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…

Review Request

If you’re reading this blog, then there’s a good chance that you’ve already read the stories in Beasts Clothed in Beauty, my new collection. Either you read them here on the blog or you got the book and have been enjoying these little snippets of other lives and worlds.

If you’ve read and enjoyed these stories, could you please do me a favour and leave a review for the book on Amazon. Even if it’s just a quick sentence and a star rating, this could really help me in reaching more readers, and help those readers decide if this is something they want to read.

And if you haven’t read it yet, what are you waiting for? Go get a copy now!


Ocean Gods, Roman Blades Review at Writerbee

Ocean Gods, Roman BladesWriterbee has just published a review of my novella Ocean Gods, Roman Blades on her book blog. It’s very positive, with highlights like “Knighton writes with insightfulness, using the perspective of the protagonist to spy into the complexities of the characters surrounding him”. So if you haven’t read this one already then go read the review and see what you’re missing out on.

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge by Paul Krueger

I think we can all agree that cocktails are a good thing, right?Last Call Tasty booze plus comedy names plus an element of craftsmanship equals a fun night of drinking. I’ve certainly had good times with cocktail parties and cocktail inventing bar crawls, one of which ended in my losing a whole city.

But that’s a story for another time. For now, let’s look at a story about magical cocktails – Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge by Paul Krueger.

This is a fun urban fantasy book whose central premise is that bartenders have two jobs – providing tasty booze and protecting the world from dark forces bent on devouring humans like so many tequila slammers at happy hour. Correctly mixed cocktails can give the drinker temporary superpowers, with their effect depending on the drink. Would sir like ice and telekinesis with that?

Krueger is working well within the comfort zone of modern urban fantasy, and the story openly reflects its antecedents. We’ve got the Chicago setting of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. We’ve got the smart young graduate stumbling across the supernatural while looking for a career, like in Mur Lafferty’s Shambling Guides. We’ve got Scott Pilgrim style oddball fights. And of course we’ve got references to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the urban fantasy show people who’ve never heard of urban fantasy rave about.

The result is like drinking a long island ice tea made in a high-class bar – it’s enjoyable, it’s well crafted, but it’s not going to surprise you. It’s a fun, frothy book that avoids taking itself or its likeable characters too seriously. Those characters are nicely brought to life and include a good mix of gender, ethnicity and sexuality without making that an issue.

I was wary of this one at first, not sure Krueger had successfully combined the mundane and supernatural elements. But in the end, clear action and fun characterisation won through. It was the perfect palette cleanser after Kim Stanley Robinson’s bleakly substantial Aurora. If you’re looking for something fun, I totally recommend this.


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Disclaimer: I got this book for free after being contacted by its publicist. The opinion above is still my real opinion – as I’ve said before, if I don’t like something I’ll usually just shut up about it.

A Class Act – The Boy with the Porcelain Blade by Den Patrick

The Boy With the Porcelain BladeDarkly atmospheric and dense with intrigue, The Boy with the Porcelain Blade by Den Patrick is a clever and engaging slice of fantasy. It’s also interesting for drawing attention to a type of division that fantasy often overlooks – the division of social class.

Blood and Intrigue

The Boy with the Porcelain Blade is set in and around Demesne, a gothic palace constrained by intrigue and tradition. Lucien is one of the Orfano, a small group of deformed children growing up in privilege within Demesne. Their origins and purpose are a mystery even to Lucien. Their suffering, as they grow up through a series of tests and schemes, is far more obvious.

As Lucien struggles to find freedom and meaning, we meet the other inhabitants of the palace – courtiers, tutors, servants, Orfano, and the elusive King of Demesne. All are strange figures, and few are his friends. Lucien’s skill with the blade will protect him from some of these threats, but it will take more than that if he wants to survive coming of age.

Back and Forth

Patrick’s book bounces back and forth in time, alternating key moments in Lucien’s upbringing with the fatal few days in which he comes of age and faces the terrible truths of Demesne. In this, and in other ways, the book owes a debt to Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamorra, a debt which Patrick acknowledges through the telling detail of shark’s tooth buttons in the first descriptive scene, a nod to the shark’s teeth that can buy someone’s death in Lies.

