Sunday, 19 December 2010

bite me: the week in bite-sized chunks

Orbit: who doesn’t love a good chart? Editor Dongwon Song and the team have been playing with a new Google tool this week, the Ngram Viewer. You can ask Google to graph certain terms in their Google Books archive (all of it or just, say, French books) between set dates to see which is the most recurring. Orbit have gone for (naturally) orcs, elves and dwarves (with elves as the clear winner) and, with no need for a Harry Hill-esque fight, for all those crying ‘but what’s more popular, zombies, werewolves or vampires?’ you can now rest easy: it’s vampires. How exciting is this? Finally Google has used its power for the good of humankind and I finally get to find out what’s more popular in the wealth of (Googled) British fiction between 1800 and 2010: a camel, a shoe or the elbow? It turns out the humble shoe is the clear winner (although in 1860 it was a close one when the elbow gained popularity).

HarperVoyager: this week the Voyager have put out a call for reviewers/bloggers to volunteer to review one of their latest titles, Prince of Thorns by Martin Lawrence. They’re currently compiling a list of bloggers who want to review any of their authors’ debut titles in 2011 and if you want to be on their list just email It’s a great way of generating free publicity for new authors on their list and getting their titles into circulation – and getting a free book if you’re a blogger. Blurb here:

From being a privileged royal child, raised by a loving mother, Jorg Ancrath has become the Prince of Thorns, a charming, immoral boy leading a grim band of outlaws in a series of raids and atrocities. The world is in chaos: violence is rife, nightmares everywhere. Jorg has the ability to master the living and the dead, but there is still one thing that puts a chill in him. Returning to his father’s castle Jorg must confront horrors from his childhood and carve himself a future with all hands turned against him.

Prince of Thorns is the first volume in a powerful new epic fantasy trilogy, original, absorbing and challenging. Mark Lawrence’s debut novel tells a tale of blood and treachery, magic and brotherhood and paints a compelling and brutal, and sometimes beautiful, picture of an exceptional boy on his journey toward manhood and the throne.

Solaris: free ebook from Solaris this week. You can download the epub or PDF format of The Blue Portal by Eric Brown here, which is nice. It’s less an entire ebook and more a short extract from his upcoming title The King of Eternity but it’s free for the reader and it’s a lovely bit of free publicity for Solaris and Brown.

Best SFF 2010: due to it being the end of the year, a number of ‘Best-of’ lists are appearing which note the top SFF titles of 2010. As I don’t often get SFF titles recommended to me, for me these lists are a great way of seeing what books would have otherwise slipped past me and I can quite happily let them dictate my reading for the next few months. A selection of these lists include: Barnes and Noble, Kirkus Reviews,, and the Good Reads Choice Awards. I’ll do a full blog on these because I think they’re worth comparing (and currently the list is compiled by Orbit, which makes my job easier but also it’s slightly biased towards lists that mention Orbit).

Friday, 17 December 2010

book review: Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Published by Angry Robots in the UK and Jacana in South Africa, Zoo City is only the second novel from South African writer, Lauren Beukes (following Moxyland), although her work reads with the ease and lyricism of a seasoned pro, which, in all fairness, she is. Beukes has a journalism and scriptwriting background and she isn’t afraid to use these hard-earned skills in her novel writing, which shines through both in wording and style. Beukes is the writer equivalent of a method actor: a method writer. Her research is both academic and physical and she’s been to healers’ markets, visited churches that once housed over three thousand refugees has been thrown out of night clubs, all in the name of fiction. Her methods pay off.

Ex-drug addict Zinzi December is a woman with a past, but that’s obvious from the Sloth on her back. FL (former life) she was a journalist, but now she lives in the South African slums of Zoo City, where most of the residents have been ‘animalled’. She’s become a Mashavi, which refers to both her animal familiar, Sloth, and her magical ability, which for her is to find lost things. Like others in this alternative present, her animal was thrust upon her by the shadowy Undertow, which came for her after her brother was killed by a bullet meant for her. Whether it’s a guilty conscience that has started to manifest physically, a godly punishment or, like the daemons in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (something hinted at in the book), part of their soul, being animalled in a society already suffering from other xenophobic attitudes is not conductive to an easy life.

Still paying off drug debts she racked up in her FL, Zinzi is involved with Internet scams as well as using her ability to find lost things – for a price – when she’s implemented in the murder of one of her clients. In need of the money after the police take her payment for that job, she’s forced to break her ‘no missing persons’ rule to find a lost pop princess and becomes embroiled in more murders and shady goings-on in the music world.

Even with the first person narrative, Zinzi – with her fabulous insults and severe personal issues - is a difficult person to get to know, but by the end you feel that you at least understand her for all of her foibles. This is a story that feels personal, and painful. From Zinzi’s touchingly fragile relationship with Benoît, another Mashavi, to the very real history of the country that still haunts them, although it’s Fantasy the magic is more mythological and is not what drives the story. It’s primarily focussed on the broken people desperate to pick up the pieces just to get by from day-to-day and to rebuild some sort of life, and it’s about living with regret, in this case literally with the physical presence of their animals. The fear of being animalled and the inability to get away from your animal if it happens to you adds an element of claustrophobia to the simmering crucible of a society already in troubled times. Although similar to the daemons in Pullman’s universe, the idea of being unable to hide an aspect of yourself – the monkey on your back - is compelling enough, along with the fast-paced plot, that the novel never falls into the trap of being all concept and no substance.

Beukes paints a bleak picture of Johannesburg and human nature in general; it’s a crumbling city where the ridiculously opulent areas are side-by-side with the dirt-poor, like gold teeth in a rotting mouth. I usually enjoy books more that are lighter in tone, but this bleakness doesn’t overwhelm the novel because the theme of redemption is present throughout, driving the characters forward, however unconsciously.

With Zoo City, Beukes shows what can still be done with the Urban Fantasy genre: it’s a wonderful, gritty, unique gem of a novel, filled with witty dialogue and sentences that zing off the page, and, much like her troubled main character Zinzi, is edgy without being alienating and vulnerable without being soft.


Sunday, 12 December 2010

bite me: the week in bite-sized chunks

Angry Robot Books: during the days running up to Christmas, advent, if you will, Angry Robot have been gifting readers through their digital advent calendar with anything from writer Dan Abnett’s secret family bread sauce recipe (awww) to Christmas horror short, The Holiday Man by J Robert King. I think this is a great idea – it’s for the fans, it whets appetites for authors, it brings a sort of warm glowy feeling often associated with Christmas and being given free things, and it fosters a community spirit amongst its readers, also known, rather fuzzily, as ‘brand loyalty’.

self-publishing: a success story: this weekend it was reported that self-published Fantasy author Brian S. Pratt has been earning thousands of dollars from the 17 eBooks he’s publishing on eBook platform for ‘independent writers’, Smashwords. I hesitate to say ‘perhaps this is the way forward’ because I’m an old-fashioned snob at heart when it comes to publishing. Still, authors have complete pricing control over their work, the eBooks are available in all formats and they’ve published over 25,000 authors since they opened for business back in May 2008. Perhaps this IS the way ... no sorry, I just can’t.

