Friday, 31 January 2014

Graeme does Comfort Reading: ‘The Mark of the Demons’ (John Jakes)

Just look at that cover :o) We might moan about cover art these days but back in the day, this was all our parents had and they just got on with it. Maybe it's time to stop moaning?

My comfort reading is in danger of becoming a regular feature on this blog; there’s certainly something about Fridays, just recently, where all I’ve been good for reading-wise is picking up old favourites from my childhood. All you can do is go with it and let the reading take care of itself, and it’s always good to stop and take a look back every now and then.

Today’s comfort read features possibly the most derivative barbarian warrior in fantasy fiction; Brak is a shameless Conan rip off (albeit perhaps a little more thoughtful and with a fear of heights) who is bound on a quest to reach the fabled lands of Khurdisan and the riches that lie there. Sounds familiar? That’s because it is and that’s what makes ‘The Mark of the Demons’ (and the other book in the series that I have read) such a comfort read. You don’t really have to think about the plot because you know it already, just go along with the story and watch Brak conquer all before him... Well, eventually, after he’s taken one too many knocks to the head and someone else has had to rescue him. Brak is derivative then but there’s just enough of his innate ability to cock up going on to keep things interesting (even though you know it will all turn out ok in the end). I’m going to shut up for a sec though and give you some blurb…

We go to the dark. We ride to the awful dark. A stranger leads us, a savage man. His presence brings the evil down!"
The soothsayer's grim words chilled the hearts of the travellers. Even the iron nerves of Brak the Barbarian twanged with foreboding. For in the traders' caravan as it crossed the wasteland of Logol he was the savage, the stranger. Though his strength and swordsmanship might protect the caravan from attacks by brigands or wild beasts, even from the ruby-eyed warriors of Quran, he was as helpless as any against the menace of supernatural powers.
And as first one, then another of the travellers fell prey to the horror that stalked them, Brak knew that he must find a weapon more powerful than his sword if he too was not to be discovered drained of blood and bones, a dry husk bearing the three black marks, the triangular Mark of the Demons.

A lot of my childhood genre reading came out of markets and old second hand bookshops that I used to hang out in while on holiday; it was a mixed bag in terms of quality but at 50p a book (or something like that) I never complained, just carried on reading. ‘Brak the Barbarian’ and ‘The Mark of the Demons’ were first read while holidaying in Norfolk and I’ve been revisiting them ever since. ‘The Mark of the Demons’ in particular is worth a quick read if you ever come across it. Yes, Brak can come across as hapless and the outcome of the story is never really in doubt but there’s also a rich vein of horror running through the story that is worth the price of entry (which may well be only a penny if you get the book on Amazon but you know what I mean).
Unlike his more illustrious counterpart, Brak scares easily and I mean very easily… Brak is a barbarian who really can’t get his head around the fact that dark gods and their minions are very much a part of his world; they scare him and this fear rubs off onto the reader. This is especially the case when you the true nature of the evil stalking the caravan becomes apparent; Jakes really strikes that discordant note you get when pure evil and great beauty inhabit the same body and this works to great effect, especially when that evil starts singing (seriously, a very powerful moment in the book)
‘The Mark of the Demons’ will always be a comfort read for me. Derivative enough not to be too taxing, bloody and scary enough to be gripping; it also takes place in a world well drawn enough to get lost in very easily. I don’t know if Brak ever found Khurdisan in the end (I’d guess that he didn’t, given how clueless he can be sometimes); I hope he did.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Cover Art - 'The Fell Sword' (Miles Cameron)

This was waiting for me when I got home last night and I have to share the cover because it looks just lovely as well as continuing the cover theme begun in 'The Red Knight'. No catchy little slogan this time but I can let that go because OH MY GOD LOOK AT THE SIZE OF THE ROC! Go on, have a look...

Loyalty costs money.

Betrayal, on the other hand, is free

When the Emperor is taken hostage, the Red Knight and his men find their services in high demand - and themselves surrounded by enemies. The country is in revolt, the capital city is besieged and any victory will be hard won. But The Red Knight has a plan.
The question is, can he negotiate the political, magical, real and romantic battlefields at the same time - especially when intends to be victorious on them all?

I still need to read 'The Red Knight' and am playing with my ever-changing reading pile to see if I can do this sooner rather than later. So many books, so little time etc etc. I wouldn't have it any other way would you? Has anyone here read 'The Red Knight'?

In related news, everyone who has a blog was told yesterday that Miles Cameron is in fact Christian Cameron, historical novelist with the 'Tyrant', 'Long War' and 'Chivalry' series to his name. So that's a whole load more books that I haven't read then...
Anyway, if you hadn't heard the news then you have now. As you were everyone... ;o)

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

'Betrayer' - Aaron Dembski-Bowden (Black Library)

The Shadow Crusade has begun. While the Ultramarines reel from Kor Phaeron's surprise attack on Calth, Lorgar and the rest of the Word Bearers strike deep into Ultramar. Their unlikely allies, Angron and the World Eaters, continue to ravage each new system they come across - upon the garrison planet of Armatura, this relentless savagery may finally prove to be their undoing. Worlds will burn, Legions will clash and a primarch will fall.

I love reading Black Library books and I’ve really enjoyed the Horus Heresy books in particular; well, I did but I don’t seem to be reading much of them these days… I spoke about this a little bit when I wrote about ‘The Death of Integrity’, not so long ago, but never really went into one of the aspects of the Horus Heresy series that has kind of dampened things for me. To put it bluntly, it’s too damn long.
Now, there’s a school of thought that questions why this should be a problem. If the quality is maintained (and it is, for the most part) then a series should theoretically be able to go on forever and it won’t be a big deal. For me though, the Horus Heresy series promised explosive civil war that would engulf the galaxy but has settled down into a steady amble where things are slowly being built up to a finale that might happen one day (once Black Library decide that they can’t stretch the series any further). That’s how it feels to me anyway, I’m not the kind of person who appreciates being strung along and there are loads more books out there to read. Right?
So why am I here, right now, about to embark on a post about a fairly recent Horus Heresy book? The answer is Aaron Dembski-Bowden. In all the time I’ve been reading Black Library books, Dembski-Bowden hasn’t written a bad one. If anything, he just keeps getting better and better so the prospect of a book about the World Eaters Chapter (Space Marines that I’ve heard of but never really seen) was an intriguing one to say the least…

Everything that Dembski-Bowden touches seems to turn to gold then and ‘Betrayer’ is no different. While it may be a straightforward read with no big surprises (hence this review being a touch on the short side), ‘Betrayer’ makes up for this in plenty of other ways and this results in a read all too easy to get totally immersed in. Time spent reading ‘Betrayer’ just flew by.

