fiction

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.

In Pale Battalions by Robert Goddard

I wasn’t familiar with the name Robert Goddard and would have been highly unlikely to pick this novel up, left to my own devices. However, that’s what recommendations are for, and on my last trip to the Library of Mum and Dad (like the Bank of Mum and Dad, but easier to come by and more edifying), this was handed to me as a good starting point into Goddard’s back catalogue.

The edition I read (Corgi paperback 2010) would have benefitted greatly from the attentions of a diligent proof-reader; the vast number of typos began to irritate me but thankfully the power of the story drew me on. In Pale Battalions is a finely-paced novel of family secrets, sacrifice and lies, where the nested narratives mirror the nested mysteries. Certainties are periodically overturned. The answer to some burning question swims into view, trailing in its wake a whole shoal of questions of a different hue.

Leonora Galloway is a seventy year old widow taking her daughter to visit a First World War memorial in France in 1986. It is the cue for an unburdening, a lifetime of living within the confines of a web of secrets being cast aside. Throughout the novel there is a theme of withholding information to protect someone, even if they don’t need that protection. What right has anyone to decide when is the right time to reveal surprising truths, and if the revelation comes too late would it have been better not to know?

The bulk of the novel takes place during the First World War, which might make this year a particularly suitable time to read it since commemorations are taking place all around. The quiet dignity of the prose and the unpacking of a mysterious past put me in mind of The House at Riverton by Kate Morton. I think readers of that novel would enjoy In Pale Battalions, as would anyone who enjoyed Kate Atkinson’s novels Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Human Croquet.

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.

Where did that month go?

Looks like I haven’t been here for a month, not sure how that happened. No doubt you all missed me and have been waiting for my return (it’s nearly Christmas, I’m allowed to dream). The sci-fi noir novel I was writing for NaNoWriMo (Sunrise Over Centrified City, as its working title goes) reached just over 25,000 words by midnight on November 30th. It’s now creeping slowly to 35,000 and I’m still working away reasonably steadily, still enjoying myself. Maybe that’s how come a month has passed without me noticing.

It is of course the season of mince pies and tinsel which heralds, apart from the imminent arrival of friends and family to scoff the aforementioned mince pies, the end of the year. All those writing goals I didn’t stick to! The craft projects I didn’t complete for the third year running! People I haven’t met up with, places I haven’t been, jumpers I haven’t fished out of the back of the cupboard. Yes, it’s time for the annual wallowing in negativity and despair. However, this is what tinsel was invented for – to shine its purple plastic positivity around the house and enable you to dust yourself off and start planning for the year to come. All those writing goals. And the craft projects I know I can finish if I just find the right time. Now where’s my 2014 calendar?

It’s that month again

Ridiculous challenge warning: I’m taking part in NaNoWriMo again.

NaNoWriMo, for those who don’t yet know (and really, it’s getting harder to avoid) stands for National Novel-Writing Month. Except it’s international, and some people seem to write a collection of short stories instead. Anyway the point is you write 50,000 words during November and hope that enough of them will be good enough that you can call it the first draft. I’ve taken part once before, in 2011 (though I have also done the now defunct ScriptFrenzy which left me with a decent graphic novel script and a radio play I could have written better when I was twelve), when I wrote just over 22,000 words that I wouldn’t otherwise have got round to. For me, NaNoWriMo is an excuse to tackle something big that I’d normally put off ‘for when I’ve got more time’. This time it’s an idea from over a year ago, and I’ve spent October writing 60-odd pages of notes (filling up one of my Wallace and Gromit notebooks and getting a fair way through the next) on character, setting, plot. I’ve got street-plans, sketch-maps, a diagram of the main character’s apartment, and her family tree. I’ve still got a fuzzy grey spot where the main business of the plot should be though.

My tools of choice this November

My tools of choice this November

For reasons of expediency I’m writing this novel longhand, thus adding hours to the total project time with the need to type up eventually, and frustrating OneMonkey every time I stop after a couple of paragraphs and quickly count the words I’ve just written. However, it does mean that if all I need is an A6 notebook and a biro (usually one I’ve picked up for free somewhere along the way) I can write on the train, for five minutes before dinner, at the interval in the theatre (and inevitably there are 2 or 3 things I want to see this month). On Day 1 this seemed to work brilliantly and I wrote far more than I expected. Day 2, however, when I was at home all day with little to do except write, my relative lack of wordcount completely cancelled out the achievements of Day 1. Lashing rain, thunder and lightning, scarily strong winds – you’d have thought it would have been the perfect day for curling up with a notebook and retreating to another world. Maybe the problem is that the other world is bone-penetratingly cold and in the grip of an energy crisis, full of corrupt officials and with not much hope in sight at the moment. Yes, not only am I attempting a detective novel this time, it’s a sci-fi detective novel. OneMonkey asked if it was going to be as good as Jeff VanderMeer’s Finch; no, I replied (still haven’t got the hang of this self-promotion lark). Not interested then, he said with a grin. I guess I’d better go get writing and aim a bit higher.

An audio experiment: the author reads flash

For no particular reason other than it’s a bank holiday weekend and I’ve had no pressing concerns (read that as: I’ve nearly finished writing a novella and I’m putting off the serious business of the culmination of ideas), I’ve recorded a clip of myself reading Not Such a Cold Fish, which you can access here:

There’s no deep reason why I chose that story. It’s short, the after dinner mint at the end of the banquet that is The Little Book of Northern Women (the only part of that collection that was already available elsewhere), and as this post title suggests, this was something of an experiment. A couple of years ago I had concerns about trying an audio version of one of my fantasy stories (admittedly it didn’t come from a collection with the word Northern in the title) but OneMonkey has persuaded me to stop doing bad impressions of the Queen and embrace my normal speaking voice. He described an earlier take as sounding like a parody of Alan Bennett. Sometimes you just can’t win.

I had vaguely thought of adding audio tasters of various stories here, and I’d be interested to know what anyone thinks of that. In these multi-tasking times you wouldn’t even have to read the first page to decide whether you want to continue; I (or possibly OneMonkey if a Geordie accent works better) could read it for you while you’re clicking on tins of beans at an online supermarket or flicking through your holiday snaps.