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.
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.
As of yesterday, that’s the first pass of the next Green Man book completed at a frankly implausibly round 101100 words. That won’t be the final total – I’ll do a polishing pass over the next week or so, then Editor Toby will apply his eagle-eyed editorial skills.
I’m very pleased to have reached this point on the journey. I have always been able to escape trials and tribulations by turning to books -by reading and latterly, by writing them – but maintaining focus and a decent work rate amid the ongoing everything has been a particular challenge this year. I know this is the case for a great many many fellow authors and any number of readers.
I’m extremely pleased with the way this particular story has turned out. I’m confident Dan’s fans are going to enjoy this one. I’m also intrigued to see what Ben Baldwin will come up with by way of artwork for the cover.
So what’s next? Well, the first thing was checking the page proofs for my story in the upcoming anthology THE MODERN DEITY’S GUIDE TO SURVIVING HUMANITY. One bonus of doing that is getting a sneak peak at the other stories by this splendid roster of writers – Crystal Sarakas, Tanya Huff, Edward Willett, Daniel Roman, Jennifer Dunne, Jean Marie Ward, Mike Marcus, A.L. Tompkins, Daryl Marcus, Alma Alexander, Kari Sperring, A.J. Cunder, Irene Radford, and N.R. Lambert.
Among other things, you can see Hera try her hand at marriage counseling, while Macuilxochitl conquers the world of online gaming. Buy a ticket to Anubis’ magic act or roam the back tents at the local carnival and catch Doc Saturday’s medicine show. Take a sip of wine at Dionysus’ winery or grab some potato pancakes at Baba Yaga’s café.
I’ve also been taking a look at the concluding chapters of Eastern Tide. I’ve been promising myself – and readers – a fourth short story to complete the series accompanying the Aldabreshin Compass novels. You can find the first three here, staring with ‘Fire in the Night’.
Books on the Hill is a dyslexic friendly, independent bookshop in Clevedon, North Somerset, run by Alistair and Chloe. They are both passionate about books of all genres, and about getting as many people as possible reading. Alistair is dyslexic himself and so is always on the look out for ways to help people who have dyslexia, or any difficulty with reading, to access the joy of good fiction. For instance, he advised me and Cheryl on fonts that would suit dyslexic readers better in the Green Man books – I had no idea that something so simple could make such a difference!
As a bookseller, Alistair has long been aware of the Barrington Stoke books for dyslexic kids, but hasn’t found any equivalent for adults. So he’s decided to do something about that, and has recruited a group of very fine writers specifically to write stories for a new publishing project, funded by Kickstarter. As of this morning, the first funding goal has been reached inside the project’s first week. So the first three books will definitely be happening. Now let’s see the stretch goals reached, so more books will be available. This should be the start of a long term initiative.
Do take a look, and definitely spread the word to whoever you know who’ll be interested. Given up to 10% of the population is dyslexic, there’s sure to be someone.
Amid the ongoing everything, talking to fellow writers and readers does make for a welcome change of pace.
Over on Facebook we went away to the unseen realm as James Chambers, Angel Martinez, Joshua Palmatier, Tamsin Silver and I talked with host Gail Z. Martin/Morgan Brice about the faeries in our fiction. I’ll post a YouTube link when that goes live.
Over on YouTube, you can enjoy Mihaela Marija Perković, Adrian Tchaikovsky and I in conversation as part of the charity event, ConTribution.
If you’re curious about the next Green Man book, you may pick up some clues…
Before I review this novel, a declaration of interest. I first met Annie at the Scottish writers’ centre Moniack Mhor, when she was a student and I was tutoring alongside Pippa Goldschmidt. Along with the rest of a talented group, I was impressed by her lively imagination, and her keenness to learn all she could to improve her craft. So I was naturally interested and pleased to learn that her debut novel was coming out from a small press.
