Tuesday, 25 June 2013

A Note to the wise

To whom it may concern,

Thanks for visiting! I love you. However, I've moved house.

Please come and visit me over at onechaptermore.com

Why thank you!


Thursday, 20 June 2013

The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern

Erin Morgenstern - The Night Circus

The Night Circus is, simply put, a masterpiece. An utterly sublime novel, it is both the best debut novel I've read since last year's Communion Town, and, equally, the best Fantasy I've read since Abercrombie's The Heroes. That said, to describe it as fantasy is to give a slightly false impression - this is low, primary-world fantasy, of the tradition of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Magic exists among a select few magicians, and they use it to their own ends.

There is a placeholder plot of a competition between two rival magicians with regards their own training methods, but the true star of the book is the relationship between the two primary characters, Celia and Marco. The book throws them together through the titular Night Circus, Le Cirque des Rêves, and explores their growing love for one another in a way that, I feel, will stand the test of time. The organic growth and challenges of their first friendship, then love, is put to paper in an utterly realistic manner, a manner which made me smile, grimace, laugh,in time with the characters feeling and in ways that resonate inside myself.

Woven in amongst this love story in the framing narrative of both the competition, and the circus', fate. The circus is what many comment on when discussing the novel: a beautiful lilting prose that describes the wondrous ideas of Morgenstern's brain, what with ice rooms and labyrynths, stunning descriptions of illusionists (who are, of course, really doing magic - just making it appear that they are faking it...), the tree of wishes, the central bonfire... the scenes run and run, each sticking in the head, making the Cirque a  place where you just wish you were, can picture intimately on first reading (much, interestingly, like Hogwarts was the first time I read of it). Interspersed between each part of the book are sections written in the second person: essentially following the journey of you as patron of the Cirque, they give us a glimpse into the astonishing beauty of as world constructed in black and white, tastes of the marvelous food, sights of the beautiful tents, an original, meaningful, meander from the usual swathes of first-or-third person prose that dominate most texts. It is in fact extremely hard to write in the second person (believe me I've tried), and reading it for the most part feels like a Choose your own adventure book: Morgenstern's errs right on the line of overuse, but never steps into it. Each section between parts is 2 or so pages, but they are some of the most memorable elements of a memorable book.

For a book to be obsessed about by me, it needs to do all three of the main facets of my reading perfectly: character, plot and prose. Having touched upon the plot and the character above, the prose equally follows a beautiful pattern, a present tense that, like Beukes' The Shining Girls, meanders through time. However, while Beukes' present tense occasionally reads slightly stiltedly, with the voice of someone who naturally tells stories in the past adapting to the present, Morgenstern's present tense feels as natural as walking. There were no points at which the active slipped to passive (or vice versa) when they shouldn't, and while the prose was never electrfyingly poetic, it simultaneously never slipped remotely close to purple.

Any review can't really capture the sensory mastery of Morgensten's writing. What I took from the novel is too complex really to put into words. Instead, it was an experience that touched me on many levels: emotionally, thoughtfully, my taste, my smell, my sight, all toughed by what the book provoked in my imagination. Very few books capture things with such a visceral necessity to imagined in full. An anecdote: I'm reading this book on the tube, mid-May, and the man opposite me catches my eye and starts a conversation about how wonderful the book is. Any person who has been on London transport knows that this is a cardinal sin, punishable by defenestration by the British Transport Police. But it didn't matter - it was a book that transcended even that most holy of holies. It is a book that will make you want to scream its praise from the rooftops, and make everyone you know read. It's sublime.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

James Smythe - The Testimony

James Smythe - The Testimony

Smythe's debut starts with an interesting, and deceptively simple, idea: what if something was heard by all people at the same time. The Broadcast, as it is referred to by the characters of the book occurs four times: once as static, then three times as an increasingly long (but powerful) message. Predictably, people go mental. Many think it is the word of God (or similar); others think that there must be a scientific explanation; some are simply baffled; others can't even hear The Broadcast.

I've read very few books told in mosaic style: in fact I can think of only three - Stand on Zanzibar, World War Z and this. For most part I'd guess this is because mosaic style (told from multiple, disparate points of view - in The Testimony's case upward of 20) is extremely difficult to pull off without, as one person I talked to recently put it, 'not having the time to feel for the characters'. For the most part, I'd argue that Smythe does well here: the main strands of the story arc concern characters of different persuasions and different levels of knowledge that allow for multiple perspectives of the unfolding tragedy, without deviating too much. Further, they are focused on to a level where we understand these characters as we would any primary or secondary character in a more traditionally styled book. However, there are character tht are seemingly baseless, or there to argue a single point. Instead of feeling for these people, they bog down the story, and I found myself wishing that their points of view would hurry up and be over.

A few characters baffled me further than this: a New Zealander biologist, for example, has three point of vie segments in the whole book. It is enough to tell us he's looking for a rare bird and one of them bites his friend/colleague and the friend/colleagues dies. That's it. That's the whole point of his segments. No conclusions to be drawn, no apotheosis to be had, simply an occurrence that we already know of in different guises (the swift deaths of people from seemingly minor ailments) from different character arcs.

I can see these as Smythe desperately trying to get perspectives on a global phenomenon from a global point of view, but here as well he doesn't succeed. Three of the most religiously zealous and/or unsettled areas of the world get no, or barely any, look in: South America, South East Asia and Africa. Africa has a minor character arc about a Congolese boy and some Danish travellers, and a South African drug dealer. The other two (comprising of the majority of the world's Catholic population, and significant proportion of the Muslim population as well) get no viewpoints at all. We are left, instead, with a curious middle ground: a book that, through its style, attempts a global outlook on a global problem, but, through its execution, gives only a Western viewpoint. Indeed, it is significant that the biggest points of view are those of the White House Chief of Staff and a Member of the British Parliament.

I would have liked to have seen Smythe tackle religious tensions in Indonesia, or Brazilian Catholicism at its peak; however, while the book is ostensibly about  a kind of religious apocalypse (with an environmental/scientific one shoehorned in for good measure), it casts a distinctly revisionist approach when dealing with it. Religion is consistently portrayed in a  negative light, from portrayals of Mormonism to the Church of the One True God. It is clear from the way Smythe handles the steadily encroaching waves of panic that sweep the world that his view on religion is a negative one: that it is indeed the Marxist people's opiate. From terrorist threats to the world order, to public uprisings in Moscow, to a parents outcast of her child, it is religion to blame. And when religion is given a platform to grow, the most devout of agnostics and atheists is shown to doubt in their heart, and give in to that doubt.

The plot itself is well done - the tension never slips, which, once more considering the style (which cannot be underplayed as a major - the major - feature of the Criticism of this novel), is both extremely difficult and extremely skilful on the part of the author. Not content with an apocalypse of sorts coming as a result of responses to the broadcast itself, Smythe further introduces a biological threat that ruins people's immune system, killing perhaps 1 in 7. While it is broadly hinted at the cause of this, the reader, much like the characters is left wondering whether this is true, or it has a deeper, more theological cause. No answers are truly given. No answers are really sought: instead the characters and the reader are much interested in the way people respond. The Testimony seems to ask a question, and instead of providing answers, runs away with the way people do the preliminary working-out. While the conclusion seemed a little too neat, and the book certainly loses momentum in the last third, it is well constructed and thought out.

