The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a surprisingly short book, for modern fantasy. Or perhaps I just read it particularly fast. I seemed to be completely immersed for a brief moment, then I emerged into the sunlight again and it was all over. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it.

This is a novel about childhood (and myths, and books). The different priorities, different realities, of children and adults. It’s about deeper truths, small pleasures, and what happens as we grow up (or grow older, anyway). The vast majority of the book is told from a seven year old boy’s point of view, as remembered by his middle-aged self; childlike, with a grown-up veneer. It’s a dark fairytale bordering on horror story, with a wonderfully British cosiness round the edges. It’s about a little boy, befriended by the older girl down the lane who claims her family’s duckpond is an ocean.

If you much preferred American Gods to Stardust, then you might not be immediately grabbed by this as it’s closer to the spirit of the latter than the former, I would say. If you’ve never read any Neil Gaiman but enjoyed John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things, or even Lisey’s Story by Stephen King, give The Ocean at the End of the Lane a go. Vivid imagery and a rattling pace, with a poignant core.

Rider at the Gate by CJ Cherryh

As a one-sentence over-simplification you could describe Rider at the Gate as a kind of dark fantasy Western on a frontier planet with three-toed telepathic horses. That description will probably tell you whether or not you might be interested in the story, but it doesn’t do the novel justice. It’s about loyalty and secrets, family, hardship, and the difficult lesson that people can be complicated creatures with tangled motives.

Danny Fisher is an awkward teenager, town-born but lately chosen as a Rider by the young nighthorse whose self-image is best translated as Cloud. He’s all set to spend the winter in the Rider camp adjacent to his home town, where he can visit his God-fearing (and hence Rider-hating) family regularly for an uncomfortable shared meal, but it won’t necessarily be that straightforward. Reports arrive of a horse gone rogue; rogue horses can project images further and stronger than the others, catching everyone unawares and if they’re not careful, driving them to insanity or death. Danny gets caught up in a situation he isn’t prepared for, but the trail on the edge of winter isn’t the most forgiving place for a junior to make elementary mistakes.

I’ve read a few CJ Cherryh novels now, and been consistently impressed. Rider at the Gate was an easy read, laced with dry humour and well-drawn characters, including the nighthorses who each had unique personalities. The world was vividly conjured, from the snow-covered mountains of the High Wild to the poisoned industrial landscape further down, and the truck convoys the Riders are paid to protect. With the scattering of technology (diesel-powered trucks, phone lines strung alongside mountain passes) this is a bit grubbier and more down to earth than a lot of the more rose-tinted fantasy novels you might expect to involve horses, mountains and a quest, but I would say it’s more likely to appeal to the fantasy-reading end of the SF spectrum than the hard sci-fi crowd. There is an equally-enjoyable sequel called Cloud’s Rider.

Mixed genre messages – a bad idea?

Let’s assume you’re thinking of buying a short story collection, then you notice it’s a mixture of SF (science fiction, fantasy and the like) and what you might call mainstream, general, non-genre fiction.

Why do I ask? you ask (pretend you asked).Two reasons, one to do with writing and the other to do with reading. To take the latter first, I’ve recently read a Brian Aldiss collection, The Moment of Eclipse, and though it’s labelled as science fiction and most of the stories in it do fall firmly in that category, I’d say at least one doesn’t and a couple of others are tenuous. If the author hadn’t been ‘a science fiction writer’ I doubt anyone would have thought to label them that way. I enjoyed them, but it reminded me of when I read Pattern Recognition by William Gibson (as discussed here), shelved as sci-fi despite being nothing of the sort, which brought disappointment to my reading corner.

Which brings me to my vague thoughts of compiling another short story collection. When I put The Little Book of Northern Women together there was a story I toyed with including, but since it was strictly revolving round a northern female android I left it out (it’s since been published in Kzine issue 6). Undoubtedly there will be a crossover audience for my SF and non-genre stories but I figured people are often in the mood for one but not the other, and besides it would have been an unbalanced mix. Now I’ve accumulated a mass of SF, plus non-genre stories that don’t have a strong theme running through them. Should I consider blending them in the same publication, or keep to the segregation?

