Monday, June 29, 2009

Review: Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

A common comparison in reviews goes something like ‘fans of __ will love __’. Related and nearly as common is something like ‘fans of __’s earlier work will love this one’. I’ve seen the argument about the above being lazy and unhelpful reviewing, and I’ve seen numerous pleas for exactly that kind of comparison in reviews. Disregarding that particular discussion, the most appropriate one-line description of Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold (US, UK, Canada, Indiebound) is ‘Joe Abercrombie serves up a heaping dish of more of the same with Best Served Cold’.

Monza Murcatto is the most ruthless and successful mercenary in Styria. Depending on what side of the river you stand on, she is either immensely popular or indescribably hated. Dwelling on the former, her employer, the Grand Duke Orso, has Monza and her brother killed in an impressive scene of back-stabbing betrayal. Only Monza manages to survive being beaten, cut, stabbed, and thrown from a mountain top. What remains is the classic vengeance story as she methodically seeks the death of the seven people in the room when her brother was killed with the help of a merry band of dangerous degenerates, both new and familiar.

For fans of Abercrombie’s previous work, The First Law Trilogy (
review), Best Served Cold is probably just what they are looking for. Abercrombie’s dark, biting humor imbues everything. Violence is bloody, language harsh, dialogue full of grunts, the sex is cleverly not-so gratuitous, the addictions and perversions shall not be spoken of, and everybody is an evil son-of-a-bitch.

Unlike The First Law Trilogy, Abercrombie doesn’t set out to be blatantly subversive with Best Served Cold. It really is a strait-forward vengeance plot, with surprisingly few twists along the way. With that said, Abercrombie just can’t help but be a little subversive. A scene that sticks with me is one where a female mercenary, female poisoner, and female torturer interrogate a female prisoner – you can feel the testosterone (err…estrogen?) of this not-so uncommon scene reinvented.

The main issue I have with Best Served Cold likely won’t bother most who read the book – Abercrombie doesn’t offer anything new. The First Law Trilogy was a refreshing offering in the often stale genre of epic fantasy. Hoping for an equally refreshing read in Best Served Cold, I found that any novelty remaining quickly wore off. The 640 pages drag on as vengeance is repeatedly sought and achieved – I frequently found myself unmotivated to continue reading. Readers of The First Law will quickly recognize near carbon-copies of characters: Monza is the strong, dangerous woman that Ferro never realized and Shivers nearly a mirror-image of introspective barbarian Logen Ninefingers.

As I hinted at above, Abercrombie’s characterization doesn’t feel so different from The First Law, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Best Served Cold is just as character-driven. At the forefront is the curious dichotomy between Monza and Shivers. Shivers is on a personal journey to become a better man. Monza is the cold-hearted bitch of a mercenary seeking vengeance. Through the book, these two evolve in an unhealthy co-dependency – and if they have sex, watch out! While not the central protagonist, the stage is consistently stolen by the loveable, drunken rogue of a mercenary, Nicomo Cosca, always landing on his feet with flask and sword in hand and caustically cheerful comments to make.

Best Served Cold is a stand-alone book in Abercrombie’s imagined world. However, readers of The First Law will likely appreciate certain plot points more and recognize several recurring characters as it becomes clear that all things in Abercrombie’s world come back to a central feud between powerful enemies, often manipulating events with proxies. While plot is self-contained, Best Served Cold isn’t quite as stand-alone as advertised.

The more-of-same approach of Best Served Cold entertains, yet becomes tedious at times and unfortunately left me wanting more of that special something that I’m convinced Abercrombie can give. 7.5/10

Related Posts:
Review of The Blade Itself, Review of Before They Are Hanged, Review of Last Argument of Kings, Review of The First Law Trilogy, Interview with Joe Abercrombie

Friday, June 26, 2009

SFF Writers Descend on Flagstaff

I live in a relatively small city that is generally out of the way of most things, with the closest major city being Phoenix. So, events relating to SFF are rare around here – I’m not like those bloggers who live in or near places like London and New York who get to attend lots of author events, major conventions, and publisher parties. Generally the best I can do is hit a signing in Phoenix if it corresponds with a business trip for me (though there aren’t too many SFF events in Phoenix either).

So, I was excited when my local newspaper had this article –
Sci-fi, fantasy writers descend on Flagstaff. This was news to me and had me curious. Basically, the ‘event’ is an invitation-only writing workshop called Starry Heaven. It’s the first time this workshop has happened and is modeled after a similar workshop in the Midwest called Blue Heaven.

I visited a meet the writers’ event at a local drinking establishment – I may have been the only person there not directly associated with the workshop. It was an interesting discussion and I hope this workshop becomes an annual event around here.

As for the authors – honestly, I wasn’t familiar with any of them. All are professionally published, but generally short stories (which I rarely have time to read). Maybe half have a novel or two published and it was a pretty varied group, ranging from concentrations on YA fantasy to hard science fiction. The authors who attended the workshop are
Sarah K. Castle, Greg Van Eekhout, Sarah Prineas, Sandra McDonald, D. Lynn Smith, William Shunn, E.C. Meyers, Brad Beaulieu, Jon Hansen, Rob Ziegler, Gary Shockley and Deb Coates.

So, this post is blatant promotion of an SFF event in my town and little else. But, I now have some new authors to check (if I can find time).