Where character is done well, however, it is done very well. We feel great sympathy and feeling for the major viewpoint characters, up to and including an ultra-conservative American news anchor. The exploration of faith in those characters who have it is both interesting and well thought out, as much as it is in those who don't. There is a confidence to this early work of Smythe's that foreshadows the excellent The Explorer, his second book from Harper Collins. Told with broad brushstrokes, and a simplicity of language unconcerned with the stylist follies of conventional 'Literary Fiction', Smythe's voice itself tells us 'Do not be afraid'. Do not be afraid, because this is an author learning his craft in action, and while there are mistakes, there is also promise: a promise that appears to be being acted upon in more recent publications.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Iain M. Banks, or, Melancholia Enshrines All Triumph

Today is officially a Very Sad Day.

Iain Banks has gone from Very Poorly to having sustained Lasting Damage

For me, this is a big deal. It's a big deal for a great deal of the literary world, I know, but it feels massively personal to me. Iain was one of the founders, not only of my love of speculative fiction, but of my love of fiction in general. And for that, first and foremost, I thank him.

I will always remember the holiday I took aged 15 to Costa Rica. Not only for the awfully cute sloths, the raccoon that invaded our hotel room, the coati's round every corner or the other astonishing wildlife of that country so Sweet and Full of Grace, but also for The Algebraist. I spent much of those two weeks devouring The Algebraist, and as a result it holds a special place in my heart. An intensely epic space opera, outside of The Culture series, it dragged me in to a complex, exciting, different science fiction world. I'd read YA fantasy and Ender's Game, but nothing struck me the way The Algebraist did.

As a result, I read, with Furious Purpose, as much as I could get my hands on. Its a testament to the enduring legacy of Banks that I own the amount that I do: 15 y/o me couldn't really afford new books, instead he went to charity shops and (to my shame - I don't do it any more, it was Youthful Indiscretion) stole to fuel my reading. I ended up reading the entire Culture series in a year,  as well as finding copies of The Wasp Factory and The Bridge. Since then, I've reread many and bought to complete my collection. He is the only many-title author, apart from J.K. Rowling, whose books I own all of. And six years later I still read and reread. You are a giant standing on the shoulder of giants: Of Course I Still Love You.

 I think one of the things that most affects me is that this is an author who was productive, and whose work I loved, while he was still producing it. When Jack Vance died, I'd read a book by him, but he didn't feel 'real'. His death felt like an Unfortunate Conflict of Evidence between my brain and his living. Iain, yours feels raw. It feels like I know you, and I know many feel the same.

As a result of Consider Phlebas, I 'discovered' the mature works (not Cats...) of T.S. Eliot. As a result of The Algebraist I discovered stories Refreshingly Unconcerned With the Vulgar Exigencies of Veracity, aka, Science Fiction. As a result of Iain M. Banks, I discovered that what I already knew was a passion would become an obsession. Books were my New Toy. As a result of this obsession, I went to university to do English, I write, I want to go into publishing. Because of you.

Iain, I loved you.

I never got to meet you (you came to Blackwell's when I worked there, but I was on holiday), I never got to tell you how you impacted my life. I wrote on Banksophilia when I learnt you had cancer, and today I'm writing this fairly poxy blog post to publicly show my appreciation. No One Knows What The Dead Think but I hope that you like it, wherever you are.

You made me happy when I often wasn't. You introduced me to something I love more than almost anything else. Tonight, I'm going to drink a glass of whisky, and settle down to read Feersum Endjinn (only because The Algebraist is in storage). I'll probably cry when I reach the end.

I certainly am now.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

Lauren Beukes - The Shining Girls

The Shining Girls is a time travel plot with a twist. While many time travel stories concern the paradoxes of time travel itself, or perhaps the consequences of changing actions in the past/future/present. As a result, these narratives are often built around this central conceit, the foregrounding and questioning of the nature of time travel becoming the key plot point. Beukes, following in the footsteps of Audrey Niffenegger's immensely successful The Time Traveler's Wife, chooses instead to let time travel simply be, integral to the plot, but not forced upon the reader or having its rules and reasons rammed down her throat.

Instead, The Shining Girls method of time travel focuses on The House (always capitalized in the text). Tightly constructed third person chapters follow Harper Curtis, a serial killer from the 1930s, as he discover The House following a casually brutal opening scene. The House is full of artifacts in the bedroom, 'trophies' hung on the wall, each accompanied by a scrawly woman's name in chalk. These artifacts, and the names themselves 'shine' - they seem to have an effect somewhat like an addictive drug on Harper, forcing him to walk out of the house into different times and kill the woman involved.

We are introduced early on to the counterpoint to Harper, Kirby Mazrachi. A precocious newspaper intern, she was one of Harper's victims, one who didn't die. Instead, in a harrowing and utterly superlative scene, she is saved from death by another. As a result of this experience having defined her (as it would with any victim of such an horrific act), Kirby searches for answers - she joins The Chicago Sun-Times as a sports intern under the guidance of Dan, former homicide reporter, troubled, recently divorced, lonely. The relationship with Dan moves swiftly from respect to friendship, with brief flings (one-sided) into longing. It is this relationship, as well as that of Kirby and her mother, that are some of the best pieces of Beukes' fiction. In Zoo City, it was the relationship of Zinzi and Sloth that stuck with me - in this, I believe that it is the relationship of Dan and Kirby.

As with Zoo City, Beuke's prose is fluid, a lovely present-tense, third-person, literary/genre boundary-treading with enough punch and wisecracking to make you smile, to make you empathize, to make you believe. Where Beukes shines is clearly this mix of plot and character, giving eacha  particular voice. Even the caricatures are voiced individually, with their own turns of phrase, their own stylistic quirks. It is very difficult in a multi-viewpoint novel to get the balance of literary quality and individual voice perfected, but Beukes does a brilliant job - on a par with the multi-voice quality of the best of Joe Abercrombie's works, which is high praise indeed.

The plotting is meticulous, brilliantly circular, astonishingly well rounded. We follow Harper's story and Kirby's story in interweaving patterns of close third person prose, interspersed with viewpoints of other women that Harper has murdered. All share a common theme - they are strong, unique, yet alone in their dreams. They are on the margin of society and don't give a shit: are determined to continue in their ways, change their world. They, are in short, role models for the most part. Harper's intervention frequently buggers things up, makes them people who's lives are defined by Harper's intervention, but for the most part the ideas behind the characters are very good. However, despite all this, it at times rings false. The single viewpoints we encounter try and force an etire character, back story and all, into the reader in a  few short paragraphs. By virtue of the serial killer's 'rules' we only see each character twice: not enough to develop the feeling that Beukes clearly has for these women. Each victim is thus not given enough time of day - they become caricatures of themselves: the radium dancer; the transsexual showgirl; the brilliant female architect, struggling to make it; the Korean social service woman; the black steel worker in an all-white ship making factory. Coupled with the wikipedia-style factoids thrown in ('... suburban developments are going to transform the lives of working-class families' says 1950's architect [p.139]) these elements seem too pristine, too, dare I say, Dan Brown, in parts - obviously with prose that doesn't read like a punch in the face.

Indeed, the acknowledgements section is the longest I've ever seen in a book: 5 whole pages, where 2  normally suffice. As a result of the vast amount of research, pulled off spectacularly for the most part - if it weren't for my knowing Lauren is from Cape Town I'd never have she wasn't a Chicago-ite - there is a pressure to get as much of this as possible in. This is a touch too overt, too easily seen.

The plot ramps up nicely in temporal and tension shifting fashion toward the end of the book, with the final set piece an excellent rounding up of one of the most obvious temporal anomalies, as well as giving an intellectual pleasing circularity to the whole endeavour that is book and plot and Harper's life. Further, the final set piece also shows what a good time-travel story can allow an intelligent and articulate author the space to do: Beukes plays with different time periods within one set piece, using the time period themselves as pieces in a jigsaw. This is what a book like this is made for: an astonishing plot.

