Saturday, 31 May 2014

Cover Art - 'Gods of War' and 'The House of War and Witness'

Cover used to simply be something that I’d have a quick look at before opening the book and getting on to the story itself. I mean, no-one hands over hard earned cash just for the cover art do they? Do they?
Having been blogging for a while now (and read what other people think on the matter), cover art means a lot more to me than it ever did before. The work (and thought) that goes into something people might just look at for a second is astonishing, even if the results don’t always gel with me. Attention is paid to the smallest things in order to get you looking at a cover, for more than that one second, and I think that’s amazing.

I don’t really talk about fonts a lot, preferring instead to concentrate on the actual artwork, but I came across a couple of covers just recently where that little bit of detail made a bland/generic cover something a lot more. Have a look…  

At first glance, it looks like ‘Gods of War’ is just another WW1 novel with an aeroplane and a lot of cloud on the front. So far, so ordinary. Have a look at that font though with all its curls and stuff (no terminology here, there’s a reason why I don’t talk about this stuff much…) The slightly archaic style adds another layer of history to the cover and its lightness on the cover adds a sense of movement to the plane. I’m not sure that I’d read the book (love watching ‘Sherlock’ but have never really go on with the books) but I do like looking at the cover. Have a read through the blurb as well while you’re here…

1913. The clouds of war are gathering and Europe is in turmoil. A body is discovered on the shore below Beachy Head, just a mile from Sherlock Holmess retirement cottage. Suicide, or murder? As Holmes and Watson investigate, they uncover a conspiracy with shocking ramifications: men who welcome the idea of a world war are seeking divine aid to make it a reality.

‘The House of War and Witness’ is another one of those books with a cover that wouldn’t look out of place in a ‘3 for 2’ offer at WHSmiths or heavily reduced in price at Tescos. I can remember the days when supermarkets just sold food but that’s another story (and get off my lawn you pesky kids!) It’s a book that looks like any other historical novel then and that’s a shame because the blurb says that it’s anything but, I’ll show you that in a minute.
It’s curly whirly font time again though, sparingly used but to great effect. You know what you’re getting in a book when ‘war’ is highlighted on the cover and I like the way that the font deliberately contrasts with the one used for ‘witness’, suggesting two themes for the plot. I promised you the blurb and here it is,

In the year 1740, with the whole of Europe balanced on the brink of war, a company of Austrian soldiers is sent to the village of Narutsin to defend the border with Prussia. But what should be a routine posting is quickly revealed to be anything but. The previous garrison is gone, the great house of Pokoj, where they're to be billeted, a dilapidated ruin, and the people of Narutsin sullen and belligerent. Convinced the villagers are keeping secrets - and possibly consorting with the enemy - the commanding officer orders his junior lieutenant, Klaes, to investigate.
While Klaes sifts through the villagers' truths, half-truths and lies, Drozde, the quartermaster's woman, is making uncomfortable discoveries of her own - about herself, her man, and the house where they've all been thrown together. Because far from being the empty shell it appears to be, Pokoj is actually teeming with people. It's just that they're all dead. And the dead know things - about Drozde, about the history of Pokoj, and about the terrible event that is rushing towards them all, seemingly unstoppable.
The ghosts of Pokoj, the soldiers of the empress and the villagers of Narutsin are about to find themselves actors in a story that has been unfolding for centuries. It will end in blood - that much is written - but how much blood will depend on Klaes' honour, Drozde's skill and courage, and the keeping of an impossible promise ...

I’ll be reading this for the same reasons that I’ll be dipping into ‘City of Silk and Steel’ very soon. Mike Carey hasn’t let me down yet with his work and I’m looking forward to more of the same here.

Friday, 30 May 2014

‘Promise of Blood’ – Brian McClellan (Orbit)

It's a bloody business overthrowing a king...
Field Marshal Tamas' coup against his king sent corrupt aristocrats to the guillotine and brought bread to the starving. But it also provoked war with the Nine Nations, internal attacks by royalist fanatics, and the greedy to scramble for money and power by Tamas's supposed allies: the Church, workers unions, and mercenary forces.

Stretched to his limit, Tamas is relying heavily on his few remaining powder mages, including the embittered Taniel, a brilliant marksman who also happens to be his estranged son, and Adamat, a retired police inspector whose loyalty is being tested by blackmail.

But when gods are involved...
Now, as attacks batter them from within and without, the credulous are whispering about omens of death and destruction. Just old peasant legends about the gods waking to walk the earth. No modern educated man believes that sort of thing. But they should...

I read a lot of books in a lot of (sub)genres and love them all for the most part. You’ll soon hear about it if I don’t… Despite this, I’m still more than a little old school with my fantasy. Swords, spears and shields are all good but the second we move on to muskets and pistols then I’m not into it as much. If you’re wondering, I can just about put up with cannons ;o) I think this is the reason why the whole ‘flintlock fantasy’ thing passed me by; part of fantasy for me is people getting up close when fighting and you just don’t get that when your hero can pick someone off, from hundreds of yards away, with a rifle. So I didn’t read ‘Promise of Blood’ when it came out back in April last year (I didn’t read Django Wexler’s ‘The Thousand Names’ either so there you go) but the recent publication of ‘The Crimson Campaign’ prompted me to go back and give it a read (that and the fact that I still think Tamas looks like George Lucas, I really need to let that one go now).
The long and short of it? ‘Promise of Blood’ is the reason is why blog content here has been a bit spotty recently, when I haven’t been reading ‘Promise of Blood’ I’ve been thinking about what is going to happen next. Now I’ve finished ‘Promise of Blood’, I can’t wait to get home so I can pick up ‘The Crimson Campaign’ and get going all over again. Can you tell that I really enjoyed this book? I really did…?

How often have you read a fantasy novel where the plot to overthrow the King is foiled at the last minute? ‘Promise of Blood’ starts just after the point where that coup was successful. The King is about a day away from being executed; long live the reign of Field Marshal Tamas, a man doing the right thing but for reasons all his own… What you get then is a story where you can almost smell the blood right from the first page, a book where the risk of counter-revolution means that the stakes are high right from the first sentence. ‘Promise of Blood’ is a book that throws you right into the thick of a messy coup and leaves you wondering just how Tamas and his committee are going to sort it all out. That’s what kept me reading, the problems, that were laid up even more problems, that had to be solved in order to keep the country just ticking over; McClellan piles it all into the laps of several characters who may not be entirely likeable (I’m looking at you Tamas) but who believe in their convictions enough to make you want to get behind them.

Problems, and their solutions, frequently come in the form of pitched battles and gunfights which swept me up in a hail of bullets and blood; just the kind of battles that I like to read about. I still have a preference for swordplay in fantasy but the blend of magic here made for a refreshing change for me. McClellan pitches his battles just right and it’s all too easy to keep reading. And if that wasn’t enough there are two Gods in play as well; one is wrathful and wants to destroy Tamas’ country, the other… is an amazing cook… I’m looking forward to seeing how that particular confrontation plays out in future books.

