Sunday, 26 May 2013

Poison by Sarah Pinborough

Poison is a beautifully illustrated retelling of the Snow White story which takes all the elements of the classic fairytale that we love (the handsome prince, the jealous queen, the beautiful girl and, of course, the poisoning) and puts a modern spin on the characters, their motives and their desires. 

Poison by Sarah Pinborough will take you for a wicked ride through fairy tales as you have never before imagined them. It is a fresh, and slightly naughty twist on the stories we all know and have grown up with. It has a comfortable familiarity as many different characters, tales and settings are twisted, bent, and woven back together with Pinborough’s signature on them. A signature that brings the characters to life and makes them much more real and relatable while retaining their fantastical traits that have always defined them.

No longer are the dwarves a people happy to mine all day for the benefit of others. Now they are lower class citizens, enslaved by the kingdom, taking on a rougher, dirtier appearance than we are used to. But Pinborough manages to still portray them as a people full of fun and camaraderie. And of course, their beloved friend, the princess called Snow White is still much loved by people and nature, but now she has a more carefree, reckless way to her fun in the forest. And a penchant for enjoying all of the earthy pleasures afforded her.

What fairy tale could be complete without an evil, wicked witch of a stepmother? The evil Ice Queen out to destroy the innocent little princess? Well, maybe not quite so innocent in this tale, but you get the idea. Her part in this is quite enjoyable as we get more insight to her motivations and evil ways than in fairy tales.  No longer is the evil witch just evil for the sake of being evil. She becomes a real character, who is self absorbed and loveless, traits that have caused her to resort to her slightly evil ways and decisions.

Pinborough’s twists also provide cameo appearances by a number of familiar characters after they have been through her wicked fairy tale reconstructive process.  I don’t want to include any spoilers, but will mention Aladdin! His appearance and contribution is by far my favorite of these cameo transformations.

So in a version like this, the reader can’t help but wonder will Prince Charming show up to save the princess and sweep her off her feet? What will she make of him if he does? I can only recommend you read to find out for yourself, because while everything is so familiar, the characters have been redefined in a way that will leave you guessing. This is not your Disney fairy tale. It is much, much better. And much more wicked. 

Poison is available now from Gollancz.


About the Reviewer: Lisa spends her days programming in Java, living the exciting life of a cubicle ridden software engineer. When not at work, she enjoys her time with her husband and two boys. She spends the rest of her free time playing on multiple indoor soccer teams and of course reading, reading, reading. She is ‘new’ to the fantasy genre, having read her first fantasy book in 2010. After reading more and more fantasy, she is now hooked and can often be found around the internet searching for her next book and adding titles to her ever increasing TBR list.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb

‘We are here Fitz, you and I, to change the future and the world...’

Fitz dreams of Red Ship Raiders sacking a coastal village, leaving not a single man, woman or child alive. Tortured by this terrible vision he returns to the Six Duchies Court where all is far from well.

King Shrewd has been struck down by a mysterious illness and King-in-waiting, Verity, spends all his time attempting to conjure storms to confuse and destroy the Red Ship Raiders. And when he leaves on an insane mission to seek out the mystical Elderlings, Fitz is left alone and friendless but for the wolf Nighteyes and the King’s Fool with his cryptic prophesies.

So, once again I try and review a book that has been reviewed countless times in a plethora of different ways. I have to try and find a way to get you to pick up this book and read it. Because I really, really want you to read it.

Royal Assassin is the second book in The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb, originally published in 1996 by Voyager Books. If you’d like to read my review of the first one, Assassin’s Apprentice, you can read it here.

I’ll open with full disclosure. Royal Assassin is firmly ensconced in my top three favourite books. Don’t ask where. That’d be like asking a woman her age.

We return to Fitz, who you’ll recall was poisoned by his uncle, Regal. His recovery is long and, as you’d expect from Hobb, very painful. He is forced to reassess his life choices and where his future may lead. In the end it leads back to Buckkeep, to King Shrewd and Prince Verity, to Molly and to the Fool.

King Shrewd is terribly sick with an unexplained wasting disease and Prince Verity is cloistered in a tower, using the Skill to keep the Red Ships at bay. Fitz gradually becomes closer to Verity and has to use his assassin’s skills to serve him better. Fitz must battle to keep forged ones away from Buck and battle to protect the people he cares for from Regal.

This is an unrelenting and dark tale, noticeably more so than Assassin's Apprentice. We see some of the very few happy moments of Fitz’s life, but Hobb uses these to raise him high only to dash him down further and deeper than he’s ever been. By the end of this book you know that Fitz is never destined to be happy, never fated for anything but suffering. He is subjected to some of the most excruciating situations you’re likely to find in any form of literature, with the rare added bonus that this is made to feel so real. Most times when the main character of a tale is in danger you never really feel concerned for their safety, but even though this is told in the first person, I was terrified for him.

