Friday, 27 December 2013

Film Ramble: Top 10 Fantasy and Science Fiction Films of 2013

'T'is the season to make comparative lists of things, so - not having read enough books to say anything useful on the subject - I thought I'd write up my favourite genre movies of the year.  These are in order, saving the best for last, and are of course every bit as arbitrary as a top ten list can be.  In fact, they're based on the ratings I gave each film when I saw them (because, yes, that's a thing that I do) so this doesn't even entirely reflect my current opinion, although I've juggled equal-scoring films around to put things more in line with my retrospective opinions.

Anyway, let's have at it...

10) How I Live Now

This partly makes the list because I suspect I'm the one person who actually saw it, and partly because I'm a sucker for British post-apocalypticness, and partly because I suspect Kevin McDonald is incapable of making a film I wouldn't like, but mainly because it was a great - if blatantly, undeniably flawed - movie.  I have no idea what the intended target audience was intended to be for a brutally violent, lovingly photographed YA World War Three sci-fi romance, but that doesn't mean it didn't deserve to be seen by at least someone.

9) The World's End

If the closing piece of Edgar Wright's Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy is arguably the weakest, it's a close run thing, and really its only significant misstep was to lose the perfect balance of genre and character elements that made the first two such classics.  The pay-off, though, is that this is the best acted of the three, the first to have characters that function primarily as characters rather than springboards for jokes, and for that reason, by far the most poignant.  Plus, what better note on which to end a trilogy defined by nostalgia - for friendships, movies, genres, fleeting youth - than to interrogate the whole notion of living in the past to within an inch of its life.

8) This is the End

Weird Hollywood synchronicity being weird Hollywood synchronicity, it's probably not that strange that we got two sci-fi apocalypse comedies at more or less the same time, but who would have thought that the Seth Rogen one would be funnier?  Or, for that matter, brilliant?  Definitely the most ridiculous thing I saw in a cinema all year, possibly the most fundamentally odd, and even if it had been terrible, the fantastic use (and abuse) of star cameos would have kept it afloat; as it is, Emma Watson going psycho or a coke-addled Michael Cera (or the bit with Channing Tatum that there's no way I'm going to spoil for anyone who hasn't seen it) are just the icing on the crazy cake.

7) After Earth

Yeah, I loved it.  But I won't try and defend that fact here because, hey, I wrote an entire blog post about it.

6) The Wolverine

James Mangold is, in possibly the nicest sense that the word can be used, a hack, and there was no reason to think when he took over on the The Wolverine from Darren Aronofsky that the end result would be anything other than good hack work.  And in fairness, that's sort of exactly what it is, but in spite of or maybe a little because of that fact The Wolverine turned out to be huge fun, and pretty damn close to what you'd hope a Wolverine movie to be, a prospect that seemed a slender hope indeed after Gavin Hood's lobotomized take on the character.*

5) Iron Man 3

2013 has been a year for odd comic book movies and the oddest of those was surely Iron Man 3.   Its structure could politely be described as broken, but that's largely because of Shane Black's determination to ignore or subvert every established rule of what these films are supposed to be.  It's rare to come out of a genre movie, let alone a movie belonging to that increasingly constricting genre that is the comic book film, feeling surprised, but Iron Man 3 offered some truly left field moments, and that Mandarin twist may not even have been the most shocking; for who'd have guessed that Black would have such a deft hand for directing gigantic action sequences?

4) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

How did they manage to make a popular, tent-pole movie this bleak?  The first half is absolutely unremitting, and then the killing starts.  And okay, its satire at its most heavy handed and brazen, but that doesn't make it less biting, and due credit for just how much it draws blood at the expense of just about every crisis in contemporary America.  But mostly this just kept me riveted for every moment of its two and a half hours, and especially in its slow-burning and yet completely gripping first half; if they'd managed to find an ending it might even have made the number one spot.

3) Life of Pi

Quite clearly a fantasy movie, (hey, try spending even ten minutes on a boat with a tiger and see how long you don't get eaten), and a wonderful one at that; I'm one of those people who never felt for a moment that Ang Lee had lost it, but it was still nice to see him return to the kind of esoteric yet critically and popularly acclaimed mainstream film-making that he's perhaps most famous for.  Life of Pi is at once huge and intimate, a character drama told with some of the most sophisticated tools known to humanity, and an examination of exactly what fantasy means and why we need it.  But who'd have guessed all those months ago that this wouldn't be the 2013 movie we remembered for redefining what was possible with CGI?

2) Gravity

Because that of course would be Gravity, which tore up the rule book for what CGI effects could do and then fired the scraps around the Earth at a zillion miles an hour.  For me, Gravity did all the things that Avatar was supposed to have achieved and didn't; it immersed me in an absolutely alien, absolutely convincing unreality and then proceeded to tell a great story there, whilst wowing me at a rate of roughly five times a minute with some new twist or shock or outrageously clever bit of artistry.

Even taking all of that into account, though, it was only when I saw Jonás Cuarón's short film tie-in Aningaaq that I really, truly fell in love with Gravity:

1) Frozen

I'm an unrepentant animation geek, I have unusually high tolerance for Disney movies, which for so many, many reasons I know I should despise on principle, I number Lilo and Stitch amongst my favourite films of all time, and for all that, if you'd asked me at the start of 2013 I would still never have guessed that this would have even made my top ten.  But here it is; Frozen is the best thing Disney have done in over a decade and the culmination of a decade's worth of earnest struggle to make their animation wing relevant once again; the year when their artistry finally equaled Pixar's and when their gender politics finally went from doubtful to progressive.  That aside, it does everything it tries to do tremendously well, and the 3 minutes and 39 seconds that are the "Let it Go" sequence are my favourite filmic 3 minutes and 39 seconds of the last twelve months.

Also this teaser trailer is pretty great:

* That said, Hood's surprisingly good take on Ender's Game came close to making the list, so maybe one day he can be forgiven.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Research Corner #4: WW1 Reading Pt 1

Quite a novel Research Corner, this one, in that it's the first one in which I'll be talking about something that anyone other than me might actually consider research.  No visits to Moroccan tanneries, then, and in fact no holidaying whatsoever, just me tearing through a whole pile of books as if my life depended on it.

