Thursday, 31 May 2012

'Girl Genius Volume One: Agatha Awakens' - Phil & Kaja Foglio (Tor)

If you were around a couple of days ago you'll remember that 'The Battle of Blood and Ink' didn't exactly set the world on fire for me. Quite the opposite in fact. If you haven't read the review yet, scroll down a couple of posts and you'll see what I mean.

I love reading comic books & graphic novels and it takes an awful lot to sour the experience for me. The experience was well and truly soured here though and I'll admit to not being too keen on getting back in the saddle straight away.

The 'Girl Genius' book did look intriguing though as did the comment next to my cover art post that the webcomic had won so many Hugos that it had been voluntarily withdrawn to give others a chance. That is really sweet of the authors isn't it? That's also a lot of hype for someone who hasn't read the books to deal with. Is any book so good that it has to be voluntarily withdrawn from the Hugos so the rest of the competition stands a chance...?

You're getting cut and pasted blurb again today as I'm writing this along with a lot of other stuff I need to be doing at the same time (that means the possibility of spoilers, you've been warned)...

The Industrial Revolution has become all-out war! Mad Scientists, gifted with the Spark of genius, unleash insane inventions on an unprepared Europe. For centuries, the Heterodyne family of inventors kept the peace, but the last Heterodyne disappeared twenty years ago, leaving their ally Baron Klaus Wulfenbach to maintain order with his fleet of airships and army of unstoppable, if not very bright, Jaeger Monsters.

At Transylvania Polygnostic University, Agatha Clay dreams of being a scientist herself, but her trouble concentrating dooms her to be a lowly minion at best. When her locket, a family heirloom, is stolen, Agatha shows signs of having the Spark in a spectacular, destructive fashion and captures the attention of the Baron—and the Baron’s handsome young son, Gilgamesh.

I had a whale of a time reading 'Agatha Awakens', that's the bottom line here. I wasn't too sure what to expect here but once I got going I couldn't stop reading (quite literally, this is a book that is all too easy to devour in a single sitting). To be honest, I don't pay a lot of attention at all to the Hugos but it's pretty clear why 'Girl Genius' has scooped a handful of these awards. It's an engaging read that is humorous and full of action in all the right places.

In the aforementioned cover art post, I did have a couple of reservations about a cover that looked as if it wasn't sure whether it wanted to be Manga or not. I didn't like the air of uncertainty that came over as a result and thought it could have benefitted by being one thing or the other. This theme remains the same going into the book but it somehow felt easier to deal with as the plot moved on. Most of this was down to the 'Manga Effect' only really applying to the characters and as I got to know them more it really didn't matter how they were drawn at all. Agatha, Gilgamesh and the rest are all characters that are full of life and people that you really want to get to know more about. More on that in a bit.
What really balanced things out though was the sheer amount of detail and colour on display. The world that Agatha has to find her way in is beautifully drawn with no expense spared in terms of detail. Now this is what I'm after in terms of a Steampunk tale, something fully immersive for all the right reasons.

The story itself starts out along familiar lines, and ends on a familiar note as well, but it's all the bits in between that make the difference with enough surprises and little twists to make you feel like you're reading something a little different even if you're not. The humour on display is infectious, to say the least, and I couldn't help but chuckle pretty much the whole way through. It's the cast, and the way that you get a real insight into their personal journeys, who made this for me though. Agatha, in particular, comes across as someone that you really want to get to know more about with her determination not to let the world get the better of her (even though the odds are stacked against her every day).

Phil and Kaja Foglio have come up with something very special here and I'll certainly be in line for Volume Two if I don't jump headfirst into the webcomic beforehand. It felt like I was the only person who hadn't read 'Girl Genius' before now but if you haven't read it yet then I recommend you set that straight right away.

Nine out of Ten

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

A Slightly Bemused Book Haul Post...

Because sometimes something happens and the schedule has to take a back seat for a day.

I never comment on big internet hoo-hahs, as I'm always really late to them, but I have been following the misadventures of the self published small press guy who has 92K Twitter followers and outsells big name authors on a regular basis, or something like that. I won't say too much there other than if you listen really carefully to the gales of laughter, still floating around the internet, you'll hear my chuckles there too :o)

There's been a lot of interesting discussion arising out of all this, namely what self-pubbers can do to get their books reviewed by the likes of us (not something that I do as it happens, read my Review Policy). The comment that really struck a chord with me was from a blogger (sorry, I've forgotten your name...) who gets review requests from self-pubbers who clearly haven't bothered to check what this guy actually reviews. I get those emails too and they get deleted without a reply.
It's not just the self-pubbers though, look what was waiting for me when I got home last night (sent by a publisher who shall remain nameless but who has dealt with me in the past and really ought to know better...)


I love Paris (and the 'Hidden Gardens' book will come with me next time I visit) but I've got no idea why I was sent these books for the blog. The big clue about what I cover here is in the title (with some sci-fi and horror too)... ;o)

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

'The Battle of Blood and Ink' - Jared Axelrod & Steve Walker (Tor)

These days I normally have quite the low tolerance threshold for books that really aren't working for me. Fifty to a hundred pages in and if it's not working out then down the book goes. Every now and then though a book pops up that I end up finishing despite myself. 'The Battle of Blood and Ink' is only a hundred and thirty five pages long and I kept thinking to myself, 'it's not that much further to go, stick with it for a few more pages and then have some chocolate as a reward...' I also kept thinking, 'it's steampunk so something cool is bound to happen in a couple of pages.' It turns out that I was wrong.

In a slightly different approach to the normal reviews here you're getting a 'copied and pasted' blurb here (the reasons for which will become apparent later on...)

If you're visiting the flying city of Amperstam without the latest printing of The Lurker's Guide, you might as well be lost. This one-sheet is written, edited, and printed by Ashe, a girl raised on the streets of the flying city, and is dedicated to revealing its hidden treasures and deepest secrets-including many that the overcontrolling government doesn't want anyone to know. The stakes are raised when Ashe accidentally uncovers the horror of exactly how Amperstam travels among the skies and garners the attention of those who would rather that secret be kept in the hands of the city's powerful leaders.

Soon Ashe is on the run from thugs and assassins, faced with the choice of imperiling her life just to keep publishing, or giving in to the suggestion of a rich patron that she trade in her voice and identity for a quiet, comfortable life. It's a war of confusion for Ashe, but one thing is very clear: just because you live in a flying city, you can't always keep your head in the clouds.

I think my biggest issue here was with the art, or lack of it. We're talking about a steampunk graphic novel here and if steampunk is about anything it's about the whole look of the thing isn't it? We're talking all the ornate glory of 'Victoriana' with added airships and deathrays. At least that's what I thought until I opened the book and got reading. Everything is in black and white for a start and normally that doesn't have to be a bad thing if the detail is there to back things up (I'm thinking 'The Walking Dead' here). With 'The Battle of Blood and Ink' though, all the black and white art does is to show up just how little detail there is. It all feels very transparent and I was left very aware that I was looking at a backdrop to the story rather than a background that added to the proceedings in any way.

Moving onto how the characters themselves are depicted... It seems to be the fashion these days to give the reader a few preliminary sketches, at the back of the book, to show you how the character came to be (and what they could have been). 'The Battle of Blood and Ink' is the only graphic novel I've ever seen where the cast of characters actually regress from their preliminary sketches. It should have been the other way round, it really should. If that wasn't bad enough, the characters all look really awkward during the course of the plot; everything looks staged rather than in motion...

Moving onto the plot and I think that the nicest thing you can say here is that it is ambitious, wanting to say an awful lot about a number of things. The only problem here that there's only a hundred and thirty five pages to fit all of this ambition into and it was never going to fit. What you get instead is a passing nod to a number of themes, none of which are truly expanded upon. I'd like to think that this is all about setting things up for the future but we are led to believe that a few of these sub-plots are actually rounded off and finished up with. If they are then it's not a particularly satisfactory conclusion, not when you don't get to actually see how things work out. I did like the one page issue of 'The Lurker's Guide' though, I wish we could have had a little more along those lines...