Whatever Legion Dembski-Bowden focuses on, he just seems to instinctively get them and this applies to his portrayal of the World Eaters; a Legion caught between loyalty to their Primarch Angron and hatred of him for what he has turned them into. A Legion then with no other direction than to do what they have always done best, fight whatever is in front of them. Dembski-Bowden imbues the World Eaters with all the raw savagery that you would expect then unleashes the inevitable results on well-meaning but ultimately doomed Ultramarines. The resulting scenes of warfare (well, carnage really…) make for awesome reading not only for the bloodshed but also for the slight feeling of tragedy that tempers the proceedings. Here is a once proud Legion that has been basically mismanaged into a pack of snarling animals that don’t even have the nobility of the Space Wolves. Angron himself is the most tragic character of all, a man forced to turn his back on everything he knew was right and take up a life of cold loneliness. It’s a sad state of affairs and Dembski-Bowden uses the sense of inevitability, which comes with it, to introduce powerful new tones to the plot as stronger minds take control and force events to their own ends. Yes, fans will know the outcome but the stops that Dembski-Bowden forces us to take along the way really make the reader appreciate what the unfolding events mean for everyone involved. From Primarchs and Marines at the centre of the Heresy to the humans caught in their wake and forced to readjust their entire lives; Demsbki-Bowden more than any other Black Library author paints the Heresy as the galaxy wide phenomenon that it is. If only the rest of the series had followed his approach, things would actually get done in this series…

‘Betrayer’ is a book that forces the reader to examine that very concept at all levels and really appreciate how all that betrayal has resulted in civil war. Everyone is guilty and everyone must reap the consequences. I can’t think of anyone better than Aaron Dembski-Bowden to bring these concepts into the Warhammer 40K universe; a writer brave enough to write stirring battle scenes whilst having his warriors mock the ability of people to capture these moments on the page. I love that attitude and I hope to see a lot more of it in this series. 'Betrayer' might take a straightforward route from A to B but what you find along the way makes that journey a little tougher than you expected.

The Biggest Ebook Ever...?

Well that might be pushing the point a little too far but I can't think of any others that are bigger... :o) Tor have just released 'The Complete Malazan Book of the Fallen' as an ebook only bundle with a search function for those awkward moments where you get five or six books and realise that you can't tell your Tiste Andii from your Tiste Edur. Admit it, it's happened to all of us at one point or another ;o)
The cover art looks pretty damn cool as well. Check it out...

I'm still reading stuff via my phone, these days, and there is no way that I would even think of tackling the Malazan books on that screen. If a migraine didn't take up residence first, there is every chance that my eyeballs would just pack their bags and leave; I'm not going to do that to them.
This news has reminded me though that my Malazan reading ground to a dead halt about a hundred or so pages into 'Dust of Dreams'; I'm never going to be able to pick up from where I left off but maybe a 'Grand Malazan Re-Read' might be in order, a book a month maybe? Hmmm...

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

'The Girl with all the Gifts' - M.R.Carey (Orbit)

Every time I reach my absolute limit with zombie fiction another book arrives and persuades me to keep going just a little bit further. Zombie fiction these days is just like the monster it portrays, it's dead but hasn't quite realised it yet and continues to shamble along mindlessly. It's not doing anything new now and there's only so far that survival horror will carry any plot.

But I keep going back, hoping that zombie fiction will scale the heights that it once did and also because (being completely honest here) I love to start the morning commute with a heady dose of gore. There I said it :o) I'm also keen to see what authors new to the genre can do with it. M.R. Carey isn't exactly new to zombies (having written about them before) but has never, to my knowledge, written an entire book about them. I love his style (no matter what name he uses) so had to read 'The Girl with all the Gifts' and I'm really glad that I did. I don't think there will ever be a sequel (for obvious reasons) so make the most of this book now, seriously.

Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class.
When they come for her, Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don't like her. She jokes that she won't bite. But they don't laugh.
Melanie is a very special girl.

'The Girl with all the Gifts' is many things all at once and these seperate facets all combine to form a narrative that is rich and compelling. I couldn't get enough of it and at one point, after a long old day at work, made the decision that a rotten headache in the morning would be a small price to pay for reading the last fifty pages. It's that good.

The zombie apocalypse is here again but this time it's the most plausible it has been since Joe McKinney said there was something in the water. Without giving too much away, there's a zombie apocalypse going on right now and Carey takes this to a logical conclusion that has echoes of 'Day of the Triffids'. Another British apocalypse where the emphasis is on finding a cure instead of shooting up zombies (although the 'hungries' do get shot) and this adds just the right note of urgency to proceedings; especially at the very end where everything is suddenly cast in a new light and the ‘cure’ becomes very different indeed.

Melanie takes centre stage here and is a surprisingly frustrating character to write about in terms of keeping things fresh for people who haven’t picked up the book yet. You can probably guess the ‘big reveal’ anyway but what really keeps the pages turning is Melanie’s childlike view of the world; the sense of wonder that comes with every new thing she sees and her determination to protect her teacher, Miss Justineau, whatever the cost. It’s that naivety that reels the reader in to begin with (makes for some very touching moments), what keeps us reading is seeing how Melanie adjusts to change and how that naivety changes under various pressures (and there are some harrowing moments here, enough to make me say that you probably shouldn’t read this book if you don’t like writing that is close to the bone). It’s a real testament to Carey’s ability as a writer that Melanie becomes a very different person, by the end of the book, but still retains that core naivety enough to make some earth shattering decisions just when it matters the most to the reader. Sometimes you have to see the world through a child’s eyes in order to be able to make the decisions that matter the most.

At the same time as everything else (i.e. a child’s journey through the zombie apocalypse) ‘The Girl with all the Gifts’ is all about your past not only haunting you but eventually taking what is owed. Some things are just too big to run away from, even if you put an entire zombie apocalypse between you and it. Dues have to be paid and what this means for one character in particular is terrifying yet strangely apt. A life sentence takes on a whole new meaning in this setting and while it could mean good things for the future of humanity you can’t help but feel the horror of that last page and what it means. It’s the most powerful ending to a novel that I’ve seen in a long time.

There is so much going on in ‘The Girl with all the Gifts’ and the only thing that I can really say to you is read the book and experience it all for yourself. Carey is a good storyteller at the best of times but here he takes his storytelling to a whole new level. Highly recommended.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Cover Art – ‘A Natural History of Dragons’ (Marie Brennan)

I know this book has been around for a little while now (via Tor I think) but not only did I miss that anyway, I love this cover and reckon it’s worth another post :o)
In all the years that I’ve been reading fantasy books with dragons on the cover, I never stopped to think about what they looked like under all those scales. Thanks to this cover, I finally get to find out…

I love the way this has been set out like a biology diagram with the mixture of bone, muscle and scales making for some incredibly eye-catching artwork. I’m not one to go on about fonts but, this time round, I really like the ones used here. They make for a really genteel feel to the book and I wonder how deliberate that is, given how the blurb is promising a certain direction to the book. Talking of blurb, have a look below and see what I mean,

All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day. Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.

I couldn’t really get into Brennan’s ‘Onyx Court’ books (as much as I wanted to) but the blurb here has piqued my interest and I want to give ‘A Natural History of Dragons’ a try as soon as I can. I’ve got high hopes, lets put it that way.
Did anyone here read ‘A Natural History of Dragons’ when Tor published it (I’ve got the UK edition published by Titan). What did you think of it?

Friday, 24 January 2014

Graeme does Comfort Reading - 'Doctor Who and the Dalek Invasion of Earth' (Terrance Dicks)

So I’ve spent most of this week trying to get one daughter to settle whilst hoping the other doesn’t wake up (changing nappies in the dark is not a good thing at all…) and trying to get all my coursework in order for college (handed the folder in and hoping that it doesn’t need any more work on it) whilst also trying my hardest to look like I know what the hell I’m doing at work. Absolutely shattered is the phrase of the day then and I am so looking forward to going to bed tonight and sleeping until Sunday night.
With all that in mind then, did I spend the commute into work reading something new and trying to get my had round the plot? Or… Did I opt for some good old fashioned comfort reading and give my brain a rest? Okay, I know what the title of the post says but pretend you didn’t read it…
Here’s the answer,

Sometimes comfort reading is the only thing to do. Something familiar and easy just to help your brain tick over, something where you can let the plot just flow round you if you’re not up to paying too much attention to what is going on. Something very much like ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’, a book that I’ve had on my shelves for a good thirty years at least (maybe a little bit more). The plot is very simple (as is the case with most Doctor Who books and shows); there is an alien threat and the Doctor defeats it. It’s the Daleks though and that always adds a little extra urgency to the proceedings even if you just know that the Doctor will take care of business. They’re cold blooded killers after all and there is plenty of that going on here with Daleks merrily exterminating the human rebels whether they keep fighting or surrender.
Terrance Dicks is the man most people automatically think of when talking about the ‘Doctor Who’ Target novelisations and I’ve got to say that he’s done a really good job here; I must have read this book hundreds of times but he still keeps me hooked by focussing on the aforementioned evil of the Daleks. Their seeming invincibility is also emphasised as well with a couple of really powerful moments where human fighters think they have destroyed a Dalek, only for it come rolling out of the smoke just as deadly as ever.

