Archive for the ‘Fantasy’ Category

Author of the exceptional debut Blackwing and the soon to be available Ravencry, Ed McDonald has been kind enough to write a guest blog. It’s an interesting insight into his creative process and well worth a read.

So where do you get your ideas?

If you want to raise a wry smile among a group of writers, this is the question that will do it. It’s a highly complicated question, and the truth is that often, we have no idea ourselves. For some novelists there may be a single theme or idea that inspired the writing of a book, such as an experience in childhood, but for me that’s not the case. In this wonderfully hosted guest blog, I thought that I’d showcase how certain elements of Blackwing and Ravencry came about, and the kind of insight they might give into my own rather chaotic, haphazard writing ‘process.’ Although I’ve said before that there’s as much conscious ‘process’ in what I do as there is to throwing a bunch of alphabetti spaghetti on a plate and expecting words.

There are a number of places that ideas come from. Some emerge at random, some are long held passions, and some are engineered for plot reasons. For those that consider themselves writing ‘Gardeners’ then some of these things may seem familiar.

I don’t really know where Galharrow came from.

Galharrow was never an idea. He never existed in the sense that I sat down and tried to choose character traits for him. Everything that he is, from the narrative voice he tells the story in to the actions he takes, to his appearance, was either pre-formed in my mind, or developed subconsciously without any active thought. I wanted him to be 6’6 and weigh 300lbs because I knew he’d have a lot of action to get into, and physical prowess was going to help him out. His size also allows him to carry other people around, which is really handy. But the alcoholism, his lack of sympathy, and his ultimate nobility and heart were just kind of. . . there. His backstory emerged mid-page as I was writing.

Nenn was an accident

Nenn was never a conscious decision. In Draft 1, there was a character called Shent, who was supposed to be Galharrow’s right hand man, but he split into Tnota and Nenn. Nenn was a throwaway, one-line character, whose missing nose was mentioned purely as a fun detail to show that Galharrow’s company were scarred and war-weary, but as soon as I’d written her first expletive filled line, I immediately knew who she was and how she acted. I didn’t expect Nenn to become a fan favourite, or one of my own, and at times she ends up stealing the show. She became the counterpoint to Galharrow’s regretful, grumpy, calculating, brooding exterior; Nenn is reckless, savage, always wearing a grin and is defined by how little she cares about other people’s opinions – or at least that’s what she wants to present. In Ravencry we see beneath that surface. I really love how she evolved through the pages.

But you did worldbuilding for the Misery, right?

Alas, no. In fact, I don’t do any worldbuilding in the sense that people would normally mean – there is no heaving file of notes. I prefer to create details as I go along. For the Misery, I needed there to be a wasteland that divided two kingdoms at war. I also needed a reason that the larger, more powerful kingdom wasn’t simply marching over to claim victory, and the Engine (early names for Nall’s Engine were The Lightning Web and The Storm Wall) was created to provide the stalemate. Once I knew what Nall’s Engine was, it made sense that it would leave some bad magic in its wake. As it happens, that bit of story crafting then became the key plot element in both RAVENCRY and the book that will follow it.

So nothing is inspired or deliberately plotted?

No, not so. Sometimes I need something for a plot reason, or sometimes I just want to write it. My grandmother told me her stories of life during The Blitz in the second world war. She lived in Coventry, a major manufacturing centre in the UK, and as a young woman she had to endure the nightly bombing raids. Some of her stories were too inspiring not to write them into RAVENCRY. I don’t think that you can really capture the terror of such a time, but I hope that I’ve done some justice to expressing the helplessness felt by the innocent during periods of industrialised war.

The trick of writing a book is to get all this randomness to work as a cohesive whole – thank goodness for editors. I’ll finish by leaving a piece of advice for any budding writers who might be reading:

If you are like me – and you probably aren’t – and if you find that you’re not sure where to start, then just start writing. Trust that your subconscious, silent mind: it probably has much better ideas than anything that your vocal inner monologue is going to push out. Let those ideas flow, and if they aren’t flowing, go and look at the world, go sit somewhere else, take a walk, and then just start writing. I’m seldom aware of my own ideas until after I’ve written them.

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Book one in the Raven’s Mark series, Blackwing is a fierce, grim and highly entertaining debut from Ed McDonald. Chock full of sorcery, swords and gunpowder, it’s a novel that holds no punches and grips the imagination from the first page.

