Friday, 26 September 2014

'The Departure' - Neal Asher (Tor UK)

The Argus Space Station looks down on a nightmarish Earth. And from this safe distance, the Committee enforces its despotic rule. There are too many people and too few resources, and they need twelve billion to die before Earth can be stabilised. So corruption is rife, people starve, and the poor are policed by mechanised overseers and identity-reader guns. Citizens already fear the brutal Inspectorate with its pain inducers. But to reach its goals, the Committee will unleash satellite laser weaponry, taking carnage to a new level.
This is the world Alan Saul wakes to, travelling in a crate destined for the Calais incinerator. How he got there he doesn’t know, but he remembers pain and his tormentor’s face. He also has company: Janus, a rogue intelligence inhabiting forbidden hardware in his skull. As Janus shows Saul an Earth stripped of hope, he resolves to annihilate the Committee and their regime. Once he’s discovered who he was, and killed his interrogator . . .

Neal Asher is one of those authors where I really feel like I should have read more of his books than I actually have done (three or four so far, in case you're wondering). I have a natural aversion to long running science fiction series if I haven't been reading them from the start, too much time and investment required, and this is the case with Asher's 'Polity' works. (Apropos of nothing, I have absolutely no qualms diving into long running fantasy series; that's how I roll).
A bit of birthday money and what looks like a completed trilogy ('The Owner' trilogy) looked like a great way to address this, I've been in the mood for a little space opera just recently, so I did the only thing I could. I started reading :o)

'The Owner' books are a 'departure' (pun not intended originally but I'm running with it) from Asher's 'Polity' books, taking place on an Earth reminiscent of 'Blake's 7' with a totalitarian government stamping down hard on the general populace. I couldn't help but wonder if Asher's politics were showing a little too clearly in the plot (with some of the background prose perhaps being a little too opinionated in terms of the actions of government) but the overall affect is compelling with Asher killing off vast swathes of humanity with almost gleeful abandon (in marked contrast to the chilling statistics delivered by an increasingly impersonal Alan Saul) using weaponry apt for such a vicious regime. The Shepherds make me shiver a little just writing about them. There is a lot of scope here for full on 'sci-fi violence' and Asher makes the most of every chance he gets. The body count is astronomical although the heavy numbers all happen 'off the page' as it were. What you do see though is hard hitting enough. No-one is safe from the guns of the Committee or Saul's robot army. Certain characters are guaranteed to make it through but don't get too attached to any of the supporting cast, that's all I'm saying…

A key theme of 'The Departure' is Saul's transition from man into a post-human man/machine hybrid. For the most part Asher handles this transition very well with some interesting insights into just what it means to gradually surrender your humanity. Saul's conflict with Director Smith is also a high point as far as this theme goes with Asher showing the fight on two fronts with blows dealt in cyberspace and some stunning sequences taking place between opposing armies of robots on a space station (worth the price of entry). Metal stuff gets blown up and/or ripped to pieces by other metal stuff and there are times when you can't ask for much more than that. Where Asher fell down for me, exploring this theme, was that there were times where he made Saul a little too impersonal. I can understand the approach but some of the resulting descriptive passages came across as rather dull, I'm thinking of Saul's view of the Argus space station which I ended up skimming just to get to the good bits.

On the whole, 'The Departure' is a fast paced affair with a mix of big explosions, an 'evil empire' and a flawed anti-hero; more than enough to make me want to read the next book in the series. Having said all that though, 'The Departure' is also a book that can feel like it's talking in a monotone at the most inappropriate times; I'm hoping for good things from 'Zero Point' but will approach it with some caution...

Thursday, 25 September 2014

'Elric Volume 1: The Ruby Throne' - Moorcock, Blondel, Poli, Recht, Bastide (Titan Comics)

The laptop is working again! This blog might just see a little more activity from here on in...

It's a fact long ago established, on blogs other than this one, that I will read pretty much anything 'Eternal Champion' related that Michael Moorcock has written. Which means pretty much everything he has written doesn't it? I mean, from what I've seen it all ties together at one level or another. I have a lot of reading to get through yet then…

In the meantime though, it's the 'Eternal Champion' books 'proper' that provide an element of the comfort read but with characterisation and an 'edge' that really forces me to engage with what is in front of me. Elric may not be my favourite of the Champions (this changes between Corum and Hawkmoon with a little Bastable thrown in for variety) but, of all of them, he is the one with the tale that is really worth staying the course for.

