The Price of Wonder – Locke & Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez

Some great stories leap out at you from the first page, grabbing you by the heart and screaming for your attention. Others grow on you slowly, creeping into your brain word by word until you realise that the thing you were once vaguely enjoying has become so rich, so compelling that you can’t let it go.

Locke & Key, Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s comic book series of magic, mystery and dark deeds, is one of the latter.

That Growing On You Feeling

I wasn’t completely taken by Locke & Key when I read the first volume. It was perfectly decent, in the way of many other comics that have combined strange fantasy with a modern setting since Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. But it didn’t seem like much more than that.

Still, I’d heard great things about this book, and I found the second volume in my local library. I read some more, and somewhere in my own hidden depths something clicked. This was a dark, fascinating puzzle of a story, with compelling characters and beautiful art. This was a thing I really wanted to read.

Wonder and Horror

Locke & Key is the story of the Locke children – teenagers Tyler and Kinsey Locke, and their younger brother Bode. After their father’s brutal murder, they move with their mother to an old New England house. There they find something strange – a series of keys with magical powers, that can open the mind and free the spirit, but that can also bring great darkness.

Because while the Lockes are good people, they aren’t the only ones seeking out the keys. A darker force is at work, one that brings horror and betrayal in its wake. As the Locke children try to come to terms with their loss, while also exploring the wonder of the keys, terrible events start to unfold around them.

OK, I know that all sounds vague, but I’m doing it on purpose. Part of the joy of these books is watching events play out in surprising and compelling ways. I really don’t want to give anything away.

Everything at a Price

One of the central themes of Locke & Key is the consequence of actions, the price paid not just by the people who make choices but by those around them. The children’s mother has coped with her husband’s death by drinking away her sorrows, but this is destroying her remaining relationships. The exploration of magic brings wonder, but also unleashes darkness. And as the background of the story creeps into the light, it becomes clear that everything that is happening happens for a reason, a consequence of other decisions in the key house’s past.

Locke & Key is a beautiful thing. The characters and deep, nuanced and complex. The art is both dynamic and characterful. The plot is full of mystery and suspense. Sure, it’s no Sandman, but neither is it another Sandman wannabe. It’s a dark, brooding tale in its own right. Something unsettling and yet uplifting.

I’m on the fifth volume out of six now. Whether things end well or badly for Lockes, I expect to be gripped right through to the end.

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer – the good sort of wtf

It’s not often that I get to the end of a book and don’t know what to think or feel. Jeff VanderMeer‘s Annihilation, the first part of his Southern Reach Trilogy, achieves that, in a good way.

Annihilation is a tricky book to describe. It’s probably fantasy, maybe horror, with what looks like a contemporary setting. Narratively, it’s the story of an expedition into the mysterious Area X, a part of the world where the normal rules of reality don’t apply. Sent to explore the area, the expedition has its own strange rules meant to combat the madness of Area X. Except those rules are themselves disorienting and dehumanising.

The story is told through the unreliable narrative of the expedition’s nameless biologist, and portrays her response to the bewildering nature of Area X and the disintegration of the people around her. Or possibly her descent into madness. Or possibly both. It’s hard to tell. And along the way, she gets to grips with her own identity and sense of purpose.

I’m told that H P Lovecraft’s horror writing created stories in which even smart people could convincingly be over-whelmed and destroyed, because the forces arrayed against them were just too much for anyone to cope with. That’s how Annihilation feels. The biologist is smart, but from the outset Area X is so strange that there’s a real tension around whether she can survive the expedition, and how it will affect her.

If you watched any of the TV show Lost, you’ll probably remember hitting a point where you realised that the island just didn’t make sense, and probably never would. Annihilation is like that, except that it feels like the lack of coherence is a deliberate ploy by the author, not the result of a TV production throwing madness at the screen and praying that it would make sense.

To quote a speech from one of my favourite films (and please excuse the f-bombs), feeling fucked up doesn’t mean that you’re fucked up. Feeling fucked up is a sane response to a fucked up situation. That’s what this book portrays, and it evokes it incredibly well.

Annihilation isn’t hard work in the sense of being dense or massively long. But its strange natures requires a willingness to let go of your assumptions about how a story will pan out and how a fantastical world will be presented. It’s fascinating. It’s dark. It’s something I want more of, and I don’t even know why. If you like weird things, then give it a go.

The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar

The Bookman is the first book I’ve read by Lavie Tidhar, who’s developing quite a name for  smart and varied genre fiction. An idea-packed and often exciting steampunk novel, I enjoyed it both in its own right and because of how it got me reflecting on the nature of the genre.

