Wednesday 16 December 2020

Blog Moved

Shoulda said this ages ago! But the blog has moved to Peat Long's Blog – My ramblings on Fantasy, Writing, and Anything Else I Like ( It's been great here but the times they are a-changing, so please go to that link to follow my writing further.

Saturday 28 November 2020

Friday Five: Actual Thoughts Caused Lateness

I know. Actual thoughts. And only a day late! Let's get this show on the road, happiest to least happy.

1) Last week saw a slew of big name book releases, many of which I should have reviewed by now. I haven't! I've been awful at reading. But I shall at least give big props to Anna Stephens' The Stone Knife, RJ Barker's Call of the Bone Ships, and Sam Hawke's Hollow Empire here and say belated happy bookday. There will be reviews! Honest.

2) I've just seen this tweet from Jeanette Ng talking about the expectations to be realistic in cultural portrayals, rather than being given the freedom to reinvent. It's an interesting, thought-provoking one, that has a murky mirror in the way a lot of fantasy is talked about (and I apologize if jumping off on this is seen as distracting from Ng's points). There seems to be a lot of expectation that fantasy should be historically/culturally correct rather than as acts of fantasy and reinvention, and a certain amount of low-level complaining from Europeans about American reinvention of their European heritage. The question of "cultural ownership" is far too nuanced for me right now - save to note that reflecting on the complications in our own is a good way to help see how non-simple it might be for others - but the general point that fantasy is intended to have departures from reality is one I will shout all day long. The clue is in the name. It's a far easier shout for me than it might be for Ng, so I'm not saying this is the answer to what she is talking about (although it seems to me it is part of her thinking), but it is something we could perhaps think about more in fantasy in general.

3) Going back to releases, there's also been another big name release that I feel less enthused about hyping, and that is Ernest Cline's Ready Player Two. There's been a lot about it online, a lot of tweets. I don't have much opinion about the book because I haven't read it but I do about the tweets and how they link into the evolving way I see communities and definitions of what we are vs what we aren't. In many ways, that's the predominant political discussion in a lot of communities I'm in. And I think a fair part of the anger against Ready Player Two in certain corners comes from the sense that Cline is trying to promote himself as part of one community/ideology when his words don't fit. Part of me dislikes the assumption that what Cline's character thinks is what Cline thinks, but I can't deny everything I've seen makes it look and sound like a very obvious self-insert, and that it's a very fair assumption (at least). Part of me dislikes the amount of criticism that is based on the ideology rather than the book's quality, but I can't deny that the quotes on twitter show a lot of ideology and that makes it fair game. Cline has made a point of saying something with this book; of course people will say something back.

4) There's also the stuff about the pointing and laughing at how bad it is. It's not particularly nice, but I've yet to meet someone who doesn't point and laugh at something simply because of how much they dislike it. As far as I'm concerned, if an author puts out something that reads like a parody of themselves, people are going to laugh, and why the hell not? 

5) Finally, when the Time magazine list of 100 books came out, it made me angry, and I disliked that because it put me on the side of people I'd prefer not to be near and I didn't want to be crapping on the parades of anyone made up they made that list. It made me angry because it used an objective title for a very subjective list, and because it was very modern tilted in a way I don't think right for all time lists, and because it didn't contain my favourites, but honestly, it probably shouldn't have annoyed me as much as it should have. Not the race thing btw. That's complicated and I'm leaving it alone except to say I feel very bad for all the very good authors who've had to put up with this conversation. However, I recently had a second look as a result of a conversation of Fantasy Faction, and the closer look brought up something that I think is a genuine cause for concern and a little gentle scorn. It is best illustrated by using the British books on here, as it's a small enough sample to make the point but large enough not to be accident:

British Childrens Authors on the list pre-Tolkien: Carroll (2), Nesbitt, Travers (tip of the hat to 'Straya), Lewis (2)
British Adult Authors on the list pre-Tolkien: *tumbleweed*

Same, but post-Tolkien up to Rowling

C: Dahl (2), Cooper, Jacques, Pratchett, Pullman (2), Rowling (2)  
A: White, Stewart, Pratchett/Gaiman, Rushdie, Gaiman (2)

There is a very obvious skew towards children's and young adult literature in this list. Which means the list carries the implication that Fantasy is really a genre primarily for the young, that there's not much good adult fantasy (and most of that literary), and that it's adult fans should grow up, a position that I'm sure a great many reading this list have heard before. And beyond that repetition of a casual insult, there's the consideration of what a perception of "it's for kids" means for adult's fantasy. It is not like the idea of fantasy authors being asked, and in some cases forced to tilt towards a younger market for financial reasons (or denied publication because they didn't) is at all new. Just look at the ongoing controversy over "women = YA'. 

So while I'll freely concede it's a little alarmist to call this list dangerous for skewing towards children/YA in their 100 best of all time, I don't think it's completely paranoid. The idea of adult's fantasy as a respected genre, with all the advantages that come with that, is not permanently safe. As such, I think this list is a little dangerous, and also more than a bit insulting and snobbish. If it were a "Our favourites", maybe it's not a big deal. But as a 100 best of all time? It's a bit of a deal. And my disdain now feels very justified; it is but a mirroring of what this list is.

All done. This might be my last post done on Blogger! I'd be sad, except trying to change my font to my preferred has taken two tries. I hear a lot of complaining about Wordpress' functions, but Blogger's changes for the worse are real too. Now, just to decide on a new blog name (or, you know, think a lot and not change it).

Friday 13 November 2020

Scene Breakdown: Rainbow Six Opening

Ever sat there looking at one of your scenes and wondered if the pacing was right? Too long, too short? Dithering too much before getting to the main event or getting there too fast? I really hope so, because I don't want to be the only one. Some people will say just write but the reality is many of us have a habit of including the wrong things, putting them in the same order, and so on. Getting that right is a skill many writers pick up through osmosis but doing some detailed analysis work can really help.

Why this scene? Honestly, I hadn't really meant to. I was looking at Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six mainly for some ideas on Action Thriller plotting, but it occurred to me that I could use the opening scene as an interesting example of an action set piece opening. I don't think it's one of the best examples of it's ilk I've ever seen, but in a way that makes it more interesting. 

Now, we've got to remember while analyzing that Clancy wrote this as an incredibly successful mid-career author. That makes it interesting in that you can both call this the standard in that it represents a genre great at work, and also a bad standard in that you've got to ask whether everything Clancy does is something a writer without his name can do. It should also be remembered that Clancy's style isn't for everyone inside his genre, nevermind out, but equally that what he did had huge results. Just because it mightn't be to your taste doesn't mean there isn't material to mine here for scene structure - particularly with an author like Clancy whose success came down to his storytelling, not his prose.

Here's a quick synopsis of the scene for anyone who's not read the book before (although it's probably easier to read the thing yourself) -

John Clark (a protagonist from previous Clancy books) is a former CIA operative, on a plane to London with his family and a friend to start his own small agency. It is his bad luck to be on the same plane as three rogue terrorists targeting an ambassador - but after realizing how dangerous the situation is, he decided to make it their bad luck instead. Thanks to a little acting and knockout punching, he and two of his men take back the plane. The scene ends with the plane captain asking who Clark is and getting no answer.

I broke the scene down into 82 paragraph sized beats (apologies if I'm using beats wrong). Some of them are longer than others (and some are two small paragraphs), but this should give a rough idea of how far in or not we are. Other technical details include that this scene is roughly 7k words and takes up maybe 2% of the book. This isn't really a lesson about economy - but a lesson about how a writer can hold a bunch of people with them for a 7k book intro and action scene? That has value. Onto the breakdown with the opening line:

“John Clark had more time in airplanes than most licensed pilots, and he knew the statistics as well as any of them, but he still didn’t like the idea of crossing the ocean on a twin-engine airliner.”

