Sunday, 18 March 2018

Book Review - Pavane by Keith Roberts

Oft cited alongside Lest Darkness Fall and Bring the Jubilee as one of the all-time great alternate histories, Pavane is set in a world where Great Britain is part of the New Roman Empire and the Catholic church has a stranglehold over the West as a whole.

Structurally, Pavane isn't quite a novel nor is it a collection of novellas. It walks a line between both - six interconnected stories that slowly unveil a world both recogniseable and otherwise. Each story is self-contained enough to be enjoyed alone, from small, quiet stories of people living lonely lives to tales of rebellion and civil warfare. Together, they weave a spellbinding tapestry of power, religion, tradition and technology.

Although there are recurring characters in a few of the stories, the through-line is expressed in the world. The smaller stories take place against a world that is changing slowly, and each story exposed different elements of that world. In each story the nature of the setting is important to both the plot and the characters, and as with the best world building they both seem extensions of the world itself, whilst remaining individually interesting.

The tales within Pavane are more in line with historical or period pieces, compared to any sci-fi or fantastical plot lines. All of the speculative elements are not confined to the world however. Traditional folk lore is worked into the story in subtle ways that leave the precise nature of the world ambiguous. They help bring together both the tension of new versus old, whilst also blurring the divisions between the two. It is the foreign powers that is keeping Britain all but feudal, but even more ancient ideas religion and spirituality in Britain remain.

At its heart, however, is the characters and their emotional journeys. The setting and all of its atmosphere are backdrops to stories of lonelines and tragedy. At their best they are bittersweet, with a dash of pathos scattered throughout. The Signaller and The White Lady, specifically, were my favourite of the novellas.

Stylistically, Roberts takes his time. He isn't rushed. The writing is detailed. To get the most out of this novel you have to be ready to sink into a story full of detail and often slow to get going. In most cases that would make the writing too stiff and dry, but Roberts imbues it with a sense of melancholy and wistfulness.

Pavane is a beautifully written and evocative book. Highly, highly recommended.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Top 10 Best Books of 2017

The best books I read last year! Hon. mention to Uprooted, which was a very excellent time.


10. Harbinger of the Storm Aliette de Bodard

Do you like fun? Harbinger of the Storm balances political intrigue, an exotic and fascinating culture, magic and even a bit of metaphysics against each other brilliantly. It's really a cracking read.

9. Hothouse by Brian Aldiss

Thickly detailed and inventive, Hothouse is quite the journey. Through the eyes of a couple of post-humans we see a world where the whole world has been taken over by plants. It's detailed and rich, and genuinely rather fun and scary at times.

8. Jack Glass by Adam Roberts

Three locked door murder mysteries, and in each case Jack Glass is the killer. So whodunnit? (Hint: it was Jack Glass).

This book was definitely too clever for its own good, and Roberts can't quite deliver on the promise on a couple of the mysteries. Still a great book, fueled by ideas, in turn funny and dark. Genuinely sad that it's unlikely we'll not get another book with the characters and world again.

7. Babylon by Victor Pevelin

Ridiculously quotable, funny and absurd; Babylon (or Homo Zapiens or Generation P) is a hell of a strange trip. Filled with drugs and the guiding voice of Che Guevara, it has a very strong post-soviet union feel to it.

6. The Short and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Following the titular Wao and in his family, Diaz weaves an absurd and bittersweet tale. It's filled with asides about Puerto Rican society and recent history, all the whilst demonstrating how Wao's geeky proclivities help shape his views of the world. There's just a dash of the fantastical sprinkled on top too.

5. The Race by Nina Allan

I'm actually shocked this is this far down the list to be honest - The Race is a story soaked in ambiguity and an underlying sense of menace. Christopher Priest style narrative trickery turns a novel about a woman's relationship with her brother into a story that unsettles just as much as it pleases.

4. Wylding Hall

Wylding Hall is bright, airy and very pretty. It's tragic and poignant. It's also a haunted house story. I mentioned in an earlier list that Hand accomplishes an incredible tightrope walk in this story, and I'm not sure that I need to say anything else.

3. God Bless You, Mr Rosewater

Like many of the best satires, Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr Rosewater is probably more relevant today than it's ever been. Terrifically funny, dripping with cynicism and genuinely moving in parts, this novel has a strange resonance with Catch-22. Possibly my favourite Vonnegut.

2. The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break

A little slice of Americano, helmed by the great beast from ancient Crete. The attention to detail that makes the situation way more believable than it should do and the vulnerability of the narrative voice both cause the book to come to life.

1. The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick

To say that there's nothing I've ever read that is quite like The Iron Dragon's Daughter may sound trite, but it's also entirely accurate. The novel is strange and unexpected and totally beguiling, not to mention brilliant.

Monday, 1 January 2018

Top 5 Worst Reads of 2017

List number three, and this is the spicy one:


5. Voice of Our Shadows by Jonathan Carroll

There's a lot of individual elements to this story that are rather good - a great first chapter and some memorable set-pieces - but it genuinely seems unfinished. About halfway through the story kind of loses direction, some more things happen that don't appreciably effect anything, then there's a very sudden ending which is massively disappointing.

