Saturday, 29 March 2008


Andrzej Sapkowski's The Last Wish - the most commented-on book in my blog's history - will shortly be published in the USA by Orbit US. Ahead of its release, Pat from Pat's Fantasy Hotlist has published a somewhat critical review here, which may be of interest to some.

I am currently reading Troy: Fall of Kings by David and Stella Gemmell, and have Shadow Gate by Kate Elliott and The Flood by Stephen Baxter on the to-read pile. I've also been promised a review copy of Scott Bakker's Neuropath shortly. I'm also hoping to finally move onto Celia Friedman's second Coldfire book (five months after I read the first one) and China Mieville's The Scar in the near-ish future. As I mentioned previously though, I also want to tackle a full re-read of A Song of Ice and Fire before A Dance with Dragons is (touch wood) published in November. The reading piles grows larger...

I also have a 90,000-word 'preview' of a forthcoming epic fantasy novel by one of the most notable authors in the genre (no, it's not that one, which God would probably have a tough time getting to see a preview of before it was finished) which I hope to finish tomorrow. It's already challenging Last Argument of Kings as the epic fantasy novel to beat in 2008.

I am currently rewatching the entire series of Babylon 5. I completed the DS9 rewatch some weeks ago and hope get around to doing up some reviews of Seasons 3-7 shortly.

Season 4 of Battlestar Galactica begins in the USA on the Sci-Fi Channel on Friday, with UK transmission on Sky One in the following week. Doctor Who's fourth (or thirtieth, depending on how you count it) season begins next Saturday. Lost remains off the air until 24 April.

Troy: Shield of Thunder by David Gemmell

Shield of Thunder continues the epic Troy Trilogy begun in Troy: Lord of the Silver Bow. Shield of Thunder was the last book completed by David Gemmell before his premature death in 2006, and was published posthumously.

Rather than picking up the narrative immediately after Lord of the Silver Bow, Gemmell starts Shield of Thunder by focusing on Banokles and Kalliades, two of the Mykene soldiers sent to Troy by Agamemnon to murder King Priam. However, Priam spared their lives as an act of mercy in return for them slaying their treacherous commander. Agamemnon does not look well on failure and now the two Mykene soldiers are on the run. Their paths cross with Piria, a runaway priestess, and mighty Odysseus, whose path leads back to Troy. Back in the Golden City, we are soon reacquainted with the central characters from the first book, such as Andromache and Helikaon, and soon meet important new characters, most notably Achilles, the great hero of Thessaly, who burns to pit his skills of war against Hektor, Prince of Troy.

Shield of Thunder undercuts reader expectations nicely. We may be nearly two hundred pages in before the major characters from the first book reassert themselves, but Odysseus, Banokles and Kalliades are such great characters you barely notice. The writing is as tight as ever and there's much greater humour in the book, particularly the opening sections revolving around the mighty boar Ganny, whilst Banokles' refreshing lack of moral complexity makes him a particularly engaging character: someone who just works out what has to be done and does it whilst everyone else agonises with moral quandaries around him. However, this is the story of the tensions building to war. Gemmell undercuts reader expectations again and again. Paris and Helen are married quite legally and happily at the start of the book but Agamemnon exploits a legalistic loophole to allow him to challenge the might of Troy for her 'capture'. Menelaus, usually depicted as a fearsome warrior, is here a passive man much more at home on his farm than on the front lines. And Achilles and Hektor meeting in the arena prior to their infamous duel on the battlefield may strike some as sacrilege, but it builds up their distant rivalry and thirst to clash in battle all the more effectively.

Shield of Thunder (****½) is an excellent continuation of the story begun in Lord of the Silver Bow and sets things up for the grand finale in Fall of Kings. Shield of Thunder is publshed by Corgi in the UK and by Ballantine in the USA.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Lostwatch 4: Season 4, Episodes 1-8

Lost's third season ended with the series at the very top of its game. The 'war' between the Others and the survivors of Oceanic 815 had ended with the decimated Others forced to flee their base of operations and their leader Ben a prisoner. Jack had successfully made contact with a freighter out at sea and it looked like rescue was finally imminent...except that, moments before his death, Charlie had discovered that the rescuers had been lying about their true purposes, a claim backed up by both Ben and Locke. In a format-breaking 'flashforwards' set three years in the future we also learned that at least Jack and Kate do make it off the Island, but Jack at least thinks it was a mistake and desperately wants to return.

The Beginning of the End
picks up right where we left off. Jack and Locke are at loggerheads over Locke's murder of Naomi. The revelation of Charlie's last words divides the camp in half, with a number (including Hurley, Claire and Sawyer) joining Locke but the majority remaining with Jack and Kate on the beach. A second flashforwards reveals that only six members of Oceanic 815 make it back to civilisation, including Hurley, who is forced back into the mental institution after having visions of Charlie. There he is visited by the sinister Mr. Abbadon and a calmer, more relaxed Jack (clearly this takes place before his prior flashforwards). This episode gets the season off to a storming start, although it commits the typical Lost sin of resolving little but introducing numerous new mysteries. This time around, though, the new mysteries are highly compelling.