What really struck me on this read though is the element of horror that Terrance Dicks brings to this novelisation. We have a chase through a work camp where characters are being hunted by the Slyther, a monster that the Daleks brought with them from the planet Skaro. You don’t actually see the Slyther for most of this chase, you only see the reactions to its howl but that is more than enough to get the blood pumping and share in the fear of those being chased. Really suspenseful stuff here.
It wasn’t these moments that really got me though. Dicks opens ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’ with a Robo-Man (essentially a lobotomised human) committing suicide and that is really powerful stuff coming from what is essentially a kids book. A human being altered to such a degree that the pain and despair have driven him to kill himself; it was this passage that really drove it home…

‘He fell, like a log or a stone, making no attempt to save himself. Dragged down by the weight of the helmet, his head sank beneath the grimy waters. There was something inhuman about the manner of his death – but then, he had not been truly human for a very long time.’

Imagine reading that when you were only six or seven years old… Funnily enough, at the time it didn’t make that much of an impression on me (I was pretty good at reading but not quite so hot with what they actually meant sometimes) but now I look at that and think, “Wow, that’s strong stuff…”

Having seen what I’ve written then, you wouldn’t think that ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’ is much of a comfort read then but I’d have to disagree. Like I said, familiarity breeds comfort and so does the message running throughout these books, the Doctor always defeats evil. It’s also a book that lets me escape to more comfortable (for comfortable, read ‘nostalgic’) memories in my head, times when pressing concerns generally involved whether I could bolt my dinner fast enough to be able to get down and watch Doctor Who on the TV. Maybe not easier times but definitely comfortable times. That’s why I love the occasional comfort read and would heartily recommend you do something similar every now and then. What are your comfort reads?

Thursday, 23 January 2014

‘Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 20’ – Various (Rebellion)

In the mid to late nineties, reading 2000AD generally involved people saying to me, “Look, it’s not like I haven’t told you before. Either buy the comic or you’re going to have to leave.” Not my finest hour(s) but I was a student and had made a conscious decision to buy cigarettes and junk food instead. The upshot then was that there were some massive gaps in my 2000AD reading; there still are but I’m slowly catching up with myself by reading ‘The Complete Case Files’.
What I really like about these collections is that you can get huge stories all wrapped up in one volume. You know the ones I mean, stories like ‘The Apocalypse War’ that (way back in the day) would take months to unfold. I was a little bit disappointed then to see that ‘The Complete Case Files 20’ doesn’t have one of these tales, or even a tale slightly shorter, instead going for a series of one off stories and three or four parters. I really wanted to get stuck into something ‘epic’ that opens up Dredd’s world and promises stuff for the future. There’s none of that here but, in the midst of a collection where the quality ranges from ‘mediocre’ to ‘not bad’, there are a few real gems to be found. These are the ones I’m going to talk about first.

‘Bury my knee at Wounded Heart’ is a touching and poignant tale of one old man’s fight to give his wife a little dignity in death; dignity that the demands of Mega City One life cannot make room for. Focussing on this man’s fight really highlights the crushing oppression of future life and even forces Dredd to question what is right (although I had to appreciate the way that the law remains the law, nice little end to the story). I loved this story and thought that Mega City One could do with a few more tales like it. It was funny then that ‘Freefall’ followed not long after; same kind of approach with exactly the same results. Both very powerful tales indeed.
‘The Enemy Below’ was awesome, in the most part due to Clint Langley’s striking artwork but also because the reader is forced to look at things from the monster’s perspective for a short while. A straightforward monster tale then (with gorgeously claustrophobic artwork depicting the flooded Halls of Justice) becomes an ever so slightly tragic tale of misunderstanding. While there’s no way that everyone would have been good friends, ‘The Enemy Below’ does leave you wondering what might have been… ‘Giant’ is another strong tale that will strike a chord with long term fans (I knew just enough to get behind, and root for, this cadet taking his final exam). Ian Gibson’s gives ‘Giant’ a real old school feel which I couldn’t help but think was meant to bridge the gap between the cadet and his illustrious father.

There are some excellent tales to be found in ‘The Complete Case Files 20’ then, it’s just a shame that you have to plough through a whole load of ultimately forgettable tales to get to them. Seriously, they all just merged into one long tale of Dredd arresting stuff that didn’t really explore the character or advance any kind of plot arc. These are stories that I can see working very well in a single issue of 2000AD (as a one off ‘quick hit’) but they don’t do themselves any favours all bunched together. It’s a real shame as I’m sure I remember some of these very differently from years ago (look at me being all nostalgic…) Oh well, on to the next collection…

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

‘The Beast of Averoigne’ - Clark Ashton Smith

It’s been a little while since I’ve posted my thoughts on any Clark Ashton Smith tales so I figured that today was as good a day as any to put that right. Before we kick off though, have a look at what was waiting for me when I got home last night…

The search is well and truly over, thanks to my Mum who is a lot better at finding books online than I am (and at a fraction of the price that I could find on Amazon) Proof then, I think, that Mum’s do know best. As you can probably tell, I’m pretty happy; I was prepared for it to take a lot longer to find a copy and now I can just settle down and enjoy the read instead (not having to squint at my phone). As before, I’ll be picking out the odd story here and there rather than reading/reviewing the whole book all at once. Some things are worth savouring I’m sure you will agree.
I’ve had a little look at Ashton Smith’s continent of Zothique so figured that this time I’d stay a little closer to home, albeit hundreds of years in the past and a fictional counterpart to a French region (but you know what I mean…). Averoigne it is then and the tale a baleful red comet and the terror that it brings…

‘The skies are haunted by that which it were madness to know; and strange abominations pass evermore between earth and moon and athwart the galaxies. Unnamable things have come to us in alien horror and will come again. And the evil of the stars is not as the evil of earth.’

While I wouldn’t say I’m that widely read in speculative fiction (I keep trying though!) I have read a fair bit of the stuff and I’ve never come across a ‘medieval horror sci-fi’ story until now. While the ‘twist’ in the tale is signposted a little too clearly to be an actual twist, Ashton Smith does everything else right and gives his readers a pretty damn chilling tale of a monster from beyond the stars prowling the medieval countryside and dark woods of Averoigne. It’s almost like the payoff is so well signposted (written as a magazine story, maybe it had to be?) that Ashton Smith decided to ramp up the atmosphere instead; it’s an approach that works as I could do nothing but watch with growing fear as the monster preys upon the unwitting. The death of Brother Gerome in particular is terrifying as it illustrates the stealthy evil of the creature (dropping some pretty big clues at the same time) along with just what it takes from its prey.