So here's a little information about the reading that's going into my nascent historical sci-fi novel, currently going by the working title of To End All Wars.  Due to my habit of going at numerous books at the same time and so still having most of my reading on the go, this isn't actually that impressive a list, but I'm sure I'll do a part 2 at some point.

Regeneration by Pat Barker

Up until recently I was describing To End All Wars to anyone who'd listen as "Regeneration meets Close Encounters of the Third Kind", and I only gave it up when I realised just how few people had heard of Pat Barker's 1991 masterpiece.  I'll happily admit that Regeneration - which charts the real-life period during 1917 when Siegfried Sassoon was treated by army psychologist W. H. R. Rivers, amongst other cases of WW1 fall-out - is a huge influence on what I'm hoping to do.  I've a tendency to be a bit sniffy about literary fiction, in some kind of weird inverse snobbery, but Regeneration makes its way easily into my all-time top ten, and it was a joy to have an excuse to re-read it.

Over the Top: Great Battles of the First World War by Martin Marix Evans

A bit of a let down, this one, despite the author's marvelous middle name.  It's possible that writing about war is liking dancing about ice-fishing, but it's definitely true that writing a book about battles without lots and lots of pictures and diagrams leaves the reader with a headache and not much else.

It occurred to me after I watched the film of Catch 22 that it only made sense if you'd read the book, which in turn made a great deal more sense for having watched the film.   I'm starting to think that something similar goes for WW1 texts; the overview stuff like this is dry and fussy if you haven't read anything told from a soldier's point of view, which in turn gives little sense of the wider war unless you happen to know a bit about what battles happened when and where and why.

 Loos 1915 by Peter Doyle

One of the main aims of my research-a-thon has been to establish just when and where the opening sequences of To End All Wars can be set without breaking history too badly.  There was a point where I was almost convinced that it would end up being the lesser known battle of Loos, hence my spending £10 on a hardback history book.  Doyle's work does a great job of setting up the back-story to the battle and then falls down a little once the actual fighting kicks off, for much the same reasons as Over the Top.  In fact, strangely, it works much better as an overview of the first half of the war than as an insight into the one particular battle that it's supposed to be about.

Either way, it convinced me that Loos was no use whatsoever for my purposes, so I suppose it was £10 well spent.

True Stories of the First World War by Paul Dowswell

This was a present from Jobeda, and - despite the slightly trashy implications of the title - turned out to be a bit of a treat.  It's short at 132 pages of largish print and its focus it relatively narrow, but for the kind of anecdotal history it is, it's told with a surprising degree of insight and outrage, and ended up being quite a good introductory-level overview.  In fact, I suspect that sticking with more traditional histories would have left a hole in my reading, since True Stories takes for its focus some of the less widely discussed events and aspects of the war.  A good, fun (as far as the word can possibly apply) jumping off point, then, for anyone with a loose interest in WW1 wondering where to go next, or perhaps a good Christmas present for a curmudgeonly grandparent.

Flanders by Patricia Anthony

My other trek into fiction-reading as research, coupled with an interest in seeing whether anyone else had taken a serious stab at WW1 genre fiction (that being how Flanders seems to be classified) - and though not quite the stunner that Regeneration is, Anthony's book still pretty much blew my socks off.  It's a gorgeous, grotesque, meandering, intricately detailed novel describing one US volunteer's experiences on the Western Front, as well as his visions of a beatific yet purgatorial afterlife - this being, presumably, why the book was released under a genre imprint, though it's a pretty damn tenuous classification if you ask me.

Anyway, I seriously recommend this, whether you're interested in the war or not, though good luck finding a version with a cover that wasn't Photoshopped together by an eight year old.*

World War One: A Short History by Norman Stone

 Of the overview histories, this is the best I've found so far, a solid and comprehensive look at the war that's short and easy to digest for the amateur scholar or lazy, half-arsed novelist both.

That said, there isn't a lot else I have to say about it.  Um ... I like the cover image.  But shouldn't the horse have a gas mask too?  Or, you know, not be on a battlefield in the first place.  (All else aside, good luck finding a successful cavalry charge anywhere in the annals of World War One.) 

Damn it, thinking about this has reminded of me of what an awful film War Horse was.  Let's move on, shall we?

One Man's War: Letters From a Soldier Killed at the Battle of Loos by Harold Chapin

Obviously part of the point of this post is that some of these books will appeal to people who aren't studying WW1 or planning to write a novel set during it.  Of the ones that fall into that category, I'd recommend this to almost everyone.  It does what it says on the tin, it costs seventy seven pence* and, Chapin being a playwright, it's a beautiful bit of writing that's by turns fascinating and heart breaking.  These are Chapin's letters to his wife, mother, mother in law and infant son, and out of those you can guess which ones tend to leave you choking up the most.  (Hint: it's not the ones to his mother-in-law.)

* This is the least awful one I could find, and it's still pretty damn awful.

** Which, thinking about it, seems a little cheeky since - aside from a very minimal introduction - this is entirely the work of someone who clearly won't be seeing a penny from it, (the clue to that fact being in the title.)  Still, profiteering from the work of war casualties aside, it's not a lot of money.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Book Review: The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself

Truth be told, I was disappointed with Ian Sales's sophomore novella, The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself.  It would have had to be pretty amazing to feel like a worthy successor to Ian's BSFA award winning debut Adrift on the Sea of Rains, which I praised effusively on this selfsame blog a while back.  And, as I read it, I found it to be merely very good.  Harsh criticism indeed!

I'd have been fine with writing it off as that, too, for good as Ian is - and he's annoyingly good - you don't get to produce two masterpieces in a row, do you?


Well, my brain keeps going back to it.  Both to the clever, maybe too clever but definitely very clever mystery at its heart - which is in fact the entire story, and then some - and, perhaps more satisfyingly, to the emotional kick that it spends fifty or so pages winding up, so slowly you don't quite see it coming.  I'm a sucker for hidden people-stories, stories that keep their human element close to their chests until you realize that, hey, this isn't just about science (or fantasy, or crime, or...) it's about how human relationships are (or aren't) sustained within the climes of those genres.  My own best effort in that direction was up at Clarkesworld recently, and it's frustrating to admit that The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself probably does a slightly better job of exactly what I was going for there, is in fact a hidden people-story par excellence ... a love story of sorts, and a lovely, mature, perceptive and ultimately brutal one at that. 

