Saturday, 31 December 2011

Review | Equations of Life - Simon Morden

The cover... It burns. Aesthetics aside, Equations of Life is a book which makes me reconsider my gloomy views of the post-apocalyptic. The world of the Metrozone trilogy might be a nuclear wasteland, the titular Metrozone the last city in England, but it's also a lot of fun to read about. A short, fast-paced technothriller, Equations of Life's success is due in no small part to its unlikely hero: Samuil Petrovitch.

A physicist (on the trail of the Unified Field Theory - but then, who isn't?),  an immigrant, and possessed of a knack for not getting involved, Petrovitch has lived on his scholarship funds - working with his companion, Doctor Pif. So, what happens? His knack gives out: he saves Sonja Oshicora from kidnappers, and ends up in a war between the city's two crime organisations. But there's more. Threats of nuclear war, a quantum computer, a very militant nun (Maddy), and something called the New Machine Jihad...

Sometimes huge escalation in conflict scales makes a novel ridiculous. Sometimes, as in Equations, it just makes it fun. It's done with imagination, verve, and careful lampshading - and it works out brilliantly. I mean, a physicist against the world: why not? Petrovitch is a fantastic protagonist. Clever, competent, but also shadier than he looks - and willing to make some tougher decisions. (He's also, on occasion, hilarious). The side characters are also well developed and interesting, especially when confronted with Petrovitch's chaos - and his even more chaotic plans... Although the relationship with Maddy seemed rapid, the brevity of the book as a whole makes this acceptable; while other characters, like Oshicora himself, are wonderful.

This book is impossible to predict: and not in the 'merely very improbable' way. So many new events, objects and characters are introduced later on that developments are entirely unpredictable. This isn't a slow, thoughtful book, though - so it's no deus-ex-machinae for you, especially since the additions rarely help Petrovitch... The ending? Well, it surprised me. Don't come expecting too many familiar tropes, either. While some are played straight - in the beginning - others are subverted, again adding to the novel's unpredictable nature (although I'm not much of a post-apocalyptic reader, so a dedicated fan might see more of the familiar - I don't know).

All things considered, this is a refreshingly fast-paced and unconventional read. If you're looking for something lighter - physically or otherwise - this is likely for you; likewise, if you're a fan of unusual protagonists, or smply want to avoid the passive, this is also a great read. It may be short by the standards of, say, epic fantasy, but this is a great addition to your shelf.

Find it here: UK US

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Article | My Problem With Prophecy

Originally I had a list of suggestions for the apocalypse today - but having saved that to wish you a happy New Year, I've skipped instead to... Prophecy. It's a frequent trope of the genre, from the mainstream (like Harry Potter) to the classics, but it has some major problems. Or rather, I have some major problems with it, threatening a premature termination of our relationship. So, why do I hate prophecies so much?

Over-Revealing; or, Why Read The Book?
 Prophecy's often used heavy-handedly, and with books with a central conflict, often reveals the outcome of said conflict. But if we know the hero wins; how the hero wins; and who will die for the hero to win - why read the book? It takes away the tension - and I'm looking at you, Wheel of Time. It also has a tendency to make dilemmas irrelevant. If we know which choice is made, spending fifty pages pondering it seems pointless. This isn't to say that this type of prophecy is always bad: as always, there are exceptions. If the novel's a tragedy, the characters are trying to fight said prophecy, it's unclear, or it's simply wrong - well, those are great subversions. Played straight, though, it's one of my big problems with prophecy.

Power; or, Why Don't Seers Rule the World?
Okay, so you've got your detailed prophecy. Why do only the heroes use it effectively? If antagonists try to use it to their advantage, it's misinterpreted or mistaken (for a more mainstream example, Voldemort in Harry potter) - and everyone else forgets about it alltogether. Giving your protagonists unfair advantages every time makes them reek of unrealism - as well as a few 'author's darlings'. For that matter, if prophecy is so accurate, why are the seers living in shacks or caravans? Why aren't they ruling the world using these powers of prediction? Now, that would be a story I'd like to see...

Poetry; or, Please Take The Rhyming Couplets Away!
Most prophecy is written in poetry. Most fantasy authors are not poets. Combine these facts? Most mystical predictions sound twee at best - and if I hear another written in rhyming couplets, I will weep for humanity. I won't name any names here (I'm not that cruel), but I will point out that if you really need a prophecy, consider whether it actually requires a dedicated poem - or whether you're just sticking to tradition for the sake of it.

Cliche; or, No More 'Dark Lords'
I've already ranted about accurate prophecies - but there are problems with the vague and ambiguous predictions, too. For one, in attempting mysticism, they often stop at 'cliche' instead: wanderers, dark lords, and insane numbers of Arbitrarily Capitalised Nouns (the Sword of Power, the Teacosy of Ultimate Knowledge, that sort of thing). To be fair, this is a common problem - but the obligatory prophecy is particularly noteworthy for symptoms.

...So those are my top four qualms when I spot a prophecy. (However ranty they might seem, I have liked series with prophecies - but generally, they fall under the exceptions I mentioned. A great example is Tom Lloyd's The Stormcaller, where there's a fantastic subversion which of course a can't tall you about... Spoilers!).

