Underground Reading: Malice by John Gwynne

This is part of a series of reviews - my attempt to cover all nine finalists for the David Gemmell Legend Award before the winner is announced at the end of October. I'll be approaching these books in a slightly templated fashion: plot summary, good stuff, not so good stuff, conclusion.

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MaliceSo what's it about?

John Gwynne's Malice (2012) is a fast-paced (although still over-sized) epic fantasy that combines a lot of familiar plot elements: a coming of age story, a quasi Western European setting, a Chosen One, the rise of an (evil) empire, gods that have abandoned the world only to communicate with it through dreams and omens, and a search for lost magic.

The primary point of view character is the young Corban, growing up surrounded by his friends, family and a mysterious mentor figure. Corban's main goal in life is to go through warrior training and become a proper badass, like his pa. There are bullies and challenges, of course, but they're more like character-building roadbumps. And, as Corban soon learns, there are far larger problems afoot. 

There are a few other characters, but, for the most part, their experiences mirror Corban's: a pick n' mix of second-sons and unwanted cousins, all coming of age in various places around the world. They're tempted, they're challenged, they're likeable underdogs going through tough times.

Behind all of this: THE DARK SUN IS RISING. Dramatic, right? In the most epic of all epic prophesies, there will be a Bright Sun and a Dark Sun and they will go kablooie for the fate of the world. Angels and demons alike are all lining up for the great cosmic smackdown. Everyone agrees - the end times are a-comin', and Corban and his ilk are all caught up in the middle of things.

(There are omens and dreams and such. Hint: The Chosen One is Chosen and the Bad Guy is Bad.)

What's to like about Malice?

Quite a bit, actually. The pace is good, the lessons are solid and, you know, stuff happens. The chapters are all cliff-hangers and Mr. Gwynne does a nice job of juggling his (virtually interchangeable) point of view characters.  

I hasten to add that there's absolutely nothing new about Malice, but with that familiarity comes a certain sort of squashy comfort. Malice is the heir to David Eddings: a fantasy cozy where good always triumphs - after a carefully measured dose of adversity, that is. Lessons are learned, hearts are warmed, let's all go home for cocoa and carolling.

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Losing It, Judy Blume and John Fowles

Losing ItA few new books in this week:

Judy Blume's Wifey. Weirdly, I don't actually remember reading any Judy Blume as a kid. I'm sure I did - and certainly her presence as a cultural juggernaut hasn't escaped me. But, I can't distinguish if I have memories of "reading Judy Blume" or memories of "hearing about Judy Blume so much that it feels like I read them myself". Anyway, Wifey showed up on this Flavorwire list of "40 Trashy Novels You Must Read Before You Die" and it sounded, well... fun.

Irving Wallace's The Second Lady. Another find from the same list. A thriller from 1980 about Soviet plot to replace the First Lady with an identical Russian agent. I honestly can't think of any concept that's a) more ridiculous or b) more immediately appealing. This should be awesome.

Edward S. Aarons' Assignment Carlotta Cortez. A Sam Durrell mystery - these are... ok. They're no Chester Drum (Stephen Marlowe), but they'll do in a pinch. Nice to find in hardcover, even if the paperback covers are better. Interesting the 'dame's' hair colour seems to have changed for this edition. I'm curious if there are multiple women involved, or if the publisher of this edition decided that gentlemen prefer blondes. (Is 'blondewashing' a word?) (Also, how cool is this cover? I'm jealous.)

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Review Round-up: Brothers, Wives and Children

Three rapid reviews of new releases - David Towsey's Your Brother's Blood, Elissa Wald's The Secret Lives of Married Women and Kass Morgan's The 100. All of which are either out now or about to be. 

The Secret Lives Of Married Women by Elissa WaldHard Case Crime continue their recent run of brilliance with Elissa Wald's The Secret Lives of Married Women (2013). Ms. Wald is, rather shockingly, only the second female writer for the imprint (following in the footsteps of Christa Faust). The Secret Lives is essentially two interlinked novellas that follow a pair of twin sisters. 

