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The Rock and Roll Reich had spent a decade using the music as a tool of social control, taming the beleaguered English with free concerts; selling Ax’s Utopian manifesto with stirring anthems and spectacular futuristic tech. They had forged rock and roll idealism into a national religion, a passion that made hard times sweet, and it had worked.

During the week it was revealed that Alan Moore completist Pádraig Ó Méalóid had published an article by the Northampton Magus on his livejournal in two parts. In short a typically verbose and associative rant by Moore on all matters magic(k)al and the effect of populism thereon. It includes this typical pithy comparison of Aleister Crowley to contemporary goth culture –

Or there’s Alex Crowley, tiresomely attempting to persuade his school-chums to refer to him as Shelley’s Alastor, like some self-conscious Goth from Nottingham called Dave insisting that his vampire name is Armand.

The figure of ‘The Beast’, came to symbolize the democratization of the occult, with the previously upper class fascination offered by the likes of Madame Blavatsky and The Golden Dawn suddenly impacting on popular culture with the advent of the 1960’s. There is Crowley on the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band cover. Then we have The Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request album (not to mention Sympathy for the Devil).

It just so happens Gwyneth Jones’ sf series is concerned with a twenty-first century Britain gripped by a revival of 1960’s occultism/ rock and roll cult of personality. Except revolution for these radicals is not tokenistic phrases and a tattered Che Guevara bedroom wall poster, but an actual political movement that changes the face of Europe.

I did not realize this was actually the final book in a series of five novels concerned Jones’ ambitious vision of a future society wracked by war, global economic ruin and climate change. Concerning a ‘Triumvirate’, of rock gods – Ax, Sage and Fiorinda – who have survived years of revolution and war, only to now be facing surrender to an occupying Chinese army. Britain under their rule was transformed by the Rock ‘n’ Roll Reich, actualizing 1960’s utopian idealism and green values, as well as an entente cordiale with the British Islamic separatist movement. All of this despite the evil wrought by Fiorinda’s father Rufus O’Niall and his fascist movement, as well Sage’s defeat of the Pentagon’s plan to create a psychic weapon of immense power. Indeed it is only due to these incredible successes that the Chinese may have spared the lives of the Triumvirate.

If anything the conquerors of Britain want to make their own use of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Reich to win the hearts and minds of the shell-shocked English. The Celtic nations of Scotland and Ireland have managed to wrangle their own form of independence by accepting the Chinese. England shall be a test-case intended to demonstrate to the rest of Europe that domination by China is inevitable, perhaps even desirable. Meanwhile Ax attempts to be the statesman his career as a rock star somehow destined him to be and negotiate a peaceful future for the English. His followers are under house arrest, their every word is being recorded by spies and his boyfriend Sage will not agree to marry him. Plus Fiorinda is pregnant again. Charming the People’s Republic of China has become the biggest gig of his band’s career.

As this is the fifth book in a series there is a hell of a lot of exposition to get to grips with. Jones lays it out with aplomb, mostly thanks to the frankly endless stream of out and out crazy ideas. The title doubles as a Hendrix reference and a nod to Britain’s Viking cultural inheritance. Rufus O’Niall appears to have been a malevolent force to rival the Beast himself and the talk of a ‘Neurobomb’, and a pychic cold war seems like something out of The Invisibles.

This could all be so much 1960’s pretentious twaddle, but there is much of interest here.

Particularly the notion of rock stars in politics. One of the most recent examples is Bono’s cosying up to political elites in both Britain and America. I remember there were rumours at the Make Poverty History concert that the Irishman would perform on stage with the surviving Beatles and Tony Blair, rock star manqué. Michael Moorcock covered similar ground in King of the City.

Mad, sexy and very enjoyable. Great fun, need to read the rest now.

She thought of the faeries she had known when she was a child – impish, quick things – no mention of wars or magical arrows or enemies, certainly no lies, no deception. The man bleeding in the dirt beside her told her how wrong her perceptions of Faery had been.