The book is a pleasure to read on a sentence level, indeed it is a pleasure to read on a plot level. However there are elements that go a touch too far into caricature, without being deliberate, and the tip of the research iceberg is visible when it should be underwater. Only the tip, mind you, but its enough to occasionally drag the reader out of the novel. All that said, it's a very good book, with one particularly spectacular scene, astonishingly well plotted, with believable and real relationships amongst the main characters, slightly let down by tangible elements among its minor scenes.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

London Down the Rabbit Hole

In his rather cutting review of Tom Pollock's The City's Son in Strange Horizons, Martin Lewis briefly touches upon London as the setting for so much fantastic literature:
So debut novelist Tom Pollock is telling a story with a familiar shape, a story of secret London. The daddy of such books is Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere (1996), adapted from the BBC drama he devised with Lenny Henry, and it still casts a long shadow. Once I would have said that there was perhaps a need for this sort of story to be retold every five years or so, but now, of course, urban fantasy is ascendant and every city has a secret soul. The City's Son may ride this wave but it fits more comfortably into a slightly more specific tradition. After all, London is a bit special. I was reminded of this earlier in the year when I went to an interview with slipstream writer Nina Allan. At one point, she mused on her distance from the core of the science fiction genre and rather wistfully remarked that she'd like to be a space writer but always seemed to end up as a time writer. Listening to her I was struck by how perfect London is as a setting for such fiction. After all, the city is a type of time machine; the past and the future sandwiched against each other. This history—this density—imbues the city with a crushing psychic weight. It is virtually a singularity. As one of Pollock's characters puts it: "You see, this city is built on a lot of things: brick and stone and river clay, but under that, under everything this city is built on bargains" (p. 236).
London, it seems he is arguing, is such an optimal setting as it is both space and time: it is simultaneously the sewers of Mieville's King Rat and the weird bleeding of memory into present in Cornell's London Falling.

Of course, the history of London can only help this idea. London is the birthplace of the novel: in the coffeehouses of mid-to-late 18th Century London were Samuel Richardson's Pamela, Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, William Godwin's Caleb Williams. While ostensibly character portraits, all take London as their setting, and argue a politicised or philosophical point, where both character and setting have vital roles to play. From Shakespeare to Dickens, Wells and Orwell to Zadie Smith and Hanif Kureishi, London has had a rich literary history, purely by the happenstance of being the capital of the largest empire the world has ever seen, via being the birthplace of the most spoken language in the world. It is ineveitable, therefore, that it will have a special place in literary history, and its cosmopolitain make up an impact on the plots of stories the world over.

It is only natural, therefore, that it also has an impact on contemporary speculative fiction. The sheer amount of names that can be conjured off the top of ones head tells its own story: Mieville, Sinclair, Aaranovitch, Gaiman, Griffin, Pollock, Stroud; not to mention those canonical works by the likes of Ballard, Gibson, Wells, Orwell, Huxley, Moorcock and the like. All of these authors use London as their jumping off point, offer their own perspectives of London as a place of wonder, of metaphor. The destruction of London, in Wells' The War of The Worlds, or Ballard's The Drowned World is often used as metaphor for the destruction of civilization: because London is civilization. When it is explored within its current bounds, it often the weird and secretive sections that come up trumps: the Underground, both literal place in the Sewers of Mieville and the Underground railway system of Gaiman, or history in the battle, and eventual resolution of Pollock's Blankleits and Sodiumites, representative of present and past streetlighting. The nature of London is blurring, polymorphous.

But why is this proliferation so telling? Why are, say, New York, Seattle, Tokyo or Paris not beset by fantastic works? Partly its the literary history above, but its more than that. Despite these city's being universally hailed as astonishing, containing what F. Scott Fitzgerald called the "wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world." This certainly true:the sense of place of New York, or Paris, or Tokyo, can be conjured with ease by television pictures: they have their own famous skylines, but, more than that, you can tell you're in them from street level. Neon lights everywhere? Tokyo. Grand sweeping Hausman apartments? Paris. The sight of  dilapidated, graffiti-strewn concrete jungle or the skyscraper canyon? Either Brooklyn/Queens or central Manhattan. As a result, these places lend themselves to a visual medium with ease: they give a sense of place without apparent effort. Its a repeated visual effect: the way Central Park is used in Friends, or You've Got Mail, the way the Seattle waterfront is used in Frasier or When Harry met Sally, or the way that Montmartre is evoked in Moulin Rouge, or futurism is predicted with reference to Tokyo in Blade Runner. These cities conjure images that they are automatically associated with, and can be played with in some stunning works. American Psycho is set in New York for a reason.

However, London doesn't do this. It lacks a central image. Yes, the tourists get Big Ben and Buckingham Palace, the BT Tower and, lately, the Gherkin and the Shard. But they are disparate images. There is no singular London skyline, no singular London identity. Instead it is the ultimate in cosmopolitain, inclusive cities. This is 'the crushing psychic weight' Lewis is talking about. Nowhere else in the world does Caribbean meet Bangladeshi meet Polish meet Lebanese meet Greek meet English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, creating what we call Britain. There is no denumeration of place: district blends into district, race into race, style into style. Past becomes present becomes future. You can walk out of Aldgate station, past the newest of the City of London's buildings, occupied as they are by the newly moneyed white middle class, down Commercial Road, dilapidated sixties dwellings, occupied mainly by Bangladeshi families, under the ultra-modern-seeming DLR, to Sixteenth Century Tobacco Docks to St. Katherine's Docks with its delusions of grandeur, Ferraris parked beneath in its underground car park, the Royal Barge afloat at anchor, with old aristocracy and new moneyed Arabs, and within sight of the marvelously Gothic Tower Bridge, where every denizen of London crosses at some point on their journey to the South East. All in less than half a mile.

Beyond the physical and social blurring, there is also the secrets that London hides. The thought of what is actually in the underground tunnels? The sewers. The rooftops. The canal. Hell, the Islington tunnel, where the canal goes underground. The River. Southwark, Westminster, the City. The difference between West and East, North and South. Camden and Kensington. Hackney and Tooting and Brixton and Walthamstow. London is all cities and none, it contains every possibility at all times. You are an individual and yet invisible amongst the seething throngs of King's Cross-St Pancras commuters. You are an individual and yet invisible amongst Shoreditch's Hipsters. You are an individual and yet invisible among Streatham's gangs.

With so much occurring, and no single narrative thread, is it any wonder why there are so many stories set in London? With so much potential for secrecy; the ease from which the magic of one ethnicity or sub-culture blends seamlessly into another, and the conflict or integration that is involved; the mysteries of history and future, above and below: is it any wonder that London's rabbit hole is dived into with such regularity, imbued with a magic entirely of its own creation?

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Fade to Black by Francis Knight

Fade to Black - Francis Knight (#1 Rojan Dizon Trilogy)

It was interesting to approach this book so soon after reading another book, by another Frances, looking at overtly similar themes in the world building. Frances Hardinge's A Face Like Glass also features a vertical society, which neatly maps onto a Marxist view of societal change. In Francis Knight’s Mahala, just like Hardinge’s Caverna, the lower classes live physically at the bottom of the heap, and upper classes are living it large in the upper echelons of the city. While the cities couldn't be more different in content, in terms of political impact they couldn’t be more similar.