No more posts for the next few days - Christmas! So I wish all you readers a merry Christmas (and of course many, many books) and a happy New Year! Look forward to many apocalyptic predictions...

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Interview | Adam Christopher

Back in November, I reviewed Adam's now newly-released novel, Empire State - an original and heady mix of superheroes, robots, noir, and not a few double crosses... (Hint: It's really very good). Adam kindly agreed to the following interview, so... Welcome to the blog, Adam!

Empire State mixes subverted superheroes, a detective straight out of noir, and... metaphysics. Was there anything in particular that inspired you to put these elements together?

 Empire State was the result of several different ideas all coming together at once by accident. I think a lot of writers experience that - you're working on different projects and you've got a handful of neat ideas that are in need of a home. Suddenly, a couple can collide in your mind, and you've got something else entirely, something new and unexpected.

That's pretty much what happened with Empire State. I had this idea kicking around for ages about a Prohibition-era city caught in a never-ending Cold War with a nameless enemy, but apart from being a cool setting, it didn't have a story to go with it. Sometime later, a challenge from some friends to write a pulp SF pastiche came up with a story called "Captain Carson and the Case of the Robot Zombie", which was really just a title and a vague idea about a moustachioed polar explorer playing detective in New York, on the hunt for a robot serial killer. The final element came to me on a long-haul flight from Manchester, England, to San Francisco a few years ago. I had with me a copy of The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler - it was actually the first time I'd read one of his books, and I wasn't sure what to expect. As it happens, I was completely hooked and fell in love with this hardboiled, noir style. And sometimes on very long flights things go a little loopy - lack of sleep and dehydration probably - and I remember going off to sleep thinking how great it would have been if The Big Sleep was science fiction, but played exactly the same. This idea of "Raymond Chandler with robots" stuck with me, and then I remembered those other ideas about the Prohibition and this character called Captain Carson.

Around the same time, more or less, I was looking for Ray Bradbury books on Amazon and mistyped his name as "Rad" Bradbury. I immediately thought it was a great name for a pulp detective, and suddenly - SHAZAM! - it all came together. Pulp detectives, robots, an endless war, Prohibition - Empire State was born.

The superheroes were introduced later, but again it was a case of the right idea locking into place. I love the idea of period superheroes and I still think Batman Begins would have been amazing if it had been set in the 1930s, when Detective Comics #27 had come out. All of the elements I wanted had a common root in this time period - pulp fiction and hardboiled detectives, the Golden Age of comic books and the emergence of superheroes, Prohibition and the Great Depression. On the face of it, it sounds like a lot of disparate elements, but really they all have a commonality.


Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Review | Two Reviews in One! Scar Night and Iron Angel

Deepgate: a city suspended by chains over an abyss - at the bottom of which waits its god, Ulcis. Well, that's the scene for Scar Night: a darker breed of fantasy. I'm going to be reviewing its sequel, Iron Angel, with it. The two work better together, for reasons I'll explain...

So, we've got our unusual setting. Where are the matching characters? The first of these is an angel - and an unusually flawed one. Dill is the descendent of Calcis, Ulcis' famous herald. The last Temple archon, he's not been allowed out of the Temple itself for his life's duration, and can't even lift his ancestral sword. But now he's got a new mentor - Rachel. A Temple assassin who the temple refuses to trust, Rachel hasn't been tempered, made into one of the emotionless Spine Adepts. But someone is stealing souls in the city, there's secrets at the very heart of Ulcis' faith, and a vengeful father has set out to kill an angel...

Unfortunately, passivity became a bit of a promblem for me: Dill was likeable, but he was a passive protagonist - the events around happened to him, not because of his actions. Yes, there are justifications, but he's just not as interesting as his fellow cast members. Rachel, on the other hand, was much more active. Sometimes wrong - well, often wrong. But a lot more fun to read. It's in the sequel, however, that things really improved. The amiable demigod John Anchor, the sea god Cospinol in his rotting sky-ship... Well, they enlivened the story. A lot.

Scar Night also escalated fast, possibly too fast. You know what I'm referring to: if one minute your struggle's a personal conflict, and the next it's about the fate of the world... In Iron Angel, howver, everything is on such a scale that you just enjoy the ride. Gigantic automatons, gods, portals to hell and flying fortresses - well, just say it's a lot more interesting than Deepgate. Scar Night also had a problem with the awe factor. In other words? It wasn't there. Regardless of how dark the fantasy is, gods and entities merely rumours throughout the book should impress, and the climax came off a little lacklustre becuase they didn't. Iron Angel remedied this completely, with the introduction of the soul-based, shapeshifting Maze, shiftblades, and Arconites.

This is probably the key reason for reviewing both together - because while Scar Night is decent enough, Iron Angel really makes up for its deficiencies. One thing you'll want to bear in mind, however, is that it's dark. Characters will die - or be maimed. Including your favourites. There are some fairly disturbing creations. But if you're able to enjoy that for what it is, an unusual epic on the larger scale, you'll love Iron Angel - and Scar Night is a decent read as background.

