Monday, 15 August 2016

A roaring debut - "Valley of Embers" by Steven Kelliher

I love an Advanced Reader Copy - and so  tore into this early release of Steven Kelliher's debut work - "Valley of Embers"

Kole Reyna is an Ember, he has realised the same latent ability that his mother had – the power to endure, control and wield fire. It makes him a formidable foe, a creature of aggression and attack.  He is not the only Ember, there are others like him (a few handfuls) in his town and through the Valley where his people the Emberfolk live. To them the Embers are the knights in shining armour (or at least armour incandescent with their own heat) who protect them from the Dark Kind.

Kole has many friends and allies who stick with him or for him through thick and (sometimes) decidedly thin. Kelliher captures the relationships well such as when two of Kole’s supporters end a discussion that in some way disappointed them both. “They parted in the soft gravel of the fishing village, sharing nothing else but the bowed heads that come from long understanding and slow regret.”

One impediment to the reader getting a grip on characters are the occasions where Kelliher introduces a large number of characters in fairly quick order – there are two or three council style meetings where that happens, including the opening scene. In such a forum it is difficult for the author to give each character a distinctive voice and that was a little off putting at the start.  Having finished the book – I did go back and re-read the opening scene again and was naturally enough able to invest far more understanding of place and person into what had been brief initial glimpses of some of the key players in the story.  I say some, for Kelliher directs a diverse cast list, men and women taking up arms in whatever means they can.

The action scenes are frequent and vibrantly described – including one extended siege to rival that of the Hornburg or Minas Tirith.  Of many minor and major characters in orbit around Kole Reyna, Captain Talmir was one I found particularly engaging.  This may be partly for his determination to be leader and protector of his people despite not having the gift of being an Ember, but partly it was because seeing his town of Hearth always through his eyes gave that element of the story a continuity of perspective and coherence that was easier to read through.

The fights are a mix of conventional and fantastic, as magic and steel seek to cut down creatures of mundane and infernal natures.  Some enemies prove as irritatingly resilient as the serial-killers from teen slasher movies (Michael Myers in Halloween for example) which lends a tension to keep the reader always on the edge of their seat.    

Kelliher has crafted an imaginative magic system and – in Kole - an intriguing hero, driven as much by a desire to focus the blurred recollections of what happened to his mother as by the need to protect his people.  The Valley of Embers and the land beyond it is a complex world, with a history that twists and turns even as the reader (and the protagonists) try to chase down what is going on. 

I did not find too many of the feared info-dumps (the kind that often masquerade as bardic retellings of past history) and that is a good thing.  However, in a story that twists sinuously and doubles back on itself as much as the passage of the river F’Rust in its subterranean caverns, it took a little while for me to become familiar with some fundamentals of the world Kelliher was describing.

An author knows their own world - all its heroes and its denizens - in such intimate detail that sometimes they can forget that each reader comes to it completely afresh knowing only as much as is presented on the page. Morsels of information that the author strews in the reader’s path may each gleam in their own perspective as brightly as the Arkenstone in a seam of coal, yet – to the untuned eye of the reader – the information is subtle or overshadowed by other events. All this is by way of saying that the story confused me a little at times. I let myself be swept along, buffeted by fragments of an epic backstory, swirling past outcrops of world building, and trying to keep hold as the story rode the raging torrent of Kole’s quest for answers and for a kind of resolution.

About a quarter of the way in, the main story lines had settled enough for me to get my bearings and to follow the entwined threads of the story within which Kole fought to evade entanglement. Like a student in an advanced maths class I was content to soak it all up – the transparent and the cryptic – in the expectation that in time all would make sense.  And on the whole it did, though I must admit there is the point in the book where one character asks “Who was that, and what was he on about?” and my kindle note simply says amen to that question.

I suppose, in part to prove I was paying attention, I feel obliged to share the understandings I have (hopefully correctly) gleaned about the world of the Valley, the rest of the world and the World Apart.  In so doing, ironically, I may find myself writing exactly the kind of info-dump that Kelliher has studiously avoided.

The Emberfolk - with their gifted Embers as principal guardians - did not always live in the Valley. They were led there from their desert home in a great diaspora after their Ember King fell before one of the six sages in the world. It is a past they have not forgotten, as one character remarks, “My father used to say that we never knew how full the desert was until we left it.”

The sages appear to have been wizards of almost godlike power and incessant warfare. Amongst them the Eastern Dark was the enemy of the emberfolk while his brother sage the White Crest was their friend and saviour who brought them into the protection of this remote valley at the southern edge of the world. 

However, the Valley was already inhabited and the assimilation of the refugee Emberfolk was not a bloodless affair.   Nonetheless, the different peoples in the valley (Rivermen, Emberfolk, Rockbled and Faey) have settled into relatively easy co-existence and intermingling with the Emberfolk in their major towns of Hearth and the Lake.  One factor in this rapprochement may have been the rising of the Dark Kind, creatures of evil, bleeding into the world of the Emberfolk from the World Apart. The World Apart is a place of demons and darkness whose boundaries with the world of the Valley weaken in the dark months allowing threats to seep in that need an Ember’s flames to destroy them (or failing that a sharp sword and a few true arrows).  

The sage known as the Eastern Dark was known to court the Dark Kind – those creatures of the World Apart – and as the story opens, concerns about a feared increase in the attacks of the Dark Kind has brought Kole and others to a council of the great and the good of the town of Lake.