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Good Cover Art Gone Bad

On the whole, I think that the cover art by Daniel Dos Santos for Green by Jay Lake (US, UK, Canada, Indiebound, review) is quite good. It’s the kind of cover art that would make me pick up the book to see what it’s about – and I think it’s something that would likely appeal to a wide-ranging audience (even though it still somewhat fails the ‘would I want people to see me reading this in public’ test).

Then, I read the book. The character featured on the cover is the main character of the novel, also named Green. Yes, she is an adolescent girl, yes she cuts her face beneath a pomegranate tree (though I don’t recall her hanging upside down). So it fits. Only in the book Green is a person of color. In the very least she has dark skin – I always pictured her with a South Asian appearance to match my perception of the country she was born in, but her descriptions in the book leaves her appearance pretty open aside from the consistent description of dark skin.

So, why is a cover that is otherwise a fairly good representation of the content of the book misleading about this small bit? I’ve seen Jay Lake mention on either Twitter or his blog that he likes the cover a lot – now is he just saying this because that’s what a good author does, or does this little inconstancy bother him. I think it would really bother me.

The assumption I jump to is that there is a perception that a person of color in the place of the nice white girl we have instead could reduce the sales of the book. True or not, that really rubs me the wrong way. If it is true, nothing is going to change until there are more people of color on covers (see Tobias Buckell’s Ragamuffin with cover art by Todd Lockwood). Or it could be that the cover artist didn’t know that Green was a person of color, which is entirely possible since he was likely given only a short excerpt to base the cover art on).


What Does Alastair Reynolds’ Contract Say About the Publishing World?

So, the SFF publishing world is drooling in envy at Alastair Reynolds’ new contract for 1 million pounds for 10 books over 10 years. I’m curious – what does this say about the publishing industry? It’s often all doom and gloom that ebooks will put the publishing world out of business, that novels are dying, that people don’t read, that the recession will kill books, etc. Frankly, I don’t buy all the ‘sky is falling’ arguments that come out from time to time, and when I see a SFF author get a contract like this, it makes me think that the publishers don’t actually think things are as bad as they say they are. Or is this just business as usual?

So, a lot of people who read this blog know more about this industry than I do – what do you guys think?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Review: Green by Jay Lake

Jay Lake has decided he doesn’t want to be known as that clockpunk guy who wrote Mainspring (US, UK, Canada, Indiebound), Escapement (US, UK, Canada, Indiebound), and forthcoming Pinion. While his internet following will always recognize him as a prolific blogger and others admire his wonderful short fiction and earlier novels, Trial of Flowers (US, UK, Canada, Indiebound) and its sequels, Lake still felt the need to further broaden his horizons to something closer to traditional fantasy. With Green (US, UK, Canada, Indiebound) Lake shows readers once again that he one of the most versatile writers in the SFF market.

Green tells the story of a young girl, sold into slavery, who strives to become her own woman. Robbed even of the memory of her name, she is raised to be a royal concubine in a far away land – extensively trained in things like cooking and sewing yet ignorant of recent history and the true daily life of the foreign lands around her. Given the name Emerald and taking the name Green in her own language, she finds herself in the center of a plot to overthrow the Duke and sacrifices everything to become free – while she comes to terms with what real freedom is and what it isn’t.

Green is told entirely from the first-person perspective of Green, so it’s not stretch to say that the success or failure of the novel rests there as well. In this respect, Green succeeds – she is a believable character who I quickly identified with and cared for. Green struggles with her identity as an individual, as foreigner in a far away land, as a slave, and eventually as a killer. She romanticizes her origins and as she matures she struggles with the idea of whether her slavery may have actually been a good thing. As a girl raised to be at the beck and call of a man, she fiercely guards her feminine identity. And through it all, she is a hormonal teenager with a very narrow education who makes bad decisions and becomes sure that she has all the right answers.

In many ways, Green is a novel that fits the YA mold with a strong cross-over appeal to adults. As such, I can see it appealing especially to teenage girls, who I imagine would strongly identify with Green and her struggles to figure out who she is as a person, and to a lesser degree, her sexual identity. Lake dedicates the book to his daughter in a touching and amusing statement that fits the book well and further leads me to believe that while I enjoyed Green, I’m probably not the audience that Green is most directly aimed at.

With all the focus on Green, other aspects fall short in comparison. Secondary characters are decidedly secondary and the plot stretches the limits of credibility at times. In Green’s world, gods and goddesses are real beings who directly touch and interact with the world – while much time is spent in temples and the like, relatively little exploration of these gods is undertaken. This leads to problems with who becomes the main villain of the story – a new god, who is at best confusingly explained, and at worst a poorly inserted antagonist to give Green a purpose.

Lake’s world-building is muted – which is not a bad thing in and of itself, but will likely seem underdone to fans of fantasy and even fans of Lake’s other work which are so wonderfully constructed. The emphasis of the book is correctly placed on Green, but in a nearly 400-page book, a bit more detail would have been appreciated (or a lower page count). The non-human, sentient race of the feline Pardines play an important role, yet remain frustratingly mysterious. As I said above, the emphasis is correctly placed on Green, but I was left wanting more exploration of this interesting race.