This sentence tells us three things about the story very quickly:

a) Where we are - on a plane!
b) That the character John Clark is a very experienced and educated man (on this at least), but he's still just a man - he still gets scared by fairly mundane things.
c) The technical details in this story will matter. They will not be brushed aside.

C to me is maybe the most important one. It is an important style marker for someone new to Clancy's style (and while this is a mid-career book, it is the first Tom Clancy I read, so this does happen). There's very little chance of getting the wrong expectations with this sort of opening. In any case, Clancy packs a lot in here.

The next ten beats (that was the first, this takes us up to eleven) are dedicated to establishing a sense of normal, introducing us to Clark and his chums, and setting out his tone and style. The latter is crucial. Part of Clancy's appeal was the big play he made to American values, Western values, patriotic values, and so on. Presenting a world view his readers can buy into is a big part of many of their enjoyment. Come, says Tom, let's watch the heroic CIA ex-Seal think about Football and exchange small jokes with his wife about how murder's cheaper than divorce lawyers. Even if you're not super into Clancy's cultural standpoint, it's still a cosy little tableau that does a good job of introducing John Clark as an all round human being, not just a murderhobo.

Is ten beats a good amount here? Honestly, it seems a little self-indulgent. In my notes, after beat 7, I wrote "I'm bored" and that's pretty much true. There's only so many ways you can give the same information. Now, we can afford to be a little patient as Clancy makes clear through Clark that something's happening here - even if neither us nor Clark know what - and his prose is easy to churn through. But this could be compact.

Beat 12 is when the tension starts to rise. Clark notices a passenger still wearing his jacket. Why wouldn't he take that off on a Transatlantic flight? The way in which the tension is introduced is a good example of show, not tell, and a good example of the way Clancy is determined to act as our guide in this world. Clancy's books aren't just books - they're borderline manuals.

Clancy uses the next eight or so beats (up to 20) to establish this situation. He shows the terrorists' actions - because the man in the jacket is a terrorist using it to conceal his gun - those of Clark, and those of the people around Clark. Now, we are told when writing scenes to consider who has the most to gain and to lose, to use agency. True. But in a very micro-sense, that can't always be true. Right now, John Clark has zero agency. These men are armed and in control and while he does have a gun, he stupidly left it in the overhead compartment (likewise his friend and second Alistair). Clancy doesn't try to force agency on Clark here. He goes out of his way to emphasize how the only smart thing the passengers (panicking a little), the captain (cool as the cucumber in a Hendricks G&T, wot), and Clark can do is go along with the passengers. This is an important part of Clancy's world. Yes, it's about American heroes, but these heroes are professionals, not a comicbook Conan.

Beats 20-22 are given to Clark's 1) EMOTIONAL REACTION: 2) REVIEW, LOGIC, & REASON: 3) ANTICIPATION: 4) CHOICE: That list? I took it from Jim Butcher blog posts on scenes and sequels. Clancy's using a similar structure in a micro-sense - a little action, a little reaction. This is the order of the reaction, more or less. Clark never has a specific emotional reaction, but his constant admonishments (out loud to his wife but mainly to himself) that others shouldn't panic is the clue to his own. In many ways, how Clark pushes his emotions onto others is a deft piece of characterization (would be defter is Clancy doesn't pretty much call this out a few paragraphs later but oi vey). Then he starts surveying the tactical situation. Then he anticipates what he'd do if someone was threatening his wife. Then he decides there's nothing he can do right now. One last interesting wrinkle - Clancy's prose style slows down, making heavy use of ellipsis as he tries to capture the way the information will be entering Clark's head here:

Chavez did the same . . . and Ding was still wearing his jacket. He was more used to hot weather, John thought, and probably felt cold on the airplane. Good. He’d still have his Beretta .45 on . . . probably . . . Ding preferred the small of his back, though, and that was awkward for a guy strapped into an airliner seat.

The action-reaction dichotomy continues for a while, each time getting closer to Clark deciding he must take action. By a while, I mean we're up to roughly Beat 50 (so a bit over halfway through). Is this too much? Yes and no. It's a question of style. Clancy is working on the painstaking accumulation of detail, details that will lead Clark to switch his mind from "they have the power, more lives will be saved by co-operating" to "they do not have control and are likely to try leveraging their power by taking lives, so more lives will be saved by whupping their asses". In this regard, the timing is roughly right, particularly as the beats are shorter than they were to begin with. In a longer novel, the midway point usually gets the biggest explosion yet - so above, so below.

However, once again I found myself getting a little bored by the latter stages of the to and fro. Here Clancy's tendency to throw in a free manual doesn't help him. Certain elements, such as Alistair's interactions with the terrorists and Clark, are good. Others, like Clark mentally replaying stuff about terrorism, not so good. In terms of technical writing, the PoV looks a bit wobbly. There's a few details thrown in that don't seem to have come from Clark's mind, and a few that are shown but don't necessarily ring true. There's three dickwads on a plane liable to get you killed and you're internally monologuing about how smart terrorists don't do that rather than being razor-focused on the situation? Well, maybe. Maybe this is Clark's way of displacing his emotions. I'd go with that, but some stuff was too loose PoV wise, so there's a question (i.e. "even John Clark, experienced as he was, saw flaws in others that were perfectly natural to himself"). I think my big takeaway at this stage is that if you're going as long and as depth as Clancy, make sure you really do have enough interesting material to use.

Once Clark decides to go, he decides to, er, go. That is, he asks one of the terorists if he can use the toilet, acting like he's going to piss himself. I'm slightly reminded of Die Hard at this point. The terrorists eventually decide yet, with another case of what looks like wandering PoV ("What turned the trick was Clark’s size. He was just under six-two, and his forearms, visible with the rolled-up sleeves, were powerful. Number 3 was smaller by four inches and thirty pounds, but he had a gun, and making bigger people do one’s wishes is always a treat for bullies.") Now, that could just be Clark's opinion stated as fact, but it feels a bit of a stretch. It'd be fun characterisation if it was, but we're dealing with a little too much uncertainty.

The first terrorist is lured a little further down the plane after the piss break, so Clark and Ding can deal with him together. That moment of action is a single beat; there's perhaps three beats leading up to it. From there it's another four beats leading up to the second terrorist going down (this time Clark and Alistair). There's a bit more of a to-do before the last terrorist is approached; they want to lure him out of the cabin rather than go in after him. It's a good way to heighten the tension and give this a fitting finish; it's also a case of playing to the details. Sucker punching a guy looking the wrong way in the aisles is one thing. Having a firefight in a cockpit is another. From concocting the plan to executing it with a gun to the head is another 4 beats, with the terrorist's surrender taking 2. Clancy's style is very much lots of planning, quick execution.

There's another 8 or so beats after this, mainly consisting of the technocratic resolution of the scene and Clark insisting on keeping his professional mystique. He wants the world to think this was just three lucky air police (things that wouldn't fly today).

So what's happened?

When people talk about good openings, they often talk about the question that gets people to turn the page. Here, the question is:

Do you want to see Clark and chums waste some more terrorists?

There is very little plot set up. Those poor terrorists, as Clark makes firmly clear, have nothing to do with anyone. His allusions to his agency tell you nothing more than is on the blurb. This opening is simply about establishing the world and characters Clancy wants to sell you, and giving you a taster of what it's all like. John Clark is a badass special operator who loves his wife and dotes on his daughter and incipient grandkid, who's a little scared of flying and whose hands sometimes shake after combat. His world is that of process, of tech, of clandestine battles.

