Showing posts with label fantasy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fantasy. Show all posts

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Review: Mazarkis Williams, The Emperor's Knife (Jo Fletcher Books, 2011)

Full disclosure: I was sent a copy of this book by the author for review – but that’s not really news, as that’s true of most books reviewed on here and it carries absolutely no guarantee of anything other than an honest review. Even fuller disclosure: the author sent me a lovely, signed hardback edition, which has lingered on my to-review pile for far longer than I care to admit. I’m slightly embarrassed by how long it has taken me to post this.

Anyway… continuing in the anecdotal mode for a moment… why did I decide to review The Emperor’s Knife at all? The book is the first in a series – the Tower and Knife trilogy – which is (roughly speaking) high fantasy. I usually don’t read high or epic fantasy, preferring urban fantasy, sci fi and horror, but I like having the opportunity to dip my toe into other genres every once in a while. The synopsis of the book looked really intriguing, so I thought, if I’m going to read a high fantasy book, why not make it that one?

There was another big attraction with The Emperor’s Knife, and one that is a little unusual. I was attracted by the publisher. Williams’s novel is published by Jo Fletcher Books, an imprint of Quercus. I must admit, I haven’t yet found a book published by Quercus that I don’t like, and three of my absolute favourite authors of recent years (Cat Clarke, Tom Fletcher and Peter May are all published by them. In fact, Quercus are the only publisher whose books I will buy for the name of the publisher alone. So, despite knowing nothing about Mazarkis Williams, I was already inclined to give The Emperor’s Knife a go.

So… I’ll start talking about the book now, shall I?

The Emperor’s Knife is a fantasy novel set in a Middle Eastern-ish, Arabian Nights-sort-of world of emperors, viziers, magic and intrigue. There are a number of interwoven plots circling around a ‘plague’ at the heart of the Cerani Empire. A mysterious ailment is spreading through the empire, marking ‘carriers’ with a strange pattern – both physically and psychologically – and linking them to something ‘greater’, something unknown. At the book’s opening, it is made clear that the emperor (Beyon) is having ‘carriers’ put to death, but also that he himself is at risk of attack from those afflicted.

Parallel to the story of the empire’s struggle with the pattern is the story of Sarmin, Beyon’s brother. The last surviving brother of the emperor (the others having been killed in childhood to prevent any challenges to the throne), Sarmin lives in a hidden room in the palace, almost entirely ignored by the rest of the court. As Sarmin’s story progresses, his relationship to the pattern develops and the reader realizes he will play a much larger role in the future of the empire than his ‘forgotten’ status at first suggests.

Sarmin and Beyon’s mother, the ‘Empire Mother’ Nessaket has arranged for her ‘hidden’ son to marry. As such, a young ‘Felt’ woman, Mesema is being brought to the court as the prince’s bride. Mesema must struggle with both homesickness and a fear of the unknown, as well as with the physical dangers her journey entails. She is guided – at least at first – by Banreh, one of her countrymen, who attempts to teach her enough of the Cerantic language and imperial culture to get by in her new home. Like Sarmin, Mesema is draw into the web of the ‘pattern-master’. Mesema’s travels to the imperial court are fraught with danger, but also filled with a growing understanding of what is happening around her.

Finally, there’s Eyul, bearer of the eponymous Knife. Eyul is the imperial assassin, with long-standing and unshakeable loyalty to the throne. At the book’s opening, Eyul is sent out into the desert lands around Cerani to discover the true meaning of the pattern and to find a way to reverse the damage it is doing. On his way, he meets Amalya (a mage) with whom he forms a bond that causes Eyul to question some of his life’s mission (to an extent, anyway).

If this sounds like a lot to take in, that’s because it is. The scope of Williams’s novel is definitely ‘epic’. The world-building of the novel is detailed and there is a huge cast of characters, each of which have a different connection and affiliation within the world of the Cerani empire. Admittedly, this means that The Emperor’s Knife is not the sort of book you dive into and plough on through. I found the first couple of chapters quite a slow read (though I don’t mean this as a criticism), as they required my full attention. This is not a book for skim-reading.

The world itself also requires concentration for total immersion in it. While some aspects of the narrative landscape of The Emperor’s Knife might be considered ‘stock’ fantasy elements – there’s a harem of wives, for instance, and a scheming mother-figure – making the world of Emperor’s Knife seem, at times, rather familiar, there is something a little off-key about the setting, something a little unsettling. Again, this isn’t a criticism – the unsettling, off-key quality is a real strength of Williams’s writing. There is a lightness of touch to descriptions and exposition (which is used sparingly) that was a pleasure to read.

