Friday, 28 August 2015

The Dark Defiles by Richard K. Morgan | review by Jacob Edwards

The blood wells, the ink heralds.

Richard Morgan seemed to spend most of The Steel Remains, the first book of his A Land Fit For Heroes trilogy, coming to terms with his own dark take on the fantasy genre. The ending was abrupt (almost like walking off a cliff), and it took him much of the second book, The Cold Commands, to prod and coerce his protagonists back into the story. These characters, however, were always the key, and having made his name writing holistic and gritty science fiction, Morgan, from the moment he embarked upon his disquieting march across genre boundaries, clearly wasn’t going to start faffing about with bog-standard wizards and warriors, chalices and chosen ones; nor, for that matter, join-the-dot quest narratives, rainbow character arcs or pre-industrial paradises threatened by long-dormant evil forces now risen. The setting would be, as the umbrella title suggested, one calling out for heroes, but those heroes in turn would be the tarnished product of their environment. By nature of his approach, Morgan implicitly promised (then explicitly delivered) the sort of unsettling realism that sees shires ransacked and Hobbits crushed dead underfoot. The result is urgent, forceful, unromantic, unforgettable – including graphic, present tense flashbacks to defining acts in the protagonists’ lives, some of them sexual and uncensored, brazenly confronting – yet, by spurning escapism and the lazy warm glow of the happily ever after, could Morgan, for all his exertions and for all that his titles play coy with noun/verb ambiguity, ever have thought to leave us with fantasy sutras as satisfying as they are compelling? The answer, of course, lies in the trilogy’s concluding book, The Dark Defiles (Gollancz, 549pp).

Morgan’s brand of high fantasy differs from the historically popular model in several key aspects, the most pervasive of which is a grimness of setting; the stark refusal to glamorise a world in which the overwhelming majority of the population is poor, miserable, vulnerable and without prospect. A Land Fit for Heroes is not, in short, a place that right-minded readers would wish themselves into, not even (or perhaps especially not) as the heroes in question. Morgan’s main characters – Ringil, an outcast homosexual swordsman; Archeth, an immortal drug addict orphaned of her alien heritage; and Egar, an aging nomad and onetime dragon-slayer too restless to settle – have their own codes to live by, certainly, but they are more self-serving than altruistic or noble; as much as their particular natures have inured them to the heroism (such that it is) of railing against life’s misfortunes and limitations, their dogged struggle for self-determinism rarely appears more than a rearguard action. As The Dark Defiles builds towards its conclusion, the plot doesn’t so much resolve as clear sufficiently to at last reveal something of Morgan’s grand purpose for the trilogy: seemingly, to undermine the tradition, to question the very concept, of an externally mandated quest. Yes, Ringil, Egar and Archeth are on a quest (or, more accurately, three quests with considerable overlap), but the defining difference is that they are not instruments of some greater need; rather, the course of events is shaped by their needs. They are not recruited to the quest; they generate its existence. Morgan’s crowning accomplishment, then, is to leave his players unaware that they are part of any great undertaking, while slyly inculcating in the reader an appreciation that fantasy is, ultimately and at its best, about the intricacies of who, and that where and why, and what and how and when, are merely tributaries and run-off in an ever-refining, ever-defining cycle of identity.

With The Steel Remains having broken new ground as an audacious if incomplete challenge to genre platitudes, and The Cold Commands then coming on again as unremitting and unflinching, near enough self-contained, a high-water mark, The Dark Defiles remains faithful to Richard Morgan’s rose-thorn-scratched not rose-tinted ethos; inaccessible, perhaps, without the preceding books, but cleverly resolved and feeding synergy back into the mix, allowing the trilogy to reach a most apposite, far from inevitable conclusion. If Tolkien laboured over every detail, every where, why, what, how and when of Lord of the Rings, Morgan has sweated blood on the who of A Land Fit for Heroes. In the perfect world he so emphatically disavows, this would see him take pride of place for the next fifty-plus years. As it is – well, chances are he’ll just have to suck it up and keep on doing what he does. But such is the way of heroes.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #52: now available for free download!

