Some Reviews…

I’ve recently written some reviews on books for writers for Re:Fiction. As is usually my way, I’ve focused on the positives, while trying to provide some balance. I generally don’t bother to review things I don’t like, which helps with that.

So if you’re looking for interesting writing resources, you might want to check out my reviews of…

Blood on the Beach – a flash historical story

By Archives New Zealand from New Zealand – Landing at Gallipoli, CC BY-SA 2.0

We pulled hard at the oars, twenty of us rowing in unison, pushing our boat as fast as we could towards the shore. We wanted to be off the water and on dry ground, where we could fire back at the Turks on the cliffs. But more than that, we were excited to join the fight. The Great War had come, and we were keen to play our part.

With a crunch and a lurch, the boat hit ground. We let go of the oars and grabbed our rifles, leaping out into the shallows. Water filled my boots and soaked me to the thighs.

Billy grinned as he leapt into the water beside me.

“Last one up the beach digs the latrines!” he shouted before heading off at a run.

I followed eagerly, just as I’d followed him into schoolyard skirmishes and into the recruiting station when war came. We’d been lucky, just old enough to sign up. Now here we were, ready to stick it to the Turks.

Our captain stumbled as he climbed out of the boat. Blood streamed from his arm and his gaze was caught on a body bobbing in the surf beside him. My stomach churned but I forced the bile back and raced on up the sand.

Billy halfway up the beach when he suddenly spun around. I thought for a moment that he’d turned to urge me on. Then I saw the stain on his chest and the shock on his face. He fell sideways in the dirt.

I rushed towards him, a scream bursting from my lungs. All around, men were dropping like flies – some dead, others scrabbling in the dirt to dig a safe place. More bullets tore through Billy’s body and the sand beneath. I dropped to the ground and pressed a hand against his wound, but it was too late.

As I stared into my friend’s lifeless eyes, the guns thundered all around.

#

“Private Hughes, isn’t it?”

Captain Arundell approached along the sandy trench. He was the third commander we’d had since the landings. At least this one had the sense to keep his head down.

“Yes, sir,” I said, delivering a weary salute.

“I’m looking for volunteers for a raid on the Turkish lines,” he said. “They say that you’re a tough one, a survivor. I thought you might be a good choice.”

I snorted. “I’m a survivor because I don’t volunteer, captain. There’s nothing here worth sticking my head above the trench line for.”

“I have men who are keen to go,” Arundell said. “But they’re all new and inexperienced. Without some veterans to round out the team, they might not make it back.”

“Then good luck to them,” I said.

Arundell looked at me. We both knew he could order me to join. We both knew how well the rest of the men would view that sort of treatment, given what we’d already been through.

He turned and headed away down the trench.

#

I watched as the corpsmen carried Jones’s body off on a stretcher. He’d survived the landings and months on the beaches, only to succumb to a fever. He wasn’t the only one. Between disease and shelling, our safe positions felt more and more like a death trap.

I huddled against the wall of the trench and prayed for deliverance.

A private from the next platoon scurried along the trench. He paused as he reached me.

“Have you heard?” he said. “We’re leaving.”

I stared at him, hardly daring to believe.

“When?” I asked.

“After Christmas. They’re taking the ANZACs out first, then us.”

His smile was so wide, his face still fresh and innocent, it reminded me of Billy. I felt a moment of warm nostalgia, then one of nausea as I remembered him lying bleeding on the sand.

“Major Arundell’s looking for volunteers for the rear guard,” he continued. “We’re going to make sure the rest of you get out safely.”

My stomach sank at the thought of leaving this kid to face the Turks. But what could I do? My prayers had been answered. We were getting out at last.

#

The air stank of blood, cordite, and loose bowels. Even in the darkness of the night, I could make out the piles of bodies beyond our shell-shattered trenches, the remains of the last great Turkish assault.

I finished setting my rifle in place, rigged up with a tangle of strings and slowly leaking cans. It was a messy device, but a functional one. It would pull the trigger at odd intervals after I was gone, creating the illusion that a soldier was still here. At least, that was the theory.

The Turks had to know that we, the last few men standing, were about to leave. That was why they had launched the attack, to beat us while we were alone, before we could make our escape. And it was why we were still doing every last thing we could. Even if it only bought seconds, this still gave us a better chance of survival.

“Good work,” Major Arundell whispered, patting me on the shoulder. He pointed down the beach to where the boats were waiting. “Now let’s get out of here.”

As we grabbed the oars and set to rowing, I looked back at the cliffs of Gallipoli. I’d never been so glad to leave any place on Earth.