Time’s Echo by Pamela Hartshorne

Time’s Echo is a time-slip novel I read last year, set in both contemporary and late sixteenth-century York. Sparked by a few interesting names and a badly-behaved dog the author came across in court records during her PhD in Medieval History, the resulting novel is a flight of fantasy that feels as authentic and believable as Tracy Chevalier at her best, with enough detail to make the historical element seem well-researched without turning it into a textbook.

Grace Trewe, an independent young woman who’s travelled all over the world, inherits a terraced house in York. She could just leave everything to the solicitor, but on a whim she goes to the house for what’s meant to be a brief stay in an interesting historic town she’s not familiar with, before she joins some friends on another continent. Are her nightmares and strange experiences only a result of having been caught up in the Boxing Day tsunami? For Grace, who’s used to being able to pack up and move on whenever she needs to, the feeling that this time she might not be able to is most unnerving. Meanwhile in the sixteenth century, Hawise (try saying Louisa without the initial L and you won’t be far off) meets a stranger at the market and sets in motion a dangerous obsession that will echo down the centuries.

Time’s Echo is not simply a ghost story (though there is an element of the supernatural), it’s an entanglement of two time-frames. The story explores the patterns in our own lives and through history, the repeated mistakes and the seemingly inconsequential moments on which history pivots. The tension and sense of anticipation are accentuated by the swinging of the narrative between time-frames and there are echoes of some of the sixteenth-century characters and events in the contemporary narrative.

There was an inevitability to Hawise’s story, not least because we came in at the end of it; nevertheless, the final subtle twist was powerful and unexpected. Even when you think you know what’s about to happen, there’s a compulsion to read on just in case it was averted at the last minute. For a nearly five hundred page novel, this was a swift, fluid read and I found myself gripped from quite early on. I would say fans of well-written historical fiction (possibly even historical romance) would enjoy this as long as they’re not averse to a smattering of the supernatural and equally, fans of mild horror who fancy something historical might like to give it a go. There’s also a strong Yorkshire interest, set as it is among the streets of York.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

To say how huge and influential Neil Gaiman is, he hasn’t written many novels (not true of comics of course or, latterly, children’s books). I enjoyed Good Omens, which is how I first discovered Neil Gaiman as a teenage Terry Pratchett fan in the early 90s, and in the last 10 years I’ve read Stardust and Anansi Boys (a particular favourite) but somehow not got round to American Gods, despite there being not much else to go at in the way of prose.

Turns out it was worth the wait. One of those total immersion novels where you completely believe in the world that’s created. And belief, when it comes down to it, is what the book is all about.

Shadow is in his early thirties, he’s about to be released early from prison and he’s looking forward to seeing his wife again. In the event, he’s released a few days earlier than he was expecting, so he can make it to her funeral in time. Three years of aching to be back with the person you love most, and she dies in a car crash before you can get to her. You’d be lost, wouldn’t you? Directionless. Ripe for being swept up into events beyond your control or comprehension. Something like, say, a war between gods.

It’s a road trip, it’s small town America, it’s mythic and epic and reverent and irreverent at the same time. It’s almost like Stephen King read The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, let it stew at the back of his mind for a few years then wrote a book haunted by it. Except it’s also unmistakably Neil Gaiman. There are coin tricks and cons, magic that’s misdirection and sleight of hand, and magic that is real and a lot less showy. It’s about love, loyalty, remembering and believing – be it in religion or yourself or your family, and it’s about what happens when the world moves on.

I very much doubt I’ll be waiting a dozen years to read the new one, The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

Kzine issue 6, a short review

Of course you’ll all be eager to buy issue 6 of the SF/horror/crime magazine Kzine because it has my Self-Aware and Living in Bradford in it, but in the unlikely event that you need further persuasion, here’s a quick guide to what else is on offer (apart from mine, and The Judgement of the Peacekeeper, all the rest seem to be set in America).