That's the reason why then that you will see Elric pop up a little more in other mediums than the likes of Erekose etc. Especially in comics which offer the kind of 'wide screen' format that really suit Elric's sprawling, multi-dimensional adventures. All of which leads us to the latest comic book iteration of Elric's adventures…

The story itself will be familiar to fans with Elric battling the human side of his nature as well as his vicious cousin, Yyrkoon, who wishes to rule Melnibone and restore it to its old cruel glories. What is surprising though is the amount of backstory (and 'front story' too, if 'front story' is a term…) that has been taken out. This is a very much stripped down version of the tale with only the key moments happening and that's fair enough if you're a first time 'Elric reader' wanting to get a feel for things. Longer term readers may feel like there's a little too much missing for the read to be truly satisfying. That was how I found it anyway. The important bits are all there and the story itself doesn't feel disjointed in any way, just lacking the depth of the novel.

The artwork though… The artwork almost makes up for the skeletal plot with Robin Recht and Didier Poli combining to give the reader some quite frankly awesome depictions of Melnibone and its decadent inhabitants. Recht and Poli don't pull any punches when showing the readers the cruel and yet somehow strangely lazy excesses of Melnibone; this is not a book for younger readers (just in case you were wondering) with explicit scenes of torture that are exactly what Melnibone is all about. And those last scenes where Arioch makes his first appearance… You can almost hear his entrance, the artwork is that good.

I'm not sure where 'The Ruby Throne' falls then as the plot is a little too flimsy for the long term fan while the art might put off newcomers (it worked for me but I can see it being a little too evocative for some…) I enjoyed it for what it was though and am looking forward to reading 'Stormbringer' when it is published; just hoping there's a little more meat on that one...

Friday, 19 September 2014

'Guinea Pigs ate my Laptop!' A Quick Update...

Hi y'all :o)

Apologies for the extended period of silence on the blog, it's been a crazy couple of weeks what with one thing and another (and another and another…)
Work has been full on every single day, easily the most high pressured job that I've ever found myself in. It's good though and it sure beats the alternative; yep, I still remember what is was like to be out of work for over a year and I never want to find myself in that place again. The internet access here is severely restricted so I can't even pop on for a
quick post at lunchtimes.

As far as home goes, well… Maybe I'll tell you more about that another time. Suffice it to say that internet access is fine but the fact that the guinea pigs chewed through the adaptor lead, on the laptop (still needs to be replaced at time of writing) led to other problems. My money is on 'Big Red Fire' (yes, we let Hope choose his name) having done the deed.

And as far as reading goes, I haven't really done an awful lot to be honest. Busy at work, busy at home and the anti-depressants that I'm taking can make it difficult to stay focussed on anything heavier going than a Doctor Who book (which is why I've been reading them!) I've read a few books though and, rather than wait until I've got hold of a new adaptor for the laptop, figured I'd sum them up here. Nothing in depth, just a few quick thoughts.

Here goes...

'The Crimson Campaign' - Brian McClellan (Orbit Books)

Tamas's invasion of Kez ends in disaster when a Kez counter-offensive leaves him cut off behind enemy lines with only a fraction of his army, no supplies and no hope of reinforcements. Drastically outnumbered and pursued by the enemy's best, he must lead his men on a reckless march through
northern Kez to safety, and back over the mountains so that he can defend his country from an angry god.

In Adro, Inspector Adamat only wants to rescue his wife. To do so he must track down and confront the evil Lord Vetas. He has questions for Vetas concerning his enigmatic master, but the truth is darker than he could have imagined.

With Tamas and his powder cabal presumed dead, Taniel Two-shot finds himself alongside the god Mihali as the last line of defence against Kresimir's advancing army. Tamas's generals bicker among themselves, the brigades lose ground every day beneath the Kez onslaught and Kresimir wants the head of the man who shot him in the eye.