Luc le Chaudronnier, sometime astrologer and sorcerer, is the only man who can defeat this menace and it’s a measure of the grim and dark nature of Ashton Smith’s setting that he can only do by loosing a potentially greater evil on the world. Sometimes you can only fight evil with evil it would seem and the perils of a demon bound only by its promise are made clear here.
This is a world then where good men can be easily corrupted, a world where cosmic evil can cause havoc without really even realising. An uncaring world then, just the right setting for a tale like this. I’ll be spending a lot more time in Averoigne I think, just very glad that I don’t live there.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

‘Robert E. Howard’s Savage Sword’ #7 – Various (Dark Horse Comics)

I seem to have found myself in a position where I’m reading three books at once and not really making a lot of progress on any of them, even though they are all good ones (‘Traitor’s Blade’, ‘He drank, and saw the spider’ and ‘The Girl with all the Gifts’, just in case you were wondering). With this in mind then, I’m taking this week to work through some of the backlog of comic books that are on my shelf and really should have been blogged about way before now; they’re all good so don’t feel like you have to go away and come back later (or anything like that) Before I do that though... I just want to have a little blog about the latest issue of ‘Robert E. Howard’s Savage Sword’, a collection of stories either based on or inspired by the man himself. I am by no means a Robert E. Howard scholar so don’t think for one second that I will be able to tell you which ones are which; I’m just going on what I enjoyed and what didn’t quite work for me. There are five tales here and the ones that worked for me just edged out the ones that didn’t…

I’ve never read any of the earlier ‘Robert E. Howard’s Savage Sword’ issues but they seem to be about introducing readers to the wide range of other stuff that Howard wrote, and he wrote a lot of other stories (apart from Conan and Solomon Kane etc, although there is the one almost obligatory Conan tale here ). The man was prolific to say the least. I wanted to see some of Howard’s tales of oil riggers, boxers and stuff like that, but that wasn’t to be this time round with this issue concentrating on tales of swordplay in the main. I can’t complain at that approach really, I love a bit of swordplay.

Thomas and Buscema’s ‘Island of Pirate’s Doom’ dragged a slight story almost a little too far to be truly effective (I don’t care what anyone else says, this could have been done in twenty pages instead of forty one) but was a great example of old school storytelling meeting up with old school artwork to produce something that’s ‘pulp’ in all the right ways. If it wasn’t for the ‘Dark Agnes’ tale, ‘Island of Pirate’s Doom’ would have been the highlight of the book but, as it was, had to settle for joint first place.

Tobin and McConnell’s ‘Dark Agnes: Sword Woman’ is actually the concluding part of a three part tale but Tobin keeps things simple enough for that not to matter. I was really grateful for that approach as I was able to jump straight into quite an exciting tale that was over before I’d even realised that it had properly begun. McConnell’s slightly rougher looking artwork complemented the story well, somehow lending a sense of authenticity to the historical setting.

It wasn’t all plain sailing though with this book as a couple of the stories didn’t work for me. I’ll give the Bran Mak Morn story, ‘Men of the Shadows’, the benefit of the doubt here as it is the concluding part of a three part tale and clearly expects the reader to have paid their dues in following the plot. Having said that though, I wasn’t so keen on Pace’s artwork which appeared to settle for atmosphere rather than actually showing us what was happening. The ‘Breckinridge Elkins’ tale didn’t work for me either and, to be totally honest, I couldn’t really tell you why. I’d love to be able to go into more detail but sometimes that’s all there is to it. I’ll definitely pick up the next collection so maybe things will become a little clearer then.

A Robert E. Howard collection wouldn’t be a Robert E.Howard collection without at least the merest mention of Conan and ‘The Bargain’ does that job pretty darn admirably indeed with a tale of thievery and betrayal in the dark land of Shem. Once again in this collection, the target is well and truly hit by Jai Nitz keeping things very simple and to the point (as well as showing us that Conan can be just as crafty as his ‘civilised’ conspirators.

All in all then ‘Robert E. Howard’s Savage Sword’ #7 was a lot of fun to settle down with for an afternoon albeit with a couple of small reservations. I reckon you’ll see more of these collections featured here in the future. Whether inspired by or created by the man himself, Robert E. Howard can take some kind of credit for some amazing tales and I want to read as many as I can.

Monday, 20 January 2014

'Indigo Prime: Anthropocalypse' - Smith, Carter, Bagwell (Rebellion)

‘Indigo Prime: Anthropocalypse’… Now there’s a title that I will be copying and pasting over the course of this post :o) This is a book that has been sat on my comic book shelf since just after the old blog closed its doors and it finally came out for a read as I spent most of the weekend with Elana asleep on me. There is no better way to spend a weekend than to have a baby sleep on you but if you don’t have something to read then you will go crazy very quickly! One of the things that I love about 2000AD (where ‘Indigo Prime’ sprang from) is that the stories, although mostly sci-fi, all try to push the boundaries in different ways. This was definitely the case here with a tale where the boundaries of the multiverse itself are pushed and prodded quite vigourously… Being a fan of Michael Moorcock’s work, any kind of multiverse/parallel worlds tale automatically appeals and I spent a very enjoyable chunk of the weekend trying to get my head around just what the hell was going on. My brain hurt a little bit, afterwards, but it was a good kind of hurt…

There are an infinite number of realities within the multiverse. With the risk dimensional instability as an ever-present threat, these parallel worlds all need to be managed; enter Indigo Prime, troubleshooting reality agents. So what do Indigo Prime want with Lance Corporal Danny Redman? Why is a Neanderthal walking around in modern Britain? How do you catch a dimension-jumping Bewilderbeast? And where in the multiverse is Spacesick Steve? All of these questions and more are answered in this mind-warping adventure.

I’ve got to be in just the right mood for it but I do love a book where things start out looking like they’re going to go one way and then proceed to head off in another direction entirely. This is what ‘Anthropocalypse’ is all about as ‘Dead Eyes’ starts off looking like a standard military thriller (with a hint of the occult) and then, just when you think you’ve got your head round it, turns into an ‘Indigo Prime’ mad rampage across all of time and space in all its multiple parallel dimensions. I loved the timing with which the story switches artists here, going from Lee Carter’s gritty (slightly downbeat) style to Edmund Bagwell’s more flamboyant tone which perfectly captures the mad chaos of the multiverse and some of the weird stuff that lives in it. And there is some properly scary stuff there as well, I’m hoping for more ‘Indigo Prime’ at some point soon so I can see a little bit more of the Nihilist amongst others.

It was around about this point though that my head started to hurt with the mad artwork slamming into a whole host of outlandish names that Smith had clearly challenged himself to come up with. I can almost see him saying to himself, ‘Spawnbroker, that sounds cool… Now let’s see if I can beat that with the next name.’ This brand of naming convention makes for a world that comes across as rich and multi-layered. It also makes for a world that can come across a little inaccessible, especially when you realise (like I did) that the world of ‘Indigo Prime’ has been going on for a lot longer than just this volume. Don’t let that put you off though, the story is relatively self-contained and once you let the made up names just get on with it ‘Anthropocalypse’ is actually a very easy tale to follow. Smith clearly enjoys working in this universe (although you wouldn’t have guessed it from the introduction, this tale was a long time coming apparently) and fills it full of plot twists and characters that you may not like but I couldn’t help but get behind. The Indigo Prime operatives may be as disreputable as they come but they are a team and will have each other’s backs, even if it means… Well, I’m not going to say because I think this book is a lot of fun and worth you picking up if you come across a copy. There’s some stuff that you need to see for yourselves, it’s pretty damn explosive at the end.