While Hardinge’s wonderful novel focusses on a young protagonist, and explicitly uses the proletariat uprising as a plot theme, Knight’s focusses on the underclass fighting back on a much more personal level. Rojan Dizon is a pain-mage, and bounty hunter, much in the mold of the Harry Dresden school of character: a lovable rogue, embedded in the underbelly of his city. Instead of an alt-Chicago, our urban playground of choice in Fade to Black is Mahala, a ‘vertical’ city rising out of a valley. Technology is proto-steampunk; the gun has just been invented, a pseudo-petrol, 'Synth', has just been outlawed due to its deadly effect, transport involves ‘carriages’ and a cages on wires in the style of cable-cars.

The premise of this worldbuilding sounds original, and, were it as fully realised as Hardinge’s vertical city it could possibly have been a truly unique and memorable fantastic experience. Instead, we are treated to a world that sounds cool on paper, but is never fully realised. Throughout the book, we are treated to what seemed to be unrealistic and not-fully-realised locations and moments. Futhermore, the central premise of the world building, Mahala’s very verticality, is effectively negated from chapter three onward.

Most of the action takes place in the ‘Armpit’ (colloquially, and uninspiringly known as the ’Pit), the very bottom of the city which has been sealed off since the discovery that ‘Synth’, the major power source in the world, was toxic. On entry to the ’Pit, we see that despite the lingering threat of the ‘Synthtox’, life is actually pretty hunky dory:

As we descended, I could hear the life of the city. Music! I hadn't heard any real music in years: the Ministry disapproved, considering most lyrics to be seditious ... Here, songs blared constantly from broken windows, the old-fashioned music that had had a brief resurgence just before the 'Pit was sealed, all heavy throbbing beats and wailing words, a desperate outpouring of anger against the synth. [pg.73]

On top of music, they have freedom of worship of the major deity, meat,  Coliseum-inspired games arena and are generally pretty free and happy compared to Upside. Well, as best as I could tell in some parts of the novel. And then there are other parts were, without telling us why or how Knight suddenly realises that Downside is in fact this shitty place, as we are constantly reminded by the rather info-heavy first-person narrative of Rojan himself. However, apart from being as downtrodden as the Upsiders, and yes, having the threat of Synthtox heaped on them, there doesn’t seem anything that makes the Pit and worse than Upside.

This is not the only example of poor plot-building, which remains either entirely too predictable or, on very rare occasions, is presumed known without actually informing the reader. I found myself all too often, as early as chapter three predicting almost the entire concept and premise of the book, the actions and reactions of characters. When there is a side plot it is both entirely artificial and entirely predictable as it is possible to be, even to the point where it is acknowledged as such by the characters of the book.

For example, on looking for the niece of the main character, Rojan uses his pain-magic (magic that is powered either by one’s own, or others’, pain. Rojan is far too moralistic to use the latter, of course. The major adversary is as obvious as can be just by that description.) to pinpoint her location: EXACTLY west of a companion  character’s house. Obviously Rojan is naturally able to pinpoint true North by instinct, even under the city, so finding true west of the house is easy. Eventually, after a pointless cage trip to exactly above Pasha's house, we find that the niece is being kept in the keep of the cod-medieval castle under the city. To this mighty news, we hear: 'No surprise, we thought as much. We've just never known for sure, and not enough help to just go for it, no one to tell us where in the keep' [p.181]. Oh, hooray. I've wasted 50 pages finding the niece only to be told you already knew where she was?

One of the most jarring elements of the novel as it continues is the sense that Rojan as a character never seems to have a grip on just how terrible the events he is witnessing, and attempting to forestall are. Trying to avoid spoilers, suffice to say many innocent parties are in terrible danger, and are, in often gruesome ways, tortured or threatened so. I found it very odd, and at no point is this well explained, that all those in danger are women, particularly young girls, and while the author is female this cannot be seen as an excuse for what  can all-too-easily be read as a misogynistic sexualisation of the magic system. The main character, buried in a worldview where women are there to be used, and thrown aside, who proudly acknowledges in a scene where three women discover they are all being played by him early on in the novel that a two week relationship is a long one, obviously doesn’t notice this. We, as readers, must, and it’s a difficult concept to take with lack of explanation attached. Further, throughout the narration is just so cheerful, so off hand and off beat. At times this comes across really well, particularly in the in-between segments between plot points, or where we are being (not often enough) dipped into the world of Mahala, but when it comes to descriptions of the horrors Rojan is facing, he’s far too nonchalant to be believable.

This simple and entirely-too-convenient plot comes to a head following a couple of hundred pages filled with love-triangle, angst, violence-occurring and all-too-obvious-side-quests with the most horrific of endings. It’s so obvious, so singularly uninspiring that it has been the subject of parodies since before its most famous instance in the 1970s. I found myself wishing that it wasn’t going to happen in the way it did, and then physically having to prevent myself from hurting the poor book when it eventually happened.

Finally, affixed to this is prose that is more a violent shade of violet in places than merely purple. There are sentences that literally don't make sense. Take this, from the very first page: 'One sight of me, a burly man in a subtly armoured, close fitting all over with a flapping black coat, and the and the scavenge-rat teens that call this place home took to their heels'. We later find out that an 'allover' is some kind of garment, but the combination of tell-not-show and spelling mistake makes for a reviewer who has to reread that sentence ten times trying to work out what it means, before moving on. Elsewhere we sentences that mix action and description to disastrous results: 'Chains rattled and clanked overhead, cages whizzed by, sometimes too close for comfort so I ducked instinctively' [p. 123], or the splendid paragraphs at the start of chapter eleven:

By the time the cage set us down on firm ground, I was ready to kiss the street .. I might even have done it, if the stink of the place hadn't warned me. It smelled like shit. Literally.

My stomach roiled over. It hadn't recovered from the cage yet, and now I was being assaulted by a smell strong enough to make my eyes water. No wonder the street was empty. [p. 183]

Yes. We know that it smells already. From the paragraph before.

Furthermore, the method the plot uses to go forward often consists of rhetorical questions: 'Those old warehouses were pretty small. You could probably fit half a dozen into one of the minor new ones up there in Trade. The bigger, newer ones took up vast cubed acres. So where else? And more importantly, where was he moving them from?' [pp. 174-5] And the occasional info-dump, like the entirety of chapter three. All told, points we can possibly forgive individually from a debut author, but not collectively.

My concluding thought was as a result of all this simplicity was that if the derivative simplistic nature of the book was substituted into a less-horrific setting we could possibly have some average-to-good middle-grade YA. As it is, we have a box of cheap, predictable tricks and a horrible sense that this was an idea that had some real potential to it, and was cruelly taken over by a Pixar movie whose plot it apes, if said movie were placed in a gritty, over-noired fantasy setting.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Revisiting the Old Flame: Robert Muchamore

Robert Muchamore - Guardian Angel (#2 Cherub: Series 2)

Disclaimer: This isn't really a review of the book above, so much as a rant about the series based on reading the above book recently.

I remember my first encounter with Robert Muchamore in much the same way as I remember my first encounter with J.K. Rowling. I was twelve years old, staying in a B&B in Douglas, capital of the Isle of Man. I'd run out of things to read on my holiday. So face either with Dickens, Bronte and Hardy available at the B&B, or with the exciting prospect of a trip to the bookshop, I chose the latter. Twenty minutes later I emerged, clutching a bright orange book with CHERUB: The Recruit blazoned across it. It was about child spies. It had the odd swear word. It was the coolest thing my young reading eyes had ever seen.