For me, the most compelling aspect of The Emperor’s Knife was the characterization. As I’ve said, there are a lot of characters, and some had more life about them than others. I’ll admit, I didn’t find all the characters engaging (Nessaket and her lover Tuvaini didn’t grab me particularly), but others fascinated me. I enjoyed the interaction between Eyul and Amalya in the earlier sections of the book – these two characters were so restricted by their ‘roles’ in the world that their dialogue was stilted and their mannerisms formal, so it was interesting to see their relationship develop and deepen within such rigid constraints.

However, the highlight of the book for me was Mesema’s interactions with the emperor Beyon – the brother of her intended husband. In the early chapters, I was fully convinced that I was going to hate Beyon. But as the story progressed and more was revealed about this character (again, Williams does this with a light touch, relying on implication and nuance more than explanation), I became really taken with him. I’d go as far as to say he was my favourite character. Mesema is the ‘feisty’ outsider – which, again, could be considered a stock element – but her interactions with Beyon were unexpected and engaging. Much of this surprised me, which is something I like in novel.

If I have a criticism of the book, it’s that the pacing is rather inconsistent. I found some chapters dragged a little, while others flew by. I rattled through the final section of the book, from the point where the storylines converged, not wanting to put it down. However, some of the earlier chapters (mostly the sections with the journey through the desert) seem a little pedestrian in comparison.

The thing that intrigued me most from the synopsis of The Emperor’s Knife was the pattern ‘plague’. The book’s blurb is vague about the nature of this ailment, and I’m going to be too. The nature of the pattern is revealed in a winding, circuitous way, and I don’t want to spoil the experience of reading the book and following the path to understanding. All I will say is that I found the resolution (and I guess you could call it the reveal) really satisfying, and well worth following the threads through the labyrinthine narrative to reach the conclusion.

I’m curious to know where the series will go. The Emperor’s Knife could easily have been a standalone novel, but it is apparently part of a trilogy. There’s no cliffhanger as such at the end, so no obvious signposts to what will come in the second book. The (very brief) advert at the back of the book only promises that the story of (some of) the characters will continue – but no real hint as to where!

Overall, then, I recommend The Emperor’s Knife. If detailed, complex worlds and an extensive cast of characters is your thing, then I’m sure you will lose yourself in this novel. (Though, if you like your fantasy brash, punchy and filled with trolls, wizards and grizzled warriors, this probably isn’t the ideal read for you.) As I said at the beginning of the review, this type of fantasy is not my usual genre of choice, but Williams is an accomplished writer and a good storyteller, and, at the end of the day, that’s far more important to me than genre labels.

So, in summary, I still haven’t found a Quercus book I don’t like.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

CFP: Ghosts, Gremlins and Jedi: Fantasy and Film in the Long 1980s

Manchester, United Kingdom
Friday 25th – Saturday 26th April 2014

Call for Papers

From sci-fi epic to swords and sorcery, from urban ghosts to time travel, fantasy dominated the cinema of the 1980s. Hand-in-hand with these wild flights of imagination came the rise of new technologies of spectatorship (particularly VHS and the home VCR) and dramatic political change in both the West and the East. This two-day conference aims to interrogate the place of fantasy in the history of the 1980s – its construction, context and legacy.

Abstracts are sought for 20-minute papers that consider any aspect of fantasy and film in the long 1980s (roughly understood as 1977-1992, though films that fall outside these dates may be considered). Topics may include, but are not limited to:

- Cinematography and special effects
- Soundtracks and music
- Gender and sexuality in fantasy
- The family in film
- Fantasy film in political and social contexts
- The end of the Cold War – fantasy in the run-up to 1989
- The video generation – technologies of viewing
- Spin-offs, tie-ins and novelizations
- Visions of the future
- Representations of technology
- Fantasy’s legacy – what came next?

Papers may consider individual films, or take a broader view of film and genre. Papers on non-Hollywood or non-Anglophone films are particularly welcome.

Please send abstracts (200-300 words) to Rob Shedwick by Tuesday 24th December 2013. Any enquiries should be sent to the same address.

