Petra McDonald & The Queen of the Fae

Publisher – Fox Spirit Books

Published – Out Now

Price - £7.99

Petra McDonald is a bisexual, pagan artist who lives and works on a small Scottish island. While in a trance, she paints a young girl who has been abducted by the Queen of the fae and it falls to Petra to save her.

She must travel to Faery, collect three items for the Queen, escape the sec spell of the Selkie prince and steal the loyalty of her fae guard.

Can she bring the child home before it’s too late?

Myths are timeless we are told but I tend to think the best myths where we get the opportunity to hold our own time and morals up against it and see where we are moving to. In this charming mix of modern adventure and ancient faerie story we get what I hope is the start of a new series of adventures reminding us of what hides underneath modern lands.

We follow Petra McDonald who has found on an unnamed Scottish island both a shelter and a way to live her life the way she has wanted to. As well as following her wish to be an artist she has found that this island offers a way for her to practise her pagan beliefs in the service of the Goddess Brighid but unexpectedly one painting trance shows a girl in what appears to be mortal terror. Petra finds her Goddess has recommended her to the Goddess of Warriors the Morrigan who has decided Petra is best fitted to finding the girl stolen by the Fae. After finding that Goddesses never give up Petra decides to seek out the land of the fae and discover what is really going on.

What follows as Petra meets the fae in some ways is a familiar path – The Fae Queen wants three mysteriously unobtainable items to perform a great spell and Petra plus her fae guard Valerian must journey to other parts of the magical land and perform certain tasks to find the items. These tales involving banshees, selkies and other creatures from pagan mythology on the one hand will remind you of older tales but I think the key to the story is Petra brings modern sensibilities – she offers morality about the value of life; consent and serving the greater good all remind us that the world has moved on and Kinsella has added a suspicion that even the Fae are not above seeking some changes.

And while elements of the tale are ancient Kinsella has a really nice flowing style that really does bring the tale to life. The horror of a girl trapped by spiders with human faces to the mysteries of crows who surround you in a circle mean this is a story with a very close link to nature and there is that sense of a pace underneath the world as we know it just on the edge where time passes differently. While the story has a clear ending there are enough signs that Petra is only just beginning to find a new role and purpose and I will be very keen to see what other mysteries need to be unravelled.

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Rosewater by Tade Thompson

Publisher – Orbit

Published – Out Now

Price – £8.99

I am very grateful for the publisher providing me with an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review

Nigeria, 2066 The hopeful and the helpless congregate around an alien biodome, seeking salvation.

Rosewater is a town on the edge.

Science fiction and mysteries do tend to go together. From the simple stories of Asimov’s robots to the urban fantasy genre’s many detectives many novels explore how either science or magic can further complicate a mystery beyond the rational world (plus it’s more fun to think of the impossible Mr Holmes).  In this fantastic novel Tade Thompson provides the reader with an intriguing thriller set in the future, merging telepathy with alien first contact in a web of multiple plotlines that you will completely want to unravel and discover the real cause of all these events lying in the heart of Rosewater.

In 2066 Rosewater is one of the most advanced cities in Nigeria a centre of scientific discovery where an alien presence has for the last ten years been slowly observed by the government and a magnet for so many people wanting to change their lives. This is the alien’s third arrival on Earth and this time takes the form of a biodome that annually opens a portal releasing a mysterious energy that can heal the sick or even make the dead return mindless and violent.  The world is on the brink of China and Russia battling for power as the US many years ago mysteriously vanished after the first sign of alien life was discovered in 2012.

Most surprisingly telepaths have moved from myth to a valued resource that governments are seeking to use for their own ends from bank security to espionage. The world is on the edge of a change, but no one seems clear on exactly what nor if the change is welcome. In Rosewater one of the most powerful telepaths is Kaaro who for all his life has had several interactions at key moments in the city’s short history ever since its creation.  His latest mission doesn’t go to plan but reveals that telepaths are under threat and mysterious presences in the telepath mindscape seem to want Kaaro for their own purposes.

This novel is an amazing puzzle box where all these mysteries are outlined and through Kaaro’s narration we see two sides of the city. In 2066 Kaaro is a reserved cynical but ultra-confident agent but in his youth, he was an arrogant thief using his powers for his own gain – because of his talents the government soon realises he could be the clue to finding a mysterious woman who disappear in thin air Kaaro’s mission however made him end up staying for the rest of his life. Rosewater offers him immense opportunities but also unfinished business. Through the narration of his younger and older selves we slowly piece together what exactly is Kaaro’s role in what is turning to be a deadly game for so many people he has been involved with. There is clever mechanism in rotating chapters seeding the plots of both past and future until there is a final conclusion explaining how these two parts of his life are tied together at last.

I think Tade Thompson has achieved that perfect balance of inventive ideas, character and plot. The old SF trope of telepathy is given a refreshingly new rational cause which really suits it’s 21st century setting when you find the cause; the exploration of what a telepath is capable of and what uses they would serve is both smart and terrifyingly plausible and this is really achieved through the way we see Kaaro. Because of the time jumps we get the young know it all who is living on his wits and then through the experiences we are about to discover we get an older more guarded and hurt Kaaro who while keen to judge the guy he used to be is still recognisably the core of the same man  - prone to take the harder path and not going to obey the rules if he thinks its not in his interests. He’s engaging but flawed and its good to see the book recognises Kaaro’s sense of masculinity leads to mistakes that will haunt him. In fact, the initial factor that sets him on a better path is the revelation that there is a larger telepath population out there who provide him shelter and in one very touching scene a warning that his is very close to making the same mistakes another telepath made which really does change his life. SF thrillers can tend towards the clinical, but this book offers surprising moments of tenderness and introspection that invests you in Kaaro’s story and potential for redemption.

Rosewater is one of the most intriguing science fiction novels I’ve read this year; it’s a classic noir plot set in a future world but its beautifully thought out in terms of worldbuilding as we see how this alternate 21st century grew into existence and where it’s going – all of which sounds plausible to our eyes. It is also refreshing to see a SF world that doesn’t resemble New York and a reminder that aliens are perhaps unlikely to miss one the largest continents on the planet in favour of the centre of Hollywood. Overall if you enjoy getting under the skin of a great thriller and see how the future can offer both horrors and wonders.  This is definitely a book you should be looking to snap up as one of the best reads of the year.  I very much look forward to seeing what other tales Thompson has to tell.

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The Red Magician by Lisa Goldstein

Publisher – Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy

Published – Out Now

Price - £5.62 kindle eBook

This was the September choice for the #TheLadyVaults reading group started by Elizabeth of the excellent book blog Books n Pieces. The reding group can be found on social media with the hashtag and on GoodReads in the Groups.  The aim is to reads SF & Fantasy works by women that over 15 years old. Please Join in!!

On the eve of World War II, a wandering magician comes to a small Hungarian village prophesying death and destruction. Eleven-year-old Kicsi believes Voros and attempts to aid him in protecting the village. But the local rabbi, who possesses magical powers, insists that the village is safe, and frustrates Voros’ attempts to transport them all to safety. Then the Nazis comes and the world changes…

 The worst part of a nightmare is knowing what is about to happen and finding you’re powerless to stop it. You see it coming, closer, closer and then blam its upon you. But after a horrific experience the next question you’ll ask yourself “what am I supposed to do next?” and “Should I even bother carrying on?”.  In this superb children’s story, the real nightmares of the Holocaust are explored while the reader is focused on an independent young girl and her charming family in 1940’s Hungary.

The story is on one level very simple Kicsi is the young independent daughter of a wealthy printer finds herself embroiled in a battle between two magicians.  The respected and very traditional Rabbi of the village and a mysterious newcomer named Voros who is clearly powerful but seems to be wary of something on the horizon.  Initially it seems a clash of old versus new ways of viewing the world but then you realise this is Hungary in the 1940s and the Nazis are on the move towards the Jewish population of the village. Voros warns the town of an unimaginable horror and Kicsi dreams of a man with no teeth driving towards her family.  Into this we start an ongoing battle between magicians that involves golems, ghosts and curses. The rabbi feels Voros is endangering the peace of the village with his dangerous ideas and Kicsi finds him offering a way of life very different to those her family believe she will follow.

As we have the advantage of history we understand (particularly as adults) exactly what the threat is, and the question is can this be avoided for her family.  It’s a building of tension particularly as the early chapters of the book paint this charming village life and amazingly vivid world of Jewish traditions, folklore and magics. The storm is threatening to destroy all of this and Voros seems to awaken special abilities within Kicsi who seems to almost act as an apprentice at first. But importantly the magic doesn’t save Kicsi – she and her family are rounded up and herded to a concentration camp. There is no magical cheat applied - which is completely the correct choice for this kind of story.  I feel this is an important point for you to know as the scenes in there are while not explicit make it very clear what happens to those Nazis feel are worthless. The brutalisation of the amazing clever teenager we have spent time with makes this part of the book heart-breaking but it’s a beautifully tragic piece of writing that haunted me weeks after finishing the tale.  You can argue in this section Kicsi loses agency as the events happen to her, but I think this is intentional many amazing bright lives were destroyed by this period where the power of the regime swept away all they felt to be unhuman.

The final part of the book though is very, much focused on survivors. Kicsi is separated from her village and her family and has been almost destroyed by her experiences. This final section of the book both wraps up the battle of the two magicians and asks a question about how on earth you’re supposed to carry on and if you do is it a path of anger or forgiveness or something else. In this Kicsi who herself has seen so much and been hurt so much must decide how she will aid Voros in his final battle with the furious Rabbi. It’s an ending mixing the scariest ghosts of Jewish folklore and yet also an unexpected debate on hope and revenge.

This was a short but very powerful read and I found myself totally immersed in the world. Its beautifully put together and I think even adult readers would appreciate the mix of fairy-tale and review of one of our worst periods in human history but examines how those who survive the horrors of humanity can decide their own future paths. An excellent read.

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The Week (OK Month) in Womble aka Its a Picard Enough Life

Hellooo!!

Shorter update as you’ll note I was not largely around the last month.  The impact of my uncle’s death and helping organise a funeral and a few other things like sorting out belongings stirred a lot of stuff up and my brain was pretty much focused on that.  Reading was only a few pages after work and then sleep followed. Funerals really do help sometimes put a sense of closure to that and after a little bit of time to see family I feel a lot more relaxed that I have a for a while. I had to put quite a few heavier reads down for a while as I was not really in the right place for two many tales of pain and loss.

Relaxing in Spaccceeeeee

At times like this comfort televise was sought and this turned out to be watching a lot of very early Star Trek - The Next Generation. While the quality of these early stories is often low there was something incredibly relaxing settling back into this weird found family and watch a crew/cast start to bond.  Yes, Riker in those days is awful but Patrick Stewart really does make Picard seem a genuine person (and so so soothing as a grown up) and was already a much better model for masculinity than James Kirk (or for that matter William Shatner). Its been a while since I’ve seen the show which is good to watch a story and not remember what is going to happen but at the same time I’m watching a huge example of suck it and see writing as you get the feeling there is a great idea here but not sure how it needs to work.  My suspicion its when the show went slightly outside the remit of what Gene Roddenbury was demanding that we got the better stories with a tad more bite to them. Very much looking forward to the rest of the journey

I think it would be well worth your time to read my friend Ric Crossman (@squidfromspace) who has a column in the Geek Syndicate website comparing all the episodes of Trek series against each other – it’s a fascinating cultural voyage http://geeksyndicate.co.uk/features/infinite-diversity-finite-combinations-4-1-13-maps-and-legends/

 

The Lady Vaults

Weirdly though it was The Red Magician for the #LadyVaults I read last month in small doses that read this month that while quite a harrowing story grabbed me and dealing with grief in the story helped.

