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July 2013

Alas, poor Harrogate

First, links and whatnot:

Cover - speculative-fiction-2012Justin and I did our transatlantic double act on the Skiffy and Fanty Show to talk about Speculative Fiction 2012. Shaun has dubbed us a "criticabal", which is kind of fun. If you're up for an hour of hand-waving and unfounded assertions about blogging, criticism and the state of SF, you can listen to it here

I've wrapped up The Folding Knife over on Tor.com. 19 blog posts - approximately 35,000 words on a, what, 90,000 word novel? I feel that's value for weight, if nothing else. Thanks to everyone that joined in - it was the fellow rereaders and commenters that made the whole thing so worthwhile. I have no idea what, if anything, is next. But I enjoyed my first reread experience, so, we'll see?

Another fantastic review for The Lowest Heaven, this time in the stately pages of the Financial Times. "Every contribution to this excellent anthology is of stellar quality", the FT says. And flags up a handful of tales, including those by Simon Morden, Esther Saxey, Kaaron Warren, Alastair Reynolds and Adam Roberts (whose provocative "A voyage..." has, by far, been the book's most polarising story). One of the great pleasures of editing anthologies is watching how different reviewers flag up different stories - it is good to see so many of them singled out for praise.

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Friday Five: David Gemmell Legend Award Predictions

Red Country[Here's the deal, leave your predictions in the comments -  I'll send an Epic Fantasy Care Package to whomever gets the most right. I have no idea what'll be in it, but it'll be awesome. I'll ship globally, so... bring it on!]

[Updated: DGLA voting is now closed, but the shortlists are announced this weekend at Nine Worlds. Still time to take part in our competition!]

We still have a few days left to vote for the David Gemmell Legend Awards for the year's best epic fantasy, but I figured I go ahead and make my predictions now. The shortlists will be announced at Nine Worlds (early August) and the winners at World Fantasy (late October).

I'll be taking part in the newly-declared annual tradition of reviewing all the shortlisted titles on Pornokitsch, so, in a way, I feel I have a vested interested in the results of the voting... 

Which five books will make the Legend (Best Novel) shortlist? 

The five that I think will make it:

  • Joe Abercrombie - Red Country
  • Elisabeth Bear - Range of Ghosts
  • Robin Hobb - City of Dragons
  • Mark Lawrence - King of Thorns
  • Brent Weeks - The Blinding Knife

Four of those were easy for me to rattle off. For the fifth, I went to Goodreads and compared the reading numbers for Brooks, Hobbs, Erikson, Canavan and Weis & Hickman. Hobbs was the runaway winner (4,000 reviews - Canavan was in second with 2,000). I realise this is assuming a pretty tenuous correlation, but given it is a public vote, it probably isn't the worst metric.

From a purely selfish POV, since I've committed to reviewing all five, I'd like this shortlist - I've reviewed Abercrombie and Weeks already, but there's still plenty to say, so I'd like to revisit them. The Bear sounds like a great book and I've plenty to talk about with King of Thorns. The only one I'd be a little unhappy about is the Hobb, as I didn't like the first book in this series and wasn't ever going to read the sequel. Eh. Alas. #bloggerproblems

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The Hard Case Crime Read: The First 20(ish) Titles

Little Girl LostI figured it was time for a quick recap. Since the beginning of the year, I've reviewed the first twenty Hard Case Crime novels, plus three new releases (Seduction of the Innocent, Web of the City and Joyland).

You can find the full list here.

That's 23 books (10 original, 13 reprint) and 24 covers (Joyland had two). Which were my favourites? Least favourite? Most surprising? (The management reserves the right to change these answers at any time...)

Favourite setting: Richard Aleas' New York City. Several of the other books have interesting settings (Ellison's Brooklyn, Pavia's Miami, King's North Carolina in Joyland) - and I also liked the international jaunts with Guthrie and Dodge. But Aleas's Little Girl Lost is more about New York than it is anything else - how the city invites and devours, how it is a place that you can love, hate and fear. He doesn't "make the city a character" (a phrase I'm none too fond of), he makes it an integral part of every aspect of the book. In many of these books, the location is incidental, or mere dressing. Little Girl Lost couldn't exist without New York. 

Favourite sleuth: Matt Cordell, from Ed McBain's The Gutter and the Grave. A tough field, as well. Interestingly enough, all of my favourite were of a classic mold: the wry, flawed, sardonic con men and PIs of McBain, Westlake and Block.

Most surprising (positive): I couldn't stand The Confession the first time I read it, but on the second time around, I couldn't have been more impressed. It is an incredibly complex book that has a great deal of fun toying with the reader's assumptions and using the mechanic of the unreliable narrator to its fullest.

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Full house

MelusineLast week's book purchases:

Edward Whittemore's Jerusalem Poker, Kate Milford's The Broken Lands, Sarah Monette's Mélusine and the annotated The Phantom Tollbooth. Mélusine, recommended by Liz as part of this thing, may have the worst cover I've ever seen. And, as a lifelong fantasy and science fiction reader, that's saying a lot.