I loved 'Promise of Blood' and read 'The Crimson Campaign' over two coach journeys to/from Plymouth. It's hard not to say anything that I haven't
already said about the first book; plotting, pace and moments of spectacle here are all on the money as per the last book. 'If it isn't broken…' and all that… The forced march of Tamas' army does add something new to the mix in terms of seeing Tamas as renowned soldier as well as Tamas 'the soldier who killed all the nobility and took power'. I love it when a writer takes time to flesh out their characters and there is a lot of that in 'The Crimson Campaign'. There is also a really good mix of warfare on the front line (go Taniel!) and arguably dirtier warfare in the back streets of the capitol; a lot of intrigue balanced neatly with moments of  mayhem and bloody violence. This is a series that has already ticked all the boxes that I want ticking, for must read fantasy, bring on 'The Autumn
War'. Bring it on now!

'The White Towers' - Andy Remic (Angry Robot Books)

Vagandrak is broken, and a new threat has arisen that threatens to defeat even the mighty Iron Wolves. The twisted, deviant Elf Rats have gathered in the toxic realm beyond the White Lion Mountains... swiftly they invade the troubled land of Vagandrak, killing for profit and pleasure. The
now-disgraced Iron Wolves are the realm's only hope, but there's a problem: they've been sentenced to death by the insane King Yoon for the dark sorcery in their blood. In the mountains of Zalazar lie the White Towers, pillars of legend said to contain the Heart of the Elves. The Iron Wolves
must journey north to steal the Heart, and purify the evil in the land, but the land belongs to the Elves and they won't give it up without a fight!

In a parallel dimension, David Gemmell was writing one day and all of sudden thought, "f*** this s***, I'm done with writing about redemption and honour; it's time to just focus on nasty b******s doing evil things in the name of… I don't know, I'll add more spilled entrails to those passages." A dimensional rift bought the parallel universe David over to our dimension where he currently writes under the pseudonym of Andy Remic.

Seriously though, Remic is what David Gemmell would have been if Grimdark had been more of a thing (or a thing at all) back in the eighties. Remic being Remic though, the grimdark is dialled up to a level beyond parody and becomes a whole new cartoonish realm of fantasy altogether. Not being easily offended myself, I had a great time reading 'The White Towers' with its intoxicating mix of high octane action and more thoughtful moments on what it means to be an Iron Wolf and loathe your comrades, even though they're the closest thing to friends that you have. It looks like there's at least one more book in this series and I personally am well up for it. 'The White Towers' may not be doing anything new but Remic is enjoying himself too much to care and when the author is enjoying his story you can't help but enjoy it with him.
'The Return of Conan' - Bjorn Nyberg (1957)
I've been collecting the old Conan books, mostly to pick up stories that I haven't read yet but also (if I'm being completely honest with myself) because I have a real soft spot for the 'old school' cover art. I'm in two minds over 'The Return of Conan'; it's a book that represents the worst of formulaic and linear plotting (Conan has a fight, makes love to a princess and repeat…) but at the same time I love the way that Conan's mission becomes a 'Reunion Tour' of sorts where he keeps bumping into old friends and settling old scores. It's like Nyberg took it upon himself to tie up loose threads left by Howard, perhaps a little presumptuous but you have to admire his nerve in terms of building upon what Howard had left behind. And the sword fights were good too, even if they were a little one sided and lacking in any kind of narrative tension.

'The Return of Conan' made for a nice little palate cleanser then (every time I couldn't get into something heavier) and another title that I can tick off my list of books to read. Anything more than that though? Eminently forgettable just about covers it.

So that's the books I've been reading just recently. When I can find a cheap laptop adaptor, I'll let you know about the comics as well... ;o)

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Cover Art & Blurb - 'The Hive Construct' (Alexander Maskill)

While I try to wean myself off 'retro-comfort reading' (and try to remember enough about 'The Crimson Campaign' to be able to write a review...) have a look at the cover art for 'The Hive Construct'...

How can a cover have so much going on but be so bland at the same time? It actually takes a level of genius to come up with the kind of cover that says 'I'm safe, read me and no-one will ever know what you are reading about...' Shame really as the blurb looks promising,

Situated deep in the Sahara Desert, New Cairo is a city built on technology - from the huge, life-giving solar panels that keep it functioning in a radically changed, resource-scarce world to the artificial implants that have become the answer to all and any of mankind's medical problems.