Above all else, Green is an addicting read. The plot had issues and the world-building left a bit to be desired, but Green herself is a fascinating character that I connected with, often in spite of her idiotic, teenage decisions. Green is the novel’s success and potential inspiration for teenage girls. 7/10

Related Posts:
Review of Mainspring, Interview with Jay Lake

Friday, June 19, 2009

Sapkowski Wins the Gemmell Award

Via Danie Ware and Twitter, the word is that Andrzej Sapkowski as won the David Gemmell Legend Award for Blood of Elves (US, UK, Canada, Indiebound). Congrats! While I was pulling for Abercrombie to get the win for Last Argument of Kings (US, UK, Canada, Indiebound, my review), I did predict the strong possibility of a Polish revolution on this one.

Links of Infamy

Well, I did some links earlier this week, but today there is enough of interest going on that I need to share some more.

  • And Tor was kind enough to pass on the following interview with Brandon Sanderson where he discusses Warbreaker (US, UK, Canada, Indiebound) – which I hope to read soon – and his forthcoming series, The Way of the King (which has some very humorous fake reviews on Amazon).

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Shared Worlds: What’s your pick for the top real-life fantasy or science fiction city?

I don't really consider this blog a publicity blog, but this is the sort of thing I'm happy to help spread the word about.

Shared Worlds asked Elizabeth Hand, Nalo Hopkinson, Ursula K. LeGuin, China Miéville, and Michael Moorcock: “What’s your pick for the top real-life fantasy or science fiction city?”

At Shared Worlds our students create fantasy and science fiction worlds to fuel their art and writing projects. But even the strangest made-up place can have some real-world spark, and some of the real world’s cities can be stranger than anything found in fantasy and science fiction.

With this in mind, we asked some of speculative fiction’s brightest minds to tell us their own picks for real-life fantastic cities, and you can read their answers here:

“Our own planet is often surreal, alien, and beautifully strange—and cities tend to focus our fascination with these qualities,” said Shared Worlds Assistant Director Jeff VanderMeer. “Sometimes the exoticness comes from finding the unexpected where we live, and sometimes it comes from visiting a place that’s foreign to us.”

Want to join the discussion? Help one of the most unique teen "think tanks" in the country by posting the above link on your site or blog and asking your readers what cities they would choose.

Shared Worlds is also proud to announce Tor Books, Wizards of the Coast LCC, and Realms of Fantasy magazine as major sponsors. Thanks to them for their enthusiasm and support.

More information about Shared Worlds:

Now in its second year, Shared Worlds is a two-week unique summer camp for teens ages 13 to 18, held at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. This year the camp runs from July 19 to August 2, with registration still open to the end of June. Creative and fun, Shared Worlds emphasizes writing fiction, game development, and creating art—all in a safe and structured environment with award-winning faculty. Participants in this “teen think tank” meet like-minded students and learn how to work together and be proactive on their own. The first week, the students form teams and create their own worlds; the second week, they create in them. Faculty for 2009 will include Holly Black, co-creator of the Spiderwick Chronicles, Hugo Nominee Tobias Buckell, White Wolf game developer Will Hindmarch, World Fantasy Award winner Jeff VanderMeer, Weird Tales fiction editor Ann VanderMeer, and more.

Relevant links:

Related SF Signal MindMeld feature:

Main Shared Worlds page:

Registration page:

Video from last year's camp:

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Yawnday Links

It’s Monday and I’m thoroughly unmotivated. I’m tired and the beautiful day outside makes me just want to sit back and read in the backyard instead of working (I really need a hammock for days like today). So, while avoid work and even writing a review of Green by Jay Lake (which was pretty good), I’ll give you some links that have helped me along with my procrastinating.

Note: As I was writing this up yesterday (which is why the day referenced above is off), my computer blew up in a weird metaphorical way. I spent some time reading outside while the anti-virus programs were doing their scans. Things are pretty-well back to normal now.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Mark Charan Newton adds to the SFF Literary Pub Crawl

Mark Charan Newton has been kind enough to add to the SFF Literary Pub Crawl - Nottingham now has two entries.

An easy one! The Alley Cafe - - in Nottingham. I'm a vegetarian; this place serves vegetarian food, locally sourced, freshly prepared, and stunning. Not only that, but the bar is funky, and has a good mix of people and ages. It's tiny though, and you end up sitting close to other people, which really shakes us Brits out of our preference for personal space. So, good food, good people, decent DJ at the weekend - what more can you want? (Don't say meat.)

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Mark Charan Newton Answers Questions Five

Mark Charan Newton has worked with the SFF imprint, Solaris, where he coined the name of the imprint after a woman approached him in a bar and wrote it on his arm, claiming Solaris to be her name. Nights of Villjamur is his first novel for a major publisher and is getting lots of attention (US, UK, Canada, IndieBound, my review). It was just released in the UK and Del Rey will be publishing it in the US soon and is the first book in the Legends of the Red Sun series of four planned books. In the very least, he’s an up and coming author to keep an eye on.

Thanks to Mark for taking the time to answer Questions Five (and in retrospect, I so should have asked him to finish the story about Solaris).

The inclusion of ‘Charan’ in your professional name – a simple distinction from all the other Mark Newtons of the world, or more?

