Novel

The books that made me: “Dragonflight” by Anne McCaffrey


dragonflight by anne mccaffrey

“Lessa woke, cold.”

It has been, disturbingly, some thirteen to fourteen years since I first read that first line of one of the books which most shaped my interests in fiction, as well as more broadly. I was either ten or eleven at the time, pinching a paperback copy from my dad’s bookshelf and burying my nose in it like a younger child teetering around in a parent’s shoes.

I’ve talked about Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series before — most notably when she passed away a few years ago — but I’m not sure that I’ve ever really explored the moulding effect that it had on young Matt.

There is, actually, a reason why this is the first blog in a series I’m planning about those landmark tomes. Dragonflight was, as far as I can remember, the first “grown-up” book that I read.

Read on…

“Parasite” by Mira Grant – A Review


parasite by mira grant(Orbit, 512pp, pb £7.99 eb £4.99)

This review was originally published in issue #250 of science-fiction magazine Interzone. You can buy back issues and subscribe to future issues at their shop.

What makes the tin-hat brigade of paranoids scarier? When they know what they’re talking about, seemingly.

I haven’t read any of Mira Grant’s other novels, but the spiel attached to “Parasite” establishes her as more than qualified to comment on matters of biotechnology, pharmacology and ethics.

The novel follows Sal, who was Sally until a car accident left her a complete amnesiac. In a world where almost everybody has genetically-engineered tapeworms inside them boosting their immune system, Sal’s worm having helped her survive apparent brain death makes her a medical marvel and minor celebrity. This places Sal at the epicentre of the events that unfold, all linked to tapeworm firm SymboGen.

Read on…

“The Explorer” by James Smythe – A Review


the explorer by james smythe(Harper Voyager, 400pp, hb £12.99/pb £7.99/eb £8.51)

This review was originally published in issue #246 of science-fiction magazine Interzone. You can buy back issues and subscribe to future issues at their shop.

Space is emptiness. Well, sort of. It’s certainly a fairly lonely place, vast and silent. It’s one of the most captivating features about it, and something which has inspired generations from astrologists to writers to small children looking up at the night’s sky – and more than a few of those reading Interzone, I’d wager.

It is also, incidentally, the fundamental theme of James Smythe’s novel “The Explorer”.

The novel follows Cormac Easton, a journalist who gets the dream opportunity to be part of the crew of astronauts on a boundary-pushing mission to go further into space than any person before. Predictably, it all starts to go wrong from launch onwards.

Read on…

“Path of Needles” by Alison Littlewood – A Review


path of needles alison littlewood(Jo Fletcher Books, 394pp, pb £7.99)

It is, I think, good to expand your horizons on a regular basis. That applies in all aspects of life, but especially (in my opinion at least) with reading and writing. It’s all too easy to box ourselves in to what is comfortable, what we know we like, and before we know it we end up stagnated in — to use a rather clichéd example — Tolkeinesque high fantasy.

Path of Needles then, being a crime novel, is a bit of a departure from previous form and favour for both myself, as the reader, and Alison Littlewood.

I read, and rather enjoyed, her debut novel A Cold Season over a year ago. It was a horror novel both easily accessible and eschewing the easier monster-based paths of horror for a creeping and lingering chill. But Path of Needles is cut from a different mould, so even as I opened the cover I knew that I would have to put my preconceptions aside to see what waited within

Read on…

“On Stranger Tides” by Tim Powers – A Review


“On Stranger Tides” by Tim Powers

(Corvus, 416pp, £7.99)

I went into this book knowing very little about it. Really the only thing I had to go on was the rather lacklustre Pirates of the Caribbean film based on it, which is hardly the best endorsement.

But I found myself very pleasantly surprised with the result. The actual similarity between the book and the film is limited to the name, the fountain of youth, and the involvement of Blackbeard. If the film had been more like the book, then it might not have been the disappointment it turned out to be.

So why did I like “On Stranger Tides” so much? Well, the first thing it has going for it is excellent characters. The pirate genre lends itself to colourful, imaginative and exciting casts, and Powers doesn’t disappoint. Main character Jack Shandy is the classic character who never really wanted to be a pirate, but found an outlaw life thrust upon him, whilst Blackbeard manages to be engagingly bad, but more than simply a cardboard-cut-out comic villain. Add to the mix a host of brash but morally-questionable buccaneers and you couldn’t really want for better pirate fare.

