Sunday, 24 February 2008

Riding the Unicorn by Paul Kearney

John Willoby is a former soldier turned prison officer: strong, stoic, disciplined. But his home life is empty and hollow. His daughter despises him, his wife is a stranger. When Willoby starts having visions of a fresh verdant land and hears voices in his head, he must face the prospect that he is going mad...

The Kristill are a hardy race of warriors who thrive on horseback. Driven from their homeland by an alliance of opposing tribes, they have been forced to cross a towering mountain range to seek a new homeland. The bastard son of the king and his friend, a mage of tremendous power, hatch a plan to remove the king from power, a plan that requires an ally from another world...

Riding the Unicorn was Paul Kearney's third novel, published in 1994. Unliked his later books, which are wholly secondary world-set stories, these early books are a blend of fantasy with 'real-world' protagonists either crossing over or being influenced by fantastical forces. An obvious touchstone with Riding the Unicorn is Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series, with it being rather ambiguous whether Willoby is really experiencing what he appears or if he is merely insane. Although the narrative leads us to conclude that Willoby's experiences are real, that sense of someone fearing they area losing their mind and being both terrified and exulted by the prospect comes across superbly.

This is a rather downbeat book, an examination of murder, betrayal, manipulation and dysfunctional families. At the same time it's not quite as relentlessly bloody as some of Kearney's other works and there are strong elements of hope present in the finale of the novel. The imagery is superb: we are given just enough information on the Kristill odyssey through the mountains to make it seem a truly epic journey on a par with the exodus of the slaves from Egypt. Kearney's assured grasp of character is present and correct: Willoby is not a nice man but is presented as a complex, flawed protagonist, as is his manipulator, Prince Tallimon. Merrin, the woman who links them both, is a tragic figure, whilst the relatively minor player of Cardillac emerges as a reluctant observer of events, powerless to thwart them no matter how much he may wish to.

Weaknesses? The book's title may be seen as highly misleading: it's a quote from a book on schizophrenia. There are no unicorns in this novel. As is usual with Kearney, some may decry the shortness of the novel (254 pages is barely enough for some modern authors to clear their throats) but my view is that a novel that is short and leaves the reader begging for more is better than one that is over-bloated and leaves the reader feeling stuffed on tedious verbosity. Aside from those minor observations, this is an exceptional book and it is frankly criminal that it is no longer in print.

Riding the Unicorn (****½) is a gripping, fascinating fantasy novel and well worth the trouble of seeking out. It was published in 1994 by VGSF (as Gollancz's paperback division was formally named). Copies can be tracked down via Fantasticfiction.com.

Kearney's next published novel will be The Ten Thousand, one of my top fantasy picks for 2008, which will be published in August. His classic Monarchies of God series will follow in two omnibus volumes shortly thereafter. All will be published by Solaris. He maintains a website at this location.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Coming Soon: A Dance with Dragons and some other works

"Yeah, we've heard that before!" booms the sceptical crowd, but this time it looks like we're going to get the real deal. George RR Martin recently announced on his blog he's going to go hell for leather to finish A Dance with Dragons - the fifth volume of A Song of Ice and Fire - by the end of spring/start of summer. Bantam have already tentatively scheduled the book for October and released a publicity blurb for it. They've also released the American cover image, which is in keeping with the redesigned look for the previous books. I imagine Voyager will follow suit with the UK cover in the next few months.

Dubbed "the American Tolkien" by Time magazine, George R. R. Martin's monumental cycle of epic fantasy, "A Song of Ice and Fire," has earned him international acclaim. Now the #1 New York Times bestselling author delivers the fifth book in his spellbinding landmark series-as both familiar faces and surprising new forces vie for a foothold in a fragmented empire.

In the aftermath of a colossal battle, the future of the Seven Kingdoms hangs in the balance once again-beset by newly emerging threats from every direction. In the east, Daenerys Targaryen, the last scion of House Targaryen, rules with her three dragons as queen of a city built on dust and death. But Daenerys has three times three thousand enemies, and many have set out to find her. Yet, as they gather, one young man embarks upon his own quest for the queen, with an entirely different goal in mind. To the north lies the mammoth wall of ice and stone-a structure only as strong as those guarding it. There, Jon Snow, 998th Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, will face his greatest challenge yet. For he has powerful foes, not only within the Watch, but also beyond, in the land of the creatures of ice. And from all corners, bitter conflicts soon re-ignite, intimate betrayals are perpetrated, and a grand cast of outlaws and priests, soldiers and skinchangers, nobles and slaves, will face seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Some will fail, others will grow in the strength of darkness. But in a time of rising restlessness, the tides of destiny and politics will lead inevitably to the greatest dance of all...

