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Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

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Fantasy

GUEST POST: World Building in the RELICS Universe by Tim Lebbon

TimLebbon Name: TIM LEBBON

Author of: COLDBROOK (2012)
                      THE HUNT (2015)
                      RELICS (2017)

On the web: www.timlebbon.net

On Twitter: @timlebbon

I love world building. A few years ago I wrote a series of fantasy novels for Bantam in the USA, and also a couple for Orbit in the UK. Four of these––the Noreela novels––all took place in the same alternate world, and so the world I created grew and expanded with each novel, histories filling out, landscapes becoming more real, religions and politics more complex. When I then wrote two standalone fantasy novels (Echo City and The Heretic Land) I was faced once again with creating whole new worlds with magical systems, politics, backgrounds … and it got a bit exhausting.

Deals came and went, my interests shifted, and most of my recent work has been set in our world. But that doesn’t mean that the world building is any less important. Easier? Perhaps. Or perhaps not.

Relics is set in contemporary London. Instantly the reader knows the setting, might very well have been there, and so the solid foundation of my world is set. Unlike my alternate world fantasy novels I didn’t have to build the world from the ground up (and down).

But in reality every fantastical novel or story––Earthbound or not––is set in an alternate world.

Check out The Walking Dead. It’s set in a world where zombies don’t exist … in folklore or fiction. No one in that show uses the word ‘zombie’, so it’s based in a world a few stops around the multiverse wheel from our own.

Relics-Blog-Tour-BannerSo the London of Relics isn’t quite the London we all know, and building that world was a lot of fun. The human part of the Relics London is pretty much as we know it. It’s the world of the Kin––those mythological creatures that used to exist many years ago during The Time––that I have to introduce, carefully constructing a system that allows them to exist within and beneath the human world of London that most readers will recognise.

They needed somewhere to exist. Let’s face it, if you see a satyr on the 14:22 from Paddington, you’d probably remember. Or would you? London’s a wild, wacky place, and as in any big city like this, eyes rarely meet, conversation with strangers is rarely entered into. By their very nature the Kin are covert, so their homes are either underground or hidden away in plain sight. They have a system of communications and warnings in case they’re spotted.

More than the here and now, the Kin needed a history and a wider mythology. For me this is the most effective part of world building––not the obvious, overt facets of a new world, but the hidden things only hinted at. The wider world, one that we don’t perhaps touch or use that much, but whose existence gives our story a much more rounded, realistic feel.

One of my favourite recent movies for world building is John Wick (and its brilliant sequel). It’s ultra-real, a contemporary story with a clever, whole new world interwoven into and through our own. What makes it so effective is the hints at a wider, deeper history, some of which we see a little of, most of which is implied or mentioned in a line or two. The sense of wide and deep history in those movies is exquisite, and that’s the effect I was aiming for with Relics.

This is our world. But it’s one in which a fallen angel can live in the tower block next door.

RELICS by Tim Lebbon

Relics RELICS

Tim  Lebbon (www.timlebbon.net)

Titan Books (titanbooks.com)

£7.99

Angela Gough’s life is happy and normal until the day her boyfriend, Vince, leaves for work and doesn’t come back. Mysterious notes through the door, which may be in his handwriting tell her to stay away, not to look for him, but Angela isn’t about to let him disappear out of her life without so much as an explanation. As she digs, she finds that her boyfriend is not the man she thought he was. He works for one of London’s biggest crime bosses and seems to have a secret life outside the one he shares with Angela. As she finds herself digging into the dangerous black market for ancient relics, pieces of creatures that should never have existed outside the pages of myth and legend, she soon discovers that there is more to London than the domain of humankind.

Relics is the start of a new urban fantasy series from genre legend Tim Lebbon. It’s a familiar plot – partners keeping secrets from each other, until one discovers that the other works for a criminal overlord, or is a Russian sleeper agent, or whatever the twist happens to be. In this instance it’s the gangster, but Lebbon twists slightly further, adding a dash of the supernatural to what might otherwise be described as gritty Britcrime. All of the ingredients are here: the man with a deep secret; the mob boss that he works for, and the rival mob boss who wants his special skills. It all sounds like your run of the mill London noir, until you factor in what exactly Vince does for Fat Frederick Meloy: he’s a relic hunter, a man with a special talent for finding old, rare artefacts, things which should not exist, and for which rich people will pay a fortune in order to add it to their collection.

At the centre of the story is Angela, a Bostonian living and studying in London. She shares a compact flat with her boyfriend Vince, and life is good, at least until Vince disappears and her world begins to fall apart. What makes Angela’s persistence and temerity believable is the fact that her study is focused on gangs and gang warfare. It also gives Lebbon the chance to give us some background on the darker figures – Meloy and Mary Rock – in a natural fashion, without the need for pages of backstory and exposition. While Angela is the central character, the story is told from the points of view of several other characters as well – Vince himself takes centre stage for much of the book; and Lilou, a nymph whose life Vince saved, gives us some insight into the state of mind of London’s lesser-known inhabitants, a group of so-called mythical creatures who call themselves collectively, the Kin.

Surprisingly, one of the book’s most engaging characters is gangster Fat Frederick Meloy, a man whose nickname no longer fits the bill. When we first encounter Meloy in the narrative, he comes across as a stereotypical London gangster. Lebbon, however, builds him into a larger-than-life character who, for many of the scenes where he is present, steals the show. A collector of the ancient relics himself, we see many sides of this complex man, despite the reputation that has grown up around him: at once the childlike glee whilst in the presence of his collection and the barely-contained violence that simmers beneath the surface. Meloy’s opposite number, Mary Rock, is a much more sinister character and we soon discover that she is not content to deal in ancient relics; she has discovered that the Kin still exist, and has developed a thirst – and a client-base – for something a little more fresh, something harvested from the fresh corpse of an angel, or a nymph, or a satyr.

Despite the supernatural elements, Relics does still feel like something of a contemporary crime novel. The London of Relics is, for the most part, the London of our own world, though Lebbon does explore a lesser-known face of the city, presenting a side of it that might fit well with the location of Gaiman’s Neverwhere or Mieville’s King Rat. Yes, there are creatures here that shouldn’t exist, but the story feels grounded in the real world through the evocation of London, and the realistic, empathetic characters that populate it.

