Wednesday 30 January 2013

What contributors did next #2

Last April I interviewed Rhys Hughes for the British Fantasy Society’s journal. Due to production problems the journal wasn’t published until September, and Rhys finally received his contributor copy this month. All a bit frustrating, but the interview turned out well and Rhys blogs about it here.

Ace reviewer Jacob Edwards takes a turn as Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine editor with #55, and includes fiction from Tom Holt, Stephen Gallagher, Deborah Kalin and Lisa A. Koosis, among others, as well as an interview with Glen Duncan and a “musical interlude” with Richard O’Brien. More details here.

David Tallerman’s novel Crown Thief is now out, a sequel to the very enjoyable Giant Thief (reviewed by me here), and a third in the series will follow soon. He’s written an interesting article on his late realisation that the first two books failed the Bechdel test: read it here.

(I realised a while ago that there was a similar problem with my Howard Phillips novels, and became quite maudlin till I realised it gave me an excellent plot for the fifth book. Well, I say excellent – excellent by the standards of my Howard Phillips novels..!)

Richard Ford, who contributed “Dead Gods” to Dark Horizons #55, has a new novel Herald of the Storm coming from Headline. It’ll be out in April this year. For more info see his blog:

Our cover artist extraordinaire Howard Watts has set up a DeviantArt page, including some TQF cover pieces. Prints available! Here’s the link:

Monday 28 January 2013

A Red Sun Also Rises, by Mark Hodder – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

A Red Sun Also Rises, by Mark Hodder (Del Rey, hb, 274pp). Vicar Aiden Fleischer adopts an initially unkempt young woman, Clarissa Stark, as his curate. The favourite of an English Lord whose dissolute son ran her over, breaking her back and legs and killing her father, she was thrown out when the father died and the son inherited. A warm friendship grows between the two, a shared love of reading and science its crucible. When the vicar’s almost innocent infatuation with a local rufty-tufty girl goes horribly wrong, Clarissa accompanies him on a Christian mission to Papua New Guinea.

On the cannibal island of Koluwai disappearances are frequent, and on one lightning-torn night it is the missionaries’ turn to disappear. They wake, to their surprise, on another world, where two suns shine and abducted Koluwaiians serve terribly polite alien masters, the Yatsills. Clarissa and Aiden’s arrival is a dissonance, whose ripples wash over this society and leave oddly familiar shapes behind. Taken to the city of New Yatsillat, they see it being rebuilt to resemble London, and it resounds with jolly good shows, not bloody sures and splendid ideas.

But old problems and dangers remain, and the echoes of industrialisation cause as many problems as they solve. Clarissa and Aiden try to solve the mysteries of this world, she with her cleverness and technical know-how, and he with a sword after being assigned to and trained in the city guard, but half-way through the novel comes a great change, one that would be a great spoiler were it not in the title: the two suns set, and a red sun rises. Under its light we meet the Blood Gods, terrible and hungry.

Though this is an enjoyable novel, with well-drawn action and several interesting mysteries for its heroes to investigate, it will be defined for some readers by having a bad case of the Hermiones, in that Aiden Fleischer does not seem to be the natural protagonist of its story. On the whole, despite his doubts, he’s likeable and decent (even if readers may not be impressed by his “Why Miss Jones, you’re beautiful!” response to his companion following the “correction” of her disabilities), but there’s not a moment of the book when one wouldn’t rather be with Clarissa.

She’s the one experiencing an altered consciousness through her connection to the telepathic field that binds the Yatsill, who is working with their scientists to find a cure, whose childhood designs of battle machines seem to be important. She advances the story, he reacts to it. Perhaps it’s unfair to fault the book for creating a supporting character who is too appealing, and the narrative is of course in theory the memoir of Aiden (found, per tradition, following a second disappearance), but one does wish the focus was on her more often.

While this has the feel of H.G. Wells, were he writing today it’s unlikely he would produce such comfortable reading. The worries of an English vicar about his lack of faith don’t make for gripping drama in the twenty-first century. It’s undeniably fun to see aliens talking like Bertie Wooster, but it was fun too in Moorcock’s The Coming of the Terraphiles, and in the radio programme Paradise Lost in Space. In Dancers at the End of Time Moorcock explored how disconcerting and disturbing such imitation could be, but here it’s simply puzzling.

Authors and fans often think to discern a hint of envy in a reviewer’s negative comments, and, indeed, my ambition would be utterly satisfied by writing a book as readable and exciting as this one! But still it could be faulted for not striking further into uncharted territory. Contrast it with Nathan Long's Jane Carver of Waar, in some ways an American parallel of this book, echoing fondly the Martian tales of Burroughs, but with a modern female protagonist utterly unlike those we’re used to seeing in such books. A Red Sun Also Rises is good entertainment, but old-fashioned science fiction.

Friday 25 January 2013

The Ebb Tide by James P. Blaylock – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

The Ebb Tide by James P. Blaylock (Subterranean Press, ebook, 1093ll, originally published in 2009) is (or was, when first published) a new adventure for Langdon St. Ives and his friends, taking place, as the not entirely reliable afterword explains, seven years after the events of the novel Homunculus, on 6 May 1822. It begins with an urgent delivery to the Half Toad Inn in London, which unfortunately precludes the consumption of a delicious meal. The result: “there wasn’t a man among us who didn’t have the look of a greedy dog”! One feels for them, but the latest edition of Merton’s Catalogue of Antiquities demands their immediate attention. Its listings include a tatty hand-drawn map showing roughly where the wagon of an ally sank beneath Morecambe Sands. The race is on to recover a treasure that went down with their chum, but less savoury types are also in the hunt, led by Ignacio Narbondo – also known as Frosticos!