I really enjoy the vlogs of Elizabeth of the BooksAndPieces channel (on twitter at @Books_Pieces especially for her enthusiasm for books, great analysis of the genre’s history and its way forward as well as so many good book recommendations.  She’s announced a new monthly readalong focusing on books by women authors from over 15 years ago. Last month the readalong which can be found on Goodreads started with The Red Magician by Lisa Goldstein or on Twitter #LadyVaults.  Really looking forward to finding new stories and taking part in the discussion.  I think this will be a fascinating journey – I didn’t read much contemporary stuff in the 80’s and 90’s my library seemed to just have the older doorstep trilogies of certain big-name white male authors at the time and I could not get into them so finding out the good stuff I’ve missed is always welcome.  I’ve noticed quite a few reviewers lament that women who were once bestsellers in the 90’s appears airbrushed out of history so finding those authors is something I am planning to do a lot of! This month it’s the short stories of James Tiptree Jr contained in the collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.

Other Media

Television – The Good Place is back!!! One of the smartest and kindest comedies out there which I cannot really say a lot about without spoiling it for you.  A woman wakes up in the afterlife by accident and tries to work out how to avoid Hell. Superb cast and humour with added philosophy and examination of morality

Films – This month was rubbish I don’t think I saw a single one?  Any recommendations?

Podcasts – Audio shows I feel hugely relaxing when stressed so I played catch up on three shows I can recommend

99% Invisible – a show about design that covers everything from clothes to adverts. Always an interesting story and very good at explaining the social history that a design or choice can operate in.

The Coode Street Podcast – this is a SF& Fantasy podcast usually involving Gary K Wolf and Jonathan Strahan discussing authors, books or trends in SF. While occasionally it does have two white men of a certain age making it clear they are two white men of a certain age they are pleasantly ready to accept their own biases and often have a desire to see the genre wake up to its flaws and move on

Breaking the Glass Slipper – the three hosts Charlotte Bond, Megan Leigh and Lucy Hounsom explore the genre from a feminist perspective and challenge some of the stereotypes in the genre and explore authors and tropes. Really refreshing and this last few weeks I was listening female characters in books are written, interviews with Vic James, Catriona Ward and Anna Smith Spark – strongly recommended!

What I read (a light month)

-          Doctor Who Twice Upon A Time by Paul Cornell – a nice simple Target style retelling of Capaldi’s swansong

-          Saga Vol 9 by Brian K Vaughan and artwork by Fiona Staples - ahem OMG that ending and I’ve a year to wait???? Ahem

-          Monstress Volume 3 – written by Marjorie M Liu and Art by Sana Takeda – a weird almost Final Fantasy style tale of human, demons and those who appear t have animal powers/features. The wider story yet to be fully revealed and its enchanting and the art is Amazing!!

-          Sourdough by Robin Sloan- an everyday tale of a young software designer and a malevolent sourdough mixture – it has a lot of heart and I think will be reviewed soon

-          The Tower of Living and Dying by Anna Smith Spark – I think this is a an impressive instalment in a great fantasy trilogy – review should be below this blog – had to put it down but was very glad to get sucked back into this world.

What I want to read next (time to catch up!)

-          Rosewater by Tade Thompson – fascinating SF tale and review to come very soon next week

-          Darksoul by Anna Stephens – the sequel to another one of my favourite debuts Godblind

-          Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik – I loved Uprooted and read the novella version of the tale earlier this year.  This goes in a different direction so think it sounds just what I need

-          Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames – I want to catch up on this which I heard many good things about and I understand there is humour and that’s what I will need next week

-          Burning Sky by Weston Ochse – an action SF tale about something strange happening to veterans

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The Tower of Living and Dying by Anna Smith Spark

I’m very grateful to the author for an advance copy of this novel

Publisher – Harper Voyager

Published – Out Now

Price - £14.99 (Hardcover)

King of Ruin, King of Dust and Shadows, King of Death, He Will Rule All, The King is Coming

Marith Altrersyr – father-killer, dragonlord, leader of the blood-soaked Amrath Army – is keeping his promises. He is determined to become King of all Irlast and take back the seat of his ancestors.

Only Thalia, once high priestess of the Lord of Le Empire, might stop Marith and his army’s deadly march. But she is torn between two destinies – and if she was to return home, what would she find there? A city on the brink of ruin: diseased, despairing, dying?

Crawling through a tunnel deep under the ruins of her city, Landra Relast vows vengeance. Her family has been burned, her home destroyed, and now Marith – once her betrothed – must die.

But as Landra cuts through the wasteland left in the wake of Marith’s army, she finds that she is not the only one who wishes him ill…

Warning – some spoilers for The Court of Broken Knives will be mentioned

At the start of this year I was engrossed and ultimately very impressed by the debut instalment of this trilogy – The Court of Broken Knives. What starts with mercenaries hired to kill an Emperor suddenly revealed that a young man named Marith was a long-lost drug-addled royal heir who by chance suddenly rediscovered his desire to take back his crown alongside awaken an immensely violent bloodlust. He falls in love with the High Priestess of Sorlost Thalia who runs away with him on his journey while in Sorlost the man who hired his mercenaries to bring about change instead finds himself very much supporting the corrupt powers he had planned to overthrow. A key factor for me in the success of this novel was the writing of Smith Spark herself – vivid, poetical and powerful it really stood out from other entries into Grimdark territory as something refreshingly different. I’m very pleased to find that the sequel is even stronger and just as enticing.

While Marith was often seen more as aside for much of the first novel as his secret became a key mystery now we focus very much on his quest for ruling the world. The first section of the book follows the death of his father and his decision to move onto attacking his own kingdom and family. Thalia stands as a watcher to these events and it is an absolutely a stunning opening with an invasion of a town via ships at sea. It’s a beautifully whirl of action and pain – from the pageantry and cruelty of sacrificing animals for some form of moral advantages to eventual war at sea with no glamour or heroics just two armies fighting to stay alive. Once finally arriving ashore to take control the question for Marith is ‘what’s next?’ and slowly Marith follows the path of his infamous and dangerous ancestor Amarath marching across the other Kingdoms. Meanwhile in Sorlost Orshan is finding that he is under of suspicion for the various deaths that mysteriously coincided with the mercenary attack and the shifts in power towards him may have consequences for all he cares about and wants to protect.

Alongside these two main plot points we now have two new viewpoints. The mercenary Tobias who indirectly led to Marith being able to seize power again meets up with Landra relast the woman who decided to trigger Marith’s capture and then saw her plans for revenge end in ruin for everyone she knew. These two begin to explore if Marith can be stopped before he causes much more harm. While in Sorlost we start to see the world less from nobles and priestesses but also those who serve them as we see how one of Orshan’s servants gets treated after an attack on his home.

There is a lot going on in this novel and its finely balanced to see what is increasingly looking like two sides getting closer to come form of confrontation. Sorlost is a decadent power that seems to have forgotten the basics of rule in favour of protecting elites. Marith seems to be on a quest to recover all the lands that his ancestor had but at the same time take revenge on all other lands. In the first novel I noticed that for all the main characters the theme seemed to be that the societies that they came from influenced their decisions even when they seemed to be the wrong ones.  Marith in particular is an example of toxic masculinity at its worst – while undoubtably clever and can be charming his family upbringing and court politics led relatives and hangers on to heavily influence who he must be but ultimately, he decides to carry on because he feels this is what he is entitled to. While Thalia would have been happy with a simple home Marith wants everything now - a deeply scary character who you’re never sure what he will do next nor if he can be stopped.

A second theme here is that sometimes even when after seeing the results of their actions these characters all decide it will be better to plough on despite the likely consequences. Its tragic seeing those who clearly have interests of others at heart deciding to keep taking the path of most harm.  There is a chilling insight into humanity one character makes that most of these people who support these sides have decided to do so much harm to others not because of some invisible magical force Marith exudes but because a nihilistic and violent march to crush the world is deep down what they’ve always wanted.

Powering all of this is Smith Spark’s writing and I am definitely impressed how this has grown stronger in the novel. The first novel was often small scenes of intrigue or one on fighting but now we get whole vistas of battles, city riots and cities turning to ruin. There is a general feeling of a world ending possibly for the last time. Its beautifully dark poetry and while equally happy to go for blood and guts when needed the whole book has an epic feel to it and this time we get a stronger feeling of the magical forces in this world. As well as battle mages used in law and small enchantments there are hints of a larger battle between light and dark underway.

I think this is best described as High Fantasy Grimdark. We are seeing the classic story of two ancient empires battling out but this time the focus is on the people impacted and unlike standard Grimdark which always focuses on the front line this novel looks at those in charge making these frequently awful decisions and knowing the results will be deadly for many. Deciding you want to take over the rule of a country or safeguard your self after evading death is often in fantasy seen as noble and heroic and this novel reminds us of what happens to people other than the hero.  This all points to a very impressive showdown in the final book and I cannot wait to see where we go next - although I suspect it will hurt.

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Starfang - Will of the Clan by Joyce Chng

Publisher – Fox Spirit Books

Published – Out Now

Price – £7.99 paperback £TBC ebook

The sudden appearance of the enigmatic jukka adds another layer of intrigue and peril to Captain Francesca Ming Yue’s already shaky game with the shishini. The threat of galactic war with a mysterious force looms. Will the clans gather? Francesca must keep her wits about her, unite all the clans and fight. In this stunning conclusion of the trilogy, the fate of the wolf clans, shishini and jukka will be decided in a final battle. Will the will of the clans prevail?

Space Opera a bit like Musical Opera needs to have a powerful last act.  In place of an an aria we often instead get the infinitely cooler space battle and literally world breaking events.  It’s great to say that the final volume in the Starfang series really does deliver this in spades still with added werewolves and should have you cheering for an encore.

In the last instalment of this trilogy our Clan Captain Francesca Min Yue was piecing together the mystery of how her nemesis and rival captain Yeung Leung had appeared to take over an entire alien species’ home world when her ship was surprised by a starship appearing out of nowhere directly in front of them. Very quickly we establish that this is a new alien race to discover the jukka – a mysterious hi-tech world where they are known to interfere in other world’s development for their own ends (that also resemble the classic Grays of countless SF legends). Francesca discovers that Yeung Leung has been going for the ultimate power grab by stealing technology from both Jukka and the reptilian shishini; but instead he appears to have become something even more powerful than a werewolf and now has set his sights on the elimination of all rival clans.

If the first volume was a classic revenge quest and the second was a variation on a first contact, then this final volume really goes for the aim of showing you of the scale of the galaxy that Chng has created. These three alien races plus the myriad Major and Minor rival clans of werewolves all have been vying for power for many years but now Yeung Leung has awakened a mythic power that all sides could be destroyed on. The jukka want to flee; the shishini are divided between both sides and the human/werewolves are divided.  Even Francesca’s clan leader parents are aghast at the idea of combined forces.  This is a tale where everything is on the line and you really get a vibe of a universe like Babylon 5’s with strange alien cultures and politics; mystical technologies and a sense that everything is on the line and pleasingly even the humanoids are shown to have flaws and prejudices that need to be fought.

