Something is lurking amid the old books and dusty shelves…
- Tag Archives fantasy
Ancient magic brings a lost father back at the ocean’s edge.
Sometimes making a story look like something it isn’t can frustrate readers. Other times, it can be immensely satisfying.
(Mild spoilers for The Shattered Sea ahead – don’t want this article turning into something you didn’t expect.)
Joe Abercrombie‘s Shattered Sea trilogy is mostly a straightforward, if rather dark, YA fantasy series. In a world ripped apart by a long-ago war, Viking-style raiders plough the seas, looting, trading, and making war on each other. The story has its twists and turns, all in keeping with the style of story it lays out from the start – one of deception and betrayal in the cause of greater goods.
There’s also another twist hidden in the world building, one that slowly becomes apparent as you read the story.
This isn’t a fantasy world. It’s our world in the future. The elven ruins are the remains of modern cities, magical
artefactsmodern technology. Hints dropped along the way let the reader work this out without the characters ever finding the truth, which is irrelevant to their lives. They care about what those artefacts can do, not what it really means for magic to exist.
This isn’t an entirely new idea. John Christopher did something similar in his 1970s Sword of the Spirits trilogy, and he’s not alone. But the reason this works isn’t
precedentt. It’s the way it affects the reader.
Finding out that you’re not reading the story you thought you were can be frustrating. The writer pulls the rug out from beneath your feet and then stands there smugly grinning, with a look on their face like “aha! I tricked you!” They’re proving how clever they are.
Abercrombie’s books have the opposite effect. You as the reader get to feel clever, as you put the pieces together and work out the truth. That’s a great feeling. We accept the bait and switch because of the way that it’s presented.
I’ve talked about this idea a bunch of times – that we feel good about books when they make us feel smart. From a little kid learning to
recogniseletters to an undergraduate student ostentatiously reading Ulysses, feeling smart makes you feel good, which makes you like the thing that made you feel smart.
So yeah, I really liked The Shattered Sea series. Not just because of that smart feeling, of course. There are compelling characters and events presented in clear, enjoyable prose. But that fantasy that’s not fantasy, it certainly helps.
My latest book, All the Beautiful Sunsets, is out today. Collecting 52 flash stories I published on the blog this year, it covers a wide range of settings, from ancient history to the far future.
A fairy noble hunting for spies. A soldier digging for his life beneath a battlefield. A man learning the cost of renting out his brain. Meet all these characters and more in fifty-two short stories set in worlds beyond our own.
Continuing my review of the year in books, here are some of my favourite non-fiction reads from 2018. They didn’t necessarily come out this year, but now is when I found and enjoyed them. If you’ve particularly enjoyed a non-ficiton book this year, tell me about it in the comments – I’m always on the lookout for more.
Gender Identity and Sexuality in Current Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Francesca T Barbini
To say that modern society faces problems with gender and sexuality would be an understatement up there with “King John seems a little bit off.” As half of society tries to adopt a more nuanced, egalitarian attitude, the other half kicks back, desperately clinging to binary divisions and patriarchal structures. Movements like gamergate and the sad puppies have turned geek culture into a battleground on gender issues, spewing angry invectives and threats of violence at people who question the status quo. “How dare they fill speculative fiction with gays and women?” the trolls cry out. “It was fine being all about straight white men!”
In that environment, it was particularly pleasing to see a British Fantasy Award go to Luna Press’s excellent collection of articles on gender and sexuality in speculative fiction. Articles in this book cover a wide range of topics, from the myth of meritocracy in publishing to the remarkable improvement in gender representation in the Magic the Gathering card game. These thought-provoking pieces by smart writers address both the content of our fiction and the process surrounding it, encouraging readers to look at gender and sexuality in geek culture from a dozen different angles.
This is academic writing of a relatively accessible type, aimed at wider readers with an interest in the field. It takes some effort, but if you’re interested in issues of social justice or the state of sf+f then it’s well worth a look. It’s a book whose existence and well-earned plaudits will help shift our culture in a more positive direction.
The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich
Speaking of gender, I wrote back in June about Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War. Six months later, it still haunts me, one of the most remarkable history books I’ve read in my life, never mind this year.
