Posted in culture and society good stuff from other authors Links to interesting stuff Publishing & the Book Trade Unexpected things about Juliet

Silver for Silence – a new Philocles story for a very good cause

Regular readers will recall me flagging up the Books on the Hill project last year, aiming to publish quick reads specifically intended for dyslexic adults, to encourage them to explore and enjoy the great range of fiction available these days. I wrote about that here.

I’m delighted to say the initiative has been a great success! Alistair and Chloe are running a second Kickstarter this year, offering another tremendous selection of stories to give readers a taste of different genres. You can find Open Dyslexia: The Sequel here. You will note that names from the bestseller lists and TV adaptations such as Bernard Cornwell and Peter James are supporting this splendid initiative. I was naturally most honoured when Alistair asked me – or rather, my alter ego JM Alvey – to write a short history mystery (12,000 words) for this year’s line-up.

What you may well not know – because I certainly didn’t, and yes, I am embarrassed by my ignorance – is that making a read dyslexia-friendly is a case of formatting and layout and similar. For an author, the writing process is exactly the same. I’m aiming to challenge, entertain and intrigue with this new Philocles short story in the same way that I do with anything I see published. The only difference is more people will be able to read it – and I love the thought of that.

This project really highlights how much new technologies can do to make books more accessible for people with dyslexia. And that makes the absence of such initiatives by the mass-market publishers glaringly obvious. The book trade needs to take a long hard look at this situation.

Posted in creative writing culture and society good stuff from other authors Links to interesting stuff Publishing & the Book Trade

The J.R.R. Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature 2022

Last night’s thoughtful and thought-provoking JRR Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature by Rebecca F. Kuang is now available on the organisation’s YouTube channel – along with previous years’ talks from Pembroke College, Oxford, where Tolkien served as the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon from 1925-1945. All very well worth your time.

You can find out more about Rebecca and about the lecture series here.

Here’s the link to this year’s video.

I went into Oxford to be in the audience, and it was great to see established friends and to make new acquaintances. I used the Park & Ride – and on the way back, I really thought I was going to just miss the bus and have to wait half an hour in the rain for the next one. But no! There is a special place in heaven* for a bus driver who sees you start running as he’s driven past, and so waits at the next stop for you to get there, even though there are no other passengers waiting to board. (*or equivalent spiritual reward)

Posted in good stuff from other authors New Releases reviews

Recent reads – The Amber Crown by Jacey Bedford

I’ve enjoyed Jacey Bedford’s previous books; the SF Psi-Tech novels, and the Rowankind series. In both these trilogies, she shows a keen understanding of the core appeal of the tradition she’s working with, namely space opera on the one hand, and alternate-history-shapeshifter-fantasy, for want of a better term, on the other. Accordingly, I’m very interested to see what she offers readers in this epic fantasy with a slew of classic genre elements apparent in the cover copy. We have a dead king, a lost queen, magic users on the fringes of society, and a scheming usurper setting up an innocent man to take the blame. Not to mention an assassin.

I note in passing that this is a standalone novel. I hope readers new to Bedford’s work are encouraged to give her writing a try by the reassurance that they’ll get a complete story with a beginning, a middle and an end.

This tale opens in Biela Miasto, the capital city of the insecure realm of Zavonia. King Konstantyn is dead and guardsman Valdas Zalecki must avoid being hanged for the murder while he hunts down his royal master’s killer. First he needs to find loyal allies which isn’t easy when so many of his friends have been executed on newly acclaimed King Gerhard’s orders. Meanwhile, far away, Mirza must claim her right to succeed her dead teacher’s place as the healer and witch of a Landstrider clan. That would be a lot easier if she wasn’t so unpopular with the clan, who would much rather have someone else. Lind the assassin just wants to be on his way out of the capital city with his payment. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done, with the new king’s vengeful advisor Kazimir sending men to turn the place upside down as they search for Valdas. Lind is glad to take on the mundane job of escorting a young mother-to-be to her family out in the countryside.

