Review – Brightfall by Jamie Lee Moyer

Today’s the official publication date for Brightfall by Jamie Lee Moyer, and I was lucky enough to get an advance reading copy of this intriguing and engaging book. Though I approached it with a degree of … reservation, I suppose is the best word. Even experienced writers are setting themselves a high bar when it comes to finding an original and unexpected perspective on a myth as well-known and as oft-told as Robin Hood. Moyer more than succeeds in this, and does a whole lot of other interesting things with this story as well.

We see events from Maid Marian’s perspective, and an older Marian at that. The days of high adventure in the greenwood are long behind her and all the Merry Men. Marian is now raising Robin’s children on her own, and not by her own choice. Robin has retreated to a monastery, to atone for his sins. This is the first of many sideways glances the story takes at the notions and conventions of heroism in old-fashioned tales – as well as too many modern ones. Robin’s solitary self-sacrifice has serious costs for other people. The flip-side of that heroic coin is plain selfishness, and his retreat soon looks a lot like cowardice.

Marian copes because she has no choice, and because she has a community to support her. Not just the erstwhile and no longer so merry men, but also the wild animals and faery folk of the forest. It turns out she has unexpected resources to draw on, and no need to conform to heroic story expectations of damsels in distress. However, it’s increasingly apparent that her friends and family are under threat. Tackling this menace means finding Robin and making him face up to his past and his present. Other people’s stories don’t end just because he wants to lay down his sword/bow and walk away. Now Marian must find other ways of dealing with this danger besides picking up those weapons herself.

All this plays out in a vivid and immersive setting that’s somewhere uniquely effective between well-researched medieval historical accuracy and the world of Robin Hood as seen in old British folklore instead of more recent film and TV portrayals. The fabulous cover art evokes this wonderfully, as it mirrors those old fashioned, pictorial maps that show both the practical detail of towns, roads and rivers as well as an artistic, atmospheric portrayal of a living world.

Highly recommended reading.

The Green Man’s Foe – news and views.

Three things make a post, so here we go.

Firstly, I am very pleased to confirm that there will soon be an audiobook edition of The Green Man’s Foe. I’ll share the release date when I have it.

Secondly, for those of you who will be at the Dublin 2019 Worldcon, there will be copies of both The Green Man’s Heir and the Green Man’s Foe for sale copies at Francesco Verso’s Future Fiction stall, which I think is #51 in the Dealers’ Room.

Third and lastly, we have another very positive advance reader’s verdict for your perusal over on The Middle Shelf – SF and Fantasy reviews blog.

The Green Man’s Foe is the second in a fantasy series but you could dive into it without having read the first (though I recommend it!). It’s one of McKenna’s particular strength: she lets you catch up with ease.
For those of you coming back to it, you’ll be delighted to know that Dan is back and in fine form, along with all the things that made The Green Man’s Heir so entertaining.”

Do read the full (non-spoilery) review for more.

Reasons to watch “Show Me A Hero” – the HBO/David Simon miniseries.

We watched this over the weekend, being fans of David Simon’s other work, notably The Wire and Tremé. It’s based on the book of the same name* by Lisa Belkin, focusing on events in the city of Yonkers, New York, between 1987 and 1993, following a Federal court ruling that public housing must be distributed throughout the city to end de-facto racial segregation. Local opposition was vociferous and ferocious, fearing that the spread of crime and disorder would see property values in ‘good’ neighbourhoods plummet.

Nick Wasicsko was the young politician who initially saw a route to power by supporting appeals against this ruling, though in fact he saw the new housing projects as both inevitable and desirable, according to this series at least, and let’s bear mind that his former wife was a consultant on the project. Anyway, he soon found himself dealing with the aforementioned local residents’ opposition, with other politicians out to serve their own interests by posturing over the issue, and with outside groups keen to use this conflict to advance their own agendas. Oscar Isaac, now perhaps better known as Poe Dameron, is outstanding in this central role, and the cast overall is a stellar one, with actors like Alfred Molina and Winona Ryder ensuring that supporting roles have a major impact on the story and on the screen. Oh, and it’s nice to see Jon Bernthal with hair for a change.

The miniseries is well worth watching as a drama, bearing in mind that the title comes from F Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum ‘Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy’. It’s also a compelling exploration of the deeply rooted and multifaceted divisions and complications in American society and politics~. The drama shows valid concerns as well as unconsidered prejudices on both sides together with systemic problems both in public policy and political structures. This is all the more thought-provoking when you consider that the book was written in 1999 and the series first broadcast in 2015. It showed us how the attitudes which have put President Trump in the White House didn’t spring up out of nowhere in 2016.