Penguin USA: Penguin Daw author Gini Koch has been guest posting on The Author’s Desk blog this week and has some interesting theories about why readers might be put off by Science Fiction (because it’s viewed as ‘hard or scary or boring’). Koch’s titles are the Sci Fi equivalent of the Paranormal Romance. The Alien Series, beginning with her debut novel Touched by an Alien (a title not as misleading as the TV series about angels), centres on marketing manager Katherine ‘Kitty’ Katt who kills a man after he turns into a monster. She’s whisked away by secret agents who reveal to her that this man was mutated by an alien parasite, and that they too are aliens from Alpha Centauri. But, more importantly, they’re sexy aliens. One such agent, Jeff Martini (another case of the Ford Prefect misjudged moniker?), begins stalking Kitty, which she, of course, finds sexy and alluring. It was one of Booklist’s Top Ten adult Science Fiction and Fantasy novels of 2010, so there is obviously something to all this sexy alien malarkey. Interestingly, Koch writes in one guest post about how the majority of her readers are not Sci Fi fans originally. Perhaps this ‘non-threatening science fiction’ as Koch dubs it would be my perfect way in to the genre, although it’s more soft-focused than soft.

Orbit: more festive frolics from publishers. I love a good visualisation. Orbit have put together a lovely visual graphic to examine the difference between the Christmas elf, and the Fantasy elf. Enjoy! They’re also giving away ‘Christmas loot’ regularly in the run up to Christmas, although more excitingly, they’ve changed their logo to reflect the season. Maybe this is only exciting to me.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

TV preview: HBO's Game of Thrones

HBO’s Game of Thrones TV series based on the first book in Voyager author George R. R. Martin’s epic Fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire should premier April 2011. The network have released this behind-the-scenes video that shows-off their series and it looks like it’s going to be, well, epic. Anyone worried that the scope would be too vast to cram into a few episodes will understand why HBO have decided to tackle the books one at a time.

A Game of Thrones won the 1997 Locus award and has been nominated for other top awards since its original publication in 1996. Set in Westeros, the land where winters can last a lifetime, and lifetimes seldom last out the winter, this is a gorgeous and incredibly detailed series that is well worth reading whether you’re a fan of the genre or not. To put it very simply: it begins at the end of summer in a tremulous time of peace and descends through intricate layers of politics between ruling Houses across the land into all out war and full winter. There are supernatural threats building in the North, but the humans have enough to contend with just between each other. You’ll love characters and lose them: Martin is as brutal as he is talented.

As for the television cast, Sean Bean has combed out his Boromir wig for the role of Ned Stark and Peter Dinklage is exactly how I imagined my particular favourite character, the multi-layered Tyrion Lannister, would be. The preview reveals some truly amazing sets so much kudos goes to the art department. The CGI looks like it’s going to meld seamlessly with the large scale sets that look, thankfully, more LOTR alternative history than Zena.

Preview highlight: George R. R. Martin saying that Fantasy is bigger than history. He’s amazing.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

bite me: the week in bite-sized chunks


Dear teenage self,

If only Atom’s The Atomics, a new blogosphere of reviewers aged twelve to eighteen who will be given the opportunity to see Atom’s latest titles before they go to print, had existed back when you were morosely putting pen to paper. You could have stopped writing about the love that never could be (he’s gay, by the way), and instead wrote reviews and been published in the Atomics section of the Atom website. I wrote about this last month as Atom are great for interacting with their blogging fans (and feeding them buns). They are also keen to let readers know they aren’t just publishing ‘girly’ paranormal romances, they’re currently expanding their list to cater to a breadth of teenage topics, including mystery and adventure. Perhaps this signals a move away from what could be known as their Twilight Era, their ‘tween’ stage on the way to being a fully established imprint no longer under Orbit’s considerable shadow. Atom is all grown up and ready to split (sorry).

Angry Robot Books: these guys have, rather excitingly, just launched their digital short story store and from the 1st December readers will be able to buy and download their authors’ short stories (AKA ‘Nano Editions’). Also, at 59p each or 10 for £3.49, they’re not pricey. Eager to embrace the new opportunities digital technology is presenting publishers with, Editor Lee Harris calls this venture an ‘excellent way for readers to sample unfamiliar authors, without breaking the bank.’ In addition, I realise I’ve said this before but I really do intend to review a title by this publisher if only to justify my place in their Angry Robot Army, where I am currently registering as so low in the ranks I’m only classed as Miffed. Also, great interview with Harris in SFX here.

2010 Urban Fantasy Cover Art Awards: voting is now open for these annual awards by All Things Urban Fantasy and closes on 29th December. Featuring titles published between the 1st January and the 31st December 2010, the 15 categories include Best Male Cover, Most Unique Cover, Cover of the Year 2010 and, my personal favourite, Best Female w/ Animal Cover. Voting also means you’re eligible to win some of the shortlisted titles. I love covers, being a hardcopy romantic, and naturally there are many beautiful pieces of art to choose from, such as artist Chris McGrath’s cover designs for Clay and Susan Griffith’s The Greyfriar, a Steampunk title published by Prometheus Books (and surely based on Mitchell, the vampire from the excellent BBC supernatural drama Being Human?). My favourite cover out of all those in the running has to be The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff, published by Razorbill and by cover artist Jonathan Barkat, for its uniqueness amongst the usual Urban Fantasy tokes and because it features that which terrifies me the most: a baby in a pram.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

best book trailers

Book trailers (to wit: trailers for books) have fascinated me for a while now. I can completely see their value, if done well. But they’re a bit of a challenge, like perfume adverts. The audience can’t do the obvious thing and actually smell the product, so the advert is most likely to contain a woman rolling around erotically, slowly removing what little clothes she has on while a testosterone-deep voiceover rasps, ‘Erogenous, the new fragrance for women.’ The marketing team (or author) has to think of a way to convey what the book is about without resorting to simply reading out the blurb over a flashing image of the book slowly removing its jacket. The other issue, particularly with genre publishers, is that there are small teams and smaller budgets to contend with, but that doesn’t stop them from trying this marketing endeavour. Some of the following trailers work. Others not so much.

Michelle Zink’s Prophecy of the Sisters – Atom

This uses a mixture of the blurb and photography, with slightly repetitive music. It’s pretty good and I particularly like the mysterious glimpse of the island, but it misses out on describing the actual plot and as far as I can see it’s about a good sister, an evil sister, and only one of them can prevail, which understandably breeds some mistrust between the siblings.

Aliette de Bodard’s Harbinger of the Storm – Angry Robot Books

This is by the author rather than the publisher and it’s an inventive mix of animation, photography and film. It also gives a good sense of the plot.

Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three – Orbit Books

Built by the Quake2World project, this is a videogame-esque trailer that is simply a teaser for the book, so no blurb, simply the words ‘Can you survive the ship?’ The blood on the floor is a nice touch, and it’s Event Horizon meets Alien by the looks of things, but that’s only a guess, although guessing is what we are being invited to do.