Confirmed Dead shifts things around somewhat. Four new characters arrive on the Island from the freighter: Miles Straume, an apparent psychic; Daniel Faraday, a physicist; Charlotte Lewis, an archaeologist; and Frank Lepidus, a pilot. Deft use of flashbacks reveals that these four were recruited by the shadowy Mr. Abbadon and his trusted lieutenant, Naomi, specifically for the mission to the Island. They seem to have their own agendas: Miles can apparently talk to the dead, Frank was a friend of Oceanic 815's pilot and wants to know what happened to him, Daniel is fascinated by the electromagnetic properties of the Island and Charlotte found what appears to be the remnants of a DHARMA Initiative experiment in Tunisia. All four new characters are terrifically well-drawn and we get to know them and see their interactions with both sets of characters in a fascinating manner.

The Economist features the best use of a flashforwards yet, as we learn that Sayid is one of the Oceanic Six. He is also an assassin, working for a shadowy figure, and targetting certain individuals. An attempt to get close to one of these individuals in Berlin leads him into a doomed romance. Lost makes great use of its award-winning acting resource, Naveen Andrews, in a taut 45-minute thriller with elements of noir thrown in for good measure. Spectacular stuff.

Eggtown is a highly unexpected episode. Kate's eventual trial for her pre-Island crimes is something I expect most fans thought they'd never see, or it would be glossed over as part of the finale. Not so. It is shown here in full detail and much more info about the Oceanic Six is revealed. Whilst the resolution is a bit hard to swallow (not unusual for dramatised courtroom proceedings) the final scene raises an absolute ton of questions about the Six and what the people on the outside world know about them. The on-Island storyline is also effective, particularly Locke's effective use of a grenade to coerce the truth from Miles.

The Constant may be one of Lost's high points to date. Frank is taking Sayid and Desmond back to the freighter via helicopter, but a freak storm that takes place as they cross the 'boundary' between the Island and the outside world has a devastating effect on Desmond and he starts bouncing back and forth between the present and eight years in the past. This leads to a much more effective reitation of the ideas explored in Flashes Before Your Eyes in a most effective manner, building to one of the most emotionally satisfying moments in the series' history. Another winner.

The Other Woman sees a minor slowing of the pace. Juliet's flashbacks reveals the true depth of Ben's twisted character and any doubts we had about him being 'bad' are finally dispelled...just as he finally wins Locke's trust and is let loose. The waters are further muddled as Ben reveals the freighter crew's seemingly malevolent mission and their mysterious backer just as Faraday and Charlotte reveal Ben's own plans to purge the Island of his enemies. Who is telling the truth and who is lying? A difficult question to answer and the episode refuses to give easy resolutions to the problem.

Ji Yeon is the trickiest episode of the season so far, messing around with the flashforward and flashback devices to build to a highly ambiguous finale. It's a difficult episode to review without spoiling it. Suffice to say that it's another good Sun and Jin episode, who for all their apparent disconnection from the main storyline nevertheless have a highly consistent quality of centric episodes.

We round things off with Meet Kevin Johnson. Sayid and Desmond are shocked to be reunited with Michael, last seen sailing off into the sunset with Walt in the Season 2 finale but now an engineer on the freighter. We now learn that Michael was recruited by the Others into infiltrating the boat and carrying out Ben's orders. Sayid is unimpressed with Michael's story and takes shocking action. At the same moment, all hell breaks loose on the Island and events build to a major cliffhanger ending with one recurring character dead, another seriously wounded and another's fate left hanging in the balance.

We're a long way from the dull and plodding start to Season 3 here. Lost is firing on all cylinders and the relatively modest (five-week) wait for the remaining five episodes of the season seems a hell of a lot longer than it actually is.

401: The Beginning of the End ****
402: Confirmed Dead *****
403: The Economist *****
404: Eggtown ***½
405: The Constant *****
406: The Other Woman ***½
407: Ji Yeon ****
408: Meet Kevin Johnson ****

Forthcoming: Episode 409, The Shape of Things to Come, airs on 24 April on ABC and a few days later on Sky One. There will be 13 episodes in total in Season 4, shortened by three episodes due to the US Writer's Strike.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Match It For Pratchett

As related by George RR Martin on his Notablog, a number of SF fans and writers have begun a campaign to help into the research and treatment of Alzheimers. Terry Pratchett was diagnosed with the disease late last year and last week donated over half a million pounds (a million dollars) to the cause. SF writer Pat Cadigan has launched the official 'Match It For Pratchett' campaign, which aims to raise the same amount of money (or hopefully much more) for the study of the disease, which shockingly receives only 3% of the funds that cancer research does.

The official Match It For Pratchett website is located here. You can buy T-shirts with the profits going to the campaign here. You can directly contribute to the fund here, as long as you mention that it's part of the Match It For Pratchett campaign. Finally, GRRM has put up a number of rare, signed books for auction here, again with the proceeds going to the campaign.

The best of luck to those involved in the campaign, and best wishes to Terry Pratchett as he continues to fight this condition.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Troy: Lord of the Silver Bow by David Gemmell

David Gemmell was a prolific and popular author of heroic fantasy, penning more than thirty novels (most of them well-receved) between the 1984 release of Legend and his death in the summer of 2006. His final project was The Troy Trilogy, an epic retelling of the Trojan War, its causes and consequences, marrying the likely historical reality of the conflict (now seen less as a story of doomed love and more the explosion of tensions building up over decades between the Greek cities and the Hittite Empire) with some fantastical elements, although these are mostly restricted to prophetic dreams. Arguably the trilogy, or at least Lord of the Silver Bow, barely qualifies as fantasy, instead more neatly falling into the subgenre of the 'speculative historical' novel shared by the likes of Cornwell's Warlord Chronicles.