There are other wielders of different kinds of magic.  The Faey appear to be a kind of rarely glimpsed elven race within the Valley who bestow through training a power of healing on the Faeykin. There are Seers, and Faeymothers, and the Rockbled.  I cannot say that I totally got the interrelationships between the different peoples and the intricacies of the magic system.  Even though the book is the first in the Landkist series I never was quite sure what it meant to be Landkist.  I guessed it might mean that one of the gifts of the land (perhaps an Ember nature) had been awakened in the person.  And that, I guess, is the for me the book’s slight weakness. A cryptic nature to its magic, its peoples and their history that did not readily unfold for me in the character action and interaction.  
Nonetheless, the story rollicks along at a good pace and it is of course, the best tradition of epic fantasy, that nothing is entirely as it seems and answers are hard to come

Monday, 25 July 2016

An Eviscerating Anthology - my spoiler free review of "Gutted" edited by Doug Murano & D. Alexander Ward

Sixteen masters and mistresses of horror writing regale us with a selection of "beautiful horror stories." That may at first seem like an oxymoron. Horror is traditionally scary, bloodcurdling, tense, shocking, in some way or other beyond the norm.  I have read various pan horror collections in my youth, none that made much of a lasting impression on me, besides the frisson of fear reading dark tales under the bedclothes. Beautiful is not the adjective of first resort when describing Horror.

But, in the selection of stories and in the writing of them, this volume shows a haunting quality, a mesmerising style.  The beauty lies not so much in the eye of the beholder as in the ear of the reader as elegant sentences and paragraphs wrap themselves around horrific cores.  A juxtaposition reflected in the stylish cover of flowers sprouting from a skeleton.

Time prevents me from reviewing all the stories and, to be fair, some worked for me better than others. But below I have written more about my five top picks.  Other readers may find different favourites, such is the nature of anthologies - and indeed of readers!

Water My Bones by Mercedes M Yardley

Those used to Miss Murder's writing will be familiar with the challenge she offers to conventions of victim and villain.  This story is again about two people, in some ways it reminds me of her piece Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu.  Again two damaged people meet, drawn into each other's gravity like a binary star system, swirling closer the one feeding off the other, the other more or less willingly giving. Nikilie is a woman much abused by those around her and - in turn - she abuses herself, fresh wounds in her flesh to match each cut the world makes in her psyche.  But then she meets Michael and everything changes.  He sees an inner beauty she did not know she had.  "That night she took a razorblade to her inner thigh, but the cuts were heartless and shallow."

Picking Splinters from a Sex Slave by Brian Kirk

It is every parent's nightmare to lose a child to abduction, but what if the child is returned years later and the restoration of what was lost is a still greater nightmare.  Kirk paints a vivid picture of a father reunited with a daughter abducted and abused long ago. It has echoes of all the real life abduction stories we have seen in the news, in some ways it reminds me of the Fritzl story in Austria. How can those freed return to a normal life, more importantly how can they find happiness after an experience that has changed and damaged them. The father in Brian Kirk's story will make many sacrifices to restore his daughter's happiness but the reader may ask - could they do as much?

On The Other Side of the Door Everything Changes by Damien Angelica Walters

Is it an accident that parenthood and horror are so akin? That having a child opens up a whole new vista of ways in which to fear the dangers of the world?  Or is it that, being a parent myself, this story and others like it strike a resonant note more so than others.  I also work in education, where everyday we have to confront another exploitation of new technology in old evils. Cyber bullying, the risks children are exposed to in the privacy of their own bedrooms, a world away from my own childhood. I've also relatively recently moved house and job dragging children in the vulnerable teenage years from their embryonic circle of friends.  For my children it has worked out well, but those experiences and anxieties made this story sing for me.  A two handed tale of child and mother, the one displaced, sullen, angry brooding with a horror she dare not share. The other, anxious - like all parents of teenage children finding that every word is the wrong word and so they stay on opposite sides of the same door trapped in a failure of communication. Beautifully written, horrifically real.

Coming to Grief by Clive Barker

As a child when I walked home from school (a school I shared with Nigel Farage - but that's an entirely different horror story) there was a lane I had to walk up Low Cross Wood Lane, it had a kink in it - a sort of chicane - which made the top half invisible from the bottom.  As a small school boy I always had a fear of what might lie unseen around that corner.  Would it be kids from the other local school waiting to beat me up - in truth I was only hit once there - but I try to remember the vulnerability of that fear when imagining what it is like to be a woman in today's world, a vulnerability that grown men cannot so easily empathise with.

There is much more in cleverness in the writing of Barker's tale than the ingeniously punning title. Miriam has returned home to tidy up the affairs of her estranged and recently deceased mother.  The antagonist in this story is the Bogey-Walk a curving lane along the edge of an old quarry that haunted her youth and still has the power to terrorise the older successful woman that the child has begun.  Besides the obvious resonance with that not-forgotten Dulwich lane - this story appealed because of the exquisite writing as Miriam picks through the bones of her relationship with her mother, rekindles an old friendship, and all the while orbits the old fears of the Bogey-walk in ever decreasing circles.

A Haunted House is a Wheel upon Which some are Broken by Paul Tremblay

Skilful evocative writing abounds throughout the anthology along with some innovative takes on the horror genre. Most innovative perhaps is Paul Tremblay's Haunted House story which took me back to a childhood of Steve Jackson scripted adventure books (anybody remember the Wizard of Firetop Mountain?) where after each page the reader had a choice to make and - depending on that choice - would turn to a different page to advance the story in a different direction. The miracle of embedded links in ebooks makes that all so much easier and the reader gets to choose how far and which route they take through a Tremblay's tale of a woman revisiting a house that scarred her childhood and still plagues her dreams

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

The disturbing sound of a "Silent City" - my spoiler free review of G R Matthews Sci-fi Book

A Fresh Direction

This is the fourth of G.R.Matthews novels that I have read and, at first glance, it's style and context is as different as you could imagine from the other three. 

The Forbidden List trilogy (The Stone Road, The Blue Mountain, and The Red Plains) provided a fantastic re-imagining of ancient China - a refreshing alternative to the medieval European style milieu which is the staple of so much modern fantasy. It was a tale told from two alternating third person characters facing crises of epic proportions but the tone still had much of the formality that I would expect in high fantasy.

