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.

Friday 16 February 2018

Feasting Friday

Because I'm unable to concentrate on any one topic, I've decided to start using this blog to keep a semi-regular account of my gastronomic adventures.

Well. I say adventures. I'm pretty sure going to a Chinese supermarket isn't actually an adventure.

But gods does it feel like its magic.

The magic shop is one of the nicknames me and my wife have for Wing Yip, the Chinese supermarket down in Croydon. It's also known as the happy place.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect when we first went there. I'd been there, a long time before, but without knowing quite how to take full advantage. We went there mainly to stock up on sauces but I quickly realised the best way to take proper advantage. And that is starters.

The starters section is undoubtedly the best part of any Chinese menu, which is undoubtedly the best type of takeaway menu. Unfortunately, that stuff gets expensive very fast.

Enter Wing Yip and its big freezer full of takeaway starters.

I forget just how much the big box of sesame prawn toast was, but it was three portions worth for about one portion's worth of a takeaway. What's more, eating them fresh from the oven meant they tasted a hell of a lot better. Ditto with the duck spring rolls. Its made celebrating Chinese new year - by which I mean eating all the Chinese food - a hell of a lot better in every possible way.

I think the only way to get sesame prawn toast better is to be in a good restaurant and get them done really well. That's what we did last time we went to the happy place and popped into Tai Tung, the restaurant next door. The sesame prawn toast there was perfectly crunchy and succulent at the same time. The real big discovery there was cheung fun, a steamed rice noodle roll that was beautifully seasoned and with just the right amount of resistance.

Anyway, that's it for now. In future, there will be recipes, the Jamie Oliver 15 minute meal drinking game, meals around London, all the rest of it... but for now, happy Year of the Dog.

Wednesday 7 February 2018

My top 10 writing articles from last year

Being super on the ball, I decided that towards after the end of January is about the right time to get my top 10 9 10 lists from last year out. I could defend this on grounds of belief that the process of judging should only occur once the very last day of the year has gone and that it takes time to judge properly. Sadly, this is more a case of extreme untogetherness.

But all good things in all good time and hopefully this is good. In a year full of seeking enlightenment as to writing better stories, I've read a lot of articles, a lot of tips. These are the ones that I've gone "huh" at, reread, pondered. The ones I've taken things from and think have something others can take from as well.

With no further ado, and with only the loosest order:

When We Try to Sort Writers Into ‘Plotter’ or ‘Pantser’ by Ada Palmer

This one has been pivotal to me. The order is loose but it's no accident this one ended up on top. People go on about the idea of a toolbox (as advanced by King) but not many talk about what it should contain. Palmer does a fantastic job of telling me about the tools I always had without knowing - and also needed without knowing.

Death To Readers by Terry Rossio

Rossio's site is jampacked with useful advice for storytellers but this is the article of his I read first and took most from. Writing often becomes complex because we are juggling so many tasks, but most of the tasks are quite simple. Death To Readers is the best reminder of that I've found and the best aide memoire for whether you're getting that right or missing the details in the big picture.

Screenplay Techniques by M.D. Presley

The man who introduced me to Rossio. There's a lot of screenplay writing advice thrown about in the fantasy community (see above) but Presley is the only one I've seen so far that treats that advice in terms of what is applicable to literature and what is not. The result is a lot of solid pragmatic advice on story structure.

Seventeen important things I've learned about writing and publishing by Teresa Edgerton

So far I haven't taken that much from Edgerton's article in terms of writing - although it is clear and intelligent there - or the writing industry, which I have yet to properly encounter. But in terms of why people write and whether we should or shouldn't, I find it incredibly reassuring and wise. Its something that rewards me every time I come back.

Five Thoughts About Beginnings by Toby Frost

Sometimes I feel like I think about beginnings too much. As such, I like articles about them. Admitedly, sometimes I like them mainly because I can argue with them. Frost's article is a bit of both for me. It pinpoints some of the common elements of a good traditional opening - good to absorb, good to also try and avoid.

Michael Moorcock's Rules for Writers by Michael Moorcock

Moorcock's advice is very succinct and personally, very good. It is particularly relevant for a writer seeking to build their style and storytelling chops. A good one to revisit for grounding.

How to Write a Story by Gav Thorpe

A long history of GW fanboyism left me somewhat disinclined to listen to what Thorpe had to say, but I liked the way he makes the case for theme here. Some people see it as the enemy of action fiction; Thorpe sees it as the basis. I'm inclined to agree.

Jade City, An Anti-Nanowrimo Case Study by Fonda Lee

I found the link to this on the Writing Process thread on SFFWorld. Its one of my favourite threads ever and this is my favourite link from there because it provides a great counterbalance to the write fast then edit orthodoxy out there. Other methods work too and this is one case of how.

"Infodump," "Mary Sue" And Other Words That Authors Are Sick Of Hearing by Charlie Jane Anders

Speaking of counter balance, the world is full of advice on why not to use commonly derided and seemingly outdated techniques. A lot of its good. But its not the whole of the story and here's a lot of spot on words about why its not the whole story and why these techniques still have their place. I don't agree with all of them - Kushner in particular seems to didactic - but they all provoke thought.

Philip Pullman: Rules of writing from man behind His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

I'm not sure having a favourite pen is going to help me and I definitely favour music over white noise. But his words on tone reinforced what I read in Palmer's article and helped get me thinking about writing in a new way. I like the relatively unstructured way he approaches the craft.