A Bedtime Chocolate by Nicola Tanquary: a young girl has to deal with grief alongside the discovery of an unknown side to her father. Fairly dark urban fantasy.

Real Predictions by Regina Clarke: the new warden at a women’s prison has an escaped prisoner to find, with a little help from the Tarot. Crime.

The Judgment Of The Peacekeeper by Diana Doherty: Peacekeeper Verity and her Familiar investigate a crazed wyvern near an outlying village, in a land of magic.

Requiem For a Rodent by Gef Fox: You know it’s going to be a bad week when you run over your son’s hamster during the weekend visit. Horror.

Seeding Day by Michael Siciliano: Two brothers begin the annual ritual of protecting their family from invaders at the solstice. Science fiction.

When It’s Ajar by G.A. Rozen: Welcome to Forrest Door B&B, resting place for weary travellers. Horror/dark fantasy, and probably my favourite of the collection.

Self-Aware and Living in Bradford by JY Saville: Artificial intelligence research in Bradford, with a nod to the film version of Billy Liar. Have a word cloud, I really do like those things… Word cloud for Self Aware and Living in Bradford

Out of Time by Monique Martin

A few weeks ago I was looking for light entertainment, easy to read and not necessarily wholly serious. Out of Time by Monique Martin proclaimed itself a time travel mystery and was free to download from the Kobo site so I decided to give it a go.

Simon Cross is a (British) professor of occult studies at a Californian university. On the fringes of interdisciplinary research – meaning none of the departments really want to claim him – he’s content as a crotchetty loner. His graduate student Elizabeth West does her best to smooth the ruffled feathers he leaves in his wake and is sure there’s a good man in there somewhere, but so far he’s resisted all her friendly overtures. An accidental time hop to 1920s Manhattan means they have to get to know each other better as there’s no-one else to rely on when they get the chance to get a bit more practical with their occult researches than either of them was planning on.

As a piece of escapist fun the novel is fine, as long as you don’t mind feeling like you’ve opened a Mills and Boon in error at the start. There’s mystery, danger, romance (quite a bit of that actually – if I’d been paying attention to the Kobo categories I would have spotted historical romance as well as historical fantasy), ancient artefacts and the odd paradox. On the whole, it was an enjoyable romp which probably wouldn’t stand up to too much scrutiny, but the same could be said for many other time travel novels. Personally I found it a little romance-heavy so not quite my cup of tea. Not that good SF novels never have a will-they-won’t-they subplot or main characters in a relationship, but the approach and the language used here did make me think of an out and out romance novel and for that reason I doubt I’d read the others in the series.

The Moon of Endine: free sci-fi werewolf comic

I don’t always put the comic/graphic novel stuff on this blog but it occurred to me that readers here might be missing out because they ‘don’t read comics’. Mark Pexton’s art is (in my biased opinion) pretty special at times, and if you’ve enjoyed any of my sci-fi or fantasy stories you might like the one about werewolves on a frontier planet. So try our comic The Moon of Endine which (like we did for Boys Don’t Cry) we’re now making available online for free under creative commons license CC BY-NC-ND, though you can still buy the print copy over at our comicsy shop or at Forbidden Planet and Travelling Man in Leeds. You can download the pdf if you like, or just sit and page through it here (it opens up a full page when you click on it)…

Review of the week (it’s been an exciting one)

Apart from the release of my short story collection The Little Book of Northern Women (more of which in a moment), I’ve been listening to the new BBC radio version of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Richard Mayhew helps a girl in a London street and finds himself caught up in the disputes of London Below, with its fiefdoms and tangential relation to the London Richard’s familiar with. I enjoyed the TV series when I first saw it on DVD a few years ago, but it’s true the radio series had more scope and is therefore in some respects better. There’s a well of darkness in Neverwhere that can only fully be dredged when your imagination’s supplying the images (I was picturing most of the characters as they appeared in the TV series, but they weren’t being confined to scenery I’d actually seen them in). It remains a good story, which is the main thing, and though I knew the plot I was still finding it tense and unsettling at times.