Perhaps this is why this first chapter feels like a short story (technically a prologue but whatevs). It certainly follows story format, albeit in a flabby way. One quarter for the establishing shot. The decision to take action is actually 70% in now I double check. The scene could be shortened and I think if I was building my own beginning in a similar vein, I would, and I suspect an editor who wasn't aware your big books would sell and sell would demand that. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that's the interesting question here - how much could you cut this and still get the feeling?

The opening section could probably be condensed to around 1k, saving about 4-500 words. You could shave another 500 of easily just by ending earlier. That's one thousand words saved without effecting the action at all. I'm less sure about how much you could save there, particularly if you're a writer going for technocratic details heavy but it's got to be some. Could you get this whole passage down to five thousand words? I think so. If you can't, can you spice it up?

Not without losing the whole point of what is Tom Clancy. What this scene does well is a long build-up to sudden moments of violence. I think arguing for a shorter, leaner piece to avoid the build-up being stretched too far and losing its tension is wholly consistent with the author's seeming aim. Lots of action here isn't. Which maybe means calling this an action setpiece to begin with was wrong. Whoops. But it is worth studying.


Well, very tentative conclusions, not all of them on structure as promised. Here goes

1) You don't have to sell the book on mystery if the scene is fun
2) Around a thousand words is a good point to check whether you're still carrying the reader
3) 3-4 beats between an immediate plan being put into place and it coming to fruition looks good. The beats don't have to be long.
4) The scene-sequel model works pretty good on a micro-level, particularly the chain of reactions

All sound good? Any questions?

Tune in next time as I tackle a scene of less than 7k words.

Monday 2 November 2020

A Monday Update

Hello all and welcome to another month at Peat's Academy for the Blithely Eccentric.

Or not, as the case may be.

This will be a quiet month on me for the blog for a few reasons. One of them is NaNo, which I'm going to be using as a good excuse to up my fiction writing habit. Another major one is I want to switch this blog to Wordpress, as that seems a far better platform than Blogger, which makes me a little reluctant to add to the archive I'll have to transfer over. This post will make 252 - that's quite a lot. I'll probably do a few updates here and there due to habit, but nothing like what I've been doing.

"Peat," you might say, "It doesn't take that long to switch platforms."

It does when you're not trying very hard and it's not a priority. But it will happen!

I do have plans for when I re-open on a new platform. Probably non-sustainable plans, but we'll see. Here's the planned schedule for the new site:

Mondays: This is when I'll post my worst ideas since you need something to make you laugh on Mondays, and these posts will be slightly less annoying than your co-workers. Books as alcoholic drinks. Books as band names. Dubious things to do with bones. I think my next one planned is reviews in limerick form, but I'm always willing to listen to new bad ideas.

Tuesdays-Wednesdays: Reviews, interviews, top 10 lists (unless v silly), and so on.

Thursdays: Writing chat, which could also include interviews

Fridays: Fantasy chat - Fantasy Five catch-ups, general state of the genre things (I could also possibly include anthology reviews and roundtable chats here)

Saturdays: Nothing

Sundays: Fiction. Hopefully a serial, but other forms of fiction may appear.

I think that's it. Obviously this is all subject to change, and I'm not above double posting on days when I've got lots of content and can't be arsed with waiting to post it. Which might result in missing days. I apologise for the way I am there.

So that's it really. If there's anything in particular people think would be cool to see, hit me up in comments on one of the many other forms of communication available.

And as a nod to there being some sort of content today, here's a general update

Reading: I'm sort of between books at the moment. I'm dipping into Fallen Queen by Y.R. Shin and Nasomi's Quest by Enock Simbaya, but neither is super grabbing me so progress promises to be slow there. I do, between ARCs and a super-sekrit project, have a TBR list that's longer than a Leonard Cohen song so I should dig into that, but right now I want some fairly easy re-reads or to dig into non-fiction.

Listening: Most of my days are dedicated to a mix of Depeche Mode, Fields of the Nephilim, and generally laidback and dark music, but I am also trying to go through the entire Enslaved discography, one a day. I was also recommended this album of Stoner Metal Nirvana covers by Blessings of the Highest Order which is pretty good.

Drinking: I had a hot chocolate spiked with Kahlua and Phantom Spirits' rum aged in stout barrels, which is a good way to make the world feel a little better. Expect alcoholic hot drinks experiments to continue.

Eating: I had some great fusion results last week combining various blends of soy/hoisin/rice wine with allspice and a Chipotle-Mango-Lime spice blend I got from TK Maxx, but didn't write down any recipes. I also made a very tasty faux-SE Asian soup, but I didn't write that recipe either. I do have some teriyaki eel from a takeaway to eat as leftovers today but I'll be honest, it wasn't very good.

Watching: I have let my wife have the TV remote for Halloween (and most of eternity to be honest) so it's been a lot of Hocus Pocus, the new Are You Afraid Of The Dark and so on. Left to myself, it's been rewatching Avatar: The Last Airbender and Guy's Grocery Games. I did also see most of the Steelers-Ravens game on Sunday, which had one hell of an ending. And speaking of endings, if my Fantasy Football team keeps staging nigh-miraculous comebacks to beat my wife's team, it will probably end my marriage.

Writing: This blog post.

Not sorry. Uhm. I'm doing a lot of WIP hopping, but I am trying to get the main one (embittered knight is forced to turn detective to try and save a sharp-tongued thief from a murderous gang after she's accused of a crime she didn't actually commit (she does a better job of the saving)) ready to submit by the end of the year. The other main project features an unlikely and bickering crew of misfits trying to put a king back on his throne - assuming he still wants it. Also got back into doing some poetry for some godawful reason.

And that's it. Happy trails.

Sunday 1 November 2020

Our Kind of Watchman

When I started this blog, I meant it to be a way of sharing my writing as much as anything. That didn't happen but now is as good a time as any to start putting that right. This is a short piece I wrote a few years back now for a site writing contest, and I hope people enjoy it. If not, it was written by my evil twin, a cad who has nothing to do with me.

Our Kind of Watchman 

I am waiting for the bell to toll.
There’s five of us, all with coffee in one hand and a stylus in the other. Stretching out reports and cracking jokes until our shift is done. MacElra is the loudest, the one who aims nearest the knuckle. I worry he’ll get into trouble at his next thought-sensing but today I’m grateful. He masks my silence. I don’t want them worrying about me. Worry can become questions.
The bell rings. I am released.
“I must go quick,” says young Ronagh. “Saorne expects me.”
“Not the only thing she expects, I’ll wager. Hoard your silver, lad.”
We laugh at MacElra’s jest, even Ronagh as he flushes. They’re recent news and he’s not comfortable with it yet, but he knows we tease because we’re pleased. Your Watch-brothers are closer than your real brothers.
“I’m for the inn. Any takers?” MacElra announces.
I shake my head swiftly. “Not me.”
“Too many of you have beautiful women,” he grumbles as I leave.
Outside the Watch-house’s sanctuary, my stomach grows cold and tight like a dead man’s grip. Citizens look at me and move aside. My uniform marks me as a Hierarch’s servant; a figure of law, order, and dread. The Hierarchs know their crimes and I punish them. It keeps Tallabhair whole. I walk home, except I take a turn I normally don’t, knock on someone else’s door.
“Come in, Toadstool. You ready?”
I nod. I’m ready to commit my first crime.