And I’d never been so glad to be alive.

* * *

 

I have a comic out!

“To Win Just Once” is a Commando comic, released yesterday in print and through Comixology. It’s about the experience of New Zealanders in the First World War. It deals with events on the Western Front, but references the Gallipoli campaign, and so this story is meant as a matching piece, showing what that campaign was like. If you want to read more about Gallipoli you could start with this article I wrote for War History Online.

If you enjoyed this story then you can get more like it by signing up to my mailing list. You’ll get a free e-book as well as stories straight to your inbox every week

To Win Just Once – story notes

German 77mm gun emplacement destroyed by New Zealand troops during the Battle of Messines, Belgium. Photograph taken by Henry Armytage Sanders in June, 1917.

This Thursday, my first story for Commando Comics hits the newsstands and the Comixology app. I’m very proud of this story, titled “To Win Just Once”. I thought I’d put some notes here to give readers more information about the story.

The Struggle

The battle portrayed in this story is a real one. The assault on Messines Ridge was one of a series of battles fought around the town of Ypres. This was some of the most heavily contested territory of the war and the whole area was left devastated. You can read more about the battle in this article I wrote for War History Online.

The British Army in the First World War wasn’t just made up of people from Britain. Soldiers from across the empire and former imperial territories fought for the British. Australia, Canada, and New Zealand sent thousands of men to Europe. The Canadians were so feared by the Germans that the British created bluffs about where they were being fielded. Men from the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) fought in some of Britain’s most difficult campaigns, including the disaster at Gallipoli.

One of the most dramatic details in this story is the explosion that destroys the German defences. This was also real. Engineers from the British Army dug twenty-one tunnels across no-man’s-land and filled the ends with a vast quantity of explosives. It’s the largest non-nuclear man-made explosion in history. Two of the mines didn’t go off, and those bombs remained buried to this day.

The Soldiers

While the battle was real, the characters are not. I made up every single one, from frustrated infantryman Jimmy Wilson to Captain Chandler, the disdainful English officer. That said, they are meant as realistic portrayals of the soldiers present and their experiences. ANZACs really did suffer through the Gallipoli fiasco only to end up on the front lines. British officers were mostly from privileged backgrounds, and the respect they showed for their men, especially from the colonies, varied hugely.

I’ve based the general picture of the war on research I’ve done to write books and articles. Because of the bombardments, the area around Ypres was a hellish mess by 1917. The fighting was tough and brutal, bombardments heavy but ineffective. As a result, assaults were usually awful and futile for the attacking troops. Messines Ridge was one of the exceptions, as it was a success and the Germans suffered most of the awfulness.

I was inspired to write this story by reading about Messines Ridge for War History Online, and by Commando’s call for pitches about the ANZACs. I’ve written more scripts for Commando since, and am about to start writing for WHO again, so watch out for more announcements here. You can also get notice about upcoming comics, along with free fiction, but signing up to my mailing list.

The Song

And to end on an upbeat note, the title for this story is taken from a Saw Doctors song. I saw the Saw Doctors play live when I was seventeen, and it was one of the liveliest, most entertaining gigs I’ve ever seen. This song, with its positive message about enduring and finding your win, will be in my head forever. That’s no bad thing.

A Different Sort of Devil

The Devil has spoken to me. Appearing out of books, comics, and TV shows, he’s there wherever I look. And he has a single consistent message.

He says that he’s not such a bad guy after all.

Evil Incarnate

Most of us know the classic version of the Devil, drawn out of the theology of Abrahamic religions. He’s the ultimate embodiment of evil, a force for darkness tempting us to do wrong. His story didn’t feature much in my liberal religious upbringing, but I knew about him from the surrounding culture. He was evil personified.

This is a Devil to fit a binary universe. Good and evil are sharply differentiated and clearly defined. God and Satan represent that division and show us two different, entirely incompatible paths. A black and white world.

The Devil You Know

But now, when I’m more exposed to images of the devil than ever before, they’re very different from that old school Satan.

There’s the Lucifer of Gillen and McKelvie’s The Wicked + the Divine, one stylish god out of a dozen, more concerned with a good time than with changing humanity’s fate.

There’s Morningstar in Alliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings, looking out for his followers amid a tangle of dark politics.

There’s the Lucifer of the TV show, as adapted from the comic books of the same name. The comic version is a metaphysical rebel, the small screen one a playful rogue. There are temptations and deals with the devil, but they’re using about having fun, not bringing ruin.

The Devil I hear calling out from me from these stories seems pretty reasonable. So has he completely changed?