Character wise we are once again being told the story by Francesca and this time it’s how she finally recovers from her capture and torture at Yeung Leung’s hands and her unique physic adventures into the minds of shishini rebels. She is no longer simply the loyal dutiful clan warrior we first met but someone prepared to take her own stand and fight for what she believes in.  More open minded than her clan is traditionally thought to be but still internally wracked by guilt that her forbidden relationship with her cousin April is both her motivation to live and her secret shame that she can’t follow her clan’s strict and ancient rules. There is a mirroring theme here of old world meeting a newer more progressive one not simply on matters of the heart but also challenging the view that each alien race must battle for supremacy rather than learn to co-operate with others. It gives the tale a heart as we see characters prepare for their final battle and really powers the final few chapters in surprising ways.

The final element I think makes this a fine read is the sense of life beyond space battles.  We return to the Black Talon’s base Noah’s Ark and this time we see snapshots of life below the stars.  This can be simple celebrations such as the New Year where paper lanterns carry your wishes to the sky or even fishing for oysters in the sea as well as characters exploring ancient poetry and what it says to them. This all gives the universe a depth - that sense of traditional and heart.  This is what the Talons ultimately fight to preserve not power but their family, friends and way of life. Sometimes in an epic we need a quieter song to set the mood just as much as we need the big stage number that brings the house down.

Overall, I’ve been really impressed with these tales. There are hints of a wider universe I’d love to see even more of in the future and I think that a reader is now able to take all three tales at once may be the best way to power through all the different types of adventures and appreciate the growth not just of Francesca but her wider clan. As always come here for the werewolves and then stay for a great slice of SF adventure.

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The Week in Womble - The Rock and a Hard Place

Hellooo!!

Quick update - this week been strange as we’ve had an unexpected death in the family. A relative who when I was a kid introduced me to Star Trek, Doctor Who and Horror Films but as I got older we went very separate ways.  Lots of memories and stuff flying around my head now but it’s always to focus on the good memories but I think next couple of weeks will be strange as we have a bit to sort out in the family. Thanks for the good wishes and kind messages received this week - much appreciated.

The Lady Vaults

I really enjoy the vlogs of Elizabeth of the BooksAndPieces channel (on twitter at @Books_Pieces especially for her enthusiasm for books, great analysis of the genre’s history and its way forward as well as so many good book recommendations.  This week she’s announced a new monthly readalong focusing on books by women authors from mat least 10-15 years. This month the readalong which can be found on Goodreads starting with The Red Magician by Lisa Goldstein or on Twitter #LadyVaults.  Really looking forward to finding new stories and taking part in the discussion.  I think this will be a fascinating journey – I didn’t read much contemporary stuff in the 80’s and 90’s my library seemed to just have the older doorstep trilogies of certain big-name white male authors at the time and I could not get into them so finding out the good stuff I’ve missed is always welcome.

Worldbuilding

There is a slightly different interview with the great N K Jemisin I’ve been gripped by this week as the podcast host Ezra Klein does an 80-minute worldbuilding exercise with Jemisin based around a similar thing she does with her students.  Although I am not a writer I really found how she took the idea of the world and its core geography to create cultures, politics and economies absolutely amazing – authors are magical people!  This then leads to a great discussion of what world building can do in terms of opening our eyes up to how our own world works.  Really worth a listen at the link below

https://www.vox.com/2018/8/27/17779026/ezra-klein-show-book-recommendations-n-k-jemisin-broken-earth-hugo-award

Other Media

Television – I’m in a comfort watch mode so this week the big one has been Season 4 of Leverage. This is one of my favourites and is a tale where a group of con artists and thieves decide to help people in need.  The pilot episode introducing everyone is one of the smartest pilots I’ve seen, and the cons are slick, fast and clever. But the big draw is the found family aspect that evolved as these all slightly flawed but loveable people learn from each other.  Lots of heart, humour and an amazing amount of SF in-jokes/guest stars you can watch out for. Bad guys really do make the best good guys!

Films – At the Movies I saw Ant-Man and The Wasp and it was…. ok I guess.  I really enjoyed the smaller scale of it – focusing on a rescue mission rather than the fate of the world but at the same time it felt unusually mechanical for a Marvel film. The action sequences and the emotional beats were all what I expected but no big surprises and my main issue was a lot of the drama would have been stopped if people had actually chatted for five minutes. Its diverting but doesn’t stick in the memory.

The Jumanji remake however was a lot more fun. I’ve not seen the original (I knowww) but four teens are plunged into a video game and turned into action movie characters such as Dwayne Johnson or Karen Gillan actually I thought was pleasantly subversive about how teens always want to be fitter, stronger sexier and play to ridiculous icons/templates you cannot be.  It had heart and laughs, and Jack Black was funny again.

Also saw Rampage (yes I appear to have had a Dwayne Johnson double bill) which is what you would expect when an evil corporation releases a mutant virus that grows creatures into those of incredible size. The monster versus humans versus monsters aspect is all very standard action but the fun bits are the character moments. In particular really hard not see the bromance between Dwayne Johnson’s primate specialist and Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s sinister Man In Black as just total flirting.  I was less impressed with how little they gave Naomi Harris to do but it’s a fun movie with a great few unexpected twists.

Podcasts – I finished the last half of Zig Zag and less comfortable with the focus on the CVL crypto-currency and subscription service.  It felt at times slightly more advertorial than newsworthy, but I will be intrigued how season 2 works as my impression is that the idea of funding by such a currency is not really taking off yet.

What I read

-          The magnificent Age of Assassins by RJ Barker (reader I swooned at how good this trilogy is and how this wraps the whole thing up in a beautiful bow decorated with antlers) – see below for the review!!

-          Currently reading the beautifully terrifying The Tower of Living and Dying by Anna Smith Spark I’m intrigued where this story is going

What I want to read next

-          Darksoul by Anna Stephens – the sequel to another one of my favourite debuts Godblind

-          Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik – I loved Uprooted and read the novella version of the tale earlier this year.  This goes in a different direction so think it sounds just what I need

-          Kings of the Wyld/Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames – I want to catch up on this which I heard many good things about and I understand there is humour and that’s what I will need next week

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King of Assassins by R J Barker

I am very grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Orbit

Price – £9.99

Published – Out Now

The King is Dead, Long Live the King…

Many years of peace have passed in Maniyadoc – years of relative calm for the assassin Girton Club-Foot. Even the Forgetting Plague, which ravaged the rest of the kingdoms, seemed to pass them by. But now Rufra ap Vythr eyes the High King’s throne and will take the court to the capital, a rat’s nest of intrigue and betrayal. There the endgame of twenty of politics and murder will be played out in his bid to become the King of all Kings. Friends will become enemies, enemies will become friends and the god of death, Xus the Unseen, stands closer than ever – casting his shadow over everything most dear to Girton.

Warning – there will be spoilers for those of you yet to have read either Age of Assassins or Blood of Assassins

There is a theory that in comedy the number three turns up because it’s the earliest possible time that you can tell a sequence and on the third time wrongfoot the reader. In the last of RJ Barker’s Wounded Kingdom trilogy, we as the author have got used to the lives of the assassin Girton Club Foot and his best friend King Rufra in Castle Maniyadoc in stories that are intriguing mixes of epic fantasy, political thriller and murder mystery. But ever since the very end of Age of Assassins when we were abruptly warned that we were actually hearing Girton’s confessions there was a niggling suspicion that things would end in a much darker place and now we have arrived at that destination and everything we learnt and assumed over the previous books needs to be rethought because this is the end of one amazing trilogy.

We arrive nearly two decades after the end of Blood of Assassins and there have been many changes since young Rufra ap Vyrthr won his throne after the Battle of the Three Kings. He has brought peaceful democratic changes to his subjects; married twice and now has young children. His former foe Aydor is now a trusted warrior and finally he is protected by his best friend Girton who has moved on from being an angry headstrong warrior to now both his sworn protector, his Death’s Jester (think a mixture of priest/storyteller) and behind the scenes his assassin to deal more subtly with threats to his rule. Their Kingdom is strong but Rufra has now been focusing his attention on the centre of the Tired Lands and with the death of the previous ruthless High King then Rufra moves his key family and warriors to Castle Ceadoc to begin the horse-trading with other Kings and interested parties to become the ruler of everything. Girton meanwhile has just lost a close friend during one assassination attempt on Rufra’s family and now he follows Rufra suspecting his skilled and dangerous opponent lurks in the shadows ready for a rematch. Everything is primed for a final reckoning.

After reading the previous entries you start to feel off-balance reading this novel. We’re now used to the lands and customs of Maniyadoc but suddenly we have moved into Castle Ceadoc is a very different kind of environment – Rufra is shown to be just one faction in a much larger fight for power; other Kings, the mysterious powers that runs the Kingdom; the Landsmen who are sworn to eliminate magic and on the edge the cult known as the Children of Xus. Old foes are returning, and new ones are also revealing themselves at last. Whereas previously Rufra’s sense of justice and idealism were strengths to bring people under his banner here they are perceived as dangerous weaknesses preventing his support. This time the stakes are high as whoever gains power could cause issues for Rufra too if he fails.  Its an interesting theme that the closer you get to ultimate power then you may have to start sacrificing some ideals to make the alliances and secure your own agenda – will you be the same person you set out to be?  Are there always going to be deep seated interests that while they accept the rile of a King re far more comfortable having the power in the shadows to keep the status quo continuing ever onwards?

Tension is constantly escalating in this story with fracturing friendships and grasps for power. A big key to how that is achieved is Castle Ceadoc itself…this environment constantly feels wrong. You will see the title of the Wounded Kingdom in a very different sense after this story.  Larger than anywhere else we have seen previously the impression is of a huge sprawling castle of uneven floors; vast towers; narrow winding corridors and hidden depths and terrors luring underneath while everyone is watched by massive statues of the dead gods and other threats lurking in shadows. Girton himself finds his magical abilities abruptly curtailed and everyone feels on edge with a sense that someone or something is watching their every move and preparing their attacks. The pressure mounts and mounts and slowly the strategies of their enemy are revealed who unusually seems to know our main characters and their weaknesses unusually well.

But the focus of the trilogy has been on Girton.  We are used to Girton being the outsider in the shadows and hiding his talents each time in a different disguise but this time we have him up front and centre in the court (albeit now dressed in the costume and make up of Death’s Jester so much that most people don’t recognise him without his costume). Rufra’s family and troops know him as a cunning warrior and his reputation as an assassin is now pretty much an open secret. He is comfortable in his skin; still funny but less prone to anger and fear than we’ve seen before but also feeling the first signs of middle age in his strength and speed. An intriguing development is that due to his prowess Assassins are once again in fashion across the Lands and Girton is both held in esteem and viewed as a great target to test your skills against. It’s however much much harder to investigate a murder and conspiracy when you’re so famous and everyone wants to meet you and test you are as good as they hear! At the same time Rufra’s focus on absolute power is starting to run against Girton’s sense of fairness and the two are more likely to fight than agree. All the things we are used to are out of sync…suggesting the centre cannot hold for much longer. Particularly as the one secret Girtin is still hiding is that he is a sorcerer and the one thing Rufra will not accept is magic. Discovery of his last secret means death at the hands of his oldest friend.

