Sunday, 5 November 2017

4th Time round and Still the Charm (I re-review Pretty Little Dead Girls).

I've just finished re-reading Mercedes M Yardley's gentle masterpiece "Pretty Little Dead Girls" for the fourth time.  The joy of a kindle is that I can mark up fresh notes to myself when different lines caught my eye, and also refresh my memory on old notes from previous readings. On page 220 I found myself adding to "I cried at this bit" with "and again on reread 4 even though I knew it was coming somewhere."

Just some of the freshly caught lines include

"her mind went cottony with despair and panic"

"the car was silent except for the rain and the gallantry of the windshield wipers"

"a grim smile crept onto his lips and held them hostage."

I have written about this book before (here,and here). A book about a beautiful girl who is doomed by fate to be horribly murdered does not, at first hearing, sound like a barrel of laughs or joy. However,  for all darkness at its core there is in it a joyful whimsical celebration of life. It is my absolute go-to re-read for the distraction of some uplifting escapism whenever the vagaries and demands of real working life weigh particularly heavily on me.

It quite defies categorisation being unlike any other book I have ever read. The only novelette/novella that matches it for brilliantly written unique but lyrical strangeness is "Danse Macabre" by Laura M Hughes - which I have reviewed here on Goodreads (reviewed it twice in fact - another book I felt compelled to reread). 

I can only hypothesise that having that M as an author's middle initial must have something to do with this particular gift.


Monday, 30 October 2017

I don’t get out much, but when I do… I drink and I learn things

Reflections on an October trip to Bristol and Bristolcon2017

Counting back the fantasy related gatherings and events that I have attended, it only just used up the fingers of one hand.
  • The Grim Gathering in London in August 2014,
  • The Grim Gathering in Bristol in April 2015,
  • Bristolcon in September 2015
  • Bristolcon in October 2016
  • Bristolcon in October 2017

However, like successive books in a much loved fantasy series, these experiences seem to be getting progressively bigger and better. There is a vibrant and growing online community of fantasy fans who are seizing the opportunity to meet in person in convivial surroundings. Those who miss out one year enviously watch and comment on events unfolding through social media with one hand, while booking tickets for the next year’s event with the other.

There is nothing quite like meeting people in person for fleshing out the typed comments and avatar images of social media with actual faces, anecdotes and even accents.

The Bristolcon team did another excellent job of setting up a cosy but intriguing one day convention.  I have not yet been to Worldcon, but I have gathered that it can be a sprawl of size, variety and people in which individuals can get lost in a crowd of mingled conference goers and general public. Bristolcon with its relatively compact Hilton Doubletrees venue and adjacent generous hotel bar space, has instead a wonderfully intimate atmosphere.

Over the course of three days and two nights I got to attend panel discussions, a fringe event at Waterstones, try out local restaurants in full fantasy geek/nerd company, spend a lot of time with some wonderfully entertaining and generous people and even visit my local favourite author for tea!

So what are my key takeaways from Bristol (and by that I mean learning points, not the many pizzas – great though they were - that Kareem ordered from the long suffering local emporia)?

What have I learned from Bristolcon?

Reasons to be cheerful about science, Sci-Fi and Fantasy?

The panel about how the upcoming scientific and world challenges and advances may influence fantasy/science fiction got quite bleak quite quickly. The authors found lots of potential for post-apocalyptic realities on which future writers could draw (scratching their books out on cave walls beneath the shadow of a nuclear winter.)   GRMatthews' geography background dragged him into a perspective of pessimism with his glaciers always seeming to be half full. However, between them the panel identified the self-driving canoe as the not-yet-invented-but soon-to-become-essential item.  You heard it here first, invest in those startups now.

Info dumps may not be all bad.

The panel on info-dumps decided they had their place in fantasy provided they were kept sufficiently compact and perfectly formed. Though according to Peter Newman, authors may lavish their greatest subtle info-dumping technique on the first book in a series and then becoming more functional at a stage where the author feels secure in the loyalty of their readers. Perhaps this is in the same way that people doll themselves up to the nines for a first date, and yet relax into jeans and sweatpants a few dates down the line.

Bristolcon again welcomed many visitors from overseas, travelling distances great and small. Dyrk, Petros, Marielle, Julia, Andreas, Sadir and Rita may have experienced a certain bafflement at being thrown into the miniature portrait of cultural variety that is the United Kingdom.  Their experiences suggest that infodumps may not be just be a (hopefully well-judged) staple of fantasy – but an essential tool in the survival kit for real life tourists. A means to answer those essential questions; What is black pudding? How can you wash your hands without a mixer tap? Which side of the car should a passenger try and get into? and Why did 1.00 am happen twice on Sunday morning?  The panel's final advice from Juliet McKenna was that writers should travel widely and – as they do so – “notice what they notice” if they want to get know what a traveller in fantasy land might need to pick up on

Not all partners have the stamina for fantasy.

