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Book review: Babylon Steel, by Gaie Sebold

Babylon Steel is the eponymous heroine of Gaie Sebold’s debut fantasy novel, an ex-mercenary turned madam of a moderately up-market brothel. Desperate for an injection of cash to pay for her girls’ expensive tastes, Madam Steel takes on a commission from suave gambling-den owner Darash Fain to locate a missing girl, and unsurprisingly finds herself up to her neck in trouble, not to mention haunted by a terrible past that is gradually revealed during the course of the story.

I came to this book feeling a little uneasy, given the profession of the protagonist. There’s a tendency in the fantasy genre to romanticise prostitution and stress the willingness of the participants, when in reality the vast majority of women only turn to the profession out of desperation. On the other hand it was refreshing to read about female characters with a healthy, nay enthusiastic, attitude to sex, and there’s a pleasing lack of the rape’n’misogyny vibe that pervades so much fantasy. Also, who can fail to like an author who creates a pair of BDSM specialists called Cruel and Unusual?

Part noir, part sword’n’sorcery, this is a difficult novel to pin down. The “present day” storyline was complex in itself, weaving the plotline about the missing girl with the everyday problems of the brothel, including a sect of creepy puritanical priests who seem bent on driving Babylon out of business. Add in regular tension-filled flashbacks to Babylon’s past as a teenaged trainee priestess and it almost feels like too much story is being crammed into a relatively short book – and yet everything is woven together with a great deal of skill, reminding me of one of Terry Pratchett’s more intricate Discworld novels. Thankfully, after a few chapters I was sufficiently engrossed to read the whole book in four (work) days, so everything stayed fresh in my memory. This is not a book to put down and pick up at intervals!

The setting is not your typical medieval fantasy world, either; it’s just one world—or plane—in a multiverse connected by portals and inhabited by a bewildering array of sentient species, from various human-like races to furry or scaly beings with more or fewer than the usual complement of limbs (or other appendages *cough*). It reminded me a great deal of the kind of SFF I read back in the eighties—Zelazny, Leiber and particularly Robert Silverberg’s Majipoor stories and Robert Asprin’s Thieves World anthologies—and owes far more to the American fantasy tradition than to Tolkien. Which is no bad thing, in my mind; the genre has become a little ossified. At times I felt it was almost too much of a rag-bag of creatures, with fey, vampires and were…somethings rubbing shoulders (and more intimate body parts) with beings that would have been more at home in a Mos Eisley cantina, but it does contribute to what’s basically a light-hearted setting under its sleazy, run-down façade of villainy and vice.

On the subject of race, I have to admit I’m a bit disappointed by the whitewashed cover. On several occasions it’s mentioned that Babylon is typical of her race in having copper-coloured skin, and if I recall correctly she also has a high-bridged nose, which makes her sound more Central American than white. The art appears to be a photo-realistic painting rather than a straight photograph (click on it for a high-resolution version), so there’s really no excuse for changing the character in this way.

Another minor gripe was the fight scenes. In order to convey the immediacy and chaos of combat, the narrative shifts into present tense and becomes disjointed, giving only glimpses of the action. I can see what Sebold was trying to do, but the technique was so blatant that it pulled me out of the story a bit. Of course this could just be me being a typical writer and noticing the skeleton beneath the story’s skin, but it really didn’t work for me.

These small issues aside, it’s an enjoyable book with an engaging protagonist and an unusual setting, and I will certainly be trying to find room on my TBR list for the sequel.

The Merchant of Dreams: finished cover

Last week I got my first glimpse of the gorgeous cover art for Book 2 of the Night’s Masque trilogy, and thanks to some hard work by artist Larry Rostant and Angry Robot supremo Marc Gascoigne, I’m now able to reveal the finished article:

 

As you can see it features Mal Catlyn’s partner in crime, Jacomina “Coby” Hendricks, ready for action on the murky streets of a certain Italian city…

I’m particularly pleased with this cover, as I really wanted Coby to feature on it since she again plays a significant role in the book. I gave Marc a detailed brief of what I envisaged, and he and Larry have translated that perfectly. The timing is also ideal, as I’ve just started work on the final revisions, and this image is really going to help focus my imagination on the atmosphere I want for the book.

