Wednesday, 31 March 2010

‘The Sword of Albion’ – Mark Chadbourn (Bantam Press)

If you’re living in the US (or couldn’t be bothered to wait for the UK edition) then you may have already seen this book, courtesy of Pyr, going by the name of ‘The Silver Skull’. I never got round to reading this last year but heard lots of good things about it and resolved to wait until its UK release before grabbing myself a copy. It won’t actually be published until May but I was lucky enough to get hold of an advance copy to take a look at. I still haven’t got round to reading the ‘Age of Misrule’ series but I did enjoy Mark Chadbourn’s ‘Lord of Silence’ (still ‘not so secretly’ hoping for more to come from this series, will another publisher pick it up?) and was hoping for more of the same from ‘The Sword of Albion’.
Being an historical fantasy (as opposed to a fantasy in an imagined world), ‘The Sword of Albion’ is very different to ‘Lord of Silence’. Having said that though, ‘The Sword of Albion’ is very much Mark Chadbourn doing what he does best. I’m hoping for more books in this setting as well…

What use is a spy when everyone knows his face and who he is? Such a spy is of great use when he’s being employed for entirely different reasons to those that everyone else thinks. Such is the case with Will Swyfte, swordsman, scholar, rake… and England’s last hope against an enemy that has stalked humanity since time began. It’s 1588 and while the Spanish Armada gathers sail in Lisbon, Swyfte’s mission is to counter the otherworldly forces that lend their support to Philip of Spain. A weapon of deadly force has been stolen from the Tower of London and is in the hands of the Faerie. Swyfte must steal this weapon back before it is put to use in the worst possible way and England’s green and pleasant land become a festering charnel pit…

I don’t know about you but whenever I read any kind of spy novel (which isn’t very often, I’ll admit) I always find myself looking out for the ‘James Bond Moments’. You know the ones I mean, those moments where the author decides to tip their cap in the direction of film and literature’s greatest spy. Sometimes this works very well but sometimes these moments can come across as a little forced and they detract from the story itself. Unfortunately this proved to be the case with ‘The Sword of Albion’. The scenes with Swyfte being kitted out for his mission (by the alchemist Dr John Dee) were a little too reminiscent of Bond being kitted out by ‘Q’, right down to having Swyfte poke fun at Dee’s inventions in much the same way that Bond would have done.
The dialogue was quite humorous but didn’t provide the comic relief that it was aiming to, at least as far as I was concerned. Instead, it seemed totally at odds with Swyfte’s ability to fully focus on the job at hand (especially when the stakes were so high) and made the pace falter at a time when it really needed to be building up a good head of steam. It really didn’t work for me…

It’s a good job then that this came very near the beginning and was got out of the way relatively early. The rest of the book is more than a little bit special.

‘The Sword of Albion’ is an unashamed swashbuckling romp through a time when England stands firm against invaders both without and within. If there is a rope to be swung from, a dark alley to be chased down or a burning ship to have a sword fight on then you can bet that Will Swyfte and his friends will be doing just that. This makes for some glorious spectacles that punctuate a generally fast moving plot with scenes of real action and adventure. These moments are worth the price of admission alone! Chadbourn occasionally gets a little too involved in the world that he is painting, describing the scenery when the story needs to be moving along. Balancing this out though is the fact that he proves to be a dab hand at setting dark and gloomy scenes for the inhabitants of Faery to make themselves known in. The streets of Alsatia and Edinburgh were among my favourite moments, simply through how very murky they were. Also, Chadbourn sets the stakes so high for Swyfte (both personally and professionally) that the story can never stay still for long… When this happens, you can expect Chadbourn to raise the tension and let it explode in a flurry of action.

Swyfte is fighting a war on three fronts and this makes for some gripping characterisation that I found to be very engaging indeed. If fighting the Spanish and the Faery Realm wasn’t enough, Swyfte must find his own way through the ensuing politics to satisfy his own ends. Here is a man who will stop at nothing in order to defend that which he loves, his country and his friends. This results in a character that is unscrupulous and prepared to sacrifice his soul for ends that justify the means. Swyfte is not a clear-cut hero but he is a hero nevertheless and one whom the reader will have fun following. Swyfte may take centre stage but Chadbourn takes care to make his supporting cast just as enjoyable to read about. Characters such as Carpenter and Launceston add some real depth to what is going on in the background, making the whole experience one that you can really sink yourself into.

Chadbourn’s swashbuckling plot is full of the twists and turns that are needed in order to bring the action scenes to fruition. Betrayal is rife and it’s all credit to Chadbourn that he manages to surprise you with this every time. The way that it all comes together at the end is pretty special too, this is a picture where all the gaps have been filled in and there is still room for more to come.

If ‘The Sword of Albion’ is anything to go by then I’m very much looking forward to the continuing tales of Will Swyfte. While I found that the book faltered very early on, this proved to be a trifling matter and I’m glad that I stuck around for the rest of the ride. Bring on the sequel!

Nine and a Half out of Ten

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

‘The Complete Nemesis the Warlock Volume 2’ – Pat Mills, Kevin O’Neill, Bryan Talbot, John Hicklenton, Tony Luke

Thousands of years from now, humanity has reconciled all it’s differences and has found a new target to unleash its rampant xenophobia upon. The rest of the galaxy… The venom filled sermons of the tyrant Torquemada exhort his Terminators to more and more atrocities across the galaxy and all seems lost for the peace loving aliens of the outer planets. Or is it? Nemesis the Warlock still fights for freedom, from the tube lines of Termight itself all the way across the weirdness of the Time Wastes…

‘Nemesis the Warlock Volume 2’ collects books five to seven of the series, chronicling Nemesis’ attempts to find his son Thoth and how this all ends in a race to save the galaxy. The ABC warriors are on hand to lend a hand and this adds an element of humour to the madness of Torquemada’s totalitarian regime and the madness of the Time Wastes themselves. There really is something for everyone in the ‘Nemesis the Warlock’ series and Volume 2 is no exception. Books Five and Six, ‘Vengeance of Thoth’ and ‘Torquemurder’, are my favourites this time round; purely because of how utterly surreal it all is. Anything can happen and somehow it’s still surprising when it does. ‘The Two Torquemadas’ wasn’t so good though, tracking back through Torquemada’s past lives led to somewhat predictable results. Think of a tyrant from Earth’s past. Thought of one? More likely than not it was one of Torquemada’s past lives. Even Pat Mills himself hints at this predictability in the book and while I love it when writers mock themselves I still felt that I’d read all this before.

Having said this though, Mills’ plots are more often than not never anything short of gripping just through the fact that you have to see where the madness ends. The artwork complements the madness of the script in the best possible way. Kevin O’Neill and Bryan Talbot are the artists I’ll always think of when I see Nemesis; the others are good but these two are the best in this story.

Roll on Volume 3!

Monday, 29 March 2010

Guest Blog! Gail Z. Martin

Gail Z. Martin (author of the 'Chronicles of the Necromancer' series) was the latest author to very kindly agree to supply a guest post for the blog, thanks Gail! I left the 'post remit' open ended, to see what I got back, and got myself a very interesting piece on vampires. Have a read and see what you think...

Why a good vampire never goes out of style

Given that vampire stories have been told in just about every country on every continent across thousands of years, I think it’s safe to say that something about vampires has captured the human imagination.

Over time, the attributes we focus on with vampires change, but the overall concept has stayed amazingly intact. If you read the old tales, the legends and folklore, the vampires are often menacing, ugly and have exceptionally bad breath, but other legends give them the ability to appear beautiful, and co-mingle their need for blood with the attributes of an incubus or succubus. While most of the popular vampires in fiction today veer toward the good looking and sexy side of the legend, pretty much every retelling shows a darker side of power and hunger.

I think there are a lot of reasons we’re drawn to vampires. Most of the time, they’re shown to be clever, beautiful and powerful, with wealth and sophistication accumulated over lifetimes. They don’t get sick and die, and they can stand back from the tumult of daily human life with detachment, taking a long view of things. Politics, petty bickering, even the rise and fall of kings become trivial irritations to vampires, while mortals who feel their fates controlled by such things have difficulty rising above the mundane.

At the same time, vampires retain humanness many other “monsters” lack. It doesn’t require a big stretch of the imagination to envision the loneliness of outliving one’s friends and relatives or even one’s own era. Many people have felt the condemnation of religious purists who take issue with the essential nature of what they are, without regard to how they live their lives. It’s not difficult to imagine that someone who has superior strength, speed or power could become ruthless, but we’re intrigued by the vampires who cling to honor, friendship and love because those are the qualities life does its best to pound out of mortals as well.