Surrounding him and often the heart of the book is the relationships Girton has developed with Merela and Aydor. Merela the woman who found Girton as a child has been a mystery for much of the story.  For the first time we see where she comes from and what drove her into becoming an assassin; her motives and journey with Girton need to be reviewed in the light of these revelations. Aydor however has moved from being the bully we loved to hate to the loveable bear of man who in learning to give up power can offer Girton a refreshingly honest opinion as well as being able to deflate his tendency for the dramatic. Because we’ve journeyed with these two and know how much they now mean their arcs in this story provide the emotional depth and concern as to where they will feature in this final adventure.

The overall feeling you get is we are heading for a mighty climax and Barker has done this skilfully; by the time we enter the final few chapters a scene where characters simply walk up steps slowly is physically and emotionally pounding with a sense that all hell is about to break loose when the final step is loose. We are plunged into kinetic fight scenes where we feel every blow; treated to the assassins’ dangerous moves and this time particularly as Girton has embraced his role as an assassin he can when needed create an air of theatricality he uses to terrify and surprise his targets that is delightful just as much as it makes you cheer him on. This time though there is a stronger mythic element to the story previously only hinted at as the focus on the Children of Xus and their very different worship of the God of Death means Girton starts to find himself key to a much more mysterious plan; in scenes both fairy simple but incredibly eerie hinting at something so much bigger under the surface of the physical world.

Having been a huge fan of this trilogy from the day I first opened the book I can say I categorically loved this finale. RJ Barker is proving himself to be one of the most interesting storytellers debuting in the UK and this trilogy is something I think all readers of fantasy need to read. The sequence is fresh, dazzling and most important of all it has emotional depth from the joys of triumph to the despair of loss and grief and seeing how the seeds of the wider story have been planted is a fantastic reading experience.  When I first reviewed RJ’s Age of Assassins I noted that we tend to think of Robin Hobb as our go to Assassin’s story. With the Wounded Kingdom and Girton Club-Foot RJ Barker has matched the story of FitzChivalry Farseer with a compelling lead character and amazingly detailed world perhaps one day there may be more tales about The Tired Lands but safe to say whatever novels await I will be reading them avidly.

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The Week in Womble

Hellooo!!

So, summer is over and the urge to turn on heating is rising.  Its been a strange old summer this year.  I was expecting before it began to be safely in a new home with more bookshelf and sadly after two buyers managed to mess things up I’m still in my old place.  House moving is stressful – doing it twice without moving is realllllly stressful. But third time lucky and then finally I can have some books unboxed (trying to make your home suitable for non-bookworms is awful!)

So apologies if content this summer has been sporadic I really can’t read a lot when stressed but I have managed to keep reading (just slowly) and one thing I want to do is get at least one review out a week from now on but I suspect you’ll get a bit more than that next month as I’ve a lot of review books outstanding. Colder days really suit reading and helpfully train companies work hard to make my commutes longer just to finish a few more chapters….bless em. One thing I thought I’d do more is a quick update on life and things I’ve been interested in.

Hugos

A very decent election of Hugo awards this week and for me the standout is N K Jemisin’s third Hugo for the Broken Earth trilogy. Its really set a high standard for what fantasy can achieve that all writers should aim for. If you’ve not seen her award acceptance speech check out this link

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8lFybhRxoVM

and promptly after that high a rather pathetic ‘golden age’ author decided to criticise the speech and her win (admitting he never had even bothered to read it).  The nice thing about such people is it helps me decide which authors I cannot be bothered to spend my precious time on.  Farewell Silverberg you won’t be in my TBR! For me Jemisin’s work and her speech capture what I think SF needs to aim for. I don’t think that is vulgar I think it’s awe-inspiring.  I so want to do a quick review on the series (which won our Subjective Chaos award) but when the books that good the review needs to be decent…

The Good Old Days

There has been an interesting debate in Who fandom where the latest Doctor Who monthly has a feature where much younger fans are watching the classics. There has been outrage that watching “The Talons of Weng Chiang” the team while saying it had its moments also had huge amounts of racism – this story very much borrows from the Fu Manchu stories where the villain is a stereotypical Asian man and the clichés keep on rising and on top of this most of the Asian roles are white actors using ‘yellow face’ (made up to resemble those from asia). Some older fans have said that’s not taking into account the times it was made in and putting such social commentary in reviews of these things ruins the experiences. You won’t be surprised to hear I say sod that to such fans. I suspect there were many people of colour feeling television in the day was racist back then but very few white people listened. I think reviewers of classic stories that want to focus on just the ‘story’ should be able to look at something from the past and say is this something really that speaks to us now? You can still say a show or book has some good and bad elements and if that means in 2018 a forty odd year story is now rightly seen as racist and problematic that I think a) shows us how much we have come and b) may mean that we can find better stories to recommend instead?  There are quite a few!

Other Media

Television – Yes, I’ve finally rediscovered television and two big things are popping up on my “To Watch” list. The Good Place (Netflix) where a woman arrives in Heaven by mistake and spends the series trying to hide it is not just both very funny and heartwarming but gives the viewer a fascinating tour through moral dilemmas and philosophy.  If you’ve not seen it - go ahead!! Then tweet me about it

I’m finally after having been spoiled multiple times braving Star Trek Discovery and overall nearly half way am enjoying a new take on Trek. My suspicion like the title is that this is where humanity discovers the actual message of the show/philosophy of Starfleet and the Federation.  There seems a running theme about war/isolationism and friendship/science and I’m intrigued where that is going…Don’t tweet me about this yet!!

Podcasts – On that has really grabbed me this week is Zig Zag where two women from public radio in the US have decided to create their own media company. I’d usually be switched off by business chats but this story is done really personally (the stresses on them and their families) but also takes in the fate of US journalism; capitalism; sexism and the new powers of silicon valley. I am about half way and I’m finding it very enlightening about why journalism is suffering so much and why social media tycoons scare the hell out of me

What I read

-          City of Lies by Sam Hawke – one of the best debuts this year – see below or the review!

-          The Might Captain Marvel Vol 2 – ah that annoying time when a Marvel series has to tie into the year’s arc….

-          Lumberjanes Vol 8 – Greek Gods, Gorgons and all the joy you need

What I want to read next

-          King Of Assassins by RJ Barker  - the final instalment of an amazing trilogy

-          The Tower of Living and Dying by Anna Smith Spark – one of my favourite debuts now tells me what happened next

-          Darksoul by Anna Stephens – the sequel to another one of my favourite debuts

City of Lies by Sam Hawke

I would like to thank the publisher for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Bantam Press

Price - £12.99 Hardcover

Published – Out Now

I was seven years old the first time my uncle poisoned me…

Only a handful of people in Silasta know Jovan’s real purpose in life. To most, he is just another son of the ruling class. The quiet, forgettable friend of the Chancellor’s charming, irresponsible heir. In reality, Jovan has been trained for most of his life to detect, concoct and withstand poisons in order to protect the ruling family. His sister Kalina is too frail to share in their secret family duty. While other women of the city hold positions of power and responsibility, her path is full of secrets and lies – some hidden even from her brother.

Until now peace has reigned in Silasta for hundreds of years. But when the Chancellor succumbs to an unknown poison and an army storms the gates, the so-called Bright City is completely unprepared. It falls to Jovan and Kalina to protect the heir and save their homeland – but first they must make their way through a new world of unexpected treachery, a world where the ancient spirits are rising…and angry

I do think we are getting into a great new period of fantasy; possibly seeing the next stage after the grimdark era develop.  Writers and their stories still fascinated by moral ambiguity but rather than simply the noir tales of everyone being violent and amoral there is a much more interesting examination of how societies create such people and how they work – perhaps like now everyone wants to know how did we get here?  Epic fantasy being able to examine a world is better placed than many genres to examine how countries work/slide into chaos. Into this picture comes a brilliant new debut from Sam Hawke with one of the most fascinating stories I’ve read this year.

Welcome to the concept of the Proofer – the person who tastes their employer’s food and looks out for dangers. In Silasta that has focused around the role of the ruling Chancellor and has been passed down the family line – all is ordered in a country known for its ingenuity, technology, art and trading far more than any desire to become a military empire. Very quickly though just as the young Jovan and the heir to the throne; Tain, come back from abroad they are plunged into a violent and dangerous situation along with Jovan’s sister Kalina.  The old Chancellor and Proofer are mysteriously poisoned in full sight of everyone; upon their unexpected deaths Jovan and Tain find themselves running a country just as a vicious and merciless army appear out of nowhere on the boundaries of the city and state they are here for its destruction and not it’s surrender. The young trio are finding themselves in positions of power they were not prepared for; with a likely traitor among their close advisors and with the first true military force the city has had to deal with in decades just as they sent their army to deal with issues in the mountains….

One of the things that grabs you about this story is the set-up and the characters who must deal with it. It’s a book of contrasts – we are used to fantasy worlds all being quasi-medieval filled to the brim with armies and here we have somewhere that reminds me a little of south or east Mediterranean realms A trading realm that is advanced in sciences and arts but has decided to focus on wealth rather than becoming an empire.  In many ways advanced with women in senior roles including military ones and even tolerance towards same sex relationships it’s not your typical environment and is a joy to discover how it works differently to our own world. What happens though when part of the country decides the Capital needs to go.  It’s a siege situation where the city is not used to warfare and doesn’t have much of an army in place.

This becomes a battle of wit versus strength. A key part in this are three roles of our two narrators Jovan and Kalina.  Either of whom also fall into the classic fantasy hero model. Jovan is the studious serious one thrust into the secret role of Proofer for the new Chancellor. He is studious, loyal and moral but he is also neuroatypical - stressed when events move out of control and can seriously disrupt his thought patterns and behaviours. He is plunged into a very unusual situation and needs to learn how to adapt (as do those who rely on him). His sister Kalina would have been the Proofer but an earlier test involving poisons either caused/enhanced what would appear to be a chronic fatigue condition that an endless siege and various needs to investigate the city’s factions and communities takes a toll not helped by everyone considering her the weaker child despite her equally intelligent study of science and politics. This makes the story really interesting an environment that our lead characters have an even steeper learning curve to battle and they can’t simply do the massive fight scenes many adventurers are known for. As it becomes very clear there is a traitor in the mix the plot has these apparently young and innocent teens having to go undercover and navigate the trickier political world to work out what exactly is going on - and as no one can be trusted this really makes the city scenes increasingly tense. But when armies attack and invade Hawke has a great eye for making the chaos and tactics of battle collide that you feel very exposed yourself in the heart of the action!

The final element is that this world is not one of absolutes. It’s a country where many groups came together to create a new way of doing things and over time as with so many places that worked well for some and not all. Jovan, Kalina and Tain by being thrust prematurely into the heart of government suddenly find out a lot more about how their world operates and we see the power of Guilds and the richest versus those who society tends to ignore.  And being in a relatively powerful privileged family are they always on the right side of events? It raises questions of democracy and tolerance that means the solutions required are not going to be easy ones. A debate over morality and how government should work is not something you usually see in a genre often fascinated with supreme kings and again this makes it a very unusual tale.