If this is your first time reading this then you are about to meet one of the best supporting characters in fantasy. I won’t talk too much about him as it would become spoilerific, but Nighteyes often steals the show. His view on the world is animalistic (well, he is a wolf, after all) but he unintentionally offers some wonderful philosophical views on Fitz’s situation which actually made me think (which scares me...).

Nighteyes is used in another way, too. Through him we explore the Wit, one of the most underrated magic systems in fantasy. It feels really organic, because neither Nighteyes nor Fitz
know what the hell they’re doing, so we learn along with them, stumbling and bludgeoning as they go.

So, look, I could talk about the prose (amazing) or the character development (stunning when you remember this is told in first person), but I covered most of that in the Assassin's Apprentice review. For what it's worth, the sequel does it even better.

Instead, let me tell you of the emotional impact. I’ve mentioned that I feared for Fitz’s safety, but I was proud, angry, sad, desperate, disgusted and pretty much any other emotion you can name. I ran the whole gamut of emotions time and time again. And this wasn’t just for Fitz. I felt for Molly. I felt for Burrich. I ached for the Fool. I felt for them all at one time or another.

So please, read this series. The pace can be a little slow and difficult in parts and Regal still feels slightly out of place in terms of his persona, but you are so richly rewarded for your perseverance. And let me know your feelings on the ending...


About the reviewer:
Alex can be found in the rolling hills of Oxfordshire, splitting his time unevenly between fighting crime and raising two little boys (which is surprisingly similar). When he does find a spare moment he crams it full of fantasy or basketball, and due to rapidly ageing knees it's mostly fantasy these days. He's trying to learn the writing craft through sheer bloody mindedness and dreams of the day he has to do nothing else. If you're so inclined you can watch him stalk writers on Twitter - @shep5377

Friday, 24 May 2013

The City by Stella Gemmell

The City is ancient, layers upon layers. Once a thriving metropolis, it has sprawled beyond its bounds, inciting endless wars with neighboring tribes and creating a barren wasteland of what was once green and productive.

In the center of the City lives the emperor. Few have ever seen him, but those who have recall a man in his prime, though he should be very old. Some grimly speculate that he is no longer human, if he ever was. A small number have come to the desperate conclusion that the only way to stop the war is to end the emperor’s unnaturally long life.

From the mazelike sewers below the City, where the poor struggle to stay alive in the dark, to the blood-soaked fields of battle, where few heroes manage to endure the never-ending siege, the rebels pin their hopes on one man—Shuskara. The emperor’s former general, he was betrayed long ago and is believed to be dead. But, under different aliases, he has survived, forsaking his City and hiding from his immortal foe. Now the time has come for him to engage in one final battle to free the City from the creature who dwells at its heart, pulling the strings that keep the land drenched in gore.

Simply put, Stella Gemmell’s The City is awash in blood. The story lays out the gory ravages of a centuries old war to both citizens of the city, as well as all those that oppose it. This war has come to a point where there can be no winners. Each side has dehumanized the other and will fight until there is no one left to lift a sword. Which does not seem far off. Generations have been lost and life within the city walls has become so harsh and abhorrent that children have been relegated to a hard life in the underground tunnels, passageways, and sewers, fending for themselves.

The City is more about the city than any one person and it is very much a good vs. evil tale without moral ambiguity. At least that is how it seems. The Emperor encapsulates the role of ‘Evil’. All though, it is an Evil somewhat unknown because he has been sheltered and isolated from even his own people. He has been ruling since before anyone can remember and
appears to have lost all compassion for his people, if he ever had any.

The individuals are a collection of people that help illustrate the current state of discontent, desperation and the desire to know a time of peace, to see an end to the ages old war. Their struggles and conflicts unfold for the reader during this critical time. A plan is formed to overthrow the Emperor to restore peace, the question remains; is the plan trustworthy? And who is really orchestrating it?

There are many things to love about this story. Gemmell’s illustration of the city is just one example. She has created a fascinating city that has grown by building upon itself over the ages. A river that use to run through the city has over time become buried, and part of the passages below, filling and flooding areas creating danger for Dwellers (the people that live underground) and shifting which passages are usable or safe to travel.

It is very much an exciting epic fantasy that just feels good to read. I believe it’s the type of story that holds many fantasy fans within the genre. In fact, up until about 75% of the way through, I had few complaints and much enjoyment. However at this point, there were a number of things that I felt detracted from the story as a whole. Without spoilers, I will just say, that there were some shifts in character that I found jarring as well as convenient coincidences. There were convenient coincidences prior to this as well, but at some point, it seemed to cross the line for what my willing suspension of disbelief could handle. Perhaps I should just view it as the fate of the world within the story and put my complaints of coincidences aside because overall, it was a tale worth reading.

