Sunday, 1 April 2018

On Message and Preaching

The two most recent things I read were Max Gladstone's Full Fathom Five and Grant Morrisons The Invisibles. Both are thoroughly recommended, but my review of Full Fathom Five will include a wee grouse about the blatant preaching. I'm not mad enough to try doing a proper review of The Invisibles but any I did would have to start with wide eyed admiration for the impact its message had on my life. And I know I'm not the only reader out there to hiss my dislike of having a message preached at me while also admiring works for their message.

So what's the difference?

Now, I'm not to dismiss reader fickleness and the possibility we just have different reactions on different days. Or the possibility that things I do care about are inspirational and things I care about less are preachy. I'd like to think that's not where I am, but people realise they are doing things they don't like all the time.

People often talk about blatancy being a factor when it comes to a message being preaching and bad. I know I do. Well, Morrison has repeatedly described The Invisibles as being a spell to bring about a change in the human race and cause more works like The Invisibles. In other words, the author could not be more blatant about the work having a message by his words, and it is reflected in the comics themselves.

My off-the-cuff theory would be that a big part of this is consistency. I mean, sure, all of the above still counts, but its probably not all of it. It seems very rare that one single thing is all of the reasons for why something happens. But, going back to consistency, I've seen so many criticisms of a book that boil down to "This is not consistent with what I was led to expect from the book".

The Invisibles could not be clearer about its support for counter-culture, personal responsibility, and freedom if Morrison paid a flashmob to turn up with a song about it everytime someone opened up it up. There is no contradiction in tone, expectation, or anything else that the story.

Full Five Fathoms and the rest of Gladstone's Craft series do definitely have strong themes with real world relevance from the get-go, but for the most part it is subtle. Then all of a sudden someone gives a big grandstanding speech and it's pushed right up in your face. The approach is not consistent and as a result, it jars. It irritates.

Now, I don't think this is the only thing. CS Lewis' faith is an obvious and consistent part of Narnia and it's still held up as preaching. Ditto Pullman and his lack of faith - although clearly lots and lots of people didn't object too strenuously in either case. The number of highly successful 'preachy' authors is probably better evidence for whether authors should be forthright in their view of the world than any amount of internet grumbling.

But if authors and would-be authors are considering how to go about putting their beliefs into stories and maybe provide thought for others, then maybe thinking about whether doing so disturbs the tone of their story and how consistent it is with the expectations readers will form is a good idea.

Or maybe that's just trying to herd cats and people are better off letting the dice fall where they may!

Friday, 23 March 2018

"Thinking is highly recommended!": An Interview with Dan Jones

I've been talking writing with Dan Jones for a while now, so when his first book Man O'War was released I pretty much had to read it. One thing led to another, and the poor fool jumped for a chance at the interrogation chair. Here are the results...

PL: How did the original idea for Man O'War come about, and how did it develop from there?

DJ: It all started with one of SFF Chrons's good ol' 75-word writing challenges. I think the brief had the theme of "desire" or something, so I wrote a story about a sex robot who loved another sex robot, which couldn't be reciprocated because of their programming. It didn't get many votes, but one or two forum members suggested it could be expanded into a short story. So I wrote a short story called Class: Utsukushidesu (which you can read on my website here) which dug a little deeper into themes of transhumanism, emotional intelligence and autonomy.

I went away to think about this some more, and after some time three images kept focusing in my mind: a robot being fished from the sea (pretty derivative of The Bourne Identity, I know), a robot subverting the sexual act, and a return to the water.

The book just fell out of me and, drawing on knowledge built up from my day job, I knocked out the first draft in about seven months. I edited it in another two months and, miraculously, had it accepted for publication after only the second submission.

PL: A small part of Bourne Identity, part-day job (people are going to make a lot of interesting guesses about that one...), part transhumanism... would it be fair to say you drew on a lot of different influences for this story?

DJ: I suppose I did, but the influences were non-fiction. That Bourne reference was literally just the opening image. My day job had a huge influence over the content of the book (people can guess my job if they like, but it's no secret!), and I also used first-hand accounts of a friend who used to work in the oil and gas industry in Nigeria.

Some people have said that there are thematic similarities to things like Paolo Bagicalupi's The Wind-Up Girl and Chris Bennett's Holy Machine, but I've not read either, and wasn't about to start whilst writing Man O'War. Robotics is very much in the public eye right now, and the debates over regulations, ethics and technology (particularly the secondary effects of technology) influenced it more than fiction.

PL: You're certainly right that robotics and its complexities are very much of the moment. What about the influences on your writing itself? How has that developed and how do you see it now?

DJ: I particularly admire Umberto Eco, Tolkien, Haruki Murakami, and Ursula K Le Guin, but I honestly don't think any of those guys influenced Man O'War consciously. Ok, I will say that I decided on the structure of the book - ie one character per POV chapter - after reading A Song Of Ice And Fire. I think it's a very clean way to tell a modern story.

