Archive for the ‘reading’ Category

I’ve been looking forward to reading Guns of the Dawn since listening to its author Adrian Tchaikovsky read from it at FantasyCon last year. Combining black powder fantasy with a war story and an exploration of gender roles, it hits a lot of themes that interest me. And as it turned out, it was even more interesting than I expected.

Revolutionary War is Hell

Guns of the Dawn is set in a fantasy world with late 18th century technology and politics, in which one nation has overthrown its monarchy in a bloody revolution and its neighbour is invading in defence of the old order. As the war against revolutionary Denland grinds brutally on, neighbouring Lascanne is running out of soldiers to fight with. Emily Marshwic becomes part of a first wave of female conscripts, desperately trying to defend their country from their regicidal neighbours.

Except that, as the cover says, ‘the first casualty is always the truth’, and the rights and wrongs of this conflict are far from clear.

Half the book’s action takes place in a brutal battle for control of a stretch of swamp. It’s a good example of fantasy world building that draws from different parts of history, with the technology of the Napoleonic Wars, the exhausting jungle warfare of Vietnam, and the issues of mass conscription that marked the First World War. This jamming together of historical elements shows one of the great advantages of using fantasy over historical fiction – looking at how elements from different historical periods might combine. It’s a great piece of world building, and really hammers home the horrors of war.

Now for Some Jane Austen

The dark experience at the heart of the book is made all the more striking for being framed by Emily’s pre- and post-war experience. Hers is a genteel life like something out of Jane Austen, leaving her unprepared to become a soldier. As well as making the war all the darker by contrast, this acts as a reminder that such a privileged life is often made possible only by the suffering and struggles of others.

Jane Austen’s characters existed in the same world where Napoleon was conquering most of Europe. These two elements, often seen apart, combine to make a fascinating contrast.

Dawn of the Guns

There are plenty of other things about this book that I could enthuse about. The characters follow familiar tropes, but are given enough depth to make them enjoyably familiar rather than tedious clichés. The way magic fits into the social and political hierarchy hints at some fascinating possibilities. The atmosphere of the the military campaign, and the psychology of people unable to face the truth, are brought vividly to life.

But one of my favourite details is a technological one. During the fighting in the swamps it becomes clear that the Denlanders have special guns which are giving them an advantage. When the truth eventually comes out it’s a clever use of real historical technology, showing how researching the real world can make imagined worlds stronger.

The growing trend for black powder fantasy, combining gunpowder technology with magic, is creating a tiny pocket sub-genre that I consider particularly awesome – French Revolution-inspired fantasy. True, it’s not a full-blown trend – I’ve stumbled across two writers doing it so far – but I’m really hoping I get to see more.

At the moment I’m reading Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky. It’s a story of warfare similar to that between France and her neighbours under the revolutionary government. As the war against revolutionary Denland grinds brutally on, Emily Marshwic becomes part of a first wave of female conscripts, desperately trying to defend Lascanne from the nation’s regicidal neighbours. There are touches of Vietnam war story in here as well, lots of questions about the rights and wrongs of war, and a strong cast of characters. It’s a fantastic read.

Brian McClellan’s Promise of Blood, the first in his Powdermage Trilogy, looks at revolution from the other side. A despotic government has just been overthrown, and the rebels must now try to establish order even as they face invasion by their neighbours. Most intriguingly it takes the traditional European belief that kings were divinely appointed and runs with it, asking what would happen after the revolution if the king really were tied to divine powers. There are some fascinating ideas here, and though not quite as gripping as Guns of the Dawn, it’s still an enjoyable story of politics and bloodshed.

You could also argue for including Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series in this selection. After all, it’s the Napoleonic wars with dragons, and without the revolution there is no Napoleon. Again, I like these books, but they lack the thing that’s made me really pay attention to the others – an exploration of how revolutions work out, or don’t, when you throw fantastical elements into the mix.

I love seeing fantasy get beyond its usual sword-wielding or urban fantasy territory and play with elements from other time periods. Now I’m hoping for lots more revolutionary fantasy – if you know of any, let me know in the comments.

Powerful.

If I was going to choose one word to describe The Wandering Fire, the second book in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry, ‘powerful’ is the word I would choose, not just for its style but for its story. It’s a power that lifts a good series into one that’s truly great.

Part Two: Better and Darker

The Wandering Fire picks up some months after The Summer Tree left off. The characters introduced in that book are once more transported from modern Canada to the magical world of Fionavar, where in true legendary style they are called upon to fight the forces of darkness.