Fast forward nine years, the entire Harry Potter series, and a new found love of speculative fiction, and I've read every one of Muchamore's CHERUB series. Constrained by (kind of) realism, his first protagonist, James Adams, is done away with after 12 books - graduating from Cherub an adult. Clearly unable (or unwilling) for whatever reason to put the success away,  Mr. Muchamore has progressed to a 'Series 2' - a la TV serials. This time, it features Ryan Sharma, a half-Russian CHERUB recruit, slightly older than James is when we first encounter him, battling against the Aramov criminal gang, a Kazakhstan-based smuggling and drugs ring.

It is interesting to read Guardian Angel as an adult. Its even more interesting to realise quite how disappointed I was when I realised it was out and couldn't find it in my local Waterstones. The series has, arguably, had the biggest effect on me through my childhood of any bar probably Harry Potter. Why is it, then, that I would struggle to name the plot of most of the books, let alone the characters?

Lets examine this: Muchamore's CHERUB is an exiting ride, thrilling in a genre where his only competitors at the time were Anthony Horowitz and Charlie Higson (both of whom I also read - and the first of whom I could do plots for with ease, despite the fact I read them at a similar ages: 12 or 13). It posits an interesting world where there are child agents that can, realistically, discover as much, if not more, than adult agents - by making friends with the children of criminals, by infiltrating groups as people do not suspect them by virtue of their being children. It allows for the slow-build of relationships, the troubles of teenage years, the growth of friendships, all vital to the growing up process, to be explored expertly.

However, where it falls is almost certainly the writing. Compared to Horowitz's prose, or even Rowling's, Muchamore is blunt, to the point; methodical and getting the job done, sure, but not as memorable, or as poignant as the others. Instead, possibly as a result of the pressure of releasing at least two books a year, Muchamore hammers out writing and plots that, like later Alex Ryder books get increasingly far-fetched and escapist, focusing more on missions and less on relationships. As the CHERUB books got further in their series, I began to empathise much more with secondary characters: James' sister Lauren, her boyfriend Rat. These are less fleshed out, sure, but have more interesting dynamics, are less run-of-the-mill characters, seem less of a Mary Sue. Ryan Sharma and James Adams, our main protagonists over the course of the two series, are basiccally interchangeable - attractive white men, friends with 'outsiders' (in James' case a homosexual, in Ryan's a Chinese girl), who will invariably save the day as the PoV characters integral to the mission show their prowess in the face of ever-more-unlikely danger, yet have some fatal flaw that only James/Ryan can withstand.

Couple this with the boys-own style, with women described by their 'great tits' and how 'hot' they are, and you have a recipe for a series that runs downhill. Yes, teenage boys are mainly interested in tits, and so yes it does depicct a sort-of-realism, but should we be encouraging this? Teenagers, especially those from about 13-16 (which sseems to me the ideal age range of these books) are already wankers enough without a bestselling book encouraging it. The early CHERUB season 1 books allowed for varying views of sexuality, though porblematically stereotyped, in Kyle. Lauren and Rat's long-term relationship is interesting and complex. James and Ryan shag around. Why can't we have an interesting main protagonist who's sexual ideals of teenage life do not revolve around 'Boobs?! Where???' *goggles*. Why can't Muchamore provide a female perspective on sex and sexuality, the worries of men about performance or whether or not its going right, or whether she's enjoying it as much as he? Muchamore has a palette of different colours to choose from by virtue of his creation of the CHERUB campus, and fails to go further than different shades of his own blue.

This I could forgive in a three book series, but not in 14 books. At least one should go beyond the, ironically, adolescent imagery and attempt to push into interesting moral territory. Instead we witness cookie-cutter scenarios where the good guys are clearly differentiated as white and male and heterosexual, and they will save the world from the brown and Russian and homosexual and religious and earth-hugging terrorists. Muchamore's works have stuck with me, and influenced me, sure: they are exciting for the boy in me, stuff blows up, guns are handled, these guys speak different languages, know martial arts, are physically fit in ways I could never be. They were the ultimate escapist fantasy. It's just I'm not sure I still want them to be the escapist fantasy for those following me.

Monday, 13 May 2013

From Russia with Love: Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgns

Peter Higgins - Wolfhound Century (#1 of Trilogy)

Peter Higgins' fantastical alt-Russia is an absolute delight to explore in this peculiar-yet-delightful detective-fiction-cum-weird novel. We are set up for one story, a basic detective novel, focussing on a suspected terrorist in a provincial city, are are swiftly, in the first couple of pages, taken not only out of this provincial Russian city, but out of our own world entirely.

The novel follows Inspector Vissarion Lom in his quest to find anarchist supreme Josef Kantor, summoned as an outsider to the city by the complex beaurocracy of the Lodka. His outsider status neatly allows for the city to be explored by the reader as much as by Lom himself, as in so many novels, and yet the worldbuilding is subtle, never stopping and telling the reader but simply moving swiftly through what would be taken as known by our characters. 

Along the journey through Mirgorod's streets (the capital of The Vlast, our fictional empire, and also, interestingly, both a real town in Ukraine and a collection of short stories by Gogol) we encounter an overiding mystery relating to the major fantastical point of the book - a war in heaven, between Angels, which has resulted in them falling to Earth. One, Archangel, whom we see as a viewpoint character in some memorably mysterious prose, has survived the fall and is manipulating events while its non-human intelligence attempts to rise from its current position, buried in a sentient-forrest. So far, so strange.

The mystery of Josef Kantor bleeds nicely into the mystery of the Archangel through the use of "angelflesh" and a mysterious world-within-a-world of the Pollandore. Slowly, the true object of the quest becomes the understanding and potential unlocking of this Pollandore, which is similarly bleeding into the world of the book, causing mysterious fractures in time and space and people that are recorded in phantasmogorical delight by Higgins: 

"The first picture was a street scene, but the familiar world had been torn open and reconstructed all askew. The street skidded. It toppled and flowed. All the angles were wrong. The ground tiled forwards tipping the people towards the camera. It wasn't and illusion of perspective, the people knew it was happening. A bearded man and an old woman threw up their arms and wailed. A baby flew out of its mothers arms." (pp.96-7)
This bleeding of fantasy and reality is, in many respects, a tale of the book as a whole. In her excellent Strange Horizons review, Nina Allen picks up on the bleeding of real-world Russian history in easily discernible analogues within Higgins' book. Admittedly, my knowledge of Russian history is very little, but I also picked up on the founding of St. Petersburg, but with the amount listed on there it is well worth a look. This infringement of the real on the book, and witrhin the book the fantasy on the real could be a complex game being played with the Pollandore, and I hope it is, but it is nevertheless fascinating to look at: why are comparison with Russian history so overt, even down to a sentence level? What is the relation of the Pollandore within the 'real-world' and the books' world? Is the fantastical bleeding caused by the Pollandore another world that we will recognise, or is it a third, parallel fantastical realm? All these questions will, hopefully, be drawn out in the rest of the series; however, in the meantime we pontificate and enjoy.