Researched and written in the late 1970s and early 1980s, this book details the experience of women serving in the Soviet armed forces during the Second World War. It reveals a side of the war that fitted poorly with official accounts and heroic re-tellings, showing the vital place of women on the Eastern Front and the awful realities they faced. Despite its huge significance, it only appeared in English last year, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
Filled with veterans’ own accounts of the war, it’s a powerful testimony to the experiences of soldiers, sailors, pilots, and support staff. Their struggles, their traumas, their losses, their fleeting moments of joy, all are laid bare on the page. But it’s not just about the moments of violent struggle. It’s also about the transformation of civilians into warriors, of women into men’s roles, how that changed them and how it affected their lives once the war ended. It’s also an account of Alexievich’s own mission to uncover these hidden stories, the way she related to the women she interviewed, and the way they viewed the war decades later.
The phrase “we have always fought” has become a rallying cry for the re-examination of women’s place in history and in the fiction influenced by it. The Unwomanly Face of War provides the ultimate evidence of how tragically true that phrase is.
Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare by Giles Milton
Another unconventional look at the Second World War, Milton’s book delves into Britain’s covert operations. When Churchill called out for Europe to be set ablaze in resistance to the Nazis, these were the people who built him a bigger match and worked out where best to light it.
The book covers three aspects of their work. First, there were the mad inventors of the weapon’s making division, men like Cecil Clarke and Stuart Macrae who invented the limpet mine using condoms and aniseed balls. Then there were the trainers, men like Eric Sykes and William Fairbairn, the professional sharp-shooter and former police commander who taught men to kill with their bare hands. And finally, there were the operatives themselves, sent on dangerous missions deep in occupied Europe, committing acts of sabotage and assassination in the name of freedom.
Unlike The Unwomanly Face of War, Churchill’s Ministry sometimes glamourises its subjects, both the people and the missions. There’s a sense of boy’s own adventure in places that’s at odds with the true ugliness of events. But the overall tone is one of exploring the extraordinary, from the ingenuity of inventors to the courage and determination of undercover operatives. It’s an unexpected and seldom discussed niche within much larger events, compelling as much for the odd characters as for what they achieved.
When the men in the blue coats claimed that the land was theirs, we laughed at them.
“You cannot own the land,” I told them. “It’s not a drum or a club, something that you can pick up and trade, something whose spirit you can control. It’s just the land.”
But the blue coats had swords so sharp they could cut the wind, guns that roared like thunder, and floating fortresses from which to bombard our villages. So in the end, we let them have their foolishness. They would call the land theirs but we would still live on it, and that was what mattered.
They called the chiefs to a great signing ceremony. I had given birth to my second daughter only weeks before, but they became angry when I said I would not go. So I donned my stone bark armour and my feathered crown, took up my war club and my charm bag, and went to meet them.
I stood with the rest of the chiefs, surrounded by blue coat soldiers. Their chief, with his golden shoulder strings and his pointed headdress, oversaw it all. Another man used a metal stick to draw a map on a great sheet of hide, marking out the shape of the coast and the limits of the land the blue coats called theirs.
As his blood-red ink touched the page, I felt something change around me. The flow of life through the earth stopped, power building up like water behind a dam.
“It’s real,” I said, staring in shock as he kept drawing his lines and the power kept backing up. “They own the land.”
Ofabilla of the Long Fall village sank to his knees, pale and shaking.
“What have they done?” he hissed.
I opened my bag of charms, drew out a death tree gourd wrapped in red ribbon, and squeezed it tight. As the spikes pierced my skin and blood dripped into the dirt, I opened the way for the power of the land to flow through me.
I squeezed harder, letting the pain open a path.
I closed my eyes and took hold of my war club. Its power at least would be mine still. I reached out with my heart, down my arm, through my hand, and into the wood, calling the power forth.
The blue coats’ map had laid claim to all this land. Its power was theirs.
I opened my eyes. The map maker was trembling with the strain of his work as he moved towards the end. Another blue coat dabbed the sweat from his forehead so that it would not fall and mar the map.
I could not let this stand. They had guns and swords and floating fortresses. They would not have our spirits too.
In my heart, I said goodbye to my daughters, knowing what I took from them in trying to save their world. Then I dropped my club, leapt forward, and snatched the map from the blue coat’s hands.
They stared at me in shock, every one of them.
“What are you doing?” their chieftain exclaimed. “Put that down at once, you mad woman!”
I had no words to waste on him. I simply took hold of the map with both hands and pulled at it with all my strength.
“No!” the map maker shrieked as his creation began to tear.
The ground trembled. Trees fell. Men and women were thrown about. I felt the power they had constrained rush through me in a glorious, golden surge.
Guns roared and I knew that my time had come. I would not see my daughters grow, but at least they would hear of me with pride.
Death did not come. Instead, the bullets were flung back against those who fired them. The power of the land poured forth, flinging these invaders through the air, leaving them broken like straw dolls at the end of harvest night.