Who would you be when the markers of identity we take for granted are wiped away by time? When you’ve outlived your family, your contemporaries, perhaps even your nation, kingdom or empire, and maybe your religion? If you had immortality, what would you make of yourself? If clinging to your humanity made you vulnerable, would you do it?

The vampires that intrigue me are the ones who wrestle with the choice between retreating into their power where they are safe, both emotionally and physically, and those who choose to keep the best parts of their humanity, to love, to care about the consequences of temporal issues on the lives of people around them, and to a personal sense of honor.

My personal view of the vampire is as an archetype for someone who has suffered intense physical or mental trauma or abuse, and who stands at a moral crossroads. Does he side with the oppressor or abuser and lash out at others to ease the pain, or does he take the more difficult road to regain humanity by siding with the victim and choosing to feel love, compassion and suffering? Does he use his wealth and power to protect himself and turn his back on others, or does he become a champion and a protector for others who lack his strength and wealth? While some people live out a more made-for-TV-movie of that kind of choice, I think it comes in one form or another to each of us, after life has knocked us around for a while. And while Bones McCoy cautioned that “Evil usually wins unless good is very, very careful,” I choose to put my money on the hero.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

‘Legion’ – Dan Abnett (Black Library)

This weekend has somehow become all about the Black Library and the war torn planets of the forty-first millennium… As you’ve probably guessed, these last couple of weeks has been about my reading stuff that I know I’ll enjoy rather than checking out stuff that I wouldn’t normally try. To be honest, there’s been so much other stuff going on (what with one thing and another) that I’ve been after comfort reading rather than anything else. That’s going to change over the next couple of weeks but in the meantime…

My reading of the Black Library’s ‘Horus Heresy’ series has kind of been in fits and starts over the last couple of years; my fault really as I haven’t even tried to read them in order and have read loads of other books in between. Luckily they stand on their own fairly well so there hasn’t been too much trouble keeping the overall story in my head. In short, civil war divides humanity and the galaxy burns…
I’m a big fan of anything by Dan Abnett, particularly in the Warhammer 40K setting, so when I realised that ‘Legion’ was lurking in the ‘to read’ pile I didn’t have too much trouble deciding what to read next. As it turned out, ‘Legion’ was a little disappointing…

Of all the Legions of the Adeptus Astartes (Space Marines to the likes of you and I), the Alpha Legion has always been the most secretive. The Imperial Army requires their aid on a heathen world resisting compliance with uncanny powers that thwart the military push. Is that the reason why the Alpha Legion has arrived however? A third party lurks behind the scenes and seeks to use the legion for it’s own ends. Which side will the Alpha Legion choose once the Great War begins, and why…?

Dan Abnett is the man that every Warhammer 40K fan invariably turns to if they’re after top-notch military sci-fi. Quite simply put, no one does it better than him (at least, not as far as I’m concerned). ‘Legion’ sees him pull more of the same out of his hat and it’s as good as ever.

Abnett has the happy knack of being able to paint a broad picture that balances out the great ebb and flow of warfare at the same time as getting inside the head of the common trooper who’s been stuck in a foxhole under fire for days on end. He’s got the terminology to back it up and the end result is without fail a great slice of military sci-fi.
This is very much the case with ‘Legion’ as far as Abnett’s recounting of the campaign on Nurth. Abnett gives us a compelling tale of an army that expects to win through its superior technology but somehow finds itself on the back foot and doesn’t know why. The howling deserts are skilfully rendered as an enemy hiding thousands more enemies and there is always the hint of dark magic being used in the background. Sometimes this magic is more than just a hint and the action explodes on the page…

Abnett gives us an inside look at an Imperial command structure flailing at shadows and the men who are left to pick up the pieces as a result. Characters such as Soneka and Bronzi carry the story superbly in this latter regard. They are the characters on the front line and it is their experiences that truly define the shape of the war on Nurth, a war where nothing is as it seems and no one can really be trusted.

And this is where the Alpha Legion come in, a legion that holds steadfast to the Emperor’s cause but whose stealthy methods leave them open to mistrust from their allies. Abnett’s depiction of the Alpha Legion was where this book fell down for me.

For me, the Alpha Legion was so secretive that not only did I have no idea what they were about but I couldn’t see the chain of events that led to the ultimate conclusion. The way I saw things, it felt like the conclusion just happened and the Alpha Legion were on hand to say, “Ha! Things have happened just as we intended them to…” I couldn’t see how the plot pieced these two things together.

I was left wondering if perhaps Abnett had done a little too well in his portrayal of the secretive Alpha Legion as masters of espionage and deceit. While Abnett was certainly bang on the money in terms of atmosphere it felt like there was little of substance within this atmosphere to back things up. Things were a little too vague and this vagueness robbed the climax of the power that it was meant to have. If you’re a fan then you will already know which way the Alpha Legion turned and the ending needed that added intensity to burn through the foregone conclusion. That didn’t happen here.

‘Legion’ is a tale of two halves that didn’t quite match up for me. Abnett’s portrayal of war is as gritty and dark as ever, well worth sticking around for. The elements of espionage underpinning the war effort though were so vague as to be almost confusing and this made the book more of a chore to read than I would have expected from Abnett. This won’t stop me from reading more of his books but I didn’t see myself being quite so disappointed, when I started reading, as I was at the end…

Seven out of Ten

Saturday, 27 March 2010

‘Rynn’s World (Space Marines Battles)’ – Steve Parker (Black Library)

The universe of the forty first millennium is a universe constantly at war, whether it’s an isolated skirmish in a hab dome or a decades spanning war encompassing entire solar systems. Every race fighting for it’s place in the universe has a tale to tell of it’s military might, be it a heroic charge or a desperate last stand. It’s no surprise then that the Black Library is kicking off a series devoted to these military actions. A quick glance at the back pages (and the title) suggests that this is all about humanity’s Space Marines, at least for now. It would be cool if some of the xenos races got a look in over the course of the series (although I’m not sure how a book written entirely from the perspective of the alien Tyranids would look…) In the meantime, the series begins with ‘Rynn’s World’, a tale of heroism in the face of a rampaging green evil…

The planet Badlanding has fallen to the forces of the Ork Warlord Snagrod; so has the expeditionary force of Crimson Fists Space Marines sent to engage him. The next planet to fall under the avaricious gaze of Snagrod is Rynn’s World, home planet of the Crimson Fists… Chapter Master Kantor must mount a desperate defence in the face of overwhelming forces; a task that proves all the more difficult when an errant missile levels the Space Marine’s fortress-monastery, killing everyone inside.
Now Kantor must gather together any survivors and make his way across a continent to lend his meagre aid in breaking the siege of Rynn’s capitol city. The future of his chapter is at stake as is the future of Rynn’s world itself…

‘Rynn’s World’ is a solid recounting of the military deployments and armed confrontations that all combined to make up the overall engagement. The reader is given a detailed and well ordered picture of what happens although I found the ‘Battle Maps’ to be more of a hindrance rather than an aid. Not only does their position in the book (right in the middle) break up the flow of the story but also they don’t actually contain any details of troop movements at all. You end up getting all this information from the text itself and this left me wondering what the point of the maps actually was…

This issue to one side, the story itself is gripping but somehow a little too predictable for my tastes. While the Space Marine’s supposed invulnerability is neatly side-stepped at the beginning by the vagaries of fate, and a very intelligent enemy, I never got the feeling that the hurdles facing the remnants of the Chapter were truly as awesome as Parker would have us believe. This was especially the case when the Ceres Protocol was activated, a mandate placing the survival of the Chapter as a higher priority than anything else. With thousands of regular militia standing between the Marines and the enemy the true suspense was in how many of them would still be standing by the time the book was over. The Space Marines themselves, while weakened, were never in any real danger and that lent a real feeling of flatness to the book at times.

On the bright side, what the reader does get for their money is the kind of high octane, heart stopping future warfare that the Black Library is proving to be more than adept at publishing. ‘Rynn’s World’ is full of the thud of bolter fire and grenades with detailed troop deployments that will please fans of the game as well as fans of military sci-fi in general. Parker knows what Space Marines are all about and his writing is more than up to describing this on the page for his readers. A Space Marine is only truly in his element when at war and Parker captures the savage joy of a Marine doing what he was born to. This single minded obsession is also nicely depicted in the ‘showcase’ moments of the novel where Parker has his Crimson Fists go up against seemingly insurmountable odds to change the course of the war. While you know what the overall outcome will be, there are enough bone crunching moments (when Marines go up against cybernetically enhanced giant Orks) to keep you reading and wincing in sympathy. Parker also isn’t afraid to kill off his characters from time to time. Again, this won’t stop you knowing how the overall story has to end but you are left feeling that this is war as it should be shown. The good die as well as the bad…
Parker also gives his readers a good look at how the Crimson Fists conduct themselves on a daily basis, adding that distinctive ‘Warhammer atmosphere’ and marking ‘Rynn’s World’ out from the rest of the military sci-fi sub-genre.

