Sunday, 30 October 2011

Review | Master of the House of Darts - "Aztec fantasy mysteries? Count me in!"

Steampunk. Urban Fantasy. Alternate History. They're all steps out of the generic European Fantasyland, and I love them for it.

But never - to my knowledge - have we seen an Aztec urban fantasy mystery: and one taking as its protagonist a priest of death (generally reserved for those antagonistic cults in most fantasy, complete with ominous latic chanting). I've gone on about fantasy taking its inspiration from outside Europe, and this is proof that when it happens, it's amazing. These aren't the 'token human sacrifice people' Aztecs. These are the Aztecs as they knew themselves, complete with a culture far wider than you've seen. In fact, Aliette de Bodard wrote an introduction as a prelude to the first book, which you can find here.

Master of the House of Darts (not set in the local pub) is the third novel in the Obsidian and Blood series, following the excellent Servant of the Underworld and Harbringer of the Storm. Acatl, High Priest of Death, is struggling with the aftermath of the resurrection of their leader - the Revered Speaker. Tizoc-tzin is paranoid, rash, and worse, unsuccessful in his coronation war. Sacrifices are few, and to make matters worse, Eptli, an honoured warrior, dies.

An ill omen, but physically much more harmful: the death was the result of a magical perstilence. With Eptli's enemies numerous, the means of death uncertain, Acatl needs to investigate. This is a mix of UF and crime - and even the gods are suspect. Worse, the Revered Speaker's rule in insecure, and Acatl must face the consequences of his previous actions. Teomitl, his pupil, cannot wait forever to displace an incompetent ruler. And his patience is drawing short...

Aside from the innovative setting (Have I mentioned I love it? I believe I have), Acatl is a fantastically non-traditional protagonist. High Priest of Death, he turns around the stereotypes to investigate a murder, and in the process questions his own actions and beliefs. He's a more - not passive, but thinking - protagonist than, say, Harry Dresden. This is relatively low action, with a few notable exceptions, but it's nevertheless engaging.

Pure mystery, however, this is not. As you might expect, many of the causes are supernatural. Though well-explained, fans of the more human-centric mystery will likely be disappointed. If you're willing to embrace the world's heady mix of theological and mundane, however, you're in for a treat.

In terms of characters beside Acatl, there's no dominant personality, though I was particularly fond of the secondary Acamapichtli: another priest with whom Acatl has what's called an 'uneasy understanding'. There's no overwhelming presence, but he and several others are particularly strong - and occasionally amusing - additions. Teomitl, Acatl's pupil, and current Master of the House of Darts (title drop, anyone?) is also a frequent companion. Although the change he goes through is fairly radical, it is believable and well-developed. Though I can't spoil it by telling you what it is... Frustrating, aren't I?

This is an eclectic urban fantasy written with verve and style, and one very likely to end with you attempting to pay the local shopkeeper in cacao beans. Yes - I might be exaggerating, but it's almost that engaging. Though slower paced than the Dresden Files (what isn't?), if you're looking to read outside the typical, this is an excellent choice.

...But read its predecessors first.

8.5/10

This novel will be released on November 3rd, so be ready...
Have you read this novel, or its prequels - or plan to? Comment and tell me below!



Friday, 28 October 2011

Article | Awards, and Why We Should Improve Them

Yesterday, a Twitter discussion (a Tweeting? What do you call it, anyway? Bah) took place between Pornokitsch, Sam Sykes, Raymond Elenwoke - and since I'm writing this, you can probably guess at my involvement, too. The topic? Awards - and how they should change. It was a pretty nice discussion, so I have to thank the participants for giving me their words to run off and write about. *Insert vaguely malevolent cackle here*

So, why can't awards stay as they are? Essentially, awards are intended to highlight books for readers: so a reader can easily recognise a certain guarantee of quality, or at least a pick that they'll enjoy. They're also important to writers, of course, but this naturally follows from the reader role. So far, so good. However, the different awards tend to select different categories of novels, but many still claim to be going for only one criteria: 'the best' novels. And that, I think, is where awards let us down. There are too many simply aiming to acknowledge 'best' novels, even though other factors are at play in their decision (because no matter what is said, awards do seem to have 'categories'). It's simply, in my opinion, not transparent enough.

There are also subjectivity issues, of course. If we do introduce criteria for specific awards, aren't writers just fulfilling a 'checklist'? Would it reduce diversity - make writers unwilling to attempt the new and interesting? After all, subgenres have their conventions, and just sticking to these would result in a very staid - and uninteresting - selection. However, not introducing these leaves us with the existing problems: unacknowledged factors do obviously exist in selection, and there are simply too many awards aiming simply to reward general merit, rather than specific areas which would be more helpful to readers. Saying 'this book is good' is less helpful than admitting 'books in this category have included..., so if you enjoy x'.

And as soon as we do introduce these factors, they can be analysed and written towards. Deliberately award-targeted fiction (admittedly an unlikely scenario) isn't something I'd want to read! So, is there a solution? I think so.

