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“I’ve been trying to get through this damn book again.” Ardee slapped at a heavy volume lying open, face down, on a chair.

“The Fall of the Master Maker,” muttered Glokta. “That rubbish? All magic and valour, no? I couldn’t get through the first one.”

“I sympathise. I’m onto the third and it doesn’t get any easier. Too many damn wizards. I get them mixed up with one another. It’s all battles and endless bloody journeys, here to there and back again. If I so much as glimpse another map I swear I’ll kill myself.”

Oh Joe Abercrombie – you kidder!

This concluding chapter to the fantasy series The First Law does an excellent job of refusing to compromise the intent of its author. From the initial entry The Blade Itself Abercrombie has tweaked the noses of fantasy literature. I have been following this series from the beginning of my blog and I must admit reading back over the reviews, by the second title Before They Are Hanged, the joke was wearing a bit thin for me. However, by Last Argument of Kings the energy has definitely returned and the story comes to an ending both fulfilling and devastating.

There are no easy answers in this fantasy and this is something I really admire about the books.

Glokta remains the favourite character from the bunch, returning to his homeland now fatally compromised by the events in the siege of Dagoska. For a man whose justification for his actions in the service of his king, torturing and murdering suspects as a member of the Inquisition, rest upon a certainty that he is in the right given his suffering at the hands of the enemy Gurkish this is a maddening dilemma. If he now too is guilty of treason, how is he any different than his victims? Logen returns from a failed quest still unredeemed, desperately hoping he can become a better man. Realizing he has no choice he returns to the North, where most of his former friends believed he is long dead. In truth they had hoped The Bloody Nine had finally died, known for his propensity for killing friends and enemies in the midst of a bloodlust. Jezal returns from that same quest as Logen welcomed back as a hero. Wishing only to have the chance to live  a normal life, following a humiliating experience outside of Adua, instead the manipulative mage Bayaz is positioning him to fill a very special role in the kingdom.

War has come. The Gurkish have finally invaded the mainland. A rebellion against the lords has been stirred up. Bethod’s armies in the North are occupying Colonel West’s forces, which are desperately needed at home. Our heroes between them must beg, borrow and steal the means of winning an uncertain peace.

Where this book excels is in its frustration of the fantasy novel trope of a final conflict resolving all plot threads. Instead here Abecrombie makes it clear that these events are part of a recurring pattern. The real conflict is between those, like Bayaz, who recognize this, and those who feel that an end is something worth sacrificing for.

This is a very entertaining and clever narrative and Abercrombie deserves all the praise for fashioning an unromantic fantasy series. This is great fun.

Last Argument of Kings

“Do you like to read books, Bran?” Jojen asked him.

“Some books. I like the fighting stories. My sister Sansa likes the kissing stories, but those are stupid.”

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” said Jojen. “The man who never reads lives only once. The singers of the forest had no books. No ink, no parchment, no written language. Instead they had the trees, and the weirwoods above all. When they died, they went into the woods, into leaf and limb and root, and the trees remembered. All their songs and spells, their histories and prayers, everything they knew about this world.”

This review has been a long time coming. I complained often to friends that I could barely remember A Feast of Crows, the last book in this series which was published over six years ago. I trusted in George R.R. Martin‘s abilities as a writer to suck me back into the action, given that the plots and backdrops to A Song of Ice and Fire are so impressively constructed.

Interestingly in A Dance With Dragons Martin resolves the split he introduced in previous volumes, with successive books focusing on a specific selection of characters and then the opposing points of view of others being presented in the next. Here we follow up on Tyrion, Daenerys and Jon Snow for the initial half of the book, but afterwards we catch up with Arya Stark and Cersei Lannister among others. Having resolved his arbitrary divide between the North and South geographical locations of these characters in order to split the material, the action finally begins to move forward.

But oh this is a long, hard read.

