Sunday, 29 January 2012

Why You Should Read... | Jim Butcher

You may have heard of The Dresden Files: it's one of the most popular series in urban fantasy today. (Anyone thinking at this: "Urban fantasy? Isn't that just spiffingly sparkly vampires?" will be dealt with separately...) He's also written the Codex Alera - an epic fantasy that essentially pits Romans with magic against a hostile world of enemies. As well as themselves, of course. He's also one of my favourite authors, and if you haven't at least given him a go, you're missing out.This post, the latest in my 'Why You Should Read...' series, is my attempt to make you do just that - flaws and all. So, why should you read Jim Butcher?

- Inventiveness. You might be thinking that that's not much scope for that in urban fantasy where a lot of the real world persists - and you would be wrong in this particular case, but that's not what I'm talking about. What am I referring to? Harry Dresden and Tavi, Butcher's protagonists from the two series, win originally - and inventively. Too many fantasy novels feature a victory of 'x wins because she can make a bigger fireball than y'. Well, that can't happen here: both are limited, and get around said limitations because they make sacrifices, think cleverly, and rarely play fair. (Instead of by divine luck, for instance!) What more do you want?

- Narration. This one's much more applicable to The Dresden Files than the Codex Alera. Essentially, if you're a fan of smart and referencial narrators, Harry Dresden should be a protagonist of choice - he's great fun to read. While Kvothe has the edge in sheer story, Harry Dresden beats him for amusement value every time. And there's another benefit to Urban Fantasy - when Dresden makes a reference (often), it doesn't need two pages of backstory to laugh...

- Length - in both senses. The Dresden Files is a lengthy series, with 13 main series novels out, as well as an anthology (Side Jobs), so there's plenty to get into. On the other hand, individual novels - though getting longer - are a couple of hundred pages, generally on the shorter side. This has benefits. In a genre where four hundred pages can be considered on the short side, The Dresden Files are refreshingly brief. They're also very fast paced: books you can realistically go through in an afternoon sitting, rather than a slog. In other words: perfect reads for trains, buses and helicopters. Whatever your mode of transport...

- Genre-crossing. Both series cross genre boundaries - for instance, Dresden Files is detective fiction with a wizard protagonist. It also develops into partial epic fantasy by the late series, so if you're envisaging predictable subgenre tropes: forget it.

Of course, there are more - and both series do have their flaws. Storm Front , the first Dresden novel, isn't brilliant, but it's well worth reading to #4 if you think they're decent: there's a lot of improvement. Codex Alera is also lengthier than it needs to be, and a little more traditional than Dresden. But all in all? This is a pretty good summary of why I recomment Jim Butcher to anyone with free time... Or, for that matter, without.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Review | The Neon Court - Kate Griffin

If you've been reading this blog for - well, a few days - you'll probably have realised: I'm a big A Madness of Angels fan. It's on more than a few of my recommendations, I wrote an article on its magic system over at Grasping for the Wind, and of course I've reviewed it as well. Well - what about its sequels? With The  Minority Council out in March, I think it's high time I caught up on the series.

The third novel in the Urban Magic sequence, The Neon Court both conforms to - and then subverts - our expectations. For those who aren't familiar with the series, it's set in a Neverwhere-esque London, where tradition, custom and belief become magic. So, the blue electric angels - born from the emotion and life poured into the telephony system. And our hero, Matthew Swift, is partly them. (It's an awkward case of possession: let's just say his blood burns blue and he speaks in plurals, and leave it as that). At any rate, Swift is now Midnight Mayor - the mystical protector of London, a job which he thinks himself spectacularly unsuited for. Even the Aldermen, his supposed servitors in his duty, don't trust him.

But maddening as Swift is too Dee and the Aldermen, they need him now. Two of the city's magical communities, the Tribe and the titular Neon Court (did you guess they were coming up?) are about to go to war. Over a 'Chosen One'. Which makes Swift deeply cynical, but he's got bigger worries. An old acquaintance is back. Readers of the series may indeed remember Oda, better known as Psycho-Bitch. But this time she's back with a hole in her heart - literally speaking. And appears to be, well, possessed...

The threat in this one can't quite face up to that of The Midnight Mayor - pretty much everything looks friendly compared to the death of cities. Still, I'm glad that this is the novel which changes the pattern. For one, Swift isn't so fundamentally isolated: he's got a fellow sorcerer, his apprentice, along for the ride. (Penny's a great character in herself, but this is the key point for her inclusion) For another, I can say there are more changes: many of them. The Neon Court doesn't quite 'do a Martin', but it does come near.

You can, nevertheless, still see a familiar pattern. Swift stumbles round into things and runs away, occasionally shoeless. And of course, there's the typically impressive 'I am' speech - and now Matthew has quite a bit to put after it. (His resume has to cover at least half of London's supernatural community and various states of mortality). I'm of mixed minds about this - on one hand, the formula works. It's a lot of fun, and it keeps Matthew from becoming such an overpowerful protagonist that the whole series has to escalate. On the other hand? It is a formula. So while The Neon Court deviates from its predecessors in some ways, in others, it's simply more of the same.

A novel which takes a step away from the status quo, The Neon Court's main flaw is that it doesn't step quite far enough. Nevertheless, it's a fun read. Matthew Swift is a wonderful protagonist, Penny complements him, and magical London is as otherworldly as ever. But I'm hoping that The Minority Council gets rid of that sense of repetition...

Find it here: UK US

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Guest Post | Sharon T Rose on Science Fiction in Reality

As you've probably guessed already, it's guest post time! This time, Drying Ink has decided not to extract the living brains of its guests, and as part of that new initiative, I'd like to welcome Sharon T Rose to the blog. As part of the Curiosity Quills blog tour to promote said fantastic website, she's posting on Science Fiction in Reality - welcome!


Why do we love science fiction? What is the appeal of bizarre, unnatural, and strange tales? Why not stay with what we already know and are comfortable with?