Tim Lebbon is the quintessential genre author (which genre? All of them!) and Relics is the latest in a long line of unmissable books. Darkly thrilling, with more than a dash of black humour, it’s a novel that could easily be devoured in a single sitting, and is probably best enjoyed in this way. An excellent start to a promising new series, this is Lebbon at the top of his game.

An Interview with VIC JAMES

VicJames2 C JAY DACY Name: VIC JAMES

Author of: GILDED CAGE (2017)

On the web: www.vicjames.co.uk

On Twitter: @DrVictoriaJames

Vic James is a current affairs TV director who loves stories in all their forms, and Gilded Cage is her debut novel. She has twice judged the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize, has made films for BBC1, BBC2, and Channel 4 News, and is a huge Wattpadd.com success story. Under its previous title, Slavedays, her book was read online over a third of a million times in first draft. And it went on to win Wattpad’s ‘Talk of the Town’ award in 2015 – on a site showcasing 200 million stories. Vic James lives and works in London.

Thank you, Vic, for taking the time to chat with us.

My very great pleasure, Matt!

The first thing that strikes the reader as they start Gilded Cage is the strange new world you have created, a contemporary Britain in an alternate universe, where ten years in slavery is mandatory for all commoners. Where did the idea for the “slavedays” come from, and how did the world develop as the story progressed?

I’m a current affairs TV producer/director by trade, and the story idea came to me while working on a BBC2 series called The Super Rich and Us – a slightly silly title for a serious look at widening wealth inequality and stagnating social mobility. I was speaking to billionaires, getting a glimpse into their world, and the thing none of them doubt is their ability to change the world through their wealth. That seemed to me to be almost the same as magic.

But I didn’t want this magic to suddenly appear. In the world of Gilded Cage, it has always been present, and 400 years ago the magical elite seized power in a reimagining of the Enlgish Civil War. The slavedays system was created at that time, so it takes the form characteristic of that period: a kind of indentured service. But the experience as described in Gilded Cage is a distillation and concentration of all that’s most unfair in our world today: grinding work, dwindling opportunity, educations wasted on unrewarding jobs, unaffordable homes, etc etc.

As for how it progresses, well, history is a theme in the books: learning from, repeating, or avoiding the mistakes of the past. You’ll have to wait till book 3, BRIGHT RUIN, to see which of those it is!

The book shows this world from the viewpoints of two very different families: the Hadleys who are just starting their ten-year period of slavery; and the Jardine’s, who are at the opposite end of the social scale. Do you find that there is much difference in how you write these different outlooks on the world, or is it relatively easy to switch between one and the other?

It’s much easier than I expected! Partly that’s thanks to my own family background: my parents are from the East End, my dad left school with no qualifications and my mum dropped out to marry him as a teenage bride. Then I won a scholarship to a school full of rich (if not terribly academic) kids, and went to Oxford where I met people who had actual titles and family fortunes in the millions and, yes, billions.

But I think it’s also because, whatever our class or background, whatever that top layer of perception or prejudice, deep down we all want the same things: freedom, love, justice, autonomy.

And on a related note, which is your favourite character to write?

Probably no surprises here, but I do love writing Silyen, the dangerous and gifted youngest son of the Jardine family. I have to ration writing from his perspective, because his goals and motivations are a key part of the plot drivers, alongside Luke and Abi Hadley’s pursuit of justice and truth. But there is more from his POV in book 2, and more again in 3 as his true interests become clear. In book 1, readers sometimes get the impression that Silyen is (i) all-powerful and (ii) has a master plan. But – without spoilers – we come to see that’s not quite the case!

Alongside the novel’s central plot, there’s a lot of political manoeuvring and back-room dealing, which, in turn, leads to a very complex, very involved plot. How much of Gilded Cage did you need to plan before you started writing the book? And did you find that your end-point changed as a result of unexpected events?

Great question! I absolutely loved this aspect of writing the book. I love twisty plots, and that moment at the end when you look back and see that everything you needed to know was there all along. Still, it turns out that writing a book like that is more effort than the best examples of the genre make it look!

I began the series knowing where it ended. In fact, the beginning and end were the first two things that came to me: a girl running desperately towards a wall, and a boy … no! Wait! You nearly had me there.

Because I know my characters inside and out, the action begins and ends in their motivation, so if I ever hit a knotty bit of plot (ie. what I think should happen) I can sort it out by simply working through how my characters would respond (ie. what they tell me happens). We usually agree. When we don’t, they win.

Dystopias must be an increasingly difficult sell in a world that seems to be moving in that direction itself. While there are elements (e.g. the magic) in your tale that are pure fantasy, do you feel that there’s a possibility of life imitating art if things continue as they are?

Life is art is life. It’s a continuous dialogue. These books could only have been written now, and I’m sure readers will spot plenty more current parallels in book 2, as well!

What’s next for the Hadleys, and how far into the trilogy have you already planned? Do you see further books set in the same world?

Terrible challenges. Momentary happinesses.

To the end.

And I’ll let you answer that third question when you’ve finished book 3, because it assumes we end in the same world we’ve started in. *cackles in all-knowing authorial fashion*

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

Simply can’t answer this. As a child I was the bookish equivalent of a Dyson vacuum cleaner – I hoovered up everything. That dust bag is my imagination.

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

We all write our own books. I can tell you one book I adore, and that is Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. I also love Nabokov’s Pale Fire. And some particularly twisted Japanese folk tales.

GildedCage_UKcoverWhat does a typical (writing) day in the life of Vic James look like?

Wake. Sit at desk. Write. Coffee. Write. Lunch. Write. Tea. Write. Supper. Write. Sleep.

(Wait, I should have put something in there about getting dressed, right…?)

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

Give yourself permission to take your writing seriously.

To expand: As an unpublished author, it’s very easy to feel – or be made to feel – that writing is an indulgence, or an impossible dream. It isn’t. But it is exhausting, painstaking, and there is never a guarantee of success. Improve your odds by making it a priority. When the idea for Gilded Cage came to me, I knew it could be ‘the one’. I was also in the middle of a massive project at work. So I cut everything that wasn’t work or writing: ie. sleep, and a social life. It was worth it.