One trend in Bristolcon seemed to be that a number of partners who made it to the event last year, did not return for a second time. Andreas, Julia Kitvaria-Sarene’s husband is an honourable exception. He not only returned for a second year but heroically videoed some of the later bar shenanigans (past 5 in the morning) for the benefit of (future generations’ entertainment/personal blackmail purposes/the police investigation)*
*delete which ever does not apply.  

One of my favourite films is “Truly, Madly, Deeply” starring Juliet Stevenson as the desperately bereaved girlfriend who is benignly haunted by Alan Rickman as the ghost of her dead boyfriend. The companionable haunting enables her to come to terms with grief, to realise that the boyfriend has moved on and to do the same herself.  But a key scene occurs when Rickman starts bringing his fellow ghosts back to their house to have parties, watch films, and generally hang out, while a bemused Stevenson exclaims from the bath “What, there are dead people in my living room?”

In some ways that community of fantasy writers and readers reminds me of Rickman and his new-found friends – which is not say that we are all dead – just that there is a fellowship there that not all partners can understand, enjoy or come to terms with. But they also serve who only stay at home and wait, so those partners who let us all get away by ourselves deserve our thanks for their (slightly mystified) indulgence.

Other takeaways

  • That Julia gives the best presents, although even booksellers occasionally have to deal with assholes in their working life. It does sadden me that anybody with enough regard for books to go into a bookshop in the first place could be a git when they get there.
  • That Kareem’s anecdotes once heard can never be unheard and sharing the experience doesn’t lessen the pain, no matter how often Graham Austin-King tries it.
  • That Ed Macdonald has an alarmingly good theoretical grasp of how to fend off knife attacks and Anna Stephens knows how to make the assailant stab himself with his own knife. I have to say the technique worked perfectly when I used it a dream on Saturday morning.  Running away, however, always seems the safest option, particularly if you are with a friend who cannot run quite as fast as you.
  • That RB Watkinson won the prize (I think) for getting the most out of Bristolcon by virtue of having had the least total hours slept over the course of the weekend.
  • That Dominick Murray knows more about turtles than any man (or woman) should.
  • That hotel night-managers are wonderfully patient and understanding people.
  • That my efforts at self-promotion should probably have meant more than mentioning to a couple of people in the bar that Lady of the Helm was free on Amazon for the whole three days of Bristolcon related events.
  • That making your excellent and very reasonably priced editor (albeit an increasingly busy editor) cry with your writing (or weep as she verbally edited it for me) is not actually a bad thing. As Gandalf put it “I will not say do not weep, for not all tears are an evil.”  Though at various points in the weekend we seemed to be seeing more @halfcutharp than @halfstrungharp.     
  • That I am very grateful to Mark Lawrence for his blog posts about Bristolcon past, for the competitions based on his writing and his sponsorship of SPFBO. This has done so much to bring together people who would otherwise never even have known each other existed, let alone been energised enough to descend on Bristol to meet in person. I know Kareem Mahfouz because I saw a picture of his chest hair shaved to spell out Prince of Fools at the same time that I had mown the grass in my garden to spell out the same title. I know Laura M Hughes because she entered a piece of entertaining flash fiction in a Thatthornguy competition that Agnes Mezsaros kindly invited me to judge.  I am sure many others have similar tales of chance Lawrencian connections.
  • That Celyn Lawrence has the best cheeky smile and surely the reddest hair in Bristol. (All the best fantasy heroines have red hair, or at least so says the author of Lady of the Helm.)  That Celyn means holly in welsh and is pronounced ke-lin not kay-lin and definitely not seline. 

Friday, 21 July 2017

A Marked Story - my review of "Ismark, the Marked boy" by JH Lillevik

I first met this story at an early stage in its development, when the author shared some initial thoughts and drafts with me and few other friends on social media.  I find it an exciting and privileged position to be able to see how the story has developed from its early stages to this final published novel. 

The story has many dark elements. We join Lillevik's eponymous hero Eirik the marked boy when he is a brutally mistreated slave in a mining community, part of the half conquered land of Ismark.  From there Eirik's life takes a series of turns for the worse in a succession of trials that would test the fortitude of a saint. However, Eirik survives where others do not, and finds spiritual strength in the midst of debilitating physical weakness. Sustained by dream-like memories of friends, relatives and homes he has lost, he strives to adapt to the challenges and opportunities of rapidly changing circumstances.  

At 271 pages, the book is relative short for a fantasy epic and this allows it to start at a reasonable pace and accelerate rapidly as it approaches its shattering conclusion. I can see where some of the authorial excursions on those initial drafts have been trimmed back to allow us to get to grips more quickly with Eirik's journey - both in geographical and developmental terms.

