Posts Tagged ‘review’

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High ResolutionI don’t get huge numbers of reviews, so I sometimes get over-excited when I receive one, especially one as glowingly positive as this recent review by Writerbee of By Sword, Stave or Stylus. To quote the start of the review, ‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ I really can’t complain about a review like that!

By Sword, Stave or Stylus is available as ebook via Amazon.

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.

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.

I recently decided to watch more anime, and inspired by an Idea Channel episode, I chose Attack on Titan. It’s a show that probably deserves two reviews, so here we go…

It’s All About Style

Attack on Titan is the weirdest and most fascinating thing I’ve watched in years. Set in a fantasy landscape based on a Japanese perspective of 19th century Europe, it’s a story of survival. For a hundred years humanity has been contained within a vast walled city, threatened from the outside by the Titans, monstrous giants who eat people for fun. When the first of the city’s three rings of walls is breached, a group of young people are propelled into the armed forces fighting for humanity, and a slowly unravelling plot to find out what’s behind the Titans.

I love the imagination of this setting. The towering walls and lumbering giants give it a sense of the epic and the unreal. The soldiers use gas-fired grappling wires to hurtle through the air and attack the vulnerable necks of the Titans. The fundamentals of how this war is fought are like nothing else I’ve seen. Like most fantasy, they look nonsensical if you take a step back, but they’ve been thought through in detail and are so different that I was fascinated. They also allow for some immensely cool and unusual action sequences.

This bonkers style is what I love about Attack on Titan.

No, Wait, It’s All About Substance

Attack on Titan is the deepest, darkest exploration of the horrors of war I’ve ever seen in fantasy. Set in a civilisation on the brink of extinction, it sees a group of young people propelled into the armed forces, struggling to cope with the traumas of that life. They see friends eaten by monsters, civilians crushed beneath falling buildings, superiors turning to cowards or running out of control. They face their own rage, depression and even cowardice in the face of war. Their lives have no neat answers – sometimes friends die in battle without them ever learning why or how. In Attack on Titan, war really is hell.

What’s extraordinary is how compelling this is. The absurdity of the war they’re fighting – swinging on wires as they try to fight monsters – only makes the trauma more stunning and realistic by contrast. It makes the reactions and transformations of the characters into something that left me too stunned.

Dammit, Now I Have to Wait

I watched the whole of the first season of Attack on Titan on Netflix, then discovered that the next series won’t even be on TV until 2016. It’s going to be a long, impatient wait, because bizarre as this is, bewildering as some people will find it, I thought it was an extraordinary show, both in its style and its substance.

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.

Guy Gavriel Kay is, for me, one of the truly great and unusual voices in fantasy. His work has an incredible richness of character and description that keeps me exhilarated through slow paced stories. His use of fantasy to provide slight twists on historical settings, shining light on the roots of our world, is endlessly fascinating.

So it was with a certain trepidation that I started reading The Summer Tree, the first book in Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry. On the one hand, at only 400 pages this would be a relatively quick Kay read, allowing me to enjoy his writing without investing as much time. On the other hand, from what I’d heard this early work did not live up to the standards of his current writing. I settled in with uncertain expectations.

Rich in Myth

The Summer Tree tells the story of five Canadians snatched away from our world and transported to the magical world of Fionavar. There they become involved in a struggle for the future. There is political turmoil in the court of Brennin, a bastion of light and civilisation. Meanwhile, dark forces are returning in the north.

Morally, it’s a less sophisticated narrative than Kay’s later works. There are clear forces of good and evil. We empathise with the good and not the bad. It’s very much a world of myth and legend.

In this regard, it shows the heavy influence of J R R Tolkien, whose Silmarillion Kay had recently helped to edit. Like The Lord of the Rings, there are hints at deeper legends, a large cast of characters both on and off the page, and divine forces lurking in the background.

Characters of Power

Like Tolkien, Kay in the The Summer Tree is concerned with people who have great destinies, however high or low their roots. From before the characters arrive in Fionavar it is clear that they are people of significance there. I’m not a fan of the use of destinies and chosen ones in fantasy, but it is in keeping with the mythical tone of the book.

In terms of empowering people, this book therefore featured two of my least favourite fantasy tropes – destiny and interventionist gods. Yet despite this, I found it engrossing.

