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The Man of Gold by M.A.R. Barker

The Man of GoldIn 1975, Gary Gygax, wrote lavish praise in the foreword to M.A.R. Barker's Empire of the Petal Throne, calling it the 'most beautifully done fantasy game ever created' and saying Barker's world, Tékumel, was - except for Tolkien - completely without peer. Gygax concludes that the primary difference between the two (Tolkien and Barker) is that the latter "has neither had the opportunity to introduce and familiarise his Tékumel by means of popular works of fiction".1

In 1984, that opportunity came, as Barker's The Man of Gold was published by DAW, the first of five novels set in the universe. Harsan is a young novice in the temple of Thumis, the Lord of Wisdom. His speciality is linguistics, and at the start of the book, he's just about the wrap up his thesis - a study into one of Tékumel's long-dead languages (there are a lot of them - it is an old, old world, built on the ruins of a long of old, old cultures). His bucolic - if dull - monastic existence is interrupted by a messenger sent from the Tsolyani empire.

The Tsolyani are at war with the Kingdom of Yan Kor, and the latter are equipped with an ancient artifact, the tautly-named 'Weapon Without Answer'. Rumor has it, there may be an answer - at least, a crumbling manuscripts says so. But the Tsolyani need someone proficient in the Llyani language to work out the details. For example: Harsan.

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Review Round-up: Knitters, Pirates, Cops, Princesses and Priests

TheBig SinA quick-fire round-up of eight recent holiday reads - including some vintage mysteries, a brand new fantasy, a YA that'll have you in stitches (fnar) and a saucy pirate romance. Most of these were recommendations via Twitter, so thank you all for sending them my way!

Prologue Books are one of my go-to publishers - whomever is putting together this list of out-of-print fiction is doing a cracking job. (Also, they use Amazon well, so I can find their books by searching Prologue Crime or Prologue Western, which is really helpful.) Anyway, that baseline of praise established... Jack Webb's The Big Sin (1952) might be one of my favourites so far. Webb's story ticks all the right narrative boxes: a cop versus a Big City machine, a man framed for murder, criminals being forced to choose between doing 'bad' and doing 'evil', the works. And, beneath it all, he underpins everything with a discussion of faith.

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Weirdness Rodeo: Harlequin, Netflix and Reboots


Is that your brand extending, or are you just happy to see me?

Harlequin - who have always been one of the more innovative publishers (probably because they have one of the strongest brands) - are extending into... wine. I mean, why not? Even as a stunt, this is good PR.

The publisher is partnering with Vintage Wine Estates to create Vintages by Harlequin, three wines now available for $14.95 a pop on Amazon. There’s a chardonnay (“Substitute for Love”), a cabernet sauvignon (“Pardon My Body”), and red wine blend (“Wild at Heart”). “Harlequin has a deep history of creating experiences for women, and we are thrilled to bring this new opportunity to market,” Harlequin CEO and publisher Craig Swinwood said in a statement. 

Ok, almost definitely a PR stunt. But I like that Harlequin sees their role - as a publisher - as 'creating experiences for women'. That's bold language, and one that opens them up, and credibly, to making more than books.

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Review Round-up: The Collegium Chronicles and Unfaithful Wives

Two books/series with very little in common. Except, I suppose, I found them both kind of dissatisfying - Mercedes Lackey's Collegium Chronicles and Orrie Hitt's Unfaithful Wives.

RedoubtThe Collegium Chronicles (2008 - 2013) are five of the (counts rapidly) bajillion Valdemar novels by Mercedes Lackey. This particular sequence follows the young Mags as he's rescued from working as a mine slave and makes the startling transition to student at a magical university. His efforts to fit in, make friends, and adapt to his comfy new existence are occasionally interrupted by assassins.

If I sat down at wrote a list of 'stuff that bugged me in fantasy novels', the Collegium Chronicles would tick a dozen different items - from annoying dialects to poverty porn to magical horses to meandering descriptions of meaningless trivia (seriously, one of the books features a page-long list of pie fillings) to frequent, implausible deus ex machina to heavy-handed infodumping. Hell, there's even a shameless Quidditch knockoff.

And, good lord, the Chosen One-ness. Mags is lifted from obscurity because he's born magical and special - if he weren't, his plight (like those of his dozens of peers in the mines) would have gone completely unnoticed. As he grows, we learn that he's amazingly special in so many, many unique ways. Even at a magical university packed with magical snowflakes, he's the snowflakiest of all: the best at everything he does, possessed of a uniquely powerful magical talent, and, of course, descended from a mysterious bloodline. 

And yet...

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How are your books organised? (Part 2)


We've been getting new shelves put in. A very exciting experience, although our friends are extremely tired of the kvetching we've laid down over the past few months. But now the shelves are here, and, as a result, we get to reorganise all the books. I am very, very excited.

Despite all the good advice - and better role models - that you've all provided, in all likelihood the final organisation of our books is going to be total chaos. Although we've tried alphabetising in the past, they all wind up gravitating together in strange, altogether personal, accumulations. Not entirely collections, as much as weak covalent bonds of book association that can only be perceived by Anne and/or me. 

So, why battle it? One thing we've always discussed is getting brass bookplates for shelves, a bit like some older libraries. The labels inside would be paper, so there's no firm commitment to what each said, but it'd be a fun way to decorate our shelves. 

