Nightspore

Reflections on fantasy, SF, writing, music, technology, life…

Which are the best fantasy series?

My daughter, Holly, who is a fellow fantasy fan, has just pointed me at Paste Magazine‘s list of “The 30 Best Fantasy Book Series of All Time”.

I am currently reading Holly’s Christmas present to me: Joe Abercrombie’s “First Law” trilogy. I am on the final book and thoroughly enjoying the characterisation and each PoV’s distinctive “voice” so am pleased to see this is deservedly on the list. If you have not read it yet – it is strongly recommended.

Looking at the rest of the list, it is good to see Ursula Le Guin’s “Earthsea cycle” on there, as well as Anne McCaffery’s “Dragonriders of Pern” (long a personal favourite) and Robin Hobb’s “Realm of the Elderlings” (which I discovered and enjoyed last year) alongside the expected entries such as LOTR, Harry Potter and Discworld.

I am more ambiguous about George RR Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” now. I really enjoyed the first three books but by the fifth never found the energy to finish it as it seemed too sprawling and, by leaving out half the parallel story lines, I missed some of the more interesting characters.

There were some series I would not have included (such as “Narnia” and “Thomas Covenant” in particular) but these lists are always about personal choices and not everyone’s taste is the same.

The really good thing about such a list is that it also showed a number of series I have thought about reading but have yet to delve into (Stephen King’s “Dark Tower”, Brandon Sanderson’s “Mistborn”, Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time”, Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files”) and it is difficult to decide where to start!

Then there are those I have no sense of yet… “The Gentleman Bastard Sequence” by Scott Lynch caught my eye, as did “The Kingkiller Chronicle” by Patrick Rothfuss, “Malazan Book of the Fallen” by Steven Erikson and “The Night Angel Trilogy” by Brent Weeks.

Then there’s a decision as to whether I try yet another Arthurian cycle with Stephen R. Lawhead’s “The Pendragon Cycle”. I really enjoyed Arthurian works when I was much younger but felt I had overdosed on them and have not sought them out for many a year yet this series gets a good recommendation.

Help! Any advice on priorities? Any opinions on what you think are best?

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An author’s perspective on Amazon’s book stores

Since my previous post on the implications of Amazon opening physical book shops, the Guardian has published an opinion piece by thriller writer Lee Child on why he thinks this is a bad idea: Lee Child on Amazon’s real-life bookshops – and why we should be worried.

Apart from the implications for publishers and print books, he also weighs in on the terms and conditions Amazon imposes (and subsequently adversely changes) for writers following the indie publishing route.

Some good and interesting arguments against an Amazon monopoly.

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Susan Sontag on Storytelling

Another article on writing and reading. This time Susan Sontag on Storytelling which has some very useful insights from one of her last public appearances — a lecture on South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer delivered shortly before Sontag’s death in 2004.

As well as looking at the difference between telling a story and imparting information or the writer’s role in deciding whhich of many stories to tell, the part of the article that really spoke to me was a quote of Sontag’s definition of what a writer does and is:

Every writer of fiction wants to tell many stories, but we know that we can’t tell all the stories — certainly not simultaneously. We know we must pick one story, well, one central story; we have to be selective. The art of the writer is to find as much as one can in that story, in that sequence … in that time (the timeline of the story), in that space (the concrete geography of the story).
[…]
A novelist, then, is someone who takes you on a journey. Through space. Through time. A novelist leads the reader over a gap, makes something go where it was not.
[…]
Time exists in order that everything doesn’t happen all at once … and space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.
[…]
The work of the novelist is to enliven time, as it is to animate space.

Thought-provoking and well worth taking the time to read and absorb.

Hat-tip to Jan Whitaker on OWW SFF Writing Forum for drawing my attention to it.

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David Langford’s “Ansible” – an essential SF news resource

I have always had a soft spot for David Langford’s “Ansible”, which I receive by email and read avidly at the start of each month. It combines SF news, some market information and convention details with a bundle of useful links and plenty of good humour.

