Archive for October, 2014

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Whilst I received a bounty of reading material this week, I wanted to check out a couple more stories from Fearsome Magics and I’m glad I did.

First up, I read On Skybolt Mountain by Justina Robson. It’s a wonderful little tale that meanders along, sucking you into the world of a seamstress. Her inner dialogue paints the picture of a spinster forced to move from village to village, trying to escape the rumours that she is a witch.

But, a little magical mishap at the local fair, sees her under suspicion once more and it’s not long before the lord of the area is demanding her appearance. Suffice it to say, the lord has some pompous plans regarding a dragon and it’s treasure whilst the little seamstress is so much more than the rumours could even hint at.

Robson’s story is hugely entertaining and subtly written. Plus, its an brilliant take on the notion of dragons…

Aberration by Genevieve Valentine is a weird and ephemeral tale that drifts and whorls like the metaphor of smoke which pervades the story. It’s difficult to describe in terms of a linear plot. Ghostly yet solid, the main character displaces across space and time to witness the end of things. Unseen yet present, she feels nothing but is wrenched from her own existence. Placeless, she seeks only to stay.

It’s a powerful and poetic piece of writing that lingers as you ponder not only the imagery but also the idea behind it. The fractured nature of the protagonist’s experiences mirror the idea of the character herself – something impossible to pin down.

Valentine has created a solemn, strange tale with a stirring vibrancy. A truly odd yet compelling read.

Review copy
Published by Solaris

Part of the reason my reading has been sporadic of late has been due to moving house – and country… So, all my books, new and old, are now in several towering columns of boxes. Thankfully my wife provided us with a kindle so that we can continue to indulge in one of our favourite past times.

Just as thankfully, I received some great looking ebooks recently. First up is Rogues , an anthology from the great minds of George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois.

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If youre a fan of fiction that is more than just black and white, this latest story collection from #1 New York Times bestselling author George R. R. Martin and award-winning editor Gardner Dozois is filled with subtle shades of gray. Twenty-one all-original stories, by an all-star list of contributors, will delight and astonish you in equal measure with their cunning twists and dazzling reversals. And George R. R. Martin himself offers a brand-new A Game of Thrones tale chronicling one of the biggest rogues in the entire history of Ice and Fire.

Follow along with the likes of Gillian Flynn, Joe Abercrombie, Neil Gaiman, Patrick Rothfuss, Scott Lynch, Cherie Priest, Garth Nix, and Connie Willis, as well as other masters of literary sleight-of-hand, in this rogues gallery of stories that will plunder your heartand yet leave you all the richer for it.

Next up is Dead Man’s Hand , an anthology of weird west tales that I’m very keen to delve into as the cover alone looks awesome, never mind the listed authors.

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From a kill-or-be-killed gunfight with a vampire to an encounter in a steampunk bordello, the weird western is a dark, gritty tale where the protagonist might be playing poker with a sorcerous deck of cards, or facing an alien on the streets of a dusty frontier town.

Here are twenty-three original tales—stories of the Old West infused with elements of the fantastic—produced specifically for this volume by many of today’s finest writers. Included are Orson Scott Card’s first “Alvin Maker” story in a decade, and an original adventure by Fred Van Lente, creator of Cowboys & Aliens.

Other contributors include Tobias Buckell, David Farland, Alan Dean Foster, Jeffrey Ford, Laura Anne Gilman, Rajan Khanna, Mike Resnick, Beth Revis, Ben H. Winters, Christie Yant, and Charles Yu.

Finally, and continuing their awesome run of anthologies is another collection from Solaris. Dangerous Games has an interesting sounding premise, one I want to explore very soon.

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Edited by critically acclaimed Editor Jonathan Oliver with an incredible range of authors that includes Hugo award-winners, bestsellers and exciting new talents, Dangerous Games is out December 2014.

Featuring tales of the deadly, the macabre and the strange, Dangerous Games continues Oliver’s journey as the rising star of short form fiction, bringing together a highly original collection of new tales that take a slanted look at the world of gaming: from parlour games to role-play, the traditional to the futuristic.

As 18 authors sit down to play, the cards may be marked, and the dice are certainly loaded, but as Oliver states in his introduction “win or lose, Dangerous Games are always worth playing.”

The wonderful people at Titan books also emailed me some Terminator Salvation tie-in novels. As a huge fan of the films I’m definitely going to be checking these out soon as well. So, all in all, an email haul; expect reviews aplenty soon.

A sick ten month old and some truly disturbed sleep has keep me on the short story path this week but what an interesting journey it’s proving to be. Delving into another of Solaris’ anthologies, this time Fearsome Magics I read two stunning tales by two authors I will definitely be keeping an eye out for in the future.

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The first story I read was Safe House by K.J. Parker, a fantasy tale with an intriguing, magical setting. It’s a tale that twists and turns through a post-war landscape of magicians, weaving around the ‘safe house’ and what it means to the world Parker has created. Transported here, we’re quickly introduced to the Studium and one of its adepts, on a mission to find a natural magician who may be under persecution by the local, less-than-friendly-to-wizard population.