..Though, of course, it can't be perfect. But since categorisation of awards already exists, but non-transparently, I don't think there is much of a choice: awards should recognise limited factors/criteria in selection. Not checklist-style: 'more than five strong female characters and an apothecary because we love apothecaries', but vaguer categories, helping readers to choose which awards fit their tastes. If readers know that a particular judging panel has tastes similar to their own, or aims to make picks they should be interested in, it will interest a reader far more than saying simply: this is 'the best' this year/month/millenium with hidden criteria. General awards should exist as well, but in an expanding genre, I think we need more diversity.

Or maybe I'm just talking rubbish, heh. Well, what do you think? Do awards - such as the hugo or Nebula - affect your reading choices? Do you think they need to change, or is the existing procedure fine? Comment and tell me below!

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Review | Snuff - Terry Pratchett

I'd like to see the SFF fan who can resist a new Pratchett title. (When I meet him/her/it, I will then proceed to force an entire readthrough of Jingo, and then dare them to say that they... Ahem.)

Anyway, needless to say, I couldn't - and so, when I received a copy as a gift, I got straight onto the readthrough. Snuff is the latest in the Night Watch 'subset' of the Discworld series, and naturally stars Commander Sir Samuel Vimes, out of his depth, investigating a crime, and of course, a suitably madcap chase...

Snuff is also a book about goblins: a race largely regarded as, well, animalistic. After all, goblins spend a large portion of their lives storing their own bodily excretions in carefully crafted unggue pots. And when Vimes is forced to hand in his badge for a holiday, he quickly runs into a body. Or rather, a lack of a body - and an excess of blood.

Filled not just with Pratchett's signature humour, but also with genuinely touching moments - Vimes' confrontations - Snuff takes Vimes into a new setting: the... countryside. Vimes has no jurisdiction, and is forced to resort to what he hates: aristocratic privilege. Needless to say, it's a winning combination. The new characters also bring a freshness to the subseries, in which an introduction of anyone else to the Watch cast would present severe difficulties in giving the cast a line of dialogue each. The grown (now six) Young Sam, now conducting a scientific investigation into, well, excretion is one such. Other additions include a new scion of the Rust family (Gravid), a Jane Austen (Discworld style), and a lot of aristocrats.

Of course, there are also similarities. If Unseen Academicals was the 'orc' book, then Snuff is the 'goblin' novel: and it performs the same purpose as several of his previous. By which I mean, of course, taking a new and apparently 'barbarious', discriminated against, or hated species - and then getting Vimes, or the Watch as a whole, to find out that this isn't true. And then take action. Perhaps because of this, Snuff doesn't have the 'freshness' of, say, Unseen Academicals: we can sense a formula at work, and even if it's one we know and love, there's still that feeling to it. Furthermore, the introduction of the goblins suffer from not being made more than a book in advance. Had we heard of goblins before UA? I don't believe so. (Though I may be incorrect)

Even if not quite up to Watch's Jingo standard, Snuff is a high-octane-powered Vimes in the countryside, using his aristocratic privileges - and if you've read any of Vimes' previous novels, you'll know how hilarious that can be. Pratchett's humour is, as usual, on top form: not parody (though there is, say, the occasional pastiche) but satire and silliness. And when it's mixed with a more serious message? So much the better.
I'd recommend this for fans of the City Watch and Vimes in particular, though for a first introduction to the Discworld, Snuff isn't that suitable. Past events and character developments aren't really covered for the beginning reader, and much of the humour is character-based.

If you're an existing Pratchett fan, however, this is a must-read - and if not a masterpiece, then certainly the promise that we might get another such in the Discworld.

8.5/10

Have you read this book - or plan to (you know you want to...)? Comment and tell me below!


Sunday, 23 October 2011

Ebooks | Me and a Newly Acquired Kindle

As you might have guessed from the clue-laden title, I received a Kindle yesterday! Celebrations! (It being my birthday and all). Those of you who've been reading Drying Ink for a while probably know I'm not a huge proponent of ebooks: there's a tactile something to owning a physical book, having it on your bookshelf and lending it around. And I don't think ebooks will ever be able to replace that. (Similarly, I still love to acquire older books). So, despite that, why do I enjoy having my new toy Kindle?

In a word, pragmatism. Having an ebook reader means I no longer need to break my back (and possibly the aircraft) by carrying along my Neal Stephenson tomes on holiday. Believe me, I need to take a lot of novels with me, and having one slim Kindle instead of a suitcase of doorstoppers makes it a lot easier. And less hazardous!

I am also - you may have noticed - a book reviewer. This being the second reason: a Kindle allows me quicker access to a lot of titles. Though I'll always prefer physical copies, the digital is just easier - though perhaps not as fun.

Now, let's talk about rapidity. Rapidly. I have been called the bane of librarians for my knack of coming into a library to pick up eighteen doorstoppers (the reservation limit) on order. And there's no bookshop terribly close to where I live. So the Kindle represents an immediate solution: either grab a library ebook (which should be available soon(TM), we're promised) or just shop online for a title I'm not certain about buying in print.

Will I ever prefer ebooks to print? No - at least not unless I develop some kind of alter-ego. But ebooks, the e-ink of which does not kill your eyes like a backlit screen, are useful - and that, people, is why I'll be carrying around an ereader from now.

So, what do you think? Have you got an ereader, plan to get one... or just hate the thought entirely? Comment and tell me below!