Though there’s a touch of amusing postmodernism to the afterword, in which Blaylock confesses that his stories have been plagiarised from manuscripts looted from a steamer trunk found in a sexton’s garden shed, the novella tells its story in a literal, functional mode (the result of “the increasing sobriety of age”, the afterword explains) that presents certain dangers. I read The Ebb Tide twice, and both times missed, due to sleepiness, an important section explaining that a diving chamber commandeered by the heroes had mechanical legs, rendering later passages (e.g. “we risked breaking our legs if we ventured onto dry land”) thoroughly bamboozling. (I felt very silly after realising that the diving chamber and its legs are shown on the book’s cover.) It’s a dry, understated style, that might not appeal to everyone, but tickles me very nicely when I’m in the right mood (and so long as I’m wide awake).

Similarly, while this isn’t a book that will be enjoyed by readers looking for angst-ridden tales of twisted anti-heroes, I very much appreciated the bracing sense of cameraderie among the friends involved in the adventure: Langdon St. Ives, Tubby Frobisher, the narrator Jack Owlesby; even Finn Conrad, the new lad who joins them on the adventure, and Merton, the antiquities man (“he does a brisk trade with sailors”) who takes a nasty knock to the head while saving the map from a pair of toughs. It’s a convivial book where the heroes are happily married, they fondly hope to eat a good roast dinner when the escapade is concluded, and the narrator’s guiltiest secret is that he has had the bad form to distrust a new friend.

The James Blaylock books I’ve loved best in the past have been the fairytale fantasies like The Disappearing Dwarf, but unsurprisingly his steampunk works are attracting much more attention at the moment. This novella doesn’t display the kind of greatly transformed nineteenth century that readers might tend to associate with steampunk now. Instead, it is to that time as The X-Files is to ours, revealing a secret, mysterious world of which the general populace is completely unaware or deeply sceptical: a ring of floating cows, for example, or the exciting discovery made by St. Ives and Owlesby under Morecambe Sands. Nevertheless, Blaylock’s books are currently being republished in the UK with the rubric “Steampunk Legend” affixed to his name, and I doubt new readers will be disappointed; one hopes this brings him a degree of well-deserved commercial success.

Monday 21 January 2013

A Town Called Pandemonium, edited by Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

A Town Called Pandemonium (Jurassic London, ebook, 3576ll), edited by Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin (of Pornokitsch fame) is a shared world anthology along the lines of Thieves’ World and Wild Cards. It’s odd now to think how exciting those books were when they first appeared, that excitement having been long-buried under inferior instalments and imitations. Thankfully, the stories in this book aren’t overburdened with continuity, and all would work perfectly well outside the context of the book; this is a collection of short stories rather than a mosaic novel. Set in and around the Wild West town of Pandemonium, they are roughly arranged in chronological order, and most feature an element of fantasy.

For example, in “The Sad Tale of the Deakins Boys”, Will Hill tells of a family of unpleasant prospectors who get caught in a flash flood in a mountain mine with a peculiar infestation, and what happens when a survivor takes his trouble into town. “Grit” by Scott K. Andrews, one of the less memorable stories here, is about a werewolf and a girl he infects, while “Belle Deeds” by Chrysanthy Balis is about a woman who gives up – maybe – her soul for the sake of getting the man she wants. “Raise the Beam High” by Jonathan Oliver concerns a fellow taking confession for a shadowy figure’s gratification.

Sam Sykes is an entertaining presence on Twitter, but “Wish for a Gun” is the first story of his I’ve read, and it’s one of the best in the collection. As an American contributor he can go all out on dialect without too much fear of looking silly, but his story of an old, bereaved man talking to a trickster from a well has many other good qualities. Joseph D’Lacey’s “The Gathering of Sheaves” is one of the few stories to show much interest in the survival, in this shared world, of the Anasazi, a long-lost Native American tribe. One gets the impression that for him (as for me) the word “Anasazi” triggered memories of the X-Files episode of the same name; the story features many elements reminiscent of that series.

Towards the end there are a few straight westerns, unless we take the high-pitched wailing of “Rhod the Killer” to suggest he is the son of a siren. He is the first taxman to visit Pandemonium in a while, and we see the knock-on effects of his encounters with the townsfolk. One of the more light-hearted contributions to the book, and one of the most memorable. Readers with an aversion to vernacular narration will find parts of “4.52 to Pandemonium” by Archie Black to be a chore, but the story survives those passages to reach an entertaining conclusion. It’s about the hold-up of a stagecoach, and plays the trick of letting us get to know Jake, a nice guy mixed up with the robbers, before switching to the point of view of those inside the coach.

“Red Hot Hate” by Den Patrick is about a young widow who takes in a hunky new lodger who doesn’t like to talk about his past. It has a nice reference back to the events of “Belle Deeds”, typical of the book’s pleasantly low-key approach to the shared-world concept. There is enough continuity for readers to admire the editors’ skill in making it work, but not so much that it detracts from individual stories. Similarly, in “Sleep in Fire” by Osgood Vance, Ben, a tough out of New York, came out west to work for a man who didn’t make it out of “Rhod the Killer” alive. The story is a spin on Beowulf: Ben and his gang stay at the house of a rich old man, and a deadly villain comes each night to kill and cut off arms.

The tone of the stories is fairly consistent: serious, violent, desperate. There is humour, but generally of the grimmest variety. This is the Wild West as a dangerous place to live, rather than a playground for big kids (although it will remind readers of Red Dead Redemption in places). The writing is often unexpectedly ambitious, with writers experimenting with point of view, tense and narrative style (“Sleep in Fire”, for example, switches between third person narrative and a first person monologue). That contributes to an overall feeling of confidence in the collection, and though it wasn’t a book I was ever desperate to return to reading, put that down to me not being a great fan of Westerns in any medium. There are no bad stories here, and the best are very good.

