Friday, 29 March 2013

Fantasy in the Court at Goldsborough Books

Fantasy in the Court at Goldsborough Books

Well... that was fun. Currently lying in bed, somewhat hungover following a lovely evening at Goldsborough books and, of course, the pub afterwards. Not knowing what to expect, and not really knowing anyone, I was grateful to bump into Louise and Julie from Tor.

Away from having the slightly surreal moment where I bumped into the lovely Cat Webb (Kate Griffin) by the coat-sofa, and she revealed who she was and I did a little double take and went 'I'm using you in my dissertation', I enjoyed my mingling. Free wine (in copious amounts) provoked the naturally shy into being talkative and made authors more hilarious than they usually are.

So my thanks to Goldborough Books (of course), as well as Louise Buckley, Anne Perry, Julie Crisp, Tom Pollock, Sarah Pinborough, Andrew Lawston, Francis Knight, Cat Webb, Dave Bradley, Lavie Tidhar, Liz de Jager & husband Mark (surname forgotten!), Jennifer Williams & probably many more I've forgotten. It was lovely to meet you all for the first time or again.

While 90% of those there were industry in some way or other, everyone was lovely, mingling was easy (once you got used to the lack of oxygen caused by a large amount of humans in a space not designed for that many humans), and those of us who are simply unapologetic fanboys were more than welcome.

However, the most important and exciting part of my evening was, of course, Lavie Tidhar signing my copy of Osama (when he took a short break from reminding Francis Knight and I of his multiple awards he'd won). He might not forgive me for this, but he was somewhat inebriated, and said inebriation made its way into my signing. So, for those of you who haven't seen, I proudly present:

Which, translated, reads:

Dear Max,
My penis is bigger than yours.
Lavie Tidhar

Of course, we must remember that he does write lies for a living...

So not only the best inscription I've ever received in a book, but will one day be worth millions... I can only hope every book I get signed in future has such a wonderful inscription. Thank you Lavie!

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Ian Sales - Adrift on The Sea of Rains

Ian Sales -  Adrift on The Sea of Rains (Whippleshield Books)

I picked up Ian Sales' novellette (novella? - its around 25,000 words...) because of its nomination for the BSFA short story award, and the accompanying article from Niall Alexander on'sShort Fiction Spotlight, which reviewed it rather favourably. I must say, I really like Niall's reviews, and he's one of those people I look to before buying a new book.

The short story looks to be one of the frontrunners for the award, and I must say that its an entirely deserved viewpoint. Sales writes the claustrophobic and the tense with a knowing eye, casting the reader into the mind of the alienated main character, Commander Peterson, with aplomb.

Some days, when it feels like the end of the world yet again, Colonel Vance Peterson, USAF, goes out onto the surface and gazes up at what they have lost.

Adrift takes us straight into a bleak alternate history, one where Peterson and his crew are stuck on the moon after a nuclear holocaust wipes out the Earth. Reliant on the 'Wunderwaffe Device', or the 'Bell', an untested device to traverse parallel universes, the occupants of the moon, for all we know the only surviving humans, are fast running out of hope.

Away from the alt-hist mode and vaguely fantastical Bell ("Any technology sufficiently advanced..."), Sales' looks to the extremes of Hard Sci-Fi to power his work. Now, I don't normally enjoy Hard Sci-Fi unless its done really, really well (as in Peter Watts' Blindsight,to give an example), but this really does it well. There is a large appendix and glossary of terms at the back (which is almost as fascinating to read as the story itself), which I found myself referring to - a little too frequently at times, as the constant stream of acronyms can sometimes take away from the story. But the realism grounds the novel, takes it away from the typical, from the relatively poor 'Golden Age' moon landing stories, even away from recent attempts. Coupled with the claustrophobia we see from our one and only vantage point, it allows for the separation of Sales' narrative from what has gone before it in what must be admitted to be a trope of SF.