MCN: There are too many other Mark Newtons, some leading a far better lifestyle than me. One, I believe, is a photographer, another a roots acoustic singer. They're both more well-known than me, the bastards, so if I can't beat them in popularity, I should have a bigger name at least. Then again, I wanted to detract from the fact that no one can pronounce Villjamur - I'll throw them a curve ball and let my middle name confuse instead. (For those of you who are interested, it's Indian - and I'm half Indian). People mostly mispronounce it as Sharon, which conveniently is my Friday night name, where I can be seen in high-heels and lipstick as I sashay across a stage... Have I said too much? Next question, please!

If Nights of Villjamur were a fortune cookie, what would its fortune be?

MCN: It would have a Woody Allen quote: "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work... I want to achieve it through not dying."

How would you interpret this fortune if it were your own?

MCN: There's irony there - I became morose at the fact of my dying - which is reflected in the novel to some extent. I often see writing as a way of continuing to linger around the planet once I'm gone - I mean, there would be books out there, still communicating my thoughts with people. I can cheat Death! So, I would interpret this fortunate as 'Yeah, right. Nice try.'

Nights of Villjamur already has a
playlist, but what would its soundtrack be?

MCN: I'd let Death Cab For Cutie have free reign over this one. Or Radiohead. Or City and Colour... What about something more movie-like, by Hans Zimmer? The Dark Knight soundtrack was awesome. Look, I'm clearly never going to be able to settle on anything for this. Tell you what, you get someone to buy the film rights, and I'll let them decide as I recline in the luxury of some Greek Villa.

Why should Nights of Villjamur be the next thing that everyone reads?

MCN: Two words: Dying Earth. I mean, come on - how cool is that?

Failing that, because it's an epic fantasy with elements of SF, crime, horror. Failing that, because of its ability to cause a delightful, free-publicity shit-storm online. Failing that, because someone needs to take the fight to Joe Abercrombie, right? You can't let him have all the fun. See how he broods in Black and White? Exactly, I'm the right man for the job, buy it.

Which Fantasy Author am I?

Via Andrew Wheeler, I found out that I'm actually Ursula K Le Guin. Who knew?

Your result for Which fantasy writer are you?...

Ursula K Le Guin (b. 1929)

5 High-Brow, -7 Violent, -1 Experimental and 21 Cynical!

Congratulations! You are High-Brow, Peaceful, Traditional and Cynical! These concepts are defined below.

Ursula Kroeber Le Guin is definitely one of the most celebrated science fiction and fantasy writers of all times. Her most famous fantasy work to date is the Earthsea suite of novels and short stories, in which Le Guin created not only one of the most believable societies in fantasy fiction, but also managed to describe a school for wizards almost three decades before Harry Potter. Although often categorized as written for young adults, these books have entertained and challenged readers of all ages since their publication.

Le Guin is no stranger to literary experiments (see for example Always Coming Home(1985)), but much of her story-telling is quite traditional. In fact, she makes a point of returning to older forms of story-telling, which, at her best, enables her to create something akin to myth. One shouldn't confuse myth with faerytale, though. Nothing is ever simplified in Le Guin's world, as she relentlessly explores ethical problems and the moral choices that her characters must make, as must we all. While being one of those writers who will allow you to escape to imaginary worlds, she is also one who will prompt you to return to your actual life, perhaps a little wiser than you used to be.

You are also a lot like Susan Cooper.

If you want some action, try Michael Moorcock.

If you'd like a challenge, try your exact opposite, C S Lewis.
Your score

This is how to interpret your score: Your attitudes have been measured on four different scales, called 1) High-Brow vs. Low-Brow, 2) Violent vs. Peaceful, 3) Experimental vs. Traditional and 4) Cynical vs. Romantic. Imagine that when you were born, you were in a state of innocence, a tabula rasa who would have scored zero on each scale. Since then, a number of circumstances (including genetical, cultural and environmental factors) have pushed you towards either end of these scales. If you're at 45 or -45 you would be almost entirely cynical, low-brow or whatever. The closer to zero you are, the less extreme your attitude. However, you should always be more of either (eg more romantic than cynical). Please note that even though High-Brow, Violent, Experimental and Cynical have positive numbers (1 through 45) and their opposites negative numbers (-1 through -45), this doesn't mean that either quality is better. All attitudes have their positive and negative sides, as explained below.

High-Brow vs. Low-Brow

You received 5 points, making you more High-Brow than Low-Brow. Being high-browed in this context refers to being more fascinated with the sort of art that critics and scholars tend to favour, rather than the best-selling kind. At their best, high-brows are cultured, able to appreciate the finer nuances of literature and not content with simplifications. At their worst they are, well, snobs.

Violent vs. Peaceful

You received -7 points, making you more Peaceful than Violent. This scale is a measurement of a) if you are tolerant to violence in fiction and b) whether you see violence as a means that can be used to achieve a good end. If you aren't, and you don't, then you are peaceful as defined here. At their best, peaceful people are the ones who encourage dialogue and understanding as a means of solving conflicts. At their worst, they are standing passively by as they or third parties are hurt by less scrupulous individuals.

Experimental vs. Traditional

You received -1 points, making you more Traditional than Experimental. Your position on this scale indicates if you're more likely to seek out the new and unexpected or if you are more comfortable with the familiar, especially in regards to culture. Note that traditional as defined here does not equal conservative, in the political sense. At their best, traditional people don't change winning concepts, favouring storytelling over empty poses. At their worst, they are somewhat narrow-minded.