The world building is intriguing. Various nations struggle against the might of the Sorian Empire, in its determination to subjugate the rest of the world through military or economic might. The Sorian's reminded me of many historical and fictional archetypes, most notably Rome, or ancient China. However, one particularly memorable character put me in mind of none other than Jabba the Hut from Star Wars. 

The Sorians built their empire by stealing cities from a sophisticated dwarven civilisation and Lillevik leaves a few loose threads hanging, temptingly - to assure us that dwarves have a bigger part to play in Eirik's story than the magnificence of their architecture.

There are other characters too, besides Eirik and his immediate Ismarkian associates, that the reader will look forward to hearing more from: Master Cal - the inept Sorian merchant; Rhun - the Wrenian spy and his charming companion Amalie; Kef - the Sorian with friends in high places and swords with sharp edges.

Lillevik's writing is a little raw in places, and there is the occasional misplaced word or typo which a skilled editor's eye might have tidied up.  However, the story has at its heart the endurance and triumph of the human spirit. There were times, when I felt we were being told rather than shown the characters' experience of and reaction to adversity, but Lillevik's eagerness, in this his debut novel, is understandably to convey the shape and urgency of his story.

As E.M.Forster said nearly a century ago in Aspects of the Novel "The story... can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next." Lillevik's story - with its nicely judged denoument - succeeded in that,                   

Saturday, 8 July 2017

A Story with Heart, - my spoiler free review of "Court of Lions" by Jane Johnson

Decades ago I studied History at A'level - including a paper in European History from about 1480 to 1680.  My revision strategy consisted of stringing together every incident of European History and making them but branches from a single stem of "Why did Spain decline in the 1600s?"  It was a sure bet as this precise essay question had come up on every exam paper since before even my History teacher had been born.

That long ago study came back to me as I read Jane Johnson's glorious twin tale. In essence it is two stories separated by half a millenium, but conjoined in Geography. Johnson follows two parallel threads - a double helix if you will, not so much intertwined as touching gently on each other - with points of connection as light yet poignant as a lover's kiss.  This is a story of duality - at once a present day mystery taut with tension and conflict and yet also a piece of historical fiction vividly bringing a lost world to life,

In the present day we follow Kate, a woman with a bruising past taking a far from secure refuge in the back streets of Granada. In the past we ride with the strangely named Blessings - companion to the boy prophesied to be the last Sultan of Granada.

My school boy study of Spain began with the reigns of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, As formidable a pair of monarchs as Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine - though the legacy of the Spanish Catholic Monarchs has endured better than Henry II's Angevin Empire. Blessings' account has the same starting point as my A'level European History, but sheds an alternative light on the deceptive (arguably duplicitous) simplicity of Ferdinand and Isabella's crusade against the moors.

Tolerance is another theme that seems to run through the book, in both the sense of being accepting of difference, and also in the sense of to tolerate or put up with something. Kate is a woman who has tolerated too much. The worm has not so much turned as run and - in Kate's case - run  to a place that was once celebrated for its tolerance, indeed its celebration of diversity.

Today we live in interesting times, and Johnson's book reflects that. Fear, prejudice and zealotry simmer below the surface of any civilisation and the parallels between the past and the present are easy to draw.

However, neither in Kate's tale nor Blessings' does Johnson fall into the trap of casting either side as wholy saints or sinners.  The moors of Granada have their bloody villains, as crimsoned as any grimdark anti-hero. The christians of Castile and Aragon have their honourable champions alongside their venal sovereigns. But the conquest of Granada still ranks alongside that of the American midwest, or aborginal Australia, as an episode of human history littered with dishonour and broken treaties. Once again history greatest gift to the winners has been to allow their perspective on events to be the one best preserved for posterity - and Johnson's novel offers a different slant on that history.

Blessings stands watching from the margins of history, harbouring secrets great and small, trading in them yet driven always by a purity of love to which all other considerations are ultimately subordinate.  His voice is convincing, his tale compelling - told in Johnson's effortless liquid prose.

Kate in her journey meets similar prejudiced zealotry as she struggles to emerge from a shell into which great trauma had driven her. Yet she is endlessly drawn to the Alhambra the Moorish palace around which both Blessings' and her own story revolve.

The writing is at its most convincing when describing the people, the culture, the food even of those whose lives straddled and still straddle the Straits of Gibraltar. The author's fondness - passion even - for the places, the period and the people add well defined flesh to the bare bones of the story.

Kate's past trials - while truly dreadful - do not have quite the depth of flavour that we get when the story stalks the streets of Granada. We are necessarily removed from the events in England - which are described either as past occurrences or through panicked telephone conversations. In such circumstances it is difficult to deliver the tension of a full blooded thriller. Nonetheless, Kate's story provides an engaging counterpoint to Blessings' and brings something of that lost age into the present.