Part of the issue for me was that while the first books had these conflicting points of view on the series of events – which was a nice approach – the latest in the series have been see-sawing back and forth along a fictional timeline. It is quite confusing. Another issue is that either I am wearing rose-tinted glasses as far as my recollection of these previous entries in A Song of Ice and Fire, or Martin’s writing is a lot more miserabilist. For starters there is the unremitting torture and humiliation of the character Theon Greyjoy, who has gone from a ward of the Stark family (in effect a well-treated hostage), to the abused catspaw of the bloodthirsty Ramsay Snow. The chapters that relate to Reek – the name Theon is forced to adopt – are very disturbing and difficult to read. Then there is our favourite anti-hero Tyrion, traumatised by having murdered his own father and on the run to the East. Mutilated and half-demented, the quick-witted dwarf is a long way from the cynical yet oddly decent character he was first introduced as. Then there is Daenerys whose efforts at running a kingdom have left her at the mercy of competing power factions and untrustworthy advisors.

It is a credit to Martin that I feel so invested in this story, but it took me quite a while to finish it. The picture being painted here of the ‘game of thrones’ that threatens to swallow whole continents in war and destruction is vast. Increasingly however I am coming to understand why historical epics so often gloss over the scope and realities of conflict, instead introducing a sometimes insipid plot involving a small selection of characters caught in the middle of these events. Martin is trying to encompass every facet of the plot that he has unraveled, but it feels overwhelming. The taste of grit from the brutal and short lives of these people never leaves, which increases the feeling of an uphill battle to get to the last page. The sequence involving the army of Stannis Baratheon, snowed under and starving, was especially grim and the book ends with their fates seemingly sealed.

It is not all misery though. I was happy to see Davos the Onion Knight return to the book and am very excited to see Liam Cunningham play him in the second season of Game of Thrones (as discussed here on my Blue Jumper podcast). It was also great to get some story progression on Cersei and Arya, two of my favourite characters in the series in fact.

Overall though this is a troublesome read. I’m enjoying Joe Abercrombie a lot more at the moment, it is sad to say.

And so I came to Buckkeep, sole child and bastard of a man I’d never know. Prince Verity became King-in-Waiting and Prince Regal moved up a notch in the line of succession. If all I had ever done was to be born and discovered, I would have left a mark across all the land for all time. I grew up fatherless and motherless in a court where all recognized me as a catalyst. And a catalyst I became.

Earlier in the week I mentioned I had attended a filming of ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club. The topic of discussion was fantasy and Lev Grossman made the argument that the genre’s defining characteristic was big emotions. See this is something I have always had a problem with – fantasy writing does indeed feature expansive emotions (after all, the entire world is generally under threat from some dark lord or another), but the characters often do not reflect emotional depth.

Oh and another member of the panel, Jennifer Rowe recommended today’s book by Robin Hobb as an interesting entry point for readers looking for fantasy novels with genuine character development.

You know what? She was not wrong.

If this story was a fairy tale, it would start as follows. There once was a king so clever, his people knew him by the name of Shrewd. He had three sons. Chivalry, Verity and Regal – but only the two eldest sons had the same mother. By the time the third child was born of the new Queen, Desire was her name, the prophetic naming of the king’s children no longer worked. Regal was a cruel and over-ambitious princeling, envious of his siblings and eager to ascend to the throne. Then the day came when he discovered that the king-in-waiting Chivalry was not as chivalrous as his name after all and had fathered an illegitimate son on a commoner. Quickly his plot fell into place.

This is how the fable would be told. Hobb is far more interested in describing a world of real characters, real experiences, despite the fantastical setting.

Instead of the three princes vying for the kingship, the story is concerned primarily with Chivalry’s unlooked for heir. Dumped at the gates of a military post, he is brought to the capital of the Six Duchies, Buckkeep, shaming his father and forcing his abdication. The second son of King Shrewd, Verity, becomes the next in line to the throne and has a stable-hand raise the child. Known as ‘boy’, for as long as he can remember, Burrich as former man of Chivalry’s gives him the name of Fitz, another word for ‘bastard’. In his own plain-speaking manner he raises the boy to become useful at court, perhaps enough that people will forget that he in turn could one day succeed to the throne.