Readers will not be surprised to learn that these three narratives become intertwined. Bedford strikes a deft balance between hints and foreshadowing on the one hand, and unexpected twists and turns on the other. The scene-setting is equally assured, creating a world that’s very like but not quite our own, reminiscent of central Europe a few centuries ago. These similarities ground the narrative while the differences will keep readers guessing. The central characters and the supporting cast alike are satisfyingly three-dimensional, with their motivations and flaws stemming believably from their past experiences, good and bad. Crucially, Bedford’s portrayals are sympathetic without ever getting sentimental, so these people’s lives have realistic hard edges. Her villains are equally convincingly foul.

So far, so traditional, as far as epic fantasy goes. Bedford offers more to lift this story out of the genre’s well-worn ruts. As she works with classic themes and archetypes, she recognises where these have become outdated and even offensive, reshaping them to suit her story’s purpose. Newcomers to the genre will find a story with an up-to-date perspective. Those who have been reading these tales for decades with find a thoughtful contribution to the ongoing evolution of epic fantasy.

As I say, this is a standalone, and I am content to leave this story and these characters at their hard-won conclusion. That said, the rich potential of this milieu means I’d happily read another adventure set in this world.

Posted in creative writing good stuff from other authors Guest Blogpost New Releases

Guest post – Jacey Bedford on writing epic fantasy for modern readers

As a fan of her SF and her alternate-history-shapeshifter-fantasy, I was very interested to learn that Jacey Bedford’s new novel is a standalone epic fantasy. So I invited her to share a few thoughts on her approach to writing this sort of story for modern readers.

Writing Epic Fantasy for a Modern Audience by Jacey Bedford

You are what you eat, or should that be, you write what you read?

The Amber Crown is set in a historical fantasy version of the Baltic countries, in the imaginary kingdom of Zavonia.I have robbed history for the details.

I got into fantasy a little late in life, not reading the Narnia books until I was at least nine years old. Of course I’d been primed for fantasy from an early age with traditional fairy tales, the watered down Disneyfied versions, not the gory Grimm versions with the cutting off of heels – they came later. I somehow missed Tolkien in my teen years, being more into science fiction and then in my early twenties I discovered Andre Norton, especially her Witch World books. That was it, I fell in love.

This was before the advent of easy internet access, Google, Amazon and Abe Books, so when I first travelled to Canada in 1995 I thought I’d landed in heaven when a friend introduced me to (what was then) Bakka – Toronto’s specialist SF/.F book store (now Bakka-Phoenix). I bought so many books, many of them Andre Nortons, (then unavailable in the UK) that I shipped half of them home, and bought a new suitcase for the other half which then cost me $100 in excess baggage. It was worth every cent.

I loved Andre Norton’s Witch World with a deep passion, though not blindly. They were generally much shorter than a lot of SF/F today. Her dialogue was always a little stilted as though she was trying to mimic older patterns of speech, and there was romance, but no sex. It didn’t matter, I loved them unconditionally, but when I started writing my own stories, I didn’t necessarily want to emulate them.

For starters my books are relatively hefty. The Amber Crown is 469 pages, that’s 160,000 words. Luckily my editor said she doesn’t mind a lot of words, as long as they are good words.

Dialogue is so important. It not only moves the plot forward but it says a lot about character and emotion. I try to avoid the kind of dialogue that screams, ‘Prithee, sirrah, I am writing a story set in ye past.’ (OK, I’ve never quite come across that kind of dialogue but you know what I mean.) At the same time I try to avoid more modern slang words. When Valdas curses he often uses, “God’s ballocks!” – religious curses being more likely than sexual ones.

I avoid longwinded descriptions. I haven’t a clue what colour Valdas’s eyes are, but I do know that he shaved off his drooping moustache so it wouldn’t identify him as a renegade army officer. I do know that Lind has golden curls when he lets his hair grow out, and that he was pretty as a boy apprentice, which is what earned him the trouble which has clouded his life ever since. I needed these bits of description to advance the plot.