A book's power is best felt in what the reader does when it is finished. Does the story's grip persist beyond the last page? In the case of The Court of Lions, I scoured through the author's notes before throwing myself at Google to research for myself the captivating events Johnson had described.  

As to my long History A'level - gentle reader. Well that year for the first time in centuries the History paper did not have a "Why did Spain Decline?" question, instead there was a different question.  "How did Portugal break free from the Spanish Yoke?"  So I wrote "Portugal broke free of the Spanish yoke because Spain declined." - and then wrote my planned essay.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

The Grey Bastards, by Jonathan French. A spoiler review

I try to observe a rule not to read other people's reviews of something that I've read until after I have written my own, lest their opinions should colour mine.  So I am writing this review of The Grey Bastards in some haste so I can freely indulge my curiosity about what other friends and reviewers have thought of this brilliant and fascinating tale.

Of the last twenty books I have read, The Grey Bastards will be the fourth that I have been introduced to via Mark Lawrence's Self-Publishing Fantasy Blog Off. This is, I think a testament to the competition's success in lifting some very good books above the noise signal and anti-selfpublishing snobbery that has hidden some remarkable talents from a wider audience.

The Grey Bastards came first in the 2016-17 contest and is an extremely well polished book - even if its protagonists are as rough as sandpaper toilet tissue. The story's feet appear planted in the Dungeons and Dragons milieu of my youth - huge birds called rokh and amorphous digesting blobs called black sludges could have sat quite happily between the pages of the Monster Manual. The Grey Bastards are themselves a troop (or rather a hoof) of hog riding half-orc cavalry who we see and bond with through our point of view protagonist - Jackal. Jackal himself, is young, ambitious and - if not exactly handsome - at least less intrinsically ugly than others of his kin.

Make no mistake, this is a brilliant book, that challenges the reviewer only in knowing where to begin tackling the task of describing it, much as one might wonder how to bring down Jackal's brother in arms the mountainous and formidable thrice blood - Oats.

Thrice bloods are one of French's many linguistic, cultural or even biological developments that add a deep and rich additional dimension to what - in other hands - might have been a mere parade through a flat role playing campaign.  The half-orcs are all bastards, beget by orcish rapes - fierce and formidable fighters the various hoofs have become part of the Empire's defense against orcish incursions. Thrice bloods are the most formidable half-orcs, born of a half-orc mother and an orc father. The half orc hoofs - and other re-purposed denizens of familiar myth - each patrol their own parcel (or lot) of the near lawless borderlands between the orcs and the empire. The lots are a barren dangerous place - home only to those who have no other place to turn to - a wild land that makes the wild west look like a kindergarten's playground - where the only safety is in the mutual loyalty and reliance of belonging to a group.

I daren't say too much more of the plot - this is a book to discover for yourselves.

It is perhaps fair to warn you that - from the very outset - the tone and language of our half-orc hero and his friends is beyond bawdy, beyond coarse and yet all the more believable for it. These are the roughest of rough soldiers bound by the close knit camaraderie and carnal preoccupations of many a troop of specialist mercenaries operating under near constant duress. I have seen the like of their crude language previously only in Jeff Salyards' coarse-tongued Syldoon soldiers who rode through the Bloodsounder's arc trilogy.  However, the fluent variety of the Grey Bastard's cursing might raise a blush even in Lieutenant Muldoos.

However, the story is no testosterone driven male monopoly. The female characters - Fetching (the half-orc warrior), Beryl (sometime nursemaid, sometime director of the half-orc orphanage), Delia (the whore who dares) amongst several others are all given agency and screen-time aplenty and you come to love and fear for them as much - if not more so - than for Jackal himself.

French's half-orcs are eloquently, entertainingly, crudely, witty, but his writing is also skillfully evocative in its descriptions. Some of the lines that caught my eye include
"... there was a threat buried in the thick folds of politeness."
"The morning sky was newborn, still jaundiced before a proper sunrise."
"... the wet defeat in her eyes betrayed she did not know how to proceed."

The action scenes are gripping, the technicalities of hog cavalry warfare absorbing, the pacing brilliant. I consumed the last 43% of this book in a single evening - breathlessly borne along through a sequence of ascending climaxes (of the plot variety). The various threads of the story wound round and through each other to an ending that was so beautifully perfectly fitting that I put down the kindle with a sense of utter satisfaction.

This is a tale of the fellowship, of the loyalty that each individual must bear to the greater whole - and in the final analysis due recognition must be and is paid to the one willing to sacrifice everything for the others,    

Nothing is Ever Simple - Corin Hayes book two by G.R.Matthews

This is the second book in G.R.Matthews' series of underwater dystopian sci-fi series.  It sees our hero on a mission to a different underwater city - one that is neither silent nor homely.  The nature of Corin's work, his past, his setting, and his personality - make for a man born and borne by solitude. In consequence we spend a lot of time in Corin's head seeing the world through the grim and slightly distorting lens of his experience.