The City is available now in the UK from Bantam Press, and will be available in the US from June 4th 2013, from Ace. 


About the Reviewer: Lisa spends her days programming in Java, living the exciting life of a cubicle ridden software engineer. When not at work, she enjoys her time with her husband and two boys. She spends the rest of her free time playing on multiple indoor soccer teams and of course reading, reading, reading. She is ‘new’ to the fantasy genre, having read her first fantasy book in 2010. After reading more and more fantasy, she is now hooked and can often be found around the internet searching for her next book and adding titles to her ever increasing TBR list.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Interview with Ben Galley

The Emaneska Series by Ben Galley, is drawing to a close with the imminent, simultaneous release of the final two installments, Dead Stars Parts 1 & 2
Follow the links to see our review of the first two parts in the series, The Written and Pale Kings.
Ben has been kind enough to grant us an interview, where he talks about the origins of Emaneska, jaw dropping cover art and what the future may hold. Enjoy!

WBR - Thanks for making the time for this Ben; this must be a very busy time for you at the moment! What three words would you use to describe The Emaneska Series?
BG - Brutal. Non-stop. Epic.

WBR - You cheated a bit there, but I’ll let you off! Can you talk us through how you got started with the Emaneska Series? 

BG - It was a culmination of a few elements that gave birth to Emaneska. First off, I'd been looking to escape my gloomy day-job and achieve that old childhood dream of being an author for some time. At the same time I was inhaling every fantasy book I could find, rediscovering my love of the genre. Then, as clich├ęd as it sounds, the name Emaneska popped into my head one day, along with the inspiring tag-line of 'Lord of The Rings meets Sin City'. That was it - I had a name, a direction, and I started writing the first chapter that very night. It was as simple a genesis as that. I haven't looked back since.

WBR - You’ve become something of a self publishing guru, but how did you make the
decision to publish your books yourself, rather than go the more traditional path? 

BG - I originally wanted to go the traditional route, but while writing the book, I began to grow worried about the idea of rejections, of giving up my rights, and also the length of time the process takes. I began to research alternate ideas after seeing an advert for something called 'Self-Publishing'. The more I researched, the more I became enamoured with the idea of going DIY, of going indie. It was fortuitous timing, as this is the first time in history that self-publishing is a financially viable option for success. Self-publishing providers were beginning to pop up all over the place, and through a lot of research and experimentation, I negotiated my way to market cheaply, quickly, and professionally, just as I'd wanted.

WBR - You also help other authors to find out how to self publish their work, is that a part of your career you enjoy?
BG - I'm a zealot when it comes to helping others. I believe that the manner in which I published my books was a very successful and accessible one, and it's a route I'm keen to share. For instance, a lot of authors think that going indie costs a lot of money - up into the thousands. I published 'The Written' for around £400, and all from one laptop. As soon as I began to make headway with the books, I knew it was time to start helping others. There's a lot of mistakes to be made in this new landscape, costly and serious mistakes, and no author should fall foul of them when there are so many opportunities now available.

WBR - The covers of your books are fantastic. Were you trying to break the rule of ‘don’t judge a book by its cover?’
BG - Thank you very much! I very much was. I judge books by their covers all the time. Especially now, when the market is so wide and packed. The cover is your sales pitch, just as much, if not more, than your blurb or reviews. I knew that to make sales, I had to have an absolutely rocking cover. One that hinted at the genre, but also stood apart by being unusual for fantasy and visually entrancing. I used Crowdsourcing via a site called Crowdspring to find a truly original graphic artist called Mikael Westman, whose concept for my cover physically made me sit bolt upright and my jaw hang loose.

WBR - You’ve used a lot of ‘mainstream’ mythological creatures in this series, why did you decide to use things like dragons and vampyres in your world instead of going full on fantasy and creating an entirely new set of creatures? 

BG - I wanted to toy with a number of stereotypes, especially with the vampyres. It was a time when Twilight and dark romance was crowding shelves, and I wanted to use a creature that readers would feel familiar with, but also feel that they're being introduced to something new, something alternate. Dragons for me was a prerequisite. I'm obsessed with the beasts, but once again I wanted to treat them differently, and give them a few idiosyncrasies that might not have been written about before.

WBR - You’ve referred to the Emaneska Series as ‘A Trilogy In Four Parts,' Why have you decided to release both Dead Stars Part 1 and Part 2 at the same time?

BG - I wanted to be fair to my readers, and also be different. I know from personal experience that there are fans out there capable of inhaling one of my books in a night. I also know how frustrating it can be waiting 6 or 12 months to finish a series. It can be even more frustrating when you're left on a cliff-hanger. Dead Stars had to much material to be one book, but also was too fluid to be split easily. I decided that it was time to push the boat out and try a double release.

