Archive for the ‘Fantasy’ Category

Where Would You Be Now by Carrie Vaughn is an extremely well written and considered look at life a few years after an apocalyptic event. The title is a repeating question, asked and answered by the main character and her immediate companions. Meditating on how life pushes on, Vaughn captures the essence of loss; loss of what could have been as well as what was. As the survivors slowly come to terms with their new reality, the issue of what the future holds becomes paramount. It’s an interesting essay on how the apocalypse bifurcated the paths of their lives comparing where they are to where they would be had it never occurred. A meditative, somewhat melancholy, story that digs into what the reality of a post-apocalypse existence would be.

As Good As New is as different from the other stories as could be. Author Charlie Jane Anders has taken a wonderful idea and runs with it. Whilst her protagonist, Marisol, survived the end of the world inside an impenetrable bunker, it isn’t until she explores outside that this story takes a massive swerve. Marisol finds a bottle, within which is a very sarcastic and pedeantic genie. What follows is a clever consideration of how genies (or any other wishing machination) contain within both potentially fantastic and catastrophic results. As Good As New is thoroughly enjoyable in its take on the genre and the tools it uses to convey its ideas.

Hugh Howey’s Bones of Gossamer is another quiet and contemplative look at what the ‘end of the world’ would mean. Yet, Howey takes the perspective of an isolated culture, far from the western world. A culture used to separation and disconnection; a man who grew up with distant parents who’d travelled to the ‘big island’ and who, once older, left to find work. Now even older, his children also gone to earn money, he watches as the silence stretches. Where a steam boat would make the harsh journey to deliver supplies once a month, the horizon remains empty. Where a new satellite phone would connect them, silence has returned. When a starving European washes up on the shore, talking of disaster, the old man realises he must somehow make the journey to find his children. It’s a journey both physical and cultural as he embarks on remembering what his ancestors knew before steamboats and satellite phones. Howey captures something here; something well worth reading.

Review copy

Published by Titan Books

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Comparisons to World War Z by Max Brooks might be apt but only in so much as this is a complete, and I do mean complete, history of a supernatural change in (fictional) human history. Where Brooks uses verbal accounts and different perspectives, A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising goes further and deeper into what it would mean for vampires to appear in modern society. The author does a great job at looking at how law enforcement, the press, politics, religion and all the institutes in between would address such a person; a person who is suddenly more powerful physically and psychologically; who is now capable of living for hundreds of years; a person whose moral and ethical compass is drastically different.

Whilst the book is a history, and an exhaustive one at that, it is a narrative; a story told from numerous perspectives that overlap and, eventually, dovetail into each other. Told through the eyes of an FBI agent, a research doctor, a priest in the Catholic Church and a political campaign manager, the novel manages to iron out so many details that the ‘history’ takes on the feel of being real. Political wrangling and amendments to the law sit neatly next to creepy house raids and the worrying spread of vampire fandom. What starts with a body disappearing from a small town morgue turns into numerous threads, all chasing the idea of a vampire in its various forms: as a blood-sucking drifter, as a disease, as a supernatural force, as an ideal.

For some it’s an issue of law; clearly draining people of their blood is a crime but where is the line drawn when it comes to turning another person into a vampire? Ethically, what rights do these people have as citizens and active members of society. For others, what and how does vampirism occur; is it a disease that’s controlable or reversible? Are any of those things right to pursue? All the while the author poses and explores these questions, the book is also considering the darker side of vampirism and what a new species of superhuman wants. Heists and strange kidnappings, underground networks and nefarious doings abound. Not only on the vampire side but also from humans. Humans who morally or otherwise decide to take the fight to the vampires.

A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising is intriguing. It’s not an apocalyptic event but rather a slow, steady burn as society is infiltrated and changed from within. The depth of consideration into all aspects of the idea is impressive in itself, but how the author has woven it all together into a bizarre tapestry of a story is even more admirable. There’s a creeping darkness underneath it all, lurking under the surface, making all the machinations above seem off centre and, in that sense, truly capturing the essence of human history.

Review copy

Published by Titan Books

Continuing from yesterday, here’s one more awesome thing I’ve watched in a stupor of post-training fatigue..

I saw the trailer, more than once, but I wasn’t wholly convinced. I initially felt like this mini-series would be one of those melancholic, navel-gazing type shows where little would happen but much would be discussed. How wrong I was.