To trot out a cliché, Familiarity Breeds Contempt. At the very least, familiarity breeds complacency. When we have the same old, same old, we tend to forget about it. We overlook it, we take it for granted. It no longer has any meaning for us.

Science fiction in all it incarnations steps outside of the usual and presents us with a fresh look at some things that are actually quite familiar to most of us. Star Trek is a classic example: all the issues and conflicts in the far-flung future make-believe were actually very relevant to the modern human audience. Class battles, racism, government, love and/or lust, culture clash, inequality ... those are all issues that you and I deal with in our everyday lives.

Sometimes all we need in order to truly comprehend something is to look at it differently. Numerous sculptures make little sense unless you view them from a particular angle. For a personal example, I had no appreciation of the iconic sculpture "David" by Michelangelo. I'd seen slides of it in art classes and heard it talked up by all my art buddies. To me, it was just a big naked dude. Yawn.

But then I saw its face. I got to go the Academy in Florence and see the David for myself. It was the first exhibit in the hall and the last one I looked at. I didn't want to look at this over-hyped chunk of marble. But I woman'd up and made myself go over. As I walked around the statue, I saw it from angles the pictures never showed. And when I looked up into the face of the statue, I suddenly understood why this was such an incredible work of art. A dozen thoughts captured in stone, subtleties beyond imagining. Michelangelo gave life to stone.

In our day-today struggle to pay the bills, feed and clothe the family, survive the boss, and still manage to enjoy ourselves, we get a narrow focus. We see only one camera angle of life, and that is a flat, two-D image that cannot render the fullness of what is there. Science fiction gives us a way to walk around commonplace things and see them as we've not seen them in a long time.

Scifi gives us a reason to ask, "What if?" It encourages us to wonder, "Why?" It challenges us to demand, "Why not?" Real Life tends to force us into a rut where such questions have no place. Maybe you've always done your laundry on Sunday afternoons. Why not run a load on Wednesday? What if you got up on the other side of the bed (not calling one right or the other wrong here)? Why have you always done things the way that you do them? What would happen if you made a small change?

Fiction in general give us a playground, a testing chamber, to try out new ideas in a safe place. It's a laboratory of sorts, where authors run experiments and readers judge the results. Science fiction pulls us out of "here and now," deposits us in "then and there," and lets us explore those strange new worlds. After we've kicked the tires for a while, many of us realize that this isn't so different from what we've always known.

Consider the old lords of sci-fi: George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein. They asked difficult questions about society gone wrong. What if Big Brother won? What if all our attempts to make utopia created dystopia? Just how far can science go before it destroys us? Will religion have a place in the future? These tales are often cautionary and help to awaken us to what might happen if we let go of our attention and forfeit our involvement in decision-making.

Consider David Weber's grand space opera, the Honor Harrington series. He based it on actual history, on Lord Admiral Nelson. The battles mirror actual naval encounters and the galactic events copy the world government actions of the same historical period. It's just a different way of looking at it. What if it happened in the future, in space? Why not make the warrior female? What difference would it make?

In my own writing, I do the same sort of thing: I take ordinary problems and questions and paint them in different colors. A little girl still has to grow up, whether she's human or alien. A young man must decide who he is and what he's going to do with his life, whether he's a plumber or a Wizard. People must choose to do good or do evil. There are in-laws to deal with, livings to be made, angst to get through, and business as usual to establish. Politics are as invidious as always, bad things happen to good people, and happy endings are still possible. Especially if the Main Character (which could be you) decides that her happiness doesn't depend on her circumstances.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Blog | A Few Additions

Quick notice! Instead of today's blog post on The Neon Court, which is currently an eldritch horror of which Lovecraft would be proud, I'll settle for telling you some blog news. Hopefully avoiding the trouble of breaking your minds and sanities with the unbearable horror.

Anyway, part one! I've been adding Amazon links to a few of my blog posts, which should hopefully make the actual books easier to find, and you can see what other people have said about them. Almost as if I wasn't the only reviewer worth reading - imagine that? I've also sneakily added them onto my affiliates account, heh. :P (If anyone has any complaints about them, I'll take them down)

I'm also adding in a temporary link to a fundraiser a software company, Icarus Wings (hopefully it'll go better than the myth...), has got going for an app. It aims to be a platform for serial novels, which readers will be able to subscribe to through the reader version. You can find it here!

And finally, what's coming up. I'll be running a feature on a new, multimedia ebook initiative; Fantastical Intentions, Hannah's and my picks of what's best in various fantasy categories, will be up once more tomorrow; and of course, many, many more reviews. Stay tuned and avoid eldritch horrors.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Ebooks | Some Ideas: Beyond the Written Word

Much of the time, ebooks are mentioned as simply the alternative to the written word: e-ink replacing the physical sort, but otherwise, not much different. Much of the time, that's right - but it doesn't have to be. While I'm more a fan of the tactile sort of book, most will concede that ebooks have real advantages. And by using them, as some are already doing, ebook could become more than simply a format. So - here are a few ideas:

For one, ebooks eliminate most of the costs associated with publication. This might seem like mere pragmatism - but it's cost that drives away additional features like illustrations. While Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings contained many, it's in a small minority: adding images costs a lot. For ebooks? It costs almost nothing. Now think how many maps that Erikson novel could come with... Mmm. This represents a unique possibility, and one that could make ebooks on occasion a preferable alternative, rather than simply an acceptable one!

Another? Interactivity. Publishers are already jumping on this, with the lines between books and other media becoming blurred. While I'm not personally a huge fan of this - my books are books for a reason - there are definitely situations where it could come in useful. Music; video - not big issues for books, but they're still being done, and in some cases, they could work well.