However, and equally, if not even more importantly, the series shows that such apparently intractable situations can be resolved. We see that given chances and choices, those disadvantaged in life from the outset by poverty and poor education can still succeed. Some of them at least. Others will never see beyond their limited horizons. We see that integration and information enables those initially fearful of unfamiliar racial communities to understand that more unites humanity than divides us. Some of them at least. Others will never abandon inherited, unexamined bias. And on both sides, there will always be those ready and waiting to exploit such situations for personal gain.

We need stories like this more than ever at the moment, to counter the seductive, deceptive narrative of easy solutions and handy scapegoats being peddled by politicians all around the world.

* I have just bought the book and look forward to reading it.
~ We in the UK have no cause for complacency. The flaws in our own political systems may be different but they should be as great a cause for concern.

My Desert Island Books – the complete list and links

World Book Day seems like an excellent day to post this 🙂

To recap, as the Guest of Honour at Novacon last year, I got to pick and discuss eight SF&Fantasy books that have had a lasting impact on me over my decades of voracious reading.

Rosemary Harris – The Moon in the Cloud

E Nesbit – The Phoenix and the Carpet

Robert A Heinlein – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Larry Niven – Tales of Known Space

Melanie Rawn – Dragon Prince

Terry Pratchett – Men at Arms

Mary Doria Russell – The Sparrow

Dark Eden – Chris Beckett

Enjoy!

In which we discover Anne McCaffrey was a lot more prescient than me!

As the news of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature has gone racing round the world, to a wide range of reactions (to say the very least!) my response has been perhaps a little different to most.

Because I remembered writing this, back in 2012, when I wrote an appreciation of Anne McCaffrey’s ‘The Ship Who Sang’ for SFX magazine’s Book Club column.

While some detail now seems dated, notably reverence for Bob Dylan to equal Shakespeare, …

Shows how much I know 🙂

The specific story where Dylan’s music plays a vital role is ‘The Ship Who Killed’, first published in 1966. Helva, the brainship, is partnered with Kira, a practising ‘Dylanist’. What’s that? Kira explains:

‘A Dylanist is a social commentator, a protestor, using music as a weapon, a stimulus. A skilled Dylanist … can make so compelling an argument with melody and words that what he wants to say becomes insinuated into the subconscious

A really talented Dylan stylist … can create a melody with a message that everyone sings or hums, whistles or drums, in spite of himself. Why, you can even wake up in the morning with a good Dylan-styled song singing in your head. You can imagine how effective that is when you’re proselytising for a cause.”

For those who might like to read the whole piece, I’ve added it to my reviews page. Hopefully I can find time to add a few more recent reads there sometime!

Here’s an Amazon link to tell you a bit more about the book, always remembering you can buy it from any other retailer online – or why not visit your local bookshop?

ship-who-sang

Mothers of Dragons, Brothers of Dragons. What to read in the Game of Thrones’ books hiatus?

I’m very much looking forward to the return of A Game of Thrones on the telly. Though it will be a different experience this year. I won’t have to spend the next couple of months trying to telepathically divine if an article I’m about to read will include a massive potential spoiler from someone who’s already read the books. Because while I’m up to date now, I hadn’t read any of the stories behind the series before it hit the screens.

Wait, what, how? I’m an epic fantasy writer, surely… But here’s the thing. I find it incredibly hard to read epic fantasy for enjoyment while I’m actively writing a novel in that genre myself. I’m too focused on issues of craft and analysis to just lose myself in a story. I did buy a copy of A Game of Thrones back in 1999 but it sat on the TBR shelf for years…

Until word of the television series spread. At which point I very firmly put it aside. Because I wasn’t about to miss the opportunity of seeing an epic fantasy on the screen where I didn’t already know the plot. One of the things that’s stayed with me ever since watching The Fellowship of the Ring with my then-young sons, was how very different their viewing experience was to mine, since they had no idea what was coming next. As far as they were concerned, Gandalf was dead and done with. In The Two Towers, they were on the edges of their seats with anxiety over the outcome of Helm’s Deep. Actually, one of them ended up on my lap. I wanted something of that for myself for a change. By and large, I’ve mostly succeeded.

Then, at the end of each season, I’ve read the books up to the point the TV story has reached. That’s been extremely rewarding, as a reader and as a writer. I’ve had the visuals and voices from the production’s designers and actors to enhance my imagination. I’ve also had the chance to appreciate the adaptation’s choices and to assess the different opportunities and impacts on offer through written versus visual storytelling.