WBR - Now that the series if over and you’ve said your goodbyes to the citizens of Emaneska, how do you look back on the last four years? 

BG - With absolute fondness, and also a bit of guilty pride. I've achieved a lot in the last four years, and I'm very happy with what I've learnt, what I've published, and how it's been received. I also understand now what authors like King and RR Martin mean when they say they are still learning and growing as writers. Emaneska is the start for me - I've got so much more to do.

WBR - Your Kickstarter campaign was very successful and you first graphic novel of The Written was fully funded. How is that progressing and is Kickstarter something you will explore again? 

BG - Thank you again. The graphic novel of The Written is going very well at the moment. We're compiling all the concept art, ready to start building up the first chapter. We're looking towards a release in Autumn or Winter this year. It's a different direction for Emaneska, but so many people are eager to see and read it, I know I've made a good choice. Mike Shipley is an incredible artist. Once again, I'm very lucky to have come across him. If you haven't seen any of the art you can find it on my Facebook Page ( I fully intend to use it for funding the next graphic novel for Pale Kings

WBR - What’s next for Ben Galley? 

BG - A bucket-load of sleep and a holiday I think. I may even mix the two. Then it's straight back to the laptop. I will be writing a standalone fantasy that will be very different from Emaneska in many ways. Can't wait to try something new.

WBR - And finally, what book are you reading at the moment?

BG - At the moment I'm rereading the First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie. Outstanding books!

WBR - Thanks again, Ben! 

Ben can be found online at his website, and you can follow him on Twitter @Ben Galley.  

The first two books in his Emaneska series of epic fantasy, The Written and Pale Kings, are available now. The concluding parts of the saga, Dead Stars, will be simultaneously released on 31st May. 

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Sharps by K.J. Parker

Sharps is the latest standalone novel from author K.J. Parker, a critically successful, but perhaps not as well-known commercially fantasy author. I’d never heard of Parker until I got a little deeper into the SFF community, where I started hearing the name repeated again and again from other major bloggers, like Justin Landon over at Staffer’s Book Review and Jared Shurin at Pornokitsch. It seems like Parker is just on the verge of becoming an enormous success – an author that’s always been a well-known secret within genre circles, but just not quite there when it comes to the average punter in the bookshop.

Parker writes what you could perhaps term “fantastical histories”. The worlds Parker writes in are 100% fantasy creations, but they don’t tend to involve much (if any) magic or fantastical creatures – rather, Parker uses these worlds to explore ideas and topics that are parallel with our own current affairs. The novels explore the fundamental workings of a range of topics, from politics to economics; engineering to individual power and the nature of good and evil. But although Parker explores these ideas on societal levels, s/he uses individuals to tell the stories. These may be tales with broad-ranging ideas, but the characters are at the centre. And going by Sharps, they’re just damn good stories.

Sharps is the story of two countries: Scheria and Permia. They have long been at war, but for the first time in a rather bloody forty years a truce has finally been called. They are not at peace yet, though. Talks are in place and a diplomatic mission is sent to Permia by the Scherians. For both countries share one central interest – fencing. Scheria puts together a team of its best fencers to tour Permia, with the mission supposedly being to try and unite both countries with this shared interest. A force of goodwill. But things really are not quite that simple.

With Sharps, K.J. Parker takes a sometimes serious and often satirical look at warmongering, organised sporting events and the art of diplomacy. The novel follows almost exclusively the group of fencers sent into Permia, following the points of view of each one at different points. There is the most central of these, Giraut Bryennius, a young man who is forced at pain of death to go with the party into Permia. Addo Carnufex is the son of General Carnufex, Scheria’s most renowned commander (and perhaps throughout the world), Iseutz Bringas – the only female member of the team, Jilem Phrantzes – a former champion and the team’s administrator, and finally, Suidas Deutzel, the Scherian fencing champion – and a real scene-stealer throughout the novel.

Through the eyes of these central characters, we see the foreign country of Permia, and Parker very much limits us to seeing only what the characters do – a country where something isn’t quite right. Nothing seems to go quite to plan and there is clearly more to their diplomatic mission than they are being told. Parker manages to create a tense atmosphere through this sense of just never knowing what’s really going on. The novel twists and turns, Parker only ever showing us what s/he needs us to know, until everything becomes so convoluted and tangled up that it becomes difficult to see where it’s going. But then, right in the final 50 pages, Parker unravels the knot in an ingenious piece of plot structuring, and everything becomes clear.

