Tanith Lee

When I was first being published by Macmillan I used to get invited to various parties, book launches and conventions. Generally I went not because I’m a party person, though the free booze did help, but because I felt obliged to go. At these events I met some interesting people. Many of those who were being published by Pan Macmillan at the time like China Mieville, Liz Williams, Justina Robson and Andy Secombe. Some other stars like Jon Courtney Grimwood, Alastair Reynolds and Freda Warrington. And then some megastars like Harry Harrison and Michael Moorcock.

While Caroline and I were at the launch of a book by an up-and-coming fantasy writer called Cecilia Dart-Thornton, sat in a corner out of the way, we spotted a guy standing up at the bar by himself. Peter Lavery, my editor at the time, went over to him and they chatted for a while. I noticed the guy looking over at us then he came over with Peter. He apparently came over to chat with us because we seemed like the only normal regular people in the room. Standing at about six and a half feet tall in his boots, with long black hair like a red indian, this guy did not strike me as quite so regular and normal. However, he was great company and a good evening was had, terminating after drunken pizza. This was John Kaiine who I was excited to learn was the husband of Tanith Lee.

Tanith Lee wasn’t there that evening but I did get to meet her later on during a trip to Hastings, and have been meeting up with her and John there ever since. Here’s the thing: checking dates I see that The StormLord was published in 1976 so I must have read it sometime after the age of 15, but not long after I think. Either that book, or another called Birthgrave, was my first Tanith Lee. Over the ensuing years I read many of her books (not all in the collection here since I used to regularly burn through whatever the library had too) and I can state without reservation that I never read one I didn’t like. When asked some years back for my top ten fantasy books I put her Volkhavaar in that list. I was even lucky enough to get a stack of signed copies from the lady herself.
Since meeting her I’ve learned that her books have been in and out of print over the years and that I’ve probably hardly dented the surface. She’s had 90 books published. During one chat with them the subject of ebooks came up and I was surprised to learn that this massive backlist wasn’t then available. Now it seems that it is, while others of her books are being released. So, if you like your fantasy Gothic and bloody (and let me add that she was the one who invented that kind of fantasy), I suggest you give them a try.      

The Broken Empire Trilogy – Mark Lawrence

I had a brief exchange on Twitter about me writing episodes of Dr Who, to which my reply was something along the lines of, ‘The Doctor would be dead a few seconds after his first encounter with a Dalek’. I find it very annoying when a person or a thing is made out to be dangerous and doesn’t live up to expectations … which, in a rambling roundabout way brings me to Jorg Ancrath in Mark Lawrence’s trilogy.

Jorg is a ruthless, highly capable and vicious character who will let nothing stand in his path. Great, I would have thought if someone had told me that before I read the books, and then I would have been expecting disappointments. You see I’ve heard it all before. I’ve come across these ‘ruthless, vicious, unstoppable’ characters before and every time they never quite measure up. Jorg Ancrath does.

On the whole I’ve had a ball with these three books, with their magic and fantasy sitting on a bedrock of science fiction. There’s some quite beautiful writing here, especially when the pauses between storms are described. There are moments of utter horror that even made me wince, relentless plot with some nice convolutions, and plenty of surprises. I’ll say no more than this – I don’t need to.

These are a worthy addition to my book collection. Recommended.

Poison Study & Magic Study

A week ago I picked up the first of a fantasy series by Maria V Snyder: Poison Study. I started reading it, immediately engaged with the characters and found it was a book I didn’t want to put down. Many other books I read I have little difficulty abandoning when there might be something else to do, like farting about on Twitter and Facebook, playing a game of Candy Crush or going for a swim. This one kept hold of me, and even kept me down on an uncomfortable sun bed when a carafe of wine was calling. I also didn’t feel any need for a break to read something else when I finished it and immediately picked up Magic Study. This was just as good and I polished it off over a couple of days. I’ve now stuck Fire Study in my backpack and am looking forward to starting that.

