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Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Ethics group - a new initiative

It looks like initiatives like the upcoming SHINE anthology (which Jetse de Vries is going to edit for Solaris Books next year) are bearing fruits, judging from the press release writer Andy Remic (author of Biohell and War Machine) sent us, announcing the creation of SFFE, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Ethics group:

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Ethics group has been set up by a consortium of authors, co-ordinated by Andy Remic, who wish to celebrate the good side of the fantasy, science fiction and horror genres. By that, we don’t just mean media with a positive theme – no, we’re into violence, sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll like every other monkey – but that our outlook and content will be geared towards the positive.

The site will include reviews, articles and interviews, which is pretty standard across the industry, but also several exciting new angles – such as collaborative stories written by the professional authors therein, and “Viewpoint” articles where writers can collectively wax lyrical on a certain topic.

The official line runs thus:

“Our mission is to celebrate everything positive, funky and exciting in the Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror Universe! The SFFE is a core platform, a hub of authors who have banded together with the aim of celebrating all that is positive in genre fiction. We aim to leave cynicism and negativity at the door, and concentrate on what makes us smile, what entertains us, and what brings light and joy to our SF, fantasy and horror universe. That's not to say there is no place for criticism--- there's plenty bad in the world. However, this little digital corner is a place for positive progression, somewhere you will (hopefully) come if you want to smile.”

So far, a considerable number of industry figures have signed up to take part, and many more are currently in negotiation! The SFFE currently enjoys: Tony Ballantyne, Eric Brown, Mark Chadbourn, David Devereux, Ian Graham, Paul Kearney, Tim Lebbon, James Lovegrove, Gail Z. Martin, James Maxey, Juliet E. Mckenna, Mark Morris, Sarah Pinborough, Andy Remic, James Swallow, Jeffrey Thomas, Jetse de Vries, Danie Ware and Conrad Williams. A healthy dollop of literary roughage, we’re sure you’ll agree!

Check out:

Love, kisses and chainsaws—

Andy Remic.

The site is officially opening tomorrow, June 1st. Yours truly is going to be one of the Core Writers of the SFFE Army, meaning that I´ll be writing reviews and articles for them as well. Will still be here and here, though - and with more stuff coming very soon!

Edit later: after some controversy, SFFE will stand for (the much better imho) SF and Fantasy Enthusiasts

Spotlight on June 2009 Books

This month Robert Thompson provided the book titles with additions by Cindy Hannikman, Liviu Suciu and Mihir Wanchoo. We are featuring 40 books.

Since we have quite a few books and we want to keep the post manageable and easily navigable, so people do not give up halfway through the list, we are doing just covers, titles, links, but no blurbs. Click on any link and you will find more information about the book or the author(s).

The release dates are US unless marked otherwise and the books are first edition unless noted differently. The dates are on a best known basis so they are not guaranteed; same about the edition information.

“Best Served Cold” by Joe Abercrombie. (June 1, 2009,

“The Angel’s Game” by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. (English 1st, June 1, 2009, UK, June 16, 2009, US)

“Xenopath” by Eric Brown. (June 1, 2009, UK)

"The Dragons of Ordinary Farm" by Tad Williams, Deborah Beale, and Greg Swearingen (Jun 2, 2009)

“The Strain” by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. (June 2, 2009)

"The Spy Who Haunted Me" by Simon Green ( US 1st, June 2, 2009)

"The Lovers: A Thriller" by John Connolly (June 2, 2009)

"The Library of Shadows" by Mikkel Birkegaard (English 1st, June 4, 2009, UK)

"Frozen Fire" by Bill Evans and Marianna Jameson (June 23, 2009)

“City of Souls” by Vicki Pettersson (June 30, 2009)

“The Story Sisters” by Alice Hoffman. (June 2, 2009)

“Genesis” by Ken Shufeldt. (June 2, 2009)

”In Ashes Lie” by Marie Brennan. (June 4, 2009, UK, June 10, 2009 US)

“Primal” by Robin Baker (June 4, 2009, UK)

"The Edge of the World" by Kevin J. Anderson (June 8, 2009)

“Relentless” by Dean Koontz. (June 9, 2009)

"Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd Century America” by Robert Charles Wilson. (June 9, 2009)

“Haze” by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. (June 9, 2009)

“Warbreaker” by Brandon Sanderson. (June 9, 2009)

“Green” by Jay Lake. (June 9, 2009)

“Overthrowing Heaven” by Mark L. Van Name. (June 9, 2009)

“Far North” by Marcel Theroux (June 9, 2009)

“The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane” by Katherine Howe. (June 9, 2009)

“Johannes Cabal the Necromancer” by Jonathan L. Howard. (June 11, 2009, UK)

“The Other City” by Michal Ajvaz. (1st English ed., June 11, 2009)

“Nights of Villjamur” by Mark Charan Newton. (June 12, 2009, UK)

“Fragment” by Warren Fahy. (June 16, 2009)

"The Third Sign" by Gregory Wilson (June 17 , 2009)

“Death's Head: Day Of The Damned” by David Gunn. (June 18, 2009, UK).

“Jasymn” by Alex Bell. (June 18, 2009, UK)

“Retribution Falls” by Chris Wooding. (June 18, 2009, UK)

“The Doomsday Key” by James Rollins. (June 23, 2009)

“Darkest Hour” by Mark Chadbourn. (June 23, 2009, 1st US Ed).