Cynical vs. Romantic
You received 21 points, making you more Cynical than Romantic. Your position on this scale indicates if you are more likely to be wary, suspicious and skeptical to people around you and the world at large, or if you are more likely to believe in grand schemes, happy endings and the basic goodness of humankind. It is by far the most vaguely defined scale, which is why you'll find the sentence "you are also a lot like x" above. If you feel that your position on this scale is wrong, then you are probably more like author x. At their best, cynical people are able to see through lies and spot crucial flaws in plans and schemes. At their worst, they are overly negative, bringing everybody else down.

Author picture from

Friday, June 05, 2009

Links to Waste Time With

It’s been a busy week for me, but here are a few links I’ve found interesting.
  • Orbit is looking for a summer intern – I’d be interested if I lived anywhere near New York, if I could afford to live on what I imagine is much less than I currently make, and if I was actually qualified in any way.

  • Matt Staggs lets me know of a contest he’s running (and Jeff VanderMeer one-ups him).

    Have you ever struck a blow for anarchy? Done something surreal just because it felt good and they couldn't stop you? Crossed the border just to say you had? Stuck your gun somewhere you shouldn't've? Been chased across countries while trying to remember who you are? Okay, so that last one is the novel "Chaos" by the hot Dutch writing couple Escober, but you get the point. Tell us about the biggest thing you ever done to spread "chaos" and we'll enter you in a drawing for a one-of-a-kind gift pack featuring our new book "Chaos", plus:

    A military issue map bag containing:
    (1) compass with sighting mirror
    (1) copy of the U.S. Army's Guerilla Warfare and Special Forces Ops field guide
    (1) beret
    (1) grenade (deactivated - you think we're crazy?)
    (1) pair of leather bootlaces
    (1) camouflage T-shirt, suitable for disappearing without a trace

    Send your story of complete chaos to before June 30, 2009 to enter.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Review: Nights of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton

Every year, a few new releases receive what is simply an insane amount of buzz in the on-line SFF blogging community of which I am a part. Nights of Villjamur is the big-press debut for Mark Charan Newton and a strong contender for what may be the most buzz this year (US, UK, Canada, IndieBound). The blogs and other review sites are ablaze with seemingly overwhelmingly positive reaction. This is both deserved and troubling with Nights of Villjamur being a strong debut in the world of epic fantasy, but ultimately not the outstanding work the blogger buzz proclaims.

The Jamur Empire faces a threat it cannot fight, but only endure. A pending ice age that will cover the land, destabilize the empire and threaten the survival of its people. Long anticipated, the ice age is now arriving at time when the emperor suffers from paranoid insanity and an outlawed religion has taken over the ruling Council with one Chancellor’s ambitions threatening. The story itself follows a few individuals – an inspector and his assistant as they investigate a string of murders, a prostitute with possible ties to the murders, a womanizing young man instructing the emperor’s daughter in dance and swordplay, an ambitious Chancellor, an immortal cultist and his rival, and the commander of the elite Night Guard. The focus is the great and ancient city of Villjamur, home to hundreds of thousands of people, other sentient creatures, and magical relics of antiquity.

Nights of Villjamur is cerebral fantasy. This isn’t a story of great magic (though there is some), this isn’t a story of battles (though there are a few), this isn’t a traditional epic adventure (though it could be argued) – it is the story a few individuals living in tumultuous times and their key roles in how events unfold. The story of develops at a metered pace, without the action that prevails in traditional fantasy writing. Newton concentrates on a few characters and creates a framework to work within. In this respect, Nights of Villjamur reads like an extended prologue at times, with much of the book devoted to setting up setting up the dominos, with the inevitable push creating the chain reaction of domino falling into domino not occurring until near the end. With the falling only just begun, Nights of Villjamur is the clear beginning of The Legends of the Red Sun series, with four planned books, and Newton’s hints of a greater mulitverse with endless potential for more.

Newton’s character driven narrative is both the greatest strength and greatest weakness of Nights of Villjamur. Characters created feel real, with actual flaws rather than a forced ‘grayness’ of character. Inspector Jeryd, being a non-human rumel, often reveals keen observations of humanity while the marital troubles of his personal life interfere with his investigation of murders within the ruling Council. Commander Brynd commands the military forces of the Jamur Empire, and specifically the elite Night Guard. With undeniable competence and a position of power and importance, Brynd remains an outsider due in part to his being an albino, but in even greater part due to the secrets of his private life – his homosexuality which could result in a death sentence if discovered. These two characters drive the narrative and the interest of the reader – it’s through their eyes that city and peoples of Villjamur and lands of the Empire come alive.

With the success of Jeryd and Brynd, it’s unfortunate that the other supporting characters whose points of view the reader follows don’t work. The greatest offender is the clichéd Randur, a womanizing thief and expert swordsman from an exotic conquered land who weasels his way into the imperial palace. The greater offense is not the cliché but the unconvincing motivation that drives him – the need to save his dying mother through the magical intervention of a cultist and his ancient technology. Newton obviously has important plans for Randur’s future in the books, but failed to find a way to properly introduce him and his motivations. Regrettably other inconsistencies and unconvincing motivations interfered with my enjoyment and the credibility of the story.