The time is three thousand years and more in the past. The world is dominated by the Great Green, the vast sea that divides the Greek city-states (now coming under the dominion of Mykene and its ruthless king, Agamemnon) from the Hittites and their colonies in the near east, Assyria further to the east and Egypte to the south. Lord of the Silver Bow is the story of several individuals. Helikaon, Prince of Dardania, is a warrior and sailor beyond compare, dubbed 'The Golden One' for his legendary luck and pride. He has built the Xanthos, the biggest ship on the Great Green, which sailors fear as it challenges the might of Poseidon. Helikaon is being hunted by assassins and has made an enemy of the Mykene for slaughtering their hero Alektruon, a pirate and reaver, but is unaware that Agamemnon has been told of a prophecy that he will be responsible for Agamemnon's downfall.

Meanwhile, the beautiful Andromache, exiled to the island of Thera by her father, is recalled after the death of her sister and is pledged to marry Prince Hektor of Troy, a warrior of legend. Her journey to Troy brings her into contact with Helikaon and his crew, a meeting that will spark many unfortunate events to come. The last of the three central characters is Argurios, a mighty Mykene warrior who loaths Helikaon, but destiny and honour compel him to fight alongside the Golden One and forge a story that will become a legend across the Great Green and challenge Agamemnon's wisdom and reputation.

Around these three central characters other lives become entangled: Xander, the ship's boy who becomes interested in healing; the strange Trojan girl and prophetess, Kassandra; the Egyptean exiled prince Gershom; the mighty warrior and legendary tale-spinner Odysseus, King of Ithaka; and King Priam himself, a contradictary figure, cruel and hateful one moment, with occasional flashes of honour and mercy.

Lord of the Silver Bow is nearly a flawlessly enjoyable book, with a depth of writing that is hugely engrossing and characters that leap clear of the page in their vividness. Such is the strength of the story that you forget you are reading a story that you know the end of, and the moments in the story that do intersect with the legend are all the most impressive for that, such as when the reader realises that Helikaon is actually Aeneas and when Prince Paris crops up for one of his extremely infrequent appearances. The combat sequences are brutal and convincing; the characters' philosophical musings are short, to the point and do not slow down the action; the drawing of the characters is so well-achieved that some of the deaths at the end of the book are almost physically painful to read about.

Lord of the Silver Bow (****½) is laying the groundwork for the war to come, but is in itself a hugely accomplished and significant epic fantasy novel with enough closure to make it a great self-contained work. The other two books in the sequence are Shield of Thunder and Fall of Kings, which I will read and review promptly.

The novel is available from Corgi in the UK and from Ballantine in the USA.

Saturday, 22 March 2008

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

The Pillars of the Earth was originally released in 1989 and was a major departure for Follett, until that time known as a writer of thrillers. The book is a sweeping historical epic, taking place across some thirty years of 12th Century history, beginning with the civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Maud and ending with the martyrdom of Thomas Beckett. The story focuses on the hamlet of Kingsbridge and its growth as a churchman and a visionary builder, Philip and Tom, join forces to build the grandest cathedral in all Christendom. Their vast ambition is constantly tested by the machinations of Archdeacon Waleran and the jealous bitterness of William Hamleigh, a local nobleman. As the cathedral takes shape, the story moves on to follow the adventures of Tom's children, in particular his stepson Jack, as the task of completing the project falls to them. Above all, an old crime and a vile curse run their course across the passage of many years.

Follett's ambition is admirable in this book. A substantial cast of characters is explored and develops over the course of a thousand pages and many years of storylines. Whilst the idea of building a cathedral may seem a bit dry for the subject of a novel, Follett wraps so many duels, battles and murders around the event, not to mention a colossal amount of political intrigue, that the novel comes across as more of a melodrama, a feeling increased by William Hamleigh's rather cartoonish villainy. There's nothing wrong with a melodrama and The Pillars of the Earth is an enjoyable example of the subgenre, but this means the book lacks subtlety. Working out the black hats from the white hats isn't hard, although Follett does throw an interesting curveball towards the end of the book when a couple of characters suffer role reversals that are nevertheless convincing.

The detail of 12th Century life is very convincing, and anyone who's pondered how churches managed to fund themselves at a time of relative poverty will find their questions soon answered by this book. That said, Follett never really nails the alieness of medieval people. These people did not really think like us and their differing conceptions of the value of life and death are not explored at all. The ease with which a key female character becomes a prominent businesswoman is a clear example of how this book essentially features 20th Century characters translated to the 12th with some lip service to the laws and mores of the time. There is also a lot of sex - both consensual and rape - in the novel, a lot of which feels pretty gratuitous with no real story value.