The Boy is as dark as Lies, and somewhat more brooding. The structure works as well in Patrick’s hands as in Lynch’s, and is crucial to telling the story. It allows tension to be held over chapters while only minutes pass in Lucien’s life; reveals background information at the relevant point rather than in a confusing heap; and creates unexpected and satisfying revelations. As a writer, it’s something I look at and wonder, doubtfully, whether I could pull it off. It’s certainly something to learn from, as well as to enjoy.

Social Class in Demesne

The first time I heard of Den Patrick, he was talking on a panel about class in fantasy at FantasyCon 2014. With that in mind, I was very aware of the role of class in The Boy with the Porcelain Blade. It was interesting to read it in the context of some of his comments on that panel.

Though the Orfano are only a small group within Demesne, they are in some ways a social class all of their own. They exist within the aristocracy, yet are controlled and threatened by it. Their lives are defined by expectations that are neither challenged nor adequately explained for most of their lives, assumptions that bind them as tightly as any written rules.

In talking on the panel, Patrick discussed the way that we’re raised to accept our station. For the British middle class, this means a path of study and good behaviour. For the modern neets – young people “Not in Education, Employment, or Training” – this means becoming part of a generation without jobs. For the Orfano, it means accepting rigorous testing, lack of control over their lives, and eventual death for most. Social assumptions keep them in their place. Just like the neets, they could theoretically escape that place, and that idea offers hope, but to do so takes a huge mental leap.

In creating Lucien, Patrick has accepted one of the high fantasy tropes he drew attention to in the panel – that lead characters are usually middle class or above, wealthy enough to drop everything and undertake an adventure. But this doesn’t mean that he fails to show people of lower classes. These people are among the most likable in the book, and often a help to Lucien. The inspiration for his redemptive journey is a servant, someone from beyond his own upbringing, yet someone who he can love and rely upon.

Class is vital to this book. The abuse of one class by another is central to its plot, and it’s only when class barriers are challenged that a better future is found. It’s fascinating to read a fantasy that engages clearly but not bluntly with this issue, and that combines it with a tense and atmospheric story.

I’ll be back for more of Den Patrick’s Erebus Sequence. If you enjoy palace intrigues, gothic atmosphere or stories about challenging the status quo, then this is probably one for you too.


Do We Need the Darkness? Angel & Faith: Daddy Issues

Picking up a media tie-in comic is a risky prospect. Sometimes you find a creator let loose on their favourite characters with glorious results. Sometimes you find a steaming pile of cud, the remains of once great stories chewed over and spat out in a rush for brand recognition.

Against my cynical expectations, the high quality stuff has become more prevalent in recent years, and that’s especially true in the universe of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer series. So it was with enthusiasm rather than trepidation that I picked up Angel & Faith Volume 2: Daddy Issues.

Big Questions, Big Action

The plot and dialogue of this comic is very Christos Gage, both in its strengths and its weaknesses. I enjoy Gage’s big ideas, his deft touch with character development and his willingness to try new things, as exhibited in the sadly short-lived Stormwatch: PhD, a comic about superhero internal affairs investigators. Daddy Issues delivers on the big idea through its central plotline, in which brooding good vampire Angel and edgy vampire slayer Faith take on a villain who is taking away people’s sorrows and regrets. It raises an important question about what makes us human – do we need those dark feelings to make us who we are, to drive us to strive for better things? Or would it be OK to just be happy?

The cleverness of Gage’s writing is that he ties this in well to both the characters and an action story. Sure, there’s a big issue for the reader to reflect on, but it’s developed through its importance to the characters, making me care far more about it. And it’s used to deliver a series of nice comic book set-pieces.

Great Comic Art

I’m not terribly knowledgeable on the nuances of art. My assessment of artists is mostly about gut feelings and overall impressions. But on those grounds, Rebekah Isaacs nails it with this book. There isn’t a particular distinctive style at play here, like Sean Phillips’s noire stylings or Rob Guillory’s dynamic exaggeration, but it’s a well executed example of the style somewhere between realism and cartoon exaggeration that is currently very popular in American comics. It’s perfect for a comic that follows on from a TV show, bringing in the verisimilitude we’re used to from the big screen.

But the Dialogue…

And now the downside, because nothing is perfect – as this comic itself argues, we need the shadow to see the light.

