22 February 2011

Review - Sea of Ghosts by Alan Campbell (Tor)


Sea of Ghosts by Alan Campbell
Published by Tor
ARC – 500 pages
Published April 2011
Review copy given by Pan Macmillan

When the last of the Gravediggers, an elite imperial infiltration unit, are disbanded and hunted down by the emperor they once served, munitions expert Colonel Thomas Granger takes refuge in the unlikeliest of places. He becomes a jailer in Ethugra – a prison city of poison-flooded streets and gaols in which a million enemies of the empire are held captive. But when Granger takes possession of two new prisoners, he realises that he can’t escape his past so readily.
Ianthe is a young girl with an extraordinary psychic talent. A gift that makes her unique in a world held to ransom by the powerful Haurstaf – the sisterhood of telepaths who are all that stand between the Empire and the threat of the Unmer, the powerful civilization of entropic sorcerers and dragon-mounted warriors. In this war-torn land, she promises to make Granger an extremely wealthy man, if he can only keep her safe from harm.
This is what Granger is best at. But when other factions learn about Ianthe's unique ability, even Granger's skills of warfare are tested to their limits. While, Ianthe struggles to control the powers that are growing in ways no-one thought were possible. Another threat is surfacing: out there, beyond the bitter seas, an old and familiar enemy is rising – one who, if not stopped, will drown the world and all of humanity with it . .

Sea of Ghosts is set in a pretty grim and gritty world. As the result of a war between humans and a race called the Unmer, the seas have been poisoned with brine, which causes mutation in all who touch it. As well as this, the seas are constantly rising, and so there is a growing threat of extinction by this poison. Campbell has created a complex relationship between humans and Unmer, for although the Unmer are treated as sub humans with nothing but malicious intentions with their sorcery and magically imbued artifacts, trading Unmer magical trinkets on the black market is commonplace. Though the Emperor is the de facto ruler, in reality a number of powerful crime barons rule each city. This adds a definite air of suspense for the characters, as even the smallest mishap could lead them to their own execution, or in some cases something far worse. Given the nature of the world and the rising seas, there was a distinct nautical focus that took some getting used to.

Granger is a well balanced and flawed character. After meeting the girl Ianthe, he is betrayed and left for dead. In what seems like half self preservation, half dead reckoning, he puts his life in the firing line continuously in order to rescue her. He slowly becomes warped in both mind and body as his desperation grows in his search for Ianthe.
Ianthe's character is very well written, and very intriguing. Her power is handled well, as it its limitations. Although she jumps from one form of imprisonment to another throughout the book, she has the strength of character to resist at every turn, developing her power in the process. The scale of her abilities toward at the climax are pretty awesome to read.
Ethan Maskylene was the show stealer. His malevolence is very cold and distant, as though the most unspeakable acts of torture have no emotional effect on him, which makes him that little bit more sinister. His drive to protect his son and to learn the mysteries of the universe give him an angle that normally isn't seen in such cruel and vindictive characters.

The one down side to Sea of Ghosts was that the ending wrapped up far too quickly, and this had an impact on the climax of the story. The rest of the novel was very well paced and Campbell handled and intertwined the plot threads very well. The balance of power between Granger, Maskylene, the psychic priesthood known as the Haurstaf and the Empire shifts continuously, which makes for an exciting read.

Sea of Ghosts was a very enjoyable book with an excellent set of characters and a brilliantly thought out setting. Though things seemed to fizzle out towards the end, it was a gripping adventure with plenty of action to sink your teeth into. It's a dark, fast paced story filled with intrigue, forbidden lore and corruption, and you'll enjoy every page of it.