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Thoughts | The Devil You Know - Mike Carey

I don't like starting series halfway: but since this was in the library... Well, I picked it up and dashed off (sounds a bit like a crime, doesn't it?), as this novel had been recommended by Tom Lloyd in the comments - and very highly, too. Many thanks to him, I'm now halfway through the novel and enjoying it, so here, however brief, am I with my thoughts so far...
- Firstly, it's about a freelance exorcist - though reads much more like a darker, Dresden Files-esque crime novel. I wouldn't normally have picked this up, actually. However deep my love for the Dresden Files, ghosts just don't interest me in the same way that new takes on other supernatural critters do. Nevertheless, The Devil You Know was picked up, thanks to a great recommendation, and it's turned out a lot more interesting than I thought. Though its worldbuilding is minimal, there's some interesting clues: a resurgence of the dead, hints that what exorcists do may not be entirely benign...

- Secondly, it's much more a crime novel than most of The Dresden Files - which incorporate more traditional elements as well. Let's be honest - in the later books, the investigation is often just an excuse for some supernatural mayhem. Not so here: the plot is nicely intricate, and we're just getting to some very interesting revelations about our suspects. So far, I'd thoroughly recommend this for crime/UF crossover fans, or simply as a starting place for mystery fans to enter the genre.

- Thirdly, it's pretty dark. This is not a PG-friendly world: Castor swears with regularity (as expected, he's not having a fun time!), and there's no light, happy fluff. Well, so far. But somehow I don't expect it to get lighter!

- Cheryl, witness and possible romantic interest... Doesn't really interest me. This was the one letdown for me: though Rich comes off as a fully fleshed out character, I can't quite get a handle on Cheryl, who seems a little flat at times. Though maybe that's intentional!

Well, all I can really say so far is that I'm off to finish this book. Oh, and that I really need to thank Tom. ( :P) And tomorrow? You'll get my thoughts on my new toy Kindle.

Read this book, or plan to? Comment and tell me below!

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Web | Blogs, Podcasts and Everything Else - My Picks

You don't want to spend all your time listening to what I say? I mean, you don't want tospend your time just listening to me. Obviously. Slip of the fingers there. And so, because I can't pick what to review today, I present a general list fun, interesting, educational and 'Jacob-just-likes-it' fantasy resources! (And yes, some of these I have featured before)

Writing Excuses
Writing Excuses is, as the name indicates, about writing (but not, incidentally, how to avoid it!). It's a podcast which goes into a fair bit of detail about writing various aspects of science fiction, fantasy, and horror (on occasion) - and is very, very informative. Even if you're not writing your pet fantasy epic, this podcast is still a great listen just to hear writers' perspectives and recommendations... And I have to admit to enjoying the numerous funny moments as well. As the show's start puts it: "15 minutes long because..." - it's short, snappy, and well worth a go.


Fantasy Faction
 Even fantasy websites need their own T-shirts. :P
Not much to do with the T-shirt, admittedly.  Fantasy Faction is a website and forum based around the genre, and rest assured that me being a staff member has not affected my inclusion of it at all. Jokes aside, FF has a huge range of articles and a very active and friendly community, with a number of interesting discussions ('What is gritty?' being the most recent to catch my fancy) - and we've even spotted some authors on there. There's a lot of commenting on trends on fantasy, as well as some more straightforward reviews, so it's well worth checking out!

You can find it here: http://fantasy-faction.com/

The Little Red Reviewer
 Onto a blog, this time! The Little Red Reviewer inspires rabid envy in me never fails to produce articles on topics which I wish I'd thought of, books I've never heard of, and she's a fellow Stephenson fan (which makes her taste almost as good as mine!). There's a lot more SF reviews, and it's a great resource for reading ideas for a fellow reviewer - because I'm constantly running out of books. Jacob's First Law says, after all, the eternal truth: 'Print fuels life'. Anyway, go read it!


Iceberg Ink
While I don't get their hardcore Dr Who references, Iceberg Ink has a good collection of articles and reviews - many of books which haven't yet reached me. I'd heard a little about the Ryria Revelations series, but their recent feature on Sullivan (who's now been picked up by Orbit) clinched the deal for me: I have to read these books. There's a lot of insight round there, so it's well worth checking out.


CustomReads
 CustomReads is akin to a cut-down version of Goodreads (which I use as well), focusing just on providing recommendations and reviews - you pick the genres you're interested in, and you'll see recommendations! You can even follow particular reviewers (I'm on there, as Jacob @ Drying Ink, if you can stomach any more of me!). At any rate, it's a pretty solid service.

Skyink.net
 Jinny from Skyink.net has a blog even better described by 'eclectic' than mine: reading SF, fantasy, and pretty much everything else, as far as I can tell! At any rate, there are some very nice reviews of books I haven't thought about reading - and as far as my very subjective tastes allow, there are some very good recommendations. If you're interested in reading outside your normal genre or subgenre, I thorouugly recommend this blog.

You can find it here: http://skyink.net/



...And the rest? There are, of course, plenty more - just take a look at my blogroll. Not to mention I haven't mentioned some of my more popular picks. The Wertzone and A Dribble of Ink are consistently good fantasy resources, for two. But these are the ones I think need to be mentioned the most: so here they are.