While I love Christos Gage’s ideas, his dialogue never grabs me, and as someone very focused on words, that’s a problem. My absolute favourite comic writers make the words sing, whether it’s through the distinctive snark of Warren Ellis, the convincing dialects and slang of Brian Azzarello, or the poppy banter of Kieron Gillen. Gage’s words aren’t terrible – there are far more clumsy writers in the world of comics – but they left me very aware that I was reading a story, rather than absorbing me utterly in it.

Angel & Faith Volume 2 is worth the time of any fan of the franchise or a comics reader looking for an interesting story. Not an all time great of the medium, but a well executed and surprisingly thought provoking book.

A Dark and Compelling Thriller – Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male

I don’t often read a book in a single day. It happened when I first read The Great Gatsby at the age of seventeen, and it happened this weekend with Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household. That something can keep my attention for that long is high praise in itself, and this book is well worth that attention.

Telling of its Time

Written in 1939, Rogue Male is very much a product of pre-war Europe. An unnamed British hunter finds himself stalking a European dictator, convinced that he doesn’t intend to kill the man, only prove to himself that he could. Caught in the act, he is almost killed and quickly ends up on the run from the dictator’s sinister operatives. Unable to go to any authorities for support, he flees across Europe and then hides out in the English countryside, trying to avoid a violent showdown that bears in upon him with terrible inevitability.

It’s easy for us to forget the perspective of the time, given the moral certainties now attached to our view of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and the other far right regimes of that era. There was a tension in the treatment of those regimes by the British and other nations who would end up opposing them. Appalled as many people were by the aggression of Franco, Hitler and Mussolini, the thought of another European-wide industrialised war was also appalling. Individuals as well as nations were deeply torn on which was worse, to act politically and militarily or to accept the consequences of inaction. That tension, and the strained international peace beneath which it sat, sets up the circumstances of Rogue Male, and the hunter’s inability to seek official help. It also runs a thread of tension through the background of events.

In retrospect, the hunter’s struggle also acts as a powerful metaphor for the era. He tries for as long as possible to avoid a confrontation with forces he feels ill prepared to fight, despite his own background of traditional skilled and ritualised violence in the hunt. Yet that potential violence gains a sense of terrible inevitability, like the war that would break out in the same year the book was published.

Telling That’s Showing

By modern standards there’s a lot of telling rather than showing in this book. Yet that telling keeps the momentum up, giving the story a feeling of swift movement even at points when the character is going nowhere.

Writing from the hunter’s first person point of view, Household cleverly uses gaps in this telling to create tensions between the hunter’s understanding of himself and our understanding of him, and to show his psychological reactions. The most dramatic and violent incidents are passed over in fleeting moments, their nature revealed by the details of their aftermath. Violence is brief but its consequences endure, and there’s a feeling that the hunter does not want to linger on the thrill of his actions, but rather on the darkness of their consequences. For him, there is no longer any joy in the chase, whether as hunter or prey.

It’s a subtle, powerful form of showing, made all the more so for its limited deployment in the book.

The Power of Perspective

That restricted perspective is also used to explore the hunter’s motives. Because of the way that the story is told, he can plausibly hold back on this – not deliberately, but because of what he himself does not want to think about. As the truth is gradually revealed, it adds an extra sense of dread and tension. The revelation of the past gains the same terrible inevitability as the future.

This book isn’t going to be for everyone. It’s outside of my usual science fiction and fantasy reading, and I doubt I would have read it if my mum hadn’t given me a copy. But even if thrillers aren’t usually your thing, I recommend giving it a go. It’s dark, powerful, and strangely fascinating.

5-Star Review for By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High ResolutionI don’t get huge numbers of reviews, so I sometimes get over-excited when I receive one, especially one as glowingly positive as this recent review by Writerbee of By Sword, Stave or Stylus. To quote the start of the review, ‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ I really can’t complain about a review like that!

By Sword, Stave or Stylus is available as ebook via Amazon.

Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky – War, Magic and Polite Society

I’ve been looking forward to reading Guns of the Dawn since listening to its author Adrian Tchaikovsky read from it at FantasyCon last year. Combining black powder fantasy with a war story and an exploration of gender roles, it hits a lot of themes that interest me. And as it turned out, it was even more interesting than I expected.