The first, Leda, is essentially a suburban housewife. After a brief career in film and a short stint in sales, Leda is now married, pregnant and a bit bored. As she sets up her new home with her husband, Stas, she meets a friendly builder. He soon crosses the line and becomes a bit of a pest - more so when it turns out that he knows something about Leda's past that even her husband doesn't. The story takes a startling twist, but, as is the book's theme, it isn't really about the 'mystery' (or the 'plot') as much as the character's response to what happens. The events around her trigger a curious response: leading her to question what she really wants out of life... 

The second story has a bit more narrative trickery. Leda's sister Lillian is on the path for a different sort of success: she's a high-powered lawyer with a handsome husband, good money and tough reputation. One of her clients is accused of corruption, and, as she interviews a key witness (who turns out to be a former sex worker and professional submissive), Lillian is forced to confront her own hidden (or suppressed) desires. 

Understandably, this sounds a bit...er... porny. And The Secret Lives doesn't shy away from its sexually-charged atmosphere. But it uses sex - specifically, submission - as a way of challenging assumptions and societal dictates regarding of 'success' and 'happiness'. Like the best noir, this is about the subtle difference between the two. Just because you get what you want doesn't mean it makes you happy...

The Secret Lives of Married Women is more a collection of  character studies than a novel, but, individually, the stories are all fascinating. It took me a while to realise that there wasn't a big picture - nor was there going to be. This is an intense and intimate book; a compelling, unsettling read that doesn't hesitate to subvert the reader's assumptions, over and over again.

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The Biggest Fantasy Series of All Time is...

According to Wikipedia:

  • J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter (7 volumes, 3 supplements) - 450m
  • Star Wars (300+ volumes) - 160m (missed this the first time around, whether or not it is fantasy or SF, I'll leave to you...)
  • J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings - 150m (Wikipedia classifies it as a single volume)
  • C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia (7 volumes) - 120m (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe alone - 85m)
  • Stephanie Meyer's Twilight (4 novels, 1 novella, 1 guide) - 116m
  • J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit - 100m (Not a series - unless you're Peter Jackson)
  • Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles (12 volumes) - 80m
  • E.L. James' 50 Shades of Gray trilogy (3 volumes) - 70m (For comparative purposes)
  • Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins' Left Behind (16 volumes) - 65m
  • Terry Pratchett's Discworld (39 volumes) - 55m (65m according to the author's note in Unseen Academicals)
  • Edgar Rice Burrough's Tarzan (26 volumes) - 50m
  • Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games (3 volumes) - 50m [The Hunger Games alone - 23m)
  • Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson's Wheel of Time (14 volumes) - 44m
  • Christopher Paolini's Inheritance Cycle (4 volumes) - 33m [40m now]
  • Stephen King's Dark Tower (8 volumes) - 30m
  • Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth (12 volumes) - 25m
  • Terry Brooks' Shannara (20 volumes) - 21m
  • Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl (20 volumes) - 21m
  • Isaac Asimov's Foundation (3 volumes) - 20m
  • Brian Jacques' Redwall (22 volumes) - 20m
  • Dragonlance (150+ volumes) - 20m
  • Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire Hootenanny (21 volumes) - 20m
  • Douglas Adam's (and Eoin Colfer) Hitchhiker's Guide (6 volumes) - 16m
  • Raymond Feist's Riftwar (25 volumes) - 15m
  • George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire (5 volumes) - 15m

Random thunks below...

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Stockpiling

Battle LinesThe results of this week's shopping expeditions.

Will Hill's Department 19: Battle Lines. A signed copy. Despite the size of the Department 19 books, I find them to be incredibly quick reads. I'd love a good, clean day without interruptions (or deadlines) (or work) (or all those other things that come with being an adult) to plow through this. I'm a big fan of the series, which is a bit, um, Dracula meets Gossip Girl (I mean that positively - I love Gossip Girl.) (Forbidden Planet)

Tina's Mouth by Keshni Kashyap was something I picked up after reading the review on Practically Marzipan. High school existentialism. What's not to love? (Abebooks) 

Dava Sobel's Longitude is research for a 2014 Pandemonium project. (Mysterious!) (Abebooks again)

Cancertown 2: Blasphemous Tumours (Cy Dethan and Graeme Howard) is a lovely-horrific graphic novel from independent publisher Markosia. I'm a big fan of their work - they've got a few delicious commercial titles propping up a whole stable of utterly bonkers, extremely edgy work. This book is also Pandemonium research, and damn if I'm not enjoying it. (More mysterious!) (Publisher's own site)

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Review Round-Up: Three More Novels of Note

Another round-up: Chris Marnewick's The Soldier Who Said No, Gail Carriger's Etiquette and Espionage and Robert Jackson Bennett's American Elsewhere. Three more unequivocal "yes" reviews.