Lost and Found

That probably depends on what you mean by “changed”.

Milton’s Paradise Lost first popularised sympathy for the Devil. His Satan was a baddy, but he was a sympathetic one. He had more reason for his actions than “this is the embodiment of badness”. Milton might have argued that what he showed was implicit in the old texts, that a more nuanced Satan was waiting to be found. True or not, it’s a theme that many others have run with.

In the modern world, many of us are uncomfortable with clear-cut truths. The horrors of two world wars, followed by the philosophical wrecking ball of postmodernism, showed us a world that isn’t divided into black and white. We see rebellion as a good thing, not a danger to society and our souls. And once the Devil starts looking like a hero, it’s not a big stretch to these modern portrayals. His interest in pleasure, defiance, and even temptation can become liberating virtues. This Devil is on our side.

All the Angels

I’m sure people are still writing stories with the old version of the fallen angel. After all, there are people who believe in old-school Old Testament Christianity. But they aren’t the mainstream anymore, and so neither is their Lucifer. A new version calls out to us from page and screen. Apparently, he’s not such a bad guy.

But then, that is what he would say, isn’t it?

Something Old, Something New

Combining the familiar and the novel is one of the most important techniques for a storyteller.

I first learned about this through an article on Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead comics. The article’s author – sadly, I’ve forgotten who it was – highlighted how Kirkman provided his audience with something familiar and something new. The zombie survival story is one comic readers are used to. Kirkman’s soap opera-style storytelling had novelty for them. Familiarity made the comic accessible, novelty made it exciting, and a hit was born.

You could argue that the same formula, turned on its head, has helped the Walking Dead TV show. The soap-like personal dramas are appealing to a broad viewing audience that wouldn’t normally care about a zombie apocalypse. The formula works in reverse.

It’s a formula I’ve used recently in writing scripts for Commando comicsCommando‘s military adventure stories have a reputation for familiar tropes. They’re usually set during the Second World War. Gruff sergeants abound. Rivalries are overcome, leading to a particular sort of manly friendship. Though the publishers are working to broaden their stories, readers still have expectations, and that means there’s something familiar to work with.

This creates two obvious ways to combine the familiar with the novel. I can either change the setting and keep the tropes or I can keep to the usual setting but tell a different story. For my second Commando script, The Forlorn Hope, I took the former path. I wrote a story set in the Napoleonic Wars, but with the classic Commando dynamic of an indisciplined infantryman finding his place and learning to be a proper soldier. For the script I’m working on right now I’ve gone the other way. It’s set in the Second World War, but instead of focusing on the military it looks at the escape lines, the civilian resistance groups that smuggled Allied airmen out of Europe.

Any time you’re writing a story, it’s worth thinking about these elements. What’s familiar, to draw in your audience. What’s novel, to excite them and expand the boundaries of your genre. Combining the two can make great stories and, if done well, a satisfied audience.

 

My first Commando comic, To Win Just Once, will be out in April – more details here nearer the time. For updates on future releases, plus free short stories, sign up to my mailing list.

Making a Murder Mystery Matter

A lot of science fiction and fantasy uses elements from the crime genre, especially the classic murder mystery. From Douglas Adams’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency to James S. A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes, it can provide a solid central plot. A mystery keeps up the tension. It’s very familiar, making the story accessible whatever its more unusual parts. And as a writer, it’s a handy formula to spin something new out of.

Some recent sf+f murder mysteries have shown a change in how this is used, a change that’s arguably for the good.

The traditional murder mystery has an implicitly conservative ideology at its heart. Good order is disrupted by a death. The villain is a disrupter, the hero a restorer. Victory comes through a return to normality, without what passes as “normal” being questioned. In an Agatha Christie book or an episode of Law and Order, good moral conduct lies in keeping the world safe, not making it better.

There have always been exceptions. Christie’s own And Then There Were None (or whichever of its titles you prefer) can be read as a critique of this approach, a story in which murder brings justice. But it wasn’t common for a crime story to become popular while challenging social structures. That is until The Wire, David Simon’s extended crime drama and critique of a broken America. The Wire argued strongly for social and political change, showing that the world the detectives defended, the order they were tasked to restore, was inherently broken. To do good was to change the world, and protecting the existing order could do as much harm as good. Its heroes had to balance the interests of security and transformation.

To call The Wire influential would be an understatement. Its spectacular critical success has had a huge impact on television and the telling of crime stories. Traditional stories are still common, but the interest in less conservative crime dramas has grown.

