Saturday, March 26, 2011

Vale Diana Wynne Jones

Received the sad news that author Diana Wynne Jones passed away overnight at the age of 76 after losing a battle with lung cancer.

Diana Wynne Jones was writing fantasy themed young adult books before anyone had even coined the term 'young adult'. I've personally read Cart and Cwidder (the 3rd book of the Dalemark Quartet) more times than I could ever count.

Diana Wynne Jones will probably be best remembered for her Chrestomanci Chronicles (Charmed Life, The Lives of Christopher Chant, Conrad's Fate, Witch Week and The Magicians of Caprona), Howl's Moving Castle, which was also made into an animated film of the same name and her Tough Guide to Fantasyland which poked fun at many of the best know fantasy tropes and cliches.

She will be sadly missed and was many readers entry to the genre.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Queen of Sorcery

Queen of Sorcery could be subtitled How to Write a Fantasy Epic for Dummies. Right from the beginning this second volume in David Edding’s Belgariad ticks every box and while it tells a decent story with the familiar and popular characters from the opening book (Pawn of Prophecy) it also makes every mistake in the book, which tended to sometimes spoil the narrative for me.

It follows the popular middle volume tradition of having the protagonists wander around the countryside aimlessly for most of it’s length. Along the way they add to their group. A hot headed young Asturian archer, saddled with the unfortunate elf like name of Lelldorin joins the band briefly as a friend for Garion, he is unfortunately injured during one of the fights that the book is riddled with at fairly regular intervals, this forces him leave the group and have his injuries tended to by a concerned maiden. I think Lelldorin does return in a further installment of the series and I’m betting he’s married to the concerned maiden by the time he does. The somewhat pompous and very vain Mimbrate knight; Baron Mandorallen, also joins our intrepid band and like all good Mimbrates peppers his speech with plenty of thees and thous, although I understood the necessity to differentiate him like this, the courtly speech often took me out of the narrative, so in hindsight may not have been the best move. The revenge seeking horselord Hettar was introduced in Pawn of Prophecy, but played a larger role in Queen of Sorcery and was added to the roster as a permanent member of the questing group. The highlight for me was the introduction of Garion’s love interest, the half dryad Tolnedran Princess; Ce’Nedra. Ce’Nedra is my favourite character. When she’s being tantrum princess you just want to spank her, but there are other times when she’s a little lost girl who needs a hug.

David Eddings definitely ramped up the violence in this instalment. Despite that there are frequent fights and some serious injuries are sustained (never to any of the principals, Garion gets knocked out a couple of times, but that’s about as bad as it gets) it always comes across as cartoon violence. The action is well written and exciting to read at the time, but the reader is always secure in the knowledge that no one of any real importance will be killed and this effectively kills off any tension.

The first two thirds of the book meander without much of a point. Garion is still young, idealistic and frequently stupid. Polgara mothers everyone and silences any complaints with a frosty glare. Silk cheats people and makes amusing comments. Durnik continues his impersonation of a lump of wood. About the time Ce’Nedra is introduced things pick up, of course I could be thinking that because I adore Ce’Nedra’s character. The last third of Queen of Sorcery contains some genuine magic, not just the wave your hands in the air kind of thing that Eddings often employed. I thought the perception of dryads as rather childlike female warriors was rather cool, I particularly liked the one that wanted to shoot Garion because she found ‘it’, so ‘it’ was therefore hers to kill. The snake people of Nyissa were also interesting and different.

I did find myself wondering at times if Polgara and Belgarath were as all powerful as they appeared why was so much of what they did necessary in the first place? It’s rather like playing a computer game, you have to meet the swordsman before you can ascend to the next level and then you have to unlock the secret of Garion’s power before you can go to level 3, etc…

Queen of Sorcery is deeply flawed, but also strangely compelling. The adventure doesn’t end there and you find yourself wanting to go on and find out how it all turns out, plus Magician's Gambit has lots more Ce’Nedra!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Late Eclipses

Late Eclipses is the 4th instalment of Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye Urban Fantasy series, chronicling the adventures of the changeling PI cum knight errant of the Shadowed Hills fae duchy.