Have any picks of your own, or want to comment on mine? Tell me below!



Monday, 17 October 2011

Antagonists | The Strangely Sympathetic

 Firstly, some news! I abandoned you all for a few hours to get a post up over at Fantasy Faction (a great resource, if you haven't already found it - and I thoroughly recommend the forums). Anyway, the post is on magic in modern fantasy, and mainly about mysterious vs rule-based systems. And here's the obligatory link! http://fantasy-faction.com/2011/between-two-extremes-magic-in-modern-fantasy

Anyway - back to the article:

We've all read a Dark Lord (and most likely three dozen) - and, of course, their oft-cliched ilk.

Antagonists who not only cackle as they kick the hero into a Darkly Dim Pit of Doom, but chuck a couple of dogs and orphaned children in afterwards. And... They're boring. Let's face it: one-dimensional villains, black-and-white morality - they're simplistic and we prefer to avoid them in most cases. There are, of course, exceptions - sometimes we just want old fashioned fun. But still, it's another thing entirely to make your antagonists sympathetic. And this clearly begs the question - who are the best sympathetic antagonists around?

Brandin
From: Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay
Brandin is one of the tyrants of the Palm - and when his son dies in the process of its conquest, he wipes out the identity of a nation. Even its name was obliterated, unable to be heard: and the recovery of this identity is the goal of the novels' heroes. But is it really worth it - especially when Brandin begins to improve his government of the Palm? Brandin isn't as black as he looks - or is painted. And discovering that, through another protagonist - Dianora, who falls in love with him - is part of the tragedy of the novel. The protagonists likewise, grey as the novel progresses: resorting to more underhand means. Brandin is, by no means, a cliched villain.

Alberico, on the other hand...

The Vukotics
From: The Twilight Reign series, by Tom Lloyd
I am about going to talk about vampires. Therefore, some caution is required: the Twilight in the series' title does not make the vampires... those vampires! Anyway, onto the antagonists - and this time, the line isn't so easily drawn. The Vukotic siblings are their own side - and while sometimes that is aligned with Isak's, there are some hints that at times this might not be the case... At first, it seems a clear cut case of evil - with a capital E (and a kicked dog in the background). After all, the Vukotics are vampires, rebels against the Gods, cursed by said, and former allies of the hated elves. Think again. That was just the Gods' version...

Zhia, in particular, is involved with a protagonist - and we do get to see her more sympathetic aspects. The Vukotics might have their own plans (and a bad case of manipulation mania), but they're treated deftly: grey characters in a world with few absolutes itself, when they're antagonists, they're good ones. Getting round the religious dogma and norms in the world of The Stormcaller to expose the Vukotics' real stories is also quite a bit of fun, and as of The Ragged Man, we still haven't got it all.

And, of course... Many more. The Lord Ruler I could mention (at times) - but you can read about him in my previous antagonists article. Many more of Kay's, Erikson's Crippled God, etc. But I think I'm going to ask you instead. (Lazy or what?)

So, have you read these books, or have favourite sympathetic antagonists of your own? Comment and tell me below!

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Why You Should Read | Ian M. Banks

Iain M Banks cannot evade the position of my favourite science fiction writer. It's a pretty lofty- well, I lie, not so lofty - position: so how have his books earned it? And why should you read him?

Firstly, there are the characters - and their motives. Iain M. Banks manages to expertly characterise not only his protagonists, but their civilisations - including the titular Culture. (The motto of the rest of the universe? 'Do not fuck with the Culture'). Living a life of hedonism, engineered with their own drug glands but frequently driven to interest themselves in the rest of the universe, the perspective of the Culture is always an interesting one. And then there's...

The ships. Or more correctly, the Minds - for the Culture can't just govern themselves. AIs with computing power to great that they frequently take part in a created mathematical artificial reality just for fun, the Minds are... eccentric. So when some among this number are actually labelled Eccentrics (with, yes, the capital 'E'), you know it's reached a whole new level. And here are some of their names...
- What Are the Civilian Applications?
- Very Little Gravitas Indeed
-  I Blame My Mother
-  I Blame Your Mother
And with many of these being warships larger than some planets...

Which brings us on to the humour. Despite the relevance of many of the Culture books, they're not (by any means!) all serious. There are plenty of moments of humour - but likewise, the novels do get serious for a reason. I enjoy a serious which can manage more than a monotone, and this definitely qualifies. (If you're interested, that's the reason I dislike some comic fantasies)

And there are some genuinely fantastic characters as well. From the profoundly manipulative (magnificently!) Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints - which, by the way, it does - in Surface Detail, to the game-driven Gurgeh in The Player of Games, a personal favourite, they're rather universally well-portrayed, quirky, and thematically interesting. I dare you to argue with me on that one...

This ode aside, Banks does have his flaws - Matter's 'black box' swallows a more promising plot, for instance, and these are (for the most part), long books. Still, when you're used to epic fantasy, back-breaking tomes can hardly be a surprise. And this, people, is why you should read Banks - in my very, very subjective opinion.

Have you read Banks yourself, or plan to? Comment and tell me below!





