Friday, 24 April 2015

Seamstresses and Sewing Machines, a spoiler free review of "Karen Memory" by Elizabeth Bear

It is funny how my reading tastes have both narrowed and broadened over the last couple of years.  Steered by the vibrant online community I am now almost exclusively reading fantasy. Yet as I dig deeper into that genre I am finding, like some fractal puzzle, that there are so many nuances of genre and style that there are always fresh discovers to be made.  Just as ancient Rome was only one city, so fantasy is only one genre, but what a city and what a genre.  And if it were ever true to say that, when you were tired of Rome then you were tired of life, so too I would aver that when you are tired of fantasy you are tired of books.

And so to my latest read - Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear.

This was my first venture into reading steampunk, a world as different from Middle Earth as it is possible to imagine, yet in its imagination undoubtedly fantasy.

My only other steampunk experience was the old TV series and the 1999 film "The Wild Wild West," a re-imagining of what the American West would have been like if steam technology could be manipulated and developed.  A basic premise of cast iron machinery clunking and whizzing and banging its way into feats so akin to magic as to shame even our own silicon age.  And all this set in the rich quasi-historical context of prejudices and power, love and lawlessness that inspired a thousand cowboy films.

Karen Memery, the eponymous heroine is a seamstress.  I am, or at least was, sadly na├»ve and unworldly.  For, gentle reader, "seamstress" is a euphemism!  Others that Karen uses for her profession are star-gazer, or ceiling gazer for she is, as it were, a working girl.  And for all the fact that Karen Memery lives in a bordello with a rich and eclectic mix of fellow ladies of the night, there is no prurience in her journal.  For that is what this book is, a first person account of a key few weeks in her young life.

The book is carried beautifully by the authenticity of Karen's voice, speaking directly and matter of factly to the reader.   She shares her hopes and her fears, and there are plenty of both, with blunt truth and a sharp turn of phrase. She is, in all ways, a protagonist worthy of your attention.

The story begins when a quiet evening, waiting in the parlour of Hotel Mon Cherie for clients, is shattered by two runaways and their far from savoury pursuers.  Events twist and turn as Karen and her companions are swept along by a tide of corruption, murder, and sabotage as the story touches on great civic affairs and even matters of state. 

Karen's voice rings consistently and convincingly true, whether she is explaining the tragedies that brought her to a brothel, or describing the simple yearning for another's kiss.  It is a pleasure to ride in her thoughts and immerse oneself in her life.

But, as powerful a leading lady as Karen is, the author does not stint on the supporting players.  Lizzie, Madam Damnable, Marshal Bass Reeves, Miss Francina, and so many more are all uniquely drawn with economical prose and a rich palette.  The story jerks back and forth as calumny is piled upon calumny, there is a villain and he has a plan, and there is another villain and he has a savage streak and in the midst of it you fear for Karen.

And then there is a sewing machine.  Lovely as the cover of the book is, I really needed an illustration of the sewing machine to get my head around what this fantastic piece of souped up kit was. 
(C) Radio Times
Not so much an overgrown appliance for the "Great British Sewing Bee" (above) as something Lieutenant Ripley might wear in an intergalactic cargo hold (below)    
(C) Twentieth Century Fox

The story gathers pace for a sprint from the middle to the end, through a series of higher and sharper peaks to a fitting final denoument. Satisfying as that it is, it is the flavour of the book that makes it impossible to put down.  The feeling that you are sitting next to Karen as she recounts her life without an ounce of the self-pity she could so easily be forgiven for, and with a wealth of respect for others you cannot help but warm too,  While there are many falls along the way, she is as far from a fallen woman as you could meet.

Diversity and the Hugos storm.

I have not ventured into the Hugo debacle much. I like my puppies happy and healthy and more worthy voices than me have competed to examine the entrails of the awards process and then fling blame at the other side for their evisceration.

Like any complex story nobody can know everything and everyone will find some nugget of information (which may or may not be accurate) that the other side did not know, and use that ignorance to claim they have proved the other side wrong.

However, Elizabeth Bear has twice won Hugos for short fiction, and I guess she is the kind of writer who might have inspired a degree of rabidness in those who felt that a left wing liberal agenda had somehow hijacked the awards process.

I'm making that guess because Karen Memory includes a wide range of empowered people from usually marginalised and disadvantaged groups.  In addition to a female lead who is also a prostitute, people with disabilities, people of a wide variety of races and religions and even a man who dresses and turns tricks as a woman, are all given a glowing place in the limelight, while the main love story is between two women.  And for some I suppose that must feel wrong, for them fantasy heroes should only ever be white males wielding swords because that is how it used to be (?)

Well, fuck 'em, this is a damn good story. 

Teresa Frohock once commented on a discussion she'd had with a gay friend about how to best write gay people in her work.  The answer she got was "Write them like normal people."  And that is what Elizabeth Bear does beautifully.  All these different people are defined by their humanity not their marginalising characteristics.  These are not tokens flung in to fit some quota of representation. The story is woven inextricably around the totality of who they are.  And it is a good story about great characters who happen to, in many significant ways, not be sword wielding white hetrosexual males.

I have watched and chipped in on online debates about whether fantasy is properly representative of society either in its writers or its stories.  My own view is that nobody should tell an author what stories they should write, or accuse them of being objectively wrong for who they did or did not include in their story. 