What now, though? I won’t have The Winds of Winter to hand when the end credits on Series Six’s final episode roll. Happily there’s plenty of other epic fantasy to read, so how about we share a few recommendations? Need not necessarily contain dragons. I’ll kick things off by recommending Stella Gemmell’s The City – with the review I wrote for Albedo One magazine below.

Though you needn’t write a lengthy analysis in comments yourself – the title and author is sufficient. That said, feel free to share what makes you particularly enthusiastic about a book and/or to flag up a review elsewhere.

Stella Gemmell – The City (Bantam Press/Transworld)

The reader’s double-take here will be because while Gemmell is a name synonymous with the gritty, realistic tradition, this story is written by Stella, not David. Surely this makes the debut novel hurdle ten times higher than it is for most writers. How many people will read such a book primed to dismiss it as shameless cash-in or pale imitation? Even though it’s a matter of record that Stella Gemmell is a journalist in her own right and worked with her husband on his Troy trilogy, concluding the last one after his death. Well, I didn’t read the Troy series; as a Classics graduate I very rarely read anything derived from texts I studied so thoroughly at university. So I’m coming to The City entirely new to her writing.

Stella Gemmell’s skills as an author are immediately apparent. There’s a sophistication in the story-telling as the episodic structure commands attention and engagement from the readers. A disparate and separated cast of characters are initially wandering the sewers beneath a great city, reminiscent of Byzantium but with a character all its own, and troubled by the first hints of slow-moving disaster. Though the flood that sweeps through the sewers is anything but slow-moving, sundering and reassembling the men, women and children who we’ve just met. Bartellus, former general, disgraced and tortured for a crime he’s not even aware he committed and no one ever explained. Elija and Emly, fugitive and orphaned children who barely remember daylight. Indaro, warrior woman, torn between her duty and her longing to escape what she’s seen and done.

When the flood has come and gone, the story has leaped forward and the reader must work out how this fresh narrative relates to what has gone before, and fathom links between old and new characters such as Fell Aron Lee, aristocrat and famed general coming up hard against the unwelcome realities of life as an epic hero. Meantime, readers must also piece together the emerging pieces of the plot, by which I mean both the story itself and the conspiracy that’s developing to challenge the Immortal Emperors. It’s their insistence on perpetual warfare which is ruining so many generations’ lives. Gradual revelation poses successive questions which prove to have unexpected answers. From start to finish, the tale is impressively paced with constant surprises, not least where apparently trivial elements seeded early on come to fruition, and as the scope of the storytelling goes beyond the City itself, to show us its place in the wider landscape and the history of this world.

There’s more than enough death and brutality to satisfy grimdark fantasy fans but from the outset there’s something more and richer. There’s compassion in Stella Gemmell’s writing that’s all too often lacking in current epic fantasy, leaving those stories sterile and readers distanced. Here, readers will be drawn into caring over the fate of even minor characters. More than that, the rising death toll isn’t merely there to thrill readers with vicarious slaughter. Just as Gemmell assesses the cost to common folk of selfish noble ambition, she also reveals how the suffering that results is essential to creating men and women with the dogged endurance, physical and mental, needed to challenge their Imperial masters. Especially since this is epic fantasy, not alternate history, and that means magic at work. Gemmell thinks through all the implications of the Immortals’ sorcery with the same mature intelligence, right to the very last page, leaving the reader to ponder what might follow after the book is closed.

This is the most satisfying, intelligent and enthralling epic fantasy I’ve read in many a year. It stands comparison with the finest writers currently developing and exploring the enthralling balance between realism and heroism in the epic fantasy tradition that David Gemmell pioneered.

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho – a review

SorcerertotheCrownUKcoverlargeIn Regency London, the Royal Society for Unnatural Philosophy has its first African Sorcerer Royal, Zacharias Wythe. Unsurprisingly, this does not please the great and the good (self-proclaimed) of English Magic. Zacharias, erstwhile child slave and later ward of the former Sorcerer Royal, Sir Stephen Wythe, is well aware of their enmity but has far more urgent concerns. English magic is being steadily depleted and relations with Faerie, a vital source of power, have somehow been dangerously compromised. Add to that the British Government is pressing Zacharias to endorse and support their imperial ambitions in Indonesia. This raises the very real danger of French sorcières deciding such actions breach the longstanding gentleman’s agreement against magical involvement in the Napoleonic Wars.

