Monday 30 January 2012

“Every Dialogue Scene Is a Duel” – Matthew Hughes, interviewed by Stephen Theaker

Hi Matt, thanks for agreeing to be our first interviewee.

I’m honoured to be here.

I’ve just finished reading the three Henghis Hapthorn novels, one after the other, and it was one of the most sheerly pleasurable reading experiences of my life. I’ve previously read The Damned Busters and Quartet & Triptych. Where would you recommend I head next? And is there one book of yours that you would recommend to first-time readers of your work?

Since you liked Quartet & Triptych, which is about my master thief and art forger, Luff Imbry, I would suggest The Other, from Underland Press in the US. It’s the first Imbry novel. It came out last month and it’s available in Kindle. You might also want to check with Angry Robot’s e-store in a little while. I’m just in the process of sending them the seven or eight Imbry stories that have appeared in various venues over the past few years.

But for someone coming to my work for the first time, the book I recommend is Template. It’s a stand-alone space opera, an Oliver-Twistish story about an odd fellow (all my protagonists are a little off the vertical) trying to find out who he is and why people are trying to kill him. It will give a first-timer a general introduction to The Ten Thousand Worlds and Old Earth, along with a rattling good read.

Does magic feature in your other novels of the Archonate, or is that unique to the Hapthorn books?

Yes and no. Back when I was writing what became Fools Errant, the first—though I didn’t know it at the time—Archonate story, I put in a mention of how the universe periodically alternated between rationalism and magic as its fundamental operating principle. At the time, I was interested in how Isaac Newton had started out as a full-weight medieval alchemist but then switched mid-career to rationalism and became essentially the founder of the Enlightenment. It was as if the rules of the game had abuptly switched one day, and he had stepped off one wave and onto the other without missing a beat.

Years later, when I found myself developing the idea of the Archonate universe, I thought it would be interesting to explore the culture at the time when the change was about to happen again, although virtually nobody knew it. So, in every subsequent tale, including the Imbry stories, the impending cataclysm is the background to the foreground events. It’s a bit like the first half of 1914, when there is a great, highly articulated civilization that does not know—although a few suspect—that it’s about to come to an abrupt and tragic end. “The lamps are going out all over . . . we will not see them lit again in our lifetime.” That kind of thing.

Henghis Hapthorn’s problem is that he is forced to accept that it’s going to happen in his time, horrifying though the prospect is to him, and he is trying to decide how he will ultimately respond to it. Luff Imbry, if there is ever a sequel to The Other, may make the conceptual leap and begin to become a thaumaturge.

One of the strengths of the Hapthorn novels is their even-handedness; the reader appreciates how Henghis feels, as a Sherlock who can no longer eliminate the impossible, but also shares the excitement of his intuitive alter ego regarding the age of magic to come. Would you secretly side with one of them? In which of the two ages would you prefer to live?

His alter ego is also, although this is not stressed, a complete egotist. Henghis is detached, Osk is engaged, which makes sense because the thing that counts in the coming age is not intellect but will (or axial volition, to use the technical term).

I think it should be clear to the discerning reader that I would side with Henghis—not that I consider him an epitome, but he is, at least, a civilized being. What comes after him is definitely a rough beast. In The Spiral Labyrinth, we see the world after the first few centuries of the world’s ultimate age that will culminate in Jack Vance’s Dying Earth: a decadent, amoral Old Earth of rogues, monsters, and self-involved sorcerers.

I am sure there are worlds among the Ten Thousand during the penultimate age where I would be happy to live out a life. What would those rich and mellow places become once will begins its reign as the be-all and end-all? I don’t know, but for most of them I doubt if it would be an improvement.

I read Majestrum after reading The Spiral Labyrinth and Hespira, and I was a bit surprised to find it wasn’t the beginning of the Henghis Hapthorn story (although it works perfectly well as a standalone novel). Similarly, you mentioned earlier the Luff Imbry novel, which follows on from short stories and novellas. That’s quite an unusual approach, reminding me in a way of how indie bands like Stereolab and New Order would leave singles off their albums; it encourages a certain kind of fan. Was that approach the result of a deliberate decision, or is it just how it’s worked out?