Fitz begins to develop an unusual affinity with animals, in particular dogs. He even comes to learn how to communicate with them, something which sends Burrich into a rage. Some at court would recognize such a talent as ‘the Wit’, which is said to transform men into beasts. He insists that Fitz hide his unusual nature, in order to protect himself from the duplicitous Royal.

All this court intrigue threatens to distract the leaders of the Six Duchies just when the cruel invaders from the Outislands, known as the Red-Ship Raiders, whose victims are left bestial and violent shadows of their former selves. The entire kingdom is on the brink of collapse and all the while young Fitz finds himself at the centre of a deadly race to the throne.

Jennifer Rowe was dead on the money. This book draws you in with incisive character detail, allows the reader to get the learn the world Fitz finds himself in along with him and even opens each chapter with a short historical note that adds to the worldbuilding. I also love how unobtrusive Hobb’s use of magic is. It is a subtly handled and left largely undefined until the latter half of the novel.

This is not your typical swords and sorcery fantasy tale. It is almost like a hybrid of Dune and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, more concerned with political intrigue. For that I love it and eagerly look forward to the rest of the series.

Strong characters, an involving plot and an innovative use of fantasy tropes.

Freedom! Jane thought. She rocked back on her heels and imagined Stilt flapping off clumsily into a bronze-green autumn sky. Her thoughts soared with him, over the walls and razor-wire and into the air, the factory buildings and marshalling yards dwindling below, as he flew higher than the billowing exhaust from the smokestacks, into the deepening sky, higher than Dame Moon herself. And never, oh never, to return!

I have had the good fortune to experience that age-old cliché of ‘escaping into a good book’. It is a rare occurence, but it does happen. To be completely transported away into a world conjured up by an author’s imagination is a delicate and wondrous thing.

Over the course of this challenge I have experienced this only two or three times. Geoff Ryman provided one such diversion, as did David Mitchell. As I write each entry for this blog, I become more eager to feel the sensation of sinking into another imaginary world once more.

The opening pages of Michael Swanwick‘s novel promised just that. Jane Alderberry has been raised in a factory that supplies the Elven kingdom with dragons. She is human, but just as much a slave as the other workers, elves, shapeshifters and other examples of fey kind, owned and controlled by the factory itself. Jane is persuaded to help the roguish Rooster sabotage the factory in an attempt to murder their overseer the disgusting Blugg. The assassination plot fails and its mastermind loses an eye for his troubles, but Jane returns to her bunk with the means to her own escape. A grimoire detailing the making of dragons.

As her knowledge of the workings of these incredible metal sky-destriers grows, she becomes aware of a voice compelling her to the factory yard. There she meets the dragon No. 7332, who enmeshes her with promises of freedom from the suffering of the factory. However, she soon realizes she has exchanged one master for another and the indiscriminate havoc he wrecks on the factory claims the lives of both her enemies and those few friends she had.

What follows is a broadly Dickensian narrative of Jane’s rise through Elven society, a cruel and callous pagan universe that nonetheless is fuelled by industry. The various races of the ‘fey and the weird‘, share in a society based on domination and exploitation. Jane begins her schooling disguised as an ordinary wood-nymph in order to learn how to repair No. 7332, discovers a love of theft and through her scheming wrangles a scholarship to university studying alchemical sciences. With each elevation through society she finds herself trapped in the same narratives, love triangles and bitter emnities. Faces and names reoccur with such frequency that she comes to doubt the reality of her existence. Beneath it all, she knows the dragon is controlling her, moving her forward in a game of cosmic strategy that she cannot comprehend.