All in all? Iron Angel: very good. Scar Night: worth it as background to its sequel, but only decent in its own right. If you love the non-traditional, the dark, and huge clockwork monstrosities (cool factor up to 110%), then this is probably your kind of thing. If you prefer the character focus? Probably not.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Why You Should Read | George R. R. Martin

Thanks to the Little Red Reviewer's horrific theft of The Fuller Memorandum review of the day (there can only be one :P ) - that was, I insist, a joke - I've been forced to extreme measures. In other words? An article. On? This. Well, here goes:

If you're a fan of SFF, I'd be astounded if you could honestly tell me you've never heard of Martin. Whether for his short stories (including the memorable 'Tuf' shorts), or - more likely - for his bestselling A Song of Ice and Fire series, it's likely that every fan has heard his name somewhere. Not everyone, however, has read him - so I make plenty of recommendations of his novels. Well, here's the summary version: why should you read George R. R. Martin?

- Consequences. Readers tend to bandy the term 'author's darlings' about - and not as a compliment. Martin is likely the one author who'll never have characters like this - because in ASOIAF, protagonists drop like flies. Maybe you don't like that, but since all bets are off, it makes everything matter a whole lot more. Not to mention racheting up the tension...

Characters suffer the consequences of their  actions readily in Martin's novels - however tragic. So if you want your art to imitate life, if you never, ever want to think 'oh, the author will never kill him' - read Martin.

- Intricacy. If the plots you enjoy involve intrigue, Martin is likely for you. Large parts of A Song of Ice and Fire essentially are just piecing together the various gambits. Subtle clues? You bet - and some of said plots go on for entire novels. Fans of Erikson's convoluted clue-collecting apply here.

- Low Magic. Normally we don't go into fantasy for mundanity. But the world of A Song of Ice and Fire is minimally magical - and done really, really well. Firstly, what does appear is mysterious and genuinely atmospheric: the kind of Tolkienesque magic. Secondly - and a big benefit - you don't have to worry about a protagonist winning his or her conflict with a magical firestorm instead of an actual, you know, conclusion.

- Flaws. Not in the writing, but in the characters themselves. I've always been a fan of profoundly flawed characters, and Martin manages this. We might not love our heroes here - or even like them - but they are real people. And they won't become perfect: no author's darlings, remember?

- Scale. Like Erikson's, A Song of Ice and Fire is an epic written on a scope unlike almost anything else. Not about the fate of the world, but definitely about the fate of dynasties, ASOIAF spans more than a continent - with a huge cast of viewpoint characters. The benefit of that cast is that there's sure to be some protagonists you're rooting for. Or maybe just like to hear from. Or hear scream. At any rate, on such a huge scale, you will find plotlines you love. Why? Because there's a lot of them.

So here are my top 5 reasons to read Martin - though of course many more exist (not least because of Petyr Baelish, who is a walking moment of awesome).

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Giveaway | Low Town: The Straight Razor Cure

Earlier this week, I reviewed Low Town - and in case you need a recap, it's brilliant. Well, if you live in the UK (sorry, US readers!) and haven't already grabbed your copy, here's my giveaway of Straight Razor Cure - which I'm sure you'll enjoy just as much as I did! Many thanks go, of course, to Hodder and Stoughton for providing the giveaway copy.

So, what do you have to do to win? Since Warden is one of the darker and more unusual fantasy protagonists I've known, to enter, simply comment below with your favourite non-traditional protagonist. Make sure to leave some way I can contact you when you win - the internet's a big place. You don't have to follow me (though if you like what you see, why not? I'm egocentric.).

Finally, any help spreading the word is appreciated. ...In an entirely non-cultish way, of course. That said, comment below to enter!

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Ebooks | Why Print Isn't About to Die - A Few Reasons

Before I begin, let me preface my little rant by saying that yes, I have a Kindle - and I enjoy using it. I have the complete works of HP Lovecraft on there, which is more than can be said for my bookshelf! Still, recently I've seen a few touting this as 'the end of the physical book', and after despairing slightly at the arguments included in Imagine, I decided my own version was more than due. (This isn't egocentric - well, it's not entirely egocentric).

A book isn't just its content - and page and screen aren't interchangable. When you own an ebook, what you own is a file. Useful, yes. But when you own a hardcopy, you not only own the content, you own a physical object. If your concept of a book is just its words, then you'd be right in saying the difference doesn't matter. Its impact, however, comes in ownership. A physical book can be placed on a bookshelf - displayed, lent, and shown off. In the nicest possible way, of course. With an ebook, you don't have that pleasure in ownership  - I mean, who puts a file on their bookshelf?

There's also the DRM issue. While I believe authors should be paid for their work - illegally copying books is theft in my mind - proprietary formats have problems. While I assume you'll always retain the ability to read - and thus will always be able to read your hardcopies - I can't make the same assumption about having the same ereader. Yes, you could convert formats: but with proprietary types, that's dubious at best.

Aside from these, there are more practical concerns. Yes, you can search an ebook - but it's not the same as flipping through a hardcopy. Yes, the Kindle's new annotations feature is nice - but is it really as useful as margins. Both features are nice, but they complement a hardcopy, not replace it: I love the 'search' feature, but it's not so useful for finding our place. Likewise, it's difficult to find the quote you want in a hardcopy, but it's easy to find the section you need. They're not interchangable - but both are good.