My reading time this month was unexpectedly curtained but stepping each time into this book and exploring the world was a delight. The story is never going for obvious plot and in doing so has created both a world and set of characters that really surprised me in the direction they took. I think fans of RJ Barker’s tales would enjoy this as it goes for a similar examination of a Kingdom although this one I would say focuses more as a political action thriller rather than purely a murder mystery. It’s the start of a new series which I am keen to read future instalments in. One of the most impressive debuts this year I’ve read and an author I will be watching out for with interest!

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Subjective Chaos Kind of Award - The Winners!

So, for the last few months our merry band of book bloggers have been whittling down our nominations carefully – the last month saw a scramble to read the books we didn’t manage in the first round and then a final debate.  It was fun and last Saturday in the bar at Nineworlds we announced the winners of our luxurious awards

THE WINNERS

Best Fantasy – Under The Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng

A tough section for the judges and we often were surprised that some choices exceeded our expectations but this Gothic tale of English Missionaries trying to convert the Fae was the winner by some distance. It’s haunting, surprising, unnerving and eerie.  It’s unusual idea and approach really stood out when people tend to focus on the epic fantasies.  A worthy winner and if you’ve not yet tried this you need to catch up.

We also got our first ever attendee to take their award in person!

Best Science Fiction – An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

A tale where a generational spaceship has turned into a hugely racist society with secrets being kept from people captured our attention.  It explores the consequences of prejudice and hatred and how that legacy affects every generation that follows.  Not an easy read but one that you’ll remember afterwards especially with its lead character who can be frustrating and amazing in equal measure.  I’m very much looking forward to reading more of Solomon’s work in the future.

Best Novella – The Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson

This was a superb and very painful category to read but then decide on a winner. The tale of a young woman who every time she bleeds creates a clone who wants to kill her takes a simple idea and just creates an entire life for Molly. The brutal mental and physical impacts of these attacks and question of identity make this a horror tale that doesn’t just go for nasty surprises but creeps under the skin. I’m intrigued what lies in the recently announced sequel.

Best Blurred Boundary – The Ninth Rain by Jen Williams

A category where we had a lot of latitude to define what boundaries were being blurred. This new trilogy from Williams gives us an epic fantasy landscape that is under attack from invaders from another world.  Magic and technology collide into a great mix. Its got verve, humour and in Vintage who is our middle-aged academic who wields a crossbow heroine one of the best new characters in SF. A novel that beats the Copper Cat Trilogy really set a high bar

Best Series – The Broken Earth by N K Jemisin

While the nominations were very good there was a unanimous vote for this series.  Personally, I think this is the best fantasy trilogy this decade – unique world building; brilliant characters; questions on morality, prejudice and resistance that are not easily answered, and the writing makes the story soar.  This is a series if you’ve not done it yet for it.

And that’s it!! As reading tends to be an insular experience having a group to discuss it was really entertaining and as all have differing takes it was great to have both new books recommended and be persuaded why some books needed more praise.  Hopefully we can do this again next year!

Next steps for me though after a recharge after Nineworlds and some life stuff is a big catch up on a review backlog the next few weeks and I think its time for version 2 of the blog to finally take shape.

Nineworlds 2018 - Part 2

Part 1.5!!

Yes, I missed a Friday panel off my notes yesterday! Doh!!

Problematic Aspects of Historical Fiction: What Do We Do About It? (Douglas Kohler, Olwen Lachowicz, Jeanette Ng, Ginger Lee Thomason)

Be it Margaret Cavendish or Mary Shelley who started modern SF Genre it is often startling to realise how few women are seen in the older ‘canon’ that so many in the field like to highlight. This panel examined the way we now interpret the classics. Dracula gets praised for being the first vampire story, but it raises questions of xenophobia and the treatment of women – the happily married quiet woman gets to live. With Lovecraft the panel highlighted his very blatant racism that used the primal fear of the other to promote his own views which was highlighted is still used today by right wing groups against immigrants. A disturbing proposal was that such groups now used the tools of horror stories to promote their racism to make their message more effective.

The panel challenged the idea that to fully understand a genre we must always go back to it. We are so many years now past Lovecraft that the idea of cosmic horror is so prevalent a new reader doesn’t need to go to go back to read him to understand it. It was clearly made that the onus is not purely on marginalised writers to take the lead in showing a better easy – that should be on all.  A good point was made by Jeannette Ng on gatekeeping that certain people set the template for the stories that got seen and read the most widely a powerful editor like Joseph Campbell who even friends called a crypto fascist made editorial decisions that set the template for future stories that would be submitted to be read in his magazines. Rather than see the past as a giant monolith if we can better understand that certain people and their biases/prejudices influences the shape of things then it’s easier to fight against their narratives. In a moment of joy as the panel summed up the need for us to move on to a better inclusive future the rather loud Disney Singalong next door went into Let It Go – this felt very very appropriate.

 

Part 2!!

So Last Day of a con is like the last bit of the marathon – you’re running on lack of sleep, vegetables and if you’re an introvert like me an unusual amount of people engagement that can mean you’re tired out so Day 3 of the convention is usually quite quieter and you start to notice as they day carries on people start to leave – it can be like Return of the King by the end of the day waving people off into the underground and then watch as the hotel moves from Geek Mode to the corporate convention starting the Monday.

Having last year not managing my spoons and work life balance I remembered this time not to do it all and managed well across the day

Sunday!!

Fiction About Fiction (Tanya Brown, Aliette de Bodard, Roz Kaverney, Jeanette Ng, Claire Rousseau)

This story talked about how the novels of the past influenced the novels of the future. Really interesting debates flowed, and topics ranged from how certain aspects of western culture can appear strange to those born outside of the UK to how the love of period 19th century dramas often focused on technical innovation but overlooked the rampant colonialism and appalling treatment of people of colour. There is a danger of romanticism that current writers sometimes need to tackle to remind us the past is not a fondly loved time for many people who did not get the privileges of those wealthy or in charge. The panel also noted how the structure of the 19th century novel still lives to an extent today but perhaps we now see less focus on fleshing out secondary characters in large casts and meandering narratives but increasingly when writers mine the past using ill served secondary characters can now be an opportunity to give a voice to highlight their inequalities and provide a much-needed counterbalance.

Folklore and Liking It Weird (Malcolm Devlin, Verity Holloway, David Southall)

There appears to finally be a revival in folklore which was last seen in the 70’s when people got very interested in occult stories. This panel went into a great discussion about its roots and uses. My sense from what I heard is that folklore is a very key part of our society – it connects the urban population to their rural roots; it increasingly has its urban stories such as the albino pigs on the London Underground. Its very much focused on a sense of place or potentially isolation. That could be very simple such as the monsters in the lake who will eat the unwary kids to a fascinating example of the Luddites building their movement around a potentially mythical character who by 1810 was rumoured to live in Sherwood Forest (some stories will always be reinvested).

A great take on it was that while some see Folklore as cosy horror if you read the real thing you could argue it’s a reaction against the past. Rather than a beautiful idyll it’s a place of intolerance that demands blood and sacrifice – perhaps now Folklore should be a way to warn people from returning to a time that never actually existed. A thoughtful discussion

The Future of Nineworlds

Nineworlds like to end with an update on how the weekend went and what’s next. I suspect this was originally going to end on a very uncertain note however I think moved into a greater and worrying discussion about some of the convention’s failings and asks some hard questions about what is to come.

The main and last original founder of the core Kickstarter group announced that this would be his last in charge and he was seeking new ownership in some new form. Nineworlds very nearly went under in 2016 having made some decisions that probably were premature in terms of ideas such as an expo hall. Over the last few years those losses have been near eliminated but its also clear that a UK con even on this scale won’t be a substantial profit-making entity for a long time if at all. New owners with new ideas were being sought and this raised the idea that perhaps moving to a formal non-profit/charity status may help secure other funding/support that it needs. At this point various members of the existing Nineworlds team got up in unison to make a surprise announcement that they were trying to become the new team. To give them credit I think they were going for rather than a convention that may not be here next year they were trying to say enough people familiar with running the con were trying to be involved in the future.

At this point when it became time for audience feedback a member of the audience highlighted that the group on stage were overwhelmingly white and that several longstanding issues with people of colour had once again been raised and not really answered.  I think the following blog gives a much better idea of what a) was going on int the lead through to this event and b) how the Nineworlds team responded to this feedback appallingly

https://blackfemgeekery.wordpress.com/2018/08/12/white-worlds

Another blog that I think highlights some other adjacent issues in this space as to how sensitive content was being managed that I would also recommend

https://medium.com/@rammi/a-safe-space-only-when-its-convenient-for-you-a-nine-worlds-cautionary-tale-23b026a40b58

 

The tone of the discussions I witnessed and have heard about suggests that something has gone now seriously wrong within the Nineworlds organisation and whoever takes over needs to fix this very soon. It is a place that has done good work for many groups, but it also clearly is making some people feel unwanted and unsafe; that I saw someone senior in the organisation try to argue this point was No Platforming made very little sense. I can now totally understand the reactions people of colour and other minorities may have to a purely law enforcement panel based on the explanations above (I’m going to confirm I know two of the panel from other fandoms and they are lovely but that is not the issue at stake). Neither does bolting people onto a controversial panel serve any purpose – I do not come to Nineworlds but vigorous artificial debates I come for people to have discussions on subjects they all care about. I don’t think the content management in place at Nineworlds was clued up on those sensitivities and they themselves admitted this is a weakness that has been going on for quite some time. If there are people feeling Nineworlds is unsafe then this convention needs to now work on making the changes and getting the right people involved MUCH earlier in the process.  There are socio-economic reasons why many from minorities can ill afford the time to contribute to a very large con – I think Nineworlds may need to consider if that if they cannot find that help voluntarily then it may need to make payment for that assistance and that may be part of running such a convention cost congoers need to continue towards in the ticket price - and as they are potentially seeking a non-profit charity status then this may reap many benefits in the long run.

Having thought about these discussions and several panels that highlighted the racism within the genre and lack of representation SF needs to do better.  I don’t think the representation of people of colour in conventions such as this has been great and that now is an area to focus on and should be clearly and formally built into the ethos and governance structure of what the next version of Nineworlds becomes. It is in some ways reassuring that many of the old team want to be involved but it now needs to be wider and better on these issues very soon.

UPDATED

later on 19/8 I found this blog post from one of the Nineworlds team

http://a-simple-tailor.tumblr.com/post/177163220522/nine-worlds

To put it bluntly until I read this I'd assumed Nineworlds organisers had been clumsily insensitive but good hearted but this is ongoing wilful neglect.  If the organisers have been aware of this since 2016; promised to do better and yet manage to forget this for the last two years then that organisation is failing.  A full apology to those impacted by these events is needed and Nineworlds is going to have to work very hard to show that it is a new organisation willing to face up to its weaknesses. A con that preaches inclusivity and diversity needs to actually deliver on it.

Other thoughts

Taking that issue to one side I did have a few other thoughts on the convention

Cons

-          I think this year was the worst for communication to the public about what was going on in the run-up to the convention.  The schedule and guest list were pretty much released a very short while before the convention. A few competing events such as on LARPs and children were run against each other in relatively small tracks. If I add in the above issues it does feel like a convention team trying to do an awful lot of stuff at the last minute with scant resources/time to think rationally. That it ran so smoothly on the day itself is important to stress but it could easily had much more gone wrong if not for the work on the teams on the ground often working a lot of hours.  I appreciate this con is run on a low budget but especially as ticket sales start early a bit more dialogue about the content would be appreciated.  It may also have allowed the team to shout out where additional support on some matters could be needed.