War is as much about the individual tales of the combatants as it is about the sweeping movements of large armies across continents. Parker keeps things well balanced by zooming in to focus on individual characters as the story progresses. I enjoyed getting my head around the dominant theme of a Marine’s duty to humanity being weighed up against their duty to the continued existence of the chapter. Characters (including the Chapter Master himself) find this a difficult question to answer in terms of short term goals outweighing those of the long term; especially when normal humans are placed under the care of the Space Marines. The answer is left open-ended but it is plain to see what Parker thinks himself. I’d have to agree with him.

‘Rynn’s World’ eventually falls foul of the invulnerability of its heroes, leaving the ending a little too clear cut to be in any doubt. Sometimes you need that element of doubt to make things worth sticking around for…
What it does do very well though is give its reader a clear insight into the ebb and flow of war and the minds of the people fighting. Like I said earlier, fans of the Warhammer 40K setting (and fans of military sci-fi in general) should enjoy this one.

Seven and Three Quarters out of Ten

Friday, 26 March 2010


Just how long has it been since I’ve featured any Manga here? Far too long, it’s time to sort that out with some bits and pieces that I’ve been sent over the last couple of days…

‘Roureville #1’ – E. Hae (Net Comics)

I have to say that I found it hard reading a comic book featuring American characters none of whom looked American in the slightest. It was hard to believe that the story was taking place where it was meant to be. The artwork wasn’t bad, it just felt misplaced somehow…
Once I got past that though, E. Hae’s story of a reporter sent to cover a ghost sighting in a secluded village really had me hooked with the questions that it was throwing up. The character of Evan Pryce isn’t particularly easy to engage with (although I suspect that will soon change) but the townsfolk certainly are with their hostility to Evan’s presence. There’s a real undertone of darkness here that will have me back for more, 8.5/10.

‘100% Perfect Girl’ – Wann (Net Comics)

This is the kind of thing that I’d normally stay well clear of but was more than pleasantly surprised with what I found this time round. We’ve all heard the tale of the foreign prince falling in love with a beautiful girl that he’s only just met and Wann pretty much plays us the same song here, complete with all the usual romantic misunderstandings and differences arising through class and culture. Where ‘100%’ rises above the rest though is in it’s absolutely gorgeous artwork and a more thorough examination of the two main characters as they get to know each other. There was enough of the ‘Cinderella’ story here for me to read this book for the blog and I’ll certainly check out the next instalment (although given events near the end of the book, I’m not altogether sure how the next book will continue in the way that it says it will…) 8.5/10

‘Starcraft: Ghost Academy #1’ – DeCandido/Furukawa (Tokyopop)

I’ve read a few ‘World of Warcraft’ books through Tokyopop but have only ever really read teasers for ‘Starcraft’. ‘Ghost Academy’ was my first proper look at ‘Starcraft’ and it wasn’t bad at all. What you get for your money is another ‘kids in Battle School’ scenario with the requisite teenage politics that come with it. DeCandido balances this out though by giving us some interesting characters to follow and raising intriguing questions that will be answered in future volumes. Furukawa’s art is a joy to view, I’m hoping for more of the same in the future as I’ll be back for more. I may have seen this all before but it’s worth a read anyway. 8/10

‘Alice In The Country of Hearts #1’ – Quinrose/Hoshino (Tokyopop)

This was the book that I had the highest hopes for and it was the book that ended up falling slightly flat. Part of this was down to Hoshino’s artwork that didn’t really stand out for me, there was nothing there that was any different from other Manga… It wasn’t bad by any means, there was just nothing there to hook me.
The story did slightly better with its skewed vision of Wonderland and the mob wars running through it. I guess I was just after something a little more than a bunch of gun slinging characters all falling in love with Alice and stalking her. It got a little repetitive after a while although I did find it refreshing to see Alice commenting on how messed up all the make attention was. The world of Wonderland will be what has me coming back to check out the next volume in this series (especially finding out about ‘ones with duties’); I’m hoping for a little more from the plot next time round though… 7.5/10

Thursday, 25 March 2010

‘The Arctic Incident’ and ‘Mad with Wonder’

There’s nothing like unpacking loads of boxes to remind of all the books you should have been reading but never got round to. While they’re in the ‘to read’ pile they can more or less be safely ignored but when they’ve fallen out of a box and into your hands…? That’s a different story.
Here then are a couple of comic books that should have been mentioned a long time before now. Both ended up being a lot better than I initially thought they would be…

‘Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident’ – Eoin Colfer, Andrew Donkin, Giovanni Rigano & Paolo Lamanna (Puffin Books)

How do you judge the worth of an adaptation when you’ve never read the original books that it was adapted from? That was the question I found myself asking when going through the graphic novel adaptation of Colfer’s sequel to ‘Artemis Fowl’ (a book that I’d never read). The only way round it was to scrap the whole idea of judging the book in that manner and just see what it was like in it’s own right. The answer? Very good indeed…

Young criminal genius Artemis Fowl is still out to find the truth behind his father’s disappearance but the world of Faerie has other plans for him first. Someone is supplying human batteries to the goblin gangs (to power their lasers) and Artemis’ past form makes him the prime suspect for the Faerie police…

I wasn’t so keen on the way it was all laid out, being more of a fan of stuff happening all over the page rather than having it all lined up in little boxes happening one after the other. That was the only real issue that I had though, ‘The Arctic Incident’ was a lot of fun from start to finish. Rigano and Lamanna combine well to give the reader a bit of a visual treat on each page. I’m not really all that familiar with Artemis and his friends but really started to get an idea of what they were all about just by how they were displayed on the page. Colfer and Donkin also combine to similar effect with the plot itself. Like I said, I don’t know how this compares to the original novel but what I do know is that the story here is very engaging with plenty of twists and turns that kept me reading. I don’t know if I’ll have the time to read the original books but I will be keeping an eye open for more of the graphic novels. 9/10

‘Mad with Wonder’ – Frank Beddor, Liz Cavalier & Sami Makkonen (Automatic Pictures Publishing)

Reading ‘Alice in the Country of Hearts’ the other day had me remembering another ‘Alice in Wonderland’ book that had been lurking around the ‘to read’ pile for a long time without being read. Frank Beddor’s ‘Looking Glass Wars’ books are a pretty big deal apparently, I’ve never read them though and ‘Mad with Wonder’ seemed like as good a place as any to start…
That’s what I thought anyway. ‘Mad with Wonder’ is the second book in the ‘Hatter Madigan’ series and seems to also draw on events that have taken place in the ‘Looking Glass Wars’ books as well. As such, ‘Mad with Wonder’ assumes that the reader has been around for these earlier events and takes off without really considering the likes of people like me who are only just jumping on board. As annoying as this is, it’s fair enough really.

Alyss has gone missing in the real world and Royal Bodyguard Hatter Madigan will move heaven and earth to find her. His journey takes him through the American Civil War where the madness of war collides with madness bleeding out of Wonderland…

Once I’d mentally caught up with myself (not easy when you haven’t read the preceding book) ‘Mad with Wonder’ turned out to be a gripping read. This wasn’t so much in terms of things going on but very much so in it’s depiction of a land bled dry by war and ever so slightly tainted by the surreal qualities of Wonderland. Hatter Madigan is also an interesting character to follow as his pledge to find Alyss is tested more and more. Sometimes though, the pace felt rushed to the extent that some of the trials facing Hatter felt forced and lacking in the impact that they were clearly meant to have.