I was a little wary about reading this book. The cover carries a single word rave from Michael Moorcock, ‘Superb’, and after my last brush with the kind of books that warrant his approval, I was afraid my favourite fantasy author had steered me wrong once again.

As it happens this book is a surprising update of Celtic mythology in a modern setting, with no shrinking away from sexual undertones and the capriciousness of ‘the Fae’. In fact the darker tone of this book reminded me of Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies, which includes the following passage (and for the purposes of this review, read for ‘elves’, ‘fairies’) –

Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.

Sixteen-year old Kaye gets that most people think she’s a weird kid. After all, she’s lived a pretty weird life. She never knew her father, as she is the product of her mother’s promiscuous past as a rock chick groupie. Her Asian features combined with bright blond hair tends to turn heads wherever she goes. Also she dropped out of school a few years ago so she could work in a Chinese takeaway to help her failed musician mother pay their bills. Oh and when she was a kid, she was visited by faeries.

When the latest in a long line of crummy boyfriends assaults her mother, Kaye’s grandmother agrees to let them stay until they can find somewhere else to live. During the day Kaye pretends to go to school and hangs out with friends she has not seen in years. The faces from her childhood are not only older now, but carry the glazed expression of drink that she has grown familiar with from life on the road with her mother. Still they are the only friends she has. Kaye is used to living with less.

She goes out one night with her childhood friend Janet and a group of boys to hang out at an abandoned fair-ground. There Kenny, Janet’s boyfriend, suddenly becomes very forward with Kaye. Alarmed, she runs out into the night despite a raging storm. On her way home she comes upon a man dressed like a knight in black armour, lying in the mud with an iron-tipped arrow piercing his chest. He reveals to her that he is a faerie indentured into the service of the Queen of the Unseelie Court. When Kaye tricks him into revealing his true name, the two are bound together for better or worse. She soon discovers not only has she lived a weird life, but she herself is a lot weirder than anyone could have imagined.

While this book could easily be seen as yet another example of the ‘dark romance’ genre that is flooding the market now thanks to the success of Twilight and copycat novels, Holly Black infuses her mythic tale with a fantastical vision of sexuality more akin to novels by Clive Barker, or Poppy Z. Brite.

I mean this as a compliment. In transporting this tale of changelings, warring faerie courts and conniving monarchs to a modern setting, Black retains much of the sexually charged content of the original fairy tales. In particular the character of Nephamael, whose clothing is entwined with thorns, is an unabashed representation of gay S&M themes.

This is actually the first book in a new series of novels by Black, who also wrote The Spiderwick Chronicles for children. While this book does not shy away from portraying the difficulties faced by its teenage characters in these disaffected times – escaping into alcohol, sex and even comic books to avoid ‘real life’ – I would not recommend it for readers under sixteen.

I love the parallel corruption of Kaye’s fantasy world as a dark reflection of the adult world she is entering into. As a metaphor for the loss of innocence that comes after childhood, Tithe is well-paced and relatable.

Midnight Kiss is a densely plotted, cleverly written and beautifully drawn tale of mayhem and mystery in fairyland. These fairies, however, use some pretty heavy artillery and most of them make the Hitler gang look like a teddy bear’s picnic. Add fabulous references to a Land of Oz fighting a vicious civil war, a bunch of fabulous creatures being hunted for their hearts and minds (literally) and you have one of the richest, most original, engaging and fast-moving graphic stories of the new century.

The above quote is taken from Michael Moorcock’s introduction to this comic book collection. I chose it as this fulsome praise convinced me to buy the book. Moorcock was approached by Lee for permission to use his dimension-hopping anti-hero Jerry Cornelius for this book. One of the most popular of Moorcock’s creations, one that he has in the past allowed other New Worlds authors such as M. John Harrison to use, Cornelius is a devious, dimension-hopping anarchist, perfectly suited for Lee’s story of a multiverse of fantasy realms. Given that this book had Moorcock’s stamp of approval, I bought it without hesitation.

