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The Dark Net by Benjamin Percy

The Dark NetThe Dark Net (2017) is the new thriller from Benjamin Percy who - for many reasons - is on the 'must-read' pile. But we'll get to that in a moment. The Dark Net is a strangely 'classical' horror novel, in the Straub/King model, not, say, Poe. There's an evil rising in Portland, and a rag-tag group of people are drawn together to stop it.

Like a Straub or a King (or a McCammon or an F. Paul Wilson) there's a metaphysical element: a greater contest of Good and Evil taking place. It is implied that Portland is merely the latest battleground, but, unless our heroes band together... it could also be the last. If you know the genre, you know how it works, and can predict the properly embiggened and important ending.

While all the cosmic epic stuff happens up there (hand-waves), there's a lot of stuff happening on a more immediate, visceral level. The Dark Net is super-squishy, and properly downright terrifying. The monsters are monstrous and the people are worse. It is genuinely horrific in the true sense of the word: juxtaposing the uncanny and the unnatural into everyday life to get the reader recoiling in fear and disgust. Well done, really.

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Review Round-Up: Cardigan, Stormswift and Tregaron's Daughter

30220686Historical romance edition! Three historical romances - from the wilderness of pre-Revolutionary upstate New York to the fishing villages of Cornwall - love finds everyone. Especially if you're attractive and of noble birth. 

Robert W. Chambers' Cardigan (1901) was, within his lifetime, his most famous work. The King in Yellow was a cult favourite, and certainly proved the most long-lasting and influential. But it was Cardigan that established Chambers as a best-seller and a popular favourite. There's some merit to Cardigan's success. If we posit (tautologically) that this was an era in which Chambers succeeded, so therefore Chambers books were successful, there's a lot about Cardigan that is, well, Chambersy. It has, amongst other things:

  • A suitably jingoistic plot - set in the early days of the American Revolution, and firmly establishing American exceptionalism
  • A charming, if utterly hackneyed, romance - a young boy (Cardigan) and a young woman (whom he always refers to as her childhood nickname, 'Silver Heels') are raised together as wards of an important pre-Revolutionary figure.
  • A coming of age story, in which Cardigan realises that loyalty is more than an oath to a distant King, and maybe his dream of becoming an officer isn't the best thing in the world and whatnot
  • A ton of very florid nature writing - including meandering treks across the wilderness, countless fishing expeditions, and a general, ubiquitous appreciation of all things related to sunsets, sunrises, the moon, water features, trees, mountains, skies and/or dirt

All of which, as noted above, are hallmarks of Chambers' writing. As mixed a bag as this is already, Cardigan also features some of Chambers' less appreciable writing quirks. 

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Starring Colson & The Olsens

VirtualBoy-with-packaging

Nintendo Virtual League Baseball, via the Museum of Obsolete Media

Appointing Death Panels for Science Fiction

Clarke winner Colson Whitehead seems pretty cool, via the Guardian:

The Underground Railroad “could not exist without the toolkit of fantastic literature.... Way back when I was 10 years old, it was science fiction and fantasy that made me want to be a writer,” said Whitehead, whose previous novel Zone One featured zombies. “If you were a writer, you could work from home, you didn’t have to talk to anybody, and you could just make up stuff all day. Stuff about robots and maybe zombies and maybe even miraculous railway lines. Fantasy, like realism, is a tool for describing the world.”

I have genuine appreciation for anyone that freely conflates fantasy and science fiction in his first post-Clarke interview. Somewhere out there, a rocketships-and-math genre pedant is spinning in (undoubtedly) his grave.

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The War of Undoing by Alex Perry

25328003The War of Undoing is, at first appearances, a pretty straightforward book. The humans and the vuma live in an uneasy (and clearly temporary) peace. [ominous thunder]

With that established, cut to...

Three children - the Rainings - living alone, unchaperoned, and in poverty in the unwelcoming city of Tarot. They receive a mysterious message saying that they're needed for a Great and Magical Cause. This gift horse seems like a truly spectacular chance. They can leave the city, pursue their capital-D-Destiny, and maybe even find - and bollock - their absentee parents.

Of course, things are never really so simple - not even in even high fantasy. The Rainings are quickly separated, and head down their own paths, making new friends (and enemies) along the way. More worrying, what they assumed was their Destiny is perhaps someone else's. The three children learn that being the instrument of a Great Cause is less about being a hero and more about being, well, a tool.

This is a long - and often quite meandering - book. There's a slow start, followed by a lot of quiet, discursive tangents. Several of Undoing's plots and 'hints' don't coalesce until the very end, and certain momentuous occasions and world-changing events - which would be the very heart and soul of other fantasy novels - are downplayed, and shifted to the background. As a result, The War of Undoing can feel frustrating at times. But, and I can't stress this enough, stick with it: this book simply has different priorities.

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Irons in the Fire by Antonio Urias

26240720Talis is one hell of a city. It is both a bustling metropolis and the edge of the civilisation, home to millions of humans and faerie, and the centre of trade and magic. Ruled by a benevolent, but firmly entrenched, duke, Talis has a history dating back thousands of years, including centuries under the oppression of Witches.

Talis is also packed with stories. The Witches were overthrown by a human/faerie alliance - an alliance that has since dissolved. The faeries are second-class citizens in the city. They live packed into a ghetto, the population of which increases daily with refugees from the surrounding wilderness. Others have assimilated into human society, trying to fit in as merchants, artists or political power-brokers. On the human 'side', the Duke has no heir, and the city's many aristocrats and nouveau riche jockey for position - while the Emperor looks on, impassively, from afar. The city guard is rife with corruption and intrigue, but still stands as the last line between the city and total anarchy. Talis is the proverbial powder keg, with strangers, politicians, rebels, wizards, and detectives all running around with matches.

Appropriately enough, Irons in the Fire begins with an explosion.

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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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