The Pillars of the Earth (***½) is an ambitious and impressive work that reaches for true greatness but is let down by cartoon bad guys and a lack of character depth. As a melodrama it works well and it's certainly page-turningly compulsive at times (its extreme length isn't one of its problems), but there's a feeling of there being a lot more that could have been done with the story that Follett fails to achieve. The book is published by Pan Macmillan in the UK and by NAL in the USA.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Sir Arthur C. Clarke Has Passed Away

Sir Arthur C. Clarke, British science fiction writer and visionary, probably the most famous and well-known science fiction writer of all time, passed away yesterday at his home in Sri Lanka at the age of 90.

Arthur Charles Clarke was born in Minehead, Somerset on 16 December 1917 and grew up reading the early SF pulp magazines. During WWII, Clarke worked in the RAF on radar projects, and contributed to the development of Ground-Approach Radar, which later played a key role in the Berlin Airlift. After the war he achieved a degree at King's College, London and became involved with the British Interplanetary Society, later going on to serve as its chairman. In October 1945 he published an article in Wireless World outlining how relay satellites positioned in geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometres above the Earth could be used to create a global communications network. After the publication of the article the geostationary orbit became known as the 'Clarke Orbit', a term still used today by the International Astronomical Union.

Clarke begun his writing career by penning short stories in WWII. His first sale was Rescue Party, which appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in May 1946. In1948 he wrote The Sentinel for a BBC competition, but it did not win. The same year he also wrote Against the Fall of Night, one of his earliest classic stories, and in 1950 wrote another short story called Guardian Angel. In 1951 he began writing full-time, quickly publishing his first two novels, Prelude to Space and The Sands of Mars, that year. In 1953 he rewrote Guardian Angel as Childhood's End, which rapidly became his first truly successful novel, and the one that brought him to international attention, particularly in the USA. In 1956 his short story The Star won him his first Hugo Award. In 1958 he moved to Sir Lanka, then still called Ceylon, and remained there for the rest of his life, attributing his longevity to the climate and his love of scuba diving.

A string of successful novels and short story collections followed in the 1950s and early 1960s, including A Fall of Moondust, The Deep Range and The City and the Stars, his novel-length rewrite of Against the Fall of Night. In 1964 Clarke began a collaboration with film-maker Stanley Kubrick designed to make 'the proverbial good science fiction movie'. They used the jokey working title How the Solar System Was Won and Clarke's story The Sentinel as a basis for the project before retitling it 2001: A Space Odyssey. Production of the movie, and Clarke's accompanying novel, took over four years and involved the creation of never-before-used special effects technology. The movie was released in 1968 to immediate acclaim and won plaudits from critics for its innovative visuals and stunning use of classical music, as well as its philosophical outlook. However, the movie became a popular hit due to its basic storyline (about a murderous computer) and its 'trippy' end sequence. Clarke became a popular figure after the movie came out and was an official commentator for the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon in July 1969.

In 1973 Clarke published what became his most successful novel, Rendezous with Rama. It was his first novel to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel, but it simultaneously won the John W. Campbell Award and the Nebula as well. It remains the only book to have won all three awards. Thanks to Clarke's friendship with Sovient cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, the novel was also published in the Soviet Union with absolutely no edits or changes from the original text, an extreme rarity for Western books during the Cold War. After the success of Rama, Clarke entered a period of growing critical acclaim. He released a further string of successful novels - Imperial Earth, The Fountains of Paradise, 2010: Odyssey Two, and The Songs of Distant Earth and 2061: Odyssey Three - as well as producing and presenting a television series, Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World.

In 1988 Clarke began to seriously suffer the effects of post-polio syndrome (having previously suffered from polio in 1959). He became increasingly reliant on wheelchairs and left Sri Lanka less often. His writing also changed, with a shift to collaborations with other authors such as Gentry Lee, Michael P. Kube-McDowell, Mike McQuay and Stephen Baxter. Two of his last solo novels, The Ghost from the Grand Banks (1990) and The Hammer of God (1993), were not as well-received as earlier efforts, although both proved influential. Ghost predicted the problems associated with the Millennium Bug, whilst God, about an impending asteroid collision, both directly influenced the movie Deep Impact and ironically featured a NASA project named SPACEGUARD, which was inspired by Clarke's own novel, Rendezvous with Rama. His last solo novel was 3001: The Final Odyssey, published in 1997 after Clarke received the largest advance in SF history for the novel. The book was partially a 'greatest hits' of Clarke's ideas, taking in computers, computer viruses, ancient alien intelligences and space elevators (the idea for which - first visited in The Fountains of Paradise - he believed he would eventually be best-remembered by history).

In 1989, Clarke had been made a Commander of the British Empire and in 1998 was made a Knight Bachelor, although the ceremony was delayed until 2000 due to unfounded allegations about Clarke's personal life made by the The Sunday Mirror, which subsequently withdrew them.

Sir Arthur C. Clarke, CBE, died at 1.30 am, 19 March 2008, local time, from breathing difficulties and complications arising from his post-polio syndrome. He left behind no immediate family, but a colossal body of work and the condolences of millions of fans.

On the occasion of his 90th birthday, he sent this message to his fans:

"I want to be remembered most as a writer. I want to entertain readers and hopefully stretch their imaginations as well.

"If I have given you delight in all that I have done, let me lie quiet in that night, which shall be yours anon."