Best Served Cold – Joe Abercrombie

This is the fourth Joe Abercrombie book I’ve read and I’ll certainly be reading more. Some excellent characters in here (I particularly like the number-obsessed ‘Friendly’) and it’s what is best described as a thumping good read. If you’re a little sensitive to gore and violence then perhaps this is best avoided. But then, if you’re like that, it’s hardly likely you’d be reading this blog. 

Steam Punk Zeppelins!

Here’s a little taste of what some fans get up to when you’re not keeping a careful eye on them. I’ve been asked to name a starship simulator and to provide some tongue in cheek names for some airships, which I’m glad to do. The starship simulator could so easily be Schrodinger’s Box out of The Engineer (esp. when you look at that caravan). I’ll hand over to Paul Mackay now:

HMAS Absence of Gravitas is a 1969 Carlight Cassetta caravan with a ‘victorianised’ interior. We have used a back projection system to project from outside onto the interior front windows so it actually looks like you are in the gondola of an airship with the horizons:


The control linkages use miniature potentiometers to feed control inputs into the sim which runs into a PC running Flight Sim 2004 with an airship mod. There is a navigator’s station (uses a real map as location is real world correct and can plot routes using it). The engineers panel has 4 separate throttles which can all be set independently, useful if you want to chuck in a failure or fire scenario. The helmsman controls the nose pitch and engine angle (as they rotate up and down in modern airships). There is usually a captain as well.

Big brother is moving towards constructing a second sim that will be able to run several different software packages – i.e submarine, starship or airship. The problem with the caravan sim is that we can’t bring it indoors whereas the second sim (that we would like you to name) comes in collapsible sections that can be erected in pieces. 
The second will run a package called Artemis http://www.artemis.eochu.com/ which is a multi station starship bridge simulator hoping you might be able to come up with a name for the starship sim. (see diagram above, its only half finished).
As I said earlier, we we run a gift shop at shows…we make and sell merchandise related to the sim – mostly my steampunk jewellery but also things like pewter cast airship keyrings, badges etc. We are also hoping to commission a poster of lots of scale drawings of various ‘ships of the line’ – all imaginary airships as if we had this whole alternative historical backstory, with the ‘Absence of Gravitas’ as just one of the fleet. We were wondering if you wanted to give us a few tongue in cheek bombastic airship names as well – think I might have to call one of them ‘Penny Royal’ if you don’t mind.
Anyway, just thought you might be interested in the sort of stuff your fans get up to when we aren’t waiting for the next book.

We have some masters getting 3D modelled in Holland at the mo, then we make silicon moulds from them and use them to cast models in pewter to sell to punters. The sims have to pay their way in the diesel etc. to get it to shows, we don’t profit much but it pays its way.

Regards and can’t wait for more writings

The Hobbit (Part One)

Well, we went to see the first film of The Hobbit yesterday. I was a bit worried about it being a bit of an over-extended franchise but I shouldn’t have been. Converting a single book into a single film can be a bit dodgy because there’s always more in a book than in a film, and some of the best films have been made from short stories. I also shouldn’t have been concerned because it was Peter Jackson doing this. Some may have complained about the extended ending to the last Lord of the Rings film but Jackson was only being as faithful to the books as he had been all along.
I sat there for the best part of three hours utterly riveted. It was visually gorgeous, great fun, I enjoyed it immensely and, of course, Martin Freeman was excellent. Perhaps I enjoyed it so much because Tolkien played a large part in my formative years. In junior school I remember a teacher reading The Hobbit to us and the first book I picked up on my first visit to a library was The Two Towers, and after that I read LOTR maybe five or six times. Is it only readers of that stuff that get slightly choked up when elves first put in an appearance or when Galadriel pays a visit? Probably, but Caroline, who has read none of these books, very much enjoyed the film too. Highly recommended. 

Ecko Rising – Danie Ware

Anyone who has frequented Forbidden Planet London in the past, either to buy books or sign them, will probably be familiar with Danie Ware. Good on you Danie for keeping your own writing under your hat and not bending my ear about it. Now I’ve just read an uncorrected proof copy of her book.