Nights of Villjamur falls squarely into the dying-earth subgenre, one that I’m sadly under-read in. The Jamur Empire is threatened by a coming ice-age, one that has long been known about, but unsurprisingly not well prepared for. The Jamur Empire itself is the lesser evolution of a long history of more advanced civilizations while the world’s red sun slowly fades overhead. In our world where global warming is an unaddressed reality, I was anxious to see what Newton would do with his world of impending doom from climate change – albeit an ice age rather than global warming. As someone who follows Newton’s blog, I was expecting something more – I was expecting more parallels and at least something of a condemnation of our world’s lack of action. The result felt like a missed opportunity where the impending ice age is little more than background information and a convenient way for people to walk across frozen water ways…unless I’m missing an allegory of an army of cross-dimensional, deadly bug-man creatures and global climate change.

Nights of Villjamur is a story of a fading empire, impending war, political intrigue, a coming ice age, a magical quest, wrapped in the inevitability of life and death. It’s a story told from the point of view of characters that live their lives as best they can in hard times. The writing, while intelligent, suffers at times from the inability to live up to its aspirations and remain consistent. Mark Charan Newton is a new voice to the world of fantasy literature and in spite of the unevenness of Nights of Villjamur, The Legends of the Red Sun series shows a potential that I intend to follow-up on. 7/10

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The SFF Literary Pub Crawl

It was about 2 years ago that I started my Questions Five interview series, which has had 25 participants (and more to come). I’ve always used a blend of repeat questions with questions specific to the author I’m interviewing – and all have been an attempt at humor that gives authors a chance to have fun with questions they’ve likely never seen before and blatantly plug a project.

It didn’t take long for me to begin asking questions about food and alcohol, with a favorite question that essentially asks to recommend me a pub. Probably owing to my fascination and love of the pub culture of Britain and Ireland, these questions are generally asked to authors from that part of the world – which amounts to 7 of those 25 interviews.

So, I’ve decided that it’s time to embark on a related theme – the SFF Literary Pub Crawl. I’ll share the recommendations from those interviews above – I’ll divide first by location and then by the author making the recommendation. As with any decent pub crawl, an end simply isn’t in sight, so I’ll continue to ask the question when I feel like it and I encourage all authors, editors, publicists, bloggers, and generally anyone who bothers to read this to share their recommended put to include in the SFF Literary Pub Crawl. Try to limit recommendations to just one or two and be sure to tell us why it’s a favored pub/ drinking establishment and a link if possible.

On to the pubs:


Joe Abercrombie: You could try the Phoenix Artist’s Bar off Shaftsbury Avenue, where a glittering array of genre writers are often to be found arguing with their editors over that most eternal of literary questions – whose round it is. It has the added advantage of being right next to several of the UKs biggest bookstores. Once you are drunk enough, I therefore recommend you stumble outside and buy any and all copies of my books that you can find. The dizzy rush of excitement you’ll experience will be far superior to anything you can get in a pub.Honest.

Kate Griffin: Well, I kinda don't drink, owing to expense and taste and the fact that I never really had much fun doing it. But I do have fond memories of the Sherlock Holmes, which is to the north of Hungerford Bridge, and the Castle on Pentonville Road has a very nice roof terrace in the summer, which almost redeems the fact that it's on the Pentonville Road. If you're after drink + fun, may I heartily recommend Cafe Kick on Exmouth Market, which is a sports cafe. This essentially means a lot of football, many photos of men in bad shirts looking mud-splattered, much booze and, best of all, bar footie. Many, many hours have been happily whiled away playing bar footie in Cafe Kick.


Jasper Kent: The Shakespeare’s Head. It has good beer (of the warm, brown variety), serves about a dozen different kinds of sausages (except Sundays – boo!) and it’s within spitting distance of me. It’s not to be confused with the other Shakespeare’s Head, on Spring Street, which is good but not as good.


Mark Chadbourn: I would certainly recommend going to The Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham - you not only get good beer and food and good company, you also get great atmosphere and an unforgettable history lesson. The Trip is the oldest pub in Britain. You can tell that the moment you stoop through the tiny medieval doors into a maze of small rooms where you could lose yourself for quite a while. The rear part of the pub is actually carved out of the rock and there is a tunnel leading to an underground labyrinth that links vast sandstone caves running beneath Nottingham. Right overhead, Nottingham Castle towers. The Trip was founded in 1189, when King Richard the Lionheart announced the crusade against the Saracens in the Holy Land - hence the pub name. If you're looking for ghosts, there are supposed to be several here. But watch out for the locals - they may try to entice you into one of the medieval pub games, particularly swinging a small hoop on a rope on to a horn fixed to the wall. It looks simple, but is fiendishly hard - and the locals ensure a constant supply of free beer betting against unwitting visitors. It's also one of the favourite watering holes of Britain's fantasy authors, and when the annual Fantasycon is in town (usually September) you can find many of them propping up the bar. You can find out more here:


Brian Ruckley: This is my kind of interview. It’s obviously absurd to try to narrow Edinburgh’s titanic array of drinking establishments down to a single recommendation, but given how long I spent on the haggis question I should probably try.I think the best I can come up with for you is the Bow Bar. There are two reasons: one, it’s a small, friendly pub with a mix of locals and visitors (but mostly locals), good beer and a startling array of whiskies if you’re into that kind of thing; two, it’s just round the corner from Edinburgh’s sf/f bookshop, Transreal Fiction, so on a rainy afternoon (it rains a lot in Edinburgh, but don’t let that put you off visiting) you can potter around the bookshop, have a chat with the owner, buy a few books and then retire to the pub to settle into a corner with a drink and read. Lovely. Also, if you lose track of time and end up drunk, there’s a chip shop within staggering distance to supply you with haggis and chips: a perfect end to a perfect day.