Friday 18 January 2013

The Hobbit – reviewed by Douglas J. Ogurek

Before Frodo Baggins and other members of the Fellowship of the Ring undertook the journey that made cinematic epic fantasy cool (and brought it to the Oscars), Frodo’s uncle Bilbo had an adventure of his own. It is this adventure that comes to life in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (directed by Peter Jackson). Although it was published nearly twenty years before his Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit comes to the 21st century theatregoer as a prequel.

Bilbo Baggins is quite content reading his books and smoking his pipe within his cosy hobbit-hole. Then Gandalf the Grey (wizard) asks Bilbo to leave his domestic tranquillity to help a group of dwarves travel to The Lonely Mountain to seize back their Kingdom of Erebor from the dragon Smaug that stole it.

True to the next stage of the Hero’s Journey, Bilbo initially refuses the call to adventure. Why would Gandalf call on a lowly hobbit to accompany a band of gruff dwarves on a life-threatening quest? When Bilbo finally does accept the call, he does so reluctantly: as the journey begins, Bilbo discovers he forgot his handkerchief. Nonchalantly he says, “We’ll have to go back.”

The other hero of this film is Thorin Oakenshield, the courageous and markedly human-looking leader of the dwarf band. Thorin’s distrust of anyone other than dwarves or Gandalf is fuelled by a painful past: his father’s obsession with gold led to a mental breakdown; Smaug stole his people’s home; a massive pale orc named Azog beheaded his grandfather; and orcs slaughtered all but Thorin’s twelve comrades while their elfin neighbours refused to help.

Both heroes must overcome significant roadblocks. Bilbo, the unexpected hero undertaking the unexpected journey, must leave his comfort zone, come to terms with his self-doubt and embrace social outreach. On the surface, Thorin must regain his rightful home for his people. On a deeper level, he must learn to trust.

A must-see for any high fantasy fan, The Hobbit is filled with the typical LOTR fare: monsters, panoramic views of the heroes travelling amid the beauty of New Zealand, dramatic speeches and chases. Moreover, the film is rich with tension… between the heroes and their enemies, between the dwarves and the elves, and between Bilbo and Thorin, who believes the hobbit more of a burden than a help. And there are plenty of obstacles to confront the venturers: trolls, goblins, rock monsters (a hilarious scene), Gollum (an LOTR mainstay who popularized the word “precious”), and the monomaniacal Azog seeking vengeance on Thorin, who chopped off the orc’s arm in an earlier battle. Surprisingly, the film manages all this excitement without resorting to a love story.

The film falters a bit when Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves arrive at Rivendell, the dreamy home of the elves. There is a lot to work with here, even beyond the elephant (or better yet, dragon) in the room (i.e. the elves turning their backs when the dwarves most needed them). The dwarves are hairy, and the elves are clean-shaven. The dwarves are impulsive, the elves reflective. The dwarves crave meat, while the elves like veggies and nuts. Instead of capitalizing on this tension, the film moves to an expository barrage in which the boresome foursome (Gandalf, Elrond (elfin leader), Galadriel (elfin female), and Saruman the White (wizard)) go off on a tangent about an evil sword and a necromancer that only steadfast fans can follow. Galadriel remains a cyst on the LOTR dynasty. As the only woman in The Hobbit, she continues her role as a glowing, virginal, echoing, slow-talking embodiment of the nerdy sword and sorcery fan’s conception of a female.

Additionally, do not expect the unexpected journey to be wrapped up in a single film. Why would filmmakers do that when they can make so much more money by stretching The Hobbit into three films?

The Hobbit redeems itself by carrying through the thematic issues that the LOTR collection so breathtakingly expresses: loyalty, social outreach, the triumph of good over evil. Several of the speeches are particularly well-done. For instance, when discussing why he chose Bilbo for this task, Gandalf says, “I have found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.” Similarly, Bilbo strays from the dramatic presentation typical of fantasy heroes to explain in a very down-to-earth way why he is helping the elves: “I miss my books, and my armchair, and my garden. See, that’s where I belong; that’s home, and that’s why I came because you don’t have one… a home. It was taken from you, but I will help you take it back if I can.”

The Hobbit offers the viewer a lighter version of the LOTR films; since Bilbo is telling the story, we know that he will survive. However, though the members of this tribe are small in stature, the meaning of their journey takes on great importance. In some ways, Bilbo stands as a more admirable hero than his nephew. First, Bilbo doesn’t have a Samwise Gamgee to rescue him every time he passes out. Second, if Frodo refuses the call, all the good guys (including Frodo) die. If Bilbo refuses the call, his comfortable life goes on without a hitch. So technically, Bilbo’s decision to help has less to do with self-preservation than does Frodo’s.

Everyone experiences a situation in which he or she is asked to give up what is comfortable to help someone in need. Perhaps we could all learn a lesson by taking a page from Bilbo Baggins’s book.

Thursday 17 January 2013

My Top Fifteen Reads of the Last Thirteen Months by John Greenwood

I realise I haven't been all that active on the Theaker's blog recently, so I thought I would take a break from accumulating rejection slips and put together this very rough round-up of some of the better books that happened to drift through my transom over the past year and a bit.

1. "The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories" edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer

I'm less than halfway through, but at over a thousand pages of weird short stories, I think I've done pretty well. I've discovered some of the most interesting writers through this anthology: Algernon Blackwood, Margaret Irwin, Hagiwara Sakutaro, Leonara Carrington, William Sansom, Shirley Jackson. Authors I would have never come across in my normal reading habits. Many of these writers have been translated for the first time for this volume. I enjoyed reacquainting myself with some favourite stories (Borges's "The Aleph" and Kafka's "In the Penal Colony") and confirmed to myself how much I have grown to dislike the writing of H.P. Lovecraft (such fussiness, so much needless verbiage disguising his unique ideas). But above all, Bruno Schulz's "Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass", Robert Aickman's "The Hospice" and Thomas Ligotti's "The Town Manager" were some of my most stimulating reading experiences for years, and have led me to reconsider my attitude towards what is possible in fiction. All three have led me to explore these writers further.