Does this mean I can’t review it impartially? Certainly not in the way you might expect. Not for the first time with a former student’s work, I initially found myself reading it as if it were a submission rather than a finished piece. I really needed to get out of my own way and look at this story on its own merits. I also needed to get over my own inclination as a fantasy writer who gets totally absorbed in world-building to keep asking ‘but why?’ about things that ultimately don’t have a bearing on this story. These things add up to an important point about reviewers. We really need to be aware of what we’re bringing with us when we read a book, and to make very sure that that personal prism isn’t giving us a distorted view. Fortunately, I was only a chapter or so into reading this when I realised I was sitting there with a metaphorical red pen in my hand, gave myself a stern talking to, and went back and started again!
The Defiant Spark is a fluent and fun read. The premise is simple on the surface. Mana – magic – is essentially the same as electricity in this alternate, recognisably modern world. Those people with a talent for it become artisans, inventing artefacts – that’s to say, all the gadgets and appliances we’re familiar with – for the megacorporations which profit from them. Those with some but lesser talent for mana become maintenance engineers. Abelard is one of those, working in a call centre to solve ordinary people’s day to day problems.
So far, so simple. Once you stop wanting to how this situation developed if you’re me, and can flip that particular mental switch to ‘this is how it is, accept it and move on’.
But of course, things soon become complicated. An accident supercharges Abelard’s talent, with very dangerous consequences for him and for his friends. Friendship is an important theme and thread throughout this narrative, which draws the reader in and keeps those pages turning. Percik is very good at writing solidly believable, ordinary and flawed characters who make this story matter.
Another consequence is Abelard comes to the attentions of the powers that be. How could he not? This stuff is genuinely hazardous. His induction into these inner circles cuts both ways though. He soon learns a whole lot of secrets about the ways in which mana is controlled, along with those with a talent for handling it. Secrets that are doing more harm than good, from an outsider’s perspective. He also manages to set some wholly unintended consequences in motion because he doesn’t understand the full implications of what he has done, particularly in his dealings with mana-driven AI. Fortunately, Abelard still has friends he can rely on, who are still on the outside – once he mends a few fences broken by his own missteps. Unfortunately, the powers that be are determined to preserve their secrets and their control at all costs. The pace of the story accelerates fast and the action hots up!
The use and abuse of power is of course a classic SF and Fantasy theme. Percik manages to make it her own, and that’s an achievement in a first novel. She definitely avoids the all-too-common trap for debut writers of trying to engage with every other book that’s currently exploring a particular topic. Far too often, trying to join a conversation like that means a new author loses any sense of their own voice. Reading this book, I have no idea if Percik has been reading all the SF she can find over these past few years, or none. That is emphatically a good thing. This is her story, and she tells it in her own, distinctive way.
Is this novel SF though? Doesn’t magic make this book a modern fantasy? Is sci-fantasy a thing? We could debate this all day and that would be a waste of time. The story is the story, and that’s all that matters. At least, it should be. It’s worth noting here that small presses can have a lot more freedom to pick up and run with novels that defy pigeon-holing. The bigger publishers can be constrained by the practicalities of marketing categories and the commercial imperatives of offering the most acceptable books to the greatest number of possible readers. That can lead to a whole lot more of the same dominating their output, however enjoyable those books can undoubtedly be. It’s very well worth checking out small presses for unusual and unexpected novels to read alongside the established stalwarts of the genre.
So those are my thoughts on this book today. I also thought it would be interesting to invite Annie to share some thoughts on what she got from her week at Moniack Mhor, so that guest post follows this one.
They say three things make a post, so here goes.