It’s just how it worked out, but it’s a long story.

In 2001, I had two books out from Warner Aspect (Fools Errant and Fool Me Twice) that did not do well enough for them to ask for a third. But an editor at Tor, David Hartwell, said he’d like to see an Archonate novel. So I wrote Black Brillion. While I was waiting for it to come out, I thought it might be a good idea to get into the digest mags to raise my profile (I had no idea how their circulation had declined). So I looked through my file of story ideas and found a premise: suppose you came to realize that you were living in a world that resulted from someone’s three wishes going, as they always do, wrong?

I thought I’d be cagey and set it in the Archonate universe. A detective seemed to be the right kind of character to solve the puzzle, so I created Henghis Hapthorn and set him loose. The story was called “Mastermindless”. I sent it to Gordon Van Gelder at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, not knowing that it was really hard to sell to him, and he bought it within a week. He told me later it was the first thing he’d received in two years that made him laugh out loud.

I formed the impression that he’d buy another one, so I wrote more Hapthorn. All told, over the next year or so he bought six stories, the last one of novelette-length. Rather than just write stand-alones, I decided to give them a continuing story arc, and I used the impending magic/rationalism switch as the frame.

Henghis turned out to be popular with the F&SF readership, and the agent that I had then suggested I should outline some novels. So I thought up Majestrum as the next element in the story arc and wrote it up as an outline, with sketchy ideas for Spiral Labyrinth and Hespira. Night Shade Books, which had already brought out my story collection The Gist Hunter and Other Stories (containing all the Hapthorn F&SF stories), bought into the concept and the novels duly appeared.

Which comes down to this: I needed a story to promote myself, and it turned into eight or nine plus three novels.

Meanwhile, Black Brillion came and went. Tor wouldn’t let me write the whole story I wanted to tell (I was limited to 80,000 words), so I wrote a companion novel, The Commons, in episodes that I sold one at a time to Gordon, then put the whole thing together and sold it to Robert J. Sawyer’s Canadian sf imprint.

Luff Imbry was another invention who grew in the telling. He began as a supporting character in Black Brillion. After it came out, I got a nice review of my early books from Nick Gevers, Jack Vance aficionado and co-editor of Postscripts, and when I got in touch he said he’d like to see a story from me. We talked about it a little and decided that Imbry had legs. I originally set out to be a crime writer, and only fell into writing science fantasy by accident (people kept telling me they’d buy novels or stories if I wrote them), and Imbry was an opportunity to create a real noir baddie. I think of him by the way, as much like Sydney Greenstreet’s character Kaspar Gutman in The Maltese Falcon, with a little Peter Ustinov stirred in.

I eventually sold a half-dozen Imbry tales to Postscripts, which led its publisher, Pete Crowther, to ask me for three novellas about him. They would come out once a year. The second, The Yellow Cabochon, should appear soon. I’ve just proofed the typescript.

So, to summarize, were there some deliberate decisions? Yes. Or did it all just work out that way? Yes to that, too. Years ago, I described my writing career as a succession of desperate hops from one ice floe to another, like Pearl Pureheart fleeing across the black and white river. Hapthorn and Imbry tales are just more ice floes.

You seem to love conversation, especially the verbal duels between your protagonists and their snarky subordinates, such as Henghis Hapthorn and his integrators, and Chesney and his demon in The Damned Busters. Is that something you enjoy about your own books?

It must be. I do a lot of it. It comes naturally, I suppose, because when I was growing up verbal repartee was what went on around the kitchen table, some of it close to vicious (maybe it’s a Liverpool thing). We honed our knives on each others’ hides.

But beyond that, I believe the fictioneer’s indispensible tool is conflict, and that means that every dialogue scene is a duel.

Do you draw on your experience in political speechwriting, which (going on The West Wing, at least) I imagine might have involved crafting perfect replies to difficult questions, as well as the speeches themselves?

Speechwriting, as I practised it, was the art of creating impressions in the minds of the listeners. You soon come to realize that no one actually remembers speeches, but everyone remembers the impression a speech made upon them. The other key thing is that you need to create a carrier wave of shared emotion between the speaker and the listeners, which is why speeches contain very few new facts but are full of old ones—especially the beliefs and assumptions that the speaker and listeners have in common.