4. The Falconer by Elizabeth May

In a sense putting The Falconer on this list at all is rather harsh - it's not really like its outstandingly bad. But it's not outstandingly anything, just kind of exists, and that kind of mediocrity is much worse than other books that have many more flaws. This is a shrug of a book.

3. World War Z by Max Brooks

Filled with really great concepts, and a few characters whose stories could be interesting, this book takes a fantastic premise and renders it a slog by being less interested in telling a story and more interested in largely irrelevant minutiae.

2. The Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Charming for a while, but uninspired. I'm generally not a fan of period fantasy, but this is quite easily the worst example of it I've encountered. Paced really awkwardly, structured poorly and one I came very close to not finishing.

1. Bloodlines by Claudia Gray

This was just hot garbage.

Top 5 Most Disappointing Books of 2017

Second list reflecting on last year's reads, and this time it's the five most disappointing ones. Again, just because it disappointed me doesn't mean I didn't like it or thought that it was bad. Number three especially is a good book.

Honourable mention goes to Sharp Ends; Joe Abercrombie's writing doesn't seem to fit short form at all.


5. Smiler's Fair by Rebecca Levene

I was excited about this book going in, and even more excited after a devastating prologue. The writing was good, the characters were engaging, the world was drawing me in and I dug the premise quite a lot. It felt creative and rather fresh. Then it all rather fell apart at the end, becoming contrived and somewhat pointless. Still going to give the sequel a look though.

4. Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik

I reeeeeally want to like this series. Novik, as I saw with the surprisingly excellent Uprooted, is a great author, and the world these books explore is great fun. Throne of Jade was meandering and somewhat mundane, and I really had trouble particularly getting invested in either Laurence or Temeraire.

3. The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts

This book rather suffered from a case of raised expectations: Roberts is a superb author, and the concept behind this book seemed fantastic. Although the central plotline in the book was mostly really fun and atmospheric, the consistent interruptions of other side stories drained all sense of narrative drive from proceedings. The end didn't help either.

2. The Magicians by Lev Grossman

For a while The Magicians really pulled me into its world, developed a compelling will-they-or-won't-they. Roughly halfway through the book it takes quite a big step in terms of the actions of the characters, and never quite took me with it. By the end this book felt like an obligation, and the way so many of the interesting and ambiguous early ideas were explained later on felt rather simplistic and unimaginative - not to mention the character arcs that Grossman believes he's taking the characters on never really works.

1. Land of Laughs by Jonathan Carroll

You know, about halfway through this book I was convinced that with Carrol I'd happened across a new potential favourite writer. I ordered a couple of his other books before I finished this one.

This was a mistake.

Land of Laughs has some arresting scenes, some creepy ideas, characters that it is easy to invest in and a charming narrative voice. It's also not very good at all.

Top 5 Most Surprising Reads of 2017

It's the start of a new year, so I'm going to spend the next few posts reflecting on what stood out to me of last year. I intend to run down my most disappointing, worst and best reads from the last year, and I'll be starting off with most surprising. Note that this can be surprising in any sense, and doesn't necessarily mean good (although most of them are, indeed, very good).

Honourable mention to Uprooted by Naomi Novik, which I had no real expectations for but ended up having one hell of a good time with.


5. The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill

Not only is concept and its execution a delightful surprise in and of itself, but throughout much of the book I was unsure how much I really liked the book. Then the ending happened - this a brilliant and beautiful story, told with grace and intelligence.

4. Polka Dots and Moonbeams by Jeffrey Ford

Among Stories (edited by Gaiman and Sarrantonio) this was one of the shorts that I wasn't particularly looking forward to it, having never heard of Ford before. My general antipathy towards period pieces, too, made me wary going in. It was truly excellent, then, to find such a great little story waiting for me.

3. Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand

This was another one I went into blind. One of the things that make this such a resonant and brilliant horror story is that it is told with a sense of awe, and is more taken with the beauty of the setting than it is with the horror, whilst continuing to be an effectively creepy story. Hand takes on a balancing act that is beyond delicate and accomplishes it with aplomb.

2. Ring, Spiral and Loop by Koji Suzuki

Whilst the other books mentioned so far surprised me in large part due to how good they were, this trilogy just plain baffled me. Whilst Ring follows the story familiar to those who've seen Ringu/The Ring with some differences, the sequels take the story in a flabbergasting direction. It's incredibly difficult to sum up really, but suffice to say I really wasn't prepared for the wacky journey Suzuki had in store for me.

1. The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick

I first read about this book in a big fantasy annual I had back when I was 14/15. I remember seeing the cover, reading the description of a young changeling stealing an iron dragon and making a bid for freedom. There was nothing to say that it was no more than a quirky, fairy-tale influenced epic fantasy.

Then fourteen years later I pick up the book and halfway through the first chapter the twelve year old main character starts menstruating.