Corin's is an engaging voice - world-weary but still wise-cracking, with some quotes sharp enough to cut.  For example, "We hold onto our past, sometimes with fingers dug so deep into its flesh that we are part of it."

Book 2 carries us in a different direction, both geographically and narratively, from Book 1.  The threads of personal tragedy and deferred vengeance are left dangling as fresh challenges and swift undercurrents sweep Corin into new and deep dangers,

After the distinctive noir-ness of Corin's voice, the next feature of the book to catch the eye is the world building. In a population condemned to living at the bottom of its oceans, there will be many difficulties of economy, nutrition and society to address.

Long ago I watched a horror/sci-fi film about a team of divers investigating a Titanic like sunken liner decades after it foundered. They found against any expectation that there were survivors - that shocked moment when the diver's torch sweeps over a porthole and a live face peers back. They had fashioned some kind of existence within the sunken hull all led by an extremely resourceful purser.  (Oh the joys of the internet - somebody else roused by the same curiosity of imperfect memory asked the same question and got an answer The film was led not by Vincent Price as I had thought but Christopher Lee and is titled Goliath Awaits )

Just as the sunken survivors of the Goliath had to be resourceful and inventive, so too Matthews lavishes care and thought on how some kind of normality might assert and define itself in such submerged circumstances as Corin's world faces. It makes for an engaging and thought provoking read.

The plot is at once simple and complex. There are bad guys who put Corin in danger and he has to work his way out of it. Their motivations and the routes to confound them prove somewhat tortuous. I read the Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep a long time ago and the plot to Nothing is Ever Simple has the same kind of organic style. The story appears to advance by the author throwing a series of curve balls at his protagonist and then following his reactions.  In that sense, the plot feels more like the gym in which Matthews tests and develops his world building and the protagonist's persona, rather than the engine which drives the plot. Nonetheless it rattles along at a good pace.

I will again raise reservations about the freedom with which Corin uses blunt instruments. People are bludgeoned into lengthy periods of unconsciousness with the same abandon that I last saw in a Modesty Blaise book (and before that in early Enid Blyton's).

While my younger self accepted this, decades of watching the TV show Casualty have heightened my knowledge of subdural haematomas - while health and basic safety training taught me to treat any potential concussion with extreme caution.  So my suspension of disbelief skated over some thin ice (in so far as a suspension can skate) when Corin bound up an unconscious villain and blithely waited hours for the fellow to make a natural and total recovery.

Those reservations aside, Corin continues to be an engaging and readable hero in a radically different but eminently sustainable setting.              

Sunday, 26 March 2017

A Study in Whethering - Spoiler free review of "The Heart of Stone" By Ben Galley

I like ARCs  Advanced Reader Copies - there is a delicious thrill in getting an early insight into books not yet available to the general public.  So I was very grateful to receive an electronic ARC for "The Heart of Stone" by Ben Galley.

Galley is an experienced self-publisher, keen to share his experience with others and to address some of the problems and prejudices that self-published works still face compared to traditionally published.  Certainly, as I look over my recent reads there is a growing overlap in quality where the best of self-published works would more than hold their own in comparison with their traditionally published contemporaries - and The Heart of Stone is well within that zone.

The Heart of Stone is a well polished piece with an intriguing central premise.  Fantasy-Faction's short story competition this month has a similar theme - with its "Through the Beast's Eye" month where contributors tell the story from the monster's perspective.

Galley has placed Task - the four hundred year old stone golem - at the heart of his story. The last survivor of one of many near-indestructable monsters created by a long dead warlord, Task has been passed from master to master bound to their service and indeed to his own continued existence by the oldest of old magic. But Task was always a different golem - questioning from the moment of his creation. The story follows Task's growth, coming to terms with those centuries of uncertainty, while he slogs North as one side's secret weapon in a grubby civil war in a distant corner of the world.

We also follow other views than Task's in what is a multiple PoV tale.  There is in effect a triple prologue (or prelude) where we meet not just Task but the two women with whom his fate and development will be totally entwined. The story is an easy read, that I consumed over a period of weeks of bedtime reading. However, having finished it I went back to re-read preludes 2 and 3, seeking to link the women's histories to how their parts played out in the extended denouement.

Galley's writing - full of deft touches - is one of the book's strengths.  They are particularly good at capturing Task's ambivalent attitude towards humans - or skinbags - as he thinks of them and how that develops over the course of the book. Such as when Task reflects that "Watching men crumble under the weight of his gaze was on of his few indulgences."  or "The less he touched them, the less he knew. Their ugly lives already seeped into his skin like ink through wet paper."