I think a hundred extra pages could have done 'The Battle of Blood and Ink' the world of good as we would have been able to get a better look at the city of Amperstam and its inhabitants. We would have actually seen character development and why things were happening instead of being forced to take the books word for it. As it is though, 'The Battle of Blood and Ink' comes across as poorly planned and poorly presented. Don't let me stop you giving it a go (one man's meat is another man's, erm... something else?) but I can't see myself picking up any more books in the series.

Five out of Ten

Monday, 28 May 2012

A Slightly Nostalgic Cover Art Post... 'Destiny Quest: The Legion of Shadow' (Michael J. Ward)

A first for the blog as I don't think I've ever covered game books here. First of all, check that cover out...

Loads going on, slightly cartoonish... It really takes me back to the days of Fighting Fantasy game books (when they first came out that is, you can still buy new editions today). Just one look at the cover has me thinking of books like 'Forest of Doom' and 'Deathtrap Dungeon' where I'd be totally engrossed by the background and cheating like mad on those dice rolls to make sure that I stayed in the story for as long as possible :o) Yep, I was one of those people who would (more often than not) use all my fingers as bookmarks and scout ahead in the book to see what the safe route was. Don't tell me you didn't do exactly the same thing... ;o)
I can't promise that I won't do all those things again with 'The Legion of Shadow' but I can promise that it will be my bank holiday reading next weekend. I'll let you know what I thought of it sometime next week.

What's going to be happening in the meantime? Well, there's a couple of books that I want to write about but, as fate would have it, two steampunk graphic novels arrived with me just recently. One is a lesson in how to write a thoroughly absorbing steampunk tale; the other is exactly the opposite... I'll be reviewing them both over the next few days so pop by and have a read.

See you tomorrow :o)

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Ben Aaronovitch Signing and Reading

If you enjoyed Ben Aaronvitch's last two 'Peter Grant' books, and if you're in London on the 23rd June (no half measures here, that's both 'ifs' or not at all!), then this one could be for you. From the press release...

BEN AARONOVITCH will be signing the third novel in his superbly entertaining supernatural crime series WHISPERS UNDER GROUND at the Forbidden Planet London Megastore on Saturday 23rd June from 4 – 5pm. 

He will also be giving an exclusive short story preview! 

Peter Grant is learning magic fast. And its just as well - he's already had run ins with the deadly supernatural children of the Thames and a terrifying killer in Soho. Progression in the Police Force is less easy. Especially when you work in a department of two. A department that doesn't even officially exist. A department that if you did describe it to most people would get you laughed at. And then there's his love life. The last person he fell for ended up seriously dead. It wasn't his fault, but still.
Now something horrible is happening in the labyrinth of tunnels that make up the tube system that honeycombs the ancient foundations of London. And delays on the Northern line is the very least of it. Time to call in the Met's Economic and Specialist Crime Unit 9, aka 'The Folly'. Time to call in PC Peter Grant, Britain’s Last Wizard.

As much as I enjoyed the last two books (reviews Here and Here) the chances of me being in the centre of London, in the middle of summer, are always very small. I'm more of a 'weekday evening signing' person myself... Another lovely looking cover from Gollancz who are clearly going with the 'if it ain't broke...' approach. I'm really hoping for better things from the Del Rey cover art this time round...

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Giveaway! 'Amped' (Daniel H. Wilson)

My 'to read right now' pile is looking quite fearsome right now (it's breeding smaller piles as I write this post...) but 'Robopocalypse' was a superb read so 'Amped' might find itself being read sooner rather than later. Check out the blurb...

In Amped, people are implanted with a device that makes them capable of superhuman feats. The powerful technology has profound consequences for society, and soon a set of laws is passed that restricts the abilities—and rights—of "amplified" humans. On the day that the Supreme Court passes the first of these laws, twenty-nine-year-old Owen Gray joins the ranks of a new persecuted underclass known as "amps." Owen is forced to go on the run, desperate to reach an outpost in Oklahoma where, it is rumored, a group of the most enhanced amps may be about to change the world—or destroy it. 

While I'm reading my copy of 'Amped' how do you fancy a shot at winning a copy for yourself? You do? Hang on a moment, this competition is only open to US entrants... Are you still in? Here's what you need to do.

Thanks to Doubleday, I have three copies of 'Amped' to give away here. If you fancy your chances, just 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. The subject header needs to be 'Amped'.

I'll let this one run until the 3rd of June and will aim to announce the winners as soon as possible afterwards.

Good Luck!

Friday, 25 May 2012

'Mighty Samson: Judgment' - Shooter, Vaughn, Olliffe & Irwin (Dark Horse Books)

I love a good dose of 'post apocalypse', this probably won't come as any surprise to anyone who has read this blog for more than a week... ;o) I love watching something horrible happening to the Earth (safe in the knowledge that my sofa is comfy and all is well outside) and how a hardy bunch of survivors deal with it all as it happens. What I love even more though is visiting Earth long after the apocalypse took place and seeing how things have changed in the intervening centuries (surprisingly so given that I don't feature that kind of thing here very often if at all, too much other stuff to read)... I'm talking 'Planet of the Apes' or 'Logan's Run' here, future societies that have no real memory of their past.

When I got the chance to read 'Mighty Samson' then, I pretty much jumped at the chance. We're looking at a future New York that is now N'Yark , five hundred years after the apocalypse, preyed upon by jungle monsters and ruthlessly subjugated by the Jerz tribe and their Queen Terra. N'Yark's only hope for survival is a man who was cast out of the settlement as a baby. A mutant with not only heightened senses but strength as well. Samson must come of age quickly in a world where strength alone will not be enough to protect him against the wiles of a dark queen...

'Mighty Samson' collects the four issues from the (fairly) recent Dark Horse re-imagining of the classic series and only weighs in at a painfully slender ninety two pages. I'm pretty sure that the 'Dark Horse Presents' books are a comparable size at about half the price... Comments about the price to one side though, it's clear that 'Mighty Samson' doesn't give itself a lot of room to tell a story so don't expect anything too deep and involved here. Character development is hinted at (and the attempts of Zarsk and Nartz to profit from everything make for an amusing sideshow) but when survival is a far more pressing concern the focus will inevitably fall on the action sequences instead. These are worth the price of entry although the artwork can feel a little rushed here at times, Shooter and Olliffe combining well to show us how far civilisation can fall into savagery (and be threatened by giant insects) in five hundred years.

A little light on plot then? I'd say yes but Shooter makes up for this not only in terms of sheer energy, driving things forwards, but with slightly comedic moments as well. If your lead character is pretty much invulnerable then a great way to keep the readers on board is to have a little bit of fun with that. The sequence where Samson has a conversation with his dead mother, casually batting monsters out of the way without even thinking of it, is played strictly for laughs and you can't help but laugh along with it. What is really interesting though are the moments where we get just a brief glimpse of Samson's character slowly beginning to develop. A man who has previously relied on his strength, and the natural order of this new society, must now question what is right and what his responsibilities really are. You don't really get much time to see what makes Samson start questioning himself but I was left with the impression that Samson's naivety could make for some interesting storylines in the future. I'll admit right now that I knew nothing about this title until I saw the book, have there been any more books since?

The ending sets things up, very nicely, for more to come in the future and if there is more to come I wouldn't mind seeing if some kind of story grows out of these pulp beginnings (nothing wrong with pulp but I wouldn't mind seeing a little more story...) 'Mighty Samson' is a lightweight read, in more ways than one, but an intriguing one at the same time...