It is precisely because Sales is dealing with a trope that the novella feels so fresh. The present tense used in both timelines of the story (intriguingly alternating between italicized and non-italicized fonts) keeps the reader feeling the tension of Peterson, while the jargon causes a deliberate juxtaposition: a sense of the reader without, just a layperson would feel looking in at an astronaut. Oh sure, if you happen to be in the USAF, you'd probably get 80% of the terms used, but otherwise? Not a chance. This juxtaposition, to me, only emphasized Peterson's claustrophobia and separation: from his fellow crewmates ("despair has made strangers of them") and from the rest of humanity by virtue of the predicament in which the astronauts find themselves.

At times this separation becomes a little too much - we don't see much of the other crewmates, they are there as tools for the plot, realistic necessities. They are sketched in brief, which it feels is how Peterson views, them, but at times this brevity can be somewhat hostile, I found myself more than once wanting to know more than I was given.

While the text is entirely male, Sales has revealed on twitter that this is deliberate and that, as part of a series of four, women will slowly become more and more central as the series progresses: perhaps a comment on the archaisms of those stories that formed the trope itself, but we will have to see.

In essence; don't be put off by the hardness of this trope SF tale; it reveals something fresh, something exciting, a storyof ideas that has a character and his feelings at its heart.

Overall Rating: 4.5*

Addendum: I have yet to read the sequel, The Eye with Which the Universe Beholds Itself, which is now out, but will soon, in between my other reading and review it here.


Saturday, 16 March 2013

1853 - Various Authors

1853 - Various Authors (Chapbook, published by Pornokitsch/Pandemonium Fiction)

1853 is a chapbook published by the lovely guys over at Pornokitsch, featuring 3 stories set in the same universe as their major anthology of last year, A Town Called Pandemonium. The brief, as detailed on the Pornokitsch website, was for slightly alternate histories set in the same year as A Town Called..., which, you guessed it, is 1853. The book feature 3 short short-stories; 2 by first-time published authors in Laura Graham and Marc Aplin (the guy behind the fantastic Fantasy Faction), and one by multi-published Jonathan Green. As the stories are small, and there are only three of them, I thought I'd review them singularly, before setting out my overall impressions. As I have yet to read A Town Called Pandemonium (its on the shelf, on the TBR), my impressions of it with regard that anthology can't be said, but suffice to stay it stands alone well.

The Gunslinger  - Marc Aplin

The chapbook opens with Aplin's tale set in the Taiping Rebellion of Hong Xiuquan, a southern Chinese who claimed to be the brother of Jesus Christ. An interesting tale of human conscience, Aplin's battle between an unnamed gunslinger and his actions resonates with all of us who have stood before a difficult choice and had to pick. While the prose is at times stilted, the mark of a first time author, the backdrop of the scene is given to us neatly in broad brushstrokes, and creates an oriental air with ease - perhaps reflecting the author's experience in the Far East. It is also the most subtle of the stories when it comes to the fantastical or supernatural events. The only reflection upon such events is the ending, an intriguing and mystical turn that begs its readers to ask questions, to both believe and disbelieve the central premise of Hong's rule. In terms of story, this, I felt was the best.

Bat out of Hell - Jonathan Green

Ridiculously cliche and unnecessary title aside, Green's novel is clearly the work of an already-published author, though one would hope his editors change his titles usually if they are all that bad. His prose is impressive, sweeping the reader through swiftly, with dialogue and description functioning well within the limited space of the short story ( a mere two pages of my kindle-for-iPad). And yet, the story as a whole just didn't draw me in. Well constructed, well devised within a framework of legend-action-'normal' perspective of aftermath, yet the plot as whole didn't feel appropriate to a short story, but elaborating in a longer piece. Even then, the ideas felt old, cliched; the awakened legend demanding life in return for salvation. Further, while the other two stories within the piece had a feeling of 1853 within them, this didn't feel like the past, but rather the present: the journalistic aspect, as well as the MCs voice coming across as far too contemporary for my liking. Despite this, as I've said, the execution was good, and it is a worthy addition to the chapbook simply through its writing style, which is excellent.