free epub | free mobi | free pdf | print UK | print USA | Kindle UK | Kindle US

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #52 is a little shorter than usual, but still features four great stories: Rocking Horse Traffic by Yarrow Paisley, Quest for Lost Beauty by Howard Phillips, Zom-Boyz Have All the Luck by Len Saculla, and “Surprise Thee Ranging With Thy Peers”, the latest Two Husbands episode from Walt Brunston. The Quarterly Review from Douglas J. Ogurek, Stephen Theaker and Jacob Edwards includes reviews of It Follows, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Insurgent, Memory Lane, Jurassic World, Holy Cow by David Duchovny, The Dark Defiles by Richard Morgan, The Glorkian Warrior Eats Adventure Pie by James Kochalka, and many others.



  • Rocking Horse Traffic, Yarrow Paisley
  • Quest for Lost Beauty, Howard Phillips
  • Zom-Boyz Have All the Luck, Len Saculla
  • “Surprise Thee Ranging With Thy Peers”, Walt Brunston
  • The Quarterly Review
  • Also Read
  • Also Reviewed
  • Forthcoming Attractions



Here are the kindly contributors to this issue:

Douglas J. Ogurek’s work has appeared in the BFS Journal, The Literary Review, Morpheus Tales, Gone Lawn, and several anthologies. He lives in a Chicago suburb with the woman whose husband he is and their pit bull Phlegmpus Bilesnot. Douglas’s website can be found at: http://www.douglasjogurek.weebly.com.

Howard Phillips is a dissolute poet whose previous contribution to this zine received such bad reviews that he wept for three days, burned seventeen unpublished novels, and wrote a series of angry blog posts accusing various parties of disparaging his genius. We asked him why he had taken it so badly, and he replied, “If you need to ask, you’ll never know.”

Howard Watts is a writer, artist and composer living in Seaford who provides the cover art for this issue. His artwork can be seen in its native resolution on his deviantart page: http://hswatts.deviantart.com. His novel The Master of Clouds is now available on Kindle.

Jacob Edwards flies with Australia’s speculative fiction flagship Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, but meets us in the pub between runs. This writer, poet and recovering lexiphanicist’s website is at http://www.jacobedwards.id.au. He also has a Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/JacobEdwardsWriter, where he posts poems and the occasional oddity. Like him and follow him!

Len Saculla has had stories and poems published in venues such as the BFS publication Dark Horizons, Terry Grimwood’s Wordland and Ian Hunter’s Unspoken Water. He has also had a couple of stories turned into podcasts from Joanna Sterling’s “Tube Flash at the Casket” (http://www.thecasket.com).

Stephen Theaker’s reviews have appeared in Black Static, Interzone, Prism and the BFS Journal, as well as clogging up our pages. He shares his home with three slightly smaller Theakers, runs the British Fantasy Awards, and works in legal and medical publishing.

Walt Brunston’s adaptation of the classic television story, Space University Trent: Hyperparasite, is now available on Kindle.

Yarrow Paisley lives in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, USA. His fiction has appeared in Shimmer, Strange Tales V (Tartarus Press), Sein und Werden, and Dadaoism: An Anthology (Chômu Press), among others.



As ever, all back issues of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction are available for free download.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Pork pies in the gardens: my FantasyCon 2014

FantasyCon 2015 is coming up soon. Not sure yet if I'll be there this year, but if you're on the fence about going and wondering what it's like, here's my report on last year's event, originally written in November 2014 for the BFS Journal #13.

Eating a pork pie in the lovely grounds
of the Royal York Hotel.
Friday

I wasn’t in a great mood heading off for this year’s FantasyCon, which took place from September 5 to September 7. The plan had been to go with Mrs Theaker and both children, but a school entrance exam on Saturday torpedoed that plan, and so I made my way to York alone. The hotel (a charming Premier Inn five minutes from the convention hotel) already had the children’s beds ready, so that made me rather glum.