That aside, The Eye With Which... does the things that Ian is rightly developing a reputation for, and does them more or less as well as you'd hope.  This is hard, hard science fiction, grounded in the grubby danger and endless minutiae of the real US space program and then extrapolated with wit and verve.  It's excellently written, carefully composed, bold in its use and abuse of the limitations of the novella format, (who else devotes a seventh of their book to a glossary, and then hides half of their plot in it?), and - something which perhaps doesn't get quite enough attention - beautifully put together and presented.

I'm still not convinced that The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself is the equal of its predecessor, but I've also come to the conclusion that it's more than just very good.  Ian is doing something genuinely fascinating with his Apollo Quartet, and I'm intrigued to see how it all works out.

Monday, 2 December 2013

December, Where It's At...

The problem with planning is that plans sometimes need to change, and it's tough not to feel a little bad when that happens.  Especially if you're perhaps a bit too much of a planner, like I am; if you are, indeed, slightly OCD in setting yourself targets and sticking to them as if life, the universe and everything depended on it.

I mention this as a roundabout way of saying that until I few days ago I was planning to start my new novel today, and now I'm not.  And I feel a little bad about it. But I probably shouldn't, because not starting it is the right thing to do.  I should, in fact, be feeling pretty good about making the right decision.  So here's a blog post where I get to convince myself of that.

As I've hinted at more than once, but perhaps never explicitly said, I've burned myself out quite badly over the last couple of years; writing full time around full time work took a toll on my health, and by the time I walked away from the day job I was more than ready to drop.  I'm glad to say that things are now much better - as you'd hope they would be after six weeks of relative peace and quiet - but they're still not quite better enough that I feel ready to wade into the demands of a new novel.

And the new novel is going to be demanding.  That's the other thing I've realised over the last few weeks.  The First World War is not a subject you can approach lightly.  My preliminary research, of which I've done a fair bit, has only made me realise how much damn research I'm going to need to do to get anywhere near the level of understanding and technical accuracy I need to do this book justice.  Which turns out to be revelation / difficulty number two: I'm going to need to try and do it justice. There's nothing like reading the diaries of decent men who died horribly to sharpen the mind on that latter score; I really don't want to be the guy who writes a lousy, trivializing book about the First World War.

All of which means that December is now research month the second, and also rest month the second, because I want to be fighting fit when I go at this thing.  It's also the second month of my return to short story writing, which is yet another reason why putting the novel back a little feels like the right thing to do, because getting back into short story writing has been ridiculously fun; short fiction is always going to be my first love as a writer, and I've missed the hell out of it.  I've already written a sequel to the (recently published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies) Ill-Met at Midnight, and I'm currently getting into what was supposed to be a short story but appears to be becoming a novelette titled "War of the Rats", set in ... um ... well, in WW1 actually, because I might not be ready to write a novel yet, but I've been itching to put some of my new-found knowledge to use.  Oh, and I've promised Lavie Tidhar a story.  But the less said about that the better.

So that's December.  January, meanwhile, is absolutely goddamn set in stone as 'starting new novel month.'   So if there's another post here in a month's time explaining why I haven't got down to it then please do me a favour and come find me and kick my arse.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Thought Bubble 2013

It was tempting to come up with some rubbish pun title, "Thoughts on Thought Bubble" or something like that, and I might even have done it if it weren't for the realization that I'd then have to come up with an even more rubbish pun title if I go next year, and on and on, until I either went mad with the effort or had to stop attending altogether.  And that would be a shame, because I enjoyed my one afternoon of Thought Bubble, and would very much like to go again next year, and actually make an effort to attend a few things and do more than wander around being slightly distracted.

Lavie's I Dream of Ants: Odd.
But now that I think about it, haven't all of my Con reports gone that way of late?  The truth is that, more even more so than World Fantasy, Thought Bubble had the distinction of being my One Con Too Many this year, the one where Con exhaustion really kicked in with a vengeance.  Unfortunately, the same went for Lavie Tidhar, who'd come to stay with me over the weekend and have his own first look at TB*, and who has done even more of these things than me this year, and the net result was that between us we had just about enough energy and enthusiasm for one mildly energetic and enthusiastic Con goer, which frankly was never going to cut it.

And like I said, that turned out to be a shame, because Thought Bubble was interesting and intriguing, and actually very different from anything I've been to before; more, in fact, what I'd (perhaps ignorantly) consider an Expo than a Convention, with a quite staggering number of stalls spread over three very large rooms.  It was a bit overwhelming, really, and most of the three or four hours we spent there on Saturday were eaten up with wandering around and randomly chatting to people and feeling a bit bewildered by the whole thing.

My Princess Mononoke print: Awesome.
Which doesn't sound like a great deal of fun, now that I read it back, but it was. I ran into some of my favourite industry friends and acquaintances, including such kind souls as Adrian Tchaikovsky, Paul Cornell and Alasdair Stuart, got to hang out with superstar artist Mr Bob Molesworth and to meet our Endangered Weapon B publisher Harry Markos; Lavie bought me a copy of his Murky Depths Press book I Dream of Ants, (which is, frankly, downright odd); I picked up a gorgeous Princess Mononoke** poster by the excitingly talented Cristian Ortiz, and ... well, I can't remember what else.  This is what happens when you post about events half a week after they happened.

Anyway, in retrospect, we should probably have left before the bizarre school disco-style party that followed the main event on the Saturday night, and I should definitely not have let Lavie talk me into going clubbing after that, because frankly I'm just too damn old, or at the very least too damn tired.  But stupid is as stupid does, as a wise man once said, and what doesn't kill you gives you a hell of a headache the next day, and all in all it was a good day so, in the end, who's complaining? 

* Wow, that's a really unfortunate abbreviation.
** Possibly my favourite film of all time.  There, I've said it!

