Saturday, 26 February 2011

bite me: the week in bite-sized chunks

UCLan Publishing – it’s the first time these guys have featured here and, well, OK, I’m part of them and it’s my blog so they’re first billing this week. UCLan (that’s University of Central Lancashire, non-UCLanites) have their own publishing house and as part of our Publishing MA, we’re hosting a Science Fiction and Fantasy writing competition. To sum: Anyone can take part. The word count is 2,000 – 10,000 words. It should be speculative fiction. The winning submission will become an interactive eBook. The winner gets £150 and a sense of pride. Avoid cliché. Deadline is 18th March. Complete stories only. So get writing! Full details are on our Facebook page.

Angry Robot Books: as per a previous post, these guys are doing something freakishly similar to UCLan press, but, you know, with a budget. It's unsolicited submissions month - they're accepting complete submissions only - much like another publisher I may have mentioned (UCLan Publishing).

Scrolls: part of the Geek Syndicate network of podcasts (self-described as: ‘fairly drunken, incredibly sexy’. Beautiful), this podcast is an interview with 7 UK SFF writers about getting into writing, whose time was purloined at the SFX Weekender. The interviewees are speculative fiction golden boy Joe Abercrombie, Scott Andrews, Peter F Hamilton, Jonathan Green, James Lovegrove, Andy Remic, Adrian Tchaikovsky and some Camber Sands seagulls. Topics covered: getting re-commissioned; standard rejection slips; how style can’t be taught; mechanics of language; unflinching read-through crews; writing and editing process and how to know when your book’s ready for agents. I particularly enjoyed the slightly awkward misunderstanding between Hamilton (who does ‘know how to tell the story’ and doesn’t need story editing) and the interviewer. Also enjoyable were the solemn, post-interview add-in announcements of each author’s name. Most interesting point this makes is that agents aren’t always necessary for authors – James Lovegrove has had 35 books published and has been more or less agent-free throughout. That said, persistence should come as standard.

Orbit USA: have commissioned a self-published author. Michael J Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations series will be published in three volumes, the first book of which – Theft of Swords - will be out in November 2011. These have already been making their own merry way in the world in eBook form and print on demand and populating the eBook bestseller lists. Compared with Terry Brooks and Brent Weeks by Senior Editor Devi Pillai, who goes on to describe the series as clichéd (bizarrely) but also adventurously fun. Sullivan has this description on his site (the italics and speech marks suggest it is a quote. I suspect it’s his quote): "There's no prophesy, no innocent boy destined to save the world, no ultimate evil to be slain. Just two guys in the wrong place at the wrong time trying to survive." One fan’s comment on the Orbit blog states: ‘Orbit, I hope you realize the legion of fans who have been reading, raving about, supporting, and sharing this great series since its inception.’ I suspect they probably did know, hence commissioning. I also suspect I will be buying Theft of Swords. It goes to show that eBooks have power. And that hype has power over me.

Other Orbit news: they’ve launched their podcast, which can be downloaded on iTunes. The first episode features the much-publicized Joe Abercrombie, who has emerged from the geekdom sphere and pierced the nirvana bubble of mass literary acceptance.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

book tease: Department 19 is the reason you’re alive...

During my brief stint with HarperVoyager there was a certain buzz in the Fiction department about a certain YA action-horror they were about to release. I was lucky enough to have been given a copy. It’s Department 19 by debut author Will Hill (it exists, you know), and it has a bloody, fabulous cover. It’s not out until March 31st so I won’t review it now, but I will say that I really enjoyed it. And that it was one of those books I could have done with as a teenager, having gone from Christopher Pike, Point Horror and R.L. Stine straight to James Herbert (I am still occasionally haunted by the PE teacher and the shears scene), with no safety bridge in-between. This is that gore-soaked bridge.

Here’s a trailer for your enjoyment.

The Book Zone (for boys) blog has a great post about it with some words from the author himself.

I will gift you with the blurb:

In a secret supernatural battle that's been raging for over a century, the stakes have just been raised – and they're not wooden anymore.

