fantasy

A Blink of the Screen, short fiction by Terry Pratchett

I might not have read this collection if my dad hadn’t recommended it then lent me it, which just goes to show something or other. Years ago, near the height of my Pratchett-fandom, I read a couple of pre-Discworld novels (The Dark Side of the Sun, and Strata) and my boat, as it were, remained distinctly unafloat. I haven’t fancied reading his recent sci-fi collaboration with Stephen Baxter, though I did enjoy a radio adaptation of Nation, and I don’t recall reading any of Terry Pratchett’s short stories. So a whole book of them, well over half of which was non-Discworld output, didn’t sound like I needed to rush out and read it (as indeed I haven’t, it came out in 2012). Occasionally (whisper it) I can be wrong, a little hasty in my judgement, for not only did A Blink of the Screen turn out to be most entertaining, the Discworld offerings on the whole were the weakest of the lot.

The non-Discworld stories in the book cover the period 1963-2010 (Discworld 1992-2009), some serious but most with his trademark humour to the fore, and mostly within the broad spectrum of speculative fiction (horror, fantasy, science fiction or some blend thereof). Each one has a short (or not so short) introduction by Pratchett, setting it in context or adding a relevant anecdote. Twenty-four pages of colour illustrations are slotted in, mostly by Josh Kirby, quite a few you probably haven’t seen before. There is also a foreword by AS Byatt which gives an unexpected glimpse into her life – I love the thought of her curling up with a Discworld novel after a long day writing Literature.

I can’t quite decide whether this is a fan’s book or not. There are definitely some parts of the Discworld section that are strictly for the fans (football cards tied in to Unseen Academicals, for instance), and a deleted extract from a Granny Weatherwax/Nanny Ogg story called The Sea and Little Fishes. However, even some of the Discworld parts should have wider appeal, like the story for The Times Higher Education Supplement in 2005 in which various senior members of the Unseen University discuss the ludicrous idea of inspecting and somehow measuring the productivity of a university, which any academic subject to the REF will surely raise a weary smile at. Among the non-Discworld gems are the character who turns up to meet his author, the time-traveller called Mervin who ends up somehow in Camelot mistaken for Merlin, and the computer who believes in Father Christmas. All in all, as long as you’re comfortable at the comic fantasy end of SF, I imagine there will be plenty in this collection to keep you entertained for a while.

I wrote this review a week or two before Terry Pratchett died, then put it aside for later as I often do. It meant that at the time of his death I’d recently been reminded just how good a writer he was, which I’m very glad about.

Festive highlights, week 1

The first of my two weeks off work is just about over, and as was inevitable I’ve done a pitiful amount of writing. I have, however, read most of Happy Hour in Hell by Tad Williams (bit gruesome in places, but then it is set in hell), eaten quite a few mince pies, a wedge of stollen and an awful lot of roast potatoes, and listened to some great radio.

The radio in question naturally includes the adaptation of the Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman novel Good Omens I’ve been looking forward to for months. Peter Serafinowicz and Mark Heap as Crowley and Aziraphale are fantastic, and it’s actually made me want to go back and re-read the novel, though I probably won’t as the To Read pile is teetering as it is.

I’ve also listened to the final ever Cabin Pressure, John Finnemore’s superb airline sitcom (I do like a series that ends properly instead of drifting on till they stop commissioning it), and the first episode of a fantasy series called Pilgrim (think old magic, think English countryside, think Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell but more to the point). All of this has sent me scurrying off to half-finished stories of my own (mainly of the comic fantasy variety), all fired up and ready to type. Right after I’ve had another mince pie.

Introducing my first SF collection – and it’s free if you want it to be

As promised last week, a treat (I hope!) for sci-fi and fantasy readers. A dozen stories in the realms of speculative fiction, some previously published, some you won’t have seen before, all nicely packaged as an ebook which you can download here. As with my (non-genre) novel Wasted Years, it’s pay what you like, which means you can even have it for free.

This is the rather snazzy cover that OneMonkey put together for me:

Cracks in the Foundations by JY Saville

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.