Pacing is so important for a modern audience; less infodumping and more dripfeeding of background information as the story progresses. My books are long, so I try to make every word count.

With The Amber Crown I wanted to write something that was, if not pacier, at least racier. I’ve never shied away from writing sex in my books (to the consternation of my son, though not my daughter). Can you imagine if Tolkien had written sex scenes in Lord of the Rings? No? Me neither. And any sex in Witch World books happened tastefully off the page, though it must have happened or how else did Simon and Jaelithe produce triplets?

I decided not to be coy about it. The Amber Crown has got plenty of sex in it, though it’s there to drive the plot, not to titillate. My three main viewpoint characters have vastly different attitudes towards sex. Valdas loves and respects women, every part of them, fat, thin, young, old, pretty or plain. He likes what’s between their ears as well as what’s between their legs, and he’ll take no for an answer. When the book opens, he’s captain of the King’s High Guard, responsible for the king’s safety which means he spends a lot of his time at court and in the palace, but he’s sensible enough not to form liaisons with court ladies, or even palace servants. He takes his pleasure in the whorehouses of the Low Town, often with his favourite, Aniela. Occasionally whores are smuggled into the palace by the turning of a blind eye by one brother officer for another. This becomes a plot point later in the book, as does Valdas’s relationship with Aniela. But I’m getting ahead of myself, Valdas’s life changes in an instant when his king is assassinated. I’m not giving away spoilers, it happens on the first page.

Mirza is the shulam (witch-healer) of the Bakaishans, a Landstrider band of travellers. She’s loved and feared in equal measure for her ability to walk the spirit world, and her scolding tongue. She has a port wine stain on her face and neck which the band thinks is a witchmark, and the men firmly believe that if they bed her their kok and stones will shrivel and fall off. Unsurprisingly she’s a virgin, and so approaches sex as a voyage of discovery. Other issues arise further into the book and, again sex drives one aspect of the plot, but if I told you, I’d have to shoot you.

Lind is the clever assassin who worms his way into the palace kitchens as the fishmonger’s delivery man. He was a fascinating character to write. He has more hangups than a closet full of coats. Due to an appalling history of childhood abuse, he can’t bear being touched and the last thing he wants is sex. He rents a room in a whorehouse because it’s a place he feels safe. He reasons that the whores only want sex if he pays them, and since he’s not going to do that, they’ll leave him alone, which is largely true.

I try to write honestly about sex. It’s part of life and it’s part of the plot – but only part. So, what else to expect in The Amber Crown? Political machinations, strong female characters who play an active part in the story, dark magic, natural magic, a cranky horse called Donkey, a missing queen, bandits, betrayals, diverse characters (white, black, brown, straight, gay, asexual), an epic sword fight, and an unexpected villain. I hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

***************************************************************************************************************************

The Amber Crown is out today,  Tuesday 11th January 2022, published by DAW

Jacey’s Website

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Do check your own preferred retailers as well

Posted in good stuff from other authors reviews

Recent reads – Dust Up at the Crater School by Chaz Brenchley

Cover art by Ben Baldwin

This is the second novel set in a girls’ boarding school on an engaging version of Old Mars, which is to say, the planet imagined by early SF writers, with a breathable atmosphere, canals and alien creatures which this British Empire’s colonists must step very warily around. It’s the start of a new term for the Crater girls, with Christmas ahead at the end of it. Of course, the Martian year doesn’t align with the Earth year but traditions must be observed.

The story is more discursive than the first, with successive episodes focusing on different characters, some new and some already established. This broadens our understanding of this strange new world and offers hints at the history that brought the British here. What exactly happened in the Great Triplanetary War though? Plenty of questions remain; enough to tantalise but not so many as to frustrate. That’s because the focus remains very much on the characters and their differing viewpoints and priorities. Seeing the school and its environs through these various eyes brings immersive breadth and depth to the narrative.