Eight out of Ten

Thursday, 24 May 2012

'The Emperor's Gift' - Aaron Dembski-Bowden (Black Library)

Ever since I reviewed 'Cadian Blood' (way back in July 2009, my how the time flies etc...) Aaron Dembski-Bowden has gone from being an author worth checking out to being an author where I will quite happily put down whatever I'm reading to read his latest book. He's that good (seriously) and, as such, is an author whom I will inevitably recommend to anyone who hasn't read a Black Library Warhammer 40K book.
'Cadian Blood' and 'Helsreach' to one side, Dembski-Bowden has pretty much made his name writing about the Space Marine Traitor Legions (the Night Lords in particular) who wage eternal war upon their Loyalist brothers and the Imperium of Mankind. It made for a little bit of a surprise then to see that Dembski-Bowden’s next book would not only be about a Loyalist Chapter but perhaps the most loyal and incorruptible Chapter of them all, the mysterious Grey Knights. That’s one hell of a leap then, from one end of the spectrum right to the other, and I was (of course) very interested to see what the end result would be. Dembski-Bowden is very good at putting a human face on the ‘trans-human’ and I wanted to see how it worked this time round. The outcome…? ‘The Emperor’s Gift’ stands up most of Dembski-Bowden’s work, in terms of quality, but didn’t quite do it for me his time round…

Of all the Space Marine Chapters, the Grey Knights are the Chapter at the very forefront of the fight against Chaos. Since their origin, in the depths of the Horus Heresy, these daemon hunters have taken the fight into the Warp itself to ensure that humanity stands strong in its darkest hour.
The Grey Knights are tasked with the missions that mere Space Marines cannot hope to achieve and their training reflects what they will be expected to deal with on the field of battle. Could any Grey Knight have guessed what would be waiting for them on the fields of Armageddon though? Brother Hyperion will not only face the toughest challenge of his career but will learn a harsh lesson in what it really means to keep the Imperium safe…

At the risk of becoming incredibly boring Aaron Dembski-Bowden has done it again. The man seems literally incapable of writing a book that doesn’t hook me right from the start and ‘The Emperor’s Gift’ is no exception. Like I said though, as good as it was ‘The Emperor’s Gift’ didn’t do it for me in the same way that previous books have…

Why was that? It’s really hard to pin down so bear with me if I end up waffling a bit…
The Grey Knights are held up as the purest of the pure, totally beyond all forms of temptation and corruption. It’s a bit of a shock then to find out they are just as liable, as the rest of us, to fall if they are not very careful. Hyperion is the typical lone wolf who has trouble fitting into a team, liable to strike out on his own (regardless of the rest of his squad) if he thinks he can get the job done). It’s a contrast that didn’t quite sit comfortably with me then. I completely get why Dembski-Bowden went down this path as you need a little humanity in your characters, it would all get horribly boring very quickly otherwise. I couldn’t help but wonder though if the balance went just a little too far the other way though. When it got to the point though where even the upper echelons, of the Grey Knight hierarchy, were jostling for power and indulging in a little politicking… That was the point where I was wondering if these guys had their minds on the job as much as we were meant to believe. Oh well…

That’s not to take anything away from Hyperion’s journey as a Grey Knight though. All the really interesting stuff is missed out (the training and so on) but what’s left over leaves you in no doubt what it means to be a Grey Knight when no-one will ever know the sacrifices you made. I’m talking about the battle for Armageddon in particular, long term fans will know just what I’m talking about but I don’t want to give anything away for those who haven’t read the book yet. Lets just say that Aaron ramps up the battle to a ferocious degree and, just when you think it can’t go any further, introduces a character who will throw all your expectations clean out of the water. When you see tough characters thrown aside like they weren’t even there, you’re left in no doubt that something huge is taking place. I liked the contrast here with what is going on for the ‘ordinary soldiers’ on the front line, war is hell for everyone but for some more literally than others.

Aaron more than makes up for the ‘Grey Knight niggle’ though with his exploration of the darker side of what must be done to maintain the Imperium in the face of constant threats from its foes. We’re not just talking about the constant warfare across thousands of planets. If there’s the risk of one Imperial citizen being corrupted by Chaos, what would you do? Kill that person? Destroy the space craft they’re travelling on? Sterilize the population of an entire planet? Desperate times call for desperate measures but can they truly be justified when there’s the risk of a further wedge being driven between Imperial factions that should be working together? Aaron answers these questions in such a way that actions are justified even if they are shown to be ultimately fruitless. The fight with the Space Wolves Chapter is awesome but is also a sobering reminder of the fate that may await the Imperium if it cannot settle differences within itself…

At the end of ‘The Emperor’s Gift’ the reader is left with a clear picture of just how beleaguered the Imperium is and the massive task that the Grey Knights face every day. I wasn’t a hundred percent convinced by how they were portrayed but I couldn’t help but feel a little respect for them afterwards (I had a lot more respect for the Space Wolves though, it has to be said).
The wait for Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s next book starts… now.

Eight and Three Quarters out of Ten

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

‘Silent Voices’ – Gary McMahon (Solaris)

One of the things that I love most about blogging here is discovering great new books that I wouldn’t have come across otherwise. These days I am veering towards the familiar (toddler in the house, the daily commute, you’ve heard all the excuses before…) but there’s still a lot to be said for taking a chance on an author you’ve never heard and seeing where the journey takes you. What favourite authors have you discovered more or less on a whim? I discovered Gary McMahon and I haven’t looked back since, preferring to look forwards instead and see what slice of nastiness he comes up with next.

Every since a copy of ‘Hungry Hearts’ (still an innovative slice of zombie fiction, check it out) fell into my hands, Gary McMahon has become one of my ‘go to authors’ in terms of horror fiction. If you’re a fan of the genre then I reckon you’ve already read at least one of his books. If not, I guess you know what you need to do.

‘The Concrete Grove’ is my favourite book of McMahon’s although ‘Hungry Hearts’ does run it a close second. You can read my review Here if you like. If not, have a couple of quotes from the review…

It goes without saying that if you are squeamish at all then this is probably a book that you should avoid. McMahon doesn’t include anything without a very good reason but when he does he doesn’t pull his punches at all and this shows us all to well that perhaps the true horror in this piece lies in just what us humans can be capable of if we want something enough. It’s not pretty.

It’s a vicious read with a delicate beauty about it; if you like your horror fiction then I don’t see any reason why you won’t get a lot out of this.

With quotes like that, you won’t be too surprised to hear that I was really looking forward to getting my hands on the sequel ‘Silent Voices’. I was hoping for more of the same at the very least, a little more if possible. Either would have been good but it wasn’t to be on that score. McMahon went for something different entirely and it worked… only up to a point though.

Twenty years ago, three boys went missing for a whole weekend. No-one knew what had happened, least of all the boys who could remember nothing but vague memories of a shadowy woodland grove.
Twenty years on and Simon has returned to the Concrete Grove to see his old friends and finally bury the memories that have plagued him all these years. Those memories won’t be buried though, not when the darkness that created them is calling out once more. The hummingbirds are flying again and dark shadows stalk a run down council estate once more. Will three men finally be able to escape the memories of their childhood and banish the evil at the centre of the Concrete Grove?

‘Silent Voices’ is a worthy sequel to ‘The Concrete Grove’, a book that expands on the secrets within the Needle and gives us a slightly longer look at something dark that is awake once more. At the same time though, ‘Silent Voices’ fell (just a little) short of what McMahon achieved in ‘The Concrete Grove’. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, more a case of the story going in a slightly different direction, to before, and perhaps losing a little impact because of it.

‘Silent Voices’ is a chilling tale of urban fantasy and horror. Not ‘that’ kind of urban fantasy; I’m talking about something that heads into ‘Mythago Wood’ territory if anything. Gary McMahon isn’t Robert Holdstock but the ‘Concrete Grove’ trilogy has definite echoes of that tale within it. At its heart though, ‘Silent Voices’ is a tale of three damaged men confronting what damaged them as children. It’s quite raw in places because of this and McMahon captures that pain just as his characters are feeling it. It’s intense stuff, make no mistake about it.

Where this theme can work against the book though is that it can make ‘Silent Voices’ a ‘slow burner’ for all the wrong reasons as well as the right ones. McMahon is very good at slowing things down and building up to some really nasty shocks; I’m talking about trips into the darkness that ends up with the line…

‘Fucking hell… then whose fucking hand am I holding?’

When you’re talking about three guys though, guys who have to come to terms with what they have become before they can even begin to talk about it to each other… This really slowed things down for me, I felt like I had to wait for Simon, Brendan and Marty to get their heads together before the story could move on. Looking back, I know that’s the point of the story but perhaps it was done a little too well? I was also left wondering if there was only so much mileage a writer can get out of a situation where at least one (maybe two) of the three main characters really didn’t want to talk about things at all…

It’s a tough plot to stick with then, in that respect, but McMahon seeds it with little moments of terror that scare the reader (when they least expect it) and heightens the anticipation for the final climactic events under the Needle. I loved the almost Celtic feel of the fantasy elements and how this added a little more strangeness and horror to the grim northern setting. McMahon has created something stunning not only in its simplicity but also in its capacity to shock and what this promises for the final instalment. ‘The Concrete Grove’ was perhaps a little more visceral but this only goes to show that McMahon is just as good at messing with your head as well as messing with your stomach. A child’s nursery rhyme here, a rustling in the corner over there… It all builds up into something you cannot take your eyes away from when the payoff hits you.