The book has drawn plaudits quite rightly about its beautiful writing  that make comparisons with the prose of China Mieville throughout, and it easy to see why. The depiction of Mirgorod, and the surrounding areas that are explored is as rich and as complex as Mieville's Bas-Lag trilogy, if lacking in the variety of weird creatures. The prose too has moments of an utterly stunning lyrical nature, and the occasional input of the Archangel's voice reminds me of Yagharek's Part-opening in Perdido Street Station. The oft-quoted rain scene early in the book deserves repeating for its sublime nature, rare in a debut-novelist:

"Two kinds of rain fell on Podchornok. There was steppe rain from the west, sharp and cold, blown a thousand versts across the continental plain in ragged shreds. And the other kind was forest rain. Forest rain came from the east in slow, weighty banks of nimbostratus that settled over the town for days at a time and shed their cargo in warm fat sheets. It fell and fell with dumb insistence, overbrimming the gutters and outflows and swelling the waters of the Yannis until it flowed fat and yellow  and heavy with mud. In the spring the forest was thick with yellow pollen that stuck in your hair and on your face and lips and had a strange taste. In the autumn it smelled of resin and earth. This, today, this was forest rain." (p.5)
 And throughout the prose is beautiful, experimental, pushing boundaries in form. There is a particularly memorable moment set within a psychlogical-river of thought and reality bound together later in the book that exemplifies this experimental/lyrical juxtaposition. The writing in this scene, revolving around the mantra 'Time is nothing here' is simply the best in the book: It flits from element to element, allowing for an intimate gaze into the heart of our protagonist while elucidating on the world as a whole and simultaneously being utterly beguiling.

In all, the book its a masterful exploration of a different strand of the New Weird. Comparisons to Mieville abound because of the style of prose and city, and, while the story itself doesn't have the subtelety of Mieville's text, and could perhaps have done with being longer in order to encapsulate better the inner-workings (outside of the plot) of our characters' lives, the way the plot itself is handled is excellent. Until the ending. Which is seemingly chucked in out of nowhere, to perhaps make the novel a trilogy. It seems to me like the novel as a stand-alone doesn't really have an ending to complete and connect the beginning to the end. Instead we get a set-piece set up, which in another book would be an excellent late-piece drama before a true completion, but in this is thrust as an ending. It has little to do with the rest of the plot, or in the continuation of the overarching mystery of the Pollandore, and as a result seems too open ended, too forced - don't get me wrong, I like a good open-ending as much as next sentient being, but this seems like, perhaps for publishing purposes, the ending got lost among the excitement of the rest of the novel.

Higgins is truly promising, however. His prose style is splendid, his world-building, while as the Strange Horizons review shows is a little heavy handed in its treatment of history, comes across as immersive and encompassing, with hints of a greater world than the plot dictates, and the plot is enticing and promising in and of itself. Beautiful prose, elegant book, exciting times.


Postscript: My thanks to Jon Weir for providing me with a copy of the novel in exchange for review. Apologies for how long it took Jon!

Monday, 6 May 2013

Reviewing the Reviews: Speculative Fiction 2012, editted by Jared Shurrin & Justin Landon

Speculative Fiction 2012 - edited by Justin Landon & Jared Shurin

It's interesting to approach a book of reviews and essays in review form, mainly due to a sense of inferiority. Any review that I write of a collection purporting to be 'The best online review, essays and commentary 2012' (Front Cover) is, necessarily, going to bring to mind those works in both my and the readers' minds. And that is daunting, as they really are good.

Jared and Justin, in their introduction, state, one assumes semi-ironically that:

[I]t isn't all roses. Let's be honest, no one takes us seriously. 'Blogging' is barely reviewing and certainly never 'criticism'. ... While our work sticks around, you're only as good as your last post. And once something is off the front page, it might as well be gone forever. [p.8]
In creating this collection of 52 reviews, essays, commentary, criticism, and works of speculative love, I'd argue that Jared and Justin have destroyed their own hypothesis. By collecting these blogs, these important, redeemable, estimable, beautiful creations that form the basic framework of the modern Genre fan's connection with the Speculative World as a whole, the editors are elevating what was once not taken seriously into a fully fledged work of criticism. The very action of collating such a collection elevates its contents to something more than they were when written. The inclusion of 'best' gives an air of authority and sense of purpose that the collection more than deserves.

Split into three sections, 'Reviews', 'Essays' and 'SF Life', the collection is clearly designed to be dipped into with whatever strikes ones fancy. I didn't do this: I read it cover-to-cover, minus a couple of works (namely the two China Mieville reviews, as I'm a massive fanboy, and Matt Hilliard's WorldCon 2012: Fragments as I'd read about it and it sounded like a fascinating technique - more about that later.) I feel, and it was touched upon in the excellent Reddit AMA that occurred last week, that the collection could have done with a touch more differentiation of themes throughout it. Obviously, the reviews section is necessary, but within 'Essays' and 'SF Life', there were definite trends to be seen, particular regarding discussions of Gender and Diversity in Genre. Creating a section for this, however, could perhaps be problematic in itself, especially were essays touch upon gender/diversity, but are focused elsewhere: in discussions with other essays, perhaps, or another theme entirely. N.K. Jemisin's essay But, but, but - Why does magic have to make sense? springs to mind with regards this. Ostensibly related to the current proliferation of self-contained magic systems (see Brandon Sanderson, perhaps most famously, and more recently Brian McClellan), as with much of what Jemisin writes, issues regarding the depiction of race and diversity in fantasy make an appearance.

The collection's focus is of the traditional print-book form of Speculative Fiction for the most part, but does not exclusively touch upon that. I found, however, that the essays that I was least interested in were touching upon these alternate aspects of the Speculative Fiction oeuvre - Tansy Raynor Roberts' Where the Wonder Women Are: Supergirl and Chris Garcia's Ma Vie En Zines respectively. Most likely this is a reflection of my tastes: I'm not really versed in any way or form with Fanzines or Comics, and thus these essays didn't speak to me in the same way as others did, particularly with their specificity. Where other essays that were not exclusively focused on the traditional-book form suceeded, in my eyes, was their application as general, broad categories: Feminism, Politics, Agency, Homosexuality. The best example that I can see of this, in relation to the above essays, is Gav Thorpe's Are Elves Gay? - while again an essay ostensibly on a subject I have relatively little experience/interest in (the Black Library and Warhammer universe) its subject matter was broadly perceptions of homosexuality in shared worlds, and was an astute and thoughtful answer to a fan question; though Aishwarya Subramanian's What is it Like to be a Dragon similarly applies colonialism to My Little Pony, in a  short but thought-provoking essay. I think that the inclusion of these elements of Speculative Fiction was, however, a positive - perhaps more focus in the essays/SF life sections on those works that transcend just one format, that focus on the overarching themes that are of interest to all forms of Genre could make readers like me more interested in comments on comics, or Zines, or whatnot. Further, more diversity in reviews (only one review was not of a book - Maureen Kincaid Speller's The New Yorker 'Science Fiction' Special) is something to be desired: with the abundance of Movies, TV Shows, Comics etc. etc. released last year (and reviewed last year), its something to be looked at, perhaps.

Ignoring all this silly nitpicking, we have an astoundingly god collection on our hands. Jared and Justin have excelled here, with big thanks, I'm sure, to the community. We have essays that are academic in nature (Paul Kincaid's The Widening Gyre), essays that are experimental (Matt Hilliard's WorldCon 2012: Fragments - which uses non-linear, present tense fragments to tell an astonishingly clever tale of Matt's first World Con), thoroughly researched and backed up reviews (particularly Lavie Tidhar on Embassytown, Larry Nolen on Alif the Unseen, Joe Abercrombie on The Blade Itself [a really interesting revisiting of his own work], Adam Roberts on Atlas Shrugged, Martin McGrath on The Fen and the Fallen and Cynthia Martinez on Stormdancer [which made me not want to read the book - a positive for me].) We have a stunning essay on Cowardice, Laziness and Irony, in response to Kincaid's The Widening Gyre, by Jonathan MacCalmont (which I disagreed with almost entirely, yet thoroughly recommend for a long lunch break). We have tentative steps into the statistics of blogging with Lady Business. We have Priest's Clarke post. We have responses to the idiotic Revealing Eden fiasco. We have the spectrum of what was what on the interwebs in front of our eyes. And it was good.