2. "God is Not Great" by Christopher Hitchens

Sometimes the choir need to be preached to, and there are few more entertaining preachers than Hitchens in his stride. There were too many favourite moments to mention, but in particular I recall his repeated insistence on religion as a medieval mindset. He points up the absurdity of taking at face value the metaphysical gropings of pre-scientific tribes engaged in vicious local political struggles. He introduced me to the useful and neat word "discrepant" too.

3. "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" by Daniel C. Dennett

Dennett is my intellectual hero, and on the subject of religion he is a wittier and more discriminating a thinker than Dawkins (which is saying something). "Breaking the Spell' and "Consciousness Explained" have influenced my thinking hugely. One of the most difficult books I have managed to get to the end of, and there were still some chapters I didn't feel I understood fully. If only I had time to reread it! I'm now on the lookout for "Freedom Evolves".

4. "Mr Norris Changes Trains" by Christopher Isherwood

Extremely amusing novel about a charming, bumbling, entirely venal English con-man in Berlin in the thirties. I was recommended this on the strength of my love of Evelyn Waugh's books. They have their similarities, but Isherwood (or his narrator, also called Chistopher Isherwood) seems totally un-judgmental.

5. "Goodbye to Berlin" by Christopher Isherwood

More of the same, wonderfully funny. Less of a novel than a series of sketches.

6. "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned" by Wells Tower

I picked this up in a charity shop in Brighton just before Fantasycon, purely on the strength of the title of the book, never having heard of the author. I loved this from start to finish. Such vigour, such inventive language, such harsh wit. And this is his first collection of stories. Apparently he's been in McSweeney's, The New Yorker and elsewhere. He doesn't do the internet. He's working on a novel, it's rumoured. That's all there is to know about him. All but one of these stories are about modern Americans making squalid catastrophes of their lives. The title story is a Viking raid told in a modern American vernacular, which shouldn't work, but does. It's a little depressing to measure just how far I am from being able to write anything like as good as this.

7. "Runaway" by Alice Munro

8. "No's Knife: Collected Shorter Prose 1945-1966" by Samuel Beckett

"Impotence and incompetence" as Beckett once said, were his central concerns. In a moment of madness last year I donated most of my Beckett novels to charity. Now I am trying to buy them all back. He's such a funny writer, and his humour was my way into his writing, which can sometimes seem forbidding, all those pages of dense text without even a paragraph break. "The Expelled" is such a funny story, which is not to belittle it. I have started to wonder whether I have ever really loved a book that was not, in some way, a comedy. All my favourite novelists: Flann O'Brien, Beckett, Waugh, Proust, Sterne, Austen, Eliot, etc., all refuse to take themselves or their worlds and characters entirely seriously. It was instructive too to come across the first of the "Texts for Nothing", first introduced to me by a sympathetic English literature teacher when I can have been no older than 14. I remembered it very differently. I had a very strong visual image of the narrator, trapped in a peat bog on a moor, but I think some of these details were imagined by me rather than given in the text.

9. "Amsterdam Stories" by Nescio

Nescio was a Dutch writer, beloved by his countrymen but little known outside Holland (at least little known by me!). He wrote under a pseudonym in the period just before the First World War (Nescio is Latin for "I don't know"), little stories about a group of young, idealistic, penniless artists and intellectuals in Amsterdam. Then he joined the establishment, ran a commercial export company, and wrote nothing for twenty odd years until the Nazis occupied Holland, when he wrote one or two more stories, rather elegiac. "The Freeloader" was one of my favourite stories of last year. I think the New York Review of Books Classics edition is the only English translation available - they have a very interesting list which I am keen to explore further.

10. "The Unsettled Dust" by Robert Aickman

Having discovered Aickman in "The Weird" (and heard Jeremy Dyson's documentary about him on Radio 4), I was extremely pleased to get two volumes of his stories (from the Faber Finds reprints series) for Christmas presents. They are not very carefully edited, I have to say. Question marks in square brackets pop up in odd places where they don't belong, and in one story a child is called Agnes, then changes to Agnew part way through. I don't think these have been proofread by Faber. But the stories themselves are startling and odd and frightening, and yes, funny sometimes too. From this collection I was most struck by "Ravissante", in which a rather snobbish English artist is debauched by the elderly French widow of one of his artistic heroes. There's a hysterical moment in which the narrator sees a black poodle come into the room, and afterwards cannot be sure that what he saw might actually have been a spider. "The Next Glade" is also fascinating as an exploration of madness. There is something about Aickman's typical protagonist that both attracts and repulses me: the sort of competent, buttoned-down, salaried Englishman who was just old enough to have lived through the sixties and missed it all. In most of these stories Aickman puts these men into situations where they begin to unravel.

11. "The Man in My Basement" by Walter Mosley

12. "The Beast in the Jungle" by Henry James

13. "The Sense of an Ending" by Julian Barnes

14. "Out of Sheer Rage" by Geoff Dyer

An amusing account of Dyer's utterly dilatory and hopeless attempts to discipline himself into writing a book about D.H. Lawrence. By the end, however, it began to feel like there was a trick to writing this sort of thing, a trick that could be learned, which is never a good thing for a reader to discover.

15. "Teatro Grottesco" by Thomas Ligotti

Probably, along with the Aickman, my most keenly anticipated read of the year, and so hardly surprising that I was partially disappointed. I still think "The Town Manager" is the best story in this collection, partly because it is so funny, and almost perfect in its self-contained, demented universe. "Gas Station Carnivals" and "The Clown Puppet" were also very memorable. In fact, I enjoyed them all, but I have begun to enjoy the online character of Thomas Ligotti even more, which I see as a fictional persona created and elaborated for various email interviews. In one interview he mentioned that he'd just re-read the whole of E.M. Cioran's oeuvre. Having once encountered the Romanian philosopher's works many years ago, this made me laugh out loud. To read Cioran was absurd enough, but to read him again...