‘Promise of Blood’ does suffer slightly from being the opening book in a trilogy; a lot of the sub-plots are relatively self-contained but I couldn’t get away from the feeling that events weren’t flowing into book two so much as they were being left hanging so you would have to read book two.  With everything else going on though, it’s incredibly easy to forget that and just be carried along on a wave of intrigue, magic and blood. ‘Promise of Blood’ is ultimately an awesome read and I’m looking forward to continuing with the trilogy.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

‘Poison’ – Sarah Pinborough (Gollancz)

‘Take a wicked queen, a handsome prince, a beautiful princess and a poisoned apple…
and now read the true story of Snow White, told the way it always should have been…’

These days I’m a little loathe to pick up books promising to re-tell older tales, simply because I can never get away from the fact that I’ve already read it somewhere else. If I really want to re-read a book then I’ll go back to the original instead of reading a copy, a slight variation on the same theme. If it’s Sarah Pinborough telling the tale though, that’s a different matter entirely. I’ve read a few of Pinborough’s books now and have enjoyed the lot (just feel a bit sad that will be no more giant spider books…) so it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that I’d read ‘Poison’. Now I want the next two books to hurry up and get themselves re-issued; partly because I want to find out what happened to the mouse and see whether Aladdin makes another appearance but mostly because Pinborough tells an enthralling tale and I want more of that. Right now, I’m really hard pressed to remember a time when I tore through two hundred pages of book so quickly.

Pinborough takes the original tale of Snow White and, well… doesn’t actually make any changes to the main plot for the most part. The game changer comes right at the end (and completely blew me away) but the rest of the plot is as you would expect to find it. Where Pinborough really shines though is in her treatment of the source material. ‘Poison’ isn’t so much a re-telling of ‘Snow White’ as it is a piece with a lot more depth and feeling than the original tale ever had. And a lot more darkness too; Pinborough clearly knows that there is a strong edge of darkness to the classic fairy tales and uses that here to good effect. I know I keep going on about Aladdin but he is a seriously scary and messed up little boy who I would hate to come across and that is what partly what ‘Poison’ is all about, that darkness in our lives which can lead us down some very strange paths.

‘Poison’ isn’t just about that though, it’s about why the Snow White tale happened the way that it did and Pinborough adds real emotion and depth to the relationship between Lilith and Snow White; a relationship based on misunderstandings and jealousy from both parties as well as Lilith trying to make herself feel secure as Queen by imposing order on Snow White. You can’t help but feel sorry for both women, both of whom have their faults but are stopped from making it work by being totally incompatible. The way it all plays out makes for a compelling yet bittersweet read.

Oh yes and there’s a lot of sex, emphasising the raw humanity of our characters (it’s the only way that they can connect with each other) whilst ensuring that I will never again be able to watch the final scenes of the Disney ‘Snow White’ without keeping a straight face.  And that damn Prince, I really hope he gets his in a book to come…

‘Poison’ has been on the shelves for a little while now and I suspect I must be one of the last people to read it. If you haven’t read it yet, don’t wait as long as I did. Read ‘Poison’ now and find out what ‘Snow White’ was really all about.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

More Books in the Post! 'Post-Interview/Shameless Filler' Edition.

I don't normally do one 'Books in the Post' post straight after another but I've spent most of the last few days preparing for an interview (which went pretty well thank you for asking!) and haven't really done a lot of reading. And, of course, a whole load of books were waiting for for me when I got home last night and I wanted to share :o) After this post I'll go straight back to the 'once weekly' format but in the meantime there's some very cool looking books here; check them out...

There were a whole load of books published last year that I never got round to, purely because I was having me a hiatus and was catching up on other stuff instead. 'The City of Silk and Steel' was one of those books (anyone here read it?) and I've bumped it up the pile, not only because I love Arabian style fantasy right now but also because Mike Carey's name is on the cover. It may not be Felix Castor (still holding out a forlorn hope here) but I haven't read a bad book yet from Mike Carey so am looking forward to reading this and seeing how this combined family effort comes out on the page.
'Poison' is another book that I'm really up for reading and probably should have read sooner, based on how I've found Sarah Pinborough's other books (excellent for the most part). I've got the house to myself tonight so might give it a go then.

Gollancz continue to publish Michael Moorcock's back catalogue and it's the turn of this collected edition of 'Jerry Cornelius' short stories to see the light of day. I will be reading this book, no question about it. The only question is in which edition; I think I may already have this one on the shelf (with a much nicer cover as well).

And then there's the books that I'd never heard of until last night.

I'd never really given it much thought but of course there would be a book that was Philip K. Dick's first, he had to start somewhere didn't he? It's a matter for slight debate but people in the know say that 'Gather Yourselves Together' was the first book written by Dick. I want to read more of his books so will definitely be picking this one up at some point.
I'm not really sure about Mitch Benn's 'Terra' though. I know it's a silly thing but the comparisons to Terry Pratchett have put me off, purely because I don't really find Pratchett that funny any more (not for a long time). Has anyone here read 'Terra'? Have a look at the blurb and see what you think,

No-one trusts humanity. No-one can quite understand why we're intent on destroying the only place we have to live in the Universe. No-one thinks we're worth a second thought. And certainly no-one is about to let us get off Rrth. That would be a complete disaster.

But one alien thinks Rrth is worth looking at. Not humanity, obviously, we're appalling, but until we manage to kill every other living thing on the planet there are some truly wonderful places on Rrth and some wonderful creatures living in them. Best take a look while they're still there.
But on one trip to Rrth our alien biologist causes a horrendous accident. The occupants of a car travelling down a lonely road spot his ship (the sort of massive lemon-coloured, lemon-shaped starship that really shouldn't be hanging in the sky over a road). Understandably the Bradburys crash (interrupting the latest in a constant procession of bitter rows). And in the wreckage of their car our alien discovers a baby girl. She needs rescuing. From the car. From Rrth. From her humanity.

And now 11 years later a girl called Terra is about to go to school for the first time. It's a very alien experience...

I'm half and half with this one, what do you think?

And Simon Ing's 'Painkillers'... I think he has a story in 'The Life and Times of Jerry Cornelius' so I might read that first and give 'Painkillers' a go if I like it. Or maybe not, I have the 'Game of Thrones Season Two' box set in my bag and that takes precedence because Season One was awesome. Any time that is left will be spent on working my way through a growing pile of unread books. Any here that you think I should start with?

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Books In The Post, 'Lazy Bank Holiday Edition'

Well, I say 'lazy'... There wasn't a lot of 'laziness' going on seeing as Hope was full of energy and really happy to be on holiday. It was a great three days though and I don't think I read more than a couple of pages of anything over the long weekend. You know what? That was cool as well. I've become really aware that I'm the kind of guy who will finish a book and then pick up another one within seconds; there's nothing wrong with that just as long as you're doing it for the right reason. If you're not then take a step back and enjoy what's going on in real life. There may not be any dragons, or stuff like that, but real life can be pretty magical as well :o)

But the books, the books... Only three books turned up this weekend and that was fine by me as I'm trying to fit in time for the books gathering dust on the shelves. Have a look at what showed up...

'The Mabinogion' is, you guessed it, is another 'Fantasy Masterwork' that somehow found its way to my front door via Amazon. Strange how that happens... As with all the other Fantasy Masterworks, 'The Mabinogion' will be read at some point in the near future. Or the far future, haven't decided yet and right now, to be honest, I'm just enjoying watching the collection slowly take over the shelves... :o)

I've got no interest in reading 'Earth Awakens', in no small part because of the kind of guy Orson Scott Card comes across as. I don't want to support that kind of behaviour so that's the last you'll hear of 'Earth Awakens' here (which is a bit of a shame for Aaron Johnston but I'm sure he knew the score...)

'Cibola Burn' looks like an awesome read though. Seriously, check out the blurb...

