Monday, 20 January 2020

Daggerspell In Depth Review Pt 1

Awright.

I dunno if we've got any other compulsive re-readers in the house but I find that after a few, I know things so well that I don't really have to pay attention, which means my mind wanders and finds new and interesting things in the text. And that happened during this re-read, so I decided instead of doing one review for the whole book, I'd do reviews really digging into what's going on in 60 page segments.

Excited? No? Good.

Prologue in the Year 1045: They usually tell writers to avoid word repetition. Consider then the opening lines:

"In the hall of light, they reminded her of her destiny. There, all was light, a pulsing gold like the heart of a candle flame, filling eternity. The speakers were pillars of fire within the fiery light, and their words were sparks."

That's a lot of light. And I like it. I like the use of deliberate repetition to hammer home a point and here the point is that we are in a place that isn't reality as we know. It's a place of light, of flames, of vast forces greater than humanity. And as we shortly find out, this is a place where a human soul exists before birth. And as the quote right before the prologue says:

"Men see life going from a dark to a darkness. The gods see life as a death..."
The Secret Book of Cadwallon the Druid

One of the big fantasy elements here is reincarnation. If it wasn't obvious from the blurb, Kerr has made it super obvious in these opening pages. Proclamation of big themes is something that I think validates the use of prologues and if we've already got reincarnation, we're about to get one of the others:

"These spirits of wind had faces, and she realised that she too now had a face, because they were all human and far from the light. When they spoke to her of fleshy things, she remembered lust, the ecstasy of flesh pressed against flesh."

We'll see how it goes but trust me, lust comes up a lot, both on that page (5 times!) and in the book in general. Which is - ironically to some - something that's not always true of Fantasy. And I will say at this point that while I think Daggerspell is very much representative of its type and era, there are some elements about it that feel a bit off-piste as is true of all great fiction. The focus on lust is one of those elements. Also, when you compare this sense of earthly lust and flesh vs the world of pure light, you can see why the gods consider life as a death.

But now we cut away from this otherworldly scene to meet Nevyn, the shabby old herbman who treats the poor yet strides around like a young prince and whose gaze commands respect even from the noble born - a neat little bit of worldbuilding tossed in as an aside. He's also a 400 year old dweomerman (sorcerer). He's busy looking for herbs in Eldidd when he sees an omen related to the birth of the human we've just seen:

"Out in the meadow, two larks broke cover with a heartbreaking beauty of song that was a battle cry. Two males swept up, circling and chasing each other. Yet even as they fought, the female who was their prize rose from the grass and flew indifferently away."

I ask you to consider for a moment how many stories - books, movies, myths, in Fantasy and outside - end with a female as a male's prize. It is as the stars in the sky. And here's Katherine Kerr saying clearly on the third page of text: Fuck. That. Noise. Yes, the males' competition might have a "heartbreaking beauty" - there's no hate here - just that women aren't prizes.

It's an interesting decision to have two different scenes in a prologue - I've rarely seen anything like it. The contrast of writing styles is fun, but I'm not sure how much that adds. I think the real answer is the two scenes allowed Kerr to introduce the big elements and themes in a straight forwards way. You could call it an inelegant solution; you could say it is elegant to get so much done in so few words without it feeling forced. 

And with that, lets progress to the first section.

Cerrgonney, 1052"The young fool tells his master that he will suffer to gain the dweomer. Why is he a fool? Because the dweomer has made him pay and pay and pay again before he even stood on its doorstep..."
The Secret Book of Cadwallon the Druid

First up, all these place names and quotes really create a sense of depth and place. Second, these quotes do a fine job of setting the agenda. If the first was reincarnation and earthly corruption, then this one looks a bit like 'life is pain'. But it's more than that. It is a statement about the dweomer - the magic of Kerr's Deverry - and what it takes to get that. And it raises a question - in this context, what is suffering?

The first page of this section features Jill, a young girl fetching wood and having a fight with a gnome (spirit) over it, in order to fetch wood for the fire by which her mother lies very ill. Our first impression of Jill is part sadness and fear, but also steel:

"How is she?' Macyn said.
The priestess looked at him, then pointedly at Jill. 
"You can say it,' Jill said. 'I know she's going to die."

The reason for this lies partly in her pride in her father - a great warrior to her, a Silver Dagger to others. Another part probably lies in her circumstances - even before her mother's death, she's an impoverished bastard already helping to work for her keep, which comes from the kindness of the tavernkeep Macyn. And here we see suffering very early; bereavement, poverty, an absent father. One of Kerr's strengths as a writer is the way in which she implants questions into the reader's mind - provokes desire about what they would see - then provides answers, sometimes quite subtly. Having provided the first set, the next questions are What's Going to Happen to Jill, and Who's This Cullyn (Jill's Father) anyway?

These answers come slow as Kerr shows us Jill's everyday life instead first - the Stasis point of a storytelling arc. It's a bit of a fakeout, because her mother's death feels like a Trigger point, but it works. The Stasis part of an opening can feel slow, but the death is an instant hook, and seeing how Jill mourns and adapts to life without her a natural reaction to that we readers want to see. And because we want that and the everyday life is incorporated, it doesn't feel slow. It's clever storytelling. Clever worldbuilding too, for we find out a lot about Deverry and its culture through Jill's eyes.

We also find out a bit about Cullyn too when the local lord asks who Jill's father is:

"Oh, not a doubt in the world, my lord," the ride said with an unpleasant grin. "Cullyn of Cerrmor, and no man would have dared to trifle with his wench."
...
"Well, no doubt a warrior's glory doesn't mean much to a little lass, but your da's the greatest swordsman in all Deverry, silver dagger or no."

Jill's childish surety that her father is a great warrior falls short of the truth; she is the daughter of Deverry's Muhammad 'I'm Hard' Bruce Lee. We also get a big dollop of theme here - the idea of Jill's mother being defined by being Cullyn's - and also cultural worldbuilding. The men of Deverry are a hard bunch, paying homage to Cullyn's reputation as a warrior and amused at the thought of anyone getting on the wrong end of it. This is the first point at which we see just how strong the vein of violence runs in the Deverry psyche.