Theaker's plans for 2013

Visits to our blog have reached new heights recently, reaching 5,000 monthly hits for the first time – and then 6,000! Such big leaps are normally a sign that someone is moaning about us (we are awful, awful people!), but this time I'm choosing to believe it's because there are hundreds – thousands! – of you out there fascinated by our activities, and wondering what our plans are for reviewing and publishing this year.

Well, since you asked... Last year I got into a muddle trying to review every single thing I read, so this year I'm going to limit my ambitions to writing just one new review each week to appear on the Theaker's Quarterly blog each Monday. I've earmarked Sunday mornings for writing reviews (so bye bye Jonathan Ross Show!). Reviews by our other contributors will appear on Fridays, as well as reviews that appeared for the first time in the magazine's previous issue.

As far as publishing goes, we've decided to skip the fourth issue of TQF planned for 2012 rather than rushing something out (in a throwback to our early days I was going to use one of my unpublished novels, but it really wasn't good enough – hard to believe, I know!) and move straight to the 2013 issues. So four issues this year, planned for March, June, September and December.

We also have two books loosely scheduled to come out this year in paperback and ebook: John's novel The Hatchling and Michael Wyndham Thomas's Pilgrims at the White Horizon. Both are very good, and I hope you'll enjoy them as much as I've enjoyed working on them. No other books planned at present (and no submissions, please), because we just don't have the time to do them justice. John's book has been on our schedule for four or five years now!

Wednesday 16 January 2013

Celebrant, by Michael Cisco – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Celebrant, Michael Cisco (Chômu Press, pb, 340pp). Although he isn’t quite sure why, deKlend is on a pilgrimage to the fantastical city of Votu, where time works in odd ways, remembering can be fatal, and books are read from east to west, not right to left. The irony is (or at least it seems to be – this isn’t a novel that gives the reader much firm ground to stand on) that he is there already, and he refuses to believe anyone who says so. At least his reluctance to accept it gives him time to work on the magical sword brewing in his lungs, and gives us time to get to know the city and its inhabitants. The book alternates, more or less, between deKlend’s story, thoughts and streams of consciousness, and encyclopaedia entries about this thought-to-be imaginary city (which sometimes end in incoherence themselves) and snapshots of the lives of those who live there.

The usual purpose of pilgrims to Votu is to worship the five natural robots, who are believed to have formed through “a very unlikely succession of complications in the process of stalagmite formation”, and have the oddest sex this side of Samuel Delany’s latest, all drills and grinding and exchanges of components. Two packs of feral children roam Votu: rabbit-girls with long teeth and hinged backs, and black-eyed pigeon-girls who cluster on rooftops. (Depictions of sexuality among these groups may make some readers uncomfortable.) Other chapters introduce us to Phryne, a lead addict whose only escape from plombotic side-effects lies in soaking up the emanations of incestuous sex, and Adrian Slunj, deKlend’s would-be adversary, an author and cult leader who doesn’t open his teeth when speaking. (So of course it is great fun to read his dialogue out loud, teeth clenched.) By the end most stories have connected, often in unexpected ways.

At least that’s how I interpreted what I read, what I managed to take in and remember. Pitfalls await the reviewer of Celebrant who is too sure of their ground. One passage late in the book has fun with the idea of reducing its events to a simple summary: “if you look on the back cover of this book, you won’t see anything like ‘so-and-so discovered another world and now he is no longer so sure which one is real dot dot dot’”. One might say the book features this or that character doing something or other, only to have missed a key word or phrase revealing that character to be a phantasm or a joke or a thought experiment or their actions to be a dream or a hallucination. It is a book where almost every sentence – and in some passages every word – is rich with information, and for at least the first hundred pages or so readers may have to accept that they can’t possibly take it all in.

The key to reading the book comes, perhaps, when Phryne tells deKlend that he is already in Votu, and he thinks, “there’s no point trying to make them understand you mean the real place, the actual physical spot. They’re just lost in metaphors.” Readers could treat the book as a metaphor, or as an exercise in surrealism, but it might be more rewarding to treat it as an attempt to describe literally the complicated and confusing nature of existence in Votu. The writing isn’t obfuscatory or knotted; grammatically, each sentence is perfectly clear (except where, like certain bits of Godot, they are deliberately not); it’s the unusual experiences and thoughts they describe that are difficult to apprehend. It’s a book that will reward second readings; pages that baffled first time around were easier to follow after finishing the book. (Well, except for the chapter where the police burst in on a family of pillows…)

Those reading Celebrant for pleasure, free of the reviewer’s unsympathetic need to arrange it in logical patterns that can be summarised and communicated, are likely to enjoy it even more than I did, and I liked it very much. Better a book that overwhelms with the quantity and complexity of its ideas than a book that has none at all. It is challenging, but readers should approach the book with confidence that it does, in the end, come together in a kind of sense. Many will appreciate the echoes of Borges’ magnificent “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” in its early pages; imagine Borges collaborating with, say, James Joyce to expand upon that story: this is a chance for adventurous readers to read a full novel along those lines, and it’s a chance they should definitely take.

Friday 11 January 2013

The Yellow Cabochon, by Matthew Hughes – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

The Yellow Cabochon (PS Publishing, hb, 93pp) is a novella in the far-future Archonate setting frequented by one of my favourite writers of the moment, Matthew Hughes (see issue TQF39 for an interview and reviews of three excellent novels). It follows on from the marvellous Quartet & Triptych (reviewed in TQF34), being a new adventure in the life of Luff Imbry, the master thief with the extra large waist – “the fat man”, as the narrator very frequently (and slightly upsettingly, for those of us on the wrong side of the scales!) chooses to call him.

