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Dead Letter by Benjamin Descovich

30295885I'm a sucker for many, many things: wizard schools, arranged marriages where they learn to love one another, business thrillers, the list goes on. Another? High fantasy worlds where the magic isn't important. 

I have a lot of respect for authors that take the complete freedom of an imaginary world - where the very physics and cosmology can be arranged at their very whim - ... and then write stories that really have nothing to do with any of that. Books that clearly have elaborate, intricate world-building, but doesn't make that the 'point' of the book.

In the case of Dead Letter, Descovich ticks this box and then some. It begins in a fairly conventional way: Kettna is a novice in the school of wizardry. She's clearly talented - but it becomes rapidly clear that she's doing a lot with a little; her raw power is unimpressive, but her intellect and study have taken her far. She's also got a past - her parents are both powerful wizards: her mother is the Archmagus. Plus, her boyfriend has been expelled, a result of a magical scandal that may or may not be Kettna's fault in the first place...

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Under Witch Moon by Maria Schneider

9494168Adriel is a witch. 

That's not her real name, by the way. She's not an idiot. Far from it - Adriel's one of New Mexico's best. She's a magical trouble-shooter who can scare off a werewolf, de-curse your home, or rescue a straying husband from the ill-effects of a love potion. Moreover, she's got a heart. She'll keep your secret, say 'no' to vampires and even slip the cops a tip or two, if they're in a bind. All of which - as you might expect - makes a perfect platform for an urban fantasy.

Adriel's not a conventional hero. She's got a network of contacts, skills at interviewing and clue-spotting, a savvy minion or two and, of course, magic. Over the course of Under Witch Moon, Adriel is forced to draw on all these resources - and more - as she battles to protect Santa Fe's human and supernatural community from a menacing new presence.

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Simplified Fantasy Cover Art

It is Friday afternoon, and I'm playing with simplify.thatsh.it - a website that creates 'random modern art by simplifying images to their core elements'. Basically, we're one step from Skynet, people.

Anyway, I've taken the liberty of simplifying some of my favourite SF/F covers. They're pretty remarkable.

Have a play - tag us in your experiments on Twitter at @pornokitsch!

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SPFBO2017: The First 26 Reviews!

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I'm participating in this year's Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off competition - all the background, details and updates are here.

The first step is to filter through the buffet of 301 books that have been sent my way. Although I'll bring some fancy-shmancy grading criteria in later in the process, at this stage I'm being unabashedly subjective: do I want to keep reading it?

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Otared, Graustark and The Winning of Barbara Worth

OtaredOne very modern book and five very old ones. Are there common themes? Is there a pattern?! Not really, no.

--- 

Mohammed Rabie's Otared (2016) is a harrowing existential thriller, set in a near-future Cairo. The city has been occupied by a mercenary army - a sort of quasi-Masonic organisation that swept through in a sudden coup with distinctly Cruaderish underpinnings. Cairo persists - everyday life plods along, despite the foreign invaders and the ominous ring of battleships.

Otared is a former policeman who, infuriated by the way the government rolled over, has joined the rebellion. His job is distasteful: assassin, freedom fighter, terrorist - everything in-between. Otared repeatedly asks the same question - how far would you go? - with different nuances and inflections each time. The voiceless people of Cairo are choosing between two - if not 'evils - brutalities. Otared decides what he will do, how far he will go, in the name of a city that he never particularly liked and certainly never liked him. It is particularly telling that the resistence is led neither by civilians nor military, but policemen - who Otared describes less as a public service and more like a necessary evil. 

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"This slum of literature"

TheJobI've been reading some of the 'best books', which has been surprisingly fun. Perhaps slightly less educational than I had assumed it would be, but there's a virtuous buzz that comes from reading anything with <10 downloads on Gutenberg. 

Although not one of Sinclair Lewis' best works, The Job has a lot going for it. This is a sort of Babbitt for the working woman, and Lewis tries to balance warm-hearted (and progressive) feminist thinking with a thinly-veiled disgust for, well, everyone, including its own protagonist.

It is a tricky line to walk, and the book occasionally stumbles a little too far into one camp or another: either with full-on preaching monologues or vast swathes of parenthetical scorn. 

Still, mean is funny. And this lengthy, abusive aside about the 'literary itch' was particularly entertaining:

* * *

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What of the fans?

Journal of Science FictionThe Journal of Science Fiction was published by a fan group based at the University of Chicago. Like many zines, it was short-lived - despite some (now) star-studded issues, it only existed for four short issues. 

I can't vouch for the tone of the first three, as I've not found them yet, but the fourth is a corker. Whether the JSF was established with this particular tone, or if the editors took to the final issue with nihilistic zeal, the content - especially the editorials - is passionate and, er, rather blistering.

The editorial begins with a succinct explanation of the Journal's demise - 'malnutrition, both of material and of readers'. The editors also note that 'if a publication fails to satisfy the needs and desires of its time; it deserves to die'. Thus they sail, with stoic aplumb, into the darkness. But not without burning some bridges behind them with this - timeless, and ever-relevant - rant...

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The Best Books of Our Time* [with Links]

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*According to The Best Books of Our Time: 1901 - 1925, A clue in the literary labyrinth for home library builders, booksellers and librarians, consisting of a list of 1,000 best books selected by the best authorities accompanies by critical descriptions written and compiled by Asa Don Dickinson, Librarian of the University of Pennsylvania, Author of 1,000 Best Books. 

There's always something enjoyable about the listicles of the previous century, especially when they're so shamelessly transparent. I think my favourite part of that description is the idea of 'home library builders' - the idea that if you don't have the Dickinson Certified Best Books™, well, your parlour simply isn't up to snuff. I stumbled on Dickinson's 1,000 Best when I was doing the research for Lost Souls, and was delighted to find that his penchant for creating league tables of literature had continued.

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Four Fantasies: Fire Boy, The Brazen Gambit, The Never King and A Stranger at the Wedding

Fire BoyFantasy time! Not, like 'the Royals come back to win the division and the Series' fantasy, we're talking about the more realistic stuff - with jinn, dragons, and, er, weddings.

Four recent reads, showing the breadth, depth and wonderful weirdness that can be found on the fantasy shelves.

Sami Shah's Fire Boy (2017). An early - or not so early - book of the year pick. To slap some labels on it, Fire Boy is a YA, edgy American Gods, but then, none of that is particularly accurate. Wahid is a weird kid, growing up in Karachi. He was a sick child and now he's a gormless teenage. But he's got some fun friends, a loving family, and a future that's more or less bright.

Then things go horribly, terribly wrong. Wahid starts seeing things that aren't there. There's crazy assassin is after him. Oh, and he's in a horrible car wreck. Suddenly he's gone from secure and self-absorbed to a life on the run, with everything taken from him. His search for answers takes him to some very strange, and not entirely earthly, places. Fire Boy has all the classic elements of Chosen One-ness and Portal Fantasy: Wahid's a gawky, geeky everyman with a good heart and a lot of potential. But there's also a shockingly edgy overlay - this isn't a book that pulls its punches, and manages to be truly shocking and surprising as the one twist leads to another. Karachi itself comes to life, as Shah brings its sprawl and the splendour to the page, effortlessly weaving in the city's mythology.

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