‘Anthropocalypse’ takes some getting into but is worth the effort and not just for the garishly drawn panels of giant insects chewing on large parts of America. It’s about the weirdness at the end of the universe but it’s also about friendship as well and that’s always a good thing as far as I'm concerned.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Books in the Post (Sleeping Baby Edition)

Trying to type really quietly as Elana has just gone to sleep on me...

After a heavy few days at work (and at home) there was nothing nicer last night than to come home and find a whole load of book parcels waiting for me. Ok, there were at least three nicer things waiting for me but this is a book blog so that's what I'm going to concentrate on ;o) Go on, have a look at the picture...

It's not often that this many books turn up and I want to read them all. Normally some will fall into the 'maybe' or 'just plain never' piles; not this time though, they all look like potentially awesome reads.
For the record, I'm making inroads into 'The Girl With All The Gifts' (you're fooling no-body with that pen name Mr. Carey...) and 'He Drank, And Saw The Spider' (it's good to be hanging out with Eddie LaCrosse again). The most intriguing title in the pile though is Claire North's 'The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August', a title (out in March) that I'd heard nothing of until I opened the package. Here's the blurb,

Harry August is on his deathbed. Again. 

No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes.

Until now.

As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. ‘I nearly missed you, Doctor August,’ she says. ‘I need to send a message. It has come down from child to adult, child to adult, passed back through generations from a thousand years forward in time. The message is that the world is ending, and we cannot prevent it. So now it’s up to you.’

I've got a couple of new books that I want to read first (as well as all the other well meaning reading intentions that I have...) but I'm definitely going to give 'The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August' a go. Does it grab you at all?

Friday, 17 January 2014

Meanwhile, in the world of the Small Press…

Resurrection House acquired Underland Press, not so long ago, and the good news for fans like me is that new owner Mark Teppo won’t be making any huge changes to the imprint. And a good job too I say, Underland Press is something a little bit special and shouldn’t be forced into doing anything other than what it does best.
Another upshot for me though is that I’ve found myself on the Resurrection House mailing list. I love being on mailing lists by the way, not only does it make my email address feel all loved but I get to find out about new stuff that I wouldn’t normally see. Like gorgeous looking covers for example, check these out…

Heraclix was dead and Pomp was immortal. That was before Heraclix’s reanimation (along with the sewn-together pieces and parts of many other dead people) and Pomp’s near murder at the hands of an evil necromancer. As they travel from Vienna to Prague to Istanbul and back again (with a side-trip to Hell), they struggle to understand who and what they are: Heraclix seeks to know the life he had before his death and rebirth, and Pomp wrestles with the language and meaning of mortality. As they journey across a land rife with revolution and unrest, they discover the evil necromancer they thought dead might not be so dead after all. In fact, he might be making a pact to ensure his own immortality…

I love any cover art that has olde worlde style medieval houses on it, that’s just the way I roll. The rest of the book could be about anything and I wouldn’t care, I’d just be looking at those houses on the cover. Luckily in this case, the blurb looks like the book could be interesting, certainly a lot to chew on.

In the 27th century, the transgenic virus has changed the definition of what it means to be human. Jantine is a Beta, a genetically modified soldier from Earth’s Outer Colonies. Her team of Betas, Gammas (conditioned from an early age for support roles in colonial society), Deltas (four-armed biological war machines), and Omegas (telepathic giants also known as "the Builders") are returning to Earth with a cargo of hundreds of sleeping mods. When they reach humanity’s home system, they find themselves in the middle of a civil war.

Is the Reclamation government friendly? Should they stand with the System Defense Force? And how do Jantine and her crew convince either faction that they are human too? With their ship destroyed and its cargo stolen, Jantine and her team flee to the surface in a desperate race to retrieve the sleepers and stop the release of a new version of the virus, which may prove catastrophic for humans and mods alike.

This is one of those covers where I have literally no idea what is going on. Is that a spacecraft crashing, landing or something else entirely? Any guesses? You won’t win a thing but you might just put my mind at rest a little bit. It does look cool though (whatever it is) and isn’t that what counts at the end of the day? The answer is ‘maybe’…
What do you think about these covers? And would you read the books?

Thursday, 16 January 2014

‘Ultimate Fantastic Four Volume 6 - Frightful’ – Mark Millar, Greg Land (Marvel)

Today’s post is going to be a short one I think. There’s loads to do today (got Hope’s school application in though!) and I’ve got a headache brewing that is literally laughing in the face of the ibuprofen that I took early. I really wanted to say something about this book though, I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when I picked it up but it ended up being a really good read.
I was never that into the Fantastic Four until Hope got into a couple of the DVDs that I had on the shelf. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, anything is better than ‘Peppa Pig’ and the Fantastic Four cartoons have a real ‘dysfunctional family’ vibe that makes me laugh first thing on a Saturday morning (a time when you really need to be able to laugh if you’re not asleep).
As with ‘Spiderman’, I brought a couple of ‘Fantastic Four’ comic books that Hope was very polite about but made clear that she wasn’t interested in reading. Having read ‘Frightful’ that reaction was probably for the best, I don’t think Hope is quite ready for zombified superheroes eating people. But onto the book and some blatantly copy and pasted blurb,

A guilt-ridden Reed Richards attempts to undo his greatest failure by using time travel to fix the snag that caused the teleportation accident that resulted in Ben Grimm's becoming the Thing. If it works, Ben will be Ben and the Thing will never have existed. And neither will the FF. Be careful what you wish for! Plus: the awesome return of Dr. Doom! The zombiefied FF escape from their Baxter Building prison! The deadly debut of the Frightful Four! Johnny Storm finds out he has only 28 days to live!

But onto the book, ‘Frightful’ collects ‘Ultimate Fantastic Four’ #27-32 and that kind of makes me glad that I didn’t collect the single issues. This volume is very slim which makes me wonder how they got away selling the single issues (which must have been very, very slim indeed). But I’m digressing again, it’s one of those days…
‘Frightful’ is indeed a very slim collection but having read it, that brevity seems to confirm that Mark Millar doesn’t actually need to use a lot of words to tell his story here; both of the stories collected here are punchy affairs that get up in your face real quick and then proceed to give you a battering. The time travel story is confusing initially (for someone like me, coming in ‘mid series’) but give it a few pages and not only does it make sense but it throws up a lot of surprises that throw a fresh spin on the Marvel Universe that we all know and love. Without giving anything away, there is a real lesson to be learned here for Ben Grimm and the final newspaper headline makes for sobering reading.

The zombie storyline… I’ll admit that’s what I came for (it only took one look at the cover for me to be sold, having read some ‘Marvel Zombies’ stuff) and the resulting plot is dark on any number of levels with Greg Land really letting everything loose on some gory panels. It’s not just the gore though, Millar and Land really capture that feeling of being stuck in a building with marauding zombies, it’s just that these zombies have superpowers as well… If I had to pick a favourite story from this collection this would be it. It’s a tale that has everything, up to and including a little bit of Cthulhu for good measure. And the last words uttered by Doctor Doom are magnificent in their understatement.