The stasis continues. Jill has a moment of doubt over the realisation the local lord gave her charity, and wondering what would happen to Macyn (or Macco as she calls him, because real people use nicknames). She serves customers. Talks to her gnome (we learn the spirits are called the Wildfolk). We hear Cullyn has been fighting a war, and that all Silver Daggers are a bad lot - which is then followed by a small infodump that an editor might frown on today. Worked for me, but feels odd for Kerr to be so patient about building it up then just going boom. Then Jill dreams that Cullyn is coming - just in case there was any doubt she's the child of the prologue, marked for the Dweomer. And so he does.

Our first impression of Cullyn is as an emotional, honest, violent man - but then we do not see Cullyn until he's been told that Seryan (Jill's mother) is dead. 'My poor little lass!' Cullyn said. 'By the hells, what a rotten father you've got!' are his first words to Jill after picking her up. He loses control, weeping and bereft in public after Jill tells him that Seryan's last word was his name. And when the tavern's patrons are a little too close with their tight little smiles, he lays into them:

"None of you are even fit to be killed to pour blood into her grave."

Fantastic line.

And when it's all done, he takes Jill away from everything she's known onto the Long Road with her. Is this Cullyn doing the right thing? Is this treating her as a possession? It's hard to say. Is this the action of a loving, dedicated father, or of a jealous possessive one? It pleases and terrifies Jill. We've seen her realise the tenuousness of her situation - but is her situation with Cullyn any better? Shouldn't he settle down with her somewhere safe rather than being a mercenary? Or is he right to take care of her, him her closest flesh and blood, and to risk his life to earn the coin to pay for a decent life for her? Kerr never really answers these questions, just simply raises them and leaves them be. But it's the first time we're asked to consider where true love stops and controlling obsession starts.

The following pages in which Cullyn and Jill ride around Deverry are some of my favourite in the book and reveal so much about about the characters. We see them coping with the Long Road, dealing with the disdain Cullyn faces as a Silver Dagger, fighting a tavern brawl, Cullyn facing Jill's belief she can see the Wildfolk, riding a war and simply getting to know each other. They know each other well enough to love each other but are still very much strangers, unused and unfitted to the roles they find themselves in.

Cullyn is, by and large, a decent man and decent father. He makes sure Jill is safe and fed. He indulges her curiousity with candour except when she wants to see the direct results of his trade, which is a fairly reasonable stance with a seven year old. He can protect her. He can love her. He knows how to do these things. But when it comes to the things he can't do, he struggles. His impatience in cutting her hair short because 'cursed if I'll spend all my time combing it for you like a nursemaid' is this trait encapsulated in neat storyteller's shorthand. He also resorts to physical discipline a number of times. Why? It is tempting to simply say it is the action of a violent man. There's truth to that.

But it's not the whole truth because as we get to see on numerous occasions, Cullyn avoids killing when he can. When challenged in a tavern he doesn't back down from the confrontation, but everything is instigated and escalated by the other man. Cullyn contents himself with breaking the man's wrist and riding on to avoid trouble. When fighting the war - a very little one, seven versus five until he gets there - he seeks peaceful resolution, derides his employer's bloodthirsty attitude, and mourns the man he kills. Cullyn can control his violence. But not always with Jill.

So why? He is not constantly violent with her. He is apologetic and seeks to make her understand what he didn't want her to do afterwards. The three occasions we see her slap her are when she's talking to the Wildfolk, a habit that'd lead people to regard her as a witch; when she volunteers to ride as a messenger in a war, putting herself into danger; and when she runs forwards to see a man he's just killed, something nobody wants their child to see. The consistent pattern is him using it as a form of discipline when he's scared for her and in his fear, he doesn't have a better way of reaching out to her. Does this make it fine? To many today, no, although I wonder what Katherine Kerr herself makes of it. But in any case, I do not seek to excuse him. I seek to explain. The picture I see of Cullyn is a product of his violent environment, woefully underequipped for being the active parent, but trying as best he can.

The other thing that comes across from Cullyn in this portion of the book is his concept of honour. To him, it is hugely important - "Never dishonour yourself, Jill... dishonour sticks closer to you than blood on your hands." Yet when Jill praises him for being honourable and letting a lord's son lives, he corrects her and points out that was done solely for the ransom. To Cullyn, honour doesn't seem anything that important. Its dishonour - revealed to be the reason for why every man becomes a Silver Dagger, for only a dishonoured man would fight for pay - that matters. And that opinion in the mouth of the pragmatic Cullyn acts as a key piece of worldbuilding; dishonour will have big real life consequences in Deverry.

And what of Jill? She is full of curiosity, a bit naive but not slow in learning. She's not afraid to answer back most of the time, or to punch a snot-nosed boy who calls Silver Daggers scum. It is quickly clear there's a lot of her father in her - 'stubborn just like you and every bit as nasty when I wanted to be' is the posthumous judgment of Seryan as relayed by Jill to Cullyn. There's a lot of love for him, a lot of hero worship: "Da, you're splendid, and this is splendid, too. When I grow up, I'll be a silver dagger like you."

There's also fear. She loves her da, but she's also scared. Why wouldn't she be? He's been out of her life more than in for all his influence, and is a physically imposing man who makes his living through bloody violence and imposes discipline with a slap. This truly comes home when she sees the man Cullyn kill and realises who her da truly is. 

"He was still her da, her handsome wonderful da, but she had just seen him kill a man. When he laid his hand on her shoulder, she flinched."

The hands that comb her hair kill men. Its the sort of thought most people would push aside, but she can't fully. Yet, having accepted that this is simply how Wyrd is in Deverry, she also comes to peace with this being Cullyn. He's all she has after all. And that night she has a dream where she sees the blood and dead rider all over again, and this time she watches and watches as the thick green grass grows over it. And the figure in her dream (a legendary woman warrior) smiles. This is Deverry. Blood and suffering are the order of the day. Yet neither Cullyn nor Jill fully accept it, even if they do not reject it.

There is a final coda to this section and that is back to Nevyn, the herbman of the prologue, riding along the road and despairing of ever finding the girl we know to be Jill. In his reverie he's about to ride into a warband - hard-edged fighting men like we've seen bickering and quarrelling all the way through Jill's narrative. Sure enough they shout for him to get off the road, but before he can comply they do that same thing. The reason for this is their lord - an eight year old child named Rhodry - has commanded them to do so. Rhodry is impossibly handsome, friendly and open, and with a very fine sense of honour as demonstrated by his decision that young men should cede the road to old men, regardless of rank. He is a young lord fit to have walked out of a fairytale. And sure enough, he's going back to his home in Eldidd (where Nevyn's story begins), and he's the reincarnated soul of someone who was part of Nevyn and Jill's tangled wyrd.