But the 75% reduction in Theakers at the convention had some benefits: I saved a good deal of money, and I didn’t have to wait till the kids were back from school to set off. So I arrived at the hotel in good time for the opening ceremony. It was overshadowed by the absence of Graham Joyce, obviously not a good sign given what we already knew of his health. FantasyCon chair Lee Harris filled in, and introduced us to Kate Elliott, Toby Whithouse, Charlaine Harris and Larry Rostant, each of them taking a turn to make a few comments.

The first panel I attended was the end of Doctor Who: Space Messiah, where Guy Adams, Mark Morris, Juliet E. McKenna, Caroline Symcox and Joanne Harris were being moderated by Jonathan Oliver. I wasn’t there long enough to hear much, but what I heard was interesting.

Paul Cornell and Caroline Symcox hosted a FantasyCon edition of Pointless, which was very good fun. Lots of audience participation, good-natured hosts, challenging questions – even the crying of a hungry baby couldn’t spoil things. It was nice to see an event at which regular attendees (as the contestants) were the main focus of attention.

I didn't spend much time in the dealers' room, not having much money free to spend or anywhere in the house to keep any books I might buy, but I was surprised to see one blogger selling off pristine, unread review copies and ARCs for a pound each. Selling ARCs is frowned upon at the best of times, never mind doing it in direct competition with booksellers and publishers in the same hall.

In the evening I was on my first panel since 2010 (panels not being something I ever volunteer for), my first ever as an actual panellist, on “Awards and their value. What are they good for? Which are the important ones? Who really benefits?” The moderator was Glen Mehn, who did a brilliant job of bringing everyone into the conversation. The other panellists were publisher Simon Spanton, agent Juliet Mushens, and author Charlaine Harris (who talks exactly like Sookie in True Blood), which meant there was a wide range of views on the panel. Apologies if I spoke too loud – I didn’t realise there were microphones!

What I learnt then about preparing for a panel is to focus on your own position and perspective; that’s why you’re there. The publisher, author and agent talked about how awards affected them, so all my notes covering those angles were useless. I should have concentrated on what awards mean to me as a reader, a fan and an awards administrator.

There wasn’t much programming at this convention for later in the evenings, certainly none of the entertainingly blotto midnight panels I’ve attended in the past. I spent a bit of time in the Joel Lane bar, where a karaoke began. Many attendees proved to be skilled in the art of making tuneful noises come out of their mouths, not least the FantasyCon chair himself.

Once it got to the point that most of the singers taking part were young women, I felt any further interest I showed in the event might be open to misinterpretation, and headed up to the main bar to send some maudlin texts to Mrs Theaker and make notes for the AGM. I got a delicious pizza from the bar, and had a good chat with the BFS’s new events organiser Richard Webb, who seems like a very sensible chap, as well as some other nice people whose names I failed to note.

Saturday

“The Pen vs the Sword” (“Writers who also happen to be swordfighters discuss the myths and realities of the sword in fiction – and demonstrate their skills with the blade!”) featured Marc Aplin as moderator, with Fran Terminiello, Juliet E. McKenna, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Clifford Beale on the panel. The discussion was fascinating, and extremely useful for anyone whose fiction features people fighting with melee weapons. (So pretty much everyone at FantasyCon!)

Fran Terminiello and Juliet E. McKenna
show us how to fight.
The only problem was that they left it a bit too late to get onto the meat of the practical demonstration, and took it into the adjoining room, which tempted away much of the potential audience for guest of honour Charlaine Harris’s conversation, and it made quite a racket until the doors were solidly closed.

Adele Wearing soldiered on, and did a great job of interviewing Harris, who cheerfully laid out the failures that led to her current success. It was good as well to hear that her political differences with Alan Ball, and the direction in which he had taken True Blood, hadn’t affected her respect for him as a writer.