Maniac is anything but. Instead, it was a journey out of despondency and depression, spiralling upwards toward a kaleidoscopic expression of wholesome emotion. In a retro-futuristic world of robots and weird science, there’s an off-key, off-centre feel to its sci-fi background that is as intriguing as it is tricky to hold on to. Following the entwined stories of Owen (Jonah Hill) and Annie (Emma Stone) the narrative simultaneously converges and fractures around a bizarre pharmaceutical trial. Owen needs the money to strike out and find his dependence from his domineering and overly successful family; Annie is chasing the drug on trial and it’s particular effects.

Whilst Owen is anxious and withdrawn, Annie is brash and bold, and the pair are soon thrust together in the same group testing the drug. Adding more unique layers to the already unusual worldbuilding, the pharma Company is itself a story that unfolds in fits and starts, revealing a scientist exiled from his own research only to be brought back at a crucial time and a computer that is so self aware it’s sabataging it’s own experiment.

The drug works by dropping the user into old memories and visions, helping them realise a healthier and happy conclusion. However, each time Owen and Annie find themselves in each other’s visions, as different people, in different lives but always thrown together. Eventually both do escape their most negative aspects and find inner peace yet the journey there is a winding and fantastical path.

As a vehicle for the actors it’s a chance to play multiple characters within a narrative framework. This is where the uniqueness works, ebbing and flowing forward and rising ever upwards. It was surprising and fulfilling and hopeful, all couched in a thoroughly distinct and inventive worldbuilding. It’s odd, hard to categorise but excellent it’s own special and quirky way.

I was recently looking for something to watch (in a state of post-training exhaustion) and it made me think about all the great things I’ve watched but not blogged about (because I’ve been training a lot and “recovering” on the sofa). It also made me think of all the things I stopped watching, though I’ll save that for another post. So, without further ado, and with thanks to Netflix and it’s great programming – The Umbrella Company.

Adapted from a comic book, this series was an instant hit with my wife and I. Drawing you in with great characters and a number of unanswered questions that are slowly and cleverly explained, The Umberlla Company is a bright, engaging piece of fantasy. Similar in style and feel to the Marc Caro/ Jean-Pierre Jeunet films, such as City of the Lost Children, there’s a mix of seriousness and comedy that seemlessly entertains whilst never losing sight of the story.

The ensemble cast of characters, each with their own deep, and sometimes dark, background are brilliant. Their wild abilities, their shared history of adoption and their sense of being cast adrift from any sense of purpose is thread through the narrative. Adopted as babies by an eccentric millionaire (himself a strange character) and nurtured to manage and develop their super powers, the children become poster boys and girls for the eponymous Umbrella Company. Saving the day and going on missions being all part of the fun.

However, little is normal here and when your name is a number and your surrogate mother is a robot, it’s no wonder things get weird. After one of the gang disappears only to return decades later looking just as he did, a twelve-year old, but acting like a fifty-year old, the mystery begins. It’s a wonderfully, tangly mix of time travel, apocalyptic prophesy and crime caper as secrets are unearthed and the bigger picture is slowly revealed.

The Umbrella Company does a lot of things right from it’s stylised worldbuilding to its witty and engaging characters. Fantastical and fun but with an edge.

The second in Ed McDonald’s series, Ravencry is, without a doubt, an astounding novel and one of the best fantasy books I’ve read in some time. Set four years after the end of Blackwing, Ed McDonald has created a work of epic proportions as Captain Galharrow is faced with yet another impossible task against a foe whose powers are growing all the time.

As the Range tries to rebuild itself after the Deep Kings’ attacks, Galharrow has found himself raised up and suddenly respected once more. Funded, comfortable and with a payroll of employees to do his biding, the Blackwing Captain is finally able to do the work the Nameless ask of him and the Range require of him. Yet, soon enough, events conspire to unbalance his new found position: a strange meeting out in the Misery (the wasteland of monsters and poisonous sand), a murdered navigator and a growing, newly established religion have Galharrow on the back foot. But, when an artifact is stolen from a god’s magically protected safehold, the Captain realises just how bad things are becoming.

The Nameless gods and Deep Kings continue to wage their war but Galharrow is faced with a different enemy, one who has wormed his way into the very fabric of the city, controlling and commanding minds and bodies to his whim. However, Galharrow is as tough as they come and fuelled by a power as equally strong.

Ravencry builds on the first in the series wonderfully, adding layers and layers to the world building and giving depth to characters already enthralling and engaging. There are tales within tales at play as the larger narrative ramps up the tension and excitement into a crescendo worthy of any finale – until you realise this is book two and there is, fantastically, more in the series.

Ed McDonald is another addition to the growing powerhouse of new fantasy authors working today and Ravencry is testament to that talent and imagination.

Review copy

Published by Gollancz

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.

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