The Merchant of Dreams is due to be published in spring 2013 – watch this space for more news!

Book review: Among Thieves, by Douglas Hulick

I first came across Among Thieves when talking to my editor about the cover design for The Alchemist of Souls. Marc was thinking of commissioning Larry Rostant, who does a nice line in brooding historical dudes, and used the UK cover of Among Thieves (below) as an example of the look he was going for. Then I met Doug himself on Fantasy Faction, and he was such a nice guy that I couldn’t not read his book. I’m very glad I did, as it turned out to be right up my (dark, rat-infested) alley!

Among Thieves is the story of Drothe (no surname – he’s too cool for that!), a “Nose” or informant in the pay of one of the crimelords of Ildrecca, the capital of a Renaissance-like empire. There are hints of a wider world outside, but the action of the book is confined to the city itself, particularly the seedier quarters where a “shadow empire” of organised crime holds sway. Drothe works for an Upright Man, one of the lower-level bosses who have carved up the city between them but who are themselves pawns in a larger game played by the Gray Princes, near-legendary figures known only by epithets such as “Longreach” or “The Piper’s Son”. Hulick’s use of historical thieves’ cant, supplemented by invented slang, gives shape to what could otherwise be a bewildering array of forgers, fences and hired muscle, as Drothe investigates what seems to be a minor mystery (an undecipherable code found on a smuggler) and finds himself way in over his head.

This is certainly the most action-packed book I’ve read since The Swords of Albion – poor Drothe rarely escapes a chapter without another chase or fight (and a good deal of resultant pain and injury). The pace develops gently at first, allowing the reader time to get to know the world, but by the halfway mark the plot revelations and action set-pieces are coming thick and fast. The fight scenes in particular are very detailed – Hulick is an aficionado of renaissance swordsmanship – indeed almost a little too detailed and blow-by-blow, but this is first-person narrative so I’m willing to cut Drothe a little slack for being hyperaware in combat. I know from firsthand experience (not fighting, I must add) how time really does seem to slow down when your adrenaline spikes!

It’s not all swordplay, however; this is a world of magic too, from minor charms used by the criminal fraternity to spells of earth-shattering power forbidden to all but the emperor. Mostly, though, magic seems to cause more problems than it solves – an approach I heartily endorse. (On a purely personal level, I was interested to note the parallels between this book and my own, though I won’t go into detail here for fear of spoilers – you’ll just have to read them both ;) )

Overall, a cracking debut, and I’m really looking forward to reading the sequel, Sworn in Steel, which is due out later this year.

Book review: The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie

Back in 2007, when I was starting to revise what would become The Alchemist of Souls, I picked up a couple of books that sounded from reviews like they were in a similar vein. One of these (The Lies of Locke Lamora) I read straight away, the other – The Blade Itself – sat neglected on my shelf until a few weeks ago. I am now regretting that delay.

The thing that put me off for a long time was that one of the viewpoint characters, Glokta, is an inquisitor. A torturer, not to put too fine a point on it. And having been so grossed out by a torture scene in The Lies of Locke Lamora that I had nightmares, I wasn’t about to launch into another book that might do the same. Thankfully Abercrombie has a much lighter touch than Lynch, and it’s a credit to his writing ability that Glokta is one of my favourite characters in the book.

Spoiler note: I’ve tried to avoid major spoilers, but it’s proved impossible to explain why I like this book without at least a little detail!

The Blade Itself is in some respects a typical first volume of an epic fantasy. It introduces a cast of colourful characters, including the obligatory white-bearded wizard, a huge “barbarian” and a handsome, sword-wielding nobleman, and ends by sending them off on a quest – but none of these characters is much like the clichés you’re familiar with. Also, the wizard and his quest are practically a subplot in this first volume, most of which is taken up with the political machinations in the city of Adua, as the Union (a large kingdom somewhat resembling Georgian England) teeters on the brink of war.