The story begins with a boy named William being confronted by a gang of gun-toting Unseelie Fae, mistaken by him for vampires. Moments before he is captured, Matthew Sable and Nightmare De’Lacey arrive and decimate the heavily armed fairies. The mystically empowered duo explain to William that he is what they call a ‘rational’, someone who believes that one world and reality exist. Sable explains that millennia ago an event called the shattering occurred, with each realm of faerie separated into different dimensions. What normal humans, rationals, assume are fictional worlds or fantasies are actually each unique threads within the multiverse.

William has become the target of a conspiracy to create a demonic demiurge due to his own mysterious parentage. A series of assassinations are being carried out against different creatures of fantasy across a number of worlds. Now that William is under the protection of Sable, two murderers for hire called Jonny Cool and The Flickman, are contracted to recover him. They slaughter their way through several dimensions in pursuit of their quary. A third story thread concerns a police investigator known as Einhorn trying to discover what is behind the series of murders relating to the conspiracy. Each of the protagonists are drawn to the Land of Oz, torn apart by a civil war between the forces of the evil Scarecrow and President Dorothy Gale.

I am sorry to report that I found this to be a bleak and dispiriting story. Despite the warm introduction from Moorcock, Midnight Kiss resembles a derivative, grim ‘n’ gritty take on Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story. The excellent blog Too Busy Thinking About My Comics recently proposed a dark take on Robin Hood for satirical purposes. Wouldn’t you know it, the Sherwood Forest archer appears here, consumed with feelings of revenge towards Matthew Sable (for reasons too silly to go into). Our heroes use their magical abilities to sprout dayglo guns and swords from their arms, slaughtering their opponents with impunity. At times I was confused as to what distinguished them from blood-thirsty antagonists Jonny Cool and The Flickman. Of course the break-neck twist in the final issue addresses just that ambiguity with groan-worthy results. Poor William is also just another derivative messiah-child, being dragged along in a state of constant confusion until the plot demands that he suddenly assert himself.

As to Jerry Cornelius’ role in the proceedings, well he’s basically a bag-man. His ability to cross dimensions is here employed to run errands on Sable’s behalf. I found this especially amusing as Moorcock cites Lee as having ‘got’, Cornelius’ function as a character. Tony Lee’s afterword mentions that other writers had misused the character in the past, without consulting his creator. I assume this is a reference to Grant Morrison’s attempt in his seminal book The Invisibles, there named Gideon Stargrove. Ironically I thought the unauthorised use of the Cornelius concept was far more successful than the fully approved one in Midnight Kiss.

Ryan Stegman’s art may suit the material, blood clotting on the panels and breasts thrusting outwards, but once again it reminded me of the bad old days. If you look at the cover image below you will notice a huge robot. Yes, that’s The Tin Man.

A huge disappointment.

If LA isn’t the first true American city, she is certainly the greatest. I think so many journalists and tourists report condescendingly on her because they don’t being to understand the depth of the culture-shock they have experienced. A shock nothing like as immediate as the one you receive from New York, but one which is in my view far more lasting and harder to cope with.

I bought this book from a second hand store shortly after J.G. Ballard died. I had just read Michael Moorcock’s tender obituary and was thrilled to discover more about their friendship. The girl in the shop remarked that she had been surprised so many folk were buying up Ballard books before she heard the news. It was a curious friendship between the two men, both writers who appeal to quite different perspectives on the world.

Ballard’s writing evokes a fascination with a coldly objective world, where humanity itself is a passing phase and the remnants left behind, abandoned cities and nuclear fallout, have just as much a claim to life. There is a fascination with an ordered vision of a world stripped of human failings and mortality. Moorcock by contrast takes a perverse pleasure in the grit and grime of fantasy realms, where stories are all lies and wonder is to be found in the rotten core of human history.

What I find odd about the correspondence collected in this volume is that the style is indistinguishable from the crooked authorial voice of his fiction. Indeed I began to question just how real these sights and encounters with the strange denizens of Hollywood were, as the adventures of Moorcock the Englishman abroad seemed too similar to those of his character Colonel Pyat in Jerusalem Commands. If this is fiction disguised as travel writing, it is a fine joke.