Friday, 14 October 2011

Review | Johannes Cabal - the Fear Institute (and why I loved it)

Necromancers: dark, depressing, drearily-dressed, and contact with said frequently leads to defenestration. Can I stop alliterating now?

So, find one as our protagonist? It's original - and it works. Johannes Cabal is a necromancer, his blend of cold blooded (or as he's politely labelled by an employer, sang froid) pragmatism, love for the scientific method, and a certain measure of magic - or sufficiently advanced technology - having kept him in business. Ie. away from the nearest stake.

Cabal's faced challenges before in Howard's comic fantasies - hilarious ones. He's won his soul back from the devil, and done his bit as a detective. He still, however, hasn't found how to truly bring back the dead. So when he's employed by the Fear Institute to venture into the Dreamlands in search of the embodiment of fear, Cabal sees opportunities! The Dreamlands have been the province of poets, dreamers and mystics for too long: as the blurb puts it:

'Well, those halcyon days are over, beatniks. Johannes Cabal is coming'

From the moment I read the foreword (warning of dire insanity and pointless crabs), to the (much later) minute I closed the novel, I was completely engaged. Cabal's unique viewpoint is hilarious, especially once he enters the Dreamland - the epitome of irrationality and something he does, of course, get to complain about. A lot. Just watching Cabal attempt to apply the scientific method in a world where not even space and time are continuous, and up is frequently down depending on who's dreaming it - well, it never fails to amuse.

There's also a lot more imagination: the bizarre environment of the Dreamlands gives Howard an opportunity to showcase just how weird and wonderful Cabal's word can get. Dreffs - animals which manipulate the wood they live in, and (memorably) get trained to operate the world's best peg leg...

It's not all fun and games, of course - even in comic fantasy. The cover claims The Fear Institute as both 'dark' and 'gripping': both of which it surely lives up to. Cabal has been getting development over books one and two, and it's starting to show - and the expedition for the Phobic Animus certainly isn't all it seems. There's a mystery in play, and with Cabal attempting to get to the bottom of it... It makes for an interesting ending.

While the novel slows down slightly near the end, the ending itself took me entirely by surprise - and in hindsight, really works. It's reminiscent of Sanderson's endings: the clues are there, but how they tie together will defy expectation. There's a hook for the sequel to die (and in this series, be messily resurrected) for. This is comic fantasy written by one of the wittiest genre voices of recent years - and within its scope, I can't fault it.

10/10

You can find it here: UK US

Have you read this book, or plan to? Comment and tell me below!


Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Best... | Under-read Novels

Popularity isn't necessarily a measure of quality - and while we've all heard of Mistborn or The Dresden Files, it's worth giving some lesser-knowns a try as well. And hopefully, this list should show you a few of them - and maybe persuade you to give them a try.
As always, this - is - subjective! While you might not like orphaned farmboys meeting mysterious mentors and learning how to make cheeses into tentac- okay, I don't like that one either, but you see my point. Here we go - my first two picks.

Kate Griffin's Urban Magic Series
 
Starts with: A Madness of Angels
Subgenre: Urban Fantasy
Like: Neverwhere with the brakes off
A Madness of Angels is urban fantasy at its best: bringing the everyday into fantastical (and occasionally frightening) life. In this case? London. And it's got one of the most drawing hooks of any book I've read: Maathew Swift wakes up in a London he doesn't know - and his eyes have changed colour, he's slipping into plurals, and there's a shadow out for his blood. And if that doesn't catch your interest... You're not me. (Assuming you were, which is a pretty big assumption and would involve some pretty unpleasant organ splicing). Anyway, it's both high-magic and no-deus-ex-machina: a winning combination, and one that brings London into UF in a vivid and fantastical, Gaiman-esque way.

 Jonathan L. Howard's Johannes Cabal Series
Starts With: Johannes Cabal the Necromancer
Subgenre: Crosses Boundaries! Starts out as Comic Fantasy
Like: Cookies and... Okay, more like a Faustian Pratchett/Hold combo for the first novel, but defies description after that.
I like the word eclectic. That said, no series can be described more thoroughly by that than Johannes Cabal. So I'll say it: it's eclectic. Cabal starts out as comic fantasy - Johannes Cabal made a Faustian deal for necromancy. But it's getting annoying, and he wants his soul back - so he's made a wager with a very bored Satan. To procure souls using a... Carnival. And Cabal? He's not good with fun. And the second novel takes us into steampunk and detectives. As for the third? Haven't read it, but I expect it to add even more to the mix.

Rarely does fantasy see a protagonist as good as Johannes Cabal - or as bad. Cabal is occasionally (well, very frequently) amoral, but he's engaging, inadvertently humourous, and tragic as well. Odd combination? Maybe. But it works - and well. It's amusing, engaging, and at times thrilling. Read it.

So, what about yours? have you read these books, or have some under-read picks of your own? Comment and tell me below!

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Asking You | Illustrations in Fantasy

Until recently, illustrations were a thing of the past - and for children. 'We don't need pictures in fantasy! We have imaginations!' - but then I read The Way of Kings, as well as Susanna Clarke's fantastic historical fantasy Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (which you can actually find all the way back on my Essential Fantasy List - which, in case you didn't know, quite a way back). The Way of Kings features 25 fantastic illustrations, not for scenes, but for notebook pages, maps, and just general exploration of Roshar's alien ecology, environment, and technology.