Islands to Auld Reekie - Laura Graham

The standout of the chapbook for me, Islands to Auld Reekie is a heartbreaking letter from a young daughter in Edinburgh to her mother on the Isle of Skye. Again, the work of first-time-author is evident at times through the prose, but Graham pulls off a great piece with the sheer humane aspects of the story. As well as contextualising the expulsion of 'peasants' from the Isle of Skye, Islands to Auld Reekie also touches upon a horror that lurks in the outskirts of newly industrial Edinburgh. It is the naivety and softness of Graham's main character that captures the heart and the hope-against-hope that what is obvious to the reader has not actually occurred. The format as well is a masterful stroke, the letter giving just enough of a glimpse into the life of the MC for the short short-story format, but at the same time giving her nature away without excessive need for backstory: Aplin's first person narrative strives toward this deftness but doesn't quite reach it.


1853 is a very nice publication, and won't take you at all long  to read (I read it on a bus journey...). The biblical quotes at the end of each story give an idea of continuity, and shared-world, without being overly forced. However, given the nature of the biblical quote in Aplin's story (brilliantly used within the constraints of having biblical quotes at the end of each), I'd have like to have seen it placed at the end of the anthology, as opposed to the start, to give the reader a sense of completion & understanding.

Further, while I enjoyed Jonathan Green's piece (though, as said above, I found it to be the weakest story-wise), and don't question its worthiness to go in the chapbook, I'd've like to have seen 1853 as an attempt by the Pornokitsch bunch to introduce to never-before published authors of the manner of Laura Graham and Marc Aplin - these anthologies are perfectly placed to give promising young authors both a leg up and a much needed confidence boost for their writing.

Overall Rating: 4*s

Monday, 11 March 2013

Seth Patrick - Reviver

Seth Patrick - Reviver (Reviver #1)

Disclaimer: Received as an ARC for free from Tor UK

This is going to be big. Massive big. You can just sense it. Reviver is what I'd call a 'Supernatural Thriller', in the vein of Stephen King or Dean R. Koontz, but written really well. Like early Stephen King level of decent writing, without the ridiculously long plots. Its also already had film rights sold. It'll be massive.

I approached Reviver from my week's work experience at Tor UK where I had to read in order to obtain character bios for an online tie in. But immediately it gripped me - 200 pages in an afternoon, a request to them to send me an ARC (which they very kindly provided - thank you!), it had me. The premise is excellent - it is discovered that the dead can be 'revived' temporarily after death, and, rather than going a bit Odd Thomas and having just the one protagonist who can do this, Patrick realises the forensic potential of revival of the dead. His main character, Jonah Miller, is a reviver, working for the Forensic Revival Service (FRS), a US agency linked in some way to the police. The police investigate the murder, the FRS provide a description from the victim.

Jonah Miller is our main character, an excellent Reviver with the FRS Virginia, introduces us to the action, reviving from page one.

Suffice to say, things go wrong.

What impressed me most of the novel was the worldbuilding. Patrick has clearly thought of all the logical implications of his introduction of Revival in a near-future world, and at no point do we, the reader, turn and go 'huh? What the hell happened there?' - instead, the world building takes place slowly, drip fed, and yet exciting in its own way outside of the plot. Indeed, there are elements of later uses of Revival that are key to the plot as a whole, and the subtle worldbuilding is the mark of author vastly more experience than Patrick.

Indeed, the two main characters - Miller and his best friend 'Never' Geary - are well described, and the friendship feels real, tangible, that real-world combo of loving your best friend yet at the same time wanting to kill the bastard. The only issues I had with Patrick's characters were his female characters - they are obviously written by a male, and don't feel particularly well developed, which occasionally infringes upon the reader's enjoyment.

The most important aspect of any book, of course, is the plot: Reviver doesn't disappoint. The overtly supernatural element feels a touch forced, a touch cliche, but it doesn't detract too much - the reason is that the characters, the background, just allow for cliche, and make it easy to suck in...

In true thriller fashion, Reviver is a page turner - it'll appeal to your dad, the average Peter James reader (no disrespect to them), and at the same time a 'serious' genre fiction lover: and it is this that will make it sell in the bucketloads.