Swanwick serves up a delicious gumbo of fantasy and steampunk tropes that revolves around two poles of cosmic nihilism and alchemical transformation. The Iron Dragon’s Daughter is a perversely mischievous book, unrestrained in scope and possessing a wicked sense of humour. There are touches of Dickens strewn throughout, including a reference to the breaking of a barrel of wine as a sign of the building foment in Paris during A Tale of Two Cities. The naming conventions also resemble Dickens’ whimsical malapropisms, but Swanwick also includes allusions to Welsh mythology to remind us that this is ostensibly a fantasy novel. The scenes of ritualistic sex magic, the mating habits of gargoyles, elves snorting lines of coke and Jane consulting a witch on methods of birth control do add to the categorical confusion.

For it has to be said this is a profoundly twisted vision of fantasy, a weird psychodrama that far outstrips the likes of China Miéville, cleaving perhaps closer to the likes of Samuel R. Delany and M. John Harrison.

To say more would, I fear, only spoil the experience of reading this book for yourselves. Writing this review has been as much a pleasure for me as reading the book that informs it. A revelation, whimsically profound and delightfully twisted. Another roaring success for Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks series.

Recently Stephanie and I have become fans of Escape to the Country. Produced by the BBC it is aired in Australia on the 7 Network. Why have we become addicted to this daytime television show about that most clichéd of yuppie dreams? Because it is incredibly frustrating! The couples never seem to buy a house. Either they are outbid, or they decide not to move after all, whatever the result in many cases beautiful homes nestled in picturesque bucolic towns are left for another buyer and viewer gratification goes unsatisfied once again.

There is something instinctively appealing about buying a home in the countryside though. I find it ironic that I am now on the other side of the world and all of a sudden have discovered a love for country living. Especially given that it is the English countryside (although Stephanie is partial to a move to France), and here we are living outside Sydney with a veritable panoply of exotic wildlife just hanging out in the back garden.

Partly this is due to the sense of accumulated history that is associated with rural towns and villages in England. My dream would be to find a nice cottage, turn one of the rooms into a study and just stuff it with weird and wonderful books. Head down to the local pub for a pint or two of Old Speckled Hen and buy my groceries from the local farmer.

Alex Hunter unwittingly finds himself in just such a town, a place not even on the map named Strangehaven. After  crashing into a tree while travelling out to Cornwall, Alex wakes up in the local B&B being tended to by Doctor Charles and Jane his receptionist, who quickly befriends the injured stranger. He reports to them that he saw a girl in a black dress standing in the middle of the road moments before he crashed, but they assure him no one else was found at the scene of the accident. As soon as he recovers, Jane takes him around the town and introduces him to the casually odd inhabitants of Strangehaven.

There’s Albert Bonneti an Italian mechanic who speaks in pidgin English and an exaggerated accent; Adam who claims to be an alien who insists on wearing shades the entire time for fear of Earth’s ultraviolet rays; Maggie McCreadie the B&B owner who spends her evenings searching for something in the graveyard after midnight; and Meg, an Amazonian shaman who through the course of the series begins to instruct Jane’s brother Jeremy in shamanic initiation rites. Unbeknownst to Alex many of the town worthies including the school head-master, the doctor and the police constable are all members of a Masonic Order known as The Knights of the Golden Light.

Strangehaven is also host to normal village excitements such as romantic affairs and family conflicts. Jeremy’s father John takes exception to Meg’s relationship with his son. The green grocer Peter is sneaking around behind his wife Beverly’s back with Suzie Tang. Even the sweet friendship between Alex and Jane, which she tragically misconstrues, is well-drawn.

The town, however, is not simply inhabited by a collection of eccentrics, but under the influence of eerie supernatural forces.  Alex discovers he is unable to leave Strangehaven, finding himself turned around when he tries to drive on to Cornwall (with a series of crop circles visible in the background). Jeremy and Meg successful manage to inhabit the bodies of two birds courtesy of a magical ritual. Also Alex seems to have forgotten that the woman he saw suddenly transform into a tree looked just like Jane. There are frequent cutaways to a naked painting of her, depicting her body floating in a fish tank, being stared at by a mysterious stranger in Strangehaven.