I left the panel “Surprise!” (“Why do some shock twists leave an audience in awe and others make them feel cheated?”) as soon as a panellist said “I’m sure everyone knows the ending of…” because it was clearly going to be a spoiler-heavy hour, and I’m the kind of person who doesn’t read the Radio Times listings till after I’ve seen Doctor Who. My own silly fault: what was I expecting?

Charlaine Harris and Adele Wearing
in conversation.
“Beyond Grimdark” (“Is the trend for mud, misery and moral bankruptcy on the wane in SFF, and if so, what’s next?”) featured a certain amount of eyerolling on the panel as one panellist explained why his novel really did need a rape scene, because it was an integral part of his female character’s story.

“She Ain’t Heavy, She’s My Sister” was I think my least favourite event of the convention, with the moderator and one panellist talking at length between themselves, even to the point of leaning back to literally talk behind the back of the panellist sitting in the middle. It didn’t feel well-prepared, the moderator not having many questions, and the panellists unable to offer many examples of female friendships in fantasy and seeming to assume they don’t exist.

All seemed a bit odd to me, given that my television had been tuned by the children to the “female friendships in fantasy” channel for the whole of the school holidays: Winx Club, Monster High, Ever After High, the Tinker Bell movies, The Wizards of Waverley Place, Aquamarine, H20: Mako Mermaids, Rainbow Magic, Every Witch Way, etc.

I haven’t read any books by guest of honour Kate Elliott yet, but listening to her in conversation was enough to make me want to change that. (The forthcoming Very Best of… looks like a good place to start.)

I left the panel “Who’s Missing?”, a discussion about authors you should be reading, fairly soon after it began, because my stomach was threatening to drown out the panellists. After eating, I arrived late for “Tea and Jeopardy” with Toby Whithouse, and entrance was denied (or at least discouraged) because it was so full. A shame for me, but good that the event was so popular. I suppose if you asked the three hundred or so people at FantasyCon for their favourite writers, you’d get hundreds of different replies, but podcasts are more like television and films, in that they are not so numerous and there’s more commonality.

Latimer, the butler from Tea and Jeopardy, stayed on to be scoremaster for my favourite part of FantasyCon, “Just a Minute”, hosted by Paul Cornell. The guests were Kate Elliott, Stephen Gallagher, Gillian Redfearn and Frances Hardinge, and what made it so enjoyable is that this year they played it for real, with challenges flying thick and fast. Stephen Gallagher’s win was well-deserved.

If my fellow Theakers had been there, the FantasyCon Disco (sponsored by Gollancz) might have been another highlight of the convention. As it was, I looked on with a frown for a few seconds and scarpered upstairs.

That took me to the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club, a long, free-form event at which I felt rather like an intruder. At the beginning, everyone sat in a circle and took turns to say who they were, receiving a round of applause in return. It felt a bit culty, a bit happy-clappy, but it was a good event to have at FantasyCon, because it got lot of people talking and gave anyone (like me) who didn’t fancy the bar scene a chilled-out, friendly place to go. The interview with Gollancz’s Simon Spanton was fascinating, with readings from Laura Lam and Edward Cox being warmly received. The latter talked about how his novel had been completely rewritten to make it more commercial.

By the second break in SRFC I was pretty worn out and approaching a certain level of grumpiness, and I had the AGM in the morning, so I headed back to the hotel and watched Solomon Kane on TV. (Not a great movie, but better than expected.)

Sunday

Sunday morning we had a short meeting of the BFS committee in the bar, and it was good to meet the people I’ve been working with for the last year. The AGM (on a bit later this year, at 11 a.m.) was rather less fun, because I refused to change one of my proposals to suit everyone else, leading one attendee to yell, “They’re not your awards, Stephen!” No, but it was my proposal and I’m glad I didn’t change it, even if that meant it failed! I’d rather have the proposal I wanted fail than have a proposal I didn’t want go through in my name.

