moneymaking exercises… sorry, I meant superhero crossovers), the ‘Walking Dead’ is a little treasure chest hidden amongst the morass. A sometimes harrowing read that is ultimately rewarding.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

‘El Sombra’ – Al Ewing (Abaddon Books)

I’ve had a few books from Abaddon and my favourite so far has to be ‘Unnatural History’, the first in the ‘Pax Brittania’ series. I really enjoyed the darker take on Colonial Britain so was very pleased when ‘El Sombra’ popped through the letterbox (more of the same, hopefully)…
‘Magna Brittania’ is still the ultimate world power but Germany’s ‘Ultimate Reich’ is snapping at it’s heels and has it’s own designs on world domination. Nazi robots are far inferior to the British kind so the sleepy Mexican village of Pasito is overrun, by the steam driven wings of the Luftwaffe, and it’s inhabitants used as test subjects in a vile experiment. Not everyone is captured though… Out of agony and the darkest humiliation is born a hero who will take the fight back to the Nazis with a flashing sword and a laugh in the night, El Sombra!
Did you like the first Zorro film (the one with Antonio Banderas)? I’ll bet you watched the second one and thought, “not as good as the first one…” Read ‘El Sombra’ and have your faith restored in simple tales of swashbuckling heroism. We know how the story’s going to end but that’s not the point, it’s the journey that’s important and it’s a journey filled with brash heroes, evil villains and sultry women. Oh yes, and lots of sword fights! The action doesn’t let up for a minute and you could see this either being made into a movie or (in true ‘pulp’ style) becoming one of those Saturday serials like Flash Gordon or (funnily enough) Zorro. I liked the ‘pop culture’ reference to Marvel comics and the introduction of Hitler himself hints that there will be more ‘El Sombra’ stories to follow. I hope so anyway.
I would have liked to have seen some dates mentioned so I could see how it matched up with the tale of Ulysses Quicksilver. I also found it odd that the supporting cast of Nazi soldiers had more attention paid to their background stories than El Sombra did (how did he spend all that time in the desert?) The ‘enigmatic hero’ thing was handled well but didn’t quite feel right when compared to a detailed biography of every single faceless soldier.
On the whole though, ‘El Sombra’ was an entertaining read that kept my interest the whole time. It’s a definite ‘holiday read’ and while it won’t make you think weighty thoughts it will make you think “he took out six soldiers at once!?!” and “serves you right, you evil Nazi…”

Eight out of Ten

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Happy August Everybody!

August is a great month isn’t it? Loads of sunshine, nice weather but only if you’re living anywhere other than England (although we have got Great White Sharks off the coast of Cornwall so maybe the tropical times are just around the corner!)
During this time of atrociously bad weather one of the best things you can have is a well stocked bookshelf, unless your house floods that is… Until that time (and I’m really hoping it doesn’t happen) here are some of the books that you are going to be hearing about in August,

‘El Sombra’ – Al Ewing (Zorro meets Hitler in true pulp fiction style!)
‘The Heart of the Mirage’ – Glenda Larke (What I’m reading at the moment, hear what I have to say very soon)
‘The Innocent Mage’ – Karen Miller (One of Orbit Book’s big hitters)
‘The Name of the Wind’ – Patrick Rothfuss (Everyone says it’s the debut of the year, will I agree though…?)
‘The Night Watch’ – Sergei Lukyanenko (I’ve seen the film, now I’m going to read the book!)
‘The Twilight Herald’ – Tom Lloyd (He throws a good party but does he write a good sequel?)

There will be more books (of course) but these are going to be the main ones. There’s also going to be a little bit of TV, some comic books and if it looks like zombies are heading towards your hometown then you'll hear about it here!

In other news, Joe Abercrombie’s website has finally got stuff on it (link on the right) including a tasty little extract from his new book ‘Last Argument of Kings’. It’s a veritable ‘one stop shop’ for everything Joe Abercrombie related and also has handy links to some pretty cool looking blogs (ok, one of them is this one…)

If this was a radio station I’d say, “don’t touch that dial” but I don’t really know what the blog equivalent is…


“Don’t click that mouse!”