I guess it’s always useful to come at these things with a little background knowledge but ‘Frightful’ is stand-alone enough that it really doesn’t matter if you’re new to this universe or not. That made this read even better for me as I was able to sit down and just get straight on with it – always a bonus these days. Anyway, give ‘Frightful’ a go if you get a chance, good storytelling and as scary as hell in places.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

‘The Cormorant’ – Chuck Wendig (Angry Robot)

I’ve still got a little way to go before I’ve read everything that Chuck Wendig has ever written but if he has written a bad book, I haven’t read it yet. I don’t think I will either; Wendig’s ability to strip humanity down to its most raw state (and then wrap that up in a compelling plot) seems to neatly sidestep the possibility of him ever writing a bad book. And long may that continue as far as I’m concerned, I love having authors that I can rely on (and trust) to take me away from the commute and give me a good read.
‘The Miriam Black’ books are, for me, the best thing that Wendig is writing at the moment. This is for a whole load of reasons that I’ve already written about on my old blog and will proceed to revisit here. That’s right, I’ve spent the last couple of days getting really quite annoyed when my train journeys came to an end and I had to put ‘The Cormorant’ down to interact with the real world. Today I just didn’t bother interacting; reading the book as I walked along just so I could finish the last few pages before I got into work.
If you’re new to these books, and are thinking about giving them a go, you need to go off and read ‘Blackbirds’ and ‘Mockingbird’ before you pick up ‘The Cormorant’. Don’t worry, they’re both excellent books and this review will still be here when you get back.
For everyone else, here goes…

Miriam is on the road again, having transitioned from "thief" - to "killer". Hired by a wealthy businessman, she heads down to Florida to practice the one thing she's good at, but in her vision she sees him die by another's hand and on the wall written in blood is a message just for Miriam. She's expected… Now Miriam must find out who is stalking her from the future before they kill again.

My immediate urge here is to just go on at length about how great this book was. And it was, I absolutely loved the hell out of ‘The Cormorant’ and the thought of another Miriam Black novel to come (‘Thunderbird’) has left me all impatient and wishing that the publication date would just hurry up and get here. There is a lot in ‘The Cormorant’ that a reader can really get their teeth into but, for me, it felt that it was all over far too quickly. That’s the mark of a great entertainer although you would be hard pressed to call the subject matter ‘entertaining’; lets just say that it is ‘thoroughly compelling’ and leave it at that.

Chuck Wendig’s America is a dark place where messed up people tread lonely paths and death is everywhere you turn. Well, it is if you’re Miriam Black; that’s kind of the whole point of the series really. Miriam is as spiky and in your face as ever but there’s a real sense now that she is moving on, from previous books, and trying to make her ‘talent’ either work for her or, at the very least, be something that she can just about live with. It’s really sad then that, despite her intentions, the way Miriam protects herself means that she will never find the place that she wants in her world. Or maybe she has already found it but doesn’t want to admit it just yet. There’s at least one more book to go before we can see those answers but in the meantime, it was good for me (as a reader) to spend time with a character who wants to move forwards rather than have Wendig just be content to have Miriam stay as she is and live off that ‘one trick’.
It’s even more sad then to see Miriam want to move forwards but spend most of this book trapped by faces from her past. There is some kind of redemption to be found but Miriam must also face up to her past mistakes and settle them once and for all. Wendig does a lot of good things here by the way, not least opening up the possibility of a world where Miriam’s power isn’t as unique as she thinks it is. Others have come into something similar through similar trauma, there’s a world opening up here and the background just got a little more interesting. Wendig also poses questions that make the plot one that absolutely has to be followed. How can Miriam track down her stalker from the future and, once she does, how can she kill someone who knows her every move before she does? I’m trying hard not to give away the villain’s identity here but it is worth sticking around for, as is the resolution.

And just how much death is in this book? People dying and people who are going to die one day (which is everyone else). All those grimdark and epic fantasy writers who think they have a high body count should visit Mr Wendig for a lesson in how to really do it. Once again, Wendig appeals to the dark bit in all of us that likes to know how everyone else dies (whilst secretly feeling glad that we don’t know the details of our own demise). It’s the ultimate form of gossip isn’t it? Especially when the person concerned doesn’t know how they’re going to go… You feel a bit bad for reading these moments but it’s another connection to Miriam and a way to empathise with her situation; Wendig has all the bases covered and the result is a book that you can’t put down until it’s done.

‘The Cormorant’ is another superb addition to the Miriam Black series and promises amazing things for the next book to come; you can’t ask for anything more than that really. Fans of the series will love it, newcomers have a bit of a treat in store.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Books in the Post (Unashamedly Late Edition)

This should have gone up over the weekend but I spent a large part of that either holding Elana (to get her to sleep) or having a lightsaber fight with Hope. I was Mace Windu and Hope had been watching ‘Beauty and the Beast’ so she was Princess Belle… With a lightsaber. If the Empire does try to take over I’m sticking with Hope by the way; she may be only three and a bit but she has a mean swing with a lightsaber… And then I had to do some study for an exam that I had yesterday… Busy times :o)
But the books, you spend ages waiting for books and then a whole load turn up at once! Have a look at what came through the door…

I was hoping that ‘The Cormorant’ would show up and it did, I’ve already read a big chunk of it and it’s as awesome as I hoped it would be. I’m aiming for a review later on this week and, the rate I’m going, I think that’s a target that I’ll hit. I’m trying to stop buying ‘Fantasy Masterworks’ off Amazon (really I am) but ‘The House on the Borderlands’ was going for pennies and I couldn’t help myself. This looks like a book to read when the nights are dark and the rain is hammering on the roof like it wants to get in and drown me. Hang on… Most nights are like that at the moment, maybe I’ll pick this up after I finish ‘The Cormorant’.
I really like the sound of the blurb for ‘Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea’ and it also sounds like a good book to break my ‘haven’t read a novel by Adam Roberts’ habit. There are books that I really want/need to read first though so you might have to wait a little while before you see a review here. In the meantime, has anyone else read it?

And finally… One of the things that I love about running a book review blog is the opportunities it offers me to read books that I would have never thought of trying otherwise. I’ve found some amazing books that I’ve read purely because they came through the door instead of off a shelf in the shop. I’m not sure if either of these books will hit those heights but I’m still enjoying that sense of anticipation before I pick them up :o) Have a look at the blurbs…

'Last God Standing’

When God decides to quit and join the human race to see what all the fuss is about, all Hell breaks loose.Sensing his abdication, the other defunct gods of Earth’s vanquished pantheons want a piece of the action He abandoned.

Meanwhile, the newly-humanised deity must discover the whereabouts and intentions of the similarly reincarnated Lucifer, and block the ascension of a murderous new God.
How is he ever going to make it as a stand-up comedian with all of this going on…?

‘Hannibal: Fields of Blood’

Hannibal's campaign to defeat Rome continues as he marches south to confront his enemy. With him is a young soldier, Hanno. Like his general, Hanno burns to vanquish Rome. Never has the possibility seemed so likely but a stealthy game of cat and mouse is being played as Rome's generals seek to avoid confrontation.
Eventually the two armies meet under a fierce summer sun. The place is Cannae - the fields of blood. The battle will go down in history as one of the bloodiest ever fought, a battle in which Hanno knows he must fight as never before - just to stay alive.

I could see myself reading ‘Last God Standing’, although it’s not a priority read at all, but ‘Hannibal’ might be going to a better home in the near future; a place where it’s more likely to be read (and isn’t that what books want more than anything else?) How about you guys, would you pick any of these books up?