The awards ceremony was in the afternoon, after the banquet. I missed the beginning of the banquet, because I was gluing the names of the award-winners onto the awards – which were still a bit sticky. Next year we’ll know to get them unpacked sooner so that they have time to dry. But I soon caught up and the food was the best I’ve had at a FantasyCon banquet. The ceremony itself went a bit haywire at first, with the PowerPoint setup getting muddled up – at one point thumbnails of all the slides appeared on screen at once. But host Paul Cornell handled it all with grace and aplomb.

I had to go on stage to accept the prize for best comic or graphic novel, on behalf of Becky Cloonan for Demeter. Slight panic in that Paul, when reading out the nominees, did not say the name Demeter in the way I’ve said it all my life. What to do? Say it his way or mine? I assumed he was right and said it his way, but felt my inner nine-year-old scowling at my capitulation. He knows I’m always right, even when I’m wrong.

So that was my FantasyCon. I’m not really a convention person, I think. I’m not a pub person either, and the social side of a convention feels like a big pub to me. But there were lots of interesting panels to attend, lots of interesting panels I didn’t have time to attend, and a very pleasant, welcoming atmosphere. It was good to see so many new faces on the panels. Elsewhere, I was constantly amazed at how generous people were with their time (and how often talking to people would garner choice nuggets of gossip!). It’s not really my thing, socially, but approached as a work convention for my publishing hobby I found it very useful.

I was right about one thing, the Very Best of Kate Elliott was a very good place to start – I recommend it highly! FantasyCon 2015 will take place 23–25 October 2015, at the East Midlands Conference Centre and Orchard Hotel, Nottingham, UK. FantasyCon is one of the cheapest conventions around, especially for BFS members, and even more so if you book early. Even now, tickets are only £55 for BFS members. Join the convention here.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

The Future Fire fundraiser!

Our similarly-abbreviated chums over at The Future Fire are planning a special anniversary anthology, The Future Fire 10 (TFFX for short), to celebrate the tenth year since they began publishing. It will feature reprints of some of their best material to date and new material to match, plus illustrations of a similar standard.

Because they have the funny idea that it's nice to pay contributors rather than extracting their publishing rights in late-night games of Cluedo or keeping them shackled in the dungeons until their writing hands have wilted, they are running a crowdfunding project at http://igg.me/at/tffx.

The stretch goals include increased pay for their forthcoming horror anthology, Fae Visions of the Mediterranean, and increased pay for magazine contributors for twelve months. (They'll give the small press a good name if they aren't careful.)

You can pre-order the anthology, or pick up ebook or paperback copies of their previous and forthcoming books, plus other perks like story critiques, custom art, and personalised knitted undead dolls. For just $12 you can get the ebooks of TFFX and The Lowest Heaven (from Jurassic London), which is a definite bargain.

Here's the link again. Click it!

Monday, 10 August 2015

Pixels | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Alien invasion comedy resurrects classic video games in all their pixelated glory

Centipede. Donkey Kong. Asteroids. Pac-Man. Most of us who grew up in the eighties did battle with these icons. The video games, with their graphic primitiveness and single screen action, reflect a simpler time . . . a time of striped socks pulled up to the knees, big hair bands with mind-numbing lyrics, and backyard or field-down-the-road sports.

Pixels, directed by Chris Columbus, brings the ultimate eighties intellect (i.e., Adam Sandler) to the screen with a straightforward objective (i.e., save the world), a plot as simple as a yellow circle munching dots, and an outcome as predictable as the first level in a classic video game. It has a middle school mentality, and it’s a blast!

Aliens vs. Nerds
1982 world video game champion hopeful Sam Brenner (Sandler) has become a disillusioned employee (“I’m just a loser who was good at old video games”) of the Nerd Brigade, a technology installation/repair company that forces its employees to wear humiliating orange uniforms. His life seems a disappointment, until aliens threaten the earth with gigantic versions of those beloved eighties video game characters. How’s that for a concept?!

The aliens, using modified video footage of eighties legends ranging from Daryl Hall and John Oates to Fantasy Island’s Mr. Roarke and Tattoo, challenge earthlings to a series of video game competitions.