At first glance, this book seems much like the first, taking a very Tolkien morality and mythological story-telling, and cranking it up with Kay’s excellent writing. But it feels like, having set up the series, Kay is now free to use his full literary prowess in expanding upon it. The big moments feel even more epic, the intimate ones more personal, the menace even more substantial.

The Revelation of the Overwhelming

Overwhelming power is a major theme of this story, and one that gives it much of its drama.

On the one hand there is the overwhelming threat of Rakoth Maugrim, and of the apparent inevitability of his triumph. By alluding in advance to events to come, as well as shifting the story around chronologically, Kay creates a sense of creeping inevitable disaster, much like the atmosphere of a horror film. Defeat feels almost unavoidable, both in the broad scheme and in individual battles.

But characters are also overwhelmed in a more positive way, through religious experiences. Incidents such as an encounter between Dave and the goddess Ceinwen have a real sense of awe and grandeur to them. The gods are present and yet not reduced to mere people. It’s a difficult balance to strike, and moving to read. This is religious experience at its most emotional.

The Intimate

This isn’t to say that Kay’s book is all about epic grandeur. It’s also rooted in more ordinary but no less wonderful relationships, which he uses to explore all kinds of emotional bonds. There are siblings; romances; parent-child pairings; leaders and followers; blood brothers bound together by combat; a man and his dog; gods and worshippers; mages and the extraordinary people from whom they draw their power. This last pairing, a creation of Kay’s world, helps to draw attention to the others and bring out this theme of the story.

I enjoyed The Summer Tree, but was not enjoying The Fionavar Tapestry as much as Kay’s later work. The Wandering Fire has turned this series into something extraordinary, and I look forward to the final book.

A someone focussed on words, I’m normally drawn to comics by their writers. But there three exceptions, artists whose work is so distinctive and brilliant that I’ll pick up a book just for them – Jamie McKelvie, Frank Quitely, and Bryan Talbot. Fortunately for me, Talbot is also a fan of stemapunk, as shown in one of his worlds that I’ve returned to this week, the strange place that is Grandville.

Wind in the Willows But With Murder

Grandville and its sequel, Grandville Mon Amour, are the sort of strange, idea-packed stories that the comics industry is particularly friendly towards. It’s a steampunk that combines an alternate history in which Napoleon won with a world of anthropomorphic animal people. Into this mix are thrown murder mystery plots which must be solved by the hero, Detective Inspector LeBrock.

One of the reasons this setting works so well as a comic is that the visuals provide a constant reminder of the setting, without getting in the way of the plot. Every moment your eye is on the page acts as a reminder of the odd world Talbot has created. This means he doesn’t have to stop to describe a strange gadget or the hamster landlady – they’re just there on the page, the story flowing through them.

Tying the Strands Together

As detective stories, LeBrock’s adventures aren’t particularly innovative in their rhythm or labyrinthine in their twists. But that doesn’t matter because they’re so strongly told. The central character, the setting and the crime are all neatly connected, meaning that each one helps to inform the readers about the other parts. The alternate history background is not incidental. The Socialist Republic of Britain’s recent separation from the French Empire is intrinsic to the mysteries LeBrock faces, the obstacles standing in his way, and his own life.

Story, character and setting all inform each other in fascinating and efficiently executed ways.

Beautifully Illustrated

The art too is tied to the story telling. Talbot uses interesting layouts to tell sequences without words, uses his amazing skill to bring the characters and setting to life. Everything is clear, vivid and wonderful to look at. His subjects are sometimes ugly – the scarred, dog-faced serial killer; the hippopotamus brothel madam – but the beauty of his illustration makes me want to keep staring at them.

Grandville is a strange, wonderful place, and one I’d heartily recommend visiting.

Daredevil has shown that the combination of superheroes and gritty noire drama can work on TV as well as in comics. If that’s a new idea to you, or one you want to explore further, then I recommend one of the all time great overlooked comics – Sleeper by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips.

Sleeper is the story of Holden Carver, a secret agent under cover in an organisation of supercriminals. Except that he’s been cut adrift, without a handler or support, and being undercover means acting like the people he’s pretending to be. As loyalties tangle and motives blur, Holden is faced with the terrible question of whether he’s really a hero or just another villain. And worse yet, which does he want to be?

I’m not going to provide a detailed review. There’s so much to love about this comic that I could spend weeks picking over the details. Sean Phillips’s art is the perfect choice for a noire story, full of shadows and worn down looking characters. The supercriminal underworld is well thought out. The characters have both novel hooks and hidden depths. The plot is twisted but always coherent. The page layouts play with the comic book medium in ways that will delight long time comic fans without getting in the way of casual readers.

