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After years of placing her tales in France and exploring its rich medieval history, in her new novel Mosse decided to do things differently and to return to her home village in the UK. “The Taxidermist's Daughter” takes places in small village of Fishbourne in Surrey in 1912 and follows the story of Constantia Gifford as she accidentally becomes involved in a frightening murder mystery. Connie is twenty-two and is living alone with her father in a house filled with remnants of what was once a world-famous museum of taxidermy "Gifford’s World Famous House of Avian Curiosities". After the museum's closure, Connie's father became a very uncomfortable man to live with. He's bitter and disappointed in life. The events surrounding the closure are still a mystery to Connie as she lost her memory after a particularly nasty fall years ago. The subject matter is a taboo which can't even be mentioned, let alone discussed so she spends her days with stuffed birds as her company, slowly learning her father's trade.

It all changes one night during which it is believed that ghosts of those about to die in the coming year are walking the earth. A woman is found drowned outside Blackthorn House (Gifford's house). Death certificate proclaims the cause of death as suicide but Connie's having her doubt. Soon she becomes embroiled in a search spanning years which will bring back to light some long forgotten memories as well as the mystery at the heart of her father's life.

With her Languedoc trilogy su ccessfully out of the way, Mosse's writing in “The Taxidermist's Daughter” feels completely reinvigorated. She feels fiercely confident in her story and I, as a reader, found this sort of enthusiasm absolutely infecting. “The Taxidermist's Daughter” is simply Mosse's best work yet which will appear more to readers who enjoyed her gothic tale "The Winter Ghosts" (or “The Cave” if you've only read the original, shorter story”) or her recent short story collection “The Mitletoe Brde and other stories” than to those who only read her Languedoc trilogy. “The Taxidermist's Daughter” is a thrilling lyrical tale with a touch of macabre which I can only wholeheartedly recommend.


Review copy provided by Orion Books.
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“City of Stairs” doesn't really feel like a Robert Jackson Bennett's book. I'm so used to his particular way of writing atmospheric Gothic novels that I was initially completely disoriented by this amalgam of fantasy and science fiction. I've even double checked the info on the press release just to make sure that this is the same Robert Jackson Bennett. Luckily, this is not meant to be a complaint. “City of Stairs” is brilliant but just very different to what you would expert from author of “Mr. Shivers” or “American Elsewhere”.

Bennett's story takes place in city of Bulikov, once proud city now conquered by Saypur and largely reduced to just another colonial backwater. Once Bulikov was protected by Gods but they haven't been seen for a long time. Shara Divani arrives to city as just another Ministry of Foreign Affairs diplomat sent to over-complicate things for locals. However, secretly she's on a mission. Accompanied by her secretary Sigrud (the best character in a book by a mile), Shara is tasked with discovering truth behind the murder of a seemingly irrelevant historian Efrem Pangyui who dabbled into Bulikov's hidden and forgotten stories. Soon she discovers that nothing in Bulikov is as it seems and perhaps even Gods are not as gone as everyone thought they are. Her quest will lead her deep into Bulikov's past to a time when it was still a force to be reckoned with.

Jo Fletcher Books have been publishing some truly imaginative stuff this year and similarly to excellent “Gleam” by Tom Fletcher, Bennett's “City of Stairs” occupies a place in that wonderful niche of literature where the setting itself has a life of its own and carries the book seeming without any need for a story. Bulikov is a wondrous creation, innovative malleable place that evolves together with its residents. I hope this was not an one off and that Bennett will soon return to it.

So is new Bennett better than the old? As you can guess the question is pointless and it's down to a preference of a reader. Personally, I've really enjoyed this reinvention of Robert Jackson Bennett but deep down I still hope his previous reincarnation is not gone for good. I can imagine sidelines continuing successfully together. Until it happens, “City of Stairs” is a completely new chapter in his writing and showcases a new side to his talent. Bulikov is a place you should definitely visit. You'll have one hell of a ride.