This conference is organized by Hic Dragones. For more information about our work, and about past conferences, please visit the website.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

CFP: Caietele Echinox/Echinox Journal - Fantasy and Science Fiction

Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania
Caietele Echinox
Volume 26 (2014)

Caietele Echinox/Echinox Journal is a biannual academic journal in comparative literature, dedicated to the study of the social, historical, cultural, religious, literary and arts imaginaries. It is edited by Phantasma, the Center for Imagination Studies of the Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj, Romania. It is accredited by ERIH (European Research Index for the Humanities – NAT) and CNCS (The Romanian Nacional Council for Scientific Research) and indexed in EBSCO Publishing, CEEOL (Central and Eastern European Online Library), MLA International Bibliography and FABULA.

The possibility to build other worlds, different from those we live in, is emphasised in two important streams of modern literature: fantasy and science-fiction. Fantasy literature became famous in the second half of the 20th century. Developing the theoretical hallmark set by J. R. R. Tolkien in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” (1947), researchers like C. N. Manlove, W. R. Irwin, Eric S. Rabkin, Roger C. Schlobin, Brian Attebery, Rosemary Jackson, Kathryn Hume, and more recently Lucie Armitt and Farah Mendlesohn tried to define this type of literature, by establishing its historical and cultural roots, and disclosing fictional/ rhetorical/ imaginary mechanisms that enable the construction of “secondary worlds” (in Tolkien’s own words). There are still questions that need answers and any theoretical contribution and attempt to clarify concepts in this field are welcome. How do space and time function in fantasy fiction? Which methods and concepts work best to interpret this type of fiction? How far can we go to establish its roots? How did the narrative structure of fictions about possible and impossible worlds change throughout time? What kind of relationship can emerge between fantasy literature, the digital environment that creates alternative worlds, and the filmic portrayal of well-known stories such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Neverending Story, Harry Potter, and so on? What relevance does fantasy literature have for the modern and postmodern individual?

In what concerns the science-fiction literature, the call envisages papers focusing both on different subgenres of SF and on the borderline works between SF and other genres. The first category includes articles that discuss and analyse works by the so called ‘Hard SF’ authors (such as, but not limited to, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, David Brin, Gregory Benford, Hal Clement or Stephen Baxter), ‘soft’ and social SF that revolve around themes connected to economics, social sciences, political science, psychology and anthropology (Arthur C. Clarke, The Strugatsky Brothers, Stanislaw Lem, Janusz Zajdel), utopian / dystopian fiction (developed by or related to George Orwell, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Doris Lessing, Aldous Huxley or Karel Capek), Cyberpunk, Biopunk, Steampunk and Dieselpunk fiction (William Gibson, Steve Stiles, Bruce Sterling, Neil Stephenson, Pat Cadigan, and others), feminist SF (Ursula Le Guin or Margaret Atwood), time travel narratives similar to those written by H.G Wells, military SF (John Ringo, David Drake, David Weber or S.M Stirling), uchronias and alternate history novels (Ward Moore, Philip K. Dick or Murray Leinster), superhuman or apocalyptic Science-Fiction (Olaf Stapledon, A.E van Vogt, George R. Steward or Ridley Walker) or Space Opera (L. Ron Hubbard, Edward E. Smith or Joss Wheedon). Bordeline SF includes horror stories by authors that have incorporated in their narratives science fictional elements (such as Mary Wolstonecraft Shelley or Edgar Allan Poe), works that combine SF with fantasy elements (Ann McAffrey), or with mystery (Kurt Vonnegut and others).

Deadline: January 1, 2014
Please follow Echinox Style Sheet

Send your papers to Corin Braga

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Review: Stephen Morris, Come Hell or High Water (Part One: Wellspring) (2012)

Come Hell or High Water is a self-published supernatural/fantasy trilogy written by debut novelist Stephen Morris and set in Prague. Part One: Wellspring and Part Two: Rising came out in 2012. Part Three: Deluge will be out later in 2013. I’ll be reviewing Rising soon, but today’s post is about the first book of the series, Wellspring.

Wellspring has two parallel narratives. The first takes place in 1356 and tells of the unauthorized execution of a woman, Fen’ka, for witchcraft – ‘unauthorized’ because, as the narrative explains, no witches were officially burnt in late medieval Prague. As she dies, Fen’ka utters a series of curses, calling destruction down on her enemies – but also on the city itself.