I really put on my Eco hat for a novella I wrote last year, which was a lot of fun, but in general I write what I hear in my head, and emulating somebody else's voice is probably not a good route to go down for a long-term writing career. I recall a review of a Murakami novel once - I think it was Norwegian Wood - that said Murakami evokes so strongly a combination of Raymond Chandler, Harper Lee, Stephen King, and even things like The Beatles, that he has to be considered an original.

Having said that, if readers see echoes of other writers in my stuff, even when I can't, then that's cool too.

PL: Seems like you like your stories to be like a robot - clean and modern! But obviously there's a lot more going on beneath the surface, particularly with the themes you're talking about. How much thought did you put into incorporating those themes and doing them justice?

DJ: 
I wouldn't say the robots in MOW are very clean, in many ways! There are themes of the ethics of technology – or the humanity of technology, which I suppose is a more Asimovesque way of putting it – in the book, but also themes of fragmentation and symbiosis, with the Portuguese Man O'War acting as the symbol of that. The scene where Naomi explains the nature of the man o'war to Dhiraj in the hotel room is the moment which sort of explains what the whole book is about. I think, once that much is clear, it's possible to revisit and consider the POV characters – and the whole book – in a new way. The thing about theme is that you’re not always considering it; it’s kind of floating there, above the text, so that you’re aware of it as an abstraction, but it’s not fully understood by the writer. It’s like you’re trying to nudge out against the borders of your own understanding. It’s very difficult to be continually thinking of theme in a prescriptive manner when you’re trying to concentrate on believable dialogue and narrative structure. A lot of the thematic elements only became clearer to me after completing the manuscript, when I was editing it.

To be honest, I don't really mind whether or not a reader interprets the book in the same way I do; in fact, I much prefer to hear other people's interpretations of what the book is about than my own! I think the key thing, as a writer, is not to force your themes down your readers' throats so it becomes allegorical or didactic or preachy. There has to be enough wiggle room to allow for the readers' own critical faculties to be engaged. Otherwise it's not literature, it's just dressed up propaganda.

Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover - great work by Snow Books' team


PL: I stand corrected on the robots!
Have you always been this interested in theme as a writer? Or is this something that's developed for you over time? Come to think of it, how long have you been 'seriously' writing and how do you think you've developed in that time?

DJ: I do have nagging thoughts about the fragmentation of the self, and the atomisation of society as a whole, particularly western society. Until I started writing Man O'War I hadn't figured out a way to work it into a fictional setting, but a robot is a useful vehicle for exploring this topic because it’s understandable as an integrated system of systems.

So it's there, and to an extent always has been. In Eat Yourself, Clarice! one of the major tenets is the fragmentation of the self into different personas (in accordance with psychoanalytic understanding). These fragments are amplified by the proliferation of internet technologies, and manifest through a sort of socialised censorship, whereby we censor the parts of ourselves – and others – we don't want to see. That's quite abstract, but in Man O'War these ideas become tangible, most notably in the form of Naomi, who is a modular system of systems and therefore fragmentable, and also the Portuguese Man O'War creature, which is a colony of tiny creatures working together to make the creature function. And each of the human cast are, in their own way, fragmented, or broken.

I've been "seriously" writing since 2011, but only in the last four years or so have I really started to think about things like theme. Thinking is highly recommended! My take is that in the West we don't think about things as much as we react to them. I think that, as a civilisation, we'd get to a better place if we did rather more listening and thinking, than rushing to condemn. That leads to further fragmentation, and I suppose at some point there's a critical tension point beyond which society cannot divide any further. I can't imagine that being a very good place.

PL: Well that's a very cheery way to look at things. You think there is no potential for humanity's situation to improve through continued fragmentation? I'd have thought giving the various clashing cultures in the space more room to themselves and less need to rub against each other would be good.

DJ: Man, your questions are hard! OK, your question suggests fragmentation is something that we can consciously control, and I'm not sure that's the case. I think fragmentation is more basic than that, it's part of the condition of being human, or the state of being. Freud and Lacan knew this; they suggested we're in fact made up of different parts, a system of systems. In Freud's terms this was famously the id, the ego and the superego. Lacan went further; he suggested we're in fact made up of “partial objects” that we can't initially comprehend. So we make sense of things by learning language, thus ordering ourselves, and that's the first step towards making sense out of the whole world, because the whole world is just as fragmented, and crazy, and weird, and if you can't make sense of yourself then what hope do you have of ordering the rest of it? And all the characters in Man O'War are broken up or fragmented to begin with; they've all had the rug pulled out from under them in some way and they've got to deal with that, or there's no story! So in a sense they're all heroes, whether you think of them as "good" or "bad" in a classical sense, because they’re all trying to make sense of the mad situations in which they find themselves. And I think in a sense any story worth telling has to start with characters who in some way are fragmented (or who become fragmented), so they can make sense of themselves before they make sense of the world.