But it is also a divided city, dominated by a handful of omnipotent corporate dynasties.

And when a devastating new computer virus begins to spread through the poorest districts, shutting down the life-giving implants that enable so many to survive, the city begins to slide into the anarchy of violent class struggle.

Hiding amidst the chaos is Zala Ulora. A gifted hacker and fugitive from justice, she believes she might be able to earn her life back by tracing the virus to its source and destroying it before it destroys the city. Or before the city destroys itself . . .

'The Hive Construct' won the 2013 Terry Pratchett Prize  and will be published early next month. The cover art for 'The Hive Construct' will win no prizes whatsoever but does have my grudging respect (for what it's worth).

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

'Doctor Who And The Image Of The Fendhal' - Terrance Dicks (Target)

 If there is anything that looks more dated than old Doctor Who cover art I have yet to see it...  :o)

A sonic time scan draws the TARDIS to the Fetch Priory on Earth. There, the Doctor and Leela discover an impossibly old human skull that is the key to a nightmare from the Time Lords’ past.
A murderous monster stalks the priory grounds; and within, someone is intent on unleashing a malevolent creature that feeds on death itself... 

I think this is likely to be the last 'Doctor Who' book (well, Target novelisation) spoken about here for a very long time. I've done enough comfort reading around Doctor Who anyway and there's also the inescapable fact that the more of these books I talk about, the less I have to say. They all follow the same lines structurally and thematically which doesn't leave you a lot else to talk about. One day, I'm considering copying an old review (just swapping the title for something different) and seeing if anyone notices… ;o)

But in the meantime, 'The Image of the Fendhal'. If 'The Curse of Fenric' was the story that scared me as a teenager then 'The Image of the Fendhal' is very much the book that scared the life out of me as a child. The opening scenes, which cut between an experiment that takes an unexpected turn and the resulting death of a hitch hiker build up tension very nicely to a well placed climactic scene which pushes you headlong into the rest of the plot. 

'The Image of the Fendhal' is another Doctor Who story simply told and very formulaic. You certainly get what you pay for here (in this case, a penny via Amazon New and Used…) Making up for this though is a really dark undertone of horror that props the story up. When even the Doctor is scared of the Fendhal you know that they are an enemy who will take some defeating. And you really feel the rising terror in the characters when they find their legs refusing to move as the Fendhaleen bears down on them… It's moments like this that make the story worth reading and I wouldn't mind tracking down the DVD to see how the story comes across on screen. 'The Image of the Fendhal' is a simple tale but also a dark one that taps into Doctor Who in a way that I don't normally find with the TV show. Are all Fourth Doctor stories like this (I seem to remember reading a few like this as a kid)?

I'm not sure I'll be in a mad hurry to re-read 'The Image of the Fendhal' (nostalgia will only take you so far after all) but it was fun while it lasted and still had the capacity to make the hairs on my arms stand up. Can't ask for a lot more than that really.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

My Favourite 'Book Place' in Lewisham

Books are great; as a child some of my very best friends were books (not that I didn't have real friends but, you know what I mean) and there are still some dog-eared books on my shelves that I'll never get rid of because... I feel like I owe them a bit more than that.

All the other books though...

One of my first jobs, when we moved to London, was to go into the homes of the recently deceased and sift through their belongings, looking for information on next of kin and how they could be contacted. Seriously, it is a job that people do.
One thing I realised, fairly recently, is that I don't want to be the book equivalent of the dead guy who we found had filled his house full of thousands upon thousands of biros. I'm also getting to a point now where if I'm never going to go back to a book then it needs to go somewhere it will feel appreciated again. It's only fair after all.

A lot of books are leaving the house then and I wanted to show you where they're all going, just because I think it's a great idea and more people should do stuff like this.
I take a ten minute walk up the hill, from my house, and leave my old books here...

Yep, it's the 'micro-library' I've mentioned here a couple of times. It operates a 'take a book, leave one behind' policy which I've turned into a 'take one occasionally, leave thirty or forty books behind whenever I happen to be passing'; I'm sure they don't mind. I know I used to donate my books to charity and I do feel a little guilty that I'm not doing that now. There's something really cool though about a community coming together and sharing their books via an old phone box that would have been removed. Like I said, it would be great if we could see more of this happening.