And, of course, the crazed sentimentality. Dammit, there's something lovely and tactile and... Well, I'm not making this sound any better, am I? Let's just say I like physical books better as objects. So, here are my big four reasons why I'll never move solely to ebooks - be they ever so practical. I love my Kindle and it doesn't break my back when I upload Stephenson tomes onto it, but it'll never usurp my bookshelf.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Review | The Alloy of Law - Brandon Sanderson

You've probably guessed by now that I'm a big Sanderson fan - the clues being that he tends to be good example in my articles rather frequently. The logical magic systems, detailed worldbuilding and intricate plots get me every time: but The Alloy of Law is different. It'a  a kind of fantasy/Western cross - set in the world of the original Mistborn trilogy, but industrialised. So, does his latest work live up to his previous Jacob-rating standard?

Before I say yes (dammit! Spoiled you!), allow me to say one thing: Waxillium. Waxillium. For those who haven't heard, Waxillium is our hero's name. For those who can't see my expression of horror, Waxillium is the kind of name that shouldn't be allowed. even in fantasy. Also, his companion is named Wayne. These qualms aside, here's my summary:

Wax was a Lawman in the Roughs (wow, three capitalised words already!). A Twinborn, able to both store and retrieve weight and to steelpush, his Feruchemical and Allomantic powers seem of little use when forced to return to the city of Elendel, where he must head House Ladrian. However, there's more going on: Wax needs to marry to restore his House's ailing finances, and he soon gets involved in the struggle against a group of thieves and kidnappers who seem to have wide-reaching support... And it escalates.

This is Brandon Sanderson's tightest novel to date - he's known for writing doorstoppers, but this is fast-paced, relatively short, and focussed on a small group of characters. And wow, these are good characters. Whatever my qualms regarding the naming in this group, the central trio of Wax, Wayne and Marisi are great - and very different from Kelsier's crew. I love a good pair of protagonists, and Wax and Wayne (agh, the pun!) definitely qualify, as well as doing so amusingly.

There's less focus on Allomancy. With Feruchemy now more widespread and Mistborn no longer extant, different techniques have become common. For example, Compounding, which I can't explain for its role in the original trilogy (spoilers, people, spoilers), has become more widespread, so the possibilities certainly aren't exhausted.

Although I wasn't entirely convinced by the Wax/Marisi relationship, Wax definitely developed over the course of the novel. Although no Kelsier or Szeth, he's a fun hero to watch - if a little idealistic for some tastes. The ending, likewise, surprised me. This is a Sanderson novel which isn't an epic - a rarety. It sticks to a smaller scale, it's faced paced and written with his usual style: and it's very, very competent. If not quite reaching the brilliance of some previous works, The Alloy of Law is definitely a good addition to your bookshelf.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Subgenres | A Five Minute Introduction (Some Final Additions)

It was brought to my attention in the comments that my previous post lacked a certain something: a subgenre. How could this be? How could I, Jacob, omit such a... Okay, sufficient waffle. At any rate, here's part two: now with added high fantasy.

High Fantasy
While high fantasy is often synonymous with epic fantasy, it's not necessarily the same thing: high fantasy can simply be an epic, but it's also frequently referred to as the less gritty - or more romanticised - version. It's not necessarily light (Lord of the Rings is high fantasy), but it's likely to be less graphic, feature more moral absolutes and stick with the high drama rather than the low.

Alternate History
Pretty much what it says on the tin. Alternate history isn't necessarily historical fantasy, but does include it: it's the genre which takes as its starting point a divergence from Earth's history. To take the typical example (as in Phillip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle), a Nazi victory in the Second World War. The novel doesn't have to be set at the time of divergence - it could be set some time after, when history is well and truly different: or even in the present.

Sword and Sorcery
Closely related to heroic fantasy, sword and sorcery is generally heroic fantasy on a smaller scale: exciting conflicts, less focus on plot and scale and more on action. As a result, sword and sorcery is rather wide reaching, and included many of the early 'pulp' stories. The basic identifying feature? A focus on excitement and action over other factors.


So, there we go - list complete.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Review | Low Town: the Straight Razor Cure

At the weekend, I began reading Low Town - as you can likely guess from the title of this review. What I didn't expect was quite how fast I'd read Low Town. The answer, by the way, is: very fast. And why? Because this is a very, very good book.

I've ranted before on the importance of flawed heroes, and Low Town takes this to the extreme. Warden, a former Agent of the Crown, is a narcotics dealer - and yes, he's flawed. Dark, frequently uncaring, and reliant on a number of chemical compounds for his welfare, this novel finds a situation to match him: a series of murders. Children are being murdered in Low Town, it soon becomes clear that there's more than sadism behind their actions. Warden is going to have to find the killer - to return to his old ways and old acquaintances.

Protagonists who are already competent are always more interesting to read: as long as they avoid informed abilities. Thankfully, Warden does - with an existing past and proven ability, his unorthodox investigation is a pleasure to read. He doesn't stick to the rules, so his next steps are always interesting ones. A pleasure, albeit a gritty, dark one, because Low Town is not a pretty place. Pulling elements from noir, this is a black fantasy, and all the better that it doesn't shy away from it. Sometimes, darker novels are made almost trite by the addition of an ending which seems to be from a different genre (with more sugar and ponies. Gah), but this certainly isn't true here: success is always tempered with grit.