The Soldier Who Said NowIt is hard to believe that Chris Marnewick's The Soldier Who Said No (2010) is only 310 pages. So very, very much happens, but it never seems rushed. Pierre De Villiers is a South African expatriate, living in New Zealand. As the book opens, he's suspended from his job as a policeman for a fit of temper. At exactly the same time, someone makes an attempt is made on the life of the Prime Minister. The assassin uses a Bushman weapon, and, as the coincidences stack up, De Villiers becomes the prime suspect. 

Shockingly, Pierre has even worse things to worry about. His health is rapidly declining and the doctors confirm the worst: cancer. It is hard to find a man with more going wrong in his life.

Yet even this isn't even the low point for Pierre. That came years before, when he was a soldier assigned to do some of the military's more secretive mission. Upon refusing to complete one particularly unpleasant assignment, Pierre became "the solider who said no" - a man hunted down by his own countrymen. 

The Soldier Who Said No cycles between Pierre's past and his present as he works to solve a mystery that spans two continents and time periods. Pierre's a man falsely accused. In the present day, he's hunted by the (hilariously bumbling) New Zealand authorities. In the past, he's pursued by more predatory figures. In both times, he's debilitated - by cancer, starvation or inury. Yet even with all this happening, Mr. Marnewick writes at a surprisingly languorous pace. There's never sense of rush, everything unfolds smoothly and at a natural pace. Despite the action, this isn't a Bourne-style thriller. Pierre's life is certainly packed with drama, but Mr. Marnewick expresses it subtly, and often through the little things: examining street signs, discussions at meals, casual discussions with his radiotherapist...

Mr. Marnewick leaves the reader with the sense that the entire assassination plot was simply a device to explore a fascinating character, and not the other way around.

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Rae Carson's Fire and Thorns and Benedict Jacka's Fated by Lizzie Barrett

Two fantasy debuts that are trying something difference - Rae Carson's Fire and Thorns and Benedict Jacka's Fated. 

Fire and ThornsFire and Thorns (2011), by Rae Carson, tries very, very hard and almost succeeds in delivering a refreshing and absorbing YA novel.

It’s well written with an engaging heroine, Princess Elisa, who thinks herself useless, is jealous of her sister and ignorant about a great many things except tactical warfare, and there are some nice details and passages that kept me reading. The entire premise makes a change from many second world fantasies – Fire and Thorns is set in quasi-Arabian lands, with names that are reminiscent of ancient Turkey, Cyprus and Morocco and the world is highly religious to a monotheistic God. So far, so fairly unusual for your average young adult fantasy.

Elisa is the bearer of the Godstone, literally a blue stone in her naval placed there by God during her naming ceremony, something that happens once every hundred years. All bearers have a destiny to fulfil and they have been chosen to do something remarkable for their people. The issue is that Elisa doesn’t know what. The other issue is that she’s been hastily married to a neighbouring King who need her father’s troops for the war that everyone is sure will soon threaten the lands.

Elisa isn’t too sure how she feels about this, and is even less sure when, in quick succession, she finds out: a) her husband is a coward; b) her husband refuses to acknowledge that she is his wife; c) her husband has a mistress and a son; and d) that being the bearer means people are going to kidnap her.

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Review Round-up: 5 Books I Liked

No theme here, nor any word count cleverness. Just five books I really liked and recommend heartily: Ian Sales' Adrift on the Sea of Rains, Mary Wilkins Freeman's Understudies, Johan Harstad's 172 Hours on the Moon, George Tomkyns' The Battle of Dorking and James M. Cain's The Cocktail Waitress

Adrift-on-the-sea-of-rains-ian-salesAdrift on the Sea of Rains (2012) by Ian Sales. Mr. Sales and I don't have the same taste in science fiction. He likes rocket ships and space maths and detailed research - hard SF. I like tentacles, weirdness and angst. So when I read Adrift, I was prepared for - not disappointment, but dissonance. Boy, was I surprised.