The problem for anyone writing such a drama is that the real world won’t be changed by their fictional criminals and detectives. If they start changing the story world, it won’t look like our reality any more, and that won’t work for readers expecting mysteries grounded in the real world.

Enter sf+f.

Science fiction and fantasy worlds are already different from ours and their fates can be shaped by the writer. It’s an expected part of the genre. So criminal cases can have huge social and political repercussions that ripple through future books. The forces of order can also be the forces of change.

You can see this in two recent stories.

Anthon Johnston and Justin Greenwood’s comic The Fuse is set on an orbiting space station in the near future. The first case of this ongoing series propels a pair of detectives into a situation with far-reaching political consequences. It promises more disruption to come.

R J Barker’s novel Age of Assassins has an assassin as its protagonist, and one of the book’s many beautiful ironies is that a killer is the one to investigate a death. In doing so, Girton Club-foot becomes caught up in palace intrigues, unleashing a series of events that may make his world a very different place.

It’s fun to see genres renowned for their conservatism combining to put forward a radical proposition – that crime isn’t just an isolated aberration, but that it can reflect the deeper troubles of a society. That its unravelling both can and should lead to transformation, not just the restoration of the status quo. But that’s the argument many post-Wire murder mysteries put forward. It’s an argument implicit in both The Fuse and Age of Assassins. It’s an argument that holds out hope for change, and shows that we can protect society while critiquing it.

In a world already bucking against broken norms, maybe it’s an argument we all need.

Skies of Fire – Everyone Loves Airships

Do you like airships?

What am I talking about? Everybody likes airships.

But if you really like airships, or you like airships and you like comics, then you should check out Skies of Fire. It’s a dieselpunk adventure about a hunt for airship pirates in a world that looks like Europe circa 1920. There’s action, adventure, and wonderfully detailed images of cities, people, and flying machines. It’s one of those comics where I love getting lost in the world.

I stumbled across Skies of Fire at the Thought Bubble festival in Leeds. There are only three issues out so far, but I’m hoping for far more. And in the meantime, just look at that lovely cityscape and those shiny, shiny airships.

Because everyone loves airships.

Clinging to the Canon

Wrong sort of canon. Although maybe this is healthier.

The more our lives spin out of control, the tighter we cling to the fixed points we have. It’s a way of feeling secure and safe. In a world of Brexit, Donald Trump, and celebrities dropping like flies, we crave that security more than ever.

Let’s face it, the world was getting chaotic even before last year. The complexity of human society and the pace of change have been accelerating at an exponential rate. This leads to wonderful things we didn’t have when I was young, like smartphones, chap-hop music, and specialist coffee shops. But it’s also bewildering.

I wonder if this is one of the reasons people remain obsessed with protecting the importance of their particular cultural canon. This can be the definition of what’s in continuity for a sprawling franchise like Star Wars or the Marvel Universe. It can equally be literary critics upholding the cultural worth of particular books, claiming a timeless genius and relevance for things that are unapproachable for most people, sneering at whole swathes of culture.

It’s about clinging to the idea that what you had is important and relevant. It can lead to upset when Disney re-boots your continuity or the government takes your favourite classic off school reading lists. As if either of those things make the stories any better or worse.

I gave up on caring about canon when Marvel retconned away much of Grant Morrison’s amazing work on the X-Men.  I still think those are some of the best superhero comics ever. Whether their content and its meaning at the time is canon doesn’t matter. They’re awesome. I’d far rather read them than the latest crossover event or Far From the Madding Crowd, and I think they’re powerful stories despite fitting neither canon.

The world moves on. So do stories, their relevance, and their meaning. They mean different things to different people at different times, and that’s OK. If you find yourself getting concerned about what’s in the canon, maybe stop and ask why it matters to you, or whether it matters at all.

Unless it’s the other sort of canon and it’s pointing at you. Then maybe run.

My Favourite Things of 2016

What’s that you say, it’s the end of the year? Time for an inevitable best-of list?

Alright then. Who am I to resist. Below are some of my favourite new things from 2016. Have a read and let me know your favourites in the comments – they’ll give me more to explore next year.

Comic – The Wicked + The Divine

Jamie McKelvie and Kieron Gillon continue to mesmerise with their story of music gods and potent magic. Part pop culture pastiche, part epic saga, all wonderful to behold, even in a year that saw the Chew finale, this was my favourite comic. McKelvie’s art is richly intoxicating, bringing both the mundane and the otherworldly to vivid life. Gillen’s plotting is strong and his dialogue sharp. They’re one of those creative teams where the whole is greater than the sum of the already great parts.