So, what about character? While having a realistically flawed character is important, this can be taken to extremes - which is just as bad. An unsympathetic character is frequently an interesting protagonist (with exceptions). While Warden may tread on the line itself for some, I found him to be - if not exactly sympathetic - at least a character whose success you desire. His companions provide equal interest (although I didn't feel wren, a side character got sufficient development): and the Crane and Celia the most intriguing pair among them. You'll see why...

Reagrding plot, this might seem like something you've heard before: embittered character regains old position, etc. Low Town is not that story, and most of the tropes you're expecting will be late to the party - or missing altogether. As I've mentioned before, my plot-senses are veterans, but Low Town's developments surprised even me!

If you're a fan of fantasy crime, of grit, or simply of going outside the traditional, Low Town is likely a novel you'll enjoy. One of the most memorable protagonists of recent years, a taste for the unusual, and a bundle of subverted expectations combine to make this a novel I regret not reading at release!

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Review | The Thirteen Hallows - Michael Scott and Colette Freedman

The Thirteen Hallows is a new urban fantasy from the bestselling Michael Scott and Colette Freedman - neither of whom I'd read previously. So when I was offered a chance to participate in its blog tour, I (understandably!) jumped at it, and this, as you can probably guess, is the resulting review.

Urban fantasy is a hard subgenre - it has to integrate the fantastical into our rather more mundane planet without creating dissonance. Thankfully, this is something The Thirteen Hallows does well - very well. The magical is based in mythology and history, mainly in the form of the titular objects, thirteen legendary objects invested with a mystical significance. Which is, of course, one of the novels' mysteries (and one resolved in a very surprising way). Of course, our protagonists come across all this in a less than knowledgable way. Otherwise, where would the fun be?

So the legendary Keepers of the Hallows are... senior citizens. And they're being murdered. When Sarah Miller saves one from a mugging, she's inadvertently drawn into the conflict. Called upon to deliver the Broken Sword, Dwynwen, to the Keeper's nephew Owen, the pair rapidly become suspected of murder. With the real criminals after the Hallow and the police on their tail, they'll have to work out what the Dark Man's after and how to stop it. Fast.

While this might seem like a YA-style 'collect 'em all' plot (get the Hallows before others do?), it isn't. For that matter, this certainly isn't YA, so don't give it to children or overly squeamish cats: there's a number of graphic scenes. While the violence does add to the darker realism of the story, the sex did seem gratuitous: used as a method of generating the power to 'scry' on the protagonists by the villain. I mean, why?

The book is, however, very well written: it's hard to predict, fast-paced, and a pageturner by any standard. I couldn't stop reading, and despite a few problems, it's still a very enjoyable read. Sinking protagonists in incredible amounts of trouble is a fun sport, and The Thirteen Hallows does it to professional standards. As a result, I was reading this book non-stop since I picked it up! All in all, this is a great way to while away an afternoon, if you don't mind your villains unsympathetic (because the Dark Man doesn't have many redeeming features. Actually, I don't think he has one.) It's a fun, fun read, and that's what counts. Filled with mythology, some rather darker magic, and more trouble for the protagonists than anyone except Martin can cope with, this is definitely a worthy read despite a few problems.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Subgenres | A Five Minute Introduction

A common question for newcomers to SFF is essentially: 'what is this subgenre business anyway?' They're fairly ill-defined, frequently used as defining labels, and aren't always applicable (at all!). Still, there's one thing in their favour: they are useful. So, without further ado, here is Jacob's Five Minute Guide to Subgenre:

Urban Fantasy
Fantasy set on Earth - usually in the modern world, or an alternate version of it. This includes, yes, sparkly vampires (shudder), but there are other things: not least fantasy crime such as Jim Butcher's Dresden Files and Carey's Felix Castor series. Basically, this is everything set on Earth.





Epic Fantasy 
This is fantasy epic in scope and scale - the term doesn't say anything about quality! If anybody here says 'epic fail', there will be another body in my hole. Ahem. Anyway, although what constitutes an epic is rather subjective and is becoming more blurred, it generally involves large dilemnas - the fate of a nation, religion, way of life or more stereotypically, the world. Typically, there are large changes - social or political - and a larger cast, although these aren't strictly required. Epic fantasies poipular right now include The Malazan Book of the Fallen and A Song of Ice and Fire - among many others!
Heroic Fantasy
Fantasy typically focussing on - guess what - heroes. Now, that wasn't too hard, was it? Sarcasm aside, while heroic fantasy frequently overlaps with epic, the difference is scale. Protagonists could be out for anything from a little cash on the side to fame and fortune, so there's less at stake and the cast is frequently smaller. There's frequently less of a focus on good and evil as well: heroic fantasy is about murderers as well as martyrs. A recent example is Sam Sykes' The Aeons' Gate sequence.


Comic Fantasy
This is another easy one: comic fantasy, simply enough, is fantasy written primarily for humour. It might be parody, satire, or just absurdity, but the laughs are important - although this can mix with other tones. Terry Pratchett's Diskworld series is probably the best-known work of this subgenre, but its themes have become increasingly serious over the course of the novels. Recently reviewed examples? Johannes Cabal - the Fear Institute, as well as my large collection of Tom Holt novels.