This is a book about astronauts trapped on the moon, trying to get home. And, I'll be damned if he didn't crack the perfect balance between character and concept. Absolutely, Adrift is about angles and gravity and scientific whatnot that I'm sure is perfectly correct, but, more importantly, it is about isolation and despair and hope and belief. It is a balance between science and fiction, and, despite the brevity of the novella format, simply one of the best space operas I've ever read. 

Understudies (1901) by Mary Wilkins. Mary Wilkins is the only author to appear in Lost Souls twice. That wasn't intentional. While going through the stacks and stacks of stories, we picked out one by "Mary Wilkins" and one by "Mary Freeman". When we realised that was the same woman... we stuck with it. In an anthology with Arthur Conan Doyle, Bret Harte, Mary Coleridge, Stephen Crane, etc - Ms. Wilkins/Freeman still deserves to be the one doubly represented. ("Amanda Todd" is the story which has become our de facto cover, thanks to Vincent Sammy's beautiful illustration.) 

Her introduction in Lost Souls contains more about her unusual life - first a 'failed' writer of children's books, then an immediate success when she turned her hand to an older audience. She specialised in the fiction of small towns; lonely hearts and failed lives and small triumphs. Understudies is appropriately heart-breaking, a collection of short stories centred around animals: the doctor's horse, a lost dog, a squirrel... but actually about the people that rely on them. It isn't on Project Gutenberg, but it has been snaffled by Google Books. (Or you can read Lost Souls, naturally.)

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Jeff Norton on "10 Inventions I'm Still Waiting For"

MetawarsScience Fiction makes a lot of promises, and while the genre has spawned some impressive innovations like mobile phones (remember Captain Kirk’s flip-phone style “communicator”?) and space travel (Jules Verne, Georges Lumiere), we’re still impatiently waiting for some of sci-fi’s boldest innovations:

Flying Cars.  "Blade Runner" wowed us with these roadless motors, "The Fifth Element" teased us with flying yellow cabs, and the new ‘Total Recall’ reboot keeps the flame alive, but alas, our four wheels are still stuck to the ground while our dreams of leaving the M25 far below are just that, dreams.

Transporter Beams. It’s not just airports that are a hassle, but the whole flying experience has become a bit of a chore. What we need is point-to-point transporter beams, Scotty. What we’ve got is scratch-card selling discount airlines.

Time Machine. First popularised by H.G. Wells in his 1895 book, "The Time Machine", this handy invention has had over a hundred years to get invented. We all know this would be handy, whether for going back in time to kill Hitler or simply to keep from locking yourself out of the flat, or perhaps travelling forward to tourist the future. But this stalwart of sci-fi seems destined to be confined to the fiction… unless of course we can hop the DeLorean and fetch it from the future.

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Review Round-up: Rats and Pirate Queens

Short novels by Jules Feiffer and Bret Harte. Because... why not? 

HarryHarry, the Rat with Women (1963 - reprinted in 2007 by Fantagraphics) is Jules Feiffer's first novel. The famed illustrator (think, The Phantom Tollbooth, amongst many others) brings that same sense of elasticated reality to his prose that exists in his art. Everything is there and familiar, but somehow drawn and thin and somewhat ethereal; delicate but distorted.

Further stretching the comparison was Norton Juster's (the author of Tollbooth) aside that Mr. Feiffer did not like to draw backgrounds - everything was contained within the characters. Suitably, Harry reflects this mentality. The titular character is possessed of singular beauty. Raised by devoted parents, Harry grows into a stunning and self-absorbed young man - someone capable of winning over the entire world with his mere presence. Parties surround him, women and men throw themselves at his feet, political and religious movements are founded in his wake.

In one amusing scene, Harry takes part in a debate at his university. He argues his point and the audience, wooed by his beauty, applauds him for two hours. His opponent collapses in tears and concedes the argument. Bored, Harry then argues the opposite side of the debate. The audience applauds for another two hours...

The bulk of the book is one self-contained scenario after another: Harry effortlessly winning over crowds, Harry effortlessly crushing the lives of his admirers, Harry generally being a selfish dick. But he's never... evil. Mr. Feiffer's creation is simply the result of a superheroic nurture/nature team-up. Harry's gorgeous and everyone tells him so. At no point has anyone ever balked him, so he believes the entire world is built for his pleasure. He no sadist, just a narcissist.

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