Trent Jamieson’s Death Most Definite – Orbit Books

This is the first book trailer by the author for this title. I’m not kidding, I actually clicked on it several times, utterly confused, before it finally, er, clicked. It’s a book trailer. Get it?

And here is the second:

This is by far my favourite trailer I’ve seen so far. It’s atmospheric, intruiging and beautifully done. The graphic-novel pictures coupled with the black birds breaking up each image is just phenomenal and really makes me want to read this book and find out more about the author behind the trailer.

Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars – Hodder and Stoughton

And this is what happens when you have a big budget. For Stephen King’s collection of four short stories in Full Dark, No Stars Hodder and Stoughton have teamed up with Future Shorts and created four unique, completely different trailers, that they say are to give the ‘flavour’ of each story, rather than portray the exact details. Disturbing views of bloodied bed sheets, shady roadside deals and calm night time murders abound in what are essentially short films. Intriguing, dark and twisted, the completely silent (apart from a slow, drawling version of ‘Stand by your man’)A Good Marriage trailer is my favourite.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

bite me: the week in bite-sized chunks

Amazon: Tad Williams and Christopher Paolini have been in conversation on Amazon this week. This is mainly news to me because Paolini is no longer the self-published 16-year-old first-time writer who penned Eragon and is now an actual grown up. This makes me feel old. I loved this conversation because it’s two SFF writers eking out each others’ opinions on Fantasy writing and what it means to them. Here’s a snippet of Paolini’s thoughts on why SFF resonates so keenly with readers today and why it will continue to as long as humans don’t spontaneously mutate:
‘Fantasy is the oldest form of literature; the very first stories that humans told while crouched around campfires were stories about gods and monsters and tragic mistakes and heroic feats. Even now, those topics still resonate with us on a primal level, which is one reason I think fantasy will remain popular with readers as long as humans are still human.’

Del Ray: Every Friday Del Ray Spectra post 50 pages of one of their titles up on their home site, Suvudu. This week it’s the turn of Terry Brooks’ Urban Fantasy Running With The Demon, which is a departure from his usual elves and swords Fantasy (warning: ‘elves and swords Fantasy’ does not accurately represent of all of Brooks’ work to date). Anyway, I’m not sure how much credence could possibly come from a geek who uses this word, but this is amazingly cool of Del Ray to give these tasters, and on a Friday too (the perfect day for tasters). They started this on 15th October and the excerpt for every title they’ve done this for is still available. They also welcome comments and requests for specific titles so it’s well worth an interactive look, especially if you’ve been considering purchasing Star Wars fiction as it’s good to be sure it’s worthwhile.

The Black Library: A straight-to-DVD film of Warhammer 40k is being released on Monday 29th November, the aptly named Ultramarines: A Warhammer 40,000 movie. The first film stemming from over twenty years of material, SFX magazine have given it 2.5 stars for being a ‘difficult film to love’.

Voyager: back from their holidays and encouraging readers to bookmark their author Peter V. Brett’s blog and showcasing some truly lovely, minimalist reissuing of Megan Lindholm’s backlist using Jackie Morris’ beautiful artwork to match alter-ego Robin Hobb’s covers. Since returning from holiday, Assistant Editor Amy McCulloch has sent me a Hobb book to review for their blog, The Dragon Keeper, Book One of The Rain Wild Chronicles. This is despite the fact that the reviews so far that I’ve put up here have been negative in parts (and lacking in parts), indicating that they put their readers first above their own wellbeing. At first glance, on a purely visual level, Morris’ artwork alone is enticing, although the metallic covers bizarrely put me in mind of the silver pogs I used to collect at primary school (seriously, what are pogs?).

Thursday, 25 November 2010

new Orbiteers: Anne Clarke and James Cook appointed at Orbit

Orbit have appointed Anne Clarke, previously from the fiction department at Hodder and Stoughton, as their UK Editorial Director. They’ve also appointed James Cook in his first publishing role as Editorial Assistant (following the lovely Anna Gregson’s promotion to Commissioning Editor earlier this year. Lovely because she’s helped me with my inane queries before now). I’ve just discovered Cook’s book blog, Speculative Horizons, through this news. He’s from Manchester too, so hopefully there isn’t some bizarre universe rule that states only one person can be plucked from this city to work in Orbit’s offices in any given period of time. However there can be a rule that states Coincidence is on the sidelines ready to jump in when the moment’s right. I might have mixed up the universe with football there, in which case I hope the referee holds extreme bias towards Manchester.

Anyway, just as I’ve discovered this delightful blog, it’s been taken away. Or shut down, rather. Cook has stated that he doesn’t want to have anyone to doubt his professional credibility (unlike a certain hypothetical referee) or company bias. Commendable, but also, selfishly, a real shame that I’ve come in at the end and his work is now finished. Still, there’s an archive and I have some time before Misfits...

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

film review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

(Editing courtesy of Manchester Confidential)

The familiar opening music begins but fades to nothing. The Warner Bros logo swings into view, tarnishes and rusts. There will be no frivolity in the halls of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry this term. There will be no Hogwarts at all as Lord Voldemort is back. But without the end of term - how on earth will he know when to attack?

The last one-but-one film begins with goodbyes. Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) destroys her parents’ memories of her while her love-interest Ronald Weasley (Rupert Grint) bids farewell to the comfort of his home, and Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) watches his aunt and uncle, the Dursleys, leave him behind without so much as a backwards glance.

After an excellent but brief motorway broomstick chase with Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), a quick smooch between Harry and Ginny and a crashed Weasley wedding, it’s time for the three young leads to leave the usual cast of adults behind them and go on the run from the Death Eaters.

But nowhere is safe, not even the non-magical Muggle world. With nothing but Hermione’s Mary Poppins-esque clutch bag of possessions (tent comes as standard), the three set off to complete the task that Hogwarts’ headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) left them before his death: to destroy the remaining Horcruxes that contain parts of Voldemort’s soul in order to make him mortal.

Their Horcrux-hunt leads them to the Ministry of Magic, where Dolores Umbridge (a terrifying Imelda Staunton) has the real version of the fake Horcrux. Unfortunately, the Ministry has been infiltrated and the Minister of Magic replaced by one of Voldemort’s (Ralph Fiennes) own. Harry Potter is now undesirable number one and even Ministry members are being carted off so their blood can be tested for magical purity.

Following the genuinely tense climax of this outing, the film’s plot loses steam, with in-tent bickering between the three (it’s not the best idea to accessorise with a Horcrux), some useful evil-doer updates through the Volde-link via Harry and a few forays to other locations based on whim alone. This is the crux of the problem towards the latter end of JK Rowling’s much-loved series. The plot doesn’t so much as progress as jerk forwards at random intervals through a convenient leap of Hermione’s logic or timely bit of magic.