‘Silent Voices’ sometimes felt like a bit of a tough nut to crack but I couldn’t put it down nonetheless. The ending was superb and bodes well for the final book in the trilogy, whether McMahon chooses to carry on in that direction or not…

Nine and a Quarter out of Ten

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

‘Dead Winter’ – C.L. Werner (Black Library)

I’m never a hundred percent sure what to think about C.L. Werner’s work overall. When he’s on top of his game Werner is a man on fire but for every one of these books there’s another book that makes me go ‘meh…’ I couldn’t get into the ‘Brunner’ books and it even got to the point where I didn’t pick up ‘The Red Duke’ for fear of being disappointed (which isn’t the best reason not to read a book but that’s the way it goes every now and then).
The thing is though… I love the ‘Time of Legends’ books though and am slowly working my way through the lot (very slowly it has to be said…) just to get a feel for the background of the Old World. With the publication of ‘Dead Winter’ then, it was inevitable that I was going to come face to face with Werner once more and this time I wouldn’t be backing away…

On the face of it, the blurb suggested that ‘Dead of Winter’ would have pretty much everything in it that I like about the Warhammer setting but would Werner be up to the task of bundling all that lot together into a good story? As it turned out, yes he was. I can’t wait for the next instalment and I might even have to go back and give ‘The Red Duke’ a go after all.

The Age of Sigmar (read the books, they’re very good as well) is long gone and the Empire he built has been brought to the edge of ruin by the avaricious rule of Boris Goldgather. This grasping Emperor fills his own coffers whilst setting his nobles against each other and bleeding the Empire dry. Civil War is brewing then but a far more insidious threat is looming.
Plague strikes the countryside, wiping out entire villages and setting families against one another, no-one is safe from its grasp. Even this deadly plague though is only a forerunner of an evil even more dangerous. A race long thought to be the stuff of nightmare is stirring in the sewers and caverns underneath the great cities of Man. The rat-like Skaven are finally ready to take to the surface and reclaim what is theirs…

The ‘Time of Legends’ books have long made for some welcome reading in my house with their epic tales of world defining moments in the Old World. They’ve proven to be a worthy retort to the myth of tie-in fiction (how it’s all a bit crap and so on) and now ‘Dead Winter’ joins their ranks in some style. I’ve enjoyed all the books I’ve read here but this is the only time I’ve been really excited about the prospect of a sequel. ‘Dead Winter’ is that good.

Any newcomer to the Old World will quickly realise that it’s all about the warfare; absolutely no-one gets on with each other and all arguments are ultimately resolved in a battle to the death. Werner makes this very clear with wave after wave of skirmishes and full on warfare that all either stir the blood or chill it (more on that in a bit). The beauty here though is that none of this is fighting just for the sake of it. Werner underpins these moments of combat with a story that justifies each and every swing of a sword. It all happens for a reason and that all lends more impact to those pitched battles.

There’s an Emperor who has to be stopped although I did question his motivations a little. Boris does push his moneymaking schemes a little too hard to be truly believable and verges on being a cartoonish pantomime villain as a result. The true villain of the piece, in my opinion, is Kreyssig; head of the secret police and a man whose sights are firmly fixed on gaining power. He’s a real nasty piece of work but also someone you can’t help but follow even if it is just to see if and when he gets his comeuppance.
These two characters together provide some real impetus for the plot and are full of evil machinations that send events down pathways that you should see coming but never do. I couldn’t help but root for the heroes but, not so secretly, I was also rooting for these guys just to see what they would come up with next.

If this tale of treachery and civil war wasn’t enough for you there is also the Skaven to contend with…

Imagine a ‘Watership Down’ where the rabbits want to wipe out the humans, using biological warfare, but are not averse to using those same methods on each other. A ‘Watership Down’ where even the most harmless rabbit is brimming over with paranoia and psychosis; always ready to get their betrayal in first. That is Werner’s Under Empire, a place where lethal betrayal is an everyday fact of life and where Werner’s ability to weave a tight plot, full of very nasty surprises, really comes to the fore. You know that there’s a back-stabbing just around every corner but there are a million and one ways to die, if you’re a Skaven, so Werner always has a surprise in store. Especially where the Plague Monks are concerned…

I wasn’t too sure about the fact that the Skaven are supposed to be such a big secret though, although it did make for a nice side plot about the one man who discovered their existence. I mean, don’t the Dwarves live underground as well? And aren’t the Dwarves at least on speaking terms with mankind? And didn’t the Dwarves sort out all the sewers for the big cities of humanity (like little bearded plumbers with big axes, the fantasy version of Super Mario…)? Amidst all of this they somehow forgot to mention their ‘rat-man neighbours’ who want to kill everything… I’m not buying it but I’m prepared to let it slide, this time, because the rest of the story worked so well for me.

‘Dead Winter’ looks very much like it could be the start of something a little bit special; a gripping read that promises good things for the future. Required reading for all Warhammer fans and well worth a look if you like fantasy in general.

Nine and a Quarter out of Ten

Monday, 21 May 2012

The 'I Really Need To Stop Buying Dr Who Figures...' Competition Winner's Post!

You know the figures I'm talking about? They're like Lego figures and they come in little 'lucky dip' bags where you can't see what you've got until you open it. I now have one Doctor and four Amy Ponds... Curse me and my foolish need to buy little toy figures in my lunch break! On the flip side though, I now find myself interested in seeing how many more Amy Pond figures I'll buy before ending up with something different (law of averages and all that). I'm not sure I dare go out this lunchtime...

Anyway... Thanks to everyone (and there were loads of you) who entered the 'Railsea' competition last week. There could only be three winners though (as much as I wanted everyone to win a copy of the book...) and they were,

Junior Cain, New York, USA
Jeanette Jackson, Ontario, Canada
Michael Blythe, Tennessee, USA

Nice work there folks! Your books should be on their way later today, Happy Reading!

That's pretty much that for today but there's loads more to come over the rest of the week. A little bit of everything actually; sci-fi, fantasy and horror... Stop by and have a look why don't you? :o)

See you tomorrow!

Cover Art (And A Question)! 'The Legend of Sigmar'

Check it out...

Glorious isn't it? Really captures the spirit of 'Empire', the book that went to win the David Gemmell 'Legend' Award back in 2010. I do wonder who buys these big Black Library omnibus editions though... The books have been out for a long time now ('Heldenhammer', 'Empire' and 'God King' all reviewed here last year) so who's been sat there thinking, 'I'll wait for the omnibus edition to come out and read that...'? Not the fans (I don't believe the inclusion of a new short story is going to change any minds...) and is a newcomer to these books really going to take a chance and spend fifteen pounds on a book they've never read before? Actually, they might... I'm prone to doing that every now and then.

Don't get me wrong, I do like the collected editions as some of them have really helped me get caught up on certain series (I'm looking at the 'Gaunt's Ghosts' books here). I'm just wondering who else actually buys them. Any comments are welcome, particularly from Black Library readers.

P.S. If you haven't already clicked on the review links... Yes, I would recommend reading these books. Totally :o)

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Iain M. Banks & Kim Stanley Robinson in conversation at the British Library

This one isn't really my thing but it might be yours so here's the press release... ;o)

Forbidden Planet and Orbit Books, in association with the British Library, are delighted to present a unique opportunity to hear two giants of the genre in conversation about 2012, the end of the world, and the future of science fiction. This event will take place in the Auditorium at the British Library.

Tickets £7.50, concessions £5. Doors open 3pm, for a 3:30 start and the event will be followed by a public signing from 5 - 6pm. 