-          I heard that feedback won’t be gathered this year as that is more suitable to be on what the new team want to offer.  I feel this is disappointing as when it first began Nineworlds was refreshingly honest about what works and does not. In recent years that seems to be less frequent or communicated and for a fandom focused convention and again with the above issues that feels like a barrier to getting problems recognised and fixed.

-          The Books panels I went to and the guests selected were all great, but I did feel this year was the smallest Books track in all the years I’ve attended. For a major event without many UK competitors at the time of year it was weirdly quiet on the usual publishers and guests.  I don’t know if that was a deliberate decision to freshen the wider content up, but it didn’t feel that way.  The Big Green Bookshop had much less books than I’ve seen for sale at any Nineworlds but shout outs to Rebellion and Unsung for some lovely stalls.

 

Pros

-          The Novotel staff were once again very friendly and approachable. The facilities were very good.  I could completely understand if the con finally leaves London (especially on cost grounds) but it highlights the facilities needed must be large, accessible and a safe environment

-          The Access team have continued to provide a great environment and work so hard to make the con work.  They deserve a lot of credit

-          Finally, the congoers themselves. It was lovely to see people I know from many places; some I met for the first time in actual reality and some new people for the first time.  There is a lot be said for sitting with friend and working out the Hogwarts house for the MCU; the plot of weird Hammer Horrors and oh yes BOOKS. Being silly is great and knowing your friends will conspire to create French Revolution should you ever get too big for your boots is life-affirming.  I know the BEST people.

 

So overall Nineworlds is in an interesting state. The con was good but clearly not for everyone attending and therefore must change.  Those changes I think will embolden the original aim of Nineworlds as a place that people can come together and as of, yet I’ve not heard of any alternatives that match its approach in the UK just yet. Next year I am seriously looking at the adjacent Dublin Worldcon so can’t yet confirm if I can make all of Nineworlds next year, but I would like to at least manage one day. I come back from each one physically very very tired but also refreshed as to how great geeks are and get ideas for lots of other things. I want future conventions where everyone can do that the same way and as a lot of the panels highlighted we get to create the set-up for the future and make it fairer for everyone and if that means we stop doing certain traditional things that UK cons do then so be it.

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Nineworlds - Part 1 (10-11th August Novotel Hammersmith, London)

So, I’m now a Nineworlds veteran having been there at all six to date. Having been to a reallllly bad convention weekend where I felt a) content had been scribbled out of a tv guide and b) rather unsafe at night when the drink started to flow one of my best friends suggested we check out Nineworlds that a kickstarter in 2012 started with the idea of being the British version of Dragoncon. Its grown a lot and while it is not Dragoncon it has its own ethos. It ended on a note that it’s next incarnation is now due and what form that takes will be quite important as to how this con can thrive.  I had a very good time, but I think some of the concerns and issues raised in the past have come to ahead so new challenges await (more of which to come in part 2)

But for starters lets talk about what I did while there

Thursday – I caught up with friends old and new.  I did not do the quiz and this time the people I usually meet with got first place….

Friday!!

The Way You Make Me Feel (Angela Cleland, Roz Kavernay, Zoe Sumra, Sue Tingey)

This panel examined how do those evil authors make us cry/scream/laugh and cheer. It was fascinating to hear that some authors have an emotional plot to run alongside their narrative ones – the key points where you will FEEL that required emotion. It didn’t come across as purely a technical exercise – some of the panel had been surprised by what a character ended up doing!  They admitted to not feeling too much shame about what they do to their characters or their readers, but the writing of a tragic ending might still hurt them as much as it hurts us.  

Putting the Punk into Cyberpunk – Gavia Baker-Whitelaw, Harriet H, Jade Leamcharaskul, Simon Potthast, Jeremy Szal, Maki Yamazaki)

Since the term got coined in the 80’s and William Gibson defined it there has been a suspicion that the genre is now finished and more an aesthetic. Is there a future in the that type of future?  The panel made a valid point that it predicted an internet ruled by soulless ultra-capitalist corporations, so it certainly had a point. The panel did a good job of selling it as a story of the outsider and rebellion.  Its influence can run from architecture to VR technology, but it also raises questions of transhumanism.  An interesting discussion but I didn’t feel there had been many recent examples Altered Carbon was mentioned but not very positively! But this does seem to be a good time particularly on the social media front for a story where rebellion takes place and that is an area I’ll be watching SF with interest.

Know Your Enemy (Mike Brooks, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Jeannette Ng, Anna Stephens)

This panel examined the concept of the villain. Are they there purely as a device of opposition or are they proclaiming something lost (which veers towards the antihero). The panel all seemed to agree that the best villains are those with a cause/belief in their plan. There is a temptation in fiction to other the villain through disability, mental health or sexuality when as 2018 shows most tend towards white, rich and very very privileged. The writers did raise an unusual point that in a story its all about how your frame the narrative – with two fairly equal sides battling over resources it is rare one side will not lose out in the narrative and become the villain.

Knighmare Live – Finally!!

For its second appearance at Nineworlds there was a much bigger room and so I finally got into see this event. This clearly marks me as a child of the 80’s watching a dungeon kill children, but this version is a charming mix of reverence for the actual concept and in jokes but also doing it on a much lower budget. It was very funny through the small cast but also watching a grown adult not remember their left and right so that they walked through the wall of the dungeon was hilarious

Saturday!

Alchemy and Chemistry in SF/Fantasy (Penny Ellis)

I may have stayed up too late for this session to concentrate.  Half an examination of the history of chemistry and alchemy and then an examination of some famous examples of plotonium.  I felt it would have probably been better split into two different talks. The first half was for me the more interesting as I suspect the reason writers make up the rest is to always serve the story and not respect the science

Who is Wakanda? Representation in Black Panther (Tara Brown, Zarich Catlin-Hallet, Helen Gould, Jade Leamcharaskul, Russell A Smith)

This was one of my highlights across the weekend. Five panellists talking about their reactions and interpretations of the recent Marvel Movie. I really got a new appreciation for how much thought went into this film from discussions over the music and fashion choices for even minor characters that went into illustrating many cultures and historical traditions but also with a lot of modernity. The discussion raised from was Wakanda right to step into the wider world to how Killmonger was one of the most complex villains in film combining attitudes with the feeling of the pain of diaspora with a very toxic sense of rascality. It was a really good flowing intelligent discussion that I could have happily watched another hour and made me want to watch the film again once home to watch the bits I hadn’t noticed before.

It was also a really refreshing panel as I got to a watch a panel of mainly people of colour get to discuss and analyse a piece of culture and their reactions to it. Watching people talk about their excitement in the run-up to the film; their reactions watching and then digesting the film and seeing people like them on screen and referencing cultures they know was a reminder why ensuring we don’t just have straight white males in every bit of media is important. It also was a strong reminder that such panels where rather than purely the issue of diversity itself but instead we see a meaty discussion of a facet of the genre can be far more rewarding.  A great panel is one I think about weeks later…this feels like one of them

Top of the SFF Cops – (SJ Groenewegen, Laura Manuel, Caroline Mersey)

Three panellists with different connections to law enforcement raised who they felt were the best type of cops. An interesting selection came down to Dana Scully versus Sam Vimes with Vimes winning by a landslide. It was interesting to hear the qualities they looked for, but I think perhaps a wider group of panellists may have helped broaden a discussion.

Let the Past Die: Sacrificing Sacred Cows in Star Wars The Last Jedi (Gavia Baker-Whitelaw, Avery Delany, Michael Duxbury, Jeannette Ng, Gabriel Petersen)

I’ll lay my cards out now I loved the Last Jedi and thought it gave a long-needed kick to the series challenging the archetypes that were there before, so I was intrigued by how the panel would discuss it and I was not disappointed! I liked the idea that Kylo Ren and his Darth Vader memorabilia could easily be read as a commentary on how the films have perhaps become too focused on toys and traditions spreading from those toys while the film’s best characters were learning sometimes such symbols need to be destroyed to allow for new growth while Kylo is still locked into his past. There is a lot to be said for showing that those who are emotionally invested in a cause like the Rebellion are hard to beat but several did wonder if in the long run Disney would still want to return to various interpretations because that is what makes the money. The key message I took away though was that a fandom that wants to thrive needs to eb prepared to let new people play with it and create a more diverse longer life for it. Another panel that will stay with me.

How to Keep Making Things When the World is on Fire (Alix Penn, Laurie Penny, Claire Rousseau)

One of the nice things about Nineworlds it you have so much choice you can have moments when you just decide to go to a panel on the spur of a moment and this one turned out to be useful to me personally. How to deal with the desire to make any content when the world is on fire be that a reaction to the rise of Trump and fascists or more localised issues such as health or other competing demands. A key message is that being impacted by such things is not something to feel guilty about and self-care is both important for yourself and to assist those people who may then have to spend time reminding you that sleep, and healthy food is important.  As someone who struggles with this and feels guilty when the other sides of my life mean I can’t review and blog as quickly as I’d like hearing that lots of other people face the same issues and their tips for dealing with these moments I came away with loads of good suggestions (which several have asked me to capture): -

-          Self-care is not a self-indulgence it’s an act of political warfare that you don’t allow the world to eat you up

-          Give yourself permission to sleep and feed

-          Cut yourself slack

-          If your best friend was doing this to themselves would you be probably be telling them to take better care.  If so why can’t you apply the same lessons to yourself

-          Don’t be overly critical of what we produce for fund and entertainment, so you end up holding back from releasing it into the world – often we do these things because we find them fun so enjoy it

-          Deadlines we set can be help and make us accountable to others. Breaking big tasks into mini deadlines can help us turn up for the work and this is our job

-          What we create can help others cope with the world in small ways

-          Don’t let Capitalism win and always think these activities are without value and so can be unpaid (particularly for those who create material for larger companies’ outlets)

-          Interaction with others helps you share tips and not feel alone

-          After you go through crisis mode you should adapt your work balance accordingly based on the lessons you learnt

-          Don’t be negative on yourself

-          Your work unpaid or not has a value and creative work will have an impact on reality and how people view the world

-          It’s completely ok to just focus on one or two things at a time but also consider what things you are not focusing on

-          Don’t attempt to do your entire To Do list at once – make them achievable goals

-          Stick to your work plan and don’t always be tempted by what mood you are in a regular schedule you have can help a lot.

-          Sometimes doing the work won’t be the fun but remember the sense of achievement you often feel when you finish

-          If you do need to push yourself to your limits to achieve something bear in mind the consequences for future you – the need to sleep and recharge – don’t continually put those things off

-          You may need to lock yourself down from distractions while you work

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The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden

Publisher – Harper Voyager

Published – Out Now

Price - £5.99 eBook/£9.99 paper

In South Africa, the future looks promising. Personal robots are making life easier for the working class. The government is harnessing renewable energy to provide infrastructure for the poor. And the bustling coastal town of Port Elizabeth, the economy is booming thanks to the genetic engineering industry which has found a welcome home there. Yes – the days to come are looking very good for South Africans.