Honestly, this scene doesn't truly fit. It's a quick and well-written way to introduce Rhodry and segue into the first of the time jumps, but it is inelegant and feels forced to jump suddenly to this narrative at this moment. To me, it doesn't fit the cadence of the narrative. But that is a small gripe and as an introduction to Rhodry and a way to shed light on just how old and tired Nevyn is, it works.

Salient Points

I'm going to talk about Cullyn first, up to this point the most controversial character on page for most. I am, admittedly, a big fan of his. And something that I've only really recently realised to put into words is that for a character of his type - the veteran warrior - he is probably the most convincing to me in Fantasy outside of David Gemmell's books. He's wise, but not impossibly so. It is difficult to explain, but I think it's best to say is no matter how wise, how professional, it takes a certain amount of obstinate pride, numbed emotions, and capacity for hurting people to engage in violence regularly and willingly. And those things do not switch off when they're not wanted, even if a wise man can be a great deal more. Cullyn sells that.

That's not why I'm a big Cullyn fan though, although it helps. It's because he's honest, loves his daughter, and never stops trying to do the right thing. He sometimes gets very confused about it, because he's not perfect, but he tries to find his way there. We're all products of our environment and it leaves marks on us; people who try to overcome theirs, I like. Cullyn's one of them. 

I'm a big Jill fan too. She's fun to read about and has so many enjoyable moments. She is, at this point, a lot less complicated than Cullyn, so I shan't go on too much, but what I really love is them together. They are a fantastic duo with so many character dynamics. It can be hard to make a character feel realistic when there's only really one person for them to interact with, but when done well it brings huge depth and life to a character. Kerr nails it. And she does it by a constant attention to what makes each of the characters brave and afraid, hopeful and heartbroken. There's little time wasted on minutiae here. It is bravura storytelling.

She is also quite the worldbuilder too. There's some flaws. A couple of awkward sections of omniscient infodump exist that surely wouldn't get past an agent today (but probably wouldn't actually affect anyone's enjoyment of a book). The use of the very Germanic-Nordic wyrd and dweomer in the otherwise completely Celtic milieu are bound to irritate a certain type of pedant and leave others a bit jarred from time to time. But Deverry's culture and societal norms are brought to life. I can't tell you all that much about what they wear, drink or eat (although some) but I know exactly how they act. And it makes sense, despite a level of violence and honour culture alien to most people in the modern western world. In fact, Deverry's one of the most macho cultures in Fantasy.

And the really neat trick - possibly the neatest of all - is that despite Kerr having clearly set this up so she can criticise the frequent carnage of such behaviour, as no point do I feel like it exists just to be slaughtered. It is given a full hearing and plenty of admiration - just ultimately, an exasperated judgement of "do grow up boys". Almost like the men of Deverry were two birds singing warcries of heartbreaking beauty, fighting over a prize that doesn't even exist for them and never should.

Friday, 17 January 2020

Quick five thoughts here tonight...

1) Check out L Chan's To Build a Bridge Out of Song which is one of the better short stories I've read recently, with a really enthralling setting that I hope he's made use out of elsewhere.

2) It's not often to see out genre get some mainstream media attention, so it was nice to see this on the Guardian website - a top 10 roundup.

3) BBC America decided to release images from their adaption of Pratchett's City Watch. I use the word adaption for want of a better one; even after keeping up with the news, it was still like being told you're getting beer and instead getting a glass of water with some grain and hops on a plate next to it. I'm going to avoid giving into nerd rage here today, but I struggle to think of a Fantasy TV series that has made more of an attempt to alienate its pre-existing audience, and by now I'm happy to be alienated.

4) Seems everything's about new reader recs these days! After seeing the FF Facebook list (which caused us some puzzlement on the FF forum), it got me thinking about other ways to get more accurate recommendations. One idea I like is if you thought up a bunch of metrics on stuff that's important to readers - Type of Action, Scale, Setting, Grim or Not, Diversity, that sort of thing - then gave a value to each. So, say, Daggerspell would be Action/Magic/Drama, Kingdom sized over multiple centuries, Pseudo-Feudal Celtic, Kinda Grim, White with Prominent Ladies. And people could look at that and go "Eww" or "Cool" or "Hmm". I might start playing with the idea in future reviews

5) It's funny how as life goes we change as readers. And by funny I mean completely normal and not really that interesting to most people other than yourself (just like this blog boom boom), but it shakes you a little when you recognise it. I picked up some of Conn Iggulden's Ghengis Khan books and found myself a bit bleh'ed out by the general distance of the narrative tone. I'd have found it totally normal as a kid.

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

My modern fantasy challenge update Part Two

Part one was the nine authors I picked, here's where I talk about the others I've read and some of the conclusions I came to.

The other three authors I finished books by were Mark Lawrence, Adrian Tchaikovsky and NK Jemisin.

Mark Lawrence's The Red Prince was a fun little number, very reminiscent of Flashman - possibly too much. If the book had a weakness, it was that it was very much of the quest travelogue style, and that the world didn't have much to make it stand out vs other fantasy books. Adrian Tchaikovsky's The Wolf and the Tiger hit a lot of my sweet spots - mythic and ancient feeling, interesting magic, plenty of mystery and a strong voice - but I think it maybe moved a little slow for me. NK Jemisin's Dreamblood moved a little fast, but otherwise hit the same sweet spots. In both cases, I expected to like both more than I did - see my recent review of Dreamblood to see exactly what I thought of it - but did like them a lot.

I also tried Staveley, Erikson, Wooding, Rothfuss, Abraham, Hurley, Julia Knight, Batchelder, Bakker and Elliott without finishing any of them. No bad authors there but for whatever reason, none of them kept my attention. Daniel Abraham came closest as I really like his prose but I read The Dragon's Path at a time when I was really over reading the PoVs of blind bigots and sociopaths. I might go back to him one day - hell, might go back to any of them. But between them, and those I read, and a past familiarity with Gaiman and Tad Williams, I've certainly read enough to make some conclusions.

