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Cyteen (Cyteen Series) - C. J. Cherryh

Ariane Emory runs Reseune, the only cloning lab on Cyteen, with an iron fist. Her directorship makes her one of the most powerful people on the planet. When Jordan Warrick falls foul of her, his son Justin and his azi ‘brother’ Grant become pawns in her efforts to control him.

 

This book took me four years to read. Obviously, I didn’t actually spend four full years reading it. I started it, put it down several months, picked it up again, read some more, ignored it for another couple of months and so on. The politics at the very start is bewildering and I just couldn’t connect emotionally with Justin and Grant’s plight. The writing was very good but I found the conversations very repetitive. After I noticed a pattern to many of them, I couldn’t unsee it.

 

The book really only gathered momentum for me when the second Ari entered the story. Her manipulation by her uncles, her gradual realization of who she was, and her struggle for identity engaged me. In fact, this might be terribly blasphemous, but I think if the story had started with her, I would have enjoyed it much more.

5 Things Fatherhood Taught Me About Writing

I've written a post on Melanie Ansley's website about five things that fatherhood has taught me about writing. You can check it out here.

Watch Where You Sit! The Murder Seat Is FREE!

The Murder Seat - Noel Coughlan

At last, my short story, The Murder Seat, is free on Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo, iBooks, Overdrive, Barnes & Noble, and other stores.

 

Dr. Herbert Marriott has a problem that only murder can solve. Luckily for him, the perfect weapon is locked away in his rundown museum, one too incredible for any court to accept. The cursed chair kills all who rest upon it. But will Herbert’s victim be so easily drawn to her fate?

 

My novel, A Bright Power Rising is also available on Amazon for a limited time at 99 cents.

The Day of the Triffids - John Wyndham

One of the first SF books I read was Day of the Trifids by John Wyndham. I discovered it through the 1980’s BBC television version. The beginning of the book remains vivid in my memory. The protagonist, after being blinded by a Trifid attack on the farm, awakes alone in hospital. Nobody answers his cries for help, so he is forced to remove his bandages and search the empty hospital. I was absolutely hooked on the series and I was hooked on the book.

 

It has been described as a cosy catastrophe. And it is. It is the apocalypse that you can bring home to your mother for tea. Yes, there are trials and obstacles, but the trifids create an eerie emptiness about the world which makes life relatively comfortable for the protagonists. They seize the disaster as a chance to build their own idyll in the countryside. Their focus on their own survival and comfort.

The Death of Grass (Sphere Popular Classics) - John Christopher

In The Death of Grass by John Christopher, a virus kills all grasses plunging the world into famine and chaos. It is a darker work than Day of the Trifids because the protagonists’ enemy is well pretty much everyone else who is struggling to survive. There is no general incapacity inflicting the population. No monsters to helpfully empty the land of inhabitants and moral dilemmas. It’s ‘them or us’ where morals take second place to survival. If you brought this one home to your mother it would hold her at gun point while it emptied the larder.

Madouc - Jack Vance

In many ways, the Lyonesse Trilogy consists of three threads which connect sometimes very tangentially. There is the competition between the various kingdoms, the conflict between the mages, and the quests into 'fairyland'. Each of these stories is dispersed through the novels in varying doses.

 

In the final volume, it felt at times like Vance had left himself with too much to do. Every now and then, he hit the fast forward button and events whiz by almost in summary. At other times, tangential and inconsequential matters were lingered over. A great deal of writing was spent establishing characters only to rid them from the book in a sentence.

 

Maduoc eclipses to a greater or lesser extent the main characters from the previous novels. I felt Glyneth in particular got short shrift. Where, for instance, were these swords she brought back from Tanjecterly? The concentration on Maduoc compresses the ultimate conclusion of the struggle between Aillas and Casimir, making it feel a little rushed.

 

And yet, the novel makes up for these dashed expectations. Shimrod's adventures in the previous novels, at times made disjointed and abrupt by the opaque central mystery now click into place. More importantly, Maduoc is an engaging character and her adventures kept my interest throughout. I was particularly moved by the ultimate fate of one of the minor characters. It was very well done.

The Green Pearl - Jack Vance

Though this book is called The Green Pearl, the pearl itself bookends the story, the vast bulk of which is devoted to Aillas's efforts to defeat the Ska and Casimir's political machinations. Aillas proves to be every bit as crafty as his enemies though his subjects appear remarkably calm when their king disappears without warning. Shimrod also pops up here and there to fathom the mysterious Melancthe.

 

The book is filled with adventure, colourful characters, and clever scenes. Dhrun fades into the background, taking a backseat to Aillas and Glyneth. The trip to the delightfully named Tanjecterly was particularly entertaining if nearly a separate story. The fact that it's a sequel works very much to its favour in that we're clear from the start which characters we're supposed to root for.