So the last thing Zacharias needs is the eruption into his life of Prunella Gentleman, half-Indian orphan and pupil-teacher at Mrs Daubeny’s boarding school, where well-born girls unfortunately afflicted with magical talent are trained to restrain such unseemly impulses. After all, everyone knows that women are unsuited to thaumaturgy. Well, everyone except Prunella. And the witches of the Banda Strait. What with one thing and another, Zacharias can’t even find refuge in the congenial surroundings of his club, The Theurgists.

This is an entertaining and original addition to the Regency fantasies we’ve seen expanding and enriching the genre in recent years. Not least because Cho is drawing on up-to-date historical sources, including non-Eurocentric views of that era, as well as the literature of the period rather than anyone else’s later and potentially anachronistic interpretations. She evidently knows her Austen, and her Thackeray and more besides, I shouldn’t wonder. The attitudes of the English aristocracy, both in terms of class and race, are entirely of their time, as indeed are Zacharias’ and Prunella’s reactions to the prejudices and insults they face, whether incidental or intentional. Their friends and foes are similarly, satisfactorily rounded and believable.

Crucially, none of this exploration of attitudes to sex and/or race is mere set-dressing or clumsy polemic. It all drives the fast-paced plot by informing decisions and plans on both sides of the growing conflict. Action prompts reaction and dangers escalate. Now Zacharias’s outsider status gives him a different perspective on non-English and non-European magical traditions. Meanwhile Prunella’s determined to put her own magical resources to best use, to learn what she can of her parentage and to make a satisfactory marriage. However her naivety means she has scant idea of the consequences of her actions. Some of these outcomes are comical; Cho has a deft touch with humour. Others are chilling. Cho doesn’t compromise over the grimmest implications of the opposition to Zacharias, or the measures that must be taken to defeat it.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s absorbing and well written fantasy enriched with a meaningful hinterland. So I am not surprised to see enthusiastic cover quotes from writers as diverse as Naomi Novik, Ann Leckie, Charles Stross, Lavie Tidhar and Aliette de Bodard. I’m very much looking forward to the sequel.

To find out more about Zen Cho and her books, click here for her website.

A flying post about reading female fantasy authors…

It’s way, way past time there was something on this blog that’s not about bloody VAT. Unfortunately that time is not today, as key members of the EU VAT Action Team are meeting with representatives of HM Treasury today – and the rest of us are poised, ready for action when we get their feedback.

Thankfully, this established fantasy reader has taken on the ‘women authors challenge’ and found his time very well spent indeed. Do go and have a read.

Shadowboxer by Tricia Sullivan – a review

From the outset this story grips the reader with energy, vivid characterisation and a compelling economy of writing. We learn so much about who Jade, the protagonist is – and why – before the first page turns. Before the end of the chapter, we know her hopes and dreams, and just as clearly, we can see how her personal flaws and fears will be the biggest barrier to her achieving her ambitions.

Jade’s a mixed martial arts fighter living in New York who hopes to turn professional as soon as she turns 18. She isn’t cherishing some implausible fantasy. Sullivan portrays Jade’s place in this particular world with persuasive reality, not least because Jade herself is an uncompromising realist. She’s aware of the undercurrents of sexism in her chosen career, along with the financial and other pressures governing so many aspects of martial arts contests and films, often with unsavoury consequences.

Which is to say, she’s aware of these things in a wholly appropriate manner for a 17 year old. Sullivan never falls into that trap of portraying a teenager with a forty-something mindset. Jade’s world view, along with her impulsiveness, her occasional naivety and her grudgingly admitted vulnerabilities ring just as true as her relationships with her phone, with social media and with the opposite sex. Romantic relationships is merely one area where Sullivan writes with a refreshing lack of sentimentality about boys and girls alike who are still in the process of forming their own identity amid the pitfalls of peer pressure and social expectation. The book’s exploration of violence within pop culture is just as thoughtful, while the dramatic fight scenes are wholly convincing – of particular interest to me personally as a martial arts student for over thirty years.

Having spectacularly disgraced herself at her home gym, Jade is sent to Thailand to train for the summer, until the fuss dies down. Her culture shock is sympathetically portrayed without ever patronising that country or its culture. Nor does Sullivan gloss over problematic and frequently exploitative relationships between the First World and the Third. Here she shows clear appreciation for the teenage mindset’s virtues; most notably in Jade’s absence of and intolerance for hypocrisy and dubious compromise. It’s the corruption of adult greed, whether for sex, drugs or something far more sinister and fantastical, which now drives the plot forward with increasing intensity.