Corin Hayes' adventure in Silent City is an altogether more visceral first person adventure set in a far future where humanity has fled beneath the waves to live in undersea cities.  The story is packed with action from the first page which has our hero preparing for a beating to the last where our hero is... (spoilers as Riversong would say).

What difference does a Point of View Make?

I have been curious for a while about what difference a point of view makes.  For example, would Mark Lawrence's antihero Jorg have stirred up so much emotion amongst readers (either intoxicated or alienated by his evil) if his tale had been narrated in the third person?  Would that detachment - that additional distance - have ruined the story? Lawrence writes powerfully enough in the third person tales of the Road Brothers, so maybe not but it would certainly have been different.

With G.R.Matthews, I have another chance to consider the impact of an author's chosen point of view.  Silent City is told in Hayes' voice and it is an entertaining one. A sort of deep ocean Philip Marlowe, weary cynical, existing rather than living in a confined community that knows too much of his past. 

Writing in third person point of view the author is a director manipulating and inspiring his cast without ever being one of them. With first person point of view the writer becomes an actor wholly inhabiting the character. As Iwan Rheon knows from playing Ramsay Bolton, acting an anti-hero can draw down a certain public opprobrium. Corin Hayes is not so much an anti-hero - more a likeable underdog (though there were times he was a little free with his wrench for my liking). But the story depends on us rooting for him and - with the intimacy of first person - we do just that.

He is a man with more than his fair share of personal tragedy. In this relatively short book we get a few glimpses of Corin's backstory which I sense will run like a thread through the next book and beyond as inevitably the past casts shadows well into the future.

Same author but a different setting?

There is an inventiveness to Matthews world building in Silent City. While the vision of the future appears as distant from ancient China and the forbidden list as it is possible to be, there are still parallels to be drawn between the tales that hint at their shared authorial paternity.

  • In his fantasy works Matthews departed from the euro-medieval conventions to set his tale in the orient;
  • In his sci-fiction writing Matthews has eschewed the traditional space opera and buried his protagonist as deep as the wreck of the Titanic in a diminished humanity ekeing out an existence on the ocean floor.

  • In the forbidden list, Matthews drew on an imaginative blend of spirit and spell based magic systems;
  • in Corin Hayes he creates equally inventive scientific solutions to the practical problems of living and working in an environment which humanity had only previously visited. 

  • In the forbidden list, the idea of family tragedy - either endured or avoided - was a driver for the two protagonists;
  • In silent city a dreadful crime still haunts Corin's waking and sleeping hours.

The story cracks on at a decent pace - I read the last half in a single sitting.  For all that the surface world has been abandoned and the human population decimated, those that remain still find plenty to argue about and fight over. In the midst of it all Corin Hayes nurses a drink in a seedy bar not knowing what opportunity is about to knock for one of his dubious past and unusual skills, still less aware of how quickly such opportunities can go belly up.

And for those wondering what pun I was trying to make in my title - here's a great piece of music  enjoy!

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

He does it with mirrors - a spoiler free review of "The Wheel of Osheim" by Mark Lawrence

Mark Lawrence recently challenged his facebook followers to give him a page number between 1 and 415 and he would try to find a spoiler free quote to share from that page of The Wheel of Osheim.  There may have been those who hoped to tease the entire book from him in a giant literary jigsaw and so get a drop on its June 7th release date. For those who have not yet got their hands on an Advance Reading Copy - circle that date - (Think D-Day landings + 72 years and 1 day).  The Wheel of Osheim is another feast of quality writing and high "quote per page" density.

For me though, the quote that spoke to me most comes from page 343.

"A story will lead a man through dark places. Stories have direction. A good story commands a man's thoughts along a path, allowing no opportunity to stray, no space for anything but the tale as it unfolds before you."

There are times in our lives when we all need a story that good and The Wheel of Osheim is itself just such a story.  I think I will struggle to rein in my review, for the book sets so many dominos toppling in different directions in my mind.  The joy, as ever is in Lawrence's writing, his vivid imagery and his charmingly reprehensible characters cast mercilessly into a raging torrent of a plot.

Jal's timeline is entwined in a braid with Jorg's, the two very different heroes inhabiting the same time and setting. Here, as in Prince of Fools, the stories bump briefly alongside each other, ships that pass, somewhat drunkenly, in the night and part - the one not entirely untouched by the other. 

However, even for those of us who followed Jorg all the way to the end of Emperor of Thorns,  Lawrence still provides plenty of heart-in-the-mouth alarms and surprises as Jal skitters along at perilous heights and depths.  Along the way, both Jal and the reader get some new perspectives on old friends some of whom need particular watching!

Lady Blue manipulates her allies and her mirrors with a deft determination while the misshapen great-uncle Garyus, louring like the elephant-man in my imagination, shows wit and wisdom in guiding his great-nephew along a path of reluctant heroism,


There is a poem from the mid-season finale of the sixth Dr Who series that the Wheel of Osheim put me in mind of. "When a good man goes to war." 

Jal is not a good man, and his grandmother the Red Queen is not - by most standards - a good woman. But it is not for nothing that this trilogy is called "The Red Queen's War," and in this final chapter Alica and her grandson both go to war. (Well strictly speaking, war comes to Jal - I mean, he's not the kind of hero to go out looking for such a thing.)

King of Thorns was built around a siege - the chaos of battle and the plans and the sacrifices that Jorg was willing to make to secure a momentary glimmer of advantage and seize that opportunity. In the Wheel of Osheim, Jal faces his own military test though his preference is for 

odds stacked so heavily in my favour that the only danger to me is being crushed by them should they fall. 

However, while Jorg made a habit of playing dice with the fates themselves and winning, Jal's plans have a tendency to unravel faster than a cardigan in a threshing machine.  And before long he is remembering

My main rule of running, after "don't stop" and "go faster" is "go high or go to ground."
And to be honest, looking at the foes Jal faces, even Jorg might have thought twice about plunging in.