I dropped some books off last night and this was what I was greeted with when I opened the door,

Maybe not the most inspiring sight for a fan of SFF fiction but funnily enough, that's what I like most about this phone box full of books - you never know what you will find until you pay it a visit. I went a few weeks ago and someone had filled an entire shelf full of old crime books; there were comics to be had a few weeks before that. While I'll always know what to expect from a bookshop (and that's not a bad thing) there's something a little magical about stepping into this phone box and not knowing what you will find once you are there. If it comes down to it, I know which side I'd choose.

That's me then, other than to say that there are some good books, waiting in the micro-library, for someone just like you you to pass by. I should know, I left loads there last night. If you pick one up, happy reading :o)

Friday, 5 September 2014

Cover Art and Blurb, 'The Lady' - K.V. Johansen (Pyr)

Just because, Raymond Swanland :o)

It is my firm belief that Raymond Swanland couldn't do bad cover art if he tried. The guy clearly has the talent of ten lesser artists coursing through his veins which must be the reason why I can't draw at all... Well, that's my reason and I'm sticking to it.
And here's the blurb,

Possessed by a ghost who feeds on death, the undying assassin Ahjvar the Leopard has been captured by the Lady of Marakand, enslaved by necromancy to be captain of her Red Masks. His shield-bearer Ghu, a former slave with an uncanny ability to free the captive dead, follows Ahjvar into the war-torn lands of the Duina Catairna to release him, even if that means destroying what is left of Ahj’s tormented soul.
Deyandara, the last surviving heir of the Catairnan queen, rides into a land ravaged by disease and war, seeking the allies she abandoned months before, though they have no hope of standing against the army led by the invulnerable Red Masks of Marakand and the divine terror of the Lady.
In the city of Marakand, former enemies ally and old friends seek one another’s deaths as loyalists of the entombed gods Gurhan and Ilbialla raise a revolt, spearheaded by the Grasslander wizard Ivah, the shapeshifting Blackdog, and the bear-demon Mikki. The Lady’s defenses are not easily breached, though, and the one enemy who might withstand her, the Northron wanderer Moth, bearer of the sword Lakkariss, has vanished.

I really want to read this but although I have a copy of 'The Leopard' to hand, I've never read 'Black Dog' and am wary about doing a big ol' catch up (my life is a big ol' catch up right now and I haven't got any time for more of the same). Can anyone set my mind at rest/confirm my fears...?

'The Lady' will be published by Pyr in January next year.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

'Ladyhawke' - Joan D. Vinge (Piccolo Books)

Captain Etienne Navarre is a man on whose shoulders lie a cruel curse. Punished for loving each other, Navarre must become a wolf by night whilst
his lover, Lady Isabeau, takes the form of a hawk by day. Together, with the thief Philippe Gaston, they must try to overthrow the corrupt Bishop and in doing so break the spell...

So, am I comfort reading again? Yes, yes I am. The way things are at the moment, this blog would be a desolate and empty place if I left all the comfort reading out. Just bear with me a little longer and I'll be back to the good stuff before you know it (and I'll spare you the childhood reminiscing this time round, I supect there's only so much about cheese on toast that anyone can reasonably be expected to hear).


Did you watch the film or read the book first? As far as I was concerned, I didn't even realise that there was a film until some years later and, looking back, I think that was a good thing. Yep, I'm talking about the awful eighties 'disco' soundtrack that accompanies Rutger Hauer fighting the Bishop's Guard (trying his manful best to ignore it as he does so) I'm sure a little piece of me died when I saw the film for the first time and the music started playing. But the book though…

I've had my copy of 'Ladyhawke' for almost thirty years and it still hasn't lost its power to utterly captivate me. I start reading and that's it, I'm in the story until it finishes. 'Ladyhawke' is by no means a classic and doesn't do an awful lot that is different. A curse is a curse wherever you go and this is very much the deal here. Where Vinge makes things shine though is her characterisation and how this shows through when you actually see Navarre and Isbeau have that 'almost together' moment on the cusp of dawn. There's a part of me that is an old romantic and it never fails to make me well up a little to see two people in love who can't be together
because of evil magic. Vinge also has a happy knack of being able to get inside her characters heads and really lay them bare in such a way that you can't help but will them on. Navarre comes across as one dimensional initially but he is anything but once Vinge lets you into his head.