Authors must write the stories they want to tell filled with characters they want to tell us about because they are interesting characters.  At the same time the debate, like every experience, changes those who participate in it.  In time it may change the stories that authors want to write, certainly my work in progress is different to the history raiding epic fantasy I started ten years ago. Contemporary horrors provide a more present and bitter inspiration. 

However, at the heart of it all, the story is the thing and Karen Memory is proof you can have a cracking good story where diversity is natural not forced, celebrated not stereotyped, built in not bolted on. 

Can men write women? (A personal anxiety)

I have a fondness for bad-ass empowered female characters.  Eowyn in Lord of The Rings, Lyra Belacqua in His Dark Materials, Grada in the Tower and Knife trilogy.  I featured four of them in my own trilogy, including a Medusa.  But I worry about writing women. Do I get it right? 

I can follow the tenet of Teresa Frohock's friend and just write them as people. Indeed that is what I try to do. The motivations and the emotions are not so totally different, or at least there is considerable overlap where the variation within each gender is greater than the variation between their respective means.

When I read Karen Memory, littered with the small scale authenticities of what it is to be female, I find my own experiences wholly inadequate to capture that reality.  Don't get me wrong, Karen's digressions into hair braiding and seam-stressing (of the needle and thread kind) are few and far between.  Her axe wielding ass-kicking action sequences are ones more familiar to my imagination. They are also less open to dispute from a discerning readership who, in all probability, have kicked few asses and wielded fewer axes

But is there a challenge in men writing women?  Is there a tendency, or at least a temptation, to fall back on familiarity and make their female characters into blade swinging action heroines?  Is the devil in the detail - or perhaps the absence of it?  Is there a complementary challenge for women writing men?

I read Joe Abercrombie's Half the World, where centre stage goes to a ferocious teenage girl called Thorn.  I liked the story and I liked Thorn, but she was a character who sought to succeed by adopting traditionally male virtues of warrior skill.  Does such fantasy risk offering a sterile vision of how women succeed by adopting male attributes?  What does that say about gender balance? Is Thorn the fantasy equivalent of a suited and booted female CEO bestriding the boardroom by out-male-ing the males?

These are not rhetorical questions, so much as an expression of doubt and angst at how truly I have written my female characters, an angst thrown into sharp relief by the quality of Elizabeth Bear's writing.  I guess I should take comfort from the kind reviews that I have had on both sides of the gender divide.  Women who have followed Niarmit, Quintala, Hepdida and Dema through half a million words and 1700 pages have loved the story.   The minority of reviews which were negative, have made no made no complaint about my representation of gender, so much as launching sharp eyed pokes at grammar and editing.  (However, even traditionally published books have their flaws, with Karen at some point in my kindle version raising a clenched fish, which made me smile.)

I spoke to a blogger recently from about this frequent quandary I find myself in. We also talked about "The Time Traveller's Wife" by Audrey Niffenberger, one of my favourite books.  My fellow blogger said that Claire, the female lead, was the least convincing part for her, poorly sketched by Niffenberger. So in one person's opinion at least, being female is no guarantee of writing females any better than the next man.  And that will have to be my comfort through my next few moments of authorial angst, as Karen Memory's voice echoes around my head.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Two Flights of Fantasy, Spoiler free reviews of "Starborn" and "The Vagrant"

At the Grim Gathering II in Bristol just over a week ago I was fortunate enough to meet two authors on the brink of their debut publications and, by fair means and foul, secure copies of their books in advance of the 23rd April release date.

In sharing a release date, the books are sort of siblings - or at least close stable-mates.  As such I set out to read them tag-team style, letting the stories take it turns to envelope me as - somewhat against my normal reading habits - I switched back and forth between the two books.

Through a busy week of late night reading I found myself  thinking of two iconic aircraft of World War 2, The Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire (Hang in there, this is going somewhere honestly).


Fantasy as a genre is in a constant state of development.  In a crowded market flush with new submissions daily, publishers must be looking for something fresh in their new signings.  A distinctive voice, or setting or story, or ideally all three such that it lifts a book above the clamour of traditional fantasy shouting from the shelves of Waterstones or amazon.  They seek work and authors which push at the boundaries of fantasy, or even step beyond them.

In a similar way the development of fighter aircraft followed a pattern of boundary pushing between the two world wars which lead from the biplanes and triplanes of the Red Baron and his foes to the sleek killing machines of the world war two aces. In particular it lead to the iconic machines of the battle of Britain - the Spitfire and the Hurricane.

While similar in outward appearance and effectiveness, the two planes were worlds apart in internal construction and design.  The Hurricane drew on techniques of stringing and canvas familiar to the fitters of World War One, but clothed in a new form.   The Spitfire was an all metal warrior, riveted and riveting in its seizing of modern techniques.  The one was evolutionary, the other was revolutionary.

Which brings me back to the two stable-mates Starborn and The Vagrant, at least in so far as they compare to my own reading experience.  One takes the evolutionary path of a somewhat traditional starting point before pushing and stretching the envelope of the reader's expectations.  The other opts for revolutionary approach, throwing the reader in at the deep end of a setting and style which defies pre-conceptions and conventions.  Perhaps the germ of my fighter aircraft analogy was laid in the way both stories take brief sojourns into the skies. More likely it was in the emphatic way they command their milieu and demand the reader's attention.

Starborn by Lucy Hounsom

On reflection, nothing is as it seems. 

