Wednesday 29 October 2014

Adventures in Charity Shops, an occasional series…

Warning: This post isn't as exciting as the title makes it look. Anyone who used to watch 'Mr Benn' as a kid should pay particular attention to this warning...

If I found ten pounds on the floor (oh I wish I could find ten pounds on the floor…) you would see me heading off to either a charity shop or second hand book shop to see what I could find. I don't have anything against Waterstones etc but as I've got older I find myself drawn to slightly less obvious places to find my books. I could stay out of Waterstones for weeks and still be able to tell you what's on the shelves, almost book for book. Oxfam and the British Heart Foundation shop (amongst others) though? Not a clue and that's what I love about book shopping in these places; I have no idea about what I'll find until I find it. How cool is that? Much better than going into a bookshop with a 'get in, get the book and get out' plan in mind. Where's the fun in that? I'm all about browsing these days, how about you?

Yesterday say me take a little wander up Bromley High Street in search of a couple of 'Horus Heresy' books, that I fancy reading again, but also with an eye open for anything that stood out. Little did I realise that by the time I got back to my desk my Fantasy Masterworks collection would have grown by one and I'd have my own copy of a sci-fi classic that I hadn't read since high school. Have a look at the picture,

'Voice of Our Shadow' is a book where I'm actually really glad that I never found a copy of the Masterwork edition. It's slightly defaced (thanks to an overly sticky price tag…) but look at that bird and how well drawn it is, much more detailed than the Masterworks edition (Google it). I've been looking for a spooky book to read on Halloween and it's currently a tie between this and Joe Hill's 'N0S4R2'.

The last time I read 'Fahrenheit 451' was way back in high school, possibly for GCSE but more likely because I absolutely tore through the sci-fi shelves in our school library. It was either that or play football and have you ever seen me play football? Reading sci-fi it was then… I've got vague memories of a hard going old read, I'll be interested to see if my mind changes now.

So, charity shops all the way then in terms of amazing surprise book finds :o) Please feel free to use the comments bit to tell me about anything cool that you've found in a charity shop recently. Just so long as it isn't 'Know No Fear', that was the book I was looking for and I'll get all jealous if you've bought that already...

Saturday 25 October 2014

'Avengers: Age of Ultron' Trailer

I know the whole internet has seen this already but it is still awesome enough to post all over again. How many days to go until we can see the whole thing...?

And as a bonus, here's the 'Honest Trailer' for 'X-Men: Days of Future Past', just because it made me laugh. You're welcome :o)

Friday 24 October 2014

'The Flame Knife' - Robert E. Howard & L. Sprague de Camp

Well, I was going to try and break things up a little bit but if I'm being absolutely honest, 'The Flame Knife' looked like another quick read that would give me time to get in a couple of extra games of 'Frozen Free Fall' before I got to work. I've been filling up my phone with 'Frozen' stuff just recently, Hope is really into it (that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it), and some of the apps I've found are a real testament to just how far developers will go to jam an idea into a concept. I can just about get my head around the whole 'look after baby Ana and Elsa' app (cos' they were babies once upon a time) but the 'stitch up the large gash on Ana's face' app…? Nope, me neither. Hope loves it though, she's bloodthirsty like that…

But, 'The Flame Knife'…
A little digging (thanks 'Conan Wiki'!) revealed that 'The Flame Knife' was originally an El Borak tale that De Camp reworked (extensively too) into a 'new' Howard story for publication in 1955. This feels more than a little harsh to me; poor El Borak and poor everyone else who thought that they were getting a brand new tale. It's not as if the tale was worked from a fragment either, it's a re-jigging of something that was already doing the rounds. Like I said, poor El Borak… I couldn't help but have this at the back of my mind while I was reading 'The Flame Knife' which is a bit of a shame because it's a very entertaining read.

Now leader of a group of kozaki, Conan, on the run from the displeased king of Iranistan, finds himself in the demon-infested mountain ranges of Drujistan where he discovers a hidden city and the secrets of the cultish Hidden Ones. 