The gates have opened the way to a thousand new worlds and the rush to colonise has begun. Settlers looking for a new life stream out from humanity's home planets. Illus, the first human colony on this vast new frontier, is being born in blood and fire.
Independent settlers stand against the overwhelming power of a corporate colony ship with only their determination, courage and the skills learned in the long wars of home. Innocent scientists are slaughtered as they try to survey a new and alien world.
James Holden and the crew of his one small ship are sent to make peace in the midst of war and sense in the heart of chaos. But the more he looks at it, the more Holden thinks the mission was meant to fail.
And the whispers of a dead man remind him that the great galactic civilisation which once stood on this land is gone. And that something killed them.

Looks amazing doesn't it? There's just the small matter of my being two books behind with this series that's stopping me reading this straight away. Sue and the girls are away this week so I might be able to catch up. Alternatively, I might just blow the whole week catching up with 'A Game of Thrones'. It's a tough one...

Saturday, 24 May 2014

‘Restless Waters’ – Robert E. Howard

I have a feeling that you will find ‘Restless Waters’ in ‘The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard’ (don’t quote me on that, can’t find my copy anymore…) but I found it in ‘The Gods of Bal-Sagoth’ collection; a great little book for people like me who want a ten minute chunk of story between meatier slices. More often than not, I’m absolutely in awe of what Robert E. Howard wrote (and how much of a back catalogue there is), especially his short fiction which packs one hell of a lot of story into a very small space. Howard was a master of the art, no doubt about that, and at only eight pages long, ‘Restless Waters’ looked like a nice little read to ease me into the day after a half four in the morning start with Elana. Things don’t often work out the way you want though and ‘Restless Waters’ ended up more than a little disappointing…

At only eight pages long, you’re looking for a simple premise and that’s what we get here with two sea captains talking about the death of one of the captain’s crewmembers and, as the tale progresses, it becomes clear that one of the captains is due a visit from beyond the grave as a result of his wicked ways (and he’s a bad’un, no doubt about it). A great basis for a tale of terror then but it’s signposted so clearly that you’re waiting for the inevitable payoff instead of being ready to be surprised by it. There’s no surprise here (given all the exposition, how can there be?), just a dull sense of the inevitable and that’s a real shame coming from the writer of classic stories such as ‘The Dream Snake’ (where the build-up just flows into the finale which is awesome) , which is as scary as hell. The finale here wants to be dramatic but arrives only to find that its surprise has been spoiled and it doesn't really know what to do with itself.

I've read enough of Howard’s tales now to be pretty sure that this is just a one off and that I still have a lot of great reading in front of me. Just can’t help feeling a little disappointed here. What is it about me and horror/supernatural fiction this week? I can’t pick a good story if my life depended on it. Any recommendations from you guys?

Friday, 23 May 2014

‘Domain’ – James Herbert

Sometimes, things just have a habit of coming together at just the right time and in just the right way. I was reading Anne’s ‘YA Sexytimes’ post and it got me thinking about similar books I read (as a Young Adult). Well I say ‘similar’, there was nothing similar (other than the sex) about Richard Reinsmith’s ‘The Savage Stars’, colonists are stranded on an alien world and have loads of sex whilst deconstructing the oppressive regime created by their forebears, but you know what I mean.
And the horror books… As a kid it was common knowledge that the more gruesome the cover art was, the more likely there was to be graphic sex inside, usually just before someone having sex had something bitten off by something very nasty.

Which kind of brings me onto James Herbert’s ‘Domain’, a book that (along with ‘The Rats’ and ‘Lair’) my friends and I would skim through and snigger at the naughty stuff. I found a copy last night, in the micro-library up the road, and thought I’d give it a re-read; first time since about the first year of high school and all that so was anticipating memories of reading all sorts of stuff that the teachers weren’t keen on. The end result was kind of disappointing, I guess there are times when you shouldn’t go back…
Before we get started, have some blurb…

The long-dreaded nuclear conflict. The city torn apart, shattered, its people destroyed or mutilated beyond hope. For just a few, survival is possible only beneath the wrecked streets - if there is time to avoid the slow-descending poisonous ashes. But below, the rats, demonic offspring of their irradiated forebears, are waiting. They know that Man is weakened, become frail. Has become their prey . . .

So that sex scene was actually a very intense rape scene which made for very uncomfortable reading, even if the rapist got his just desserts by having his eyeball chewed out by a huge black rat. I’m not the reader I was when I was ten or eleven and this scene serves no purpose now other than gratuitous male on female violence that is topped off by rats attacking. The scene where survivors tunneling out meet rats tunneling in is done far better in my opinion.

The rest of the book swiftly proves to be, for me anyway, the weakest of the three ‘Rats’ books with very little horror or suspense to it. While I really got behind Herbert’s backdrop of a London wiped out by nuclear bombs, the way he structured his chapters removed a lot of the suspense and horror for me. The approach of having chapters for people who are clearly superfluous, and marked for death, just makes it clear that all the characters who matter are going to be ok. And they are, I skipped to the end of the book and they were just fine (sorry, spoilers and all that but it got to me).
The rats themselves seem strangely muted compared to the absolute gorefest that they indulged themselves in during the first two books. Of course, they do their thing but it seems to be glossed over with Herbert’s preference to write ‘Domain’ as more of a thriller than a horror piece. Herbert was a better horror writer than thriller writer in my opinion.

‘Domain’ is a perfectly serviceable book but it felt like it could have been a lot more and, as such, felt like a bit of let down in what is an iconic horror series. Oh well, never mind, on to the next book.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

‘The Last Enchantment (Jesting with Chaos)’ – Michael Moorcock

I’m taking my own sweet time with ‘A Promise of Blood’, for the simple reason that is proving to be an awesome read and therefore to be savoured on the morning and evening commutes. Take it from me, if you haven’t read ‘A Promise of Blood’ then you need to do something about that sharpish. As far as the blog goes then, expect to see a few more short stories covered here in the meantime. Stories like Michael Moorcock’s ‘The Last Enchantment’ for instance.

Anyone looking to read ‘The Last Enchantment’ can find it in those old battered ‘Elric at the end of Time’ paperbacks, that can be found wherever there is an old second hand bookshop, or you can pick it up as part of the ‘To Rescue Tanelorn’ collection that Del Rey released a few years ago (2008, has it really been that long?) Either book will guarantee some good reading with the other stories sitting alongside ‘The Last Enchantment’.

The premise of ‘The Last Enchantment’ is simple; Elric is sent into a realm of Chaos (he really should have helped Slorg out instead of sending him to a horrible death) and must solve a seemingly impossible task if he is to escape the fate of being ‘forever conscious’. It’s no surprise that he does, we all know that a worse fate awaits Elric, but there is a clever twist to it that completely eluded me on first reading (it was my first couple of weeks at high school, I was more concerned with trying to find where my next class was) but really struck me with its elegance and simplicity this time round. What I really liked about ‘The Last Enchantment’ though wasn’t just the cruel atmosphere of Elric’s world, and the creatures that lurk within it (the Hungry Whisperers still make me shiver even now) but the fact that Elric immediately comes across as a bit of a bastard and unlike any other hero that you’re likely to meet. He’ll stand up to the Lords of Chaos but only if it suits him; Elric’s reaction to Slorg’s plight is to basically say, “sorry mate, this is nothing to do with me” and then ride on. A hero when the stakes are high but not someone to place your faith in concerning more mundane matters such as being chased by creatures that are going to eat you… Slightly uncomfortable reading then, if you like your heroes to be a bit more heroic, but I like characters that are open about who they are and the honesty here appealed to me.