Making comparisons between books can be invidious.  The process risks being like those Orange adverts they used to have in the cinemas, where a board of film executives dismiss a new film pitch by reducing it to a two line pastiche of existing films.  However, there is a benefit in some reference points from which to triangulate a book and place it somewhere in the multi-dimensional spectrum that is modern fantasy.

For me Starborn had echoes of "The Magician's Guild" and on turning at the end to the back cover I discovered that John Gwynne had also found similar resonances with Trudi Canavan's work.  There is Kyndra, a heroine on the brink of adulthood experiencing a moment of crisis in her life. There are people seeking to protect and nurture her while others wish to use her. There is suspicion, dislocation and loss, and there is conspiracy and imperfection in the supposedly ivory towers.

At the same time, Starborn is a very different work and story to the Magician's Guild.  The action sprawls across a continent, not merely a city.  The wielder's power is not like the orthodox concept of wizardly magic, but is drawn from the Sun or the Moon depending on each wielder's affinity and leaving each wielder greatly diminished in the hours when the source of their power lies hidden.

There are some echoes of a Harry Potter style education in that there are novices and classes and tutors.  There is a library that harbours secrets to be probed, but at greater risk perhaps even than wondering the stacks of the Unseen University while trying to avoid the grasp of an orang-u-tan librarian, or lurking in the dusty shelves of Kvothe's alma mater in fear of the ire of Master Lorren.

But again, Starborn is different. These are not long drawn out hours of study, this is sudden cramming for a test Kyndra neither wanted not expected, yet one she dare not fail. A test that puts the trauma of my 3rd year French exam (28% in case you were asking) quite in the shade.

And that is where my experience of Starborn began to push beyond the relative familiarity of coming of age and reluctant initiation, into something far darker and at times uncomfortable to read.  Which is not a bad thing.  There are times when a book should make a reader sit up abruptly and re-read paragraphs and pages while musing "wtf."

The other reference point that struck me as relevant was not a book at all but a TV series, one of my favourites in fact.  Dr Who.  The citadel of Naris, for all those small glimpses of an educational environment,  reminded me less of  Magical Universities and their academics and more of the enigmatic world of Gallifrey and its austere Timelord masters. 

Thinking of references in both the old and the new series of Dr Who, I found resonances between Naris and the strict hierarchical world and birthplace of our favourite time warrior.  From early glimpses of information in Starborn, I find myself making the same assumptions of homogenous virtue and worthiness in those bearers of great power as I had in Dr Who. Yet as we draw close we find even the powerful and the blessed can be sundered by faction and weaknesses of a very human kind.  There are some for whom power is not enough and others for whom every piece is a pawn to be sacrificed.  Having once fixed that reference in my mind, I found other parallels tumbled out as the plot progressed - but this is a spoiler free review so read the book and message me if the same thoughts occurred to you.

At the Grim Gathering II authors talked about their writing style from the extreme plot-sters such as Peter V Brett, to the "going where the characters lead" style of Mark Lawrence.  Lucy Hounsom, I suspect, is at the plot-ster end of the spectrum. This is a carefully constructed story with clues planted for the alert reader, though whether you find yourself saying, "Yeah, I saw that coming" or "Doh, I should have seen that coming," it does not spoil the enjoyment of the story. 

Does the book have weaknesses?  Well it is a debut novel and every writer grows through the experience of writing.  There were a few wrinkles in the story for me. Some characters put in appearances which on reflection were a little convenient and defied my understanding of how the timeline had been progressing.  There was the odd villain who was forgiven and their crimes forgotten a little more rapidly than I would have expected.  While the plot was intricately woven in a way which bore up well to retrospective scrutiny (the "oh - so that's why that happened then" moment) such scrutiny did still raise my eyebrow as to how one particular event had been managed.

It was, for me a least, a plot driven book, and it is in its plot that the book pushes at the boundaries of the fantasy reading experience, and it is in the nature of a spoiler free review that I cannot share those innovations here.  Nonetheless this was a great read which I heartily recommend,  do find out about Kyndra Vale for yourself.

The Vagrant by Peter Newman     

Actions speak louder than words

At the Grim Gathering, Peter gave a short summary of his book "A one parent family in a post-demonic apocalypse."  Look closely at the exquisite cover and you will see the key elements in this tale.  A ragged man with a sword in one hand and a baby in the other walking a street of ruined buildings above a title set out in neon lights. Before the first page is turned, the book is challenging expectations.

I did not find it so plot driven as Starborn was.  There is a story line, and a back-story line.  By the end the latter has converged pleasingly on the former to explain all things that need explaining. But it is the spare writing, and the exoticness of the world building that carried me along.

In some ways it reminded me of the Gunslinger by Stephen King and its iconic mental image of an enigmatic hero on an unexplained journey through a blasted land.  This is a world not so much stalked as comprehensively mugged by disaster on an epic scale. On a long walk the protagonist acquires a staggering variety of both allies and enemies.

However, it is more complete and self-contained than the first instalment of the Dark Tower series.  At the Grim Gathering, the author said he always had a beginning and an end in mind and a misty patch inbetween where pretty much anything could happen. That overarching certainty guides the Vagrant's footsteps and reassures the reader that there is purpose in the present and resolution in the future.

The world building is broad and imaginative, in that not just one but two worlds are conjured up before the reader.  There is the world that was.  A world destroyed, the advanced civilisation where ships sailed in the sky and tanks like armoured trains went to war with demons, where knights still wielded swords in harmony and the mysterious power of the Seven, with their great champion Gamma, stood ready and on ceaseless and unchanging watch against invasion from the Breach.