20 February 2011

The Last Ringbearer - Tolkien's epic told from the other side

Spanish Cover for The Last Ringbearer
J.R.R. Tolkien's magnum opus The Lord of the Rings is a tale of courage, bravery and the triumph of good over evil. With the focus on the alliance of Hobbits, humans, Dwarves and Elves fighting against the forces of Mordor, the reader is given a very once sided view of the events surrounding the War of the Ring. As the old saying goes, 'history is written by the victors'. Now, you can look at the other side of the story in The Last Ringbearer, an alternate version of Lord of the Rings written by Russian palaeontologist Kirill Yesov.

Though The Last Ringbearer was penned in 1999, the story has recently come under fire from the Tolkien Estate. Once the novel was translated into English by Yisroel Markov last year (non commercially), the Tolkien Estate are claiming copyright infringement. According to Markov, pressure from the Tolkien Estate is the reason why no English version of The Last Ringbearer has been attempted before.

You are still able to download a PDF of the English translation for free here. I recommend you do so before the legal ramifications mean that the translated text gets pulled. Whereas Markov insists that the text, as a non-commercial translation of a derivative text that was published outside of normal copyright laws, it does infringe on copyright. The Tolkien Estate, however, heavily disagrees with this.

(via Blastr)

What do you think? Should this be considered fan-fiction for all intents and purposes? If it is freely available and not sold or published, should it stay in circulation?

18 February 2011

Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness [book review]

Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness
Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness
Published by Walker
Hardback – 624 pages
Published May 2010
Copy loaned from library
War,” says the Mayor. “At last.” Three armies march on New Prentisstown, each one intent on destroying the others. Todd and Viola are caught in the middle, with no chance of escape. As the battles commence, how can they hope to stop the fighting? How can there ever be peace when they’re so hopelessly outnumbered? And if war makes monsters of men, what terrible choices await? But then a third voice breaks into the battle, one bent on revenge...

Although Monsters of Men is the last instalment in the Chaos Walking trilogy, it is very easy to pick up on the history of the characters and the world without the need to have read the first two books (The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Ask & The Answer). Through the interactions and relationships between the characters, you are given enough of the back story to be fully clued up on what has happened, but enough it left out to make you want to make sure you read the first two novels. Ness does this without the use of infodumps, and it was satisfying to have to trudge through pages of 'catchup' back story.

By far, the biggest strength of Monsters of Men is the characters. There is an abundance of emotional investment in the characters of Todd and Viola, and the reader can't help but feel for them as their relationship is strained to breaking point as they find themselves on different sides of a war they both don't want. Ness does this in part by using 'Noise', where people's raw emotions are broadcast telepathically. This is used to convey the hatred, fear and lust of the people caught in this war. At first, the constant change in font choice to show this Noise was grating, but it soon became a necessary part of the reading. The telepathic link between the protagonists is such an important part of the their relationship that, when it is severed, creates a silence that is more disturbing that anything that could have been broadcast by the characters themselves.

The setting is a great blend of fantasy and science fiction, with a colonized new world of expansionist humans and a tribe of defensive natives attempting to find some semblance of co-existence and failing at every turn. The Spackle, the oppressed natives of the story, have been liberated from slavery but are then subsequently thrown into this war between rival human factions. Most of the story takes place over a relatively small area of the world, which makes the action quite claustrophobic and you get a deeper understanding of the plight of either side in the conflict.

For a YA novel, Monsters of Men deals with some pretty dark themes. The Mayor of New Prentisstown is a man slowly going insane (or already too far gone) and as his grip on his power begins to slip he becomes increasingly erratic and desperate. The action and pacing of the novel gives everything a very gritty, more realistic feel, and even the lulls are filled with unease and impending catastrophe. Seeing as both protagonists are barely teenagers, the situations they find themselves in mean they have to make some pretty harrowing decisions.

Monsters of Men was a surprisingly dark and complex novel with a rich world and a great focus on the characters and the emotional repercussions of their actions. With the use of some clever devices, Ness has bared the characters souls to the reader, meaning that you aren't just immersed in the story, but you're riding every wave of feeling that comes from each character. A mesmerising read, and a well deserved runner up of the Indie Lit Awards.