Review copy provided by Jo Fletcher Books.
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REVIEW : Interzone 253

Monday, 20 October 2014

Turns out Interzone readers are a spirited bunch. You see, we have this policy where we try to not publish negative reviews because we feel that it's hard enough to reach audience without us making it even harder. Bad stuff we read we just forget. So suitably, our published review of “Interzone 252” was favorable. It's our favourite science fiction and fantasy magazine after all. However there was a sentence that said that one of the stories in the issue felt like a filler. To put it bluntly, it caused a bit of furore with a few readers and we even received an e-mail from Interzone themselves citing their strong editorial policy. It was a bit funny in a way and hopefully now the situation is sorted to everyone's satisfaction.

“Interzone 253” is another strong issue, not least because it is a second issue in a row that has an original story by one of my favourite fantasy writers at the moment, Neil Williamson. His "The Golden Nose" is another example of his talent. This imaginative story explores the way increasingly complex technological advances can make even the best talent feel ordinary and redundant.

But to go back at the start, James Van Pelt's "My Father and the Martian Moon Maids” opens the issue and is one of those emotionally powerful stories that aims straight to the heart of the reader. It features an older man reminiscing about his youth and will strike a chord with older readers. Andrew Hook’s “Flytrap” is another tale written in a literary fashion that seems to be pervasive in this issue. This was my first encounter with Hook and I've really enjoyed it.

D.J. Cockburn’s “Beside the Damned River” is a 2014 winner of James White Award and is an extraordinarily written SF which just begs for a full novel treatment. E. Cartherine Tobler's “Chasmata” was another story that I instantly liked because of the dreamy way in which it was delivered. On the other hand I found final story, Caren Gussoff’s “The Bars of Orion” to be a bit forgettable. There's nothing wrong with it as such and it's a decent, personal SF drama that mostly suffers because of its vast scope and the sheer quality of other stories included in this issue.

To conclude, “Interzone 253” is an above average issue, jam packed with true feats of imagination. What's best, “Interzone 254” sounds like it'll be just as good because it has a new novella by Nina Allan in it as well as her new ongoing feature. On to reading!


Review copy provided by TTA Press.
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Poems by Iain Banks with Ken MacLeod will be published on February 5, 2015 by Little, Brown 

Synopsis:


Iain Banks the literary novelist and Iain M. Banks the science fiction writer are too well known to need introduction, but Iain Banks the poet has hitherto been almost undetected: a single poem was published in a magazine and three short pieces within the novels. But he took his poetry seriously and worked on it carefully, though he shared the results mainly with friends.

Readers of Iain's novels will find in these poems many aspects of his writing with which they're already familiar: a humane and materialist sensibility, an unflinching stare at the damage people can do to each other, a warm appreciation of the joy they can give to each other, a revel in language, a geologically informed gaze on land and sea, a continued meditation on what it means for us to be mortal embodied minds with a fleeting but consequent existence between abysses of deep time.

Ken MacLeod, Iain's long-time friend and collaborator, has collected his poems according to his wishes, and they are published here - most for the first time - alongside a selection of Ken's own poetry


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Over the past few months I’ve been asked numerous times why or how I wrote The Surfacing. With a bad habit of politeness, I usually give a credible answer, when I’d prefer not to give any answer at all. Because behind that question I hear either (1) a misguided pedagogical imperative or (2) a mercenary one, or both. (1) Can you (knowledgeable) please give us (ignorant) the book’s intellectual or personal context, which will help us to read it properly. Or: (2) Make your pitch. Lay out something of personal value, in trade for the investment (time, money, attention) you’re soliciting from us.