There’s three of us. Niaja, heretic mage; polite, withdrawn. Comarach, our patron’s favourite killer; scum.
And me. The necessary traitor.
I take out my key and open the treasury door. The moment I enter, awareness of everything permeates me. I know who is here, what is here, where it is. One of the many blessings the Hierarchs give their Watchmen and right now, the best of them. Niaja’s face is clenched in concentration as she maintains the spell that masks us from my fellow Watchmen. And Comarach follows, ready to kill either of us if we get clever ideas. When I stop, waiting for a man to walk by, he places his blade at my back. I hated him enough before that.
We continue through the labyrinth, ignoring the kings’ ransoms piled to either side. Our patron bade us take the Knife of Riaghaid, and that only. Even if Comarach was not here, I could not afford to anger her.
I have never seen the Knife of Riaghaid before but one thought summons the image. An ordinary thing, dull and notched. The desires of mages are strange. I lead us to it like a bird seeking summer. There are few of my fellows this far in. I take it and the power of it makes my teeth rattle.
It’s all too easy. No one thought to protect it from a Watchman. Our loyalty is legend.
I smile as we walk out. Disloyalty never felt so good.

Tallabhair is riotous at night, the citizens drinking their sorrow. I smell danger in the mead fumes. All Watchmen know the stories and I’m not protected by my uniform now. It’s the first time I’ve been out without my uniform since I was a boy. The thought troubles me more than any threat. A stranger walks in my body, past the crimes I swore to punish. Poppy smokers, unlicensed poets, adulterers. They don’t seem so terrible tonight.
I had no choice, though. I have my own Saorne; Muadha, whose eyes make the Moon Maiden weep and own my soul. Muadha, whose eyes fail more every day, the magical energies of Tallabhair eroding her brain. The doctors told me it was not uncommon, a side-effect of the sheer scale of the Hierarchs’ workings to keep back the hungry sea. They had a cure; the Hierarchs could hardly do their work without one. An expensive one though, they warned me. I paid that no mind. I was a Watchman.
Then the Hierarchs denied me.
I didn’t dwell on it. I was trained to quick action and stoic courage. Instead, I started looking for others who might provide me what I needed for my beloved Muadha, heedless of price. The refusal continued to fester away though. Eating away at the man I was.
We turn a corner and I find myself eye to eye with MacElra. Fear consumes me. Is he waiting for me? Does he know? No, he’s with a woman. His eyes are wide in question.
I open my mouth and Comarach slits his throat.
“Fucking toadstool,” he hisses.
My fists ball up. He smirks at me. My hand is on my knife hilt when Niaja coughs. I look and she gestures at the woman. We all realise the truth that the heretic is saying in the same moment; the witness cannot live. She runs and Comarach chases but I am faster. My blade flies straight between her shoulders. I pull it out, the coffee rising up my throat. She’s dead. At least I don’t have to finish her. I don’t sheath it but turn to face Comarach again. His own weapon, wet with MacElra’s blood, is waiting.
“Perhaps it would be best to settle this matter elsewhere?” says Niaja. “Such as, say, somewhere that is not a murder scene.”
She’s right. I clean my knife and sheath it. He takes the lead, unafraid of me. Scum. I glance at Niaja and her lips twitch, then she’s like a statue. We go to the meeting place as quickly as is sensible. As we enter, I nudge Comarach.
“I’ll get you for this.”
“No you won’t.”
He’s right. I won’t even remember it.

The patron gives me two vials. The first is for Muadha.
The second is for me.
There is a problem with committing crime when your mind is read regularly. The only way to escape capture is to never remember doing the crime. The second vial will solve that problem. But there is more, as my patron had explained when we first made our bargain. The Hierarchs are not fools. If a man receives a great prize but cannot remember why, they will prod and probe until they have the truth. And what greater prize is there than the miraculous recovery of your wife from the surest disease in Tallabhair?
When I wake tomorrow, Muadha will be well, but not with me. She will be somewhere else and I will believe that the strange corpse lying next to me is hers. Every little drop of pain I’d thought to escape will be mine, right down to the dregs. When my patron told me, I nearly begged her to find another way. To make me vanish too so that we could be together. I know she has a use for men such as me, if a man like me was willing to be scum.
I was not brave enough.
Now the vials are in front of me and I want to ask her for this mercy. I’m still not brave enough. I tell myself it is necessary. No one will suspect a thing if Muadha dies, but if we both disappear after tonight, people will come looking. People like Comarach.

It is three weeks since the night that both MacElra and Muadha died. I sit away from the others as I write my report, my coffee laced to keep me numb. My Watch-brothers watch me quietly. They wish to heal me but don’t know how. They don’t know how to heal themselves. MacElra was our soul. We take our pain out on the scum who did it.
My mind wanders constantly. I keep starting to write a resignation rather than my report. My captain, MacCuoma, refuses to consider such a thing. He tells me it would dishonour their memories. Maybe he’s right; I struggle to know. I am grateful for his care, for my brothers’ sympathy. It’s MacCuoma who tells me when the bell rings, tells me to go home. He emphasises the word home. Citizens look at me with fear and pity. I’m not just a Watchman to them, I’m a human too.
I reach my empty dwelling and look for the mead bottle. It’s not where I left it but there’s a small one in it’s place, it’s contents a pale yellow. Like amber. Or piss. I don’t care, I drink it.
As I do, I notice the woman. She wears no marks of belonging and a deep hood that doesn’t quite conceal the inhuman perfection of her face. I finish the vial, my mind sluggishly accepting the impossible reality.
“Hello, Watchman. We still have business, you and me.”
She is right. I try to open my mouth, to ask after Muadha. When I can be with her. I can’t, but she smiles anyway.
“There is a man,” she continues, “Who has offended me. He believes himself safe.”
I understand her request. All of it. I nod, heedless of price.

Friday 30 October 2020

Friday Five: Feeble Fumblings from Tired Minds

1) I don't know how many of us spend too many brain cells on what Fantasy Actually Is. I try not to, but I had a tiny epiphany thanks to doing some academic reading and wanted to share it.

Fantasy is both the silliest and most serious of fiction genres. It is the silliest because it is unabashedly throwing aspects of reality out of the window, holding on hard to childhood passions and games, embracing the bizarre and surreal. It the most serious because it is a direct descendant of our most important stories, our sacred texts, our ancestral memory on how humans should act, updated time and time again. At this point, this dichotomy is so embedded that there's no shifting it.

And how do you define a genre that has those two tentpoles so far apart? You can't really. It's just an open invitation for some clever swine to go "Well actually" once you think you've got something. There'll always be a traditional view but the tradition will merely by the tip of the iceberg (and I'd also point out the traditional view will be informed by all media, not just the literature).

I'd love to sum this thought up in a clever and poetic way, but it's Friday. Maybe something cleverer and fuller will come along another day.

2) Malinda Lo's craft series is continuing and is well worth checking out with these posts on vision and mystery. The latter particularly appeals to me as someone who wants options other than conflict, and who frequently sees people talking about the lure of the unanswered question.

3) The finalists for the British Fantasy Society Awards have been announced. I can tell you virtually fuck all about the choices because I'm about as up to date as bleeding people as a medical cure but I know that it'll be remarkable if Jen Williams wins again, making it a win for every book in her trilogy, that RJ Barker and Tade Thompson are fantastic twitter follows, and that there's no shortage of very talented authors, creatives, and creative enablers on that list. Congratulations to everyone!

4) Hoo boy. I am really struggling to hit five this week. I do indeed plead guilty to the charge of not being particularly engaged with the community recently. As such, item four will be me sharing all the books I got ARCs of through NetGalley (please don't ask when I'm finding time to read all of them)

Look at that list! Assuming your eyes are good enough for that small image. Aha, made it bigger. I'm so fucking smart. Anyway, a lot of excitement there. So far Fallen Queen is winning my attention most, but we'll see how Mr Goldfish Brain here gets on.