Jurassic updates:

The Guardian had very nice things to say about The Lowest Heaven, with specific references to a half-dozen stories, including those by Sophia McDougall, Esther Saxey and Mark Charan Newton. Kind of awesome.

More interviews with The Lowest Heaven's authors over on J for Jetpack, including "High Fives" with Archie Black, E.J. Swift, David Bryher, S.L. Grey and Esther Saxey.

A Town Called Pandemonium is being given away on Goodreads. Less of a promotion (the book has been out for months) than a celebration of the BFS nominations.

There will be a Jurassic London surprise in the goodie bags at Nine Worlds. (Well, hopefully. It is a little tight with the print timings.) We're buddying up with SpaceWitch to make this possible. SpaceWitch is the lovely new publisher-friendly, reader-friendly site dedicated to selling independent science fiction and fantasy. It just launched last week, but already has a mass of great titles. It is worth spending some time browsing it, if you haven't already... (Anne and I will both be at Nine Worlds - come say hi!)

Opening submissions shortly for two more books - one anthology, one flash fiction chapbook. Exciting times!


Friday Five: The Best of Baldur's Gate

This week's Friday Five features James Long, iron-stomached Oreo-addict, hard-nosed editor, and tender-hearted cat lover, as well as the co-founder of J for Jetpack, the glorious new geekery website that has sworn to bury us all in its enthusiasm. Amongst his many virtues (kind to animals, buys me beer), James is a shameless fan of that great - nay, greatest - of fantasy RPGs. 

I'll let him take it from here...

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Baldur’s Gate (1998) and Baldur’s Gate 2 (2000) remain two of the most influential RPGs ever released. Both games were critically acclaimed and praised for revitalising the RPG genre at a time when most video gamers were busy blowing shit up with big guns. The games had many strengths: excellent writing, atmospheric visuals, absorbing gameplay and . . . memorable characters. Long after you’ve finished the games, many of the characters – and lines of their dialogue – stay with you.

Here are my top five memorable Baldur’s Gate characters:

Tiax“Who dares prod Tiax?!”

It’s a widely accepted fact that no D&D campaign is complete without a batshit-crazy gnome (why is it always the gnomes? Perhaps the constant disappointment of not being as cool as a dwarf or as useful as a halfling finally wears them down and makes them lose their marbles). Anyway, Tiax is both a gnome and completely nuts, thus fulfilling the crazy gnome quota for Baldur’s Gate 1. He’s somehow got it into his head that he is one day going to rule the world, despite being a) insane, b) severely vertically-challenged, and c) having a name that sounds like washing powder. Or engine oil.

You don’t have Tiax in your party for his skills (nerd interlude: his wisdom score of 13 makes him a laughably terrible cleric, and there’s far better thieves around). Instead, you have him along for the comedy value. The scriptwriters clearly had a lot of fun with Tiax:

 “Ya lil' monkey-spanker!”

“When Tiax rules, breeches shall not ride up so wedge-like!”

“Eh... it would appear that... the great and... mighty Tiax... has shrunk his undergarments... three sizes this day.”

And so on.

Tiax also makes an appearance in Baldur’s Gate 2, where we learn that (unsurprisingly) he’s been locked away in Spellhold, a sort of Azkaban-before-Azkaban-existed place. By this point his craziness has developed into a full-blown god-complex, and he’s started doing that infuriating thing that certain high-flying business types do where they talk about themselves in the third person: “The heavens move because he waves his hand! The waters stir as he twiddles his toes! The wind blow as he passes! And on a whim he can break them all!” As it happens, the only thing that gets broken is Tiax’s skull, as he has his brains blown out in the ensuing magical battle. Which is probably for the best.

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What is science fiction?

copyright Tom GauldThis comes - rather laterally - out of a conversation I was having with James Smythe. What is "science fiction"?

There's a practical definition ("Whatever that individual bookseller puts in his or her Science Fiction section"), numerous academic ones, an evasive one ("Genres don't exist!") and a sort of commonly-held gut feel ("I'll know it when I see it. Also, rockets.")

My own background is in marketing, so let's approach it that way: if "Science Fiction" was a product that we wanted to sell (and being evangelical readers, we do), what distinguishes it from the competition? What are its emotional and rational benefits?

Thinking about what makes "Science Fiction":

- It tells stories that are not bounded by time or space. (Is that distinctive compared to fantasy?)

- It is, as a category, self-reflexive. In that, SF refers to other SF, plays off of other SF, talks to other SF. (Is this distinctive? I think SF does this more than fantasy, westerns, crime and [probably] literary fiction, but what about romance? Horror?) (Is this a benefit? Arguably, to a certain type of reader - it means that your appreciation with SF is a positive feedback loop - the more you read it, the more you appreciate it.)

It over-indexes amoungst young readers (A simple fact of the genre, although also a potential red herring due to the casaulity question. Do young readers gravitate to SF because there's something in SF that speaks to them? [If so, what? That'd be an important benefit to note.] Or does SF gravitate to young readers, and this is just a reflection of a commercial strategy? [Which is also easy to believe, SF sells to kids because... SF tries to sell to kids.])