So to answer the question, no, I think to actively fragment is bad, really bad. The whole sense of being human is to come together in some sense - whether it's in a physical sense, or a social one, or sexual or psychological or religious or some other sense, so as to make sense of things and try and perpetuate this existence by understanding the things we're doing right. And in Eat Yourself I was forewarning that, to some extent, and possibly to a serious extent, that the proliferation of communicative technologies is overriding the need to come together to solve serious puzzles, and I think this manifests itself most dramatically in political spheres; that we can somehow exist in a digital cocoon in which we can self-censor the bits of the world we don't like, rather than deal with those things. Because that's what literary stories are all about, right? Venturing forth from your comfort zone and slaying dragons! Otherwise we all just stay in the Shire and wait for Sauron to just destroy the world. Or worse, we just stay asleep in the Garden of Eden and never even waken into consciousness at all. So there's a serious danger, a fundamentally nihilistic perspective that can arise from encouraging fragmentation.

This is getting way more philosophical than I thought it would!

The Man O'War itself


PL: Let’s take this a little away from the philosophical and more to the literary, then. You've listed a lot of influences for the story, the majority not speculative fiction. Do you think people view fiction in too fragmented a way and pay too much attention to genre?

DJ: Ok, yes, let's move on. Yes, I think I largely agree with that. I've not been a huge SF reader. I've read bits and pieces: some Heinlein, some Iain M Banks, some JG Ballard, and a few anthologies, but as a rule more recently my genre fiction intake has skewed more fantasy, and after that I just read whatever takes my fancy. And I've thought about this, because it's not the first time someone's asked me why I'm writing SF when I don't particularly read it. I think I enjoy the innate speculative nature of SF, and I suppose I like it most when I'm doing the speculating!

Do people pay too much attention to genre? I think to unpack that you need to think about why people read, because on one level you just read what you like, what pushes your buttons, and there's no real reason why you like what you like, you just do. It's as simple as that. I'm going to ditch the word "genre" for a second, and instead use the word "flavour" instead, because SF and fantasy both have a very strong flavour, but then so does romance, and action, and "chick-lit" (hate that term, but it serves a purpose), and crime, and horror and whatever. But in all of those flavours the writers thereof should still be trying to do the same thing, which is trying to make sense of things and order and orient themselves and their characters in a way that conquers a little bit of the unknown. It's like food. Food can be spicy, or earthy, or rich, or light, or sour etc, but it's all sustenance, it all can be sustaining and make you live to tomorrow ie get you to a place where you can get more food. 

And we're foraging creatures, but we don't need to literally forage for food in the modern world, so what do we forage instead? We forage information, and just as we might like different flavours of foods, we might like different flavours of information when presented to us in art or books. So genre alone doesn’t invalidate the power of art and literature to provide that satisfying information, that knowledge that sates our soul. And I get really annoyed when people snobbishly dismiss certain genres, because it only reveals themselves not to be very sophisticated; they haven't really thought beyond the superficial flavour of the genre to what lies underneath, and whether that literature, that food, is worth eating.

An oil refinery from near Port Harcourt - presumably much like one in the book


PL: I never even realised you were more of a fantasy guy. Are there any areas where you feel this viewpoint and broad scope gives you an advantage or disadvantage as a genre writer? You ever had that moment where someone goes "I like it, but I don't know if it fits a genre well enough?"

DJ: Well I think it's a reasonable assumption to make that the more material to expose yourself to, the deeper your well of knowledge from which you can draw when you want to think and/or create. That makes sense to me because I like to write, and that's what I'm reasonably good at, but also I have a sense that I'm inadequate – not in a self-pitying way, but in a sense that there's so much more to know out there – so it makes sense that one absorbs as much material as possible, so as to keep learning. Rigidly sticking to one genre might not necessarily limit you in your learning - like I said, information is food, and all food (unless it's junk) is nourishing - but you are denying yourself all those other flavours of information. I'm not sure I see any disadvantage in reading as widely as possible!

Do you mean about my own writing? I don't think my audience is big enough yet to have to contend with that criticism, if it is a criticism at all. Genres have to have a loose set of rules, or a rough framework onto which the story is fashioned. Sometimes these things overlap. For example, is Star Wars fantasy or SF? Well, it has advanced technology like spaceships, but it also has magic. Perhaps it doesn't matter, because most of the time people just mash SF and F together into SFF and leave it there, which is a bit daffy really because SF and F are really not that similar when you think about it in terms of their respective archetypes, but anyways... What about Lord Of The Flies? Is it an Boys' Own-style action adventure, or is it literary, or is it fantasy, or even horror? So things start to get a little sketchy when you delve into things. And I like things that way. Things should move about. Fusion food!