‘The Last Enchantment’ isn’t an action filled piece (and the horror is only hinted at); what the reader has instead is a more thoughtful piece on the nature of Chaos and its limitations. Elric’s slightly mournful final words here hint at what humanity might just be capable of if it only realised. All of this is set against one of Moorcock’s surreal landscapes that are easy to get lost in yet has a cruel undertone to it, reminding the reader that perhaps the characters behave the way they do for a very good reason. A very slight read (only about eleven pages long) and very much to the point but as good a place as any other to start finding out what Elric is all about and why fate is so cruel to him…

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

‘The Hedge Knight’ – George R.R. Martin

While I’m catching up with the HBO series (two and a bit more seasons and I’ll be with you guys) and pondering whether to go for a ‘big ol’ re-read’ of ‘ASOIAF’ (will more than likely happen when I next have a long train journey to make) I’m mooching around my bookshelves, trying to get a little caught up some of the shorter pieces of Westeros fiction that GRRM has written. My thoughts on ‘The Rogue Prince’ went up at the end of April and at some point that will be followed by what I thought ‘The Princess and the Queen’ (still to be read). Today then is all about what lies in the middle and that is ‘The Hedge Knight’, first of the tales of Ser Duncan the Tall and his squire Egg.
I’m pretty sure the plan is that, eventually, you will be able to find all of Dunk and Egg’s adventures in one collection but that day is a way off yet (seeing that there’s at one novella, that I know of, still to be written). I found ‘The Hedge Knight’ in the Robert Silverberg edited ‘Legends’ collection, I don’t think it’s anywhere else.

Anyway… What is a lowly squire to do when his hedge knight master falls ill in the middle of nowhere, knights him and then promptly dies? If you’re Dunk, The first thing you do (after burying your master of course) is to head for the tourney you were going to originally. This time though, instead of supplying his master with fresh lances, Dunk plans to tilt a few lances himself and make enough prize money to find his own way (as a hedge knight) in the world. Simple, right? Not if you’re Dunk and have a habit of accidentally involving yourself in the affairs of the high and mighty…

It’s really interesting to read ‘The Hedge Knight’, after having read the ‘ASOIAF’ books, as you can’t help but ask yourself if Dunk’s actions indirectly lead to Robert Baratheon’s rebellion, a hundred years later, and everything that followed afterwards. I don’t want to give any spoilers away but that was all I could think of once I’d read the last page. Great foreshadowing by GRRM if that is the case, erm… a case of my reading too much into things if it isn’t!

Something to chew on then but what I really enjoyed about ‘The Hedge Knight’ was seeing Dunk (I’ll call him ‘Ser Duncan’ from hereon in) find his way in the world and how his efforts to stay true to an ideal of knighthood is not only tested but impacts on the lives of all around him. While politics, and plain old fashioned violence (as skilfully and brutally drawn as ever), play out during the course of the tourney, GRRM shows us that actually there is nothing more deadly than a na├»ve and virtuous man trying to do the right thing. It’s like ‘A Game of Thrones’ played out on a much smaller scale and by the end, Ser Duncan is faced with the choice of either continuing to forge his own path or to essentially become another piece in the game. Those of you who have read ‘The Hedge Knight’ already will know the decision that Ser Duncan takes and I think he made the right one, for him anyway.

I really enjoyed ‘The Hedge Knight’ (despite trying to get my head round what felt like a conveyor belt constantly churning out new knights, and where were the Starks?), a tale that initially felt like  a great way to dip my toes into the world of Westeros but then grew into something more; a very promising opening tale in the life of a man whom I hear has great things ahead of him.  

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

'The Remaining' - D.J. Molles (Orbit)

Is it me or are there fewer zombie novels being published at the moment? It’s probably just me but even so, it feels like a welcome moment of respite in a publishing landscape where the number of zombie books was reaching saturation level (and from me, that’s saying something!) You really can have too much of a good thing you know.
The good thing for me is that this means I’m getting interested in zombie books again. Not that I ever lost that interest, not really, but it was a close thing at times. D.J Molles’ ‘The Remaining’ series has had good things said about it, just recently, and the arrival of a review copy gave me the chance to find out for myself if all these good words had any substance to them. The good news is that they do but I still can’t help but hope for better things in the books to come. Go on, have some blurb…

In a steel-and-lead encased bunker a Special Forces soldier waits on his final orders.

On the surface a bacterium has turned 90% of the population into hyper-aggressive predators.

Now Captain Lee Harden must leave the bunker and venture into the wasteland to rekindle a shattered America.

Isn’t that the most succinct blurb you have ever read? No messing about, just three rather curt lines that tell you what to expect from ‘The Remaining’. The problem is that the book itself, doesn’t really elaborate on this too much. Sure, there are hints that the ‘zombies’ (if you could call them that) may be a little more than the regular shambling undead but the book can swiftly be summed up as ‘Harden fights the infected, rescues civilians, fights renegades… and repeat’. Harden carries the plot well but is a little too good to be true. I liked the way that Molles has Harden waiting on tenterhooks for his mission and then throws him totally into the unknown but there’s never any doubt that he will overcome obstacles, even when he is trying to protect civilians at the same time. The guy is just too much of a hard-core military dude for that. It’s early days though (very early judging by the number of books in the series) so it’s fair to say that ‘The Remaining’ is more about introducing Harden rather than doing anything interesting with the character. If you’re after seeing what Molles can do with a character who clearly isn’t geared up to coping with this new world, read ‘An Empty Soul’ at the back of the book. Molles displays a feel for the demands of post-apocalyptic life that isn’t in ‘The Remaining’ (yet) but gives me real hope for the future of this series. Hard choices are always the order of the day and Molles gives his main character one of the hardest of all (doesn’t shy away from the gory details of it either…)

As an introductory piece then, ‘The Remaining’ does its job very well despite its shortcomings; certainly well enough to make the sequel a ‘definite read’. There is an energy and urgency to the plot (a little bit for Harden but mostly for the people following him) that kicks in at just the right time and swept me along to the conclusion. I polished ‘The Remaining’ off in a couple of sittings and that’s a pretty big deal these days! While I was never that worried for Harden’s safety, Molles does paint a very bleak backdrop full of ruin and abandonment; that sense of emptiness really captures the feel of a world suddenly gone to hell and I’ve got to admit to jumping a couple of times when the infected suddenly appeared (just because it was so quiet). I got to the end of ‘The Remaining’ and immediately read the excerpt from the sequel, ‘Aftermath’, to find out what happened next. That’s not something I’d normally do so that tells you something pretty positive about the experience overall.

Room for improvement then but ‘The Remaining’ is a thoroughly entertaining read (think Matthew Reilly meets ’28 Days Later’ and you won’t go too far wrong) that has me eagerly awaiting the sequel. You can’t ask for a lot more than that from a book.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Books In the Post - 'Broken Toe Edition'

My foot is killing me :o( In an attempt to rescue Elana from hitting the kitchen floor (after being flipped out of her chair by Hope, long story...) I broke my toe; one of the smaller ones but it hurts like a son of a... it hurts a lot. What's really bad is that Hope occasionally forgets what happened and treads on my foot! It was almost worth it though to have her tie a little ribbon around my toe to make it feel better :o) Kids are cute aren't they...?
Last week wasn't the best of weeks then, with that and other stuff going on, but it ended on a good note with loads of sunshine, a barbecue and a whole load of great looking books arriving on the doorstep. I want to read them all! Well, almost all of them... Do you want to see them? Yeah, you do...