Time Magazine praised A Feast for Crows: "Of those who work in the grand epic-fantasy tradition, Martin is by far the best." "Mainstream readers…have a great treat ahead of them in Martin. A Feast of Crows is a fast-paced, emotionally complex, masterfully written adventure."-Newsday. George R.R. Martin sold his first story in 1971 and has been writing professionally every since. He's written fantasy, horror, and science fiction. In the mid-nineties he returned to prose, his first love, and began work on his epic fantasy series "A Song of Ice and Fire." He has been in the Seven Kingdoms ever since. Whenever he's allowed to leave, he returns to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he lives with the lovely Paris and two cats named Augustus and Caligula who think they run the place.
A Dance with Dragons is currently my most anticipated release of 2008, followed closely by Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains (August), Paul Kearney's The Ten Thousand (September) and Steven Erikson's Toll the Hounds (June).

The Steel Remains is Morgan's first fantasy novel, an ultra-gritty book set in a harsh world of conflict and treachery. The first in a trilogy (with the working title A Land Fit For Heroes), The Steel Remains will be published by Gollancz in August 2008.








The Ten Thousand is Paul Kearney's latest stand-alone novel. Loosely based on Xenophon's Anabasis Kyrou (about the invasion of Persia by an army of ten thousand Greek mercenaries), it promises to combine Kearney's trademark mastery of battle scenes with his typical flair for memorable characters. The Ten Thousand will be published by Solaris in September 2008.







Toll the Hounds is the eighth volume in Steven Erikson's increasingly popular Malazan Book of the Fallen series. This volume returns us to the continent of Genabackis and many of the series' signature characters, such as Anomander Rake, Duiker, Kruppe, Iskaral Pust and, it is rumoured, Caladan Brood, the Warlord. A great force of destruction is descending on fabled Darujhistan and the remnants of the Bridgeburners prepare for what could be their final battle. Recent novels in the sequence had been lacklustre before Reaper's Gale showed signs of improvement, so there are high hopes that a return to the series' roots could rejeuvenate the series as it heads into its final two volumes. Toll the Hounds will be published by Bantam UK in June 2008.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Hunter's Run by George RR Martin, Gardner Dozois & Daniel Abraham

Hunter's Run is an unusual book. Gardner Dozois started writing it in 1977 but got stuck, so passed it over to George RR Martin, who wrote an additional block of the story in 1981 before getting stuck himself. In 2003 or thereabouts, the aborted story was finally completed by Daniel Abraham and published in novella form the following year as Shadow Twin. Now Abraham has gone back and re-structured the story as a full-length novel, a story some thirty years in the making.

The planet is San Paolo. Ramon Espejo, a colonist from Mexico, has killed a man in a bar fight and fled into the wilderness to evade justice. In a remote mountain range he uncovers a surprising presence, and is forced into a flight for his life over a vast and dangerous stretch of countryside, with a remorseless hunter behind him and an uncertain reception ahead...

Hunter's Run is not a convoluted multi-stranded narrative with a cast of thousands. It is a simple story at heart, the exploration of what makes a person a person, but with complexities of emotion that run from it being written by three of the best character-builders in modern SF&F. Espejo is not a likable protagonist, but his actions are understandable and as the book progresses the reader sympathises with him more. The alien biosphere is well-described, the city of Diegotown comes to life vividly, the writing is crip and fast-paced, with each chapter and incident leading into the next in rapid succession. The alien characters are intriguing and there is a sense of a much larger story waiting to be told, of which this is the tip of the iceberg. Whether these three writers will collaborate again or not is uncertain, but I certainly hope that if they do, we won't have to wait thirty years for it.

Hunter's Run (****) is a strong novel from three of the leading voices in the genre today. It is published by Voyager in the UK and by both Eos and Subterrenean (as a limited illustrated edition) in the USA.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Hugo Award Nomination Recommendations 2008

Nominations for this year's Hugo Awards are currently being made and I thought I'd weigh in with my own thoughts and recommendations. Whilst I'm hoping to make it to Denver for the awards this year, this is highly tentative based on various RL events (including - yet again - a major house move in May/June), but hopefully I'll be there to see one of my favourites pick up an award.