But I was saying, two lovers that can never be together... What was I talking about? Of course they will be together! I told you that this is a book that doesn't do an awful lot differently and the outcome is never really in doubt (hence the comfort read) despite some moments where you wonder what could happen. The final chapters are stirring affairs that rush the reader headlong into the final outcome whilst still giving the reader a feeling of doubt (especially when the bells ring, you'll know what I mean if you've read the book/seen the film). It's a heady mixture that still keeps my eyes on the page, even though this is a book that I must have read
dozens of times now.

It's no secret then (and definitely not a spoiler) that the ending is a happy one; like a medieval fairy tale with loads of grim bits but a hefty dose of morals at the end. Everyone gets what they deserve and this kind of ending doesn't really gel with the 'grimdark' tone of todays fantasy fiction. There's still a place for it though and I'd say a very necessary one. Our world may not be one for happy endings but fiction tells us that happy endings can happen and it's important for us to know this. 'Ladyhawke' does this very well indeed and there are enough second hand
copies floating about out there for you to get some of those good vibes
too. I'd thoroughly recommend it in fact.

Monday, 1 September 2014

'Couldn't Even Really Get Started, Let Alone Finish It…', 'The Black Guard' - A.J. Smith (Head of Zeus)

The city of Ro Canarn burns. With their father's blood fresh upon the headsman's sword, Lord Bromvy and Lady Bronwyn, the last scions of thehouse of Canarn, face fugitive exile or death. 

In the court of Ro Tiris, men fear to speak their minds. The Army of the Red marches upon the North. Strange accidents befall those who dare question the King's new advisors. Those foolish enough to speak their names call them the Seven Sisters: witches of the fire god; each as beautiful and as dangerous as a flame. 

And, called from the long ages of deep time by war and sacrifice, the children of a dead god are waking with a pitiless cry. 

All that was dead will rise. 
All that now lives will fall... 

Look at that blurb and bask in the glorious promise of epic fantasy… Cities with stirring names? Check. A Lord and Lady on the run? Double check. Attractive ladies who get up to all sorts of machinations in the name of their 'fire god'? And what about an ages old threat waking up to lay waste to the world of the living? Check and Check.

It's a blurb that really wants people to think that it's the next 'Song of Ice and Fire' and I really wish that's what 'The Black Guard' had been. If it had been then I'd still be reading it instead of casting about looking
for something to take its place. As it is, I will go back to 'The Black Guard' at some point as there is a lot of potential in what I've read. It's just a real shame that I made it about two hundred pages into the book and found that the story was still to get going… Slow and steady may win the day but 'too slow and steady' has a nasty habit of sending me to sleep
these days. Reading that first chunk of of 'The Black Guard' was like wading through treacle; really sweet but ultimately tiring.

While there is an argument to be made that a lot of epic fantasies take time to get going, you could look at any of these series and it would be really apparent how they have worked round this issue. Compelling characters, ominous foreshadowing, even a dirty great battle where the aftermath can be explored. 'The Black Guard' has none of these things, preferring instead to weave its narrative around the edges of the plot and give you tantalising glimpses of what is to come. Well, that is the idea anyway; it never quite worked for me, mainly because the plot is so slow but also because Smith plays his cards a little too close to his chest and you never really get much of a glimpse of anything.

But you know what? I'll be going back to 'The Black Guard' and powering my way through the rest, probably when the insomnia really kicks in and I know that I've got a couple of hours to myself to really get stuck in. Is that slow pacing deliberate then? Is 'The Black Guard' a book that forces you to
take your time and really get a feel for the setting? I'm thinking it's more like David Bilsborough's 'The Wanderer's Tale' but I'm happy to be proved wrong when I give it another go. In the meantime, has anyone else here read 'The Black Guard'? Did you make it any further than a couple of
hundred pages? If so, what did you think?