It’s actually the very opposite of dialogue in fiction, because conflict is what the speechwriter (and speaker) are trying to avoid.

The first time I read your work, I think, was in the Jack Vance tribute, Songs of the Dying Earth: the brilliant “Grolion of Almery”. How was it to get the email inviting you to take part?

Gardner Dozois sent me an email describing the project and asking me if I wanted to put in a story. My response was: “Try and stop me!” I was overjoyed, not least because I actually revere Jack Vance. He is the only author I knowingly reread (I’m at an age when I can be a chapter into a novel before I’m fully certain I’ve read it before).

And did you feel any pressure to live up to the expectations of Jack Vance’s fans?

No. I don’t think of the readers when I’m writing. I’m an intuitive writer who starts with a character and a situation and a vague idea of where it all goes. Then I see what happens. It’s a very insular business, just me and the guy in the back of my head who does the heavy lifting.

Thanks for such fascinating answers. I’m very happy to know there’s so much more on the way from you (and so much out there already that I’ve yet to read). Coming very soon is Costume Not Included, your second novel from Angry Robot. What should readers expect?

Please note the comment above about seeing where it goes. In Costume Not Included, I bring in the historical Jesus and proceed with Chesney’s development as a crimefighter and, for the first time in his life, somebody’s boyfriend. Things get more complicated, which is problematical for someone who is a high-functioning autistic. Soon I have to start the third in the series, and at the moment I have only the vaguest idea where it will go.

Speaking of things on the way, I’ve just received the final typescript for The Yellow Cabochon and thought you might like to see it. You’ll note how Imbry brushes up against the return of magic.

Thank you very much for doing this. It’s been a pleasure.

This interview originally appeared in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #39, along with reviews of Majestrum, Hespira and The Spiral Labyrinth. Reviews of Quartet & Triptych and The Damned Busters appeared in TQF34 and TQF37. A review of The Yellow Cabuchon—thanks, Matthew!— should appear in our next issue.

Monday 23 January 2012

Majestrum, by Matthew Hughes – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

This is the first of the Henghis Hapthorn novels. Having just read the second and third in the series I was surprised at how late in the story this one begins: already, Hapthorn is aware of magic, his intuition has developed a distinct personality, and his integrator has been turned into a grinnet. That is because the novel follows on from a series of short stories about the same character (collected in The Gist Hunter and Other Stories, now safely ensconced on my Kindle), but like novels two and three it stands perfectly well alone.

The opening of the book sees him deciding to ignore all that he has learnt about the imminent overthrow of rationality and get on with his work, which takes him to The Braid, the country house of Lord Afre, an aristocrat so refined he cannot focus on members of the lower classes unless they strike appropriate poses or wear the insignia of rank. His daughter, the Honorable Chalivire, has formed a relationship with “a person of indeterminate circumstances”, which leads Hapthorn to investigate the first annual convening of the Derogation, organised by the Grass Tharks Lodge on Great Gallowan. A second thread sees Hapthorn engaged by the Archon to investigate secret plots and mysterious disappearances from the Great Connaissarium.

Despite the freelance detective’s best intentions, these discriminations will once again bring him into contact with magic and its users.

The Kindle version of this Hapthorn novel is not set up quite so well as the other two, with a contents page that doesn’t work and text throughout that should presumably be in italics left underlined, but that barely affected my enjoyment. I’ll try not to duplicate here what I’ve said about books two and three, but it was a sheer pleasure to read, full of sharp, clever dialogue, novel ideas and characterful personages (such as Old Confustible, an integrator so old he remembers the last age of magic), and to that it added the most terrifying antagonist of the series, Majestrum, whose very name is enough to knock Hapthorn’s intuition unconscious.

It’s been quite a while since I read so much fiction by a single author in a row. At school I read all ten volumes of David Eddings’ Belgariad and Mallorean during the mock exams fortnight, but I barely remember a word of those. I doubt I’ll ever say that about The Spiral Labyrinth, Hespira and Majestrum. Reading all three together like this was one of the most pleasurable reading experiences of my life.

Majestrum, by Matthew Hughes (Jabberwocky Literary Agency, Kindle, 4487ll).