There were areas, particularly in the middle of the novel, where I struggled. Mainly this was through frustration at misunderstanding the situation, but Parker does have a knack for gauging the reader – the characters are always frustrated with you. What kept me reading was Parker’s outstanding dialogue. Much of the novel’s structure – it’s worldbuilding, plotting, foreshadowing – all come from the dialogue. Parker shies away from copious description, and instead opts to allow the characters to do the telling. And it’s hilarious. I haven’t laughed so much at a novel since some of the older Discworld novels. It’s biting and satirical, but always incredibly funny.

Sharps is like a medieval/early-modern roadtrip through a war-torn, primitive country, with (of all things) a sports team at the centre. It’s not the easiest novel to read, and at times it can become quite dense (despite its average length) with worldbuilding and intrigue which doesn’t always make sense until the bigger picture is revealed. But in that lies Parker’s strength – intrigue. This is an author that is not afraid to write in a structure that only ever reveals what s/he wants you to know. It’s a fun, satirical, darkly funny and at times, thought-provoking read – and I’d have to agree that although there may be better Parker novels out there, it’s only a matter of time until K.J. Parker gets the recognition s/he deserves. 

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Pale Kings by Ben Galley

Emaneska is crying out for a saviour
The only question is:
Can they kill a child to save a world?

Emaneska’s Long Winter remains as bitter as a blade between the ribs. War is fast approaching. Gods and daemons are hovering on the horizon. Long-lost revelations arrive to haunt the lives of three men.

The Pale Kings are rising.

While Farden busies himself digging up his past in the strange deserts of Paraia, the storm-clouds begin to gather for Durnus, Elessi, Cheska, and Modren.

Together with Farfallen and his Sirens, they must fight to survive against the Long Winter, the vicious machinations of the new Arkmage, and the arrival of something much deadlier than both combined. War, deception, and murder are quickly becoming the only paths to salvation...

Ben Galley has given his imagination free reign in this action packed story. We return to Farden, the troubled yet powerful mage, as he journeys through the desert in search of... well, in search of answers, of advice, of anything to help him in the battle with his enemies. We join him as he finds unlikely allies and is given the toughest of choices to make. We follow as he goes from one landscape to another, from frying pan and into the fire, trying to save a world that doesn’t always want his help.

The cast of characters grows impressively, and the scope of the story becomes truly epic in the best sense of the word. It’s to Galley’s credit that the growth feels organic and natural. I think it is one of the author’s strengths that each of the characters is fleshed out and fully realised. He adds just enough hints or redemption or damnation for each that you never really know who will end up on which side. You think you know, and that’s the delicious part.
In The Written, the first in the Emaneska series (you can read the review here) there is an intriguing blend of new creatures and races with the more familiar fantasy or supernatural ones. One of the main supporting characters is a vampyre, there are dragons aplenty and they are searching for wells of Dark Elf magic. Pale Kings takes this one step further, with some excellent development of the Sirens and their culture, and we are introduced to witches and fauns and shape shifters. I was worried that it would take me out of the action as I’m not generally a fan of these traditional monsters and I have found them to be tired tropes, but with a few minor exceptions what we expect is turned around and used to an advantage or as misdirection. I was surprised to find that I enjoyed these as much as if he’d invented entirely new and mystical races.
The story does take a little while to get going, with some soul searching and character history taking centre stage for a while. I would have liked this spread over a larger section of the book. It was all very interesting and necessary stuff, but if it had been delivered whilst getting the narrative rolling it would have enhanced the experience.
There are some fascinating interludes where we glimpse daemons and gods at work, all of whom are as flawed or as warped as some of the mortal characters! It is in these segments that we can truly see Galley’s imagination fly, and you start to appreciate how ambitious he is being with Emaneska and how far he wants to go.
I really enjoyed The Written, but Pale Kings is cleverer, grittier and a real evolution in the author’s craft. It bodes well for the final parts of this series, Dead Stars Parts 1 and 2. It’s going to be hard going to keep up the pace, so I can’t wait to read them!

About the reviewer:
Alex can be found in the rolling hills of Oxfordshire, splitting his time unevenly between fighting crime and raising two little boys (which is surprisingly similar). When he does find a spare moment he crams it full of fantasy or basketball, and due to rapidly ageing knees it's mostly fantasy these days. He's trying to learn the writing craft through sheer bloody mindedness and dreams of the day he has to do nothing else. If you're so inclined you can watch him stalk writers on Twitter - @shep5377

Thursday, 16 May 2013

The Scar by China Mieville

Scars are not injuries, Tanner Sack. A scar is a healing. After injury, a scar is what makes you whole.