I’ve heard other authors answering those questions. I’ve heard myself give it a go. In our answers there’s often an element of the Treasure Hunt, of the A-Funny-Thing-Happened-To-Me anecdote, of the Everyman-Seconded-To-A-Quest, and always a fair whiff of memoir. Put on the spot, authors often take refuge in practical detail, as I did here, when recently answering an apparently harmless query about how I got interested in 19th century Arctic exploration:

A French publisher bought the rights to my first novel, Track and Field, (set in 1923) and I wanted to take the opportunity to rewrite one of the last scenes. Looking for a detail to indicate a form of emotional retreat in one of the characters, I had him refer to Scott’s expedition to the South Pole. That sparked a curiosity about Amundsen, who (I discovered) in 1928 set off on a rescue mission in the Arctic (by plane) and was never seen again. From there (Amundsen first made the Northwest Passage) it was a short jump to a curiosity about those who set out to find Franklin.

These details are all perfectly true, but tell precious little about the sequence of words that constitutes a book. That’s probably the point: they serve as a screen against deeper probing, or are offered as a bribe to shut further questions – and myself – up. Shutting myself up has become a more tricky and pressing need recently. When I was a kid, in the days preceding a local election or the arrival of a circus, a loudspeakered van would trawl through the streets blaring its tedious gospel uninvited into every home. That’s the sound you hear when talking in public about yourself.

Why and how, then, is what it always comes back to. I allow myself to believe I don’t fully know, and don’t want to. While there’s doubtless a certain strategy in that, the fact remains that I distrust absolutely the coherent, articulate answers I’ve heard myself producing in recent weeks. At first they were tentative, full of reserve and disclaimer and clarification; but the more I heard the question repeated, the more I heard myself refining and honing my spiel. Unsurprisingly, perhaps: after all, I’m practised at narrative construction, and at making those constructions sound. But by and by the thing started to sound like another book, written by another man, in a manner unrecognisable to me. (It sounded like a well-planned and well-executed campaign.) A process that calls to mind lines from Penelope Fitzgerald’s Innocence, about the quarrels of ill-matched newly-weds:

Chiara had no gift for quarrelling at all and could scarcely understand how it was done, nor, really, had Salvatore, since his argument was with himself, and he was therefore bound to lose … Each battle, as it closed, was recorded in their memories, as in an elementary history book. In these books you usually get three or four causes of hostilities given, and afterwards three or four results, which have to be learned by heart.

The clear, solid sense of the answers I’ve heard myself give interviewers makes me long to believe them, but absolutely sure they’re incomplete at best, certainly misleading, and in all likelihood totally false. I didn’t make and then follow a plan. I rewrote the last draft much as I wrote the first. The word-by-word process was tentative in almost every way, contradictory and confused in its intentions, muddled and inconsistent in its means and procedures, and generally disingenuous in its expectations of the reader. If that sounds amateurish, it is and was, but deliberately and persistently so; because I’ve found that the best stuff magically materializes when you’re flailing around, distracted by your own sense of limitation and failure. That’s the zone you want to work in, devoid of any impression of coherence, confidence, or perspective.

In contrast, other writers often seem suspiciously clear-minded regarding their writing process. They make it sound like a holiday taken to an exotic location, involving first research and deliberate planning, then relentlessly perceptive note-taking along the way, and afterwards studious collation and correction of first-hand impressions, done with a particular audience in mind. It’s an engaging metaphor and an admirable method, both of which I’m envious of, but can’t imagine ever adopting. My alternative: writing as the invention of rules for a new game - rules which, like the white lines on a pitch, facilitate by means of restriction rather than restrict per se. Some of the rules of the new game (i.e. The Surfacing) I invented were:

  1. Remove all but the most basic technology. (The book is set in 1850.) A disingenuous strategy employed to offer up characters who are obliged to depend mostly on something called ‘themselves’, and who appear less defined by social and historical context than ought to be credible.
  2. Remove as many basic, reliable, and familiar comforts as possible. These include: a non-hostile climate and a civilian society. I did this by trapping my characters together in the High Arctic. A familiar device of putting ‘normal’ characters in an extreme situation, in order to accelerate and accentuate failings and strengths. It’s what a Materials Engineer (i.e. my wife) would call stress testing. It’s what a writer (i.e. me) would call the ‘Fish-Out-Of-Water’ strategy.
  3. In that ‘alien’ context, re-create a microcosm of the ‘normal’ world. Instead of a man alone in the wilderness, I created a little village there, with elements of the ‘home’ life I hope surreptitiously to represent: various classes and backgrounds; all ages, men and women, and even a child; daily routines, duties and roles; meals and entertainments, births and deaths, and other familiar social opportunities, along with the hierarchies that facilitate them. I’ve taken this village (the Impetus, my novel’s ship) and like a wargamer bending over his board simply pushed it as far as possible to the top of the map, then contrived to give it the means to survive there indefinitely. It’s like covering a pot and turning the heat up (or down, in my case), then standing back to wait for it to explode.

Those restrictions were an integral part of the process of composition, which I’m now rationalising in retrospect. They’re part of a facilitating strategy, which points as much to a desire for disguise as for self-revelation. The importance of that inclination shouldn’t be underestimated, I think. Because even if it might seem wilfully perverse both to plead ignorance and appeal for silence, those seem to me the writer’s natural habitats, more than whatever platform (interview, profile, blog…) now serves for a podium. Little matter if that sounds too sly to be true. Beyond quibbles regarding prurience, simplification or misrepresentation, refusal to elaborate can also serve as a reassuring refuge. And that’s how it should be. A book can very well be your final word on your chosen topic, not a call for further query. For instance, in my own case I recognise that the writing of The Surfacing had something to do with:

-          my own personal reserve, which no doubt feeds

-          a fascination with a certain self-mythologizing mode of masculinity, what it conceals, facilitates, and pretends to ignore

-          notions of paternity (the book was written while my wife was pregnant, then during the first years of my son’s life)

But do I want to discuss these facts or concerns with a stranger? No. Do I want to elaborate on them publicly, in a non-fictional form? No. Do I respect the reading public’s ‘right’ to curiosity and to inquire about them? If I do (actually I don’t), I give far greater weight to any writer’s inclination towards silence (surly or not), disingenuousness, even outright obfuscation and obstructionism. To my mind, a writer ought to be allowed freely to indulge the (perhaps deluded) fantasy of themselves as some kind of truth-teller or world-painter, however subjectively skewed. And all fantasy needs room to breathe, not repeated calls to order or explanation. So let us invent our stilted little worlds, then leave them lying around for you to find and pick up and bring home, and make of what you will. Asking for more, you not only risk having your reading done for you in advance; you also risk making the writing a mere prequel to public self-presentation as a form of self-promotion.


Cormac James
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Hard Freeze and Hard as Nails by Dan Simmons will be published on April 28, 2015 and August 25, 2015 by Mulholland Books

Synopsis:


Reason to Kill...
Joe Kurtz, former investigator and convicted felon, is on parole. But his years in Attica for snuffing the mob killers of his beautiful partner didn't make his old haunts any safer. Back on the streets, he's already marked by a local Mafia don with unfinished business.

A Reason to Live...
If watching his back wasn't enough, Kurtz has been hired by gravely ill John Frears whose daughter met a grisly fate at the hands of a child-murderer. Frears wants one thing before he dies: for Kurtz to find the fiend that the authorities couldn't. But the calculating killer-a master at changing identities-has a little unfinished business of his own.

A Reason to Die...
Dodging a contract on his head, and tracking a serial killer on the loose, Kurtz is plunging headfirst into the icy waters of revenge-as both victim and private avenger. It's going to be a tough winter in Buffalo for Joe Kurtz-cold enough to freeze the blood.