The link for purchasing tickets can be found Here.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Cover Art (Old School Edition)! 'The King of Elfland's Daughter' - Lord Dunsany

It took some tracking down but I finally got there in the end :o) I now own my own copy of 'The King of Elfland's Daughter. It's not the Fantasy Masterworks Edition (I'm trying to collect a few of these where I can) but beggars can't be choosers. Now I need to settle down and read it but the cover art makes for a nice post in the meantime; check it out...

If you're after a copy of 'The King of Elfland's Daughter' (or are trying to track down another 'hard to find' book) then you could do a lot worse than check out where I found my copy. Everything costs £3.75 but that's including postage (not sure if this is overseas actually) so you can find some pretty good deals there if you look.

A quick look inside the book told me that it was a Ballantine First Edition from 1969 and that got me thinking... What is the oldest book on your shelves? I'm talking publication date, not when it was actually written (unless you have a first edition Shakespeare or something like that, that counts).
I thought my First Edition (Fourth Impression) of 'The Two Towers' would be a clear winner, having been published in 1956, but there's also a copy of Jules Verne's 'From Earth To Moon And A Trip Round It' that might be even older. I just need to find a publication date for that edition.

How about you? What's on your shelves?

Friday, 18 May 2012

'Elric - The Balance Lost (Volume One)' - Roberson, Biagini (Boom! Studios)

It was back in January this year that I found myself in Plymouth (for a well earned break after finishing up with my job at TFL) and holding a copy of 'The Balance Lost #1'; a comic that I had completely forgotten was on the shelves until I saw it staring me in the face. What? Comic books can fix you with quite the piercing stare, especially when it's a series that you're either already following or looks very intriguing. I hadn't been following 'The Balance Lost' but was very definitely caught by how intriguing it looked to be. If you hadn't already noticed I'm slowly working my way through Moorcock's 'Eternal Champion' books, amongst others, and am always ready and willing to read some more of the mythos. Even if it isn't written by the man himself...

Yes, the title reads 'Michael Moorcock's Elric'... Chris Roberson is the writer in residence here and did a fine job, in general, for the first issue. I won't go into the details all over again, here's a link to the Review instead (that will tell you everything you need to know I think!)
I signed off by saying things like 'The Balance Lost looks like it could well be another title to collect in trade format' and 'The Balance Lost looks like it could be a series worth following then...' I finally got the chance to find out a little bit more, a few weeks ago, when I picked up 'Volume One' during a book binge on Amazon (I must do that again sometime...)

This has actually been a very difficult review to write as the whole of Volume One pretty much carries on the work that Issue One began. Roberson is all about setting events up to let them play out at what feels like a (much) later date. Just like he did in Issue One. To be fair, the longer things go on the more Roberson lets some story slowly bleed into the scene setting and that's not a bad approach to take. Something huge is happening, no-one knows who is behind it but everyone knows what the outcome will be if something isn't done; that's quite a hook to bait a reader with and the potential there has certainly caught my eye. The flip side is that there's a lot of scene setting and character introduction to get through in the meantime. To an extent that worked for me as I got to see fleeting glimpses of favourite characters like Oswald Bastable, and Seaton Begg, but I started to find myself wanting things to just get going. Hopefully that will happen in Volume Two.

Where Roberson redeems himself, for me, is in the sheer exuberance of the plot. It may not be Moorcock writing, this time round, but it feels like it with the manic energy flowing from start to finish. There is always something going on and it usually involves something large and nasty that can only be deal with by the edge of of a sword; that's Moorcock all over and Roberson does extremely well to recapture this tone. It's a tone that is guaranteed to catch the eye of first time readers and make it easy for longer term readers, like me, to settle in quickly and enjoy what is going on.

What I also found myself enjoying a lot more, as the book progressed, was the way in which Roberson was able to tie all the strands of the multiverse together into what looks like it will eventually become a very tight and coherent tale. When you look at the vast scale of continuity, that has grown over the years, you'll appreciate what an achievement this year. I'm not just talking about the cast of characters either. Settings come into it (if it's not the Biloxi Fault then it's still a great permuatation on a theme) and narrative themes, played out across the stories of both Elric and Jerry Cornelius, also play an important role. I think there was a risk that Roberson could have done too much to integrate his story into Moorcock's wider mythos but, in the end, I think he got the balance just right (no pun intended, possibly).

I haven't really got anything else to add about Francesco Biagini's art, that I haven't already said, as there's no real change from what I saw in Issue One. I told you this was a hard review to write... Go back and read my earlier review if you haven't already. What I will say though is that I'm looking forward to seeing what he comes up with next in Volume Two, especially with the plot headed in the direction that it is...

'Elric: The Balance Lost' is more of the same then but what's on display is very well handled indeed and gives me high hopes for the next volume (due in July). Definitely worth a look if you see it on the shelves.

Eight and a Half out of Ten

Thursday, 17 May 2012

'Amor Vincit Omnia' - K.J. Parker

Anyone who who has been following the blog, for a while, will know that I may well be the only person blogging who didn't get on with K.J. Parker's 'The Company'. You think I'm joking don't you (especially as you'd be hard pressed to find a bad word about Parker online)? Seriously, check out my review Here and you'll see what I mean about not getting on with 'The Company'.

I've only read one other story of Parker's since then, 'A Rich Full Week' - from the 'Swords and Dark Magic' anthology, (and I didn't get on brilliantly with that either) but I couldn't get away from the feeling that I might be missing out on something by staying away from the party. Have a look online and see if you can find a negative review of Parker's work... No, I couldn't either.

So it was then that when I came across a K.J. Parker conversation on Twitter, kicked off by the mighty brain behind 'Fantasy Faction', I knew that I had to get some recommendations and see if I was missing out on anything after all. Jared, of Pornokitsch fame, initially recommended 'The Folding Knife' but it was the promise of a free read that really piqued my interest. 'Amor Vincit Omnia' can be found, in its entirety, on the Subterranean Press website and made for a great little read before I went to bed. Then it made for a great little read on the way to work yesterday morning and the morning before that. I'd encourage you all to go and give it a read. I'm still not a hundred percent sure about K.J. Parker's work but I'm a lot more interested now than I've ever been. I'm going to have to find a copy of 'The Folding Knife' and check that out as well...

'Amor Vincit Omnia' is based in the same setting as 'A Rich Full Week' where magic has been defined as another branch of philosophy and science. I'll say right now that the definition is a lot more clear this time round as there is a lot of discussion around the variants of established 'science' being employed by a renegade who is displaying his powers in the worst possible way. It's the most innocuous of these though that is proving the most cause for alarm and a member of the scientific community, deemed promising yet expendable, is sent to take care of what could prove to be a very large problem indeed. Can the actions required to resolve this issue really be justified though?

I have to say that my initial reading of 'Amor Vincit Omnia' just threw all the same issues in my face that I'd had with 'The Company'. There is just no getting away from the fact that Parker can be an incredibly dry writer who loves to go on in a little too much length about the technical theory underpinning her stories, how things work and why they should work like that. This is even worse in a short story like 'Amor Vincit Omnia' where a lot of the explanation comes in the first few paragraphs, that's an awful lot to wade through before you can get to the story itself!

Having said that though, while it's clear to me now that while Parker enjoys going into the technical side of things there's also evidence of a sense of humour in 'Amor Vincit Omnia' that suggests a different kind of enjoyment entirely. I'm talking about lines like,

'There was a short, rather painful silence. Raw emotion, like raw chicken, upset elderly gentlemen of regular habits.'

Lines like that, and there are more, actually did a lot to dispel that air of dryness and kept me reading in the hope of finding more. I found myself chuckling at completely unexpected moments, the best kind of chuckling you can do.

'Amor Vincit Omnia' is a lot more than a humorous tale though (although I did enjoy some of the parallels drawn with Pratchett's Unseen University). It's a very clever tale that seizes on what look like throwaway sentences and shows them to be pivotal moments in the story. I'm talking about moments so tiny that you'll pass over them to get to what you think is the meaty stuff, only to find that you've bypassed something really tasty. Parker is clearly very adept at getting the reader to go where she wants them to and then changing the direction of the story entirely. I also found the implications of 'Lorica' to be real food for thought and something that gave the story real impetus in all the right places.