Monday, 18 November 2013

Giant Thief ... Closing Thoughs

Ever since I read a piece by Aliette de Bodard analyzing what she felt she got wrong and right in her "Obsidian and Blood" trilogy*, I knew I wanted to do something similar.  In fact, let's be honest, I knew I wanted to shamelessly rip it off.  So now that the Tales of Damasco are complete and out to buy, and now that I've had time for all the emotional dust to settle, here are my thoughts on where I messed up and where I can conceivably claim to have nailed it in my first novel Giant Thief.

Let's get the bad out of the way first, because then I get to finish with all the good stuff:


  • There are a couple of overly slow chapters in Giant Thief, a couple of places were the plot doesn't move on as swiftly as it should, and in general the pacing is a bit off.  It was bad planning, basically, and I think it's the one area in which Crown Thief and Prince Thief are unquestionably better books.  That said, I do like how damn fast the thing moves, how little it lets get in its way, how blindly determined I was to throw in action at every opportunity.  I'm glad, on the whole, that I wrote a fast paced, action-packed first novel with a couple of slow patches than the other way round.
  • I overestimated the tolerance readers would have for an obnoxious protagonist.  I wanted Easie Damasco to be unconventional, and the convention I had my eye on was the lovable rogue.  Rogues, in my experience, are anything but lovable, and I wanted to write a thief who was every bit as despicable, immoral and self-centered as a real life thief would be.  But while I still feel that that was a worthy intention, I see now that I should have leavened all those flaws with a few more virtues, so as to make Damasco slightly more pleasant company (although, see the successes for more thoughts on this.)
  • I should have found a way to get more of my villain Moaradrid's back-story and motivation into Giant Thief.  I knew it, bits of it were implied, and it almost all gets told in Crown Thief and Prince Thief, but that isn't good enough, and it weakened an otherwise strong character.  I like Moaradrid, I think he's an interesting portrait of how good motives can be warped in a moral vacuum and he gets some cracking lines, but I can see how his apparent lack of character logic frustrated a few people.


  • I'm proud of my core cast.  One or two reviews suggested that they're mostly archetypes, and that's not entirely unfair - there's the witty thief, the harsh-but-fair guard captain, the kind-hearted monster, amongst others - but I think that misses the point of what I tried to do with those archetypes.  Every character, even the ostensibly heroic ones like Estrada and Alvantes, have deep flaws, and it's those flaws more than their virtues that define where they go after the first book.  But of everyone, I'm proudest of Castilio Mounteban, a man who does something irredeemable in Giant Thief and then spends Crown Thief and Prince Thief striving to be redeemed anyway, mostly in the worst possible ways and all in the name of love, albeit a deeply warped interpretation of it.  To me, that's one hell of a character arc.
  • Following on from that, and perhaps a slight cheat since it doesn't really come to the foreground until Crown Thief, but I like the degree of moral complexity in the Tales, and all the more so because I was writing in a genre that isn't particularly known for moral complexity.  Plenty of people do awful things, and few more so that Easie Damasco himself, but nobody once does anything that they can't justify to their self, (except the once, and I just covered that, above.)  Perhaps more interestingly, characters frequently try to do right and end up doing considerable harm, and no good deed goes unpunished.  It's not easy to do the right thing in real life, so why should it be in fiction?
  • I'm glad that I didn't write about white men running around a thinly veiled misinterpretation of medieval Europe.  We've had that book too many damn times, and I sleep a little easier at night for knowing that, whatever else I got wrong, I didn't add to the Tower of Tolkien.  By Prince Thief, I have an almost entirely non-white cast** and two well-rounded female characters who get to do things like run towns and entire countries without, necessarily, being Strong with a capital 'S'.  None of that necessarily makes it a good book, of course, and I feel a little bad even bringing it up because in a perfect world the art we create would represent the diversity of our species and we wouldn't even have to talk about it ... but, this world not being that one, I'm glad that I get to be one of the tiny handful of authors in 2013 (perhaps the only?) with a black and an Hispanic protagonist sharing their cover.
So those are my thoughts, anyway.  If you strongly disagree, with the good points or the bad or both, then I've love to hear about it.

* Which I now can't find for the life of me.  Anyone remember where it was published?
** The arguable exception being the giants, who are sort of grey.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

World Fantasy 2013: If You Have Nothing Nice to Say...

Brighton: Stormy.
There's no point beating around the bush: I was seriously underwhelmed with World Fantasy 2013.  And I think the thing that underwhelmed the most was the sheer sense of familiarity - in terms of what was on offer, but also in the sense of seeing things done wrong that I've already seen done wrong too many times before.  Honestly, it's tempting to just post a link to my comments on last year's Fantasycon and be done with it.

But that would be churlish, wouldn't it?  After all, there were a few things that World Fantasy got right that Fantasycon 2012 didn't.  The hotel, for one, was an infinitely more suitable venue.  The welcome pack was well put together and there were some freebie books on offer that I actually wanted.  (One of them, admittedly, was Giant Thief!)  There were plenty of nice people on hand to offer help and directions, both the official Red Coats - who seemed to be doing an excellent job - and also lot's of friendly hotel staff offering help and directions.

A pile of Armadillos.
Those are all good things.  But they are, let's face it, also the absolute basics that you'd expect any professionally organised convention to get right, so I can't bring myself to dwell on them too much.  And it's not even like all of the basics were got right; things like panel equity and having a clear harassment policy in place well in advance are basics too, ones that any organiser ignores at both their peril and discredit.

What I mostly judge Cons on, though, is the content they offer, and on that front it's a struggle to find nice things to say.  Nine Worlds, my new benchmark, had so much damn stuff to see and do that I could have spent a week trapped in some kind of Ground Hog Day time loop thing and not seen everything I wanted to see.  World Fantasy had so little to offer that I spent half my time wondering what to do with myself, and what there was was predictable and weirdly, needlessly cynical.   When you have many of the greatest genre authors on the planet gathered in one place, what exactly is the thinking behind a panel asking "Does SF Have a Future"?  Except, I guess, to get things wrapped up quickly so that everyone can return to the bar.