Steampunk Spectacle

The Bookman is the story of Orphan, a young man living in a version of 19th century London where the British Empire is ruled by lizards, the streets are full of literary and historical figures, and there are conspiracies lurking in every shadow. As the book unfolds, Orphan is drawn deeper and deeper into a tangle of plots and schemes, which lead to revelations about the world he lives in, and about himself.

As I discussed in a previous post, this book is densely packed with ideas and imagery, so much so that it can feel like it’s trying too hard to be smart, especially in the early chapters. But this density of ideas is one of its great joys – it makes for a fascinating and varied setting.

Once the story gets past its first act it’s also pretty exciting. A departure from London leads to exotic locations and action adventure elements that I really hadn’t expected. It becomes an exciting book that’s also smart, not just a smart book being smart. And that makes it a whole lot more fun to read.

Reflecting on the Genre

At the end, I found myself wondering about the elements that had been thrown together in this story. Mrs Beaton, Karl Marx, Sherlock Holmes and an automaton of Lord Byron all exist together in Orphan’s world. There are lizards, robots, giant mushrooms, pirates, the list goes on. Jules Verne shares a journey with one of his own characters. In a very real way, it makes no sense.

But isn’t that part of the joy of steampunk as a genre? When we read fantasy we’re often imagining other worlds that could exist out there, unrelated to our own. When we read science fiction we’re imagining possible futures. But with steampunk we take elements of history, old literature and modern imagination and cram them together in a way that we know makes no sense. We can’t believe even for a moment that Marx and Holmes ate at the same restaurant, because we know that one of them is real and the other isn’t.

Steampunk isn’t about what could be. It’s a never-land whose success depends not on the plausibility of concepts, but on successful execution. And Tidhar has executed a smart book that’s often exciting and always intriguing. If you can get through those dense early chapters you’ll be well rewarded by what follows.

Just don’t worry too much about what sort of sense it makes.

Second Chance by Dylan S Hearn

In the age of the YA dystopia, it’s easy to find fiction that looks at what disaster might come our way and how we might survive. What I haven’t seen much of, and one of the things I really enjoyed about Dylan S Hearn‘s Second Chance, is that this book goes beyond that immediate speculation into a world where humanity has survived its own recklessness. Then it takes a step back and asks, what was the cost of that survival?

Mystery and Suspense

Second Chance is a tight, well-placed near future thriller. A young woman has gone missing, vanished despite the near-ubiquity of electronic surveillance. Many people are interested in uncovering, concealing or using the truth about her disappearance. A politician who will automatically lose her seat when her popularity falls. A detective from a private police company. A data cleanser, a type of researcher tasked with identifying and containing information that might harm his employers.

These plausibly cynical takes on modern professions are one of the book’s pleasures. Things are slightly exaggerated, but in an entirely believable way.

The real joy thought lies in the plot. As each of these people follows their own agenda, their motives mixing the selfish and the noble, the plot twist and turns, maintaining a high level of suspense.

Stripped Down Prose

I was initially thrown by the sparseness of Hearn’s storytelling. There’s very little physical description, and so little attribution of dialogue that I occasionally wasn’t sure on first reading who was saying something. This book is concerned with showing the structures of the world and the minds of the characters, not outward trappings and appearance. If you’re looking for something richly descriptive, or need a lot of description to bring an imagined world to life, then this probably isn’t for you.

But once I got used to it, that stripped down prose really worked for me, and for the sort of story being told. It lets the plot flow smoothly and swiftly without needing to simplify intentions or events. And when details came through, especially during the book’s tumultuous final act, they are all the more startling for that.

An Exciting Read

I really enjoyed this book. Reading it alongside the heavy exposition of Kate Elliott’s Cold Magic and the dense intellectual sprawl of Lavie Tidhar’s Bookman, it was great to have something that cracked along at such a pace, that was smart but still easy to read. I’d totally recommend it.

Full disclosure: Dylan and I know each other through our blogs, and he’s written very nice reviews of my books. He sent me a copy of this book to read. I don’t think I’m being biased in my review – if I don’t like something I generally just don’t write about it. But I felt I should be up front about this.

Reviews!

Lies - High ResolutionMy ability to say anything coherent is currently hindered by a heavy cold, and by catching up on work after said cold knocked me flat last week. There’s a reason I watched Knights of Badassdom this weekend, along with about a year’s worth of television over two days, and it’s because even reading took more concentration than I could manage.