The Scar lives up to its title. Everything and everyone at the core of this story is at a different stage of healing. Whether they have physical wounds, broken emotional bonds or tears in the world itself, everything will eventually leave a scar. Mieville has managed to craft a follow-up to Perdido Street Station which touches on deeper themes of loneliness and belonging. And pirates. Where Perdido Street Station was an introduction to the city of New Crobuzon, The Scar is far more wide-ranging; leaving New Crobuzon for climates new, and to places altogether much stranger than the city it leaves behind.

Bellis Coldwine is the central protagonist of The Scar. Continuing the theme of unorthodox central protagonists from Perdido Street Station, Bellis is a linguist. She’s named aptly; cold, mostly humourless and consistently conflicted by her own decisions. The novel begins in New Crobuzon, but Bellis quickly leaves, believing herself to be in danger from the militia. (In a nice nod to the events of Perdido Street Station) She finds herself a job onboard a naval ship as a translator; a ship which has a cargo of more than just trade goods. But this is all just set-up for the real storyline. When Bellis’ ship is taken by pirates and press-ganged into the floating city of ships known as Armada, she finds herself much further from home than she ever wished to be. And the rulers of Armada have bigger plans than anyone could possibly imagine – leading them to the greatest beast in the seas and the source of unimaginable power.

The Scar is a little shorter than Perdido Street Station, but still comes in at a hefty length. However, Mieville has managed to hone his talents between the two novels to create a book which moves along at a near perfect pace, from set-piece to set-piece. Where Perdido Street Station was a little flabby in its first quarter and to some extent in its last quarter, The Scar always moves briskly, and yet always allows the characters and setting room to breathe. On top of that, the plot is an absolute stunner – each individual part building to a huge climax and then starting all over again, but building on what’s come before.

In terms of imagination, Mieville is completely unleashed here. Perdido Street Station was layered with atmosphere and some very original ideas, but The Scar just goes one step further. New Crobuzon was a living city – you could feel every layer of grime seep into you as you read it. But Armada, the main setting for The Scar, could not be more different. I’ve never seen anything like it before. A floating city, made up of press-ganged ships from centuries of pillage, it is an incredible idea and expertly described by Mieville – and yet never to the point of overdoing it. The setting is there to tell part of the story – it’s just an incredible thing to behold on top of that.

Another area where Mieville improves on from Perdido Street Station is his cast of characters. As entertaining as they were in Perdido, only two or three had any real level of depth. The others felt like side-characters. Here, though, even the minor characters feel well-realised and important to the progression of the story. Whether it’s the reMade marine engineer, Tanner Sack, the effective rulers of Armada, The Lovers or the particularly awe-inspiring Uther Doul and his possibility sword, they all feel like they could live beyond the pages.

With The Scar, China Mieville has managed to build on the success of Perdido Street Station to create a novel which expands the world of Bas-Lag and tells a much more thematically cohesive story. You could read it with no prior knowledge of Perdido Street Station quite easily – some may even recommend you do so. But I think you’d miss out on the joy of having read that foundation which Mieville built in the last book. Where Perdido Street Station was essentially a very clever monster hunt, The Scar is a tale of just that: scars. The scars of relationships old and new. The scars of flesh, memory and emotion. The scars from political, personal and social wounds created in the previous Bas-Lag novel. And the scars of the very earth itself. It’s a seriously accomplished novel, and the best I’ve read from Mieville yet.  

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The Rapture of the Nerds by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross

The singularity has arrived and it’s…strangely familiar. In this post-singularity world, Huw Jones wakes up after a rough night at a friend’s house and stumbles downstairs for an awkward encounter with the woman he met the previous night, Bonnie. All relatively normal. With a twist. The house can alter its structure to match the whims of the owner and Bonnie the woman is now Bonnie the man. A self-declared technophobe, Huw finds this all a little much, and makes his excuses. All is not lost as he finds a jury duty notice – he has been selected to join one of the juries that make decisions on new technology sent from off-world. The solar system is slowly being eaten by the Cloud, a vast array of tiny machines amalgamated into a vast computer (of sorts) that is the new home for humanity. And they still like sending spam emails. A pair of kids with brains modified to Einstein levels of brilliance have built something and it’s up to Huw and his fellow jurors to decide whether or not it’s legal, in a courtroom familiar to anyone who has seen any pseudo-courtroom reality television series. Then things get really strange as Huw finds he has been infected with a techno-virus – an ambassador from the cloud, which he is chosen to host due to him being accustomed to pronouncing the rather difficult glottals of his native Welsh tongue - and is forced to go on the run.