This unfolding combination of action-thriller and fantasy novel is handled superbly, especially when Jade has to cope with the consequences of collision between a mythic otherworldly forest’s denizens and cold hard reality. Now Sullivan brings the portal fantasy, which has been a staple of Young Adult fiction from EE Nesbit and CS Lewis onwards, right up to date. Mya, refugee from Myanmar, may be able to step from one world to another but if she’s caught in modern-day New York as an illegal immigrant, there’ll be no end of trouble. If the man who’s been exploiting her magical talents tracks her down, Mya and Jade alike face far more chilling dangers. Can they help the journalist who’s trying to blow the whistle on his real-world evil? At what cost to themselves and to innocent bystanders? All I’ll say is Sullivan pulls no punches as the narrative reaches its climax.

At 302 pages, this is a fast-paced and eminently readable story for all ages and all genders. The book’s available in paperback or ebook, from your local bookstore or preferred online retailer. If your local bookstore isn’t stocking it, draw their attention to it and if you have dealings with local or school libraries, do flag it up to their staff.

Creativity Within Constraints

Over the weekend, I read Val McDermid’s version of Northanger Abbey. This is one of The Austen Project books, wherein half a dozen very fine writers are (re)writing contemporary versions of Jane Austen’s novels.

I don’t mind saying my first reaction on hearing this was ‘but why?’ What could possibly be the point? The original books are there, readily available for reading, and by general consensus, are some of the finest writing in the English language.

Well, okay, not according to my stepfather. As a schoolboy in the steel and coal communities of South Yorkshire in the 1950s, being made to study Pride & Prejudice for O Level left him with a lifelong loathing of Jane Austen, the Regency, Bath – pretty much anything tangentially linked to a fiction that was so far removed from anything in his own daily life to that point and his primary interests in science. No, he’s not dumb – he went on to get a doctorate in Chemistry and more besides. The book just wasn’t for him.

So is that the point? Would a modern version be more relevant to him – or his current equivalent – and somehow get Jane Austen’s genius for unpicking human relationships in under the radar? Maybe so, but what’s in it for the likes of me, who’ve known and loved the originals for decades? I simply couldn’t see it, and honestly, only picked up Northanger Abbey because I’m such a great admirer of Val McDermid’s work. I started reading mostly in hopes of finding out what could possibly have convinced her to do this.

Wouldn’t it be just like one of those pointless shot-by-shot remakes of a popular TV show? For instance, I cannot see what’s to be gained by remaking Broadchurch as Gracepoint, even up to the point of using David Tennant with an American accent? Where’s the creativity in that? Though I’m equally down on remakes that diverge from their source material. I watched the first dozen episodes of The Killing and the further it diverged from the original which had held me so enthralled, the crosser I became. If they wanted to tell a completely different story, why not do something properly new?

On the other hand… I’ve watched both versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Swedish and English, and enjoyed them very much in different ways, while being very familiar with the book as well. Each production followed the source material closely, adapting it intelligently for visual rather than written story-telling, while the variations in performances did bring out different nuances and explore different aspects of that original. Somewhere in the multiverse, there’s the world that got the ideal version with Daniel Craig and Noomi Rapace…

Besides that, I know for myself that finding the room for creativity within constraints can be great fun, as well as a worthwhile test of a writer’s skills. I’ve written a couple of short stories for licensed properties; Doctor Who, Torchwood and Warhammer 40K. Those projects come with huge amounts of established detail and guidelines which you absolutely cannot break as an author. The challenge of doing something genuinely, satisfyingly new within those boundaries of characterisation, tone, background etc, is considerable – and that’s what makes it so rewarding.

The fun of working within the constraints of a theme is one reason why I’ve been involved in anthologies from Tales of the Ur-Bar, The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity, Legends – just to name a few. It’s why I’m really hoping Temporally Out of Order reaches the Kickstarter’s stretch goals, so I can write up my idea… I’m also really pleased that open-submission slots are available for that anthology, because working within these sorts of boundaries can often be a valuable learning experience for new writers.

Well, I won’t spoil this new version of Northanger Abbey for potential readers. I will just say that my reading time was emphatically very well spent. This retelling is great fun and so well crafted on many levels. A reader won’t need the least acquaintance with Miss Austen to thoroughly enjoy an excellent contemporary story. Most impressive of all for me, there are twists to surprise even those of us familiar with all the ins and outs of the original.