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Michael Irwin’s "The Skull and the Nightingale" suffers from malady affecting many promising novels. In an effort to rise above the noise and to entice readers to give it a chance it has been compared in its promotional materials to some of the classics of the genre, in this case, "Dangerous Liaisons" and "The Crimson Petal and the White". This almost always leads to a disappointment because it's nearly impossible to fulfill the expectations but if I'm asked that's sometimes a good thing. Taken alone, on its own two feet, "The Skull and the Nightingale" is surprisingly good literary historical novel,

Set in 18th-century England, Irwin's tale begins when Richard Fenwick returns to London. He's summoned by his 79 year old wealthy godfather James Gilbert who offers him a strange proposition. Gilbert has spent his life in seclusion and one day realises that he wants to experience life to the fullest. He wants everything: love, passion and other more dark extremes and believe he can accomplish this by reading accounts of Richard's adventures in the city. Richard has no choice but to accept and is soon thrown into the raging world of debauchery. His life is slowly spiraling out of control and tragedy is looming over both of their heads as Gilbert increasingly want more and delights in chaos.

As you can imagine there's plenty of sex and general mayhem but this short summary is misleading if you expect fear and loathing in 18th century novel. Irwin tells his tale through letters and, one would feel, almost intentionally slows the story down. I found this aspect of "The Skull and the Nightingale" particularly pleasing as in a way it felt more authentic. The atmosphere of London's seedy underbelly is pitch perfect and scholar in him shows its vast knowledge in many tiny details.

All in all, I've enjoyed "The Skull and the Nightingale" tremendously. It's certainly not perfect but I appreciated originality of its presentation and eye for detail. It's a fine emotionally charged historical tale and Irwin is definitely an author with huge potential. I suspect that if he keeps dabbling with writing his great novel is lurking just around the corner.


Review copy provided by Harper Collins.
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French do things differently. Just look at their food and their comics. Literature is no exception and same can be said for their fantasy. Filled with well-written characters, rich in emotions and engrossing plots, French fantasy books are often such refreshing treats to savor. One of the best known French authors writing within the genre is Pierre Pevel, winner of Grad Prix de l'Imaginaire, a premium French award for speculative fiction. Pevel's writing is characterized by being instantly recognizable through his tackling of events from history through the eyes of bizarre and fantastic. “The Knight” is fourth novel of his to be translated to English (all published by Gollancz) and offers a slightly different proposition.

While previous trilogy, “Cardinal's Blades”, offered an exciting romp through France and Spain resembling finest Dumas, “The Knight” is much more straightforward affair. It is a properly massive historical fantasy much more fitting for readers of Gemmell or even, if you really want to stretch it that far, George R.R. Martin. It follows the story of one Lorn Askarian, a knight who spends last three years of his life imprisoned in dungeon for the crimes he didn't commit (nothing less than treachery). Time in captivity profoundly changes him. He's been touched by the Dark and is prone to rage and depression. One day High King decides to free him. Inexplicably, King even makes Lorn "Knight of the Onyx Throne" and tasks him with tackling the rebellion that's ravaging the nation. The truth is that the king is desperate. Kingdom is all but broke. He is also ill and just about everyone else around his is pining for the throne. It's a daunting task, especially for one burning with desire for revenge. What follows is pretty standard fantasy mayhem full of politics, violence and backstabbing. Lorn is an excellent Janus creation. The Dark is always near and often threatens to completely overwhelm him. At time he's so angry. It is this duality that keeps the novel afloat. Just when I started fearing that "The Knight" might be a slight disappointment Pevel completely unexpectedly turned things around and produced one of the most surprising ending I've had pleasure to read recently. It's simply massive and if I had it in my hands, I would've started reading the sequel straight away.

All in all, "The Knight" was a great but not perfect read. By subtitling the novel with "A tale front the High Kingdom" Gollancz pretty much explained what you should expect. There's rotten kingdoms, heroes, impossible situations and plenty of excitement and if that is what you're looking for in your fantasy then you'll have one hell of a time. Personally, I think Pevel could have done a bit better but judging by the brilliant ending we're in for a treat with the sequel. Until then, I hope you'll enjoy "The Knight" despite it being a bit of an unpolished gem.  


Review copy provided by Gollancz.
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