But 'Amor Vincit Omnia' is a lot more than this as well. It's very much a tale about the lengths people will go to in order to keep the balance of power just as it is and regardless of the cost. The reader can understand the reasoning behind this ('Lorica' is a very big deal) but once you see what Framea must do, and the results of this, then you can't help but wonder if the renegade should have just been allowed to walk away and live in relative ignorance of his abilities. There's a lot to think about here and that's one of the reasons I came back to this story more than once.

I don't think I'll ever be entirely comfortable with Parker's dry tone and the level of technical detail, in what I've read so far, will always have me stifling a yawn or two. 'Amor Vincit Omnia' goes beyond this though and the end result is nothing short of a gripping read. 'Amor Vincit Omnia' is the tale that got me back into reading K.J. Parker and I'm looking forward to hopefully reading more of the same.

Nine and a Half out of Ten

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Blog Tour! Joseph Nassise & 'By the Blood of Heroes'

This time last week I asked if there was anything that zombies couldn't do. If you didn't click on the link the answer was, not if Joseph Nassise has anything to say on the matter. One week on and I'm proud to be a brief stop on Joseph's 'The Great Undead War' blog tour. Not a lot else to say than that really other than to hand the reins over to the man himself, take it away Joe!

Welcome to The Great Undead War Blog Tour! My thanks to Graeme for having me on today.

As I mentioned in my last installment at John Scalzi’s 'Whatever', my name’s  Joseph Nassise and I’m celebrating the release of my new novel from HarperVoyager, 'By the Blood of Heroes', which is the first book in the Great Undead War series combining an alternate World War One with steampunk and zombies. I’ll be touring all month talking a bit about the book and the writing process I went through to create it.  Since we’ve already talked about the villain of the story, the Baron Manfred von Richthofen, today I want to focus on his opposite, our hero, Captain Michael “Madman” Burke.

The very first thing we discover about Burke is the fact that he has a mechanical hand.

“Burke set aside the trench knife he’d been using to clean the mud out of the clockwork mechanism that powered his left hand and closed the access panel with a firm push.”

The stage is immediately set – this is no ordinary individual and the war in which he is engaged is no ordinary war.  Burke lost his hand during the Battle of Passchendaele (which you can read about in the prequel story, The Sharp End, if you’re interested), an event that normally would have gotten him invalidated out and sent home.  In the aftermath  of the battle, however, he has a chance meeting with Nicolai Tesla and winds up testing one of the great scientist’s latest inventions – a mechanical hand.  This keeps him in the trenches and therefore available for selection when those in charge need someone to lead the rescue squad in their efforts to bring Major Freeman back out from behind enemy lines.

The next thing we learn is that Burke volunteered – and that he did so for an unusual reason.

“In the end he’d enlisted, not out of some misguided sense of duty or vain quest for glory, but simply to try and feel something again.”

In other words, like so many of the rest of us, Burke’s carrying some baggage from events earlier in his life.  Baggage that will impact the choices and decisions he’s about to make as leader of the rescue squad.  Baggage that can have some serious consequences for the man he’s assigned to rescue as well.

After all, there’s a reason he’s earned the nickname “Madman Burke”, even if it’s one he’s not particularly comfortable with.

I had a great time walking with Burke on his road of discovery during the writing of this novel and I hope you all enjoy him as a character as much as I have.

Check out By the Blood of Heroes to see Madman Burke and his Marauders in action against the Kaiser's zombie hordes!

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

A Couple of Weird Tales...

Ann and Jeff Vandermeer's 'The Weird' is far too big to tackle in a single sitting, or write about in a single review for that matter. Other bloggers have come up with ingenious ways of cutting the book down into bite size chunks, leaving me to either come up with something even more ingenious or to just dedicate a post every now and then to a couple of 'Weird' tales. Me being me, it was far less hassle to go for the latter option :o)

One of the things I really love about 'The Weird' is that its sheer size means a quick skim through the contents page always throws up a few suprises. Like Neil Gaiman for instance, I had no idea he had a story in 'The Weird' (and the book has been sat on my shelf for months now) until I just happened to see his name the other day. I had to have a read and it turned out that I'd actually read 'Feeders and Eaters' a long time ago, in Gaiman's 'Smoke and Mirrors' collection I think (please someone correct me if I'm wrong). Gaiman's always worth a re-read though and 'Feeders and Eaters' delivers second time round with an unsettling tale of what you might just find going on in the big city, if you're very unlucky...

What I liked about 'Feeders and Eaters', straight away, is how deliberately vague and nebulous Gaiman keeps things. You don't know who the narrator is, although I like to imagine that it's Gaiman himself recounting this tale, and he makes a point of saying, 'I won't tell you which city' it all goes down in. Just that one sentence has the reader thinking that this kind of thing might just be happening where they live. Kind of makes you glance nervously over your shoulder doesn't it?
Gaiman's deliberate approach of keeping things vague really brings the weirdness into sharp focus when we finally get round to it. And it is weird, quite horrifyingly weird in fact as it is presented in such a matter of fact way.

'I'm an old woman, she says, I need my meat.'

Gaiman keeps things simple and it really pays off as there's no build up to the 'Weird' of this tale, it just hits you bang in the face before you even realise what you've just read. What happened to the cat and the strange fate of Eddie Barrow are conveyed with imagery that will stay in your head for a long time to come.

I'm not so sure about the ending though...

'On the milk train back to the big city I sat opposite a woman carrying a baby. It was floating in formaldehyde, on a heavy glass container. She needed to sell it, rather urgently...'
Gaiman might have been using the story of Eddie Barrow to open up a whole world of weirdness for our narrator but it came across as 'over egging the cake' when there was no need. 'Feeders and Eaters' worked just fine as it was...

The other story I read goes to show that there's a whole lot more to 'Weird' than tentacles in the dark and little old ladies who are far more than they seem. Augusto Montetroso's 'Mister Taylor' takes a seemingly innocuous situation (a traveller sending a souvenir home) down a path so absurd that it can't help but feel a little weird as you read it and see just what humanity will do to make a quick dollar. Again, it's the serious (almost matter of fact) way that Montetroso presents his tale that brings the weirdness to the fore although I'd say that it's more of a humorous piece than Weird. It made me chuckle anyway with lines like

'to possess 17 heads came to be considered bad taste, but it was distinguished to have 11'

'Mister Taylor' came across to me as a satirical piece then where Montetroso lets us know just what he thinks of the waves of consumerism coming from America. If this is the case then the final lines take on a whole new note of warning... I'm not saying what they are by the way, I think you really need to read this one yourself to get the full effect.

'Mister Taylor', as it appears in 'The Weird', is a work of translation and one that flowed very smoothly; if the tale hadn't been highlighted as a translation then I might not even have guessed. I'm afraid I only speak English so couldn't even begin to compare this work to the original. What I would say though is that I came away with the impression that the translation didn't get in the way of what Montetroso wanted to say and you can't ask for a lot more than that really.

So that's three tales, from 'The Weird', down now and they've all been good ones so far. I hope this continues next time I pick the book up... :o)

Adam Nevil Signing at Forbidden Planet

I really wish this was happening at my local (if you can call a fifteen minute train ride and a ten minute walk 'local'...) Forbidden Planet, instead of the one in Birmingham, but you can't win em' all...

ADAM NEVILL signs his newest, most terrifying novel yet, LAST DAYS (Tor) at Forbidden Planet Birmingham on Saturday 26th May from 1 – 2pm.

The Temple of the Last Days was a notorious cult, which reached its bloody endgame in 1975. Ever since, the group’s rumoured mystical secrets and paranormal experiences have lain concealed behind a history of murder, sexual deviancy and imprisonment. Kyle Freeman and his one-man crew film the cult’s original bases in London and France – finally visiting the scene where the cult self-destructed in a night of ritualistic violence. But when Kyle interviews survivors, uncanny events plague his shoots. Frightening out-of-body experiences and nocturnal visitations follow, along with the discovery of ghastly artefacts. Until Kyle realises, too late, that they’ve become entangled in the cult’s hideous legacy. 

If you're a fan of well written horror then this is a signing that you really need to go to. Have a click Here and Here, for my reviews of 'Apartment 16' and 'The Ritual', and see what I mean. 'Last Days' is a 'definite read' for but I really need to read 'Railsea' first...