A large part of the pleasure comes from the characters. They aren’t all as interesting as each other, and the women in particular feel less well developed, a sin I fall guilty of in some of my own writing. But characters such as Paul Schafer and Prince Diarmuid are rich and fascinating, their existence defined in relation to other people and their pasts, as our own lives are. I really enjoyed spending time with them.

Good by Any Standard

The Summer Tree is a good fantasy novel. The world is well developed, the characters interesting, and the mythical content, while not quite to my tastes, is well executed. Given developments in both fantasy and Kay’s writing since, I’d have trouble calling this great, but compared to the genre in general it is very good, and I look forward to seeing where the story goes.

If that’s got you intrigued, I’ll be discussing this book further later in the week.

Jeff VanderMeer is an author whose work is weird, in the best sense of the word. He uses elements of fantasy and horror to create a strange atmosphere of creeping unease. And in Authority, the second volume of his Southern Reach trilogy, he transfers that atmosphere from the wilderness setting of Annihilation into the mundane world of office politics.

The results are even more weird.

Uncanny Meets Mundane

Authority follows on from the expedition depicted in Annihilation, in which a group of experts are sent to explore the warped territory of Area X. A new character, who refers to himself as Control, is taking over the Southern Reach, the facility tasked with investigating and explaining Area X. In doing so he investigates what happened on the previous mission, . But his task is hindered as much by office politics and the schemes of his superiors as by the weirdness that has seeped into the minds of anyone dealing with Area X. As these elements become entangled, Control struggles with a situation slipping out of his control.

This makes for a read that is unsettling without being horrifying in the traditional sense. As with Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, the tension lies as much in the struggle for sanity as the struggle against arcane forces. But with the stakes of success or failure much less clear, the sense of bewilderment is at times extraordinary.

Definitely Art

This book is like nothing else I’ve ever read. The tone, style and content build a fog of confusion around the reader as well as Control. I experienced his struggle to get a grip on anything around him. Transferring that from the strange territory of Area X to the familiar surroundings of an office made it feel even more like something wrong was invading the real world, like ordinary things were being turned subtly on their heads.

It makes for a fascinating read, though one that lacks the satisfaction of pay-offs. This seems like a deliberate strategy on VanderMeer’s part. The plot turn most authors would have used as a midway point or early call to adventure arrives near the end. Some things are explained or resolved, both in the world building and in the plot, but more are left open, contributing to the sense of unease.

This book is incredibly successful at evoking an atmosphere, and if you like to sink into the strange or see a writer try something novel then it’s well worth a read. On the other hand, if you don’t like to be confused, if you want plenty of plot, if you want a story to be clear and accessible, you should avoid this one like the plague.

Personally, I enjoyed it immensely, and I look forward to reading the final volume. After these first two, I have no idea whether VanderMeer will provide explanation and resolution. As long as he continues to execute the books with such skill, I won’t mind either way.

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If after all that you’re looking for more fantasy reading, my own collection of short stories By Sword, Stave or Stylus is free on Amazon until the end of tomorrow. From the melancholy gutterscum living in a rooftop world to a gladiator painting with manticore blood, it has plenty of variety, if not the sheer unsettling nature of Authority.

Steampunk is a curious and often inconsistent thing, particularly when it’s the steampunk of Lavie Tidhar. I worked my way with interest through the oddity that was The Bookman. I read its sequel Camera Obscura with great excitement. And so at last I came to the final volume, The Great Game, eager to find out whether it would live up to its title.

First Class Characters

The Great Game is a story of spycraft and intrigue set in Tidhar’s Bookman world, a 19th century alternate history with lizard monarchs, alien devices and literary characters roaming the streets. That name – the Bookman – draws attention to the sort of characters we’re dealing with here – literary borrowings such as Mycroft Holmes and Victor Frankenstein, as well as archetypes such as The Bookman‘s Orphan and this volume’s retired secret agent Smith.

Despite their well worn familiarity, those characters are one of the absolute highlights of this book. In particular, the reluctantly re-activated Smith and current agent Lucy are vivid, well depicted characters who I found good company and excellent drivers for their strands of the story. They’re clever and determined, pressing on through the confusion and overwhelming odds of their circumstances. Though Camera Obscura‘s Milady remains my favourite protagonist from this series, these are good, and certainly better than Orphan, who as Dial H for Houston pointed out, suffered from passivity and dullness.