Conclusion 1: I'm a fussy reader who's over completionism.

Some of you might be asking if this is really a revelation to me, but it was. Years of sticking with the same small group of authors, adding to them rarely, meant I stuck with things I really liked and completed and then re-completed. Now, maybe I've changed as well, grown more critical, but there definitely seems to be a correlation between me trying a new author every month and me putting down more books. And probably a causation too. And because I'm used to quitting, and because I'm constantly looking for new authors, finishing series has kinda gone too. I've finished one series since I first had the challenge idea.

I miss completing series. There's a great feeling to it. I deeply envy all the bloggers who seem to be finding books they love every other week. But at the same time, I'm okay with it - if only because not being okay with it would suck. I am what I am, and if I more easily offput by a book's flaws then others, it doesn't mean I love reading any less.

Note - this isn't just new books. I've made a concerted attempt to go back through the genre's history, and the same choosiness applies there. And most of the authors I grew up on, there's now books of theirs I haven't finished either.

Conclusion 2: Fantasy hasn't got that much darker.

When I started this, all the talk seemed to be about Grimdark. This is Grimdark, that is Grimdark, this is why Grimdark is superior, this is why it sucks, and so on. I wasn't entirely sure how I felt about a diet of Grimdark. I had liked Abercrombie's The First Law but found it wore thin at the end. I am greatly intrigued by violence and have a disgusting sense of humour, but need something extra. But in the event, at the end of the challenge and everything else I'm read, I'm still not sure about how I'd feel about a diet of grimdark as I never had it. Given a list of what people saw as the genre's best, I didn't really have to try.

What I did read, both grimdark and non-grimdark, leads to me to believe that the genre's view of life isn't all that much changed from what was written in the 80s and 90s. Yes, it is darker, as is unsurprising in darker times, but by and large writers still believe in heroes defeating villains. The view of hero and villain is more nuanced, more blurred, but by and large they're still hero and villain. The amount of villains who win, and the amount of protagonists who are either villains or truly contemptible, have grown, but they're far from the majority of the genre. We show more pain, but I sometimes think people forgot how much pain was shown. I'd say that as a whole the genre has grown broader, rather than everything going to darkness; which means yes the genre has grown darker as a whole, but there's still plenty of inspirational and light-hearted stories out there.

Conclusion 3: Fantasy is changing but maybe the perception hasn't caught up yet

Speaking of the genre getting broader, I think it has done so in every conceivable way compared to what felt like the mainstream back when I was a boy. We integrate more genres, we plunder more mythologies and histories, we have a more diverse writer base than results in more diverse stories. When you consider the widest possible boundaries of the genre, then Fantasy has something for everyone (unless they absolutely hate all hints of the supernatural) and a lot of the biggest media properties on the planet. I will freely concede that my knowledge of Fantasy as a youngster wasn't as strong as it might be, and give all due praise to the many very different takes on Fantasy that exist in the genre's past, but still the kingdom grows greater.

Yet I arguably didn't get that from the list and judging from the many "It's all Tolkien!" takes I get, I don't always get it from other people. I've already commented on the gender bias I received last time; I feel pretty sure (or hope) that if I did it again I'd receive a wider net of ethnicity. Urban Fantasy was poorly represented on the list, as was YA. Maybe something about what I said and who I am led people to skew their recommendations away from that. But I believe that in some part, a lot of fantasy readers haven't really taken on board everything the genre is now offering yet. That's okay, lag is to be expected, but I'd like to believe that people will be getting more on board with the big offering soon - simply because they'll have more fun.

Conclusion 4: I've gone from all about the Epic Fantasy to all about anything but

Pretty much all of my childhood favourites had something of Epic Fantasy's DNA mixed in, if not wholly made of it. Pratchett, Gaiman and Rankin were the only real exceptions to that rule. Now - allowing for a wooliness about what Epic is - I'm reading a lot more things that are pretty off the beaten track there. More adventure stories, like Novik's Temeraire. More personal scale stories, like Wecker's The Golem and The Djinni or the various crime-fantasy books I've read.

It's not that I've gone off Epic Fantasy as an idea. There's still been plenty of it in my choices. But either the blurb sounds boring, or I'm just not clicking with it while I'm reading it, or I'm getting distracted by other things I'm reading. Why? Has Epic Fantasy changed, or am I fooling myself about my tastes changing? I think that one big part of it is I was always very attracted to the element of myth in Epic Fantasy, and it feels like a lot of it is less about riffing on myth and more on history and D&D and maybe even superheroes. None of these are things I dislike, but maybe without seeing the missing element it doesn't come together for me.

Conclusion 5: My best in modern fantasy is different - what's yours?

If somebody were to ask me to recommend the best books of the last 10 years - or last 14 years to be like my original question - I would definitely have firm opinions by now in a way I didn't then. And quite a few of them would be recommending names that didn't make the list.

The first name that would spring to mind is Max Gladstone, whose Craft series represents to me the absolute finest in terms of the sort of invention we're seeing in Fantasy today. He didn't get a single vote when I asked, but everyone I knows who've read him enjoy his books immensely. Aliette De Bodard and Helene Wecker should have also been on the list.

Also on my recommendation list, albeit published after I started asking would be RJ Barker and Fonda Lee. I'm not sure if I'd recommend R.F. Kuang, whose work I still find very memorable for both good and bad, but I would at least think about it.

I'd probably also recommend a few small press and indie works. The Goddess Project and The Woven Ring were both written by guys I'd consider good friends in Bryan Wigmore and MD Presley respectively, but there's plenty of my good writer friends I didn't give such constant props to. They wrote really, really good fantasies. I also recall being impressed with Lindsay Buroker's The Emperor's Edge, which has remained in the memory for a long time for a casual read - impressed enough to buy a series anthology recently.

Saturday, 11 January 2020

Top 10 Books of 2019

I was feeling kinda down about my reading this year until I started to do this - I read a lot of good books, and will be leaving a lot of good books off. And because I read some really good books, I've decided to dispense with 1 to 10 and go with some ties, because three books were the best books I've read this year and I don't want to choose. But I've also decided to count down from 10 this year, so you'll just have to scroll down to see those 3... or, you know, read the other items. Or read the tweet that totally gives it away.