5) Okay, I've run out of fantasy things, so lets talk Sci-Fi. I know, I know, spaceships are boring, but there are occasionally good things in the twin genre. One of them is the Sci-Fi Month event on twitter, hosted by DearGeekPlace and OneMore. Everyone looking to engage with others into their Sci-Fi-ish ways should check it out.

6) I lie! But I just saw this and had to include. Go. Look. Much cute. It's a lovely short about a witch and her cat.

Thursday 29 October 2020

The approach of NaNoWriMo and why to write

Here it comes again. Worldwide lots of people talk about writing month. Some do a lot and feel good, some do a little and feel bad, and others have other outcomes. I've seen a few people wonder whether to do it, mainly due to the fear of feeling bad.

Me, I will be doing it, as an extension of the writing I'm already doing and will continue to be doing after. No special project. No special participation other than talking about word counts and some projects in places that NaNo that I'm already part of. Why?

Let's go to wondering whether to do NaNo, which for me, is just wondering whether to write. There's a lot said about it, sometimes in negative tones that affect people's perceptions. For me, it boils down to the simple question of "Is your life better or worse with writing in it?" Some people find it better because they enjoy writing. Some people find it better in the same way others might find their lives better for running long distances - they don't particularly enjoy the process but really enjoy having done the process. For others it is less about enjoyment of any part and more the need to do it, and feeling bad if they don't do it. This camp is the most likely to say things like "people who can live without writing should do so" and while that's pretty negative, it's their truth. Hell, it's a bit my truth. This is the camp I'm mostly in. 

Whatever camp people are in, it has to be one where it makes life better. There's zero reason to do it if it doesn't make life better. 

That doesn't necessarily help anyone on the sideline deciding to jump in. Help clarify the question maybe, but not answer it. Of course, I can't. I do however have a few other questions that I ask myself regularly:

"Am I worried that I'll have some bad days or lose enthusiasm and stop doing this and regret wasting my time?"

Every writer will have those moments. To a certain extent being a writer is defined by coming back when others stop. However! Coming back is easy. You've just got to shrug off the bad days and want to come back, and write when you do. It works, as can be seen from the excellent Melissa Caruso's twitter thread on this. Don't let fear of the bad days rule you. Also, who says we have to regret time spent on pastimes that aren't forever? 

"Do I really have anything to say? Any stories that are different enough to the rest to be worth writing?"

The great inconvenient truth about writing is you never really know until it's written and people are looking at it. Which also equals a big opportunity to find something worth saying through the process. You don't have to have everything at the start.

Well... okay. Two. But I think they cover most of it.

Look. If you can look at NaNo and say "I'll write and talk about it as long as it's fun, and if it stops being fun I'll just drop it with no dramas, and maybe I'll come back but no regrets if I don't", then I think you're all set to go. If that's not your mindset and you've got one that works, then top bombing.

For everyone still thinking about writing who's not sure they can be easy on themselves - maybe find other ways to do it. I know one person who'll be doing NaNo, but by spacing the days out so not all fall in the month but all fall when he's ready to write. Sounds clever to me. I also know another who might be joining in to do their thesis, which is where I am with my continuation. Starting something new wouldn't make my life better, not like finishing something would. 

There's short stories for people who aren't sure about novels, flash pieces for those unsure about short stories. People could set up a chain story with their friends. Ways to write seem ever proliferating. 

And if people think their life would be better with a bit of writing in them, then hopefully they'll find a way to do so.

Wednesday 28 October 2020

The Red Wyvern by Katherine Kerr

Let me start this review, 9th of its name in the Deverry Cycle, with an admission of bias. There is a cut-off point for me where rambling, branching stories usually cease to interest. For me, it generally tends to happen when the focus shifts to Main Characters who did not emerge directly from the original Main Characters' plot arcs. Main Characters with two or more degrees of separation, you might say.

As such, when The Red Wyvern opens up with a slew of scenes and characters with two or more degrees of separation, I know I'm not the ideal reader for this book.

I shall presume at this point that all readers are familiar with Deverry from reading/previous reviews - the pseudo-Celtic setting and speech, the intricate web of reincarnations and time-shifted plot arcs, close adherence to an alien and bloody set of ethics, the blunt and ruthless politics mixed with ethereal mysticism. We get a very full dose of that in this book as most of it takes place in Deverry's civil wars, many years before The Red Wyvern's notional present day.

The main thrust of that is the tale of Lilli (short for Lillorigga, a horrendous name to call anyone), a nascent sorcerous talent and scared daughter of the nefarious Boar clan. Her journey will bring her close to Nevyn, the irascible sorcerer currently advising the True King Maryn as he seeks to actually become king. The result is a lot of focus on dweomer rituals and their effects on the world, and a lot of politics. The politics are of a rather dismal kind too, a dampener on some of the glory filled exploits that brought them to their current situation that feels deliberate. Adrenaline soaked rides to seize power can be frightening, traumatic, a cause of a bad case of the deads, but they're adrenaline soaked (I know), glorious, and clean. All's fair in love and war. The business of working out how much influence and power to give to self-serving but competent men, when you've got very few competent types, is none of those things. It feels a rather deliberate move from Kerr, who has repeatedly made a point of showing the ugliness that accompanies the glamour.

In many ways, this is the darkest Deverry book in spirit. I've seen a few people suggest newer readers read this as a starting point. I don't think I'd agree but I think it'd be possible, and maybe this would appeal more to readers who came into the genre with Abercrombie or Jemisin, rather than Gemmell and Jordan. If anyone can find me some guinea pigs, that'd be great.

And I can certainly see how someone reading it alone might enjoy the savage mix of statescraft and sorcery more than someone thinking "yes, yes, this is all very well, but can we please get back to Rhodry's onwards trip to locoland". We do get some Rhodry and Dalla in the last quarter or so of the book, but it feels very much like a transition for the next book. Which isn't a huge amount of fun. (Also might be confusing for anyone who does start here). I don't know at what point in their career authors can start winning battles with editors, but I would love to know what the editor said here. Maybe they assumed people were that invested in the series.

The Red Wyvern is a more than passable piece of entertainment and I don't regret reading it twice, but there are too many things to be frustrated by here to call it actively great. And when it comes to my bias? The Red Wyvern doesn't half confirm it. This isn't the same story as that of Rhodry and Jill, not to me, and it isn't as fun.

Tuesday 27 October 2020

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

By way of introductory remarks, I'd like to provide a dictionary definition (Cambridge English for those who care) that should give some pointer as to where my mind is going with this review.

Perfect (adj): Complete and correct in every way, of the best possible type, or without fault.

Now, one of the things I like about the first definition is it means there can be no perfect fantasy books, for the list of things expected in a fantasy book is so large and at points mutually exclusive that no book can be complete and correct in every way. But there can be perfect examples of particular types of fantasy books, and books that are perfect by our own internal demands.

The Curse of Chalion is not a particularly standard fantasy book. It has many standard conceits; the pseudo-Medieval world (here vaguely-Spain), the intervention of the magical/supernatural/divine into a world seemingly following the same rules as our own, kings and queens, knights and knaves, and so on. The foundational conceits are used to tell a different type of story though. This is no coming of age, or discovery of an incredible hidden world, of tale of a great war.

