Posts Tagged ‘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.

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The follow up to Ed McDonald’s Blackwing is set for release and I have the review copy next up on my reading list. In the meantime, the wonderful people at Gollancz have included me in a blog tour for Ravencry.

So, if you’re as excited about the second book as I am, please check out all the great content getting posted using the handy guide above.

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

The final instalment in this creature-feature, arachnid-apocalypse, horror series is a satisfying and entertaining read. As ‘they’ like to say – things have to get worse before they can get better; Zero Day epitomises this perfectly. The previous novels (reviewed here and here) set up this brilliant conclusion, tying in all the threads of the plot perfectly.

With the American President under immense pressure to act from her military advisers, nuclear bombs are dropped on U.S soil, the country torn apart and divided. Yet, it’s still not enough. However, a rag-tag group of survivors working in different parts of the country hone in on a way to defeat the spiders. Scientist Melanie Guyer’s research discovers ever more frightening aspects of the aptly named ‘hellspiders’ whilst backwood geniuses Shotgun and Gordo reconfigure their invention from failed weapon to arachnid tracking device.

Much like Guyer, their research doesn’t make things better. At all. The spiders in Boone’s novels just get scarier and scarier as the books go on and, in Zero Day, things really get worrying. Sprinkled in amongst all the big plays are numerous side stories adding to and painting the bigger picture perfectly. There’s great moments, some apocalyptically wild and some heartfelt and touching. But, Boone keeps the pressure rolling. A military coup, a final queen-sized hatching of new-and-improved spiders and a countdown to the end of days.

It’s a great finish to a very readable set of novels, perfectly balanced between adventure and horror.

Review copy

Published by Gollancz

I’ve read a number of Alastair Reynolds’ novels and what astounds me is his ability to create such different stories within his own universe from hard sci-fi epics to this crime thriller. Obviously, Reynolds is technically brilliant but the diversity of his themes is refreshing. Elysium Fire is sci-fi, make no mistake, but the bones of the novel are more concerned with acts of vengeance, threaded through with other twisting narratives that, in the end, converge to make a completed jigsaw puzzle.

Set inside Reynolds ‘Chasm City’ universe and featuring the excellent Prefect Dreyfus, Elysium Fire begins as the Glitter Band finds itself dealing with a frightening crisis as seemingly normal people are dropping dead. But, dead in a cruel way as their implants boil their own brains, cooking them from the inside out. At the same time a most charming (yet noxious) figure is pushing for settlements to secede from the Panopoly. As the number of deaths rise and the social dissent builds, the Prefects come under more pressure and more scrutiny, forcing Dreyfus into positions he’s far from comfortable with.

The novel keeps a pace that builds and builds and Reynolds cleverly seeds enough information throughout to make you think you can see the answers. Yet, the twist and turns of the narratives mirror some of the themes in the book and the conclusion climbs to a satisfying reveal and an epic showdown. Featuring some truly nefarious characters and a world building of stunning proportions, Elysium Fire is another excellent addition to Reynolds’ library of work.

Review copy

Published by Gollancz

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Following on from his slick opening gambit with The Hatching, Ezekiel Boone continues the arachnid apocalypse in Skitter and never lets go of the creepy-crawly tension. Though the majority of his cast survived the first book in the series, things haven’t got any better. In fact, this whole novel is all about just how bad things are going to get.

The spiders have wrought havoc and, though it seems the plague of flesh eating eight-legged freaks are dying off, it’s just the beginning. Country after country has suffered outbreaks of attacks and the world’s governments and armies are trying their best to destroy and burn out the egg nests left by the first wave. However, it quickly becomes apparent that it’s a mathematical (and physical) impossibility to contain the situation using conventional military tactics.

That is the issue at the heart of Skitter. President Stephenie Pilgrim knows it; scientist Melanie Gruyer has realised it and the boots on the ground are seeing it – no matter what they do, someone infected or some nest will have been missed and is about to restart the avalanche of killer arachnids. Skitter is the calm before the storm and, as the second book in the series, sets up what will clearly be a catastrophic ending. Because, what was, at first, a tidal wave of death is actually something else. It was a first wave. Therefore, what is coming next?

Clues and conjecture, fragmented information and intuition start to form a picture as humanity is given a brief respite from the spiders. Huge caccoon eggs are discovered whilst a different type of spider appears; one that seems to nurse the gigantic egg sacks. Amidst all this, the US president is forced to make harder and harder choices. With China already a nuclear wasteland and parts of Europe and Indian crumbling under the arachnid threat, Stephanie Pilgrim must do the unthinkable to save her country.

Skitter is all about those tough choices. The tension and terror is present throughout the book but this second instalment is really concerned with what is to come and how to try and stop it. The ensemble cast of characters continue to impress, some coming in to contact with others, while some try their best to survive. It’s a real strength of the author that no matter who is in the spotlight, you’re made to care about them, for however brief a moment. If The Hatching was a summer blockbuster then Skitter is its tense, page turning counterpart setting the tone for a brutal, all out apocalyptic conclusion.

Review copy
Publish by Gollancz

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Alex Lamb’s debut novel, Roboteer, is a fascinating read; big worldbuilding, big ideas and what feels to be the start of a new voice in space opera/hard science fiction. Set in a far future where Earth has been united under a pseudo-religious, political dictatorship whose aim is to subjugate humanities colonies on other planets and in other star systems, the conflict rests on Earth’s scarcity against the colonies technological superiority. It’s a manufactured war: the colonies are defending themselves whilst Earth promotes bizzare, almost racist ideologies.