Fortunately, other people have written things I can get excited about, as I have two shiny new reviews.

First up, Dylan Hearn has given Lies We Will Tell Ourselves a glowing write-up in his recommended reads section, highly recommending the collection for sheer breadth of imagination. It’s a really nice review, and I’m delighted that someone enjoyed the book so much.

Meanwhile, Adventures Fantastic gave a positive review to Heroic Fantasy Quarterly 22, which includes my story ‘Feathers’, describing the issue as ‘well worth checking out’. Obviously I agree!

So if you’re looking for something to read, why not give these two a go? And while you’re about it, check out Dylan’s blog – it’s full of recommendations for other indie books, as well as his own science fiction.

Now excuse me, I need to go drink more Lemsip, the sweet lemony up side of having a cold.

Redshirts and recklessness – my recent reading

I’ve been reading some pretty cool stuff recently. I don’t seem to have time for full posts on any of it, but here’s a few things you might enjoy…

Redshirts by John Scalzi

Imagine if all those Star Trek extras who get killed on away missions realised how much danger they were in. Then imagine them trying to make sense of the weekly horror and terrible fatality rate that is their lives. That’s what this book is about.

Redshirts is odd stylistically. There’s almost no description, just a lot of dialogue and occasional action. That lack of description adds to the sense of anonymous people caught up in their terrible anonymous fate, as well as letting you imagine the trappings of your favourite scifi show as the backdrop to their lives. It’s the sort of meta-textual game that’s intriguing for a stand-alone novel but wouldn’t stand up to a series, and I’m perfectly happy with that.

If you’re a Star Trek fan or enjoy watching a writer play stylistic games then it’s well worth your time. If not you might find it a little frustrating. But if I have more than three readers who never watcher Trek then I’ll eat my hat. Or at least a hat shaped cake.

 

The Thief Trilogy by David Tallerman

I wrote a whole post about why I enjoyed the first book in this series, and it turns out that the rest live up to its promise. It’s a fantasy world without much of the wizz-bang magic stuff, in which the main fantasy elements are an invented country and some loveable giants. Thief and protagonist Easie Damasco continues to do the right thing against his own better judgement, and in the process follows a nice character arc from selfish prat to something at least vaguely akin to a hero.

This is a fast moving, action packed series with a certain wry humour to it and a nicely developed setting. The likeable supporting characters help to carry the reader through despite Easie’s initially despicable attitude to life, and the giants in particular are surprisingly loveable. Even Easie is hard not to like, with his sense of humour up there with his sense of self-preservation, and the clear hints from the start that he sort of wants to do the right thing, however much he protests against it. I’m going to miss these guys now the story’s done.

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

If the art of the short story lies in succinctly portraying a single fascinating idea then Chiang has it nailed. Stories of Your Life and Others was something I only picked up as part of a reading group, and that I then fell far too far behind in reading to take part in the discussion, which is particularly vexing because these are fascinating ideas, from digging through the vault of heaven to trying to learn the language of a previously unknown alien species. The characters have emotional depth, the settings and events are interesting, but because it’s short stories I didn’t have the constant page-turning thrill of a longer work where you keep wanting to know what will happen next. Recommended for the cool concepts and self-contained emotional journeys, but if you’re anything like me you’ll read it over weeks of dipping in for one story, not in an over-excited binge.

*

NaNoWriMo update

Day one and I haven’t done my daily writing yet, but I’m sure I will. I just wish that I’d gotten round to planning chapter one in advance, or even coming up with decent names for the characters at the planning stage. I can’t write a half dozen scenes about Cardinal Cardinalface.

On Thursday I counted up all the fiction writing I’ll be doing in November. Between NaNoWriMo, a heavy freelance workload and my flash Friday stories, I need to write around 185,000 words of fiction to hit my goals this month. Plus about 15,000 words of non-fiction for this blog and another ongoing freelance gig. That’s a pretty staggering 200k in total. What’s even more staggering is that in theory it’s doable.

If I can do this then I can do anything I set my mind to, which I guess is the attitude NaNo is meant to foster. Have at you word count!

How are the rest of you getting on with NaNo? And having read my book recommendations, do you have any of your own that you’d like to share?

Reading Terry Pratchett’s Raising Steam

Reading Raising Steam, Terry Pratchett’s latest Discworld novel, has been a surprisingly emotional experience. Setting aside the quality of the book, which I’ll come to in a moment, it made me realise how much of a hero Pratchett is to me, and how hard it is to have mixed feelings about our real life heroes.