“The Demon Redcoat” by C.C. Finlay. (June 23, 2009)

“White Is for Witching” by Helen Oyeyemi. (June 23, 2009)

“Naamah’s Kiss” by Jacqueline Carey. (June 24, 2009)

“Everything Matters!” by Ron Currie Jr. (June 25, 2009)

"Dragonseed: A Novel of Dragon Age" by James Maxey (June 30th, 2009)

“The New Space Opera 2” by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan. (June 30, 2009)

“Witches Incorporated” by K.E. Mills. (June 30, 2009)

Friday, May 29, 2009

Three Un-reviews - "The Ingenious Edgar Jones, Honor of the Clan and The Third Sign" (by Liviu Suciu)

Following Rob, moderator and reviewer extraordinaire for my favorite forum sffworld, I decided to do three quick "un-reviews" of three novels I expected to like and did not, explaining why and hoping they find their intended audience of which sadly I am not a part.

The Ingenious Edgar Jones by Elizabeth Garner - Victoriana, unusual boy growing up

Very disappointing book; neither the style nor the subject worked for me; I expected a book on par with Hannah Tinti's superb debut novel The Good Thief or with Tom Pollard excellent The Minutes of the Lazarus Club and this one is far, far away. The prose was ok enough to rate two stars, rather than a one star but a huge disappointment nonetheless. I think it would appeal more to a YA audience or to a Dickens-style loving one.

The Honor of the Clan by Julie Cochrane and John Ringo - hardcore mil-sf, space opera

Just could not find more than cursory interest to read the never-ending Posleen/O'Neal saga latest installment; John Ringo has great talent but outsourcing books and churning them in a saga that needs more and more complications to hide its essential preposterous setting is losing me as a reader.

The only books I have recently enjoyed from the series are the Kratman ones (Yellow Eyes and The Tuloriad) and I wish both authors will start writing more original stuff soon.

This one should appeal to people finding the O'Neill clan of interest; for me all its members became very uninteresting and I am out of this series as long as it features them.

The Third Sign by Gregory Wilson - true and tried traditional epic fantasy

I had high hopes for this book based on the excerpt, but sadly it was quite disappointing; the only positive thing I can say is that it has narrative pull, energy if you want, so it was a tolerable fast browse after it was clear to me it is far away from my tastes.

It is basically a by the numbers fantasy with very annoying names both for some characters and for the world stuff and there is nothing particular to distinguish it from the tons of similar stuff out there.

Since I had the pleasure to exchange emails with the author, I truly hope the book will find its intended audience and I regret profoundly that I am not part of it, which I thought I would be based on the excerpt I originally read

Should appeal to lovers of Robert Jordan's books and similar traditional epics.
Thursday, May 28, 2009

Alan Baxter offers a signed copy of RealmShift his dark fantasy debut

A signed copy of RealmShift, the dark fantasy thriller by Alan Baxter, is being offered as the prize in a simple competition.

Author Alan Baxter is offering a free, signed trade paperback copy of "RealmShift" to one lucky reader drawn from a hat. The competition requires readers to download the sample chapters available for free at Alan's website and search for the answer to the question: What is Baker's real name?

A winner will be drawn randomly on June 9th 2009. The details of the competition can be found
HERE and the sample chapters can be found HERE

"RealmShift" - A Race Against Time And The Devil

"an inventive and action-packed story set in the shadow land where the supernatural and the mundane meet head on" "a gripping, thought-provoking tale that evokes a strong response within the reader" "a novel I am loath to put down. A most surprising read. Quite a ride."

"RealmShift" is Baxter's debut novel, available from Blade Red Press. "MageSign", the sequel to "RealmShift", is also available through Blade Red Press. Both books are released in print, ebook and Kindle editions worldwide.

Liviu's Note: As I do with all excerpted inquiries/book news sent to FBC, I checked out the sample and liking what I saw, I headed to Smashwords and bought an e-book version of "RealmShift" (multiple formats, un-encrypted, so worth the extra pennies compared to the Kindle edition) .
I will try the book sometime soon and review it here if I like it well enough as well as buy the sequel from Smashwords.

Interview with James Enge (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official James Enge Website
Order “Blood of AmbroseHERE
Read FBC's review of "Blood of Ambrose" HERE

Mihir Wanchoo, our intrepid interviewer here at FBC had a chance of asking James Enge some questions about his debut novel "Blood of Ambrose" as well as about his creative work in general. Read his answers next including a superb introduction to each Morlock short story to date:

1. Can you tell us about yourself in some detail since this is your debut novel & esp. your title of “Fantasist” & whether you wish for any other titles as well?
James: Well, I don’t have a rich biographical resume to draw on--I never drove a dynamite truck through a war-zone, or invented cold-fusion, or many of the things other writers mention with such becoming modesty in their bios. I was once, briefly, the worst breakfast waiter in the world. I confused waiting on tables with the Quest for Truth, and I would argue with the customers about what they’d ordered. This is not generally a way to score great tips.

I teach Latin and classics (Greek Myth, Roman Civilization, etc.) in my day job, where I was recently promoted to lecturer--essentially: permanent faculty, but without tenure. Possibly I would be shrewder not to mention this, because I know it leads some people to think of my fiction as something resembling homework they forgot to do. Someone, for instance, hesitantly complimented a story of mine as exhibiting great classical learning. And this is a story about a cult of corpse-eating witches where the hero’s drugged vomit is a major plot-point: any learning is safely below the surface where it’s not going to hurt anyone, like the science in Star Trek.