“You cannot own the land,” I said, picking up their chieftain by the throat. His skin shrivelled as his power was sucked away on the great tide coursing through me. “But perhaps it can own you.”
* * *
Maps have power. Look at how we treat borders and the people who live across them. I liked the idea of treating that power as something magical, and this is the result.
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As the end of the year approaches, it’s time to look back on what’s been good in 2018. I’m going to start with fiction – not necessarily books that came out this year, but ones I’ve read and enjoyed over the past twelve months.
The Wounded Kingdom Trilogy by RJ Barker
This year saw the release of volumes two and three of RJ Barker’s Wounded Kingdom trilogy – Blood of Assassins and King of Assassins. Age of Assassins was one of my favourite books of 2017, so I had high hopes, and RJ absolutely lived up to them.
Girton Clubfoot is an assassin, his skills all about killing. When he and his master are called upon to save a life instead of ending one, they become drawn into the politics of a court at war with itself in a country ravaged by dark magic. Everybody has their secrets, from the king down to the stable hands. Some of them are willing to kill to keep those secrets safe, and it won’t be long before Girton finds himself on the sharp end of a blade.
This series consists of three murder mystery political thrillers set in a medieval fantasy world. There’s war, magic, crime, and intrigue aplenty. But what makes it stand out is the characters. With the books set years apart, we get to see them maturing and their relationships changing. They both shape and are shaped by the kingdom around them. Villains become heroes while heroes lose their way. The protagonist goes from a fumbling apprentice to a master of his craft. And through it all, there’s an exploration of family – what it is, what it means, and how it shapes us.
I don’t want to say much more, for fear of spoiling the series’ splendid twists and turns. While the first book was compelling, it’s the finale that makes it powerful. These are smartly written, compelling novels. If you enjoy fantasy at all, you should give them a go.
Dogs of War by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Rex is a good dog. All he wants is to do what his masters tell him and be rewarded with their love and gratitude. Unfortunately, Rex is also a seven foot tall muscled monstrosity, genetically engineered as one of the world’s deadliest killing machines. So when things start to get confusing for Rex, when the boundary between enemies and innocents becomes unclear, there’s trouble coming.
Dogs of War is a stand-alone sci-fi novel about the abuse of power and what it means to be a person. In Rex, it has one of the most perfectly written, perfectly heartbreaking viewpoint characters I’ve ever experienced. The difference between his innocent worldview and reality is skillfully implied from the very start, making for a really emotional read. And as the story shifts, digging deeper into the fate of creatures like Rex, it raises intriguing questions about how humans cope with the consequences of what we create.
I’ve been reading a lot of Adrain Tchaikovsky’s work recently. So far this is the standout story, a great book from a great writer.
The Copper Promise by Jen Williams
Years behind my friends’ recommendations, I’ve finally got started on Jen Williams’ Copper Cat trilogy and it was well worth it.
Another fantasy series, the Copper Cat trilogy follows a band of mercenaries whose attempts to make a living drag them into saving the world. What starts as a gritty story of lowlives in scummy taverns slowly escalates into an epic of gods and monsters in which mortals struggle to save the innocent from destruction.
Like all the best stories, the characters are what drive these books along. There conflicting motives and personalities ensure that there’s always trouble brewing, but their friendship pulls them together in battles against the odds. Sharp dialogue and lively action scenes become a conduit for those characters, not a distraction from them.
I haven’t yet read the last book in the series, but based on the first two, I’m sure I’ll enjoy it. And I can definitely recommend the first two, starting with The Copper Promise.
The Glamourist Histories by Mary Robinette Kowal
Imagine the early 19th century but with magical art that crafts illusions. That’s the world of the Glamourist Histories.
At the heart of this series is Jane, the narrator and protagonist. A young woman born into the English gentry, she starts out looking for all the things we expect from a Jane Austen character – love, marriage, a secure future. But Jane is also a skilled glamourist, able to use her art to bring beauty from thin air. If she can find a way to pursue her art, then life promises much more for Jane, even if she can’t see it.
Though character is the consistent thread of these books, it’s the variety of settings within them that I particularly love. One is a Jane Austen pastiche, the next a Napoleonic espionage thriller. We spend time with the reformers of London, the glassblowers of Venice, and the slaves of the Caribbean plantations. A lot of the themes of real 19th-century history are explored in the space of five fantasy novels.
I finished this series this year on audible, where the books are wonderfully narrated by the author. They’re a very different take on fantasy from most of what I read, drawing on different threads of history and society, rich with social tensions and the challenge of change.