To be honest, it was the main plot that really caught my interest and attention; it’s a dark fantasy-of-manners – think Jane Austen meets The Borgias – packed with intrigue and humour. This part of the story rests on the shoulders of two very different characters: the aforementioned Glokta, and Jezal dan Luthar, the self-centred young nobleman who is destined to be dragged into the magus Bayaz’s quest.

Sand dan Glokta is a lonely, broken man, a former fencing champion who, during the last war against the Ghurkul Empire, was captured and tortured beyond the endurance of most men. Faced with a choice between going home to his doting mother’s country estate, or working for the Inquisition using the skills he learnt from his tormenters, Glokta chooses the latter. He is set by his superior to root out corruption amongst the merchant class, and uncovers a conspiracy that could threaten the fragile peace with the Ghurkul Empire to the south, even as the Union is about to go to war with the northern barbarians.

Jezal dan Luthar is one of the latest hopefuls entered into the same fencing contest that Glokta won in his youth. Unfortunately Jezal would rather drink and play cards with his fellow officers, to the despair of his trainers. However when Jezal falls in love with the sister of his friend Major West, he discovers new motivation…

Abercrombie’s strength is most definitely in his characters, all of whom are complex and, in their own way, sympathetic, despite some pretty deep flaws. I particularly liked Jezal’s objet d’amour, Ardee West, who starts out as a vivacious cross between Lizzie Bennett and Mary Crawford, but is revealed to be a much more complex (and, somewhat inevitably, tragic) character. And then of course there’s Glokta, whose dry humour and stoicism in the face of constant pain (both physical, from his war wounds, and the emotional impact of the contempt of others) makes him totally sympathetic despite the horrible things he has to do for his job. Thankfully Abercrombie skips over the gruesome details, knowing how to give you just enough information to be creeped out rather than nauseated – something I wish Lynch was better at!

If anything, the Adua sections were so enjoyable that I found the more traditional epic fantasy parts rather dull in comparison. Maybe I’m just jaded by a lifetime of reading such things and, more recently, seeing amazing CGI in movies, but for me the Big Magic felt at odds with the gritty realism of the rest of the story. I suspect I’m out of tune with the majority of the fantasy audience, however, who seem to demand this kind of thing, since practically every epic fantasy has this kind of buildup from the mundane to the ZOMG SFX’n’dragons!!1! (Not that there are any dragons in The Blade Itself, thank the gods.)

Some readers may find the complex, multi-threaded narrative hard to follow, and I confess I found the conspiracy plot particularly hard to keep a handle on because of all the switching back and forth, but on the other hand the writing was so assured, it was that rare kind of book where I could just sit back and enjoy the ride, without worrying where the author was heading.

In conclusion: excellent stuff, and I’ll definitely be picking up the second volume – whilst hoping the epic doesn’t overwhelm the intrigue!

21st Century Pulp

There’s a lot of debate about ebooks pricing and the future of publishing at the moment. At one extreme you have Big Publishers charging hardback prices for new ebooks; at the other, self-publishers setting prices as low as 99 cents for a full novel. The latter might seem great for readers, and a really successful ebook at this price point can earn more for the writer than a typical debut advance – but as both Amanda Hocking and John Locke have shown, the key to self-publishing success is having a whole bunch more books that fans can buy once they decide they like the first one. Typically, these big hitters of the self-publishing world have not sold one book to a million readers – they have sold around 10 books to 100,000 readers. OK, so that’s still around ten times as many readers as a debut novelist might reach, but let’s back up to the other half of the equation. They sold their readers ten different books – which means they had to write ten books. Not one, or even a trilogy. Ten. At a bare minimum that’s half a million words.