And unsurprisingly, they made a fantastic addition - when the world is not a generic fantasyland, but something utterly different, Isaac Stewart's (did I mention he's fantastic?) illustrations really do convey the nature of this new, storm-wracked world. So I got to thinking: could other fantasies also benefit from similar illustrations?

And immediately - though maybe not that immediately! - I came up with another example: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. If you don't know it, it's a historical fantasy about the return of English magic though the occasionally-blundering figures of Jonathan Strange and - you guessed it - Mr Norrell. In this case, the illustrations aren't for worldbuilding purposes, but instead portray a few moments in true period feel - and it works.

But illustrations do increase expense, and they're difficult for publishers. In a lot of cases, they probably wouldn't add much. However, if Erikson's books came with a few Deck of Dragons illustrations (...private squee)...

So I'm asking you. What do you think of illustrations in modern fantasy? And which books, if you like the idea, would you love to see images for?

Monday, 10 October 2011

Review | The Magicians - Lev Grossman

 
There are some novels that know exactly what they are, and stick to it.
Then there are novels like The Magicians. It’s been described as adult Harry Potter –but if you go into it with that expectation, you’ll be surprised. At its heart, The Magicians is a story of character, not genre or plot – Quentin, a fan of Narnia-analogue (I say that, but the similarities are so constant that it’s almost a one-to-one comparison) Fillory. He enters a secluded world – that of the US’ school for magicians, Brakebills. And magic... Isn’t so fun. They spend half a year learning how to internally calculate what affects their spells, and how to account for it – but the magic isn’t the focus here. Nope, it’s still Quentin – and as you can guess, Fillory definitely ties into the finale!
 As I said, The Magicians doesn’t know what it’s trying to be – and I don’t mean that necessarily as critical. It’s a rather eclectic mix of magic classes and student intrigue, character study and crossover, secondary world fantasy. Yes, there’s something for all tastes – but there are some flaws because of that! For one, the Fillory scenes are definitely weaker, and though they give the impression of an adult in Narnia – too old for childhood fantasy, and a good deconstruction – they nevertheless required more time to build up setting, in my opinion. Secondly, a lot of time is spent on learning about magic – and for the later parts of the book, little of what we learn really comes up, and compared to some of the spells the students were firing off in the academy (or failing to), it seems slightly odd.
 For all that, Quentin’s an engaging character for modern fantasy: perennially unhappy but looking for happiness, and occasionally stumbling without a clue (!), it’s a nice contrast to our more competent Rothfuss and Sanderson-esque heroes (who are equally fun – but need their balance). It’s nice to know that Fantasyland isn’t just populated by paragons and monsters. Sometimes we need a dose of the ordinary, too.
So, would I recommend the novel? Yes – but with a few caveats. What are they? Don’t expect the traditional, that Quentin’s development comes quickly and to look out for it, and that this would be much better with a sequel. Oh look. It does have one.
7/10

Read this book, or plan to? Comment below and tell me!

Monday, 3 October 2011

Interview | Sam Sykes, Foe to All Hills

 As you've probably guessed from the title, Sam Sykes has kindly bestowed upon us his presence to answer some questions - regarding his series (The Aeons' Gate), crimes (against humanity), and foes (the aforementioned hills). Sam is the author of the multiply fantastic Tome of the Undergates and Black Halo. Welcome to the blog!


Thanks for agreeing to do this interro- interview with me! Anyway, Mr Sykes, let us begin with a tough one.
Readings of ’Tome of the Undergates’ have been legislated against in three countries as of June 22nd, under the grounds of ’crimes against humanity’. How do you respond to these accusations?
And even a real question next. :P
I don’t think anybody can deny that the Librarian’s duel in BLACK HALO had distinct overtones of awesomeness to it. Will we be seeing more of Venarie and the Librarians in Book 3, or do you plan to leave it nicely mysterious?


I respond, as I always have responded to such wild allegations: with verve, vigor, venom and vermin.  I do declare, with veracity, that those who would level such accusations against Tome do not fear the book, but what the book stands for.  Those people who would declare that a book is not glorious because it involves a pointy-eared woman shooting people indiscriminately and crotch-stomping as an acceptable means of conflict resolution are those who unlawfully and unethically discriminate against a woman's right to shoot people full of arrows and those who would deny our very rights as human beings to drive our heels vigorously into peoples' genitals as a means of making our point. 


Verve!  Vigor!  Venom!  And then I throw rats at them.


People who like Bralston are going to weep.


I've definitely noticed - rats as debate are sadly neglected in the arena of academic argument. So, onto the subject of... Cover art. The Great Moher Debate has reached even our shady corner of the internet, followed by the Monotone Sykes Debacle in the form of your guest post (http://aidanmoher.com/blog/2011/05/articles/guest-post-sam-sykes-reinvents-cover-art/). So are you a fan of the older-school fantasy covers (I'm not even going to mention thews here)? 