At least Voldemort is back so we know we’re out of filler territory. The decor in his HQ is so dark that three skeletons have moved into his cellar and a witch keeps tripping over her cat. There’s no getting away from it; Voldemort is evil. But just in case that’s not completely clear, within the first five minutes he kills a woman and orders his snake to eat her. Every Flavour Beans are evidently no longer the snack of choice for this franchise.

But it isn’t all doom and gloom. For every ear being shot off with magic, there’s a scene like the one with seven Harry Potters (and Radcliffe in a bra), which is brilliantly light-hearted. Humour has been prevalent from the start of the Potter-verse thanks to Rowling. The wit shines through where its needed most in the films, dispelling tension and delivering a quick remark that makes you forgive even the most mawkish of scenes (Grint just can’t quite get away with the deeper stuff).

There’s no doubting that Radcliffe, Watson and Grint have matured as actors, which is lucky for third-time around director David Yates, and in the absence of the usual, excellent adult cast it’s up to them to carry the film. Steve Kloves has been writing the screen adaptations of Rowling’s franchise since book one and has taken these characters – and the actors – through to maturity. The fresh-faced tots from the first film are the adults now. Although, no matter how mature they might be, the naked scene was still a bit much to take (Voldemort, you old perv).

For someone who was once out-acted by a CGI talking snake, Radcliffe has established himself well as an actor. He’s fooled around with horses in the West End, gone yellow for The Simpsons and is soon to appear in the much anticipated horror The Woman in Black. It’s his comic timing, dry delivery and surprisingly subtle displays of emotion that help to make what is essentially half a film worth watching.

Being split into two does allow this film to linger over some beautiful moments – the Dementors leaching off the despair of court trials, Hermione and Harry’s oddly tender dance alone in the tent, an animated interlude – but also results in a less than satisfying conclusion. It doesn’t help that this final book suddenly introduced a whole other storyline – the Deathly Hallows – as if Rowling lost faith in the whole Horcrux thing, and is consequently a bit of a mishmash.

Relatively, it’s darker; the cast are alone in the world, one of them is tortured and familiar names are reeled off as missing over the crackling radio, but like its predecessors, this film finds it hard to strike the right balance for its ‘tween-age audience. There are deaths but the cast are still prone to exclaiming ‘blimey!’ in times of peril. Still, at least we’re out of rom-com territory – Potter is back on form for the final leg.

Friday, 19 November 2010

bite me: the week in bite-sized chunks

Atom: top billing again this week due to announcing a book/film tie-in of a hormone-fuelled retelling of Red Riding Hood, directed by Twilight’s Catherine Hardwicke and based on the book written by newly-acquired Atom author Sarah Blakley-Cartwright (conveniently at the same time). Expect star-crossed (tantric) lovers, brooding males, pale, sensual females and Muse (probably). Choice quote from the trailer: brooding male lead: ‘I’m wrong for you.’ Amanda Seyfried: ‘I don’t care.’ ETA: March 2011 and not a grandma in sight.

Harry Potter: I can’t not mention the so-dark-you-can-no-longer-see-the-actual-characters-only-hear-them latest Harry Potter being released this week, particularly as it’s the last one-but-one. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is out now and will be reviewed later on this week. *grabs Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans and forgets cynicism*

NaNoWriMo: shameless self-promotion. This week’s news: me! Writing a guest post during NaNoWriMo month on Jo and the Novelist’s funny and beguiling blog (thankfully undiminished by my post).

Orbit on NaNoWriMo: read Orbit’s blog here for some excellent time-travelling writing advice for the final slog by Editor Dongwon Song, giving professional tips on genre-writing from an editorial POV. Highlights: industry-relevant keywords explained such as ‘hookiness’, ‘pace-y-ness’ and, the all-important, ‘awesomeness’. Who would have thought that your 10,000 word ode to your character’s relationship with his grandma in order to emotionally-ground his vision of her untimely death wasn’t going to cut it? This is where Song’s advice on pace-y-ness comes in handy. This is such a great way for Orbit to engage with new writers, and pass on age-old pie-metaphoric wisdom.

Orbit again: author Rachel Neumeier on the Orbit blog discusses categorization, particularly because she thinks that her series, The Griffin Mage, doesn’t fit strictly into any genres defined at the World Fantasy Convention 2010. This is a great overview of subgenres, but the reason I really like this post is Rachel Aaron’s response. Author of the eponymous antihero series The Legend of Eli Monpress, Aaron writes about the reaction she receives when she’s trying to define what sort of fiction she writes: ‘“oh! Like Harry Potter!” and I’m like no, that’s YA, I write adult fantasy…. and then they give me this dirty look and I have to spend like 10 minutes qualifying that and trying to make sure they know I’m not writing erotica.’ Beautiful. Perhaps the stigma that sometimes surrounds SFF can be mostly defined as simple ignorance. For more information on Aaron and a glimpse between her gorgeous covers, visit her blog.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

hardcopy romantics: cover art

Richard Ford’s Occult Steampunk novel (author’s own genrefication) Kultus from Solaris has had its cover art revealed this week, and the author is clearly pleased. By talented artist Frazer Irving, best known for his comic artwork, the graphic-novel influence can be clearly seen. I love this cover, it’s unique and it’s a world away from other photorealistic genre covers out there, which are even used for fellow Steampunk titles like Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series from Orbit (which are beautiful, striking covers). It also makes a nice change to have the lead, particularly one that is happily described as a ‘bastard’ in the blurb, look like the thuggish fellow he is, instead of Paul Bettany.

Book blurb: Thaddeus Blaklok – mercenary, demonist, bastard and thug-for-hire – is pressed into retrieving a mysterious key for his clandestine benefactors. Little does he know that other parties seek to secure this artefact for their own nefarious ends and soon he is pursued by brutal cultists, bloodthirsty gangsters, deadly mercenaries and hell spawned monsters, all bent on stopping him by any means necessary.

In a lightning-paced quest that takes him across the length and breadth of the steam-fuelled city of Manufactory, Blaklok must use his wits and his own demonic powers to keep the key from those who would use it for ill, and open the gates to Hell itself.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

bite me: the week in bite-sized chunks

Atom: This is the sister imprint of Orbit and it’s mostly known for buying the UK rights to Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series (it was only a matter of time before that made an appearance here, opinion notwithstanding). But that’s not all they do! No, they also have the foresight to invite bloggers to their offices, feed them buns and give them a presentation on their upcoming titles. Now that is tasty and savvy marketing. But they missed out on a treat (aha) by not having Edward and Jacob faces on each bun and making people choose between them (because this is what people like to do), and have a bun-off. Because visual aids are useful, and I had too much time on my hands, I’ve mocked these up for you. The original photo was from blogger Amanda Rutter, whose Floor to Ceiling books blog is always a good place to while away some quality browsing time. She also talks about the new initiative Atom are starting called the Atomics that involves teenage bloggers – ah to be young. Read more here.