This book only ran for twenty-four issues, collected in four volumes. That means you can enjoy the whole story without getting lost in the endless web of superhero connectivity or decades long arcs. If you don’t have a comic shop nearby you can download the free Comixology app and buy the e-reader version through there. And you should. Because Sleeper is amazing.

Content warning though – Sleeper is full of violence, sex, bad language and unpleasant characters, sometimes all at once. It takes a dark palette to enjoy it.

Some of my favourite authors are favourites not because of their books but because of other things they do. I’ve only read books by half the folks on Writing Excuses, but I think they’re all brilliant people because of the advice they give. Similarly, I’m a huge fan of Mur Lafferty because of her podcasts, which have given me great writing advice, encouragement, and perspective on balancing writing with depression. It seemed only right, sooner or later, to start reading her books, and I started with The Shambling Guide to New York City.

Books Within Books

Like The Hitchhikers Guide to the GalaxyThe Shambling Guide to New York City takes its name from a book within the book. Zoë, the story’s protagonist, is a travel writer who’s recently moved to New York. There she finds work in a hidden subculture of zombies, vampires and other supernatural beings, editing a travel guide for the undead.

While it’s not as comedic in its focus as The Hitchhikers GuideThe Shambling Guide does share some of that book’s whimsy and humour, and its central perspective of a character adrift in a world that is both strange and frustratingly familiar. Zoë has to deal with sexual harassment from an incubus, the bloody menu at a vampire restaurant, the problem of someone stealing the zombies’ brains from the office fridge, and much more. It’s a book of culture clash, diversity and discovery in what might well be the world’s most cosmopolitan city.

Zoë’s a likeable character, flawed but good-natured and determined. The world building is also top notch, cramming in all sorts of details. This book does a great job of what the in character book is meant to do – introducing you to New York’s monstrous side.

Events Get in the Way

Of course there’s more to the plot than just Zoë writing. She gets tangled up in battling a conspiracy by dark forces, and for me that was the weakest part of the book. It’s not that the plot doesn’t make sense. It’s not that it isn’t earned – it neatly ties together Zoë’s personal life and the world that’s laid out in the story. We’re even prepared for it from early on with the introduction of Granny Good Mae, a mentor who trains Zoë to fight monsters.

The problem is that it’s just not what I most wanted. From a book with such a whimsical concept, I  didn’t want an epic, city-shattering plot. I wanted it to stick with the little challenges of writing a travel book about the undead, and that got sidelined by the bigger story. I realise that most people will probably prefer it that way, but I was a little disappointed.

It’s still an enjoyable book. There are oddball characters and situations, a great setting, and even if the plot wasn’t what I expected it was still a cool idea. I like both Zoë and her creator enough that I’ll be checking out the sequel. And with my expectations recalibrated, I expect to enjoy that one even more.

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On a thematically very different note, my collection of short historical and alternate history stories From a Foreign Shore is free on the Kindle today and tomorrow. It’s no shambling guide, but it features some odd culture clashes, including a Viking re-evaluating Ragnarok and an unexpected visitor at King Arthur’s court. If that appeals, please go download a copy.

15695408576_f3e40566af_zJ R R Tolkien seemed to think that we go to America when we die. After all, at the end of The Lord of the Rings Frodo and others sail off into the west to eternal life in a beautiful land. Two of the fundamental underpinnings of Tolkien’s work were his Christian beliefs, including heavenly rewards for good people, and the idea that Middle Earth is a sort of pre-historic Europe, from which our modern myths originate. That ship leaving the Grey Havens, it’s taking people to heaven across the Atlantic.

OK, so I’m crossing the streams of Tolkien’s layers of meaning here. But it’s an idea that Paul Cornell ran with much more literally in ‘Ramesses on the Frontier’, his contribution to the mummy anthology The Book of the Dead. Ramesses I awakes to find himself in a rather unexpected version of the Egyptian afterlife, crossing the United States in search of his eternal reward. It’s a fun idea, and a quirky story.

But would I want the USA as the afterlife? As a Brit, I find that idea troubling. Sure, the scenery’s fantastic, but what would my chances be of getting a decent cup of tea? Not to mention the bread – it’s so sweet. And that’s before we even get into the noise and the lack of proper queueing.

No, if the afterlife lies to the west then I’m hoping it’s Canada. I hear good things about their donuts.

European mythology and sailing away into death also feature in my collection of alternate history and historical fiction stories From a Foreign Shore, which is free today and all this weekend on Amazon. If you enjoy fiction that reinvents the past then please check it out.

Picture by davebloggs007 via Flickr Creative Commons