Sunday 13 January 2019

Prince of Fools by Mark Lawrence

When I go a prolonged time without reading an acclaimed new author I start to feel itchy. Maybe its fear of missing out, maybe its disgust at myself for intellectual laziness, but whatever the reason, I feel compelling to check out those with big reps. Its therefore mildly surprising to myself that it's taken me so long to read one of Mark Lawrence's books. That's doubly so as I've read kindle samples and enjoyed his style. 

There seems to be a distinctive voice to British trad fantasy at the moment, unflinching about brutality and laced with self-mocking gallows humour. It feels like a mix of Gemmell and Pratchett, although I think I'd be wrong to place it entirely as the natural hybrid of the two greatest British fantasy writers of the 80s/90s. Is it a reflection of the post-Thatcher world? Something inherited from older writers? Did we all just watch too much Blackadder?

That's a trick question as there's no such thing but there is definitely something of Blackadder to Prince of Fools' main character, Prince Jalan. Although its more accurate to say there's something of Flashman; Blackadder is a loser, Flashman is a winner. And so is Jalan. A complete cad with considerable natural gifts, Jalan is obsessed with the good life and gets it. Or at least to start with. 

Now, I've sometimes complained about such characters as being utterly dislikable. But I also love some of the characters like this I read about. The key for me is a certain self-awareness and at least some sense of empathy and responsibility, no matter how crabbed. Jalan has these things, even if he would protest about the second. Therefore, I'm prepared to sign off on Jalan as a fun character. And I do! Jalan is a lot of fun as narrator.

My issues with Prince of Fools starts with he has to narrate. Most of the book is a quest, or as I've taken to calling it, a travelogue. I'm beginning to think that quests/travelogues are some of the hardest books to do. One of the reasons is that a good travelogue requires a huge number of genuinely interesting locations to go through, which is no mean feat when doing secondary worldbuilding. Personally, Mark Lawrence's medieval Europe with the serial numbers filed off doesn't meet the criteria. 

The other hard thing about Quests is that it messes with Conflict. Its easy to maintain a sense of conflict when characters are mostly in one place dealing with one enemy. But when they move from place to place? Either there's still mainly one enemy we see, which can lead to the same situation again and again. Or there's a cast of different enemies, in which case it can feel uneven and like a chain of loosely connected scenes rather than a story. The one big Conflict an author has during Quests that stays consistent is the Protagonists vs Each Other and the Protagonists vs Themselves. 

Without giving away too many spoilers, I think Lawrence clearly understand this. He puts Jalan through a decent amount of internal conflict. I'm just not sure how well he executed in terms of keeping my interest (even after finishing it). Jalan chews over his problems endlessly, but he only ever really has one option, and I often know that before he does. Like I know he's going to stay basically the same person throughout the book. And the longer the book went on, the more aware I was of this, and the more I was dragged out of enjoying the story.

And make no mistake, I did enjoy Prince of Fools. But I didn't enjoy it as much as I thought I would at the start. Hopefully the next book will have more cad and less quest.

Wednesday 9 January 2019

"Complex Ideas Under the Cover of Exciting Entertainment": An interview with Toby Frost

Yet another volunteer! Toby Frost, author of the Space Captain Smith series, kindly agreed to be 'interrogated' about his new book 'Up To The Throne', writing, synthesis, and nuns with guns...

PL: Hi there Toby! Going from Sci-Fi comedy to dark Fantasy revenge seems quite the leap, but you're doing it anyway. Where did the inspiration for Up To The Throne come from?

TF: Hi Peat!

It does seem quite a change, but it's more a project that's been running alongside the SF comedy for a while, rather than a total change of direction. It's an aspect of my writing that hasn't seen the light before, but it's always been there.

The inspiration came from loads of places. Part of it is from history, part from fantasy, part from old spy and detective novels, and part from various scraps of pop culture. The first idea for the heroine came from a picture in an old Dungeons and Dragons manual (3rd edition, I think). The atmosphere and tone came partly from the history of cities like Florence and Worms, and partly from writers like John le Carre and Raymond Chandler. There's even a bit of inspiration from a very old computer game called Thief, from about 2001!
Like the Space Captain Smith books, inspiration comes from loads of places, and slowly gets filtered through the workings of my brain until (hopefully) it becomes a coherent whole.