For all his fame and prolific output, only one movie has ever been directly made based on his work: 2010. 2001: A Space Odyssey was a collaborative effort between Clarke and Kubrick, but with substantial differences between movie and novel. A film version of Rendezvous with Rama (directed by David Fincher and starring Morgan Freeman) has been in development for some years.

Bibliography of Novels
Prelude to Space (1951)
The Sands of Mars (1951)
Islands in the Sky (1952)
Against the Fall of Night (1953)
Childhood's End (1953)
Earthlight (1956)
The City and the Stars (1956)
The Deep Range (1957)
A Fall of Moondust (1961)
Dolphin Island (1963)
Glide Path (1963)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, with Stanley Kubrick)
Rendezvous with Rama (1972)
Imperial Earth (1976)
The Fountains of Paradise (1979)
2010: Odyssey Two (1982)
The Songs of Distant Earth (1986)
2061: Odyssey Three (1987)
A Meeting with Medusa (1988)
Cradle (1988, with Gentry Lee)
Rama II (1989, with Gentry Lee)
Beyond the Fall of Night (1990, with Gregory Benford)
The Ghost From the Grand Banks (1990)
The Garden of Rama (1991, with Genry Lee)
Rama Revealed (1993, with Gentry Lee)
Richter 10 (1996, with Mike McQuay)
3001: The Final Odyssey (1997)
The Trigger (1999, with Michael P. Kube-McDowell)
The Light of Other Days (2000, with Stephen Baxter)
Time's Eye (2003, with Stephen Baxter)
Sunstorm (2005, with Stephen Baxter)
Firstborn (2007, with Stephen Baxter)

"Look," whispered Chuck, and George lifted his eyes to heaven. (There is always a last time for everything.)

Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.

Monday, 17 March 2008

Wertzone Classics: The Separation by Christopher Priest

The Separation is the eleventh and most recent novel by British SF author Christopher Priest, published in 2002 when it promptly won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the BSFA Best Novel Award and the Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire. For reasons that remain unknown, the British publishers tried to kill the book at birth, releasing it with a minimum of fanfare and remaindering it as soon as humanly possible. Luckily, Gollancz saved the book and released it in a handsome paperback edition in 2004, where as part of their Priest reprint range it has remained in-print and with increasing critical acclaim ever since.

The Prestige is regarded as Priest's best and most well-known book. The Separation is a book that at one moment is similar (another novel about duality and identity) and at once utterly different. It very nearly defies a plot summary, since any attempt to convey the storyline would be in itself verging on a spoiler. But I will do my best.

A historian working in 1999 becomes intrigued by a minor historical figure, a pacifist in Second World War Britain briefly mentioned by Churchill in his war memoirs. This man, JL Sawyer, is soon revealed to be one of a pair of identical twins. In 1936 Jack and Joe Sawyer take part in the Olympic Games in Berlin as coxless rowers, winning a bronze medal, but soon the outbreak of war separates them: Jack becomes a bomber pilot, tormented by the destruction he wreaks each night on German cities. Joe, the pacifist, becomes a Red Cross ambulance driver helping find survivors of the nightly Blitz on cities such as Manchester and London. Their stories are related as a series of diaries and memoirs written by both and also in (mostly fictional) historical documents relating to the period, some by such personages as Churchill, Goebbels and Rudolph Hess. Other devices come into play, particularly towards the ending of the book.

Priest is well-known for his slippery plots, pulling off narrative sleights-of-hand and 'twist' moments that make M. Night Shymalan's films look like the work of an amateur hack. Here he seems to reveal the twist very early, within a few pages (and silencing the critics who claim his books are rarely 'overt' SF). However, he rapidly pulls the rug out from the reader's feet again, and then again. Amidst the confusion generated by the shifting narrative, however, a pattern slowly emerges which seems confirmed in the extremely haunting conclusion. Some may deem the ending to be a 'cop-out' but nothing it as it seems, for the revelation apparently inherent in the book's finale does not explain events earlier in the book, leading to much greater thought being demanded from the reader to examine the truth of the story.

The Seperation, like most Priest books, hides an incredible amount of depth behind its deceptively simple, almost sparse prose. Characters are built up and deconstructed with nearly contemptuous ease in front of us. Priest captures the atmosphere of WWII Britain and the moral confusion of the reality of war with vivid storytelling techniques and the use of statistics and historical texts (real and feigned). Priest even educates the reader in areas about the war that have not been very well explored (the state of conscientious objectors in WWII Britain is not something I had previously considered).

The Separation is an extraordinary book, even moreso than The Prestige. The lack of an 'absolute' conclusion or explanation for what has happened in the book may irritate some readers, but I found it extremely refreshing to read a book that demands that the reader actually think, rather than being spoon-fed the answers on a plate. It is in places beautifully written: Priest's take on Churchill is so good I was startled to find several impressive and very 'Churchillian' pieces of dialogue were Priest's own invention and not taken from any kind of historical record. In other places the theme of the book is so vast that sometimes it threatens to overwhelm the more human moments of the story (the reader is perhaps invited to furiously think "What the hell is going on?" rather than simply sit back and have the tale unfold). However, this is more likely to have just been my reaction to the story rather than an inherent problem. I would say that I found myself preferring The Prestige to The Seperation by a hair's breadth, but this may just have been brain hoisting the surrender flag. After greater reflection, I suspect I will find myself approving it the more of the two books.