As has become common with the books it begins in this world with Toby enjoying the fruits of her most recent case and sharing them with her Fetch and roommate May (May Daye, get it?) and her friend taxi driver/bridge troll and barghest fancier Danny, but with Toby trouble in Shadowed Hills, and the other faery knowes around her home town of San Francisco are never far away, and before she knows what is happening she’s been made the Lady of Goldengreen and her friend Lily the Undine and ruler of the Tea Gardens knowe is deathly ill.

The local queen, the Queen of Mists doesn’t much like Toby, in fact she seems to feel threatened by the feisty changeling, so why would she give her a position like Lady of Goldengreen? Probably because once Toby has accepted it, and she can’t very well refuse, she becomes beholden to the Queen and can no longer be protected as she has been for most of her life by her friend Duke Sylvester Torquill of Shadowed Hills. That’s problem number one. A bigger problem and mystery is the sickness that has afflicted Lily. Full bloods don’t generally die and certainly not from sicknesses like Lily seems to have contracted, and undines are even longer lived than most full bloods. Toby smells a rat, or more specifically a flower, namely oleander. As well as being the name of a shrub; oleander is also the name of the vindictive part peri Oleander de Merelands, a creature who was one half of the attack that robbed Toby of 14 years of her life and cost her human husband and her daughter. While Toby desperately tries to find a way to heal Lily and make a contingency plan for her largely helpless subjects, Luna Torquill, Duchess of the Shadowed Hills, and the wife of Sylvester also sickens. Taking advantage of the power vacuum left by the grief stricken Sylvester, who is now by his wife’s bedside night and day, his crazy daughter Rayseline takes control and lays the blame for everything right at Toby’s feet, thus delivering her into the hands of the Queen of Mist to pronounce sentence. Toby is going to have to escape imprisonment, find a cure and a killer and prove at the same time she’s not mad, that Oleander de Merelands is behind the whole thing and somehow get out of it all alive.

Seanan McGuire has created a great heroine in Toby, she’s made the shadowy world of the fae that exists alongside our own, rich, varied and very real, the books are building up a great roster of characters that she can draw on as and when she needs them and readers are already picking their favourites amongst the cast. May and Danny tend to feature high on many lists, as does Toby’s on again off again love interest Tybalt King of Cats and her former ‘boyfriend’ selkie Connor, now inconveniently married to Rayseline. My own personal favourite is the young Daoine Sidhe page Quentin, and he too has a cameo in Late Eclipses. Late Eclipses was the first appearance of Walther; the Tylwyth Teg chemist, I suspect it will not be the last.

Seanan is proving to be somewhat of a literary chameleon with this series, so far she’s written them in a noirish Chandleresque style, something reminiscent of Agatha Christie and now Late Eclipses which has elements of a Grisham type legal thriller.

Another kudo I have to give to Seanan is character development. I know I’m in the minority of fans in that I don’t particularly like Tybalt. Everyone else seems to want he and Toby to get together. I still don’t want that to happen and while I’d like to see them become reluctant allies I don’t have any desire to see them become lovers, but I have to admit that parts of this story made me feel for Tybalt and I even started to respect and like the guy…uh cat. To make me revise my opinion this far in, well that takes talent, something Seanan McGuire is rapidly proving that she has in spades.

Late Eclipses is another welcome addition to Toby’s exploits and while it ties everything up at the end, there’s plenty of scope and there are still a plethora of enemies out there who have a score to settle with Toby, I’d also personally like to find out more about Toby’s mother Amandine. One Salt Sea; the fifth Toby book, is due out in September and I’ll be adding it to the collection.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Heroes

Joe Abercombie first hit the epic fantasy scene in 2006 with his debut The Blade Itself, which was the first book in The First Law trilogy. The Heroes is his fifth book and the second standalone. To this point all of Joe's novels have been set on the same world and have characters that pop in and out of the narratives as he feels he requires them.

Joe Abercrombie has gathered quite a number of fans in his relatively short career and a new Abercrombie is always eagerly awaited. The Heroes was no different.