The overwhelmingly positive reaction to The Little Book of Northern Women, which I self-published via Amazon at the weekend (though it should be easily convertible to non-Kindle formats; I’ve got it as epub on a Kobo) has given me a thrilling few days so far. Kelvin Knight has become a one-man publicity campaign on my behalf, a role which I neither asked nor expected him to play, but which is much appreciated. The other stalwarts of the Telegraph Short Story Club have, as usual, been most encouraging as well, tweeting and generally shouting about the new book’s existence. So far, the feedback has been good and people have been enjoying the stories they’ve got round to reading (which for some eager people is all of them), but I would love to hear what anyone else thinks of the collection or any of the stories in it – you could leave a comment here or write a review somewhere and point it out to me.

Magic Kingdom For Sale – SOLD! by Terry Brooks

An enjoyable, light-hearted fantasy novel that I’d somehow missed, by a well-known name in the genre.

When I was a teenager, Terry Brooks novels were everywhere, and it seemed to me that every one I picked up was book 7 of the Long-Winded cycle or part 2a of book 4 of the second quintet of the High Fantasy Epic. Undoubtedly if I look now I’ll find he’d only written four novels by then but in a way it doesn’t matter. The point is, I avoided his work. I associated him with Anne McCaffrey and David Eddings (both of whose prodigious output I had dipped into on the recommendation of a friend with whom I have overlapping reading tastes) and I assumed he wrote the sort of po-faced high fantasy I couldn’t stand, slightly wet with an unsubtle moralistic overtone, spread over a dozen volumes.

On the basis of Magic Kingdom For Sale – SOLD! it seems I may have been wrong (it does happen occasionally). It was a quick and easy read, laced with humour (by no means comic fantasy, but definitely not always straight-faced) and with a few original twists to its comfortable tale of dragons, fairy magic and quests.

Ben Holiday is a lawyer in Chicago with a successful career, millions in the bank, a flash apartment (this being the 80s, that means a lot). Trouble is, his wife died a couple of years ago, he’s staring 40 in the face, and he’s beginning to wonder what the point of it all is. The answer’s either suicide or a long break from his old life, so the advert in the Christmas catalogue offering a kingdom (complete with dragons, fairies, wizards and knights) for a million dollars seems too good to be true. And we all know what they say about things that seem too good to be true.

It hasn’t made me rush off to read all those Terry Brooks books I dismissed out of hand all those years ago, but if you’re a high fantasy reader who also doesn’t mind the odd Terry Pratchett or Tom Holt, you could do much worse than to read this novel. (If you’re wondering how come I picked it up in the first place, a friend mentioned it then I noticed it in the library a couple of weeks later and thought why not).

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I hadn’t heard much about this novel before I read it, but I kept seeing it in charity shops and the library and eventually I read the back because it had an intriguing title, and it sounded like the kind of thing I might enjoy. A historical fantasy novel in which Yorkshire is a key place, and one of the two characters named in the title is a Yorkshireman. Excellent.

English Magic is in a bad way. There are no practical magicians any more, and the Golden Age is long over. Mr Norrell strongly feels it’s time for a revival, but only if it’s done properly. Which is to say, by him. As a curmudgeonly old Yorkshire recluse, he doesn’t seem like the ideal candidate for a trip to London to interest the government in English Magic. Magicians are not quite respectable, so society feels. However, he must try, and when he gets himself a pupil in the form of handsome young Jonathan Strange, the fate of English Magic looks much rosier than it has in a long time. Nothing is ever that simple, of course, and by drawing attention to themselves Strange and Norrell evoke the envy and enmity of some powerful people.

I almost feel bad for saying anything negative about this book; the plot is entertaining and at times tense, the characters are well-drawn and the era is vividly evoked, not least by the writing style. The length, however… Well, the length in itself isn’t a problem (about a thousand pages in the paperback edition I bought), I have books that are as long or longer by Tad Williams and Stephen King. It could be the apparent lack of activity for long periods, but then I enjoyed Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past which is a longer book in which less dramatic things happen at less frequent intervals. I think in my view the very thing that makes the novel so unique has brought about its downfall.