2. What made you choose fantasy over other genres for your first book?
James: I do have non-fantasy projects in various stages of completion, but fantasy (and specifically the unfashionable sub-genre of sword-and-sorcery) is what I keep coming back to. I guess I love fantasy because realistic fiction doesn’t seem to me weird enough to truly express what life is really like. I also think that fantastic imagery is a sneaky way to get under the guard of a reader. Le Guin famously wrote that:

“The artist deals with what cannot be said in words. The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.”

And I think, by a similar paradox, that one of the ways to talk to people about the things that matter most is to talk about things that never existed at all.

3. You have been publishing short stories for a while. Could you share with us your experiences of getting published and about how those differ (if they differ?) with the longer novel version?
James: My modest success as a short story writer is the stuff of a young writer’s nightmare. I started writing stories steadily in my twenties. By then (the 1980s) most of the magazines who specialized in publishing adventure fantasy had died off, so I was writing short fiction without a market to sell it to. I had to decide whether to follow the market or write what I really wanted to write. I decided to follow the promptings of my sordid muse (or: sworded muse?) and on balance I think I made the right choice. But it meant that the market had to change a little before my work saw the light of day.

An example. In the spring of 1989, while my wife was pregnant with our first child, I had an idea for a story about the character who was (and is) at the center of most of my fiction, Morlock Ambrosius. I wrote the story fairly quickly and started sending it out places. Time passed. I was persistent. (After luck, this is a writer’s most important trait.) By the time the story was actually published, as “Turn Up This Crooked Way”, our son was old enough to drive a car.

What this indicates, I think, is that the market for short fiction is radically different than it was twenty years ago: a greater variety of genre fiction is being published. That’s the good part. The bad part is that readership seems to be in free fall for many of the short fiction markets. I’m not sure where this leaves us, ultimately, but I refuse to be pessimistic: people will continue to want stories and find a way to get them.

Having a body of published short fiction is certainly an advantage when you go to an agent or a publisher. But the most important thing to have in hand is a novel-manuscript that they think is worth publishing. So, if I were to go back and give my 20-something self advice, I’d suggest pursuing booklength projects along with short fiction.

4. Any favorite authors? Who would you recommend to your fans esp. in the fantasy/sci-fi genre? [Please cite other genres if you want to, as well!]
James: I don’t consider myself really well-read: the field is too large for that these days. But I’m a big fan of Le Guin, Vance, Leiber, Brackett, Bujold, Zelazny. Among newer writers: Charles Stross and Joe Abercrombie. Among older writers: Dunsany, Cabell, Eddison’s Worm Ouroboros (but not so much his later Zimiamvian books).

5. What is your daily writing schedule like? And which kind of school of writing do you prefer [Outlining or free-writing]?
James: “Schedule” might be putting it too strongly: I’m pretty haphazard about anything where I have a choice. By preference I write later in the day, especially after dark. But there are times when I wake up with an idea chewing its way out of my head and I have to release it through writing.

I don’t tend to strictly outline something, but from the beginning I usually have a sense of where the story is going to end. If I don’t, I don’t usually get very far with it. The longer a project is, the more likely I am to have a file of notes and drafts about what’s upcoming. If nothing else, this helps dispel the panic that comes from facing a blank page or screen.

6. What do you do when you are not writing or reading books? What are your other hobbies?
James: My vocation and my avocation both involve lots of reading and writing, so that’s what I do a lot, even in my off-hours. Apart from that, I don’t exactly lead a life of adventure: I bike around; I go to movies and plays and concerts (when I have the opportunity: the reclaimed swamp that I live in is not exactly a cultural Mecca).

7. These are the various tales & short stories floating around the Internet about Morlock Ambrosius, they are listed below:

i. A Book Of Silences
ii. A Covenant With Death
iii. Fire and Sleet
iv. The Gordian Stone
v. Payment In Full
vi. Red Worm's Way
vii. The Lawless Hours
viii. Payment Deferred
ix. Turn Up This Crooked Way

Tell us about them & esp. the chronological reading order in which you intended them to be read.
James: The stories can be read in any order, but it would make sense to read both “Payment Deferred” and “The Lawless Hours” before “Payment in Full.” And “Fire and Sleet” is a sort-of sequel to “A Book of Silences” (but I don’t think anything would be lost be reading them in reverse order).

There is a distinct biographical arc to Morlock’s life. He mastered the art of magical making and became famous at it. He had a long, arduous and triumphant career in the Graith of Guardians in the Wardlands (a rather anarchic culture on the western edge of Laent). He met a woman he loved and married her, somewhat against the odds. Then his career as a Guardian was destroyed; his marriage ended; he was exiled from his homeland; he became a drunk. Most of the published Morlock stories come from the period after this fall; only one of them (“A Covenant with Death”) comes from Morlock’s younger days.

Here’s the order, in terms of Morlock’s lifeline:

1. “A Covenant with Death” (originally published at Flashing Swords #5; online in its entirety HERE. Morlock and a senior Guardian, Jordel, confront a unicorn-killer in the eastern mountains of the Wardlands. I snuck a couple “Easter egg” references to this story into Blood of Ambrose, where Jordel and Morlock meet again in very different circumstances.