Turns out, what was in store for me was very different to your average epic fantasy.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Upcoming things (Oh the horror!)

Would say that I intend to start posting on this thing regularly, but given my track record...

Anyways, this post is a forewarning to say that I'll be reviewing a number of horror short story collections next month, they go as follows:

- North American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud
- The Imago Sequence and Other Stories by Laird Barron
- Cold Hand in Mine by Robert Aickman
- The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares by Joyce Carol Oates
- Saffron and Brimstone by Elizabeth Hand
- Black Tea and Other Tales by Samuel Marolla
- Songs of a Dead Reader and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti
- The White People by Arthur Machen

Might try out a few new things with these, so look out for that. In the meantime, lemme know if there's anything I should at to the list.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Doctor Who - The Pilot review

New Doctor Who! And I'm only a month and a half getting round to watching it too.

It's all in the Rhythm

It has often been the case under Moff that Doctor Who seasons have started with swagger, with lots of ideas and images and energy, before settling into a pace and tone that'll be more common throughout the series. The opening of Smith's time on shows tended to fill in the blanks and convey a sense of space between seasons, whilst being filled with nods at mini-adventures and character jokes and often character development, extremely truncated; this is especially obvious with Asylum of the Daleks very quickly setting up a separation between Amy and Rory.

The same flair returns in buckets with The Pilot, but it's a slightly cooler, more laid back flair. Less overexcited puppy. It's whimsical, but less ostentatiously so than before, which is funny because its pretty much still the same thing as before. Ideas by the bucket, loads of information crammed in quickly through a mixture of visual cues and quick cuts. Part of it is that Capaldi has settled into a very specific vibe, a sense of quieter eccentricity than Smith. The music specifically deserves a mention, bringing a jaunty feel to the opening ten minutes. Somewhere between the script, editing, music and directing there's a weaving of lightness into the drama without at any point having to sacrifice it.

Capaldi's Cape

Capaldi as The Doctor is really looking like he's enjoying himself now, somewhere between Merlin and Your Grandad Who Thinks He Is Cooler Than He Actually Is. Decked out as he is, it's difficult not to want to see the grand magus side of him played up even more - they've nailed an image and feel for his version of The Doctor that makes it very sad this season is reported to be his final outing.

Trusting the Audience (Almost)

There is this terrible thing that television and film are prone to doing. Often when something has happened, or a character has noticed something they'll narrate it to the audience just in case the audience doesn't have a working pair of eyes (or is more interested in their phone than what they are watching). "Show don't tell" is a cliche of writing advice, and at its heart misses one key idea - things that show rather than telling require more from their audience. Telling make movies easier to watch, books easier to read, specifically because you're having pretty much everything hand delivered to you.

There are lots of little moments in this episode that very well could have been explicitly explained. Comments about moving boxes, mysterious figures in photos. Instead, the filmmakers trust the audience to connect the dots for themselves, and as such the moments aren't ruined by redundancy.

There's one particularly egregious moment where this is rather not followed on. A moment where new companion (Bill) talks in a repetitive sense about whatever strange thing has happened (in this case, to do with a reflection) - it's often been used by both RTD and Moff as a way to demonstrate something is difficult to be conveyed on screen, and is always spectacularly unconvincing.

Building Relationships

In Belly of the Beast, Smith's second outing as The Doctor, it is suggested that during her time growing up The Doctor became her imaginary friend of sorts, and as such she knows him better than he know himself. At this point, as far as the audience knows, she's probably not spent much than twenty-four hours with The Doctor at that point. It fell terribly flat, because we hadn't seen the bond develop at all.

Throughout New Who, there has been a tendency to take short-cuts in developing relationships, which Moff being perhaps worse than RTD. This episode nails it, however. Time passes. The Doctor and Bill grow closer in small ways, whilst The Doctor seems to be drawn to the idea of becoming a father figure to her. These aren't developed in big shouty set-pieces, but in small ways, ones which (to harken back to my last section) are never said out loud. We learn about Bill through hints, and her growing closeness with The Doctor, through hints not exposition.

A Question of Structure

My biggest personal problem with Moff's writing is often it can be structured poorly - the aforementioned Eleventh Hour was a great whizz-bang journey of action without laying down the character beats it was intended to; episodes like The Wedding of River Song were a string of set-pieces that failed to really put down the proper groundwork to feel satisfying; Deep Breath spent half an episode of inconsequential character hijinks, and didn't introduce the real threat until roughly halfway into the episode, such had no real narrative drive.

The Pilot juggles characterisation and intrigue (slowly developing into threat) excellently, never standing still but never hurrying either. Whilst we learn about Bill and see her growing relationship with The Doctor, the plot keeps introducing new elements that are growing until the point they force the characters into action.

Promising Things to Come?

Looks very likely. Bill annoyed me a little based on teaser trailers, but this first episode sold me on her 100% - she seems to have a more natural chemistry with The Doctor than Clara did. If the season can continue with the same panache it started with, then we're in for a treat.