Among other things along the way, we are reminded that bygone attitudes weren’t all bad in the good old days. As a couple of the girls explore their gender identities, the tolerant responses of those around them mirror what can readily be found in the English literature of the 1920s and 1930s. Talking of literature, the language is a particular delight. Brenchley’s familiarity with the traditions he draws on means his prose is note and pitch perfect, without ever showing off his knowledge with tedious or pedantic obscurity. That simply wouldn’t be the done thing, would it?

There is plenty of action as well, as Brenchley draws on modern knowledge of Mars alongside SF tradition. A Martian dust storm can be very dangerous indeed, for the Mars-born and newer arrivals alike. Then there’s the lurking tension with the Russian Empire that was established in the first book. Not every threat is external though. As we should recall if we’re being honest with ourselves, teenagers can do spectacularly stupid things. So can adults, particularly if they’re putting their own selfish interests above a child’s welfare. All these elements will keep those pages turning.

The story concludes with these threads deftly plaited together. The various resolutions are highly satisfying, as well as offering the promise of more adventures to come. I look forward to the next instalment with eager anticipation.

Posted in good stuff from other authors reviews

Recent reads – Nectar for the God by Patrick Samphire

In keeping with my previous post, I shall attempt to remember to post a few thoughts about books I’ve enjoyed.

This second novel featuring reluctant wizard Mennik Thorne is an excellent follow-up to Shadow of a Dead God. You don’t have to have read that first story by any means, but I’m confident you’ll want to. Patrick Samphire offers long-standing and more recent readers alike an epic fantasy tale that’s grounded in the genre’s core appeal while avoiding ‘classic’ elements and cliches that have become increasingly outdated and potentially even offensive. The writing and plotting are fast and fluent, so you won’t necessarily notice he’s doing this unless you’ve been reading swords and sorcery for decades like me, but it’s worth mentioning.

As a minor mage, Mennick is an unwilling pawn in the power games of his city’s two great wizards. Not playing simply isn’t an option, so he has to work hard to avoid falling foul of either faction because the consequences won’t only be dire for him. There is genuine danger here, for Mennik and for those he cares about. That threat’s unacceptable, as far as he’s concerned, though doing something about it is less easy. Mennik’s fiercely loyal to his friends, perhaps to a fault, but as we learn more about his actual family, that becomes understandable.

His upbringing also helps explain his dogged determination to unravel the mystery that lies behind an apparently inexplicable murder. A distraught widower knocking on his door may start him on this quest, but this violent death and its consequences are no mere plot convenience. This man’s grief matters to Mennik as he follows a trail of clues and red herrings to find far more lurking trouble than anyone expected. That ensures the story will matter to readers as well.

Mennik’s an engaging central character, not without his blind spots and flaws which make him all the more believable. Supporting characters are well-observed, drawn with a light touch and a sense of humour. The city of Agatos is an equally well-rounded creation. Samphire understands how to create an immersive atmosphere and a convincing depth of history without getting buried in world-building. He also draws on some of the less obvious antecedents of the epic fantasy tradition for this particular story which offers added interest for readers like me. Not that you need to spot any of those elements for the well-crafted plot to deliver a solidly satisfying read.

All told, epic fantasy fans should enjoy this story whether they’ve recently discovered the genre, or if they’ve been reading it for decades. These books are definitely worth a look if you used to read epic fantasy, but drifted away because what you found on offer was beginning to feel stale and repetitive. Samphire is one of a cohort of writers currently reinvigorating epic fantasy is all sorts of interesting ways.

Find more on Goodreads

Find more on Amazon

patricksamphire.com

Posted in good stuff from other authors Guest Blogpost

Guest Post – David B Coe tells us about ‘Radiants’.

Since I’m currently writing contemporary fantasy, I’m very interested to see what other authors are doing with the genre’s themes and ideas. When I see a new novel with great cover quotes from writers whose work I enjoy, I definitely want to know more. So I’m delighted to host this post by David, and I’ll be reading the book with added insights.

