Felix in print: Read This First anthology

readthisfirst_coverLadies, gents, and honoured readers of non-pedestrian gender, I am delighted to announce that an anthology featuring my short story “Ithaka” is now available in print! It’s available in full colour or black and white with beautiful illustrations by A. Cradduck.

This intriguing anthology is set in a post-apocalyptic world created by A C Macklin – the original short that inspired it all can be read online, along with many thought-provoking posts on the craft of writing. I first had the privilege of meeting Ms Macklin at a LARP event several years ago, where as a wide-eyed new character I was somewhat overwhelmed to find myself in the company of a coolly self-possessed, aristocratic fae who had among other achievements created a landmass. She’s one of those people I felt flattered to achieve as a Facebook friend, since she clearly has a sound idea of what she’s doing with her life and seemed unlikely to be keen on gathering moss; she regularly asks her friend list for prompts which she uses to produce evocative and quirky twitterature and is pleasingly nerdy about watching Supernatural.

Many of the other contributors – not all of whose stories I’ve read at the time of writing – are also LARPers, most of whom I’ve had the pleasure of sharing a field with. Possibly even all of them, although my memory for names is bad enough even when I don’t have to deal with a character name as well as a real one. The LARP experience – diving into someone else’s imaginative creation and fleshing it out to create a richer tapestry – is peculiarly well-suited to shared-world writing, and I’ve enjoyed both the process of creating this anthology and the community of people involved in it immensely.

Ithaka itself was inspired by the poem Ithaka by C. P. Cavafy, which I’ve loved for some time as a memorable distillation of one of life’s little nuggets of wisdom. It also feels very fitting somehow to create my own little tapestry of interconnections in honour of the larger one represented by Read This First itself – and indeed of the larger tapestry all fiction must be part of in the end.

I am, needless to say, overjoyed to be in print again (and for the first time in my current incarnation), and I sincerely hope you enjoy the book.

 

 

The Alchemist of Souls by Anne Lyle: review

I’ve been waiting some time for a chance to read Alchemist of Souls, since Anne is a personal friend as well as a member of a writers’ group I belonged to for a while. I originally saw this book in one of its earlier drafts, and it’s been fascinating to read the finished product – not to mention to get a window into the inner world of a writer I already know as a person.

So with the appropriate caveats that I know the author, on to the review. Spoilers abound, although I’ve tried not to give any main plot points away.

Alchemist of Souls is set in an alternate Elizabethan England in which Queen Elizabeth I married and had children, and Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the New World discovered not native Americans but a race of tattooed, magical creatures known as the Skraylings. At the start of the book a Skrayling ambassador has come to London, and our hero Mal Catlyn is somewhat unceremoniously recruited as his bodyguard.

Continue reading

Picspam: congrats to Anne Lyle!

Just a drive-by picture post to say many congratulations to Anne Lyle on the publication and launch of her first novel, The Alchemist of Souls.  I was lucky enough to critique a very early draft of the book – indeed, part of the printout I wrote all over is still here beside me on the sofa, covered in scribbled notes from my latest foray back into Uru Live – so seeing it in the flesh was fantastic to say the least. Well done Anne!

Happy readers with their copies of Alchemist of Souls.

L-R: Rob Pearce (now available in Web 1.0), Valerie Vancollie and John Ayliff at the book launch. All my pics of Anne herself came out blurred!

Lies of Locke Lamora: the final post!

This whole readalong experience has been awesome 🙂 Thanks to everyone who’s followed and commented, and I hope I get the time to keep up with all the interesting new blogs I’ve found!

 

1. The Thorn of Camorr is renowned – he can beat anyone in a fight and he steals from the rich to give to the poor. Except of course that clearly most of the myths surrounding him are based on fantasy and not fact. Now that the book is finished how do you feel the man himself compares to his legend? Did you feel that he changed as the story progressed and, if so, how did this make you feel about him by the time the conclusion was reached?

How does any human being compare to their reputation? Usually, they have rather more in the way of flaws, quirks, irritating personal qualities and general ungainliness. Locke is a fictional character and therefore is rather more likeable than most average people – it’d be hard to capture readers if he was a git – but over the course of the story there’s been a clear development in him. He’s lost a lot of the support he took for granted and has had to think on his feet and make the most of the friends and the talents he does have; he’s also achieved his goal of revenge on the Grey King, which leaves him a saturnine confidence trickster without a city to scam. I felt we were seeing the earlier part of the classic hero’s journey in this book – from a big fish in a small pond, a complacent talent content to live for the present, to a man with some dangerous enemies (in the shape of the bondsmagi) and an uncertain future, but nevertheless a tight-knit circle of friends and consummate skill.