13 February 2011

The Inaugural British Fantasy Society Wales Open Night


 It was more than coincidence that, after only 2 weeks of living in Cardiff, the British Fantasy Society announced its first Wales Open Night, not ten minutes walk from my front door. Not only that, but I spotted the event only four hours before it was meant to start. Lady Fortuna was practically tapping me on the head with her Spoon of Networking*, and so I had to go. The Open Night was in the upper room of a small pub called A Shot In The Dark; a very nice venue with rather expensive beers. So, pint in hand, I went ahead and settled myself in for an evening of the finest geekery, prizes and the best discussion of the genre I've had in a long while.

The event was hosted by Steve Upham of Screaming Dreams and Christopher Teague of Pendragon Press (with whom I had the privilege of discussing the pros and cons of small press e-book sales). There was also a fantastic giveaway of books from both Screaming Dreams and Pendragon Books, and I was lucky to have snagged a copy of Bob Lock's The Empathy Effect (who was also at the event but left before I had the chance to ask him to sign it).

There was a great diversity of people there, which was awesome for conversation. The mix of writers, poets, bloggers, publishers and enthusiasts gave me plenty of food for thought (I realised that I seriously need to brush up on my TV sci-fi and vampire movie choices) and a number of us stayed for a while after the event itself was over, talking about exhuming Shakespeare to retrieve his supposed 'missing manuscripts', the benefits of a Battle Royale type contest in order to win books, and why the Battlestar Galactica board game is superior to all others. It was an absolute success, and I'm really looking forward to the next Wales Open Night (which will probably be hosted in Swansea). Until then, I need to get my hands on a BSG boxset in preparation!

Photos courtesy of Steve from Screaming Dreams

9 February 2011

Speculative fiction to be welcomed as literature?

Let's be honest. Science fiction and fantasy have never really been considered genres worthy of literary merit by the general populace. As epic as Tolkien's work is, it's still not considered in line with that of Dickens or Twain in terms of literary merit. Although speculative fiction is enjoying a rise in acceptance, we're still pretty much on the sidelines when it comes to 'true' literary fiction.

An example of this prejudice is seen in The Man Booker Prize, where for over 40 years there has failed to be any recognition in the speculative fiction category. As an award that 'aims to reward the best novel of the year' we're either doing something seriously wrong or we're being consistently ignored as a credible genre. A recent article in The Guardian poses the question, 'Will 2011 be the year that we breakthrough?'.

If this is the case, then it seems that the writer who will do it for us is China Miéville - winner of the Indie Lit Awards with Kraken (see my review here). As Jared of pornokitsch correctly put it, 'I hate reviewing his books because I think they're proper literature & that makes it much harder!'

With the success of The City & The City and Kraken, and with the impending release of Embassytown, Miéville's style shows that speculative fiction has a place on par with the winners of awards like the Booker Prize. From what he said at his acceptance speech for the Arthur C. Clarke Awards (see video embedded below), he feels much the same way about the outsider status of genre fiction.

Do you think that this will be a good year for speculative fiction with regards to its 'literary value'? Can you name any other authors who would be able to help our genre break through this year?

7 February 2011

Review - Kraken by China Miéville (Pan)

Kraken by China Miéville
Published by Pan
Paperback – 400 pages
Published May 2010
Review copy given by Pan MacMillan

Deep in the research wing of the Natural History Museum is a prize specimen, something that comes along much less often than once in a lifetime: a perfect, and perfectly preserved, giant squid. But what does it mean when the creature suddenly and impossibly disappears?
For curator Billy Harrow it's the start of a headlong pitch into a London of warring cults, surreal magic, apostates and assassins. It might just be that the creature he's been preserving is more than a biological rarity: there are those who are sure it's a god.
A god that someone is hoping will end the world.