For me there were other resonances between Demons Run and the Wheel of Osheim. There are demons, there are men who run (Jal chief amongst them) and women who stay and there is the lost child - Jal's unborn sister, murdered in his mother's womb by the necromancer Edris Dean. The child may have been a pawn in an undead game, but - as the book's cover says - a pawn can change the game. In my limited chess experience that is usually when the pawn is transformed into the most powerful piece on the board - a queen.

The threat of that transformation drives Jal and the story on, through Hell (one l or two, it's all the same) and out the other side.


Lawrence's Hell (or rather Snorri and Jal's Hel) reminded me of the Robin Williams film "What Dreams May Come" from the 1990s. The film was about heaven rather than hell, as a doctor already hit by family tragedy is flung into heaven by a road traffic accident. But both the film and Lawrence's book paint a vivid and fantastic landscape of the afterlife. A place shaped by each man's imagination, belief and misdeeds and - for someone with as colourful a past as Jal that ensures Hel is not a place to linger in. 

But not everyone in Hel is an enemy and even in so desolate a place there is a chance of peace for a grieving Viking.

The Wheel

However, there are worse things than Hel and the Wheel of Osheim calls inexorably to Jal and any few he can gather around him. The wheel is a machine - the machine that broke the world and allowed magic to leak into it so that men (and women) could manipulate reality by the power of their wills.  And the machine is spinning faster and faster.

There are two images the wheel conjures up for me, the first - the large hadron collider in Cern - I mean come on! In his helpful "previously in the Red Queen's War" catch-up notes Lawrence describes the machine as "mysterious engines hidden in a circular underground tunnel many miles across"

For those with a passing acquaintanceship with particle physics the link will prompt a smile at least, that a machine to probe the limits of reality might in Lawrence's vision of a distant future have ruptured reality so catastrophically.

But there was another link too for me - the 1956 film about a 23rd century rescue mission to a space-archaeologist and his daughter wrecked on the eponymous "Forbidden Planet."

(film spoiler alert)
In that film as I recall it, a lost alien civilisation had been wiped out overnight by their greatest invention. The machine, drawing on unlimited resources of power, could create reality out of imagination; so - in their alien dreams - the nightmares came to life and destroyed them.  The foolish archaeologist does not realise how he has - unwittingly - harnessed that same power to unleash his own nightmare on the spaceship crew.

In the film only the destruction of a planet could turn the machine off.
In Osheim...  well read the book and find out.

The film, however, has another side to it - for it was seen by many as a re-imagining of Shakespeare's play "The Tempest" where the wizard Prospero lives on an island with his daughter and uses magic to manipulate reality and tease and torment some shipwrecked sailors.

And I like that. For in the film magic was re-imagined as science and sixty years later in this the sixth book set in the Broken Empire, Lawrence re-invents science as magic.   

Saturday, 16 April 2016

The knives are out but will Nysta get her man? (Review of "Duel at Grimwood Creek" by Lucas Thorn)

I read Lucas Thorn's debut book "Revenge of the Elf" a year and a half ago and reviewed it here. As I wrote then, Nysta's tale was both enjoyable and different. It was a reminder that the pantheon of self-published work includes both quality stories and diversity of approach.

It has taken me a little longer than it should have to pick up the second part of Nysta's tale. There is a lot of reading (and writing) to be squeezed in the cracks and crevices between work and family life and there are a lot of books I haven't yet got round to reading.  For example another blood spattered revenge-quest about a feisty female who lost a male companion (Joe Abercrombie's "Best Served Cold") sits amongst many others in the stack on my bedside table waiting for me to find the time the story deserves.

To be honest one reason for my delay in returning to Nysta was that the first book did not close the story circle of "atrocity committed" and "vengeance secured" and I was not sure how many more books it might be before Nysta's hurt (like her enemies) could be considered truly buried.

So the first thing to be said is that Duel at Grimwood Creek completes the story begun in Nysta Revenge of the Elf.  It does so in much the same way and with a similar amount of blood and violence as Tarantino's "Kill Bill 2" completed the story begun in "Kill Bill".  Thorn's own author's note makes the point (and I do love the insights an authorial note gives you). This book is the second half of the first book...I split the book into two for a simple reason. size. One reviewer of my own work criticised Lady of the Helm (book one of the bloodline trilogy) because it "just ended." I was left wondering if Tolkein had the same kind of complaints about the ending of "The Fellowship of the Ring."  In those circumstances, I should have had more faith in Thorn and returned more quickly to Nysta's tale.

Another observation is just how much I am reading electronic books now more than physical books. The convenience of a backlit kindle screen for night time reading when everyone else is asleep (or wants to be). It is like being a child again reading by torchlight under the bedclothes long after the official "lights out."  I consumed The Duel at Grimwood Creek very easily a chapter or two at a time in those moments between the end of one long day and the rest needed for the start of another.

Thorn's writing retains the same edginess (pronouns strictly optional) but he also conjures up some vivid images through his descriptions and the dialogue is as sharp as Nysta's favourite knife (named A Flaw in Glass).  I bookmarked several lines, these two amongst them.

A thick line of grey cloud swept its belly over the cliffs.

"(He) died the second he planted a knife into the only man I ever loved. Just took a while for him to stop breathing was all."

Thorn does enjoy discovering puns - at one point when threatened by howling wolf like creatures called draugs, Nysta tells Chukshene "I reckon you're about old enough to know how to say no to draugs"  In Revenge of The Elf, some found the pun-peppered text with to be a little overseasoned such that it intruded on their reading pleasure, but I was fine with it.

The story picks up where Revenge left off, with Nysta and her side-kick Chukshene the warlock ('lock for short) hot on the trail of her husband's killers. Nysta has been changed and yet is the same by the climax of book one - as Chukshene describes it she is still "an ill-tempered bitch." The ramifications of that invisible transformation will doubtless carry Nysta on into further adventures and books. For the moment however, the ill-matched pair travel on a road movie through a desolate landscape, overhauling Talek's murderers one bloody nine at a time. 

