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Speculative Fiction Reviews since 2012


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Regrets

I feel like I’m too young to have regrets. Too young to walk past a place that’s filled with a year of memory, and think ‘what if.’ Too young to watch those the same age, and feel like they know what they are doing so much more than I do. I’m not sure if it is a common feeling among people or unique to me, but I find myself regretting a lot recently.

I listened to the audiobook of Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests. Overlong and with a tedious second half, following the major twist in the tale, it is still a beautiful character study and a living, breathing post-World War One London. Set in Champion Hill, south London it follows the burgeoning romance between Frances Wray and Lilian Barber. As well as exploring the Watersian sexual politics of the impact of lesbian relations in a period where they aren’t in any way the norm – see any of her other novels – it is, to some extent, a biting social satire, certainly a commentary of social mores of today through the eyes of yesterday, and an excellent exploration of gender and class struggles of the early 1920s. I don’t regret reading it, although the latter half – bogged down in a murder mystery gone wrong – makes me hesitate to recommend it.

The setting, Champion Hill, is something else, however. It was in Champion Hill I took my first steps to becoming a man – or what manhood I possess today. 10 Champion Hill is the residence of King’s College Halls, the shitty 60s Brutalist dorms and beautiful repurposed 19th Century mansion where 400 King’s College, London students spent the halcyon days of 2011-12, their first year at university.

I walked through it last week. I could breathe in that year of missed opportunities and underwhelming social development. I could smell the sweat and the alcohol and the vomit and the cleaning fluid, the fried communal breakfasts and the freshly cut summer grass, cigarette smoke and sharp tang of sex. I spent my time much as you probably did. Partying and studying and drinking and playing. But, when I look at it again, I fear I missed out. I partied not enough, spent not enough time with some people, too much with others. I missed out on desire and love and hate and underwhelming experiences and overwhelming experiences. I played it safe, maybe. But maybe, too, that is who I am. I am mired in the social crises that brought me up: the council house kid in the private school, where my ‘friends’ tied me to desks and picked me last at football despite being better than most of them, just to prove a point. I was the geek kid, the awkward kid, the kid who’d get in trouble by following, the skinny kid who didn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t fight back.

I wonder, now whether that affected that year. Whether I played it safe, in order to keep people on my side.

Now, I know myself better, and yet I still regret. I hold by my integrity, and get punished for it – and, to an extent, I regret it. I know that I want to go back and change and lose my principles and keep the easy ways they gave me, and then I regret that too. I regret losing my time to bad movies, bad books, bad choices. I regret playing it safe and pleasing the crowd and not being me – because being me rocks, and being me sucks and being me is the most difficult thing in the fucking world sometimes.

Sometimes, a book can make you think a whole host of different things through some benign detail. The Paying Guests could have been set in any of the 60,000 streets in London. It just so happened to be set in the one street I spent a year, a formative year, perhaps my most formative year, in. Coincidently it brings up just as many questions as I faced that year – social, moral, class based angst, decisions, anger, passion. It made me go back past. Just walk, up the hill, into the pub, down to Sainsburys. Experience the 300 yards that hold so much memory, and perhaps so many regrets, but perhaps, too, no regrets whatsoever. Mistakes there made me who I am now. Gave me three best friends. Kept the best of them, by not making a mistake. It’s amazing, to my mind, that 500 pages can make me think so much, make me hurt and remember and regret and not regret.

Paper and ink. That’s all it is. And yet, it makes up my world.


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Dear Mr Abercrombie, piss somewhere else

I’ve just finished Half the World by Joe Abercrombie, and I loved it. I love all of Abercrombie’s books. He has a voice like no other fantasy writer around: gritty, real, bloody and laid bare. His characters sign off the page, are built in bare brushstrokes, and their fallibility and strength, quirks and oddities, are built with a realism that belies their fantastical setting. He is a master of his craft. There’s a reason he sells by the bucketload, why he is critically as well as commercially lauded, and why I will buy every one of his books within a few days of release.

But my god do I wish he’d challenge himself.

Half the World is the second book of the (ostensibly YA, but really, really not) Shattered Sea trilogy, following people from the small Norse-like nation of Gettland as they struggle against religious change and an overbearing High King. Having followed the titular half a king of the first book, Yarvi, as he travels the world a thrall, briefly sits on his father’s black throne before an all-too-obvious plot twist makes his uncle king, in this book we move on to a new generation. Yarvi is now Father Yarvi, minister to King Uthil, though only a few years have gone by. Instead we follow Brand and Thorn, a warrior with a heart of gold and a woman touched by Mother War respectively. For various reasons, they are rejected from their desires of being a warrior, and are taken up, selfishly, by Yarvi for his mission to find allies for Gettland against the High King.