The book is set in the early years of the 19th century, in fact the Napoleonic Wars feature prominently during one part of the book. The author has therefore taken the (at first glance brilliant) decision to write in the style of a Georgian or early Victorian popular novel; the spellings sometimes look odd (chuse, shew rather than choose or show) and the long-winded style with asides into gentle social satire or an examination of manners reminded me a little of Anthony Trollope (which, as regular readers will know, I intend as high praise). However, when it comes down to it this is a fantasy novel, a novel in which the stakes are lives and kingdoms and ways of life, not who will marry whom and when. While it was amusing to read of magic in England in such a commonplace manner, and much as I enjoyed the reply to a question on whether a magician could kill someone by magic (‘I suppose a magician might, but a gentleman never could’), ultimately I found it was too laid-back a style for what was happening.

A magician achieves something not achieved for hundreds of years, he’s alone and it’s dangerous, but because of the style this feat is described almost as though he’s dressing for dinner, and there is never any insight into whether he was afraid or what the consequences might have been. His wife does make him promise not to try it again for a while, but there’s no sense of her being terrified of what might happen. The asides and the scene-setting (amusing dialogues at society parties or in Cabinet meetings, for instance) do help place the story in time, but tension that has built up dissipates during these sections and I’d almost forgotten what jeopardy a character was in the last time we saw him, by the time he turns up again some chapters later in different circumstances.

OneMonkey started reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell but gave up after about 300 pages. He said he kept thinking something was about to happen, then it didn’t, and in the end he grew tired of the anticlimax. I persevered to the end of the novel because I wanted to know what happened to the characters (who I had been made to care about), and I was impressed by what had been attempted with the book (the setting and the style), but I confess I wasn’t racing through chapters in a dash to the end, in fact it took me longer to read than any novel has for many years. In short, I want to recommend this book for so many reasons, but I’m reluctant because 9 out of 10 of you will resent me for wasting weeks of your time.

Friends and connections

Friend D (otherwise known as David Lear of Firestone Books) has been interviewed over at Teresa Stenson’s blog, which you may be interested in not just because he’s a long-standing friend of mine (though really, that makes him instantly fascinating to you all, doesn’t it?) but because he’s looking for submissions of (genre) novels and – get this – short story collections. I won’t be submitting, to avoid accusations of nepotism (if he accepted it) or uncomfortable silences over dinner (if he didn’t), but if I wasn’t in this position I’d be looking into it because next to no-one accepts story collections as far as I can tell.


The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry

The Manual of Detection is fantasy noir, one of my favourite genre-blending combinations. First published in 2009, it won Jedediah Berry a couple of awards, and seems to be his only novel to date.

Charles Unwin is a clerk at the city’s gargantuan detective agency, efficient and ordered. He works on the fourteenth floor, is not permitted to speak to the detectives from the 29th floor, the watchers from the thirty-sixth, or visit the archives where his meticulous files find a permanent home. The only logical descriptor for such intricate, compartmentalised and rigid bureaucracy is Kafkaesque, but at least at the start it doesn’t feel sinister. Unwin is comforted by his known and predictable place in the vast machine, and proud of his achievements therein; this is Kafka wearing warm socks, drinking cocoa, and cuddling a purring cat.

Unwin has been assigned for many years to the agency’s star detective, Travis Sivart, and when Sivart goes missing his clerk finds himself thrown into the world of detection head first. After all, who knows Sivart better than the man who’s spent twenty years typing up his case reports and excising irrelevant details? Armed with The Manual of Detection, which he doesn’t have time to read properly, Unwin stumbles his way through the beginnings of a case, using Sivart’s years of written descriptions to find his way through unknown parts of the city, and recognise criminals. All the while he worries about his increasingly damp socks, the possibilities of rust on his bicycle chain, and how to sort out the administrative error that’s landed him on the 29th floor. Eventually Unwin gets drawn into a confusing web of connections and lies, dreams and reality, and acquits himself better than anyone imagined.