Steampunk
Gah, I was liking those easy ones. Steampunk is generally a form of alternate history: postulating advances in Victorian technology with the same mindset or aesthetic. For example, The Difference Engine, in which Babbage succeeded in creating the titular computer. The aesthetic involves cogs, brass, and of course, steam - so clunky clockwork gadgetry abounds! Of course, steampunk doesn't have to take place on Earth - any fantasy with this aesthetic/period with changes will likely count. Just look at the goggles on that cover!



Historical Fantasy
Both a form of urban fantasy and alternate history, this is fantasy set - as the name suggests - in history or even prehistory. Normally, the period is taken either adapted, or whole with some changes: for the most part, the addition of magic. As you can imagine, the degree to which this changes things varies widely, so historical fantasy can vary from almost unrecognisable time period to an almost pistinely historical setting. My personal favourite in this subgenre is Guy Gavriel Kay, who has written novels such as Tigana and Under Heaven. If you haven't already, check them out.


So, we come to the end of our brief guide - which might have taken me slightly more than five minutes to write if I was honest, which I won't be. As always, there are a lot of blurred boundaries around here - this is merely a rough and ready guide. ;)

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Review | Theft of Swords – Michael Sullivan


The Riyria Revelations series is one of the great success stories of self-publishing. Now Michael Sullivan has been picked up by Orbit, and I’ve finally read Theft of Swords (no connection!), I can only say that Michael Sullivan absolutely deserved it. Theft of Swords, the omnibus of The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha, is one of the best traditional fantasies I’ve ever read. 

Let me qualify that ‘traditional’. Theft of Swords is not traditional in the ‘sitting in the corner because I can’t face another cliché’ sense (which tends to recur): but rather in the sense that it’s an adventure with a familiar setting. Two extremely competent thieves on a heist? Wrongly accused of murdering the old king? Then forced to kidnap said king’s heir? I’m onto it. But perhaps I should give you a more thorough summary – not just shout questions at you. (Note for interested readers: I am not really shouting.) 

Royce and Hadrian are thieves – hired by the nobility for their skills at espionage and theft (the evident). Hired for a seemingly innocuous – well, more innocuous than usual – errand, they’re rapidly blamed for the murder of the monarch. With a conspiracy of unknown origin, magic, and not a little intrigue playing into the mix, they’re forced (don’t ask, I won’t tell) to kidnap the current king. And after that… Well, that would be telling. Let’s just say there’s enough deviousness to keep everyone happy – and some truly amazing moments with dwarves.

Believe me, those don’t happen often enough for anybody.

The main strength of this novel is, however, the symbiosis of plot and character. Royce, Hadrian, and their charge are believably larger than life (as we expect), likeable, and amusing – which makes them the perfect match for the plot, which provides them with the situations to showcase this. Perfectly. I’m a sucker for a good pair of protagonists (and some decent banter), and Royce and Hadrian are perfect in this role. There really are too few very competent protagonists – those at the top of their trades. This book will let you know why.

The ending – and sequel – don’t disappoint either. Although it’s never going to be profound, this has some incredible sequences, some wonderful moments and more than just ‘some’ incredible characters. Theft of Swords is a masterpiece of traditional fantasy that you really need to read.


In other news, my next column is up over at Grasping for the Wind: this time, on the Ancestor Art. What’s what? Well, just follow the blue rab- link. I said link. http://www.graspingforthewind.com/2011/12/08/magic-systems-the-ancestor-art/

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Review | Dragonfly Falling - Adrian Tchaikovsky

A few days ago, I reviewed the first Shadows of the Apt novel: Empire in Black and Gold. Though enjoyable, it did have a number of problems, including a reliance on well-worn tropes: the evil empire, to take one major example! Dragonfly Falling, however, is the novel that makes you forget the well worn premise and enjoy this series for what it is: a lot of fun.

Dragonfly begins almost straight after the events of Empire - we do get a brief recap, but if you haven't read the first novel, you'll get lost fast. Thalric is back in Collegium, and so is Stenwold. If you've read Empire, you can probably guess the idea: Stenwold plans to warn of the Wasps' invasion (for the umpteenth time).

Tark is beseiged, and the Ant city is visited by Totho and Salma - who, of course, has a ulterior motive. At war, however, their path becomes less clear - and Totho begins to find tougher choices in his role as an artificer. This was a major improvement, in fact: Totho was a character who didn't hold much interest in the first novel, and that he gets development and some harder choices, rather than (boring) angst, improves him immensely.

The series also improves with a lot more action. Although Empire in Black and Gold seemed slightly padded with the amount of journeying, Dragonfly strikes a better balance. it's fast paced, with more battles, and more innovations (even if some are more than a trifle... unlikely). We've also got more of my favourite activity: intrigue. The Spiderlands were an area discussed frequently in the first novel, with their complex manipulations - 'dances'. To find them getting involved... Well, it's evident that not all is as it seems. After all, when is it? In books, never. (If the question is asked on the blurb, the answer cannot be 'yes; yes, it is'. This is a rule.)