When Jamie Carpenter's mother is kidnapped by strange creatures, he finds himself dragged into Department 19, the government's most secret agency. Fortunately for Jamie, Department 19 can provide the tools he needs to find his mother, and to kill the vampires who want him dead. But unfortunately for everyone, something much older is stirring, something even Department 19 can't stand up against…

Sunday, 20 February 2011

bite me: the week in bite-sized chunks

Orbit: have posted a response to blogger Leo Grin’s derisive prejudgement of Joe Abercrombie’s new title The Heroes. Grin is tired of modern fantasy and its ‘writers clearly bored with the classic mythic undertones of the genre, and who try to shake things up with what can best be described as postmodern blasphemies against our mythic heritage.’ He then goes on to use Abercrombie as an example of this, likening his First Law trilogy to:

Think of a Lord of the Rings where, after stringing you along for thousands of pages, all of the hobbits end up dying of cancer contracted by their proximity to the Ring, Aragorn is revealed to be a buffoonish puppet-king of no honor and false might, and Gandalf no sooner celebrates the defeat of Sauron than he executes a long-held plot to become the new Dark Lord of Middle-earth, and you have some idea of what to expect should you descend into Abercrombie’s jaded literary sewer.

Maybe it’s because I (whisper it) didn’t actually enjoy Tolkien’s meandering epic – ‘stringing you along for thousands of pages’ is about right - that alternative ending sounds bloody brilliant to me. He doesn’t stop there. Modern fantasy can also be comparable to: ‘artists taking a crucifix and dipping it in urine, covering it in ants, or smearing it with feces’. I bet Tolkien never expected to be in the same group as fecal blasphemy.

Abercrombie’s response is understandably confused and irate. He hasn’t superseded Tolkien and Howard, Grin’s faves (‘I’m reasonably sure Lord of the Rings is still in print’). As Abercrombie aptly puts it in that nihilistic way of his:

In the words of Mr. Pink, “fuck sides, man, what we need is a little solidarity here.” To me, it’s not really about politics, and it’s got nothing to do with sides, just various writers coming at a genre with their own set of unique concerns, influences, interests. Why must it be steak OR chicken? Can I not enjoy both?

Well met. I’ll meet you in the jaded literary sewer.

Angry Robot Books: Editor Lee Harris has been in discussion about the worth of eBooks, which is a worthy topic when a lot of people seem to think that they should be free. The vast majority of people place a helluva lot of worth in the physical copy. Is a book not its content? Would you love a blank page? To sum Harris’ points: Production cost differences between an eBook and a hardback is minimal; it does not spell the death of the publisher (have you read Harry Potter fan fiction?); an eBook (like any book) represents the publisher; it’s the culmination of a shed-load of work between editor/copyeditor/production/designer/marketer etc; it’s the product of investment; it’s priced to make a profit; and it’s worth blood, sweat, profanities and tears to an author.

So, reader, what it’s worth to you, you know, in your heart?

Gollancz: quick one this week – Ben Aaronovitch’s most excellent mash up of ghosts and waterways Rivers of London is in the Sunday Times top ten bestselling hardbacks list. I would link if I could but unfortunately it’s subscription only – a flaw in an otherwise foolproof digital content plan.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

book review: Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch is published by Gollancz in the UK and Del Ray in the USA (who have bizarrely re-titled it Midnight Riot). I read the UK hardback version, with its utterly glorious cover, complete with luscious London map made of words and a cheeky blood stain.

Peter Grant is a probationary constable faced with spending the rest of his career in the Case Progression Unit to do the paperwork so the ‘real coppers don’t have to’. Fortunately for him, whilst standing watch at the site of a gruesome murder in London’s Covent Garden, he takes a statement from the only witness available; the ghost of Nicholas Wallpenny.

From that moment on Peter’s eyes are open to a brand new world. He joins Chief Inspector Nightingale, the last remaining wizard in England, to become his apprentice and Detective Constable. Together they form a very special unit of the London Metropolitan Police Service, aka ‘the Filth’, that’s kept firmly under wraps. Peter moves into the Folly, Nightingale’s mostly empty mansion (‘mostly’ because there’s a Molly slithering around in there somewhere) to begin his training.

He’s soon learning the basic steps of magic alongside investigating the freakishly similar murders that keep cropping up around the city. Although, it soon becomes apparent that the murderers are as much a victim of the wave of anger and despair that warps their features and drives them, as the bodies they leave strewn all over London.

On top of all that, there are the vampires and the warring god and goddess of the Thames to contend with, not to mention the distractions that the luscious personification of a river, Beverly Brook, and the incredibly perky WPC Lesley May provide Peter with.

This is probably best described as Urban Fantasy, being city-based and about the supernatural, but this particular novel is more centred on police, ghosts and folklore. The policing aspects of it in particular make Rivers of London a credible thriller as well as an Urban Fantasy, especially due to the level of detail involved.