Set in a frontier town, hard against a post-apocalyptic wasteland full of frightening ghouls, Blackwing tells the tale of immortal wizards battling for supremacy against a backdrop of human despair, hope and the instinct to survive. Told from the perspective of Ryhalt Galharrow, a mercenary captain of sorts, the book builds a world as intriguing as it is cruel. A centuries old war still wages as the Republic polices the broken and polluted land across the border, still fearful of the Deep Kings and their hordes of mutated warriors. Protection lies in the form of the Nameless, almost gods, most certainly powerful, and a weapon that has unimaginable force.

Galharrow, a man well versed in the ways of the wasteland, termed the Misery, is soon tasked to protect a person he thought he’d never see again. And so begins a series of events that rocks the very core of his few beliefs. As gritty a protagonist as possible, Galharrow solves most issues with violence but, set against inhuman wizards and a conspiracy that reaches to the very top of the Republic, he’s forced to find new ways as well as confront things he’d considered long buried.

As the novel unfolds, the world building and detail of Galharrow’s reality is brilliant. An epic mix of apocalyptic horrors, magical myths and long lost knowledge, Blackwing is captivating as it bounces from political intrigue to exhausting sword fights to eternal sorcerers and back again. Ed McDonald has achieved something brilliant in fantasy writing with his debut. The story flows effortlessly, the plot is suitable tricky and harsh fitting the gritty and dark world he has created, populated with a cast of tough, hard and yet likeable characters.

The next book in the series should be released soon and will, undoubtedly, jump to the top of my reading pile.

Review copy

Published by Gollancz

If I’ve said it to my wife once, I’ve said it a thousand times; Netflix is crushing it with their original sci-fi series. The Punisher is an excellent example. As a kid, I read some Spider-Man/Punisher crossover comics and, as a teen, I read more Punisher comic books. He’s a great character who populates a space in the superhero landscape that is unique. An anti-hero of sorts but one driven by the most pure albeit tragic of reasons.

The series does an amazing job of bringing that backstory to life, rebooted yet losing none of its power. In fact, it probably adds a layer of moral ambiguity to the character of Frank Castle that firmly places the series at the gritty end of dark. Jon Bernthal fills out the army issue boots of The Punisher in epic fashion with an intensity that is relentless and terrifying.

After dispatching a host of gangsters, drug dealers and mafiosa, who Castle blames for the murder of his wife and children, he is drifting under the radar having faked his own death. But a message from a certain ‘Micro’ brings everything back and uncovers the real power behind the killing of his family.

The dynamic between Frank and Micro is intriguing and complex, moving from enemies to friends and everything in between. The duo are, however, the perfect package to take on an enemy who has all the assets and all the power. Frank’s psychotic drive and ability to rain down death paired with Micro’s technological wizardry is an unstoppable force.

Yet, there are other players in the game such as Homeland Security Agent Madani. A woman compelled to find the truth and very much a white-hat in the story. It complicates Castle’s plans entirely as Madani is determined to bring The Punisher in, thinking he is responsible for all manner of crimes. As things begin to untangle, Madani and Castle begin to co-operate.

The Punisher is a brilliant series. Dark, violent and uncompromising. It also cleverly touches on some serious modern themes around the recent conflicts in the Middle East. But, the finale is one of the most brutal conclusions I’ve seen in screen. One which cleverly leaves an opening for a second series and I can’t wait.

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Helen Marshall’s The Way She Is With Strangers is a wonderfully poetic, musically written short story. It’s a strange but engaging tale of Mercy, a women who has moved away from her place of birth to a new city and a new existence where her daughter regularly visits and where she seems to have found happiness amidst the difference. But, as the story progresses the rhythm alters. Oddities occur and suddenly strange clues are left to be unthreaded.

The Way She is With Strangers is strangely beautiful. Pathways and boundaries, maps and geographies all hint at something beyond as Mercy tries to help those looking to find a way out of the city; a way only ghosts can walk. It’s a wonderful story.

Coming at the idea of a ghost story from the polar opposite direction, Good Night, Prison Kings by Cherie Priest is a grim and gritty tale of vengeance. The story is a slowly revealed by the protagonist, Holly, as she finds herself remembering the circumstances of her current existence. Sat in a mundane interview, Holly realises that she is dead and that her interviewer is offering her the chance to conclude some unfinished business.

That ‘business’ turns out to be the opportunity to avenge her own death. To bring retribution to those who have wronged her and the elderly family members she was looking after. Holly turns out to be a violent conduit for justice but it’s the targets of her anger that add such a grim taint to the tale.

What I’ve Always Done by Amber Benson is an engaging yet odd snap shot of a strange life. Told with few details but in with exceptional style, this is one of those short stories that has the immense ability to pull the reader into a world using but a few sentences. It’s violent and dark, hitting the brief perfectly.