Imbry has a nice thing going with Nazur Filiatrot, the favourite mortician of the nobility. Imbry supplies the forged jewellery, Filiatrot swaps them with those of the noble about to be encased in amber for eternity. This time, a mysterious off-world customer desires the yellow cabochon of the title, an inscribed jewel the size of a child’s face which befuddles all who gaze upon it – a relic of a lost undersea civilisation. Unfortunately, the owner of the cabochon has not yet seen fit to die, and Imbry is persuaded to attempt a correction of fate’s oversight.

The target is Lord Frons, of the House of Elphrate, minder of the Archon’s formal dining spoon, a descendant of Old Earth nobles who underwent genetic modification to better suit life on a watery new world: imagine Bertie Wooster with webbed toes and access to a mind-control symbiote. Events do not run according to plan – or not, at least, according to Luff Imbry’s plan – and the fat man (now I’m doing it!) finds himself in an increasingly tight spot, nobles and the Archon on one side, the Green Circle mafia on the other, and somewhere, out there, the stranger who set all of this in motion.

Though this is all rather a trial for Luff Imbry, it is a treat for the reader, the book sharing the several strengths of earlier stories in this setting. The plot is clever, surprising with each twist, and the dialogue is sharp, witty, and infused with unusual ideas – as an example of all three, see Imbry’s warning upon encountering Wrython Herrither, a captain of the Green Circle: “If you offend this man, his code of conduct requires him to kill you without a pause for thought. Then he will surely kill me for having had the bad manners to witness the event.”

The integrators appear once again: intelligent, self-aware and often eccentric computers, some so ancient that they remember not only previous geological eras, but even a “period when another universal order of phenomality obtained”. Imbry’s incredulity at this idea receives the delicious response: “I have not the leisure to dismantle your understanding of reality and recast it in an alternate mode. If I did, you might not appreciate the result.” Another pleasure of the novella is its interest in food: one envies Imbry his visits to the finest of Old Earth’s restaurants.

In the run-up to our previous issue I ran out of time to write this review, and when I finally found the time to write it I was a bit fuzzy on the details (understandable when you consider that I’d read three long novels by the same author only a short time previously). How much I enjoyed The Yellow Cabochon is demonstrated by how happily I re-read the whole thing, a very rare experience for me, putting this book in motley company: The Enchanted Wood, Doctor Who and the Planet of the Daleks, Lyonesse, The Final Programme

Like some of those, this was a book to whose flaws, if it had any, I might well have been blinded by an overwhelming affection, but never mind objectivity: most of my favourite writers are either retired or long dead, and I appreciate and cherish those times when I get the chance to be a fan of a writer who is still publishing. The ending leaves Imbry in a position to develop his understanding of “sympathetic association” and “axial volition” – in short, magic. Whatever happens next is sure to be amusing.

Thursday 10 January 2013

Shelflings #4: one hundred and fifty pages of fantasy reviews!

An email will shortly going out to BFS members with download links for issue four of Shelflings, the BFS's electronic reviews ezine. In response to popular demand there is now a pdf version available as well as the usual mobi and epub ebook versions.

This 150pp issue collects reviews originally appearing on the British Fantasy Society website in October, November and December 2012, by Carl Barker, Catherine Mann, Chris Limb, Craig Knight, David Brzeski, David Rudden, Elloise Hopkins, Glen Mehn, Guy Adams, Jim McLeod, Katy O’Dowd, Laurel Sills, Mario Guslandi, Matthew Johns, Pauline Morgan, Phil Ambler, Phil Lunt, R.A. Bardy, Rebekah Lunt, Steve Dean and Stewart Horn.

They consider the work of (deep breath) A.E. Rought, Alexander Mackendrick, Allen Ashley, Amanda Carlson, Arkane Studios, Benedict Jacka, Billie Sue Mosiman, Brent Weeks, C.L. Werner, Chris Butler, Chris Pauls and Matt Solomon, Chris Wraight, Christian Dunn, Christopher Hivner, Corey Grant, Dale Fabrigar and Everette Wallin, Dan Abnett, Danie Ware, Darius Hinks, David Hair, David Tallerman, Dean M. Drinkel, Eddie Robson, Edward M. Erdelac, Eric Brown, Eric J. Guignard, Esan Sivalinhgam, Evie Manieri, Frank P. Ryan, Freddie Francis, Gary McMahon, Geoff Nelder, Graeme Hurry, Graham McNeill, Guy Adams, Hannah Simpson, Hannu Rajaniemi, Hayao Miyazaki, Jaine Fenn, Jake Arnott, James Swallow, Jason Arnopp, Jasper Fforde, Jeani Rector, Joe Knee, John Ajvide Lindqvist, John Charles Scott, John Dorney, Jonathan L. Howard, Joseph Khan, Juan Martinez Moreno, Julie Armstrong, Kate Griffin, Kevin Connor, Laini Taylor, Laura Lam, Laurell K. Hamilton, Lee Collins, M.E. Brines, Marcel Schwob, Mark Morris, Martin Powell, Martin Smits and Erwin van de Eshof, Massimo Dallamano, Maynard Sims, Michael A. Nickles, Michael Croteau, Nicholas Ahlhelm, Nicholas Briggs, Nicholas McCarthy, Paco Plaza, Percival Constantine, Peter Heller, Peter Mark May, Philip José Farmer, Philip Purser-Hallard, Rachel Kendall, Ramsey Campbell, Rhys Hughes, Robert Hamer, Ross M. Kitson, Rowena Cory Daniells, Saladin Ahmed, Sam Stone, Sarah Newton, Scott K. Andrews, Sean Egan, Stefan Grabinski, Stephen Deas, Stephen Jones, Stevan Mena, Suzanne Johnson, Terry Brooks, The Butcher Brothers, Theresa Derwin, Toshiya Fujita, Val Guest, Will Hill and William Meikle.