The Fantasy Masterworks collection is another two books closer to completion. Not ideal editions ('Lud in the Mist' has a different cover to the one I was expecting and 'Beauty' is an ex-library copy...) but it's the stories I'm really interested in and I want to get round to these sooner rather than later, 'Lud in the Mist' in particular.

It feels like I've been waiting for 'Sworn in Steel' forever, even longer than I waited for 'A Dance With Dragons' (blatantly untrue, just feels like it) Most anticipated read of 2014 then? Quite possibly and one I'll be getting to after I finish reading 'A Promise of Blood'. I'd heard good things about 'The Remaining' which is why I tore through it over the weekend and will be posting my review tomorrow. It's not a bad read at all.

It seems that there are loads of books that I want to read all at once (isn't that a great feeling to have?) and 'Authority' is one of them after I had an enjoyable, if slightly unsettling experience, reading 'Annihilation'. 'Authority' is neck and neck with 'Sworn in Steel' for book that will be read next and it could go either way...
'Station Eleven' though, I'm really not sure about this one (despite the gorgeous cover). Have a look at this blurb and tell me that it doesn't remind you of 'The Stand',

The Georgia Flu explodes over the surface of the earth like a neutron bomb.
News reports put the mortality rate at over 99%.

Civilization has crumbled.

A band of actors and musicians called the Travelling Symphony move through their territories performing concerts and Shakespeare to the settlements that have grown up there. Twenty years after the pandemic, life feels relatively safe.

But now a new danger looms, and he threatens the hopeful world every survivor has tried to rebuild. 

Moving backwards and forwards in time, from the glittering years just before the collapse to the strange and altered world that exists twenty years after, Station Eleven charts the unexpected twists of fate that connect six people: famous actor Arthur Leander; Jeevan - warned about the flu just in time; Arthur's first wife Miranda; Arthur's oldest friend Clark; Kirsten, a young actress with the Travelling Symphony; and the mysterious and self-proclaimed 'prophet'. 

Doesn't that remind you of 'The Stand'? It reminds me of 'The Stand' (albeit possibly without the element of horror) and I'm not sure that I want to read 'The Stand' all over again. If I want to do that then I'll just read 'The Stand'. And that's enough of me trying to fit 'The Stand' as many times as I can into three sentences, five is a pretty respectable score I think :o)

I started reading 'Promise of Blood' this morning and I'm already thinking 'why didn't I read this book sooner?' It is amazing, thank you Jared for pointing me at this book. Is it me or does that look like George Lucas on the cover...? I'm kind of half and half on 'Fool's Assassin' (read the other books but it was a bit of a hard slog due to Fitz being, well... Fitz) but can see myself probably reading it anyway, apparently I'm a sucker for hard looking warrior types on a cover.
'Steles of the Sky' will definitely be read but I still need to read the first two books in the trilogy. Time marches on, and blogs change, but I will always be late to the party as far as reading acclaimed books go. I wouldn't have it any other way personally, it's not like there aren't loads of books to read in the meantime :o)

So, have any of these books caught your eye?

Friday, 16 May 2014

Reasons that I love books (Or, 'never take your two year old daughter to a book signing...')

Books have always been a huge part of my life, to the point where all of the books on my shelves (the ones that are mine, not review copies that have been sent) come with their own memories of where I was in my life when I bought and read them. Timothy Zahn’s ‘Heir to the Empire’ trilogy was purchased the morning after my 21st birthday while I was in the throes of the worst hangover I have ever had. Thank goodness you only turn twenty one once :o) ‘Memories of Ice’ will always be the book that I tried to read after just having woken up from a general anaesthetic (and not having read the previous two books). That reading experience did not go well at all… After having got rid of my original ‘Winter of the World’ novels (yet another ill-advised purge) I’ll always remember finding another copy of ‘The Anvil of Ice’ in an Oxfam shop, in Islington, and promising that I’d never make that mistake again. What? I love books :o)

With books and I being the way we are then, it makes it even better when I can get a book signed; another memory tied up in the pages. I was looking through my books the other day and remembered taking Hope (two and a bit at the time) to get some books signed by Daniel Polansky. The conversation kind of went like this…

Daniel Polansky: (Looking at Hope) “And who’s this?”
Me: “This is my daughter Hope, I thought I’d bring her along as she loves book signings.” (To be fair , what Hope actually loved was getting off her face on sugar at the Strange Chemistry launch; a small but important difference as there wasn’t much in the way of sugar at Forbidden Planet…)
Daniel Polansky: “She’s cute, hi Hope!”
Hope: (Scowling) “…”
Daniel Polansksy: “She’s not really into this at all is she?”
Me: “Erm… No”

After a conversation like this, there was really only that Daniel could write in my book…

How about you? What's the funniest/oddest thing an author has written in your book while signing it? Photographic evidence will be insisted on here otherwise I'm afraid it never happened... In the meantime, all this talk has reminded me that I still need to read/finish 'She Who Waits'. My 'To Read' pile can't stay in the same order for more than a day at time...

Thursday, 15 May 2014

A Couple of Tales from the Weird West…

I can’t remember the last time I read an anthology from cover to cover, quite possibly in the days when I had a slightly longer commute and no children. These days, anthologies are very much a way for me to chew over a short tale when I don’t have the appetite for something longer. If I didn’t read short stories, I suspect I would never finish anything but that’s another story (and not a short one either)…
Anyway… I’ve said before that John Joseph Adams has great form for editing anthologies (in terms of both concept and the writers that he brings to the table) and, as such, my ears always prick up at the mention of a new collection, even though I still need to get round to reading a few of them. I’ve only read a couple of the stories here, so far, but expect to go back and read the rest over time. In the meantime though, here are some quick thoughts  on a couple of the tales.

‘The Red-Headed Dead’ – Joe R. Lansdale

Lansdale is one of those authors where I start off thinking that I’ve never read his work, only to check and find out that I’ve read a number of his short stories and comics, enjoying all of them. So, good stories then that do their job but don’t hang around too long afterwards. Has anyone read anything by Lansdale that just blew them away? I’d be interested in reading it if you have.
‘The Red-Headed Dead’ is an instalment in what are the ongoing adventures of Reverend Mercer who does God’s work, in the shadowy corners of the West, by unloading blessed bullets into all manner of devilish creatures. This time round, it’s a vampire who has Mercer trapped in a ramshackle old hut… ‘The Red Headed Dead’ is a fast paced tale that owes a lot to Robert E. Howard’s ‘Solomon Kane’ stories (acknowledged by Lansdale at the end) and has all the ingredients for a compelling read; I’d certainly read more stories with the good Reverend in them. A gloomy backdrop, a monstrous vampire and a ‘hero’ who does God’s work even though he really doesn’t want to (and might just be more than a little insane himself). I loved the constant questioning and self-doubt that is channelled into controlled violence when the chips are down. The Old West has always struck me as an ideal horror setting and Lansdale really hits the mark here too, the darkness of the storm hiding something even darker at its core. Like I said, if I come across any more Reverend Mercer tales I will be reading them, no question about it.