PL: I do like a good synthesis. Was there any one particular piece or moment that drew it altogether? Or was it more a slow evolution?

TF: I think it was a slow evolution. Sometimes, as a writer, I'll have a concept for a story but it'll take a very long time for the structure of it to all come together. With Up To The Throne, I knew I wanted a story about vendetta and revenge, as it suited the time period. Stereotypically, in the Medieval period people went on quests and fought big battles, whilst in the Renaissance they murdered their way to being prince (whilst designing helicopters and painting the Mona Lisa)! So it seemed appropriate to write a murky, noir-style story in which nobody could be trusted very much.

The one thing that really struck me was a picture in a D&D manual of a woman picking a lock (she's called Lidda the Halfling Rogue if ever you feel like looking it up). I thought "That's the kind of person I'd like to write about". As it happens, Giulia Degarno doesn't look that much like her, but it was that image that set my mind going, and I think that's what counts.

PL: I remember that blog post! Would you say your gaming background has influenced your writing at all? And, come to think of it, is there any fantasy books that's particularly fed your enthusiasm for stories like this?

TF: Not really all that much in terms of gaming, apart from a few illustrations. I suppose the experience of Thief and similar games – of sneaking around enemy territory, rather than hacking through it – did have some influence, but that’s also the sort of thing you might see in a spy or detective story. But I do think you have to be a bit careful about being influenced too much by pop culture. It can all end up as a bit of an in-joke if you’re not careful.

A few fantasy novels have inspired me, but not in a direct way. If I was to compare Up To The Throne to fantasy, I’d say there are definite similarities to Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora in the setting and The Witcher in the way that the various species don’t get on – but I read both of those after I’d written the first draft. While it always helps to know the genre in which you’re writing (especially in terms of selling), I think if you’re writing fantasy – especially fantasy that riffs on a particular real-world setting – it helps to look at history and art of the time. I can think of no scarier picture of the undead, for instance, than Bruegel’s painting The Triumph of Death. Going back to the source material can throw up strange, interesting details that nobody noticed before.

Going back to the source material to go up to the throne

PL: I'd have thought you'd enjoy a good joke as a comedic writer. And certainly, while I'm referring to Captain Smith, I was very sure you were a 40K player after reading just the blurb for that.

But back to Up To The Throne and the thief! I know only a little about Giulia - what sort of woman is our protagonist?

TF: The in-joke thing is interesting. Comedy is fine, but what doesn't appeal to me is the sense that the writer is winking at the reader. It's purely personal preference, but that's why, say, the films of Quentin Tarantino don't do much for me: there's a sense that it's all ironic, so why should anyone really care?

Anyway, Giulia is smart, wily, and determined, but also vengeful and selfish at times. She's someone who has lived for revenge for a long while, and while that's resulted in her being very skilled and resourceful, she's become preoccupied with her own problems. I think she sees the world as having rejected her, and doesn't think that she owes anyone anything. As the story goes on, the people she meets and the events she helps to trigger challenge that view. So in a way it's a story about that taking of responsibility, of accepting that you're actually part of the world rather than just its enemy. And it's also about assassins, monsters and a flying machine. What more could anyone want?

PL: Intriguing. What sort of comedy do you prefer?

And I like the juxtaposition of themes there - responsibility and flying machines! Do you think that a balance of theme and outright cool is needed for a good book?

TF: It's hard to pin down a particular sort of comedy, but there are definitely shows I think are especially good. The writing in Blackadder and Father Ted is excellent. I'm also a great fan of Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons and Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, as well as the songs of Tom Lehrer. There's something about Lehrer's mix of sophistication and crude cynicism that really appeals to me.

Actually, yes, now I think about it, you're right about theme and cool, at least for certain types of book. I like the idea of presenting complex ideas under the cover of exciting entertainment - you can see it in films like Mad Max: Fury Road, or Raymond Chandler's crime novels. I'm not sure it's the only way to do it, but it's very effective to have both in the same story like that. I suppose it makes the complex stuff easier to digest, and gives a sense of weight to the lighter material (if that makes sense).