Length is also less of an issue. Not talking about novels here necessarily - epic fantasies are long enough with limits. But removing this limit, and adding the possibility of hyperlinks for navigation, means that other projects become more viable. Such as - to take an example - much larger anthologies, which are often limited. Imagine the possible selections! The reverse is also true: ebooks can be shorter, and sell less, while staying viable. This means that with the ebook market, we could see more, previously unpublished material: world bibles, awkward length-novellas, and fictional in-world documents all become possibilities.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Review | The Alchemist of Souls - Anne Lyle

The tale of my anticipation for The Alchemist of Souls spans - well, not so much decades, but a good six months. My most anticipated read of 2012 in my End of the Year Awards, you can imagine the ensuing Jacob-to-Gollum transformation when I got my hands on a copy. And after I actually read it? I can only say this: it lives up to every single one of my exaggerated expectations. It started out on my list of books to anticipate, but I have absolutely no doubt that it'll make my list of the best books of this year. It's only January, I know - but trust me when I say Alchemist is just that good.

So, why was I so excited? The Alchemist of Souls is part of the grand tradition of historical fantasy - a subgenre that includes one of my other favourite authors, Guy Gavriel Kay. (One day the Cult of Kay and I shall achieve world domination, but that's another tale). Anyway - historical fantasy, but also, historical fantasy set in the Elizabethan era: an exciting period by any measures. Now add a pinch of what Alchemist is actually about... Mal, a once well-to-do swordsman on the down and out. His new job? Bodyguard to the Skrayling ambassador - a people discovered in the New World, and , of course, possessed of strange magics. As his friendship with the ambassador develops, Mal's past and the Skraylings' abilities could threaten everything they work towards. But for a 500 page novel like this, a single character doesn't suffice. There's also Coby, the traditional girl-masquerading-as-boy. If that seems tired, well, she's also the tireman (costumer) for a theatrical company with major stakes in the contest to be held for the ambassador. So - plenty of scheming on all sides...

But where The Alchemist of Souls really shines is in its execution. From my hasty summary, you can likely spot a number of traditional plot elements. But throughout this 500 page novel, whenever I spotted a hint of cliche; a touch of the traditional, it was subverted: quite a feat! I started by reading only a hundred pages, but by the end of the evening I'd read every single word in the book. And with good reason. This is quite literally a joy to read: the characters live and breathe, the period (though alternate history) is gloriously detailed, and the finale fantastically final - and just a hint bittersweet.

I think the key to the characterisation here is that Lyle makes no attempt to force likeability - it happens naturally. Mal isn't perfect, and he doesn't stand aside from most prejudices of his time. It's this which makes us accept him as a realistic character. And, of course, contrast him with Kiiren, from the more liberal yet genuinely alien Skrayling culture. Kiiren in particular is a wonderful character, especially once his own motives are exposed: yes, he's a kind and likeable character, but he does have a purpose. The one slight 'but...' I have with characterisation here is that some of our characters seem to accept the homosexual relationships more easily than history would suggest.

The Elizabethan period is truly brought to life here - flaws included. This is Elizabethan england in its dirty splendour, and it's wonderful: the seedy would of theatres, petty intrigues, and prejudice. The theatres especially. And of course, historical characters play their own roles - and Walsingham is of particular note. (Ie. He's brilliant, dammit).

Really, what can I say? A rich historical setting, some gloriously ambiguous characters, and a whole lot of unexpected surprise collide to make this unmissable for any fan of historical fantasy. An absolute masterpiece of the genre, The Alchemist of Souls will make my end of the year awards, I have no doubt. Not Kay, but something altogether different, Alchemist of Souls had me wanting a sequel even before the book's release date.  Go read it.

...When it comes out. Achemist of Souls is out on the 5th of April here in the UK; the 27th of March in the US and in ebook format. You can preorder it here! UK / US

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Review | Kultus - Richard Ford

My second foray into the esoteric steampunk in - well, twice- as many days, Kultus represents a very different read to the other. Thaddeus Blaklok is hard to describe as a protagonist: though a nastier Harry Dresden with violence as first choice comes close. Actually, the more I think on it, the more I realise that that's an accurate comparison. He's even got a worse penchant for property damage!

So we've got our protagonist - and when he's hired by a demon to retrieve the Key of Lunos, we've got our plot as well. This isn't some simple retrieval mission, however: the Key can open gates to Hell. And demons seem remarkably fashionable in Kultus - because everyone seems to want a piece of apocalyptic action. It's one of the fastest paced fantasies I've read, and that's the main cause: the viewpoint isn't simply focused on Thaddeus. We get sections from whoever's got the Key at the time - which makes the plot not so much of a chase, more of a book length brawl with demons allowed.

I'll admit I didn't get into Kultus immediately. For the first couple of chapters, I wondered what all the fuss was about - Thaddeus' methods seemed confined to the mundane. But by the fourth? I was absolutely hooked. Thaddeus Blaklok reveals more than a little towards the end of the book; the (numerous) fight scenes become inimitable fun - and imaginitive as well. What do I mean by that? A thug punching an opponent isn't fun. Harry Dresden hurling a Denarian is. No more explanation needed for that comparison. The ending in particular left me wanting more, but enough was resolved so as not to need it - the perfect balance.

Before I go into more praise, however, I'll give a small warning: this is not for younger readers. Thaddeus Blaklok isn't light on either violence or profanity. If you're fine with, say, Abercrombie or Martin, this shouldn't faze you, but for YA readers, check what they've read first. Anyway - disclaimer over with!

This is fun, fun fantasy - not deep, rarely serious, but fun. And what more do you need? Kultus is what happens when you shove steampunk, ambiguity, and a whole lot of verve together: it's relatively short, very refreshing, and absolutely marvelous to read.

You can get hold of Kultus on Amazon, here: Kultus
Or if you live in the US, here: Kultus (Thaddeus Blaklok)

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Opinion | Cliche Attack! And My (Very Subjective) Pet Hates in Fantasy

This shorter post brought to you by the lovely, lovely ARC of The Alchemist of Souls sitting right in front of me. Seriously, I'll end up a professional Gollum impersonator if this continues. So - as you can probably guess, this is a not-so-serious post about my pet hates in fantasy. They're not all universal, but if you'll excuse me, some of them should be! ...Subjectively speaking, of course.

The Wheel of Time can be fun, but...
come on, 'The Dark One'?