Music – Painting of a Panic Attack by Frightened Rabbit

Over the past couple of years, I’ve become absolutely addicted to the work of Scottish indie rockers Frightened Rabbit. So when a new album came out this year, I was nervous that the spell might be broken.

There was no need to worry. This is another brooding yet uplifting mix of atmospheric guitars and brooding lyrics. As usual, Frightened Rabbit pick over the pieces of troubled emotional lives against the backdrop of modern Britain. And again, I could listen to this on loop all day and never get bored.

If indie angst isn’t your thing, then there’s always This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, in which Macklemore and Ryan Lewis proved that there’s still plenty more of their quirky hiphop to come. Songs flit between the raunchy, the acerbic, and the deeply heartfelt. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but it gets my blood racing.

Film – Arrival

The idea – trying to translate the language of minds utterly unlike our own.

The emotions – loss, bewilderment, hope.

The style – sedately stunning.

The performances – Amy Adams. Such wonderful, wonderful Amy Adams.

In the era of big spectacle sci-fi movies, this was the year’s slick, Hollywood budget think piece, and it is stunning in every sense.

Book – The Tiger and the Wolf

A lot of the books I read this year weren’t new releases. Of those that were, the standout was The Tiger and the Wolf by Adrian Tchaikovsky.

This is a great fantasy adventure in which a young woman comes of age and must decide where her loyalties lie. The world, initially reminiscent of the European Dark Ages, has a variety and fascination that goes far beyond mud huts and tribal politics. The shape-shifting magic reveals interesting layers and implications as it’s laid out before us. The characters are varied and likable. With two more to come in this series, I’ll definitely be back for more.

TV – The Ranch

This choice has been made on very different grounds from the rest. With so much amazing TV out there, it’s hard to pick one show on grounds of true greatness. The Expanse, with its space adventures and socially grounded noir? The Man in the High Castle, with its reminders of the danger and attraction of fascism and the spell-binding yet subtle performance of Rufus Sewell? Marvel and Netflix’s ongoing stream of top superhero action?

These are all great. I recommend them. But with so much great TV out there, each piece isn’t as distinct and surprising as it once was.

Then there’s The Ranch. In so many ways, this is a perfectly ordinary American sitcom. The performers are good but not being used to the best of their abilities. The jokes are predictable. The emotions are overblown. The direction and camerawork are standard, uninspiring sitcom stuff.

Yet there’s also something surprising about The Ranch. Set in a small community in the heart of rural Republican America, it shows that side of the USA in a way the rest of the world seldom sees. Things we think of as progressive and as conservative get jumbled together by characters who see Hilary Clinton as a figure from nightmare yet keep weed in their vegetable box. The attitudes and actions of the characters, as well as the events of the setting, showed me a side of America that TV producers usually ignore. It took me to a world that was genuinely new to me.

And then there are the characters. Sure, they’re often cliched. Dad’s grumpy, Ashton Kutcher’s stupid, hahaha *sigh*. But they have nuanced emotional lives. They grapple with their thoughts, feelings, and self-perceptions. Because this is a Netlflix show, designed in the expectation that new viewers will start at the beginning, they change over time more than in many sitcoms. For all their dysfunction, these characters provide a healthy model for dealing openly with friends, family, lovers, and ourselves.

Even I’m shocked to find myself typing this, but in among so many far better shows, the one that defined my year in TV was The Ranch. It’s not amazing, but I love it.

Games – Fallout 4

OK, this was from 2015. But I don’t play a lot of computer games, and this was the one for me. The world building of the Fallout series is fantastic and the game environment gives you space to explore that. Its retro-futurist post-apocalyptic wasteland would be a nightmare to live in, but it’s great fun to explore. Combat, puzzle solving, and conversation flow smoothly together. It’s an example of what great story telling computer games do. It has its flaws, the plot and mechanics not quite meshing, but for the most part this is amazing work. I’ve spent days in this game, and I consider that time well spent.

 

So there you go – my top picks of 2016. What have I missed? What am I wrong about? What would you recommend? Leave your suggestions in the comments.

Talking Preacher at Sci-fi Addicts

At first glance, Preacher was a blood-soaked story of brutal violence and obscenity that trampled religious taboos in the dirt. But pay attention to the graphic novel that is Preacher and you find something more. This is a richly philosophical exploration of morality, friendship, and faith, a book that delves deep into the guts of what it means to be human…

Looking for a different reflection on religion and friendship to balance the festive shmaltz? Then check out my recent article about Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s amazing comic series Preacher over at Sci-Fi Addicts.

And then go read Preacher, because it is amazing.