While there are some good moments in Empire, Dragonfly Falling is the first novel where you can truly see some of what TvTropes would call  'Crowning Moments of Awesome'. I won't point any fingers - spoilers, people! - but a few seiges come to mind. If you enjoyed Empire in Black and Gold, but worry about its sequel getting 'middle book syndrome', read Dragonfly Falling anyway. It's a much, much better novel, and the series' prospects increase immensely with its ending - and its character development. There are still flaws, of course, including the tendancy to characterise by kinden. But overall, this is a book which makes the promised epic truly enjoyable. This is well worth your time.


Monday, 5 December 2011

Article | Interesting Books - Where to Find Them

We all know the latest Brandon Sanderson epic - who doesn't? But there are other books out there, and interesting ones. The books you aren't just excited at, but are frequently bemused by their very existence. In other words, the odd, the eclectic, and the interesting! Well, here's my brief guide to where to find these little gems.


Charity Shops

 You can't overlook these: they're wonderful. Remember, you're not looking for the latest releases, and a second hand charity shop is where to go. They're inexpensive and have a constantly-changing and varied selection, so it's well worth checking them on your way somewhere. (If you're not in too much of a hurry, anyway! These things are time sinks) I recently received a book full of amusing gravestone inscriptions - morbid, but funny - that was bought from one of these. I'm still laughing.



 Old Johannes looks
remarkably unimpressed

Project Gutenberg

Project Gutenberg digitises books in the public domain and distributes them for free via their website. If you're looking for something interesting to try, look here first if you've got an ereader: since it's all free, you can sample everything from HP Lovecraft to Jonathan Swift without paying a penny, before delving off into obscure texts on woodturning. Since these are mainly out of print, these are frequently books you can find nowhere else. You can even read what contemporary publications (you remember those print things, before blogs? Kind of like Drying Ink, with fewer pictures and more eloquence) had to say about the texts.


Tor.com
Tor.com is a wonderful website which does an awful lot, but today I'll be focussing on one aspect: the short fiction. Which you can read for free. Since it includes excepts from a number of subgenres - and an awful lot of novels - this is definitely a way to decide what suits your taste, as well as try a good story for its own sake. Just on the last page, I can see some steampunk. Mmm...


Libraries

Okay, maybe your local branch isn't quite like that to the left - but libraries are still a great resource. It seems obvious, but try looking on the new acquisitions shelf, or simply returned books - you'll get an odd variety which is sure to turn up a few novels of interest. Try checking if your local library service has a website, or an online reservation service (some are even starting to lend ebooks): if it does, have a browse! The selection will be far wider than your local bookstore.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Interview | Aliette de Bodard

I recently read, loved, and reviewed the latest installment in the Obsidian and Blood series, Master of the House of Darts: a historical urban fantasy murder mystery - set amongst the Aztec civilisation. (By the way, I thoroughly recommend it!) Aliette was kind enough to agree to an interview, so here it is:


Welcome to the blog, Aliette!

Your Obsidian and Blood series is set in an Aztec culture - and it's a far cry from the typical quasi-European 'Fantasyland'. Do you think it's time fantasy looked further outside this inspiration/setting?

I think there's a strong current of fantasy that is starting to look outside the quasi-European settings--N.K. Jemisin's Inheritance trilogy, David Anthony Durham's Acacia books, and Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet, to take just a few examples; and those are books that can achieve a lot of critical success. It seems to me that the majority of the genre, though, is still very much inspired by Tolkien, not only in settings but also in plots (there is a very strong Western inspiration in Tolkien's books, a meld of Nordic and Christian elements that is very visible, especially in the Silmarillion). There are many such books on the shelves, whereas non-European settings remain more of a curiosity.  And I'm not saying quasi-European books are bad--I'm the first to lap up Steven Erikson and Brandon Sanderson and Kate Elliott's Crown of Stars books--but I do think we should definitely encourage more diverse books, both in setting, and in genre tropes. As well as more diverse authors, not necessarily from the Anglophone world: coming from a country where more than half the fiction is translated into French, I've always been horrified by the lack of translated fiction in the US and UK. It can make genre look very insular and parochial--and not very welcoming from people who come from outside the Western Anglophone world.

Another area in which Obsidian and Blood differs hugely from the norm is in its protagonist: Acatl, a priest (and occasional raiser) of the dead - stereotypically the role for antagonists! Did you have a particular reason for writing Acatl into this position, or did you think of him this way from the start?

I filched Acatl from historical mysteries rather than fantasy. In those, there is always someone in those who has forensic expertise: it can be the actual hero such as in Ariana Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death, or a sidekick like the Controller-of-Deaths in Robert Van Gulik's Judge Dee novels. But you always have someone to manipulate corpses and perform crude autopsies, because very often key points of the plot revolve around the examination of the murdered people. And I thought it would be a shame to pass on the opportunity to have extra clues, so I decided I wanted to have forensics in my own books. Hence the priest of death as my protagonist. And, as a bonus, he had magical powers, which came in handy for solving murders (much easier to ask the victim, which is why I ended up having so many magical crimes in which this wasn't possible for a variety of reasons).
I confess it had never actually occurred to me that necromancers and priests of the dead tended to be antagonists in fantasy books when I did this, and that Acatl would be going against the grain in this respect...