It’s a wonderful piece of writing, packed full of humour and told in the voice of a brilliant character. The story unravels the world with some insightful touches and the ideas behind it are very engaging. I’m not going to say much more but as I don’t want to spoil such a great fantasy tale but the eponymous house is, it’s fair to say, anything but safe.

Much like K.J. Parker’s story Migration by Karin Tidbeck does an equally excellent job of creating a whole world in just a few brushstrokes. Using hints and clues that point to all manner of ideas, Tidbeck’s tale is an enthralling trip into a weird world of silos, ‘caretakers’ and forgotten histories.

Tidbeck’s writing is simple yet enticing, employing an uncertain protagonist at the heart of the story, making for an evocative journey. The fantastical strangeness of it all is captured with subtlety and the end puts a punch to the tale. Both Tidbeck and Parker have got my attention and I’ll definitely be reading some more from Fearsome Magics.

Review copy
Published by Solaris

After such a great guest blog from Mr David Thomas Moore, I felt impelled to read a few more of the stories he collected into his fantastic anthology. I also needed a palette cleanser after Swastika!…which I’m still perturbed by…

Anyway, back to Baker Street!

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Half There/All There by Glen Mehn is unexpected, brilliant and wonderfully crafted. It’s a sort of prequel type story that sets the scene for the future iterations of Sherlock and John Watson, explaining their friendship, loyalty and personal traits – Sherlock’s emotionally reticent coldness and Watson’s dogged and jaded humanity – with a left field perspective.

Mehn captures the whole Warhol scene with aplomb, dropping Sherlock and Watson into the setting and getting them to drop some serious pharmaceuticals. It’s post hippy, new scene, far out. It’s also excellent. In a kaleidoscopic haze, the detective duo embark on the discovery of a great crime but are too strung out to stop it. In the mix, Mehn contrasts their investigative stumbling with a foray into their own relationship – one that I’m sure many have considered before but that few could have handled so carefully.

The story is a beautifully jarring piece of post modernist scene Warholites, drug addled ramblings and loss. It is this losing – Sherlock missing the final piece to the puzzle; Watson losing the love of his greatest friend – that gives the piece it’s haunting end but which also sets up the notion of Holmes and Watson as we know them. It’s all ‘what ifs’ but it’s brilliant.

All the Single Ladies by Gini Koch is as different an iteration from the above as possible. It’s a crime investigation with a serial killer at large that brings Holmes and Watson into contact, this time in South California. With Watson acting as the doctor for a girls college, scene to both the murders and a reality TV show, Sherlock is drafted in to help catch the killer. She makes an immediate impression on Watson with her inimitable style of logic and observation whilst Watson’s sarcasm and use of ‘proper English’ set him highly in Sherlock’s estimations.

As usual, Watson is left stumbling behind Holmes as the investigation closes in on the killer. All the while the TV producers try to convince the hapless Doctor into various liaisons for TV ratings. However, Sherlock is less distracted and soon comes calling for Watson to assist in the capture of the killer.

Koch’s story is a neat crime thriller and cleverly put together. A pleasure to read, there’s some great moments between the pair as they verbally spar with each other. Another great addition to the anthology.

Review copy
Published by Solaris

Review – Brian W Aldiss shorts

Posted: October 13, 2014 in Fantasy, Sci-Fi
Tags: ,

If you’ve been following this blog, and I know some of you do (my heartfelt thanks!), then you’ll know that the Broken Empire trilogy left me with that hole that only a brilliant series of books can leave. Not wanting to dive into anything whilst Mark Lawrence’s words still percolated through my brain, I thought I’d read a few short stories to keep the old grey matter working.

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I’ve only read one Brian W Aldiss book before but I’m sad to say, I didn’t really enjoy the two short stories I read. Maybe it had something to do with how long ago they’d been written. I felt they hadn’t aged particularly well and that, though the writing and vocabulary was exemplary, there was just something missing. Maybe, however, it was me.

First up was Poor Little Warrior which left me thinking about just how far removed genre fiction is from these early thought experiments type stories. On one hand it’s a funny little tale of a time traveller going back to hunt big game dinosaurs to escape his tragic, small life. The kicker being that nothing can give him the release he needs from the fetters of his miserable existence – not even shooting a massive prehistoric monster. One the other hand, the twist at the end was as obvious as the message in the story and the whole thing felt naive, for want of a better word.

The second story, Swastika! left me with a wholly uneasy feeling. It’s another mental mind game that considers what it would be like if Hitler had survived WWII. Personally, I found it distasteful and odd that the author placed Hitler and his interviewer in a relationship of reverence. I understood the tone, that of making a musical of Hitler’s life being absurd and blackly comical but it came across as confused. I read it to the end hoping for something more yet found nothing in it to enjoy. In fact, it’s the reason I put the collection of short stories down and moved on to something else.

Borrowed copy
Published by Faber

The good folks over at Solaris Books offered me a guest blog and editor of the brilliant anthology Two Hundred and Twenty One Baker Streets stepped up to offer his thoughts on that most enigmatic of characters, Sherlock Holmes.