The danger of following one 'Conan' review with another 'Conan' review is that you don't really leave yourself with room to say anything new; especially when the second tale is written by the same author who wrote the first one. You don't have to feel sorry for me or anything but, well… Maybe feel a little bit sorry for me. It's a tough line to walk though. The length of 'The Flame Knife' gives De Camp more room to explore the world of Conan and the reader gets to follow Conan through some gloriously bleak desert landscapes as a result. Or is it El Borak? I'll stop with that now…

Whoever and whatever, 'The Flame Knife' has all the hallmarks of a classic Conan tale; more than likely because Howard's hand is more evident in the proceedings rather than 'just being the muse' as he was for 'Black Tears'. All the usual ingredients are there (I loved the bit with the obligatory huge monster that Conan has to defeat) but there just seems to be more zest and energy to the proceedings. As it happened, I ended up giving 'Frozen Free Fall' a miss so I could finish reading 'The Flame Knife' and that says it all really (given that my attention span has shrunk to the size of my phone screen). 'The Flame Knife' can be found in 'Conan the Wanderer'. 

Thursday 23 October 2014

'Black Tears' - L.Sprague De Camp & Lin Carter

Me: "Hey blog, how's it going?"
Blog: "…"
Me: "Come on, don't be like that. You know how the last couple of weeks have been; the only books I managed to read were for the kids bedtime and I couldn't exactly post about 'Snugglebunny' could I?"

Blog: *Accusing Face*
Me: "No, just no. As brilliant as 'Snugglebunny' is, it has no business being on a genre blog."
Blog: *sniff*
Me: "I know you're upset but I managed to do a little reading on the bus this morning and it was 'Conan'. We both like 'Conan' don't we?"

Blog: *Hopeful Eyes*
Me: "Lets post something about that and see where we go next. I've got some David Gemmell to read and the new Sam Sykes is looking pretty promising as well. It's going to be good, I promise."

Blog: *Slighty Teary Smile*
Me: "Come on, lets do it."

Now the slightly awkward reconciliation is out of the way (I'm sorry you had to see that…) lets get on with business. A little while ago, I picked up a load of old 'Conan' paperbacks so I could get other writers takes on the iconic barbarian. Most of what I've had a chance to read so far is by De Camp and Carter, both of whom played a large part in keeping Robert E. Howard's Work in print, be it completed stories or fragments.

From my own limited knowledge (correct me if I'm wrong guys), 'Black Tears' is an original piece by De Camp and Carter that fills in one of the many gaps that appear between Howard's own tales. There's clearly a lot of fertile ground here to really bring Conan to life but it's up in the air as to whether De Camp and Carter actually manage it. 'Black Tears' is a solid enough read but…

'Black Tears' has Conan pursuing a traitor into the desert after foiling an ambush by a Turanian army. What lies at the heart of the desert is so fearsome that Conan's Zuagir tribesmen would rather drug him and flee than face it themselves. Not only a traitor awaits in the city of Akhlat the Accursed, there is also a demon that prophecy says only Conan can kill…

Like I said to the blog just now, 'Black Tears' was a tale that I read over the course of one bus journey with more than enough happening to keep my interest. I'm not sure of the thought process that led Conan to kill the demon at the end (it's not a spoiler, everyone knows how Conan stories have to end…) but there's a lot of power behind these scenes to pull you past those moments of doubt just before you realise that they are there. Sword fights, beautiful women and a monster to be killed; it's a typical Conan story and this realisation casts its own shadow over the tale.

Conan is Howard's own creation and once you read Howard's stories, you realise that all any other writers can do is borrow Conan for a while before putting him back where he belongs. If you follow the formula then you are 'aping' Howard but if you don't follow the formula you have the shadow of a master storyteller hanging over you; a shadow that it's pretty much impossible to emerge from (especially if you have borrowed arguably his greatest creation). Karl Edward Wagner came closest to achieving that impossible goal, with 'The Road of Kings', but he didn't quite make it; De Camp and Carter appear to opt for playing it safe and are quiet happy to sit under that shadow in the meantime. That's fair enough but Conan is a character who's never afraid to take a chance, it would be nice to see a writer/writers who would do the same.

Maybe it's unfair to ask that though. Maybe we should just be happy that there are writers out there who were prepared to try and give us a little more of something amazing, even if they were never quite going to manage it. I don't know what that means for future posts here about Conan stories, I have a few still to read, I think I'll probably just enjoy them for what they are and post 'as and when'.

If you want to read 'Black Tears' you can find it in old copies of 'Conan the Wanderer' or Orbit's (not quite as old but still getting on a bit) 'The Conan Chronicles 2'.

Friday 10 October 2014

'The Old Scale Game' (From 'The Very Best of Tad Williams' - Tachyon Press)

I'm always a little bit wary of titles like 'The Best of', 'The Very Bestof…', 'Even Better than the Very Best of…' (well, you know what I mean)because it always feels like the book is either setting itself up for a
fall or, perhaps even worse, setting the reader for a fall. It's a nice thing to put in a title but it just feels like asking for trouble. Even with a writer like Tad Williams, I found myself looking at the table of
contents and thinking to myself, 'No 'The Burning Man'? Really?'