Wednesday 9 January 2013

Ten of my favourite things from 2012

1. Favourite literary controversy

Fake and paid-for reviews have concerned us here for a while, and we’ve had a few run-ins with people who didn’t appreciate us pointing out what they were up to, so it’s been gratifying to see that issue blow up over the last year. The reputations of writers like Stephen Leather have been ruined by their ludicrous shenanigans, and maybe that’ll make less successful writers think twice about going down the same route.

2. Favourite blog

I’ve tried to spend more time offline this year, especially since September, when I deleted my accounts on Facebook and four or five other websites. If I’m online in the evenings these days I’m using Mrs Theaker’s Chromebook; the router kicks all my devices offline at 7pm. But I always make time to read my favourite blog: Peter Tennant’s Trumpetville. Regularly updated, thoughtful, as carefully-written as his reviews for Black Static, and always interesting. Most importantly, once or twice he’s said he agrees with me about things.

3. Favourite toilet read

Batman: Knightfall Volume 2: Knightquest. Not good enough to be read anywhere else, but perfect for the smallest room. Talented writers and artists doing their best to make sense of a silly new “Batman” with an appalling costume. That it (and its companion volumes) gave rise to such a brilliant film (see below) is the best possible illustration of the adage that bad books make good films.

4. Favourite decision

Deleting my Facebook account. Even if it did make loads of people think I’d blocked them! I’ve got a half-written blog post on the subject which I’ll try to finish off soon. Flagrant hit-bait!

5. Favourite television programme

No Game of Thrones for us last year – we switched to cable and don’t have Sky Atlantic. Doctor Who only had a handful of episodes, and though some were brilliant, some were a bit ropey. The Thick of It and 30 Rock were brilliant but we focus on fantasy here, so I’ll go for The Walking Dead. Andrew Lincoln’s acting in the first half of season three was the best I saw in any medium all year. We had to watch a unicorn chaser (usually Hot in Cleveland, which has also been on good form) after every episode.

6. Favourite film

I’ve mentioned on Twitter a few times how much we liked Jack and Jill – not many Hollywood films have the message that it’s okay to have self-respect even if people don’t find you attractive, and even fewer have Al Pacino dancing in a cappucino advert – but it’s not really a contender here. My favourite film of the year was The Dark Knight Rises. My expectations weren’t high after seeing lukewarm reviews, but I thought it was superb from start to finish. I loved Tom Hardy’s Jimmy Stewart / Sean Connery doing Ian McKellan as Magneto voice. My favourite of the trilogy, and I liked the others a lot too. It sets a bar for quality, commercial, big-scale film-making that I hope others will try to match.

7. Favourite music

I think my most-played albums of the year have been Air’s Le Voyage dans la Lune, Beak>’s >>, Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s Drokk, and Mogwai’s Special Moves. I listen to music a lot while I’m working, and so it’s often instrumental, more or less. I bought my first ever Kraftwerk albums this year (no idea why it took me so long), Computer Love and Autobahn. James Kochalka’s Digital Elf was my summer holiday favourite and Our Most Beloved was one of my favourite Christmas presents. Mojo CDs like Power, Corruption and Lies Revisited, Electricity: A Brief History of Future Sound and Rumours Revisited had long stints in my Panasonic 5CD Changer, as did Pet Shop Boys’ Format and New Order’s Movement Disc 2. As ever I had regular binges on The Wedding Present and Buffalo Tom, but the latest albums haven’t quite clicked yet (they will eventually, they always do). I loved Nero’s Welcome Reality for its funny noises more than its songs, but I did, I think, kind of love it in the end. Visions by Grimes had some great moments but was a bit smothered by sounding too much like other people. I liked Grand Duchy’s Petit Fours (which had been lost and never listened-to in my collection for years) for the opposite reason: the best tracks sound like a lost Pixies record. At some point “Black Suit” will be noticed by whoever picks songs for film soundtracks and become as ubiquitous as “Where Is My Mind?” Lee Ranaldo’s Between the Time and the Tides was a wonderful, committed, emotional record and if I made myself choose an album proper, that would be it. But my favourite music over the last year has been the eighteen tracks of AFX’s Analord 1 and Analord 11. I’ve listened to them daily and they are pretty much my idea of perfect music. Must buy EPs 2 to 10 sometime soon!

8. Favourite comic

My favourite comics of the last year were the American Elf digital collections by James Kochalka, and published by Top Shelf. I’ve bought these on the day of release on Comixology and often read them instantly. Superb, poetic, funny, saucy, childish, profound, and so cheap that not buying them seems almost impolite. I’ve also enjoyed Double Barrel, Dreadstar, Saga, The Walking Dead, Invincible, Incorruptible and many others. (I’m planning to look at my favourite books of the year in a separate post analysing my 2012 reading as recorded in my Goodreads spreadsheet. One for the thrillseekers, that.)

9. Favourite gadget

A hotly-contested category! The Google Nexus was my favourite for a while, but the brightness of its screen gave me headaches, and the screen ratio means there’s too much wasted space when reading books and comics. I bought Mrs Theaker a Kindle Fire for her birthday, and it’s alright, but frustratingly limited to the Amazon Apps store, which for some reason (hm!) currently lacks Comixology. My new Das Keyboard is as clicky as anticipated, but I do miss how relaxing my old wave keyboard was, even if it did take up half my desktop. I didn’t like the Kindle Paperwhite (or the Kindle Ghostlight as I call it) at all at first, but it has enough benefits over my old Kindle that I have been using it.

The Logitech Wireless Speaker Adapter for Bluetooth audio devices connects to my stereo’s aux inputs, passing on sound from bluetooth devices like the iPad, PC and phone. The Logitech Mini Boombox is a small but decent speaker with a chargeable internal battery that works wonderfully with the iPad and is perfect for the kitchen or bathroom. Both have been ace.

Our Virgin TiVo has been brilliant all year. We had a series 1 TiVo many years ago, and only stopped using it because it could only record one channel at once, and not in terribly high quality. But as far as selecting programmes to record it was better than every other PVR we’ve ever tried (Sky+, Virgin+, etc). Having a three-tuner, HD, brand new TiVo has been wonderful.