We are not privy to Ballard’s replies in this correspondence and Moorcock makes reference to painful personal events during the course of his stay in the States. His marriage had just broken down and emotionally crippled, he travelled to L.A. to visit a writer friend from his New Worlds days, Graham Hall, who was himself dying.  Moorcock gives an unsentimental account of his friend’s selfishness and hurtful decision to drink himself to death. He is also deeply affected by what he sees as the waste of a potentially great writer’s talent. While Moorcock’s name is frequently associated with psychedelic drugs, he eschews puritan hypocrisy in his lamenting of a friend’s life destroyed by drink. He contrasts the aspirational character of Californians, living in a beautiful landscape of sun and surf, with the fatalistic affectations of English Bolshieness, would-be working class heroes with a college degree and ideology in a bottle.

Moorcock’s attempts to raise funds to rescue his soaring overdraft – courtesy of his estranged family relations back in England – land him a position as a script-writer on a revisionist King Arthur film. He identifies the director of the picture only as ‘Ike’, an old Hollywood player who has just had a great success with the space opera genre. I assumed this was a coded reference to Irvin Kershner and a quick google would appear to confirm this. At any rate ‘Ike’ is something of a cartoonish figure, a monstrous ego on legs who insists on Moorcock introducing a black character into the Arthurian cycle on one day and homages to Kurosawa on the next. The well-worn dictatorial relationship between the director and the screen-writer is ploughed through, with Moorcock emerging shaken and disturbed.

Once again I begin to wonder just how real ‘Ike’, is. He seems more a collection of Hollywood player clichés, which does not mean he does not exist. Just Moorcock’s flights of invective remind me more of a fictional dilemma than an actual account. An earlier encounter with a sf fan tattoo artist also raised suspicions. The character in question is identified by the name Gulliver and bonds with Moorcock over Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination. The main character of which is memorably described as having a number of facial tattoos, and named Gulliver Foyle. Perhaps it is a coincidence, but it made me curious nonetheless.

For Hollywood itself is a place filled with unreality, where the ‘English countryside’, of a Robin Hood serial is just over the hill. Trust Moorcock to prove to be such a winning guide to the darker half of sunny L.A. Evocative and very intimately written.

The two men shared a look. Finally Breeze spoke. “Lord Ruler knows, I’ve never been one to turn down a challenge. But, Kell, I do question your reasoning. Are you sure we can do this?”

“I’m positive,” Kelsier said. “Previous attempts to throw down the Lord Ruler have failed because they lacked proper organization and planning. We’re thieves, gentlemen – and we’re extraordinarily good ones. We can rob the unrobbable and fool the unfoolable. We know how to take an incredibly large task and break it down to manageable pieces, then deal with each of those pieces. We know how to get what we want. These things make us perfect for this particular task.”

I should explain how my reading speed works. Basically, I need to be interested in the book I’m reading to finish it quickly. For example, the book I have had the hardest time finishing in time for review on this site so far has been Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. It bored me silly and I just managed to get my piece published in time, despite it being quite a slim book. So why am I reviewing a book that is over six hundred pages long? I am very interested in Brandon Sanderson. See this is the fellow who has been handed the unenviable task of wrapping up Robert Jordan’s overlong and unwieldy Wheel of Time series. Which I first began reading in 1992. I grew out of the books, but I just want the series to end, so I can find out what happens. So I tackled one of Sanderson’s own books, to see what kind of writer he is.

The story begins with a land shrouded in mists and covered in black ash. The Lord Ruler controls the lands of the so-called Final Empire, his reign over a thousand years old. The people his armies enslaved long ago are known as skaa and they believe him to be nothing less than a god. One night in a regional settlement the cries of a young girl are heard as the provincial lord’s men drag her away. The skaa do nothing. Tired and frightened, they accept that this is the way of things. A stranger who has recently arrived goes out into the night in pursuit. When he does not return the people assume the men who kidnap their daughters killed him as well as the girl. In the morning they awake and find the young child they thought lost returned. The castle has been burned to the ground, the soldiers defending it dead and their lord stabbed to death by the stranger. His name is Kelsier and he is what passes for a hero in these times.

