Halloween half-price sale on Challoner, Murray & Balfour, Monster Hunters at Law!

For one day only, (though it’s an extended day to take account of time zones), you can buy my short collection of stories about a group of Victorian monster hunters from Wizard’s Tower Press at half price – and this offer’s only available from Wizard’s Tower Press.

So if you fancy a few Halloween shivers with some classic monsters, paying tribute to the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson, H G Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, click on through.

You can find out a bit more about these stories in my earlier blogpost here.

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.

Language problems for time travellers – the ones we don’t see.

I’ve been thinking about time travel, in particular questions of communication. This is something we’re used to seeing glossed over for the most part. Occasionally someone turns up from Elizabethan England saying things like ‘forsooth, varlet!’ but that’s about as much of a nod as it gets. This has always irritated me, after having studied Chaucer in the original at school. Drop me in 14th Century England and I’d be reduced to communicating by writing things down in Latin, always assuming I could find someone who could read Latin.

On the other hand, there are obvious issues for storytellers, where being accurate about linguistic barriers is going to throw massive obstacles in the way of smooth narrative. I’m reminded of the TV series, Stargate SG-1, where they did try to avoid the whole ‘universal translator’ cliche in the early series, thanks to the polyglot Dr Daniel Jackson. That faded away pretty soon, I’m guessing as script writers, actors and directors alike simply found it too unwieldy.

The thing is though, this wouldn’t be the whole story by any means. Even if people are conversing in mutually recognisable English (or any other language), there are still going to be misunderstandings around slang and pop-culture references. Here’s an example. A few years ago now, I was sitting in the lounge, reading a book. There was some music playing and a son came into the room. We had the following conversation.

Recognising the music, but not quite able to place it, Son: ‘Who wrote that?’

Mostly concentrating on my book, Me: ‘Elgar. Nimrod.’

Mildly indignant Son: ‘Okay, I only asked. No need to be rude.’

Looking up, slightly bemused, Me: ‘Sorry, what? You asked about the music and I told you. Elgar wrote it. It’s called ‘Nimrod’.’

Incredulous Son: ‘He called a piece of music, ‘Nimrod’?’

Now definitely confused, Me: ‘Yes, Nimrod, the mighty hunter.’

Curious Son: ‘So how did it come to mean ‘stupid person?’

Closing my book, Me: ‘It means what?’

Okay, we subsequently established that, at least according to the Internet, ‘nimrod’ became a term of derision thanks to Bugs Bunny. That’s what he repeatedly calls Elmer Fudd, in ironic fashion but presumably younger cartoon viewers didn’t get the literary, Biblical reference and simply went with the insult. Which does make me wonder what happened in the RAF, since that was the name of one of their planes through the 70s and 80s. In my experience, aircrew are much more likely to be familiar with Looney Tunes than the Book of Chronicles. But I digress.

I’ve been trying to think if I’ve seen this sort of thing ever covered in SF&F. The closest I can come up with is Janet Edward’s ‘Earth Girl’ trilogy (highly recommended YA SF) which isn’t about time travel at all but is set in the future where linguistic shift has seen ‘butt’ become a taboo swearword.

Oh and I think there may have been a few one-liners in the TV series ‘Quantum Leap’ but it’s so long since I watched that I may well be misremembering.

Can anyone else flag up a book, TV programme or film that’s tackled this sort of thing, well or badly?

At least this wouldn’t be a problem for gadgets finding themselves Temporally Out of Order. Or could it be? I wonder if we’ll see any stories along those lines in the anthology we’re hoping to write. Excuse me while I go and see how well the Kickstarter’s getting on today.