Then there is the rare moment of sympathy evinced for one of the story's main villains, "For once, Huff wished he could shimmy out from under his father's shadow. Dast was forever draping it over him."   There is a pithy economy to Galley's descriptions for example "He was a knife of a man, all angles and crooked lines."  There are other lines I noted, too many to mention here, but a joy awaiting other readers' discovery,

Galley's world building impressively conveys a sense of an alien place filled with flora and fauna very different to our own. There are firns (the beasts of burden) and fawls  (small camp following animals) that hound and service the army's baggage train, but humans are still reassuringly human, and golems are human shaped.  The magic system has nothing quite so prosaic as spells and wizards who cast them - no fireballs burst, no lightning bolts flash over the many battlefields in Tasks' campaign. But magic of a more insidious kind does pervade the story - the magic of minds and of control as Task rails against the chains that bind his will, and others struggle to hide their secrets from those who can surf the thoughts of their fellow men.
Task is rightly the most enthralling of Galley's characters, a complex beast struggling to be something more than a monster and maybe also something more than a man. Other characters capture the reader's attention too. I feared for one when an unexplained nosebleed had me thinking the plague that claimed her family must be poised to strike again. Fearing for a character is always a good indicator of the investment an author has generated from his reader.  For other characters, the motivations appear somewhat cruder and simpler.  Galley's minor players are driven by lusts for revenge, for glory or even a lust for lust. These drives consistently direct their actions, but lack some of the nuances that might otherwise flesh out the outright villainy of the likes of Huff - a general it is impossible to like.

Galley set out to write a standalone fantasy novel - a rarity in these times of sprawling epics where even the humble trilogy can be looked upon as somewhat under-aspirational. To bring a single geographically localised tale to a satisfying close, Galley draws in the fate of other nations and indeed the rest of the world into the dying gasps of Hartland's self-destructive struggle.  Like ships swirling around a maelstrom the outworkings of a civil war threaten to drag other countries down.  However, that search to place Task's struggle in some wider world threatening context does stretch the plot.  Hartland is gripped by a war between two sides, criss-crossed by factions of the unreliable, the untrustworthy and the frankly unlikeable.

However, Galley's tale is at its best in the moments when we follow the thoughts and words of its remarkable protagonist and whether or not he can throw off the chains of old magic as easily as he can shatter the chains of new iron.


Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Of Myth and Magic My spoiler-free review of Paternus by Dyrk Ashton

I was talking to my second daughter (she's a quaternary scientist you know) about the fact that we are currently 10,000 years into an interglacial - a pause between ice ages - after the last 100,000 year ice age came to an end.

I had heard that apparently the flood story is not unique to judeo-christianity. While not going as far as an idea of Noah and his Ark, other faiths and peoples have similar accounts of a global flooding disaster.  Arguably this common thread came from the melting of arctic ice sheets as far south as Ireland and consequent rises in sea-levels that submerged settlements ranging from Doggerland in the North Sea to the shores of a much reduced Black Sea. It would not then be so surprising that the flood myth passed into oral histories across the world.

In Paternus, Dyrk Ashton draws a similar thread of connectivity and common cause on which he strings the beads of every world myth I have ever heard of and roots them in a common foundation. The wide ranging source material is drawn together from places spread across the entire globe and times delving billions of years into the Earth's past to deliver a crescendo of a story condensed into a bare 24 hours of pretty constant action.

The many threads make for a complex tale. As with Keifer Sutherland's 24 TV show, the reader follows stories playing out in parallel in scattered locations.  Layers of myth and faction unfold in terse action sequences delivered in the present tense through inevitably multiple points of view.  The supreme deity within this diverse pantheon borrows shamelessly from Greek Zeus and Norse Odin's proclivities and weaknesses. Though borrows is perhaps an unfair term - embodies/personifies/unites might all do more justice to the fascinating "melange a beaucoup" that Ashton has created.

At times I thought Ashton must have augmented the well known but well disguised characters from myth with creations of his own invention, all spawned from the same central premise that explains and celebrates the diversity of ancient mythology.  However, every time I tried googling one of Ashton's ancient truenames, the search threw up a genuine mythic anticedent.

There is a romantic core to the story - which is where it opens.  A young couple dancing uncertainly around their strong but unexpressed mutual attraction. At those points the story felt a little bit clunky. But whatever thoughts the two might harbour for each other, they are soon swept aside by the tide of times as powerful opposing forces face off and suit up for the latest instalment in a long running and potentially world-ending conflict.

The action really hots up about a quarter of the way into the book and once it gets started it just doesn't seem to stop, as Ashton's battles rage from location to location like a James Bond movie.

All in all, an enjoyable, rip-roaring tour de force through every pantheon you could imagine.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Red Sister - this is what is inside it. (My spoiler free review)

As a reviewer, Red Sister set me a challenge I have not had since "The Girl with All the Gifts." The conundrum of capturing how it made me feel and why, but without spoiling the experience for anyone who comes after me. (By the way - as far as The Girl With all the Gifts is concerned, just read it, don't watch the film - don't even watch the trailer - just read the book - and maybe my review here).