Raising Steam

Raising Steam is the 40th of Pratchett’s phenomenally successful Discworld series. Like several recent Discworld stories, it’s about characters facing the march of progress. Steam trains are coming to the Discworld, just as modernity is sending ripples through the ancient culture of the dwarfs. One of these changes leads to excitement and delight, the other to resistance and civil conflict. But Moist Von Lipwig, sometime conman and now a big mover in the city of Ankh-Morpork, has the task of managing these changes, or at least their practicalities. It’s either that or back to the hangman’s noose…

The march of progress

Progress might seem impersonal at times, but the reactions of the Discworld characters are very personal. Dark clerk Drumknot becomes a train enthusiast. Lord Vetinari sees a problem to solve and a tool to achieve it. The conservative dwarf grags see their traditions being undermined by outsiders. Simnel just sees the thing he is building.

In a similar way, our reactions to Pratchett’s ever-evolving writing style are very personal. I suspect that they’re primarily shaped by which of his books we started with.

I started reading Discworld when there were less than a dozen books. My attention was grabbed by Pyramids, Guards! Guards! and Small Gods. As this world grew deeper and richer, and Pratchett’s philosophising more central, I was absolutely sucked in. But somewhere after the twentieth book he started drifting away from the things that I’d loved. There were less laugh-out-loud moments, more direct focus on adventure and social commentary. Those were good things but the balance wasn’t what I wanted any more.

The stories that once made me laugh out loud now made me think, and as a British lefty who had now grown past his teens, the thoughts weren’t terribly new. I know people who’ve come to  his work later and consider his recent works the height of Pratchett brilliance. But me, I seem to be turning into something of a grag, and for a while I’ve been dwelling on the flaws in the Discworld.

Raising problems

Now we come to Raising Steam, and it’s not just age that is shaping my view. I have experience as a writer that I didn’t before, a knowledge of plot and structure that colours the way I read, that allows me to dissect the things I find problematic. Because readable as it is – Pratchett’s prose is still light and easy to absorb without becoming completely weightless – there are a lot of problems with this book.

I don’t want to dwell too long on any of this, because it breaks my heart to say it, but the plot is a damp squib. The characters are never really challenged, overcoming their problems too easily and without any risk of consequence. The initial promise, of a story about the development of the railroad, leads to a payoff that’s actually about the politics of the dwarfs. While the two have thematic connections, this still means that the book’s end doesn’t match its initial promise, which is deeply unsatisfying. Progress happens because its time has come, not through human effort and struggle, and this sort of pre-destined progress really gets my back up, robbing characters of their agency.

There’s also a problem with the dialogue, and it’s not just Simnel’s Yorkshire accent. Many characters have many great lines of dialogue. The problem is that they’ll deliver six of these great lines at once, turning snappy one-liners into speeches, becoming repetitive, slowing the pace and sucking the sense of action from a scene. It’s a real lesson in less is more – on their own these lines would have been classic quotable Pratchett, bundled together they’re a weight dragging the story down.

Keep reading Pratchett!

As I said, I’ve been finding this post hard to write. Pratchett is a huge hero of mine. An inspiring writer of dozens of books who has helped to popularise fantasy. A campaigner for the safety of orangutans, one of the most distinctive of the apes I so love. A man who is publicly battling to live in dignity as his mind gives way, risking public exposure to raise awareness of mental health issues. The man is an absolute legend. If the fantasy community can have national treasures then he is one.

And just as change has, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, affected both Pratchett and his Discworld, so I’ve changed as a reader. I can now do what I couldn’t a decade ago. I can live with the mixed feelings I have, not needing to hold the writer and his works up on a pedestal or to cast them aside.

Please, go out and read something from Pratchett’s Discworld. Read Wyrd Sisters or Pyramids or Guards! Guards!, or anything from about book six through to book 20. If you like those then read the rest. Even on an off day, Pratchett’s usually one of the better writers out there. He is worth your time and worth your admiration.

Just save Raising Steam until last. And when you get there remember that you’re reading for what’s come before, not for this story. Because progress is inevitable, and it can be great, but it isn’t always kind.

This book may not be great, but Terry Pratchett is. Sir Terry, I salute you!

Lord Grimdark and the critics

Not listening to the people who put you down is one thing, making them your strength is quite another. And that’s what fantasy author Joe Abercrombie has been doing, under his Twitter handle of @lordgrimdark . Abercrombie often posts quotes from his one star reviews, fragments of why people really hated his books.