BEST NOVEL

1. Brasyl by Ian McDonald
Brasyl is an intelligent and literate work of SF; it's also very funny and features characters you come to care about. The country comes alive in this book in the same manner that McDonald evoked India in River of Gods. You even pick up some Portugese whilst reading it!

2. Black Man by Richard K. Morgan
Published as Thirteen in the USA. Morgan's finest work, which considering he's also the author of the blistering Altered Carbon, is saying something. This is a violent, passionate, withering observation of the United States and its path into the future, and also a commentary on crime, genetics and gender, wrapped around a compelling mystery and driven by an impressive narrative force.

3. Un Lun Dun by China Mieville
Allegedly a children's novel, but with enough biting social commentary and political allusions to keep adults entertained whilst never intruding on the plot for the young 'uns. Mieville's grasp of character and plot has never been better and his trademark weirdness and surreal imagery (given greater life thanks to his excellent illustrations) is at its richest and most imaginative.

BEST DRAMATIC PRESENTATION (LONG FORM)

1. Sunshine
The most beautiful SF movie since Blade Runner, a stylistic tour de force which matches breathtaking visuals with a soundtrack to die for. The small cast of characters is vividly drawn and excellently played by some great actors at the top of their game.

2. Heroes: Season 1
Landing with a splash, Heroes became the must-see television event of the 2006-07 season. With a strong storyline building over twenty-two continuous episodes and carried by a plethora of excellent characters, the first season of Heroes is an impressive work. Sadly, the second season failed to live up to the accomplishments of the first, but the first season remains an impressive viewing expeirnece.

3. Battlestar Galactica: Razor
Whilst the third season of BSG was a disappointment, this stand-alone TV movie did a good job of patching up some holes in the show's continuity whilst telling a good story on its own, that of the battlestar Pegasus and how it survived under the increasingly draconian command of Admiral Cain. Some stunning visuals and an exceptional performance by Michelle Forbes make this an enjoyable viewing experience.

BEST DRAMATIC PRESENTATION (SHORT FORM)

1. Lost: Through the Looking Glass
The former golden child of US TV had been given a much rougher ride in its second season by the critics, with the show reaching a nadir of quality in early Season 3. However, it bounced back strong throughout the latter part of Season 3. Several other episodes - The Brig and the Twin Peaks-esque The Man Behind the Curtain - nearly made the cut, but for me the Season 3 finale was gripping television with an emotionally satisfying conclusion, twists and turns aplenty and some much longed-for resolution to long-running storylines. Based on the opening episodes of Season 4, expect to see more Lost nominations for next year's awards.

2. Doctor Who: Utopia
I nearly went for Blink, but in the end decided that Utopia was - just - the stronger episode, mainly through an absolutely masterful performance (pun intended) by Derek Jacobi, who went from sympathetic, befuddled professor to pure malevolence in a completely convincing manner. This is an episode that comines some of the better elements of 'Nu Hu' with established mythology to deliver what was probably the finest closing ten minutes of SF TV in the last year. And just when you thought it couldn't get any better, we got a John Simm cameo as well! Excellent stuff.

3. BSG: Crossroads, Part II
The latter half of BSG Season 3 was a rather strained affair, with poor editing, dubious writing decisions and some characters acting very inconsistently with their established personas. The writers just about managed to turn things around for the finale, however, delivering a damning indictment of the hypocrisy that allows the fleet to operate whilst simultaneously persecuting those it dislikes whilst simultaneously establishing a strange mystery related to a song that built to a startling conclusion. The triple-whammy cliffhanger ending - with four more Cylons revealed, the fleet about to be annihialated by the Cylons and the return of a supposedly dead character - nearly made up for the numerous tedious episodes that preceded it. The icing on the cake was a great turn by Mark Sheppard as the lawyer Romo Lamkin, the sort of offbeat, slightly demented character that makes for great television.