Hal Duncan: Easy one. It has to be Stravaigin, on Gibson Street, in the West End. Funny enough, they have the_second_best_ way to serve haggis, because they're basically a gastro pub with a restaurant in the basement, and haggis is one of the staples of their menu. They tend to do a sort of Scottish fusion cuisine -- lots of game and seafood but influenced by recipes from around the world. As pub food goes, you can't beat it -- top-quality grub but in a really informal atmosphere. Also their cocktails are to die for. And I mean proper cocktails -- Bloody Mary, White Russian, Dry Gin Martini, Mojito and suchlike. None of those crappy 80s cocktails with nudge-nudge wink-wink sexy names, mixed by the pitcher from a couple of random spirits, a splash of Cointreau and a half bottle of Bailley's. No, we're talking cocktails for the committed lush. Martinis so dry you know the vermouth pretty much just got _shown_ to the gin: look, gin! Meet Mr Vermouth. Oh, dear, looks like Mr Vermouth can't stay. Bye, Mr Vermouth.Also Stravaigin is within staggering distance of my house. And I'm a very good native guide, you know. I'll show you round _all_ the best seats in the pub, for payment in the form of booze.


Peadar Ó Guilín: Most of them are ridiculously bad: giant sports games on every wall and pop music loud enough to murder the conversation we used to be famous for. Our ancestors even had a god of eloquence, once upon a time, did you know that? I miss him.So, for the real experience, you need to find what we call an “old man's” pub. If you walk through the door and half the stools aren't occupied by lads with pitted red noses and beer mustaches, then you should take your custom elsewhere.

Mark Chadbourn Answers Qustions Five

Mark Chadbourn is a well-known SFF author in Britain who is being introduced (or perhaps re-introduced) to an American audience by Pyr. Over the years he’s been both a journalist and writer, leading to incredibly varied experiences in life, though he has settled down to an active writer’s living in the heart of a forest, indulging his passions for environmental campaigning and magic. World’s End (US, UK, Canada, IndieBound) is the first book in the Age of Misrule Trilogy with Darkest Hour (US, UK, Canada, IndieBound) and Always Forever (US, UK, Canada, IndieBound) completing the trilogy. Two related trilogies have followed – The Dark Age and The Kingdom of the Serpent in a style that Chadbourn refers to as mytho-fantasy. I really enjoyed World’s End and look forward to reading much more of Chadbourn’s writing in the future.

Thanks to Mark for taking the time to answers
Questions Five.

If I were going on holiday through the Midlands and I could only visit once pub, which pub do you recommend and why?

MC: I would certainly recommend going to The Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham - you not only get good beer and food and good company, you also get great atmosphere and an unforgettable history lesson. The Trip is the oldest pub in Britain. You can tell that the moment you stoop through the tiny medieval doors into a maze of small rooms where you could lose yourself for quite a while. The rear part of the pub is actually carved out of the rock and there is a tunnel leading to an underground labyrinth that links vast sandstone caves running beneath Nottingham. Right overhead, Nottingham Castle towers. The Trip was founded in 1189, when King Richard the Lionheart announced the crusade against the Saracens in the Holy Land - hence the pub name. If you're looking for ghosts, there are supposed to be several here. But watch out for the locals - they may try to entice you into one of the medieval pub games, particularly swinging a small hoop on a rope on to a horn fixed to the wall. It looks simple, but is fiendishly hard - and the locals ensure a constant supply of free beer betting against unwitting visitors. It's also one of the favourite watering holes of Britain's fantasy authors, and when the annual Fantasycon is in town (usually September) you can find many of them propping up the bar. You can find out more here:

If World’s End were a fortune cookie, what would its fortune be?

MC: 'Do not trust what you see. Nothing is as it seems'.

If this were your own fortune, how would you interpret it?

MC: That the world appears to be one way, but it's only an illusion, a collection of rules established by other people for their own benefit. If you spend your life conforming to other people's rules, you will never find good fortune. You make your own rules. Then you build a base in an extinct volcano, hire a private army and plot to impose those rules on everyone else.

Please describe one reason World’s End would inspire a reader to strip naked and run screaming into the forest?

MC: Looking at John Picacio's amazing cover alone can instill such a heightened sense of erotic delight it would have that effect on the viewer. However, as this is all about me-me-me I'll concentrate my mind on the words: World's End is all about the power of ancient days. It's about prehistoric stone circles, old gods and archetypes that still affect the modern mind, old beliefs, old mysteries, and the power at the heart of nature. It's about finding something meaningful away from the illusory attractions of the modern world. It actually really is all about stripping naked and running screaming into the forest.

Why should World’s End be the next book that everyone reads?