Review copy
Published by Titan Books

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The strap line for this anthology reads ‘all-new masterpieces of urban terror’ and with an impressive list of authors to boot, it’s a collection I’ve been keen to read. Premised on the idea of the city, each writer has scraped back the veneer of metropolitan living to reveal the horror lying beneath.

First up and making an immediate impression was Scott Smith’s The Dogs. A mix of supernatural and bizzare properties, it’s the kind of tale where once it’s stall has been laid out you kind of know where it’s going. But, that doesn’t diminish its power or ability to unsettle. A young women who enjoys meeting men on Craigslist, suddenly finds herself in a situation that is
only ever going to end badly. However, it’s not the normal ‘met a guy who turned out to be a serial killer’ type bad; somehow it’s worse yet also pleasantly mundane. A mysteriously magical flat; murderous, talking canines; and the choice between killing or being killed. Superbly written and brilliantly paced, The Dogs is understated horror at its finest.

In Stone by Tim Lebbon definitely added some welcome chills to this week’s epic heatwave. It’s a story that manages to do so much with mere suggestions and hints rather than outright horror but the effect is exceptional. An insomniac narrator, troubled by the death of his closest friend, begins walking the streets of his home city in the early morning hours. During these meandering wanderings, he sees a woman strolling down alleyways and sidestreets, and he follows her. Curiosity peeked because she seems so out of place, so elsewhere, the woman disappears.

It’s a mystery that leaves the narrator unsettled and he investigates the spot again the next day. However, what he finds inexplicably intrigues yet deeply frightens him. Soon he begins seeing signs of further offkilter happenings around the city and can’t help but look for more. In Stone never explicitly shocks but the creeping sensation it produces is impressive.

Both stories have found intriguing interpretations of the brief for this anthology and I’m definitely hooked. Featuring so many good writers, such as Jonathon Maberry, Paul Tremblay, Ramsey Campbell and others, I’ll be posting up more reviews soon.

Review copy
Published by Titan Books

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Adrian Tchaikovsky describes this collection as one focusing on the peace between conflicts in his larger stories. If this is what his world is like when it’s not at war, then it’s a very frightening place. Fallen Heroes epitomises that idea; a tale of a minor skirmish between competing gangsters, or ‘Fiefs’ as they are called, over some territory and the tenement housing within.

A young fly-kinden, tired of how everyone around him has capitulated to a higher power, and enamoured by the idea of heroic, free-spirited warriors, sets out to find a champion to help protect his home. However, he finds both more and less than he bargained for. It’s a classic, gritty idea as romantic notions are dashed by hard realities; personal ‘heroes’ are knocked from their pedestal and unlikely protectors are more fearsome and cold blooded than they are valiant. Tough truths and a fantastically brutal western-esque feel gives Fallen Heroes real weight for such a short story.

There’s little let up in the grit department in The Price of Salt where, just like Fallen Heroes, the reader is introduced to the history of certain characters from the novels. After capturing, killing and decapitating a man with a decent bounty on his head, four mercenary rogues find themselves caught up in some bad business, far away from where and what they know. The head, cleverly pickled in salt, has been spirited away by a young lady, much to the chargrin of the nominal leader of this grim group. It’s all a ruse, however.

She doesn’t want the head; she wants their prowess as warriors and killers. Once again, this is a great example of how the author has taken the idea of insect-kinden and used it for a properly innovative basis of a story. As their numbers swell out on the desolate steepes, the Grasshopper-kinden become susceptible to the Grand Moon; an event as inexplicable as it is unpredictable. As the moon rises, those with the Art turn away from their normal, calm and peaceful behaviour into a wild, violent Locust mob.

What ensues is a fight for survival as the four mercenaries are trapped by the mad, mindless, Moon struck kinden. It’s as brutal and fantastic as it sounds.

Back in Helleron, the same city where Fallen Heroes takes place, the story of just how far a lost, alcoholic, Wasp can fall unfolds. The city, teeming with factories and tenements, rich and poor, dives and fine establishments, is a machine that grinds everyone down. It’s a realisation that Varmen is trying to drown in drink. A former elite warrior for the Empire, Varmen is now a penniless drunk; no less dangerous nor violent but near impossible to employ. His pride remains, driving him deeper into debt as he cannot find it in himself to lower his expectations.