There's a very short description on the back cover of The Heroes: Three Men. One Battle. No Heroes. That's about as concise as a back cover blurb can get, but it's a very good description of The Heroes. The action concerns a battle between Black Dow's Northmen and the forces of the Union for a valley in the North. It takes place over three days, and as with Abercrombie's other work, ultimately there are no winners from the conflict. The Heroes of the title are a ring of stones, so named because legend has it that some of the heroes of Northern myth and legend are buried under them.

The First Law trilogy and Joe Abercrombie's other standalone work: Best Served Cold, contained a handful of POV characters and assorted other colourful bit part players. The Heroes is no exception. The embittered northern warrior Caul Shivers reappears as does Bayaz the First of the Magi and Black Dow. Both Bayaz and Black Dow will be familiar to readers of The First Law and while Shivers appeared in The First Law he had a much larger part to play in Best Served Cold. The story told in The Heroes takes place nearly a decade after the end of Last Argument of Kings (the final book in The First Law trilogy).

The Heroes concentrates it's story largely on 6 characters: named Northman Curnden Craw, an old scarred warrior who has spent most of his life fighting, watching his friends die, wishing he could do something else and trying to do the right thing. Bremer dan Gorst, a swordfighter from the Union, who lost to King Jezal in a duel in The Blade Itself, failed to protect him from scandal in Best Served Cold and is trying to expiate all his guilt and make people forget his failures by killing as many people as he possibly can in this blood soaked battle. Prince Calder, Calder is former Northman King Bethod's youngest son. Calder is a coward, but he's also a fairly clever strategist and would make a decent leader if he were given the chance, Calder is simply trying to stay alive. Corporal Tunny, Tunny is a career corporal, his very nature makes it almost impossible for him to rise above the rank, however if you want to stay alive in a fight the Union has thrown it's forces into then stick close to Corporal Tunny, he always seems to find a way out. Then we have Finree Brock. Finree is an attractive and ambitious young lady who has come to the front to support her husband, the rising military officer Harod dan Brock. Finree is described as being venomously ambitious and she is, she will do whatever it takes and use whatever influence she can gather to propel her husband up the chain of command. Last of all is Beck, a young Northman, son of a legendary warrior who finds that war isn't all its cracked up to be and neither is being a hero.

Many of the Abercrombie trademarks are present: the gallows humour, the Northmen's stinging wit, the quirky characters that wander in and out of the story, the occasional musings on the situation using the short vignette of a one off character to get the point across, the viscerally described and gory battle scenes, the somewhat open ended ambiguous ending and the conclusion that war is futile, no one ever wins and very few get what they want.

In some ways I felt characters were reused. I found what I felt to be anaologues to earlier characters. Gorst's inward monologues and his bitter missives to Jezal often put me in mind of The First Law's crippled torturer Sand dan Glokta, who prior to capture and the torture that maimed and disfigured him was a nobly born champion swordsman. Whirrun of Bligh, also known as Cracknut, the legendary fighter and wielder of the blade Father of Swords reminded me of Logen 'The Bloody Nine' Ninefingers, the berserk warrior, who was for many readers the HERO of The First Law, there were also echoes of Josef Liechten, another bearer of a legendary blade, from Rachel Aaron's The Legend of Eli Monpress series, although I am sure that resemblance is purely coincidental, there's only so many swordsmen carrying blades of power that authors can come up with. Whirrun is also worth mentioning for his invention of the cheese trap, a laugh out loud moment of the book. Finree made me think of Ardee West from The First Law, only she was meaner, tougher and not a drunk. Calder was Jezal, there was very little difference in the way he thought and acted, Calder had a bit more purpose than the idle rich Jezal, but they could have been brothers. My personal favourite character was Craw, he was one of the most sympathetic characters Abercrombie has done, he was also one of the easiest to understand. I wouldn't be adverse to seeing him reappear some time in the future.