Wednesday 18 January 2012

Crimewave Eleven: Ghosts, reviewed by John Greenwood

According to the publisher's website, Crimewave magazine was established in order to "plug a gap in the UK marketplace by publishing a crime and mystery fiction magazine". That sounds more mercenary than the magazine's creators probably meant it to. The attention to detail in the design and production of the book feels more like a labour of love than a mere marketing opportunity.

Founding editor Mat Coward is quoted: "We don't do cosy, we don't do hardboiled, we don't do noir. What we do is something entirely different to anything you've ever read before." The lovely noirish, hardboiled cover illustration seems to suggest otherwise, but the contents bear out his assertion, partly at any rate. None of the short fiction represented here falls neatly within such sub-genres. Whether it is entirely different to anything I've ever read before is a rather stronger statement.

I did wonder about that "gap in the UK market" - there may be a gap, but is there such demand for crime fiction that is both short and genre defying? Crime readers like books in series, they like the same detective (or analogous investigator) to keep going through at least a dozen investigations. They're notoriously loyal; once they've latched on to an author, they'll keep rooting out every last Dick Francis, Alexander McCall Smith or Jo Nesbo book until they've read them all. Does this kind of market favour an unpredictable collection of genre-bending short stories by a collection of authors, some known, others not known especially for their crime writing, some not known at all?

I suppose the fact that Crimewave has lasted eleven issues may partly be the answer to that question. The volume I read certainly brought three or four authors to my attention whose work I will keep an eye out for in future, and I am not a particular fan of crime fiction. Some might suggest that I am less than eligible to pass judgement on a "genre" collection like this, but if Crimewave is going to reach out to readers beyond the small-press then it needs to convince readers like me.

Particularly when you're pushing beyond the boundaries of "hardboiled", "noir" and other sub-genre restrictions, it's difficult to establish the boundaries of what you might call "crime fiction". How many novels of any genre don't frequently revolve around serious breaches of the law?

Two of the stories here could just as easily be described as weird fantasy. Of these, Alison Littlewood's "4a.m., When the Walls are Thinnest" is the most successful: an old lag's shaggy dog story about how he lost part of his thumb turns into a supernatural quest to perform a genuine Indian rope trick, and climb out of captivity, but climb to where? I was impressed by the unshowy but convincing dialogue, and by the way the author had captured a moment of failed bravado (the real reason for the missing thumb is less heroic than the raconteur would have us believe). I was less convinced by the mystical ending.

Mikal Trimm's "Who's Gonna Miss You When You're Gone" is a more overcooked and long-winded affair featuring the ghosts of murdered little boys coming back to help along an adult mama's boy to spiritual awakening in an unspecified Deep South setting. There's a great deal of squalid detail about the fantasies of paedophiles, and the story mistakenly believes itself important enough to warrant such treatment, but in the end it conforms to what everybody already knows about child abuse: that abused children often grow up to become abusers themselves. The supernatural element in this tale only gets in the way of any genuine understanding of a difficult subject.

There are two other stories in the collection that revolve around child sexual abuse. "Holderhaven" by Richard Butner is a laconic piece about a college graduate who wangles a job renovating an old country house museum built in 1911, but discovers a secret passage and, eventually, evidence of the original owner's predilection for little girls. What distinguishes the story from most investigative crime stories is that the mystery is solved in such a peremptory and casual fashion. After weeks of vague and mostly fruitless searching, the student bumps into a girl who has connections with the family, and who happily obliges by telling him all there is to know. Job done. It's a curiously deflating story, building up intriguing characters (the boy's acerbic boss is a black woman who was a member of both the Black Panthers and the Ku Klux Klan, as well as an accomplished stage magician) only to drop them before they can be of much use to the plot. There's a nice, clipped style to the narration, and the author has a good ear for crackling, loaded dialogue, but beneath all the intrigue one senses the protagonist's (and perhaps also the author's) boredom.