Monday, 14 May 2012

'Railsea' - UK Events

China Mieville is going to be doing a whole load of events to promote 'Railsea', in the UK, and here's the list in all its glory. See you at one of these?

Wednesday 23rd May, 6pm – 7pm
China will be signing copies of RAILSEA at Forbidden Planet, 179 Shaftesbury Avenue , London , WC2H 8JR
(This is the one I'll more than likely be at, I love working five minutes up the road from Forbidden Planet :o)

Thursday 24 May, 7pm
China will be in discussion with Karen Mirza and Brad Butler about their collaborative new film project, Deep State , China ’s first film script.
LRB Bookshop, 14-16 Bury Place,  London , WC1A 2JL
Sunday 27th May, lunchtime (exact time tbc)
China will be signing copies of RAILSEA at the Newham Bookshop stall at Goldsmiths Row market, near Columbia Road in London
Telephone the Newham Bookshop for more details on 020 8552 9993
(Having said all that stuff about Forbidden Planet, Columbia Road Market is lovely when the weather is nice. I might check this one out as well)
Saturday 2nd June, 2pm
The Olympic Legacy with China MiƩville, Iain Sinclair, Laura Oldfield Ford and Ken Worpole.
As part of the Stoke Newington Literary Festival
Abney Public Hall, 73A Stoke Newington Church Street ,  London , N16 0AS
Tickets £6
Saturday 2nd June, 5pm
RIP The Book? Discussion about the future of publishing with Mark Billingham and publishing industry insiders.
As part of the Stoke Newington Literary Festival
St Mary's Old Church, Stoke Newington Church Street , London , N16 9ES
Monday 4th June, 6pm
China will be reading from and discussing RAILSEA at Waterstones Liverpool One
Tickets are free but must be reserved in store or by calling 0843 290 8457
Wednesday 6th June, 7.30pm
Topping in Ely, 7.30pm. Doors open at 7pm.
Venue: The Olive Tree, CB7 4JFTickets £6/5 with £6/5 off Railsea. 
Thursday 7th June, 7pm
China will be reading from and discussing RAILSEA at Waterstones New Street , Birmingham .
Tickets £3, redeemable against a copy of the book. Reserve by calling 0843 290 8151

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Giveaway! 'Railsea' (China Mieville)

I started reading this last night and hopefully I'll be in a position to let you know what I thought a little later on this week (probably early next week actually). In the meantime though, how do you fancy winning a copy for yourself? Thanks to the good folk at Del Rey, I have three copies to give away right here. Before you get too excited though, this competition is only open to people in the US and Canada. Sorry about that everyone else...

If you're still here then you know what to do next. Simply drop me an email (address at the top right hand of the screen) telling me who you are and what your postal address is. The subject header needs to be 'Railsea'. That's all you need to do, I'll do the rest ;o)

I'll let this one run until the 20th of May and will aim to announce the winners as soon as possible afterwards.

Good Luck!

Saturday, 12 May 2012

‘Immobility’ – Brian Evenson (Tor)

It was way back in 2008 when I first read Brian Evenson’s ‘Last Days’; the blog was only just over a year old at that point… I feel all nostalgic. Talk about derailing myself before I’ve even started writing! I read ‘Last Days’ and, despite a couple of issues with the book, thoroughly enjoyed it and wanted more. You can read my full review Here or have couple of paragraphs for free below…

‘Last Days’ is one of those awkward books that leave me completely awestruck and with no idea how to get what I think into a blog post. It’s only a hundred and seventy two pages long but it feels like more as you get deeper into a real corkscrew of a plot. You’re pulled in with the promise of a journey but your final destination won’t be where you think it is and you might have trouble finding your way back again...’

‘Last Days’ is an intense and unsettling read that I’m definitely going to go back to and read again.’

As is often the case with this blog though, not only did I never go back and re-read ‘Last Days’ but I never picked up anything else by Evenson either (despite a couple of tie-in novels of his coming through the door). So many books to read and hardly any time to read them in I guess. That changed though when a copy of ‘Immobility’ came through the door. The blurb caught my eye straight away and the book fitted straight in with my current policy of short commuter reads (yep, that old chestnut again) so there was nothing for it but to get reading. And so I did only to find that ‘Immobility’ was no ‘Last Days’, not by a long way…

Josef Horkai has been awake for hours before he can even remember his own name. He certainly can’t remember why he is paralysed from the waist down or why he was in storage in the first place. There’s no time for discussion though, a man tells Josef that he must travel into the ruined lands outside and rescue something that was stolen before his time runs out. Now Josef is being carried through a desolate landscape on the back of a man wearing a hazard suit and something really doesn’t add up about the whole thing…

What a blurb eh? You have what looks like a good dose of the post apocalypse and a lead character that is just brimming over with questions about where he fits into it all. If that wasn’t enough, our hero has to complete a mission where everything is at stake. What’s not to like? You would think that ‘Immobility’ has everything it needs to be a compelling and rewarding read wouldn’t you?

Well, yes and no.

Evenson sets things up very well initially, leaving his readers really feeling the nightmarish disorientation Horkai feels after he is woken up. There’s a real sense of Horkai as a blank slate, just waiting to be filled up with detail, that you can’t help but find more than a little unnerving. I couldn’t help but think, ‘what if that was me in his position…?’
The problem I found was that Evenson seemed to want to delve into this feeling of uncertainty a little too much for what is only a two hundred and fifty three page book. The upshot here is that you get a lot of atmosphere with not an awful lot going on. You could argue that this is the way it’s meant to be with Evenson deliberately taking his time to show us just what Horkai is going through mentally. I’d say that may be the case but it was an approach that had me looking out of the window while I waited for things to kick off. I’ve always thought that the shorter a book is the more quickly it needs to get moving, that clearly doesn’t happen here.

When things finally do get moving, Evenson very cleverly ramps up the stakes (and tension) without really telling us what’s at stake. I liked that, Horkai doesn’t know what’s going on but he does know that it’s important and, by extension, so do we. Evenson gets Horkai and his two companions moving and then promptly drowns the story in atmosphere again, this time through the apocalypse of the ‘Kollaps’.
You never really find out what caused the ‘Kollaps’ but you are left in no doubt what the result is; miles upon miles of wasteland where the only inhabitants (for much of it) are Horkai and his companions. Horkai’s monologue gets monotonous after a while and the dreary bleakness of the landscape is so well done that it actually doesn’t offer much of an alternative to Horkai’s ramblings. There’s nothing to see, it’s all dead.

Horkai is travelling for much of the book so you can imagine how this all builds up into something quite irritating (in a way). Horkai is full of questions but because he gets very little in the way of answers they’re all the same questions over and over again. Again, all very atmospheric but nothing is really moving forwards.
By the time things start to fall into place, it was almost too late for me to really care. This was a shame as an interesting little sub-plot (long term versus short term survival) starts to spring up although it doesn’t really have time to get going. The twist in the tale is signposted clearly, a mile off, but is brutal and urgent enough to offset this.

A good concept then and one that kept me reading through to the end. ‘Immobility’ needed to be a lot more than that to work though and the overdose of atmosphere rendered the plot, well… immobile. I’d say check out ‘Last Days’ if you want to see Evenson at his best.

Seven out of Ten

Friday, 11 May 2012

‘Non-Stop’ – Brian Aldiss (Gollancz)

‘Non-Stop’ is one of those books that I’ve had my eye on for quite a while but never seemed to get round to picking up, until now. I don’t know why I held off for so long to be honest, possibly my natural reticence towards science fiction I think. I do cover a fair bit here but I’ve always preferred fantasy and I do have a tendency (still) to look at ‘classic sci-fi’ as ‘hard sci-fi’ when it really isn’t.

‘Non-Stop’s’ cover (this one) has always intrigued me with its hi-tech background slowly being obscured by alien vegetation; the blurb looks vaguely apocalyptic as well as that’s something that will always pique my interest. If that wasn’t enough, I haven’t read anything by Brian Aldiss and thought it was way past time that I gave him a go. The choice was between ‘Non-Stop’ (another book picked up on my ‘new and used’ spree on Amazon) and the ‘Helliconia’ trilogy, a book that I’d meant to try ever since reading Adam’s reviews. These days, if there’s a choice between reading a slim book (‘Non-Stop’) and a huge thick book (‘Helliconia’) then the slim book will win every time! ‘Non-Stop’ is a rather tiny two hundred and forty one pages long and that sealed the deal for me.
I don’t know when I’ll get round to reading ‘Helliconia’ (I’ve given up making promises about reading books, seriously…) but if ‘Non-Stop’ is anything to go by then I’ll be bumping it up the reading pile at least a little way. I thought that I had a handle on ‘Non-Stop’ and then it just blew my mind, in a whole load of good ways.