Cover of "The Black Mask" magazine (1929)
Cover of "The Black Mask" magazine (1929)

It was whilst considering this point that it struck me that today’s self-publishers are not unlike the pulp writers of the 30s and 40s. For a very modest payment (royalties on a 99 cent Kindle book are 35 cents a copy) they are churning out popular entertainment which is distributed in the cheapest, most disposable form available. Back then it was cheap-as-it-comes woodpulp paper (hence the “pulp” moniker); now, it’s electronic files that you do not even “own”. Pulps were popular in a time of economic depression; ebooks “need” to be inexpensive right now because of the cost investment of the hardware required to read them (and the aforementioned lack of real ownership).

Of course the existence of the pulp market didn’t prevent the production of more expensive editions, but it did ensure that reading material was available to everyone at a price point they could afford. There will always be people who prefer the premium edition – indeed Apple have staked their entire business on such a model, and won. So I don’t think cheap ebooks will bring down the publishing industry, any more than the pulps did. But commercial publishers will have to adapt to keep up – and so will writers.

Book Review: The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

I was very excited when I saw this book was coming out: I love alternate history, Venice is one of my favourite cities (the book I’m working on is set there in large part), and it sounded like an interesting twist on the hoary old vampires-vs-werewolves trope. In all these respects I was not disappointed. Unfortunately it was not all moonlight and roses – but more about that later.

The Fallen Blade tells the story of Tycho, a young man of about seventeen who finds himself in early fifteenth-century Venice with no memory of his past and, worse still, strange inhuman abilities he does not understand. Even his name is given to him by the Venetians who find him, based on the first, garbled words he speaks.

As mentioned above this is an alternate history Venice, where Marco Polo returned from China to seize power and end the old republic, replacing it with a hereditary dukedom. Now his great grandson, Marco IV, sits on the throne of Serenissima, but the young duke is apparently mad, and his mother and uncle vie for power behind the throne. Chief amongst their retainers is Atilo the Moor, aging head of the Assassini, who sees in Tycho the ultimate assassin and his future heir.

Tycho is not so pliable, however, and resists his masters at every turn. When he comes up against a krieghund, one of the Holy Roman Emperor’s werewolves, he discovers there is a secret magical war going on behind the mundane politicking…

There’s a lot to enjoy about this book. The world-building is fresh and intriguing, hinting at a broad canvas that will be pursued in subsequent books. Grimwood’s Renaissance Venice is suitably filthy, smelly and brutal, appropriately enough since what we mostly see is its seamy underbelly. But there were aspects of the writing that, for me at least, were less successful.

Firstly, I found the prose hard to follow in places. Grimwood is a little too fond of sentence fragments and odd punctuation, and the point of view lurches between omniscient and close third person in a way that reminded me of nothing so much as shaky handheld camerawork, the focus always seeming to shift away from a character or the action of a scene at a crucial moment. Add this to the large number of characters and plot threads being thrown at the reader in the opening chapters, and it makes for a disorienting kaleidoscope of imagery. The storytelling does eventually settle down to a clearer rhythm and builds to a set-piece action climax – only to be spoilt by a deus ex machina resolution to Tycho’s seemingly impossible mission.

Far more off-putting, however, was the constant catalogue of violence against the female characters in this novel. For a good two-thirds of the book, scarcely a chapter (and there are a lot of them) goes by without a young woman being abused, violated or, in the worst cases, horribly murdered. Admittedly few characters in this book escape violence and abuse, least of all pretty-boy Tycho, who spends so much of the book naked that one is frequently shocked to discover he is clothed in a given chapter. A certain amount of violence is expected in a book like this, but it is the unremitting, brutal and often sexual cruelty towards the girls that leaves this female reader with an unpleasant taste in her mouth.

Now, one could say this is a historically accurate portrayal of a highly misogynistic culture, but surely it is the prerogative of the artist to pick and choose his subjects and arrange them according to the effect he wishes to produce? In this case, the effect was that I only continued reading the book in order to be able to give a fair and balanced review.

Overall, I feel disinclined to recommend this book, or to read the sequel. A pity, as Tycho is an intriguing character and I would like to know more about the Fallen. Not enough, however, to wade further through the fetid canals of Grimwood’s Venice.

Torture in fantasy – how much is justified?