Lifelong friend Will Cooper (Kevin James), now the charmingly bumbling President (of the United States!) pleads with Brenner to reboot his long-dormant gaming skills to resist the aliens. So Brenner and a couple of cartoonish sidekicks set out to save the world. They will fall in love, take outrageous risks, and best of all, lavish the viewer with the triumphant feeling that comes when nerds prevail.

Adam Sandler typically plays one of two roles: the lovable goofball (e.g., The Waterboy, Happy Gilmore, Billy Madison) or the down-to-earth good guy (e.g., Mr. Deeds, 50 First Dates). In Pixels, it’s the latter, and it makes sense with an “event film” like this. Moreover, Brenner’s “Arcader” allies are more than enough to compensate for Sandler’s toned down lead.

First, there’s “Wonder Boy” Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad), a conspiracy theorist who lives with his grandmother and longs to win the love of blonde bombshell Lady Lisa. Ludlow has his work cut out for him, since Lady Lisa is a video game character. Then there’s Eddie “The Fire Blaster” Plant (Peter Dinklage), a supremely narcissistic former world video game champion serving time for tech crimes. Rounding out the team are the fun-loving President Cooper and Brenner’s love interest Violet (Michelle Monaghan).

Playing the Patterns
Pixels repeatedly references the importance of recognizing and acting on the “patterns” within classic video games. Similarly, the film’s makers capitalize on recent alien invasion successes: the destruction of universally recognized monuments, the Independence Day recklessness of tossing the U.S. President into the fray, the aliens dropping from a mother ship for Avengers/Transformers-style all-out urban chaos. Pixels, in essence, plays the patterns, and it wins.

Game challenges pair special effects—ironic, considering the film’s graphically archaic muses—with late seventies/early eighties rock anthems. Brenner and Ludlow, accompanied by Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend,” blast up at glowing centipedes. Queen’s “We Will Rock You” stomps away as Donkey Kong rolls and hurls his digital barrels toward the Arcaders.

Go Guts
When he meets Violet’s son Matty, Brenner sarcastically contrasts eighties and contemporary video game experiences. I’m paraphrasing here: “We used to leave the house and go to these things called arcades. We got together and had fun.”

What an apt statement for today’s tech-enslaved youth . . . and adults. Pixels, for all its absurdity, encourages viewers to get together and get silly.

In the eighties, our parents didn’t enroll us in a dozen different activities. We had to invent our own fun within the confines of our neighbofrhoods. And we didn’t have Rotten Tomatoes telling us whether or not we should like a film. All we had were our own guts, and with Pixels, my gut tells me I want to play again.

Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Apologies for neglecting you, dear readers!

Sorry that it has been so quiet on here of late, and that Theaker’s 52 is so tardy. It’ll finally be out this Friday – honestly, it will, the blog post is written and the files are all with Amazon for approval! – though I’m afraid you’ll have to wait till issue 53 for the next instalments from Mitch Edgeworth and Antonella Coriander’s science fiction sagas, both bumped with great regret from this issue because I ran out of time to proofread them. They’ll be worth the wait, I promise.

The main reason I’ve been so pressed for time has been that my freelance work has been going remarkably well (and my co-editor John has been even busier than me with work), though late night sessions of the lovably reprehensible Saints Row IV: Re-Elected have played a tiny part too, and the end of the summer term meant a whirlwind of end-of-year shows and awards nights and governors’ meetings. (Our oldest daughter even appeared in a play at The Rep, playing Angry Teacher No. 2!) I spoke successfully in favour of a school planning permission application at the city council, which was a fascinating experience – and will lead to the local children getting a brilliant new sports hall. I’ve also been running the British Fantasy Awards, which are currently in a busy phase. The nominees have been announced and I’ve been arranging for the jurors to be supplied with reading copies.