‘Strong Medicine’ – Tad Williams

Weird happenings in Medicine Dance are common, they happen every year, but the strangest events of all happen every thirty nine years and it’s then that Custos comes to town to protect the townsfolk any way that he can…
A little bit of Steampunk (clockwork punk?)and time travel combine to give us a tale full of surprises, not even Custos knows what the morning will bring and that uncertainty keeps the pages turning  although Williams takes his own time getting to the good stuff, not necessarily a good thing in a short story (although maybe I’d been spoiled by the far punchier ‘The Red Headed Dead’). When ‘Strong Medicine’ gets going though, it’s worth the wait with scenes that make me wish that Ray Harryhausen was still doing his thing and an ending that hints at a wider tale as well as offering hope for the poor people of ‘Medicine Dance’. The concept is entirely suited to this short format as a ‘one time only’ tale (wouldn’t work as anything longer) but I enjoyed that hint of a wider setting and would read more ‘Custos’ tales if they were written. There’s something about Tad Williams’ work that always makes me think this.

More stories from ‘Dead Man’s Hand’ to follow as and when…

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

‘Sword in the Storm’ – David Gemmell (Corgi)

Born in the storm that doomed his father, Connavar grows to manhood among the mist-covered mountains of Caer Druagh, where the Rigante tribe dwell in harmony with the land and its gods.
But beyond the border, across the water, an evil force is gathering strength, an unstoppable force that will change the world beyond all recognition.
Haunted by malevolent spirits and hunted by evil men, Connavar sets out on a spectacular mission to save his people.

You know those times when all you want is a good story? Those times when you don’t want to think that hard, just to be entertained? We all have a ‘go-to’ author during those lean, comfort reading, times and my ‘go-to’ guy is David Gemmell. Often imitated but never bettered, in my opinion, as far as epic fantasy goes.

There are a few of his books that I still haven’t read and a lucky scratch card win (I have them, occasionally) meant that I could finally give ‘Sword in the Storm’ a go. And what an amazing read it was; I do a lot of my reading (okay, all of it) on the train these days and while reading ‘Sword in the Storm’ it felt like I wasn’t on the train at all, I was sharing Connovar’s personal journey through a land where everything is black or white (no shades of grey here, not really) yet richly coloured at the same time. ‘Sword in the Storm’ is the first book in Gemmell’s ‘Rigante’ series and I’d only read ‘Midnight Falcon’ up to this point; I can now see myself picking up the other two books in the series.

Gemmell’s trick, as a writer, is that he has one trick and he plays it damn well in every book he writes. The main character who becomes a hero to his people despite the internal (sometimes external) conflict that almost cripples him. There is a huge fight at the end of the book and our main lead becomes the man that he was always meant to be, someone very close to him will die during the final pages though and teach him that glory does not come without pain. That’s the way it goes in just about all of Gemmell’s books (the ones that I have read anyway) and you’d be forgiven for wondering why anyone would read essentially the same book over and over again.

The thing is, Gemmell believes what he is saying so much that you can’t help but get caught up in the joy he clearly feels when a character makes a perilous personal journey and ends up coming down on the right side of the moral line (no matter how many of his other characters have done exactly the same thin). This is very much the case with ‘Sword in the Storm’ and Connovar himself who is really put through the wringer by Gemmell. While the outcome is never in any doubt, you still can’t help but root for Connovar in the meantime; a charismatic young man whose worst enemy is the anger that lurks inside him. The reader feels his pain and shares his joy (tinged with a little sadness) when it eventually works out. It’s simple stuff yet incredibly effective when you’re the reader in the middle of it all.

Gemmell doesn’t just stop there though, giving us a beautiful backdrop where it’s all too easy to stop and stare at it. The lands of the Rigante are gorgeously drawn and not only does it give us something nice to look at (Gemmell perhaps dwells on the scenery for a little too long sometimes), it makes it very clear why Connovar feels that need to fight against his enemies and prepare for the coming of the Stone soldiers. When those fights inevitably happen Gemmell does the other thing that he is renowned for, giving his readers scenes that don’t shy away at all from the violence and horror of war. There is glory to be had but the cost is a heavy one to bear, it always is. Again though, it is incredibly easy to get lost in the crash of sword and shield; Gemmell writes a battle scene that flows easily, carrying the reader through the ebbs and flows of war.

‘Midnight Falcon’ used to be my favourite Gemmell novel but ‘Sword in the Storm’ is running it close after just one read. It’s a glorious, rousing read and just what I was after in my reading, not sure what to read next that could possibly come close.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

'Immersion' - Aliette de Bodard

I’ve never been too big on the whole genre awards thing (except when people I know get nominated, congratulations all you blogging Hugo nominees!); preferring instead just to read books for the sheer hell of it and not get caught up in some of the more tangential discussion. Life is far too short to let some obnoxious troll ruin your day, seriously ;o)
I will make exceptions though. Pyr have just published the ‘Nebula Awards Showcase 2014’ which, for some reason, is all about the stuff that won awards in 2012… I guess it makes sense to someone. The thing is though, the 2012 winners are all genre history now and I can read the book in my own good time. A book full of award winners should be savoured like a fine wine, not gulped down so you can say that you drank it before everyone else.

On a slightly more (okay, a lot more) shallow note. The ‘Nebula Awards Showcase’ has an awesome cover with a dragon on it and that will always encourage me to pick a book up. Go on, check it out…

See what I mean?

Anyway, I've recently got back into reading on the train (apparently there’s only so much ‘Subway Surfers’ you can play before you find yourself deliberately running the little guy under a train) and Aliette de Bodard’s ‘Immersion’ (2012 winner for ‘Short Story’) seemed like just the right length for the journey between Lewisham and Waterloo. Yep, the ‘Nebula Awards Showcase 2014’ is another one of those books that I will be dipping in and out of.

At a first glance, I wasn't sure what the big deal about ‘Immersion’ was. I mean, a science fiction tale about humanity becoming dependent on technology (and it’s very easy to come to rely on the act of immersing to function in this future)? Who would have thought it? It’s not exactly an original premise is it? De Bodard is playing with overly familiar tropes here then but does enough to turn ‘Immersion’ into a little bit more than just the same old thing.

The stark contrast between Agnes, overly immersed, and Quy, only immerses when she has to (and always adjusts the default setting) really lends welcome emphasis to Agnes’ situation and the fact that you can’t see Agnes at all, behind her avatar is amazing use of imagery to show the reader how serious things are. Technology will rule you if you let it and it is easy to forget what makes you human when a machine can do your living for you. Like I said, old tropes but de Bodard really makes them her own.

What I also really got behind was the subtle note of hope injected into the closing stages of the piece. De Bodard clearly places great importance in her message and strikes a wonderful balance between the danger it represents and the ingenuity of humanity to find a way round it. If it had been too easy then the whole story would have fallen flat on a punctured concept but de Bodard gracefully sidesteps that issue and leaves us with a little hope for Agnes.

Nothing original then but ‘Immersion’ rises above the rest of the field with its exploration of humanity, how it can be consumed by technology but never for long. I like optimistic sci-fi like this.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Second-Hand Book Shopping, I love it.

On Saturday I managed to sneak out of the house, while no-one was looking, and off into town for a spot of book shopping on the Charing Cross Road. I love those book shops; 'Any Amount of Books', 'Quinto' and the one in the middle that I can never remember the name of (don't let that put you off, that one is just as good as the other two). They keep the stock pretty fresh so you can go in every few weeks and have new stuff to browse through. Do you want to see what I got this time round? Of course you do?