Antagonists Who Haven't Read The Evil Overlord List

As a book approaches its conclusion, the probability of its antagonist making a mistake from the Evil Overlord List approaches 1. And as a reader, this is very almost as annoying as Naked Empire - if the antagonist loses because of a stupid and cliched mistake, the protagonist hasn't won through interesting tactics or heroic sacrifice or even just a plain fight: he's won through luck. To me? That seems pointless - as well as overused. Likewise, if the villain is chuckling evilly while sacrificing an infant to the Hell God of Mismade Cream Teas, I start looking elsewhere. Antagonists should be empathetic, too! I don't have to like them, but they should be flesh, not cardboard.

Because Destiny Says So

Again, this is a problem I've talked about before - see HERE. It's very subjective: most readers are just fine with destiny telling characters when they can win. Not me: if there's a prophecy that only one person can save the Archetypical Fantasy World, I'd like to know why! And the titular answer irritates me. If the struggle is predetermined  and isn't , say, a tragedy where inevitability is part of the focus, then where's the point of the novel? A hero who needs destiny to make him the main character is likely going to arouse a critical glance.

The Completed World

This is, to me, when there seems to be nothing to the world beyond the book: no loose ends, no obscure allusions, no persisting mysteries. Where the novel ends with one big 'happily ever after' and I'm left thinking: 'My, that must have been a shallower world than I thought'. A world only seems real when there's more to it than simple plot demands - and that's why I love authors like Erikson, who have those mysteries and allusions around in the background. Hobb, too, has the chapter epigraphs (something of which I'm particularly fond!). Worldbuilding done well is a joy to read, and this is part of it. As is plot. Does everything have to be tied up neatly at the finale? I don't think so. It cuts out the lure of a further tale, and makes the story seem an artificial construct. (Of course it is - but you don't want to think it!)

Worldbuilding-by-Import

I love historical fantasy - and historically-based fantasy. But when entire cultures, nations, or religions are imported into what seems like a unique world - well, it's a shortcut to my loss of interest.  If your world has simply grabbed a culture wholesale, I'm less interested in discovering it in-story: though if it's historical fantasy, that's fine. in fact, it's necessary. But in other fantasies, it hints at laziness, and a lack of depth. Why would I spend time in a shameless Italy expy when I could read about the real place - or be exploring Brandon Sanderson's Roshar instead? Answer: I wouldn't. It also makes me start reading more allusions into the story than are there, which is generally a bad thing.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Review | The Great Game - Lavie Tidhar

The Great Game is likely best introduced by just one word: steampunk. For those unfamiliar with the term, you've got a lot to look forward to. Steampunk is a vision of a past that never was: Victorian technology taken to the extreme. Clockwork computers; airships; and lots of gleaming brass prevail! Along, of course, with more than a few Victorians... It's the fantasy of an alternate past, and The Great Game's setting is very alternate: the British Empire is ruled by alien lizards, Mycroft Holmes runs the shadowy Bureau, and France is run by a council of automatons.

Sound different? It should. And it also sums up the whole attitude of The Bookman Histories (of which The Great Game is the third novel): bold steampunk elements, an eclectic setting, and more than a few (artfully reinterpreted) literary - and real - characters. Harry Houdini as an agent of the Bookman; Sherlock Holmes a retired Bureau operative (who does indeed keep bees); and Charles Babbage is - well. But what about the plot?
The story is told from a number of different viewpoints on the action, which keeps it fresh - but just to mention who they are would entail some spoilers. But we can safely say that it all starts with Smith. An obtrusively unobtrusive name - which fits, as he's an agent (closer to assassin) for the Bureau. But when Mycroft Holmes is murdered, along with another top agent, Smith is brought back from retirement to find the killer - and the plot. The other perspectives, meanwhile, provide a less bland perspective. Smith is fun to read, but his identity as a rather shadowy figure make him less engaging in himself, which the others remedy.

It's not a character driven story, however - although they pique interest, we never remain with a single character for long. It's not even driven by the events and mysteries - which are alien, and occasionally just incomprehensible. The only conclusion is that it's simply driven by experience: the discovery of how a particularly loved character comes in or is altered in addition, the bold steampunk additions (Lizardine Empire, anyone?), and what on Earth happens to Harry Houdini. (Don't ask. I won't tell.)

Though it's a lot of fun, the ending is likely this novel's weakest point: there's little resolution, true to my description of The Great Game as a novel of exploration. Things happen - but there's no huge climax, or at least not one that's built up to for a single character, so there's not a lot of emotional involvement when the end finally comes. This is likely steampunk epitomised in the form of a whistle-stop tour - just don't expect much high drama when things take a turn for the serious.

You can find The Great Game on Amazon.com: here
Or on Amazon.co.uk: here

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Best Of... | Fantasy Antiheroes

Conventional heroes - or just protagonists - are frequently good reads: but sometimes they're simply too unambiguous. Sometimes you want a character doing the right thing for the wrong reasons; or the wrong thing in pursuit of a better cause - or something altogether different. In either case, what we want is an antihero. Or at least a protagonist with antiheroic qualities. Because really, they're just a bit more interesting: and much harder to predict. And thus, in my traditional and predictable fashion, here's my list of my favourite antiheroes in fantasy:

Kallor (The Malazan Book of the Fallen)

Since I've been recommending the Malazan series earlier in the week, I thought Kallor was an appropriate addition. While some might argue he's more of a straight-out villain, Kallor definitely has antiheroic qualities: just see his motives with Silverfox! On those other hand, he's also a human monster who massacred his own empire so it couldn't be taken from him. Nasty enough yet?

He has some of the best moments in the book; he's the immortal High King of Failure; and while you might hate him for what he does, it's also impossible to deny the moments of sheer awe which crop up in his presence. Frequently. Cynical, bitter, and occasionally straight out evil, only Kallor will give boasts like:
‘I walked this land when the T’lan Imass were but children. I have commanded armies a hundred thousand strong. I have spread the fire of my wrath across entire continents, and sat alone upon tall thrones. Do you grasp the meaning of this?’
‘Yes,’ said Caladan Brood, ‘you never learn.’

