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Tolkien, Potter, and Pulps

Abandoned Spaces by Stefan Hoenerloh
Photograph by Stefan Hoenerloh

#MordorisforEveryone

Adam Roberts on the global success of Tolkien:

One reason Tolkien’s imaginary realm has proved so successful is precisely its structural non-specificity. What I mean is: Tolkien treats material that has deep roots in, and deep appeal to, various cultural traditions; but he does so in a way—as fictionalised worldbuilding rather than denominated myth—that drains away much of the poisonous nationalist, racist and belligerent associations those traditions have accumulated over the centuries.

This is very similar to what Henry Jenkins has to say about Harry Potter, where he argues (my paraphrasing) there is a world broad and shallow enough to include the potential of every individual reader's inclusion. 

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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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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.

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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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Review Round-up: A Queue, Two Devils, Some Magicians and an Empty City

9781612195162_custom-9dcd78cb1494554fe2ead2adb48ab8c65e917d12-s400-c85I'm way behind on writing reviews - a combination of life, SPFBO reading, sekrit projects and watching Ariana Grande and Chris Martin sing "Don't Look Back In Anger" on continuous loop. But whilst we all wait for me to get my act together, here's a quick catch-up on recent reading:

The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz (2016, first 2012). In an unnamed country, the people are ruled by a faceless bureaucracy. All paperwork challenging the state must be notarised by officials at the 'Gate', the accepted nomenclature of the 'powers that be' that work at entrance of the government building, but the Gate never opens...

Over time, a huge queue forms, and with it, a new society. People come and go, trade gossip, form a new, grey economy. The Gate seems to know everything and be everywhere, but its actions are nonsensical and baffling. Set against this... a mystery, of sorts. A man, shot in an uprising that never happened by soldiers that weren't there using guns that don't exist, is standing, wounded, in the queue. The maze of paperwork around him, if he exists, captures a handful of others, as they make extremely difficult choices in the face of overwhelming indifference. 

The Queue isn't quite as abstract as I'm making it sound. It is a good Orwellian thriller, with compelling, heart-breaking characters. Although inspired by Egypt, The Queue is one of the great fictional dystopias, with horrifying relevance to, well, everywhere. If you read one book on this list, make it this one.

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Three Visions of Fantasy: An Ember in Ashes, Battlemage and Starborn

An-Ember-in-the-AshesThe DGLA is a publicly-voted, largely-British and exclusively-fantasy award. [Except when it isn't. But we'll set that aside, as no one likes a party pooper.] 

Looking at some of last year's debuts, it is fun to see how they - with the help of some wild extrapolation - represent the evolution of three very different traditions of British fantasy. So, without further ado, let's gird our loins, say farewell to the small village that never really understood us, reluctantly accept the quest that only we can accomplish, and head off in pursuit of our destiny...

Sabaa Tahir's An Ember in the Ashes is, perhaps, the easiest of these three books to talk about, as it is such a perfect archetype of what it is: an all-star gathering of YA tropes.

We've got two protagonists - Laia and Elias. One's orphaned, one's estranged from their eeeeevil parent. Both have special missions, awkwardly-discovered Chosen Destiny Powers, and harrowing day-to-day lives, periodically punctuated by the need to make Difficult Decisions. Both are spectacularly attractive. Both have 'obvious' love interests (in natural conflict with their Undeniable and Powerful Attraction to one another). Both are born to - and assigned - roles that they don't want to play. Both crave, in order, Freedom, Understanding, Something Different, A World More Fair, and a bit of sexy cuddletimes.

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A Closed and Common Orbit, Moonraker's Bride and The Season

Moonrakers BrideHappy almost Valentine's Day!

To celebrate, three very different romances: a contemporary space opera (kinda), a globe-trotting adventure (kinda), and a Regency romance (kinda). Love is in the air, and it is not so easily classified. 

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Madeline Brent's Moonraker's Bride (1973) is another of the award-winning novelist's semi-Gothic, globe-trotting, quasi-Victorian escapades. I'm slightly obsessed with Brent's books ever since discovering that 'she' is the pen name for Peter O'Donnell, who also wrote the action series Modesty Blaise. The obsession has now paid off with a handful of really delightful books, of which Moonraker's is one. 

Lucy Waring, our heroine, is born overseas, an orphan in a remote Himalayan village. This means she's got practical skills (including yak-herding!) and an adventurous spirit... but is completely on the back foot in British society. The combination means she can be shy, but courageous, and supremely competent... yet also in constant need of rescuing. This is the delicate balance that Brent creates in all 'her' books, and it might be at its most delicate in Moonraker's. Further familiar twists include the circumstantial-marriage-that-could-be-real-love, family secrets, and a lot of ponderously-delivered pop psychology.

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A Planet for Texans and The School for Good and Evil

A Planet for Texans

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.

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From tiny acorns... the growth of Giant Days

Giant Days

Most media artifacts come to the public fully formed, the creative process long since edited away or consigned to the rubbish bin. With comic books that process has typically been more open to the public. For starters, when following a long-running series over a number of years, you can see how characters and concepts grow and change in time. If the series has the same creative team you may also see how an artist’s style or a writer’s craft develops as they gain experience.

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