In the end, he has no choice. Debt forces him toward avenues he wishes to avoid but fate, and a drug addled roommate, conspire otherwise. The Last Ironclad is a redemption story of sorts for though Varmen has fallen as low as is possible, he finds that thing within him to escape. Rather than be mere grist to the wheel, the Wasp fights and, though he is an obsolete soldier in the eyes of the Empire, that which made him an elite warrior remains.

This collection has really impressed upon me just how good the Shadow of the Apt novels must be. Even though I’m not familiar with the lore, these stories are exciting reads, offering windows into an intriguing world of fantasy.

Review copy
Published by NewCon Press

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I haven’t read any of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s The Shadows of the Apt and, now, I’m really kicking myself for not exploring the series earlier. The premise behind the worldbuilding is fantastic as clans of different ‘insect-kinden’ clash in a complex, politically fraught realm. In this collection of short stories, the author explores ideas outside of warfare – no less dangerous and no less intriguing for it.

As the opening gambit in this collection, Loyalties is a brilliant slice of backstory and character development. The protagonist of the tale, Balkus, might be more of a side player in the bigger novels but, here, we are given an intriguing look into just who he is. A set piece that shows the complexity of the world Tchaikovsky has built, the gritty, hardened mercenary and the naive, in-training, young heiress combination is turned on its head when Balkus realises he’s been played on a number of fronts. Though I’ve not read Shadow of the Apt there’s enough here to truly grip a reader’s interest (and encourage them to read more of Tchaikovsky’s work). The writing is exemplary and the world is so clearly and cleverly defined it’s easy to find a way in and enjoy the story. There’s an added bonus as the author includes a little post-script for each story, explaining its origins, which I found most compelling.

In Bones more of the world and setting is laid out by exploring something of its past development. Tchaikovsky gives insights into the ideas of the Art that humans use and how it manifests in unison with different types of insect-kinden. Seeing how each clan and its association to types, such as spider or fly, operates in the world is fascinating, especially as a first time reader to his work. At the heart of this story lies dark politics and a hierarchy determined to maintain control whether that be physically or intellectually. There’s a darkness bound to hiding knowledge and keeping it secreted for the “greater good” and in Bones we get to see first-hand those who wish to perpetrate such benevolent policing upon a world.

Whilst I am new to The Shadows of the Apt realm, these windows into that world have definitely caught my imagination. Tchaikovsky is, obviously, a great writer and I really enjoy reading short stories by authors who have created such complete fantasies as the depth and quality of the work really comes through in spades. More from this volume to come.

Review copy
Published by NewCon Press

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I felt the need to scratch that post-apocalypse zombie itch (again) and remembered I had Monster Island sitting on my bookshelves. Unread. Published in 2006, David Wellington was definitely one of those authors at the forefront of the zombie resurgence but I was happily surprised by what I discovered as I read this fantastic novel.

Kicking off by introducing one of the main protagonists, Dekalb, a UN worker caught up by the apocalypse in East Africa, Monster Island continues to make interesting and inventive turns and twists throughout. Under the ‘protection’ of a Somali warlord, Dekalb is offered the opportunity to keep his daughter safe; all he need do is find enough HIV/AIDS medication to keep the warlord alive. Unfortunately, it’s a far from easy task and, along with a squad of teenage girl soldiers, Dekalb is soon expanding his search all the way to New York.

Here, things truly turn. Dekalb meets our main antagonist Gary. A former medical student and self-made undead, Gary realised that zombification was inevitable but, if done on purpose and with some thought, might result in reanimation without total brain damage and, therefore, loss of personality. However, Gary is still a zombie and his hunger, and situation, can’t be overcome. New York is now the battleground as Dekalb and his girl warriors strive to survive and complete their mission against teeming odds.

What I found interesting is that David Wellington uses the zombie genre as a fantasy setting. It allows him to introduce ideas and characters way outside of the accepted apocalypse tropes. Whilst we still have armed survivors making a stand, military assets being deployed and zombie hordes, others join the fray including a long-dead Scottish Druid with magical powers. It’s a heady mix of fantastical undead proportions and makes for a tumultuous landscape against which Dekalb tries to do the right thing whilst trying to get back to his own daughter.

In the end, Monster Island retains its brutality. It is both fantasy and zombie apocalypse and though there are sparks of humour and touches of character introspection, the conclusion is quite terrible in its honesty. Like all good zombie fiction, Monster Island isn’t just about cracking skulls and drinking toilet water to stay alive; it’s about the cost of the choices made in the desperation to survive that reveals so much about humanity.