 

2. Scott Lynch certainly likes to give his leading ladies some entertaining and strong roles to play. We have the Berangia sisters – and I definitely wouldn’t like to get on the wrong side of them or their blades plus Dona Vorchenza who is the Spider and played a very cool character – even play acting to catch the Thorn. How did you feel about the treatment the sisters and Dona received at the hands of Jean and Locke – were you surprised, did it seem out of character at all or justified?

Gender in fantasy is something I’m very interested in, and I liked the way Lynch did women. I thought that Lynch was very even-handed in his handling of the Berangias sisters and the Spider – they’re women playing a serious game, and he doesn’t let them get away without the same consequences his male characters would face. Maybe it’s just my age and the old-fashioned microculture in which I grew up, but I find that a hell of a lot of fantasy characterisations of women are informed by a very princess-culture unwillingness to be too nasty to them – which makes for some supremely annoying Mary Sue heroines who get away with murder in every chapter and somehow never really get kicked in the teeth by their own mistakes. In Lynch’s writing, if you play a dangerous game you face dangerous situations, whoever you are. Locke and Jean don’t underestimate their adversaries because of their gender, and consequently they don’t cut them any slack that could be used to gain an advantage. Good stuff.

 

3. Towards the end we saw a little more of the magic and the history of the Bondsmagi. The magic, particularly with the use of true names, reminds me a little of old fashioned witchcraft or even voodoo. But, more than that I was fascinated after reading the interlude headed ‘The Throne in Ashes’ about the Elderglass and the Elders and why their structures were able to survive even against the full might of the Bondsmagi – do you have any theories about this do you think it’s based on one of our ancient civilisations or maybe similar to a myth?

I think it’s “sufficiently advanced technology”, to be honest. There doesn’t need to be a reason; it’s an eternal mystery which lends contrast to the impermanence of the cities built by men. I see a lot of contemplation of questions about power in this book, especially as it relates to information and how evanescent power can be when it turns upon a secret; the Elderglass structures are both secrets impenetrable to the mind of man, and forces of nature in the same sense as a mountain – immovable, inscrutable and unmved by human affairs. Which is entirely fitting with the theme of power relating to the fragility of your secret.

The use of true names in magic is very ancient if I remember rightly (which I likely don’t) – I wasn’t surprised to see that turn up, but I did like the use of cat’s-cradle threads in a binding and control spell. It reminded me of a piece of  Tibetan folk magic I once saw in a documentary, where the priest-practitioner bound a slip of paper containing some form of powerful words with many turns of a coloured thread to seal in and concentrate its perceived magic.

 

4. We have previously discussed Scott Lynch’s use of description and whether it’s too much or just spot on. Having got into the last quarter of the book where the level of tension was seriously cranked up – did you still find, the breaks for interludes and the descriptions useful or, under the circumstances did it feel more like a distraction?

I found it very well balanced, personally. The interludes were always relevant to the culture and background of the world, but there was a clear conceptual distinction between the lessons in Camorri history and the main plot. That created enough of a distance between the two that I never felt the main action was being held up by unwieldy exposition.

5. Now that the book has finished how did you feel about the conclusion and the eventual reveal about the Grey King and more to the point the motivations he declared for such revenge – does it seem credible, were you expecting much worse or something completely different altogether?

It’s… very fantasy. It was nothing I didn’t expect for the genre, but that’s not to say I found it hackneyed; it gave me a wonderful sense of neatness, of the tidying up of all the existing loose ends. I really found the plotting in this book to be good, solid, user-friendly workmanship; it wasn’t that I couldn’t see what was coming, it was that I liked the story so much I didn’t mind. Lynch may not be China Mieville (as I’ve said before about other writers, who is) but he takes the tools of his genre and uses them to give his readers a damn good time. And I’ve always got a soft spot for being treated well 🙂

As for the world-specific stuff – the conceit that all Camorri are vengeful, grudge-holding schemers is not one I find instinctively engaging but it’s clearly enough signposted in the book that the eventual resolution made concrete sense to me. And by that point, we’d also seen Locke lose enough and take enough punishment at the Grey King’s hands that I at least genuinely cared about getting to see him strike a blow for Bug, the Galo brothers and himself. It worked because it was thoughtfully, precisely and solidly constructed.