While produced in and focused on the UK SF scene, it also holds its own internationally. If you have not checked it out, look at the Ansible web site or take a look at the latest issue (February 2013) number 307

It was through reading the awards section of an Ansible in 2006, I found out the Britsh Fantasy Society had given a “founders award” to the the four of us who set up the BFS back in 1971. A very pleasant surprise for me, sitting as I was in rural France. It led also to my reestablishing contact with the BFS.

That reminds me, I still owe Dave a beer for that!

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eReader snoopers: Is Big Brother on your Kindle or iPad?

Every now and again, I come across a website I just keep wanting to revisit. Dennis Baron’s The Web of Language is one, full of fascinating information on the use of language and technology.

One particular article has caught my eye: the e-reader over your shoulder.

I dislike the idea that my reading habits are monitored, assessed and sold. Yet that is the trade-off I entered into when I started using a Kindle (and the same goes for Apple products too). As Baron comments:

Kindles and iPads track what we read and when, record our bookmarks and annotations, remind us what we searched for last, and suggest other titles we may like. They collect our personal reading data in the name of improving… our digital reading experience, and along the way they may sell the metric of how and what and when we read and use it to improve the company’s bottom line as well. … CCTV may monitor our comings and goings from the outside, but e-readers have spyware that actually looks inside our heads. And e-books provide the ultimate interactive experience: they read us while we are reading them.

The whole article is well worth a read, running from teachers being able to monitor student study patterns, through Amazon and Apple selling your reading habits through to the implications of DRM and the fact that one never “buys” but “rents” through their stores.

It makes uncomfortable reading.

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Ever fallen asleep over your favourite book?

I am an avid reader. SF, fantasy, crime, thrillers and a wide range of non-fiction are devoured when I have the time and opportunity. Trying to write a novel, time is at a premium. I tend to read now at the end of the day and, as a consequence, members of my family have often found me fast asleep, glasses on and, frequently, book still upright in my hand. The general conclusion is that this is a sad state of affairs.

Thus, I was pleased to note that another member of our household also falls asleep over his favourite book…
Max favourite bedtime reading

Max is the senior of our seven cats, the only one to have emigrated from England to France. All our cats (and the dog) are eccentric in their own way – which means they fit in perfectly in our household.

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Review: “Bruno: Chief of Police” by Martin Walker

This novel, the first of a series, is set in the Dordogne area of South west France, the next major river valley north of where my family lives. The book itself was recommended to me by a local English friend and I had been hoping to find a great new series to read, based in an area I know well.

The first book in the series is only £1.80 for a Kindle download from Amazon so it was a good way to sample without splashing £7 on a paperback. I was even able to start reading on the Sunday it was recommended to me, deep in South West France. The internet is a wonderful tool for instant gratification.

To the story, which I went to read WANTING to like, yet I came away disappointed.

Probably the most important thing in a crime novel is the plot, and this works so I was able to read this through to the end. It is the story of a typical sleeping rural town, where there is a murder that appears to be a hate crime. Of course, nothing is that simple and the investigation unfolds down through a number of twists and turns, relatively conventional but to a clear conclusion.

Martin Walker, a Guardian journalist, lives part of the year in the Dordogne so I assumed the research and setting would be up to scratch. It is, but in a way that makes it one of two weaknesses of the novel; the other being the characterisation. Had I not known that Walker had published a previous novel I would have assumed this is a first novel, with the associated faults and weaknesses.

The two main problems go hand in hand. The best way I can describe them is to say this story is “murder in ‘A Year In Provence'”. There are lots of colourful French characters but they verge on or move into caricature. Most irritating is the new head of the Gendamerie for the Commune, who does not develop and is merely there to be a persistent hurdle the protagonist, Bruno Courrèges, must overcome at every step of the investigation. I did like Bruno, Chief of Police because he is the only local policeman in the town, but most of the villagers who appear as characters were two-dimensional.

The setting itself is a typical rural town in the area but rather than letting it unfold naturally, with French terminology the reader can look up if they don’t recognise it, every time a new term is introduced it is explained, interrupting the flow and making it feel like one is reading a travel guide not a novel.

It is true I have an advantage over many readers in that I am familiar with the local structures and political complexities and rivalries between the various police forces in France but many of the target audience could have a passing knowledge from news and holidays in France. Description and information should not be at the cost of the flow of the story and to the level where it is intrusive and irritating.