Monday, 13 January 2014

'Maul: Lockdown' - Joe Schreiber (Del Rey)

I know, I did say that I wasn't going to read any more Star Wars books. I meant it too, I've pretty much had it with these books for a long time now and can't see my mind changing any time soon. There's something about 'Lockdown' though that made me change my mind for one book at least. Ok, two books; I'll be reading 'Honour amongst thieves as well, of course I will.
First up, Darth Maul. Here's a character that could have made 'The Phantom Menace' into a much better film and if he'd been allowed to; I know there's another book with him in it but I haven't read it and I wanted to see how a book with Darth Maul as the lead actually panned out. Secondly, Joe Schreiber. Here's a writer who's not afraid to take the Star Wars universe off in gritty and horrific directions (and I'm thinking 'Deathtroopers' here) and I really wanted to see what kind of a plot he would fashion around a lead like Darth Maul.
As it turned out, 'Lockdown' wasn't without its problems but did its job very well on the whole.

It's kill or be killed in the space penitentiary that houses the galaxy’s worst criminals, where convicts face off in gladiatorial combat while an underworld gambling empire reaps the profits of the illicit blood sport. But the newest contender in this savage arena, as demonic to behold as he is deadly to challenge, is fighting for more than just survival. His do-or-die mission, for the dark masters he serves, is to capture the ultimate weapon: an object that will enable the Sith to conquer the galaxy.

Sith lords Darth Plagueis and Darth Sidious are determined to possess the prize. And one of the power-hungry duo has his own treacherous plans for it. But first, their fearsome apprentice must take on a bloodthirsty prison warden, a cannibal gang, cutthroat crime lord Jabba the Hutt, and an unspeakable alien horror. No one else could brave such a gauntlet of death and live. But no one else is the dreaded dark-side disciple known as Darth Maul.

If I was going to sum 'Lockdown' up in one sentence it would go kind of something like this. I enjoyed this book despite itself. Darth Maul is a strong enough character in Schreiber's hands (and in his own right) to carry the book through a real muddle of double crosses that don't seem to make much sense along along with people being introduced with no rhyme or reason. This could be something to do with Maul's mission being drip fed to him but, even then, the timing feels all off.

You're probably wondering why I kept reading then (wouldn't blame you if you were). For all of my problems with the book (and these take up a large part of the book), 'Lockdown' is the ideal stage for Schreiber to do what he does best. Schreiber gives us another look at the dark fringes of the Star Wars universe, fringes often hinted at but never displayed in quite the way that Schreiber does it. He leaves us in no doubt that there are some very dangerous places out there in the galaxy and this prison facility is one of the worst.

Even though we know that Maul is a match for anything in this facility, Schreiber keeps our attention by staging some awesome fights (Maul vs Wampa, well worth the ticket price) and taking us down dark corridors where anything could happen. The supporting cast do their job but it's Maul who literally makes every page his own with his dark brooding presence and propensity for lethal violence. This is what makes 'Lockdown' tick and powers the book past all the awkward moments (and maybe if 'Lockdown' had been a little longer these would have ironed themselves out).

I'm not sure what the future holds for Star Wars novels (who will take them on once the Del Rey licence expires) but I hope Joe Schreiber is a part of it. 'Lockdown' makes things difficult for itself, when they don't need to be, but can really hit the target when it has a mind to.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Cover Art: 'The Cormorant' - Chuck Wendig (Angry Robot Books)

Because there's never a bad time to show off Joey Hi-Fi cover art and there's never a bad time to talk up Chuck Wendig (not that I need to, his books do that all by themselves). Go on, have a look...

Miriam is on the road again, having transitioned from “thief”… to “killer”.
Hired by a wealthy businessman, she heads down to Florida to practice the one thing she’s good at. But in her vision she sees her client die by another’s hand – and on the wall, written in blood, is a message just for Miriam.
She’s expected…

I've said all this before but that was on the other blog so I can get away with saying it again :o) I love what Joey Hi-Fi has done with the 'Miriam Black' books. If you weren't planning on reading the actual books (that would be a BIG mistake by the way, read all of the books) you could get a real sense of the story just by looking at what he has drawn. I think it's safe to say that when I grow up, I want to be Joey Hi-Fi :o)

As far as the book itself goes, lets just say that I've got a review copy on the way and that I've got all my fingers crossed for it to be there when I get home tonight. Stuff everything else, I just want to sit down with a beer and read about all the crazy shit that Miriam Black gets herself into. If you do the same thing, I can pretty much guarantee a great night's reading. 'The Cormorant' has been out for a few days I think, anyone here read it yet?

Thursday, 9 January 2014

‘The Queen of Air and Darkness’ – Poul Anderson

I know I was going on about not really having any reading resolutions for the New Year but one thing I do want to do is just be a little more widely read with some of those authors where I’ve only read the one book. Authors like Poul Anderson for instance; I’ve only ever read ‘The Broken Sword’ (and I’ll be revisiting that for my Fantasy Masterworks reading sometime in the near future) so figured it was time I branched out a little :o) won the Hugo Award for Best Novella and the Locus Award for Best Short Story in 1972, and the Nebula Award for Best Novelette in 1971. This leads me to ask the question, ‘when is a novella not a novella…?’ When different awards committees apparently can’t decide what the difference is between a novella, short story and novelette… My copy of the story weighs in at a painfully slender fifty(ish) pages so, erm… novelette? I literally have no idea.

All that is beside the point though. ‘The Queen of Air and Darkness’ was a read that just about got me to work this morning. It clearly won a load of awards but maybe wasn’t quite as effective as I hoped it would be. It was still a good read though, even though I felt compelled to put my hand over the picture of the bare breasted alien lady on the front cover; apparently being on the train to work brings out the prude in me.
So then, have a little blurb to get you going…

On the frontier colony world, Roland, a distraught mother hires the only private investigator, Eric Sherrinford, to find her missing son who vanished during an expedition in the hinterlands. The local police are little help in spite of the long series of unexplained child disappearances. Though there have been no confirmed sightings of intelligent native life, and the rumors sound suspiciously like Celtic superstitions from old Earth, Sherrinford believes that an unknown intelligent species is the best explanation of the child's disappearance. So he sets off with the mother into the hinterland to investigate.

For me, ‘The Queen of Air and Darkness’ was three sub-plots trying their level best to wrestle for equal footing. There’s the story of the missing child, of course, but there is also exploration of the loneliness of space (and how colonists might bring myths and legends with them to a new world) and exploration of how an alien race might subtly fight back against the human encroachers. These are all worthy themes to be explored and Anderson really puts a lot of thought into the theories he gives us. The ‘missing child’ sub-plot is slightly lighter in that respect (and it would be) but Anderson instils enough urgency in the plot for this not to be an issue. Having said that though, Anderson places a little too much emphasis on Sherrinford’s theories, about Roland’s native people, and the story as a whole comes across a little drier than perhaps it could have been. Another problem arising from this is that there isn’t the sense of closure that I got the feeling this tale was aiming for. Too many of the big questions are left unanswered which is cool in the way that it keeps you thinking, afterwards, but not so cool if you’re after a tale with a very definite ending.

All in all, I’m glad I gave ‘Queen of Air and Darkness’ a go, especially in terms of how Anderson really brings to light the sense of ‘humanity against the utterly alien’ on a colony world light years from home. Just a shame that it was more about ideas and theories than things actually happening. I’d definitely give more of his sci-fi work a shot if this is anything to go by though, any recommendations?