My New Supernatural Thriller

David B. Coe

DeDe Mercer is a Radiant who can control other people’s thoughts, make them do what she wants. For years she’s controlled her power, keeping her secret, never using it on anyone—until the day she had no choice.
Now the government is after her, after her brother, too, because he’ll come into his power before long. The Department of Energy, the Defense Intelligence Agency, Homeland Security — they all want her, and they’re willing to do anything, hurt anyone, kill if necessary, to make her their weapon.
But DeDe has had enough. They think she’s a weapon? Fine. They’re about to find out how right they are.

That’s the jacket copy for my new supernatural thriller, Radiants, which comes out from Belle Books this coming Friday, October 15. I like the blurb — wrote it myself — and I LOVE the book. Wrote that myself, too . . .

I also recognize, though, that someone familiar with urban fantasy and speculative fiction thrillers might read this brief description with a jaded eye, thinking “mind control powers, government bad guys pursuing our hero: nothing new to see here.”

It won’t surprise you to learn that I would argue with that assessment. Radiants, and its sequel, Invasives, which will be out early next year, might be my favorites among all the books I’ve written. And they have far more to them than a jacket blurb can capture.

DeDe’s ability, as well as the various talents wielded by the community of Radiants, are powered by planetary energy systems — the dynamics that keep the earth and moon in orbit, and that maintain the earth’s rotation. Those who seek to turn DeDe’s ability to their purposes also hope to create an army of Radiants, all of them drawing on those systems. DeDe’s father, who died under odd circumstances when she was young, feared overuse of Radiant power would alter earth’s orbit and rotation, placing in peril all life on the planet.

DeDe’s decision to use her power, which sets in motion all the action in the novel, comes after a grave injustice perpetrated against her closest friend (and crush), Kyle, who is genderqueer.

And as the agents of the various agencies close in on DeDe and her brother, Miles, who will soon come into his power, they manage to kidnap DeDe’s mother, splitting their family, and driving DeDe and Miles to fight back.

An allegory for global warming. A story of gender identity and bigotry. A narrative that includes government agents resorting to the separation of families.

This novel is entertaining — filled with action, suspense, emotion — but it also touches on issues that are central to who we are as a society, a nation, and a world community.

Ultimately, however, like all good novels, Radiants is about the people who populate its pages. DeDe is strong, stubborn, whip-smart, passionate and compassionate. She starts out afraid, but proves to herself, and those around her, that she is more than the sum of her fears. She relies on her wits and her courage, and she is driven always by love — love for Kyle, love for her brother and mom, love for people who help her along the way as she seeks to thread a path to a new life, shaped inevitably by her developing supernatural abilities, but also as close as possible to the life she has known.

Again and again as I wrote her story, I was inspired by my own daughters, who are also strong and stubborn, intelligent and courageous, passionate and caring. They don’t have mind powers (at least not that I know, although they do always seem to get their way . . .) and they are both now past their teen years. But there is a lot of them in DeDe. They animate her, bringing her to life, making her leap off the page and, I hope, into your heart. There is also a lot of their dynamic with each other in DeDe’s relationship with Miles.

And I believe this is why the novel works as it does. I have found again and again throughout my career that my best stories tend to be about family — people protecting their loved ones, people in extraordinary circumstances seeking to create something akin to the families they have known. I believe — no, I am certain — that I do this because my family has been so important to my life, to my success as a writer, to my happiness.

So in the end DeDe’s story is about much more than mind control and mean government agents. It is about a planet in peril. It is about queer teens fighting for their right to live and love as they choose. It is about one amazing young woman’s determination to protect the people she loves most.

I hope you enjoy it.

Many thanks to Juliet for hosting me!


David B. Coe is the award-winning author of more than two dozen novels and as many short stories. He has written epic fantasy — including the Crawford Award-winning LonTobyn Chronicle — urban fantasy, and media tie-ins, and is now expanding into supernatural thrillers with Radiants and its sequels. In addition, he has co-edited several anthologies for the Zombies Need Brains imprint.