NaNoWriMo: It’s National Writing Month where every kind of (mad) writer sets aside a whole month to write – what, a short story? A poem? A soliloquy? – a novel, of course. It’s an exercise in sheer determination, bloody-mindedness and willpower, and it doesn’t matter what you write as long as it’s 50,000 words long. Even if you’re not participating, you can hop on over to the forum and peruse topics like ‘NaNoWriMo Ate My Soul’, which sounds promising. For SFF, head over to the genre section where you can read threads like ‘Raise someone from the dead, how?’ and, my personal favourite, ‘If you were an abusive umbrella, what you would yell?’

Top 2010 SFF titles announced: Three of the top 5 are Orbit’s - The Bone Place by Amanda Downum about the sex industry and vampires, Feed by Mira Grant (a pseudonym for Seanan McGuire) about zombies and Republicans in the Midwest and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms/The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin, two novels about ordinary people being manipulated by gods in a changing world. There’s also Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death by Penguin USA’s DAW imprint (the first ever publishers dedicated to SFF) about a post-apocalyptic Saharan Africa and Pegasus’ A Special Place: The Heart of a Dark Matter by Peter Straub, which is actually only a short story/excerpt from A Dark Matter. The full list can be found here in Publishers Weekly.

Solaris book launch: if you’re lucky enough to live in/around London, rather than the publishing-barren Manchester, then you can go to the FREE Solaris’ book launch event at Foyle’s on the 16th November. More information can be found on the Solaris editors’ blog. It’s The End of the Line edited by Jonathan Oliver, a book of Horror short stories set on the underground. This is exactly the kind of book I love – set in the hidden parts of a city and taking the otherworldly element of the underground literally - and I can’t wait to read it. Just check out the blood-smeared cover. Lovely.

Friday, 12 November 2010

TV review: Misfits series 2 (AKA Barry saves us)

Last night the series two opener of E4’s ASBO-generation superhero equivalent of Smallville aired. For those who missed it, Bandwagoners, Misfits is about a group of five British teenagers performing community service who were struck by lightening in a mysterious storm that left them with superpowers stemming from aspects of their personalities. Mind-reading, sexual prowess and turning back time are just some of the five’s new powers, which aren’t always so much gifts as life-threatening ailments. Try walking through a crowd of men who want to do unspeakable things to you just because your skin brushed theirs, and you have what the beautiful Alisha (Antonia Thomas) has to contend with on her average stroll down the street. She and ex-sporting champion Curtis (Nathan Stewart Jarrett) are forced to maintain a look-but-don’t-touch relationship that’s as tender as it is wicked.

The final episode of series one ended with the now immortal Nathan (Robert Sheehan) buried six feet under, his massive ego suitably justified since finding out his power (unfortunately for the others). This episode begins with the not-so-typical chav-esque Kelly (Lauren Socha), who can read thoughts, following an anonymous tip-off from the biker we saw at the end of series one and getting the group to dig Nathan up. Once that’s out of the way, we’re back to the (brutally unrequited) sexual chemistry between the atypical pair.

Group dynamics re-established, they return to their community service for this week – a device which throws up unique possibilities for each episode – helping at an art class for the mentally ill. The brilliantly awkward, sometimes invisible Simon (Iwen Rheon, last seen sending himself up in Simon Amstell’s Grandma’s House) recognises an old love interest from his time in incarceration and the shenanigans begin. Suddenly there’s too much soft-focus on the lens and nobody is quite sure who anybody is.

As far as Fantasy goes, this is realism. If superheroes exist they aren't off saving the world at the expense of love and life. They're sunbathing on concrete rooftops, they're abusing their powers, they're finding out your worst secret and telling everyone so they can all have a good laugh about it. They're propping up their latest victim in the freezer so they have some company while they eat a chocolate bar. At least, these ones are.

Rather than suffering from hype-raised expectations, this excellently executed opener proves that Misfits was not a flash in the pan. With a razor-witted script, darkly unique SFX (the shapeshifting bathroom scene is terrifying) and fast-paced, intelligent narrative, what makes this series great is that its central characters really are misfits – who wouldn’t balk at eating a cornetto that’s shared a freezer with a dead woman - but they’re misfits we genuinely care about. Even the smart-mouthed Nathan has a vulnerable centre and Simon is a beautifully constructed exercise in facial tics and painful, relatable awkwardness (pyromania and murdering aside).

Ongoing from the first series, the mismatched group are still trying to shake the police after their tendency to accidentally kill their probation officers and their mysterious black-clad saviour makes another appearance. Who is this person who has suddenly stepped up from riding a bike quite well to being able to leap over rooftops and throw paper aeroplanes really, really far? Stay tuned and find out, it’s so much better than you might think.

Monday, 8 November 2010

TV review: The Walking Dead

I love a big budget. AMC/FX’s The Walking Dead has seen a lot of publicity, not least because Simon Pegg has been tweeting his little heart out about it. Has it been worth the characters spent though?

This new zombie/Horror series is based on the black and white comic of the same name by writer Robert Kirkman. To sum: it’s the zombie apocalypse and deputy sheriff Rick James (Andrew Lincoln – more pointy and more American than I remember) has awoken from a gunshot-induced coma to discover that the world has been overrun by zombies. So far so an American 28 Days Later. It’s like the horror version of Sandra Bullock’s While You Were Sleeping only with less hilarious misunderstandings and more gunshot wounds to the head. After the shock of this new world (dis)order sinks in, Rick begins the trek to the standard utopia that exists wherever the people are not, as cleverly mocked in Zombieland, in order to find his wife and young son, picking up other survivors along the way.

The 90-minute opener, 'Days Gone Bye' (see what they did there?), aired over the weekend on FX in the UK and it was good. The SFX are amazing and the creators have got the fast-zombie vs slow-zombie issue sorted. They’re slow when they’re just meandering about, feeling a bit peckish and mooching for live flesh to munch on. But the moment they hear a loud noise – a gunshot for example – or they spot their elevenses - you - they’re loping towards you faster than you can crawl beneath a vehicle to await your inevitable demise.

I’m looking forward to 'Guts' next weekend – it sounds quite promising in the gore department (not that seeing a horse get eaten alive didn’t satisfy my bloodlust – although who knew they are much roomier on the inside than the out? Those zombies got the loaves and fishes of a gut-medley).

Saturday, 6 November 2010

review: Robert Jackson Bennett's Mr Shivers

I chose to review Orbit’s Mr Shivers by Robert Jackson Bennett because Orbit were doing their usual persuasive hype for this title, putting their all into marketing it at every stage, including a ‘create your own hobo signs’ competition, and with Creative Director Lauren Panepinto’s ability to get excited about a huge spectrum of Orbit’s titles and subgenres, it was hard not to get caught up by it all.

Way back when in September 2008, then-new Editor Dongwon Song flagged up Mr Shivers as his first requisition, calling it ‘chock full of hobos and murder and blood’.