HUGO AWARD FOR BEST EDITOR (LONG FORM)

Only one suggestion for this: Simon Spanton and his team at Gollancz have been doing excellent work for the past two years, delivering a continuous stream of great novels frome some of the best writers in our genre. Whether it's discovering great new talent such as Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch and Richard Morgan, or delivering the first UK editions of excellent foreign works as such Andrzej Sapkowski and Patrick Rothfuss, Gollancz has been on top form in 2007 and with their line-up for 2008 already looking incredibly strong, I expect this to continue for some time to come.

HUGO AWARD FOR BEST FAN WRITER

The blogger has been rising to prominence in the last few years, but to date I have not seen any blogger really giving us the same in-depth commentary and observations that the best print-writers seem to manage. As such I am forced to recommend the constant David Langford for this award. Ansible remains an essential monthly read for all fans of the genre and his monthly articles in SFX are the highlight of the magazine. Nevertheless, a shout-out to Patrick St. Denis, whose Fantasy Hotlist has grown into a vital genre resource in the past two years as well. Best wishes as well to William Lexner, whose blog would have resulted in recommendation for him as well for this award, had it not been largely inactive over the past year due to personal issues. Hoping to see you back on the blogging trail soon, William!

CAMPBELL AWARD FOR BEST NEW WRITER
Hands-down, this goes to Joe Abercrombie. Scott Lynch's second book was mildly disappointing and Patrick Rothfuss apparently isn't eligible (due to a short story published in 2002), so that leaves the 'Crombie with a clear run at the title. His First Law Trilogy is the freshest, most enjoyable thing to happen to fantasy in the last few years, building from a solid start in The Blade Itself through the startling revelations of Before They Are Hanged to an absolute solid-gold classic conclusion in Last Argument of Kings, giving us blood, betrayal, torture and war, delivered through compelling characters (Glokta is fantasy's finest creation since Tyrion Lannister) with a cynical eye and a fantastic line in humour. He has also achieved the near-impossible by giving us a superb ending to his series which doesn't wimp out or betray the spirit of the books.

Shout for the Dead by James Barclay

Shout for the Dead is the conclusion to the Ascendants of Estorea duology which commenced with Cry of the Newborn, which I reviewed here.

Ten years have passed since the events of the first book. The Estorean Conquord is riven with discontent as the Advocate sponsors the development of the Ascendents, whilst the Order is implacably opposed to them. With religious strife threatening the Conquord with dissolution, the Tsardons launch a renewed invasion, this time with the 'fallen' Ascendant Gorian providing them with vast armies of undead warriors. The Conquord is forced into a military confrontation it cannot win whilst the only people who can stop Gorian are also the most feared and reviled people in the empire...


I was disappointed by Shout for the Dead. Cry of the Newborn set up an interesting premise with impressive, exciting battle sequences and fast-paced storytelling (despite its mammoth size) which more than made up for its lack of in-depth characterisation and its sometimes workmanlike prose. That book was basically an action blockbuster with some interesting ideas on the introduction of magic into a nonmagical world and on that level it worked well.

Shout for the Dead feels somewhat laboured. I get the impression from comments in interviews and on his website that Barclay struggled with the book, and that comes through here. Characters vanish with no explanation (whatever happened to the King of Atreska and Megan, the politician who replaced him?) and Barclay fails to make the battles as compelling as in the first book, perhaps because they almost entirely consist of vast hordes of zombies marching over the opposition. The only bits where the book explodes into life are when the Ocetanas turn up and start kicking some serious ass. The scene where Iliev takes on a bunch of undead single-handed is superb ("Gentleman, I'll be needing my papers,"). The naivete and stupidity of certain characters is also incredibly annoying, and the ending is rather unsatisfying.

Shout for the Dead (**) is a disappointing and lacklustre conclusion to what promised to be an entertaining action series. However, there was plenty of promise in the book, and I really enjoyed the adventures of the Ocetanas. Hopefully they will be front and centre if Barclay ever chooses to return to this world.

The novel is available in mass-market paperback from Gollancz in the UK.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

The Warlord Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell

Britain, at the close of the 5th Century. The Romans are gone and the Britons are seeking to unite themselves under one ruler, but factional infighting and squabbles between the individual kingdoms are diverting them from the encroaching threat of the Saxons, who have landed on the east coast and made headway into the interior. The High King Uther Pendragon of Dumnonia is determined to drive them off the island, but he is old and dying and his son, Mordred, is but an infant. When Uther's death triggers a bloody war, his bastard son Arthur returns from Armorica with his hand-picked warriors to ensure that Mordred makes it to his majority and takes the throne. But the great druid Merlin is embarking on a great quest to unite the lost treasures of Britain in the hope of restoring the old gods, and his quest will bring Britain to its knees...