HMs: Lady Midnight by Cassandra Clare, The Killing Moon by NK Jemisin, The Tiger and the Wolf by Adrian Tchaikovsky, The Bone Ships by RJ Barker, The Deep by John Crowley - All good books, but just one step off to my taste compared to the rest listed here

8. A Hero Born by Jin Yong - People call this China's LotR but it seemed to me to have more of a Conan vibe, full of boisterous energy and larger than life heroics. That's the sort of fanbase I'd recommend it to anyway - fantasy readers craving adventures into the strange. The plot is labyrinthine and I can't remember the full details now, but that just added to the fun of reading it. I should check to see whether the same translator has done any of the sequels yet.

8. Distaff by Various - This anthology would get into the top 10 for Rosie Oliver's The Ice Man alone but the whole volume is good value. There's no bad stories and despite the frequent tone shifts that are part and parcel of the anthology, nothing feels out of place. If anything, the variety makes it a more enjoyable reading experience, as I never get bored of the same thing again and again. 

Plus it still contains a story that made me miss my train stop, and it's not even the best story in there.

8. House of Broken Wings by Aliette de Bodard - Reading back my review for this almost made me switch it to HMs and put something else here, but I'm sticking with my initial instincts. Something about this story and De Bodard's writing leaves a crack in my memory in which deep emotions grow; something about the world grips my imagination. She puts the characters through just the right amount of pain and joy. But maybe this book is here because of the sequel which convinced me that Madeleine is a rock star. In any case, the why is less important than the result.

6. The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg - A slight step up in tier here compared to the others as Silverberg's effortless mastery of voice, moreish writing style, and portrayal of dark comedy and thought provoking horror made this an outstanding read. I wish it had contained more of a fantasy edge but for what it is, its note perfect. And I've already lent it to one person.

6. Turning Darkness Into Light by Marie Brennan - I've reviewed this very recently so feel like I have little to say, but have to note this tier consists mainly of stories with outstanding style, stone cold perfect execution of a concept even if I wished the concept had been a little bigger, and which I have already forced onto other people because they're awesome.

4. The Story of the Stone by Barry Hughart - I fucking love Barry Hughart's books. Everything feels like it's turned up to 11 and over the top; the characters, the convoluted plots, the humour, everything. At times it overwhelmed me but I always got sucked in by the next piece of nonsense or drama. Or both. The two go hand in hand. There's a satirical edge to this book that's easier to discern that it was in Bridge of Birds. That Hughart only wrote three books is borderline crime by the powers that be.

4. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker - A lovely, entrancing book, full of a sense of place and with some of the best mini character portraits around. It doesn't quite reach my joint top spot due to not completely selling me on the main plot and characters, but I don't really care as everything else was fantastic and as such, I'll still read her next book anyway. Even if its just a travel guide to Birmingham.

1. King of Assassins by RJ Barker - Onto my borderline perfect books. I criticised Age of Assassins for maybe being a bit cliche and light. King of Assassins takes all the exuberant fun of that book, packages it in a story that's heavy as a wrecking ball with dark secrets and redemption, and gives us a fantastic MC in grumpy old Girton and surrounds him with an outstanding case, headlined by Merela and Aydor, who'd get best supporting character if there was fantasy authors. I wonder if its entirely a coincidence that his name sounds like Arthur and he's described as bearlike given some of the Arthurian inspirations behind the series. Oh and the cliche world? It grows and mutates and takes on its own dark character. There must be a way to convince RJ Barker to write more in the Wounded Kingdoms. I kinda want to re-read it now.

1. House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard - Another book where earlier books by the author left me a tad unfulfilled and I then got everything I wanted and more. The alchemist Madeleine bears a fantastic weight of responsibility with brittle humanity, bleak humour, and brilliant heroism. Her relationship with the magnificent bastard that is Asmodeus is probably the best thing in this book, but it's a big call. The plot is gripping and perfectly timed after a slow start; the worldbuilding thicker and more compelling without getting obtrusive. House of Sundering Flames is now looming big on my TBR pile.

1. A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay - I had unshed tears in my eyes in the ending. And it's not like anything that bad happens (well, it does a little before, but not right at the ending). It's simply the window into another human's wistfulness and regret and contentment provided. The ability to observe and communicate basic human drives in such a way is a big part of what gives GGK a strong claim to be the greatest fantasy author alive. There's also the meticulous research, the poetry of the prose, and the leisurely grand sweep of his plots - all of which are on full display here. I don't want to re-read A Brightness Long Ago right now - I'm not ready for it - but scenes from it live forever in my head.

Recs for New Fantasy Readers

This is inspired by a tweet commenting about how it was weird that a recs list recommended so much old stuff. I mentioned that I'd probably recommend some of those books myself depending on the person. And that's the crux isn't it? Depending on the person. Not everyone's the same. Not everyone wants the same thing. Which is why I'm going to take a run at this - my "if you're into X, try this".

Notes: I am trying to aim for a range - dark books, cheerful books, old books, new books, books by authors from many backgrounds, and so on. I am a little biased towards simpler stories, but not always. I am a lot biased towards books I've actually read, but include a few things I've heard great things about, and a few things that aren't my thing but I think a lot of people will enjoy.

I watched Game of Thrones and want to read more stuff like that

I figure that's got to be a lot of new Fantasy fans right now. The obvious starting point is A Song of Ice and Fire itself but those are big hefty tomes and they already know the story, so lets talk some other options for stories with similarities. I'm thinking pseudo-Medieval/early Renaissance, lot of politics, plot twists, violence and family dynamics, with a few big fantasy touches.

RJ Barker's Wounded Kingdom series has a lot of those things. It's a bit more hopeful in tone, and it's a lot less sprawling for being centred around one person, but it's very focused on intrigue and shared families. The Empire Trilogy by Jannie Wurts and Raymond E. Feist is a classic and hasn't aged well in every respect, but it is at heart a very well executed book of politics with some big action scenes, and it's pseudo-East Asian setting is something some people might prefer while still feeling Medieval enough to appeal to many. Finally, if you liked the sense of something different and cynical to what you thought was fantasy, and enjoyed the various journeys alone a bit more than the intrigues, Joe Abercrombie's The First Law trilogy is well worth a look and features one of Tyrion's few equals in the genre for wit, honesty and unique world view in the crippled torturer Glokta.