2. “The Red Worm’s Way” (originally published in the briefly available Flashing Swords E-Zine Annual; later in a somewhat different form in Return of the Sword; original version online HERE. Morlock stands a wake for a stranger’s corpse in a town haunted by corpse-gnawing witches. Morlock has an affinity for crows (or vice versa) and this story partially accounts for that.

3. "Blood of Ambrose" (sample chapters HERE). In a war for succession in the Ontilian Empire, Morlock and his sister, Ambrosia Viviana, battle the sinister Protector Urdhven and the shadowy adept using him as a catspaw.

4. “Payment Deferred” (excerpt HERE). Morlock, now an outlaw in the Ontilian Empire, cuts a deal with Charis, a treacherous but skilled maker of golems. The deal goes sour.

5. “Turn Up This Crooked Way” (excerpt HERE). Morlock’s pursuit of a thief leads him through the deadly blue forest of Tychar.

6. “The Lawless Hours” (excerpt HERE). There is a monster in the lawless woods that preys on human lives. There is a cult in the woods that serves it. The Riders defend the Four Castles against it. This delicate balance, like most things that are delicate, shatters when Morlock comes on the scene.

7. “Payment in Full” (excerpt HERE). Morlock returns to Sarkunden to claim his long-deferred payment from Charis, only to find Charis has his own problems with a traitor in the Imperial Guard and the insectlike Khroi who infest the northern mountains.

8. “A Book of Silences” (online HERE). Things start disappearing from Morlock’s world. His investigations lead to an empty house, a sorcerer slain by a phoenix and a stolen book of magic that could destroy the world without anyone even noticing.

9. “Fire and Sleet” (online HERE). Morlock hunts the phoenix while a group of old friends hunt Morlock.

You’ll notice I haven’t assigned a place to “The Gordian Stone” (read it HERE). Honestly, I haven’t decided exactly where it fits into Morlock’s biography; the story just bit my elbow and demanded to be told, so I did. It was the only way to get my elbow back.

8. What can you tell us about the books which are forthcoming after BOA namely This Crooked Way & the as-of-yet unnamed 3rd book? Is This Crooked Way an expansion of the short story “Turn Up This Crooked Way”?
James: This Crooked Way is an episodic novel that knits together several of the stories that have appeared in Black Gate. Episodic novels (everyone else calls them “fix-ups,” I think) have a bad reputation nowadays, but I like them. I like the complex narrative rhythm that arises when a short story completes its arc in a satisfying way, but that’s only part of a larger arc which has its own resolution.

The third book now has a title, at least a tentative one: The Wolf Age. Fans of Norse mythology will recognize the reference to the Voluspa:

A spear-age, a sword-age:
shields are shattered.
A wind-age, a wolf-age:
before the world founders
men will show mercy to none.

In The Wolf Age, Morlock will travel (not entirely of his own choice) to Wuruyaaria (“Three-Moons-Aloft”), a city of werewolves near the northern edge of the world. And that’s probably as much as I should say about that until I write a little more of it.

9. What are your plans for the future? Are there any more books set in the Morlock universe? Any plans for other non-Morlock books?
James: I’ve been writing about Morlock for something like thirty years now, so I doubt that I’ll stop soon. I do have a couple of non-Morlock novels in various stages of completion: a fantasy novel set in the Trojan War and a straight-historical novel, no fantasy content at all, set in the late Roman Republic.

10. Which book/books [irrespective of genre] have you read recently or in the past that have made an impression on you?
James: The more I read the more I’m aware of gaps in my reading. But one book I read recently that really impressed me was Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. It’s a great story with vivid characters that is woven of important exciting philosophical ideas and debates. Stunning. Charles Saunders Imaro books also impressed me very deeply: the stuff of pulp fiction, from a very non-western perspective.

And something I try to do frequently is go back and read or reread stuff from earlier periods of English: early modern stuff like Shakespeare, Marlowe, Webster, sure, but also stuff from the late medieval period: Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl-poet, Malory. Modern English style can be very tedious: bland, yet somehow rancid. Older English reminds me how rich English is in resources that can make an impact on the ear and the heart.

11. You do seem to be a prolific blogger with your own blog & various articles at Black Gate! Are there any blogs that you like to read & what’s your take on emergence of the power of the blogosphere in promoting books! As for the last few years we have witnessed several authors who were heralded quite spectacularly like Scott Lynch, Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss?
James: I tend to like blogs that have a professional focus--Language Log for linguistics; rogueclassicism for classics, etc. For sf/f-oriented blogs, I like ones that generate a lot of discussion: like Sherwood Smith’s “Oached Pish”, on the more thoughtful side. Sherwood is a very fine writer of fantasy who has a talent for starting, and finding, interesting discussions.

Or, on the snarkier side, there is James Nicoll’s “More Words, Deeper Hole”: JN reads very widely (in and out of sf), has deep interests in the sciences and history, and a knack for asking innocent questions that leave a trail of devastation and memetic distortion in their wake. Generally I try to steer clear of hopeless, lightless, merciless blogostorms like RaceFail and MammothFail.

The power of the blogosphere to promote books is not something I fully understand. Maybe I’ll know more in a year or two. As soon as I started blogging, one began to hear that the blog was dead: the thing was to get on a social networking site like Facebook or Myspace. I recently got on Facebook, and now that’s being eclipsed by Twitter. Friends are urging me to get on Twitter, but it almost seems kinder not to: it would instantly make tweeting obsolete, and some people really seem to be enjoying it.