Actually a Con picture.
"But wait", I hear an imaginary someone somewhere say, "World Fantasy isn't that kind of 'Con!  It's about professionals ... you know, meeting and hanging out in the bar and doing professional stuff." Well, that's fine in theory, I guess, but someone really should have told that to all the people who weren't industry professionals before they forked over their hard-earned cash.  And even putting that aside, as a professional writer, at no point did I feel particularly catered to.  Not when I was being told by the website guidelines that I probably wouldn't be welcome on any of the panels and should just expect my enquiry to go ignored; not when I was being informed in the official e-mails that if I wanted to be part of the mass signing I should expect to fight off everyone else who isn't one of "those writers we expect long lines for"; not when the decision was made to exclude industry advice from the programming; and not when ... actually, that pretty much covers it.  Although, while we're here, there's a point worth making: the general tone and communication around this thing was frequently pompous, self-aggrandizing and plain rude.  There's no call for that, it's not how you deal with people who are paying you money, and frankly, I feel a little embarrassed even having to point that out.

So there it is.  I had a good time at World Fantasy, for the most part.  But since that good time relied entirely on the fact that lots of my favourite people were there, along with freely flowing alcohol, and hardly at all on the fact that there was a convention going on around me, it would be dishonest to give too much credit.  And since everyone I met was saying much the same things, I can't even fall back on the argument that it was just me being a grouch.  (Although, since my B & B was notable mainly for the standard of street fights going on outside and I spent most of the weekend determinedly missing every last damn thing I'd planned to go to, there's undoubtedly an element of that.)

Anyway.  Thanks to all the amazing people who hung out with me over the course of the weekend; you surely know who you were, and if you don't, it's because you were drunk.  It was real and it was fun, but - at least as far as the convention side went - it just wasn't real fun.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Giant Thief: The Unseen Trailer

With Prince Thief out and the Tales of Easie Damasco officially complete, I thought this might be a nice opportunity to blog about something I've been itching to talk about for a while: the trailer that Jobeda, Bob Molesworth and I put together for Giant Thief.

Giant Thief had been out for a fair while before I had the time and resources to do a trailer, so it was always more of an experiment and a test-run than an actual marketing attemptI'd been thinking about it for a while, I'd watched a few other attempts, and taken on board what I felt to be the obvious issue with book trailers: to whit, that they tend to be a bit rubbish.

The problem, I decided, was twofold.  First, the fact that you're trying to represent a product that isn't visual in a visual medium, which often means slapping a bit of text together with a bit of music and hoping for the bestAnd second, following close on the heels of number one, that not many people have the budget to do a book trailer justice, especially when there doesn't seem to be much evidence that they actually help to sell books.

My main decisions, then, were to keep it short, to be willing to throw at least a bit of money at it, and to keep the text to a bare minimum.  Fortunately, I had a couple of sizable advantages, in the shapes of a girlfriend with experience as a video editor and a professional artist friend whose style was a good fit for Giant Thief, the always-brilliant Mr Molesworth.  Music was trickier, but the internet is heaving with sites where you can download stock music for a small fee, so in the end that mostly came down to having the patience to hunt around.*

Knowing what I had to work with, I put some thought into a concept: it made sense to play up Giant Thief's unusual, Hispanic / North African-styled setting, and since we were effectively making a silent movie, the film geek in me quickly gravitated to the idea of title cards.  I wrote a short script, along with more elaborate descriptions of the individual frames for Bob, which I sent to him along with the relevant chunks of Giant ThiefJobeda then cut everything together, animated it, found a suitable template and created the text inserts, and drew on the help of a friend to knock together a 3D graphic of the coverAfter that, we spent time getting the pacing and rhythm right, making sure the text was up long enough to be readable, syncing everything with the music and generally tweaking until it felt right.

The final budget came out at around £100.  Like I said, it was an experiment, and one I never expected to do anything but lose money onCould it have been worth it, though, had I actually released the trailer before the book came out?  For me, I doubt itIf I'd self published and done much more work to push it out there then maybe.  But was it fun?  Yeah, it was.  I ended up with my own adorable Giant Thief movie, which I'll always have to watch and to get that horrid, marvellous little earworm of a tune stuck in my head again; that's worth a hundred pounds right there.

*It's worth noting, too, that you can pay drastically different rates on different sites for the same music ... shop around!

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Fishfinger in the Abyss

I see no shame in admitting that I only submitted to 01 Publishing's Whispers From the Abyss anthology because I loved the hell out of Josh Finney's cover art.  I mean, look at it!  It's hard to mess up painting Cthulhu at the best of times, but sticking him in a trench coat is genius.  In fact, Cthulhu in a trench coat may actually be my new definition of that word.  But then there's the deeply weird and creepy way that his head and tentacles remind me of a first world war gas mask, which makes no sense on any remotely logical level but absolutely perfect sense on a twitchy, nightmarish, "Jesus, Cthulhu's head looks like a freaking world war one gas mask!" level.  And are those shadows in the bottom right kinda forming into monster shapes, or have I just been staring at this thing too long?

Point being, I like that cover a whole lot.

And that's really all I have to say, except that Whispers From the Abyss is now out to buy on Kindle for a wholly reasonable amount, and that it has my story My Friend Fishfinger, by Daisy Aged 7 in it, which I'm glad to see getting another airing because it's both the most adorable and the most twisted thing I've written, which is no mean feat when you stop to think about it, and oh hey, there's an introduction by Alasdair Stuart, who I go way back with, and who says some nice things about my horrid little tale and some particularly intelligent things about horror in general (albeit lifted a little from Bill Friedkin), and it's probably worth mentioning as well that I'm about half way through Whispers already and that there are a few really excellent stories contained therein. 

But mostly ... hey, look, it's Cthulhu in a damn trenchcoat, with a freaky gas mask head!

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Full Time, All the Time

Yesterday I left my day job.

Which, considering I'm a contractor and that I'd been there for nearly two years, isn't that big of a deal in and of itself.  The important point is that I did it by choice, that I'd been planning to do it at this point in my life for a very long time, and that I have no plans to look for anything to replace my IT day job with another.

Or, to put it another way, my full time job description for the foreseeable future is "writer".

Obviously there are many ways in which this isn't a sensible or even a very sane thing to do.  We're in the middle of an interminable global recession, the ice caps are melting and punk is almost certainly dead.  Things have been going well for my burgeoning writing career these last couple of years, but with the Angry Robot deal now over, I'd be lying if I said I have much in the way of an income.