PL: Ah, another Lehrer fan! Marvellous. As for the mix of theme and cool - is there any particular theme you find yourself gravitating towards regularly?

TF: Lehrer is a genius! If I'm writing for myself, I'm always writing about things that really interest me, and which I feel strongly motivated to write about. But I think about story and character long before I think about theme. That said, a lot of stories I've written are roughly about something: the Smith books are about the strange habits of the British and how we see ourselves, and Up To The Throne, I suppose, is about the selfishness of revenge. A couple of times, I've finished a story and then realised that a character represents some facet of myself. I suppose my most regular themes must be those in the Smith books, just because I've written a lot of them!

PL: Speaking of Smith, I only just realised that the series has been out there for ten years - I think that makes you the longest tenured author foolish enough to agree to these interviews. How long were you writing in a "I want to be an author way" before the publication of Space Captain Smith?

TF: Ten years and I've still got the day job. What went wrong?

I wanted to be an author since I was about 12. The strange thing is that I've got no idea why. I read huge amounts of science fiction and fantasy as a child, but I don't know what prompted the step from reading to writing. Certainly, I remember writing a story about a dragon (with illustrations) when I was 12. All through my twenties I tried to get various things published, with little success. Strangely, it was Space Captain Smith, which I wrote as a joke, that saw print first. Perhaps there's a moral in that, but I doubt it.

PL: Never take yourself too seriously?

Anyway, has there been any particular changes in how you go about writing over that time?

TF: Yes, I think I'm more comfortable with rough drafts and just getting things down as quickly as possible the first time around, then going back and doing a more comprehensive edit. I don't expect things to be perfect the first time that I'm typing them. Of course, you have to be careful about this. I remember editing one book and finding the words "fight scene here" instead of several thousand words of text! I think I'm also more confident about the quality of the writing and my ability to produce decent prose. I still have moments of indecision - or rather, thinking what I've written is absolute rubbish - but they pass more easily and I'm less inclined to worry about it now.

Also, as I've written more, I've become more confident in doing it the way that works for me. A lot of writing advice lays down absolute rules - the amount you should be doing per day, how you should write and so on - and I think that inevitably works for some people and not others.  

What works for this gentleman is tea

PL: That leads me neatly into my favourite question - what's the best and worst pieces of writing advice you've heard out there?

TF: I think sometimes people get too dogmatic about writing advice and don't allow for flexibility where being flexible would benefit the story. If I had to pick one, I'd go for "Write what you know". It's not so much wrong as inaccurate: how can someone writing about a dragon write what they know? Really, it should be "Write what you can depict realistically". Describing a spaceship "realistically" might mean describing a submarine, or a cross-channel ferry, or a fighter plane, depending on the setting. It's about making the story convincing in its own world, not necessarily repeating your own experience.

Best advice: learn to do whatever works for you (not easy in itself!) and keep going. Keep writing, keep learning, keep improving and don't give up.

PL: Speaking of spaceships, what was it like writing for Games Workshop?

TF: It was good, but strange. Writing in someone else's world, where they have the final call about what goes in and what doesn't, is an interesting experience, and probably a good one in terms of learning how to meet deadlines and write for an audience. Very quickly you realise that you are writing another story that works by the rules of the setting: you won't be the guy who writes the story that breaks the rules. Also, because it's Warhammer, there has to be a huge amount of fighting. But around that, it was enjoyable and there was a lot of room for creativity. I was interested to see that in White Dwarf, Straken was described as containing a lot of black humour - I suppose it's hard to keep the jokes out! I'm glad I did it.

PL: For me, Warhammer's never made sense if you take the jokes out! Are there any other parts of the 40K universe you'd like to revisit as an author? Actually, lets make that a wider question - what else is on your writing horizon as we speak?

TF: I've always thought that some of the more obscure factions - Sisters of Battle, Genestealer Cult and so on - might be fun to write. The space marines don't appeal at all. More generally, I'm planning to release a sequel to Up To The Throne, and ultimately I'd like to write more in that setting, perhaps in a bigger, epic style. I'd also like to revisit Smith's world, but at the moment I don't feel up for doing another Smith novel in the same way. That said, these are all rather vague plans, and they may well change depending on what works in the months to come!