I found Ecko Rising a tad confusing at first but intriguing enough to keep me reading and the slowly introduced back-story began to clear my confusion. Being a roll-up smoker myself I could have done with a little more of that background/back-story earlier rather than so much focus on how a character called Lugan smokes his roll-ups. Next I was getting much more into it with Ecko on the move, but then the switch from an SF scenario to what is effectively a fantasy one (and on flicking ahead to discover the fantasy stuff seems to be most of the book) nearly lost me. It shouldn’t have really since any jerk reading the cover will see the words ‘cross genre’. However, a chapter titled ‘The Monument’ dragged me back in and I started really enjoying it.

Okay, you all know me well enough to know I won’t post a review of a book I didn’t enjoy. Generally I don’t finish such books so reviewing them would be unfair. This book had its frustrations for me like: stop moping and bloody do something will you Ecko, the way characters are introduced making me feel I should have read them in a book before this and some generally confusing scenes/conversations that just didn’t seem to go anywhere. But, the idea of the contemporary (well, near future) character dropped into a fantasy world that might be a virtual reality is a good one and well done. I like the contrast between fantasy characters and the smart-talking technologically upgraded Ecko. I liked the way that the reality of wounds in a spear and hack-em’ world was depicted. On balance there was a hell of a lot here to like, and I motored through this book. It’s a page-turner and I’ll be getting hold of the next one.

John Carter of Mars

Well, I watched John Carter with mixed reactions. It was visually gorgeous with its landscapes, cities and weird flying machines (which bore some resemblance to the things in Cowboys and Aliens) and the creatures were spot on. I loved the Tharks which often seemed to be better actors than the humans and the star of the show had to be Woola which, but for the fact it was a six-legged amphibian, was the spit of a Staffordshire bull terrier my brother once owned. At times I also got a bit of a lump in my throat because this was John Carter of Mars from the books of Edgar Rice Burroughs which were some of those that introduced me to science fiction.

However, I didn’t like the interplay between Carter and Deja Thoris. I felt the urge to giggle inanely and hide my face in embarrassment. I found them both unconvincing and frankly feel that the arch baddy would have been better cast as Carter, while the princess was just eye-candy. A lot of the acting seemed B-movie and flat, but then that might also be down to the directing.

The jumping was plain silly – yes Carter had Earth muscles and was stronger etc. but him jumping half a mile while carrying someone was ridiculous. Now, I can’t remember how that was in the books and it might well have been some of the silliness of them coming through… Also, were metal and stone somehow weaker on Mars? I can’t remember.
Did the books have too many faults that could not easily transfer to the modern age? Were they in themselves just too silly and dated? I don’t think so. I live in an age when fiction from my formative years is appearing on the screen with the required CGI. I still think the first new Spiderman movie is great, Conan the Barbarian couldn’t have been better and better cast (I read the Robert E. Howard books about the same time as I was reading the Carter books) and Lord of the Rings left me gob-smacked. 
I did enjoy this film, but would I have enjoyed it without the nostalgic connection in my mind? In the end, without that connection, it would have been a film consigned to the category ‘it was okay’ which, of course, is not the result you’re after when you spend 200 million. 


It was interesting doing a little bit of criticism on the writer’s workshop on my forum today. I was very much reminded of my time in a postal workshop or ‘folio’, but there are constraints with working onscreen. I kept on wanting to print out what was there so I could take a red pen to it, even though this was something I never did in the folio, and when it came to picking things apart I still had to do that with pen and paper before typing it in.
I also really have to recognize that ‘not the way I would have written it’ is not the same as ‘plain wrong’. Reading someone else’s work, with a critical eye, brings home to you just how many different ways there are of saying the same thing, but in those different ways there can be a thousand different nuances and elucidating them can be a bastard.
So, if you fancy yourself as a writer, or want to learn, why don’t you join in?