PL: I wasn't thinking about the audience, so much as critique partners, your peers in the writing community and so on. I know you've been active there, so what have you taken from writing communities? And since I ask this of everyone - what's the best piece, and worst piece, of writing advice you've ever received?

DJ: I've taken everything from writing communities. I've been extraordinarily lucky to run into a bunch of people with whom I have an affinity and have become great friends, and whose abilities - and different types of abilities - we all respect in one another. It would be very difficult to progress without such things: advice, support, sounding boards, and just general talk. It gives me a sense that it's ok to be doing this, that even if what you're doing isn't "successful" (and that is very much governed by how you define success) that there's still something of huge value involved in the telling, in the doing itself. One thing which makes writers extraordinary is the ability to gee each other up; it's incredibly supportive. Even when we have our disagreements about detail, the general takeaway is that the value is in the doing. It's like tilling the fields, or whatever, the value is in the doing, because what else can you do? Give up? Will Self said that writing is an isolationist pursuit; people who can't stand their own company need not apply, but I think he's only halfway right. Writers are so prone to savage self-criticism, which often leads to the conclusion that the doing is worthless, and has no value, and so you'd better just stop. And that's no bloody good, is it? So finding a group that feels right makes the doing feel worthwhile, and when you're doing, when you're creating, you cannot by definition be self-critical, because you're distracted and screening all that stuff out. And when you successfully complete something, you get serotonin boosts and all that good stuff. And I think doing that without support requires a will of iron, really. So, if there's one piece of advice that I would dispense (and I'm aware that wasn't in the question!) it would be, to write.

Best piece of advice? Bryan Wigmore recently said that (and despite what I've just said about the indispensability of writing groups) one has to retain a confidence in the purity of one's own vision for the work. And I've been thinking about something along those lines for a while, and I could feel it inside, but bloody hell if that guy doesn't have a way of defining it so crisply and cleanly, like everything he writes, the git. But he's on the money; you need to be confident, that if you feel something in the way you're telling the story, then that feeling is right. The difficulty is articulating that dream-like sense of what you want your story to be. And it's in the articulation where you may need the help of others, such as editors and the like, because articulation is exceedingly difficult.

Worst advice? Anything that goes along the lines of "the rules say...", like "don't include a prologue," or "don't infodump," or "don't headhop" stuff like that. I mean, what's the point of fiction if you can't headhop? That just seems ridiculous to me. If you can make it work, then it works, by definition. People have got to have something to latch onto. I tell you what else was pretty dumb advice - and I forget where I got it from - but it was to do with submissions. The advice was to flood the market with submissions. Send your MS and synopsis and whatever off to as many agents and publishers as you can realistically keep track of, and if you throw enough mud, some will stick. And that's just so stupid I can't tell you. I mean, come on, you're sending your MS off to fifty, sixty agents? The only way you're going to do that is by sending off the same bloody letter to each one, without any thought about why you're approaching that particular agent? And I've met agents, I've seen the eye-watering piles of manuscripts on their desks. They're not looking for reasons to accept a manuscript; they're looking for reasons to discard them, because they receive so many of the bloody things.

And with hindsight that's so obvious it makes my head spin. So I figured that a more subtle, tailored approach would be better, and hey presto, it worked!

PL: Indeed it has - for here we are, talking about your first published book. One final question - which one component of Man O'War do you think you executed most successfully in terms of fulfilling your vision? Or, another way of putting it might be; what component are you most proud of?

DJ: Sometimes I'm just pleased and proud that I managed to finish the damn thing, given how much trouble I'm having with my follow up to it. One thing I've learned is that it's no small thing to complete a book in the way you want to. I'm really proud of Naomi. She's my Frankenstein's Monster, or at least my attempted approximation. I think she has layers and layers to her, more than I can understand right now.

You can try understanding Naomi yourself by reading Man O'War, published by Snow Books and available from the usual outlets. Thanks to Dan for doing this - you can find out more about him at his website. 

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Writing the Heavy Metal way

Warning - This post started as a self-indulgent attempt to remake the wheel when it comes to three act stories. It has since transmogrified into more of looking at how to populate said three acts, but this post still might be a self-indulgent attempt to remake the wheel. Caveat emptor.

Still, part of writing is looking for new twists, new ways to make old stories and ideas fresh and enthralling again, right? Right? 

Well it is for me. I like looking at how art is created and stories told in other artforms and wondering if there's anything that can be stolen. And there's no other art that I think about more than Metal, so here's some ideas I sorta cribbed from Metal songs.

1) Intros as simple statements of theme

A lot of metal songs start with a single instrument playing one of the song's main riffs. Obvious advantages are that it gets right to the point and creates a strong cohesiveness. It can be used to provide instant energy while still allowing things to scale up in intensity - see At The Gates' Slaughter of the Soul - or it can be used to provide instant contrast while still being recognizably part of the whole - Dark Tranquillity's Freecard is a great example of that.