I'll preface this by saying I like bloggers a lot.  I have some issues with how a lot of blogs are conducted, but Aidan is a good friend of mine and I think he puts a lot of thought into his reviews and what he says.  That said, though, I don't think he's ever going to be satisfied with the cover art to my books.  This isn't a personal problem of Aidan's, mind, nor is it really specific to him.  But book bloggers read a lot of books.  It takes a lot to impress them and what it takes is usually not suitable for newer authors.


Authors who have been around for awhile can afford to be more creative with their covers, it's true, because they have a reputation, a standing fanbase and a bunch of other factors that mean that the vast majority of readers won't judge them by their covers.  For newer authors, we need to catch the eye quicker, hence setting water on fire.  As for my particular favored covers, I can appreciate all kinds.  I like the stark symbols and contrasting colors on covers like Sophia McDougall's books, but I can also appreciate a girl in tight pants on an urban fantasy cover.  The one thing I really don't like is landscapes.  But that's just because I hate hills.  Because my father was killed by a hill. 


Now, the inevitable inspiration question. Tome points out just how welcome 'Adventurers' would be in a real society (ie. not at all), and really brings up the tensions between the typical mismatched group. Is there anything in particular which inspired this? (Other than a lack of hills) 


Really, it's just a desire to see fantasy tropes carried out to its logical conclusion.  I used to read a lot of Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms books and, as far as I could tell, adventurers were celebrated thugs.  They went out, found someone's home, broke into it and killed the inhabitants so they could steal their shit.  I mean, most of the time it was monsters doing nothing but minding their own business out in the middle of nowhere when suddenly OH SHIT OH GOD ADVENTURERS CHRIST GOD DAMN IT WHY DID I KEEP THAT MAGIC SWORD I KNEW THEY WOULD COME FOR IT OH FUCK BUT IT WAS SO SHINY OH GOD OH NO PLEASE NO NOT MY CHILDREN NOOOOOOOOO...


...and somehow they got honored and rewarded for it.  That didn't quite make a whole lot of sense to me, since traditionally, no one trusts mercenaries, who at least have contracts, so why would you trust someone who doesn't even have one?


That could actually be a quote, methinks. Telling the children to throw away that nasty magic sword behind the bushes. Or else. So, on to another traditional subject - the future. Have you any plans for after the Aeons' Gate is finished?  


I do.  I can tell you no more.  They're a secret.  To everyone.


When you're reading fantasy yourself, what's your preferred book length - short and concise, or doorstopper epics (a la Malazan)?  


It doesn't really matter.  I've put aside some very vast tomes before and picked up what ought to be smaller pieces. I've lately become enamored with Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series, much to my own befuddlement.  I mean, given the crazy crap that I write, I wouldn't have expected myself to enjoy stories about fashion, dirigibles and vampires, but she's got talent, skill and most importantly, heart, so it's a joy to read.


I've tried to get through the first book of Malazan six times now.  Maybe the seventh one will finally pan out.


What's the fantasy archetypal character or cliche you still enjoy most? 


Oho, a vaguely loaded question, but one I think well worth answering.


I think when we talk about cliches, we're always thinking of the same thing (hence the term): the same old, bearded wizard, the same noble savage barbarian, the same graceful, quick-witted rogue.  If you want to leave it at that, I don't like any of those cliches for the reason that there's no real logic behind them.  They're exactly what you would expect them to be because you expect them to be that.


But I'm still a fan of Scott Lynch's explanation on cliches: cliches are cliches because we enjoy them and there's really no bad cliches, just bad ways to use them.  And in fact, if we were to go decrying EVERY wizard, barbarian, rogue, we'd be short on a lot of fantasy.  So in fact, I quite like the cliches that are used interestingly, such as when the old, bearded wizard is actually incredibly old and bitter and engaged in a power struggle with his fellow wizards (Abercrombie) or when the savage barbarian finds compassion weird and exotic (Martin) or when the rogue is actually a colossal coward and talented only at one thing (Lynch).


One of my favorite cliches, though, has to be the fantasy relationship (hero and heroine fall in love, etc.) just because I think few people actually pay attention to it these days.  It's always taken as a given or a side-note and I think we're really seeing a lot of new authors actually begin to give a crap about how people are attracted to each other, rather than "well, adventure's over, let's shag."


Ha, loaded questions are always best... (Now I get to practice my cliched villain dialogue). I have to admit a fondness for a wizard with a twist like Bayaz.

Talking of other cliches: demons. In The Aeons' Gate, they seem to have their own perspective on things. So just to get the outside bet in, is Ulbecetonth the hero of the novels? And as for relationships, who's the romantic interest for the Kraken Queen?
 



Ulbecetonth is a mother with a desperate need to be reunited with her children.  Sounds like a hero to me.


As to the second question...Hahaha...hahahahaha...HAHAHAHAHAHAHA.


And if that's not ominous... The Skybound Sea: A Lovecraftian Romance?


Well, thank you very much for letting me interview you - and rest assured, you'll be getting the war crimes verdi- blog link soonish. And I'm very much looking forward to your promised scene of Lenk romancing the Kraken Queen. :P 


It was my pleasure.  Thanks for having me on!