Nina Allan is at least more interested in exploring the subject. Why is our culture so obsessed with paedophiles? And what is it that marks some men out for this? Having already reviewed Allan's debut collection A Thread of Truth, I was familiar with her unique take on adolescence. She pinpoints the moments when children begin to feel themselves rubbing against the confines of their families, of their neighbourhoods, but half-knowing that they lack the worldly knowledge to move beyond what they are used to. The teenage would-be photographer in this story grows up in London, but Allan makes even this feel like a claustrophobic, small-town existence.

After the boy randomly photographs a man he thinks is the same photo-fitted suspect in a girl's murder, he unwittingly finds himself befriended by the older man. The way this ambiguous relationship develops is accomplished and disconcerting. Very occasionally, as in her other collection of stories, there's a tendency to try and overinterpret the themes on the reader's behalf, but overall this is almost the best story in the collection.

In a similar vein, Steve Rasmic Tem offers a nuanced character assessment in "Living Arrangement". An absent, thoughtless father, now an absent, regretful grandfather suffering the slow indignities of old age, moves back in with his daughter, his grandson and the latest in a long line of abusive step-fathers. I thought the gradual realisation on the part of the grandfather about what a selfish mess he'd made of his life was subtle and entirely without sentimentality: the old man is too soured to have any kind of epiphany about Family Values. The ending is sewn up a little too neatly for my tastes, but that's the way short stories go. Tem has found his character's inner voice, which is half the battle.

That can't be said for Ilsa J. Bick's "Where the Bodies Are". In this informative story about mothers who kill their own newborn children, the dialogue very rarely rings true. Characters stand around having arguments about the reasons for such murders, the correct medical, psychiatric and policing procedures, and whether these women deserve any of our sympathy. I'm guessing that the author was aiming for the kind of sparky belligerence in the dialogue that you find in shows like CSI, but nobody on a TV medical drama apart from perhaps Dr. Drake Ramoray, would be found uttering lines like, "What about morality, Miriam? What about what's right and decent? What the hell about justice? Oh wait...I forgot. I'm talking to a woman who thinks it's fine to renege on a promise and screw a guy - in more ways than one."

Bick has clearly done her research, and is keen that the reader appreciates this. Some parts of the story feel like the script of a role-play sketch designed to introduce students to the legal niceties of maternal infanticide. But as a short-story it comes across as slightly daft.

"Two Lions" by Luke Sholer has a premise that could have turned out equally fatuous - two gay hitmen get it together in the bedroom, but can't stop falling out on their assignments. It's not as silly as that makes it sound. In fact, I could easily picture this as a highly effective and slick techno-spy Hollywood blockbuster, although I'm not sure whether Tom Cruise would be up for this one. In the end though I lost interest in the weaponry and the austere, absurdly disciplined protagonist.

Similarly efficient and punchy is Christopher Fowler's "The Conspirators", which seems to enact the cliche of the corporation as a psychopathic entity. Fowler creates a world where every top executive post seems occupied by someone with the moral compass and capacity for violence of Patrick Bateman. It's compelling and expertly done, but perhaps a little bit too slick to be all that memorable, although it at least has a sense of humour, however black, that "Two Lions" seems to lack.

Cody Goodfellow's "Neighbourhood Watch" is funny too, and also rather appalling. A conservative Christian Neighbourhood Watch co-ordinator and junior sports coach surveys his neighbourhood with secret video cameras, enforcing his moral code with outrageous violence. When a brothel opens on his patch, he dons the ski mask and sets to work. The wit in this gruelling slog through various scenes of sexual degradation and bloody vigilantism, lies in how carefully Goodfellow has captured his narrator's voice. He sums up one stricken prostitute by observing, "Not a bad girl, at least not when she lived with her parents, but a timid hitter and apathetic outfielder."

The collection is bookended with the two halves of Dave Hoing's "Plainview", for my money the best thing in it. The first section takes place in 1975, during which the second of three teenage girls disappears and is later found raped and murdered. The second section takes place 35 years later, so it does make sense to physically separate the two halves, although I defy the reader to read through all the intervening stories before patiently reaching the conclusion to "Plainview". The story is really about collective apathy - three girls are murdered, the killer is never caught, and nobody outside of the families involved really wants the police to make much of a fuss about it. It's all rather embarrassing for the little midwestern town. There are a number of different narrators, all well drawn with their own distinctive voices. It's the sort of story the Coen brothers would have directed and cast M. Emmet Walsh in as a fat, ineffectual Police Chief.