 

The only fly in the ointment was Father Umphred. His interminable campaign to build a cathedral really got on my nerves. I suppose he isn't meant to be a sympathetic character, but I could have done with less of him. All in all, it is a very satisfying read and a worthy successor to Suldrun's Garden.

Lyonesse: Suldrun's Garden  - Jack Vance

This book is the first of trilogy set in that magical time of medieval anachronistic romance when knights charged about in the Dark Ages in a manner more befitting several centuries later. Vance has plonked several legendary realms (for example Ys, Avalon, and Lyonesse) on an archipelago in the Atlantic, the Elder Isles, which sinks without trace (or record) centuries later.

 

The book has a low key start  in the palace of Casimir the King of Lyonesse. However, it quickly becomes clear that the garden is merely the starting point of the story and it quickly expands to include other warring kingdoms, mages, and magical creatures.

Vance's world is a brutal one. People die a lot and sometimes randomly. Bad things happen. There is one brutal twist which really shakes up the story. However, the omnipresent narration distances the reader from events to some degree so it never tips into the realm of grimdark. The mood is often more akin to that of a classical fairy tale.

 

The world building is detailed but in some ways random to create kind of a 'springy' effect.

 

There are a couple distinct threads in this story most of which branch out from Suldrun. The mages' subplot on the other hand starts out separate but eventually intersects with the others.  However, perhaps thanks to an embargo on mages on intervening in political matters, it feels as their struggle and the kings' rivalry often just glance off each other. The book is full of digressions and tangents, but the imaginative scope of the book cannot be denied.

 

There are loose threads at the end but you would expect that given it was obviously envisaged as part of a trilogy. One thing I did have a problem with was the epilogue which I suppose was meant to wet the reader's appetite for the next volume but, to me, felt very much like somebody just hit the fast forward button, speeding events by without context.

 

The Night Land - William Hope Hodgson

The book begins in the 17th century. The narrator recounts his wooing of his love, the Lady Mirdath and her death after she gives birth to a child. He experiences a vision of the far future when their future incarnations will meet again.

 

His future self lives in the Last Redoubt, a gigantic pyramidal structure which houses the last remnants of humanity on an Earth plunged into eternal night. The Last Redoubt is encircled by monstrous horrors waiting through millennia for its power source (the Earth Current) to fail. These nightmarish creatures and forces map out the surrounding landscape with names that really capture their power and horror: the House of Silence, the Road Where The Silent Ones Walk, the Watching Thing of the South-East, the Valley of the Hounds are so on. I had not really expected the geography to be so busy or so poetic.

 

The hero makes mental contact with a woman from a lesser redoubt, a reincarnation of Mirdath. When the earth current protecting her people fails, he dons armor like a knight of old, and sets out to find her.

 

Sounds pretty compelling, doesn't it? Unfortunately, the book itself is much less so.

 

Firstly, there is the language barrier. Because the book is written from the perspective of a 17th century gentleman, Hodgson employs a lot of archaic terms and spelling which might put people off. Having said that, I got used to these stock words pretty early on and they were worn into my memory by repeated use.

 

Everything is repeated repeatedly. The most egregious example is the focus on food and sleeping. Let's take a few examples of the former for a moment.

I did ope my scrip, and take thereform three tablets, the which I chewed and did eat.

 

And I sat me down in a little clear place among the bushes, and did eat three of the tablets.

 

And I eat my three tablets, and drank the water that I did get from the powder.

 

I eat two tablets, the while my belly did cry out for an wholesome and proper filling

 

I should now eat four of the tablets

 

I eat two of the tablets and drank some of the water

 

And here I eat four of the tablets; for truly so many were my due

 

I had eat three of the tablets, and drunk some of the water.

And it goes on and on, a dreary, lulling beat between digressions and places where nothing happened, other places where something almost happened. and the occasional place where something actually did. It became so numbing that when some crisis occurred it took a surprising length of time for its import to seep through my oppressing ennui and my emotions to properly engage with the narrative once again.

 

This improves somewhat once he finds his beloved. There are some frenetic scenes and powerful images. However, they are islands on a sea of gloppy sentimentality out of place with the supposed omnipresent danger the hero and his companion face. It's as if the lights go on for  vast sections of the book, the birds begin to sing, and flowers blossom.

 

Worse, this syrup is tainted with poison. In the midst of all the repetitious talk of love and devotion and the daintiness of the girl's feet, the main character considers whipping his 'Baby-Slave' for an act of 'naughtiness', considers it again and again, before finally acting on his impulse. The first mention of whipping her killed any sympathy I had for him, and the later incidents confirmed my initial reaction.