So those were my top reads this year. What were yours?
None stood brighter in all the Court of Arcadia than Lady Elithia. None stronger. None more elegant. None wiser in the ways of war. The beasts of the forest, awed by her prowess, bore her banners before her when she entered the mortal realm. Butterflies darted between the warp and weft of reality just to bring her morsels of fruit.
And so it was that a butterfly with gold and ebony wings landed before her on the council table laid down a grape.
“You are a fine creature,” she said, running a finger down its back. “More beautiful than those that normally tend upon me. Has nature adapted to pay fitting tribute?”
She split the grape in two, placed one part before the butterfly, and relished the taste of the rest on her tongue.
“The Dark Court knew we were coming,” Lord Asahar said, standing tall in his umber robes as he glared down the table. “How do they keep doing this?”
“There must be a spy,” The Frozen One turned their ice blue gaze upon Elithia. “Your mortal soldiers drink until their tongues loosen. My bones tell me that one of them let slip.”
“Then your bones are as hollow as your head,” Elithia replied, still stroking the butterfly. “I am too wise to give our game away. My mortals learn our intent only when the time comes to charge. Your weather sprites, though, are fickle and wind-blown, easily swayed. Clearly one has turned traitor.”
“My children would not dare!” Ice crackled across the table from The Frozen One’s fingers. Elithia laid her hand down to stop it before it reached the butterfly.
“Your children run wild every winter. They cannot be trusted.”
“How dare you, you pompous banshee.”
“Enough!” Asahar’s fist shook the table. “The weather sprites were locked away when the Dark Court countered our summer campaign. It must be another.”
“One of your scribes?” Elithia asked.
“Not this time.” Asahar shook his head. “I have… taken measures.”
“A lord or lady turned traitor?”
“Too much to lose.”
“One of Elithia’s armourer lovers?” The Frozen One asked. “Perhaps you whisper secret somethings in their ears.”
“Do not take me for such a fool.”
“You give the impression of it well enough.”
Elithia rose, the butterfly perched on one hand, her sword in the other.
“I have time for more than one war,” she growled, as The Frozen One drew their ice-rimmed bow.
“I said enough!” This time, the table buckled beneath Asahar’s fist. “Sit down, both of you. All our fates are at stake here.”
Grudgingly, Elithia did as she was told. She sank her sword into its scabbard and cupped the butterfly in her palm, stroking its wings to sooth herself.
“At least you understand me,” she whispered.
It flicked its wings, about to take to the air, to return to its blander cousins in the mortal world.
Elithia’s heart sank as realisation dawned.
“Perhaps you understand me too well,” she said, fingers closing like a cage around the butterfly.
It flapped and butted against her hand, desperate to escape, but her grip only tightened, squeezing until, with a flash of darkness, the creature transformed. Elithia was left clutching the arm of a dirty, jut-chinned boggart.
“Ha!” The Frozen One pointed. “The spy was in your camp! I would never be so stupid.”
“There is wisdom in learning from our mistakes,” Asahar said, and with a flick of his hands ropes appeared to bind the creature.
“Then maybe Elithia really might wind up the wisest of us all,” The Frozen One said.
Elithia picked up the leftover piece of grape, placed it in her mouth, and relished the flavour on her tongue. None stood stronger than her still, none more elegant. That would be enough.
* * *
As often happens, this story was inspired by something on Twitter – in this case, Emma Cunliffe’s photo of a butterfly in her office. What can I say, we writers are parasites who will feed off any spare thoughts you leave lying around.
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Writing can be a pretty lonely business, so when there’s an opportunity to meet up with likeminded people, I’ll leap on it. And last weekend was one of the best of those meetups – Fantasycon.
Fantasycon 2018 took place in Chester. As always, it was run by a team of hardworking and helpful volunteers – if any of you are reading this, thank you so much! And as always, it was full of cool fantasy fans and writers from across the UK and beyond.
I love Fantasycon. I know enough people in the community now I can always find someone to chat with. It’s great catching up with people in the bar, where I spend most of the weekend. And that leads to meeting even more great people to chat with next year.
Spending a weekend with people who share your passions is great. You know that you can always find things to talk about. If the person you’re talking with doesn’t share your enthusiasm for a particular book or movie then they’ll at least understand it. It’s an emotionally uplifting experience, as well as one that fills me with good ideas about what and how to write.