The Separation is an excellent, headily atmospheric novel that forces the reader to think about what they are reading carefully. I recommend it without hesitation. This book was nearly stillborn due to the stupidity of the original publishers and the literary world would be a much poorer place without it.

The Separation (*****) is available from Gollancz in the UK in two editions: as part of their Christopher Priest range and as part of their Future Classics range. The book is also available in the USA from Old Earth Books.

Wertzone Classics: The Prestige by Christopher Priest

The Prestige is the ninth novel by the British SF author Christopher Priest. It was first published in 1995 and won the World Fantasy Award for that year. It is Priest's best-known novel and apparently his most successful. An excellent film version by Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, Memento) starring Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johansson, was released in late 2006.

The Prestige is the story of two feuding magicians from the late 19th Century, the aristocratic Rupert Angier and his working-class nemesis, Alfred Borden, and how that feud affects later generations of their families, personified in the mid-1990s by Borden's descendent Andrew Westley and Kate Angier. A strange mystery has haunted Andrew's life and his search for the answer leads him to Kate and the story of the feud.

From there the novel takes us back some 130 years and relates, in two separate sections, the life stories of Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier. Borden's story is told as a somewhat (deliberately) confused narrative, supposedly a commentary on a book on stage magic, but Borden's need to tell his story takes over and he goes into detail about his life and the feud with Angier. We learn that Borden develops an incredible magic trick which no-one can fathom, a trick which is then improved upon by Angier, to Borden's fury. The narrative then switches to Angier's more formal diary. Angier's story forms the bulk of the novel and takes us through his youth and his slow beginnings at the art of magic until his fateful meeting with Borden and the consequences of that meeting.

Priest tells his story by shifting between four first-person narratives (Andrew and Kate in the present, Rupert and Alfred in the past), altering his prose style between the two periods with apparent ease and painting these four central characters and the other characters described in their tales with depth and layers. As well as giving an insight into the world of stage magic he brings turn-of-the-century Britain to life with its slow, reluctant letting go of the old century and its embrace of the new, symbolised by the power of electricity. Electricity itself is nearly a character in the novel, the awe which Angier holds it in described with a nearly fetish-like quality and brought to life through the historical figure of Nikolai Tesla, who plays a minor but key role in the narrative.

The Prestige is a puzzle built upon twists, turns and conflicting mysteries. It's like an M Night Shymalan film but one where the twist you were confidently expecting is suddenly yanked out of sight and something unforseen being dropped in its place. Some may question whether if this is really an SF novel, so subtle are the ideas being explored here, but by the end of the book more overt SF elements have emerged and it is a tribute to Priest's writing that he keeps things firmly grounded in reality. The ending, when it comes, may strike some as abrupt, but on another level it is the perfect, ambiguous ending to a nearly perfectly-tuned mystery. The Prestige is one of the most finely-written, 'different' SF novels I've ever read, and firmly recommended to all.

The Prestige (*****) is published by Gollancz in the UK and by Tor in the USA.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

The Year of Our War by Steph Swainston + Richard Morgan snippet

Before I begin the review, I would just like to direct readers' attention to this early look at The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan. One of my 'Big Five' fantasy predictions for this year, it looks like the early excitement may be justified about the novel.

Anyway, on with business. Steph Swainston is the author of three books set in the Fourlands, a series she collectively calls The Castle Series. Two more are forthcoming. The Year of Our War is the story of Jant, the Messenger, one of fifty immortals who serve the Empire, a large nation covering most of a (fairly small) continent which is under threat of destruction from the Insects, a vast, endless horde that dominates the northern part of the landmass. Jant is a drug addict, but with good reason: the drug he takes, cat, transports him into the Shift, another world where some of the dead souls of his own world go, and where he has vital allies in the war against the Insects.

This is a pretty difficult book to review. Just when I was certain that I was going to end up hating it, the story would take off, the characters and the writing would click and I'd end up enjoying it. Then something else would happen and it would end up annoying me again. This pattern repeated itself throughout the book until it finally reached a highly ambiguous conclusion (there is no resolution, the book just stops with less of a climax than many of the standard chapter endings). To some extent it was a frustrating book, but I think its positives outweigh it problems.

The writing is quite interesting, with a sense of bright-eyed whimsy which is often at odds with the subject matter (drug abuse, a soldier getting his stomach torn out, a violent sex scene) in a manner not entirely removed from Jack Vance (although Swainston doesn't push it quite as far as Vance). The strange mixing of time and space in the book - this is a medieval world with T-shirts and jeans and added steampunk moments - is much more reminiscent of Mieville, which I get the impression is what Swainston was aiming for (and was successful, given her acknowledged place in the New Weird pantheon and Mieville's endorsement on the cover). The anachronisms and incongruities were initially rather jarring, but you rapidly get used to them and assume there is some kind of explanation for them.

The characters are all reasonably well developed, with the immortals coming across as a mix between superheroes, Greek legends and ordinary people in over their heads. Swainston crams a surprising amount of plot into the book's 360 pages, such as the tortured family history of Lightning, the Archer, and the machinations of Swallow, the musician-governess of Awndan, as she attempts to become immortal herself. These backstories give the characters weight and depth that informs their actions and doesn't feel incongruous, which is quite an achievement. Less successful is the attempt to give Jant himself development, with his flashbacks coming in disjointed scattershot, making it difficult to put together the pieces of his life and find out how he came to be who he is. Also, because Jant is exceptionally emo a lot of the time (being immortal , one of the fifty most important people in the world and the only person alive who can fly is extremely traumatic, obviously) and spends much of the book either urgently wanting a fix or going through cold turkey, he is a hard protagonist to like, which is a problem in a first-person narrative.