Sami Makkonen’s artwork is difficult to get into first, to begin with it feels like it’s all about what he can do as oppose to what he can do for the story. Once the story gets going though, both plot and art mesh together to form something that’s a little disturbing yet compelling at the same time. I’d certainly be interested in seeing where the story goes next; I might even have to see what happened with the story in the past… 8.25/10

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

From My Bookshelf… ‘The Rising’ and ‘City of the Dead’ (Brian Keene)

One of the great things about moving house is when you come round to unpacking all the book boxes and you discover all the books that you’ve always been meaning to read but never quite found the time to. This has been the prevailing feeling for pretty much all of the last week and you may well see a couple more of these posts before the week is out! This time round, it’s the turn of two of my favourite pieces of zombie fiction. Is it zombie fiction though? I’ll let you decide…

I’d just got back into zombie films and the next step was to see if there were any zombie books out there that I could read. I don’t think I’d seen any zombie books at this point (apart from a Stephen King short story that I forget the name of) but it’s always worth a look!
Joe McKinney’s ‘Dead City’ was the first zombie book that I came across and that whetted my appetite for more of the same. And then I came across Brian Keene’s ‘City of the Dead’, an apocalyptic tale of humans holed up in a Manhattan skyscraper with masses of the undead outside and eager to get in… I may well have been reading this while I was walking to the counter to buy it!

I didn’t know this at the time but ‘City of the Dead’ was actually the sequel to Keene’s ‘The Rising’. As a result, the beginning of ‘City’ works well enough on it’s own but does throw you in at the deep end and expects you to catch up. You have to be quick on your feet, there are zombies coming for you! I found that this terrifying pace swept me up and carried me along to a conclusion that’s inevitable in any kind of zombie media. Zombie fiction is all about survival and that is the name of the game in ‘City’. It’s also all about humanity’s darker instincts and the hard choices that arise from this, ‘City’ lays this on thick as well. The thrills and scares lie in what is constantly chasing Jim Thurmond and his band; they can’t stop for a second and this means that the story cannot stop either. Just when you think things are about to calm down for a second, Keene throws something worse at the group and it all kicks off again. The pace is as relentless as the undead and their need for flesh. The growing sense of the apocalypse permeates everything and gives us an interesting counterbalance between the futility of resistance and the strength of the human spirit and it’s refusal to surrender.

Is it zombie fiction though? The dead are returning to life but only because demons are taking over human corpses in an attempt to destroy all life on the planet. They can drive cars and are pretty handy with automatic weaponry! I’d say that it is. These zombies may not be mindless flesh hungry automatons (and they do have a habit of making quips that just aren’t funny…) but they are the dead returned to some kind of life. Also, like I said earlier, ‘City of the Dead’ deals with themes prevalent in all zombie novels. It might be pushing it a little bit but I’m standing by ‘City’ being a zombie novel, as is its predecessor ‘The Rising’.

I loved ‘City of the Dead’ and knew that I just had to find myself a copy of ‘The Rising’ as soon as possible. The only problem was that the book was out of print… So began the reoccurrence of one of my more obessive traits, trawling every bookstore in London trying to find somewhere that had a copy (but with no success whatsoever). Copies online were going for stupid prices but that wasn’t going to stop me either. Luckily for me, my ebay powers were weak at the time. Not only did I lose out on a copy of ‘The Rising’ (thereby saving a lot of money) but a week after that the book was back in print again. I had a copy in my greedy little hands and was missing stops on the tube so I could keep reading.

‘The Rising’ does exactly what ‘City of the Dead’ did but is a little more forceful in pushing the boundaries of taste. Humans will do anything to survive and there’s nothing like an apocalypse to loosen everyone’s inhibitions… ‘The Rising’ was also meant to be a stand alone piece (until an outcry over the ending led to demand for the sequel, it is a very abrupt ending…) so maybe Keene felt a little more able to unload everything onto the page in one go. Whatever the reason, ‘The Rising’ isn’t a book for the squeamish. It’s also a little scarier than its sequel in the way that it explores just what it means to survive in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. If a loved one became a zombie, what would you do? Keene racks up the tension by asking this question of all his characters. Everyone will do what is necessary but not everyone can live with the results… Keene really captures the essence of shooting a spouse or parent in the head and it’s about as nice as you would expect.

I had as much fun with ‘The Rising’ as I did with ‘City of the Dead’ and (if you haven’t noticed already) I’m now a dedicated follower of everything that Keene has published. If you’re a fan of zombie fiction then you could do a lot worse than give these a look, they’re worth it.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Cover Art! ‘Chronicles of the Dread Empire’

I’m not one for posting about cover art too often (although I have been known to) but there’s something about unpacking book boxes in the new place that made me want to share the following covers with you. You know what it’s like when you come across a book that you haven’t seen in a long time (because it’s been in a box); it’s not just the story that grabs you all over again but the cover art too. I haven’t read the following two books as yet but I’ve been in love with the cover art since the day I picked them up for the first time and popped them in the 'to read’ pile…

Raymond Swanland’s work on Nightshade’s packaging of the ‘Dread Empire’ series is just gorgeous, no question about it. Check these two books out…

Don’t they look great? I still (still!) need to get round to reading them both though, it’s just a matter of finding the time what with everything else. Have any of you guys read the ‘Dread Empire’ books? If so, what did you think? How do they compare to the ‘Black Company’ books?

Talking of which, does anyone know if Raymond Swanland is the artist responsible for the cover art on the new collected editions of the ‘Black Company’ books? I spent ages tracking down the original Tor editions (which are hard to come by over here) only to see the new omnibus editions released a couple of years after I’d picked up ‘Soldiers Live’. Talk about timing…

Monday, 22 March 2010

News! Quercus Buys Will Elliott's 'PENDULUM' Trilogy...

From the press release...

Nick Johnston at Quercus has acquired world rights (excluding Australia and New Zealand) for Will Elliott’s Pendulum trilogy – comprising PILGRIMS, SHADOW and an untitled third volume. The deal was conducted with John Berlyne of the Zeno Literary Agency in association with Lyn Tranter at Australian Literary Management. Quercus plan to publish the first title in 2011. HarperVoyager will publish in AUS/NZ.

‘I am utterly thrilled to have acquired Will’s trilogy,‘ says Johnston. ‘Pendulum is the most exciting and original new fantasy I have read in years, and this prodigiously talented young writer is arguably the jewel in the crown on our fast-growing genre list.‘

Will Elliott’s remarkable d├ębut novel THE PILO FAMILY CIRCUS (also published by Quercus) won the inaugural ABC fiction award beating 900 competing works. It went on to win the Golden Aurealis for best novel, the Australian Shadows Award, the Ditmar, the Sydney Morning Herald “Best Young Novelist Award” for 2007, and was short-listed for the 2007 International Horror Guild Award. It was published in a limited edition by PS Publishing in 2008, with John Berlyne (at that time merely a fan of Elliott’s work) providing the introduction.

I loved 'The Pilo Family Circus' so am really looking forward to seeing if the 'Pendulum' books are in the same vein...

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Book Spotlight! 'The Sword of Albion' - Mark Chadbourn

If you live in the US then I think you'll have seen this already through Pyr... It's the UK's turn to get their hands on it now, I've enjoyed Mark's work in the past and I'm looking forward to my copy coming through the post. Here's the blurb...

1588: The London of Elizabeth I is rocked by news of a daring
raid on the Tower. The truth is known only to a select few: that, for twenty years, a legendary doomsday device, its power fabled
for millennia, has been kept secret and, until now, safe in the
Tower. But it has been stolen and Walsingham’s spies believe it
has been taken by the Enemy. This Enemy is not who we usually
think of as our traditional opponet. No, this Enemy has waged
a brutal war against mankind since time began, and with such a
weapon they might take terrible toll upon England’s green and
pleasant land...

And so it falls to Will Swyfte - swordsman, adventurer, scholar,
rake, and the greatest of Walsingham’s new breed of spy - to follow
a trail of murder and devilry that leads deep into the dark,
venomous world of the Faerie. As Philip of Spain prepares a
naval assault on England, Will is caught up in a race against time in pursuit of this fiendish device...

Like I said, I'm looking forward to getting my hands on this. Has anyone else read 'The Sword of Albion'? What did you think?