Then there is the world that is. A world infested with entities which enslave the humans from without and within.  Creatures of chaos flood north across a now benighted continent.  Their power is constrained only by infighting between their factions and the necessity of finding ways to shield themselves from the toxic environment where they have won victory.  These demons are unlike any others, creatures of essence and desire, rather than corporeal entities.  More an infection than an invasion, they corrupt as much as conquer. A taint stains the land and its people. 

My other reference point is a 1981 film Mad Max 2, the (original) road warrior. There is that atmospheric journey through a shattered civilisation in which little islands of humanity strive to eke out some shadow of their former existence. Broken technology is cannibalised by desperate people as the Vagrant travels North past a barren landscape of twisted plastic and metal on a mission both personal and professional.  

The people have been crushed by defeat and by taint.  Things that were, or could have been human, have been corrupted beyond recognition. But still sparks of humanity and honour reside in the unlikeliest of places and can be kindled anew in a world where there is hope for all, and tears for those that fall.

The story is told in the present tense, even the backstory flashbacks. It is an approach still unusual to my old eyes. However, I saw it done to great effect in "The Girl With All The Gifts," and here - as there - the present tense narrative lends an edgy uncertainty as we follow our hero through a tale augmented with a variety of minor points of view (including a goat's uncomplicated eye).

The writing is unobtrusively good.  Like Mark Lawrence's writing, Peter Newman's avoids battering you with purple prose, or savouring its cleverness in convoluted gymnastics of vocabulary.  But open a page at random and you will find lines that make you nod in appreciation. "mist leaking in wheezy clouds"   "Busy clots of people move about"

The final departure from convention, or perhaps the first is in the protagonist's voice.  For Newman has determined that for the Vagrant, actions must perforce, speak louder than words.

Revolution and Evolution

I think it may be clear which of these stable-mates, these fraternal twins, plays the part of the revolutionary Spitfire and which the evolutionary Hurricane in my clumsy analogy.  Both are excellent reads, which I consumed in under a week. But they have very different appeals. The stories are self-contained, coming to a satisfactory conclusion.  But both left the door ajar for a sequel to challenge their heroes afresh.  I would read both sequels as soon as they were published (or even before if an ARC should find its way to me!)

It is invidious to try to rank such different books one against the other. For what is worth, plot-phile that I am, I finished Starborn on Thursday and The Vagrant on Friday 

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Grim Gathering II, aka "There's a queue outside a f**king bookshop"

The Cast

  • Marc Alpin - proprietor of the fantastically successful fantasy-faction website - and also mixed martial arts maestro and keeper of dragons.
  • Mark Lawrence - author of the Broken Empire sexology (six books, is that the right term?) and countless short stories
  • Peter Newman - author of the soon to be released (23rd April) debut novel "The Vagrant" 
  • Peter V Brett - top listed New York Times best-seller with The Skull Throne now out
  • Joe Abercrombie - Lord Grimdark himself
Meeting with an audience of staggering breadth and unrivalled passion
(Fortunately I corrected the typo "staggering breath", before I hit publish this post)


At the last grim gathering, in London, the shop's opening hours seamlessly merged into the evening event with browsers transforming into gatherers at the witching hour of 7.00 pm.  But for this occasion in Bristol, there was a hiatus between the shop closing and the gathering opening.  When I arrived at 6.15 there was a queue of 1, patiently reading what looked like a broken empire book. While I stopped at the neighbouring cash machine for some cash, the queue grew to 5 and within a few more minutes it had stretched down the street.  One bike riding local passing by the scene felt obliged to exclaim his expletive seasoned bewilderment at the sight of a queue outside a bookshop. Possibly he thought "bookshop queue" was an oxymoron.  Our own thoughts on him went unrecorded.


Ushered in we seized our seats, 6th in the queue was still good enough for a front row seat in the "no allocated places but everyone being terribly civilised" world of grimdark fandom.  We waited for mein host, his co-hosting sister and guests to appear.  The event began with a birthday tribute and record of our appreciation to Harper-Collins UK, 20 years old today, supporter of the grim gathering event and proud publisher to our panel and sundry other greats of modern fantasy.  Then it was the introductions round in which the points (IMHO) were split between

Peter Brett for admitting how he was willing to be educated in the subtleties of English bread products (Scones and crumpets in particular) in exchange for the opportunity to get into Mark Lawrence's house and cadge an electronic copy of the latest broken empire book.   Interestingly Peter has someone to read books for him, or at least to read through his daily mountain of ARCs and give him the nod as to which might be worthy of his eye.  Prince of Thorns we heard, was not exactly a recommendation from the assistant so much as an extreme reaction, which prompted Pete himself to investigate and to find he loved not just the quality of the writing (as his assistant had) but also the whole reading experience and from then on, he was Jorg and Broken Empire all the way.

Peter Newman admitted he had been briefly wracked with nerves as the newbie facing the herculean task of introducing the giant of Grim, Joe Abercrombie.  However, he was extremely relieved at the relatively modest level Joe had set the bar at with his own introduction of Peter - presumably a deliberate ploy to put the new kid on the block at ease.