Not many of my reviews have appeared on the TQF blog this year, but I’ve kept up with writing reviews for Interzone. I looked at The Very Best of Kate Elliott in #257, The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord and The Whispering Swarm by Michael Moorcock in #258, and The Great Bazaar and Brayan’s Gold by Peter Brett in #259. If all goes according to plan my review of Armada by Ernest Cline will be in #260. It’s a privilege to appear in those pages. It can sometimes be quite a challenge to write eight hundred words about a novel while avoiding spoilers and grand claims, especially for an author I haven’t read before, but it’s a challenge I enjoy.

My mistake has been to aim for a similar style with my TQF reviews, when there’s a limit to how often I can spend a whole day or so working on a review. But I have begin to write new reviews for TQF as well, and the fruits of that should begin to appear in issue 53, for which I have twenty or thirty reviews lined up. They are a bit shorter than my reviews have been of late, and written in a looser style, more quickly, but I’m quite happy with how they’ve turned out. I’ve created a neat little Google form for inputting the reviews, and some clever functions in the responses spreadsheet that organise the reviews into sections and alphabetical order and add all the typesetting coding required, meaning the TQF review section will take about ten minutes to typeset from now on.

I realised that the same techniques could also be applied to the irregularly produced ezine I compile for the BFS from the reviews that have already appeared on its website, and so Shelflings #5 emerged at the beginning of this month after a long time away, like Rip van Winkle emerging from a cave! For the BFS I’ve also worked out a nifty way of sending out renewal notices and new member welcome letters, building them into the production of our brilliant monthly members-only bulletin, which with luck will save our membership secretaries a good deal of work. If you’re not a member of the BFS, join now so that we can enter this new golden age together!

Anyway, that’s all my excuses for now. Come back tomorrow for the world's first good review of *Pixels*! And on Friday for issue 52!

Friday, 7 August 2015

Book notes #12

Notes and ratings from TQF50 and TQF51 for books I didn’t review for TQF. Credits from Goodreads; apologies to anyone miscredited or missing.

Transit (Image Comics) by Ted McKeever. Street punks, down-and-outs, religious and political fatcats, and assassins. Spud is in a subway station when a murder happens. Quite challenging. Archetypically eighties in style and subject matter. ***

Umbrella Academy, Vol.1: The Apocalypse Suite (Dark Horse Books) by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba. A bunch of former child heroes reunite as jaded adults. I would not have expected a comic by the singer in a rock band (even one who invited Grant Morrison into his videos) to be as good as this. Reminiscent of Doom Patrol with friendlier art. ****

Usagi Yojimbo, Vol. 13: Grey Shadows (Dark Horse Books) by Stan Sakai. The rabbit ronin travels to collect the bounty for Hosoku the Bandit on behalf of a friend, and while waiting for the money helps Inspector Ishida to investigate murders and corruption in a series of connected short stories. Great stories, and the artwork is clear, detailed and full of character. ****

Valérian et Laureline l’Intégrale, Vol. 2 (Dargaud) by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières. Volume two of the complete Valérian and Laureline, which collects Le Pays sans Étoile, Bienvenue sur Alflolol and Les Oiseaux du Maitre. They’re a pair of space agents who get embroiled in a different adventure on each planet. Can’t pretend I understood every word, but that didn’t stop me enjoying them. I like how Laureline does exactly what she wants, however irksome that may be for Valérian. ****

Werewolves of Montpellier (Fantagraphics), by Jason. A thief who dresses as a werewolf on the job attracts the attention of the real thing. ****

Willful Child (Tor Books), by Steven Erikson. Star Trek in the style of Archer. Reviewed for Interzone #256. ***

Winter Well: Speculative Novellas About Older Women (Crossed Genres), by Kay T. Holt (ed.). A decent book collecting four novellas, including “Copper” by Minerva Zimmerman, “The Other World” by Anna Caro, and “To the Edges” by M. Fenn, which begins with an older woman being fired from her job on the day of a terrorist atrocity. “The Second Wife” by Marissa James was for me the best story here. It’s a fantasy or science fantasy story about a second wife whose husband is killed by a conqueror who marries her for her magic. Before he can really set her to work, visitors come from the south, one of whom burns brightly in her mystical visions. Reminiscent in some ways of the Darkover series, but much better. The story has a mature approach to transgender issues. ***