Revolutionary War is Hell

Guns of the Dawn is set in a fantasy world with late 18th century technology and politics, in which one nation has overthrown its monarchy in a bloody revolution and its neighbour is invading in defence of the old order. As the war against revolutionary Denland grinds brutally on, neighbouring Lascanne is running out of soldiers to fight with. Emily Marshwic becomes part of a first wave of female conscripts, desperately trying to defend their country from their regicidal neighbours.

Except that, as the cover says, ‘the first casualty is always the truth’, and the rights and wrongs of this conflict are far from clear.

Half the book’s action takes place in a brutal battle for control of a stretch of swamp. It’s a good example of fantasy world building that draws from different parts of history, with the technology of the Napoleonic Wars, the exhausting jungle warfare of Vietnam, and the issues of mass conscription that marked the First World War. This jamming together of historical elements shows one of the great advantages of using fantasy over historical fiction – looking at how elements from different historical periods might combine. It’s a great piece of world building, and really hammers home the horrors of war.

Now for Some Jane Austen

The dark experience at the heart of the book is made all the more striking for being framed by Emily’s pre- and post-war experience. Hers is a genteel life like something out of Jane Austen, leaving her unprepared to become a soldier. As well as making the war all the darker by contrast, this acts as a reminder that such a privileged life is often made possible only by the suffering and struggles of others.

Jane Austen’s characters existed in the same world where Napoleon was conquering most of Europe. These two elements, often seen apart, combine to make a fascinating contrast.

Dawn of the Guns

There are plenty of other things about this book that I could enthuse about. The characters follow familiar tropes, but are given enough depth to make them enjoyably familiar rather than tedious clichés. The way magic fits into the social and political hierarchy hints at some fascinating possibilities. The atmosphere of the the military campaign, and the psychology of people unable to face the truth, are brought vividly to life.

But one of my favourite details is a technological one. During the fighting in the swamps it becomes clear that the Denlanders have special guns which are giving them an advantage. When the truth eventually comes out it’s a clever use of real historical technology, showing how researching the real world can make imagined worlds stronger.

Fantasy of Overwhelming Power – The Wandering Fire by Guy Gavriel Kay


If I was going to choose one word to describe The Wandering Fire, the second book in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry, ‘powerful’ is the word I would choose, not just for its style but for its story. It’s a power that lifts a good series into one that’s truly great.

Part Two: Better and Darker

The Wandering Fire picks up some months after The Summer Tree left off. The characters introduced in that book are once more transported from modern Canada to the magical world of Fionavar, where in true legendary style they are called upon to fight the forces of darkness.

At first glance, this book seems much like the first, taking a very Tolkien morality and mythological story-telling, and cranking it up with Kay’s excellent writing. But it feels like, having set up the series, Kay is now free to use his full literary prowess in expanding upon it. The big moments feel even more epic, the intimate ones more personal, the menace even more substantial.

The Revelation of the Overwhelming

Overwhelming power is a major theme of this story, and one that gives it much of its drama.

On the one hand there is the overwhelming threat of Rakoth Maugrim, and of the apparent inevitability of his triumph. By alluding in advance to events to come, as well as shifting the story around chronologically, Kay creates a sense of creeping inevitable disaster, much like the atmosphere of a horror film. Defeat feels almost unavoidable, both in the broad scheme and in individual battles.

But characters are also overwhelmed in a more positive way, through religious experiences. Incidents such as an encounter between Dave and the goddess Ceinwen have a real sense of awe and grandeur to them. The gods are present and yet not reduced to mere people. It’s a difficult balance to strike, and moving to read. This is religious experience at its most emotional.

The Intimate

This isn’t to say that Kay’s book is all about epic grandeur. It’s also rooted in more ordinary but no less wonderful relationships, which he uses to explore all kinds of emotional bonds. There are siblings; romances; parent-child pairings; leaders and followers; blood brothers bound together by combat; a man and his dog; gods and worshippers; mages and the extraordinary people from whom they draw their power. This last pairing, a creation of Kay’s world, helps to draw attention to the others and bring out this theme of the story.

I enjoyed The Summer Tree, but was not enjoying The Fionavar Tapestry as much as Kay’s later work. The Wandering Fire has turned this series into something extraordinary, and I look forward to the final book.