The questions explored a range of issues and themes, and time and my memory can only serve to give a flavour of them below.  Along the way, Joe confessed that he had been advised by one curmudgeonly colleague that the best approach to panels was to automatically disagree with the question.  Espousing that fine tradition, Mark disputed the suggestion that there were any demons in his books, but for the purpose of that particular question, zombies and neromancers were loosely brought into the definition.  Mark also was surprised that no-one picked him up for his deliberate mis-pronounciation of hyperbole (hyper bowl, rather than hyper-boly) However, perhaps he had forgotten that we had seen him on face-book deliberating over not just which T-shirt to wear but which sharply edged award to bring.  A man with two axes and a stabby can say hyperbole any which way he pleases.

Approaches to writing

It was fascinating to hear the authors' accounts of how they write.  Four authors, four different approaches
  • Joe plots out the story structure in scenes.
  • Peter Newman described knowing the beginning and the end but being a bit fuzzy about the bit in the middle, using the analogy of standing on one side of a valley and heading for the clearly visible ridge on the far side, but passing through a misty bit in the dip inbetween where pretty much anything could happen.
  • Mark Lawrence explained he had no plot outline or scene structure, preferring to follow his story and characters rather than lead them, such that he could be as surprised as the reader at what happened between the top and the bottom of a page.
  • Peter Brett announced that everybody else was doing it wrong. His pre-preparation usually went to 200 pages or so of extremely detailed planning before he even wrote the first line of the book.  Not so much outlining the plot, as producing architectural blue prints for the whole  structure.  So much so that here was a real design crisis, when one of his characters required  make one particular choice by the plot blueprint, but an unsustainable choice given their character development.  The reworking of the plot design took some time, like finding you had  put a steel girder in the wrong part of your house.

Loving/saving your characters

There was an audience question as to whether the authors ever became so attached or invested in their characters that they wanted to save them from a pre-planned death or other disaster.  The answers, given the nature of the gathering, were uncompromisingly grim.
  • Joe Abercrombie's characters are tools (that probably doesn't sound right). They are his hammers serving their purpose of banging in his plot nails, until the hammers break, whereupon he goes and has the joy of seeking out a new hammer.  The character fates are so pre-ordained that the scenes where they meet their ends are inevitable releases to write rather than emotional trials.
  • Mark Lawrence enjoyed riding in Jorg's head but felt he had to always be true to where Jorg went.  There could be no compromise of "shade that act" or "modify this trauma," for the story would then not ring true.  
  • Peter Newman confessed to a fear that if he killed off a character that the reader liked, then they might stop reading the book there and then.  He admitted that as a reader there were some books where he was only in it to really follow one character's story arc.  However Peter Brett conducted a quick straw poll of the audience where only about 4% or so thought they might give up on a book if a much loved character died, which for Peter Brett was an acceptable loss rate, though Peter Newman at an earlier stage in his career without yet having an accumulation of readers to spare might not have been so sure.      

Defining Grimdark

Another question was around the definition of Grimdark and what a particular proposed definition might mean in the context of each author's work.

Precision was difficult to achieve on this one.  One might have hoped that Joe, as Lordgrimdark himself would have the definitive answers, but Joe seemed to feel it was a label of convenience used by different people to group books that they either did or didn't like.  It was a term which none of the authors felt was particularly useful or valuable and a definition that risked being so broad as to potentially encompass any story that had conflict and realism in it.

"Darkness" was assumed to encompass - the lack of certainty of success, of the "good guys" winning and restoring the status quo, the transformation of endings from "happy ever after" to "not really happy and probably not for very long either"  On that benchmark Joe pointed out that most zombie apocalypse films and horror films are firmly on the 0/100 for happy endings - everybody dies, horribly, while his own books he would have put at 25 to 30.

Peter Newman took the chance within the detail of the question, to tell us more about his own book (release date 23rd April).  He said The Vagrant is basically about a one parent family struggling along in a post demonic apocalypse - sounds pretty dark and grim, (I'm 80 pages in and recommend it heartily - I hope to get a review out before the 23rd April release date.)


Oh the queues they did form as the authors patiently signed away and posed for photos. 

There was also a chance to chat in and around the queues.  For example to find out about Marc Aplin's dragon.  As somebody who has a significant reptile (a chameleon) in my current work in progress I was curious about reptile husbandry and whether they could show affection.  The discussion settled down to deciding that dogs had owners, cats had staff and small reptiles have bodyguards.

The Afterparty

We adjourned to a local hostelry and drank and chatted into the night.  Besides the illustrious panel, we had a lot of writing interest and enthusiasm amongst the audience. 

There were the many Fantasy Faction staff contributors meeting up for the first time.  It felt like a network of cells in the world war two French resistance were finally coming together and putting faces to what had only been morse code call signs before.  There was a strong voice (voices) calling for fantasy faction T-shirts for staff - or to be purchasable. 

Amongst those fantasy faction staff members there was a journalist, self-published authors and also in Lucy Hounsom  a traditionally published author whose debut novel "Starborn" shares a release date (23rd April) with Peter Newman's "The Vagrant."

I feel Lucy is particularly deserving of a mention as, when she proudly showed off her author's copy of the book I asked on an impulse if I could have it (I do like to get my hands on a book before its release date - and just in case you're listening GRRMartin and Pat Rothfuss, please take note), and then even asked her to sign it.  I'm on page 85 and enjoying it and I definitely owe her a review for my sheer cheek in asking for the copy that was destined for her very understanding sister.

Conversation ebbed and flowed around all things writing.   If you love reading then you are more likely to want to turn your hand to writing as well. We talked about the self-published fantasy blog off, Mark Lawrence's inspiration as a way to get some access to blogging air-time for the many self-published authors out there.  Geoff Matthews' "Stone Road" for example has been experiencing a bit of a boost from a positive review by Sarah Chorn at Bookworm blues.   Hey people, reviews count.