For "Plainview" alone it was worth dipping into this collection. Of the thirteen stories collected here, I'd list four as very good and another three as interesting but improvable. That leaves six stories that either left very little impression on me, or that I felt didn't earn their place in such a nicely produced book. All in all then, rather uneven, at least to my tastes, but the best stories in here ("Plainview", "Wilkolak" and "Living Arrangement") really are very good.

Crimewave Eleven: Ghosts. TTA Press. ISBN 9780955368349. £9.99 (pb). 240pp

Monday 16 January 2012

Hespira, by Matthew Hughes – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Like the previous Hapthorn novel I had read, Hespira declares its intention to be interesting from the very first page, in this case by introducing the concept of retrospectants. Collecting significant items such as buttons and twigs over the course of their lives, devotees of this spiritual path choose a day to die, and gather their friends together in order to “explain the hidden meaning and structure” of their existences, “as revealed by the seemingly random milestones” collected in their soul boxes. After the final revelation “the adherent would then be quickly killed and cremated”, leaving their boxes to become, with the passage of centuries, highly collectible. One could pick almost any page of this book and find an equally interesting idea.

Hespira is the name chosen by a young woman who has lost her memory, encountered accidentally (or so it seems) by Henghis Hapthorn in the course of what should have been a simple transaction on behalf of wealthy maniac (when emotions run high, the “muscles in his jaw moved as if small animals were burrowing under his skin”) Irslan Chonder: the recovery of his favourite soul boxes from a thief. Finding Hespira strangely attractive, though she possesses “the complete combination of feminine attributes” that he finds least appealing, Hapthorn takes her off-world to investigate her past—and also to steer clear of the violent consequences of his recent work.

This third and so far final Henghis Hapthorn novel presents a level of invention and effort that is almost too generous to the reader, though of course some apparently incidental pleasures prove crucial to the denouement, which includes a revenge worthy of Kirth Gersen. One feels for Hapthorn, a detective in a universe that makes less sense by the minute, but enjoys his gentle frustration with the universe and admires his determination to keep trying. This is a highly amusing book full of mysteries and discoveries; there is always more to think about, always a reason to keep reading. People often say that they didn’t want a book to ever end; in this case upon discovering an epilogue my reaction was literally to shout “Yes!” (Embarrassing as it is to admit that.) Very much recommended.

Hespira, by Matthew Hughes (Jabberwocky Literary Agency, Kindle, 4990ll).

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Reviewing under a pseudonym

Guy Haley, a very experienced genre journalist, has been blogging about the critical response to his novel, Reality 36, a book I liked. There's a lot of good sense in the post, The Agonies of Criticism, plus a tiny bit of moaning about more negative reviews, but what caught my eye was this, with regard to his reviewing for SFX and Deathray:
Sometimes I use a pseudonym Is there something that could possibly be construed as a conflict of interest by picky cyber-trolls? Then I write under a different name. There never is a conflict of interest, by the way, I’m always as subjectively objective as I can possibly be (or do I mean objectively subjective?), sometimes to the point of personal detriment.”
I can understand why reviewers might be tempted to use a pseudonym, to avoid all the hassle. People who get bad reviews have a tendency to assume there must be a reason for it (other than the obvious), and sometimes bear a grudge for years. We're frequently accused of having it in for people, and our reviews are only read by a handful of people, rather than the tens of thousands who read SFX.

But if you think people might perceive there to be a conflict of interest, surely the answer is to mention it, or hand the book over to someone else for review, rather than disguise it with a pseudonym? That's how I ended up reviewing Bob Lock's The Empathy Effect for Black Static; Peter Tennant felt there was a conflict of interest, having done a bit of work on the book, and asked me to pinch-hit.

Maybe it's because I spend most of my time working on legal books, but I can't help imagining the reaction if a retiring judge were to mention, casually, "Whenever there was a risk of looking biased, I just gave judgment under a pseudonym to avoid complaints from picky human rights lawyers..."

In the legal system, it's essential to avoid not just bias, but also the appearance of bias, for obvious reasons. In a review that isn't strictly necessary, because there aren't the same consequences: it's just your opinion about a book, and the reader is perfectly capable of taking your biases into account, if they're aware of them.