Last week I blogged about fantasy noir, mainly in the context of it epitomising the 21st century love of the mashup. Noir brings in themes and tropes from other genres, particularly crime and thrillers, so it’s inevitable there should be a thick strand of violence in the mix. Worryingly though, at least for me, is the preponderance of torture in many of these books.

Firstly, let me say that I understand that fiction cannot shy away from the ugliness of life altogether, otherwise it would be bland, undemanding fluff, suitable only for very young children and those of a nervous disposition. And in far too many human cultures, torture and cruelty are, and have been, rife. Note also that I’m not saying such material shouldn’t be published. Each to his own, and all that. What does bother me as a reader is when writers take evident and frankly unhealthy relish in that ugliness.  So, if we cannot avoid the topic altogether, what is the role of torture in a supposedly escapist genre like fantasy?

For my examples I shall (coincidentally, perhaps) take the two books I mentioned last week: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, and The Sword of Albion by Mark Chadbourn. Note that there will be minor spoilers in the following discussion!

The former book contains (IMHO) a brief example of what is often known as “torture porn”. The hero, Locke Lamora, is visiting the headquarters of the big crime boss of the city, and to show us how utterly despicable the fellow is, Lynch proceeds to describe the torture and death of a minor criminal. The process involves a bag of ground glass being placed over the man’s head and its contents rubbed into his flesh, and is dwelt on in such vivid, excruciating detail that I literally had nightmares after reading it. It’s the only really gruesome scene in the book, and is there purely to raise the stakes by making us fear that something similar might happen to Locke. I suppose it served its purpose, but frankly I would have enjoyed the book more if the details of the torture had been left to the reader’s imagination. I think what really irks me, though, is the extreme change of tone in a book I was previously enjoying. The blurb and opening chapters promised Oliver Twist meets Ocean’s Eleven, and suddenly I get sadistic horror instead.

Contrast this approach with that of Chadbourn, in his book set in Elizabethan London. His hero Will Swyfte attends the torture on the rack of an enemy and is shown as complicit in the man’s torment, even though he is not personally responsible for it. Swyfte himself is later tortured by the fae, using a form of waterboarding (who knew the Unseelie Court were so forward-looking?). The former event shows us the moral depths to which Swyfte has sunk in his fanatical pursuit of those who stole his beloved Jenny, and the latter puts his devotion to his cause to the test – but in neither case is the torture described in such gruesome detail as to be distressing to the reader.

Apart from this one difference, the two books are not that dissimilar in tone. Both are pitched as ripping yarns, a series of high adventures by less-than-perfect heroes in a flawed society. In other words, pure entertainment. And torture porn is not entertainment, at least not to this reader. It makes it difficult for me to recommend Lynch, particularly to female friends (many of whom are a great deal more squeamish than I am), and reluctant to buy any more of his books. By contrast, Chadbourn maintains the delicate balance between historical reality, noir grittiness and tasteful writing; the result is a much more enjoyable read, and I look forward to the publication of the sequel.

Unsurprisingly, I’ve taken Chadbourn’s lead in my own novel. I needed my hero to be interrogated by the bad guys, and I had already hinted that their methods were brutal. So, I had to come up with a way to cause great pain to the hero whilst making readers (and myself) wince in sympathy rather than turning stomachs. As for how I did it – you’ll just have to wait until the book comes out!

In conclusion, I think torture (like rape) is a sensitive subject that, treated well, adds depth to a realistically gritty novel. But it needs to match the tone of the rest of the book, otherwise it comes across as gratuitous and self-indulgent, and can lose you readers.

Fantasy Noir – a genre for the new millennium?

It’s traditional to begin the New Year with a retrospective post about the previous one, but I thought – why stop there? Why not look back on the whole decade? So, here are my thoughts on what I see as the big fantasy trend of the new millennium.