12. You teach Classical languages, how did this impact your stories & the overall world in general?
James: As you’ve probably noticed, I’m way into medieval stuff also, and (non-professionally, because I don’t know any of the languages) stuff from non-European civilizations (like the Mongols, ancient Persia, India etc). These interests are just there: I don’t question them; I scratch the itch. But over the years I’ve developed some ideas about these interests and why they’re so urgent to me. And the ideas connect to why I’m also interested in science fiction and fantasy.

Every narrative tradition concerns itself with three things: character, conduct, and the world--what people are, what they do, and the context in which they do it. But not all narrative traditions focus on these things equally. The modern “realistic” novel, increasingly in the 20th century, concerned itself with character above all else: what the character felt and perceived. I’m not knocking this: realistic fiction has some triumphant achievements in this line--Joyce’s “The Dead”, for instance. But I think it’s an approach that is susceptible to diminishing returns.

Genre fiction, like medieval and classical traditions of storytelling, tends to concentrate much more on what people do and the context in which they do it. I love this concentration on conduct, on action (but not necessarily in the car-chases-and-gunfights sense) and on the world (Elfland is not like Poughkeepsie; a trip through either one may sharpen your appreciation for the other). I find it in the older narrative traditions; I find it in genre fiction; and I think it’s the reason that 21st century literary fiction is looking to refresh itself at the wells of genre.

13. What inspired or led to creation of Morlock Ambrosius & what can be revealed by you about him at this point?
James: He grew out of frustrations I long had with a couple of my favorite writers as I grew up: specifically, J.R.R. Tolkien and H.G. Wells. I thought Tolkien was unfair to Dwarves, and Wells was unfair to Morlocks in a very similar way: they both tilted the playing field for the benefit of whole races the writers preferred (the Elves in Tolkien’s case, the Eloi in Wells’). This bugged me every time I reread their stuff. And at the same time I was getting into some of the source material for Arthurian legend, and I noticed that “Morlock” looked like names that appeared a lot in the texts: Morgan, Morgause, Morholt, Mordred, etc. Eventually all this coalesced into this character Morlock Ambrosius who was related to Arthurian legend, and also somehow connected with Dwarves.

And I banished Elves from my imaginary world altogether. Because I am just that childish. Other writers, including my fellow Pyr-authors, Matthew Sturges and Mark Chadbourn, have done some very cool non-Tolkienian things with Elvish characters, but I’m pretty sure I won’t be joining their ranks.

Morlock, as we find him in Blood of Ambrose, is carrying some damage. If he were a car, you wouldn’t buy him. But, though he thinks he’s done with life, life isn’t done with him: he keeps getting involved in other people’s lives.

14. To any new reader who hasn’t read any of your short stories, what would you say about them and your writing so as to draw them to give your books a try!
James: Truthfully, I’m the worst salesman in the world, even worse than I was as a breakfast-waiter. I expect most readers will find me sort of an odd writer. I firmly believe, not only in my right but in my obligation to use adjectives and adverbs pretty freely. I don’t like likable characters and I don’t believe in believable situations.

I believe that the greatest danger to genre fiction nowadays is not the denial of respect from some notional group of literary tastemakers but the very real likelihood that sf/f may become respectable. Those who thirst for the foamy gray poison of respectability should consider the fate of jazz, once a popular medium, now respectable, ossified and ignored.

So, if nothing else, I promise the prospective reader to not be respectable. I’ll try to tell an interesting story and tell it well, but at the very least it won’t be respectable.

15. Any last words of wisdom sir?
James: Just thanks, for letting me maunder on like this. These were provocative questions; I hope at least some of the answers were interesting.
Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Gollancz authors - Men versus Women

From NethSpace and now The Wertzone, the video below has started to make the rounds of the sff blogosphere.

Since it contains five authors that will have all their novels reviewed here as long as I co-edit FBC - Alex Bell, Jaine Fenn, Alastair Reynolds, Joe Abercrombie and Richard Morgan - I thought a good idea to propagate it here too.


Exclusive Author's Photo as Scene from the Novel; preview of the upcoming "Hell" by Robert Olen Butler

As mentioned in my review of "Severance: Stories", Robert Olen Butler's upcoming novel "Hell" became a highly awaited September release for me and a review of it will be forthcoming here around the publication date.

Mr. Butler was very kind to send me some extra material, including an author's photo that actually represents a scene from the novel.

As a limited preview I include two lines from the first page of the novel, lines that would always make me get and read such a book asap:

"’s the Evening News from Hell. And now here’s your anchorman, looking a little fragile himself, Hatcher McCord.” The voice of Beelzebub, Satan’s own station manager, mellifluously fills...."

"Later, in our ongoing series of interviews, ‘Why Do You Think You’re Here?’, we speak to the Reverend Jerry Falwell and to George Clemens, inventor of the electric hand dryer for public restrooms.” "

"The City and the City" by China Mieville (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

China Mieville at Wikipedia
Order The City and the City HERE (US) and HERE (UK)
Watch China Mieville talk about the book

INTRODUCTION: When I hear the name China Mieville, I always think of the genius author that took fantasy by storm with two masterpieces that reshaped the more outlandish parts of it and by their extraordinary success gave commercial viability to a new sub-genre that came to be known as New Weird.