Although I wasn’t completely convinced by the ending (the post-climax wrapping up of loose ends, rather) I enjoyed the book and would recommend it widely. This is noir with literary pretensions, and all the richer for it. Sad and dreamy, and almost fussy in its detailed descriptions, the atmosphere of the rainy streets brought to mind the wonderful film Dark City.

Valentine’s Day is over

Yet another day in the greetings card manufacturer list of approved spending times has gone by, but it seemed like a reasonable excuse to muse on literary love. That could mean a favourite relationship between characters, a character you wish was real so you could spend the rest of your life (or a romantic evening) with them, or even your love affair with a particular book.

Los Angeles Without a Map, by Richard Rayner, is quite a good book about mad impulsive infatuation (though the film may be better: it stars David Tennant and is partly filmed in Bradford, which is how come I went to see it at the pictures with Big Brother). Boy meets girl, girl goes home to Hollywood, boy follows bizarre whim and flies there to start a new life (girl not necessarily that impressed). It’s an amusing account of an Englishman out of place in a world where everyone wants to be in movies and nothing is quite as it seems.

Dare I mention Aragorn and Arwen, or is that too predictable? How about Magrat and the Fool, in the Discworld? I clearly don’t read the right sort of books for this, I can’t think of any characters suited to romantic evenings but I will give a special mention to Forral, from Maggie Furey’s Artefacts of Power quartet, who in my head was always more or less OneMonkey.

Anyone out there care to chip in?

The festive excuse note

It looks like the post a week thing has finally crumbled, but I’ll let myself off because over the whole year I’ve missed very few weeks. It’s the festive season, specifically that weird bit between Christmas and New Year when everything’s on hiatus. Including, apparently, me.

I’ve been avoiding writing since I’ve been on holiday, too much like hard work. I’ve got the Debut Dagger entry to put together, which is frankly terrifying, and I should tidy up some mostly-finished stories to send off to places. Inevitably of course I’ve been eating mince pies, doing vastly important rearrangements of the newly reinstated bookcase, and generally filling up my days such that I go to bed wondering where the time went.

Thankfully, Neil Gaiman has set me back on track. Not personally, of course, and I haven’t even been reading his usually absorbing journal lately. I have been travelling on trains a lot though, and yesterday I picked up a book almost at random (it had a purple cover, which was enough to catch my eye) from the To Read pile. It was Smoke and Mirrors, a collection of stories and poems by Neil Gaiman, which has a long introduction with notes on each piece.

One of the things I like about Neil Gaiman’s journal is its feeling of honesty (I’m not saying it is honest, I’d be surprised if it wasn’t filtered and buffed up and slanted in particular ways); the illusion that here is this perfectly ordinary Englishman, with the same problems of self-doubt, occasional laziness, lack of inspiration, and looming deadlines as the rest of us. Here, we think, is something I could aspire to, it’s not entirely beyond my reach, no superhuman powers needed. Of course that’s glossing over the ability to write gripping stories well, but that’s not necessarily relevant at this point.

And so to Smoke and Mirrors. I’m about halfway through and though I confess I’ve been more puzzled than anything by the poems (I think I knocked my poetry Off switch a couple of years ago and I can’t seem to accidentally elbow it back into life), almost all of the stories so far have made me berate myself for letting such a book languish on my shelf for six months. Though if I’d read it immediately in the summer, it wouldn’t have been available to provide that much-needed spark of inspiration now. Which it has. The stories themselves have fired me up, but the notes in the introduction have been useful in an Ah, he does that too sort of a way, like a narrowly-focused version of his journal.

Not having a hat with me, I’ll raise my sister’s jaunty Christmas-pudding-shaped hat to Mr Gaiman and wish him a marvellous festive season and all the best for 2012. And that goes for you, too.