Because if you don't read it, the powers that secretly rule our world will win. It might seem to be a fantasy story about the ancient Celtic gods returning, but it's really about the here and now and what's going on around us. Or if 'they' are listening, it's a fast-paced, high adventure with sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll...or Frank Sinatra, at least. It's a quest for meaning in a secular world. It's a tour around the mystical and prehistoric sites of Britain. It's a codebook of magic. It's a quest for meaning in a secular world. It's a commentary on the abiding influence of the ancient Celts. It's not for jaded people - it's a celebration of that time in life when emotion is acutely felt: love, friendship, betrayal, fear, yearning. It's fun. Really. (But if you do read it, you'll know who really controls the world, and why, and you'll be able to beat them. Even without a secret base and a private army.)

Monday, June 01, 2009

Kate Griffin Answers Questions Five

Catherine Webb is a Carnegie Medal-nominated author who began her writing career at 14 and has written seven books aimed at the YA audience. Now in her early 20’s and writing as Kate Griffin, A Madness of Angels is her first book aimed squarely at the adult audience, and it is something special (US, UK, Canada, IndieBound, my review). The Midnight Mayor is a sequel planned for fall 2009 (US, UK, Canada, IndieBound). Cat is a life-long resident of London, and her love of the city is clearly reflected in her writing.

Thanks to Kate for taking the time to answer
Questions Five.

If I were going on holiday to London and I can only visit one pub, which pub do you recommend and why?

KG: Well, I kinda don't drink, owing to expense and taste and the fact that I never really had much fun doing it. But I do have fond memories of the
Sherlock Holmes, which is to the north of Hungerford Bridge, and the Castle on Pentonville Road has a very nice roof terrace in the summer, which almost redeems the fact that it's on the Pentonville Road. If you're after drink + fun, may I heartily recommend Cafe Kick on Exmouth Market, which is a sports cafe. This essentially means a lot of football, many photos of men in bad shirts looking mud-splattered, much booze and, best of all, bar footie. Many, many hours have been happily whiled away playing bar footie in Cafe Kick.

If the A Madness of Angels were a fortune cookie, what would its fortune be?

KG: Sweet and sour chilli sauce much good makes; but be careful what you say on the telephone.

How would you interpret this fortune if it were your own? Or Catherine’s?

KG: Um. As a profound culinary truth combined with a bit of sound social advice? I mean, if I was going to wax profound, I'd say something about yin and yang, unlikely combinations being so good, about the best and worst of life combined, and maybe talk a bit about the kind of stuff we say over the telephone and how it makes us behave that might not otherwise be the case. But I think my first, short answer, was probably the best, since there's very few dishes which don't benefit much from sweet and sour chilli sauce. Particularly all those Thai starters you can get - oh, sesame prawn toast! Now if you could find a way to inscribe a fortune cookie on the surface of sesame prawn toast, I'd be gobbling that down. As it is most fortune cookies are a really disappointing event.

As for this whole Catherine Webb/Kate Griffin business... while I did consider inventing a whole alter-ego for Kate Griffin, based largely on a theme of her being an Antarctic explorer with the kung fu skills of Michelle Yeoh and the ability to speak Tagalog as a fluent second language, I quickly realised that the amount of work involved in maintaining this cover, both physical and linguistic, was probably beyond my grasp. So, after much debate, I have come to the conclusion that Cat is Kate and Kate is Cat, and they both share the same fortune cookies, are avid fans of Dr Who and the West Wing, and need to have a haircut. I am still hoping to be thrown out of various parties for Kate Griffin owing to lack of appropriate ID, but alas, no one has yet thrown a party in Kate's honour for Cat to be chucked out of, so that plan is still on hold...

What other peculiar qualities of A Madness of Angels should readers be aware of?

KG: It's magic, Jim, but not quite as we know it...

It's a fantasy book, full of sorcery, mystery, monsters, and blue electric angels, but it's also fantasy given a sharp kick into the 21st century. Magic in A Madness of Angels isn't about how well you can intone in dodgy Latin, or whether you've got a spare bit of the chalk of destiny roaming around your alchemy lab. It's fantasy that rides the top deck of the inner city bus, casts its spells in street patter and, I hope, catches enough of real life in it to make the world seem that little bit more exciting and strange than it already is. Miracles and mysteries in this happy urbanised age are no longer about sacred waters from holy springs, or green-skinned dryads hiding in trees. These days, your ring of power is made of plastic and kept at the back of a charity shop with the snow globes, and your dryads skins' are the colour of dusty metal, their lairs buried inside the street lamps that are the new urban forests. Also, while death may only be the beginning, no one ever bothered to write a survivors guide for after the event...

Why should A Madness of Angels be the next novel that everyone reads?

KG: Hopefully, because it's got a bit of everything in there for everyone. It's (I hope) funny enough to make the tired commuter smile, strange enough to make the mundane seem peculiar, real enough to catch at the memory of pretty much anyone who's ever waited for the last train on a cold night in December while wearing the wrong kind of shoes, dark enough to make the night seem long, magical enough to make the night seem brighter, and different enough to promise a flavour of something new for hopefully everyone who reads it.

And if none of that appeals to you, it's got some really sound advice on why skipping your underground fare is a bad idea, and why it's always a good idea to pack extra clean shirts when embarking on a vendetta where high voltages are involved.


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