That is, if they can survive the present challenges. A new hallucinogenic drug sweeping the country…An emerging AI uprising…And an ancient demigoddess hellbent on regaining her former status by preying on the blood and sweat (but mainly blood) of every human she encounters. It’s up to a young Zulu girl powerful enough to destroy her entire township, a queer teen plagued with the ability to control minds, a pop diva with serious daddy issues, and a politician with even more serious mommy issues to band together to ensure there’s a future left to worry about.

Mash-ups have given us great things generally. Lightsabres, Ham & Pineapple Pizza and more seriously in fiction I’m increasingly seeing writers blurring the boundaries of science and technology. In recent years I’ve enjoyed Charlie Jane Ander’s All the Birds in the Sky; N K Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy and Jen William’s Willowing Flame series. How Magic works with Technology feels right for the 21st century as both these subgenres are read in equal measure by readers. In this story Nicky Drayden explodes on the scene with an incredibly vibrant futuristic South Africa where the old and the new collide into a fast and delightful new way.

The plot reminds me a little of the old TV show Heroes (the good season) as we see the characters start to explore their powers and motivations. We first meet Muzi a young teen on the cusp of adulthood – on the one hand balancing his grandfather’s love of the old traditions and his growing feelings for his best friend Elkin. Experimenting with a new drug together as well as making Muzi hallucinate himself as a giant crab also gives him the power to control people and read their darkest secrets. One of the country’s best pop stars also hides her secrets and as well as her troubled family she hides a physical disability that vibrant pop stars aren’t supposed to have but she finds a new way to manage pain after also taking the drug. A nail technician called Sydney finds herself finally with an opportunity to not simply to read the odd mind (and kill the odd unsuspecting male) but to reclaim her old status as one of the most powerful demigods in Africa while a young girl in a  township named Nomvulu is finally given some understanding about her past and her powers which at such an end age means a temper tantrum can be deadly to anyone around her. Finally, Wallace Stoker one of South Africa’s most promising progressive politicians is balancing his mother’s very focused plans for his future as a leader with his equal desire to be a singing sensation but his alter ego could pose a problem…

It’s ambitious watching all these characters work out who they are and what they now want and then crossing paths. Into the mix we have the alpha bots – small personal robots that combine AI with the abilities of an Echo/Alexa interface…and who may have found their own God and desire for freedom. There are engineered monsters brewing in labs and an ancient power that has been there since the dawn of the universe. All levels of society; sexuality and morality are thrown together into a very fluid and engaging me. As well as the fate of the world there is also a theme of having to learn who you are and take ownership of that. Each character gets a chance to choose a different path and their decision informs the plot. For many of the characters it’s an act of responding to their parents as well and can this generation fix the mistakes of the past ones?  Each character even the deadly ones comes across as a solid person you can understand why they’ve gone in this direction.

My only reservation is that towards the end when there is a fantastic set piece with all the characters in the same place that there possibly seems to be just too much for me to follow – one character almost seems lost in the background. I really enjoyed the kitchen sink approach here as the novels really rattles at a fair pace; and I’m more forgiving og this in debuts where the writer is finding their voice but if you are a reader who prefers a more structured plot then this may be a little too loud for you.

But overall this entry into the Subjective Chaos Awards for me was a delight. Full of energy, weirdness and heart I think I shall be eagerly waiting to reader Drayden’s future books with interest and now I must find a ham and pineapple pizza.

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A Glimmer of Silver by Juliet Kemp

I thank the publishers for an advance copy of this novella in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – The Book Smugglers

Published – Out Now

Price - £3.80 eBook

Jennery is floating on xyr back when Ocean speaks for the first time. Just three days away from freedom, all Jennery has ever wanted to do was become a musician – because if you reach sixteen and Ocean hasn’t spoken to you once, then you can pursue a different life instead of becoming a Communicator.

But Ocean speaks to Jennery – only to Jennery. And Ocean is angry. And when Ocean is angry, bad things happen to the humans who have colonised Ocean’s world. Jennery must choose whether to listen or to swim away

When you reach a certain age as a teenager you can feel the weight of the world on you but sixteen-year-old Jennery finds xyr life complicated when just when xe think xe may have escaped having to have a sacred duty in their society xe find the planet has a different view on things. Jennery must learn to grow up fast and xyr preconceptions about adults and the way the world works is about to be seriously challenged.  This sets up a great fast paced science fiction novella with some themes applicable to our own world well worth reminding ourselves about.

Jennery lives on Endeavour a floating human colony on a water-filled world known only as Ocean. There is no land here and our Earth is past the point of no return due to environmental collapse.  The colonists decided to make do over a hundred years ago and have slowly created a way of life and now started to create other colonies. But the water here can burn your skin; one Colony has mysteriously been destroyed.  Early on the Colonists eventually realised that the entire ecosystem of the planet is sentient (but alien). Early into settlement the consciousness (named Ocean) gains the ability to talk to a few humans xe realise the planet is actually alive and agree to live alongside each other but apart.  No fishing, no bathing but allowed to co-exist.  But Jennery going through the standard test to see if xe are a Communicator (very reluctantly) on xer last day gets a message from Ocean.  Someone has started to fish, and Ocean is NOT happy.

Juliet Kemp has a great ability to tell a story like this quickly and organically. It’s a very alien set-up but as a reader I never felt I was getting infodumps.   Instead through Jennery’s voice I gradually understood the way of life on Ocean and the reasons it’s develop that way through a teen’s view and both reader and lead are trying to work out what is going on.  It’s a progressive society not focused on race nor gender but you can still have social issues to address.  It is a science fiction mystery where something as simple as fishing has life threatening consequences for the colonists.  Finding out what is going on is going to mean Jennery accepting responsibility and leaving the safe walls of xer home and braving Oceans waters. 

What I particularly liked about this is that it’s not a story of good and bad characters.  Everyone is complicated – even Ocean. Rather than villains we have competing points of view (trademark Obi-wan Kenobi). Life on Ocean because of the limitations in place is hard – why does it have to be?  Jennery is a reluctant hero and would much prefer hanging around with xer friends and learning to be a musician but lives are at risk…Jennery also realises those in positions of power are not always going to be logical and sometimes you then really need to take a stand to persuade them. The story beautifully combines how it’s important for people to listen to one another rather than just lecture and that humans don’t half tend to see themselves as separate to the planet

This is a great novella that I think conjures up a unique world and situation that at the same time gives the reader a situation that they can easily apply to our own world.  It’s refreshingly less about conflict and more about resolution and I think fans of such SF stories will really enjoy this a lot. I will look out for more of Kemp’s work in the future!

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The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Publisher - Del Ray

Price - £8.99 paperback

Published - Out Now

A young woman’s family is threatened by forces both real and fantastical in this debut novel inspired by Russian fairy tales.

In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, a stranger with piercing blue eyes presents a new father with a gift – a precious jewel on a delicate chain, intended for his young daughter. Uncertain of its meaning, the father hides the gift away and his daughter, Vasya, grows up a wild, wilful girl, to the chagrin of her family.

But when mysterious forces threaten the happiness of their village, Vasya discovers that armed only with the necklace, she may be the only one who can keep the darkness at bay.

Everyone respects the countryside; it gives us natural beauty, fresh air and a sense of peace. But if you go off the beaten track and take a wrong turning or the weather changes unexpectedly the exact same place can appear menacing, haunting and not happy at your intrusion. Tales of what lurks outside our towns and villages are universal and in this gorgeous story Elizabeth Arden gives a version of the stories that remind us of what lurks in the Russian wilderness. A kaleidoscope of nature, spirits and magical elements combined to give me a very satisfying lead.

I know very little Russian folklore, so this tale is unusually both familiar and strange to me.  Vasya is born to a beautiful and potentially magical mother who dies shortly after childbirth. Left to be reared by her father Pyotr who rules the local lands and village she becomes the family rebel.  Less interested in staying at home and instead loves to wander through the fields and forests outside the village where she can talk and play with the domovoi – spirits of hearths, forests and lakes. However, when her father takes on a new wife who also sees the spirits but in her eyes they’re devils; over the following years we will see Vasya torn between two worlds of humans and magic in a game between two powerful elemental forces of winter.

So, we have a fairy-tale but very similar to Naomi Novik’s Uprooted with a hugely expanded plot. Arden brings this world to life be it the quaint traditions of the countryside to the internal politics of the court of the Tsar Ivan into which Pyotr unwittingly receives a new wife. The natural spirit world is contradicted with the orthodox Christian faith and one cannot live alongside the other for much longer. Rather than in depth examination of life in Russia you’re painted in a series of episodes as Vasya grows up snapshots of key moments in her life. The joy of her finding she has such talents to the pain of an evil stepmother who will not accept Vasya is not tainted by the devil.

While Vasya is joy and wants to help her family she finds two key human opponents her stepmother who while she sees the same world can only see it as a threat to her sanity and soul. But most impressive is the complex relationship that develops between Vasya and Konstantin an ambitious priest the Tsar has decided would be better placed out in the countryside. Konstantin finds Vasya as she grows fascinating - a disturbing quasi friendship develops but with a darker subtext aided by a shadow that whispers how Konstantin is so close to the power he really seeks.  Which way will he ultimately turn?

The story is relaxed we spend it watching Vasya have a series of interlocking adventures and slowly see her role in what looks to be a more elemental battle that threatens the whole world. I found it a story I could really relax into and get to know the world.  I think if you were to look for a crisper narrative this isn’t the story for you but for me this gave a lot of depth and it’s very enchanting as the bigger picture gets revealed. Arden paints scenes of winter and summer with lots of little stories that it hums with magic.

A lovely read that offers adventures, magic and a picture of a world you don’t see very often.  If you enjoy folklore and how it fits with our world. While it gives an ending for this adventure there are future instalments to come. I think this is the start of a series I think many of you will love.

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The War In The Dark by Nick Setchfield

I’m grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Titan Books

Published – Out Now

Price - £7.99

Europe.1963. And the true Cold War is fought on the borders of this world, at the edges of the light.

When the assassination of a traitor trading with the enemy goes terribly wrong. British Intelligence agent Christopher Winter must flee London. In a tense alliance with a lethal, mysterious woman named Karina Lazarova, he’s caught in a quest for hidden knowledge from centuries before, an occult secret written in the language of fire. A secret that will give supremacy to the nation that possesses it.

Racing against the Russians, the chase takes them from the demon-haunted Hungarian border to treasure-laden tunnels beneath Berlin, from an impossible house in Vienna to a bomb-blasted ruin in Bavaria where something unholy waits, born of the power of white fire and black glass…

It’s a world of treachery, blood and magic. A world at war in the dark

Spies in media very much like fantasy characters can come in all sorts. You can jump from the grand adventures of 007 to the insanity of Austin Powers. In contrast to the movies John Le Carre’s books pointed out that it’s less driving around in the flash car and more skulking in shadows and being part of a large government machine that was grubby, amoral and often merciless.  Nick Setchfield in his impressive debut asks the question what would happen if we added in magic and demons?