The thing is, we don't want to do anything boring like "Fiction, A-B" or "Cookbooks" or even specific authors. We want to be more oblique. For example:

  • "Tentacular" = Kitschies finalists
  • "Detectives, Gin-Soaked" = Travis McGee mysteries
  • "Local History (Isola)" = Ed McBain's 87th precinct
  • "Rhinoceroses" = Patrick Ness

So, yes. Very oblique. 

So here's the challenge - what would you do? Think about your collections or aggregations of various books. How would you name them that would bring a smile to your face?

Friday Five: 5 Things That Will Change Your Mind About Things You Thought You Knew

A Killing in the SunThis week's guest is Dilman Dila, writer and filmmaker from Uganda. He manages the literary magazine, Lawino, and recently published a collection of speculative stories, A Killing in the Sun. And his films include What Happened in Room 13 (which has attracted over two million views on YouTube) and The Felistas Fable, which was nominated for Best First Feature at Africa Movie Academy Awards (2014), and which won four major awards at the Uganda Film Festival (2014).

His story "How My Father Became a God" was on the Short Story Day Africa longlist and has been collected in the (rather exceptional) Apex Book of World SF 4.

Dilman's taken our Friday Five challenge in a unique way, choosing five different topics - from books to food to monsters - and how they can challenge our assumptions...


1. African Science Fiction and Fantasy

This is a growing genre, riding on a recent wave of specfic from the continent, but that is not to say that it is a recent import into the continent. European conquerors have whitewashed African histories but reading works in the genre - including those that were told orally for centuries before labels were applied to stories - will change your mind about what you think of Africa. For example, the Acholi folktales about Hare using weapons and devices he manufactured to defeat his enemies indicate the Acholi believed, and told stories about, science and invention.

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Review Round-up: Planes, Fruit, Rags and Lions

Four oldish treats from the 1950s and 1960s. I suppose they're all sort of joined up by being "thrillers" in unconventional settings. But that's pretty spurious - they're really joined up by being four books that caught my eye recently; there's not much more pattern than that.

High CitadelHigh Citadel (1965), by Desmond Bagley, is a nice combination of survivalist horror and siege-porn. A small plane carrying a motley group of passengers is hijacked, and makes a crash-landing in the Andes. It turns out one of the passengers is politically important (the ex-President of a mythical South American country) and a group of Communist insurgents are keen to see him disposed of and out of the way.

But the Commies didn't count on American derring-do! The plane's captain, a former POW in Korea, shrugs off his burgeoning alcoholism and assembles the remaining passengers into a rag-tag group of freedom fighters. It is more fun (and less preachy) than it seems, as the team defend their mountain perch with a combination of medieval and jury-rigged weapons. And, in parallel, others try the murderous march over the mountains to get help - but with almost no supplies.

Although it tries, this isn't exactly a soaring novel of human triumph - the characters are mostly one-dimensional and the situation escalates far past the ability to suspend disbelief. But the detail is enjoyable, in a Robinson Crusoe Goes to War kind of way.

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Weirdness Rodeo

Star Wars

Pornokitsch is a producer of cat-related tweets that occasionally reviews

Scott Meslow on how Star Wars is a merchandise franchise that occasionally makes films:

In what might well be the single largest financial blunder in Hollywood history, 20th Century Fox allowed George Lucas to retain all the licensing and merchandising rights to Star Wars in exchange for a $500,000 directorial fee. In 2014, the overall value of the Star Wars franchise was estimated at $37 billion, with Episodes VII, VIII, and IX on the way — along with a slew of spin-offs — it will soon be worth much more. One research firm estimates that sales of Star Wars merchandise could exceed $5 billion in 2016 alone. That's more than the combined global grosses of every single Star Wars movie that has ever hit theaters — including several rounds of re-releases.

I've written about transmedia storytelling in the past - predominantly in regards to the convergence of books and RPGs - but there's something wonderful about the way this forces us to shift our perceptions. We associate particular properties with a particular media channel, but that is very often a complicated blind. To some degree, this happens every time a film is made: as much as readers pretend to have a sort of droit du seigneur, more people see the movie (or TV show) than read the books. There are a few exceptions (I'd love to crunch the numbers for Harry Potter or Tolkien), but not many. (And others, say, James Bond, where the secondary media - film - has unabashedly become the primary media with the passage of time.)

Marvel is a film studio that makes comics. Hell, four million people (including me!) play the Marvel click-farming Avengers Alliance game on Facebook. Maybe Marvel is an app producer that occasionally captures cut scenes as comic books. He-Man, famously, is a toy company that makes cartoons. Batman is a logo that appears on t-shirts, backpacks, wallets, duvets, children's kitsch and... sometimes... a superhero. And, now, Star Wars is a line of merchandise - with high-profile, long form video content marketing. Makes the whole Extended Universe debate a bit moot, doesn't it? Is your lunchbox canon?!

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Friday Five: 5 Noteworthy Pocket Books Star Trek Novels


There have been a lot of Star Trek novels over the years, from a number of publishers, dealing with every iteration of the franchise (yes, even the animated series) as well as many that fit no existing bracket.

Among the various pieces of thinly-disguised fanfic, the (surprisingly few) direct sequels to TV episodes, the attempts to do hard sci-fi that don’t quite work, and the inevitable attempts at inter-genre crossovers, there are some that I would call ‘noteworthy’ for one reason or another. Note that this is not always synonymous with ‘good’. Picking five from all of the possible options (even had I read them all) would probably be impossible, so I’m going to restrict myself to the Original Series novel range published by Pocket Books from 1979 to around 1990, at which point I stopped reading them as religiously as I had previously. 

Listed in no particular order:

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