Creator Gary Spencer Millidge has many strings to his bow. Writer and artist of the wonderful Strangehaven, he also self-publishes the series, has written a biography of Alan Moore and despite the irregular release of issues, still insists that number #24 will complete the story. The influence of Twin Peaks, The Prisoner and The Avengers is clear, with innocent seeming English towns revealed to be sites of global importance. Alex’s car accident resembles the opening of Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, a favourite of mine that has the protagonist encounter a woman outside the city of Bellona who transforms into a tree. The art is impressively photorealistic, with creased smiles and angry outbursts perfectly captured.

An excellent series, strongly recommended.

I took the book from her, and the pen, and opened Silent Riots to the title page. I signed my name, trying to remember the last time I’d signed one of my books, trying hard to recall how long it had been.

“Not the sort of thing I usually read,” she admitted, “I mean, it is rather explicit. A bit grim for my tastes. But, even so, I thought it was quite well written. Poetic, even.”

Horror fiction has enjoyed any number of stories involving a discovered text, or diary hinting at the horrible fate that befell the writer of the tale we are about to read. The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson is one of my favourites. Not only is it set in the west of Ireland, but Hodgson’s story manages to describe its narrator’s increasing desperation convincingly, before throwing the equivalent of everything and the kitchen’s sink in terms of mythical eschatology right at the reader. It is intimately written (poor Pepper), while also managing to be ambitious in its scope. Cut to a hundred years later and Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves managed to repeat the feat, introducing us to three distinct narrators, with their individual texts interwoven on the printed page.

Caitlín R. Kiernan’s novel opens with yet another ‘editor’s note’, revealing that we are about to read a manuscript by author Sarah Crowe, a genre writer who committed suicide following the events described.

With that established, Sarah’s arrival at the Wight Farm, located near a large and distinctive red oak tree is described in diary form. She has travelled from the south all the way to Rhode Island to get away from her past and maybe, just maybe, actually write a book that will get her publisher off her back. Unfortunately she has been suffering from writer’s block, is still traumatized by what happened to her lover Amanda and is starting to suspect that she has nothing left to write. Instead of working on a new novel, Sarah begins to explore the history of the Wight Farm, discovering that the previous tenant an academic named Charles Harvey, hung himself from the oak tree outside. He had been working on a history of the farm and its eerie history, with a number of mysterious happenings over the years seemingly connected to the area.

Sarah’s isolation is rudely interrupted by the arrival of Constance, a local-born artist who has returned home from L.A. It appears the landlord is hoping to squeeze as much rent out of the property as possible. Constance actually knew Charles Harvey and happens to believe in all sorts of occult phenomena, explaining to Sarah that she believes ghosts are phantom projections through time of past, or future events. Initially exasperated at having to share her new home with a stranger, the two women grow closer even as the red tree sitting outside their home inexplicably becomes more menacing. Over time they both witness a series of strange phenomena, including missing time, sudden nausea, dislocation, vivid dreams and yet neither can bring themselves to leave the Wight Farm. As Sarah continues to study the increasingly erratic writings of Charles Harvey, she finds herself following in his footsteps into madness.

I chose this book as it was mentioned in the King of Nerds article that inspired this horror novel glut I have embarked upon. As it happens I have read Caitlín R. Kiernan’s writing before. Some years ago a friend gave me a lend of her debut novel Silk. I was not a fan. The Red Tree was nominated for this year’s World Fantasy Award so I wondered whether I would enjoy this more.

This has to be one of the most defensive books I have ever read. It reminded me of Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, particularly the sequence where he attacks the critics of his films. Sarah Crowe rails against her own critics, both in the media and on amazon.com comment threads, while despairing that maybe she is just a hack. She peppers her conversation with literary quotes and references, the book quoting liberally from Lewis Carroll’s Alice novels and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative Arthur Gordon Pym. The absolute low-point for me was when she repeated a memorized passage on Francis Bacon that she read on Wikipedia (Irony!).