I hadn't thought of Acatl in the role of forensic examiner before, though it's definitely true. Again talking about characterisation and culture: the Aztec beliefs and society are intrinsic to Obsidian and Blood, and the perspective of its protagonists. Do you ever have to stop yourself putting a modern idea into an Aztec mouth by mistake, or are you now firmly stuck into their mindset?

I try to be as much within the Aztec mindset as I can before writing a book; or, to be more accurate, as much within a reconstituted mindset as I can. In the case of the Aztecs, not only do I have to battle my natural tendency to be a 21st-Century woman; I'm also up against the lack of records. We don't know much about the Aztecs, mainly because the conquistadores were so thorough in their extermination (though you do have a strong remnant of Nahuatl people in Mexico with a very vibrant tribal culture). To really know what they thought in the 15th Century is beyond difficult: I'm no Nahuatl, no historian, and I don't own a time machine... And, finally, you have to add to this the fact that I'm placing the Aztecs in a very modern storytelling style: both the mystery novel and the fantasy epic are very much derived from a 19th-20th-Century Western aesthetic, which makes being true to the culture a very difficult balancing act--because I end up using tropes that are majoritarily of Western origin in the course of writing the story.
Those reservations aside, I would like not to stop at all, and write the story as it comes; but in reality it doesn't happen, and I regularly make sure that I look at what my characters are doing and spot as many anachronisms as I can. One particular pitfall is that my characters tend to be very outspokenly feminist, which just doesn't fit the time period; and I have to make sure I don't take this onboard.


Friday, 2 December 2011

Review | The Return Man - V M Zito


You may have noticed I've been reading a few zombie novels recently: and for a non-horror reader like me, that's a lot! Even among these, however, V M Zito's The Return Man stands out. It's essentially the story of Henry Marco, the titular Return Man, who has stayed in the Evacuated States: the 'Resurrection'-infected half of the USA, putting clients' resurrected loved ones to rest - killing them. He's also been seeking his own resurrected wife's body. But this time, the job is different: the radical government of the new 'Safe States' has hired Henry to put the corpse of an old acquaintance, Roger Ballard, to rest. But what possible interest could they have?

Of course, there's more at stake. With Chinese secret agents, the local equivalent of the Mob, and a whole lot of zombies - and the possibility of a new discovery... - playing into the mix, it's not as simple as it sounds. This is very action-packed, a kind of zombie thriller if you like, and Zito is very talented at writing his action scenes. which is good, because there's a lot of them! There's a number of incredible 'wow' moments as well, and Marco - for all his medical expertise - is no passive protagonist.

What about character, then? Henry Marco is a wonderful protagonist - inventive enough to be fun to read, and at the same time sufficiently complex to seem real. He undergoes development, of course, but is still convincing flawed; and that's a good thing. with a zombie epidemic on the loose, the last thing we want are boring characters to fight their way through. Near the beginning, Kheng Wu does suffer from a little overexaggeration of certain traits, but his development - predictable as it in in places, because my special reviewer plot senses are honed - definitely works.

Let me give you a caveat to your reading, though. From my first description, you might think this is a typical zombie/epidemic novel: 'Oh, they travel through a post-apocalyptic wasteland filled with zombies'. This simply isn't true. While the land is mostly deserted, the zombies themselves have a twist, and there's a lot more focus on the competition and struggle - the thriller aspect is likely larger than the 'zombie plague'.This isn't just action, though. There are some genuinely emotional moments with Marco, not your typical hardbitten post-apocalyptic hero. We go further into his past, and the twists this leaves for the present are shocking. Though obviously, I won't be nasty and spoil them!

If you prefer more thoughtful, reflective journeys, this isn't for you. Otherwise, I can't think of any problems: an inventive protagonist, a talent for crazy high-octane action, and a lot of zombies (with twists!) combine to make this a highlight of the subgenre. Though relatively weighty at over 400-odd pages, they really do fly by. To the non-horror reader or the zombie-flesh conoisseur (hah!), I really can't recommend this enough.

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


Thursday, 1 December 2011

News | The Christmas Spirits Trailer, Fantastical Intentions, and More!


I've been reading the ARC for Hodder's release of a new, ebook-only novel: the Christmas Spirits. It's a modern retelling of A Christmas Carol (with many more needles), short, and... Well, I'll be giving you my thoughts in the review. For now, here's the new trailer - as you can see, above!

I've also been reading, and enjoying, V. M. Zito's The Return Man - more zombies, but this time of a more medical flavour. Henry Marco has stayed in the infected Evacuated States, putting clients loved ones to rest (forcibly) for money, as well as seeking his wife's resurrected body. Now, however, he's been found out - and hired. The US Government want him to 'return' a scientist named Roger Ballard: but there's double-crossing, treachery, and more action than you could shake one of Mrco's overpowered guns at. It's all very fun, and the ending caught me entirely by surprise - so watch out for my review tomorrow!

Now for a bit of Drying Ink related news. Well, as you know me and Hannah (who blogs at the fantastic Once Upon A Time) run a feature called Fantastical Intentions - where we take a random topic and take our picks from it (and for once, I don't have to put my 'this is subjective' disclaimer on it!). The latest post, this time on fantasy in gaming, is up today here: http://onceuponatime.jaedia.net/?p=4183
Check it out and tell us your own picks!