The Blue Electric Angels (The Urban Magic series)
  In a world where life gives birth to magic, the blue electric angels are the spirits of the telephony system - and as such, they're just a little amoral. Sharing Matthew Swift's body with the former occupant, they're generally quiet: until you realise that they're not benevolent, but childlike. And they're fond of freedom, not restraint: 'set the world on fire' freedom, as one character points out. So while Matthew might be a normal, vaguely heroic protgonist, the co-owners of his body most certainly are not (hah!). In fact, they're closer to thrill seekers... 

Which, as you can imagine, is quite interesting. They're not exactly antiheroes: but their distaste for the shadow, Hunger, seems to be more aesthetic than moral!

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Review | The Fuller Memorandum - Charles Stross

Charles Stross' Laundry series is one of the hidden gems of modern SFF: occupying a rather unique position somewhere between spy fiction, comic fantasy and Lovecraftian horror. The  Fuller Memorandum is the third novel in the series - and also the one that put an end to my pretenses at non-addiction.

The series is basically the proposition that if there really were Lovecraftian abominations - well, there'd be a governmental department to deal with them. The Laundry is the British version, and Bob Howard is one of its employees. With the years of Case NIGHTMARE GREEN - or 'when the stars are right' - coming up, things are getting tougher: and that's before he ends up involved in a fatal accident with a decommissioned occult aircraft. (Don't ask). But now Angleton, his boss has gone missing, there are cultists on the streets, and Russia's taking an interest...

And of course, said cultists are Lovecraftian cultists, not the happy fun variety. Although to be fair, I haven't seen many happy fun cultists. Just a side note, that.

Anyway, review time! I love the Laundry for its bureaucratic - and often over the top - approach. Yes, you might have to fill in a form for everything: and then you find out they've installed an electronic version of Medusa's stare in every security camera in England. Wow. It's the ultimate example of 'good is not nice' - just owning the materials for Mo's monster killing violin puts you in breach of the Human Tissues Act: but they are fighting eldritch abominations... At any rate, Bob Howard is always fun to read, and his interactions with Angleton, his boss, are often hilarious. Angleton is staid, seemingly never leaves the building, , and refuses to trust anything newer than magnetic tape. (Which for Bob, formerly IT staff, is a nightmare...)

So when Angleton disappeared, I got undertsandably worried. One of a series' best characters, missing for a book? Thankfully, they were unfounded: the series is as good as ever in The Fuller Memorandum. And we get a fair bit more Angleton, anyway... So, with that worry out of the way - what's it like? The Fuller Memorandum is likely the best installment yet. While The Jennifer Morgue had the best revelation yet - the ending made both unexpected and hilarious for it - its sequel simply has the escalation to surpass it. In other words, it simply has more of those 'wow' moments. Case NIGHTMARE GREEN becoming more than a distant apocalypse; intrigue in the Laundry itself; and a LOT about Angleton all play into them. But really, most are simply Bob and Mo's development.

The climax and ending of this novel was one of the best I've ever read. Did I mention I loved it? I won't spoil anything, but Jennifer Morgue was nothing compared to this. And from what I've said already, you can probably guess I recommend this novel with a vengeance. There's one condition, though: read the others first.

You can find it here: UK US

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Why You Should Read | Steven Erikson

If you've been reading this book for longer than, say, a few minutes, you've probably guessed my secret: I'm a big Steven Erikson fan. The Malazan world is something like - well, nothing like a second home: it's insanely dangerous and has Kruppe in it. But it is a world I like to read about.Steven Erikson can be an acquired taste... But here's my argument for why you should give him a go:

- Complexity. Sometimes, it's a pain - and sometimes, like here, it's a joy. Far from meaningless complexity, the Malazan Book of the Fallen's is rather meaningful (with an exception or two!) - as a reader, it's great fun to spot the hidden links, the allusions; the conspiracies. Especially since Erikson's world is so detailed: there's a lot to discover.

There' also a complex story going on. And the good thing about that? It feels more real; less a superficial story. Real life is rarely simple, and the Malazan series is never so. And that's fun!

Well, most of the time.

- Diversity. A slight tangent: one reason I don't read much comic fantasy is that so much sticks to a single tone; a single focus - humour. Which is great - in small doses! The same applies to any series: for a long term read, you want a mix of tones or characters, many foci, not just one. The Malazan series is perhaps one of the best examples of this. It's so large scale that it's a love-or-hate factor, but it's also very diverse - there's humour, high drama, and tragedy in a single novel. The same applies to its characters, and even its world: elf subversions to the technologically minded dinosaurs, the K'chain Che'Malle...

- Characters. Erikson has some of the most distinctive characters in fantasy - and let's face it, who doesn't love this exchange?

‘I walked this land when the T’lan Imass were but children. I have commanded armies a hundred thousand strong. I have spread the fire of my wrath across entire continents, and sat alone upon tall thrones. Do you grasp the meaning of this?’
‘Yes,’ said Caladan Brood, ‘you never learn.’

Kruppe may be yet another love or hate character - a rotund genius who insists on speaking in the third person - but with the sheer size of the cast and series, there will unfailingly be someone you'll love.

- Epic. There are two authors I go to when I want emotion in my epic - tragedy, glorious remembrance, and the rest. These being, of course, Guy Gavriel Kay and Steven Erikson. What can I say? Simply read Memories of Ice and you'll see my meaning. Part of this, of course, is the sheer scale of the Malazan series which enables him to do it. But it's not drama by numbers - you'll genuinely be attached to the characters involved. And if I need to say more than that, you're probably not human.