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Hey there, and thanks for having me on the Bookbeard’s Blog. I hope my own modest beard serves in this illustrious company…

So, with less than a week to go (at time of writing) before the release of my first anthology, Two Hundred and Twenty-One Baker Streets, I’ve been asked to write about the reinvention and appropriation of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. It’s an interesting question, and “reinvention” is, truthfully, an engaging idea. To reinvent; to invent again; to create what has been created already, because in creating it again we are both creating something new and shedding new light on the old.

Baker Streets has been described in more than one review as “fan fiction,” generally in a positive way, and while that term invokes a fairly specific body of work – informal, unpublished, unpaid, often written without permission – the comparison’s not unreasonable. Apart from anything else, the fourteen women and men I brought together to tell the many stories of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are fans; nearly half of them have published Holmes pastiches elsewhere, and at least one of them was recruited when she overheard me talking about the project at a con and jumped on me: “I love Sherlock Holmes!” And I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

And what fan-fiction – pastiche – reinvention – call it what you will – does is democratise art. If you’ve studied lit-crit to any level, you’ve almost certainly been sat down in front of a copy of Roland Barthes’ “Death of the Author,” in which the French literary theorist tells us that the author, as owner and authority, “dies” as soon as her work is published. As soon as the work is read by others, it becomes theirs; their experience of it, their interpretation, becomes the truth, pre-eminent over the intent, reported or imagined, of the original.
Pastiche legitimises the reader’s new authority. “This is what I saw in the original,” says the author, “and so I rewrite it in that light and share it with you,” and – not accidentally – the new author dies with publication, and the reinvention is reinvented by a new round of readers. Sherlock Holmes, reimagined and rewritten scores of times, filmed, recorded and set in board, roleplaying and computer games, belongs to everyone.

The irony of course being that the very idea would be anathema to Sherlock Holmes himself. As an investigator, picking up the miniscule clues for which he’s famed, he depends on finding the objective truth, free of interpretation and bias. He knows that that scuffing on your shoe, and that smudge on your cuff, and that hair on your shirt, means you’re a philandering war correspondent for the Times, and in his eyes, that’s all those things can mean. If there’s one truth – one perfect, objective truth – always findable at the heart of any mystery, then how can there be many truths within the man himself? How can there be many Sherlocks?
Maybe there can’t. What Two Hundred and Twenty-One Baker Streets shows us is that, from seventeenth-century Worcestershire to 1960s New York and from the townships of Pretoria to the fantastic world of the Seven Lords Wizard, Holmes himself (or herself) is the same. The same acerbic, short-tempered, superior, wild, dangerous champion of truth, striding impatiently through the lies and misdirections wherever you find him.

What the reinventors do, with Holmes, is summon him to their worlds, like the wizard’s assistant Wu Tsen in Tchaikovsky’s “The Final Conjuration.” They summon the old bastard to witness injustice and fight exploitation – the oppressive government of Emma Newman’s “A Woman’s Place,” the sexual predator of Gini Koch’s “All the Single Ladies,” the strange, murderous cult of Kaaron Warren’s “The Lantern Men” – and, like any amateur demonologist, having summoned him, they often find him singularly hard to banish.
I suspect we’ll be seeing more of him.

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Normally, I write a review immediately after finishing a book but for a number of reasons, I took a little time to ponder the last in the Broken Empire trilogy by Mark Lawrence. There’s a lot to say about Emperor of Thorns and a lot to spoil, and I don’t want to do that. It is a book which both fulfils the hugely appealing story whilst considering some fairly hefty concepts, offering an ending that was, probably, one of the most satisfying conclusions I’ve had the pleasure to read.

The trilogy itself is a brilliant work of fiction. Starting with the petrol bomb of Prince of Thorns, splashing it’s violence and vengeance over everything and igniting the passion and hatred that only youth can conjure before hitting the middle ground of the second in the series. Here, we are confronted with the confounding issues that the young have as they grow a little older and a little wiser, battling the idea of who they think they are with the potential of the man they might become. In the final novel, we see our young protagonist changed, dealing with fatherhood and his own paternal shadow; realising and owning the things, the thorns, that have made him.

In Emperor of Thorns we are treated once more with the circling of memory and present, of how Jorg arrived and what he will do. It’s just as bloody and marvellous and all the mystery is laid bare of this bizzare, brutal yet magical realm. There are some great touches (my favourite, the legend of the custodian) and a few interesting cameos from the likes of Dr. Taproot and a certain Red Queen.

Mr Lawrence’s writing is, for me, superb. There are some sentences that deserve close consideration of their own, they have such a power and poetry. But, it is also the journey from bandit prince to the throne of the Empire, from psychotic youth to self-reflexive man, from medieval fantasy to a broken possible future that makes the series so addictive and readable. I’m not ashamed to say that this series is now amongst my favourite fantasy reads; it’s that good in my opinion.

My copy
Published by Harper Voyager