Then again, this isn't something I've done lightly.  I've always wanted to be a writer, and I strongly believe that life is too short to spend it not doing the things that are most important to you.  I've been planning for an awfully long time so that one day I'd have the opportunity to do this, and it's become clearer and clearer that I've taken things as far as I can around full time work.  I've completed two novels in the last couple of years, and it's left me hardly any time to do any other writing, let alone have anything as luxurious as a life.  It's been apparent for a long time that something has to give.  And now it has.

What happens now then?  Well, first things first, I'm having a short holiday, while I can still afford such extravagances.  After that, November will be mostly taken up with research, planning and conferencing, which means World Fantasy in Brighton and Thought Bubble in Leeds. Then in December I start my new novel, hopefully get back to the book I drafted before Crown Thief, War For Funland, and perhaps dig into some currently-secret projects that I'm nearly ready to move forward with.

So, hey, full time writing.  It's a thing, all right. 

Deep breath...

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Too Regular In Lamplight

After a couple of relatively quiet months, October is already shaping up to be eventful.  Barely have I had time to get a post up about Prince Thief being released when a new short story comes out - which wouldn't be such a surprise if it hadn't only been accepted a week ago.

This one's called Too Regular, and it's in issue #1 of Volume #2 of recent upstart magazine Lamplight, released this week. I've been known to refer to Too Regular, unhelpfully, as my 'not a werewolf story', and that probably sums it up as well as anything, while providing no useful information at all.  It follows bar owner Monty and his least regular of regular customers, a man named Charlie who shows his face but once a month.  Actually, I've more or less given the entire story away, but I think that's okay ... the story is not the thing with this one.

Which leads me to a confession.  Too Regular is an older tale, and one that's gone through some hefty changes to get to this point.  One of my frequent mistakes in my earlier days of writing was to think that a short story was simply an idea given form: convey the idea and you've told the story, and everything else - dialogue, character, setting - is merely in service to that. This, of course, is nonsense, and Too Regular turned out to be a great illustration of that fact. The idea at its heart is a fun one, but it's probably the least interesting aspect of what's in effect a character piece: a story about loneliness and the nature and requirements of friendship.  My first draft ended by sidelining all the character drama it had built up; my rewrite added a lengthy scene that reintroduced that drama and drew it to (what I hope is) a satisfying close. It wasn't a huge addition, barely a page, but it made all the difference.

Anyway, you can find Lamplight in all e-book formats on Smashwords here and Kindle only here; print copies will also be available in the near future from Amazon.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Prince Thief Out

Prince Thief, third and final of my Tales of Easie Damasco, came out in the UK today in print, e-book and audiobook, and has been out in the US in all formats for a week or so now.

So that's that.  One trilogy finished.  And honestly, if you'd told me three years ago that I'd be in this place right now, with three novels not only written but published, I'd have gawped at you with wide-eyed incredulity, but there it is.

Here's the blurb:

Altapasaeda, capital of the Castoval, is under siege by its own King - and Easie Damasco is trapped within the city's besieged walls.  Only Mounteban has a solution to offer.  Far to the north, rebels have set a bastard prince up as a figurehead.  If our heroes could kidnap this warlord-in-the-making, he might be used as a bargaining chip to end the war on both fronts.  Yet again, Damasco finds himself roped into a desperate scheme to preserve the Castoval, and events only grow more complicated as Damasco discovers that he and the disgruntled, rebellious teenage Prince have more in common than either of them would like to admit.

But if you've read the first two then hopefully all you really need to know is that Prince Thief wraps up the story that began in Giant Thief and continued in Crown Thief: the final fates of the Castoval, of Saltlick and Estrada and Alvantes and of course the irrepressible Mr Damasco, will be decided once and for all.  It's not going to be an easy ride, not everyone is going to walk away in one piece, and by the end, nothing will ever be the same again.

Oh, and there's an exploding ship.  Just saying.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Selling Outside my Comfort Zone

What are we supposed to call non-genre fiction these days?  I refuse to go with 'literary', because that implies that books like 1984 and The Man in the High Castle aren't literary, and that's plain stupid.  Ditto for mainstream; would anyone seriously claim that Lord of the Rings or A Game of Thrones aren't mainstream?  So what does that leave?  I can't think of anything better, so let's just stay where we started and go with non-genre, even though it's barely less rubbish.

So, I mostly write genre fiction, obviously, but every so often I write non-genre fiction, and I don't know exactly why any of that is.  Partly personal preference, of course, partly because I know certain markets a lot better than others, and partly playing to where I've always figured my strengths lie, and ... wait, no, that was my supposed to be my point.  Maybe I should be writing more non-genre fiction, because I actually seem to do quite well with it.

First there was Strive to be Happy in Flash Fiction Online, one of my first pro sales, my first award nomination, and possibly the most well received thing I've written.  Then, a long time later, FFO also took my slightly autobiographical extended-metaphor-with-swans (how does that not make you want to read it?) For Life.  And now I've sold my third stab at non-genre fiction to new publisher Bleeding Heart, for their magazine Transfusion, for the highest rate I've ever earned from a short story, cent per word.

This one's particularly amazing because I was convinced that this little slice of lives, titled A Shadow Play, was going to be a tough sell.  I've been talking about it being non-genre, but it is sort of fantastical: two life stories, one real and one imagined - though perhaps it's not quite that simple - told in a little over 800 words.  It's kind of abstract, downbeat, weird and overambitious and not much like anything else I've done.  All of which, of course, are reasons I'm proud of it, but it's a foolish writer who expects editors to share their predilections!

Fortunately in this instance Bleeding Heart did, and not only that but they work fast: A Shadow Play is due out in the second issue of Transfusion next month.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

All That News I Don't Have

I said when I put up my last post that I didn't have any writing news, and then realised straight away that I actually have loads of writing news.  It's just that none of it is really the kind of stuff that I'd normally blog about.  Still, saying I have no news implies I haven't been up to much, and that's the exact opposite of the truth.  So I thought I might as well set the record straight, even if I was the one who unstraightened it in the first place.