The only real issue I have with the book is the production. There are just too many formatting errors for a book being sold for actual real moneys. These range from speech-marks the wrong way round to missing words to sentences that have a line break in the middle of them. While the most major is a missing word at the end of the Stormdancer review, they happen so frequently that, for a human like myself who is slightly OCD about grammar etc., it sucks the reader out of the entertainment that each critical piece has. The editors, and/or Jared's Jurassic London imprint could have done with freelancing a proofreader, or doing so themselves. I appreciate that the editors do make reference to this in the note-from-the-editors at the back of the book, and that lessons will (hopefully) be learnt it book creation, but certainly when one considers that Jurassic London have previous with their Pandemonium series, you expect a more professional end product in those terms.

That slight blot aside, we have the perfect companion to the internet-age fan. If you're conversant with blogs, you'll know some of these articles already. That doesn;t matter, as reading afresh is just as fun, and, what's more there are so many excellent articles you won't have. From Sam Sykes on Fun and Fantasy (Scarper, Montgomery), to separating author politics and author writing (What do China Mieville, Orson Scott Card and Frank Miller have in common? by Myke Cole) to Circus' in fantasy (sadly missing out on the excllent Night Circus by Erin Morgenstein - The Circus as Fantastic Device by Chris Gerwel), SpecFic 2012 is a romping ride through 2012's blogging scene, and a stunning example of the maturity and intelligence of our community. I know what's going on my Hugo Ballot next year...

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Week o' Geek

I've had a bit of a mad week last week: a celebration, if you will, of geekery that neatly coincided with the fact that I'm FREE from university until October. Silly academia.

All started Monday with the Lauren Beukes launch of The Shining Girls over at Forbidden Planet - got a signature of my lovely copy, in pretty silver on the front, black page. It looks lovely. Essentially spent the launch queuing and listening to Molly Flatt and Tom Hunter chatting about the upcoming Write the Future, feeling a little silly. But hey, it was good procrastination from the last day of essay writing, and, while nowhere near as fun or as social as the Sarah Pinborough launch, kept me amused. Maybe that's partially down to Forbidden Planet's layout as much as anything - the basement, if you don't know, is both wonderful and exceedingly cramped. Full of books and bookshelves, it doesn't make for good mingling, and though I did spot a bunch of people I know (Jared Shurin, Den Patrick etc.), I left them to their chatting are wandered home. Not the best, but hey hum.

Tuesday's Kitschie's event, a panel/reading with Benjamin Percy, Lauren Beukes (again) and Warren Ellis was much better - two great readings and an excellent presentation from Beukes, and a great panel on modes and methods of storytelling followed. And then a good hour+ of bar-shaped mingling. Which I always love. Benjamin Percy has the greatest voice in the world ever, and I may buy my first audiobook since my cassette versions of Harry Potters 1-3, just because he reads them. Seriously. Listen to this. Its like molten, evil, chocolate. I got Lauren to sign my Zoo City & Moxyland, and bought both Gun Machine and Red Moon. Mingling wise, met the delightful James Smythe (big fan of The Explorer, which I'll be rereading this summer, at the same time as reading The Testament and The Machine), Gerard from the Science Fiction Book Club, as well as having lovely chats with Den Patrick and Tom Pollock (as usual), and accidentally blanking Kim Curran. I placed her face, but just went 'er, hi'.

Wednesday saw Write the Future, a symposia on futurificness (yes, that is a word. I invented it.) In eight talks and a panel we explored varying aspect of the future, and the methods with which it can be written both literally and metaphorically. There were some real highs (Molly Flatt, take a bow - she looked at Social Media for writers, and discussed it astonishingly.) and a few lows (the panel - which was exceedingly chair led, and seemed to have 4 disparate personalities in Smári McCarthy, Joanna Kavenna, Jane Rogers and Paul Graham Raven, talking on the nature of truth in writing. It didn't really work.) All in all, it was an excellently run event which I'd have like to have blogged about in more detail - however, I missed the opportunity while it was all fresh in my mind by being hungover due to a party in the morning. Bugger. With luck, it will be back next year - possibly a little more thematically resolute, due to longer to plan it.

Thursday finally saw a panel hosted by the post-apocalyptic bookclub at Waterstones Piccadilly. Featuring Frances Hardinge, Tom Hunter, Adam Roberts, Anne Perry, Rob Grant and Jeff Norton, topics ranged wildly from George R R Martin naked in a sauna (thanks for that image Mr. Roberts!) to award shortlists to the cultural reasons behind the plague of zombie-apocalypse novels in publishing. Again, a wonderful event, one that was full of interest and lovely people. Irritatingly I thought I'd forgotten my copy of A Face Like Glass for Frances to sign, but when I came home I found it in my bag. Balls and buggery. However, I did make Anne Perry's day by breaking the mold and getting her to sign her page of Adventure Rocketship! Jared also signed his, and I'll be taking it with me to World Fantasy and Nine Worlds (if I decide to go to the latter) to see how many signatures I can get onto it. Fuck it, why not?

So, all in all, a truly delightful week. Lovely people, interesting events, a free coke (thanks Tom!), good, new books, and more excitement in my geeky geeky life. Bring on the next lot.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Outside of a Dog

I'm not normally one to post the slightly-narcissistic, me-me-me posts on this blog, but a) its mine, and b) no one will read it anyway, so fuck it, I'm posting anyway. I'm normally going to try and keep this review/genre news/comment focussed but, as I said, hey hum.

You may have notice by that yellow ball in the sky ("It burns my eyes!"), but its SUMMER. This is wonderful, in that I can now relax outside. It is also wonderful because, as a university student, I now have 5 months (5 fricking months) with nothing to do.

I finished my essays on 30th April, and thus am free. Second year at uni over. Freedom is mine. And I'm a little daunted by it. I have a student loan to live on and little else, and thus job hunting is the order of the day - applied for one at Foyles, and a couple of bits-and-bobs jobs, but I'd love a decent one.

More excitingly, however, I'm applying for Work Experiences to continue my hunt for a place in publishing come the end of my degree. I'll be working on my Work-in-Progress (12,000 down, 100k+ to go, as well as short stories as and when the mood takes me. I've submitted a review for publication elsewhere. I've submitted a short story to the Pandemonium: Ash chapbook from those Pornokitschie humans.

I've spent the last week, pretty much, at genre-y events (roundup to come at the end of the week).

All in all, I feel productive.

And I haven't even mentioned the reading:

 Not Pictured: Kate Griffin (Because I haven't bought it yet), Neal Gaiman's Neverwhere (its in a cardboard box...), Jonathan Stroud's Amulet of Samarkand (Box.), whatever else I can think of.

I've decided to get a headstart on my dissertation, by reading all the books I'm doing it on over the summer. I will, of course, review them on here. They are genre-y, after all.

A big thanks to the excellent peeps at Fantasy Faction for linking me to ALL THE LONDON BOOKS when I posted a thread over there. I'm looking at maybe 10-15 or so over the summer, with view of whittling that down when I start writing. I know for certain that Tom Pollock's The City's Son (& probably the sequel), China Mieville's King Rat and Un-Lun-Dun (& possibly Kraken), and Paul Cornell's London Falling will all be in the dissertation proper.

Dissertation has slowly morphed from an unwielding so much London stuff into the slightly-more-wieldy-but-still-prone-to-falling-over London Within and London Without - looking at books where there is a 'normal' London that overlays an 'under' London, which only a select few can access. If you have any advice/suggestion, whether critical or novels/short stories/plays/interpretie dance troupes, please leave them in the comments!