And those were my top points for why reading Steven Erikson is a very, very good idea! Of course's he's not for everyone. These are literal door- or possibly elephantstoppers, with most around 900-1000 pages in paperback. The cast is huge; Erikson's philosophical narrator in Toll the Hounds can be offputting; and not everyone likes the ending. But for me, these reasons are enough - so why not give Erikson a go? You probably won't regret it.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Blog | Review Policy Clarifications

Well, time for a few of those: my review policy has never been very substantial - I review what interests me - but it does need a little expansion. Before I begin, let me just say this. (Not that. This). I am a reviewer - that means that I enjoy, and want to read books. My review policy is there because I don't have time to review everything, or to reply to huge numbers of review requests that I can't accept. It is not there because I don't want to read novels! I love to review books, and to be offered that opportunity by authors is always, always welcome.

What I Review: I review anything in the SFF category. That means science fiction, fantasy, steampunk, urban fantasy - and any other subgenre you can name. My definition is rather vague: I don't want to exclude some great reads, but if it's too far from this area, I generally can't review it on the blog. For example, I would review a detective novel with speculative elements, but not, for example, a biography!

Publishing Status: I accept ARCs as well as finished copies, at any stage of release - whether out for a year or to be released in a few months. One clarification, though: a review request asking me to buy your book won't be accepted. I buy or get from libraries a number of the books reviewed on here, but asking me to review a title that I have to go out and buy is just... Odd. If I want to buy and read it, I'll do so without prompting! (I've only received one or two of these, but this is one of the really offputting factors. Don't do it.)

I don't accept self-published books - sorry! I realise there are some real gems, but I don't have time to go through the majority that, well, aren't (what with the books I already receive). I will review books from both larger publishers and small presses.

Type of Copy: I do review both ebooks and hardcopies. Although I do generally prefer a physical copy (there's something wonderfully tactile about a book - just have a look at my posts on ebooks if you want to see an attempted explanation why), if you would prefer not to supply a hardcopy, I'll certainly accept an ebook for my Kindle. I can read .pdf files, but they're slightly harder to read on a Kindle than other formats, so .mobi is best for me if possible.

Other: I run interviews, guest posts, and pretty much every type of feature you can think of! Feel free to ask to write on a certain topic. If youre requesting a review, I'm also fine with posting on a specified date (such as release), so just ask me if you're interested. I review all books received honestly. If you've supplied me with an ARC, I'm grateful! - but it's an obligation as a reviewer to review truthfully, as I do, so it won't influence my review.

That said... Review requests welcome, and I'll be catching up on my existing queue over the weekend.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Review | Advent - James Treadwell

Scheduled for release next month, Advent is a YA urban fantasy of a very non-urban kind. For one, it's set in the countryside. For another, the magic of Advent is of the older tradition: mysterious, frequently deadly, and often fuelled by Faustian pacts... Which is fortunate, because Faust himself stars prominently (with a focus on a more obscure part of the legend - as well as a very different character interpretation). But said magician isn't the protagonist - so who is?

Gav sees things that aren't there. Well, one thing: his (until now) silent companion, Miss Grey. His parents dislike him (where have I heard that become?), and while they're away, Gav is sent to live with his aunt, Gwen. Who has disappeared. Oops. Things are waking up on the estate; Miss Grey has started talking; and something is being hidden - but what?

The first thing I'll say is that this is definitely a YA book, and so I'd recommend it far more to children and teenagers than adults. The second thing is that despite that, it's very well written. This novel belongs to a class of books which are essentially reactions - the protagonist, Gav, isn't moving the plot, and for most of the novel is responding to the events in play. Mainly by running away - somewhat of a tradition! Whether you like this depends on your personal taste, but the events are interesting enough to motivate it. Magic is returning to the world, his aunt has disappeared, and she's left a rather cryptic list that seems to hold the clues to what's going on: interesting enough for you?

In terms of character, I have to admit that Gav was a little unsympathetic for my taste - he was largely defined by what had happened to him, rather than being a more active character. His relationship with Marina, the small girl on the estate, also seemed one-sided. Despite that, younger readers will likely empathise more with the hero - and for those who feel the same way as me, the scenes from Faust's perspective will provide a far more interesting viewpoint. Far from the typical power and knowledge hungry scholar, Faust is practically a holy man - his power expanded by his possession of a particular ring... Which trinket drives the plot? Take a wild guess.

The side characters, likewise, provide more interest - as does the setting. Brought to life by an expert hand, this definitely is one of the novel's superior aspects. Advent is definitely a novel recommended for YA readers looking for a more 'mysterious', darker fantasy - though not as much for adult readers, who will likely have my problems. An original take on the Faust legend, a compelling setting, and genuinely ambiguous magic combine to make this a great read for young adults.

Find it here: UK US

Advent contest image - you found it!

Friday, 6 January 2012

New to Fantasy | Where to Start

So you - or a friend - are looking to get into fantasy (or maybe science fiction). The problem is, the genre's a big place: strange subgenres, unfamiliar names, and a tendancy towards long-running series can make it difficult for new readers to know where to start. Well., this is one particular attempt to remedy this: my guide to starting the genre. As always, it's subjective!

What To Keep In Mind:
Fantasy and science fiction are far more varied than an outside impression might suggest. Pop culture leaves fantasy as Lord of the Rings, and SF as Star Trek. Is that accurate? Not a bit of it. Lord of the Rings is a classic fantasy, yes, and some still follow its mould. But the genre has grown and developed massively since then. You can get fantasy set in the modern day (urban fantasy); fantasy crime, fantasies of Victorian-style brass and steam (steampunk), even low magic fantasy (the aptly named 'low fantasy'). And, of course, far more... If you're interested in any of these, there's more information in my Five Minute Guide to Subgenre.
So, why is this important? Simply this: if you're going to try out fantasy, try more than one type to find your tastes.

Classics or Modern?
Some fantasy readers would recommend starting with the classics - and of course with the famous Tolkien. I would actually advocate the opposite. The older books down really reflect the genre 'as is', so more modern titles will give you a better feel. One method of choosing where to start is to think of what you already like to read. Enjoy crime? You'll probably love the Dresden Files - or China Mieville's The City and the City. You can read more about possible introductions in that way at my article, here.

Alternatively, you can...