And it is. This thriller/alt-history Horror is set in Depression-era America, but not as we know it. All across America people are travelling in droves, leaving their homes and belongings behind them to seek out a better life. Marcus Connelly is also blazing a trail through America’s dustbowl, but not to seek his fortune. He only wants revenge; to kill the mysterious scarred man, the stranger, Mr Shivers, who murdered his little girl. Connelly has left his wife behind and family home to become one of the new generation hobos. Risking the perils of riding the trains, of hunger and thirst, of the strange company he keeps, Connelly relentlessly hunts the shiver-man through the sightings and folktales of the people he encounters along the way. Like his companions, Pike, Roosevelt and Hammond, who have also lost loved ones to the mythical killer, as he gets closer to the legend, he must also come to terms with his mission, and whether he can commit the murder he desires more than life itself.

Mr Shivers has a simple but effective plot. Although at times it felt frustrating that the characters continued their relentless pursuit at the expense of all else, including plot intricacies and character development, this is a feeling that the book is supposed to evoke. The characters don’t have much in the way of background or personalities, and Connelly is barely there at all. But this is because they are victims of their own grief, their twisted journey across a barren land a metaphor for how they’ve sacrificed their own lives to this all-encompassing emotion.

I love the world that Bennett has created. You can practically feel the heat from this red-tinged, dust-ridden, dry desert landscape rising up from the pages. The land has a personality, and a cruel and pitiless one at that. It reflects the despondent age of the Great Depression, and the desolate shells of human beings navigating across its pitted surface.

Like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods-lite, Mr Shivers deals with mythology and the creation of folklore through oral tradition. This slight book doesn’t have the scope of American Gods however, merely hinting at a deeper mythology beyond the basic goings-on, and it would have been fulfilling to have seen more done with this theme throughout the narrative, as opposed to it cropping up in odd, but effectual, places.

This is a thriller/Horror but there are times when you want it to be more horrific than thrilling. There are key moments throughout the narrative where the writing pulls away from the ‘big reveal’, missing out on the pay-off at the end of a gripping, tension-inducing set-up, leaving the average Horror reader no doubt feeling slightly cheated. This is also, however, another mark of debut-author Bennett’s writing prowess, as he deftly manipulates and builds his readers’ frustrations, so that they mirror his characters’ own lack of fulfilment.

Unfortunately, there is a turning point towards the end in Mr Shivers where reader sympathy with the lead protagonist, Connelly, shifts. The way the book is going to end from then on seems like forgone conclusion and, ultimately, this is where the book lost me.

You can read an extract of it on Orbit’s site. It is well worth a look as overall I really enjoyed this book; I just prefer my protagonists to retain my sympathy until the last possible sentence.

The next tile by Bennett is The Company Man, again set in an alternative history of America, but is not a sequel to Mr Shivers. It's a detective noir in the Horror genre. I’m genuinely excited to read this author again (plus I’m an old romantic when it comes to alternative detective noir, like Malcolm Pryce’s underrated Aberystwyth series).

bite me: the week in bite-sized chunks

SF Signal: I’ve been enjoying this week’s Mind Meld. They’ve been discussing what fantasy books or series are better than LOTR. Personally I find Tolkien to be more sprawling and languorous than an Ent family reunion, so for me it’s a bit of a balm to see other authors being recommended. Mine would be most things, but primarily Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, George R. R. Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire series and Robin Hobb’s (getting on for) 12-title-epic, starting with The Farseer Trilogy. Based on one recommendation, I’ve picked up a copy of T. H. White’s compilation The Once and Future King, which I suspect will provide more of a thorough telling of the tale than the BBC’s thoughtful and compelling take on Arthurian legend, Merlin (tragically, I actually love this series).

Angry Robot Books: I’m really excited about this publisher and if you’re a blogger you can join their Robot Army for free eBooks or hardcopies. Launched in 2009, Angry Robot Books state that they are a ‘global imprint dedicated to the best in modern adult science fiction, fantasy and everything in-between.’ So far I’m a failed recruit but my next book to review is going to be the new UK Science Fiction release Amortals by Matt Forbeck (who has 8-year-old quadruplets, Fact Fans). Apart from Douglas Adams I haven’t read any SF, and this seems a pretty good (free) place to start.

Neil Gaiman: It was the House on the Rock weekend over Halloween, so above is a lovely picture of Gaiman on the World’s Largest Carousel. For a slideshow of photos from the weekend, go to the Huffington Post and indulge in full geek-out session of wishing you had been there. I would have ridden the zebra. Hopefully he’ll blog about it this week.

Roc (Penguin USA): Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files short story collection Side Jobs is out now in the USA , which includes two novellas from Thomas' and Murphey's POV. I wish I knew how to order a new copy of this title from Roc because I lust after Chris McGrath's artwork. See Butcher talk about his short stories (which he describes as ‘trying to have a knife fight in a phone booth’) and his short hair at the NYCC here.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

good place to catch a train

I’m currently coming to the end of Orbit Horror Mr Shivers by Robert Jackson Bennett. I get to the train station early every weekday morning in order to get a parking spot, which is fine because the precious pocket of time this creates is for reading. Today I was so engrossed in Mr Shivers that I managed to miss my train, despite turning up 25 minutes early for it.

Orbit have set up an ace site for this title, where you can click on all of the ‘hobo’ symbols – placed throughout the book too on chapter headings – and unlock different parts of the Mr Shivers mystery. This appeals to the part of me that likes to think I could have been a detective. For example, I have ‘discovered’ that the symbol on the front cover of the paperback version means ‘Get out fast, hobos are not welcome in this area’. I like the thought of someone taking the time to put this in a visible spot despite the danger that requires any hobo to exit at speed.

Instead of chapter titles there are symbols, for example the chapter I’m reading at the moment has the symbol for: 'Hit the road! Quick!' If you’re interested (and you should be), have a look here. The hobo language is beautiful.

As a side note, ‘hobo’ feels like a terribly un-PC term to use, however as practically everyone in the America portrayed in Bennett’s title is homeless, the term hobo takes on a whole new meaning. Review coming soon.

Friday, 29 October 2010

bite me: the week in bite-sized chunks

Orbit UK: completely bypassing the awkward ‘where’s my book?’ author queries, Orbit are releasing the eBook version of Paolo Bacigalupi’s award-winning debut novel The Windup Girl before the paperback in the UK. Print runs be damned. This title has won an astounding five major international SF awards this year, including Hugo, Nebula and Locus. In the words of Bella Pagan at Orbit, read a free extract HERE. It’s set in the near future of Thailand and the world’s food stuffs are depleting. What will America do? PB out 2nd December, for the hardcopy romantics still out there.

Black Library: their eBook Fridays have proved hugely successful – the first three they’ve put up, First & Only, Nightbringer and the first issue of Hammer & Bolter have been downloaded over 25,000 times. Sheesh. The best thing about it? They’re all still available. Have a look-see at the latest, Trollslayer, the first in the acclaimed Gotrek and Felix series. There’s also an audio book of their most popular title, Horus Rising. It’s probably no coincidence that they’ve launched their digital section this week with pre-ordering available. A lesson for other specialist publishers out there.