A Very Tidhar Plot

Smith and Lucy’s paths, and those of the other characters, take them through a journey that’s one part John le Carré tension, one part Bond-style action, and one part batshit crazy. That weird and wonderful world is a big part of the appeal of this series, and it plays off here in spectacular style. The spies are doubly spy-like, the crazy ten times what it was, creating a sense that both the characters and the story could be overwhelmed at any moment.

Therein lies both the beauty and the problem of this book. I know others have found this plot chaotic, though I thought it cleverly intertwined rather than rambling like the first book. But it definitely lacks coherence in places, most critically the ending. Without giving the great game away, I felt that the ending lacked the sort of closure a thousand page series left me wanting, while not giving me enough to instead ponder the possibilities of what would come next.

Good But Disappointing

Look at the book’s cover, the version I’ve used in this post. Isn’t it bold? Isn’t it dynamic? Doesn’t it fill you with a desire for retro, pulpy, genre-mashing action? That’s what I wanted, even expected at first, from these books, and it’s an expectation they didn’t deliver on. They’re fascinating but flawed, far stronger in their ideas than their narrative cohesion, the bit players often more intriguing than the protagonists.

I’m glad I read this series, and that I saw it through to the end. These are good books. I’d even go so far as to call Camera Obscura great. But they don’t deliver on what they seem to promise, and that, for me, was their downfall.

For me as a writer, it’s also a very important lesson. Make sure your book does what it promises to, or you’ll have some disappointed readers.

I like a deep, solid book. The twisted literary architecture of Gormenghast. The brief, stunning beauty of The Great Gatsby. But sometimes I want something pacey and enjoyable, something that provides the sort of accessible action long associated with pulp fiction. And that’s what drew me into the second of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books, Fool Moon.

Urban Fantasy Chicago Style

Fool Moon is a product of a very modern genre – urban fantasy. The protagonist, Harry Dresden, is a wizard for hire in modern Chicago, balancing his struggling finances with his noble instincts through work for the police force. When a series of brutal murders show every sign of being committed by werewolves, Dresden becomes part of the investigation. Soon there are monsters, gangsters and even the police on his tale, and all he has to save him is a gun, a magic amulet and his trusty posing coat.

OK, he doesn’t call it a posing coat, but we all know that’s what long coats are for. Sherlock doesn’t have his because it’s practical, he has it because it looks damn cool.

I haven’t read much urban fantasy, but to me Butcher seems to do a good job of combining the elements of modern life and fantasy adventure. The workings of the police, criminals and local politics aren’t just background, they’re integral to the plot. The monsters and magic aren’t just added colour for a detective story, they’re also central. Together, these make a fascinating mix.

The Unchanging Adventurer

Fool Moon also dips into an older literary tradition – that of the pulp serials, escapist fiction in which action is prioritised over character progress.

I wrote a while back about how you might structure such a serial, and it’s reassuring to find that Butcher, one of the most successful writers in this style, uses many of those tricks. The illusion of progress is created by setting Harry Dresden back at the start of the story, so that when things come good at the end it seems like a step forward, even though he’s essentially where he was at the start of the last book. There’s a romance that similarly jumps through positive and negative hoops before ending up back where it was. There’s an ongoing villain in the form of gangster Johnny Marconi, as well as immediate menaces who appear and are dealt with within this one book.

Harry Dresden’s life doesn’t need to change for his adventures to be entertaining. Which is a good thing, because Dresden as a character seems as resistant to change as his world. Butcher has done a great job of creating a character whose looping life makes sense.

All the Clichés!

Lets be clear – none of the elements in this book are terribly original in and of themselves. From the noire-style succession of hot ladies in Harry’s life, to the gangster the law can’t touch, to the eventual solution hung in pride of place like Chekhov’s Gun at the start of the story.

To me, this isn’t a story with a deep message or something new to say. But it’s a lot of fun, and worth it for that.

Bonus points go to the audiobook of it I listened to, which had James Marsters doing the reading. He suits the story very well, and mercifully doesn’t have to revive his British accent from his days on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.