It was late when people were finally forced out of the bar and began to navigate their way to various hotels across Bristol, or in my case - the airport.   But a pleasant evening had been had by all - a chance to hear some great authors, to talk to them in person, like real people, and to talk amongst ourselves about our shared enthusiasm for fantasy books with people who know who Locke Lamora is, who have heard of Ursula le Guin, and who think that fantasy really can and does tell us more about real people than it tells us about magic swords.


I am sure it was lovely, maybe even still is being lovely.  But you will have to read another blog to find out about that because I had a plane to catch and am not at all twitter and bisted about missing out.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Scourge of the Betrayer by Jeff Salyards - a spoiler free review

Another book that kept me reading by the backlit screen of a kindle into the small hours of the morning in a hunger to see how the story ended for characters in whose fate I had become deeply invested. 

I read it all, including the acknowledgements, which for some is like eating the entire apple, core included.  Within those last pages of author's gratitude and insight one line stood out where Mr Salyards thanks his agent "for believing in fantasy more intimate than epic" and that sense of close confinement with the protagonists rang true to me as one of the book's major accomplishments.

The blurb sets it up, our first person narrator is Arkamondos a scribe, a recorder, that Captain Braylar Killcoin is obliged to hire to note down the deeds and doings of his troop of Syldoon soldiers.  I had read some comments about this arrangement on Reddit, the slow sense of reveal as the reader rides in the mind of the scarcely trusted supernumerary and is kept in as much ignorance of his employer's purpose, though that does not stop him or the reader trying to guess at it.

This is an astonishingly rich book, in that there is much I would like to say about it and am slightly at a loss for where to begin.  So I will pluck another book out of the air for comparison. 

It is "Homicide" by David Simon a journalist who documents the year he spent shadowing the detectives of the Baltimore homicide division as they dealt with upwards of 200 murders.  While Simon remained far more in the background than Arkamondos and the detectives of Baltimore were far more virtuous than the foul mouthed and quick bladed Syldoon, there is that same sense of an outsider faithfully documenting remarkable individuals routinely dealing with exceptional challenges.  As Salyards' story develops Arkamondos takes on a more active role in the doings of the Syldoon, partly from self-preservation but gradually from a sense of respectful belonging to their tight knit little community, until Braylar proclaims he is embedded.  The journalist Simon certainly never took up arms in the way Arkamondos is obliged to do, but he did admit to one point where he had become so embedded that the hard pressed detectives riding with him told him to pat down one suspect while they dealt with two others.  I thought of that moment as I read when Arkamondos is hesitantly waving a crossbow in the general direction of a clerical prisoner and trying to assume the brusque commanding manner of his employer.

A second comparator is Elric of Melnibone - a book I read in my teens and of which I remember less than perhaps I should, for such a classic work.  However, not since Elric called the sword Stormbringer to him, have I read of a weapon like Braylar's two headed flail "Bloodsounder."  I was first struck by the inventiveness of giving your primary warrior a flail as his weapon of choice.  I haven't seen such preferment since my AD&D days when the flail's greater damage (d6+1 as I recall)always lead me to pick it over the mace for my priest characters.  Bloodsounder dictates the battle, no longer a matter of the simple cut and thrust, or hack and slash of a sword.  Salyards describes in careful detail Braylar's use of this fearsome weapon and in so doing introduces new dimensions to traditional fantasy combat.  However, going beyond the novelty of a flail, there is the dark curse within the weapon that brings out the parallels with Stormbringer.  This is a weapon which enslaves its wielder just as much and as often as it delivers him.

A third comparator is Bernard Cornwell's Saxon series, for that is the only other place where I have seen such gritty realisation of the grim truths of battle.  In Salyards' battles, armour works.  For many fantasy novels swords slice through plate mail so easily you can see why the heroines of old foreswore anything more substantial than a chainmail bikini as a waste of effort.  However, when it comes to the hack, cut, thrust, stab, slash, gouge, wrench and grapple of Salyard's battles we see the purpose, power and limitations of all that ironmongery.  Soldiers are bruised, bones are broken within their steel shells, but still they limp and stagger on, for what other choice do they have.  They do not throw off their battle injuries with the passing of a single night.  Fought to a standstill, they stand still but only just.   You feel the blows and share the grief - it is in truth an intimate more than an epic experience.

Which brings me to a fourth comparator, Prince of Thorns.  For in Braylar Killcoin we have a hero in his way as suspect as Jorg Ancrath.  We see Braylar through another's eyes, a gaze tinted with suspicion and distaste and, like Arkamanodos, we find ourselves questioning his motives and his morality.  Like Jorg, Braylar is a product of his past but his is not one of privilege.  The nature of the Syldoon put me in mind of the Janisseries of the Turkish Sultans, and to a lesser extent, the French Foreign Legion.  These are foreigners inducted, enslaved, indoctrinated, inculcated, in short brainwashed into the service of the Empire that was their people's enemy.  In so doing they are turned into a most formidable fighting force.  Braylar, for all his battle prowess, is no knight in shining armour and like Jorg he is surrounded by a disparate following of individuals exploring the full spectrum of unsavoury.     