My copy
Published by Snowbooks Ltd

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I picked up this omnibus a while back and, though I’ve seen it recommended many times, it’s lingered in the ‘to be read’ pile too long. The Black Company gets bandied around a lot for being a precursor to the recent ‘grimdark’ movement in fantasy and it’s easy to make comparisons. Written in the 1980’s this isn’t your average tale of heroes and damsels in distress; it’s a morally ambiguous story of mercenaries told from the perspective of the boots on the ground.

Though there are still plot points regarding portents and sorcery, a chosen one and the battle of good versus evil, much of these tropes are flipped on their head. The main point being that the eponymous Black Company, a troop of sellswords, are potentially fighting for ‘evil’ in a conflict that has both huge consequences and, seemingly, no ‘good’ side.

Told by Croaker, the doctor and historian, and written as entries in the company’s Annals, we are introduced to an assortment of characters, giving flesh to the wider world as well as the battalion. After being forced to break a contract to a corrupt Lord, the company find themselves hired by a mysterious, leatherclad sorcerer called Soulcatcher, who, in turn, is one of the Taken, a group of powerful magical warriors controlled by the Lady (herself a kind of immortal wizard).

Battle after battle ensues; retreat after retreat eats away at the men of the Black Company. In all the slog and grunt the soldiers endure, Croaker is the perfect voice as he records and questions everyone, including the Taken. Written in clipped, terse tones, the scale of the plot becomes clearer as the war between the Lady and the Rebel escalates. Each chapter reads like a mini diorama in the larger campaign, drawing towards an inevitable and intense showdowns between the armies.

It’s an interesting format, created as a potted history of the Black Company, and (for the time it was written) a fresh perspective, taking the view of the soldier. Though the style is a little stilted, perhaps due to the voice of Croaker, this is a great introduction to a gang of mercenaries, each with a hidden past, all with nowhere else to go. As the start of the larger epic, it serves to set up a number of conflicts that I’ll explore very soon.

My copy
Published by Gollancz

Continuing the tradition of rounding up my best reads of the year, I’m going to do my utmost to pick some of the top books from a heap of excellent work I’ve had the pleasure to review. It’s taken some serious beard stroking and moustache twiddling but here goes…

I’ve read some great horror stories this year, two of which really stood out – Nod by Adrian Barnes and A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay. Though very different both were psychological thrillers that picked away at the fabric of reality, personality and what grounds us in truth. Pleasingly, the shock and terror of each novel was produced alongside excellent writing and superb characters, making them both very memeorable books.

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu was one of my top fantasy novel reads, in close contention with Brian McClellan’s The Crimson Campaign. A brilliant setting made even more enjoyable by the distinct and well defined protagonists, The Grace of Kings managed to mix political intrigue, epic battles and an original, atmospheric world. It’s quality fantasy in every sense.

When it comes to top notch, awesome fantasy, Joe Abercrombie consistently serves up some of the very best. His short story collection, Sharp Ends, set in his First Law universe was, without a doubt, sheer brilliance. New characters were introduced, older actors had their origin stories told and the whole world he’s built is weaved together with exceptional skill. Hugely enjoyable, Sharp Ends is a big, bold barnburner.

Whilst I admit I’m a fan of action, adventure and gritty battle based fiction, I’ve had the chance to read some intelligent and mindful science fiction this year. Savant by Vik Abnett epitomised that. Unique worldbuilding, a slightly retro yet original tone and an engaging story revolving around mathematics and companionship, this was a standout novel in my year.

Featuring a very different yet equally enthralling maths based concept, Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit is an amazing novel. Distinctive and innovative, Yoon Ha Lee’s inspired setting brings a new vibe to sci-fi. As I said in my review, ‘It’s a stunning piece of creativity that melds futuristic ideas of technology and the feel of an epic space opera with the ephemeral and magical vibe of pure fantasy’.

Finally, the self-published novel from Malcolm F Cross, Dog Country, proved to be another highlight. A thought provoking look at geo-political warfare, Dog Country is a brilliantly written piece of military sci-fi. Genetically modified, humanoid, dog soldiers fighting in a crowdfunded revolution whilst, simultaneously, trying to find their place in a society that created yet rejected them. Great characters, a clever concept and an even better plot.

I’ve also watched a few decent films but hats off to Mad Max:Fury Road. Though time has been a precious commodity this year (my wife and I still haven’t started season 7 of TWD) I did manage to catch Westworld and the sixth series of The Walking Dead – I will have some posts on that very soon.

I’m whittling my way through my reading pile and have some interesting books lined up. It’s been a good year for reading and I’m looking forward to more reviews and interviews.
Happy reading!