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

My TBR is as tall as a towerblock right now. And there’s no such thing as reading that’s not for pleasure. The very act is pleasurable.

If Gilded Cage should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

For the director, anyone with ambition and vision – books 2 and 3 just get bigger and bigger. For the cast, whoever walks into an audition and speaks in my character’s voice. You know it when it happens.

And while we all wait for the movie *drums fingers* may I recommend the audio book? I got my dream narrator, Avita Jay, and sat in on 2 of the 4 recording days and she is absolutely sensational. Her performance paints the scenes as you listen. And her performance of Dog alone is worth the price.

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

Christopher Marlowe, Elizabethan playwright, poet, and spy. I’d get him to tell me tales of his adventures – and whether he really did die, stabbed through the eye in a Deptford pub. Ale would be the tipple of his time, but I would take him to Bar Nightjar in Old Street, for devastating cocktails – I’m sure he’d fit right in.

Thank you once again, Vic, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

My absolute pleasure, and thank you so much for having me!

Gilded Cage by Vic James is the first instalment of the Dark Gifts Trilogy. It is published in paperback 26 January 2017 by Pan Macmillan, priced £7.99. Be sure to check out the other steps on the Blog Tour.

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GUEST POST: The Problems With Time Travel by MARK MORRIS

Wraiths cover Name: Mark Morris

Author of: THE WOLVES OF LONDON (2014)
                 THE SOCIETY OF BLOOD (2015)
                 THE WRAITHS OF WAR (2016)

On the web: www.markmorrisfiction.com

On Twitter:  @MarkMorris10

Mark-Morris-Obsidian-Blog-Tour (1)I’ve been a big fan of Doctor Who ever since I was terrified by the Yeti, the Ice Warriors and the Cybermen when I was four, but although the Doctor is a time traveller, in the original series (1963-89) the show rarely tackled the machinations and complexities of time travel itself. However in one particular 1972 story, Day of the Daleks, the question was raised as to why a time traveller couldn’t simply go back and nip a potentially terrible situation in the bud before it developed – and furthermore, why, if they failed the first time, they couldn’t keep going back.

The obvious answer, in reality, is that such an ability would completely negate the drama and excitement of pretty much every story. The Doctor, however, came up with a catch-all phrase, a kind of cosmic or temporal rule, whereby continually revisiting the same timeline in order to change it was an impossibility presumably imposed by time itself. He called it the Blinovitch Limitation Effect.

When writing my OBSIDIAN HEART trilogy, I too had to consider not only this question, but countless others. The more I delved into the intricacies of time travel – its possibilities, its anomalistic qualities – the more I became convinced that time travel was, and always would be, impossible. For instance, if we were able to time travel, we would all be able to become multi-millionaires overnight by literally creating money out of nothing. How, you may ask. Well, consider this. Imagine if the present you was visited by a future version of you from (let’s say) ten years hence with a suitcase containing twenty million pounds. With that amount of money you could not only live comfortably off the interest, but you could also generate more money – a lot more money! – and then in ten years time all you would have to do would be to fill the suitcase you’d been given ten years earlier with twenty million pounds, and go back to give it again to your younger self – and on and on, ad infinitum.

Of course, if everyone did this it would lead to massive problems – economies crashing, money becoming worthless – but then that would change the future, which would mean that your future self couldn’t appear to you in the first place, thus creating an anomaly. But what if the item was smaller, less influential? What if your future self appeared, gave you a pen, and said, “Keep this for the next twenty years, and then on October 10 2036 travel back to October 10 2016 and give your past self this pen and the exact same instructions I’m giving you.” The question then, of course, would be, where did the pen come from? Where and how and when was it made? Because it only exists in the twenty year time loop as your possession, forever being passed back to your younger self. Which ultimately means it – like the money – was created out of nothing!

You can tie yourself in knots with this stuff – and I frequently did during the writing of OBSIDIAN HEART. Hopefully I managed to negotiate a safe route through the minefield, though as it’s such a complex subject there is always the possibility that I overlooked something. I guess only time will tell.

An Interview with ANGELA SLATTER

angela slatter Name: ANGELA SLATTER

Author of: VIGIL (2016)

On the web: www.angelaslatter.com

On Twitter: @AngelaSlatter

Angela Slatter is an award-winning short story writer with the World Fantasy Award, the British Fantasy Award and five Aurealis Awards to her name. Vigil is her first novel, introducing the world to Verity Fassbinder and the weird (and, indeed, Weyrd) happenings in Brisbane.

Thank you, Angela, for taking the time to chat with us.

Thanks for having me on the blog! 🙂

When Vigil opens, we find ourselves introduced to the central character, Verity Fassbinder, as if in passing. There is a sense of a huge and storied history here, only some of which is revealed as the plot proceeds. She is an intriguing character and the reader comes away with the impression that this is not the first of her adventures that she has recounted. Has Verity appeared in your fiction before, or will you be revisiting earlier adventures as the series progresses?

Verity started out in a short story called “Brisneyland by Night”. There’s also a story called “Here Today” that I wrote for a project called The 24-Hour Book for if:book Australia. When I wrote Vigil I incorporated a lot of that first short story into the plot. I feel like there’s still a lot of iceberg underneath as far as her back story is concerned and I hope to get the opportunity to plumb it at some stage! Some more of her family history will come out in Corpselight and Restoration.

With the exception of a kind of super-strength inherited from her Weyrd father, Verity seems relatively normal (or Normal). At heart, the book feels like a hard-boiled detective novel, with Verity playing the role of Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe. How easy was it to find her voice, and did you set out to write urban fantasy with a hint of crime, or crime with a hint of urban fantasy?

I set out to write a short story that was inflected by that hard-boiled/noirish tone … I was at Clarion South and wrote “Brisneyland by Night”, which eventually became the novel Vigil. But I was aware that hard-boiled is done a lot. I mean, a lot. And I wanted to add differences to the story, so what makes the crime different? Add the urban fantasy element, make your antagonists mythical/biblical/fairy-tale, etc. And make your protagonist not someone with nothing in her life, no bitter divorce, hard-drinking, hard-smoking PI, but a fairly practical woman just trying to get on with life and her job. Just trying to balance a normal life with a Weyrd job.