This sort of thing is generally considered bad practice for an author. You’re either spreading negative press about yourself in the form of the review, or you’re making more bad publicity by picking an unwinnable public fight.

But it seems to work for Abercrombie. It fuels a public persona that has the grim, resilient humour of his characters. By sharing largely without comment he removes any power those critics had over him, not rising to the bait but making them part of his own book-selling machine, resolving the conflict not into a flame war but into something for his Twitter followers to discuss.

There’s something pleasing about it all. Something almost Taoist, turning your opponents’ strength against them. I hope next time any of us comes in for criticism we can take a lesson from Lord Grimdark and turn it to our advantage.

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

I just finished reading The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco, leant to me by everwalker‘s faithful raptor. It’s the story of Simonini, a nineteenth century forger, told largely through diary entries as he pieces together his broken memories. It examines some of the darker aspects of Europe at that time – crime and inequality, the emergence of professional espionage and the rising tide of anti-semitism. As with much of Eco’s work, it’s also concerned with the uncertain nature of human experience, the subjective and unreliable way we bear witness to our world. There was a lot to enjoy here, but there was some stuff I found disappointing too.

First the good bits. Eco is a very clever writer. He pulls together the threads of history in a seemless and convincing fashion. You don’t need to know anything about the real history to understand what’s going on, but if you do then those details become more convincing. He does what Dan Brown fails to do, deftly tying together story and reality, making the incredible convincing.

Simonini is a fascinating idea for a character. Lurking in the background of great events, he develops from fraudster to conspirator to spy, raising questions about the boundaries between these activities. This is a character designed to make a point, but one who has depths and darkness beyond the nature of his career.

But these strengths are tied to the book’s weaknesses. Eco’s writing is clever at the expense of passion, and I never felt much emotional engagement. Simonini was so busy weaving his way through history that he seemed to lack his own sense of drive and purpose, and I didn’t feel for him. Whether things went well or badly, I remained largely indifferent.

Trying to break this down as a writer, I think it may come from an obsession with details that doesn’t translate into bringing them to life. For example, Simonini loves his food. He often records what he goes to eat. It’s an interesting character quirk that should make this immoral man more likeable. But these passages just turn into lists of dishes and ingredients, not descriptions of the food, how it tasted, how it made him feel. And maybe that too is meant to show us something about the character, but I soon started skimming those parts. Simonini didn’t really seem to care, and so neither did I.

I love that the world contains such a clever writer as Umberto Eco, but in this case I found his writing too dispassionate. He’s tried to do something really admirable, but it didn’t work for me. If the good things I’ve mentioned appeal to you then I’d recommend reading Foucault’s Pendulum or The Name of the Rose first. And then, if you still want more Eco, try The Prague Cemetery. Maybe you’ll enjoy it more than I did.

Lessons learned – VanderMeer’s Booklife

Last week I finished reading Jeff Vandermeer‘s Booklife. This is a guide for writers that focuses on lifestyle and the business of writing, things like keeping motivated and how to publicise your work, rather than writing technique.

I knew I was going to find a lot that was useful in this one. I’d originally picked it up from the library and got twenty pages in before I knew I needed my own copy, to dog-ear and scrawl notes across, to mark pages with post-its and crease the spine back while I poured over the most useful pages. Because for me, books are like childhood teddy bears – the best ones don’t get kept in pristine condition, they get loved nearly to death.

It’s hard to sum up what I learned from this book, or even pick out favourite bits. There was so much that pushed me to think about the fundamentals of a writing lifestyle, sometimes succinctly pulling together advice I’d heard elsewhere, sometimes offering new insights and tactics. To be honest, I ended up feeling almost overwhelmed, these was so much to think about.

But if I’m going to pull out one lesson, it’s the importance of planning. As I touched on on Friday, my approach to this blog and to publicising my work has been haphazard at best, as has my thinking about what to write and where to send it. I should have known better – I’ve worked as a professional project manager – but somehow I never properly applied those skills to my writing life. Until I read Booklife I wasn’t applying that to many significant areas. Heck, I still haven’t applied it yet – that’s the thing about a planned approach, you can’t apply it until you’ve had time to do that planning.

A lot of the content of Booklife is ahead of what I need at the moment. Some of it’s ahead of what I can use. But it’s useful to know that that information’s on my bookshelf when I need it. Like any advice, I’ll pick and choose, adapt it to my own situation. But there’s a lot there of value, and even if it just helps me to plan better it’ll be worth it.