Firstly, I’m involved in another Kickstarter, though in a different role this time. Prospective Press is an inclusive, pro-diversity, feminist-friendly, queer-welcoming, and #ownvoices-embracing publishing house. Jason Graves is the series editor of their Off the Beaten Path paranormal anthologies, Tales from the Old Black Ambulance, and the Concrete Dreams series of urban fantasies. Jason has invited me to write a foreword to the next Concrete Dreams anthology – Fiendish and the Divine. These stories will explore the intersections of what we think we know and what is undiscovered, the prejudices of the past and the startling newness of fresh perspectives. In these pages, you will meet gods, real and imagined; dragons of air and earth; beings alien to our world, with indecipherable intent; and monsters, some human, some not…
Secondly, I’ve mentioned a few times this year that I’ve written a novella for a shared world project. Now all can be revealed! So far Adrian Tchaikovsky and Justina Robson have each written a novel for Rebellion Publishing, set in a fantasy realm that’s recently seen a dark lord overthrown. The series title is After The War, and the novels so far are Redemption’s Blade, and After the Fire. Now there are The Tales of Catt and Fisher, a collection of four novellas by me, Adrian, Freda Warrington and K T Davies, to be published on 3rd December 2020. These two characters from the novels are scholars, shopkeepers, collectors, obtainers of rare antiquities … who can’t resist a lead, even when it takes them into terrible danger. There’s always an opportunity to be found amid the confusion, in the wake of the terrible Kinslayer War. There’s always a deal to be done, a tomb to open, a precious thing to… obtain.
This project was a lot of fun to write for, and I really enjoyed getting back to some epic fantasy. There was plenty of leeway for inventing new aspects and elements to expand on the existing scenario created by Adrian and Justina. Reading the books have already written in this world, I found a handful of lines here and there which added up to something very interesting indeed, when I summoned up my inner GM…
Third and last, but by no means least, I’ve written a guest blog post for my good friend and fine writer, Sarah Ash. I’ve been thinking a lot about mythology lately, and our relationships with folklore, old and new. We had a particularly interesting discussion about these things online at this year’s Octocon, so I welcomed the opportunity to explore this in an article.
So that’s all the latest from me. Have a good weekend!
I was talking to one of my sons, and I commented that life felt stuck in an endless holding pattern these days. He likened it to treading water, and the more I think about that, the more apt it feels. Repetitive activity that gets tiring without actually moving on, and no sense of solid ground under your feet.
Thank goodness for things to break up the monotony!
First up, the Irish National SF Convention Octocon is happening online this weekend. Participation is free and should be a lot of fun! At 1pm on Saturday, you can join me and other writers discussing the uses of myth in our work and I’ll also be doing a reading at 4.30 pm on Saturday. You can see how much longer my hair is now…
Next week, the 15th October, sees the publication of my alter-ego’s third murder mystery set in classical Athens. Philocles is looking forward to the Great Panathenaia – until one of the poets due to take part in the dramatic performance of Homer’s Iliad is brutally murdered. The authorities want this cleared up quickly and quietly. Philocles finds himself on the trail of a killer once more…
You can find out more here, including preorder links. If you do NetGalley, you can find it there.
In other unsurprising news, publication dates and acquisitions continue to be delayed and pushed back as the book trade continues to try to navigate the current chaos with varying consequences for writers. Those books that do reach the shops – bricks and mortar or online – have to compete in a scrum where the big names and lead titles are getting pretty much all the promotion and shelf space. I think we’re going to see the shift to independent and smaller press publishing accelerate, with greater online engagement direct between writers and readers. I’m seeing more Patreons and Kickstarters appear, alongside a growing realisation from fans that these are an increasingly good way to get the books they want.
As for my own work, The Green Man’s Silence is selling well, and gathering very good ratings and reviews. I’m extremely grateful to everyone who is sharing their enthusiasm for this, and the previous books. Thank you all. I am getting some ideas together for Dan’s next adventure… and I have a couple of short fiction pieces to write, as well as a few other things to do. Then there’s the shared world novella I wrote earlier this year – as soon as I have a release date, I’ll share it.
I’m also amused by a recent review of The Green Man’s Foe, where the reader includes the very minor spoiler that THE DOG DOESN’T DIE. To be clear here, I’m not making fun – when these things matter to a reader, they matter, and it’s not for anyone else to say they should feel different. Thankfully, this reader enjoyed the book, even though they found their concern over the dog’s fate distracting. All I can say is, hand on heart, it never occurred to me to put the dog in danger!