One of the central characters in the novel is the city of Brisbane itself. To most of the Northern Hemisphere, it’s little more than a dot on a map. How did you go about bringing the city to life, and infusing it with the sense of strange that seems to define it within Vigil?

I suppose it’s about thinking on all of the stuff that’s struck me a wonderful or strange or annoying about the city over the years and framing that for someone who doesn’t know the place. Rolling it into a joke (like the stuff about the restaurants closing early − alas, not actually a joke) and presenting it so someone understands what you’re saying, making it relatable. Also, lying! Making things up − like the tunnels under the city. There are some old sewer tunnels around, one of them is in fact preserved in the King George Square Bus Station (the Wheat Creek Culvert), but it’s about imagining more and making your lies convincing and interesting. About presenting the city as a slightly different thing to what it is, showing it the way it might be if all the “what if?” questions were answered!

Blog tour posterThe Weyrd is a mish-mash of different mythologies and legends, but you’ve eschewed the more obvious faeries and goblins for more obscure creatures: sirens with feathers rather than scales, angels and various other creatures of a hundred different underworlds. How much research was involved in the creation of the world and its inhabitants and how did you make sure you kept everything grounded in something resembling reality?

I have always been a huge reader and researcher of mythology and fables, legends, fairy and folk tales, and general weird stuff and I wanted the Weyrd to be a catch-all for that. There’s a lot of information floating around in my head that’s been stashed there for years, and it’s just waiting to be used. I want the Verity stories to have that sense of there is no reigning or privileged mythology, that we are all in this world and we’ve all got our beliefs, but no one path is right or exclusive, that there are all of these mythical creatures pushing up against each other, that the worlds bleed into each other; that we’re all in a crowded elevator together, hoping the cables don’t break.

But I really do need to start my own Weyrd Bestiary to keep things straight in my head. Kathleen Jennings should illustrate it!

You’re currently working on the second book in the series, Corpselight. Can you tell us anything about it, and what we should expect, given the game-changer that closes Vigil?

Hmmmm, difficult to avoid spoilers. Let’s just say that Verity’s got a couple more challenges on the way and a lot of dark secrets from her family’s past − mostly her father’s side − coming back to haunt her. I sort of like having her trying to manage an ordinary life alongside all of these things she just can’t control … a metaphor for existence, I guess.

And do you have a longer-term view of where the story is going, with a definite end-point, or is the plan to take it one book at a time?

I know where the first trilogy arc is going, so yes, that’s all planned. I have a second trilogy very vaguely plotted, but whether that sees the light of day will depend on the success of Vigil, Corpselight and Restoration.

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

Tanith Lee, Angela Carter, Mary Shelley, Margaret Atwood, Kelly Link, John Connolly, M.R. James, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Nancy Kress, J.R.R. Tolkien, Barbara Hambly … I should stop now.

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

Not really. That’s kind of a non-question for me − I love those books because they’re uniquely someone else’s voice, so if I’d written them they wouldn’t be someone else’s … that’s the appeal of another writer’s fiction, that it is so different from your own.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Angela Slatter look like?

I work from home, so it’s easy to get to the office, and because I work from home I need to be very aware of behaving as if I’m in an office. So I start at 8.30am have lunch between 1-2pm, finish work at 5.30pm. Anything after that is a bonus − as my main publishers are in either the US or the UK I tend to deal with their email correspondence late at night.

I check my emails first, prioritise them, then I check over my to-do list and make sure there are no deadlines hurtling towards me … or rather, I check which deadlines are hurtling towards me, and then I prioritise tasks for the day. At the moment, I’m doing the edits on the sequel to Vigil, Corpselight, and finishing up the plotting framework for the third book in the series, Restoration; I’ve got two short stories due by the end of July; the Vigil launch is happening on 19 July so preparing for that; waiting on proofs of a new UK collection; editing the third and final Sourdough book; plotting a series of three novellas to pitch somewhere … those are the top priorities. I’m heading to the UK in August for Nine Worlds, a gig in Newcastle at Novocastria Macabre with Robert Shearman, and the inaugural Dublin Ghost Story Festival, so I need to get a lot of things out of the way before travelling.

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

My standard reply to that is:

· Keep writing.

· Learn your craft and never, ever think you know it all.

· Develop a thick skin, but realise that story criticism is aimed at making the story better, not at making you feel bad about yourself. Find people whose opinions you respect and trust.

· Remember: it’s always better to have someone find problems with a story before you send it out into the world.

· Networking is about building mutually beneficial relationships with other writers and publishers, not just about you getting what you can.

· Don’t send Facebook friend requests to other writers and then ask them to like your page and buy your book: (a) it’s just rude, and (b) other writers are not generally your audience. That’s my personal bugbear!

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

I am reading Stephen Gallagher’s Kingdom of Bones, Barbara Hambly’s Those Who Hunt The Night (again, it’s a frequent comfort re-read), Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution, and in the queue I’ve got China Miéville’s The Census Taker, Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown, Rjurick Davidson’s The Stars Askew, and Jeffrey Ford’s A Natural History of Hell.

If Vigil, or indeed, the Verity Fassbinder series as a whole, should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

There are a lot of these questions about, and I suppose in today’s world it’s a natural kind of correlation − once it was just a dream you kept to yourself, nowadays it’s an actual slim possibility. I still don’t know about Verity and have been wracking my brain on that one. You need a mostly Australian cast to make it work properly. For my sirens, I’d love Elizabeth Debicki as Serena, Cate Blanchett as Eurycleia, Robyn Nevin as Ligeia. Chris Hemsworth might well work for Tobit (must have hair dyed), Stellan Skarsgård as Ziggi, and I’m still tossing up between Michael Fassbender or Eric Bana for Bela. Oh, and the Norns … must think about that …

Actually, wait, wait. The hivemind has suggested Sarah Snook as Verity. She’s a very good candidate!