First up, there's the novella that I've been working on since around the start of June, and hope to finish soon.  I've never had much desire to write a novella before, but I had an idea that was too small for a novel and way too big for a short story, and I needed a project to sink my teeth into for a few months, to keep myself busy until ... well, until the massive thing that's happening next month, that I should probably keep quiet about until then, in case I jinx it or something.  Anyway, the novella's currently called Patchwerk, and its best described as ... um ... kind of a Moorcockian multidimensional science-fiction / fantasy thing.  Well, maybe that's not how it's best described, but put it this way, the fact that it has about twenty-five people in it but they're all the same five characters should give you a fair idea of what it's like (and what a gigantic headache it's been to write in places!)

So there's that. And there's the second, as-yet-untitled volume of Endangered Weapon B, which I finished a few days ago and now just need to format ready for winging over to Bob.  It's fun stuff, if I do say so; we find out just why the Professor's been so interested in resurrecting the dead, just about everyone from volume 1 returns, mostly in the most absurd ways possible, and - at the risk of giving away crucial plot points - there's a bloody great, ridiculous fight at the end. Oh, and I get to parody a load more stuff, from John Carter to Bride of Frankenstein to Endangered Weapon itself.  (Thinking about it. mainly that last one.)

Then there's the planning.  Oh so much planning!  I just recently wrapped up a synopsis of what I fervently hope will be my next novel, and that's with my agent John Berlyne right now, waiting on his feedback.  There's my ongoing figuring-out of how to nail down War For Funland, the book I wrote a first draft of between Giant Thief and Crown Thief and would really like to write a second draft of one of these days.  There's the third novel that's at the mostly-in-my-head stage.  There's the new comic series that Bob Molesworth and I are hoping to put together, which I'm sketching out bit by bit, with a view to getting a synopsis together in the next month or two.  There are short story ideas piling up, there's the film script I've been plotting for a couple of years now...

That might sound like a lot, and it probably is, but from my point of view this is no bad thing. For all the love I have for Damasco and his world, one of the hardest aspects of writing Crown Thief and Prince Thief was how much they dominated my writing time, to the exclusion of all else.  I'm always happier with a few different projects on the go, and I'm happiest when those projects are as different from each other as realistically possible.  So, right now, when I have a dozen things in the pipeline and none of them are the least bit similar to each other ... well, that's an okay place to be in.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Game Ramble: Journey

I've been getting interested recently in what seem to be known as Art Games, a loose genre of video
games that are trying to break out from some of the form's traditional limitations and achieve the kind of thing that you'd expect of an art form more than a work designed solely to entertain.  It's a fine line of course, and you'd have to be blind to miss the artistry that goes into almost any game these days, but I still find the whole thing intriguing.  The facet that's really caught my attention, though, is what this might mean for video game narrative, an area in which the burgeoning medium has undeniably often tended to let itself down.

The story of Journey, stripped to its bare bones, is actually no great shakes.  It is in fact, as the title hints, the traditional hero's journey; that is, it draws on the concept of an archetypal hero and narrative structure that mythologist Joseph Campbell famously identified as underlying much of world mythology.  The game's director, Jenova Chen, states this explicitly in the "making of" documentary included on the collector's edition, and there's even a diagram mapping Campbell's hypothetical stages to the game's levels.

So as core narratives go, Journey's isn't particularly interesting of in and of itself, especially considering that a great many video game plots conform to Campbell's model.  What is interesting is that Journey chooses to flesh out this skeleton by abandoning so many of the traditional tools of storytelling.  Nothing is spoken in any recognisable language.  The player character's design allows for only the simplest expressions.  There are other humanoid characters, but they never speak.  There are non-humanoid creatures, but they communicate, as the player character does, through tonal, whale-like noises.  You encounter glyph-like, symbolic drawings and it's possible to piece together continuity and history from these, but there's no actual text anywhere in the game besides the title and credits.

In the place of spoken or written language, then, Journey exploits some familiar alternatives - visual design, music, design cues - and uses them exceptionally well.  But it also does some things that are more subtle and hard to define.  It achieves much by offering small hints and leaving the rest to the player's imagination, a technique more common to books than gaming or its closest cousin cinema.  And it achieves even more by tapping into subconscious desires and fears: the heart-stopping feeling of flying, a section lit and decorated as though it were underwater and frequent moments of sliding almost helplessly down banks of sand are uncanny and powerfully dreamlike.

In fact, those words pretty much sum up what Journey's about.  It's impossible to describe quite how it all comes together in practice, except to say that the experience is much like trying to make sense of an extraordinarily vivid dream.  Most of your brain just sort of goes along with it intuitively, experiencing things in simple, emotional terms, while a small part throws up wild theories to try and make wider sense of what's going on.  And all of this relies on being experienced, on the act and the very notion of play.  Because so many of its narrative beats are emotional and because that emotion relies on player interaction, Journey creates a narrative that you can only intuit full meaning from by physically and intellectually engaging with it.

That, in my experience, is something new to storytelling, at least on this scale and with this level of success.  And it's not often that any medium offers a genuinely novel experience, or discovers new ways of telling stories, so I should surely finish by recommending that if you have a PS3 and haven't yet played Journey, you really should.  That said, it isn't perfect and, to my mind, it doesn't entirely succeed; there's a tension between the need to tell a story and the need to be a game that leaves some of the most interesting, and also some of the most basic, aspects of the narrative left flailing.  The very end, for me, was particularly disappointing from a story point of view.  But since I can't go into that without spoilers, I'll settle for saying instead that the fact that I'm still annoyed by it days afterwards is almost a recommendation in itself; I struggle to think of any other game that's frustrated me so much on narrative merit alone.  And the fact that I know I'll play through again, even knowing what's waiting, is testament to what a powerful, fascinating experience Journey delivers.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Ill-Met at Midnight in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Lovely, lovely Beneath Ceaseless Skies cover art
I've said it before, but one of the best things about being a genre writer is surely the way that utterly bizarre blog post titles just seem to generate themselves.