I found the characters rather grating at first. I didn't sympathise with many of them and I found myself irritated by them. However, I quickly realised that this is because I would have been irritated by them in real life, and they were well written, accurate portrayals of certain aspects of British social classes.
The characters of Goss and Subby I found very well written. As a duo of heartless mass murderers, Miéville has made them not only threatening but merrily malevolent at the same time. The fact that there is no real personal motivation behind their murders, just that they find it fun, is incredibly sinister.

The world that Miéville has created is definitely the biggest strength of Kraken. This 'other London' idea isn't an entirely new one (fans of Kraken usually refer to Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere and, more recently, Ben Aarovitch's Rivers of London/Midnight Riot for this sub-genre) but Miéville has perfected it.
The city is a hive of magical activity, with a vast number of religions, cults and cub cultures operating beneath the thin veil of 'reality' that most people perceive. Miéville holds nothing back in showing you the sheer depth and complexity of the hidden London, from the Londonmancers who divine the future from the innards of the city itself, to the Church of God Kraken who have their own well established ideological universe. This is a world in which the familiar meets the fantastic in which you find yourself willingly immersed.

Kraken is brilliantly paced. Miéville is able to balance suspense and action in order to keep the story flowing without having to rely on info dumps to bring the reader up to speed. With such a complex social underbelly to work with, this is not mean feat. The reader finds things out at the same time as the protagonist, and so the gradual realisation of what is going on is a pleasure to experience.

Miéville's writing style is difficult to get into. It's very 'wordy' and flowery in places. At first I mistook this for arrogance (some kind of literary clique where if you don't understand it, you're not cool enough etc.) but I realised that this was all to aid in this rich world that he has created. Once you're able to penetrate the language, you're pretty much hooked into it. However, once I put the book down I was reluctant to pick it back up again since I knew it would take time to get back into the flow of the story. This is definitely the kind of book that needs to be read in epic sessions.

Kraken is a book that, by the end, I really liked. It has a deep and complex world setting that is both familiar and unfamiliar, inhabited by very real characters that make the fantastic elements all the more strange. Were it not for the dense language and writing style, Kraken would have been something that I would have loved. As it stands, it's still a thoroughly enjoyable book, though probably not one for casual readers.
Recommended to be read at least twice so you can fully appreciate the text. I'll definitely be giving it a second run through, and I'm looking forward to reading more of his work.

5 February 2011

A quick update from the road

So I've moved to the big city (Cardiff - home of Doctor Who and Being Human) and there's a severe Internet shortage. I've been snatching what little free Wi-Fi I can from coffee shops and restaurants, but it's not enough to catch up on blog posts nor blog myself. So here's a quick update on what's going on to tide you guys over until normal service is returned. I will do my damnedest to make sure I get a review out every Monday until the Internet is installed, and then things can go back to normal.

Me and my fiancée have our own flat in Cardiff now. It's looking pretty good now, though she's the breadwinner now so I'm resigned to the role of house husband.

I graduated with my Master's Degree on Tuesday, so I am now a fully fledged Master of Egyptology (you can call me The Master for short, hehe). If there's funding available, I'm going to be working on a PhD next year on blood and demons.

I recently won two books; The Dragon with the Girl Tattoo from pornokitcsh and The Difference Engine from Graeme's Fantasy Book Review. Thanks to both of you!

The Indie Lit Awards have now closed, and the speculative fiction winner was Kraken by China Miéville, with Patrick Ness' Monsters of Men coming up in second.

I was chosen to be one of the 20,000 givers for World Book Night. I'll be giving away 48 copies of Philip Pullman's Northern Lights on March 5th.

Isn't it always the case that loads if stuff happens when you're too far from the Internet to tell anyone? Here's hoping I can snatch up enough Internons (technical term - 1 unit of Internet) to post up a review of the winner of the Indie Lit Awards for speculative fiction - Kraken.

I promise I'll do my best to comment on your posts when I can too. I've got 400+ posts on my GReader waiting to be read, so bear with me. See you soon!