Hijinks ensue. There is some sailing, deeds worthy of song, typical Abercrombian complaint that the realities of battle are much harsher than the songs say. Brand and Thorn grow as people and as warriors, and are integral to Yarvi’s mission as they travel half the world (a phrase magnificently shoehorned into the book at least five times) to the First of Cities, ruled by a new Empress. Thorn, now a supreme warrior, saves the new Empress from assassination by her uncle – and Brand helps. They come back the way they came. Brand and Thorn fall in love, but don’t know it. Then they do. Thorn saves the day by losing, Father Yarvi’s plans come to fruition and we learn not to trust him, Brand shows how much ofa good man he is, but a little late after doing a bad thing.

It’s a simple plot. It’s a physical journey from A toB and back to A, combined with an emotional journey for two character from X to Y. Its easy. Its good. Its exciting, its fun, it knows where its going, its commercial, it understands its audience and it is really fucking well written. In short, it is a brilliant book.

But Abercrombie can do so much more. As I rushed through the last 100 pages in one sitting this morning, I felt myself thinking how much the action scenes were just like The Heroes, how much the plot was as simple as Red Country’s journey, how the wisecracking and dialogue, and even the characters, were like Last Argument of Kings or Best Served Cold. Of course it makes commercial sense to do this. Abercrombie is pumping out a trilogy in 18 months. He’s written 8 books in 9 years. He’s got a family to provide for. But how long can I read well written fantasy that doesn’t challenge me?

The answer, of course, is forever. I love it. I love the style. I love the voice. But I still find myself wishing for Abercrombie to challenge himself, and challenge me. The Heroes, my favourite of his books, is my favourite because it is challenging. The story of one battle, over five days, in 500 pages. Its sublime and clever and a challenge to make the plot work. It’s lots of action, but it uses that to develop its multiple points of view. It has a world to fall back on, but it stands alone from it too. It is a great author marking his territory, pissing on his corner of the bookshop and saying ‘I am the best here at action and gritty realism in a secondary world, and now I’m going show off with some backflips and shit.’

Half the World isn’t The Heroes. It is an old dog doing an old trick – its still good fun, great fun in fact, but I’ve seen it before. Its unique, but unique to Abercrombie, and I’ve read seven others that do the same.

I’ll read Half a War, the conclusion of the Shattered Sea trilogy, when it comes out later this year, and I’ve no doubt I’ll love it just as much. By necessity, it will have to follow a similar pattern to the first two. By necessity, it will be an older dog, doing an older trick really, really well. But when its over, what do I want from my next Abercrombie? I want a clearly incredibly talented author to challenge himself. Stick within the genre, fine. Do what you do best, style wise, fine. But create a challenge for me, for you, for other readers. Add more magic, less action, more intrigue. Or hell, write a fucking romance in contemporary New York. A publisher will publish it, because you’ll write it well. I’ll read it, because it’s by you. Others will too.

It might be trash – the worst published thing you’ve written – but please, Mr. Abercrombie, just try it out, maybe? – try and fail, or try and succeed. Don’t become a Dean Koontz or a Trudi Canavan, writing solid stuff that will always sell, but essentially the same every time. Make me work for my pleasure. Piss in another corner of the bookshop.


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Science Fiction and Fantasy as ‘home’ genres

I was asked recently about what I read and what I write. Oddly enough I found this very difficult. I was in America, and I was talking to a lady who I knew would read R.A. Salvatore or the Belgariad into my response of ‘Science Fiction and Fantasy.’ Now, don’t get me wrong, I like the Belgariad (mostly) (we’ll ignore R.A. Salvatore) but this misrepresents me. If I respond with that answer, the assumption that immediately comes into others’ heads is that that is all I read.

The actuality of life is that I read it more than most, yes, but it’s not the be all and end all of my life. Looking back at my reading over 2014, 25 of the 53 books, or just under half of those that I read, were SFF. The rest covered an entire spectrum of reading: LitFic (The Goldfinch; Salvage the Bones; All the Birds, Singing), Historical Fiction (The Silk Tree), ‘Women’s’ Fiction (Anybody Out There?), ungenred YA (The Bunker Diary, We Were Liars, The Fault in our Stars), non-fiction (The Psychopath Test; Do No Harm) etc. etc. etc. Saying I read SFF is no more true than saying I read any of those other genres above. It is simply that I read more SFF than I do other genres.