  
Sam Sykes' novels are published by Pyr and are available not only in Croatia, but everywhere else as well. You can find them on Amazon here: Tome of the Undergates (The Aeons' Gate, Book 1) and Black Halo (The Aeons' Gate, Book 2)


Questions or comments? Comment below and tell me!

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Review | The Way of Kings - Brandon Sanderson

Saying that Brandon is known for his worldbuilding is the equivalent of saying that 'Thomas Covenant is a little down putting', or 'Petyr Baelish makes plans': a painful understatement. Sanderson is one of the best there is, and his new world, Roshar, shows it. Set on a world where enormous storms devastate the landscape, where soil is unknown and even the plants have shells... Well, this is radically different from anything you've encountered before. And it's more ambitious, too - The Stormlight Archive was planned over 10 years, will occupy 10 books, and has 10... I mean to say, thirty magic systems by one count. So, what can we take from that?

Just this - The Way of Kings, elephant-stopping monstrosity of a tome that it is, is just an introduction to what follows!

In WoK, we get our glimpses of the viewpoint characters: Shallan, a noble of an impoverished house seeking wardship of a noted heretic - but with a covert scheme. Why not? Then there's Kaladin, surgeon-turned-bridgeman - forced into service for the Alethi army, and attempting to make survival into something more. (Not to mention that he's accompanied by a very odd spirit). Dalinar, a lighteyes and commander of an Alethi army - a commander who is seeing visions of a past age. And who is reading a tome believed borderline heresy: The Way of Kings.

There's also Szeth - but really, anything I say regarding his plotline would spoil some fantastic moments. So I won't. I'm nasty like that. At any rate, Way of Kings is Kaladin's book. We get his backstory, and his is the plotline with most resolution. However, that's not to say that other characters don't get development - and my personal favourite was a side-character, the King's Wit. (You might want to look carefully at him...) As always, Roshar is part of the 'cosmere', Sanderson's interconnected universe - something that I find a particularly neat concept. You can definitely find references to what's going on in the cosmere: and even a character or two from his other novels. While you're not required to have read Sanderson's other books, Way of Kings has some fun bonuses if you have.

So what about the world? In this instance, Sanderson really has topped himself - hints of secrets and returning magic meld with the completely alien ecology to create something that is completely entrancing. I could read this book just for the worldbuilding (and since this is my reread... maybe I just did). Far superior just in sheer originality to most, you'll nevertheless need to know that there are more questions than answers here. As always, this is a series you'll be in for the long run.


I had my doubts regarding resolution, but in all aspects, Way of Kings does manage a satisfying conclusion for our introduction - and its epilogues are some of the best moments of the book. Yes, that's right - epilogues. Another thing to note is Isaac Stewart's wonderful interior artwork, which really puts across the alien nature of this new environment (you can find it here: http://www.isaacstewart.com/2011/09/05/stormlight-archive-artwork/) - and although illustration is unusual for novels, in this case it really worked.

Would I recommend The Way of Kings? With reservations, yes. If you're unused to long series, or this would be your first Sanderson, I'd recommend testing your liking for his style on either the Mistborn trilogy or one of his standalone novels first. For fans of worldbuilding or those willing to throw themselves into a series, however, this is a must-read.

8.5/10

Read this book, or plan to? Comment and tell me below!

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Review | 20, 001: A Steampunk Odyssey - 'Sufficiently innovative for a book twice the length'

Steampunk: an evocative word for an evocative subgenre. Steampunk, for those who haven't encountered it yet, envisages an alternate history of antiquity - a world in which the Victorians invented airships like this:
Or where Babbage completed his analytical engine! A world, in short, in which technology, mysticism and manners mix with the aesthetic of steam: gears, dials, cogs, and a helping of Victorian fashion. Steampunk's more than the aesthetic, however, as you can find out by reading this anthology - rather amusingly titled 20, 001: A Steampunk Odyssey

...And please don't tell me that needs an explanation. So, what can you find inside this particular collection of steampunk? First off, it's an eclectic mix - a combination of more traditional steampunkery and nicely innovative concepts. Strike Breakers, for instant, takes the 'cool railway' of the subgenre into the real world: giving us a look at the workers, their difficulties, and what happens when it all goes wrong - an unsettling but profoundly necessary foundation to the prettier ideas of steampunk. This was one of my personal favourites, in fact, because it shows us that it's not just gleaming brass - there are huge social problems.

Another, Mad, combines the traditional airship - and let's face it, who doesn't feel a little thrill at a fantasy airship? - with multiple timelines. A little confusing in places, it nevertheless manages to show the verve of true steampunk - a combination of crazy ideas into something fun and very original. And there's a lot more to this anthology: mad science, the discovery of Atlantis, sea-monsters (in the desert!), portals, undersea cities, submarines in Crush Depth.. I could go on. (But I won't - I'm lazy).

It manages a good mix of tones as well, including some rather funny moments. My one complaint would be resolution - as the conclusions of a couple of stories are a little rushed. Still,  there's plenty for everyone - the variety here means that if you're disappointed: well, I'll eat someone's brass pocketwatch. This is true steampunk - hit and miss on occasion, but with so many 'hit's that you'll forget the rest. This collection makes the Victorian age into a vigorous fantasy of brass and steel - nasty bits included.

Read this book, or plan to? Comment and tell me below!