There are many good reasons for using pseudonyms (to be honest I wish I'd used one for all my reviews from the start, so I could go to conventions without fear of getting punched!), but a reviewer using a pseudonym specifically to conceal a perceived conflict of interest is, I think, deliberately misleading their readers, even if it's with the best of intentions.

There was quite a row last year when a pseudonym turned up in the first issue of the BFS Journal, and in the course of that discussion I said pretty much the same things. I have to admit, Guy Haley is a much more experienced reviewer than I am, so there are bound to be some aspects of this I haven't considered, but I hope it isn't a widespread practice.

(Full disclosure: I did use a pseudonym for a few TQF reviews in our early days, but that was part of the meta-fiction of the zine back then, the reviews being done in character, rather than to hide who the reviewer was. We also did daft things like reviewing imaginary books, writing fictional news, and having characters write editorials. Oh, youth!)

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Monday 9 January 2012

The Spiral Labyrinth, by Matthew Hughes – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

This is the second novel in the Henghis Hapthorn series, but the first I read; the Amazon listings weren’t clear what the order should be, I downloaded the preview of this one to find out, and having read a page I refused to stop until I’d read the whole book. And what a fantastic and intriguing first page it was: by its end it had promised mysteries, thaumaturges, fancy words, an “intuitive inner self” called Osk Rievor, offworld travel, and that magic would “regain its ascendancy over rationalism”. I paid my eight pounds well before finishing the Kindle preview.

In the course of earlier adventures, Hapthorn has learnt that there are magical dimples on Old Earth, where the coming age of magic is starting to seep through. Upon visiting the deserted Arlem estate, at the intersection of two ley lines, he discovers to his discomfort that in such places his “intuition” Osk Rievor is able to take control of his body. Rievor is ensorcelled and takes them to the ruins of a hunting lodge in Hember Forest; they are thrown into the future, but separated. Thus much of this novel takes place in the period after sympathetic association has replaced rationality as the guiding principle of the universe.

Despite gaining the sympathy of one Pars Lavelan, wizard’s assistant, Hapthorn seems unlikely to survive; he is a pigeon thrown among cats. As his new friend warns, “the more expert the practitioner, the less he or she partakes of morality as you or I might frame it”, and the five great wizards of Bambles have already taken an interest in this new piece upon the board of their game. Hapthorn’s only advantages are his grinnet (a former electronic assistant—an integrator—transformed by a previous brush with magic), his wits, and the fact (though he doesn’t know it) that he is not the only new piece.

I appreciate that readers may be tired of the mention of his name in my reviews, but it’s impossible to review this book without reference to Jack Vance, in that it melds two sides of his work—the fantasies of the Dying Earth (as represented here by Bambles and the wizards) and the science fiction adventures of the cluster (paralleled here by the Ten Thousand Worlds of The Spray)—into a satisfying and coherent whole. Both futures are fascinating, as are the interconnections between them, and all mysteries have satisfying and surprising conclusions.

Though this isn’t a novel of gritty realism, there is psychological verisimilitude in its portrayal of a person trying to keep his life free of the chaos that surrounds it: who doesn’t feel like that sometimes? But it is escapism too, in that Henghis is generally able to sort things out, and if Hapthorn can’t, his intuition or his grinnet can. Despite the threats to his life, the route to success for Henghis often lies through the tangled knots of a difficult conversation with his allies: the battling dialogue is a constant pleasure, Olympic-level fencing with words.

I wish there were more novels like this; reading not one but three of them was the sweetest literary treat of my year.

The Spiral Labyrinth, by Matthew Hughes (Jabberwocky Literary Agency, Kindle, 4565ll)

Friday 6 January 2012

Ian Churchill’s Marineman, Vol. 1: A Matter of Life and Depth – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Marine biologist Steve Ocean, known to fans of his TV show Ocean Encounters as Marineman, has a secret life as a water-breathing, super-fast, super-strong Navy operative. He’s a cross between Steve Irwin and James Bond, although if you’re a child he’s more likely to save your mum than dangle you in front of crocodiles, and he has a healthy respect for women rather than treating them as disposable playthings. That’s a major theme here: respect for women, and also for friends, colleagues, sea life and the environment.