Thorn conjures up some bizarre imagery for his world ruined by a war between gods.  There is a richly built world lurking beneath Nysta and Chukshene's violent escapades, but it has the decency to appear only when required by the plot - rather than in tedious infodumps.  While this does leave the reader feeling like a traveller in an alien land - that's the kind of experience I want in my fiction. If I liked infodumps I'd read an encylopedia.

Thorn's creativity conjures up a walled castle straight out of a nightmare - leatherface from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre would have struggled to imagine it, though I expect he would have appreciated it. When an elf walks into a bar - well it isn't going to end well. Most bar room brawls are battles of the many against the many, but Thorn writes a simpler tale of one against many in the bloodiest brawl since Clint Eastwood walked in on Gene Hackman in "Unforgiven."

And there is something of the old west in Thorn's story - an intention he set out for and I think achieved. When Nysta finally comes face to face with her foe it could have been scripted by Sergio Leone, one can almost hear the musical pocket watch from the denoument of "For a Few Dollars More" And, just as with that particular western, we discover there is a history to the emnity between Nysta and her quarry, a hatred rooted in the past that runs deeper than the death of a beloved husband.

So, Duel at Grimwood Creek brilliantly concludes the story that began in Revenge of the Elf.  Yet, like all good stories it sows seeds of a sequel, mysteries that arose as side-plots in the course of Nysta's quest for revenge and which - I am sure - are fully explored in the following books.

I must also give a shout out to the free short story about the small band of goblins from the longrunners tribe thrown into the book after the author's note.  In T.S.Elliot's "Old Possum's Practical Cats" there is a long poem about the significance of the naming of cats and the multiple titles each feline must bear.  In Thorn's world, the naming of goblins is a much simpler affair with tribe leaders being called "Bossyou" or "Bosslots" but naming is still a cause for argument as in this exchange.

"I Rummage, Broketoof Mob."
"Rummage," Spitblood said, wiping his stumpy nose with the back of a finger. "That most stupid name ever."
"He namefucked," agreed Onespud.

Still, if your tribe is called longrunners, it must say something about you and Bossyou and his bunch's brief adventure in the mushroom forest is a very entertaining read and further proof that there is much more to Thorn as a writer (and to Nysta as a character) than an F-bomb laced killing spree.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

A Worthy Winner "The Thief who pulled on Trouble's Braids" by Michael McClung

McClung and the SPFBO

Just over a year ago, Mark Lawrence launched his Self Published Fantasy Blog Off in which over 250 self-published novels were submitted in batches to ten volunteer bloggers in a two round competition.  Each blogger identified the favourite in their personal batch and then the ten batch winners were reviewed by all bloggers to identify an overall winner.

You can read more about it here.

Yesterday, on an impulse, I bought the overall winner "The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble's Braids" by Michael McClung.  Today I finished it and then discovered that Mark Lawrence had just announced the SPFBO #2 (posted here) and that makes this not simply a review of this very worthy winner of SPFBO #1 but also an opportunity to reflect on self-publishing in general and the SPFBO process in particular.

As a self-published author myself (and SPFBO #1 first round entrant) I have a natural sympathy towards self-published work and McClung himself wrote eloquently in Lawrence's blog (here) about his own motives for self-publishing. It was more to do with impatience and disappointment with the traditionally published route, than the blinkered narcissism that most of those who still look down on self-publising would assume.

I have read many self-published books, including three of the eight I have read so far in this (irritatingly busy) year.  There is a range in their quality just as there is in the quality of traditionally published books but, unsurprisingly, the range in self-published work is greater with authorial enthusiasm carrying some weaker works half-formed into the public domain.

However, there is a significant region of overlap where the best of the self-published works can put many a traditional piece to shame.  The SPFBO had a degree of randomness in the approaches of bloggers and the allocation of titles, but it is reassuring to find that the book which eventually  emerged victorious is a shining star in the self-published pantheon.

The Thief who pulled on Trouble's braids

This is a well crafted book about a thief called Amra setting out to avenge a friend. Its central mystery carries it through a series of intruiging plot developments and engaging new characters, while the high quality of the writing gives the reader many points at which to pause and smile in appreciation.

It reminds me of Daniel Polansky's Low Town series which had the cynical first person narrator "The Warden."  Amra, like the Warden, has carved out a successful career on the wrong side of the law yet preserves an inner morality that she would die rather than admit to.  There are touches of Scott Lynch's work "The Lies of locke Lamora" in a well developed sense of city and culture and a multiplicity of Gods, priests and temples none of them to be entirely trusted.  There is also a resonance with Lucas Thorn's (another self published novelist) work, the tales of the violent elf Nysta.  Like Nysta, Amra has a wide variety of bladed implements whose individual properties she is intimately aware of and very efficient at using.  Like Nysta, Amra also has a friend of the wizarding persuasion.    And, yet again I find myself enthralled by (or in thrall to) a feisty female who takes crap from absolutely no-one.

The world building is cleverly incidental. Asides that tell us Atan the Camlachan purveyor of cooked meat is from a fallen warrior race and "should have been handling a broadsword, not meat skewers."

Like all good cities Lucernis has its own version of the Shanghai Hilton, though I did wonder if Havelock prison was a homage to Pratchett's Patrician Vetinari.  The city is, if not quite a den of vice and iniquity, certainly no better than it should be.  "You can't just go walking around with a severed head in Lucernis. But you can, I discovered, walk around with a lumpy head-shaped item, wrapped in linen and dripping blood. I think it's just that nobody really wants to know you're walking around with a severed head, and are appreciative of the courtesy of leaving room for doubt."

McClung gives his heroine a sharp and distinctive voice, in describing her friend and ally she muses "Why he chose to live next to a field of bodies in various states of rot I'll never understand.  But I never asked him. I was afraid he might tell me."