As a rule, I never go through the 'We're trying to shift this stuff so it's dirt cheap' shelves as there is never anything there that I'd like. The one time I do though... I managed to find a copy of 'Time and Again' for a pound. It's not the right edition but I'm not fussy at all so that's one more book ticked off the Fantasy Masterworks list. I really enjoyed reading 'The Body Snatchers' so am hoping Finney bought a little bit of the same to 'Time and Again'. We'll see.

When I'm not trying to collect Fantasy Masterworks, I'm halfheartedly trying to collect SF Masterworks as well. I say 'halfheartedly', it has to be a title that I actually want to read and it also has to be in the old SF Masterworks jacket (none of that yellow stuff for me!) I've had my eye open for a copy of 'The Demolished Man' for a little while now so when I saw it sat on the shelf I didn't hang around. 'The Demolished Man' won the Hugo in 1953 and with Loncon 3 just round the corner I thought it might be a good time to give the book a go. It might also spur me on to finally read 'The Stars My Destination' (still shamefully unread).

I'll always read Charles de Lint if I come across him and the added bonus here is a cover that wouldn't look out of place on 'Good Show Sir'. A wolf having a pint? Is there nothing they cannot do? Out of the three books on display 'Wolf Moon' will probably be read first, purely because my reading is veering sharply towards fantasy novels with awful covers at the moment ;o) Takes me back to when I was a kid...

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Catching Up With My Comic Book Reading…

There hasn’t been a lot of comic book reading just recently but a couple of crowded commutes gave me the chance to catch up with some stuff on my phone (because there was just enough room on the train to hold my phone at eye level)… One regular title then and a comic that I always mean to read more of…

‘X’ #13 – Swierczynski, Atkins (Dark Horse).

When you reach rock bottom, the only way you can go is right back up. That’s the direction X is headed in (after taking a severe beating in the last couple of issues) and Swierczynski tackles this move with his customary brutal aplomb along with more insights into who X actually is (raising more questions but that’s cool). There are no punches pulled but the impact is slightly lessened with the introduction of Robert Atkins on art duties. Not that he doesn’t do a good job but Maia is far better at capturing the violence in what X does. Atkins work is eye-catching but it doesn’t make you wince in the same way that Maia’s does. I’m still here for the long term so am hoping to see Maia back soon.

‘2000AD Prog 1880’ – Various (Rebellion)

I love 2000AD when I pick it up but somehow am never able to string my reading into consecutive issues… Prog 1880 sees me dumped into the middle of an ongoing ‘Dredd’ storyline then but also handily deposits me at the beginning of a new ‘Indigo Prime’ story (which looks very promising albeit yet another variation on Hitler winning the war…)and at a decent jumping on point with ‘Slaine’ (loving Simon Davis’ artwork here)

‘Colony’ looks like it could turn out to be a lot of fun (potential for aliens or zombies here, I like the fact that it’s not clear cut) and Vince Locke’s art makes the read flow really smoothly. I’ve got no interest in reading ‘Outlier’ at all (a little too much catching up to do there), anyone else read it?

Saturday, 10 May 2014

All Out Cover Art War!

Because every so often, a book will show up that I already have and I like to compare the covers. So, not really a 'war' at all then, I know, but sometimes you just have to go with the title in your head :o)

I'm not one for lugging hardbacks around which will explain why I'm still to crack open the copy of 'The Nomad of the Time Streams' that has been sat in a dark corner of my bookshelves for a number of years now. Hopefully, I'll have a little more luck with the re-issued Gollancz paperback that came through the door the other day (and has some of the original illustrations inside, I like that in a new book). We'll see how that goes but in the meantime, have a look at those covers...

'Sadly ignored by Graeme' edition.

'Fresh out of the box and brand new' edition.

The first thing that struck me was the ever so slight change to the title. In this brave new world of re-issued Moorcock books, Oswald Bastable is now merely a nomad of 'Time', not the 'Time Streams'. It seems like an odd thing to focus on but I would have kept the original title; that's what Moorcock's Multiverse is all about after all and it feels like the scope has been narrowed down just a little bit as a result.

That to one side though, I really can't choose between the two covers (hoping that you can). The new edition is a little more understated but captures the Imperial theme of the book just as effectively as the original. I guess the only small issue that I have is that the new cover is a little too obviously for people who don't want to be seen reading an SF novel in public. That's entirely up to them, I like to show off what I'm reading though (apart from 'Monster Massacre' but there was a damn good reason for that!) 
So, what do you guys reckon? Both covers do their job well, which one would you prefer on your bookshelf? Have some blurb as well while you're here...

Captain Oswald Bastable, an Edwardian soldier, is catapulted into the far-flung future. 1973, to be precise - but a 1973 that is very different to the one we know. The First World War never happened, and the world seems to be at peace. It is a peace that the honorable Bastable cannot allow to continue. But can one man defeat an Empire - and what will be the consequences if he does?

Friday, 9 May 2014

‘The City’ – Stella Gemmell (Corgi)

Reading fiction should be fun, whatever the reason you’re doing it. If you’re not having fun then either you or the writer has gone seriously wrong somewhere down the line. There, I said it.
What reading fiction shouldn’t be like is having a tooth pulled out; a necessary evil that you have to endure for the promise of a positive outcome. You can tell that I’ve had a few teeth out in my time can’t you…? But yeah, reading any book should never be like having a tooth extracted, no matter how good it feels to finally reach the end of the process. You have probably guessed by now that my experience of ‘The City’ wasn’t an entirely positive one. Cast your eye over the blurb for a moment and then we’ll get into that experience a little more…

The City is ancient and vast and has been waging almost constant war for centuries. At its heart resides the emperor. Few have ever seen him. Those who have remember a man in his prime - and yet he should be very old. Some speculate that he is no longer human, others wonder if indeed he ever truly was. And a few have come to a desperate conclusion: that the only way to halt the emperor's unslakeable thirst for war is to end his unnaturally long life.
From the crumbling catacombs beneath the City where the poor struggle to stay alive to the blood-soaked fields of battle where so few heroes survive, these rebels emerge. Their hopes rest on one man. A man who was once the emperor's foremost general - a revered soldier who could lead an uprising and liberate a city, a man who was betrayed, imprisoned, tortured and is now believed to be dead...

On the face of it, ‘The City’ looks like it has everything it needs to be an engrossing fantasy novel. It’s clear that this is the target that it sets itself with a tale of intrigue and revenge that hovers around the edges of a wider war. Plenty of scope then for heroism and action, all set against the looming backdrop of a vast and ancient city. It all looks good and Gemmell clearly shows that she is control of her surroundings here, taking the reader through labyrinthine alleyways and sewers that almost literally ooze with atmosphere and intent. I’ve always been a sucker for a good fantasy cityscape and ‘The City’ certainly provides that with a backdrop that you can get lost in. That’s not all though, Gemmell populates the city with a cast of strong characters that are very easy to follow, even if you (and they) don’t know what is going on most of the time.

And that’s where ‘The City’ ultimately fell down for me because what we have here is a book where the reader, and the characters, don’t find out what’s going on until just over halfway through a seven hundred page book. That’s a lot of time to tag along on the promise that something good might happen but Gemmell had laid enough groundwork for me to assume that this would be the case. It was heavy going though with characters that are very readable but bogged down in a lot of unnecessary background history that you feel you have to wade through in order to get to the good stuff (hence the whole tooth pulling thing earlier).
What really got me though is that once you find out what is going on, you then have to wait almost half the rest of the book while things are built up for the finale; a finale that is over before you know it. While I could appreciate the irony of people ultimately fighting to preserve the status quo that they want to destroy, I wasn’t keen at all on having to wait almost seven hundred pages for something that was over so quickly. Imagine having that tooth pulled only to find out that you didn’t need it done after all… Yep, that’s how I was left feeling after reading ‘The City’.