The second narrative follows the story of Magdalena, a lonely young woman from Prague who becomes obsessed with the occult following a tarot reading. After a startling encounter with Fen’ka (and an otherworldly guide), Magdalena embarks on the task of clearing the witch’s name. With the help of the spirit of Madame de Thebes, a fortune-teller who was tortured, killed and cursed by the Nazis, and two mysterious visitors to the city, Magdalena begins to acquire the knowledge and skills she will need to succeed in her quest.

From the opening chapter, Morris reveals a keen eye for historical detail – particularly as regards late medieval beliefs about witchcraft and the treatment of witches. While the scene of Fen’ka’s condemnation includes many ‘standard’ features of this sort of story, it also contains several unusual and precise historical details. For example, the binding of Fen’ka is described thus:
‘Pulling her to her feet, they next pushed her head and shoulders down and tied her left wrist to her right ankle and her right wrist to her left ankle. In this traditional position, not only was the woman’s body made into an X, a version of St. Andrew’s Cross (and therefore her body itself was a prayer-made-flesh that God’s truth would be manifest), but it was also that much more difficult for her to swim and exonerate herself by propelling herself along the bottom of the river.’
Similarly, the later fourteenth-century chapters, which outline the punishments resulting from Fen’ka’s all-purpose curse, weave historical detail, characterization and Czech folklore together with a rather light touch. Each of the subsequent historical chapters reads almost like a standalone short story, and I found them all engaging and compelling tales.

But Wellspring is not simply a historical fantasy, it’s an ‘urban-historical fantasy’, and half of the chapters take place in modern-day Prague (well, Prague in 2002). These also contain elements of Bohemian legend and folklore, as well as reference to the unique history of the city. Following the protagonist Magdalena as she puts together pieces of the historical/supernatural puzzle, learns about the occult arts and works as an administrator at the Charles University, these chapters comprise the main narrative arc of the novel, ending on a cliffhanger that points to the events to come in the subsequent books in the series.

The 2002 chapters have a different feel to the fourteenth-century ones, but make use of the same mix of action, characterization and exposition. Occasionally, the exposition is somewhat heavy, but the subject matter is interesting enough to carry this. I enjoyed the way the historical and contemporary chapters worked together. While they are, essentially, discrete narratives, the overall picture builds as the reader switches from one to the other and back again.

Unfortunately, I found the contemporary chapters a bit flatter than the medieval ones. This is mostly due to the presentation of the protagonist. I found Magdalena to be a bit of an unengaging heroine, a far cry from the diverse and feisty female characters in the medieval chapters. Magdalena’s lack of interaction with other characters is probably the main issue. She has, to all intents and purposes, no friends. The one character who is ostensibly supposed to perform this role is dismissed and ignored on numerous occasions, and there are very few conversations between the two women. The result of this is that the narrative is almost entirely presented through Magdalena’s internal dialogue and commentary, and this is not always very compelling. In places, the heroine’s self-explanation (occasionally accompanied by a few too many exclamation marks) was a little hard to believe.

One particularly frustrating example is near the beginning of the book. Magdalena travels to New York (on her own) for a holiday. There, she pays for a tarot card reading from a woman with a Central European accent who claims to be a ‘gypsy’. Magdalena is overwhelmed by the excitement of this: ‘A professional gypsy telling her fortune seemed too good to be true.’ She exclaims: ‘This is the highlight of my trip to New York!’ Her reaction seems utterly out of proportion to the rather average events of the card reading. (As a side note, I would say that Magdalena’s response didn’t ring true as a European response to seeing someone reading fortunes and claiming Romany blood – Europe is hardly known for its warm relationship to the Romany people, and I think every fortune-teller I’ve ever seen has the word ‘gypsy’ on their signage somewhere.)

The backdrop to Magdalena’s quest to exonerate Fen’ka interested me – and had a lot to offer. The protagonist works as a secretary to an academic at Charles University; she is asked to assist with the organization of two visiting conferences – one on Evil and the other on Monsters. I must admit to some personal interest here. These conferences are based on long-running conferences run by, and I have attended both on numerous occasions. Magdalena’s dabbling in the world of the occult leads her to believe that two powerful allies in her fight will be arriving in the guise of conference delegates.

However, this backdrop was marred a little by the presentation of Magdalena. Her wide-eyed enthusiasm for conference organization was a little grating, and not wholly plausible. I am yet to meet someone who works in university admin who is that excited at the prospect of a group of visiting academics, particularly a group who do not speak the local language and know little of the local area. That’s a headache, not an honour. By the time the conference delegates arrive, Magdalena’s enthusiasm has tipped over into near-sycophancy: for instance, she describes the accent of one English academic as sounding ‘so elegant, so refined […] that she imagined she were being addressed by the royalty of the academic world’.

