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.