This is, first and foremost, the story of Lupe dy Cazaril, a noble and soldier who has been hurt in body and spirit by a spell as a galley slave. He returns to Valenda, where he once served as a page, seeking some minor role or charity from its ruler. Cazaril is somewhat alarmed when the Dowager Provincara instead makes him Secretary-Tutor to her granddaughter, Iselle dy Chalion, a quick-witted and headstrong teenager who is half-sister to Chalion's current Roya of Chalion. He laments that he'd rather be under siege again. But he accepts and gives himself whole-heartedly to the service of the Princess.

This is a story of healing, of guidance and friendship, of ethics and resilience. There is also court intrigue, swordsmanship, and magic, but they are garnishes and sauces upon the dish. The greatest use of the fantastic here is in examining the relationship between the divine and man, and of the idea of sainthood. In that respect, The Curse of Chalion lies in similar company as Discworld thematically, and perhaps claim ties of kinship with Kushiel's Dart and The Golem and the Jinni; The Goblin Emperor might be it's closest relation in the genre in a lot of ways, but lacks that trace of providence and faith in its make-up that so distinguishes Bujold's work here. The Curse of Chalion isn't particularly standard, but it's not wildly different; the scion of a minor but well-famed family.

A very, very distinguished scion. This is perfect by the standards of the internal demands of Peat Long, a complete and correct blueprint of what fantasy novels of healing should look like. It is a virtuoso display of writing, for Bujold excels at everything she sets her mind to here. The prose is the first thing to be noticed here; very lucid, evocative without getting bogged down in detail, full of Cazaril's narrative voice and at its best when describing his emotions:

"He was laughing. And crying. Teetering on the ragged edge of . . . something that frightened him more than the outraged bath man."

Through that voice, and the keenness of Cazaril's eye, we meet the characters of Chalion and a compelling cast they are indeed. The Dowager Provincara is Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey without the cattiness; Iselle's brother Teidez an interesting study in manhood blooming frustrated and without direction. Perhaps the most compelling of the characters (other than Cazaril himself) is Martou dy Jironal, the austere and ruthless villain of the piece. This is a cast of stock types but all given little touches of humanity that makes them jump off the page and into the imagination. What allows that to happen is the strength of Bujold's observational powers, her ability to notice the details of how we interact and place it in her characters.

The plot here is a slow burning one, ceding the limelight as it must to Cazaril's regenerating sense of self, humanity, and place, and his friendship with Iselle and her companion Betriz dy Ferrej. However, I think that is only to its betterment as there is no need to rush, no need to fill it with extraneous details. We simply get to enjoy the slow probing and dissection of Chalion's corruption through Cazaril and his brilliant, passionate charges. Make no mistake - this book could have been written very well from Iselle's or Betriz's PoV, for they are intelligent and sympathetic heroines in their own right, and Bujold frequently has them pushing the action with Cazaril scrambling after them. As it should be, really. 

Is there anything I consider less than perfect here? The worldbuilding doesn't spark the same joy as everything else here, leaving a sense of leading actors delivering career performances on a painted stage. Nothing wrong with it, and the pivotal points in the history and theology are well-drawn, but I don't think Bujold gives the minor details the love needed to make them shine. Cazaril's romance is sweet, but I'd have vaguely preferred it to be with someone nearer his age. The ending invites charges of being too neat (although, ultimately, I only consider this charge). And I wouldn't have objected to this book having another two hundred odd pages so I could have spent more time with it.

Then again, I was up until three in the morning in the need to finish this, so perhaps better not. I also struggle to see how one could have added those pages without making this a worse story, given how compact and neatly put together. There is nothing wasted in The Curse of Chalion. It is part of what makes me love it so much. Ultimately though, the perfection of The Curse of Chalion lies in the power of its journey, the joy of its victories over the petty and evil. I can't imagine enjoying a book more than The Curse of Chalion and that's what makes it perfect to me.

Monday 26 October 2020

If Fantasy Characters Had Football Chants

G'day and welcome to the latest run-off from the more dysfunctional parts of my brain-meats.

This one was inspired by people talking about V.E. Schwaab's The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue.

"Hmm, Addie LaRue would scan well in a number of football chants," says some part of my subconscious. "Shame the automatic rhyme I can think of is doing a poo."

Yes, that is how my brain works, thanks for asking.

Now, football chants are one of the great underappreciated art forms of our times. I presume most people are familiar with the idea that football fans like to sing songs as a form of support, tribal belonging, and sometimes boredom relief. I would submit that nowhere in the world is this artform practised better than in the UK, where each club has an ever revolving repertoire of chants, tunes pulled from pop music and words pulled from a hive mind of wit and cruelty. The best are born mid-game, a sort of primitive one-sided rap battle with the poor sods on the pitch.

Now, an example of how this works. Let me dig out a very old classic -

There's only one Dougie Freedman
There's only one Dougie Freedman
Walking along
Singing a song
Walking in a Freedman wonder land

Which goes decently enough as 

There's only one Frodo Baggins,
There's only one Frodo Baggins
Walking along
Singing a song
Walking in a Mordor nightmare land

I asked for some help and inspiration from the Fantasy Inn Discord (where the spark for this came from) and got the following from Hiu there

Old Gandalf is magic, he wears a magic hat,
He could have left poor Bilbo, but he said "no, fuck that".
He fought that fucking balrog,
Was grey but now he's white,
But never say "good morning", or he'll start talking shite!

Grade A effort there. Middle Earth is fertile ground for this sort of thing - here's one for everyone's favourite sidekick/real hero

Sam Gamgee, Gamgee
Likes a tater or three
He might even cook one for thee
Sam Gamgee, Gamgee

In similar vein I adopted a pair of Palace favourites (although I'm sure every team has their own variations on this) for the more general milieu very handily

Oh Middle Earth (oh Middle Earth)
Is Wonderful (is wonderful)
Oh Middle Earth is Wonderful
It's full of Ents, Wizards, and Hobbits,
Oh Middle Earth is Wonderful

Oh Mordor (Oh Mordor)
Is Full of Shit (full of shit)
It's full of shit, shit, and more shit,
Oh Mordor is full of shit

Rumours that the Rohirrim were actually singing the latter one at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields are completely true. At least in my head.

We can't let Middle Earth have all the fun though. I did get one request when I mentioned that idea, and that was a chant for Nyneave Al'Meara, so to Randland we go for this classic

Al'Meara-ra-ra, pulls her braid looks snooty
Al'Meara-ra-ra, pulls her braid smacks booty
To the left to the right, and her braid hangs down to her knees
Tugs on it every time she's feeling kinda pissy

I stand by everything I wrote here. I have to, I looked up Agadoo lyrics for this. And since we're in Randland, got to go for a tribute to the main man (and also a certain Scottish goalie of long ago)

Two Dragon Reborns,
There's only two Dragon Reborns,
Two Dragon Reborns

Cruel, somewhat inaccurate, and right to the soft spot - perfect football chant material.

In a similar vein, I wanted to celebrate Liverpool's tribute to Djimi Traore, cult hero of yore. I had to go with a book I didn't know too well to find a good-ish rhyme and lack of control, but I think this works. If it does, I blame it on the people who told me it does. From NK Jemisin's The Fifth Season:

Don't blame it on the commless,
Don't blame it on the strongbacks,
Don't blame it on the breeders
Blame the oregone

They just can't, they just can't, they just can't control their fear

Keeping things mean spirited and personal (I make no bones about that being my favourite type of football chant)

Jaime, where ever you may be,
Your sister's had your babies,
But it could be worse, you could be Ned,
Married to her until he's dead

Let's try a few nice supportive ones now.