Nevertheless, the arrival of the conference delegates allows for more interaction between Magdalena and the somewhat larger-than-life visitors. As far as I know, Rising will pick up where the events of Wellspring left off, and I’m looking forward to seeing things develop with the expanded cast list. There is real promise in the final chapter of the book, which suggests exciting and compelling developments in the next instalment. I hope that the new arrivals will bring out a stronger side to Magdalena’s character, as well as continuing the intense and climactic consequences of Fen’ka’s curse.

Overall, I enjoyed Wellspring. As a piece of historical fantasy set in one of my favourite cities it worked very well. Morris’s writing is strong and the plot is gripping. My concerns about characterization in the contemporary chapters perhaps go some way to revealing where the author’s strengths lie – I believe Morris’s heart is in the Middle Ages, and this is no bad thing at all. The wealth of knowledge, research and affection shown for the fourteenth century (and for Prague) are enough on their own to recommend the sequels to me. And if Magdalena is a little weak and naïve for my tastes… well, there’s always Fen’ka…

For more information about the Come Hell or High Water trilogy, visit Stephen Morris's website.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Review: Monk Punk, ed. by A.J. French (Pill Hill Press, 2011)

I was offered a copy of this short story anthology to review for another website, and I must say I was sold just on the title. The -punk suffix is fairly ubiquitous now: since cyberpunk, we’ve had steampunk, clockpunk, dieselpunk, biopunk, golempunk, the list goes on. ‘Monkpunk’ as a concept seemed to promise something new, but yet also something I’d seen before in the many diverging medieval representations of monks, in the contemporary texts inspired by them (like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, to give an obvious example), but also in texts inspired by Buddhist monasticism and Eastern spirituality.

The introduction to the collection, which was written by D. Harlan Wilson, addresses this converging newness and oldness, while also raising another important paradox in the name. In exploring the histories of the terms ‘punk’ and ‘-punk’, Wilson points out that they have consistently been associated with the transgressive, but also with specifically externalized transgression. This is a distinct contrast with the internalized world of the ‘monk’. He writes:
‘The ascetic life of a monk might qualify as transgressive and brutal in itself, if only in its deviation from social norms, its wilful introversion, its maintenance of certain ideological values, and its repudiation of basic Darwinian instincts. In the broader spectrum, however, monks mind their own business, whereas punks, by force or will or submission, make other people’s business their own.’ (p. 1)
This juxtaposition fascinates me, as does the notion of the ‘wilful introversion’ of the monk as a transgressive act, and, again, it reminded me of a number of medieval narratives and images of monks. Wilson’s introduction went on to promise great things of the Monk Punk collection: it is, he states, ‘the latest, newest trajectory in the evolving foray of Beat literature. It harnesses the energy and the logos of its forerunners. And it carves out a singular line of flight.’ (p. 3) These are big claims for a small press short story collection! However, I was more than happy to jump in and see whether it lived up to them.

Before I turn to the stories themselves, a final word on Wilson’s introduction. I loved the way the line between passionate reader and academic critic was blurred in this piece, particularly in the way Wilson presented his introduction almost as a manifesto. At times, though, some balance was lost, and some parts tended towards being a little too pretentious and overblown for my tastes (I don’t think a sentence is really improved by the phrase ‘sans the drumming of Nietzschean hammers’, for instance). The style and tone is not for everyone, and is quite unusual in a collection of this sort, but my overall impression was that it worked as both as an introduction to a book, and an introduction to a concept.

There are 23 stories in Monk Punk, mostly by emerging writers (some are first publications). Story settings range from the UK to the Himalayas, from Asia to Outer Space. The stories take place in a variety of time periods, from the Middle Ages to the distant future.

Highlights of the collection for me were R.B. Payne’s ‘The Key to Happiness’ (though this was more to do with the recasting of an old monster in a new guise, rather than the presentation of the monk), Mark Iles’s ‘The Cult of Adam’ (a brilliant premise, though let down a little by some rather clunky exposition) and George Ivanoff’s short but memorable ‘The Last Monk’ (a rather haunting story of someone who survives the apocalypse).

Unfortunately, while I enjoyed these stories and they were, to an extent, fresh and original, the collection itself is a bit of a let-down. It certainly didn’t live up to the high promises of D. Harlan Wilson’s introduction.