The books in questions are Perdido Street Station and The Scar, and they are my top all time standalone fantasy novels. I reread them quite a few times and I see myself rereading them for a long time to come. The unbridled imagination exhibited in both is just breathtaking.

The third New Crobuzon novel, Iron Council, was a book that I almost hated, though in time I came to view it as a perfect example of the "well written but empty" novel; many people from the sff scene whose opinion I deeply respect told me that "Iron Council" is a masterpiece of novel composition, and while it may be so technically, for me it still remains a soulless book that throws away the rich milieu of New Crobuzon by repetitiveness. I'd rather have a flawed book, warts and all, that I care about than a perfect novel that leaves me cold and wondering why I bothered...

After a YA novel Un Lun Dun, Mr. Mieville returns to the genre with "The City and the City", a police procedural with a twist.

I was both very excited and very apprehensive about this book and indeed both feelings were justified since I found "The City and the City" beautifully written with a great first part, but it fell completely apart for me in the second half and it ultimately came across as another empty book about which I could not care that much.

Fabio Fernandes has reviewed this novel HERE, so check his take for a quite different view China Mieville's latest book.

OVERVIEW: The world of the novel is our world with Internet, cell phones, all the usual countries and one addition - a "dual" city Beszel and Ul Qoma that occupy the same physical space in the sense that they intertwine and even superpose in selected areas known as "crosshatches".

The citizens of Beszel and Ul Qoma are trained from birth to "unsee" each other, so they go around ignoring one another even if they are very close physically, while in the crosshatch areas, they dodge one another "unseeingly"; this of course can and does lead to accidents and even "breaches", but then then terrifying super secret organization appropriately called Breach intervenes and the offending parties are whisked away not to be seen again if locals, or deported if visitors.

Anyone wanting to visit Beszel or Ul Qoma needs to take special training courses and pass a test in "unseeing"
and what is appropriate behavior generally. There are rumors of a secret City called Orciny, in the interstices between the two, city that either controls or is at war with Breach depending on interpretation.

In a mostly Ul Qoma area with few Beszel parts there is an archaeological dig where unusual and some say powerful artifacts are dug by a team of mostly Canadian professors and graduate students - for Cold War reasons US still has an embargo of Ul Qoma though it's friendly with Beszel, but in recent times prosperity and foreign money are pouring into Ul Qoma while Beszel is falling behind.

Politically, Beszel is more or less a democracy, but with its kooks, both of the hard nationalist right and of the Unification stripe, while Ul Qoma used to be controlled by an Ataturk or Tito like strongman, but recent leaders have been more liberal.

The main character and narrator is Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad, while constable Corwi of Beszel, and detective Qussim Dhatt of Ul Qoma play important roles too.

David Bowden is an archaeologist that published an once (in) famous book about Orciny alled Between the City and The City which is mildly illegal in both cities, but he has since disavowed his views on the reality of Orciny and lives quietly in Ul Qoma.

A mysterious woman is found murdered in a shabby part of Beszel and when her identity is found, deep connections with the archaeological dig, the past and present of the cities and shady groups in both emerge.

The novel stands at 310 pages divided in 29 chapters taking place in both cities. Borlu narrates and his voice is very convincing as a jaded, world-weary policeman, while the ending wraps up well the main thread of the novel.

Beautiful prose, empty book; an act of prestidigitation by enormous talent Mieville, keeps the balls juggling but barely. This would be my summation of the novel and I will try and explain why.

First the setup of a modern world with all cultural references - Internet, cell phones, Cold War, Harry Potter, Power Rangers, usual countries and cities - except the superposed dual city whose citizens "unsee" each other except when officially visiting and with an all powerful Breach that keeps the order - is barely credible from the start and only the talent of Mr. Mieville keeps it from being utterly preposterous.

Even so and the act falters from time to time. Think "Emperor's New Clothes" on a million person scale, or "brainwashing" on the same scale, and add to this the quite numerous tourists, officials, visiting professionals - and it truly stretches credibility that this dual city can exist outside a book. Yes there are explanations: indoctrination from birth, Breach the organization, tests for foreigners, but still, I truly find it hard to suspend my disbelief especially with human nature the way it is; set in an imaginary land maybe, but in our world, it is very, very hard to take for me. However Mr. Mieville pulls it off by and large and that shows indeed extraordinary writing skills.

Then there is the murder investigation which forms the main thread of the book, and there is where the book fell apart for me. Not that it is badly done or anything, it is just that I had high hopes for the book to transcend the police procedural genre in story too and actually be about the existential mysteries of Beszel/Ul Qoma, or even Orciny, but the story turned out to be a by the numbers mystery so after a while I started caring less and less about the narrator and the other characters and I was ultimately not able to relate with the novel so the empty feeling.

The first half of the book was new, fresh and the magisterial way Mr. Mieville managed to keep the act in place and make me believe in Beszel and Ul Quoma, the unseeing and all was breathtaking, but the second part in which explanations are coming, villains are unmasked, chases and shootouts happen sort of threw that away for me and the two cities faded into unreality, squiggles on paper, not living cities I can imagine visiting.