Start With The Best?
Maybe. Some fantasy works are better to approach with some context - just like you wouldn't jump straight into any sort of referencial work without any familiarity! However, most are fine to start with, although I'd recommend standalones rather than series for your first reads. In that case, why not try some of these:
- The Crown Conspiracy is an epic in the more traditional vein - and it's a lot of fun. A pair of thieves, Royce and Hadrian, are blamed to a crime they didn't commit: and in true fashion, their attempt to evade the punishment (death) turns into far more than they'd envisaged. This is a lot of fun, with many tropes subverted - or taken up to eleven.
- A Madness of Angels is fantasy in the city - to wit, London. Where mudane acts acquire mystical significance, the hours spent on the telephony system have given birth to the blue electric angels, for example! But urban sorcerer Matthew Swift has a problem: he's woken up in an unfamiliar London... with eyes of the wrong colour. This is a great place to start if you're into urban fantasy - A Madness of Angels is atmospheric and has one of the best hooks  I've read. It also introduces itself very well, and is great for newcomers.
- Warbreaker. This will give you the feel of one of the newer kinds of epic fantasy. Sanderson, the author, is known for his detailed constructed worlds, and this is one of his few standalones. If you want magic to be logical; the world to be dailed and different, try Sanderson. The story's pretty good too.
- Tigana. If you want your books to be not fun, but beautiful, Tigana is likely your kind of read. A historical fantasy based on Italy, Tigana is the tale of a nation stripped of its identity, and the endeavour to regain it by a band of protagonist. Let's not call them heroes: because this novel is known for its grey and grey morality.


Read those, or want others? Well, just take a look back through my review archive, or my 'Best Of' series. There's plenty out there!

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Review | Dead Harvest - Chris F. Holm

That cover embodies nostalgia. Cover aside, Dead Harvest is an urban fantasy of a very particular kind: dealing largely with angels, demons, and the afterlife. Which, as it turns out, is pretty much here. When Sam Thornton died, he became a Collector for Hell - taking the souls of the damned. But now he's been asked to take the soul of someone who seems - well, innocent. Unable to take the soul, which would lead to war between Heaven and Hell, but pursued by both sides (and the police), Sam goes on the run with Kate. With angels and demons skirmishing in the streets, Sam needs to find the real culprit. Fast.

What I like about Dead Harvest is its willingness not to go overboard with the supernatural side: to run with the 'urban' side of the urban fantasy, if you like. It means that the powers aren't extreme (though they are dangerous): and that wit plays far more of a role than magic. This fits with the novel's structure. It's plotted as a lean crime novel, and that it's written from the perspective of Sam, who would typically be a minor villain - well, that just makes it cooler.

I also like Kate, the accused. She's not the typical victim. She's a character in her own right, and most of all, makes mistakes. Doesn't sound a good thing, does it? But these sorts of characters can often become passive, their only flaws being imposed on them, and that Kate escapes this trap is definitely an advantage. A scene with one particular demon comes to mind... Sam, however, is the real star (along with Merihem - but you'll meet him later). An unconventional hero with an unusual motive, he has more qualms than his adversaries - and is at a corresponding disadvantage. Which, of course, adds to the tension, and his likeability (already scored high).

This isn't high fantasy, though. The angels and demons are more human than divine, and while that adds to the urban, non-deus-ex-machina feel of things, fans of high magic, glorious quests and the usual trapping won't be getting much of that here. But if you're expecting those, you probably haven't read much urban fantasy either... The mystery is less enticing  than the chase of the novel, however. Thinking, it's not enormously difficult to work out the culprit: it's the actions which provide the excitement.

This is a short, action-packed urban fantasy with the style of crime fiction and a few of its elements. A talented debut; this will keep you reading late into the night - and possibly beyond. I highly recommend this for fans of more intelligent resolutions than magical firestorms - so any Felix Castor or Dresden Files readers, look no further. There are a few problems (when aren't there?) - the mystery isn't as engaging as it could be, for one - but as a whole, this is a fun, fun read. And I'm looking forward to the sequel.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Why You Should Read | Historical Fantasy

Normally my Why You Should Read... posts are focused around individual authors. Today, it's a subgenre. Why? Well, for one, historical fantasy is underread. Everyone reads the latest epic fantasies; urban fantasies, and even steampunk is becoming more mainstream. But historical fantasy? Not so much.

So, why should you give historical fantasy a go?

- The in-jokes. History isn't often amusing in itself; but the opportunities for allusions and dramatic irony that the past provides are endless - especially since the reader is aware of future events. With periods you know well, this can end up hilarious. With those you don't? Not so much. This might be one of the cases where it is better to stick to what you know...

- The worldbuilding - or rather, lack of it. With historical fantasy, almost all of the world already exists in the reader's mind, more real than any constructed setting could ever be. This means that for those of you who dislike lots of worldbuilding (personally, I love it), you can jump straight into the action. Or at least the plot.

- Guy Gavriel Kay writes historical fantasy. That in itself is a reason.

- Alternate history. Historical fantasy can explore, via alternate history, what would have happened if the Romans had possessed dragons. I mean, is there anyone who hasn't thought about this in their history lessons? I think not. (That was one silly example, I admit. But alternate history is in itself an interesting genre: I'm sure you see my point)

- The history. It might seem obvious, but the 'history' in 'historical fantasy' is a great setting in itself - some periods of history are fascinating, and to read either fantasy or historical novels set in them is always interesting. Take Aliette de Bodard's Obsidian and Blood series: set in the Aztec civilisation at the height of its power.Who wouldn't want to read about that?

- The variety. 'Historical' might be a subgenre, but all it describes is a setting. You can have every other type of tale you like to read inside it: Elizabethan fantasy mysteries, Victorian steampunk, you name it. And if you can read what you already enjoy in a different setting, it's hard to give a good reason for disdaining the historical.