I watched American Gods/Good Omens/Lucifer and want to read more stuff like that

I am possibly wrong in assuming a lot of fantasy's new fans are being drawn in by the glut of genre programming on TV. But there is a hell of a lot of it. It makes sense. In any case - the idea of the myths and legends we hear about walking around the cities we know and love is a big part of Fantasy. And it has a big appeal - I mean, it must do to get that much TV programming, right?

It feels like a good time for this sort of fantasy, particularly if you count near-modern set books like Erin Mogernstern's The Night Circus or Helene Wecker's The Golem and the Djinni, both of which have a very poetic feel to them and closely follow the tales of a few particular individuals; two magicians competing to influenced a circle full of wonders, a Golem and a Djinni stuck in New York. There's also the more irreverent and action filled takes like Jim Butcher's Dresden Files (maybe more Preacher-esque in some ways), in which a gung-ho wizard detective meets many supernatural types and pisses them off. And of course there's Neil Gaiman, involved in the books behind all three of those TV shows in some ways, and who has other similar awesome stories in the form of Anansai Boys and Neverwhere.

I watched Lord of the Rings and want to read more stuff like that

By this, I mean people who want adventures and quests and fantastical races and a sense of something grand. They want it to feel Fantasy like everyone says it is - elves, dwarves, fantastic beasts. My first recommendation is Jen Williams' The Ninth Rain, an adventure heavy book full of eerie landscapes, majestic warbeasts, and a vampiric elf. Jim Butcher's Codex Alera is a bit more GoT-esque in terms of the politics, and more about the spirits and giant wolfmen than the elves and beasts, but it's a got similar sort of heart to it. The real king of that traditional elves and all type stories that I'm aware of today is Michael J Sullivan, although I've yet to read his Riyira Chronicles yet. And if people want to try the best of that 80s/90s wave of fiction when this was all the rage, I heavily recommend looking at Katherine Kerr's Daggerspell and Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry.

I want to try Fantasy because I like the idea of Historical Fiction with some bits added

Well, there's certainly a lot of Fantasy that fits this bill. Miles Cameron's The Traitor Son has a clear feel for the medieval period and stays faithful to the known record. I've never read it myself, but Mary Gentle's Ash: A Secret History has a formidable reputation for the level of research and verisimilitude, although it's more Secret or Alt History than Straight History - and also a very big book. If you want something more recent in terms of history, Naomi Novik's Temeraire are fast fun reads that read like Hornblower with extra dragons. And if you want something a bit more early medieval, then Katherine Kurtz's Deryni Rising and Guy Gavriel Kay's Lions of Al-Rassan are oldies but goldies.

I'm into mysteries, any good Fantasy mysteries?

Yes, yes there are. Urban Fantasy is chock-block full of them, from the aforementioned Dresden Files to Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London. Then there's those set in near-modern Fantasy cities, like the post-colonial spy thriller that is Robert Jackson Bennett's City of Stairs, the noir-ish Straight Razor Cure by Daniel Polansky, or the brooding gothic occult mysteries of Aliette de Bodard's House of Broken Wings. And some embrace the more mythic historical roots of history. Barry Hughart's Bridge of Wings is a cult classic for its humour and reinvention of Chinese fairytale, the aforementioned Age of Assassins has a big murder mystery at the heart of it, and Sir Terry Pratchett's satirical Watch series bridges the gap between near-modern and medieval-esque at times.

I'm into action stories and fight scenes

Fantasy has no end of blood and thunder - and sometimes thud and blunder - so you're well served here. Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn or Fonda Lee's Jade City would be my first two recommendations who wants supernatural action hero-esque fights that can chew up the scenery. If you want to hear the clash of swords and see brave warriors fight foes no man should face, then Robert E. Howard's Conan stories are a classic for good reason, and David Gemmell's Legend should be just as classic.

I'm into romance. Are there some good love stories?

Yes. But I don't know them that well. Well, tell a lie, Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Dart has a lovely slow burn romance right at the heart of it and the series. It also has a lot of BDSM sex. So maybe not everyone's idea of a romance.

Firing up the search engine suggests that people look up Cassandra Clare's Clockwork Angel or Sarah J Maas' Court of Thorns and Roses, and I can at least tell you I've read both authors and found them competent writers - and really enjoyed some of Clare's YA Urban Fantasy stuff (which was full of love triangles now I mention it). I'll have to seek out more recs from other people when I update this (it's clearly a first draft to me by now).

I just want to read the classics

There's certainly worse places to start - although sometimes there's better, with many of Fantasy's classics now featuring rather dated language and the preoccupations of another age. JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are well known, but Ursula Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea deserves to be just as well known. Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast is fantasy in terms of it featuring a society and environment that never truly existed, and is hugely well thought of (only seen the TV show). More recent classics would include Robert Jordan's weighty, slow moving but absorbing Wheel of Time and Emma Bull's War for the Oaks, a fast moving and fun adventure story that helped make Urban Fantasy what it is today.

But what would *your* personal recommendations be?

Haha, like anybody's actually asking that.

But to pick 3 books/series I haven't mentioned yet that I think are truly, absolutely wonderful:

Scott Lynch's Lies of Locke Lamora - Heist Fantasy set in not-Renaissance Italy; vibrant sense of fun, gritty without being overwhelmingly so, and twisty as a snake in the good way. About as much fun as it gets.

Max Gladstone's Three Parts Dead - This wowed me. This wowed me so much. It treats gods and religions like modern corporations and it makes perfect sense. Part travelogue, part thriller mystery, wholly incredible.

Sir Terry Pratchett's Discworld - I'm cheating here, but Pratchett is by so far and away my favourite author, and his Discworld series features a number of sub-series and standalones that offer something for everyone. Not everyone gets his sense of humour, but if you do, you'll have so much fun, and his books come with layer after layer of meaning. Try the Witches series if you want to read a twist on wicked witches, where the witches are still rather wicked but all in the service of good; Mort for a take on what it'd be like to be Death's apprentice; Small Gods for a satire on religion and what it really is to believe that is very respectful of the faithful; or Monstrous Regiment if you want a war story that doesn't think war is a terribly good idea.