And for a fifth comparator, well I have plucked a book I never read from the shelves of Goodreads.  For the workings of the Syldoon troop under Braylar's command remind me of what I have heard of CIA operations in South America.  Braylar has his orders and his outfit is one whose work would doubtless be denied and whose Emperor might forget ever having ordered them to do anything, should certain matters come to light and ever reach so far as an imperial hearing of senators.  This is a small dirty outfit involved in a small dirty war that hasn't even been declared.  As a reader you fear for them in their isolation, and you understand why their trust does not stray beyond their own circles and only slowly encompasses their reluctant scribe.

In a recent facebook post Salyards observed that while still proud of this book, there are some aspects that hindsight told him could have been done better.  It is only natural for we are all growing as writers and I do wonder what changes he would make.  My own guess might be one scene that was a little uncomfortable both for reader and for our first person hero the scribe.  Daniel Polansky, in his own acknowledgements on The Straight Razor Cure, thanked the advice that saw him delete a sex scene which was neither necessary nor appropriate to the story.  Maybe Salyards too, felt that there were certain intimacies that would still have served their purpose with a less detailed exploration in his intimate rather than epic fantasy. Or perhaps it was another aspect of the work.  Truly there is little to fault in this piece which magnificently achieves what it set out to do.

There is a mythos and world building aplenty in this book, and the rich world Salyards has set out could easily support a long sequence of stories: allusions to gods labelled deserters for their abandonment of a failed humanity; the mysterious origins of Braylar's fearsome weapon; the destructive lure of the misty God's Veil.  There is so much to admire.  The characters, revealed only through the scribe's assumptions and their own dialogue and actions, are all rich and compelling.  Each person speaks in an authentic and individual voice, and we truly feel we are there in that grimy smoky inn, as far from the Prancing Pony at Bree as it is possible to be.

In short, Scourge of the Betrayer, like the diabolical Bloodsounder flail itself, is pretty hard to put down.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

The Blue Mountain by G.R.Matthews - spoiler free review

This is book two in the forbidden list trilogy and is another story that has shuffled off the chains and constraints of pseudo-medieval Europe and planted itself four square in the context of an oriental empire defended by, among other things, a great wall built to keep marauding nomadic horse riders called mongols at bay. 

Pitched into this context we again follow the paths of Zhou and Huang, two men who were once polar adversaries. Now with their very different talents and potential recognised by the highest authority in the land, we see them separated and embarked on training to make them worthy of the honour of being on the forbidden list.  If I have understood it right, the forbidden list comprises those individuals so favoured for their talents that no one is allowed to offer them any let or hinderance in their appointed tasks. Though both are careful not to flaunt their preferment.

The story follows the same simple but effective structure of alternate chapters seen from the point of view of each of the two lead characters.  However, their paths are not so closely interleaved as in the first book, for duty calls them at least at first in quite different directions.

Given the sense that this a re-imagining of China's ancient history at work, I did wonder how far the author had drawn on real Chinese mythology and culture as well as architecture in the foundation of the novel.  In particular names and titles used had an authentic eastern ring.  However, it is the magic system of the book which seemed, in its detail, to have drawn deeply on some original source material.  Which is not to say that is anyway a bad thing, simply that it gave the "magic system" a delightful detail and coherence which can be lacking in some fantasy work. Indeed magic system is all too paltry a term for the concepts of layers of spirit worlds from which the trained or the attuned could draw power and in which they could do battle in various forms.   Yet the magic systems and way people used them were more than mere plot devices, they were the plot, they were its glowing blue spine on which the tale hung.

And it is a good tale, briskly told, so much so that I started and finished the book in a little over 24 hours.   The action peaks early with an initial crisis and then gradually re-gathers itself for a final cliff-hanging denoument which reminded me of another desperate defence of another eternal barrier in some other (eternal) world - Westeros I think they called it.  The pace rattles along in what I found was a plot driven story, mysteries to be uncovered, suspicions to be confirmed and villains to be unmasked.

Along the well-written way, the author pays due recognition to the geographic realities of a volcanic eruption, but not in a gratuitous flaunting of the author's knowledge.  The tribulations of making a journey under a rain of volcanic ash, like the magic system itself, are plot engines not digressions.

It is the second book so how does it compare to the first? 

I have to say I think this one is better, sharper in its execution, and more balanced in its presentation.  The back stories feel more fully developed, the political and economic context more credible and in short the whole thing has a more polished feel.  Which is not to denigrate The Stone Road, merely to say that The Blue Mountain is better still and I am looking forward to book 3.

Monday, 6 April 2015

The Weeping Empress - by Sadie S Forsythe - a spoiler free review

I read once that a reviewer should ask themselves three questions in considering a book,
  • What was the author seeking to achieve?
  • Did they achieve it?
  • Was it worth achieving?

In other reviews and books I have been swept along by story, character and language and that has been the thrust of my reviews.  I have pondered on what did the book leave me with after I had turned the last page.  However, with The Weeping Empress I found myself more often than usual trying to discern the author's guiding hand and to get some sense of where the story was going and what it set out to achieve.  This is not to say that that is a bad thing, just that this was a story that, in some significant ways, strayed beyond the envelope of my normal reading experience.

It is a self-published book and I came upon it by chance. A comment on one of my reviews of another book, led me to the author's blogpost, her review of the same book and a scanning of her other posts and at the end of it a why the hell not? let's read her book.

I had gathered that the story of Chiyo was written after the author had had her first daughter and that the powerful feelings engendered by motherhood were a significant part of the context in which the book was conceived.