The climax also leaves much to be desired. This is very much the first part of a series and not a self-contained novel at all. As well as Jant's under-developed backstory, there are numerous storylines and characters left hanging in mid-air. I assume that these points are addressed in the sequel, No Present Like Time.

The Year of Our War (***) aspires to be different and certainly achieves that. Swainston is clearly a talented writer and I look forward to investigating her other work, but at the same time this debut novel is rough around the edges and the ending doesn't really justify the build-up.

The book is published by Gollancz in the UK and by Eos in the United States.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Interview with Alastair Reynolds

Myself and Pat from Pat's Fantasy Hotlist recently conducted an interview with British SF author Alastair Reynolds, as posted here.

Reynolds' latest novel is House of Suns, which is out on 17 April in the UK from Gollancz. His previous novel, The Prefect, was reviewed here and will be out in paperback on 10 April. Reynolds maintains a website here.

Many thanks to Pat for carrying out the interview and to Simon Spanton from Gollancz for setting it up!

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

The Dungeon Master Has Left the Building

Gary Gygax, the co-creator of the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game and thus the the entire hobby, passed away today at the age of 69, and is survived by his wife, six children and seven grandchildren. Gygax had been suffering the after-effects of a series of strokes in 2004 and also had an inoperable abdominal aortic aneurysm.

Gygax's impact on the fantasy genre is colossal, although his own novels are not well-regarded. He started playing wargames in 1953 but later claimed gaining a lot of inspiration from Avalon Hill's Gettysburg (published in 1958). In 1967 Gygax organised the first Gen Con gaming convention at his own home, which is now the world's biggest international gaming convention (with 27,000 attendees in 2007). He first met Dave Arneson at the second Gen Con in 1969. In 1971 Gygax released a miniatures wargame called Chainmail. Arneson had developed his own fantasy-based 'setting' for the game called Blackmoor and it was a combination of the rules from these two games that let to the first, basic version of Dungeons and Dragons, published in 1974 under the company name 'Tactical Studies Rules' (TSR). A self-published fanzine was issued called The Strategic Review, but this rapidly evolved into Dragon Magazine, which is still published today.

Dungeons and Dragons was the first recognised roleplaying game and gave birth to a hobby which, it was estimated in 2001, that over 20 million people regularly played. Gygax continued to develop the game through various editions, with the first major revision being Advanced Dungeons and Dragons in 1978. Gygax's home 'campaign setting' of Greyhawk became one of the default campaign settings for the game. In the early 1980s Gygax took a back seat from the company to concentrate on other projects, such as the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon series. Whilst TSR had enormous success in this time by branching out into publishing novels (most notably the Dragonlance line, which went on to sell over 4 million copies in its first decade), its success in the RPG market was challenged by rival companies. Gygax, feeling that TSR was being mismanaged in his absence, left the company in 1985 under a storm of litigation.

Gygax subsequently published two well-received RPGs, Dangerous Journeys (1992) and Legendary Adventure (1999) before entering a state of semi-retirment. Despite his breach with TSR, he reestablished contact with the company in the early 1990s, allowing Greyhawk to be adapted to the 2nd Edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. After TSR collapsed and was bought out by Wizards of the Coast in 1996, he provided additional advice and again allowed Greyhawk to be adapted for the 3rd Edition of the game (released in 2000). He continued to attend Gen Con, but in 2004 suffered two strokes in rapid succession and entered a period of retirment.

Gygax also published ten novels (seven of which were Greyhawk books featuring Gord the Rogue) and lent his voice to a cameo appearance in the Futurama episode Anthology of Interest, in which he was shown to roll dice to decide what course of action to take in parody of the D&D rules. In Futurama Gygax was depected as one of an elite taskforce led by Al Gore and also consisting of Stephen Hawking and Nichelle Nichols (all voicing themselves), whose mission is to safeguard the space/time continuum.

Gygax was keen to distance himself from Tolkien, instead saying his primary influences were the likes of Jack Vance (whose Dying Earth magic system he basically plundered for D&D) and Fritz Lieber. Many modern fantasy authors played RPGs in their youth and some - such as Steven Erikson and Ian Cameron Esslemont's Malazan world; and Raymond E. Feist and the Abrams brothers world of Midkemia (from the Riftwar series) - created their signature worlds as settings for the game.

For myself, I spent over a decade regularly playing in D&D games with close groups of friends, which provided a host of great memories and moments.

Best wishes to Gygax's friends and family. He will be missed.

Paul S. Kemp, the author of the Erevis Cale series of novels (set in the D&D shared world of the Forgotten Realms), wrote the following:

The grandfather of the hobby that stoked our imaginations and gave us all so much happiness has moved on to Elysium.

When you go home tonight, roll some twenty siders with friends, use the word "zounds" in a sentence, then leaf through the 1E Dungeon Master's Guide and marvel at the breadth of the man's imagination.