As D.B. Jackson, he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical urban fantasy set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. He has also written the Islevale Cycle, a time travel epic fantasy series that includes Time’s Children, Time’s Demon, and Time’s Assassin

David has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Stanford University. His books have been translated into a dozen languages. He and his family live on the Cumberland Plateau. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.

http://www.DavidBCoe.com
http://www.dbjackson-author.com
http://www.davidbcoe.com/blog/
http://www.facebook.com/david.b.coe
https://twitter.com/DavidBCoe
https://www.facebook.com/DBJacksonAuthor/
https://twitter.com/DBJacksonAuthor

Posted in creative writing forthcoming fiction good stuff from other authors New Releases Short fiction & anthologies

It’s that ZNB time of year!

Book post from ZNB!

There are now two well-established annual summer highlights from ZNB LLC as far as I am concerned. First, here are the new anthologies to read. This year, I’ve contributed to The Modern Deity’s Guide to Surviving Humanity with a story about classical Greek gods discovering the Internet. There are a host of other great stories by established authors and new voices alike.

The other collections in this year’s trio are equally intriguing. There’s Derelict where a tremendous array of writers offer their takes on the ghost ship, the abandoned vessel drifting through space or over the trackless seas… In When Worlds Collide very different people and cultures meet with a whole array of consequences. As with all ZNB anthologies, the three themes have prompted an incredible variety of entertaining stories.

If you’re one of the many readers who’ve found settling into a novel a real challenge amid the ongoing everything, I can say I’ve found short stories a real boon when that has happened to me.

But wait, there’s more! The second fun thing from ZNB each summer is the new Kickstarter for next year’s anthologies. This will be launched on 11th August, and you can find out about the new themes right now, as well as take a look at the cover artwork.

NOIR:  

Since the days of Raymond Chandler and Dorothy B. Hughes, Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane, the down, but not quite out private eye has been an archetype of literature and cinema. Some of the most memorable of these lone investigators have been found in fantasy and science fiction. In the filthy lanes of an ancient magical city or the sterile corridors of a lonely outpost in space, there are always crimes to be solved.

SHATTERING THE GLASS SLIPPER:

Fairy tales have been around for thousands of years, but it’s time to turn these age-old stories on their head. Let’s step into realms where princesses plan their own rescues, where princes find a better line of work, and falling down a rabbit hole may be a deliberate act of sabotage…or a trip through a wormhole. Come explore roads less traveled and meet the little match girl determined to light the fires of revolution.

BRAVE NEW WORLDS:

Humans have dreamed of traveling to the stars for generations. Their hope? To discover verdant new planets where they can build new societies or escape past persecutions. Follow our prospective settlers’ uncertain paths—from the heart-wrenching departure from Earth, through the unknown dangers of the long flight through the cold vastness of space, to the immigrants’ final arrival on an alien world.

Remember, ZNB is committed to offering debut authors their first chance at publication when the Kickstarters fund an open call for submissions. You can read some advice on making the grade from ZNB Supremo Joshua Palmatier here.

Posted in good stuff from other authors reviews

A review of Blackheart Knights by Laure Eve

Far too often ‘elevator pitches’ give a misleading impression of a book. This time ‘Imagine Camelot but in Gotham’ is both accurate and merely a starting point. There are countless good reasons for reading this book, even if – no, especially if – like me, you’re a reader for whom Arthurian retellings are a very hard sell indeed.

This is a world where knights ride motorbikes, and fight as champions to see justice done in legal bouts, as well as for fame and fortune as their battles are broadcast for their adoring fans. Artorias, son of Uther Pendragon, rules as a reluctant king, trying to stay alive amid the malign conspiracies of rival noble families. This might be some alternate timeline, or perhaps it’s a dystopian future. There are hints that this gritty, dangerous and neon-lit world could be either, or both. The reader can decide, or simply revel in this vividly and deftly described version of London.