Over the past ten years, a new sub-genre of fantasy has been gaining ground. Fantasy noir has been aptly described by SF&F website io9 as “magical cities in decay”, a phrase that sums up the combination of urban grime and sleazy glamour perfectly. From Scott Lynch’s Venice-alike Camorre, with its ancient, alien glass bridges over stinking, all-too-mundane canals, to an Elizabethan London haunted by implacable mind-raping fae in Mark Chadbourn’s new series The Swords of Albion, fantasy noir has brought a realistic and deliciously nasty flavour to a genre many outsiders see as a realm of idealised escapism.

Maybe it’s not an entirely new sub-genre – there were fantasy novels set in run-down imaginary cities before now (e.g. the sublime In Viriconium by M John Harrison) but, I think, never so many of them as in the noughties. So what is it that has made noir so popular with editors and readers alike?

One possibility is that modern readers just don’t click with the rural landscapes that dominate much of fantasy. We live in an increasingly technological world, and whilst some may long for the good old days of villages dotted across a wilderness, others may simply find such worlds irrelevant or even “sappy”. Also, describing a wild landscape well takes a lot of writing skill and more importantly, familiarity with the subject. As writers we are always being told “write about what you know” – and what most people know is cities.

Or perhaps it’s simply that, more than half a century after Tolkien, we have just had enough of mountains, forests and castles, of quests, noble knights and dark lords. Yes, there are readers aplenty who still flock to epic fantasy, as the continued success of Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson and George R R Martin prove. But for the rest of us, we seek new wonders, new ways to explore the fantastic. And when it comes to TV, we don’t just watch Buffy and Supernatural; we watch CSI, Battlestar Galactica, Deadwood and all the other genres.

To my mind, that’s a defining element of fantasy noir. It’s not just about the rundown cities or the magic, but the introduction of tropes from other genres. The Lies of Locke Lamora is a heist caper; The Sword of Albion is a James-Bond-esque spy thriller. Noir is practically defined by its “mashup” nature, and that’s what our magpie culture loves. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Why the hell not?

Is genre dead, or at least dying? If it is, fantasy noir is right there in the vanguard. And I for one will be cheering it on and throwing flowers in its path. Vive la revolution!

Book Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora

I’ve just finished reading “The Lies of Locke Lamora” by Scott Lynch, and I have to say it’s pretty damned good. I’ve tried to avoid spoilers in the following review, concentrating instead on Lynch’s writing…

“The Lies of Locke Lamora” is the first in a projected series of seven books detailing the adventures of The Gentleman Bastards, a gang of thieves and conmen from the Venice-like city of Camorr. It’s a ripping yarn full of larger-than-life characters, something akin to “Moll Flanders” meets “Pulp Fiction”; mostly light-hearted but with moments of savage violence, as befits the protagonist’s devil-take-the-hindmost attitude to life.
The mix of traditional fantasy elements (pre-gunpowder weapons, mages) with vaguely SF/clockpunk elements like the advanced architectural technology of the long-departed Elders, the intricate Heath-Robinsonian human inventions and the pseudo-science of alchemy combine in a heady mix of otherworldliness, making Camorr a city you’ll remember long after you close the book. If the description is occasionally a little heavy-handed (please, Scott, can it sometimes be just the wind, not the Hangman’s Wind?), it’s still damned impressive for a debut novel, especially from someone who is still under 30.

Only one thing really takes the edge off an otherwise great book: the dialogue. I’m not at all averse to swearing, but in “Lies” it is at times overdone and inappropriate. It’s one thing for the Gentleman Bastards to be effing and blinding amongst themselves, but the Bondsmage? Don Salvara? Considering that the city is sharply divided into the haves and have-nots, the frankly rather unimaginative swearing sometimes gives the dialogue a homogeneous, classless (or rather lower-class) flavour that spoils the overall effect. The characters’ voices become almost indistinguishable from one another at times, and sound anachronistic to boot, like Lynch had been watching a lot of Quentin Tarantino movies to get in the mood.

Judging by things he has said in interviews, Lynch is a fan of “Serenity” and presumably “Firefly” (the tone of the book reminded me very much of the show). IMHO he should study Jos Whedon’s work a bit more closely: learn how to write really cracking dialogue and most importantly, be a bit more creative with his cursing!