I want to read about people like me and I'm not a straight white male

I left this one until last because it would be the one that took the most space and I wanted to try and address it well. I'm not sure I have, but I've tried, for it is important. It's a not unreasonable fear given Fantasy's history as a genre and depicted fanbase that people who fit the above description wouldn't find a home. It is becoming less and less true, although it can feel like nothing has changed at times, so I encourage everyone to have a look at the genre, but people will only feel at home if we make the effort to ensure they are welcome. Hence the importance.

Seth Dickinson's The Traitor Baru Comorant features a gay main character and has the need to hide that as a fairly prominent sub-plot. Mercedes Lackey's Magic's Pawn follows a similar slant in terms of dealing with homophobia. Aliette de Bodard's House of Binding Thorns by contrast is a world where homosexuality is common and discrimination is not shown. Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint is one of the classics when it comes to 'Fantasy of Manners' and has a M/M relationship; Max Gladstone's and Amar El-Mohtai's This is How You Lose the Time War is built around a F/F relationship (even if it is Sci-Fi), and I've heard good things about Lara Elena Donnelly's Amberlough series.

Moving onto ethnicity -

East Asian: Fonda Lee and Aliette de Bodard have already been mentioned; Jin Yong's A Hero Born is part of the biggest selling fantasy series of all time and has been translated from the original Chinese. Rebecca F Kuang's The Poppy War is a grim and gripping retelling of the conflict between China and Japan in World War 2 with added shamanism. And it would be remiss not to mention the current winner of the Astounding Award for Best New Writer is Jeanette Ng.

South Asian: Tasha Suri's Empire of Sand is an atypically character driven study of staying true to one's roots when faced with overwhelming power. Saad Z Hossain's The Gurkha and the Lord of Thursday is definitely on my list as well.

Native American: Rebecca Roanhorse's Trail of Lightning is based on Navajo/Dine beliefs, that being the tribe into which she is married into.

Black: Forgive me for being crass and not differentiating between Caribbean, African, and various diasporas; it is easier to do it this way given how many authors would fit into multiple categories in some way. The obvious example of that is Marlon James, the Jamaican author whose Red Wolf, Black Leopard is heavily based on the mythology of Africa; similar in that regard is Nalo Hopkinson's The Salt Roads. Would they be Caribbean or African? If there is a right answer, let me know. For now, it is all under one category.

NK Jemisin is one of the brightest stars in fantasy today thanks to the Broken Earth series; personally I've only read Dreamblood, which is probably the best book I've not fallen in love with. Everyone says the Broken Earth is better. Also highly recommended to me is The Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle's take on Lovecraft's The Horror at Red Hook.

Forgive me also for having nothing representing other ethnicities; at the moment, I know of nothing I would recommend, and hope in time I can rectify that (I am deliberately not recommending the Magical Realist books from Latin America, seeing it as somewhat different to Fantasy).

As for female authors writing about women - I believe the article has named most of the ones I'd recommend but I will add a few extra names as well as noting Suri's Empire of Sand is very female orientated. Marion Zimmer Bradley's actions make her unreadable to some but Mists of Avalon is a classic of female orientated fantasy. Marie Brennan's Turning Darkness Into Light was one of the most delightfully ambitious and well executed books I read all last year and focuses on a female academic. And for those who want some of that old 'boy becomes a badass knight' stuff but with a girl, Tamora Pierce's Song of the Lioness still reigns supreme for me.


So there we go. A long and hopefully helpful list. In the process of writing this, I've come to realise I should have asked more people for advice when doing this. Hopefully I'll get some and can produce an updated version some time; maybe if I get enough advice, I'll have something comprehensive enough to be worth submitting to one of the major fansites. But for now, this is my list of recommendations, made in the belief everyone enjoys different things so everyone needs different recs.

Thursday, 9 January 2020

My modern fantasy challenge update Part One

Nearly three years ago, I talked about an idea I'd first had the year before - My Modern Fantasy Challenge. Me finding out what was happening in fantasy while I'd stayed put with the books of my 

Given how long has passed, I figured it was time to let people know how it actually went.

Out of that list, here's the nine I decided to make the challenge (I have also finished books by another three and DNF books by eight).

Miles Cameron
Scott Lynch
Naomi Novik
Jen Williams
Erin Morgenstern
Brian McClellan
Brandon Sanderson
Robert Jackson Bennett
Ben Aaronovitch

Why that nine? Honestly, most of it was based on what was easily found. My mum actually had a copy of Rivers of London. Thanks to Fantasy Faction, I had a big interest in Jen Williams' work and Miles Cameron's books sounded like they were made for me - both were in the library. Also in the library - admittedly, along with a lot of things that I could have picked instead - were The Night Circus and The Crimson CampaignThe Lies of Locke Lamora and The Final Empire were on kindle sale. I forget where I found City of Stairs but I suspect that was library too. Naomi Novik's Temeraire was the one book I actively sought out, because Napoleonic War Dragons is a 10/10 concept.

I was reasonably happy that it represented a good cross section of the genre too. Vaguely medieval vaguely epic fantasy made up a third of the list. There's an interesting tranche of historical and urban fantasy, a slight focus on the Napoleonic period, some crime, some mystery and some heist. A bit of everything. Some form of female gender representation; not a lot of ethnic diversity though.

So what did I think of those 9 books:

Miles Cameron's The Red Knight: I was impressed by it. It was like someone had crossed Bernard Cornwell with Robert Jordan; it thrummed with intensity and intrigue and carnage. It did have a weakness to my mind in that it started with a plot and cast like Path of Daggers, something I didn't like in a series I liked, nevermind a series I was just beginning. I also could have done without the Captal de Buch, who's the sort of character who I simply want erased, not beaten. Still, I eagerly sought out the next book after The Red Knight but I found that The Fell Sword doubled down on the things I disliked and spent less time on the parts I did like, so I dropped the series there.

Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora: This is simply one of the best fantasy books I've read. The writing is witty and evocative, the characters compelling, and the plot as cunning as a fox who's just been appointed professor of cunning at Oxford University. It's probably the best example that humanistic stories veering between comedy and drama set in fantasy settings can be great since Pratchett. I haven't got around to continuing in the series because... well, first it was because I thought it was in the library, but I can't see it now so I should just go out and get it. Probably will when the TBR list runs low.