This is before I even start to consider the vagaries of genre description. Is The Road by Cormac McCarthy Science Fiction, or Literary Fiction, to the average Joe? To describe it as Science Fiction still feels belittling when Mrs. Bloggs above will compare it with Heinlein, but that’s what it is. What about No Harm Can Come to a Good Man by James Smythe? Marketed and written as a literary thriller, it’s distinctly SFnal in its outlook and its plot. How about the masterful The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough? A novella on the power of grief, as the main character watches her father die a slow, painful death, it also heavily features a – possibly metaphorical – black unicorn. Does this make it Fantasy? Or does it remain a short LitFic book?

With this confusion in mind, and with the knowledge that less than half of what I read is Science Fiction or Fantasy – and half of that again are books like those above, genre-fluid, or using SFFnal themes to advance something that isn’t ‘core’ SFF, I’ve come to a new descriptor.

Science Fiction and Fantasy is my home genre.

It’s where I’m most comfortable. It’s the community in which I immerse myself. It’s the place where I know the people, I know the books, I know what’s hot and what’s not, what people are talking about and what the latest controversy is.

It’s not all I read.

In much the same way that, three or four years ago, I would have said that heavy metal is my home genre for music I worry for myself when it comes to SFF. I don’t follow heavy metal in the same way now. I have blurred – I listen to indie, to electronica, to old school east coast hip hop, to original soundtracks, to indie rock – I have no home anymore. I am an omnivorous wanderer through the musical plains, stopping to take in whatever takes my fancy. I have lost touch with that community, such that it is. I still listen to Heavy Metal. I still get the latest albums from the bands I love. But I listen to so much more, so many different things, that I can’t truly say it is my ‘home’ genre anymore.

Likewise, I’m slowly moving outwards from ‘core’ SFF. I’m exploring far more literary fictions, and far more SFF with a literary bent. In 2011, 42 of the 56 books I read were SFF. In 2012, almost all of the extra-curricular reading I did was SFF. But slowly it has declined. Slowly, SFF has become less vital and more homely.

Perversely, this has made me enjoy SFF far more. I rarely read ‘core’ genre any more, and when I do it is both escapism and falling back into the arms of an old friend. It is enjoyment beyond the usual: I tend to pick up ‘core’ genre far more on recommendations and reviews than previously based on reputation. For this reason I enjoyed The Traitor’s Blade and The Copper Promise – debut ‘core’ fantasies – or Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples’ Saga – ‘core’ SF, albeit in graphic novel form – in a way more so than I did Brandon Sanderson or Hannu Rajaniemi in 2011 when I picked them up on reputation. Or I’ll follow an author: Tom Pollock, Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch – more ‘core’ fantasy works. As I said above, the majority of the SFF I read is on the border, is mixed-genre. Adam Roberts, Sarah Pinborough, Ben Aaronovitch, Clare North, Jeff Vandermeer – all people I first read this year, all on the borderline of multiple genres. Lavie Tidhar, Frances Hardinge, China Mieville, James Smythe – all people I’ll consistently read, and will continue with every book they produce, all (to a certain degree) borderline cases.

As my SFF focus decreases, I become more discerning before I turn that first page. I rely more on reviews, on hype (from the right people), on what others have said, to direct my reading experience in that genre. It is this new way of choosing books that is also increasing my consumption of books ‘outside’ SFF. If someone or some place that I trust recommends say All the Birds, Singing (in this case, the New York Times and Jeff Vandermeer) I’m far more likely to read it. If Jared Shurin or Adam Roberts or Mahvesh Murad or Niall Harrison post a glowing review of something, I’m far more likely to read it. If Twitter is aflame with the latest literary sensation (I’m looking at you, The Miniaturist), I’m far more like to read it. If it’s published by Hodder, by Picador, by HarperCollins’ Blue Door I’m far more likely to read it.

As my immersion in books and publishing continues, I thinks SFF will remain my ‘home’. But I also think that the percentage it occupies against the rest of my reading will decline.

And this is not a bad thing.


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2015

Over the course of the last six months or so while I’ve been away from this blog, I’ve had some major life changes, and some major realisations. It’s 1am now, on the first day of a New Year. I am, to coin a phrase, fucking knackered. I’ve had 8 hours sleep in the last 3 days, spent 42 hours travelling, am jetlagged to buggery and it seems like the right time to reflect. Continue reading


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80 Days

In the last couple of days, I’ve been arrested in Berlin, kissed a man in New Orleans, joined a small Russian invasion force of India, been captured by pirates, cultists and mutineering sailors, and travelled around the world twice. 80 Days is a smartphone game developed by Inkle based on the Jules Verne novel Around the World in Eighty Days. As Passpartout, ever-loyal valet to Phineas Fogg, you must choose the destinations and methods of completing Fogg’s wager

The game plays out as a choose-your-own-adventure. Text scrolls along the the screen and you are given an option. There is no way of telling which option is better, will lead to what. Instead, you select your response and more text fills in. Maybe it is simply teasing the captain of the West Africa Squadron for his admiration of the Captain of the airship you are flying on, or perhaps it is helping a ‘toymaker’ in Northern India rebel against the British. Whatever the stakes, there is a story to be told – and as you are directly affected in the achieving, or not, of your goal, then you care.