Broadly speaking, the collection is divided on Eastern/Western lines. On the one hand, we have Buddhist(-esque) monks, who usually live alone in contemplative spiritualism, but who display deadly martial arts skills when called upon. On the other, we have Christian(-esque) monks, who form cultish, cloistered brotherhoods, prone to ritualistic behaviour, conspiracy and (on occasion) sacrifice. The problem with Monk Punk in general is that it rarely moves beyond this, and the stories begin to feel a little same-y. I had some trouble differentiating the solitary-Eastern-monk-with-badass-fighting-skills stories (of which there are six), as they trod very similar ground. Similarly, the cultish Western monks – who variously worship fish deities, refuse to let recruits leave their circle, sacrifice children, carry out violent initiation ceremonies and conjure/fight demons – are repetitive.

In the latter case, I had a couple of other problems too. I’ll admit one of these is down to my own personal taste – the (apparently unending) influence of H.P. Lovecraft is fairly obvious throughout this collection, particularly in the recurrence of water gods and fish-worshippers. I’m afraid I’m in the minority of people who don’t think fish-people and squid gods are particularly frightening or creepy, and so I tend to find the Lovecraftian deep a little silly. More significantly, however, I also found that some of the ‘Western’ stories lacked the background knowledge needed to convince me of their setting. Some small slips were made in a couple of the stories – a bible verse is misattributed, for instance – but bigger issues can also be found. For example, a small group of twelfth-century monks renounce Christ and worship a water deity: this is described as ‘heresy’ and results in ‘one of the biggest religious trials in history’. As a medievalist, this seemed a little unbelievable to me – there is no way this tiny group of blaspheming (not heretical) men would have overshadowed the politically and culturally threatening crowds of Templars and Cathars that were tried in this period.

Technical details aside, some of the stories attempted something beyond the Eastern/Western binary, with differing degrees of success. The more sci-fi inspired stories tended to take ‘monkpunk’ to other planets, with alien cults, gods and monsters appearing in a number of the stories. Elsewhere, Gayle Arrowood’s ‘Capital Sins in a Dominican Monastery’ offered a more comedic take on monastic life, which was a refreshing change of pace. Sean Monaghan’s ‘Suitcase Nuke’ was a hard-boiled tale of secret agents and terrorists (though the monastery setting seemed something of an afterthought, and Monaghan’s tale was the only one in the book that probably would have worked just fine without the monks). Unfortunately, the only story that attempted to focus on a religion other than Buddhism or Christianity – ‘Nasrudin: Desert Sufi’ by Barry Rosenberg, which tells the story of a colonial explorer who meets a Sufi guru – was marred by racist and misogynist caricature, which made it rather unpalatable.

‘Monkpunk’ as a concept still holds my attention. I will continue to list Eco’s Name of the Rose amongst my favourite books. And there are some stories in the Monk Punk collection that have done justice to the fascinating theme. Overall, though, the collection lacked the originality and energy promised by both the title and the introduction. The jury is still out on whether or not ‘monk’ really can be a ‘-punk’, I’m afraid.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Coming Soon... Aimee and the Bear by Toby Stone

So, this post is about a book I've recently edited, rather than a book I've written, but I'm so excited about it I thought it deserved a post.

Aimee and the Bear is the absolutely stunning debut novel by Toby Stone, to be published by Hic Dragones in February 2013. It's a dark (sometimes very dark) fantasy story about a troubled young girl who makes a dangerous journey into the world of her imagination. Stuffed to the brim with echoes of Oz, Wonderland and 100 Aker Wood - but with its feet firmly in early twenty-first-century Manchester - Aimee and the Bear is no children's story. It's captivating and unsettling piece of Manc magic realism that'll change the way you look at teddy bears (and Russian dolls) forever.

Aimee and the Bear is being launched on February 7th 2013, at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester, with readings and wine reception. It's a free event, and there's more details on the launch party website. If you can make it, it'll be a great night. If you can't make it, I strongly recommend you get hold of a copy of the book as soon as you can!

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Review: Naomi Clark, Dark Hunt (Queered Fiction, 2011)

Dark Hunt is the sequel to Naomi Clark’s first werewolf novel, Silver Kiss, which you may remember I reviewed on this site in October 2010, and the third instalment of her Urban Wolf series (which began with a short story published in the Queer Wolf anthology in 2009. Silver Kiss is an urban fantasy, telling the story of werewolf Ayla and her human girlfriend Shannon, who must deal with pack politics, a sinister drug being sold to young lycanthropes, a missing teenager, and, of course, the strain that all of this puts on Ayla and Shannon’s relationship.