 

The Night Land is often described as a flawed masterwork. In some ways, the deliberately aged language inadvertently works to excuse its glaring faults. It fools the reader into placing it into the 17th century instead of the year it was published (1912). War of the Worlds was already over a decade old for example.

 

I think it would be more accurate to say that this work contains elements of imaginary brilliance combined with baser and more toxic substances to form an ore that glitters at a distance but is dull up close. It is up to you to decide for yourself if it is worth the effort to extract the value from it.

Sing Me To Sleep: A Ghost Story - Chris Simms

Okay, first of all, the title of this ghost story is a bit misleading since the main character, Laura, is having sleepless nights due to mysterious bird song in the old house she and her husband Owen recently bought. Perhaps, it refers to something that happens near the end of the book. Don’t worry. I won’t give any spoilers.

 

Laura is a retired ballet dancer and her husband, Owen, is a conductor. They are both really well drawn characters, but Laura is the focus of the reader’s sympathy.  Her story is so immersive that a couple of times, I actually thought the story moved from first person to third person, when in fact it had been third person the whole time.

 

I really enjoyed the writing. Some of the images are very poetic and really add to the atmosphere. After a careful, incremental build-up, the tension ratchets as Laura’s sanity is questioned and the terrible history of the house is revealed. This isn’t a book for readers looking for lots of gore, but it has plenty of surprises. The psychological depth of the main characters is key to its success for me. This anchors the weird to reality and gives the reader a reason to care.

Violence: A Writer's Guide - Rory Miller

This is an introduction to the world of violence for Writers. It’s not a book on writing technique. It’s really about the mechanics and psychology of violence. The writer has twenty years experience as a correctional professional and worked in Iraq as an adviser. Combined with thirty years of martial arts training, this gives him an insight into the nature of violence which any writer dealing with the subject would find priceless.

 

I can’t say I enjoyed the book, but I found it eye opening and fascinating. It’s definitely a book I could see myself rereading. Writers, I’m sure, will pick out of it what they want, or rather what their readership will let them. The writer of the foreword said that he didn’t agree with everything that Miller wrote, and I could see others agreeing with that sentiment especially with regard to some of the macro-historical points. However, you can’t disagree with Miller’s experience and knowledge of the subject.

 

The information is presented in a concise, matter-of-fact fashion. There are links to real word examples of violence which I skipped. I simply have no interest in watching other people’s suffering to further my knowledge. I know some writers like morgues and dead bodies but I’m not one of them.

Hobgoblin Night: Mask and Dagger 2 - Teresa Edgerton

The sequel to Goblin Moon, it was originally published as The Gnome’s Engine. To be frank, I don’t understand the change of name. Personally, I felt the original title is more relevant to the main thrust of the plot.

 

The story continues where the previous book left off. The sorcerer Thomas Kelly and the Duchess separately hunt Sera, Elsie and Jed. Meanwhile the parchment originally stolen  from the Duchess proves to be the key to unlocking the secrets of the drowned continent of Panterra. Meanwhile, Shelbrooke is busy hunting white slavers.

 

The world expands a good deal in this second volume. The writing is full of engaging detail and subtle wit.The main plot points are resolved but there are some new questions raised and avenues opened which I suppose adds to the verisimilitude and probably were originally intended for a sequel. Some of the minor characters from the first novel feel kind of underused, perhaps for similar reasons, but overall, the novel was very satisfying.

 

The novel includes three short stories which either relate to the world of the novel or share the same sensibilities. I particularly enjoyed Titania or The Celestial Bed which was a very clever story setting some of Shakespeare’s characters in the eighteenth century.

June Update

I haven’t published one of these updates in a couple of months but I’ve been very busy behind the scenes. First of all, I finished the short story I had been working on. After  the rolling pin of Beta Reading and editing had flattened all the bumps, it ended up rolling out to 7k.

 

I paused work on the novel Diary largely because I found the solution to the problem that dogged the project I had been working on in February, nicknamed Spaghetti. If you remember the February Update, I had parked this project, which involves people being trapped in a massive multiplayer. At the time, while I really enjoyed writing it, I could see it had a lot of issues around how much game mechanics and language to include. I didn’t want to knock a few corners off a square and call it a wheel.

 

So imagine my delight when I discovered the genre LitRPG. This genre, which began in Korea and Russia and is slowly gaining momentum in the west. Popular series include The Land by Aleron Kong, The Way of the Shaman by Vasily Mahanenko and The Phantom Server by Andrei Livadny.