I mentioned in a post last year that I'd always meant to ask him to sign one of my books for me, but it seemed too presumptuous so I didn't. I wish I had. My career in writing owes a lot to him. When I was young and had nothing but time I used to stay up late and literally pore over the Dungeon Master's Guide, Player's Handbook, and Monster Manual. All were incredible sparks to my imagination.

Carry on, Colonel.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Setting the Record Straight: HBO and A Song of Ice and Fire

It has come to my attention that highly misleading information from an unreliable source has filtered onto the Internet regarding HBO's planned television adaption of George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, namely that the project has been scrapped. After consulting sources close to GRRM, I feel able to counter these claims.

The deal for HBO to option the television rights to A Song of Ice and Fire was ongoing in 2006 and concluded in January 2007, when GRRM announced the news on his website. Subsequent blog entries confirmed that the writing of the pilot script had commenced. Prior to the start of the Writer's Guild of America Strike in November 2007, writer-producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had completed a pilot script which GRRM had signed off on. This script had been passed to HBO, who were considering it and running budget estimates for the series at the time that the strike began. As with all Hollywood television projects, work on the adaption was suspended until the strike concluded in mid-February 2008.

During the timeframe of the strike, it emerged that HBO was also considering making a large-budget television series based on the legend of King Arthur. Apparently, HBO was only interested in one or other of the two projects, not both. If the Arthur series was formally comissioned, then the adaption of A Song of Ice and Fire would not proceed and vice versa.

This remains the case at the present time. No final decision has been made but the tentative plan is for HBO to adapt A Song of Ice and Fire as a series of 13-episode television seasons (potentially seven seasons in length, one for each novel). Whilst the project would be high-budget, it would not be as expensive as HBO's previous major costume drama, Rome, and would probably be filmed in Eastern Europe or perhaps New Zealand due to the lowered production costs. It is an extremely ambitious project which frankly no other television station would probably even consider making.

The claim that the adaption was 'shelved' four weeks ago is actually technically correct, since the Writer's Strike was ongoing at that time and all television drama production and development in the USA was 'shelved' at that time. However, the inference that any kind of final decision has been taken to scrap the project is false. It is not industry practice to throw out options before they expire, and the option on A Song of Ice and Fire still has many months to run.

Any further developments - positive or negative - will appear on George RR Martin's website or his Not-a-Blog before anywhere else.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Winterbirth by Brian Ruckley

Admittedly, I've come late to this party. Winterbirth, Book 1 of The Godless World Trilogy, was released at the end of 2006 and picked up some good press that put Ruckley firmly in the 'new wave' of epic fantasy writers alongside the likes of Abercrombie, Lynch, Rothfuss and Durham. With the second volume, Bloodheir, due in May, it seemed like a good time to catch up and see if this book warrants the acclaim.

The setting is the northern valleys of a continent riven by war. Centuries ago, the gods abandoned the world after a bloody war between two of the dominant races, the Huanin (humans) and Kyrinin (elves, with a few twists), and a third, the Wherinin (shapeshifters). The civilised human nations of the north-west fell apart in the aftermath of the war and the Bloods, tribes of warriors, arose in their stead. Among the Bloods a heresy took root, the Black Road, which states that the gods are merely awaiting for all of humankind to be united under the faith before they return. For their heresy, the Bloods of the Black Road were pushed back beyond the northern mountains and a guard set upon their return. But, after several centuries, the watch has grown lax and the Black Road has found new allies...

The set-up is pretty traditional for an epic fantasy. The Bloods of the Black Road, as perhaps can be predicted, launch a devastating invasion of the lands of the True Bloods, starting with the northern tribe of the Lannis-Haig. This family is almost wiped out save two members, Orisin and his sister Anyara, and their flight from the invasion over a towering mountain range is the principal driving force behind the narrative. Around this are an intriguing array of subplots revealing dissent within the Black Road, the political machinations of the most powerful True Blood warlord which is as great a threat to the Lannis-Haigs as their northern enemies; and the emergence of Aeglyss, the most powerful sorcerer seen in centuries.

The writing is pretty lean - Ruckley's writing is not as rich as Rothfuss nor as immediately striking as Abercrombie and Lynch - and Ruckley succeeds in transmitting a lot of information to the reader fairly quickly. There is a lot of groundwork to establish and unfortunately this requires moments of heavy-handed exposition or info-dumping, but once these are out of the way the story proceeds satisfyingly. None of the characters are particularly original, with Orisian falling into the 'young man doubtful of his ability who comes good in the end' archetype a little too predictably. On the other hand, Aeglyss is a very interesting antagonist and I suspect he will come to dominate the future volumes as a threatening force far greater than that of the Black Road. Winterbirth works well, with its action-adventure story forming a decent spine around which the political intrigue among and between the True Bloods and the Black Road is established and explored. On the other hand, it could be argued that the central narrative is rather slight for the book's length and the narrative is slowed by the groundwork being laid for future volumes. Also, the characters' names are very similar to one another, causing momentary confusion (and occasional flicking to the character list, which is never a good sign).

Winterbirth (***) is a solid, enjoyable debut novel which left me interested enough to pick up the sequel, Bloodheir, when it is published in May. The book is available now from Orbit in the UK and USA.