This follow-up picks up where Silver Kiss left off. To recover from the horrors they have faced, Ayla and Shannon travel to Paris for a romantic holiday. Things don’t go to plan, however, as they soon find that there is a brutal creature (known as “Le Monstre”) stalking the Parisian streets. Is it a rogue werewolf? A human? Or something else altogether?

In my review of Silver Kiss, I said that one of the real strengths of Clark’s writing is her creation of a believable world in which werewolves live alongside human beings (though not always completely comfortably). This is developed further in Dark Hunt. What I particularly liked was that, on arrival in France, Ayla and Shannon discover that the status of werewolves in Paris is subtly different to that in the UK. The relationship between werewolves and humans is not quite the same as they were expecting. This puts a nice lycanthropic spin on the ‘tourist abroad’, as Ayla must not only deal with not understanding the language, but must also quickly learn what werewolf behaviour is acceptable in this new city. As with Clark’s first novel, once you buy into the premise that werewolves exist, the world-building is consistent and plausible.

Another strength I commented on in my previous review was Clark’s creation of character. The presentation of Ayla and Shannon’s relationship was certainly one of the most compelling aspects of Silver Kiss, and this is developed even further in Dark Hunt. I find myself genuinely caring about Clark’s protagonists – I’m happy when things go well for them, and I sigh in frustration at their misunderstandings and miscommunications. For me, this is a very important part of a novel, and a lot of fantasy writers often sideline it in favour of world-building and plot. Whether or not she is a werewolf, Ayla is a well-rounded and three-dimensional character, and this really drives the novel’s story.

Dark Hunt also features an interesting supporting cast. It’s really good to see so many variations on the female werewolf in one novel. Early on, we are introduced to the heavily-pregnant werewolf Sun, who has left her pack (and the father of her unborn “cub”) in order to pursue a relationship with a human. In many ways, Sun’s story mirrors Ayla’s own, but she has chosen a different path. A werewolf’s relationship to her pack is a complex thing, and there are different ways to negotiate this. In later chapters, we meet Clémence and Thérèse, who (like Ayla and Shannon) are trying to deal with coming out as a couple as much as with their lycanthropy. Again, while their story (in some ways) mirrors that of the protagonists, they have chosen a different path.

That said, Dark Hunt is not simply a book about (wolf)women and their relationships. It is a thriller, and the hunt for “Le Monstre” is the main ‘meat’ of the story. As in Silver Kiss, Clark creates a mystery, throws her protagonists into it and has them try to survive and solves it. Again, as in the first novel, this means that Ayla and Shannon will have to face violence from both supernatural beings and angry and confused human beings. There is a puzzle that they must solve, and the answer to this shocks the protagonists as much as it will surprise the readers.

However, though I did enjoy Dark Hunt a lot, I didn’t find the storyline quite as compelling as that of Silver Kiss. I don’t want to say too much about what is responsible for the “Le Monstre” attacks, as I don’t want to give away the plot and its twists. I will say that I found it a really interesting and unusual take on a classic paranormal trope. But the overall story arc wasn’t as strong as that in Clark’s earlier novel. Much more attention was given to the ways in which the women dealt with what was going on, and the impact the attacks had on their everyday lives. While this was enjoyable, I did feel more could be have been made of the ‘scary monster stalking the streets’ story.

The fallout from the final showdown was, perhaps, the weakest part of the novel, and the ending seems rather abrupt. After a great climactic battle, the storyline seemed to be resolved so hastily that I was left almost expecting there to be more still to come. This was a shame, as the rest of the book was very gripping.

Nevertheless, it seems that there is more to come from Ayla and Shannon, and the (somewhat abrupt) ending does definitely leave room for a third instalment of the series. I certainly hope this is the case, as I’m very taken with Clark’s werewolves.
Dark Hunt also includes some bonus material – a short story entitled “A Wolf in Girl’s Clothing”, which tells the story of Ayla and Shannon’s first meeting, and a “sample chapter” from Desire by Moonlight, the “pulp novel of a werewolf assassin who takes out vampires for the government” (the “trashy novel” Ayla is reading throughout Dark Hunt). The former is a really nice addition to the series, and was definitely a “bonus” for me. The latter, though intended to be a parody, was actually completely believable! I have read my share of that type of urban fantasy, and, in fact, Desire by Moonlight was much better written than a lot I have read. But coming at the end of the second novel, it seems all the more silly and over-the-top, as it just doesn’t fit with the world of werewolves created in Silver Kiss and Dark Hunt.