So far, so high-concept, but this book offers a whole lot more than mapping a familiar story onto an inventive setting. The reader will certainly find some of the characters they are expecting, though several are less obvious than you might expect. There are new players as well, rounding out a diverse cast drawn from different genders and origins. This is fantasy for contemporary readers, and definitely a world away from tales of white knights rescuing damsels in distress. The story is compelling, charting two timelines through alternating chapters. We follow Artorias through the nineteen dramatic years since he was plucked from bastardy and obscurity and landed with his birthright. At the same time, we join a would-be knight as she struggles through her training over the course of a brutally demanding year. This is made all the more absorbing by use of first person present tense narrative. This is one of those rare books where this is a valid choice to enhance the writing rather than just some ‘creative’ gimmick.

As these two stories unfold, we learn both protagonists have private aims and ambitions that won’t necessarily fit with the roles they’re expected to play. As their timelines converge, we start to realise they will surely come into conflict, even if we’re not entirely sure when or how that will happen. Gradually the pieces fall into place with the merciless clicking of a well-engineered trap which can nevertheless still spring surprises.

I thoroughly enjoyed this supremely well-crafted urban/epic/alt-reality/mythic fantasy novel. It would have been an excellent read in its own right without any of the Arthurian elements. That gloss does add another fascinating level, proving even to sceptics like me, that new takes on these well-worn myths can still capture a reader’s imagination and not let go.

Blackheart Knights by Laure Eve
27th May 2021
Jo Fletcher Books
Trade paperback £18.99, plus ebook and audio.
486 pages

Posted in good stuff from other authors New Releases reviews

Chaz Brenchley’s ‘Three Twins at the Crater School’ – a few thoughts

In my primary school and teenage days, I was an avid reader of both boarding school stories and what I have since learned are variously called ‘juveniles’ or ‘planetary romances’ by authors such as Robert Heinlein or Arthur C Clarke. Thanks to Chaz Brenchley, I now realise those books had far more in common than I was aware of back then. All these stories were set in worlds that were equally alien to me as kid in a UK state school in the 1970s. I was no more likely to ever be a pupil at somewhere like Mallory Towers than I was to go to Mars, to skate along frozen canals and meet marvellous, scary creatures. A great deal of all these stories’ appeal for me was following characters who could be my contemporaries as they learned and navigated the unknown rules of unfamiliar and not necessarily safe environments, to come through their adventures unscathed – for mostly non-lethal values of ‘unscathed’ in English boarding schools.

So combining these traditions is quite simply a brilliant idea, creating an alternate reality where Mars is a stalwart colony of the British Empire and while boys go back to Eton or Harrow, the girls can be educated satisfactorily and more cheaply there. Thus Brenchley offers an entertaining read that’s both familiar and brand new.

This is far more than an exercise in inventive nostalgia though. Looking back, I can see how all those stories were founded on the assumptions of their respective decades and authors. Those assumptions are now to a greater or lesser extent often problematic. For a start, the stories of St Clare’s, the Chalet School, the Abbey Girls and the like, were the pretty much the only books I was reading that focused on female protagonists, viewpoints and concerns. I remember that was one reason why I actively sought them out. Everywhere else, any sort of adventure was exclusively male, or at best, male-led. Even so, I now see these girl-centered stories were as laden with outdated views on class, race and society as their overtly masculine counterparts. Brenchley is way ahead of me. With a deft and subtle touch, he interrogates the attitudes of those ‘classic; books and their era with charming ruthlessness. The reader is cordially invited to consider how many such attitudes persist and why.

All told, this book is an excellent diversion; an escape from everything that’s besieging us all at the moment. In the very best traditions of SF, it also offers us somewhere to go, where we can see where we came from more clearly.

You can find worldwide purchase links, the cover copy, and enthusiasm from other readers at the Wizard’s Tower Website – click here.

Cover art by Ben Baldwin