Hopefully you’ll have noticed that the excellent small press ZNB (Zombies Need Brains) are running a Kickstarter to fund three new anthologies, titled THE MODERN DEITY’S GUIDE TO SURVIVING HUMANITY, DERELICT, and WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, containing approximately 14 all-original (no reprint) short stories each from established SF&F authors in the field and new voices found through an open call. The fundraising is going well, so we can hope to reach some stretch goals. Do check it out!
Regular readers will know that I’m a regular contributor to these projects, sometimes as an invited author, sometimes through submitting to the open call. The thing is though, I’m really not a natural short story writer…
A great many authors will tell you they have an instinctive length when it comes to writing. That can be novel, novella or short story. It’s the sweet spot for their imagination, where ideas come together most effectively. For me, that’s most definitely the novel. It has been said, with perfect justification, that my early short stories read like excerpts from a longer work.
So that’s the first thing. I want to improve my skills in this particular area. Short stories, in anthologies and as standalones are having a resurgence just at the moment. That’s thanks to the ease of digital downloads, a smartphone in every pocket or bag, and the way short-form fiction is ideal for a commute. That makes the short story an ideal way to introduce readers to my writing, so if they like it, they can look up my novels. But it has to be a good short story, and that’s why I always want feedback from professional editors so I can learn how to create my very best work. I get that advice from ZNB projects, without fear or favour! That advice doesn’t only help my short stories. Learning more about the differences between different forms of fiction hones my novel writing as well.
The second thing? Ask any author where they get their ideas from, and they’ll tell you lack of ideas is never the problem. The challenge is knowing what to do with them. My wide-ranging research reading turns up a whole lot of interesting possibilities which are often nowhere near novel-length material. Short stories offer me the chance to get these intriguing tales onto the page. My story for last year’s Alternate Peace anthology is a case in point. I’d read Bill Bryson’s book on the remarkable summer of 1927, and quite some while later read a much less amusing book on the ‘Spanish Flu’ of 1918-1919. These books had nothing to do with each other at first glance, but that’s not how this works. If I put together that piece of information from one book and a passing footnote from the other, as well as a few more ‘what if?’ possibilities from both, I got an intriguing idea… I wasn’t sure it would make a novel though, and in any case, my other writing commitments would make that impossible. But this idea was ideally suited to this collection’s theme.
Thirdly, you never know where a short story will take you as a writer. Before ZNB was born, Joshua Palmatier and Patricia Bray edited a couple of anthologies for the US publisher DAW. One was The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity where I found I had an entertaining idea about dryads in the English countryside facing a road being built through their oak grove. There’s a passing reference in that story to dryads having sons with mortal fathers. I didn’t think much about it at the time. I did find myself thinking about it later though. Long story short? That did turn into a novel-length idea, and that was The Green Man’s Heir, followed by The Green Man’s Foe. Next month will see The Green Man’s Silence published by Wizard’s Tower Press.
So these are three of the things that writing short stories offers me as a novelist. Why not see what these projects can offer you as a writer – and a reader, obviously.
Ten minutes with… is a special series presented by Coode Street with Gary K. Wolfe and Jonathan Strahan that sees readers and booklovers from around the world talk about what they’re reading right now and what’s getting them through these difficult times.
Legendary fan, publisher, and critic Cheryl Morgan talks with Gary about some favourite new and forthcoming books; the comfort in watching classic TV and movies; watching Doom Patrol and Black Panther; Sam Jordison and Galley Beggar Press; her own fanzine Salon Futura and Wizard’s Tower Press, and being a sensitivity reader for trans characters and issues.
Books mentioned include:
• The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M. John Harrison
• The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo
• Mordew by Alex Pheby
• The Green Man’s Heir and The Green Man’s Foe by Juliet E McKenna
• The Tales of Einarinn series by Juliet E. McKenna
• The Aldabreshin Compass series by Juliet E. McKenna
• untitled forthcoming collection by Aleksandar Žiljak