 

However, one key factor missing from my story was leveling. The focus was on very advanced players at the top of their game. I needed to go back and build up to the book. So I decided to create a trilogy with Spaghetti as the third volume. To keep things simple, I made it Spaghetti 3 and the first two volumes became Spaghetti 1 and Spaghetti 2.

 

I started out pantsing Spaghetti 1. Simply put, I built up the story letting myself be led by the words I wrote. This process was helped by a killer beginning that just came to me out of the blue. Everything was going along smoothly until I was about 28k words in. Then I discovered a vast chasm between me and where I wanted to go. I took a deep breath and revised what I had done, but the solution wasn’t forthcoming. I got about sixteen chapters in when I decided enough was enough. I must either map my terra incognita or  I put it aside. I have a dozen projects clamoring to be written. I gave myself two days.

 

I started to map out the story on Scapple from the point I had reached to the as yet unknown end. Basically, at each stage I asked what would be the most interesting thing that could happen next. I connected these points with arrows and I deleted lines that went nowhere. And very quickly, everything clicked into place. I even had the inciting incident and setting for the next book.

 

What I didn’t do was break this tapestry of plot threads into chapters. The exercise wasn’t about prescribing to the finest detail what would happen so that writing the book became a form of transcription. It wasn’t about bashing it to fit some preconceived template. No, I left the story space to grow, to surprise me. But I now have a clear idea where I need to finish and a general direction on how to get there. I’m confident I can get the first draft finished in the next couple of weeks.

Goblin Moon: Mask and Dagger 1 - Teresa Edgerton

This is a fantasy novel set in a world of Men, dwarves, gnomes and fairies, but instead of the usual medieval period setting, the milieu is more akin to the eighteenth century. The period detail is fantastic and the writing is sumptuous. The characters are well drawn. There’s an alchemist-turned-bookseller struggling dabbling in the dark arts. There’s his niece who must defend her cousin from her from the eccentric medical plots of her overbearing mother.  And then, there’s a dashing Scarlet Pimpernel type who fights occult secret societies and the like. It takes a while for the pieces of the story to coalesce into the plot but the journey makes the wait worth it.

 

The world building is excellent. The eighteenth century elements (and some of the place names) can blind you that at times, but there was obviously a lot more work and thought put into the setting than a simple transposition of historical and literary detail.

 

My one quibble would be the recipe of a homunculus only in so far as it pushes the age range for which the book is suitable upward. It didn’t bother me particularly, but I could see it bothering others.

 

It’s the first part of a duology so there are still matters to be resolved in the sequel, but the conclusion at the end didn’t make me feel short changed.

The House on the Borderland - William Hope Hodgson

Two visitors to the West of Ireland, Tonnison and Berreggnog, stumble across a ruined house. They discover a damaged book in the midst of the debris. It is the diary of the reclusive former occupant of the house. In it, he recounts a series of bizarre phenomena he encounters while living there.

 

The influence of this book on writers like Lovecraft is unmistakable. The siege of the house of pig creatures is well done. There is an astounding  passage describing the speed up of time and the author’s experience of the passing of millions of years. It reminded me a lot of 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, other parts are less climatic. I felt frustrated rather than intrigued by the missing pages. The disjointedness and randomness of the events sometimes made me like I was passing through a fun house rather than experiencing an unknowable but cohesive mystery.

 

The house is strangely divorced from the time and place in which it’s supposed to be set. The odd anachronism doesn’t help. But maybe it’s part of the book’s dream-like charm. It reinforces the isolation (or madness) of the diary’s author and his much put-upon sister.

 

Tonnison at the end of the book is certain at the end of the novel that the journal is an honest recounting of real events. I wasn’t so sure. There seems to be hints to the contrary. It’s really up to the reader to make her mind up.

The Chessmen of Mars - John Bolen, Edgar Rice Burroughs

Again, John Carter himself is mercifully in the background. Again, the book concentrates on a couple. Tara is daughter of John Carter and Dejah Thoris. I’m intrigued as to where her name comes from. Given that her brother is called Carthoris, shouldn’t she be called Dejohn? Gahan, the jed (chief) of Gathol, loves her though she is engaged to another. (Sound familiar?) When she is lost while flying in a storm, Gahan sets out to rescue her.

 

This time, we go to two places nobody ever leaves: the land of the walking heads, the Kaldanes, and Manator, a city inhabited by primitive Red Martians. A Martian chess game called Jetan plays a pivotal role in the story, but frankly you don’t need to worry about the longish explanation of the rules in the early part of the book.

 

Tara does stuff though her role shrinks toward the end to someone to be rescued.  The Kaldane Ghek is my favorite character and there are plenty of twists and turns. I really enjoyed this book and for me it’s the best of the Barsoom novels I’ve read.