The book is littered with economical but powerful descriptions which I always think are the mark of a great writer - making every word punch above its weight. Such as one grieving woman, "She sat rigid as ever, but one manicured hand was white-knuckled, throtting a silk napkin."  Or an old man whose "wrinkles had wrinkles and his hair was little more than a silver net across his spotted pate."

Amra is an entertaining and educational narrator, a skilled thief who speaks to the camera every so often, such as explaining why she wraps her grapnels in white cotton.

She meets and describes a variety of people and, while she is unlucky in her enemies, she can count herself fortunate in her friends who are loyal and/or powerful, though for Amra the relationship is often seen in simple terms "We put meat on each other's tables."

This is a short book in an age when fantasy fiction seems to require door stopping blockbusters filled with backstory.  McClung handles exposition by putting some of it in the mouth of a cussed priest of a dead god of knowledge. In most unpriestly but entertaining language he berates our heroine and fills her in - somewhat belatedly - on what she is up against.  Then, just for badness, there is an epilogue of said priest's rantings - far more enteraining than a dry appendix of info-dump.

The story develops rapidly with the twists and turns enough to satisfy an afficianado of both fantasy and murder mysteries (which may explain its dual appeal to me.)  In  so doing McClung lays the seeds (if I have read my runes correctly) for seven more sequels in Amra's troubled life.  In book one we have got to know her and her most significant allies.  If there is character development (as opposed to revelation) then I guess it lies in Amra discovering not so much that "the only thing to fear is fear itself" (there are plenty of really scary things well worth fearing in Amra's world) as that "the only thing to hate is hate itself."  Which, by the way is not a bad message in the troubled contemporary times in which we live.

What other Self published works might learn from McClung's success ?

The Thief who Pulled on Troubled Braids, more so than other self-published works I have read, is one that could easily take its place within the higher echelons of  traditionally published fantasy.

I read H.G.Wells "The Time Machine" recently and was interested to discover that it was Wells' early big idea, rushed out without the time he felt it deserved for the fuller development.  For many self-published authors there is that same enthusiasm for a single big idea, a theme, or style, or perspective that makes their story unique.  But, the big idea is not enough, the craft and the mastery of basics are essential and that is what McClung has achieved.

In my youth I used to play cricket at a fairly low grade level. I bowled and I, and other bowlers I played with would strive for that same unique specialness in our bowling that so many authors aspire to in their writing.  We dreamed of that special delivery, the unplayable ball, the one that was as fast as a rocket, that spun like a top, that did stuff no batsman could predict. But the truly successful sportsman, like the truly successful writer, is not the one with the isolated flashes of innovative brilliance. It is the one with the control of craft to deliver consistently high quality performance. It is within such a disciplined environment that brilliance can be most properly and effectvely expressed.

McClung maintains that quality and control - getting the basics consistently right, and it is that foundation which, for me deservedly lifts a good story into the truly professional bracket. 

What impact has the SPFBO victory had for McClung?

Even with SPFBO success there does not appear to have been a clear or immediate translation into Anthony Ryan or Michael J Sullivan style success

At this moment on Amazon, "The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble's Braids" ranks as follows 75,537 Paid in Kindle Store  and 15 reviews 69,884 Paid in Kindle Store and 74 reviews 

For comparison

My own "Lady of the Helm" which did not make it past the first round sort for SPFBO and (which has had minimal marketing due to work pressures) ranks as follows 86,797 Paid in Kindle Store and 19 reviews 254,768 Paid in Kindle Store and 14 reviews

I would hypothesise that critical acclaim is of itself not enough (I guess no surprise there).  To get success a book needs
a) luck and
b) a well mobilised and vociferous fan base spreading the word

and that b) is something every author needs to work on - and fans need to support.

McClung's book is a really good book - it deserves a wider audience than it seems to have got so far.

Maybe SPFBO as a competition needs to find ways to spreading its own message more widely, so that this great winner shall succeed beyond the competition, with countless readers clamouring for copies! 

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Pulling all the right strings a spoiler free review of "The Prince and the Puppet Affair" by G.W. Renshaw

This is the second in G.W. Rewnshaw's Calgary set series about Veronica Chandler, a feisty young private eye whose escapades challenge the expectations of age, gender and indeed genre.

I reviewed the first of them here The Stable Vices Affair The second had languished on my kindle for some months, waiting for the various clouds of work, family and other commitments to lift and - on a not exactly bright easter day I finally found the time to return to Veronica's increasingly bizarre world.

It is a testament to the story and the writing that I consumed it in a single day - and at 287 pages this is far more than a novella.

Renshaw's tale is sustained by his heroine, an engaging and resouceful young woman given a credble voice.  The kind of nineteen year old who likes to pretend "that there's only one seven o'clock per day: the one right after supper." A misapprehension that those of us wh have ever tried to awaken teenage daughters will certainly recognise.

The second book is set a year after the first and, for Veronica, the intervening months have been filled with a succession of reassuringly ordinary cases quite unlike the bizarre events of book one and a being claimining to be demon with an interest in dressage fetish. However, all good things must come to an end. The marital woes of Alyssa Blakeway ("She was not one of those people who can cry prettily") set Veronica off again mixing her own brand of police procedural (we learn how to climb telegraph poles safely - and repeatedly) with all manner of occult happenings.

Renshaw's writing is unobtrusively good. It rattles along with many flashes of wise-cracking (and self-deprecating) humour from the heroine.  "This guy was so dense he made lead look like a souffle" The descriptions are ecnomical and easy on the mind's eye such as this sunrise "A graded wash of orange faded upwards until it met a band of clouds that also turned a deep orange."

There are also little asides in deference to pop-culture that appeal to me but are subtle enough not to irk those who may be too young (or old) to get them.  Miss Blakeway's "gallifreyan" handbag, a car named "binky" and a pythonesque reference to potentially being turned into a newt with the proviso "you'd get better."