Chiyo is a woman, wife and mother from (I am guessing) contemporary America, who awakes on a grassy hillside in a different age and place thrown into the middle of a horrific slaughter of old and infirm travellers.  She joins with two differently enigmatic swordsmen and with them carves a trail of violence through an oriental landscape and culture.  On the way she confronts an emperor and is in various ways challenged and supported by a religious order the Scaredisto.

The story raises questions for the reader and for Chiyo.  How did she get here? Why was she brought here? Will she ever get home? And those questions don't really start to get addressed until over halfway through the book when the women of the Sacredisto begin to unravel some of their serpentine beliefs and mythology.  Ultimately Chiyo's fate is wrapped up in the darkest secrets of the Goddess's will.

The culture is immediately recognisable as Japanese, before the word katana is even mentioned.  Having written and read mostly in the pseudo-medieval tradition of much of western fantasy, it was refreshing to burrow into a different setting and the author's love and knowledge of the milieu is clear in aspects ranging from her description of the different parts of a sword to the precision of tea ceremonies.  There is even a glossary of terms.

The other element that came through for me is rage.  Chiyo is angry, angry at pretty much everyone and everything and that seems to fuel a bloodlust which (from a glimpse at other reviews) is something some other readers struggled to come to terms with.   There is despair, a constant backdrop of betrayal and distrust as she writhes like a snake against the sense of being manipulated by one faction or another. 

It seemed to me that the whole story is a merging of two great affections in the author's life into a single "What if..." question.  "What if a woman like me were plucked from the loved and loving bosom of my family and transplanted into a cruel feudal landscape with little hope of return?"  In such a story the nature of the central character's feelings must take centre stage, they are the engine and the heart of the story.  And it is an exploration of that individual diaspora that I took to be the author's intent - the thing she set out to achieve.  The other elements of the story serve as satellites to that central ambition.

There is then the question of how well was it achieved?  Well, in vision our eyes have a foveal patch. A place on which our retina has a concentration of cells to detect fine detail - the sweet spot in the eye if you like - where we focus our vision while around it the objects in our peripheral vision is necessarily less detailed and precise.  Forsythe's foveal view is firmly focussed on Chiyo and I felt the surrounding political and revolutionary context in which Chiyo and her two close male comrades operated, lacked a degree of detail needed to make it fully credible. 

The trio wondered around relatively aimlessly attacking government troops, outposts and convoys with little sense of a strategy beyond causing trouble, and little sense of an opponent beyond the greed of an emperor led establishment.  However, they seemed reluctant to offer any alternative world view beyond killing guilty and presumably the innocent.  The two men that Chiyo teams up with seem to be as fuelled by incontinent rage just as much as Chiyo herself does.  Though there is some development in their feelings towards Chiyo, almost to the very end neither seems to have progressed much beyond a desire to kill and a oft expressed surprise, which I had to share at times, that no-one had yet killed them in return. 

There was a point, at the end of Chapter two, where the plot took a twist that had me stunned- disbelief seriously unsuspended.  The sword wielding pair, having exerted considerable efforts and exposed themselves to some danger in the cause of a battered group of refugees, then displayed to me an illogical degree of callousness.  It was not so much that it denigrated the value of the refugees, but that it denigrated the value of their own previous efforts on the refugees' behalf.  

The mysterious sect of the Sacredisto moved to centre stage in the final third of the book. It was here I found myself trying to untangle the puzzle the author had laid.  I tried to tease out what  storyline there was beyond Chiyo's angry despair at the dislocation in her life and the revenge she delighted in taking on any who crossed the path of her katana.  There was a message in the naming of her sword Salvation for it was its frequent use which offered her a kind of salvation, or at least a salving of her wounded spirit.  

The bizarre mythology of the Scaredisto and their Goddess twisted like the snake that was their symbol but at the end I found myself thinking this was a struggle as much on the author's part to tie off the story on which she had launched herself and her heroine.  At first I had been unsure if Chiyo had been plucked to a parallel world or a different time, and - with a reference made to unfamiliar stars - I suspect even the author may not have been.  Though it is possible I do her knowledge of Japanese history an injustice.  But at the end, like a snake eating its own tail, the tale (and tail) of the Sacredisto sealed the arc of the story and cleared the way for an epilogue that brought some closure for both reader and Chiyo.

There were points of plotting where the heroes' tactics and strategy might not have stood up to too close a scrutiny, sketchy details and slightly implausible stratagems conspiring to conveniently place the heroes where the song of the katana could be most clearly be heard and described.  There were bits of writing where the book showed its raw self-published origins, spared the sharp pen and eagle eyes of a professional editor.  But then, I am a self-published author myself and let he/she who amongst us has had no tyops be the first one to cast a stone of rebuke. 
I have a fondness for female led fantasy stories, I have read a few several and have written three so far myself.  I count Eowyn and Galadriel amongst my favourite fantasy characters.  So Chiyo's story appealed where a displaced male flung into the same baffling environment could not have.  Indeed, I suspect the story could not have made so much sense without the aspect of maternal loss which paradoxically seemed to drive Chiyo.

Was the story worth telling?  It was unquestionably different, different to virtually any other story I have read and such a facet always makes a story fresh and worth of note. 

Could it have been better told? It lacked a little polish, certainly. The central primal scream of the character could have been set in a more consistent background of tone, context and motive. 
Was it worth reading?  Well I finished it, and I am finishing far too few books these days.  So I have to say I liked it and stars shall shine accordingly.