The Warlord Chronicles is Bernard Cornwell's take on the Arthurian epic. Published between 1995 and 1997, these books represented a major departure from Cornwell's established role as the author of the phenomenally successful Sharpe series of historical adventures set in the Napoleonic Wars, although the same eye for detail and combat is present. The Warlord Chronicles features greater emphasis on character-building and it is to Cornwell's credit he avoids the cliches. His Merlin isn't quite the same Merlin we've seen a hundred times before on film and in TV series, and his Guinevere, Lancelot and Arthur are all similarly well-defined, retaining some of their traditional characteristics whilst being imbued with greater depth and motivation.

This is a big, complex story, but Cornwell keeps the page-count down by making it a first-person story narrated by the great warrior Derfel Cadarn from his retirement at an abbey many years after Arthur's death. To a certain extent this limits the action as an enormous number of events, some of them pivotal, occur off-page at battles or meetings where Derfel is not present. However, this keeps the action cracking along at a fiendish pace, and Derfel's viewpoint allows Cornwell to illustrate elements of 5th/6th century society that other takes on the legend gloss over, such the fanatical inter-faith squabbling between Christians, Druids and even the followers of the Roman gods who established a foothold in Britain during the conquest. Military tactics are present realistically as well. No Arthur strutting around a London-sized Camelot in full plate armour, for example. This was the beginning of the Dark Ages, with the knowledge and wisdom accumulated by the Roman Empire over seven centuries crumbling into nothingness along with the ruins of its great towns and cities. This sense of a truly great civilisation being lost is one of the most stunning achievements of the books, and is unrivalled by anything else I've read with the possible exception of Lord of the Rings' evocation of the once-mighty landmarks of Gondor and Numenor reduced to a few ruins. In the Chronicles, however, it is given greater pathos by being true.

There is also a quite amusing reference to the traditional Arthurian legend as Derfel watches his careful, accurate historical account being taken away and translated by an interpreter who decides his work is a bit dull and makes various unfotunate changes which we can tell are the beginnings of the rather unhistorical myth as we know it today.

The Warlord Chronicles (****) consists of The Winter King (1995, UK, US), Enemy of God (1996, UK, US) and Excalibur (1997, UK, US) and is highly recommended.

Bernard Cornwell also wrote the lengthy Sharpe series about the Napoleonic Wars (now standing at twenty-three volumes), The Starbuck Chronicles (four volumes covering the American Civil War, with more to follow) and The Grail Quest, set during the Hundred Years' War. His current work is The Saxon Series, which covers the wars between Alfred the Great and the Vikings in the 9th Century. This series stands at four volumes with another three or four projected, although Cornwell is taking a break to pen a novel about the Battle of Agincourt before proceeding.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Update

After a brief (-ish) break from the blogging, I'm planning to get back to reviewing stuff over the next week or so. I have reviews of Bernard Cornwell's The Warlord Chronicles trilogy and James Barclay's Shout for the Dead forthcoming, whilst I am currently reading George RR Martin's decades-long collaboration with Gardner Dozois and Daniel Abraham, Hunter's Run. Reviews of the rest of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine will also follow, whilst TV reviews of the new seasons of Lost and Ashes to Ashes will crop up a few weeks after. I am also likely to post some more reviews of computer games, starting with The Witcher, once I can get past the interminably tedious and rather difficult opening section of the game. In the meantime you can find a very funny (and extremely not-safe-for-work) review of the game here, by the mighty Yahtzee.

Just to remind readers that Robert Redick's The Red Wolf Conspiracy is now out in the UK and has been sold to Bantam in the USA for a six-figure sum, whilst Joe Abercrombie's superb Last Argument of Kings gets its UK debut in a few weeks. Look out for a grand re-review of the entire First Law Trilogy later in the year.

With the publication of A Dance with Dragons now established as very likely for late 2008/early 2009, I will be embarking on a review of the entire A Song of Ice and Fire series (including the prequel novellas) in the summer, which I'm looking forwards to immensely. A review of the entire Wheel of Time series (which I'm looking forward to and dreading at the same time) will likely follow in 2009 ahead of the publication of the final volume at the end of that year.