‘The City’ has a lot of good things going for it but the execution of these ultimately fell short and left a lot to be desired (the pacing of the plot needs some serious work). It’s a real shame because the potential you can feel at the beginning is something else.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

‘The Situation’ – Jeff Vandermeer

Just because I want to see if I can go a day on this blog without mentioning Stella Gemmell’s ‘The City’… Damn it. Anyway…
Who here works in an office? Okay, a few of you. Who works in project management or has been a part of a project? Who here has worked on a project and slowly come to realize that senior management haven’t got a clue what they actually want to achieve (let alone how they will go about it)? Yep, me too.

Jeff Vandermeer’s ‘The Situation’ is a timely message of support to all of us in those kind of roles, isolated from any sense of normality by changing requirements and the treacherous nature of office politics. It’s okay guys, it really is. Vandermeer not only totally gets how weird and utterly senseless office life can be (and it really can be), he also shows his reader that the grass is actually a lot greener where they are right now. You may have a tough job but it could be a whole lot worse, just look at our protagonist and his attempts to negotiate an increasingly fraught and dangerous workplace; all the while trying to make a fish that swallows children as a means of educating them.

This is a re-read (because you can’t just be looking at the next new book all the time…) and while the horror of the workplace, and the surrounding city, is still very much in evidence, what really struck me this time is how Vandermeer uses weird horror to highlight underlying themes that you come across in offices all the time (paranoia and futility to name but a couple). This approach manages to serve two purposes, gently poking fun at how seriously people can take office life but (at the same time) reminding us that it can be a horrible experience being stuck in this situation and with no clear way out. I loved the imagery of an office clique taking on literal physical shape for example. We've all had jobs like that haven’t we? What you end up with then is a tale that is darkly humorous and very unsettling all at once; very much like an episode of ‘The Office’ but one where David Brent is a giant bear that just stands and glowers at you.

The terror of life in the city outside makes for a fitting backdrop to what is playing out in the company; again, Vandermeer is highlighting our fear of what life will be like if we lose our job (no matter how much we may hate it). It’s a tough life and maybe the only answer to ‘The Situation’ is to show a little love, just like our protagonist.

I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed this story, loads and loads to think about.

'Kane' on Kindle!

SF Gateway (part of Gollancz, I think...) already have good form for finding old SFF classics and publishing them in eBook format. This time though, I think they've outdone themselves. A little poking around on Amazon led me to find out that SF Gateway are in the process of publishing all of Karl Edward Wagner's 'Kane' series. If you have a Kindle (or whatever) and like your Sword and Sorcery dark, violent and bloody then you should be all over this if you haven't read the books already. They're short reads but very entertaining; you don't hear a lot about Kane these days but he occupies a well deserved place on my list of 'Hard bastards of Fantasy literature' (may or may not be a future post) and would make a lot of today's anti-heroes squirm uncomfortably and wish they were somewhere else.

Go have a read, you can thank me later ;o)

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Almost there...

Sorry for the brief radio silence, the last few days have been crazy busy and (in a break from the norm) all for good reasons. Apart from breaking my toe that is, that wasn't so good but anyway...

Reviews will start appearing again, promise! It hasn't helped though that 'The City' seems to be turning into a book that promises much if you keep reading but doesn't deliver on that. I'm far enough in now that I'm going to push on for the end but it hasn't exactly been fun reading in the meantime...

So what have I got for you today then? Well, I've been mooching around a couple of second hand bookshops today and realised that I'm actually closer than I think to completing my Fantasy Masterworks collection. The list is below and will be a handy thing for me to refer back to when I'm tempted by Amazon (which happens most lunchtimes). If it's bold then I have it, bold and italics mean that I've read it (although there aren't too many of those. It's been fun collecting these books, now I'm turning my thoughts to collecting the old SF Masterworks. We'll see what happens there...

1 - The Book of the New Sun, Volume 1: Shadow and Claw - Gene Wolfe
2 - Time and the Gods - Lord Dunsany (need to double check if I have this already as part of another book)
3 - The Worm Ouroboros - E.R. Eddison
4 - Tales of the Dying Earth - Jack Vance
5 - Little, Big - John Crowley
6 - The Chronicles of Amber - Roger Zelazny
7 - Viriconium - M. John Harrison
8 - The Conan Chronicles, Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle - Robert E. Howard
9 - The Land of Laughs - Jonathan Carroll
10 - The Compleat Enchanter: The Magical Misadventures of Harold Shea - L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt
11 - Lud-in-the-Mist - Hope Mirrlees 
12 - The Book of the New Sun, Volume 2: Sword and Citadel - Gene Wolfe
13 - Fevre Dream - George R. R. Martin
14 - Beauty - Sheri S. Tepper
15 - The King of Elfland's Daughter - Lord Dunsany
16 - The Conan Chronicles, Volume 2: The Hour of the Dragon - Robert E. Howard
17 - Elric - Michael Moorcock
18 - The First Book of Lankhmar - Fritz Leiber
19 - The Riddle-Master's Game - Patricia A. McKillip
20 - Time and Again - Jack Finney
21 - Mistress of Mistresses - E.R. Eddison
22 - Gloriana or the Unfulfill'd Queen - Michael Moorcock
23 - The Well of the Unicorn - Fletcher Pratt
24 - The Second Book of Lankhmar - Fritz Leiber
25 - Voice of Our Shadow - Jonathan Carroll
26 - The Emperor of Dreams - Clark Ashton Smith
27 - Lyonesse I: Suldrun's Garden - Jack Vance
28 - Peace - Gene Wolfe
29 - The Dragon Waiting - John M. Ford
30 - Corum: The Prince in the Scarlet Robe - Michael Moorcock
31 - Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams - C.L. Moore
32 - The Broken Sword - Poul Anderson
33 - The House on the Borderland and Other Novels - William Hope Hodgson
34 - The Drawing of the Dark - Tim Powers
35 - Lyonesse II and III: The Green Pearl and Madouc - Jack Vance
36 - The History of the Runestaff - Michael Moorcock 
37 - A Voyage to Arcturus - David Lindsay
38 - Darker Than You Think - Jack Williamson
39 - The Mabinogion - Evangeline Walton
40 - Three Hearts & Three Lions - Poul Anderson
41 - Grendel - John Gardner
42 - The Iron Dragon's Daughter - Michael Swanwick
43 - WAS - Geoff Ryman
44 - Song of Kali - Dan Simmons
45 - Replay - Ken Grimwood
46 - Sea Kings of Mars and Other Worldly Stories - Leigh Brackett
47 - The Anubis Gates - Tim Powers
48 - The Forgotten Beasts of Eld - Patricia A. McKillip
49 - Something Wicked This Way Comes - Ray Bradbury
50 - The Mark of the Beast and Other Fantastical Tales - Rudyard 

There's a few more still to get but that's not bad going at all :o) If I get this new job, interviewed for it today, then maybe I'll treat myself to a couple more.
I know I keep saying this but the plan is still to read my way through this series. Anyone have a particular title that they would like me to start off on?