It's a good thing then that this particular book is all about work by Tad Williams because even if it's missing a favourite or two you're still pretty certain of coming across some very good storytelling. I've said it before and I'll say it again, I'm a fan (so take my words as you will) but it's hard not to be when the quality of what I've read is so consistent and
also that Williams is prepared to turn his hand to anything. I came to Tad Williams through his 'Osten Ard' books and, as a result, I've always kept an eye open for anything of his that is fantasy based. Not only was 'The Old Scale Game' the first tale in the collection but it has dragons and all sorts of monsters in its eighteen pages. I was sold right from the start.

'The Old Scale Game' takes a simple premise and shows the reader what could happen if a scheme is a little* too* successful and everyone wants in on it. What originally begins as a 'one man, one dragon' operation leads to any number of mythical beasts wanting to get involved, resulting in depression and spiralling alcoholism for one of the original conspirators. I found myself in the position where I couldn't help but feel a little sorry for Guldhogg and Sir Blivet, even though a blatant lack of forethought had led them to this in the first place. Everything works out though (it had to, given the note of gently humour that runs through the piece) and all credit to Williams for taking a thoroughly twentieth century concept and having it sit very comfortably in a tenth century setting (although if the reader is asked to believe in dragons then it's not a huge leap to believe in a dragon that… that would be telling).

I'm still not sold on the title of this collection but I bought 'The Very Best of Tad Williams' with the sole intention of having a lot of fun with the stories inside. 'The Old Scale Game' ended up being a great way to kick
that off (I knew it would).

Wednesday 8 October 2014

'The Free' - Brian Ruckley (Orbit)

They are the most feared mercenary company the kingdom has ever known.
Led by Yulan, their charismatic captain, the Free have spent years selling their martial and magical skills to the highest bidder - winning countless victories that shook the foundations of the world. Now they finally plan to lay down their swords.
Yet when Yulan is offered a final contract, he cannot refuse - for the mission offers him the chance to erase the memories of the Free's darkest hour, which have haunted him for years.
As The Free embark on their last mission, a potent mix of loyalty and vengeance is building to a storm. Freedom, it seems, carries a deadly price.

I can't remember why I never carried on with Ruckley's 'Godless World' books after thoroughly enjoying 'Winterbirth'; somehow the time was never quite right I guess. The premise of 'The Edinburgh Dead' never quite appealed to me either and so it has been a few years since I've read anything by Brian Ruckley. The prospect of a new fantasy novel piqued my interest though, especially when I realised it was standalone and there were no worries about committing to a series (I have HUGE 'series commitment' issues right now…) And it was about mercenaries as well! I always enjoy reading military sci-fi/fantasy as the whole 'band of brothers' theme is one that's rich for exploring characters and seeing just what people will do to survive the battlefields of speculative fiction. On the face of it then, 'The Free' looked like it had everything I look for in a book and written by a guy with good form for writing fantasy. It couldn't really go wrong… Could it?

Well, could it…?

The good news is that nothing went wrong, nothing at all. The only criticism I'd level is that every now and then, Ruckley's prose doesn't quite match the high standards he has obviously set himself in terms of world building, exploration and characterisation. There were times when the prose didn't grab me in the way that it was clearly meant to and I was left reading in order to get to the next good bit rather than reading because I really wanted to. If you know what I mean.

What didn't grab me though may end up grabbing you by something vital, and refusing to let go, so don't let me put you off on that score because there is still one heck of a lot to recommend 'The Free'.

'The Free' is an engaging mix of action and introspection with panoramic scenes combat broken up with characters reflecting on it all. Fair play to Ruckley for avoiding what could have become an issue of 'ebb and flow' with the pacing of the novel. There is just as much weight given to Yulan's issues surrounding leadership of the Free, and Drann's unique perspective on it all as contract bearer, as there are to each of the battles. All of these have a suitably climactic feel to them by the way; you may only be a hundred pages into the book (with clearly a lot more plot to go) but you can't escape the feeling that a lot rides on each confrontation. It all makes for a gripping read.
Ruckley's treatment of the Free initially casts them in a familiar light to most other mercenary companies etc that you will come across in speculative fiction. A hard-bitten crew, very good at what they do and with loads of enemies because of it. Dig a little deeper though and their feeling of shared responsibility, over one of the darker moments in the history of the Free, is an intriguing hook that will have you rooting for them all. That and Ruckleys exploration of his magic system, the Entelech, and how it can result in 'permanences' that are as likely to kill allies as well as enemies (and wouldn't we all secretly want to own something like the Clamour? I would)

Seeing all of this through the eyes of Drann, a young man who can just about hold a spear and found himself in the right place at the wrong time, also makes for compelling reading at times as we see not only his preconceptions of the Free both shattered and confirmed but we also see his character tempered in the warfare that follows the Free. He is not the same character who starts the story and that's as it should be when coming out of a journey like the one he has made.