Bradford based fantasy – I’m not alone

Either I’ve found a kindred spirit or lost some of my uniqueness this week, depending how you look at it. There is someone else out there writing speculative fiction set in Bradford (no, really). Elizabeth Hopkinson writes fantasy rather than sci-fi, and some of her Bradford-based stories have been published whereas mine tend to be either doing the rounds or sitting in the unfinished pile, so in some sense she’s leading the way – I can rest easier knowing that Bradford already has a purple-headed pin on the speculative fiction map and isn’t relying solely on the fate of Self-aware and Living in Bradford (my near-future AI homage to Julie Christie’s performance in Billy Liar). A Short History of the Dream Library, a story I heard Elizabeth read this week, won the James White Award in 2005 and was in Interzone; it’s comic fantasy explicitly set in Bradford, whereas some of her other work is less comic and less explicit in its setting (but with much inspiration from the city and its buildings).

I had two revelations, listening to Elizabeth Hopkinson read. One was that all may not be lost as far as me doing an audio version of The Whitewing Fallen goes: hearing someone with a similar accent stand and read in front of an audience was quite reassuring, though I’ve still got to get round the fact that I have a character who in my head sounds like a Tudor Glenn Danzig. The other was that I’ve been reading Robert Rankin books for years, and I don’t think I even realised Brentford was a real place for a while, and even when I did, I assumed the streets etc were mostly made up – you can be as parochial as you like and as long as there’s enough of a feeling of solidity for your readers to imagine the setting, it doesn’t matter if they’ve never heard of it, so in theory I could take a leaf out of Rankin’s book and set every piece of speculative fiction I write in future in and around Bradford with no alienating effects on the potential readership.

On that cheering (or possibly horrifying) note, I’ll get back to slaving away over a hot keyboard.

The Cardinal’s Blades by Pierre Pevel

A fantasy novel translated from French, which doesn’t happen that often; it’s set in Paris in 1633, the Cardinal in question naturally being Richelieu and the Blades his finest and most elite soldier-spies, who had been disbanded 5 years earlier for political reasons. A good portion of the book is the ‘we’re putting the band back together’ section, where the Blades are located and plucked from their dayjobs, which is light and enjoyable.

Although it’s a fantasy novel, for almost the entire book except the climax it’s easy to forget that and assume you’re reading a historical swashbuckling adventure. As you might expect from the setting, it’s full of spies and double-agents, intrigue and political scheming, sword-fights and heroic rescues. And, thankfully, humour. The fantasy element arises from who some of the spies and double-agents are working for, and what additional power that might give them, though I don’t think that aspect was fully explored.

I enjoyed it, but I also enjoyed all the Scarlet Pimpernel novels, the Three Musketeers and the Man in the Iron Mask. If you don’t think they’d be your sort of thing, I wouldn’t recommend this book, but if you like high boots, doublets, rapiers and repartee, and you don’t mind the occasional dragon, I’d say you were in for a cracking read.

The Margarets by Sheri S Tepper

One of the books I borrowed from my local library recently was a chunky SF novel (science fantasy?) called The Margarets. Margaret Bain is a lonely little girl, the only child on the research station at Phobos. To entertain herself she creates imaginary selves with different traits and personalities: a queen, a warrior, a healer, a shaman. At major turning points in her life, the separate identities seem to take on a life of their own, even long after she has grown out of them – are they dreams, parallel worlds, or a strange reality? It’s interesting to see how different experiences shape each identity in different ways.

On Earth as an adolescent, Margaret faces the ravaged planet for the first time, with its overcrowding and damaged ecosystem which has fallen foul of the body which seems like a kind of interplanetary UN. However, Earth has some friends among the other, older races and their minor gods. When they learn of a threat to humanity, it seems they can’t combat it without the help of all the scattered Margarets, each of which is involved on the fringes without realising it.