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

Haha! Angela Carter. I think she would probably drink tea. I would go for coffee. We might look at each other with vague disapproval until we realised we should probably just have a whiskey and all would be well.

Thank you once again, Angela, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

You’re more than welcome!

VIGIL by Angela Slatter

9781784294021 VIGIL

Angela Slatter (www.angelaslatter.com)

Jo Fletcher Books (www.jofletcherbooks.com)

£14.99

Verity Fassbinder’s background makes her the perfect peacekeeper in the Australian city of Brisbane. The product of a Normal mother and Weyrd father, Verity has access to both worlds despite her lack of Weyrd attributes. When a siren is murdered on the heels of Verity’s discovery that someone is selling wine made from the tears of children to a select group of the city’s Weyrd inhabitants, Verity’s employers demand answers before the tentative peace between Normal and Weyrd is irrevocably damaged. Throw in a foul-smelling dervish that does not distinguish between Normal and Weyrd when looking for a meal, and an angelic host who are not as cuddly as religion might lead us to believe, and Verity will be very lucky if she – and everyone she loves – makes it out of this case in one piece.

From its opening pages, Angela Slatter’s debut novel – and the central character that narrates it – has the cynical voice of an old-fashioned hard-boiled detective novel. Verity Fassbinder is an enforcer and private eye rolled into one, her main source of employment ex-boyfriend Zvezdomir ‘Bela’ Tepes and the Council of Five who rule Brisbane’s Weyrd population. Initially hired to find why Normal children have been disappearing, Verity’s case soon widens to include a dead siren and an unknown entity that seems to be eating Normal and Weyrd alike, leaving a trail of rubbish in its wake. Along the way, she attempts to navigate something resembling a normal life, with a boyfriend and a next-door neighbour with a child who treats her like a beloved aunt keeping her grounded in reality.

The mixture of these two very different worlds feels very natural, despite the fact that we’re given little time to adjust and acclimatise to this strange new world. Unlike the usual series opener, Slatter takes little time to examine backstory or introduce us to the characters, instead throwing us into the deep end, quite literally into the middle of the action, and feeding us what information we need to allow us to keep up. As a result, Vigil feels less like the first book in a series, and more like a later volume, populated with characters with whom we have spent a lot of time and shared a lot of adventures (I’ll admit I had to consult with Google to ensure I wasn’t missing an earlier volume or three). Like much of what Slatter does with Vigil, it’s a ballsy move, but one that works surprisingly well. Verity as a character is difficult to dislike, and her voice is more than engaging enough to carry the reader through a story that rarely rests, moving from one awesome set-piece to another.

In creating the Weyrd, Slatter has plumbed the depths of a myriad mythologies, and created a world where sirens live side-by-side with vampires, Norns and angels, amongst others. There are parallels here to Gaiman’s American Gods, both in terms of the variety of backgrounds, and also in the concepts of longevity of some of the species and the requirements for their continued existence. Verity has inherited little of her father’s magical abilities, though a kind of super-strength ensures she can take care of herself, regardless of her opponent. Her ever-present chauffeur, Ziggi Hausmann, himself a member of the Weyrd, helps her deal with those situations where strength is of little benefit.

In tone and content, Vigil feels almost Chandleresque: Verity finds herself following a number of leads that all quickly turn out to be interconnected, annoying many of the wrong people in the process, and facing her own share of pain as she goes along. She is the very definition of cynicism, and it keeps her fresh and interesting. Surprisingly (to me, anyway), Verity is more mature that one might expect from the book’s brief synopsis, and the maturity sits well on her, elevating Vigil to something other than sparkly, teen-focused urban fantasy. While not quite as violent as Daniel Polansky’s Low Town trilogy, there is a lot here that will appeal to its readers.

Brisbane itself – Brisneyland – plays an important role in the story, and Slatter introduces the reader to her home town by showing us its unflattering underbelly and pointing out its problems and foibles. The location serves to keep the story fresh and interesting – for many readers it’s a place we have never visited, and it makes a refreshing change from London or New York.

Vigil is a brilliant debut novel from an exciting writer who cut her teeth on short stories. Pacy and engaging, it’s a book that demands to be finished once it has been started. Verity Fassbinder is a name, and a character, not quickly forgotten by the reader, sure to become a staple of the genre as the series progresses, as instantly recognisable as, say, Sookie Stackhouse or Katniss Everdeen. Angela Slatter is a confident and talented writer whose ability to build worlds is surpassed only by her skill in populating them. A complete story in its own right, Vigil is, nevertheless, the first book in a series, and it leaves the reader gasping for more as it draws to a close. Already one of my favourite books of the year, I can’t help but recommend this to everyone.

Verity Fassbinder’s background makes her the perfect peacekeeper in the Australian city of Brisbane. The product of a Normal mother and Weyrd father, Verity has access to both worlds despite her lack of Weyrd attributes. When a siren is murdered on the heels of Verity’s discovery that someone is selling wine made from the tears of children to a select group of the city’s Weyrd inhabitants, Verity’s employers demand answers before the tentative peace between Normal and Weyrd is irrevocably damaged. Throw in a foul-smelling dervish that does not distinguish between Normal and Weyrd when looking for a meal, and an angelic host who are not as cuddly as religion might lead us to believe, and Verity will be very lucky if she – and everyone she loves – makes it out of this case in one piece.

From its opening pages, Angela Slatter’s debut novel – and the central character that narrates it – has the cynical voice of an old-fashioned hard-boiled detective novel. Verity Fassbinder is an enforcer and private eye rolled into one, her main source of employment ex-boyfriend Zvezdomir ‘Bela’ Tepes and the Council of Five who rule Brisbane’s Weyrd population. Initially hired to find why Normal children have been disappearing, Verity’s case soon widens to include a dead siren and an unknown entity that seems to be eating Normal and Weyrd alike, leaving a trail of rubbish in its wake. Along the way, she attempts to navigate something resembling a normal life, with a boyfriend and a next-door neighbour with a child who treats her like a beloved aunt keeping her grounded in reality.