The Lord Ruler’s capital is known as Luthadel and for most of Vin’s short life she has lived on its streets, stealing to survive. Her brother is gone and she is utterly alone. Until Kelsier, the man referred to by the skaa as The Survivor finds her. He invites her to join his crew of thieves, men who work together and even seem to trust one another. What makes her special? Vin, like Kelsier, is a Mistborn, capable of drawing power from diluted solutions of metals and alloys. Allomancy is an ability restricted only to the nobility who serve the Lord Ruler. Any who hide among the skaa and practice these powers are hunted down and killed by the agents of the Final Empire, known as Inquisitors. All of Kelsier’s men have some ability with alomancy and he has a plan. They’re going to pull off the biggest con of all. Collapse the Final Empire itself.

As I was reading, I had this niggling sense of familiarity. A crew of thieves with special powers? A long-con designed to financially cripple a powerful enemy? A hero with a tragic past and a precocious young women with amazing abilities….this is the fantasy version of Inception!(which you can read me kvetching about here and here).

It’s also a post-nationalist fantasy, something of a constant since the time of Tolkien. The setting is mostly urban, you have morally gray heroes and a fantastically bleak premise (the jacket reads ‘What if the Dark Lord won?’) – Sanderson has, unwittingly or not, become a torch-bearer for Moorcock’s revisionist take on the fantasy genre.

Well developed characters, interesting concepts and a climax that actually delivers (this is the first book in a series), I am impressed.

In those days there were oceans of light and cities in the skies and wild flying beasts of bronze. There were herds of crimson cattle that roared and were taller than castles. There were shrill viridian things that haunted bleak rivers. It was a time f gods…

The Bull and the Spear is the first book in the second series of novels telling the story of Corum Jhaelen Irsei, last of the Vadhagh race, stranded in a world of men. The first series, The Books of Corum, finished with our hero happily living with the human woman Rhalina, with the vile gods that conspired against his race defeated, and Corum’s hatred for the mortals once manipulated by the deities, faded. But…

The opening quote hints at where Moorcock might take this series. The very same words open each of the books and Corum’s companion Jhary-a-Conel claims that their adventures are echoes of those lived by past selves, or that which is yet to happen. This is part and parcel when reading Moorcock’s fantasy novels, set in a multiverse where each of the protagonists are in fact different aspects of the same ‘eternal champion‘.

And so Corum eventually begins to tire of peace and after Rhalina dies of old age he becomes eager to return to the fight. While he does not age he is becoming a legend, dimly remembered by the descendants of his land’s inhabitants. The arrival of Jhary provides an opportunity for new adventures, and the Vadhagh prince is transported into the future where he is worshiped as a god, Cremm Croich, and called upon to defend the people of this future world from a new menace.

Moorcock uses humour and horror in equal doses in his fantasy epic, having some fun at Celtic myth’s expense. Corum’s future name is similar to that given to a pagan deity worshiped in pre-Christian Ireland, Crom Cruach, who received offers of human sacrifice. Having gone to such lengths to defeat the evil gods that bedeviled the Vadhagh people, here, Moorcock has maneuvered Corum into the same position. Even as an immortal hero he is wary of being worshiped, knowing all to well how easily that power might be abused.

All of this and Corum is expected to defeat eldritch armies of giant hounds, undead soldiers and the giant Cold Folk themselves, who can freeze whole armies with but a glance. His only hope of success lies with a magical spear, Bryionak, and the Black Bull of Crinanass. Trouble is, Corum has no idea where to find either! And for good measure, there’s also a bad tempered dwarf named Goffanon to contend with.

What Moorcock specialises in is quick and efficient plots underpinned by big ideas. Reading each episode of The Books of Corum, as well as the next three Further Books of Corum feels like sitting down to a decent, yet not too filling, meal. Somehow each thin volume has far more meat on the bone than those wrist-spraining fantasy epics that weigh down the shelves in Borders. Well recommended for  lazy afternoon.

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