Friday, 19 March 2010

What I’ve been reading…

Things have been mad over the last few days (what with one thing and another) and reading time has been limited to spare moments here and there. My time has also been very limited in terms of what I’ve been able to do as far as reviews go. Things will hopefully return to normal very soon with the kind of reviews that I normally post but, in the meantime, here’s a quick snapshot of what I’ve been reading over the last week…

‘The Dragon Factory’ (St. Martin’s Press) – Jonathan Maberry

‘Patient Zero’ was a great read and I was hoping for similar things here. I got everything I was after and a little more. The clock is ticking and if the Nazis don’t get Joe Ledger and his team it will be a ruthless pair of geneticists intent on selling mythical beasts to the highest bidder. Either way, the world will be ending in a week’s time…

‘The Dragon Factory’ is a fast and furious read that delights in sending its readers down blind alleys when they least expect it. Having said that, the fact that you can see the ending coming from a mile away makes things a little too obvious to be a really gripping read. The bottom line is though, Maberry is onto a winning formula and I’ll be around to see how his next book pans out. 9/10

‘White Wolf’ (Corgi) – David Gemmell

David Gemmell’s work is becoming a bit of a comfort read for those times when I’ve got loads on and don’t want to have to think too much about what I’m reading. ‘White Wolf’ certainly delivers here with all the usual lessons on heroism that you would expect from any work of Gemmel’s, especially as Druss features quite strongly. What saves this work from veering into too familiar territory is the character of Skilgannon the Damned, a beautifully drawn character who adds a nice shade of grey to the ‘black and white’ view that Druss has of the world. If this first chapter is anything to go by then I’ll be picking up 'The Swords of Night and Day' sooner rather than later. 8/10

‘Iron Man: Virus’ (Del Rey) – Alex Irvine

I enjoyed the last Iron Man book that Del Rey published so thought I’d be onto a winner here. How wrong was I…? Whereas the last book was a decent mixture of espionage and action, ‘Virus’ was all about the slow build up of evil machinations to a grand finale. The only problem was that things took far too long to build up and this meant that there was no time for the conclusion to be as hard hitting as it wanted to be. I also wasn’t so keen on the patent details that began every other chapter; I didn’t get the point of it and felt that it disrupted the natural flow of the story. Not what I needed. I’d probably pick another ‘Iron Man’ novel up but not by this author… 5/10

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Zombie Double Bill!

One of the great things about being signed off sick for a whole fortnight is that you get to catch up on all the DVDs that you’ve bought but somehow never found the time to watch. Me being me, any DVD catch up will involve zombies; of course it will. Here’s what I’ve been watching…

‘Dead Snow’

It’s not often that I find a film that makes me laugh out loud while I’m shrinking away in fear. ‘Dead Snow’ is one of those films. A group of teenage medical students go on holiday in the mountains and get picked off by Nazi zombies; you may think you’ve seen it all before but ‘Dead Snow’ is different.
Like I said, this is one of those few films that makes you laugh whilst cowering in fear at the same time. The bit where they try and call the emergency services made me laugh out loud as did the bit right at the end where the two survivors realise that things are even worse than they thought. There are some genuinely scary moments as well which all made worse by the bleak winter surroundings. I’d heard ‘Dead Snow’ was worth watching, no-one ever told me just how good it was though!

‘Zombie Strippers’

Sometimes a title just jumps out at you and says, “Buy me, I’m great!” It’s only when you get to the end of the film that you realise why the DVD only cost £3 and why it was nestled firmly in the depths of the bargain bin. The best thing about ‘Zombie Strippers’ is the title. Okay, the scene with the ping pong balls made me laugh as well :o) A stripper becomes a zombie and infects other strippers who want to cater to a clientele that finds itself into dead women stripping. Er… that’s it really. Nothing that makes you jump in fright here, ‘Zombie Strippers’ is a film that’s playing for laughs but finds itself in the position of being just that little too silly to be properly silly.
It’s a shame really as the title looked like it could be a lot of fun. I never thought I’d find a boring zombie film but ‘Zombie Strippers’ proved me wrong…

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Technical Difficulties (or ‘How Graeme was a little too organised for his own good…’)

Blog posts could be a little patchy for the next few days; BT took me at me word when I told them that we were moving house and cut off our Internet access (at the old place) a little earlier than I was expecting. I was planning on having a few more days to get posts scheduled for when our Internet access was cut off for real… This post is coming at you live from my mate's house, don't know where the next one will come from...

So here’s how it’s going to go. I don’t have access to my Gmail account right now sorting out announcing competition winners is going to have to wait until I’m back online in the safety of my own home. There might be competitions in the meantime though if I can get them sorted out, we’ll have to wait and see…

As far as everything else goes… I’ve got posts planned for the blog but it all depends on finding decent Internet access as to when I can get them posted. Because of the operation I had last week, Internet access has to be within limping distance otherwise it just isn’t happening!

Apologies for the disruption in service! I’m hoping you guys will all stick around for some of the things I’ve got coming up. It’s all good, I just don’t know when it will get posted…

Monday, 15 March 2010

I’ve never read anything by...

Guy Gavriel Kay. I’m as surprised as you are seeing as he’s an author seemingly universally loved by anyone who’s into fantasy fiction but there you go. As shallow a reason as it is, I’ll confess to not being too impressed by some of the cover art (a long time ago now) and never got round to picking his work up.

All that’s about to change though. In keeping with my resolution to read new stuff I rescued my advance copy of ‘Under Heaven’ (from one of the many boxes lying around the house at the moment) and will be reading it whenever I can get away from cleaning and unpacking etc. It appears to be a standalone work and that seems like as good a place as any to get started. Here’s the blurb...

It begins simply. Shen Tai, son of an illustrious general serving the Emperor of Kitai, has spent two years honoring the memory of his late father by burying the bones of the dead from both armies at the site of one of his father's last great battles. In recognition of his labors and his filial piety, an unlikely source has sent him a dangerous gift: 250 Sardian horses.

You give a man one of the famed Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You give him four or five to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank, and earn him jealousy, possibly mortal jealousy. Two hundred and fifty is an unthinkable gift, a gift to overwhelm an emperor.

Wisely, the gift comes with the stipulation that Tai must claim the horses in person. Otherwise he would probably be dead already...

Reading time has been severely curtailed of late but it looks like that will be changing imminently. Emergency surgery on Friday night has resulted in two weeks off work so plenty of time for reading (not sure what all this is going to do to my blogging schedule though, please bear with me!) Keep an eye out for a review of ‘Under Heaven’ hopefully very soon.

In the meantime though, I’d like to hear what your experiences of Kay’s work have been like. Are you a fan or did you give him a try and think, ‘never again...’? Does Kay only write historical fantasy or does he write regular fantasy as well? Is ‘Under Heaven’ a fair enough place to begin or is there a ‘classic’ work of his that you think any newcomer of his should pick up first? If ‘Under Heaven’ works for me I can see myself finding more of his books to read so all comments are very welcome! :o)

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Giveaway! 'Flesh and Iron' (Henry Zou)

Thanks to the Black Library, I have five copies of Henry Zou's 'Flesh and Iron' to give away to five readers of this blog. Here's the blurb...

There are reports of an uprising on the planet of Solo-Baston. Indigenous forces are rebelling against Imperial rule, led by the mysterious 'Dos Pares'. Amidst the conflict, the 31st Riverine Imperial Guard are dispatched to seek and destroy a vital battery of siege guns, but find themselves beset on all sides by hostile forces. And what they originally thought was simple tribal warfare soon reveals a much more sinister activity. Henry Zou's latest novel serves as a prequel to Emperor's Mercy and delivers non-stop action and mystery in the grim world of Warhammer 40,000.

Does this sound like it could be your thing? If it does then here's what you need to do to stand a chance of winning a copy...
Simply drop me an email (address at the top right hand side of the screen) telling me who you are and what your postal address is. I'll do everything else!

I'll let this one run until the 21st of March and, all being well, will endeavour to announce the winners as soon as possible afterwards.

Good Luck!

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Giveaway! 'Dark Lady's Chosen' (Gail Z. Martin)

Fans of the 'Chronicles of the Necromancer' should like this one... I have one signed copy of 'Dark Lady's Chosen' to give away to one lucky reader of the blog. Anyone can enter this time round, it doesn't matter where you live!

You know the drill by now. Simply send me an email (address at the top right hand side of the screen) telling me who you are and what your postal address is. I'll do everything else :o)

I'll let this one run until the 21st of March and will aim to announce the winner as soon as possible afterwards (house move etc permitting)...

Good Luck!

Friday, 12 March 2010

‘Pleasure Model’ – Christopher Rowley (Tor)

‘Heavy Metal’ magazine is one of those magazines where you’re never quite sure if you can get away with looking at it while you’re with your wife. On the one hand, it’s geeky enough that you can plead a ‘Sci-Fi/Fantasy moment’ and have a quick read. On the other hand, it’s full of semi naked women (artistically drawn but still...) It’s a close call to make and you’ll always find me erring on the side of caution!
So what led me to pick up ‘Pleasure Model’ then? Anything that unashamedly classes itself as ‘Pulp’, and doesn’t take itself too seriously, will always catch my eye and get a read (especially with life leading me towards lighter reads at the moment). The cover art lays it on the line as to what you can expect to find inside and the blurb confirmed it. I was in but as it turned out, ‘Pleasure Model’ was a book that was both equal to and less than the sum of it’s parts all at the same time...