One of the other nicest things about being a genre writer was receiving a blurb for Giant Thief from Adrian Tchaikovsky, whose Shadows of the Apt series I'm hugely fond of, comparing it to the works of none other than the mighty Fritz Leiber.  As fantastic a compliment as that was, though, I've never been entirely sure that Giant Thief lives up to it.  (Although, in fairness to Adrian, it's probably a closer comparison than anyone else has made.)  Thing is, I hadn't actually read any Leiber at the time I wrote Giant Thief, and so he wasn't - as he would come to be - one of my all-time favourite Fantasy authors.  What similarities there are are purely coincidental, or else were absorbed through intermediaries; there's a fair bit of the Gray Mouser in Damasco, for example, but I suspect it was contracted via Pratchett's blundering wizard Rincewind, another protagonist who spends an inordinate amount of time trying to flee from whatever plot he's found himself mixed up in.

Ill-Met at Midnight, on the other hand, the story I have out in Beneath Ceaseless Skies this week, is me blatantly pastiching Leiber.  Heck, the title is an obvious reference.  The city of Cold Harbour, elegant, rotten and riddled with licensed murder, has plenty in common with that greatest of all cities Lankhmar.  My "hero" Otranto, assassin extraordinaire, is definitely Leiberesque: sharp-tongued, highly competent, and yet driven by the winds of his own eccentricities.  It's the story of a weird and dangerous world full of weird and dangerous individuals, and I think that description about sums up all of Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories.

I'm happy admitting all this: originality is a wonderful thing and something to strive for, but sometimes I think it's okay to play around in the shadows of your heroes.  It was great fun to write Ill-Met, to cut loose with world-building aspects and to have a go at that kind of lurid, exaggerated, extravagant Fantasy, something I'm not sure you see so much of these days.  So much fun, in fact, that I suspect I'll return to Otranto and Cold Harbour one of these days.

You can read Ill-Met at Midnight and its companion story, Henry Szabranski's The Clay Farima, or buy the issue that contains them, here ... or, if you didn't mind waiting ,you can listen to Ill-Met in podcast in a month's time.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Nine Worlds 2013

I didn't see half as much of Nine Worlds as I would have liked.

I think the only way I could have would have time travel, or perhaps the ability to create little homunculi of myself.  Nine Worlds had a lot of programming.  And the more the weekend wore on, the more I realized that even the bits of it that at a first glance hadn't looked even remotely interesting probably were.  I wish I'd hung around the Steampunk track a little more.  Jobeda spent much of Saturday telling me how good the Geek Feminism stuff was, and I caught the end of a panel on Joss Whedon and sure enough, it was tremendous; I've been to entire Cons that contained less enthusiasm and intelligent debate than that one small, overheated room.  I completely missed the Science track, and pretty much all of that looked interesting.  I did a little better with the All the Books track, since I was in it, but I still felt like I'd barely scratched the surface.  We never even got a look in at the Board Gaming, despite that being one of the things we'd specifically planned to do.  And what I've listed there is only scratching the surface of what was on offer at Nine Worlds.

On top of the basic impossibility of doing more than scratching that surface, I quickly discovered I wasn't feeling too well.  It turned out to be a chest infection, but over the weekend it was just a sore throat and a general feeling of crapiness, which did a good job of keeping me out of the bar and stopping me talking to a lot of the people I'd have liked to talk to - which was a lot of people.  I did manage a bit of socializing, particularly on the Sunday, and I got to give Paul Cornell a copy of Endangered Weapon B as a thank you for his brilliant introduction, which was high on my 'to do' list, but all told I spent a lot of time being frustrated that conversation equaled pain.

Francis, Benedict, Me, Den, Emma.
Then last up, and if anything even more distracting, there was the fact that I seemed to spend a large chunk of the weekend working.  Okay, doing a signing was no biggie, and I got stuck with a slot when no one was in the dealer's room, so I mainly spent that chatting with the lovely Forbidden Planet people and my old friend Flick (Hi Flick, good to see you!)  And the panel I was attending on Saturday, Gender and Sexuality in SFF, went smoothly - if unspectacularly - enough.  But those were things I've done before and are just about comfortable these days.  No, what kept me in a perpetual state of Serious Work Mode was the knowledge that I was moderating my first panel on the Sunday, and my being determined to make a decent job of it.
In truth, I perhaps got a bit carried away with my preparation.  I went in with twenty-some questions (many of which had sub-questions!), a separate page of questions for the audience and notes on my panelists, which I'd prepped during a frantic ten minutes spent at the Forbidden Planet stall.  Then I nearly lost all my notes.  Then I found out at the last minute that Benedict Jacka was ill, wasn't coming and had been replaced by someone I'd never heard of.  Then Benedict turned up, and was befuddled to discover that he wasn't expected. 
A scale model of the Nine Worlds hotel, possibly.
But minor, slightly surreal hiccups aside, it went well.  I think, possibly, that it went really well.  Certainly, I had a good time - which frankly was about the least likely outcome I expected.  I felt like we gave out a lot of valuable information, and everyone got their say.  I was fortunate enough to have four intelligent, witty and unusually polite panelists* in the shape of Benedict, Emma Newman, Den Patrick and Francis Knight.  We had some great audience questions, and one in particular that really touched me: it was something along the lines of, "say you were really shy and didn't feel up to mugging editors in the bar at Cons and all of the other things you've been advising us to?  Would it still be possible to get published?"**  That was about the only question I took myself, because - as I explained - I consider myself a basically shy person, who used to be a very shy person indeed, and yet somehow I've ended up doing things like moderating panels in front of dozens of people.  And while of course it is possible to get published without ever so much as speaking to an editor face to face, I think it's also true that confidence is a skill that can be learned like any other, and that Cons are tremendously good places to do that learning.
Which, I guess, is also my conclusion when it comes to Nine Worlds: it did what only the very best of Cons can do and created a hugely inclusive space where everyone seemed comfortable regardless of race, creed or My Little Pony costume.  It wasn't perfect***, but in its first year it was better than many established Cons, it raised the bar in a lot of ways that I hope get taken on board by the wider community, and I'm already looking forward to next year - when hopefully I'll actually get to do and see a bit more stuff.

* Seriously, this was the most polite panel ever.
** Wait, we didn't say that.  Buy drinks for, not mug.
*** Main imperfection being the extraordinarily pricy bar.  No pint of Coke on earth should cost six pounds.