For all the demons' demonic power (sufficient to confound a whole alphabet of plans starting with Plan A) I could not help rooting for them, they seemed so much nicer than some of the humans.  As Mercedes M Yardley's own feisty heroine Luna Masterson found in Nameless (my first book of 2016 reviewed here), your status living with demons is best described as "complicated."  And even demons move with the the times -as Veronica reflects "See, Collin, even demons don't give a rat's ass about virginity. Welcome to the 21st century."

This is an entertaining read again illustrated by the author's own particular expertise in martial arts and cooking - even knee deep in criminal demonic invocations we write best when we write about what we know.  

Veronica carries the story but with excellent support from friends - if not always lovers. However, bargains have to be struck and fascinations fuelled which means that Veronica's demons (the internal and the external) have certainly not finished with her. Indeed like a close coupled binary star system, they seem fated to spiral into an even closer embrace in the books ahead.

I can hardly wait!

Monday, 28 March 2016

A good read by a well read author, my spoiler free review of "The Red Plains" by G.R.Matthews

G.R.Matthews has created and sustained a unique world in this trilogy that takes what we thought we knew about Imperial China and re-imagines it in a way that feels both different and authentic.

In this concluding installment of the forbidden list trilogy, a struggle that began (In the Stone Road) as a dispute between two city states and their rival dukes has escalated to a conflict that threatens to consume not just the Empire, but the whole of creation.

Matthews keeps that epic scale firmly grounded through the same approach seen in the first two books. The reader follows two key participants in a series of alternating Point of View chapters.  There is Zhou, the diplomat, who through the trauma of losing his wife and child discovered the raw power of the spirit realm and his link as a wu to the primal spirit of the Panther.  There is Haung, the soldier trained in two forms of warrior magic and elevated like Zhou to the forbidden list, those servants of the Emperor to whom no-one may offer any let, hinderance or harm as they serve his majesty.

In some ways Zhou and Huang are unlikely protaganists of this tale, there are others with greater powers and higher stakes. At times Matthews' heroes serve as the readers' eyes and ears, witnesses to the power of greater beings. Jeff Salyards in his Blooodsounder Arc trilogy had the scribe Arkimondos tell the tale of intrigue and warfare from a worm's eye view. While Zhou and Haung are far more formidable than Akimondos ever could be, their own development - attending as guests at the table of power (like hobbits at the council of Elrond) - means Matthews can and does use them effectively to guide the reader through his incredibly complex world of multiple realms and ancient conflicts.

In his afterward and elsewhere, Matthews has written of his great hatred for info-dumps - those long chapters of exposition, those prologues of pretend history - in which some authors have unwisely indulged. Epic fantasy must have a backstory of course, and the author must know it - know it all, but like seven eights of an iceberg (or a building's foundations) most of it should be hidden from view, not thrust down the reader's throat.

So Matthew's story builds through the experiences and observations of Zhou and Huang as they follow very different paths.  Battles are fought, friendships forged, heroes discovered and secrets revealed all in an entertaining way and at a lively pace. The use of chinese terms and names lends a sense of immersion in a different world without going to the extremes of unpronouncable invented names with a muliplicity of apostrophes.

Plot seeds laid in the earlier books get to sprout and flower here in surprising ways and at the heart of this tale there is a theme of family.  Not just the family that Zhou lost, or the family that Huang has vowed to protect, but other families who must resolve their differences or else the Jade Emperor and the world as they know it will fail.


A Spoiler Free Review of "The Second Death" by T.Frohock

This is the third novella in Frohock's Los Nefilim trilogy.  You can see my reviews of the others  here In Midnight's Silence and here Without Light or Guide.

In reviewing "The Second Death" there will be some spoilers for the first two books, so you have been warned!

The story that was begun in "In Midnight's Silence" is carried forward as the daimon Moloch and his idea for a bomb again becomes a cause that angels would go to war over.  We also find out more about how Frohock's world - or rather universe of daimons, angels and mortals is organised.

The question in my last review as to whether Guillermo is leader of all the worlds Nefilim is answered as we meet Die Nephilim of Germany and realise that the nations of the world mirror and are shaped by the nations of the angels and their respective bands of nephilim. Struggles and warfare  in our world reflect clashes within heaven itself and the fate of a war yet to be fought is resolved in an spanish asylum where an angel might fear to tread. 

Frohock's story juxtaposes simple family scenes with moments of great terror as Miquel and Diago strive to both be good fathers to Rafael and good Nefilim for Guillermo. All three of the closeknit nuclear family take their turn in the Point of View spotlight with writing that effectively conveys  disparate voices ranging from a five year old child to an immortal.

However, in Frohock's world immortality is not something to be taken for granted - as the title suggests, there is more than one kind of death.  With Frohock's Daimons and Angels as with Claire North's kalachakra in the First Fifteen lives of Harry August (reviewed here) even perpetual reincarnation must have limits. At the same time there are tempting reminders that this is Diago's second incarnation, that he and his fellow nefilim have shared a previous existance from which both lessons and prejudices leak into the one he knows now. There may be a backstory novella in there.

Frohock paints her story with a colourful palette, language that conjures a vivid sense of the world her characters inhabit in all its tones. 

"The humid air was tinted in sallow shades of yellow and green.  Tornados dropped from skies like these."

The overall effect is of writing with the smoothness of southern comfort wrapped around a plot with the kick of a single malt.

A spoilery review of "The Time Machine" by H.G.Wells

This review will contain spoilers because, for me, the books greatest curiosity was what its plot set about the time in which it was written and indeed what any book says about the time in which it was written.

Reflecting back on this his early work from the lofty heights of his later success, H.G.Wells also gives an interesting insight into the process of authorship.  The Time Machine was "the big idea" lurking in his head and waiting for the moment when he could give the theme the time (no pun intended) that it deserved. Yet, financial pressures forced him to rush the story through and preciptously out into the world like Shakepseare's Richard III
"Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up" 

Who amongst us writers has not feared that the big idea would be squandered in a work that would not do it justice and Well's experience shoudl reassure us at least that there will be other big ideas to follow.  We all have more than the apocryphal "one novel" in us and the big ideas are like the "magic penny" of love that my wife used to make primary school children sing.