Wait, maybe I am in Breach :)

Recommended for the prose and for police procedural lovers, but it is far, far away from The Scar or PSS.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Editorial: Sharing a World, Part I

"Adventurer, I am Elminster, and I say to ye that these forgotten realms are yours to discover, reforge, and defend, yours to make anew in winning your own crown. Go forth and take up arms against the perils that beset us!"
-- Elminster of Shadowdale
Mirtul, Year of Wild Magic

In 1967, Ed Greenwood's boyhood fantasies were too bold and imaginative to be confined to backyards, playgrounds, and even sprawling woods. The future game designer's imagination overflowed with visions of fantastic creatures, ones that demanded a unique setting to complement their individuality. Thus was born the Forgotten Realms, a world Greenwood populated with creatures, events, landmarks and tales.

Greenwood couldn't keep such exciting adventures to himself. In 1987, the Realms became an official campaign in the Dungeons & Dragons setting, one fervently embraced by role-players eager to bring their own characters to life. With each game session, the continent of Faerûn, located on planet Abeir-Toril, expanded exponentially with new races, locales, and quests.

Given the campaign setting's popularity, it was only a matter of time before memorable game sessions birthed writers hoping to pen novels set in the Realms. Like the curator of a massive theme park filled with wondrous attractions, Greenwood embraced the passion many writers and designers had for his world by opening the Realms to them. The price of admission: limitless imagination. Two such writers are Bruce Cordell and Paul S. Kemp.

Like most writers, Bruce Cordell, author of Forgotten Realms novels such as Plague of Spells and numerous Advanced/D&D sourcebooks and scenarios, wrote voraciously through high school and college. And like most writers, his reward was a stack of rejection slips that grew until opportunity finally knocked. "I got a gig to do a Pick-A-Path novel for a property Hasbro was developing, but it died before publication," says Cordell. "However, that got my foot in the door enough that the [Wizards of the Coast] book department asked me to be one of the T. H. Lains on a series of short adventure novels, which I think was my first story publication credit, in 2002.

"After the T. H. Lain novel, I used my enviable position as an employee in a nearby department to show up every so many months in the book department with an 'I'm available and willing to write an FR novel' look. They offered [to let] me write one of the Priests books, which became Lady of Poison."

For Paul Kemp, author of the Erevis Cale and Twilight War trilogies, writing provided a much-needed escape from the life of a law student. "I started writing in law school, mostly because I hated law school and wanted to do something else," says Kemp. "Strangely, I enjoy the practice of law--I just disliked law school; go figure. I began with short stories, then a trunk novel that will remain so forevermore, then finally got published professionally."

Like a sentient object yearning for freedom after centuries of confinement, Kemp's trunk novel ironically opened the door through which he entered the Realms. "I submitted a writing sample--a chapter from the aforementioned trunk novel--to Wizards way back when they had an open submissions policy. The editors liked the chapter and asked me to submit a proposal for an upcoming project, the 'Sembia Series'. Things have snowballed since then."

The knowledge accrued by Bruce Cordell during his full-time work as a game designer at TSR/Wizards, in addition to his time spent as a gamer, contributed to his familiarity with the setting. But Paul Kemp was no stranger to the thriving trade hub of Calimport, the once great city of Cormanthor, or the Baldurians of Baldur's Gate despite his lack of insider credentials. "I've been a gamer since sixth grade, so I was quite familiar with the Realms, having played in the setting as both player and Dungeon Master," says Kemp. "These days I mostly DM for the same group of buddies I've gamed with for twenty years. This makes us grognards. And old. And possibly pathetic."

After accepting the invitation to add their voices to the Forgotten Realms collective, Kemp and Cordell hunkered down to chart the course of the adventures each had in mind. "I wrote an intro for each character, about a paragraph," explains Cordell. "I also wrote a chapter by chapter outline, where I specifically described what would happen in each chapter [consisting of] a large paragraph or two. Writing the outline required I take a week off work and concentrate on the outline to the exclusion of all else. For me, this is where the heavy lifting occurs."

Even a world as diverse as the Forgotten Realms will seem bland without interesting characters. Given Ed Greenwood's careful crafting of a world that became a staple in the D&D universe, one might think that Wizards would enforce copious boundaries in the creation of characters both major and minor. In that case, one would be wrong.

"I created my own protagonist: Erevis Cale, assassin and spy," says Kemp. "The only preexisting fact for which I needed to account was that he was the butler/majordomo for a powerful merchant family, and that isn't really much of a constraint. One of the common misunderstandings about writing shared world or tie-in fiction is that it places enormous creative shackles on the authors. That might be so in some lines or with some properties, but it's not the case with the Forgotten Realms. Yes, there's an underlying setting, but it's so flexible that it's a simple matter to tell the story I want to tell in the way I want to tell it."

"Imagination was the limit," agrees Cordell. "For my most recent novel, Plague of Spells, I followed my usual habit of bringing forward one character from a previous novel and making that character the new main character--Raidon Kane in this case. The other characters came to me as I sat during my week of outlining, as outlines first, that became more fully fleshed out by the end of the process. Of course, the moment you begin writing a character, he or she takes on a life not imagined in the outline, which sometimes takes the stories in directions also not in the initial outline."