The world Huw moves through is a hyper-extended version of our own; the singularity may have brought technological advancement bordering on the magical, but people are still people. Doctorow and Stross take current trends and extend them and then extend them a little more to hyperbolic extremes in a satirical examination of our current world. Pop-up ads now appear projected into your vision and the search for efficient ad-buster software is still as difficult as ever. Facebook is still around, but only in America where access sees Huw inundated with several million friend requests within the space of seconds. After a journey on the required airship (because those are still cool, right?) Huw lands in America which has become a shoot-first, ask-questions-later, ultra-fundamentalist country full of xenophobic rednecks who secretly harbour an obsession with sexual deviance. Oh yes, and you need a tank and an armoured suit to walk outside as a hyper-colony of ants has taken over the landmass of the USA. There is a little bit of cultural smugness in the portrayal of the various nations’ futures as only the UK has remained essentially the same, while the Middle East and America appear more as recidivist caricatures of themselves.

Rapture of the Nerds is incredibly fast-paced; in fact, I’ve never read anything that races along quite at this speed. Every paragraph contains a new idea, or a weird twist on something familiar. There is a slight sense of ‘ticking the boxes’ of geek-cool as they lift ideas from various sources such as familiars from Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City, uplifted gibbons a la David Brin and talking crows (I can’t remember exactly where this is from, but it felt familiar). The book is full of nods and references to SF/F staples such as The Matrix, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Doctor Who, World of Warcraft, etc. In this it is reminiscent of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, in that half the fun is searching for all these little mentions. This is a book for a specific audience and plays to that strength as many things are skimmed over that could have been developed and explained in great depth.

This may be a structural commentary on the way we use technology especially the internet, in that we consume information very shallowly as we race around from page to page. This idea that we are misusing, or at the very least under-using, the power of the internet may be one of the major themes in this book. One of the sections I found rather telling was near the end (no spoilers): 

“[…] the unlimited, unconstrained world of imagination, and we build a world of animated gifs, stupid sight gags, lame van-art avatars, stupid “playful environments, and brain-dead flame wars augmented by animated emoticons that allowed participants to express their hackneyed ad-hominems, concern-trollery, and Godwin’s law violations through the media of cartoon animals and oversized animated genitals. […] Give humanity a truly unlimited field, and it would fill it with Happy Meal toys and holographic sport-star, collectible trading card game art.”

Due to the skimming nature of the story, the characters aren’t fully developed, they are fully secondary to the plot and the ideas the authors wish to explore. To be honest, too much character development isn’t strictly necessary; Huw is the generic ‘everyman’ or I should say ‘everyperson’, who experiences his new world for us, so we don’t need a long history or motivations for every single thing. However, it is his relationship with Bonnie (who becomes one of the other main characters) that feels a little flat because of this. The fluid nature of her gender could have made for some very interesting interactions between her and Huw as he is still attracted to her despite her briefly being a man. However, throughout the novel this is never explored as whenever they interact it is always as man and woman. And due to various noticeable shifts, this feels like a conscious decision by the authors to back away from this particular issue.

Despite a rather muddled ending, this is a book that sticks with you after you finish. I found myself mulling over many of the ideas and images thrown around so haphazardly for some time afterward as it takes some time to process them all. It is a fun ride and you will often feel like you are just a spectator as these two authors take you on a wild journey through their version of the fractured future. I would recommend it to those who like their speculative fiction to be both familiar and not so serious.  

The Rapture of The Nerds, by Cory Doctorow & Charlie Stross. £7.99, 12th April 2013, Titan Books.


About the Reviewer: Craig Leyenaar is completing an MA (Writing) at Warwick University and then will be prostrating himself before the publishing world in hopes of being granted access. His television was taken away at a young age for no good reason, but was soon replaced with books. He has stuck with them ever since and now after twenty years of reading them he finally feels ready to comment. His tastes include everything from China Mieville and M John Harrison to Isaac Asimov and Peter F. Hamilton to David Gemmell and Terry Pratchett to - he better stop there otherwise there won't be room for anything else. 

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Interview with Richard Ford

Richard Ford originally hails from Leeds in the heartland of Yorkshire, but now resides in the Wiltshire countryside. His debut novel Kultus was released in 2011. His second novel Herald of the Storm hit shelves in April 2013 and is available in the UK everywhere.

WBR: Hi Richard – Welcome to Wilder’s Book Review, and our first ever interview!

RF: It’s great to be here, Doug. I’ve not felt this honoured since I won the Swindon and District Ferrero Rocher eating championships back in 2001.

WBR: First up – give us three words that best describe your new book.

 RF: Bloody. Bawdy. Brilliant.
        Too much alliteration?

WBR: Well I've already read it and it certainly lives up to those descriptions! But for those that haven't, can you tell us a little more about your new series Steelhaven and the first book, Herald of the Storm.

RF: It’s an epic fantasy series set entirely within the capital city of Steelhaven and told from viewpoint of seven disparate characters, from the heir to the throne down to a struggling street thief. The city itself is under threat of siege as the country comes under attack from the north, and as things begin to unravel on the frontline, they’re not going so well back at home either.