Singing Ai Yi Yippie Nanny Ogg
Singing Ai Yi Yippie Nanny Ogg
She likes a drop of brandy
She'll beat you using candy
Singing Ai Yi Yippie Nanny Ogg


When the Don's get rich scheme
Has become a bad dream
That's Lamora

Of course, you can reuse tunes more or less endlessly i.e.

Oh El-Sha’arawi's magic, she wears a magic suit
And when she finds a dead djinn, she knows just where to scoot
She solves crimes with her left hand
She solves them with her right
And when there's fucking angels, she solves all fucking night


Oh Thuan, Thuan,
He has the gift of the gab
His husband likes to stab
Oh Thuan, Thuan

However, on this at least, I'd like to end on a negative note

You're just a Greyjoy, a dirty Greyjoy
You're only happy on raiding day
Your dad's out thieving, your sister's appealing
Please don't take my brothers away

If you made it this far, I'm impressed and horrified. Any further requests, please leave in the comments.

Thursday 22 October 2020

If I ran an imprint

I saw a thing on Twitter t'other day asking what your own personal imprint would look like. I like that idea so here's my in detail take on this - and it even fits a Writing Thursday post, as a lot of these ideas are me being very specific about what I want to write. In the unlikely event anyone out there sees this and would be interested in giving me the financial backing to make it happen, then please do.

With no further ado

The It's All Gone Peat Long Imprint Manifesto

I would like to start with authors from groups that have not traditionally gotten the fairest shake of things. I'd want to be able to say I at least gave them a fair shake. One book a year from that group minimum, minimum rising depending on how many the imprint can do. That's not a particularly radical goal. It's not meant to be. It's simply a fair place to start and see how it goes.

While I'm very much of the "bring me your ideas and wow me" school, there are a few things this imprint would look for (because this is what I want to read)

1) Tales of joy. You've all heard the criticisms of how the publishing industry is much more more interested in terms of X pain because that's what sells. Well, I prefer tales of happiness and joy. Sometimes happiness comes through being put through the wringer but I don't want all wringer. That's the first thing to look at.

2) Urban Fantasy Set in London. Yes, I know there's a ton of stuff set in London. But not a whole bunch that really digs into London identities and belonging. To me, a Londoner, believing I belong to one of the most diverse and magical and historically significant cities in the world

3) Joint Authored Projects from Different Backgrounds. This is just a logical extension to me of the joint push for authenticity and diversity. Very few authors can give that 100% authentic feel for multiple backgrounds, and if there's no multiple backgrounds you just get strands of "this is our thing" side by side with no overlap, so why not seek to have authors teaming up to give both authenticity and diversity? 

4) Translations. Translations is the tricky one because they really do cost. But it is my solemn belief that, without belittling any of the obstacles like race or class or gender or ethnicity, there is no bigger obstacle in the Anglosphere than language. Point in case - how many fantasy authors have sold more than Jin Yong? How many are better known? The difference between those two numbers is considerable. There's so many opportunities to let very talented authors shine there.

5) Tales that have absolutely nothing to do with the author's identity. Don't get me wrong here. I love stories full of people's love for their heritage and that have little details I'd otherwise know. I'm all about them. I just think fairness also involves giving authors from marginalised identities a chance to write whatever the hell they want rather than having to tick an own voice quota too.

Beyond this, here's the other things I think are pretty darn cool

1) Good People in Shitty Worlds. I'm not deadset against antiheroes, or very shiny worlds like Valdemar, but my favourite is where mostly Good People band together against worlds that have a lot of issues. I love a good noble king who genuinely does care but even when you do get that, they are steering a course through opposing storms and you can't always rely on them. And there's plenty of non-noble leaders too. So many.

2) The mix of violence and non-violence. Look, I love reading about violence. It's fun to read about. I also do not think it's necessity as the last gasp deterrence is going away anytime soon. I especially don't think the transcendent high of primitive dominance is going away anytime soon. This combination only increases the need for stories that emphasise the power of non-violent solutions, of making peace and finding understanding. Which are also fun. I sometimes think the ideal story is somewhere between Pratchett and Gemmell on this (admittedly there's a lot of space there).

3) Resonance with the past. My favourite form of fantasy is that which builds on our heritages. It's what I took away most from Tolkien. It's what I want most from fantasy. That riffing on the genre itself, and off video games, it's cool (and hell can be combined with the above), but it's not my love.

4) While I am busy celebrating old school things, let me add that I miss touches of omniscient author voice. I miss big panoramic sweeps and the sense that I'm in a story. I think there's been some great things done with the increased prominence of close voice in modern fantasy, but I'd like to see it combined with what came before, and think that is a path to some great storytelling experiences.

5) Fantasy that borrows liberally from other genres. I love the various takes of fantasy-crime around. I'd love to see that continue. I think there's a lot of room for borrowing from thrillers and spy novels in particular. Conspiracies and mysteries are particularly great.

6) It's way too late so the rest of these points will come out quick. Acknowledge sex. Acknowledge sexiness. Be positive about it. Don't support those who seem to think it's a borderline crime (unless they're having it). Life isn't all sex, but when it is, by gods it's about sex.

7) I am very down for more soft magic, and also magic that borrows liberally from the real world, which isn't always the same thing. 

8) I'd like to see fantasy move away from being alt-history with the serial numbers filed off. Part of that's on readers to stop assuming X is Y the whole time, but parts of that's on creators too. Get a bit nuts. Very obviously make it clear this can't be X culture all the way down.

There we go. Now someone give me lots of money so this can happen.

Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson

Friends, fantasists, comrades. I am here to talk about what is probably one of the most influential books in the genre.

A big claim but consider this brief synopsis. During WW2, an engineer named Holger Carlsen joins the Danish Resistance. He is wounded while covering the escape of Niels Bohr, and awakes in a strange world where the arms and horse of a knight await him. He discovers in this world, much like that of Charlemagne's paladins, that the forces of Law and Chaos are at war. With the aid of a dwarf with a Scottish accent and the swan-maiden Alianora, Holger must discover his own role in this war, for his enemies are many and cunning.

Law and Chaos. Paladins. Scottish dwarves. These are very generic concepts today, particularly among fantasy gamers, but they weren't in 1961. It is here that these ideas, if not originated (although I suspect they did), gained prominence. They had a big influence on D&D, which in turn has influenced huge amounts of modern fantasy literature. And that's just the obvious. I wish I had the knowledge of the genre needed to make the following claim with confidence, but I think there's a case that in terms of the "vaguely historical/mythological adventures of might and magic" trad fantasy genre, this might be the most influential book not penned by Tolkien*. Bold words but I stand by them until something changes my mind.

Influential and of historic importance doesn't mean fun to read though. You don't see me recommending The Worm Ouroboros (I should probably do a review of that). Am I going to recommend 3H&3L?

Yes. This isn't a raving "you must read it" recommendation but it's good at what it does. It's a well-paced adventure with fun fight-scenes and some good glimmerings of humour. Watching Holger apply scientific explanations to the marvels he meets is strangely enjoyable - not my usual cup of tea - and there's a poignancy to his ponderings over what the rat is happening to him. I could wish the world felt more cohesive, but how was Poul Anderson meant to know there's be 50 years of willy-nilly rule of cool western European legend mash up after him?

My biggest criticism and reason I only liked, rather than loved - other than not quite gelling with the prose - this book is that none of the character dynamics really popped at me. Anderson played for that knightly romance feeling and, well, it's not a field that really serves character dynamics in this one's humble opinion. It's too fixated on the knight and the knight's experience of the unknown. Which is what happens here very well. The dynamics between Holger and Alianora, between Holger and the dwarf Hugi, they're fine, there's some fun moments, but it's not stand out. There's no sense of anything wonderful, there's only one truly memorable line (and that's a mild spoiler so I'm not repeating it). Not that there's anything uncommon to that with adventure-action fantasy.