To aid in their planning, Kemp and Cordell received materials from Wizards that detailed information to keep in mind while still allowing the authors plenty of opportunity for creative freedom. "All the authors were provided with a series bible that contained some information on the realm of Sembia and the city of Selgaunt, where [my] stories would be set," says Kemp. "The bible included things like common turns of phrase, a list of the leading merchant families, that kind of thing. In general, writing in the Realms means reading up on the available lore applicable to the subject matter/setting pertinent to your story. There's often far less than people imagine. At the time, there was nothing on Sembia other than the series bible. It had been left deliberately blank in the gaming materials--a place for individual DMs to develop on their own."

While the brunt of a story's direction is in the hands of the author, some projects do occasionally come with a short list of objectives that should be accomplished via any means the author sees fit. "For Lady of Poison, I had to feature someone who worshiped a god in the novel," says Cordell. "For Darkvision, [I needed] someone who practiced arcane magic, and for the Dungeons series, a suitably dungeon-like site. Really, pretty loose restrictions. For the Abolethic Sovereignty trilogy, I needed to cover what was up with the city of Xxiphu. But given Xxiphu was my creation in the game campaign guide, I was happy to be given the opportunity to write a novel trilogy about it by the publisher."

"With The Erevis Cale Trilogy, the stories simply needed to feature Cale and not result in the planet getting torched. Those are fairly broad parameters," says Kemp with a laugh. "The Twilight War Trilogy [also] needed to feature Cale but I needed to show how the Shadovar--an ancient, magical people with an affinity for darkness--took over a neighboring realm. The whys and wherefores were left to me entirely."

After receiving approval for the outline, the project is given a green light, and penning the story begins in earnest. Depending on the author's respective duties in his or her personal life and other professional capacities, writing schedules can fluctuate wildly. "I write as time allows and shoot for 1,000 to 1,500 good words per day," says Kemp.

"On regular days, I write about 500 words before going to work," says Cordell. "However, I usually end up missing days here and there, so at the end of the first draft, I take off work a couple weeks and finish up, which hopefully works out to be no more than 2,000 or so words a day--for City of Torment, it was 2,400 words a day for two weeks! Which, actually, proved to be some of my best writing on the book."

Over the course of crafting the story, authors are expected to meet explicit milestones set by Wizards in order to ensure a smooth pace from conception to publication. "Wizards Book Publishing sets very specific deadlines for outline, first draft, and second draft," explains Cordell. "If it's a first draft, the editor reads it over once to get an idea of what's going on, then again very closely with comments added. That commented manuscript, plus a separate document with uber-comments comes back to me. I incorporate all of that into my second draft. That goes back to editor, who may read it, send it to a copy editor, get it back and send it to a typesetter, get it back and send a copy to me so I can go through the thing one more time while the editor does the same. The editors say they end up reading each novel at least five times."

Certain special considerations add stipulations to the timeline. One exceptional case is an author requesting his or her protagonist's interaction with another author's character. So, what precautions and setup would be required if, for example, Erevis Cale wanted to go adventuring with R.A. Salvatore's Drizzt Do'Urden? "The general rule of thumb is that you get the other author’s permission and treat their characters with respect," says Kemp. "Were I to allow [such interaction], I would have the other author read the section in which their character appears and tweak as necessary to maintain consistency."

Like any process, writing a Forgotten Realms novel is not without its share of setbacks, yet the creative freedom granted by Wizards of the Coast encourages authors not to see setbacks as obstacles, but rather opportunities to tighten their stories. "Different books present different challenges, but I’ve never conceptualized any of those challenges as setbacks," says Kemp. "I do sometimes look at my first full-length novel and think – boy, I wish I could rewrite that now – but I think that’s typical of many authors. We grow in the craft over time, and something I wrote nine years ago is not at the level I write today. So it goes."

Once the process is complete, a sense of satisfaction at seeing one's work become part of the Forgotten Realms' cannon settles in--in addition to, one might imagine, an overwhelming desire for a nap. Paul Kemp and Bruce Cordell reflect on past and recent releases with fulfillment. "My most recent trilogy, The Twilight War, does a couple things of which I am proud," shares Kemp. "First, I think it presents an epic fantasy storyline without losing touch with its roots in sword and sorcery. Second, it has an unusually high number of point of view characters and I think I not only manage the number well, but provide each with an interesting and satisfying character arc."

For Cordell, whose Abolethic Sovereignty trilogy is just ramping up, the satisfaction of looking back on the project's writing was not coming up with the perfect conclusion, but the perfect segue -- and without a moment to spare. "The biggest triumph [in writing Plague of Spells] was coming up with the ending that perfectly set up the second book, City of Torment, literally during the final day of writing the first draft [of Plague of Spells]," says Cordell.

Since 1987, readers and gamers alike have enjoyed following the daring exploits of their favorite characters, as well as forging their own daring campaigns -- all thanks to the Realms' most attractive feature: "Its breadth," Kemp says simply. "There is something in the Realms that appeals to everyone."

"It really is a land of adventure that can contain hundreds of stories simultaneously," agrees Cordell. "Beyond that, Toril has been allowed to grow and develop; it hasn't remained a static world, and fans have been able to see that change through novels, and feel as if they were a part of those changes."

More than 20 years after Ed Greenwood opened his imagination to the masses, and dozens of books and player-created campaigns later, is there any nook or cranny left to explore? "I see it remaining an interesting, exciting place sprouting with ever more stories that grow one from the next," says Cordell. "New characters and some old will continue to stride the world achieving victories large and small. And readers will continue to enjoy peeking into those exploits via the written word -- and one hopes, electronic and audible word, too."


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