As Red Sister's April release date draws closer, there is a growing band of readers who have garnered an ARC by fair means or foul and are now pent up with a stifled desire to discuss, to analyse, to share those "Wow!" moments along with all the "Ooh"s and the "Aah"s and the "Ah ha!"s  longing for the spring deluge of discussion as the rest of the fantasy community get their hands on it.

Several reviewers I have seen have simply described it as Mark Lawrence's best book yet. Given the quality of the preceding six volumes, such a verdict sounded suspiciously like hyperbole. Indeed that was my first thought, but after 552 pages of Nona's often bloody story, describing Red Sister merely as his best work seems too faint a praise. (And now you will suspect me of hyperbole!)

The Writing

Lawrence has always been a gifted writer, a deliverer of liquid prose that flows in sinuous forms from page of book to mind of reader. In some ways great writing is like great wicket-keeping (bear with me here - particularly American readers).

[open obscure analogy] In cricket the wicket-keeper is always on view waiting behind the stumps - potentially in action with every ball that is bowled. The best wicket-keepers are unshowy, unfussy - commentators would say that you don't notice their wicket-keeping until the game demands some moment of brilliance - a stunning catch, a sharp run out, a dazzling stumping and then you would see their class. [/close obscure analogy]

In the same way great writing is economical, unfussy, unobtrusive. It cradles the reader like a comfortable hammock carrying you through the story. (Maybe I am over stretching my analogies or even my garden furniture). As a simple example, Lawrence does not step out of the stories to deliver descriptions - he doesn't pause to paint a portrait in words before we move on. He shows us people, their shape, their form through their actions and reaction.

And then there are the many sparks of brilliance, the quotes that resonate with a truth we always knew but had never recognised.

"I have been too young to know, and I have been too old to care. It's in the oh so narrow slice between that memories are made."

"Truth is an axe. Without judgement it's swung in great circles, wounding everybody."

And - perhaps my favourite, for its fourth wall breaking meta-ness

"A book is as dangerous a journey as any you might make.  The person who closes the back cover may not be the same as the person who opened the front."

And that is the essence of a good story - it changes people both those who read and those they read about.  Nona, her friends and her enemies are changed by the experience of Red Sister, and as a reader I was left buzzing with wonder and with questions.

The Story

Lawrence is a writer driven and inspired by quality writing.  In one of his blogposts here  he talked about types of readers from plotsters to beauticians, but the same kind of categorisation can be applied to writers. He is himself much more of a gardener/beautician than an architect/plotster.  He can be just as surprised as his readers by what happens between the top of the page and the bottom. Swept along by great writing and mesmeric characters we shot together through the turbulent rapids of the Broken Empire.

By book five and The Liar's Key - even Lawrence was swept along so fast and so far by the flow of story that it took him some effort to wrestle that - his longest book to a conclusion. An experience that had him flirt with plotting and planning to make sure the Wheel of Osheim came closer to a normal (non-Rothussian) word budget.

Red Sister has that familiar Lawrencian hallmark of quality writing in abundance. But it has something else too which elevates Red Sister above the Broken Empire and the Red Queen's War.

In Red Sister, there is more evidence of thoughtful world building - of pre-plotting of - planned structure, of an elegant and detailed framework on which to hang the glorious writing. That is not say that Lawrence has suddenly been brain-swapped with Joe Abercrombie or Peter V Brett. For those two writing is only begun after a level of planning and note making that makes devising Operation Overlord look like a planning a trip to the corner shop.

Nona Grey's story still has the delightful verve of creativity - the sudden challenge to the reader's expectations. Those moments like watching a Michelin starred chef who suddenly throws in ingredients that surely cannot go with what is in the pan and yet they do, giving a taste sensation that is unexpectedly divine.

But I found more steel of structure running through Nona's story - in a way which heightened the tension and my attachment to the characters always promising an arc that stretched further back and further forward than the moment in which Nona lives.

The Resonances

The more I read (and I do not read as much as I would like) the more I find connections between the book infront of me and other books and films. Maybe I am glimpsing flashes of what inspired the author, or maybe it is an empty echo in the soundbox of my own imagination.

The Convent of Sweet Mercy - where Nona lives and trains for most of the book - put me in mind of the Debora Kerr film Black Narcissus and in particular the bell tolling scene at 2 minutes 11 seconds in the trailer here  While Kerr's nuns were hardly assassins, they were certainly a little crazy cooped up on a remote and inaccessible convent where as David Farrar's character asserts, "There's something in the atmosphere that makes everything seem exaggerated."

(image from

Celyn, Lawrence's youngest daughter, has a fondness for listening to audio books of Malory Towers; Red Sister inevitably has elements of a school story wound round its convent setting - albeit a school story of completely different context, quality and timbre to any I have read before.