The mean streets of New York have thrown up another unsolvable crime for Detective Rook Venner to solve, if he can stay alive for long enough. Murder is a nasty business but it’s even nastier when every lead is a dead end and you know that you’re not being told the full story. Venner’s big break comes when an eye witness to the crime is discovered; the only problem is that she’s a pleasure model, an illegal gene grown human whose sole purpose is to give her owner satisfaction. Plesur is next on the murderer’s hit list and Venner’s job is to keep her safe whilst trying to solve the case. Neither of these are as easy as they look though. In the face of the awesome firepower levelled at Venner by unseen foes, the real danger may be that he is falling for his star witness...

The thing about pulp fiction is that you know exactly what you are getting with a book in this sub genre. The story may not make sense but it doesn’t really have to. What you come for is the noir atmosphere and the adrenalin rush of bullets being traded between hard bitten detectives and jaded women with a secret weakness for cops. There may be a mystery as well that will be solved by the last page...
‘Pleasure Model’ fails on this last note but seeing as it’s the opening shot in the ‘Netherworld’ trilogy then you can forgive it for keeping some of it’s tricks up it’s sleeve for later instalments in the series. What you do get though is a dark and sleazy atmosphere that oozes up from the streets and straight into the homes of the high and mighty. The reader is left in no doubt as to the nature of this tale; one part bewildering mystery and one part tentative exploration into sex and corruption. Justin Norman’s interior art adds to the atmosphere in the best possible way, I wouldn’t mind seeing more of his work...

As far as the sex and corruption go, ‘Pleasure Model’ falls somewhere in between not pulling it’s punches and coming across as strangely coy about the sexual power games that it seeks to explore. There are some fairly graphic moments but occasions that you would expect to get similar treatment are glossed over. In a book that’s only two hundred and thirty eight pages long this approach is to be expected but the result here is a book that feels like it doesn’t know what to be and doesn’t have much of a sense of purpose driving it forward. I did find it a pleasing irony though that the most sexual of all the characters was the one who was the most innocent. Rowley does well to maintain Plesur’s purity throughout the story, even if he has pulp fiction tropes on his side. Venner’s character is just that little too law abiding for his time with Plesur to ever raise the kind of questions that the book needs it to.

Any opening book in a trilogy has a lot to do in terms of setting up the plot to carry on into future books and ‘Pleasure Model’ is no different in this regard. It doesn’t quite do the job though...
While everything is set up for the sequel (questions waiting to be answered etc) there doesn’t seem to be that sense of urgency at the end to carry the reader on into the next book. The relative brevity of the book could be the issue here again although the lack of any kind of cliff hanger leaves the ending feeling a little flat.

This is rather a shame as the rest of the book leading up to this point is full of bullets, bombs and exotic weaponry that sneaks up on both the reader and the characters. While the plot is a bit too lightweight (you know what’s going to happen) you can’t deny the raw power of armed confrontation and pursuit that carries this book along like a tidal wave. There is always something happening that fills in the spaces between other things happening and you can’t help but be carried along with it.

It’s a shame then that this isn’t really enough. ‘Pleasure Model’ is an exciting enough read to pique my interest in the sequel but this is tempered by the fact that the overuse of pulp fiction tropes make this a book where you could almost write the ending yourself and have it match what’s on the last page. Maybe that’s the whole point of pulp fiction but this overreliance was a hindrance to my engaging with the book and while this didn’t kill the story for me it certainly gave it a good kicking...

Six and Three Quarters out of Ten

Thursday, 11 March 2010

The 'Bang on Time' Competition Winner's Post!

After the inexcusable tardiness of last week's post (or was it the week before...) I resolved to make sure that the winner's of last week's competitions were bought to you in the most timely of fashions :o)

Without further ado, here they are...

'A Thousand Sons'

Ronan Le Failler, Rennes, France
Carla Fox, Warwickshire, UK
Goran Zadravec, Croatia
Vasilia Dokos, Sydney, Australia
Geoff. C. Daley, Bedfordshire, UK

'Salute the Dark'

Steven Van Bael, Belgium
Clare O'Reilly, London, UK
Georgina Ball, Ely, UK

Well done guys! Your books are on their way...

Better luck next time everyone else ;o)

Black Library hit New York Times best seller list for the first time!

Graham McNeill's 'A Thousand Sons' is doing rather well for itself at the moment. It seems like only yesterday that it was the UK's number one selling sci-fi/fantasy title; now it's gone and cracked the New York Times list of best sellers (the first time that the Black Library have had a title break into that list).
It may only be number 22 but it's a start! Congratulations to Graham and the Black Library! :o)
Have a look at the full list Here.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Guest Blog! Kate Griffin

Kate Griffin wrote one of my favourite books of last year and although I haven't picked up her latest book, 'The Midnight Mayor', just yet the blurb is promising more of that very same goodness. Don't believe me? Scroll down the page to the 'Midnight Mayor' competition and see what I mean.

London is a magical place and I love it when authors can tap into that magic and show everyone just what a strange and wonderful city London really is (I'm looking at you Ms. Griffin as well as Mr. Gaiman and Mr. Carey). Where do they glimpse that magic though? Kate very kindly agreed to give us a little insight into just how it might have all came about for her...

It was an evening in autumn - I was walking back from university to my hall of residence through Smithfields, when I saw it.

My Dad was working in an office in Smithfields at the time. The office was above a Starbucks; the Starbucks was opposite the meat market, a study in repainted ironwork and obvious secrets, full of history and looking brand sparkling new. Above its automated gates to let in the meat trucks before dawn, silver dragons holding white and red crossed shields perched with their tongues perpetually sticking out like angry schoolchildren (with claws). Just beyond the meat market was Barts Hospital , complete with X-Ray machines and the stone busts of Tudor kings, where I was born the day after a nuclear disaster. From my Dad’s office you could just about make out the gold shape of blind Justice standing above the Old Bailey, and of course beyond that, St. Pauls Cathedral. I would walk by after my evening class on the international politics of Elizabeth and Philip, 1540-1610ish, and we’d have a hot chocolate, me and my Dad, and then I’d walk him to the bus stop through the Barbican centre at that hour of the evening when all the lights are coming on behind the windows, and you can see people moving about their offices and homes like tiny puppets in a gleaming dolls house. My hall of residence was conveniently situated just beyond Liverpool Street Station, in that part of Aldgate where bankers and lawyers convene in tight Georgian alleys with tourists on the Jack the Ripper walk, and where the air begins to smell of Brick Lane curry.

The ‘it’ that I saw, one evening much like any other in Smithfield , had been stuck to the back of a green telephone exchange box. Illegally stuck, but who was counting. It was in black and white, and depicted a face smiling a crooked smile that I can only describe as madly evil and pleased with itself. Beneath this image was a message, in a wobbly font to match the hysteria of the face’s expression. The message said: GIVE ME BACK MY HAT.

Puzzlement ensued. Who, exactly, had lost their hat? Why, exactly, did they need it back so urgently? And most importantly of all, what did that mad grin of evil delight entail for the unfortunate person or persons unknown who’d been responsible for the initial removal of the hat? Essays suffered as contemplation ensued.

London is full of much that is, to the average traveller, unexplained. The tendency of Piccadilly Line trains to put multiple exclamation marks into its rolling screen displays, the wide prevalence of TOX09 (now TOX10) across the railway lines of London, not to mention his rival, 10Foot who appears to have made his stamp in locales as far apart as Clapham and Clapton Junctions. Hints of medieval wall popping out of Victorian terraces before vanishing once again underneath car parks. The curious case of the 341 bus, that somehow manages to have formed packs of 3 by the end of its route no matter how far apart the buses may have been at the beginning, as if a double decker bus can get lonely. The sounds that suddenly become apparent in the city when the traffic stops; the tendency of a single left hand sports shoe to find its way to the top of bus shelters; the way the train to Streatham always left 5 seconds before you, and only you, made it to the correct platform. The fearless stare of the urban fox trotting calmly down the middle of the street; the bewildering scrawl of someone else’s working on the evening crossword abandoned in frustration on the train.

Now, your cynic might just say ‘well what do you expect… 4 million people in the city and only two trains to Streatham per hour on a Sunday, I mean duh, of course there’s gonna be stuff you don’t get!’ Thankfully, anyone with half an imagination and eye to see will easily come up with a far better solution… that perhaps all these things in the city that seem just a little bit strange and maybe just a little bit wonderful, are more than just a little bit of both.

So to everyone out there wondering about me and my books, the stories I write about, I have one key message, just one, that I want you to take away from reading this, to turn over in your minds in the sleepless hours of the night.