Overall Rating: 4*

Reviver is published on June 20th 2013, by Tor UK

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Myke Cole - Fortress Frontier

Myke Cole - Fortress Frontier (Shadow Ops #2)

Fortress Frontier is the sequel to Cole's debut, Control Point and continues the story of 'latent' magic users in a ostensibly contemporary world. I really enjoyed the unique ideas of Cole in his first, taking contemporary magic and applying it to its logical military ends. Fortress Frontier continues this tradition, following a new character, Alan Bookbinder, as well as a few chapters from the PoV of Control Point's MC, Oscar Britton. Bookbinder's character, and the book itself, is an improvement upon the original, and its a romping fantasy that mixes the appeal of commercial military thrillers with excellent characters, world-building, magic system and prose writing. Its the opposite of the sophomore slump (sophomore spring?).

The book follows a whole new character, Colonel Alan Bookbinder, from slightly before [BOOK ONE SPOILER ALERT]Britton's escape from the FoB[/SPOILER ALERT] to a period of time after, but incorporates around a hundred pages from Britton's perspective, which are, sadly, slightly less exciting. Bookbinder finds himself happily pushing paper in a high administrative position in the Pentagon when he finds himself feeling a little queer. With excellent brushstrokes we get inside his head as he comes up a 'Latent Grenade' - latent but without a school of magic that he practises. He is immediately requisitioned for tasking to the FoB 'Frontier' in the magical plane, as their paper-pushing Colonel of choice. However, to do this, he has to leave his wife and children without saying goodbye, and it is to Cole's benefit that he deals with this emotional complexity excellently. We really feel for Bookbinder, a conventional 'good guy', but with flaws in standing up for his own beliefs.

Tension with the commander of the FoB, Colonel Taylor, follow as the situation in the frontier gets more and more dire, and Bookbinder's character progression is both well dealt with and excellently paced. When Britton [SPOILER] finally leaves[ANTI-SPOILER], we see a few chapters from his perspective, which feel a lot less detailed, and there is less of an emotional pull. However, it does allow for the continuation from the first book that, perhaps, the lack of recap within the book doesn't allow for. I always feel that in multi-part series, a key element of the authors first fifty or so pages is to gently remind the reader, who may have read twenty or thirty novels between books 1 and 2 in the series, with a casual aside of X, Y or Z happened. This is something Cole attempts occasionally, but is necessarily prevented by the introduction of a new character that has no relation with the plot of book 1. Britton's PoV chapter, however, are sufficiently below the quality of Bookbinders that they are the only thing I felt prevented this from achieving a 5* rating from me.

The set-piece journey is excellent, and introduces new and exciting elements to the series that I hope are expanded upon in the final part of the 'trilogy' (Shadow Ops will be split into two 'trilogies' of three, set in the same world but with separate plots: Robin Hobb style). New monsters, new human elements, new ideas of how to play with the robust magical system Cole has come up with are introduced, and Bookbinder himself provides an exciting test for the novelist to follow up his massive potential as a character.

Behind the scenes of the main action, the overarching political ideology of the series is expanded as well, a serious questioning of freedom of information in First World Countries, as well as public condemnation and private usage of military ideas (CIA torture and the capture of Islamic insurgents, anyone?). It is here that Cole's military training and experience truly comes forward, as well as the clever and informed world building of FoBs. I particularly enjoyed the wry comment about all military installations, no matter the country of origin, looking the same. I imagined Cole with a wry grin as he wrote it!

And it is this imagination, this idea I have of Cole thoroughly enjoying playing with the rules he has set himself up with, of the plot being a logical continuation of those rules as opposed to the forced McGuffins that frequent so much contemporary fantasy, that sets this novel apart. Anyone with a fleeing interest in urban fantasy taken to its logical conclusion should take a look at the Shadow Ops series - its a blast in more ways than one.

Overall Rating: 4.5*

Monday, 4 March 2013

A week in Publishing with Tor UK

A couple of weeks ago I had both the privilege and pleasure of spending a week's work experience at Pan Macmillan, specifically working within their Tor Uk genre fiction imprint.