One thing that I was a little less passionate about was the ending. Throughout, Powers keeps the story fast paced and exciting, with the action running right up to the end. Which is great, but it makes the ending feel rather abrupt. To go from full-throttle to over zap quickly killed the mood a little, but I couldn’t say what I would have changed and it didn’t damage the reading experience too much.

Overall I would definitely recommend this book. I was somewhat sceptical at first, believing that pirate stories were something of a genre cul-de-sac, but Powers’ excellent writing and brilliant story converted me very quickly.

“A Cold Season” by Alison Littlewood – A Review


"A Cold Season" by Alison Littlewood

(Jo Fletcher Books, 384pp, £7.99)

It seldom seems that a horror novel, a proper horror novel, gets any real mainstream attention. The inclusion of A Cold Season on the Richard and Judy Book Club list made me wonder a little. But Alison Littlewood’s writing has featured frequently in Black Static, and I know that she’s a gifted writer.

A Cold Season is merely confirmation of this.

The plot surrounds Cass and her son Ben, who move to the remote Yorkshire village where she grew up after the death of her husband in Afghanistan. The plan is to make a fresh start, but it all starts to shift away from Cass when snow seals off the village, and the strangeness of the locals starts to infect Ben.

This is a classic outsider horror. From the beginning it maintains a subtly creepy atmosphere of isolation, of not being part of the group, with the history, the geography and the community of Darnshaw blending into a single entity. There’s a subtle wrongness from the very start in all of the residents, which sets the reader on edge throughout.

And that’s what won it for me. From the start, I couldn’t tell you where the story was going. There was a growing sense of tension as the snow set in and as Cass became increasingly alone, but there was no real indication of where it was going. As it happened, the climax came out of left field, taking me by surprise but still fitting the story.

On a purely selfish note, I’m very glad that this novel was so good. With the wide attention it’s received, especially the aforementioned Richard and Judy Book Club, I’m hopeful that it will give the new wave of British horror exposure to a more mainstream audience. This can only be good for encouraging more publishers to embrace the genre.

Because Littlewood’s début novel is pure horror. It splits open the darkness inside the everyday, and examines it for our entertainment. At its core is parental relationships: Cass’ fears of losing Ben to whatever darkness is at the heart of Darnshaw; the broken and confused shards of her relationship with her father; and the ongoing hurt and confusion of a little boy whose daddy isn’t coming home again.

A Cold Season featuring no vampires, no werewolves, and no fairies. A Cold Season is a creeping, chilling, lingering horror story. And it’s rather excellent.

“The Recollection” by Gareth L. Powell – A Review


"The Recollection" by Gareth L. Powell

(Solaris, 400pp, paperback, £7.99)

“Rising star” is a phrase which I seem to use all too often, but when I say it in relation to Gareth L. Powell it seems entirely appropriate. Here is a man who I started reading in genre magazines of great repute, such as Interzone, a few years back. His short stories demonstrated a profound understanding of science-fiction’s place in the world. His debut novel Silversands was excellent, and the follow-up was sensational.

The Recollection is Powell’s take on the space opera, and the scale of the story really should not be underestimated. Spanning the galaxy, and hundreds of years, it follows characters on various convergent plot threads, weaved into a beautifully complete story.

The story starts with the appearance out of nowhere of arches across Earth. When his brother is gobbled up by one, Ed Rico sets out, with his brother’s wife Alice, to follow and find the missing man. Meanwhile (or not, exactly) space captain Katherine Abdulov seeks redemption with her family and revenge upon a former lover, in a race across the galaxy into the arms of danger.

It’s a wondrously complex patchwork, with a great attention to detail and to the sub-genre’s rich history. To those who are widely read within it, the wealth of little nods here and there will stand out like little gemstones. For those without such experience, the attention to detail will do the same.

Particularly notable is Powell’s grasp of the consequences of relativity. Space travel across the cosmos is possible in the world of The Recollection, but a journey which is instantaneous from the the perspective of the traveller takes objectively as long as the same journey would at the speed of light. It not only throws up fascinating problems of timelines out of synch, but manages to knit the plot together across centuries.