Of course, there’s also the convention programming, a range of panels, talks, and readings. I can’t summarise everything I saw this year, but here’s what I attended:
- Blogging in Genre Fiction – Kit Power, Alisdair Stuart, Micah Yongo, and Kate Coe talked with passion about how they blog. Turns out it’s mostly about that passion. And now I have a bunch more blogs to follow.
- The Elderly Guard – Charlotte Bond, R B Watkinson, David Stokes, Dion Winton-Polak, and Mark Latham discussed older characters in fantasy. My main takeaway – in an apocalypse, older people have lots of useful skills, so keep them around.
- Fairy Tales and Folk Horror – Charlotte Bond, Tom Johnstone, Teika Bellamy, and Susan Boulton talking traditional stories. Tom pointed out how dark the end of Beauty and the Beast is, with Belle marrying the man who held her prisoner, and how this could be read as about falling in love in an arranged marriage. *shudder*
- Breaking the Glass Slipper live – One of my favourite podcasts, this time discussing mysteries in genre fiction. Excellent guest work by Claire North and RJ Barker. Look out for that in their podcast feed.
- From Colonisation to Decolonisation – Nick Wood, Naomi Foyle, Stewart Hotston, and Allanah Hunt talking about colonial and decolonising sf+f. A difficult and important topic, it’s really good to see the fantasy community engage with this, and I’m very happy to just shut up and listen to those with direct experience.
Then there were the panels I took part in:
- Putting the “Punk” in Fiction, with Lee Harrison, Ren Warom, and Kit Power. As somebody said, adding “punk” to a genre is really just a way of trying to say “look, it’s cool!”, but we still had a great debate about subgenres and making fiction more punk.
- From Fanon to Canon, moderated by Cheryl Morgan, with Allanah Hunt, Chris Jarvis, and Kate Coe. I wasn’t sure I had anything to say on this, as I don’t write fan fiction, but it turned into a fascinating debate about working with existing stories and the connections between power and culture.
- Renaissance Fantasy, with Anne Lyle, Jeanette Ng, and Den Patrick. We talked about what good and bad things fantasy writers take from the European Renaissance, what we’re missing out on, and a little bit about other renaissances.
Going to a convention always means finding more books I’d like to read, so the lure of the dealers’ room is impossible to resist. This time I was relatively restrained, only buying two non-fiction collections from Luna Press, one on gender and sexuality in sf+f, the other on African sf+f. I’ve already read the first one, which was full of insightful and fascinating articles. Having started the other this morning, it promises to be the same. Luna Press are doing some great work right now, putting out both innovative fiction and valuable commentary, and I’m pleased to have these on my shelves.
Fantasycon is a great event. If you’re a fan of fantasy or horror fiction and you live in the UK then I heartily recommend it. Next year we’re off to Glasgow – maybe I’ll see you there?
If you’ve been following my blog for any time at all, you’re probably familiar with the Epiphany Club. They’re a band of Victorian steampunk adventurers I invented for a short story, reflecting my interest in Victorian history, strange machines, and old-fashioned adventure stories. In the decade since, I’ve written five novellas exploring their adventures. And now, at last, those novellas are collected in one place.
The Epiphany Club isn’t just my biggest self-publishing project yet – it’s also the first time that I’ve dared go into print. Previously, my books have been purely digital, but now, for the first time, you can also get a physical version. A preview is currently sitting on my desk and I have to say that it looks pretty awesome. I’m very proud of this project.
So what’s it all about? Well…
Dirk Dynamo is used to adventure. He’s chased villainous masterminds across the mountains of Europe, stalked gangsters through the streets of Chicago, and faced the terrible battlefields of the Civil War. But now he’s on a mission that will really shake his world.
For centuries, the Great Library of Alexandria was thought lost. Now a set of clues has been discovered that could lead to its hiding place. With the learned adventurers of the Epiphany Club, Dirk sets out to gather the clues, track down the Library, and reveal its secrets to the world.
But Dirk and his colleagues aren’t the only ones following the trail. Faced with strange machines, deadly assassins, and shocking betrayal, can they survive the perils confronting them? And what will they find when they finally reach their destination?
Roaming from the jungles of West Africa to the sewers beneath London, The Epiphany Club is a modern pulp adventure, a story of action, adventure, and romance set against the dark underbelly of the Victorian age.
You can pre-order the e-book now, and if this is a story that appeals to you then please do pre-order. If you want to read a sample before you buy, the first novella is free from all good e-book retailers. Sadly Amazon won’t do pre-orders for the paperback, but I’ll provide details when it’s available.
Welcome to a world of curiosity and adventure. I hope you enjoy reading about it as much as I enjoyed the writing.