The mixture of these two very different worlds feels very natural, despite the fact that we’re given little time to adjust and acclimatise to this strange new world. Unlike the usual series opener, Slatter takes little time to examine backstory or introduce us to the characters, instead throwing us into the deep end, quite literally into the middle of the action, and feeding us what information we need to allow us to keep up. As a result, Vigil feels less like the first book in a series, and more like a later volume, populated with characters with whom we have spent a lot of time and shared a lot of adventures (I’ll admit I had to consult with Google to ensure I wasn’t missing an earlier volume or three). Like much of what Slatter does with Vigil, it’s a ballsy move, but one that works surprisingly well. Verity as a character is difficult to dislike, and her voice is more than engaging enough to carry the reader through a story that rarely rests, moving from one awesome set-piece to another.

In creating the Weyrd, Slatter has plumbed the depths of a myriad mythologies, and created a world where sirens live side-by-side with vampires, Norns and angels, amongst others. There are parallels here to Gaiman’s American Gods, both in terms of the variety of backgrounds, and also in the concepts of longevity of some of the species and the requirements for their continued existence. Verity has inherited little of her father’s magical abilities, though a kind of super-strength ensures she can take care of herself, regardless of her opponent. Her ever-present chauffeur, Ziggi Hausmann, himself a member of the Weyrd, helps her deal with those situations where strength is of little benefit.

In tone and content, Vigil feels almost Chandleresque: Verity finds herself following a number of leads that all quickly turn out to be interconnected, annoying many of the wrong people in the process, and facing her own share of pain as she goes along. She is the very definition of cynicism, and it keeps her fresh and interesting. Surprisingly (to me, anyway), Verity is more mature that one might expect from the book’s brief synopsis, and the maturity sits well on her, elevating Vigil to something other than sparkly, teen-focused urban fantasy. While not quite as violent as Daniel Polansky’s Low Town trilogy, there is a lot here that will appeal to its readers.

Brisbane itself – Brisneyland – plays an important role in the story, and Slatter introduces the reader to her home town by showing us its unflattering underbelly and pointing out its problems and foibles. The location serves to keep the story fresh and interesting – for many readers it’s a place we have never visited, and it makes a refreshing change from London or New York.

Vigil is a brilliant debut novel from an exciting writer who cut her teeth on short stories. Pacy and engaging, it’s a book that demands to be finished once it has been started. Verity Fassbinder is a name, and a character, not quickly forgotten by the reader, sure to become a staple of the genre as the series progresses, as instantly recognisable as, say, Sookie Stackhouse or Katniss Everdeen. Angela Slatter is a confident and talented writer whose ability to build worlds is surpassed only by her skill in populating them. A complete story in its own right, Vigil is, nevertheless, the first book in a series, and it leaves the reader gasping for more as it draws to a close. Already one of my favourite books of the year, I can’t help but recommend this to everyone.

An Interview with ZEN CHO

str2_shgzencho_sharmilla_12 FOR ONLINE Name: ZEN CHO

Author of: SORCERER TO THE CROWN (2015)

On the web: zencho.org

On Twitter: @zenaldehyde

Zen Cho is a Malaysian writer of SFF and romance. She was born and raised in Selangor, read law at Cambridge, and currently lives in London. Her debut historical fantasy Sorcerer to the Crown is out now in the UK, published by Pan Macmillan.

Thank you, Zen, for taking the time to chat with us.

Thanks for having me!

Sorcerer to the Crown is garnering lots of favourable reviews, and has been compared to everything from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell to the work of Terry Pratchett. The obvious question to start us off, then, is: what or who were the influences for Sorcerer and how far from the original idea is the finished book?

You’ve named two big influences on me! Terry Pratchett’s books taught me that writing could be serious and smart while also being funny and silly. And I love Susanna Clarke’s writing – it’s so erudite and elegant. I don’t know that Sorcerer to the Crown is anything like their stuff, but I’m certainly a huge fan of both of them.

I did write Sorcerer in conversation with other books, though, and the direct influences are actually P. G. Wodehouse, with his absurd young gentlemen, and Heyer’s frothy romances.

A lot of the basic elements of the original idea have survived into the finished book, but I spent more than a year revising Sorcerer to the Crown and it certainly looks very different from the first draft. One of the biggest differences is that Prunella Gentleman, who’s one of the two main characters, became much more central. In earlier drafts you saw her from the outside, but she became much more of a co-protagonist in revisions.

A fun and magical “Regency Romp” it might be, but Sorcerer also has a very serious side that is as relevant today as it was in the book’s setting. The novel examines, in some depth, the question prejudice, both the racism directed at the book’s two main characters, and the sexism aimed at Prunella and the other women with magical abilities. One of the main criticisms aimed at SFF works is the lack of diversity, and you have gone almost to the opposite extreme. How important were these themes to you when you were writing the book, and did you encounter any difficulties in finding the right balance between story and “lecture” (which, to my mind, you have managed perfectly)?

Good, I’m glad it didn’t feel too much like a lecture! That was actually one of my main challenges when writing the book: I wanted it to be fun, but I had these quite serious ideas I was interested in exploring as well, and it was a hard line to walk. I didn’t go into the project saying, "I’m going to write the most diverse book ever" – there’s lots of axes of diversity it doesn’t address. But these themes were my entry-point for the story. From the very outset I wanted it to be about a black man in Regency London and about an irrepressible female magician in a society that disapproved of female magic, and once you make those decisions the rest of the story unfolds from there.

There is a beauty to the language you use in the book, a very formal English that you manage to maintain for the duration of the story. What sort of research did you need to do to find the right voice, the right sentence structure to ensure the story fit into the Regency setting?

I did a lot of research on Regency England because I wanted the world to feel convincing and complete. So I made these lists of what they would have worn and what they would have eaten and so on, so I could make references to them that would flesh out the setting. When it comes to the language, I’ve always enjoyed the Regency "voice" – several of my favourite authors have that voice, whether it’s an assumed voice or just their actual voice, like Jane Austen, Patrick O’Brian, Georgette Heyer and so on. Getting to play with that voice was one of the main attractions of writing a novel set in Regency London. I read a lot of books written during and set in that period, including diaries and letters as well as fiction – I love reading people’s correspondence so it was a great excuse.