WBR: What was the idea behind Steelhaven and your motives for writing it?

RF: I wanted to do something quite sweeping and character-driven. I’d also been watching a lot of quality TV shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men, which have a lot of characters but still manage to tell a cohesive story. Rather than just the usual kings-and-knights-and-barbarian hordes kind of malarkey, I thought I’d focus on the little people too, and show how they get by while the major players are doing their thing. Most of the main action – the battles and nation-changing events – happen off-screen, but there’s still plenty of murder and mayhem back home too.

WBR: The city of Steelhaven is absolutely central to the first novel, and presumably the rest of the series – what was your main reason for focusing on one city to such a

RF: First and foremost it helps keep the book focused and stops it meandering off. The fantasy quest saga is getting a bit tired, so there was no way I was going there. I wanted the series to culminate in a siege, so letting the reader get to know the city as much as the characters gives them a kind of emotional investment in the place… before I burn it to the ground!

WBR: So would you say you're playing around with the tropes a little, taking all the elements of epic fantasy but minimising the setting and concentrating the focus of the story?

RF: I've previously blogged a bit about worldbuilding and my hatred of it here. However, that was before I'd started on the Steelhaven series in earnest. Since then it's become obvious that an epic fantasy writer who disregards their worldbuilding is just asking for trouble. Saying that, you're right about concentrating the focus on story, and in particular character. You can have all the intricate worldbuilding you want, but if you're characters are two dimensional and your story lacking any edge, your novel is bound to fail.

WBR: Herald of the Storm appears to focus on what's happening at home on the sidelines while the big adventures happen "over there" - was this an intentional focus of yours in writing this book?

RF: I guess it was. There's an invading army and the king goes out to face it. In 9 out of 10 epic fantasy novels this would be the main focus, but I wanted to concentrate on Steelhaven and its story. Anyone who likes epic battles shouldn't be put off though, there's plenty of that still to come later.

WBR: Will we see more of the world outside of Steelhaven in future books?

RF: The first three books will be set mainly within the city. Beyond that, who knows, but I’d definitely like to stretch my wings a bit.

WBR: You have quite a diverse set of point-of-view characters in Herald of the Storm - were each of them planned from the outset, or did they come up organically during the writing process? Do you plan on expanding the core cast in the future?

RF: Most of the characters evolved with their own stories. When I was planning the series it suddenly hit me that I could probably amalgamate their differing story arcs into one overarching plot, and they would all cross over at some point. This can be quite tricky, and I have been known to plot a chapter breakdown in Excel before now.

The sequel to Herald of the Storm will see a new major character introduced but I think eight core characters are enough for now. Too many POVs can lead to a novel losing its focus and meandering off on meaningless tangents. I’d like to avoid that if at all possible.

WBR: What were your main influences behind the book? 

RF: I originally pitched the series as ‘David Gemmel’s Legend meets HBO’s The Wire’ and I think they’re the main two. Obviously, as all writers are, I’m influenced by everything I see and hear in a variety of media, be it novels, TV, comics, film or computer games. Writers find source material everywhere they look, and I like to steal things… erm… borrow things wherever I can.

WBR: You also have another book out, published by Solaris, titled Kultus. Can you tell us a little bit about it? Is this a series you are likely to return to somewhere down the line?

RF: Kultus is an all-action, balls to the wall, adventure novel. A Jason Statham movie-in-a-novel for steampunk fans, if you will. In particular it was influenced by several hardboiled characters from 2000 AD, which I was obsessed with as a kid. It’s my homage to Judge Dredd, Johnny Alpha, Slaine and Rogue Trooper.

I’d certainly love to write a sequel – in fact I’d planned it as a series of novels – but at the moment I’m mainly focused on Steelhaven. Who knows, maybe one day Thaddeus Blaklok will rear his big ugly head once again.

WBR: That's good to hear - I know of a lot of people who want to see the return of Thaddeus!

WBR: What’s next for Richard Ford?

RF: Book two in the Steelhaven series approaches completion of its first draft. Then it’s the never-ending cycle of edits as I tear more hair out trying to make a jumbled mass of words into a coherent reading experience. Not that I’ve got much hair left to tear.

WBR: Do you have a tentative release date for the next book as of yet?

RF: We're aiming for a year between releases, so it'll be around April 2014.

WBR: Finally, what are you reading right now?

RF: I’ve nearly finished The String Diaries by Stephen Lloyd Jones (which isn’t out yet, but being a fellow Headline author I got an advanced copy). It’s brilliant too, highly recommended.

WBR: Thanks Richard! 

Herald of the Storm by Richard Ford is available now and is published by Headline.

Kultus by Richard Ford is also available now and is published by Solaris

You can read my review of Herald of the Storm here