I think this is an idea that definitely can be used in writing books. Having a scene that really hits at the book's theme/main ideas/main source of entertainment in a simple and non-over the top way does the same thing. And I think it's a good thing. It goes a bit counter to the oft-given advice to start the character in their normal world before causing mayhem, but not if you're clever with it. The beginning of Game of Thrones both shows the Starks' normal world and starts asking questions about the use of power right away. I'd argue that it contains one of the series' iconic moments.

This one might seem obvious, but I can't think of too many books that I'd say do it. Too often books start at the logical beginning, or lose cohesion between the start and middle. And how many other books start with iconic moments? I get that we're dealing with very different art forms and this might be one of them, but I think going straight for a big thematically resonant oomph at the beginning rather than setting the scene might get more mileage at least some of the time.

2) Accentuating the theme and main characters through pace of events and secondary cast

I've come to see the theme, tone and main characters of a book as being akin to the lead melodies and frontman in a song, and the plot, structure and secondary characters as the rhythm section. The former is that which entertains and is remembered most; the latter is what gives the former the context needed to work. A lot of metal songs like to use the same riff over and over, but with the rhythm section giving it a different texture. 

You see something akin to this in fiction already. The Dresden Files are very much the same riff over and over, just using different foes and buddies to provide a different backing track. And I'm sure we've all heard the advice to use shorter sentences to convey quicker scenes i.e. action scenes or having some comic relief to lighten things up. But it's something that I think authors could maybe concentrate on more, particularly when it comes to the structure and tempo of a book, and is often something I feel is the difference between great and good. 

I also think playing with the pace of events could be a way of making things even more Epic. Would A Song of Ice and Fire be even better if GRRM had taken that chronological gap to allow the characters to grow up? Adrian Selby's Snakewood benefits heavily from its frequent historical recountings to build up the legend of the Twenty. I enjoy a good simple narrative arc as the character goes from 16 to 18 as much as the next person, but sometimes it's better to mix it up.

3) Putting the star centre stage

Think metal, think guitar solos. The idea that you want to hear the star attraction bust out all their moves is embedded deep in the heart of metal. It is one with a very clear literary equivalent too; the aristeia of Homer's heroes. And if Homer's doing it, it has to be worthy of consideration for Fantasy, right? Certainly a lot of authors feel that way when it comes to gigantic casts clashing in battles that reshape the world.

When fans start listing their favourite Epic Fantasy moments, they're usually the moments when characters slough off their failures and achieve brilliant redemptive victories by being the people the readers wished them to be. In other words, the characters' aristeia -their solos. Yet many authors skimp on this; either not allowing enough characters their moment, or not allowing characters to emerge from the collective, or simply not treating the decisive moment with enough gravity. Sometimes they go the other way and try to have too many such moments; but there is limited appetite for a song entirely of guitar solos.

It's not just the lead instruments that get solos either. Giving relatively minor support characters their moment in the sun not only keeps proceedings fresh through variety, but can give readers deep satisfaction. Snape's contribution to the Pensieve might be judged such a moment. 



In conclusion, this blog post did feel something of a wheel reinvention exercise due to the many fictional examples I could think of to back up the relevance of these concepts to fantasy. These are things that great authors do. But there’s many good authors that don’t seem to. I just finished Joseph Brassey’s Skyfarer. He definitely executed number 3; I think he tried to execute number 2 but didn’t use the supporting cast enough; I think the book would have really benefited from a different opening that felt more cohesive with a book of derring-do so I think he could have done 1 better (although it was a statement of theme alright). And identifying tricks that make great authors great is never a total waste of time. I’ll probably re-do this blog post sometime, with the ideas more polished and fiction-centric - but this is how it started. And hopefully its worth something.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Feasting Friday - Later than Ever!

I'm so good at keeping a blog updated.

Which is a shame, because my culinary life has been banging like a school trip in a drum shop.

Top of the list is the discovery that my wife loves curry. Or at least, coconutty curry that's not too coriander heavy. A friend cooked us the Prawn Malabar recipe in Camellia Panjabi's 50 Great Curries of India and she has since demanded I cook it twice.The first went a little awry due to too much heat and not enough salt. The second, I probably cut the tomatoes too big and again not enough salt... but really good.

My own personal attempt at playing mad scientist is trying to do a Pork and Apple stir fry. The flavours go well together. They share some great complimentary flavours that go great in a stir fry in ginger and cinnamon. Stir fries need some crunch, which apple can provide. Go number one has not quite done what I've wanted, but has made an admirable sweet and sour stir fry. I wished I'd added some chilli to it, and maybe doing a quick half-pickle of the apples isn't the way to go as they totally lost their texture, but it's pretty good. I'll try repeating and refining the sweet and sour version and noting down the recipe at some point this weekend.