And that's what this is. A fairly common adventure-action fantasy, for better and for worse. Anderson's ideas won't seem as wowing or fresh as they once were, and the prose has aged a little, but this is still gets the job done.

Monday 19 October 2020

As the Distant Bells Tolls by Aleksandar Žiljak

Hmm. A short story anthology. I thought you weren't a big fan of them...

Well, sort of correct there. I haven't had great experiences with them. Nevertheless when I saw an opportunity to review this pop up I went for it anyway for two reasons.

1) I should like short story anthologies damnit. There's so much goodness within them and it's one of the great traditions of writing. So I'm going to keep trying them until I like them.

2) A chance to review one of Croatia's greatest SFF writers? No, I'm not going to pretend I'm super up to date and knew all about Mr Žiljak before this. Not a bloody scooby. But I do like a chance to broaden my horizons.

So in I piled, and I got an ARC courtesy of Wizard's Tower Press and here I am with my review of the anthology only three weeks or so after publication. Oops. But this does mean you can go out and buy it now.

Maybe if you got to the point where you let people know if they want to do so?

The big thing I like about Aleksandar Žiljak's style here is the sense of undiscovered legend. They're all set in our own world's history with just a few supernatural twists - twists that frequently result in bloody carnage that even Conan would be pleased with. In fact, Žiljak's work here reminds me quite a bit of Robert E. Howard's both in terms of structure and tone, only updated. There's a lot of adventures into bleak situations, a lot of savage splendour, only here these are the result of strange things happening to our heroes and heroines rather than sheer lust for the unknown, love for others is glorified above the lone hero, and there are attempts at resolving matters peacefully. I think one or two even work! 

The anthology tends to hop around the place a bit too in terms of time and place - from early China to Eastern Europe at the time of the Mongols, and from airships striking against Spanish treasure galleons to artists spying on dragons. Whether that's bug or feature depends on the individual - personally I found it both.


For the first half of the book, I enjoyed the variety. It kept things fresh. Every day a new little nugget! But after a while it palled. Maybe that was me wishing I had something to cling to as a throughline. Maybe that was me simply eventually reaching the short story ideas I didn't like. 

Let's just go through this story by story, shall we?

A Unicorn and a Warrior Girl is set in the time of Qin Shi Huang in Ancient China (so sometime in the 200s BC), and features a warrior girl forced into a repugnant task. The build of the tension is expertly timed and the ending is epic.

The Divine She-Wolf is a humdinger of revenge, action, superstition, and love, in which a werewolf (of sorts) does not take kindly to her son being kidnapped by Mongols. 

The Nekomata is set in feudal Japan when a warlord's order to kill the head of a ninja clan leads to a monster and a refugee clashing. It's another really fun story, full of heart and hope and awareness this is a dark world.

Elsebet and the Book of Dragons is a charming fairy tale-esque take on a wizard employing an artist to illustrate his Book of Dragons, a task that involves getting a lot closer to dragons than is strictly wise. Unfortunately the ending lost me a little.

The Law of the Sea was one where nothing grabbed me at all however. Not the setting, not the characters, not the dilemma. They're on a Spanish ship headed to the New World when a sea serpent strikes; the short story opens with them on the shipwreck, in sight of land but unable to get there due to sharks. And while nothing grabbed me, the sexual violence took me by my surprise and felt unnecessary.

The Aeolomancer featured airship pirates attacking Spanish galleons. The sexual violence here did make more sense story wise and was less explicit, but between it jarring with the tone built up in the first stories and my lack of investment in the characters, I didn't get into this one.

Rumiko snared me a little more but the steampunk/Victoriana aesthetics and mannerisms placed it in a genre I have little love for. It is a fun adventure story but, well, this is the downside of world/time hopping.

As the Distant Bells Toll is an interesting one, an Urban Fantasy set in Zagreb. I didn't love it but I would re-read it.

And I'd definitely re-read the first three stories. I might re-read Elsbet. I won't be re-reading the next three.

A Curate's Egg, huh?

That is the most succinct description, yes. I do really like aspects of this anthology. Others leave me very cold. If I was a rating guy, I'd struggle to give a rating.

Fortunately, I simply concern myself with whether people will like this or not. I think a lot of people will like some of it. I'd definitely be interested in more work from Žiljak. The question is whether you'll like enough of it. Hopefully many people will. This deserves to be successful.

Thank you again to Wizard's Tower Press for the ARC, given free in exchange for an honest review. This is book is out now, so go fill your boots.

Saturday 17 October 2020

Friday Five: Only One Day Late

 1) My timeline was recently taken up with the Time 100 Best Fantasy of All Time list... until I muted it. I muted it with extreme prejudice. It's not because of what's on the list - I don't agree with it but whatevs - but because of how the list is presented. Now, I know these lists mainly exist to stir up conversation, but the type of the conversation comes down to the presentation. It is presented as a statement of fact made with authority. That presentation immediately turns the conversation sour. There's also the All Time part of this. Now, All Time is a nebulous thing - which in itself I dislike for this - but when I see it, I at the very least take an implication that the books of yesteryear will be judged equal to the books of today. That straight up didn't happen. Which is another souring of the conversation. And something that made me angry, which means my conversation would have got even sourer... and ultimately, there's only one thing that'd have been left; controversy for the sake of controversy. So mute mute mute I went.

If Time had presented Time's 100 Favourite Fantasy Books of Today, there'd have been something interesting to discuss. But they didn't. Presentation matters. Communication matters. An acknowledgment that this is just our truth and it's intended to invite others should come before the bickering starts and not after.

2) Speaking of bickering over the presentation of objectivity where things are clearly subjective, I think it's time to talk about the Fantasy Community and how it's changed. That is to say, the community is now a collection of overlapping communities with no single true mainstream. I don't think it was that long ago you could say there was a mainstream built around trad vaguely-swords&castles Europeanish fantasy - Middle Earth, Westeros, Baldur's Gate - but it no longer seems to be the case. There's a bunch of fantasy fans who - will appreciating the odd dip in that on their terms - are mainly here for Urban Fantasy, or Victoriana, or outside of Europe, or just the whole smorgasbord of what's available as long as they don't see the same thing again and again. Which is all fine and the natural fate of successful genres but it does mean we have less commonality. I'm not saying we need to be extra considerate as a result because the thing can clearly run on flame wars and pretty tribalism, but I don't know why anyone would prefer that route, and the way clear of it probably does need that consideration - and in some cases, self-restraint on avoiding the communities we have major issues with. Completely avoiding arguments is probably a bad thing, but they should at least be over something major

3) My visions of The Shape Of Fantasy To Come aside, I saw a couple of really cool twitter threads. One was a really good writing technique thread by David Dalglish on how he addresses transition between scenes in order to get books done well.

4) The other was this small collection of short story outlets from LP Kindred - I often feel like the information for those looking to break into this isn't well put together, so it was great to see this.

5) Finally, two wee gems courtesy of Adri Joy. The first is this What LotR Poem Are You quiz that she linked to on twitter and it's just a wonderful way to spend five minutes, full of little nuggets from the book that'll make you think. The other gem is here Nerds on Tour Bingo Card. I am normally against such things as I believe in saying no to organized fun (or, in fact, any type of fun, but particularly organized) but I just think this one is a great idea. The Anglosphere will always look to itself first and foremost but there is a huge amount of world out there beyond it, with huge amounts of good stories for us, and taking a moment to get in amongst it is to our benefit. So I will be filling this card out and thoroughly recommend others do so too.