It's a fast paced book, with very few flat or slow bits and seems shorter than it's 498 pages in trade paperback. It does maybe spend a little long wrapping up the stories of its major characters, but people do like to know what happens. Tunny's story in particular seemed to be setting readers up for the next book, which is according to the author's blog a standalone western. Not sure how he'll do a western in his world, but it's his world, so I'm sure he can make it work. If you're a fan of Abercrombie you'll love The Heroes, if not I doubt there's anything in here that will win you over. If you haven't read Abercrombie before and want to know where to start you could pick up The Heroes and be quite satisfied with not having read the earlier work, there are some tiny spoilers and I think having read the earlier books does lend some context and depth to The Heroes. I'm happy and waiting to see what Joe can do next.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

And they wonder why people shop online

Borders and Angus & Robertson down here in Australia are going through the same problems that they are everywhere else. Here they’re blaming it on online sales. I’m going to bring up a case in point and that may explain exactly why they’re not getting the business they want, at least from the growing community of SFF readers.

It’s not easy being an SFF fan in Australia. It never has been. You mention that you read the genre and you get blank looks most of the time. Once you try to explain you have to use something that has broken out of the genre to most people (eg: Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter) and then they either think you’re a role player or someone who’s never really grown up. I contest that Harry Potter is more than just a kids series, but I digress.

If something sells well enough, and by that I mean it has to best sell, then it may find it’s way into the mainstream stores, otherwise you have to visit one of the few speciality SFF stores, like Minotaur books in Melbourne. The only other way is to go online. I know I can buy e-books, and I do have an e-reader, but the range of SFF books available for legal download in Australia is depressingly limited, I can also go online and I do when I want something hard to get, but I’m a relatively old fashioned character and I like to go into a shop, find the book I want, pick up a solid copy of it and take it home with me.

Onto my specific example. One of the rising stars of urban fantasy is the prolific Seanan McGuire. I first encountered Seanan at Aussiecon, and seeing her there was one of the highlights of the event for me. After the con I started following her LJ and found out that she had 4 books in print (3 October Daye’s under her name, the 3rd was released just after the convention, and the 1st of the Newsflesh trilogy released under her pseudonym of Mira Grant. On that please read Feed, it’s awesome), so I went to hunt them out. I was lucky enough to snag a signed copy of Feed at Minotaur, but the Toby Daye’s were nowhere to be seen. In desperation I tried a chain, and lo and behold Dymocks in the city had all 3. Dymocks is the ONLY chain in this country that carries a decent SFF range and it has it’s own dedicated urban fantasy/paranormal romance section, at least the city branch does.

Being a relatively new kid on the block and steadily making her way as a mid list author Seanan is great about letting her readers know what she’s up to, especially with things like release dates. Her 4th October Daye novel; Late Eclipses was due out on March 3rd (that’s the US March 3rd, so it was probably March 4th down here in Oz), now I’m not stupid enough to expect it down here on day of release, although it has happened in the past with some titles, but I think a week is a respectable wait, if I’d ordered it online I would have well and truly had it. I tried Dymocks, nada, I tried Minotaur, no luck. My final port of call was Science & Swords. Science & Swords is this tiny little store in an out of the way arcade that only the truly dedicated even know about.

They had one copy left, as he rang it up the salesman remarked on how popular the series was and that they had already put in an order for more copies which should be arriving the following week, so why isn’t it and many other titles available for purchase in major Australian book stores within a week of release? I don’t care if it’s a publisher thing (Seanan’s publisher for the Toby Daye’s; DAW, is unlikely to have an Australian distributor, but considering that DAW is a subsidiary of publishing giant Penguin, which does have an Australian arm, these days, it shouldn’t be that hard to do) or a bookstore thing, but I’m getting fed up with it and I don’t believe I’m alone. If those at Borders Australia and Angus & Robertson wonder why they’re losing business to their online competitors this is one very good reason, the dreadful overpricing they engage in and the staggering lack of knowledge displayed by staff are 2 other reasons.

I thank the God of booklovers for places like Science & Swords. Thanks for listening. Now I’m off to devour Late Eclipses.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Worm Ouroboros

High ranking British civil servants from the 1920's and 30's are not generally known for their flights of fancy, but that's exactly what Eric Rucker Eddison, author of some of the most amazing pre-Tolkien epics, was.