There hasn't been too much home cooking as we've eaten out far, far too much. Highlights include:

Wahaca's chorizo and potato quesadilla. I've had this one every time I've gone there and it is the absolute highlight dish there - creamy, smoky and just the right amount of crunch, give and chew.

Pandan Roll from Chinatown Bakery. I've no idea how it's so light and airy, and apparently I really like the taste of Pandan. Most of Chinese sweet baking seems too heavy to me, but this is heavenly.

The Jerk Dub Fries from Sub Cult. Like, what the actual bleeeeeeep. I'm a fan of the idea of loaded fries, but this is the first time I've seen anyone really really nail it. Perfectly crisp chips, lovely soft pork shoulder, and tons of jerk sauce is how loaded fries should be. Dayum.

And that's it for now. Back to the writing.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Top 10 books read in 2017

I made a few half-assed justifications about why I was posting a top 10 articles of 2017 when I did. There are no justifications for this. It is utter untogetherness at work and pure indulgence to think there's any import to this list. But since I like to make self-indulgent decisions when blogging, here it is. Enough waffle - here it is from the top.

1) Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

Okay, going back to self-indulgence - I'm super stunned I haven't taken time to rave about how much I love this book here. Because I really love this book. It features one of the more imaginative, 'wow', downright cool presentations of magic and its impact on a secondary world I've ever seen and will probably ever see.

Beyond that though there's a very well-crafted and appealing book in just about every way. Gladstone has the Pratchett-esque knack of of making characters feel interesting, familiar and unique in a few short lines. He also manages to mix wry dark humour with incisive thinking and prose in a way that reminds me somewhat of Pratchett too.

The only place Three Parts Dead is lacking is when it comes to the murder mystery and plot. It's intriguing but after a while, it feels a little thin with not enough false trails to keep the mystery alive. Even then, Gladstone manages the sound and fury of the climax more than well enough to satisfy. Overall, it makes for a phenomenal book. Absolutely phenomenal.

2) The Goddess Project by Bryan Wigmore

This lost out by the thinnest of hairs. Given there's been quite a bit about this book on the blog, there isn't a huge amount left for me to say again. It hits a lot of the same notes as TPD for me; innovative world affecting magic, mystery, and interesting characters. Clearly this is one of my favourite flavours of fantasy now.

What it does differently, and what I love, is the feeling of the book. It isn't magic as industry, it is magic - and a world - as mystery. Without stinting on the world we see, just about everything important about The Goddess Project is a mystery of some sort and that really drags me in.

You'd think after a year, I'd be able to identify something of a weakness in this book for me. Still can't. I know some people don't get on with the prose and the dialogue. Don't really agree with that, although I guess the dialogue doesn't pop and sizzle like parts of TPD. But this just as good and my gift buying patterns over the last year prove it.

3) Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

Here's my Abercrombie history. Read The First Law trilogy and really liked parts, was meh at other parts. Re-read some parts and was really meh. Read Best Served Cold and decided to believe all the hype.

The thing I like most about Abercrombie is the tone of his work. It reads like a trad fantasy and a spaghetti western/Pulp Fiction at the same time. That's how blood-heavy fantasy should be. That he's got a Gemmell-esque knack for showing the psychology of violence provides the other half of the coin needed to pull off blood-heavy fantasy.

And everything else, he does well to very well. I have been severely remiss in not chasing up his other books.

4) Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

It's one damn good year when this only hits number four. Gaiman's greatest gift as an author (arguably) is his portrayal of normal confused people in abnormal confusing circumstances. And (arguably) he never does it better than he does in this book.

He's also got as great a sense of place here as ever, strong pacing, and a wicked sense of humour. It maybe isn't as epic as American Gods or as full of wonder as Neverwhere and Stardust, but it occupies a very comfortable middle ground between the two. Arguably his best book? Very arguably, but about as good as fantasy gets.

5) Horns by Joe Hill

Just about everything else on this got a 5 from me on GoodReads but this only got a 4. Which just goes to show I know less about Jon Snow. Horns' ideas and creepiness have stuck with me. The big reveals have only got more effective with time. The heavy handed use of theme has become more acceptable. Sometimes you don't realise just how much enjoyment you'll get out of a book when you've finished it - and I knew I'd enjoyed it a lot when I'd finished. Superior gothic mystery.

6) Angel's Truth by AJ Grimmelhaus

For sheer untrammeled fun, this retro-styled adventure novel (you could imagine it as a D&D module) was about as good as 2017 got for me. Its written with a nice mix of modern sensibility and old school charm that gives it a really good tone and aesthetic, which is backed up with a good twisty story line. It lacks the thematic depth to crack the top five here but hey, fun is fun. This book was so much fun.

7) Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock

From uncomplicated fun to complicated, thought-provoking, sometimes not fun. It's a very, very good book in a lot of ways, but I think for most people, sooner or later one of the tonal shifts or long explanations will lose them a little. It did so for me. The richness of idea and depth of emotion still made it a favourite for me. I'm not sure who's writing this sort of sombrely beautiful and imaginative fantasy today, but I need to find out.