So, overall, I recommend Dark Hunt, as a well-written and plausible story of female werewolves (and humans) who are much more than simply lycanthropic. If you enjoyed Silver Kiss, then you should certainly give the sequel a go. If you haven’t yet read any of Clark’s work, then I politely suggest you start.

Click here to read my review of Silver Kiss.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Vampire Conference in London (November 2011)

Vampires: Myths of the Past and the Future

An interdisciplinary conference organised by Simon Bacon, The London Consortium in collaboration with the Centre for the Study of Cultural Memory, Institute of Germanic & Romance Studies, University of London

Deadline for submissions: 30 April 2011
Conference dates: 2nd-4th November 2011
Venue: Institute of Germanic & Romance Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London

Myths of vampires and the undead are as old as civilisation itself, wherever humans gather these 'dark reflections' are sure to follow. Whether as hungry spirits, avenging furies or as the disgruntled dearly departed, they have been used to signify the monstrous other and the consequences of social transgression. Embodying the result of a life lived beyond patriarchal protective proscription that quickly changes from dream to nightmare and from fairy tale to ghost story.
However their manifold and multifarious manifestation also provides a point of opposition and resistance, one that subverts majority narrative and gives agency to the disenfranchised and oppressed within society. This is seen most clearly in the late twentieth century where, in a plethora of filmic and literary texts, amidst a growing 'sympathy for the devil' the vampire is constructed as a site of personal and social transition. Here alternative narratives (e.g. feminist, ethnic, post-colonial discourses etc) find expression and ways in which to configure their own identity within, or in opposition to, the dominant cultural parameters revealing hybridity as the catalyst for future myth making.
In the course of the past century the vampire has undergone many transformations which now see them as a separate evolutionary species, both genetically and cybernetically, signifying all that late capitalist society admires and desires thus completing its change from an adhorational figure to an aspirational one; the vampire is no longer the myth of a murky superstitious past but that of a bright new future and one that will last forever.
This interdisciplinary conference will look at the various ways the vampire has been used in the past and present to construct narratives of possible futures, both positive and negative, that facilitate both individual and colelctive, either in the face of hegemonic discourse or in the continuance of its ideological meta-narratives.

Keynote speakers include:

Stacey Abbott
Milly Williamson
Catherine Spooner

We invite papers from a wide range of disciplines and approaches such as: anthropology, art history, cultural studies, film studies, history, literary studies, philosophy, psychology, theology, etc.

Possible themes include, but are not limited to:

  • Myths, fairy tales and urban legends
  • Cross cultural colonisation, vampiric appropriation and reappropriation
  • Cinema, Manga/Anime and gaming

  • Fandom, lifestyle, 'real' vampires and identity configuration

  • Minority discourse and the transcultural vampire

  • Genetics, cybernetics and the post human

  • Blood memory, vampiric memory and the immortal archive

  • Dracula vs. Nosferatu; Urban vs. Rural

  • Globalisation, corporations and 'Dark' societies

  • Immortality, transcendence and cyberspace

  • Old World/New World and vampiric migration

  • From stakes to crosses to sunlight

  • Blood Relations and the vampiric family

  • Abjection, psychoanalysis and transitional objects

Papers will also be considered on any related themes. Abstracts of 300 words should be submitted to Simon Bacon no later than April 30th 2011.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Oxfam Manchester Sci Fi/Horror/Fantasy Event

The lovely people at Oxfam Manchester have sent me details of an event they are running that might be of interest to some. Funnily enough, it's being held at the shop that I used to manage before I left the world of charity retail for academia. Sometimes, it's a very small world.

Manchester Oxfam is holding a FREE science fiction/fantasy/horror event at the
Oxfam Emporium, 8-10 Oldham Street, on Thursday, July 8, from 6-8pm. We have debut Manchester horror novelist Tom Fletcher, Dr. Who writers Paul Magrs and Steve Lyons and and feminist sci-fi writer Gwyneth Jones all reading, there will be a sci-fi quiz, music, drinks and refreshments, and an informal Q&A. Cos play is encouraged with a prize for the best costume. For more information email Emma Cooney or call 0161 273 2019.