I'd never heard of The Worm Ouroboros before starting this challenge. I'd seen it, but never picked it up before. The title conjured up images of a Conanesque tale with a mighty thewed, fur clad hero creeping through caves and catacombs, sword in hand, looking for a monster (the worm or 'wyrm' of the title) who was terrifying the locals. The Worm Ouroboros does have the mighty thews and some of the heroes wear furs, most of them carry dirty great swords that are lovingly described down to the very last detail. Robert Jordan has nothing on Eddison in the intricate description stakes. The rest of it, though, I was way off the mark there. The Worm (based on the Norse legend of the mighty world encompassing snake that swallows it's own tail) never actually appears in the book, it's the design of a signet ring that seems to give the near immortal villain of the piece; King Gorice of Witchland, power.

The story is set on Mercury, which has prompted some to call it a form of planetary romance, but the Mercury of Eddison's saga has more in common with Middle-earth than it does with the second planet from the Sun. It's rather like Eddison found every form of mythology and legend he could and tried to pack them into the one story. There's bit of Norse and Celtic legend and mythology in there. The Arabs get a look in as well. Readers encounter Demons, Witches, Imps, Pixys, Ghouls, there's gryphons and basilisks, there's even a talking bird based on a heraldic device.

The plot is fairly basic. Lord Goldry Bluszco of Demonland beats King Gorice XI of Witchland in a wrestling (the author calls it wrastling, which kept making me think of Hulk Hogan taking on Randy Savage) match and inadvertently kills him. This sparks off a war between the two superpowers of Mercury and that takes up most of the rest of the book. Matters are complicated by the devious Imp lord Gro, who seems to delight in protracting the fight. For love he eventually throws his lot in with the Demons and dies nobly.

Like a number of the older fantasies The Worm Ouroboros is big on description, Eddison's command of the language and his descriptive pieces are top notch, and I'd be surprised if Tolkien wasn't inspired in part by some of them. However the character and plot development suffer at the expense. I didn't get to really know any of the characters and therefore didn't much care what happened to them. Due to Eddison's use of archaic Jacobean language I had trouble picking the characters apart, to the extent that the females spoke exactly the same as the males. The insistence on using Jacobean language made the book fairly hard to understand and in fact to read for a modern reader, the passages with letters or excerpts from books were done in Middle Ages English and were virtually unintelligible. There was also the issue of beginning with using a native of Earth; Lessingham, as a narrator with the help of a martlet, but he seemed to have been forgotten by about the third chapter and was never mentioned again. I assume the poor bloke is still kicking about there up on Mercury.

It was an interesting read and modern day readers owe E.R Eddison a great debt, because it was writers like him who broke the ground for Tolkien and Lewis. Michael Moorcock, Robert Silverberg and Clive Barker have all been admirers of his work.

If you wanted to read something similar, but more accessible I'd advise you to look at some of L. Sprague De Camp's and Fletcher Pratt's Harold Shea Incompleat Enchanter books which do cover similar ground when Shea visits worlds like that of Spenser's Faerie Queene. There's also Edgar Rice Burroughs Princess of Mars, which I know is classified as science fiction, but Eddison's Mercury is about as scientific as Burrough's Mars is.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Let's Dance

Seeing as nearly everyone else has blogged about this (that’s the curse of living in Australia and sleeping when the rest of the world is awake) I thought I’d add in my 2 cents. Back in 2005 a bloke called George R.R Martin released a book called A Feast for Crows, he had a note in the back of that book explaining why a number of the most popular characters in his successful series A Song of Ice and Fire weren’t in A Feast for Crows. He had saved them for the second part of the story in a book called A Dance with Dragons and that it would be along in 2006 he hoped. Common sense should have told many readers that this date was extremely optimistic and highly unlikely, of course it didn’t and A Dance with Dragons has gone on to become one of the most highly anticipated books I’ve ever seen. Just yesterday George Martin announced on his site and his Not a Blog a release date of July 12. 2011 is already looking to be one of the best for the genre in quite some years. The Hugo’s in 2012 at ChiCon will be hotly contested.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Nights of Villjamur

I first heard about Nights of Villjamur when it was published in 2009 and wanted to give it a go then, but for reasons that I’ll never understand I couldn’t get a copy of it down here until late in 2010 and with my ever growing TBR pile it’s taken me until now to actually read it.

Damn! I enjoyed this book. It’s hands down my favourite thing to read in 2011 so far.