'The Free' is a lot of fun to read and gives its readers a lot to chew on, all wrapped up in a world that I for one would like to see more of. Given the ending, it is highly unlikely that we will see any more of the Free but I can but hope… Look out for 'The Free' around October 14th and when you see it, buy it.

Tuesday 7 October 2014

Books in the Post! 'Long Overdue' Edition…

As you can see by the pile of books below, it's been a while since I've done one of these posts… :o) This isn't one of those 'Update' posts though as updates have been crept into the last couple of posts and you can have too much of a good/bad thing ;o) Nope, we're all about the books today; check 'em out,

This is the shelf where all my comic books used to sit until I realised I wasn't going to read them again (and away they went!) Some of the money that I made off them went on…

'Gridlinked' (Neal Asher) - Because I got such a kick out of 'The Departure' that I figured it was time to give the 'Polity' books another go as well.
'Darkness Weaves' (Karl Edward Wagner) - My hunt for the 'Kane' books is a slow and steady one that pays off every now and then. Two down, three more to go (I think)
'Sharps' (K.J. Parker) - I've never quite managed to 'get' Parker's books and I really want to. I never got round to reading 'Sharps' when it first came out so am going to give it another try after I've got another couple of books out of the way first.
'The Fire Prince' (Emily Gee) - No idea, possibly because the guy on the cover looks really worried.
'Blood & Bone' (Ian Cameron Esslemont) - The only Esslemont book that I didn't have on my shelves, now all I have to do is read them all...
'The Fifth Head of Cerebus' (Gene Wolfe) - I have a weakness for the old 'SF Masterworks' books (the black cover looks a lot nicer than the new yellow one) and I've been meaning to read more by Wolfe.
'Mockingbird' (Walter Tevis) - As above really, only substituting Tevis for Wolfe.
'The Crown of the Blood' (Gav Thorpe) - It doesn't happen often but every now and then I have to buy a book before leaving a bookshop (feel like I've failed somehow if I don't) and 'The Crown of the Blood' was that book a couple of weeks ago. Looks good though and will be saved for those precious moments when I've got time to get stuck into something a bit thicker than normal.

Did I tell you that it was my birthday the other day? I didn't? Well, it was and here's what I treated myself to…
'Revelation Space' (Alastair Reynolds) The last time I read this book (years ago) I was high on morphine (legitimately high, I was in hospital) and had some really weird dreams. No anaesthetic this time, we'll see how it goes.
'Chasm City' (Alastair Reynolds) - Again, it's been years since I read 'Chasm City' and buying 'Revelation Space' got me all interested again.
'The Sentinel Mage' (Emily Gee) - Because I'd already bought 'The Fire Prince' by this point and 'The Sentinel Mage' precedes it.It would have been kind of weird not to buy it...
For some odd reason Patricia McKillip's 'Ombria in Shadow' didn't make it into the picture. It should have done (buying it was the first thing I did once the birthday money cleared in my account)

It has been more of a time for 'books bought' rather than 'review copies received' and I'm happy with that. I'd forgotten how satisfying buying books could be (online or in the store). A few turned up from publishers, mostly because I asked for them (just as satisfying albeit for different reasons) :-)
'Zero Point' (Neal Asher) - As I said above, I enjoyed 'The Departure' enough to want to read more and Tor UK very kindly agreed to help out.
'Jupiter War' (Neal Asher) - Because if I'm going to read the first two books in a trilogy then I would be dumb not to pick up the last one (unless 'Zero Point' is awful but I don't think it will be)
'The Knight' (Pierre Pevel) - I don't know if it's my watching 'Game of Thrones' but I'm really into knights at the moment so the title pretty much sold itself.

A nice load of books to get stuck into then; I can see Asher's books being read first, possibly followed by 'Sharps' then… Whatever comes next :o) Anything there catch your eye?