Naomi Novik's Temeraire: A cross between Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern and Hornblower, this book is quality entertainment fantasy but there was something a little missing for me about the series. I'd read the book, enjoy it, then move on without thinking. My mum's read a bunch of them but I only got as far as Throne of Jade. Again, that's something I'll probably rectify before too long. The why of this? At first I thought its the character, but now I'm developing a theory that its very hard to do good military fiction if internal struggles are not a big part of the story. That's some Cornwell got but not necessarily everyone else. And I didn't really get that from the Temeraire series.

Jen Williams' The Copper Promise: I struggled hard with this book and barely finished it. The high adventure concept appealed to me but there was too much action and not enough character time, and what there was of it didn't sell me on the idea that I cared about them. It intrigued me enough to read a long way through but I was on-off on it. It also intrigued me enough to pick up The Ninth Rain, the first book of her next trilogy, which I enjoyed and thought was a great example of the sort of adventure fantasy that the genre seems a little light on at times. 

Erin Morgernstern's The Night Circus: This was a treat. There are very, very few writers who can entertain me when mostly describing places and ideas. I love those things, but character and dialogue are my meat and drink. Morgenstern can pull it off. The concept of the Night Circus itself good, the sort of fairytale-esque thing that serves to illustrate the genre's depth. I wish she'd spent more time exploring the complexities of her main characters as I think that'd have made this book perfect but it was still great.

Brian McClellan's The Crimson Campaign: Yes, I know, midway through the trilogy. That's what they had in the library and I believe that with good authors, you'll still have an enjoyable read. Which is what I had here. It's the precision blend of intrigue, action, and characters havering at themselves that makes epic fantasy so more-ish for me and I didn't hate the whole set it in a Napoleonic era to say the least. There was nothing about it that I'd rave about, but I do mean to read the rest of them at some point... which I feel is a common comment that I'll have to explain at some point.

Brandon Sanderson's The Final Empire: If I had not set this challenge, if I didn't have respect for his reputation, I'd have never finished this book. Sanderson's writing voice simply doesn't sit right with me and that there is a killer for me. I forced myself through it and found myself admiring his character dynamics, his plotting - but as I discovered when he wrote Mat Cauthon, his sense of humour and mine are a significant enough distance apart. A shame.

Robert Jackson Bennett's City of Stairs: My true opinions on present tense in fiction are not repeatable in polite society. The fact that I finished and enjoyed this book should therefore say everything about how much I rate this book. The mix of mystery, religion and post-colonial society is compelling; the plot's one of the best I've read. I just wish it hadn't been in present tense. That's why I haven't continued this series. But to everyone else looking for something that's full of the stuff of fantasy yet full of mortal concerns - look here.

Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London: I mentioned that my mother had a copy; I'm pretty sure that's because I brought it for her. It took me a while to read it because I've grown out of the nasty habit of reading people's gifts before I gave it to them. That's the right thing to do but it cost me on finding out on a very good book. It does feel like London; an important thing to me. And its got the right amount of humour to be funny without being a farce. Another series I've meant to follow up on at the library but never seem to find the right book.

That's part one. Part two will talk about the rest of the books I've read from authors on the list and some conclusions.

Monday, 6 January 2020

Daggerspell by Katherine Kerr

This is Womble's fault.

There was I minding my own business on Twitter (lie number one, the point of Twitter is not minding your own business) when I saw him talking about a Deverry readalong. I'd been musing over what to read next despite having about four books unfinished - nothing seemed to appeal. But a re-read of Daggerspell seemed to make an awful lot of sense.

And the next thing I knew, I'd joined the Daggerspell Gang, a group of Fantasy loving criminals who use their wit, wisdom and wizardry to enact daring heists in the name of fun and helping those in need a group of bloggers reading through Deverry.

Since the poor handful of people who read this blog are about to hear a lot about this creation of Katherine Kerr's, I thought I should explain a little about what makes it so special to me.

Back when I was a mere slip of a lad, I tended to read the same Epic Fantasy series over and over. I knew what I liked but I struggled to find new varieties of it. I'd find other fantasy books but most of the time, nothing about the blurb or a quick flick inside grabbed me. I was picky. Then one day I found a battered copy of Daggerspell in a second hand bookshop in Newport.

What I immediately loved about Daggerspell was that it was both your standard 80s Epic Fantasy and it wasn't. Yes, it was a bildungsroman with a sorcerous mentor, where the good guys were good and the baddies were bad. But the setting was something else. Instead of the usual 'History's Greatest Hits' kitchen sink, there was this cohesive feudal Celtic society. And instead of using it as so much ice for skating over en route to the quest, the plot took us delving deep into it. Many fantasy cultures feel like direct extensions of our own. Not the world of Deverry.

The older I've grown, and the more I've re-read these books, the more this sense of "something else" has grown and established my love of this series. A lot of my childhood favourites have palled over the years but I still feel like Daggerspell is just genuinely great. I still feel like I'm reading about this wild not-here place where people don't think like this and don't act like us. I've nothing against fantasy worlds with a very modern feeling - big Discworld fan here - but I've got a real soft spot for that sense of alien.

It helps that I'm very fond of the characters, warts and all. The cast have a very good charm to wart ratio for my liking - human, flawed, occasionally irritating, but ultimately admirable and interesting. Their flaws feel very true to life too. How many of those handsome, powerful 80s-90s young fantasy heroes just wanted to have it away with every pretty woman they saw? Right. Now, how many young heterosexual males do you know who don't want to have it away with every pretty woman they see? Right. Thank you. They argue over money and bicker over drinking.

In short, Kerr's book feels like an honest portrayal of humanity. Which is not to say that Eddings, Feist, Jordan, Lackey, and so on and so on weren't honest, but there were certain omissions in their accounts. Kerr has less. And while I don't dislike those authors for their omissions, I do like Kerr more for her lack.

So a re-read it is. Or maybe a re-re-read, as I accidentally finished the book in a day. And I will talk lots about it, because it's a book where I really don't have to pay attention to read it which means I can pay attention to the tiny details, and because I hope that I can persuade someone to pick it up and enjoy it as well. A lot of classics flourish late. Hopefully Daggerspell can be one of them.

Now back to my plotting heists with the daring Daggerspell gang reading.