Another irritant was the black-and-white antipathy of the villagers to Government bureaucracy in Paris and Brussels. It felt like we were being treated to the author’s prejudices rather than a rounded view. After all, the rural farmers expressing their ire are the same French small farmers who do so very nicely out of the EU agricultural support mechanisms – yet that never had a mention. The few English characters, well-to-do and single – one becomes the ‘love interest’, seem to be there more for an English audience than because they serve a really necessary part of the story.

So, all in all, disappointing. A rating of 3 out of 5 – I finished it. But with the rest of the series all being over a fiver on Kindle download I will not be investing in more of the series. A shame because, as I said, I really wanted to like this.

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Discovering new authors with Kindle: Jilly Paddock

One objective in acquiring a Kindle was to try to broaden my reading, finding new authors or tracking down hard-to-find or out-of-print titles. While I feel the latter objective has not been met (my first experiment – and failure – was based on assuming that all of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series would be easy to find and download from Amazon!)

I have subscribed to magazines that are difficult to find in UK and downright impossible when living in rural France unless one signs up for a late-arriving postal subscription. Since obtaining my Kindle at Christmas I have been enjoying Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld and Lightspeed – all with free trial and reasonable subscription rates.

I have also discovered my first author totally new to me, but one whose work I will look out for in the future: Jilly Paddock. I downloaded two of her stories when they were on a promotion through Amazon (another benefit of the Kindle is the chance to experiment at no or low cost).

First I read “The Spook and the Spirit in the Stone” – this is a combination of SF setting on a colonised world and police procedural around the kidnapping of the 9-year-old daughter of an Earth diplomat. The story is told from the PoV of a local detective, Jerome, not entirely human and just reassigned from Fraud to Homicide division to work with Afton, a difficult to work with detective inspector. The characterisation, particularly the relationship between Jerome and Afton and Jerome and the kidnapped girl, work very well. Add into the mix an extremely unpleasant kidnapper and equally unpleasant Terran agent with psy-powers (the spook of the title) plus a nasty underground guardian (the spirit, a near-fantasy element) and what sounds like quite a mish-mash of genres actually works remarkably well. The story moves briskly and with good touches of humour to leaven the, at times, distressing tale of the kidnapping of young girls. I would estimate this is novella length and I believe (and hope) this is the first of a series of “Jerome & Afton” stories. I will certainly be looking out for more.

The second Kindle story by Jilly Paddock is quite different. “No Earthly Shore” is set on a colony world, Calvados, where some 30 years after arrival, there are indications that one of the local life-forms, the invertebrate “sea-quilt”, may be sentient if the report by 12-year-old Boadicea Nantucket is true. Junior member of the verification team from Earth, marine biologist Dr. Zuzana Aaron-Jones, suspects that her colleagues want to come up with a negative result in order not to impact a fruitful colony. The leaders of the team, Major Burgoyne and Dr Moya Kent, border on stereotype characters, impeding Zuzi as she tries to communicate with and understand the squilts. However, the main human characters, Zuzi, her new-found colleague, Mooney – who has an ill-defined mission role – and Boodie. are well drawn but the stars of the story are the squilts, particularly “Drunkard’s Path”, who are a delightful invention. The story is told with humour and humanity (in its broadest sense) – what does it mean to be sentient? I’ll not spoil the story by giving more of the plot away – it is well worth reading.

Both Jilly’s stories are available on Amazon for 77p each – good value as both would hold their own on the pages of either Asimov’s or Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine and demonstrates to me the new market opportunities opening up for good authors through e-readers.

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Kindle & the new way to read

Received my new Kindle for Christmas.  While I like physically handling books it does seem to be an incredibly easy way to read… and to obtain books and magazines.  There I was, in rural South West France at 11pm on Christmas Day, able to download three out-of-print books written by a friend of my wife and also obtain the current issue of Asimov’s SF magazine on a 14-day free trial. Wow! I had been impressed with Amazon book delivery yet this was instant satisfaction, no waiting.

I will still want to collect books, especially first editions by authors I like (such as Iain Banks and Christopher Priest), yet for casual reading this appears to be the way of the future.  The only problem? Getting the Kindle back from the rest of my family!

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