X-Men: The Complete Age of Apocalypse Epic, Book 1 (Marvel), by Scott Lobdell, John Francis Moore, Howard Mackie, Brian K. Vaughan, Ralph Macchio, Terry Kavanagh and Judd Winick. A barely readable muddle set in an alternative X-Men universe. **

Yuki vs Panda, Vol. 1: Revenge. Lust. Karaoke (Duskleaf Media), by Graham Misiurak, Nick Dunec and A.L. Jones. Short and not very good graphic novel about a girl whose nemesis is a panda. **

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Balancing chakras on your backside (or, your right to review stuff that isn't in your wheelhouse)

Dawn Cano's post, "Delicate Sensibilities, an Author’s Responsibility, and Common Sense", on the Ginger Nuts of Horror blog, talks about people saying in reviews of horror books that they were too gory, or sweary, or obscene, etc. For example the blog post says things like:
"If you buy a horror novel, especially one with a trigger warning written on the cover, and take offence to it, you absolutely forfeit your right to complain…"
Do you really? Surely one of the fundamental rights of the reader (even if Daniel Pennac forgot to include it in his list) is to talk about our own reactions to a book, to read the book as ourselves. Also:
"What absolutely needs to change is people leaving bad reviews based on content. When a reader gets his feelings hurt by a book, then slams it in a review, it’s not helpful to anyone, especially the author."
And:
"don’t ruin an author’s livelihood and reputation or spoil the book for other readers just because you have delicate sensibilities."
I don't really agree with very much of the post, but especially these bits. The comments the blog is concerned with aren't calls to have books banned or anything like that, but consumer reviews on places like Amazon.

Reviews help other readers to know if they'll like a book or not, and a review that says a book was too violent for their liking will be helpful to other readers that would find it too violent as well – while alerting readers who do like violence that it might be the right book for them. The effect on the writer's career doesn't come into it. You put a book out there, it's going to get reviewed and rated by fans, casual readers and people who read it because they ran out of books on holiday.

The overall argument in the blog post comes pretty close to saying that you should only review the kind of books that you know you'll like, but I don't think that's true, and I don't think authors should be told to expect that. Fans of a genre may well find reviews from other fans of that genre more useful, and uninformed reviews can be amusing, but people can review whatever they want to.

I gave Crystals R For Kids (or Crystlas R For Kids as the spine would have it) one star on Goodreads recently. It's supposedly factual balderdash for children about using crystals to enhance their magical psychic powers. (It came into the house as a freebie with some gems one of the children wanted to buy.) The picture above is an illustration from the book, showing a boy balancing his chakras by balancing a crystal on his backside! And if you think that's stupid you should read the rest of the book.

This post suggests I was wrong to rate it because I knew in advance that I wouldn't like it. That doesn't make any sense to me. If we all did that, no one would ever read books that don't fit neatly into genre slots, and those slots would get ever smaller. As a reader and a reviewer, you have to sometimes take chances on things you might not like, and report back to other readers on what you find.

But also, in the case of Crystals R For Kids, I think I'm probably the best person to review it because fans of that nonsense will give it undeservedly high scores, despite the utter nonsense it aims to plant in children's heads. Reviews coming at a book from outside our favourite genre can defamiliarise that genre's conventions, make us think about them again.

We can chuckle at uninformed or naive reviews, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be written, and while fans may prefer to read reviews from other fans, outsider perspectives can be valuable. Mark Kermode hated the Entourage movie, and he got a lot of flak from fans of the television show saying that he shouldn't have reviewed it, but as a fan of the show myself I welcomed his perspective, as a reminder of how objectionable I might have found some elements if I hadn't got so used to them after eight years of watching it.