Though initially this seems like Aquaman or Namor without the angst, Marineman really has more in common with Tom Strong than either of those grumps, especially once his powers become a matter of public knowledge and he discovers his secret origin. He’s an optimistic hero, concerned about the oceans and wildlife, but hopeful that the tide can be turned on the damage we are doing. He’s defined by his actions, not his origin.

The artwork is easy on the eye; it could be characterised perhaps as a constrained manga style; big features, expressive faces, exaggerated body types, but with a clean line. Panels often look like animation cels, and many are very memorable: Marineman punching a shark, the first sight of octopus-headed villain Octo, and a succession of buff gentlemen and voluptuous ladies. Good old Marineman nearly always looks ladies in the eye, but the scene where he’s thanked for that may raise eyebrows after so many panels that reward readers looking elsewhere!

You might wonder how a collection of six issues runs to three hundred pages; there's a fair bit of padding (the first story page comes nineteen pages in), and a lot of bonus features: pages from the comics Ian Churchill drew as a kid, articles on marine biologists, posters, and displays of art assets. All interesting – and much of it is genuinely educational. Just don't expect a story as substantial as the page count might make you think. This book is little more than a taster for Marineman’s story, but I hope there’s more to come.

Ian Churchill’s Marineman, Vol. 1: A Matter of Life and Depth, by Ian Churchill. Image, tpb, 304pp.

Wednesday 4 January 2012

Asking people to vote for you in awards...

Lots of debate among writers today on Twitter regarding literary awards – as usual, one might say. The question is: is it acceptable to ask people to vote for or nominate your work? Adam Roberts described it as a "demeaning and contemptible practice", to which Paul Cornell (one of my favourite writers of Doctor Who novels) replied "demeaning and contemptible my arse". The debate rages on, but that's the gist of it.

Asking people to vote for your work means you think your book would be a worthy winner, and that can look rather big-headed. Or even worse, it suggests you don't care if your book is the best: you want to win anyway. Both of those can rub people up the wrong way.

For example, just before Christmas I saw a guy on Facebook saying that "anyone who hasn't yet read my ---- can assuage their guilt by voting for it in the ---- awards". Now, that is exactly the worst of it: you haven't read my book, but vote for it anyway. Ptui!

Awards are nice, and I'll admit that, now TQF is eligible again for the British Fantasy Awards, I'd be very excited to pick up another nomination, even if I don't think we quite deserve it yet. But they're not worth being silly about. Be cool. Encourage people to engage with the awards process properly, to read as many nominees as they can, not just vote for you because they're your pals.

Monday 2 January 2012

Incredible Change-Bots, by Jeffrey Brown – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

The incredible Change-Bots are divided into two camps: the Awesomebots, led by Big Rig, and the Fantasticons, led by Shootertron. Having devastated their home planet of Electronocybercircuitron, they come to a temporary truce and pile into a spaceship, but fighting breaks out over whether word processors and incredible Change-Bots evolved from a common ancestor and they crash land on Earth. With a handful of unfortunate humans caught in the middle, their never-ending but rarely fatal battle continues to continue.

As you have probably guessed, this is an affectionate take on the original Transformers animated series. It’s drawn in a deliberately childish way, coloured with thick lines of felt tip pen. It’s the graphic novel you might have created as a child if a rainy afternoon had gone on forever.

Of course, there’s an adult intelligence behind all this; while the art style is childish, the composition and writing are not. The humour is gentle, poking fun at the daftness of the concept and the quirks of the cartoon (“Fantasticons, I have discovered why we always fail in battle. Improving our aim will lead us to victory!”) and finding its funniest moments through repetition (“Incredible change! Chee chee choo chee!”).

Some robotic rumpy-pumpy and a throat slice make it less than ideal for children, and they probably wouldn’t understand the appeal of the art style, but it’s a very sweet book that I’d recommend over the recent Transformers films to anyone looking to recapture the magic of the old cartoons.

Incredible Change-Bots, by Jeffrey Brown. Top Shelf, digital graphic novel, 144pp.