To me, there was something almost hypnotic about the book, I became immersed in it very early and remained so until I turned the last page to find that there were no more.

Most of the criticism that I’ve seen has been positive, with the exception of one scathing review over at Strange Horizons.

A lot of the comparisons that have been made have tried to pigeon hole the book as either part of the New Weird movement or as part of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth milieu, as I haven’t read anything classified as New Weird (think China Mieville) or The Dying Earth (both Mieville and Vance are on my to read list) I can’t comment on the validity of those comparisons. As I read two names kept cropping up in my mind. One was Scott Lynch (The Lies of Locke Lamora) and the other was Joe Abercrombie (The First Law trilogy). Not really surprising as Lynch’s best known work came out in 2006 (I read it in 2008) and Abercrombie hit the scene in the same year, and I also read the opening book of The First Law (The Blade Itself) in 2008. I kept comparing Newton’s city of Villjamur with Lynch’s Camorr. There are similarities, although Camorr is far more detailed and complex, to me it was this extra character in The Lies of Locke Lamora, whereas Villjamur, while alien and atmospheric, is merely a setting. Newton and Abercrombie share a rather bleak outlook, but I found Newton’s characters more rounded than Abercrombie’s. Joe’s characters spend a lot of their time fighting and fucking or talking about fighting and fucking. Mark’s do both, but far less often and with more style for the most part. It’s rather like Joe’s people flunked out of high school and Mark’s went on to complete university. The other huge variance is the type of character they write. Beyond his Neanderthal zombies I’ve never see Abercrombie introduce any truly magical being. In Newton’s opening to his Legends of the Red Sun series people rub shoulders with Garudas (flying soldiers based on a creature from Hindu and Buddhist mythology, the Garudas in Nights of Villjamur seem to owe more to the Buddhist version than the Hindu one), there are Banshees who call out at the moment of a person’s death, a prostitute can create art that comes to life and then we have the Rumels, bipedal creatures that have tails and seem to be rather lizard-like, they also live 3 – 4 times as long as a human and I haven’t even mentioned the tusked Dawnir, creatures that seem ageless and whom for time has no real meaning. We have zombies called Draugr (he got that one from Norse mythology) and something that sounds like a cross between a lobster and a person that they don’t even have a name for yet. I was completely caught up in the breadth and brilliance of Mark Charan Newton’s creation.

There are 3 separate stories running in Nights of Villjamur, all largely centred around the coming ice age that is engulfing the archipelago and forcing people to flee to the city. Events are set in motion when the mentally unstable Emperor Johynn kills himself and puts his totally unprepared daughter Jamur Rika on the throne. The 3 stories running through the narrative concern 3 characters and are different in style, two of them do converge towards the end of the book, though.

Brynd Lythraea is a hard bitten career soldier, he’s also an albino and a homosexual (I’m not really sure why the decision was made to make him gay as it didn’t impact in any way, shape or form on the rest of his story), he takes his commandoes to a far flung island and finds himself in an unwinnable fight against a terrifying enemy. Brynd does other things in the course of the book, he’s the one who returns the new Empress; Rika, to Villjamur, but this struggle formed the bulk of his story. It had the feel of a typical knights and swords quest combined with a WW II action story.

The world weary rumel Jeryd works as an investigator for the Inquisition (a job that their extended lifespan makes them ideal for) and he’s investigating the mysterious deaths of highly placed civil servants. He doesn’t know that he’s being betrayed from within and that it could have consequences not only for himself and his wife Marysa, but the Empire itself. At times I had to check and ensure that the book in my hands wasn’t written by Martin Cruz Smith.

My personal favourite narrative was that involving the dashing swashbuckler Randur Estevu, he came to Villjamur looking for a way to extend his dying mother’s life and wound up winning the heart of a Princess. Randur is a dab hand with a sword and an accomplished dancer, he’s also a charmer, but he gets a lot more than he bargains for when he agrees to teach Eir (Empress Rika’s younger sister) how to dance and fight at the same time. This particular storyline became a bit Boys Own towards the end, but it was fun to read.

If you like Joe Abercrombie, then give Mark Charan Newton and his Legends of the Red Sun a try. I’m going to look for a copy of City of Ruin.