If that doesn't make you want to give 'The Midnight Mayor' a go then I don't know what will! Read 'A Madness of Angels' first though...

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

I've never read anything by...

Is this an attempt to draw some attention to the books on the pile that are doing stalwart work propping the rest up but haven’t been read at all? Or is this an attempt to come up with something for the blog while the demands of house decorating/moving etc take up my reading time? Could be either really but one thing this post is about is finding out what you guys think about all the books that you’ve read but I haven’t had time to…

Ladies and Gentlemen, today’s ‘I’ve never read anything by’ post is all about one Gail Z. Martin, an author whose books have been sat in the pile for a long old time now but haven’t been picked up for a read.
The release of ‘Dark Lady’s Chosen’ pricked my conscience and I will be starting ‘The Summoner’ fairly soon(ish). In the meantime though, are these books that you’ve read? What did you think of them? Are you eagerly awaiting ‘Dark Lady’s Chosen’ or did you stop reading the series a while ago? All comments are gratefully received!

Here's the book trailer for 'Dark Haven' and 'Dark Lady's Chosen' if you fancy a look...

Gail has also very kindly agreed to provide a guest post for the blog in the very near future so keep an eye open for that...

Monday, 8 March 2010

‘Prince of Stories: The Many Worlds of Neil Gaiman’ – Hank Wagner, Christopher Golden & Stephen R. Bissette (St. Martin’s Griffin)

A few weeks ago, I left a post here going on about how I don’t normally read biographies and invited readers to vote on whether I read and reviewed a Stephen King or Neil Gaiman biography. Neil Gaiman’s ‘Prince of Stories’ won the vote so imagine how red my face was when I had a closer look at the book and realised it wasn’t a biography at all, not really. This means that the Stephen King biography will be read at some point in the near future. ‘Prince of Stories’ still fitted very nicely into my resolution to read books that I wouldn’t normally look at though so I went with it...

There is a biographical element to the very early stages of this work but it is really only place Gaiman in context in terms of what the book sets out to be, a reference work detailing what looks like pretty much everything Gaiman has ever written. As much as I’ve enjoyed the books by Gaiman that I’ve read, I’m only a fan of passing interest so couldn’t tell you if this is everything that he’s turned out. The list looks hefty enough though that you can easily believe that this is the lot though; it’s all handily categorised (children’s books, scripts, comics etc) so you can head straight to the section you want.

This was a good thing for me as (only being a passing fan) I found that a lot of Gaiman’s work doesn’t hold a lot of interest for me. I was keen to learn more about the ‘Sandman’ series (having only read the first book) but wasn’t too bothered about the scripts that he had written. As well written as the book is (and it is) I was hobbled by my indifference to certain aspects about Gaiman’s writing career. If I’m not interested in it then I’m not going to read about it. If you’re a hardcore Neil Gaiman fan then I’m guessing that this will obviously be different! Wagner, Golden and Bissette go all out to give their readers a fully immersive look into what lies behind each piece of writing by Gaiman and each piece certainly has a story to tell. No detail is spared and that’s got to be a good thing for anyone picking this book up.

Having said all that, it was kind of funny that I enjoyed reading ‘Prince of Stories’ as a book that you can just pick up and browse through, opening pages at random to see what was there. Although there were things that I wasn’t particularly interested in, some of the stories behind the stories were worth sticking around for. I particularly enjoyed the story of ‘A Modest Proposal’, a story that I wouldn’t have reached if I’d been reading the book in a conventional manner but one that stood out even more through the fact that I found it purely by chance. ‘Prince of Stories’ is full of little gems like this and half the fun I had with this book was diving in at random and seeing what I found.

Any book that’s this much ‘pure concentrated Gaiman’ is only really going to satisfy long term fans; if you’re anything like me then you may find this book a little too much to take in one go. Open a page at random though and have a read; this book is full of little gems for those willing to take the time to look, the odds are that you’ll find one sooner than you think.

Eight and a Quarter out of Ten

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Giveaway! 'The Midnight Mayor' (Kate Griffin)

It's said that if the ravens ever leave the Tower of London, then the Tower will crumble and the kingdom will fall. As it happens, that's not so far from the truth ...One by one, the magical wards that guard the city are failing: the London Wall defiled with cryptic graffiti, the ravens found dead at the Tower, the London Stone destroyed. This is not good news. This array of supernatural defences - a mix of international tourist attractions and forgotten urban legends - formed a formidable magical shield. Protection for the City of London against ...well, that's the question, isn't it? What could be so dangerous as to threaten an entire city? Against his better judgement, resurrected sorcerer Matthew Swift is about to find out. And if he's lucky, he might just live long enough to do something about it ...

Sounds good doesn't it? I think so :o) Thanks to Orbit, I have three copies of Kate Griffin's 'The Midnight Mayor' to give away to three lucky readers of this blog. This one's only open to UK residents though...

To enter, all you need to do is drop me an email (address at the top right hand side of the screen) telling me who you are and what your postal address is. That's it!

I'm leaving this competition open until March 14th and will aim to announce the winners as soon as possible afterwards. You might have to wait a couple of days for that announcement though what with the house move and everything...

Good Luck!

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Giveaway! 'Blood Angels: Black Tide' (James Swallow)

If you're in the mood for a spot of 'giant armour clad uber-humans blasting the hell out of heretics and aliens' then James Swallow's 'Black Tide' is a pretty good place to go. Scroll down a little bit for my review and you'll see what I mean...

Thanks to the Black Library I have five copies of 'Black Tide' to give away to five readers of this here blog. By the way, this competition is open to anyone; it doesn't matter where you live!

To enter, all you need to do is drop me an email (address at the top right hand side of the screen) telling me who you are and what your postal address is. I'll do everything else :o)

I'm leaving this competition open until March 14th and will aim to announce the winners as soon as possible afterwards. I'm really busy with the house move though so you might just have to wait for that...

Good Luck!

Friday, 5 March 2010

Guest Blog! (Graham McNeill)

Things aren't as bad as they used to be but I still get the feeling, every now and then, that tie-in fiction is a sub-genre that people look down on for a number of reasons. My view has always been that if it's a well written book then it doesn't matter whether it's tie-in or not and I thought it would be great to take a look at things from the perspective of someone who writes tie-in fiction.
Proving that all Graemes (and Grahams) are wonderful people who will drop whatever they are doing and turn out a blog post, Black Library writer Graham McNeill very kindly agreed to write a guest post for the blog. Thanks Graham!
Here's what he had to say for himself...

Another day, another blog…

Not long ago, Dan Abnett and I were the guest hosts of the Borders Sci-fi blog at Babel Clash. You may have seen us there and joined in the chat. And to continue the theme of writing on other people’s blogs; here I am again. Thanks to Graeme for inviting me over and allowing me to sprawl on the sofa of his blog with a free hand to ramble.

To Tie-in or not to Tie-in?

One of the topics on Babel Clash was whether it was easier to write in your own universe or a shared one. I’m going to take a step sideways, and look at that question from the reader’s point of view, asking whether you should bother to read tie-in fiction.

My answer is simple. What’s stopping you? I don’t pick things to enjoy based on any affiliation (or lack thereof) they might have. If I did, I’d never have read the Eisenhorn trilogy, enjoyed a Dr Who novel or gone to see Pirates of the Caribbean. After all…that film’s based on a ride at Disney, yeah? What could be lamer than that…? All those people who went to see The Dark Knight…were they ALL comic book fans who loved Batman. I doubt it. I’m sure there’s many reasons folk went to see that film, but I’m sure a great many of those cinemagoers had never picked up a Batman comic in their life. I’m sure most people went along because they’d heard it was a great film and that it was worth parting with their cash for a ticket. The point is that it’s best to judge things on their merit, not whether you think they’re lesser or somehow inferior for being part of a franchise or based on a game/comic/ride.

The Secret of Success

And whether books are a tie-in or set within an author created universe, they all need to have one thing in common if they’re going to succeed. They need to be good. Simple as that, really. Hey, I never said this was going to be rocket science or Advanced Literature. If something is good, then it’s good. It doesn’t matter whether the author slaved to create his own world or if they worked within the realms of an existing one. Sure, a writer of his or her own universe can be lauded for invention and vision, but can’t the tie-in writer also be admired for their own inventions? Just because a book’s set within a shared universe doesn’t mean its invention is restricted. In fact it’s the opposite. Being tie-in drives the need for ever more creativity, since you have to stay within the playground while doing ever more imaginative things with it to keep things fresh and exciting.