It is the humourlessness of Kiernan’s writing that I find most disagreeable though. Chalk this one up as another negative review.

Rawrr catty.

I am becoming a swift fan of Jeff Parker’s writing. Last year I read The Age of the Sentry by him, a miniseries from Marvel Comics about a Superman knock-off. Previous writers had been unable to do much with the character, lumbering the Man of Not-Steel with mental health issues to distinguish him from DC’s ‘Boy Scout’. Parker ignored most of this and spun the Sentry into a series of parodic adventures, even including Truman Capote in the proceedings. Here was a superhero comic brimming with ideas and a deft farcical touch.

Which brings us to Mysterius The Unfathomable. Even had I not known of Parker’s work, I would have had to snap this book off the shelves due to the cover alone. Tom Fowler’s art places an almost undue emphasis on bulging stomachs and shapeless bodies. The hero, Mysterius, even has a drink enflamed proboscis, to hint at his sleazy nature. The actual texture of the graphic novel in my hands feels worn and engrained. There are coffee mug stains over the title and an impression of curling pages on each corner. This is Parker returning us to the era of the pulp magazine, featuring the strange adventures of the paranormal, but with a modern twist.

The story begins with a panicked auctioneer meeting with a representative of Mysterius, who calls herself Delfi. This of course is not her real name – as we soon learn, names have power in the world of magick. Their prospective client, a Mister Ormond, has a rather unusual problem that he hopes the famous magician can help him with. His skin has broken out in a series of highly visible tattoos. Each tattoo represents the name of a prostitute he has slept with.

Mysterius is intrigued and agrees to take the case. This also provides him with an opportunity to give Delfi more instruction into the ways of magic. She is not his first assistant. In fact he has worked with countless young women bearing her name since the turn of the century. Mysterius is quite old and powerful, although his abilities prove to be rather erratic at the best of times. Delfi was originally a reporter who encountered her future partner while covering a séance at a playboy celebrity’s house. Unfortunately the proceedings quickly went out of control – is it not always the ways with séances? – and the young woman found herself introduced to a strange world.

In following up on the Ormond case, however, the pair quickly come up against larger problems than they had been anticipating. For one there is the little matter of the disastrous séance yet to clear up. What’s more Mysterius suspects Ormond’s strange affliction is due to a witch, whom he has slighted in some way. It turns out the witch belongs to a coven that worships an old and familiar evil.

Then there are the demonic Doctor Seuss books. I always knew that damn Cat in the Hat was evil!

Mysterius The Unfathomable is a delightful story. The main character is an absolute louse, his distended stomach a testament to his wasted long life and poor habits. He is also cowardly, at one point suggesting that they distract a demonic creature from another dimension by letting it eat a baby, so that he and Delfi can make their escape. In certain respects his relationship with his assistant is similar to that of The Doctor to his many ‘companions’. I am thinking in particular of the madcap Tom Baker incarnation. He will do the right thing – eventually – but usually only after a series of puckish stunts. Mysterius is the anti-Thomas Carnacki, whose only rule is to always get paid (although as a matter of principle, he refuses to exchange money for anything).

This is more than a parody of the pulp magazine era, it is a rueful love letter to madcap adventures and paranormal absurdity. Lovecraft-esque, but with a sense of fun and whimsy that eluded the grim New Englander. If you were to say the word ‘squamous’, to Mysterius, he would probably snort with laughter. There’s even a dig at Lovecraft and the pulp era’s more racialist tendencies, with Delfi’s ethnicity raising the main character’s eyebrows briefly.

Tom Fowler matches the manic proceedings with a grotesque bestiary of humans, only to let loose with the Seussian demon dimension. He captures the sleazy vibe of Mysterius’ world perfectly.

Gleefully recommended.

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