And speaking of research: you have created a detailed magical world, both in England and in Fairyland. Was there much research involved in getting the details right: the structure of the Society, for example, or the different creatures that inhabit the magical realm of fairy?

The structure of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers was built piecemeal in response to what the plot required, but of course it’s supposed to sound a bit like the actual Royal Society. I have no idea how similar it is to the real Royal Societies and how they’re structured, but it’s to be expected that thaumaturges will do things a little differently …

With the different creatures in Fairy, I’m quite nerdy about supernatural beings and magical creatures and because of my cultural background I’m aware of lots of different sorts. I included magical creatures from different cultures because I wanted the world to feel convincingly like ours – large and full of different types of people and things and stories.

Sorcerer to the Crown is the first in a proposed series. Can you talk about where the story will take us next, what is likely to become of Zacharias and Prunella?

Book 2 is very much a work in progress so even I don’t entirely know where it will end up! I can say that Zacharias and Prunella will make a reappearance, along with a few other familiar faces, but the story will also follow the adventures of a couple of new characters. There’s a couple of explosions and there will be at least one mistaken elopement.

Beyond the scope of Sorcerer, what authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

I’m influenced by the authors, primarily British, I read as a child – so Edith Nesbit, Diana Wynne Jones and the like. More recently I’ve been inspired by other Commonwealth writers – the historical adventure novels of Amitav Ghosh, for example, and the elegant science fiction of Karen Lord.

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

I’d like to write a book that is like Stella Benson’s Living Alone. It’s quite an obscure novel about a witch in London during the Great War. It’s very sad and funny and whimsical, and just on the right side of twee (in my opinion). My version would probably be less sad and more Asian.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Zen Cho look like?

I wake up at 9-10 am and have a look at what’s going on on social media over coffee and breakfast. After some futzing around I settle down to writing. When I’m actively drafting a novel (as distinct from planning and outlining or revising) I have a daily wordcount I’ll be aiming for and I use a Pomodoro app to help me keep on track – you write for 25 minutes, take a break, then go for another 25 minutes, etc. That’s my main job of the day, but I’ll also take time out from fiction writing to deal with what I think of as the "busy work" – dealing with emails, writing blog posts, updating my website and so on. I usually also check my day job emails at least once a day to make sure nothing’s on fire at the office. Because I take breaks throughout the day I usually work into the evening.

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

Keep going, enjoy writing for its own sake, and don’t worry about the externals too much. Do it regularly. Don’t be afraid of failure.

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

I’m reading The Letters of Abigaill Levy Franks, 1733-1748, which is sort of for business. For pleasure I’m reading a novel called Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant, which is about a capable young woman who overhauls the society of a small Victorian town.

If Sorcerer to the Crown should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

Not really! People have proposed fantasy casting for Prunella and Zacharias to me, but I don’t watch much TV or film so it’s not something I’ve thought about myself. I secretly think it’d make a better BBC miniseries than Hollywood movie, but I guess that’s already been done with Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell …

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

It would have been nice to have had the chance to meet Diana Wynne Jones. I love her work. If we imagine it happening at a con bar I’d probably have a gin or tonic. I don’t know what tipple she would have gone for!

Thank you once again, Zen, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

Thanks for the questions!

SORCERER TO THE CROWN by Zen Cho

9781447299486 SORCERER TO THE CROWN

Zen Cho (zencho.org)

Macmillan (www.panmacmillan.com)

£16.99

Regency London in a time of magical upheaval. The Sorcerer Royal is dead, his staff passed on to his successor, but his familiar gone. His successor has split opinion within the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers: Zacharias Wythe is Sir Stephen’s son in all but blood; he is England’s first African Sorcerer Royal, a slave bought by Sir Stephen, granted freedom and raised as a son, his magical abilities as great as those of any English thaumaturge. In an attempt to discover the cause of the decline in England’s magic, Zacharias heads to the border of Fairyland. On the way he visits Mrs Daubeney’s School for Gentlewitches where he discovers Prunella Gentleman, an Asian girl who may well have found the future of English magic in a small valise left by her father before he took his own life. Heading back to London together, Zacharias is determined to change the course of English magic, despite the many attempts on his life by those jealous of his position.

Part Regency drama, part magical fantasy, Zen Cho’s debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown, appears to have a little something for everyone. There is something light-hearted about the novel’s tone, despite the important themes on which the author touches, and while comparisons to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell are warranted, Cho’s world feels much more substantial, much more grounded in reality than that of Susanna Clarke.

When we first meet Zacharias Wythe, he has been Sorcerer Royal for a matter of months. His predecessor is dead, though still manages to offer advice to Zacharias when required. There is, we discover, much tension in the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers for a number of reasons: Zacharias may now hold the staff of the Sorcerer Royal, but his predecessor’s familiar, Leofric disappeared at the same time that Sir Stephen Wythe died. Rumours abound that Zacharias has murdered his father, and his father’s familiar, in order to take control of the staff for himself. Of course, this is just an excuse: the Regency period is not renowned for its tolerance and open-mindedness, and Zacharias’ heritage – a slave bought and freed by Sir Stephen when he sensed the boy had great magical potential – is more than enough to condemn him in the eyes of these fine English gentlemen.

For the same reason, Zacharias now bears the burden for England’s declining magic, despite the fact that it was declining long before he took his position. On a trip to the border of Fairyland, from which the country’s magic flows, he discovers that the Fairy Court have deliberately stopped the magic and, as he investigates, discovers that the fault lies not with him, but with one of the men who wishes to take his place at the head of English thaumaturgy.

Thrown into this already explosive mix is Miss Prunella Gentleman, a young lady whom Zacharias meets on his way to Fairyland, and who convinces him that he should take her back to London with him. Prunella is in possession of a secret that could determine the future of English magic and Zacharias is now faced with fighting discrimination on two fronts: first the racism directed at both him (an African) and Prunella (a girl who is obviously of Asian origin) and second, the sexism that dictates that women cannot practice magic or become members of the Royal Society. Here Cho has a tough task: to progress the story and discuss the implications of the diversity she has introduced without resorting to lecturing or potential alienation of readers. This she manages with a great deal of style, putting the question of diversity front and centre without sacrificing anything about the world she has already built, or the fantasy she is constructing around these characters.