The beauty here is that Powell has a good grasp of both the technical and the artistic side. I’m loathe to call this “hard” sci-fi, because it lacks the dryness which frequently marrs that genre. But it feels accurate, with a realistic atmosphere and entirely believable characters.

One thing that moved me in particular: the acknowledgement page makes a point of thanking the late Colin Harvey, whose death shortly before the novel’s launch was truly tragic. Given the credit which Powell himself has given to Harvey for his role in The Recollection‘s existence, I think it’s safe to say that Harvey would be proud of the finished product.

The Recollection is a thought provoking work, brimming with imagination. It has the vital undercurrent of “what if?” that is the lifebood of good science-fiction. And what if there was more sci-fi like The Recollection? Then the world could only be a better, more exciting place.

“Camera Obscura” by Lavie Tidhar – A Review


"Camera Obscura" by Lavie Tidhar

(Angry Robot Books, 394pp, paperback, £7.99)

So I’m going to start this review with a confession. I have yet to read Lavie Tidhar’s first novel, The Bookman. It’s been on my to-read list pretty much since it was released, but this past year that list has been distressingly static. After finishing Camera Obscura, however, it has jumped to the top of said list.

Fortunately for series-order anarchists like myself, whilst Camera Obscura is set in the same world as The Bookman it doesn’t seem to be a direct sequel. What it is, however, is an outstanding novel that appreciates full how to entertain and intrigue, and yet not shirk the big issues the story raises. Which is really what I’d expect of Lavie, to be honest.

The story follows Milady de Winter, an agent of the mysterious Quiet Council, as she investigates a murder and is catapulted into a wide-ranging conspiracy that takes her across the world,  meeting a cavalcade of friends and foes, all pursuing an item which could mean the end of humanity. Which doesn’t get across an iota of the excitement in the story. There are many points I enjoyed about Camera Obscura, but for brevity’s (and decorum’s) sake, I’m going to focus on a few major points and try not to gush hopelessly over it.

The first is something I’ve already hinted at. The sheer pace of the story is something to be marvelled at in itself. Short chapters, to-the-point sentences, and the fact that Poor de Winter is tossed around like a metaphorical rag doll. There scarcely seems a chapter that she isn’t running for her life, or being knocked/drugged unconscious.

The storytelling here will keep you on the edge of your seat (now there’s a cliché for you) and you should be well prepared for the ten minute dip into you planned to turn into hours. It happened to me, and it’s both at once wonderful and intensely annoying. I emerged from the final page of Camera Obscura exhausted by the experience, but with a definite smile on my face. It’s fast, and relentlessly fun.

The second point, is the wonderful range of characters. They’re interconnected with the world Tidhar crafts really; familiar people and places, from history and fiction, worked into a rich and seamless fantasy. I particularly liked the lizard Queen Victoria, and Tom Thumb with his shop in Paris. He even works in a reference to Doctor Moreau, which hints at further things to come. And the main character of Milday de Winter was one whose boots are so easy to slip into that her trials and tribulations mattered deeply to me as the reader.

If I have to criticise something, then I’d have to say that the ending feels extremely abrupt. To race through a plot, foot down on the accelerator, and then to come to the finish line so abruptly was a little jarring. The climax comes only a few pages before the end, so it has a sense of suddenness, but also a sense of more story (and stories) to come. Hopefully that isn’t just wishful thinking.

As you’ll no doubt have gathered, I enjoyed Camera Obscura very much. It was an incredibly fun read, expertly written and immersive on an almost dangerous level. It’s a widely held belief in the circles of genre fiction that Lavie is well on his way to being one of the new monsters of science fiction. This novel is as good an example of why as you’re likely to find.

More Than I Can Chew?


 

Time to break out the red pen!

Okay, New Years’ resolutions are supposed to be made at the start of the year (and I did make some then), but here’s a new one. And, from my perspective, it’s a rather big one.

 

A little while back, on this blog, I said that I was intending to redraft an old novel I wrote a few years ago, and hopefully get it ready for submission. Nothing has happened thusfar, but I think now I’ve found my inspiration to pull my finger out.