8) The Imbued Lockblade by MD Presley

This one nearly slipped my mind because I beta'ed it rather than brought it. Well. I say beta'ed. What I mean is I read it, wrote an email saying "Yeah, you got it" and got one back saying "That's it?". That was it. My favourite part is the complexity and unrelenting nature of the plot - and flashback narrative arc - but other readers seem to go on more about the characters and world. They're certainly interesting, but it's the arc that has the magic here for me. I'm looking forwards to seeing this series go forwards a lot whereas with other books on this list I've been ambivalent about reading the others.

9) Temeraire by Naomi Novik

Good example of the last sentence right here! Temeraire's mix of period Hornblower-esque adventures with the Weyrs of Pern was a huge amount of fun to read. My mum absolutely loved it and got half the series. I've yet to read any of the others. Fear the novelty of the idea will fade thin and reveal there was nothing behind the curtain? I did find the plot wore somewhat thin in this book. But it was still a lot of fun and I should try the rest.

10) Jade City by Fonda Lee

I really wanted to love this book. Really really wanted to. Wuxia Godfather is such an awesome idea. And I liked it a lot, or it wouldn't be here. But I didn't love it because, as I recently said, there's simply too much story for the pages. But Lee certainly did enough justice to the idea of Wuxia Godfather that I'll be keeping tabs - and Wuxia Godfather is surely all I need to tell people to get others to try this book.

HMs
The Ninth Rain by Jen Williams: A lot of fun - arguably more fun than some of the stuff on the list - but lacked the emotional heft to etch it into my memory

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett: Probably cracks this list if I didn't hate present tense; hella admirable, but I hate present tense. Only present tense book I've finished though.

The Night Circus by Erin Mogernstern: Deserves all its praise but ultimately the big moments just missed the bullseye for me.

Waters And The Wild by Jo Zebedee: Slow start keeps it out of the list but very good when it gets going.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Theatre Review - Bury the Hatchet

In my finest tradition of writing about things I have only the loosest grip on, I'm turning theatre critic. I'm really not kidding here. Before yesterday, my last visit to the theatre in... I've no idea. And that's a shame on a lot of levels, not least the fact that I'd have got a lot more out of seeing Bury the Hatchet had I done so.

Bury the Hatchet is a three person effort coming from Out of the Woods Theatre, telling the tale of Lizzie Borden, America's most famous possible axe murderer. Well. They made a point of reminding us that she used a hatchet but I prefer the term axe murderer. So there. The play isn't just about Borden though. Its about a lot of things, such as stereotypes, the accuracy of reported information, and the way we tell stories. Which is why I wish I'd been to the theatre more; I'd have probably got a lot more out of it.

I still had a blast.

At least one of the group is a My Favourite Murder fan - my wife found out about the play through the London Murderinos facebook page - and it shows. Bury the Hatchet had the same mix of true life crime, wry and multifaceted humour, occasional personal confession and socially progressive critique as the podcast. The actors took this formula and ran with it. Like, Chariots of Fire style ran with it. It takes a deft hand to balance tragedy and humour in this way; it is present in both the acting and the writing.

The best part of both humour-wise were the numerous fourth wall breaks, such as one of the actors interrupting the opening speech to criticise the accent and also later going to sit in the audience and ask questions. Those moments got the biggest laughs along with the tale of how the family servant, Bridget, was known as Maggie.

Bury the Hatchet shined even brighter though when concentrating on the pathos of the story. The trio showed off their musical talent with a number of mournful renditions of traditional folk songs, bringing home the realities of the situation faced by Lizzie when she was accused of murder.

Was she guilty? The play's focus on the tragicomic aspects left little space for going into the specifics of the situation and many theories surrounding it. There clearly wasn't a shortage of research into the subject, with frequent excerpts from the period such as the coroner's report, police inquiry, and even Lizzie's meatloaf recipe making their way into the play. But I left wanting more. That might just be personal taste though.

It's definitely a sign of a good play that I had that level of interest come the end though. Bury the Hatchet marries the warmth of My Favourite Murder with a tastefully toned down version of Deadpool's wit. In the unlikely event this is seen by anyone in London looking to hit the theatre in the next few days, I've got a recommendation for them. Its down in the Vaults. For everyone else - well, hope that the show goes on elsewhere.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Five More Books: Fantasy Crime edition

Jade City by Fonda Lee

Jade City is described most commonly as a wuxia version of the Godfather for good reason. It packs all the scope and heft of Coppola's classic and echoes the twisted family loyalties of the Corleones. It is also filled with the breathtaking action and high mythic feel associated with wuxia. And, really, who doesn't want to read something that hits both of those points?