6. Were you surprised that Locke, being given two possible choices (one of which could possibly mean he would miss his chance for revenge on the Grey King) chose to go back to the Tower – especially given that (1) he would have difficulty in getting into the building (2) he would have difficulty in convincing them about the situation and (3) he would have difficulty in remaining free afterwards? Did anyone else nearly pee their pants when Locke and the rest were carrying the sculptures up to the roof garden?

No, I wasn’t surprised by that choice. As I said in one of my earlier posts, writing rogue characters is plagued by the problem of making them sympathetic, and I’ve thought throughout that in terms of his basic morality, Locke is actually a nice guy. He’s on the side of light. He’s a priest, and we’ve seen him pause for reflection about the spiritual consequences of his life several times; he still isn’t a cold-blooded murderer; he still uses trickery instead of violence even though he now has the means (in Jean) to use force first if he likes. Of course, he’s also a twisted and manipulative bastard, and he doesn’t just go into the Tower cold and end up in chains – he goes in there and scams the very people he’s helping, in the name of making the grandest gesture possible for his fallen comrades. He’s still playing the system for everything he’s worth – but by this point, you’re so delighted by his cheek and so invested in the story of those comrades and the love Locke has for them that you’re already cheering him on.

I didn’t think the sculptures were going to blow up that close to the end of the book, but I will say that I didn’t see the ship trick coming – this being exactly what I mean about Lynch’s watertight plotting. Nothing is a loose end, even when there’s a hell of a lot going on. It’s incredibly satisfying to see all those questions resolve – and he always manages to find a way to link it all back to Locke as well. Glorious.

7. Finally, the other question I would chuck in here is that, following the end of the book I was intrigued to check out some of the reviews of LOLL and noticed that the negative reviews mentioned the use of profanity. How did you feel about this – was it excessive? Just enough? Not enough?

Pfft. I think people who complain about swearing in fantasy novels are uptight. The genre has moved on and expanded a lot since Tolkein, and people who still expect the entire field of fantasy writing to be squeaky-clean sword’n’sorcery are a bit like the guy who complained on Bioware’s forum about Dragon Age Origins offering gay romance options, based on the fact that he (as a straight male) was their “main demographic”. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy; I’m sure there are people out there who like their clean, ethical escapism, but there are also plenty of us who like it a bit grubby and real. Out of the ungainly monsters of cross-fertilisation comes hybrid vigour and future growth, and to be honest I think I must have missed the ugly-mutant phase of the realist era of fantasy literature, because this book sure as hell is not awkward in any sense of the word.

I didn’t think the profanity was excessive at all; again, very well balanced. Lynch has excellent taste, and knowing when to switch the propriety off for the sake of creating the right kind of chiaroscuro (oo, pretentious) is just having a wider sense of what’s appropriate.

8. Okay one further, and probably most important but very quick question – having finished, will you pick up the sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies?

I’m on a pretty tight budget right now and all my book purchases have to be second hand, but if I come across a copy I may very well pick it up 🙂

Review: Avilion by Robert Holdstock

Well, part of the reason I got into the Locke Lamora readalong was to get me reading again, and thus far it seems to have worked. I recently finished a copy of Avilion – in actual fact a pre-publication proof copy, which I was lucky enough to win in one of  Anne Lyle‘s regular giveaways. Reading it was something of an experience, but I was surprised how fast I learnt to tune out the obvious typographical errors and unexpected outbursts of Courier New.

Robert Holdstock is an author I consider a major influence on me, in that he’s one of the writers whose style and worldview captures something very fundamental about how I see writing within my personal world. I first discovered his Ryhope Wood series as a teenager, and devoured the first two books (Mythago Wood and Lavondyss) as soon as I could lay hands on them. Lavondyss is the standout, in my mind – it’s visceral and powerful, and the shamanic preoccupation with masks as a magic that changes the wearer’s perception of the world is both fascinating, and a link into a mentality that’s long been lost or marginalised in Western culture. There’s an echo of Alan Garner in Holdstock’s thinking somewhere, the sort of ancient/modern fusion of thought I saw in Strandloper.