Fiction books are read to entertain. Sure, they can deal with weighty themes and have deep subtexts, but any novel that doesn’t entertain along the way, either through great writing, interesting characters and unexpected plots – hopefully all three – has failed and won’t get finished. Any book is capable of doing this, and with the quality of tie-in books getting better and better all the time, it’s time to take a plunge into the franchise pool and see what the water’s like.

To take a current example, take a look at the Horus Heresy books charging out the gates of the Black Library. With their striking cover design they look like classy pieces of work, and they are. The stories that fill their pages are as at least accomplished as those written by authors working in their own invented universes. They’re complex, layered and driven on by some great writing and exciting plots. You should try them; you’ll like it I promise. Lots of people, well over a million in fact, have already climbed aboard the Heresy train and found it an exciting ride. And in a seamless segue, hearing that A Thousand Sons is this week’s number 1 bestseller in Science Fiction and Fantasy, I guess plenty more are starting to see that.

As a shameless aside to that, when George Mann, the head of Black Library, told me the news that A Thousand Sons had done so well, it took a day or so for it to really sink in. I looked at the e-mail on the Tuesday night, though that it was pretty cool, and then went to bed. The next day I received a LOT of texts and e-mails from friends who’d heard the news. Then it began to sink in that this was kind of a big deal. And then they told me that A Thousand Sons had knocked Charlaine Harris and her Sookie Stackhouse novels off the top spot. That’s when it really hit home. Number 1, man! The smiling started around then, and it hasn’t stopped yet.

Fan turned writer

I’m not only a writer for Warhammer; I’m also a fan. I played the games way back in the day and still get a kick out of moving toy soldiers around a tabletop and rolling dice. I remember reading the 40k rulebook when it first came out in the Rogue Trader days, and something about the dystopian, gothic horror of the Imperium really fused parts of my brain. I don’t think they’ve ever recovered, as I’ve been writing stories set there ever since then. My desire to write 40k fiction came out of that moment. I’d gotten into a rut with sci-fi and fantasy fiction, and the grim darkness of the 41st millennium really set a fire in my head. I needed to see stories of the battlefield, but I didn’t want to see only the fighting. I needed to know what went on behind the scenes of warfare, to see what drove the characters into such horrendously dangerous situations and how they faced the horrors of a hostile galaxy. That’s what I love about 40K and Warhammer fiction, it goes beyond the tabletop into a fully-realised world that’s been in constant development since the 80s. It’s as deep and wide as any other universe out there, and it has lots of dark spaces for all manner of stories to take root.

I read most of the Black Library’s output. Not all, because let’s not get into the realms of make-believe. Some of them just don’t appeal to me. Not because of their nature as tie-in books, but because their subject matter doesn’t do it for me. Pretty much like anyone who browses a bookstore shelf, really. I read all sorts of books, and the one thing they have in common is that they have nothing in common. There’s tie-in fiction (Rynn’s World), ‘original’ fiction (The Unicorn Road) and non-fiction (The Age of Wonder). All three are very different, but I’m sure I’m going to enjoy them all.

So if you’ve never tried a tie-in fiction book, there’s never been a better time to try. As more and more folk discover that they’re actually pretty damn good, more and more talented writers are being attracted to write them. It’s an upwardly moving trend that can only been good for readers and writers alike. So go on, give it a go. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much good stuff is out there. More and more readers are discovering this, so isn’t it about time you did too?

Tie-in and beyond…

As much as I love writing tie-in fiction, I also have ambitions to write a novel set in a world of my own invention, one that’s not linked to any shared universe. On the surface that might appear hypocritical given what I’ve been saying above, but I don’t think so. To venture into new pastures is something every good writer should want to do. Not because they don’t like the worlds they write within, but because they have ambitions and stories that don’t quite fit there.

And there’s no reason you can’t have your cake and eat it too. I’m sure I’ll enjoy writing stories in my own universes just as much I love writing in shared universes. The trick, as with most things, is variety. As a reader you need to vary your input so you don’t get bored reading the same thing over and over again, and it’s the same for the writer. You need to stretch different muscles in different worlds to stay fresh and enjoy the ones you come back to. That’s why I skip merrily from Warhammer, to 40k to Horus Heresy and beyond. I keep myself fresh by exploring different things and immersing myself in new kinds of stories to stretch my imagination in strange and unexpected directions. As a reader you owe it to yourself to do the same.

Graham McNeill

Thursday, 4 March 2010

‘Cold Warriors’ – Rebecca Levene (Abaddon Books)

I’ve only read a couple of Rebecca Levene’s books from Abaddon (‘Anno Mortis’ and ‘Kill or Cure’) and while they were entertaining enough, they didn’t stand out for me in the same way that Abaddon books from Jonathan Green, Al Ewing, Gary McMahon and Simon Bestwick have. This record could well be about to change though with Levene’s latest offering.
I’d been lulled into thinking that Abaddon had settled in to all the series that they were going to publish but it turns out that they have at least one more new series up their sleeves. The only thing really missing from their repertoire was something along the Urban Fantasy line. Abaddon have plugged in this gap and have done so in some style with Levene’s debut offering in this series. If ‘Cold Warriors’ is anything to go by then I’m already looking forward to Levene’s next work in ‘Ghost Dance’...

The Hermetic Division was Britain’s answer to supernatural threats that came about over the course of the Cold War. The Cold War may be over but the Hermetic Division’s sole mission is still very much at the fore of the defence of the Realm. The Ragnarok artefacts have the power to bring about the end of the world; the only problem is that no-one knows where they are or even what they look like... Now information has come to a light that a corrupt Russian oligarch may know of their whereabouts, or even have them in his possession. Two of the division’s most powerful agents are soon on his trail, a trail that will lead them across Europe and into the midst of secrets that should have stayed hidden...

This is going to sound more than a little contradictory but when it comes to Urban Fantasy, I like it to be as ‘real’ as possible. It’s all set in the real world after all and I find that the extra dose of reality emphasises the weirdness that’s going on just below the surface. If the balance is right then you feel that this sort of thing could almost be happening outside your window. Levene gets the balance just right in ‘Cold Warriors’, a novel that really did have me feeling that the events it portrays could be happening right now...

‘Cold Warriors’ gives the reader everything you would expect from a Cold War style spy novel... and then adds demons and the undead to the mix. The living dead are always welcome in my reading so it was an added bonus to see them here :o)
This is a book full of double agents being followed down dark Eastern European streets, double crossings over the exchanging of mysterious packages and comrades who aren’t quite what they seem. If that wasn’t enough for you, there’s at least one moment where a taxi driver is to ‘follow that car!’ There is an argument to be had here that this has all been done before in other spy novels and, to be fair, it has. Demons and zombies aside, you’re not actually getting a lot that is new here. I’d say that is almost the point though. Levene uses these familiar tropes to create just the kind of atmosphere a book like this needs, a brooding and dark affair that draws you into the shadows just enough to jump in shock at what comes flying out at you. The over familiarity lulls you into a false sense of security; you’re sure that you know what’s coming but you couldn’t be more wrong. The only slight drawback is that this approach does have a tendency to slow the plot right down to a crawl at times when it could do with going a little faster. Maybe there’s a little too much description of the scenery when a little more action is required...

The plot itself lures you in with it’s accessibility and then proceeds to turn things inside over the next two hundred and ninety five pages. The reader is never sure who is on whose side although I have to say that I saw the revelation about Morgan coming a lot earlier than the book pointed to it. Balancing that out though, I thought Levene handled the plot thread involving two particular characters superbly (I can’t say much more than that without spoiling the plot). In the meantime, Levene proves herself more than adept at setting scenes up and allowing them to play out either in a hail of bullets or a swarm of the undead/possessed animals. ‘Cold Warriors’ is a novel that’s just as good as hitting you with the supernatural as it is with all the other more mundane stuff. As I said earlier, these two aspects of the novel balance out well and make the reader feel that this stuff could really be happening just beyond the corner of their eye...

For such a gripping tale (plenty of twists that kept my attention), with characters that are interesting to get to know, it was a bit off a shame that the story felt a little flat just as the climatic scenes came to the fore. The energy was there but Morgan’s actions felt a little too predictable to me; I wasn’t surprised by what he ultimately did and that’s where it all fell down for me, only slightly but just enough to make a difference.

It’s a shame that the ending felt a little flat, especially as the story leading up to that point was generally excellent. ‘Cold Warriors’ is an opening shot in the ‘Infernal Game’ series that has got me itching for more of the same. Look out for 'Cold Warriors' around the middle of May.

Eight and Three Quarters out of Ten