Unfortunately, Jade City doesn't quite do its concept justice. The sheer size of the story feels too big for the page count as arcs build up then sizzle out with characters suddenly going with the flow of events. As a result, I felt rather neutral on the characters and their struggles, neither hoping nor fearing for them. Hopefully over the course of the series, I end up thinking the opposite.

Because, despite the rather large flaw I find in Jade City, I do want to read the rest and find out how the story ends. Lee writes well, particularly when doing action scenes, and presents a beautifully vivid world, intriguing me where the characters and story do not. And the characters do have potential - they just need more words to realise it - and the story has been set up for a potentially breathtaking sequel. I'd recommend it for those reasons alone, as I believe Lee will deliver, but any fans of, well, wuxia and the Godfather would do well to check in.

The Straight Razor Cure by Daniel Polansky

When I started searching for fantasy noir, this was the book most recommended to me. It doesn't take more than a few pages to realise why. The Straight Razor Cure is saturated with sardonic style and is definitely the closest thing I've found to Chandler giving fantasy a go. Polansky has more than a noir voice though; he has the knack for making the dark and seedy feel non-gratuitous.

His narrator, the Warden, is swiftly thrown into a murder investigation that threatens the whole city as well as his very personal well-being. The storyline progresses nicely with an entertaining cast of secondary characters - that is, until it hits the murky middle. For reasons I can't quite put my finger on, it became a struggle to push through, uninteresting and a bit confusing. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the middle is about where I began to tire of the voice too; there can be too much of a good thing.

Nevertheless, I liked it enough to struggle through to the end, thanks to some wonderful set-pieces. Tell the truth, I can't even really remember whether I liked the ending, although I do remember heavily disliking certain elements. I did start reading the next one though (until I needed to give it to the library) so it can't have been that bad. And I will, murky middle or no, echo the people I asked; this is the book to start with for Noir fantasy.

Night Watch by Sir Terry Pratchett

Yes, yes, I'm reviewing the last (or more or less last) first. That's because its the best, a masterpiece in its own right elevated by the series worth of character development that went into Sam Vimes and the streets he treads. Books like these are why readers cling grimly to series even when the author seems to have murdered their creative muse for the life insurance and buggered off to the Bahamas.

Crime books sometimes undersell their characters, when arguably they need to be sold harder than any other genre. They must be vulnerable enough - human enough - for empathy, yet tough enough to belong to the mean streets that very few of us willingly choose. Pratchett nails both parts of the equation. He does an equally fine job with the supporting cast, who are invested with a lot of humanity in a very short period of time, and greatly add to the book's tension as a result.

Not that this is a tense book. I struggle to think how I'd characterise the book's story actually. But what tension exists is mostly cut with background gallows humour, until right at the end itself. Those looking for a tight mystery are in the wrong place (although many of the earlier Guards books do have them) as are those looking for something bleak. For everyone else, this series - and eventually this book - would be where I'd recommend starting with fantasy crime.

The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble's Braids by Michael McClung

There's a big gap between Polansky and Pratchett when it comes to tone; those looking for something in the middle might try McClung. His eponymous thief, Amra Thetys, has something of the Warden's grimness and moral laxity, while also having something of Vimes' world-weary humanity and humour.

This results in a book with fantastic voice and plenty of charm, albeit spoiled by a few anachronistic phrases. The mystery itself is well plotted and revealed, although the most memorable moments tend to come from the action scenes than the big reveals. Big fights are something McClung does very well though, so it's somewhat understandable.

Unfortunately, he relies a lot on powerful magicians who do somewhat unravel the plot. That, plus the odd slips of mood and a few tedious repetitions, were enough to seriously dent my enjoyment levels of this book. Which is a shame because at his best, McClung shows he gets everything that goes into a fantasy crime book and just how to do it. Here's hoping the rest of the series is a bit more refined.

Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard

Servant of the Underworld features one of my favourite concepts ever; an Aztec priest who fights crime. Well. Solves a murder. I'm still annoyed I wasn't able to buy a new paperback copy and show De Bodard my support the old fashioned way. I'm even more annoyed that despite all the vivid myth and detail surrounding the Aztecs and their neighbours, there is so little fantasy literature honouring them. I've heard some criticise De Bodard's depiction of the Aztecs here; I am no expert, but I found nothing to fault here.

Sadly I can't say the same of the plot, which was more intent on digging through the tangled worries of the priest's home and political life than the crime itself. To an extent, I understand; De Bodard gave her protagonist an interesting background that I wanted explored. But the result did justice to neither as far as I'm concerned. 

Which isn't to say this is a bad book. I finished it after all. The characters and central premise of the murder are great. Its certainly worth exploring if you stumble across it. It may even be worth chasing down, if, like me, you love mythology and crime and all that good stuff. You may find it less uneven than me and think its downright excellent. I hope many do, but for me, it remains a case of squandered potential.