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Quick Thoughts: ‘Fearsome Journeys: The New Solaris Book of Fantasy’ – Edited by Jonathan Strahan (Solaris)

Science Fiction was my first route into genre fiction but Fantasy has always been my first love and it always will be I think. I enjoy my sci-fi but my reading tastes have always run towards ‘worlds that never were’ over ‘worlds that might yet be’ (which is another reason I don’t read an awful lot of Urban Fantasy anymore, the settings are too real). Fantasy novels have seen me through a lot of tough times and never let me down once (well, apart from Terry Goodkind but how could he let me down when I was half expecting him to?), any book with a fantasy landscape/hooded man etc will always awaken that familiar anticipation of strange new worlds to explore. So when I saw the cover to ‘Fearsome Journeys’ then, I was sold before I even had the book in my hands; especially with those names on the front. Go on, have a look at those names and tell me you’re not interested in reading this book if you haven’t already. A whole book full of worlds to explore…

So why has it taken this long for me to actually get round to saying anything about it? Life, just life… That being the case, I figured I really needed to post something about ‘Fearsome Journeys’ before it became one of those books that feature heavily on my ‘Shelf of Shame’. I’ve pretty much stopped reading anthologies from cover to cover now, preferring to dip in and out of them now and then, so this post is going to be about my impressions of the book and some very quick thoughts on the stories that I have managed to read.

While there are a few stories that I haven’t yet read, the quality of the stories that I have read would indicate that even if the remaining tales weren’t up to scratch ‘Fearsome Journeys’ would still be a very strong anthology that any fan of well written fantasy would do well to pick up. It’s a collection that has everything I would ask for; old friends to get reacquainted with (Cook and Ford) and a whole bunch of others that I know but are writing in different worlds than they would normally. I liked the freshness that gave things; I know what most of these authors can do in their most recognisable worlds so it was good to see them step out of the comfort zone and try something new. Glen Cook was the notable exception here but I’m always up for a new Black Company story and it was good to see another little hole filled in terms of back story. Out of the stories that I read, all of them flowed and kept my interest, all of them had me feeling a little sad when I got to the end. Evidence here of writers very much on top of their game then.
I move a lot of books on once I’ve read them but ‘Fearsome Journeys’ is a book that will be staying on my shelves for a while to come, if not permanently. Like I said, I’ve got a few more stories to read but I’d recommend buying it on the strength of what I have read. I’m hoping that this will be the start of regular fantasy anthologies from Solaris, we could do with more collections like this.

Here’s the table of contents and what I thought of the stories that I read…

“The Effigy Engine: A Tale of the Red Hats” by Scott Lynch (Am I the only person who would rather see more of this world than the world of Locke and Jean? ‘The Effigy Engine’ was nothing short of awesome)
“Amethyst, Shadow, and Light” by Saladin Ahmed (Not as vibrant as ‘Throne of the Crescent Moon’ but a good mixture of solid world building, well placed moments of action and some nice twists. Wouldn’t mind seeing more of these characters)
“Camp Follower” by Trudi Canavan (Probably won’t ever read this, I still haven’t got over the whole ‘King Kalpol’ thing from years ago…)
“The Dragonslayer of Merebarton” by K.J. Parker (While I can’t get into Parker’s novels I haven’t read a short story of hers/his that I haven’t enjoyed. While nothing really jumped out at me here, ‘The Dragonslayer’ was a solid enjoyable read)
“Leaf and Branch and Grass and Vine” by Kate Eliot (Still to read)
“Spirits of Salt: A Tale of the Coral Sword” by Jeffrey Ford (You already know that I love the tales of Ismet Toler and would love to see more. ‘Spirits of Salt’ only reinforces that view and I really hope to see more short stories, or something longer, very soon)
“Forever People” by Robert V.S. Redick (Never really got into Redick’s longer work so haven’t been too keen on reading this one. Anyone read it?)
“Sponda the Suet Girl and the Secret of the French Pearl” by Ellen Klages (Still to read and I’ve got to say that the clunky title hasn’t got me in a hurry to get going…)
“Shaggy Dog Bridge: A Black Company Story” by Glen Cook (Cook makes no allowances for his readers, as usual, preferring to just get on with the tale. Stick with it though and you’ll find yourself with another solid instalment in the Annals of the Company, although maybe this isn’t the best place for newcomers to jump on board)
“The Ghost Makers” by Elizabeth Bear (I love finding short stories that have me thinking that I really have to check out an author’s longer works. If ‘The Ghost Makers’ is anything to go by then I really should have read ‘Range of Ghosts’ and ‘Shattered Pillars’ long before now, it’s another awesome tale with two lead characters that carry the story effortlessly. Hints of the world around them have got me wanting more)
“One Last, Great Adventure” by Ellen Kushner & Ysabeau Wilce (Still to read)
“The High King Dreaming” by Daniel Abraham (Daniel Abraham has got such good form for writing fantasy that I almost want to be there when he writes a clunker, just so I can say I was there when he did. It looks like I’ll be waiting a little while longer then…)

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

'Emphyrio' - Jack Vance (Millennium)

It's funny how I'll read the Fantasy Masterworks books with a sense of eager anticipation (wanting to be transported somewhere amazing) but the Science Fiction Masterworks are read with a sense of, 'Masterwork eh? We'll soon see about that...' Years of being told that 'sci-fi was better in our day', and the associated feeling that fantasy never really has been, probably has something to do with that. I kick back against the daftest things sometimes but at least it spurs me into reading books that I wouldn't normally try.
Books like 'Emphyrio' for example. I've never read anything by Jack Vance (yeah, I know...) so finding 'Emphyrio' was a chance to kill two birds with one stone so to speak - fill in a gap in my genre reading (with a fairly quick read, only two hundred and eight pages long) and see if 'Emphyrio' was an SF Masterwork, all at the same time. And you know what? For all its modesty (perhaps because of it) I think it is.

You want some blurb? Go on then, here's some blurb...

Far in the future, the craftsmen of the distant planet Halma create goods which are the wonder of the galaxy. But they know little of this. Their society is harshly regimented, its religion austere and unforgiving, and primitive -- to maintain standards, even the most basic use of automation is punishable by death.
When Amiante, a wood-carver, is executed for processing old documents with a camera, his son Ghyl rebels, and decides to bring down the system. To do so, he must first interpret the story of Emphyrio, an ancient hero of Halman legend.

'Emphyrio' has the big concept that you would expect a Masterwork to have, the usual tale of mankind being enslaved but spun into something else with an examination of galactic economics and a slavery so subtle that people don't even realise it is happening. Where Vance really makes the concept work for him though is that he makes sure it drives the plot instead of being the plot (hence that modest air). There’s no showing off how clever he is here, Vance makes the story the thing and 'Emphyrio' is all about the effects of economic slavery on the people of Halma, Ghyl in particular. Vance has clearly given one hell of a lot of thought to how life might be and how events will play out for Ghyl as they happen. The end result is a tightly plotted tale with a lead in Ghyl that I couldn’t help but root for despite him being a little too stolid to be a truly compelling character. Everything is against Ghyl, up to and including things that he isn’t even aware of, he keeps going though and the questions raised (along with tantalising clues) are such that I had to keep reading.

The pay-off is worth the read but, to be honest, the travelogue element of the tale would have been worth sticking around for anyway (even if the ending hadn’t). From my own (very) limited reading of his work, Vance clearly has a real gift for instilling that sense of the alien in his surroundings as well as making them living, breathing environments for the reader. I’m really looking forward to reading his ‘Tales of the Dying Earth’ if ‘Emphyrio’ is anything to go by. If I read some SF I want to feel like that planets are alien and that’s exactly what I got here.

Look past that the air of modesty and you’ll find that ‘Emphyrio’ is a thought provoking sci-fi tale, making its characters the focus to good effect. The ‘big concept’ is extremely well handled and I think the story itself will stay in my head for a long time to come; that makes it a ‘SF Masterwork’ as far as I’m concerned.