The Green tribe have no time for idle speculation about their existence, spending their lives in cramped Quarters and hacking away at the encroaching plant life. Curiosity about their past is an idle luxury they cannot afford. Roy Complain has always secretly thought there was more to life though and he is about to get the chance to find out just what lies beyond his limited world. Complain and the renegade priest Marapper strike out into territory unknown and, on their journey, make a series of discoveries that will blow their world wide open (quite literally)…

Warning (If you haven’t read the book already): There may be slight spoilers ahead. I’ll do my best to avoid them but you have been warned.

Still here? Cool :o)

It’s been a long time since a book has thrown me like ‘Non-Stop’ did, in a good way of course. Without giving too much away, I was sat there at the start thinking, ‘is this all there is to it?’ Aldiss makes an attempt at keeping things fairly vague but it’s signposted fairly clearly exactly where the Greene tribe are and what has led them to their current predicament. I was always going to read the whole book but at this point I was wondering if there would be much point to it all.

It turns out that I’d been easily lulled into thinking things were far more simple than they actually were. As the book progresses, Aldiss adds tantalisingly little hints here and there that suggest that the Greene tribe’s immediate location is only a relatively minor part of the plot. There is a much bigger surprise lurking towards the end of the book and Aldiss hides it really well by focussing the reader’s attention on other things as well as making you think that there’s no way forward, is there? When that revelation finally hits you it’s all the more powerful because of that massive smoke screen that Aldiss hides it behind and you can’t help but see the novel in a whole new light because of this. The concept on it’s own is intriguing enough but the spin Aldiss adds to it elevates things to a whole new level. Its masterful stuff, really it is, and clear evidence of someone writing at the top of their game in that respect.

I say ‘in that respect’ because I sometimes found myself wondering if Aldiss was really up to writing about the ‘day to day’ stuff. He’s obviously very good at handling the plot, and readers expectations along with it, but there were occasions where some of the descriptive pieces felt as pedestrian as the pace that Roy and Marapper were moving at. To be fair, Aldiss maybe wrote himself into a bit of a corner here, there’s only so much you can write about tunnels, lift shafts and encroaching vegetation after all. Although having said that, making a lift shaft sound all vague and mysterious and then calling it a lift shaft does help the reader out a bit but deadens the atmosphere being created, just saying… Sorry, back on topic, I guess what I’m saying is that there isn’t an awful lot to look at in Quarters (along with the rest of it) and this does show more than it should.

This is balanced out though by Aldiss’ examination of his two lead characters. The surly inquisitiveness of Roy Complain pushes the plot before in the right directions with a hint of attitude about it that makes things a little more earthy and dangerous, just as it should be. It was the priest Marapper though who really caught my interest though with his self serving ways adding uncertainty to all his dealings (Marapper changes sides regularly and often) along with some commentary on Freud and how his theories might work out if taken to a sci-fi extreme. If ‘Non-Stop’ is anything to go by, I don’t think Aldiss is a big fan of Freud although his own spin is very carefully thought through and presented.

‘Non-Stop’ isn’t without its flaws (small ones) then but it’s still a story very well told and, in terms of the concept and its treatment, very much a Masterwork as far as I’m concerned. Check it out if you get the chance. ‘Helliconia’ is looking at me reproachfully, from the shelf, now and I might just have to do something about that now…

Nine and a Half out of Ten

Thursday, 10 May 2012

‘Mouse Guard, Labyrinth and Other Stories’ – Various (Archaia Entertainment)

Ever since I read ‘Legends of the Guard’, way back at the beginning of last year, I’ve been meaning to read more ‘Mouse Guard’ (of which there are two volumes, I think) but all the usual stuff got in the way and I never got round to it. Can’t complain really, I did read some great stuff in the meantime :o)
Thank the comic book gods for ‘Free Comic Book Day’ then! I knew there was a ‘Mouse Guard’ book up for grabs, in certain bags, but when I saw how many people were camped outside Forbidden Planet on Saturday morning (seriously, the queue went right down the street…) I didn’t think I had much chance of bagging a copy. Shows how wrong I was… Amidst the other comics, and ‘Fake Blood’ energy drinks, was a lovely looking copy of ‘Mouse Guard’. Happy me :o)

It wasn’t just ‘Mouse Guard’ though. What I thought was going to be a book all about noble warrior mice was actually about a whole lot more with five other stories making up the rest of a very slim looking volume. I always find it funny how books that look really slim end up being the books that are jam-packed full of story and that was the case here. ‘Mouse Guard…’ wasn’t just an evenings read, it was a read for the commute to work as well and I couldn’t ask for a lot more than that from a free comic book (not really). Anyone else here read this book?

Free Comic Book Day seems to be all about introducing people to comic books by giving them a taster, or preview, of something cool and then watching them go out and buy the rest of the series. I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve fallen for that line on occasion…
‘Mouse Guard…’ is no different with at least two of it’s tales clearly set up to leave the reader with questions that could only be answered by parting with cash for the rest of the series. I guess this approach is fair enough although McCann and Lee’s ‘Steps of the Dapper Men’ was perhaps a little too obvious in its intentions, just raising questions and not really bothering to tell a story. Lee’s artwork is lovely but I wanted more than just something to look at.

Jeremy Bastian’s ‘Cursed Pirate Girl: Ramblings From An Old Sea Dog Who Likes To Be Called Alice’ took more of a balanced approach and actually told a self contained tale (that will naturally lead into more) but this time round the artwork really worked against the tale. It was far too detailed, for such a short space, and ended up drawing far too much attention away from what was rather an amusing little plot.

Royden Lepp’s ‘Rust: Oswald’s Letter’ is the only tale that takes this approach and gets the balance right with a self contained tale working alongside sepia art that is gloriously effective because it is deliberately unassuming and modest. This artwork not only complements the slightly bleak tone of the story but also pushes that story to the fore; a boy’s poignant letter to his father. Of the three stories mentioned, so far, I think ‘Rust’ is the one I’d like to see more of.

The other the stories in the collection worked a lot better for me in that they all went to show that you can create interest in a wider series without having to be quite so obvious about it. All three tales are completely self contained with the merest of hints at a wider setting and that worked a lot better for me than being dumped with a cliff hanger right at the end. The following three tales were all a lot more subtle and I want to read more as a result, it’s that simple.

David Petersen’s ‘The Tale of Baldwin the Brave’ took top billing and for good reason with its tale of one mouse who refused to give up despite the odds. From what I can gather, this seems to be the message of the series as a whole and I liked the way that Petersen took the whole microcosm thing one step further by having the story told as a puppet show. It was simple but all the more effective because of this and the tiny hints of things going on around the edges just got me all the more interested.

I’ve always been a big fan of ‘Labyrinth’ so I’ll be completely honest and say that I was all geared up to enjoy ‘Labyrinth: Hoggle and the Worm’ before I even got going. It didn’t let me down though with a twist in the tale (pun possibly intended) that I couldn’t help but chuckle at. Cory Godbey’s art really captured that fairy tale weirdness of Jim Henson’s setting and a large chunk of my reading here was just spent staring at the pictures. Lovely stuff :o)

Nate Cosby’s ‘Cow Boy: Long While Ago’ rounded things off in some style with a tale of the old west that comes with a difference. Old western themes of sin and redemption are played out here against a cartoon background that places emphasis on these grim emotions rather than detract from them. I can see the series possibly getting a little repetitive but I wouldn’t mind seeing how it plays out in the meantime.

‘Mouse Guard…’ has a lot going for it then, even though three of the six stories were perhaps a little too obvious about what they set out to do. If you have a copy waiting to be read then I think you’re in for a little bit of a treat.

Eight and Three Quarters out of Ten