There are classes and dormitories and petty jealousies seasoned with a spice of special powers. I have read other works that had a similar story spine - Rowling's Harry Potter, Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind, and Canavan's The Magician's Guild.

There are children who are students and adults (nuns) who are teachers, each specialists in their own field. Red Sister even has The Poisoner - a mistress of potions, viewed with the same fearful suspicion in a similar subterranean den as a much lamented Professor Snape. At the more esoteric end of the spectrum, Mistress Path waxes cryptically lyrical in a way that would make Kvothe's Elodin seem a model of icy clarity.

But for all the siren call of those familiar elements, Red Sister strikes out in its own individual direction stalking through the reader's mind with captivating menace and fresh challenges.

Three of my daughters and my niece have all struggled through different ordeals of the Duke of Edinburgh experience - closely shadowed by the DoE leaders, as they

  • argued over who's stupid idea it was to try and cook pizza in a trangia and, 
  • pitched tents at night in the desperate exhaustion of the totally lost only for the morning to reveal that they were in the field next to their target campsite.  
and in one extreme night hike 
  • found they had accidentally strayed into a notorious dogging area and had to quickly turn their head lamps off, and be very careful to keep them off - and definitely not to flash them on and off - as they struggled through the area. 

However, those challenges and horrors pale into insignificance when compared to the ordeal of Red Sister's "ranging" where a party of twelve years olds have to scavenge their way across hostile territory in dire weather, past a plethora of enemies with murderous (rather than merely sordid) night time intentions.  The ranging draws the story threads together and weaves a magical climax which is somehow still totally topped by the book's final pages.

In those final pages, another connection flashed up in my mind - sort of reinforced by the US cover of Red Sister - that is to say a faint, almost wispy, but very particular parallel between Nona and JM Barrie's Peter Pan. But with that, as with all the other reverberating echoes of other stories, Lawrence's work mixes and moulds them and adds something all together darker, yet more inspiring to the mix.

The Inspiration and the World Building

The setting for Lawrence's Broken Empire arose from a single leap of imagination (aided by an internet mapping tool) - raise the world's sea levels by a few hundred metres and hey ho - instant campaign map. It makes the world interesting but comprehensible and one fan has even gone to the extent of mapping our world onto the Broken Empire and discovering - horror of horrors - Jorg is not just a Frenchman, but a Parisian,

The world of Abeth is a totally different concept, imagined in more detail. As G.R.Matthews would doubtless remind me, geography drives history. The flow of rivers and of trade, the barriers of sea and mountains have shaped not just countries but their people. In the same way, well thought out geography drives stories. The unique world of Red Sister, the origins of its people and the perils they face add great depth (if slightly less width!) to the story. The setting had me discussing glaciation with my second daughter (a quaternary scientist, you know) and sketching lunar orbits in my head as another slew of questions and connections went off like a sequence of firecrackers. I will not spoil it for the readers, but suffice to say, even the convent's plumbing system acquires a central role in the story.    

With the two Broken Empire set trilogies, there were clear literary inspirations for the anti-hero characters of Jorg (Alex from Anthony Burgess's "A Clockwork Orange") and Jalan (Flashman as re-imagined by George MacDonald Fraser).

Nona's inspiration was a picture by Tomasz Jedruszek and a suggestion from Lawrence's editor Jane Johnson that had his first book been "Princess of Thorns" rather than "Prince of Thorns", this picture might have been its cover.

His reply "I'm quite tempted to write that book now!" as he explored the concept here was somewhat prescient. From the seed of that picture and comment grew this book and its enthralling heroine. The multi-faceted Nona is at times as dark an adversary as Jorg and at others as unreliable a narrator as Jalan. In combat she can be as terrifying as Jalan in his berseker fury, or as cold as Jorg in his calculations.

Nona is also undeniably a girl. However, Lawrence has often said that he sets out to write people not genders.  Having written Red Sister about nuns in a convent teaching girls to fight, he asked a beta reader would the story have worked equally well if it had been about monks in a monastery teaching boys. And the answer came back yes - the genders were interchangeable. In a way I can see that too having read the story. However, part of that androgyneity maybe that at the age of ten or twelve - unswayed by adolescence - girls and boys are perhaps most nearly alike. But even then, there is one way in which I think Red Sister has - perhaps unwittingly - captured something more overtly female.

That is because, Red Sister is above all else a book about friendship. It begins and ends with friendships strained and sundered; shared and spared. And, though doubtless as much as half the population will call me wrong - there is a particular quality of steel and fire to female friendships that Red Sister portrays perfectly.

And as the dust settled on the final scene, I ran to message my reading partner across the water, to share our how? and why? and what next? questions. With one story closing, its protagonist stood in the shadow of a greater story still to come. My only remaining question is how the hell do I get my hands on an ARC of Grey Sister,