As I possess a peculiarly specific taste in Urban Fantasy (Jim Butcher), which I mentioned in an earlier post, on the surface this novel ticks all the right boxes for me: set in a city, preferably Chicago or London: TICK. The police are involved in investigating supernatural crimes: TICK. And keeping them quiet from the public: TICK. Magic is needed to solve murders: TICK. It involves wizards: TICK. Vampires: TICK. Gods: TICK. And, bonus ticks for the unexpected yet delightful addition of Londoners turning into violent mannequins: TICK. (I feel you may need a reminder of why there's a ticking system.)

That was in theory at least. So I was, of course, delighted to discover it had all of those things it promised to deliver, and more. More because the characters are wonderful. I really got on well with the lead, Peter Grant, who was slightly whiney, but also thoroughly sympathetic, and wonderfully funny (and very ready believe in magic). Almost like Moss in the IT Crowd (who Peter firmly is, in my mind at least). Aaronovitch drip feeds enough of a back story about his character’s upbringing to enable the reader to understand the character’s motivations and worldly view, without it being a sob story.

While through the first person narrative you really came to know and love Peter (important, that), there is always the risk of the one viewpoint leaving other characters in the lurch. It would have been great to have gotten to know some of the other characters further. Beverly Brook, Lesley May and Nightingale all would have benefited from further examining, but this is only the first book of hopefully many, so there is always time for that. The snippets of characterisation you receive through the medium of Peter are enough to satiate you, whilst leaving you wanting a sequel to learn more.

Like all excruciatingly good Urban Fantasies, the city has to be as much of a character as any of the others, and Aaronovitch ensures that London ain’t no bit part. The city heaves off the page in all of her cobbled, crowded, violent glory. The author’s love of this city pours from the pages in the descriptions of the streets, landmarks, rivers (naturally), folklore and its spirit. Despite the reverence, Aaronovitch isn’t afraid to get London’s hands dirty. Whatever nasty is abusing the city is feeding from the spirit of riot and rebellion that’s been breeding in its alleyways for years.

The book has two plots running alongside each other – the main, meatier plot about randomly murderous rages overtaking innocent citizens, and the subplot about the dispute between the self-proclaimed god and goddess of the Thames. While they do neatly weave around each other, at times the subplot seemed to act only as a distraction for the lead from his main case. The two story strands did cross towards the finale, although this had a touch of convenience about it. I did, however, enjoy both of these stories equally on account of them being extremely well written.

Aaronovitch has written for Doctor Who, which always demands a creative mind, and there is certainly one at work here. The personification of lost and current London rivers feels both believable and magical through Aaronovitch’s deft hand. His debut novel is wickedly inventive and, to borrow the cover quote by Charlaine Harris, fresh and original.

The prose is often gently whimsical, but there is also a vividness to his writing. Aaronovitch’s snatches of description when Peter feels a flash of vestigia, magical resonance from a person, animal or place, is written in such a way that the reader feels, smells and sees it too.

Rivers of London is warmly humorous but never shirks from being brutally visceral when it has to be. For the first in a potential series, it’s self-contained with an ending that leaves you at once unsettled and fully satisfied. I thoroughly look forward to its sequel, Moon Over Soho.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

embarking on a Voyage(r): work experience

I’ve spent the last week doing work experience with HarperVoyager and it’s been amazing. And not just because the restaurant at HarperCollins sells great coffee at a steal, and it’s staffed by one of the perkiest people I’ve ever met at 8am in the morning. Maybe he’s pleased with the coffee too.

A brief run-down of what I’ve been up to:

Checking the proofs of one of my favourite authors’ titles
Checking corrections and formatting for an eBook
Making a survey to find out the extent of SFF stigma (hello, dissertation topic)
Writing for the Voyager blog
Deleting 1000s of pieces of spam from the blog (‘Your site is AMAZING! Have you considered a penis enlargement?’)
Reading some Australian Voyager titles
Taking home as many books as the lovely Emma Coode could give me
Reading erotica

I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of an average working day at Voyager and HarperCollins. Everyone was lovely there, and so busy and dedicated.

Also, I should elaborate about the erotica. It was Mills and Boon-esque Fantasy erotica. I haven’t read anything like this before (*protests too much*) but was reliably told I should be reading it on story merit, as well as its other... attributes. The main thing I discovered from reading these was that I am very immature. I feel sorry for anyone having to read my notes (and the choice quotes I included).

I loved working at Voyager. It was like the doors to nerd-dom opened and welcomed me in. Even if I did make a slight fool of myself when I destroyed a laminating machine (it got stuck to itself in a freak self-laminating incident) and was introduced to lovely author Cathy Kelly as ‘This is Rachel, she’s currently reading erotica’, and I greeted her by saying ‘I have cake on my hand’, just as she shook it. Aside from that (and did I tell you they have a tree in their atrium? They have an atrium!), it was eye-opening seeing behind the scenes of an SFF publisher and my bookshelves are now heaving with all the titles I crammed into my suitcase (after removing its unnecessary contents).