Told through the eyes of three different characters, we get to see much of Earth’s political elite as well as the colony homeworld Galatea. Will Kuno-Monet is the eponymous Roboteer, a genetically modified human, designed to control and understand robots and computer systems; Ira Baron-Lecke is a Galatean starship captain who heads up covert missions into enemy territory; Gustav Ulanu is an Earther, a general but a scientist first, and one who has discovered ancient alien technologies. It is with Gustav that the story hinges for his discovery unlocks a set of parameters that will change the whole of humanity’s fate.

Soon both factions are vying for control of the alien relics but it is Will who makes the first meaningful contact. The revelations he is exposed to change everything he knows about his race, the universe and humanity’s place within it all. Yet, these aliens (or rather those behind the ruins) are testing humans and the consequences are dire. So begins an epic journey as Will must convince not only his crew mates but also his enemies that the ancient artefacts they have discovered are lures; the survival of humanity rests on how they proceed to use that technology – whether for warfare or for advancement.

It’s a great concept and there are some interesting discussions about what makes us human, what those limits might be where technology and modification is concerned, and how blind, unquestioning ideology does not constitute knowledge. There’s really little concern that Will and his crew won’t succeed but the journey there is fascinating. Amazing ancient alien ruins, complex political landscapes and intense space warfare abound, along with some unreliable yet semi-altruistic extraterrestrial intelligence. Alex Lamb achieves both good science and good fiction, creating big, believable sci-fi.

A brilliant cast of actors and a superbly crafted set of futuristic ideas makes Roboteer a highly enjoyable read. The worldbuilding and creations the author explores are exceptional and my only caveat was that we didn’t get to look further into the Earth he sketches out nor some of the more interesting concepts behind the colonies. But, as the start of a trilogy, here’s hoping.

Review copy
Published by Gollancz

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Alastair Reynolds’ Slow Bullets is a novella of epic proportions. Though his earlier books were hard sci-fi in every sense, this work has a fairly simple premise and is written using a straightforward first-person narrative. However, in no way does this stop the novella from being full of intriguing ideas or a setting both sublime and awe inspiring. It’s as though Reynolds’ writing prowess is such that he is able to delineate his work, sketching complex worlds without resorting to complicated machinations.

Because, what begins as a tale of revenge, albeit in a setting discombobulating for our protagonists, evolves into something disconcertingly tangled. After a ceasefire is announced, bringing a halt to a vast and terrible war, Scur (our narrator) is captured and subjected to a terrible torture. Left for dead, she continues to fight for survival. Yet, when she wakes it is on a huge spaceship; she doesn’t know how she got there or why. But, quickly, it becomes apparent that the ship is malfunctioning and its cargo of passengers are still divided by the conflict.

Scur takes control of the situation in the only way she knows the soldiers will understand, bringing about a tense sort of peace. Soon, she and her companion, Prad, a technician on the ship, discover more worrying truths. The ship is slowly degrading, losing its functions and memory yet, more importantly, is the fact that they have been adrift in space for centuries. Everything they knew is gone. Unachored, this transport full of soldiers and civilians, both good and bad, must find a way to survive but also save the history, knowledge and culture of their lost worlds.

Amidst all this, Scur finds her tormentor. And, it is here that the narrative begins to unravel, revealing differing perspectives against the backdrop of a dying spaceship, lost memories and a civilisation destroyed by an unimaginable enemy. Slow Bullets questions that which anchors identity, whether personal or cultural, producing an atmospheric consideration of the human condition. Once again, Alastair Reynolds has produced a fascinating work of fiction that grips the imagination.

Review copy
Published by Gollancz

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February has been a busy month with the added bonus of a serious ramp up in my grappling and fitness training. So, life equals hectic; reading equals slow progress. However, that has allowed me to thoroughly enjoy and consider the latest book for review.

Stephen Baxter clearly knows his way around the work of H.G. Wells. From the alliteration of the title to the structure of the novel, The Massacre of Mankind is a worthy and excellent sequel to The War of the Worlds. Expanding on that first novel, Baxter sets his narrative 14 years later, using the Walter Jenkins character as a way to introduce a new protagonist, accompanied by an ensemble cast of interesting actors.

It’s a seamless sequel in my opinion. Yet, it’s also a brilliant extension. Baxter builds an enthralling alternative reality; Germany is still expanding its empire but WW1 doesn’t, for obvious reasons, occur. England, equally, is similar yet irrevocably different due to the first invasion. The second Martian excursion is more of an armada this time, however, and, once again, England is the target.

What follows is an occupation. Though Britain has become a politically militarised society, obsessed with the idea of protecting itself from alien intrusion. Unfortunately, the Martians are equally prepared and have learnt from their first attempt to invade Earth. Humans are no match; the army and navy is smashed and England becomes the headquarters for a larger, approaching force.

Baxter takes his time here. The occupying Martians dig in for years before attacking the rest of the planet allowing for a large set piece, trench warfare type scene. Many peripheral characters are introduced as well, including Churchill, H.G. Wells and a young Hitler along with enslaved creatures from Venus. There’s a lot at play but it isn’t until the last quarter of the book that things really get going.

As every country and continent is invaded, humans galvanise together but it’s up to our protagonist, Julie Elphinstone, to find the solution. Appealing to the ancient Jovians for assistance changes the game and, suddenly, the Martians retreat. It’s a deux machina recognised in the narrative but that isn’t the end of the matter.

Baxter’s a brilliant writer, without a doubt. The atmosphere of early 1920’s England and America is fantastically reproduced with believable characters and an even more believable alternate history. Though a slow burn in the beginning, there’s many rich rewards to be had as the plot comes to it’s unsettling conclusion.

Review copy
Published by Gollancz

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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