The script is excellent. Passpartout – you – are sufficiently world-weary and bitter to be amusing, and yet hold absolute loyalty to your master. The world is a Steampunk one, with airships and mechanical elephants and voodoo birds, but nonetheless is fully realised. It holds to the late 18th Century attitudes, quietly judges them and invites you to join in.

There’s other parts to the game to – money is made buying and selling things in the market, there is a health costfor Fogg associated with travelling, but these are sideshows. I’m here for the story, and boy what a story. Over 500,000 words of script, random, every changing, always exciting, For a commute, 80 Days is perfect. For a couple of quid, you’d be stupid not to buy it.


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Today

Well, this morning was a slap in the face.

I mean, seriously, Robin Williams? He’s a bundle of fun, a ball if energy, always bouncing from place to place, always over the top, centre of attention, awkward and erudite and blessed with being funny.

Then I thought about it a bit more, about why this morning I didn’t want to get up, why I spent my morning watching clips of Aladdin and his stand up and laughing and the crying and the laughing again. Robin Williams has always reminded me of me. Yes I’m not funny, but the rest? Me.

It’s hard to admit publicly sometimes that you’re scared of yourself. I was going to post today about Nine Worlds, about how much fun I had. About how included I felt, about how proud I was to have helped, in my own small way. About Macarenas and Sharknados and people who make me smile.

I’ll save that for tomorrow.

Often, if you see me and I act the fool, if I bounce around and am overloud and I underthink – it’s an act. It’s not a conscious act, but it’s an act. I’m fucking terrified of how people perceive me. I know I’m naturally socially stupid at time – I have aspergers, at least mildly. So I play it up. I dressed in a ridiculous Sharknado costume at nine worlds, at least in part to show off: when people responded I was ecstatic, but until I wore it, and people enjoyed it, I built it up beforehand to try and make the inevitable failure (in my head) more palatable. If people knew I was trying they wouldn’t judge, wouldn’t comment negatively.

I recognise this as one of the biggest parts of my depression. Fear. I want to write. I make no secret of it. I’m not bad at it, but I’m terrified of it, so I do it … pretty much never. I lie. I make up reasons why I haven’t done things, when the reality is I’m scared if failing, of being judged, of my personal fears becoming public fears becoming public condemnation. And then I’m caught out and I’ve made it worse.

I read my twitter stream this morning, and I saw a lot of discussion of depression. Bringing that up is fantastic. Something as terrible as suicide shouldn’t be the thing to do it.

I walked to the tube this morning, to go to work, and all I wanted to do was go back to bed and cry. I wrote this on my phone, between home and work, and had to stop twice, three times, as my eyesight blurred, and I had to control myself. I see a lot of myself in Robin Williams persona. I see the precipice I find myself walking along sometimes. I’m lucky. I have people who care. They don’t understand, often, but they care. When I’m feeling shit, I’ll take it out on them and slowly, slowly, I’ll come around to the root of it and the switch will flip and they will hold me or make me tea, or just let me rant and uglycry and it will make it a little bit better.

I don’t make any supposition on the cause of today’s news. I don’t think anyone can know. I’ve seen depression first hand in others – my mum, my best friend – and in myself. It’s a shit thing. Truly, unbearably shit. I scare myself thinking sometimes: not just the big what-if, but the small things like what I was talking about above. The social failures, the falsities, the days when I watch my empty email inbox and flip between it and the OCD spreadsheet I’ve got of all the jobs I’ve applied for since graduating, and think ‘What the fuck do I have to do, it must be me’ even as the rational voice tells me it’s just the market and the industry and Jesus Christ you’re doing a fucking internship right now someone must like you. Even then, when you find out it’s because someone in front of you dropped out you question yourself again, and again, and again, until you find yourself questioning whether your suitable capable worthy worth-fucking-while, and it expands from job to life itself and you just want to sit down and cry.

That’s jobs. I do the same with love, with friends, with the things I enjoy: refereeing, writing, reading, my friends, my girlfriend, those people at Nine Worlds who in my heart are my friends and I worry are not, am I doing enough here, there, am I annoying, am I overbearing, am I am I am I

And now I’m nearly at work. And I’ll put on my happy face. I’ll smile, crack bad jokes, ask too many questions, try too hard. I hope I’ll make people slightly happier. But inside? Inside will sometimes suck.

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