Solaris: Dark Fantasy writer, Gail Z. Martin’s blog is currently going with the Halloween theme as she’s detailing her Days of the Dead Tour. Go-to for free excerpts and a list of her guest blogs as she’s gone guest-post mad. Author of The Chronicles of the Necromancer, Martin is a lesson in exhaustive self-promotion. I need to read her.

Gollancz: is going competition MAD on their Facebook page. I’ve been entering but have so far remained prize-less. You can’t join their page, but you can coyly express your ‘like’ of them. Current competition is a Halloween one – two books in Suzanne McLeod’s Spellcrackers series, and some sweets apparently. As is Gollancz’s way, they’re using the billboard promotional method for their book covers and McLeod is no exception – her site is proudly perched between the title and her name on the front of the book. I am coming around to the idea that Gollancz are cheekily bold, rather than quite mad.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

review: Chloe Neill’s Some Girls Bite: A Chicagoland Vampires Novel

I’ve already blogged about prejudging the first title in Neill’s Urban Fantasy series, Some Girls Bite, because of the cover designer’s kid-gloves handling of potential readers and now I’ve gone a step further and actually read it.

As I’m currently trying to be influenced by marketing, I chose this particular title because imprint Gollancz’s page on publisher Orion’s website has placed Neill as their author of the month, possibly due to the third title in the series coming out in PB and eBook (Gollancz release the formats simultaneously) this month. Cunning. Although the ‘read more’ option could lead you to something a little more exciting than a slightly muddled list of her books and a two line bio. Neill has also written for Gollancz’s blog for her Gollancz YA genre fiction, and it would have been great to see her comments aimed at her adult readers too. Maybe even a few pictures, a couple of cautionary symbols, but you can’t have everything.

On to the book itself. This is very much your standard opening novel to a series. It tackles the usual issues with introducing the world, the lead and other main characters, the politics and the rules and restrictions on magic (always key with SFF, we like those rules) well enough. It also wends a plot through there too: Merit is a post-grad student who is attacked on campus by a vampire, only to be saved by another. She’s hurtled into a world of supernatural creatures against her will, one that’s filled with vampire politics between the Houses, as they argue over whether they should ‘go public’ and truly reveal themselves to the wider-world even more than they already have. She’s helped by her best friend and housemate, Mallory, who is discovering her own powers of witchcraft as Merit is finding her vampire feet. Merit has to decide whether she wants to join Cadogan House, whose Master, Ethan Sullivan, was the one who changed her, or go ‘rogue’ and not submit her will to Sullivan, who is now her sworn enemy because of what he did. If only he wasn’t so damn sexy... There’s also the mystery to solve of who tried to kill her in the first place and who is continuing to kill young women, putting all of the vampire Houses in a very unflattering public spotlight and risking war between the humans and the vampires.

It all sounds good, but really the plot is a subplot, a thin vein running through the novel whose lifeblood is the narrative about Merit discovering her abilities and trying not to do anything overtly sexual to her maker, Sullivan. Merit is your standard kick-ass heroine, and she’s well written, with the first-person narrative easy and enjoyable to read. She’s witty and strong-willed and everything you could hope for. But because the standard sexual tension between Merit and the brooding male lead is awarded so much page time, although fine, you are left longing for something meatier in the plot itself. There is a lot of set up and there are slapdash character introductions to get through, and it’s clear that Neill wants to introduce us to a world that is full of potential, which she has definitely done. Perhaps because of this, the plot suffers and doesn’t have enough detail in it to really get going, or conclude in a surprising or satisfying manner. Some Girls Bite is ultimately well-written, but some bits feel rushed or overlooked – such as her friend Mallory’s powers and her volatile relationship – and some characters are forced on you as a whole, instead of introduced in increments. But again, this is all paving the way for the rest of the series, and really it just needs to hit its stride. This title just feels like it took a few too many steps back to get a good run-up.

To sum: likeable lead – obviously important – and intriguing love-triangle set up, and lots of room to manoeuvre with the sheer volume of supernaturals tantalisingly alluded to in this volume. If the plot in the next one in the series, Friday Night Bites, takes precedence then this series could be something good.

As a side note, in America Neill is published by NAL trade, part of Penguin USA – an imprint I’ve just found out about this moment, shamefully (what, Roc/Tor isn’t the be all and end all? But they publish Jim Butcher!). They’ve gone for the more adult approach with their covers. Still noticeably Urban Fantasy with a photo of the kick-ass heroine (apparently this is now a trade term) against a suitably urban back-drop, but come the fourth in the series – Twice Bitten - they’ve taken full advantage of the lead’s trademark outfit – black, shiny leather. Her bottom gleams off the page to the extent where I wonder whether they should have taken a leaf from Gollancz’s book and shown their awareness of their racy subject matter - shiny bottom: TICK.


Sunday, 24 October 2010

Urban Fantasy: a definition

If you Google Urban Fantasy you will find a hectic range of definitions. One quote by SFF author Elizabeth Bear is a favourite of mine (I found it just now): “In urban fantasy you don’t leave the chip shop and go to another world to find the unicorn. Rather, the unicorn shows up at the chip shop and orders the cod.”

But what is Urban Fantasy, and what makes it so different to Paranormal Romance?

Once an all-encompassing term for nitty gritty Fantasy with a distinct urban setting, associated with authors like China Miélville and Charles de Lint, it’s becoming a much-narrowed term, as other SFF subgenres enter the mix.

Defined as thus in J. Clute’s Encyclopaedia of Fantasy (1997):

Urban fantasy … A city may be seen from afar, and is generally seen clear; the UF is told from within and from the perspective of characters acting out their roles, it may be difficult to determine the extent and nature of the surrounding reality. UFs are normally texts where fantasy and the mundane world interact intersect and interweave throughout a tale which is significantly about a real city.

To me, to class a book as being of this Fantasy subgenre, it needs to contain the following ingredients: contemporary setting, set in the real-world and with a real sense of place, city-based, with a male or female lead who has supernatural powers and uses them to kick ass and help people, detective/crime plot, humour, and set in a slightly alternative ‘now’ as humans are usually aware or becoming aware of the existence of certain supernatural beings. These beings include, but are not limited to: vampires (new and old mythology), were-creatures (from wolves to coyotes), wizards/witches, and the fae.

This definition is subject to change, but authors whose series/titles currently fall in this category include: Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files), Patricia Briggs (Mercy Thompson), Chloe Neill (Chicagoland Vampires), Kim Harrison (The Hollows/ Rachel Morgan), Kelley Armstrong (Women of the Otherworld etc), Ilona Andrews (Kate Daniels), Neil Gaiman (Neverwhere), Karen Chance (Cassandra Palmer) and Rachel Caine (Weather Warden). Here’s a great place for more information.

As for comparisons with Paranormal Romance, I mean, it like totally has girls in it, right? And don’t most of them fall in hopeless, soul-entangled love with the most inappropriate of brooding rogues?