- It extrapolates. (I'm taking a plunge here, but isn't that what SF does? In the setting, characters or plots, SF takes a something or somethings and extends it. Either logically or illogically. The something could be a technology, a social policy, a trend... I'm not sure that something is necessarily even vital to the plot, it could just be an element of the setting or whatnot, but... this feels like something SF does that no other genre does. [Except maybe horror? That is generally based on taking a fear or concern and then extending it? Discuss?])

Those are four starters... but what do you think? What distinguishes Science Fiction from any other genre? Feel free to use quotes, numbers, theses and marketing wak-wak in your answer, but it'd be best if you just said what you thought and in your own words!


Charles Stetzle on the Bulwarks of Booze

New York Tribune 1917Extracts from Charles Stetzle's Why Prohibition? (1918):

America needs patriots not only those who will go to the battle line in France, but also men and women, too, who will strengthen the hands of the boys who have gone to the Front.

Our greatest peril is that of waste and the greatest waster in our country is the liquor traffic. To strengthen America by precept and practice is a distinct obligation resting upon every citizen of this Republic.

This book is written to point out the perils connected with the liquor business in this and every other land. The facts presented are the results of a careful study covering a period of years. It is hoped that they may be of service to the valiant fighters who need ammunition to batter down the bulwarks of booze.

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I am a prohibitionist.

But, frankly, I hate the name. It suggests long-haired men and short-haired women. It is negative and limited, but it expresses exactly what those who are opposed to liquor are trying to do.

And I am for it. I want to see the liquor business abolished. And if this is to be done, we'll have to take off our kid gloves and fight the thing with bare fists as prohibitionists.

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Underground Reading: Bust by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr

BustThis is the latest installment in my steady quest to review each and every Hard Case Crime publication, one every week (more or less). You can follow along here.

Bust (2006). By Ken Bruen and Jason Starr.

Well, that was crazy. 

Let me try that again. 

So, Bust is the story of four characters, not one of them pleasant. Max is an IT entrepreneur type, sleazy to the core, who likes to seal the deal with hookers and uses the word "classy" without really knowing what it means. Dillon is a former IRA hit man (he was more of an IRA "hanger on" with a penchant for irrational homicide). Angela is a curvaceous "classy" (Max's definition, not mine) woman, currently schtupping them both. And Bobby is a veteran in a wheelchair who really, really misses his life of crime (fortunately, his hobby of surreptitious photography is keeping him busy).

Mix the four of them together, and the result is a comedy of errors. Or, more accurately, a comedy of their errors, for as wild and bonkers as the characters may be, the authors play this stinkin' crew like a harp from Hell. (To quote the Penguin, of course.)

First, the plot. Max hires Angela because he likes her breasts. Angela's seeing Dillon, because he likes her breasts and she likes the fact that he's Irish. (She's Irish herself, in that, she affects an Irish accent because she thinks she's Irish, despite being born in the US and having once gone to Ireland - a place she didn't particularly like. Are you getting the picture yet?) Max would like his wife gone, so he can have access to Angela's breasts in an uninterrupted fashion. Angela pitches Dillon to Max as a gun for hire. Max hires. Dillon does some gunning (a little too much). Bobby likes to take photographs of breasts, and in the act of taking some, catches Max in the act of handling Angela's. (Breasts, that is, not photos.) He contributes blackmail to the murder and adultery.

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Shopping, SpaceWitch and A Fantastical Librarian

SeventerrorsFirst, as always, the shopping:

Selvedin Avdić's Seven Terrors. One of the finalists in this year's SF & Fantasy Translation Awards. I've tried to track down most of the finalists (it is surprisingly, depressingly difficult - most come via the US and are surprisingly expensive), this is the first to show up. (Abebooks)

Ira Levin's This Perfect Day. I think Levin deserves more credit as a genre-hopping, er... "hack" isn't the right word, "proficient"? Between Rosemary's Baby, The Boys from Brazil, Sliver, A Kiss Before Dying... he wrote completely decent books in half-dozen different genre flavours. This Perfect Day is his (deservedly?) overlooked contribution to dystopian SF. It is, if I recall correctly, in the vein of A Brave New World. Except not very good. Anyway, a first edition. (Also a terrible cover.) (Quinto)

August Derleth's The Wind Leans West. I know I've pointed this out before, but I really love the irony of the British Fantasy Society's Best Novel Award being named after August Derleth. He's a) American, b) the poor man's Lovecraft (who adorns the World Fantasy Award) and c) kind of a terrible writer. (He is appropriate in that the BFS has always championed small presses and the Weird, but wouldn't he be better placed on the Best Publisher prize? Discuss.) Anyway, all that said, Derleth's collectible as hell, and finding a first edition of one of his historical novels is a coup. I may even take the plunge and read it, because a "panorama of Milwaukee's growth between 1839 and 1854" seems... uh... ok, maybe not.

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