The story is set in 1963 when the world was only just getting used to seeing satellites launched into space; the US and the USSR were only just recovering from the being on the cusp of nuclear war and the Berlin Wall was a reminder of the power of the state. British assassin Christopher Winter’s “simple” mission to eliminate a communist spy goes out of control and leads to the spiralling deaths of colleagues and loved ones. He glimpses something inhuman within his target and starts to spot figures that can both appear to be those he knows and then someone completely different.  Fleeing Britain to track down those he believes responsible he finds that in the higher world of those in charge of espionage there is a lot more acceptance that ‘magecraft’ is not just real but very useful to the fighting for dominance of the planet.

It’s a fascinating world and Winter discovers some of the first English intelligence agencies were influenced by the ciphers of the mysterious Doctor John Dee who protected the Queen but also wanted to study demons and angels (which is true!). Setchfield really captures the sense of a 1960’s spy world – bureaucrats moving pieces from afar; clandestine meetings in shabby places and essentially a whole messy and often deadly battle being fought in alleys, dusty rooms and tunnels. It’s not that surprising that the darker, magical powers have taken an interest in the humans showing up in their own places. Winter who is a focused, practical and calculating man much more used to planning ways to kill and flee suddenly finds himself questioning himself and his role in these events as he pursues and himself chased by those who see a firm role for him in their games. It’s tense, everyone is hiding something, and all lives are expendable – making it feel a tense and claustrophobic read.

It’s skilful that the spy side can so quickly turn into something much more darker and fantastical. There are aspects of supernatural horror that are less big flashy scenes of spells and far more the subversive creeping horror. Is the corpse moving? What is the bannister made of? Its that feeling that something that isn’t quite right that strongly reminded me of the supernatural written by John Connolly and Mike Carey – the quiet and tense kind that I always find the scarier to read as we find the world just isn’t what we think it is.

My only niggle is that it could have done with a few more female characters. The stand-out is Karina who you never really know what she will do next but be assured it will be done with style and competence. The three women we do meet all have unique and different roles but at times it felt a little too much a re-enactment of thrillers written of the time by men and I’m not sure how accurate that was. Setchfield shows he can write great characters and Karina proves an even match for Winter and possibly the more accomplished spy too and none of the women are simply foils for the main lead, but I’d like to see much more.

It’s a very impressive debut novel and while it wraps the main plot up there is room for more episodes int his mysterious world of spies. If you’re looking for a great supernatural thriller that may even give you chills in this heat, then I’d strongly recommend this trip to the 60’s!

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Godblind by Anna Stephens

Publisher – Harper Voyager

Published – Out Now

Price – £8.99

 

There was time when the Red Gods ruled the land. The Dark Lady and her horde dealt in death and blood and fire.

That time has long since passed and the neighbouring kingdoms of Mireces and Rilpor hold an uneasy truce. The only blood spilled is confined to the bored where vigilantes known as Wolves protect their kin and territory at any cost.

But after the death of his life, King Rastoth is plagued by grief, leaving the kingdom of Rilpor vulnerable

Vulnerable to the blood-thirsty greed of the Warrior King Liris and the Mireces army waiting in the mountains

I like surprises in my reading. Like a good cover version, I want to hear something familiar but also new.  Simply swapping a few vocals around isn’t enough I want something that I just don’t see coming.  I mention this in passing because this was part of the Subjective Chaos awards that initially looked like a very traditional epic fantasy but instead combines great plotting, worldbuilding and characters in very surprising ways.

The story centres on three very different cultures. The Mireces appear your standard evil simple Mountain Kingdom performing human sacrifice often from those they enslave to their gods in particular the Dark Lady. Across them is Rilpor your standard medieval kingdom with a larger army and elderly King Rastoth his dutiful son Janis and his rebellious son Rivil and these two countries watch each other closely.  But with an unexpected event that reminds me of WW1 being triggered by the death of Arch Duke Ferdinand starts a cascade of events that lead to the cold war becoming a lot hotter and bloodier.  But rather than technology aiding the battles to come now we have the medical forces of the Red Gods and those of the Dancer.

Stephens puts us straight into the action by focusing on the viewpoints of multiple characters on all sides. It’s a real talent that everyone comes across as a real solid individual. The Priestess of the Red Gods Lanta is completely despicable, but we also see her internal battle to be respected by the male warriors and it’s a match of wits as she works to establish her position. Amongst the Rilporian we get to see a variety of characters, but standouts are Crys a new Captain in the King’s capital happier to play cards and have a laugh but also knows his fighting and how to lead. In contrast we have Tara the first woman to be a Captain working on the front-line border – diligent; more than capable and constantly having to justify her position against men often promoted more for their wealth than their ability. And in-between both are the Wolves who appear in some ways to be just simple village folk but who combine fierce hand to hand combats skills; spirituality and views on gender and sexuality that while shocking to Rilporians appear far more in keeping with our own age. The focus is on Dom a man cursed to receive the messages of the Gods who is being driven into the events to play his part even if he wishes to turn away and an escaped slave Rillirin feeling the Mireces untrusted by the villagers and hiding secrets that have huge ramifications for everyone.

Every character has their own secrets and we see how they interrelate. Not all can be trusted; their statuses will shift  and as things escalate we see that there is a wider game with the forces of Dark and Light moving their own pieces around and often appearing to care little for who will suffer from this.  That each character stands out and each plot thread is equally interesting adding variety from murder mystery to court politics to vast military battles you want to move across the land to see what is happening. I really was impressed how the story didn’t go for the obvious and often subverted the standard scenes I’ve come to sigh when I read fantasy. Attempted assaults on women; human sacrifices romances all don’t quite play out how you expect. I’m really pleased to see a world where men and women have agency; interact not just as potential romantic partners and respect each other’s role in their society.  When violence comes it is gruesome and you’ll feel the flesh tear (men will cross legs) and that can be a simple one on one fight to two armies simply trying wipe each other out. The story leaps from huge scale to the personal really well and by the end of the first novel you sense there is so much more to find out about his world…not least can anyone survive it!

I’m very glad to have picked this up now and will be looking forward to the sequel out in August. If you’re looking for some epic fantasy which don’t take the easy options and reward you with  adventure with a large dollop of action then this is a series I think you should be reading.

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Starfang II - Claw of the Clan by Joyce Chng

Publisher – Fox Spirit Books

Published - Out Now

Price - £7.99 paperback/ebook to follow

Kenn on avenging the death of her Pack-mate, Captain Francesca Ming Yue embarks ona hunt again to seek out her enemy, Yuen Leung, member of the Amber Eyes. Torn within from her own desires and failure, Franseca has to play a dangerous game with the reptilian Shishini. Can she trust them? With her clan at stake, the captain of the Starfang has to tread carefully or place the lives of her ship and crew in jeopardy.

I really enjoyed the first chapter of this series.  Humanity has reached the stars and contact with other civilisations at last but into the mix werewolves have also come out of the shadows and now control giant fleets as a Pack controlling certain worlds and businesses.  Ming Yue at the end of the first story was nearly wiped out by here enemy Yuen Leung – drugged, cut off from her crew and rescued at the cost of a friend’s life.  This next instalment looks at the consequences of those events in an engrossing tale.

The Ming Yue of the first book was supremely confident and professional above all other things. But the events of this book have taken a toll. Her arm is injured; her ability to transform is curtailed and we find her feeling lost but surrounded by her home. Her demanding parents urge her to chase her enemy down but can she do this again?

If the first novel was building the world the second is almost a character study as told through Ming Yue’s eye we see a woman balancing the demands and traditions of her Clan versus her own desires.  She as a Captain is supposed to be at a a distance emotionally from her crew and she finds herself attracted to her cousin April and drawn to her the young orphan Lien from an enemy clan. It creates a tension – is there perhaps a better way to live?  Is duty more important than being happy?

While I really enjoy the exploration of consequences and character we also get to see more of the mysterious Shishini.  Her Shishini torturer comes back offering a truce and through an artefact of the truce we see how her enemies took over their world.  But can they be trusted either? Its nice to see an alien perspective in an SF tale and their reaction to the werewolves is also unusual!  I really like Chng's way of telling stories organically rather than huge set-pieces I think it has a more natural flow.

I will just warn you that this is the middle part of the story and while there is plenty of progression there is a lot yet to be resolved and happily the third book is coming soon.  I shall definitely be reporting back nearer the time as to how the Pack’s final adventure ties this all up

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Edge-Lit 7

Last weekend I went for a return visit to Edge Lit in Derby. Now in its seventh year it’s a science fiction, horror and fantasy one day event that mixes panels with guest interviews and writer workshops. It’s a nice relaxed feeling and everyone I see at it seems to enjoy the atmosphere which in the sun debating books outside the bar is delightful. A much larger dealers room with ALL the books was of course visited and nice to see Fox Spirit Publishing in fine form.  Great to see horror and small press being promoted and for those who write the workshops seemed very popular. 

My schedule covered the following

Modern Ghosts: Is the Ghost Story A Nostalgic Act or More Relevant Than Ever?

This was a really interesting debate on how ghost stories fit within horror and within publishing in general.  It featured James Everington, Mark Latham, Marie O’Regan, Laura Purcell and Paul Tremblay talking about the history of the ghost story and what it now means.  In parts a review of the history of the ghost story; in Victorian times they were almost a comfort to know that death is not the end while today it’s more the ghost that you cannot explain despite our age of rationality that can scare you witless. There was also a discussion on how ghosts are almost the acceptable face of horror in current publishing a story more publishers are willing to accept as that appears to be a horror story the mainstream audience e is willing to try.  Certainly, it felt there would be many more hauntings to come.

Brave New Words – Live at Edge-Lit

One of my favourite SF book podcasts (and UK based) did a live recording with the authors RJ Barker, GX Todd and Jen Williams. Producer Al attempted to go through recent book news the rest of the panel…did not. Discussions moved from talking animals, bees fighting in the first world war and other very very sombre debates.  Keep an eye out for this on your podcast provider of choice!

The Rule of Three – What is the Appeal of the Trilogy and Will It Ever Fade?

Vic James, Rod Duncan, Mark Latham, Jen Williams and noted non-trilogy author Frances Hardinge discussed why are the shelves full of three-book tales. This moved from the historical angle that three and stories seems to go very well from number of acts to even its use in fairy tales and jokes. Epic fantasy writers see it as able to paint a huge canvas while other authors much prefer after a single story moving onto something completely different. An interesting discussion also took place on the publishing angle – it’s a way of building an author brand as the public know they’ll see books regularly but risks that if Book 1 is seen as flawed there are larger risks that the rest of the trilogy may crash or even not be published.   One thing I’ve noticed is that this is an event where writers are a little more likely to discuss the business side of writing which even from a non-writer perspective is often really fascinating.

There was then the Edge-Lit Raffle hosted by Anna Stephens and RJ Barker.  This entirely serious event saw lovely book prizes raffled aided by Stephens’ enticing description of tickets ‘herbaceous green’ and Barker demonstrating previously unknown psychic powers predicting the winner of each book…. uncanny-ish.

After that the Gemmell Awards were held and well-deserved awards went to Nicholas Eames (Best Fantasy Newcomer); Richard Anderson (Best Fantasy Cover Art) and Best Fantasy Novel went to Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Fate. Long overdue for Robin Hobb to be recognised

Definitely seemed even more popular and I think worth a trip – also the main theatre has cinema seats which I think sets the benchmark for all future panels (ahem old womble now!).  Overall a brilliant day out in the summer sun and a great opportunity to relax in the sun so well worth your time!

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