I've always wanted to be an author, for as long as I've been a sentient being at least - but its a long and arduous slog, as I'm sure most people know. So, in the 'real world', as some call it - outside of my dreams, and while I slog away - I've had two career options in mind for after university: Journalism and Publishing.

With regards journalism, I've spent the last two years various section editors at my university's newspaper - I've done proofing, I've done features, and am happy and settled on arts. It interests me, and it provides me with free tickets to all sorts of shit (which is only a positive!) - but it doesn't really excite me - not in the same way the physical sight, feel, reading of a a book does.

So: Publishing. 

Acquiring the Work Experience:

I was lucky enough to know someone quite high up in publishing at Harper in the US. He knows everyone who is everyone, it seems (in fact, it seems that everyone in publishing knows everyone else, especially if its their field [genre fiction, women's fiction, crime etc. etc. etc.]). So he hooked me up with the lovely Louis Buckley, editorial assistant at Tor, whome I sent a cheeky e-mail to and arranged a week fitting in with my reading week at university. Both before and since receiving my work experience at Tor UK, I've not received a single positive response regarding any of my work experience/internship applications: Penguin want me to e-mail them near the end of March, and other 'big' publishers have set dates as well. At the moment, I'm using The Society of Young Publishers (£24 membership fee for a year) to search for internships. I've also splashed out on The Writer's and Artists Yearbook (£16.99) and am cold-emailing/calling a few select publisher, hunting for placements. But to no avail as yet - I'll keep trying.

The Experience:
I turned up on day 1 with little o no expectations - I wasn't even sure I'd be with Tor. All I knew was that I working with Pan Mac, the overriding name for all fiction imprints at Macmillan. I knew I'd be doing grunt work - easy stuff, stuff that requires little/no training, but I didn't care. I was going to throw my self in, do stuff to the best of my ability, go the extra mile, create a good impression. Hopefully I did so, and, with my cynical hat on, created potential positive for the future.

On arrival, after the usual HR stuff at any work placement (NDA, expenses, introduction, lunch, working hours &c.), I was set about aiding with submissions. Tor recently started accepting direct submissions which resulted in... well, a lot. Some were excellent. Others not so. So I started through the slush pile, looking to see if there were things the editors may have missed, sending just the one back to be looked at again. I enjoyed it - the 5 chapters I read anyway, and hope that the editors enjoyed it too. It was different, had good voice, good, different SF plot, and excited me. As someone who reads a lot of genre fiction, I like to think I have decent taste.

That aside, I did other things like collating reviews using Google Alerts, for a central database of positive review quotes, creating a fact sheet for the sales department for a potential acquisition, and collating character info for an online tie in to a soon-to-be published work. On top of that was stuff that seemed dull when given, but with the right attitude can be made to work: the opposite of the online tie in above, taking stuff from an online-tie-in and collating it for potential use in print, and making an itinerary of what books the Tor section of Pan Mac had in the office. Sounds dull? Not really - it makes the office look awesome, and gave me more of an idea as to whom Tor represent, from those I knew they did (China Mieville, Amanda Hocking) to those I didn't but excited me (Peter F. Hamilton, Jay Kristoff) and the odd thing I didn't know existed (Halo tie in books by Greg Bear).

The most interesting part of the whole expereince, though, came from learning. I didn't knwo the extent to which the publishing industry is intratwined & intertwined: agents will have preferred editors, sales and marketing and finance all have a say in acquisitions. The money side was also interesting: just who gets what from a deal, and what author's make in advances. Questions are good. Questions make you seem intelligent and eager, and teach you the ins and outs of the industry. Meetings, more importantly, teach the central process of the publishing industry. From imprint meetings with 8 people to the editorial meeting with 30 to the covers meeting with the art department, each taught me a fascinating part of the publishing industry. And, importantly, made me fall in love with it.

Lou Morgan wrote an interesting piece today On Editors - and working in editorial gave me an insight into the excellent work they do, both in the editing process and the housework that surrounds it. They seem a bit mental - working evening and weekends, cutting into free time, but the finished product at the end makes it oh-so-worth-it. And besides, mildly mental people are the most interesting after all.