But my gadget of the year has to be an old one: my iPad. It does so much and gets better by the week. I do my proofreading (and read pdfs) in Goodreader, watch Netflix and Lovefilm, listen to MP3s, NPR and BBC radio, read in the Comixology, McSweeney’s and Kindle apps, write reviews and blog posts in Pages, record and delete TV programmes with the TiVo app, browse my photos (and access all my other desktop files) in Dropbox. At some point maybe I’ll upgrade to a newer iPad, but the one I’ve got is already fantastic.

10. Favourite job

In my daytime work I’ve been lucky to work for some excellent publishers who have paid my invoices promptly and been remarkably indulgent of my little eccentricities. But I won’t mention them here because I don’t want you getting in touch with them to offer your services. Scoundrels!

Getting my job as British Fantasy Awards administrator back was really nice. Becoming a regular reviewer for Interzone has been fab. And compiling Shelflings for the BFS. And editing Theaker’s Quarterly! I love what I do.

But of course my favourite job is always being a dad. Aww.

Monday 7 January 2013

Conan the Barbarian – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Conan the Barbarian (showing on Netflix UK, 112 mins), directed by Marcus Nispel, is a disappointment, albeit a more or less watchable one. There’s the seed of two potentially successful films in it, a tough, adult heroic fantasy, or a Pirates of the Caribbeanesque family romp, but in the end it’s neither: too silly and slight for adults, too nude and gory for children. One wishes it had been made a year or two later, so that it could have taken a lead from Game of Thrones.

It feels like Superman Returns, a palimpsest on which earlier, unmade versions have left their mark, leaving a meandering story that makes little sense: would the boy Conan we see at the beginning of this film, already a focused, deadly killer, really have left it twelve years without seeking revenge for the death of his father at the hands of a mad villain? All grown up, it’s only a chance meeting in a tavern that reminds him of his revenge quest!

One feels for Jason Momoa, since, silly quibbles over eye colour or hairstyles aside, he is the perfect, definitive Conan: he’s fast, strong and intense, taking a savage glee in battle and a shameless delight in the female form. It's a terrible shame to hear that Arnold Schwarzenegger is now planning to snatch the role back, Jay Leno-style. Much as I enjoyed his pair of Conan movies on their own merits, he's better suited to playing Groo. Momoa should feel aggrieved, having done such good work here.

Shame the film doesn’t quite match his performance or tone. Conan is phallus unleashed; you don’t soundtrack that with pan pipes and orchestra sweeps! Not as bad as I feared, but not as good as I had hoped (at least before trailers or advance reviews were out), it's not a film I expect to watch a second time.

Ten resolutions for 2013

Ten resolutions I’ve made for this year…

1. To finish and post some of the blog entries I began over the Christmas holiday. (If you’re reading this, this one’s already going well.)

2. To blog more often – Wednesday used to be my day for odd blogs on here, and I’d like to bring that back. I was trying to focus more of my writing time into the magazine, but it didn’t really work out – I ended up with thousands of words of unfocused snippets!

3. To finish all of the reviews left over from last year, for example: BPRD – Being Human; Nowhere Hall; Gorel and the Pot-Bellied God; Cloud Permutations; The Strange Talent of Luther Strode. At least one of those was left over from 2011!

4. To read more books sent in for review. I haven’t had a proper look at my 2012 Goodreads spreadsheet yet (expect a really tedious blog post about it at some point), but I think last year I only read about 20 or so books for review, out of about 162 read in total.

5. To uncouple my reading and reviewing. Last year I thought it would be a good idea to not read anything new for review till I’d written the review of the last one, to avoid piling stuff onto my to-do list. Problem was, I never did completely clear that reviews to-do, and so I spent most of the year reading non-review books and then reviewing them instead! So this year I plan to keep on reading regardless and treat the reviews as a separate job.

6. To start work on reviews sooner. I read a lot on the iPad and I’ve begun to keep Pages open in the background, switching over there to write a paragraph when I think of something to say. I’ve got 800 words or so written about A Town Called Pandemonium without yet sitting down to write a review.

7. To box up some books. Our home reached its maximum literary capacity a good few years ago, and yet they keep coming! And I hardly ever read print books now. I want to put some of those that have been sitting on my shelves for years unread into boxes, let them regain some allure, and let the books that have been patiently hanging around in piles get some shelf time.

8. To read at least one more of my Folio books. It’s painful to have spent that much money on books I’ve barely touched! Their wonderful four-volume Great Stories of Crime and Detection spent most of the last year as my monitor stand.

9. A work one: to invoice people more promptly. There are lots of other work things I need to improve on, but no point in telling you my weaknesses!

10. I usually resolve to be nicer, but I’ve just checked with Mrs Theaker and she says I failed at this last year (for the umpteenth year running), so instead I’ll resolve to read and reply to TQF submissions more quickly. We don’t get many, so there’s no reason not to reply within a few days, but it’s a job I always procrastinate on.

(One last minute addition: to use the Ctrl and Shift keys on the right-hand side of my keyboard more often.)

Saturday 5 January 2013

Interzone #244 – out soon

Click here for information on Interzone #244, which, as well as stories by Lavie Tidhar, Helen Jackson, George Zebrowski, Guy Haley, Jim Hawkins and Tracie Welser, includes me interviewing Karin Tidbeck and reviewing her excellent collection, Jagannath.

This is a good place to give this useful little book a nod: How To Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy Osbourne And Everyone Else by Jason Arnopp. I've only done a handful (plus two fingers more) of interviews (Lawrence Watt-Evans, Lev Grossman, Brian Stableford, Allen Ashley, Rhys Hughes, Matthew Hughes and now Karin Tidbeck) and it was good to get some pointers before I got too attached to any bad habits…