Cho’s use of language is an important aspect of the novel, and gives it a singular voice that sets the tone I have already mentioned. She plays with sentence structure and word usage to make the book feel “of its time”, both in terms of the narrative and of the dialogue. Despite the book’s serious edge, there is plenty of wit here, and the chemistry between the central characters – Zacharias and Prunella – is something special. The supporting cast are no less interesting or memorable, and it quickly becomes clear that not everyone is who they seem to be. Beyond England, Cho gives us a brief glimpse of Fairyland, and of the massive host of creatures that populate it. One of the most interesting characters is the old witch, Mak Genggang, who drives much of the story along, and who acts as an oracle of sorts, giving both Prunella and the reader enough background to understand where both she, and this unforgettable world, have come from.

Sorcerer to the Crown is the sort of story that captures the reader purely because we have never seen anything quite like it. It is a beautifully-written fantasy romp with an important underlying message that is still as relevant today as it was during the story’s setting. While much of the novel feels like it is building towards the much larger story promised by the prospect of a second book (and, perhaps, more), it also works as a self-contained story, and gives all of the characters the room they need to show us who they are and what they are capable of. Zen Cho’s extraordinary debut novel feels very mature, and shows a writer who is comfortable in her own ability to create whole worlds from thin air. Cho’s is a name we’ll be hearing much more of in the future; now is the time to find out what all the fuss is about.

THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS by Aliette de Bodard

THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS - Aliette de Bodard THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS

Aliette de Bodard (aliettedebodard.com)

Gollancz (www.gollancz.co.uk)

£14.99

Whilst searching the ruins of Paris’ Grands Magasins for vital resources, Philippe and his companion come across a newborn Fallen, an Angel ejected from The City and exiled to the mortal plain. Deciding to harvest the Fallen for artefacts that contain powerful magic, Philippe is caught when members of one of Paris’ great Houses appears to claim the newborn. Bound to the House by Selene, the Head of Silverspires, and to Isabelle, the newborn, after tasting her blood, Philippe has no option but to find a means of escape. Unrest is brewing in Paris, and another war between the great Houses seems inevitable; it’s a situation that could work in Philippe’s favour, but before he can take advantage, he unwittingly unleashes an unspeakable evil on the House, a shadowy creature that roams the Île de la Cité, picking off members of the Household. Along with Isabelle and Madeleine, the House’s alchemist, Philippe discovers a decades-old secret that could destroy Silverspires.

Aliette de Bodard’s debut novel is set in a post-magical-apocalyptic Paris in or around the 1960s. Destroyed during a magical war that coincided, more or less, with the real world’s Great War, Paris is now a city divided into two main classes: the Houses and the Gangs. The Houses for the most part are run by – or heavily populated by – Fallen Angels, exiled from The City for infractions that they can no longer remember. Paris itself has suffered greatly as part of the war: buildings lie in ruins, provisions are scarce, especially for those not affiliated with one of the Houses, and the Seine is a magic-infested cesspool that humans and angels avoid at all costs.

When we enter this strange new world, we meet Philippe, a Vietnamese national who has ended up in Paris against his will: while he looks to be in his early twenties, Philippe was once Immortal, a member of the Jade Emperor’s court. Now hundreds of years old, Philippe has been in Paris for over sixty years, having been conscripted and shipped to France to fight in the war. Wielding a different flavour of magic to the city’s Fallen, Philippe is an enigma to the elders of House Silverspires of whom he becomes a captive before the story has barely started. His bond with Isabelle, a bond formed when he briefly tasted her blood, adds a further dimension to his captivity: Philippe has a constant watcher, and while Isabelle is new to the House, it is clear where her loyalties will ultimately lie.

Much of the action takes place in House Silverspires, which resides in the ruins of Notre Dame Cathedral and the other buildings on the Île de la Cité. De Bodard uses multiple viewpoints to give us a rounded understanding of how the Houses work, and of the relationships between the different Houses, without the need for much exposition. These viewpoints show us the House from a number of different perspectives: through the eyes of Philippe, who detests the House system for what it did to him during the war; those of Isabelle, the newest member of the Household; Madeleine, a mortal who spends her days working with magic, and dealing with an addiction that could see her expelled from the House should anyone discover it; and through the eyes of Selene, the Head of the House, and the direct successor of the House’s founder, First of the Fallen, Lucifer Morningstar.

Morningstar himself appears only in fleeting glimpses, in visions that Philippe has because of his connection to the evil that now stalks the House’s residents. There is little need for introduction, and de Bodard uses this to her advantage, tagging on the features that she needs for the Morningstar of her own world: the metal wings that were more than an affectation, the aloof manner. In many ways, each of the central characters is living in Morningstar’s shadow, some more literally than others, and despite being missing from both the story and the world – he hasn’t been seen for twenty years at the point Philippe enters House Silverspires – he remains a palpable presence throughout the novel.

The world de Bodard has created is beautifully-wrought, a post-apocalyptic nightmare unlike any you have seen before. There is a dangerous moment early in the narrative where it looks like the story may well stray into the realms of Twilight, but thankfully that proves not to be the case. This is a violent and dangerous world, populated by violent and dangerous characters, many of whom have the double advantage of being able to wield magic and being immortal. It is, strangely, a novel peopled by religious characters that manages to steer clear of the subject of faith (or Faith), bringing the religious mythology from a number of different backgrounds together in a seamless way to tell this gripping story that defies any single genre classification.

The House of Shattered Wings has all the ingredients a good story needs: a well-developed world populated by identifiable, engaging characters whose fate we care about from the moment we meet them and a story that keeps us turning the pages long past bedtime. Stylishly written, this is the most original piece of fiction – I find that “Fantasy” is far too restrictive – you’re likely to come across this year. A wonderful introduction to Aliette de Bodard, who is already an award-winning short story writer, The House of Shattered Wings is an excellent showcase for this mighty talent and adds yet another author to this reader’s “must-read” list.

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