In the month of March, genre specialist publisher Angry Robot Books will be accepting unsolicited submissions. Now, I don’t overestimate my chances here. They’re bound to be absolutely flooded with submissions in that period, and there’s no reason to think that they would accept mine in particular. But nothing ventured nothing gained, and it does give me an incentive to get to work.

But here’s the difficult part. This novel is about 80,000 words. March is about two months away. And these next two months are going to be pretty busy on an academic front anyway. So it’s going to be a little tight. But I’m actually feeling exciting about it, and eager to get started. I’ve been reading through the beginning of the novel, and it’s not too bad, even if I do say so myself.

It was written about three or four years ago, and my writing has grown and changed massively since then, so there’s a fair bit of editing for me to do. But mostly it’s just rephrasing things. Removing extraneous adjectives, toning down the florid-ness, shortening sentences. The actual core story of it I still really like.

So there we are. My project for the first part of this year. Will I manage to get it done in time to submit to Angry Robot? I don’t know. It would be nice to, but in a way it doesn’t matter terribly. I just want to get this sorted, and to a position where I can submit it to publishers. My hope is that this will give me the incentive.

And, of course, that I haven’t bitten off more than I can chew…

Coming out of Retirement


A long time ago, when the world was a far sweeter and more innocent place (or at least my perception of it was), I wrote a novel. It probably wasn’t anything groundbreaking, but I was quite proud of it at the time.

 

Inspiration really does rear it's head from the strangest of places.

 

Looking back on it, I still am to a degree. I was sixteen at the time, and I don’t think I made an entirely bad job of it. Yes, it’s awfully trite in a lot of places, and yes my utter lack of Spanish skills probably should have made me think twice before setting a novel in the middle of the Spanish Civil War, and I probably should have been paying attention to my IB History lessons rather than creating fiction. But I was proud of having managed to pump out a 70k, original historical vampire story, and even prouder that parts of it seemed not to suck.

It did get a single round of editing, but after that it ended up in that place so familiar to manuscripts: the bottom of a pile of crap on the desk. I don’t really know why I didn’t do anything with it. I knew that it needed work (a good deal, probably), but it wasn’t that which put me off. It just sort of faded out of my life, probably partly helped along with the furore over Twilight, and the inevitable march of the capitalist press-ganged clones that followed.

But recently (i.e. this weekend), my thoughts have returned to it. This is, I think, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the extremely gifted A.E. Grace has just finished the first draft of her first childrens novel, which I was fortunate enough to read. I won’t say much about it, because it isn’t really my place to, but it was brilliant and her enthusiasm in a longer-length piece and her excitement at having finished the first draft have infected me with the novel writer’s bug again. Maybe.

The second reason comes back to one of the original inspirations for writing the damn thing in the first place. In the aforementioned History class, on the International Baccalaureate Diploma programme at The Henley College (not as posh as it might sound; most of the money and snobbery in the area tends to decamp to Eton and the like for education), I studied the Spanish Civil War. It’s a fascinating area of history, and provides an interesting and oft-ignored context to the Second World War, which began the same year as the Spanish conflict started.

In this class, my imagination was captured by lecturer Robin Milne’s descriptions of the conflict, and in particular by a film we were shown as part of the class. This film depicted a young Liverpudlian leftist, who left home to fight the fascists in Spain, and who saw firsthand the events that unfolded. This was the basis for a lot of what I wrote, but I never actually found out the name of the film.

The other day, on a very helpful forum of which I am a part, a member mentioned a film which seemed to match very closely what I had seen about four years ago. Fortunately this was a far more erudite scholar than I, and he actually knew the name of it (which, to be fair, I might have found if I had actually been bothered to look). It was, of course, Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom.

So now it’s on my LoveFilm list, and will hopefully be soon in my DVD player, ready to re-inspire me. Then, armed with a red pen, a

 

Time to go to work...

 

pair of shears and four years more experience (including the experience to ask someone else to help me with the foreign language parts), hopefully I can make something worthwhile of it.

And if not, I’ll at least have seen Land and Freedom again.

(Correction: with thanks to Mr Ben Denton, the Second World War began the year the Spanish Civil War ended, rather than started. Apologies for that embarrassing little slip! Cheers Ben!)