PL: You know, I've actually got a Sisters of Battle army. Really beautiful, really iconic miniatures. Are there any wargaming minis that you really like?

And if you had to go through a portal and forge a life in one of the worlds you've written about, which one would it be and what sort of life would you like? I'm gonna guess you don't actually want to be a Jungle Fighter, but you never know...

TF: Awesome! I always liked the Sisters because they seemed like 40k at its purest: medieval people in space being very bleak and yet slightly ridiculous. An entire army where everyone is Joan of Arc, except with tanks and some of them can fly.

I'd like to see Space Captain Smith's world. I imagine parts of it as very pleasant indeed (other parts are less pleasant!). I'm not sure what sort of life I'd like in it, though: perhaps a colonist on a settled planet - provided that the local wildlife wasn't too big or hungry.

PL:  Before I let you go, one final question - is there any one particular favourite scene in Up To The Throne? One that you're most looking forwards to hearing reader reactions to?

TF: There are a lot of twists and turns in the plot, and I don't want to ruin any surprises. However, there's one scene near the end, where we realise what's been happening all along, that I'm especially proud of. The reveal is pretty cool, I think. On a subtler note, there's a scene where Giulia buys a crossbow that I particularly like. There's a moment when the shopkeeper realises that he's dealing with someone who knows their stuff that I'm very pleased with.

Thanks again to Toby for his time! To find out more about Up To The Throne, either visit the website where you can read the first chapter free or buy it at Amazon. You can also find out more about the author here and see his miniatures too

Sunday 6 January 2019

The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

This is a story about two very different young people with one key trait in common. Nahri survives the slums of Napoleonic era Cairo thanks to guile, amoral pragmatism, and a drop of supernatural talent. Ali is a prince of a tribe of Djinn, a future soldier with high-minded and inflexible ethics. And the key trait in common is that when Nahri arrives in Daevabad, heralded as the secret heir of a lost family, neither is remotely equipped to deal with the ensuing political mayhem.

City of Brass wears its membership of the trad portal fantasy community proudly on its sleeve and therefore the devil here is in the details. One of these is the Middle Eastern and Islamic provenance of its world. I am not tired of the traditional style of worlds, but I am hungry for new mythologies and that's the main reason I picked this book up from the library. I don't know how faithful or inventive Chakraborty's version is, but I do know its very well done in the sense of an enthralling setting.

S.A. Chakraborty does a lot of things well. In particular and most crucially, she handles depicting characters who are a bit on the douchecanoe side in a way that makes them interesting while not flinching away from their darker aspect. Judging from reviews, I get the feeling a lot of readers would prefer her to be more condemnatory of certain character choices. Personally, I think that would have made them less interesting, and possibly undermine the way her trilogy will develop.

The other key part that she had to execute and did was the political aspect. Its easy for an author to get lost when showing multiple threads and giving the reader information that the characters don't have - or for the author to make the characters look like idiots. Chakraborty did neither of those things, but instead make a tense page turner that helped reveal the finer details about her characters and world.

Unfortunately, it takes a while to get to this stage and here I have to talk about the crucial flaw that nearly ruins the book - pacing. The stage setting for both characters arriving in Daevabad takes way too long and doesn't add enough for what it does. The fury of the ending then accelerated the book's pace once I'd got used to it and happy with it. This detracted significantly from my enjoyment.

There is another issue I have to highlight before ending the review and that goes back to world-building. There's a lot of complaints on Goodreads about how well the book represents Islam. That's not my wheelhouse but I can confirm there's not a lot of Islam in the book - influence from the culture of Islam's cradle, but not the religion itself. If anyone is reading this review and that matters to them, I'd suggest finding some more reviews from people who know more. Caveat Emptor.

If you're just looking for a fantasy story however, then step this way. City of Brass has flaws, its true, but what it does it does very well. It reminds me of a more straight forwards version of Guy Gavriel Kay. Its not recommended for anyone looking for their next high-paced action fix, nor anyone desiring heroes that are mostly admirable, but for most other fantasy readers - its worth a look.