So yeah. Narcissism a-go-go. Summer will be busy.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Fairies Wear Boots: Poison by Sarah Pinborough

Sarah Pinborough - Poison (#1 of Fairy Tale Trilogy)

For fear of being cliche and/or stating the obvious, revitalised and rethought fairy-tales are having something of a revival at the moment, particularly on big- and small-screens. Series' such as Grimm and Once Upon A Time are vying with Hollywood adaptations such as Jack the Giant Slayer and Snow White and the Huntsmen for viewers suddenly interested in how fairy tales can be adapted for a modern audience. Sarah Pinborough's new novella, Poison, is steeped in this idea.

Quite why fairy tales are such a noveau vogue thing to do is questionable. In the latest edition of The Readers podcast, Gav Pugh argues that it is perhaps something to do with a generation of 30-40 y/os now at the helm of the creative arts responding to the Disney stories of their youth. Disney has come a long way from the one-dimensional tales of Aladdin or Sleeping Beauty, particularly with its acquisition of Pixar, and it is only right that the Fairy Tale story goes that way too.

Pinborough's tale of Snow White, therefore, brilliantly subverts the classic fairy story, adding dimensions to characters at a rate of knots. The classic story is there for all to recognise: The wicked queen, the dwarves, the prince, snow white in the glass coffin, the apple. Even the plot is broadly similar to the one we all know. But its how we get from a to z that is different and refreshing.

The characters are subverted, taken out of their pastiche-filled lining and given motive and reason behind their actions. The queen slowly become bitter over the years due to Snow White's freedom, her ability to effortlessly charm a populace while the queen must rely on terror and tyranny to achieve the same level of devotion. Snow White is a far cry from the whiter-than-white prissy girl of the Disney cartoon, a free and wilful girl, with a kind heart: she rides a horse like a man, wear breeches, and can outdrink and out dance most. 

Pinborough also cleverly manipulates other famous Disney-fairy stories into the piece; both Aladdin and Hansel and Gretel are hinted at, while the trilogy of books (Charm and Beauty are out later this year, focussing on Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty respectively) is not so much linear than circular: When reading Poison, there are distinct references to an action that has occurred before, with regard both the characters of the Prince and the Huntsman.

Outside of the character-based subversion, the plot also makes the fairy tales more real in the action itself. Snow White takes the lead in the bedroom, a feminist icon in handy novella form as she does what she will with her life, and leaves no man to command hat she should or shouldn't do, much to the chagrin of the creepy Prince. There is sex, and it is quite sexy sex - there is no fade-to-black, but nor is the sex lingered on for pages and pages: the scenes are some of the best written out there for judgement of tone, and when its right to cut. And besides, any novel that starts with fellatio is bound to be good, right?

There is a twist, and it made me very angry: just as any good twist like that should. Its a testament to how Pinborough builds her characters that we have such a depth of feeling for the character of Snow White by the end that we don't thank god that her namby-pamby prattling is off our screen now, but instead pity her fate and another's mind for what occurs. 

Pinborough lines up her shotgun at the expectations of fairy-tale, and peppers it full of holes. She takes the mundane, and makes it modern, and this is a throughly modern take on the genre, even while using its tropes against it.

Overall Rating: 4.5*

Addendum: Oh the pretty cover! And the illustrations inside! So pretty!

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Youth and Young Fanhood

I live in London, centre of all things UK fannish - probably because its the capital of  England, and where all the publishers are based. So when interesting SFnal events occur, I've started making a pledge to go along to them as best I can, especially when thy interest me. As a result of this, in the last month I've been to a panel discussion on the BSFA awards, Fantasy in the Court at Goldsboro Books, and the launch of Sarah Pinborough's excellent Poison.

I thoroughly enjoyed each evening, and would estimate that the attendees of the three, when put together, make up a significant proportion of London's geek-culture, certainly when it comes to traditional definitions of 'fandom'.

At the Pinborough signing, I was in a circle of discussion with Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Joe Abercrombie, Tom Pollock, Gav Pugh and myself and made a comment about the ubiquitous facial hair on display. All these fine men have equally fine facial follicles, or a similar disdain for razors, depending on how you look at it. I don't, and thus felt slightly naked before their fearsome chin-bristles and authorly might.

The reason I lack chin bristles, apart from an enjoyment of being clean shaven? I couldn't grow a beard if I tried. I'm nigh on 21 years of age, and can't grow a beard. The shame. Some combination of youth and late onset puberty have combined to make my jaw unable to be warmed by the furry friend of fantasy authors. This is embarrassing, but a fact of life, that I shall have to overcome, probably by finding a unique selling point - like wearing glasses, or not balding (unlike most/all of the above... Cheeky)

This has a serious point, however: I was the youngest person at every single one of those three events by at least five years.

If you discount industry, who some (including me) would argue have to attend a book launch or industry-heavy meet-and-greet, I was probably the youngest by eight-to-ten years. This shocks me, and clearly says something about fandom for us to consider, namely: is fandom defined by age?

There are two obvious answers to the questions of youth and fandom. 1) Youth doesn't like fandom, and 2) Fandom doesn't like youth. I'd argue that both are equally applicable.

An article in The Guardian recently pointed out that the last of four key developments in a person's reading life is the ability not to give a shit about other people's opinion of what you read, and just reading for your own pleasure: most youth have yet to reach that stage. - They are busy reading Dostoyevsky because you are meant to read Dostoyevsky. I'm reading Hardinge because I want to read her. I've reached stage

Even where those my age have reached this stage, they just aren't interested. Most people my age are out shagging, or drinking, or smoking, or taking drugs, or being academic, or having existential meltdowns about their lives as they adjust into 'true' adulthood, while facing the end of their secondary or tertiary education. I am not: I am lucky enough to have had a steady (and rather splendid) girlfriend for six years (aww), to have a solid idea of what I want to do in my life (publishing & writing), to have established hobbies (football, reading, refereeing), to not drink often or much, to not smike. In short, I'm a touch odd when it comes to my age group. Youth is not cut out for the rigours of fandom. It lacks the disposable income to pursue it to the nth degree: it would rather go to Aiya Napa than Eastercon.

Most of all, it lacks reader-experience. Once again, I strike myself as an exception rather than a rule in terms of the amount I've read. I read 50+ books a year and yet I haven't read everything by my favourite author in the world, China Mieville. I certainly would be blown out of the water on anything approaching a rigourous discussion on science fiction pre-2012 by any established (or semi decent) fan. Simply because I was 18 in 2011, and had other things on my mind. And this is a difficult obstacle to overcome, especially when attending an event for the first time, unsure as to who or what to talk about.

Fandom as a result does not accept newcomers easily. Its an insular community of authors and fans who know everyone and each other, who appreciate and keep in touch via the interwebs, the BSFA, the BFA, Twitter and the like. To reiterate, everyone knows everyone. This is intimidating. To walk up to Joe Abercrombie in conversation with Mark de Jager is to walk up to people who've known each other as acquaintances, maybe even friends, for five years. I met Mark, when pissed, once at the Goldsboro Books thing. I met Joe once, when pissed, at Blackwell's last year. To integrate, you have to have a presence, establish an identity over time, to join a group that is already formed.

 Youth lacks that easy way in, that knowing-someone-who-knows-someone that is, for some, the key to entering fandom. It lacks the life and reading experience necessary to take the bull by the horns and chat to a randomer about feminism in Epic Fantasy.

Youth is an outsider to fandom, in general not ready for it. But simultaneously, I think fandom is not accessible to youth, to the new, to those unable to grow beards. One day, I'll stroke mine and look at a fresh faced wee lad, and think of this blog.