I did find this novel a little confusing and had to resort to the reference table of Margarets, their locations and associates (which can give big hints to later plot-points so is best approached carefully) but that may be partly because of the bitty way in which I read the first half, ten minutes here and there between other activities. I also had to grit my teeth through the first part: the whole novel is first-person, from the point of view of one or other of Margaret’s identities, and since she’s a child as the story begins, that part is written from a child’s perspective and it grated a little. Overall though I enjoyed it, I thought the story was interesting and unusual, strong enough to pull me past my reservations on the style (a bit soft-focus and girly in places, not my usual fare though I’m not saying I never read anything like that). Mainly well-written, though a shiftless redneck family with members named Billy Ray, Joe Bob, Billy Wayne, Lou Ellen etc seemed a bit stereotypical, as did the dialogue of the pseudo-West-African tribes on one of the planets.

Tidying some loose ends

I’m sorting out, this weekend. Tidying up, replying to overlooked emails, filing pieces of paper (and electronic equivalents). Last time I did this, I discovered the anthology some of my twitter fiction is in had been for sale on Amazon for a while without me noticing. This time I was reminded of something I meant to mention here but I don’t think I did – it was a most favourable review of said anthology, which brightened up my day.

I also don’t think I’ve mentioned that a reasonably long (9500 words or thereabouts) fantasy story of mine should be coming out at Strange, Weird and Wonderful in half a year or so, which I’m quite excited about. There has been a whisper of the possibility of an audio version – for all my talk of the well-spoken Yorkshireman, I have to say I’m not one of them, and I wonder if such stately prose (at least, it was intended that way) would survive my verbal mangling. Something to ponder over the coming months. The story was (though the location is never explicitly mentioned) set vaguely in the New Forest and Wales, though I’m not sure that has much bearing.

The other thing to mention is of course Neil Gaiman’s fantastic, oh so Gaimanesque episode of Doctor Who, which I saw on the iplayer. I’d been looking forward to it ever since I saw it mentioned in his journal (yes, I know, I really am beyond help), and I’m delighted to say I wasn’t in the least bit disappointed. Someone asked me earlier this week what I wanted to do with my life, and the answer that sprang forth before I’d quite got my truth-filters in place was that I’d like to be Neil Gaiman. Not literally, you understand, but I wouldn’t mind following in his literary footsteps. Back to the story-crafting…

Know your heritage: pioneers of SF

Among the semi-random books I got out of the library recently was a collection of stories by Clark Ashton Smith under the title Out of Space and Time. Never having read anything by him before I thought I’d give it a go, but the first story, The End of the Story, put me off. The phrase ‘purple prose’ suggested itself; it was from 1930 but seemed 40 or 50 years older at least (more, even – Poe sprang to mind), a suspenseful mild horror story set in the 18th century and concerning a forbidden manuscript in a monastery library. It may be that he’d overdone it on this story as he wanted to create that historic feel, but I had a small pile of other library books demanding my attention so one story was all I gave it. It is of course purely a matter of taste, and if you like that kind of style, you’ll enjoy Clark Ashton Smith’s works much more than I did.

Part of the reason I wanted to try this collection at all was the feeling that I hadn’t read many of the classics of the genre. I read Jules Verne and HG Wells when I was an adolescent (and Edgar Allan Poe, for that matter), and naturally I’ve delved into Tolkien and Philip K Dick, but there are plenty of other names I’ve heard often enough but have no first-hand experience of. I don’t think I’ve read any HP Lovecraft (I might have read one story in an anthology but it obviously hasn’t seared itself on my brain), I haven’t read any Edgar Rice Burroughs, EE “Doc” Smith, Michael Moorcock, Robert Heinlein, Kurt Vonnegut… Given my cynical assumption of Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome whenever ‘classics’ are mentioned, I’m often in two minds whether to read them or not. On one hand they’re important influences, it’s a way of tracing the history of stories that I have enjoyed, and I might find that I enjoy some of these classics themselves. On the other, many of them are quite old now, possibly old-fashioned or in a style that’s not to my taste; some of them (I’m thinking sci-fi rather than fantasy here) are even irrelevant and eclipsed by later discoveries.

For when I’m in the mood to read the old stuff, I have discovered a rather wonderful site where you can download (for free) thousands of public domain books in several languages and formats, including a whole host of science fiction, fantasy, gothic and horror (and a pulp section which covers plenty of SF). A bibliophile’s paradise.