Well, yes. And, to further confuse matters, some authors crossover into both subgenres, sometimes in the course of one series (ah, ‘crossover fiction’, a blog topic for another time, you lucky folks). Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series (1993 – present) started off as Urban Fantasy. Kick ass lead with mystical power: TICK. City-based: TICK. Crime-solving: TICK. Supernaturals: TICK. Sexy: tick. And then about halfway through, the themes shifted. Kick ass lead with come-f*ck-me boots: TICK. Sexy: TICK. Bedroom-based: TICK. Crime-solving: who has the time? Supernaturals: yes please!

The eponymous lead went from celibate to, quite literally, gagging for it *blush*. This proved too much for my naive sentiment at the time and I stopped at Narcissus in Chains, book 11. It takes a lot for me to stop reading a series that many books in. Group sex ought to do it though. Inappropriate. I wanted my heroine to kick ass, not kiss it.

But what about other sensitive readers, I hear you cry? Calm yourselves, Headline took over from Orbit (presumably as scandalised as I was) and solved the problem by reissuing the whole series with new covers. Going from the typical photo-realism of Urban Fantasy:

To coming over all Gothic with black and reds, in these quite frankly beautiful covers:

Now readers know a bit more about what to expect. And my moral outrage will have to find another outlet.

To sum: Urban Fantasy made like the universe and expanded, only to contract again, becoming more specialised. If it’s a city filled with supernaturals and policed by a vigilante with burdening powers, and a enjoying a little bit of sex, why not, it’s probably safe to dub it Urban Fantasy. But if the plot is merely a mechanism to make with the happy, it’s probably Paranormal Romance. And if it’s city-based but set in an alternate time and place, it’s probably too confusing to go in to. Let’s just call it ‘Alt-reality Urban Fantasy’, and leave it at that.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

a sad day for unicorns - Orbit's Chart of Fantasy Art

I’m going to blog soon on Fantasy cover art, particularly Urban Fantasy's recurring themes (weapon/ photorealism/ scantily clad female). But Orbit have brought it all together in one, easy-to-read chart (with colour!), a summer intern’s update on 2008’s chart by an equally hard-working intern (browsing covers is possibly one of my favourite things to do so I feel no pity, only a deep-seated envy). This covers titles from August 2008-August 2009, so the next year’s worth of covers may deliver something completely different. I’m hoping they really mix it up – once you’ve seen one hooded figure holding a glowing orb, you’ve pretty much seen them all. It really could be anything: I’m hoping for a return to the unicorn, an unexpected but welcome trend for desks, and maybe even a trilby or two.

Friday, 22 October 2010

weekly round-up (mini first attempt)

This round-up admittedly makes it look as if it's been all quiet on the SFF front. Please note: more than three note-worthy things have occurred in the world of SFF in the last seven days.

It’s eBook Friday down at the Black Library

HarperCollins’ Voyager are inviting readers to review their new SFF titles, and there might be a free book for you (do it now). I’m definitely going to give this a go (and fail, but hey, free book right?).

Orbit author Brent Weeks in interview with Aidan Moher, fiction-blogger extraordinaire. And also, Hachette Livre (overlords of Little, Brown, the publisher umbrella over Orbit & Co.) have gone for the page turning gadget (insert technical words) thing. Which is like the Amazon one, only faster, clearer, and just as likely to make you want to give them your money.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

warning: may contain biting

I really admire Gollancz as they have some amazing authors on their books (although Orion's site would massively benefit from a genre-specific search engine *growl*), but they seem to be catering to readers who don't like their books to surprise them. Harking back to the film industry's 'Contains mild peril' warnings for viewers of a more sensitive disposition, Gollancz have inserted this panel on the cover of the first in Chloe Neill's Chicagoland Vampires series. It gets a big red tick for 'Gothic' and 'action packed' and a little one for 'sexy', if you're feeling that way inclined. In a self-consciously hopeful gesture, 'funny' is awarded a small tick too (and a smiley face. With fangs).

I think this could be applied to pre-existing SFF titles too in order to fully prepare readers for what's in store for them between the covers. Neil Gaiman's American Gods: Brooding: TICK / Epic: TICK / Spiders: tick / Gods: TICK / Sexy: tick.

Or not.

I bought this book online wanting to read some of Gollancz's Urban Fantasy and as Neill had just released her latest in the Chicagoland Vampires series, Twice Bitten, I thought an obvious place to start would be at the beginning. If I'd have seen this book in a shop first I might not have bought it. I'm a cover-judger and I think that publishers can have faith in their readership to not be put off by a book because they weren't expecting the vampire novel to be that *picture of a bat*.

The other elements of the design are standard Urban Fantasy fare. Photo of a girl: TICK / cityscape: TICK / weapon: TICK / absence of fantasy: TICK.

The story begins with Neill's female protagonist Merit joining the ranks of the not-so-undead, so I will now go and read my *smiley face with fangs/lips/picture of a bat* new book, suspending judgement in the hope that there are a few narrative surprises that can't be explained with a few mobile-friendly smileys.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

how many books can you fit on the head of a pin?

I know this is supposed to be a Bad Thing but I love judging a book by its cover. In this increasingly digital age (as we keep being told), covers might be the last bastion against against the mounting need to cram all the books into a teeny little living space. Or, to put it another way, it's the greatest and most exciting challenge a publisher now has to face: how to market a book without a cover.

If done well, a cover can be a great marketing tool. Blurbs, carefully wrought designs, author quotes, and, if you're lucky, a lovely big picture to gawp at and reference in case you forget what the main protagonist looks like.

It can also be a dead giveaway that you're reading a fantasy about a big dragon who enjoys shouting things like 'puny mortals!' and burning villages to the ground (thanks, Hobb).

But publishers are sly. They know that some of us like our Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror in anonymous jackets that could easily pass for semi-intelligent thrillers or modern romances (shudder). Many want covers and jackets that will blur beneath the common commuters' eye and don't invite judgement on the reader. This is also a great marketing tool if you want to spread the net a little wider and target the fabled Mass Market. One point to eBooks then. You can't judge a book by its eReader (although, interestingly, it is possible to judge a person).

But what will this do to the content? And will happen to the content that the SFF 'fan' has been loyally consuming for all these years? Those of us who have been here from the start, since before being a geek became cool? Who still aren't cool? When SFF publishers begin to commission with everyone in mind, will these genres suffer, and be resigned to the subbasement of SFF in place of the new favourite kids, Urban and Dark Fantasy? Suddenly everything might become about vampires and catering to fragile tweenage hearts.

Or will it? There are still license-based imprints out there like Games Workshop's Black Library, or midlist imprints like Solaris, who are doubtful to ever snub Warhammer in favour of another Urban Fantasy about a kick-ass girl fighting sexy demons.

Anyway, really a cover shouldn't matter, or the format either. A book is made up of its content. But I still want to be able to judge a book by its appearance (on screen or off). I want to know that publishers are working hard, keeping on their toes, to make their content look appealing. To publish content they can make look appealing. And I want to know how they're doing it, and I want to be there when they do so that I can make my choice.

Join me. Revel in it. Judge.