Thursday, 3 February 2011

book review: Stacia Kane’s Unholy Ghosts: Book One of the Downside Ghosts series

Stacia Kane: if you type this writer’s name into Google one of the top searches it suggests is ‘Stacia Kane terrible’, which is terribly misleading (sorry). Terrible is the name of one of her characters and not a result that has come from readers wanting to know if others share the same opinion of her writing. You can mainly be assured of this because Kane’s writing is rather brilliant. But Brilliant isn’t a character name that’s going to pop up in fictional town Downside any time soon, unless it’s a new drug and lead character Chess happens to snort it.

Cesaria ‘Chess’ Putnam is a witch who works for the new (and only) religion, the all-powerful Church of Real Truth. Ever since Haunted Week, when the dead inexplicably stalked the earth and killed much of the population, the Church has been in charge. People now knew the ‘truth’; that there is no god, only magic. The Church and its witches keep the dead under control and promise to reimburse anyone who falls victim to a ghost. Chess is a Debunker for the Church – a tattooed witch who refutes false claims of a haunting, with the ability to use a ‘psychopomp’ spirit to guide (read: drag) the errant ghost back to where it belongs. Its final destination isn’t heaven, but the City, a place deep underground, accessible via Church HQ.

Ghosthunter Chess hasn’t had an easy life – sent from one abusive foster home to another and unable to recall her birth parents or her real name, she dims her hurts with a heavy drug habit. Luckily for Chess in her hometown of Downside, slums created after the fallout from Haunted Week, drugs are accessible 24/7. Not so luckily, her murderous dealer Bump forces her to investigate a haunting at an airport hanger he wishes to use so she can pay off her drug debt. Chess straddles working for Bump on the sly, a rival dealer’s offer and her latest case for the Church, along with a new-found lust for Bump’s muscle, Terrible. Then human sacrifice, a demonic dream-stalker and some seriously black magic is cut into the already heady mix.

Published by Harper Voyager in the UK and Del Ray in the USA, Unholy Ghosts is the first title in the Downside Ghosts series by Kane, followed by Unholy Magic and City of Ghosts, both available now and with a 4th and 5th to follow.

This comes under the Urban Fantasy tag – a genre that suffers from containing books of the same ilk (albeit some of these shine brighter than others). Stacia Kane’s website describes her series as ‘a cross between Ghostbusters and Escape from New York’. Frankly, anything that can be described as such gets my adoration (who can resist Kurt Russell’s Snake?) - I must be right in the target market.

Which isn’t as narrow as it sounds. Downside ghosts has several unique points going for it. It combines ghosthunting and witchcraft. The lead has a serious drug problem. The love interest is an ugly, scarred, tattooed thug.

What really makes Unholy Ghosts stand out is that despite being atypical in certain aspects, it never fails to entertain or grip you. Chess might be snorting, popping and inhaling all the drugs she can get, but you never stop sympathising with her. Unlikely love interest Terrible might be muscle-for-hire with a partiality for tattoos and an inability to grasp basic sentence structure, but he’s also a tender, bruised character you might just find yourself loving.

There are aspects of this novel that unavoidably smack of first-in-a-series. There’s a whole new world to get used to and so the plot isn’t overly adventurous as the novel has a lot to introduce. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t satisfying. The plot is well thought out, divulges some information without giving too much away and leaves you wanting to know more, it's well paced with twists and turns and you genuinely care about what happens to the leads.

With society crumbling, education isn’t what it was and as such Downside has its own jargon. At first, the use of language distracting, but you soon settle in and become accustomed to the local lingo. It adds genuine flavour to the slums and the characters are layered and distinctive, their lumps and bumps rising off the page.

As a heroine, Chess is the strong, sexy, witty female lead we’ve come to expect from Urban Fantasy. But she’s also fragile and vulnerable, without being weak. Kane’s writing prowess allows her to go from drug to drug without alienating the audience – which is no easy feat.

But for me, what makes this novel so enjoyable above all else is the writing style. Kane can certainly turn a phrase. The plot and characters stand on their own, but add to that the talent to eek beauty from a sentence (‘her hair whipped around her face and stole the view’), and surprising, wonderful observations (two words: ‘Abominable Snowpimp’, had me in tears), and something good becomes great.

Kane’s Unholy Ghosts is a witty, at times moving, unique Urban Fantasy by an uncommonly good writer. Roll on Unholy Magic.