"love is like a magic penny, hold it tight and you won't have any, lend it spend it and you'll have so many they will roll all over the floor."

That writing breeds ideas which breeds writing in one of the few natural positive feedback loops.

Anyway, what about the book itself?

Well, written at the end of the ninteenth century it was a time of great social and scientific change

The industrial revolution was in full swing with Blake writing of the "dark satanic mills"
Darwin's theory of evolution was still relatively new.
Einstein and others were pondering the nature of time and space.
Oscar Wilde was writing witty plays poking fun at the rigidities of manners in an intensely class bound system.

H.G.Wells flung those ideas into the authorial melting pot and the melded them into a tale that told as much about his present as our future.  In the first place he had his collection of gentleman identifed by profession rather than name, discuss the concept of time as a dimension through which one travelled.

Then he flung his eponymous hero hundreds of thousands of years into the future to see what evolution had done to human kind and the species had bifurcated.

The industrial workers had evolved into the Morlocks, disappearing underground to maintain machinery whose purpose they had long since lost sight of (indeed Wells himself offers no clue as to its function).

On the surface dwell the eloi, in some way descendants of Wells upper classes (or the farming classes or both). The technology has made work neither necessary nor relevant and they have lost the impetus of leadership and become pleasant but feeble minded pleasure seekers fed but not challenged with their intellect withering in consequence.

And in this twisted world the morlocks rise from the deeps to feed on the eloi in what cannot quite be cannibalism since they are clearly no longer the same species.

It is funny how we all of us live in the moment, how we assume a permanence to the culture and technology of the time in which we live.  Our imagination of the future projects those themes forward and my own germ of a science fiction idea is built around our mdoern challenges of global warming, population growth and sea level rises.  Maybe someday I will get the time to give that big idea its proper treatment.

At the same time we assume our own present - in its culture, attitudes, system of government - has some perfection and permanence. Those who might criticise one religion for its demeaning attitudes towards women forget that a couple of centuries earlier their own religion espoused discriminatory views as its own orthdoxy. Those who berate the intolerance of  sexual difference in countries forget how recently their own countries repealed laws that made homsexuality illegal. Which is of course, not to say we were right then and wrong now, but just to be aware that we are all (as nations and individuals) travelling through time and being changed by the journey and should be mindful of that before we try to claim we stand on some unique peak of moral high ground.

Wells projected the issues of his own time forward and what had been a class divide became not just a racial divide but a species divide as technological advances spared all from the need to work.   That was - in essence - the big idea and one is mildly curious to see how Wells might have developed it if he had given the bigger fuller treatment he originally intended.

Friday, 1 January 2016

A Breathless Read - my spoiler free review of "Nameless: The Darkness Comes" by Mercedes M Yardley

I had hopes to finish this book before midnight fell somewhere in the world and so claim Nameless as the last book I read in 2015, but new year celebrations and a family game of Cards Against Humanity intervened (Best play made by Tess - "I drink to forget... alcoholism.").  So Nameless is instead the first book I finished in 2016.  There is perhaps more of a coincidental link to be drawn between a nihilistic card game and a story about inhumanly demonic posession.

Mercedes Yardley takes the book's central premise - a young woman who sees demons, has seen them since she was a child - and runs with it.  Luna Masterson is a feisty heroine who spends much of book running, either towards things or away from things - though often she and the reader are unsure which of those two directions it is.

Luna is an orphan.  Her only family are her brother and his daughter - the pair abandoned by the child's mother.  Her constant companions are the whispy insubstantial demons seeking to gain entrance to her house, to creep beneath her skin into her soul, to walk in her flesh, stalking her mistily until they can coallesce into sufficient form to attack, or be attacked.

Growing up with the ability to see such creatures is bound to leave its Mark, and Luna certainly has an attitude. In someways she reminds me of Lisbeth Salander - the quirky heroine of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. There is the same defiance of societal norms from someone who society fears because her talents and experiences put her beyond normal comprehension.

Image from
As with Stieg Larsson's creation, Yardley's protagonist bristles with suspicion and resentment; a reluctant princess who carries with her her own personal wall of thorns to repel the good and the bad without fear or favour. Her choice of clothing, of hair style and colour, make not so much a statement as a challenge and at this point I feel the author has most pushed something of herself into Luna's soul.

The plot feels organic, its evolution leaving the reader breathless as Luna swivels within a demonic maze, neither she nor the reader sure of the truth of what they are seeing, or hearing - none of us knowing who to trust when even the darkest demons are clad in shades of grey.  Like the characters in the film Insidious, Luna finds scenes of horror overlaid on the ordinairy in an illusion so seamless one cannot see the join with reality - and in the midst of such nightmares, madness beckons.
insidious franchise

The prose is clipped, efficient, stripped down like the powerful motorcycle Luna is fond of riding.  Luna leads the reader through a compression of scenes to give that sense of accelerated living (and dying) you might get in a video game.

I was warned that Nameless, Mercedes Yardley's first novel, was different to her other works and it is that, but does not suffer from the variation.  In her other stories Yardley surveys the scene from the lofty perspective of mutiple third person Points of View, the perfect vantage point from which to deploy the whimisical omniscience - the dark authorial asides - that keep us gripped and smiling in the midst of dire themes of inhumanity. We see that style too in the prologue to Nameless, an ill-fated sleep-over that gives an  insight into Luna's childhood.

However, for the rest of the story, the author descends into the first person viewpoint of Luna, a ground level perspective in the head of a frenetic and sometimes frantic heroine.  It is an authentic voice in a fast paced story that can leave the reader breathless with its switches in direction. We do not always like Luna - like those around her we find her headstrong and frustrating at times.  But she is always true to herself and she, unlike so many of the creatures around her, is always human