So, where should you start? Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana is a beautiful novel - loosely based on Italy, and about the rather grey-vs-grey struggle of a band of heroes to regain their country's identity. Of course, there's much more than that. Aliette de Bodard's Obsidian and Blood series is a set of Aztec murder mysteries, told from the perspective of Acatl, a priest of Lord Death. Non-traditional heroes, a lot more Aztec culture than you've ever seen, and a nice dose of backstabbing and treachery combine to make these great reads. Pretty much anything steampunk also comes fairly close.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Article | Drying Ink Picks For 2011

So, 2011's over - and the year of endless apocalyptic predictions has arrived. Which means, of course, it's time for a retrospective! Not to mention a few deserved accolades. This is my list of favourite 2011 picks from various (and occasionally arbitrary - though I hope you're used to that by now) categories. Just to clarify, although most of the choices are 2011 releases, my criteria is only that I've read it for the first time in 2011.

Most Eclectic: Empire State
Okay, so I bandy the word 'eclectic' around. A lot. Well, I like eclectic books - the unusual mixes, the crazy combinations, the sheer unpredictability. But there has to be a 'most eclectic' somewhere, and for 2011, there was a clear winner in my mind: Empire State. A tale of an alternate New York and its twin, subverted superheroes, robots, pulp-style detectives and more betrayal than you can shake, well, a Baelish at. Just with that mix, it's unusual, but when you add in the plot, with all of its mysteries and underlying gambits, it definitely makes most eclectic. And for all that, it's a shortish, fast-paced read. What more can you ask for?

Find it here: UK US

Best Ongoing Series: The Dresden Files
2011 saw a number of great continuing series, including Philippa Balantine's great Order books - a close second. But out on top for me was The Dresden Files, with the release of Ghost Story back in the summer. I've been a Dresden fan for a while - Harry Dresden is a fantastic protagonist - and Ghost Story really kept the series going, completing the somewhat cliffhanger ending of Changes. It included some real character development for Murphy and Molly, took the arena to a place Dresden was uncomfortable with, had one of the best villain gambits in a while, and most of all - it ended incredibly. (Admittedly I can't go into details on any of these - spoilers, people! - but I think we can agree that The Dresden Files deserves its accolades).
 
Find it here: UK US

Best Sequel: Johannes Cabal - the Fear Institute
There have been a few sequels I've loved through the year, but none match  Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute in managing not only to match, but surpass their predecessors. A wonderfully dark comic fantasy, the series features as its protagonist the cold blood- sorry, sang froid necromancer Johannes Cabal, who is hilariously (and nastily) pragmatic. As well as snarking about it... The Fear Institute really makes the series' connections clear, taking Cabal into the Dreamlands (which Lovecraft fans will recognise). With Nyarlothotep apparently paying attention, a terribly unscientific landscape, and far too many zebras, this seemingly doomed expedition really showcases Cabal's talents. While I loved The Detective, The Fear Institute was, I think, even better (though I'm still hoping for more Leonie Barrow, who as the perfect contrast to Cabal was a wonderful character).

Find it here! UK US

Best Urban Fantasy: Master of the House of Darts
Another 'eclectic' combination - my, how I love that word - Master of the House of Darts is the third in the Obsidian and Blood series of UF Aztec murder mysteries: with a lot of magic, Aztec culture and politics thrown in. While there were a number of great urban fantasies this year, this wowed me with its unusual setting, its premise, and most of all, its execution - the Aztec world is seamlessly introduced; its customs seemingly natural, and the mystery itself is integrated with this. This is a wonderfully unusual urban fantasy, and its characters - especially Acatl - step far, far beyond the stereotyped 'Aztec human sacrifice people'.

Find it here! UK US

Best Under-Read Novel: Tobacco Stained Mountain Goat
 Some novels simply aren't as well known as they deserve to be. Andrez Bergen's Tobacco Stained Mountain Goat definitely counts. Set in post-apocalyptic Melbourne, it immediately stood out with its quirky (constantly referencing film, for one!) narrator and protagonist, Floyd Maquina. A more conventional noir hero set against a post-apocalyptic dystopian world, Floyd's story is genuinely unpredictable - and emotional. There's a whole range of tones packed into the novel - avoiding one of dystopia's main problems - and in the end, Tobacco Stained Mountain Goat really impressed. If you're looking for an unusual, quirky, yet genuinely powerul novel, this is an excellent choice (why I chose it!).

Find it here! UK US

 Best Surprise: Daughter of Smoke and Bone
...And then there are the novels you simply don't expect. The books which subvert your expectations - or confound them altogether. For me, there's a clear winner: Daughter of Smoke and Bone. When I first picked this up back in the summer, my first expectations were that it would be romance-focused - and while some of that applies, it was also so much more. Far from the light urban fantasy I expected with the typical paranormal tropes, it began to show signs of an epic - then more. I've talked about my secret reviewer plot senses before. Well, Daughter confounded them: I genuinely didn't expect the revelations that came. By the way: it's also a very, very good book.

Find it here! UK US

 Best Epic Fantasy: The Riyria Revelations
 Not exactly a surprise - I'd heard a lot about the Riyria Revelations, and it was a pleasure to find that they lived up to all my expectations (and more). Traditional fantasies can still be, well, fantastic: and this is a perfect example. Its two thief protagonists, Royce and Hadrian, make one of the great duos I've got a conistent soft spot for. It's also, well, just a lot of fun. With tropes either subverted (or turned way, way past 11), this is traditional fantasy without the tiredness.

Find it here: UK US


Best Horror: The Return Man
What can I say? Zombies, action, and overlapping schemes make this a sure winner. Once a web serial novel, The Return Man is due for 2012 release, chronicling the incursion of Henry Marco into the Evacuated States. The titular 'return Man', Marco puts the dead to rest - forcibly. Hired by the government, however, it becomes clear there's more riding on this particular corpse's fate than any other. (And before long, it's not just the US government interested, either!).

Find it here: UK US


Most Anticipated for 2012: The Alchemist of Souls
...It's Elizabethan historical fantasy, looks to have a great concept, and it's published by Angry Robot. What other guarantee of quality do you need?


Well, that was 2011 - a great year for SFF all round! Let's hope for even more from 2012 (before the end of the world, anyway).