Avilion, then, is chronologically the third in the core timeline of the Ryhope Wood books, but in terms of its plot is (according to Wikipedia, at any rate) actually set between Mythago Wood and Lavondyss. It’s the first of the series that I’ve read as an adult, and I’m simultaneously convinced I need ro re-read Lavondyss, and wary of being disappointed if I read it through the mask of age I wear now.

As a reading experience, I found it flowed along with the same half-conscious dream-logic as all the Ryhope books; connections between events within Ryhope Wood are mystical and instinctual, not logical and clear. The wood itself is a character in the series, a vast and alien mind which seems to work on the same inexorable logic as the human subconscious. In Ryhope Wood, that which is most needed finds a way to become real in the form of mythagos, people brought to life by the imaginer’s mind as incarnations of a mythical archetype. But the wood has its own ideas, much like the alien planet in Solaris – and the results are rarely what the imaginer expected. In Avilion, the main character Steven spends most of the book in a slowly crumbling relationship with his mythago wife, who begins to suffer an identity crisis over the fact she may have been (re)created by her husband’s murderous brother, not by the man who gave up his life in the real world to wait for her return. Her daughter sets out to reach Avilion, the heart of the Wood itself, in the hope of changing the fate laid out for her family – but ultimately, the wood has its own agency. One of the aspect I found most endearing was Steven’s very logical and rational mind – his hopes for the future were entirely reasonable throughout, and almost always at odds with what his life inside the wood would eventually provide. I found it an affectionate comment on the typical masculine mind, which by nature or nurture is often divorced from its own more instinctive side.

Most of the book is seen through the eyes of Steven’s half-mythago son Jack, whose perspective goes hand in hand with his own mythago nature or “green” side, Haunter. Haunter’s viewpoint is eerie and complete, more so to my mind than the moments in which we’re in the point of view of Jack’s sister, who is more in touch with her mythago side than Jack. Some of those moments ring almost false in that they render the forest both facile and alien, a little too close to the magic-reason of a child – whereas in Jack and Steven’s mindsets the forest’s ominous power is amplified by its half-understood aura of purpose and will. Ultimately, Jack chooses to give up Haunter to save a life – and in that choice I see a similar theme of the male mind as defined by the conflict between rationality and instinct (“red” versus “green” as Jack’s family term it), and the ultimate inevitability of being subsumed by the rational, distancing mind.

The other major moment of synergy for me in this read was the point at which Jack meets the Iaelven, stinking and terrifying creatures clearly based on the archetype of the faerie child-stealer; the way the Iaelven are drawn has an alarming amount in common with the “elves” I created in my unfinished NaNo novel, who were called elves by the humans living alongside them because they were terrifying, and lived in the woods. Holdstock’s take on the archetype is more visceral and owes less to Native American shamanism than mine, but it’s always disconcerting to see the process of simultaneous creation in action. It’s never clear in the book whether the Iaelven are real beings  with a separate existence within the wood, or mythagos created by Steven’s family’s minds, which have come to take on a life of their own in the tale, and even in the history of their tale. This strange circularity of purpose, the ritualised acting-out of stories in the dim quest towards some unrecognised goal, is both characteristic of Holdstock and so strongly reminiscent of what I understand about human psychology that I couldn’t help adopting it as part of my own philosophy of story when I first read him –  I prefer my own stories to be driven a little more logically than Holdstock’s tend to be, but I always return to that quality of myth-like universality as a test of whether the story I’ve made will really speak to people who aren’t like me.

Overall, then, I found Avilion another lyrical, illogical, enchanting window into a world and a type of world which I very personally enjoy. I suspect that rereading these novels over time will be a pleasure; they have a plasticity to their stories that allows for a wide range of different conclusions about their real meaning, and I could see myself finding something new in them every time.

Alan Garner has an announcement to make…

Wow.

So Alan Garner is planning to finish the Weirdstone of Brisingamen trilogy, fifty years on. Weirdstone and its sequel, The Moon of Gomrath, were childhood favourites of mine – reading the final book as an adult is going to be a real experience. The last one of his books I read was Strandloper, which I found beautiful, instinctively comprehensible and blissfully confusing in equal measure; I haven’t read Thursbitch, which is mentioned in the article, but am starting to think I should. Sense of place and the fragility of particular moments in time is always important to me; it was the thing that really made the Stone Book Quartet sing for me, and it sounds from the Guardian’s summary as if Thursbitch is full of it.

I really can’t wait to read this. I hope it won’t disappoint me.