The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs (1969) is an oft-overlooked fantasy classic. Two elderly wizards - Prospero and Roger Bacon - meander across the North and South Kingdoms in search of a cure for some ill-defined metaphysical curse that's plaguing the land. The evil is deliberately vague, and all the more horrifying for it: an ancient tome is being read by a dark-hearted wizard, and badness is spilling forth. From damp moths to off-putting mists to an ominous sense of malaise, Bellairs excels at conveying an implicit wrongness that is more atmosphere than overt threat.
The UK has a fantastic small press scene. To celebrate the people behind the imprints, and help out the writers that are looking to them for publication, we've asked a number of editors to share what they're working on - and what they're looking for. This week, our guest is Dominic Stevenson from Listen Softly London.
Could you tell us a bit about who you are and what you're doing?
Listen Softly London started out as a creative arts night. We'd have poets, storytellers, comedians, and so on and we'd all get together and perform and critique and eventually the press seemed like a natural extension of that.
To me the press is an opportunity to speak to people who may otherwise not access an arts event. It was a way of expanding beyond the echo chamber.
What are the stories or the novels that you want to publish?
I believe in using words powerfully, and that means I want stories and other works that really look beyond the obvious. We all hate racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, but how can your writing get that message to an audience who may not agree? How can it be persuasive?
It's easy to sell books to likeminded people, but how can we get them beyond?
A lot of the time, they feel a bit unnecessary; one of the weaker parts of the narrative they're trying to enhance. Usually, it's the attempt at adding depth by using a combination of psychoanalytic metaphor and (more often than not) prophetic foresight which seems to fall a bit flat (with cunningly crafted exceptions, of course – take Twin Peaks, for example). As if, while attempting to add subtlety and depth, the writer has instead ended up making their narrative a bit obvious and shallow, or far too obscure to interpret.
All of this being said, I am quite fond of dream worlds. It's a niche belonging to portal fantasy, in which the portal is the simple act of falling asleep, and it has a history of producing classics. Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz (film!), and even more contemporary essential pieces of reading, like Neil Gaiman's Sandman, have their own dedicated realms of dreaming, and each is considered important.
We're restarting our series of small press interviews. The last batch was around 18 months ago, and we're keen to support the UK's amazing small press scene.
If you're a small publisher, please get in touch at email@example.com, we'd love to profile you and hear about your books. Our primary purpose is to showcase British presses, but we're happy to hear about publishers from anywhere in the world. Don't be shy!
On a similar note: if you are a blogger or reviewer, please leave your details in the comments here. We direct all review requests to this page.
Publishers and authors - hint, hint. The above is a great list of reviewers, keen to talk about your work.
Lone Star Planet (A Planet for Texans) by H. Beam Piper (1958) has been skulking on my shelf for ages, and, I'm pleased to say, there's (slightly) more to it than just a goofy cover. In the far future, the entire population of Texas has picked up to go settle a frontier planet - they're keen to get away from the rules and regulations and gov'mints and such. Our hero, the plucky ambassador from the Solar League, has been tasked to woo them back. There's an alien invasion on the horizon and New Texas would be better 'in the tent pissing out'... at least, so the League think.
The Music Box Girl by K.A. Stewart
The gender-swapped steampunk Phantom of the Opera that you never knew you wanted! Stewart's story takes place in a shiny alt-history Detroit, complete with steam-powered robot servitors, mechanical glories and, of course, airships.
The Music Box Girl follows three point of view characters. Tony is our Christine - he's a young man from a (hand-wavey) other country, here to make his destiny as a singer. He gets a job as a stagehand at the prestigious Detroit Opera House, but his after hours crooning earns the attention of the Opera House's very own phantom. Bess is Raoul. She's also from (wherever) and is a childhood friend of Tony. But whilst Tony is carving out a living as a prop-duster, Bess is an international tomb raider. Tired of society and its conventions, she carries guns and buckles swashes and dashes and dives in and out of adventures. But, secretly, she might be craving something a little more... romantic.
There are a lot of 'Best of 2016' lists coming out now, but they're all flawed and wrong because they don't include the things we wanted them to include. More importantly, they weren't written by us.
As our gift to the internet - and therefore the world - we've put together the Absolute and Definite Guide to the Best of Everything. It is conclusive and final, and should be used as a reference to settle all arguments.
Jared: Romeo and/or Juliet! It is an amazing feat! How do you even set about writing something like this?
Ryan Q North: I tried to write a non-linear second person style book before I did To Be Or Not To Be and I got nowhere. I literally did not know where to start. It's like what am I doing? This is a waste of time. I should never do this again. And I stopped; and then, when I had the idea for To Be Or Not To Be, the backbone of the Shakespeare play gave me a place to start with, a place to bounce off of, a place where, if I wasn't sure what would happen next, I could at least have the canonical version of the play to see what Shakespeare did.
Something else I've learned this week - the existence of "The Georgette Heyer Historical Fiction Prize". This was proudly emblazoned on the spine of Zemindar, which I promptly bought for £2. See, awards do sell books!
However, the topic is well worth revisiting, as this excellent book is now published in the US and UK. You can find it on Amazon [that American cover is amazing!] and in the UK through Belgravia Books (as well as other retailers).
Katya Grubbs is an exterminator - more a relocator, actually, as she’s a fundamental believer in vermin’s right to life. A swarm of mysterious beetles infests an idyllic suburb and Katya is hired to do her thing. Her investigation brings her in contact with pests of all shapes and sizes - including the suburb’s sleazy developer and her own wayward father.
Despite the lack of any SF/F elements, Nineveh is a contemporary urban fantasy classic, along the lines of Zoo City and King Rat; a tale about a hidden world and the people (or creatures) that live beneath our notice. Katya is an exterminator with a heart. Eschewing her father's brutal approach to the job, Katya tries to move the insects rather than killing them.
Her standards - ethical, moral, professional - are all put to the test when a wealthy developer hires her to clear his new suburb of a beetle infestation. This is where things get creepy, crawly and a little bit chilling. The beetles don't behave the way bugs should, the previous exterminator on the job was her (mysteriously absent) father, and the property itself is inherently disturbing: a surreal landscape of abandoned wealth and unfinished buildings.
Nineveh works excellently as a metaphor for gentrification and class structure, but, for me, the real strength was in Katya's own journey - an exploration of empathy and the tenuous impossibility of finding balance. Katya tries to travel between two worlds; she's a good soldier and a loyal daughter, but also attempting to adhere to a greater moral code. The resulting novel is a haunting mystery and a perceptive character study; an unsettling and gorgeous tale of what lies beneath.
[Editor's note: Londoners, there's a launch gig tonight at Gallic Books!]