A PAIR OF ANTHOLOGIES BY ANY OTHER NAME, by Alex Bardy (@mangozoid)

 

I am not by nature, much of an anthology fan – I find it hard-going to keep up with all the novels and novellas I really want to read, without resorting to reading several smaller stories compiled into one bumper collection, some of which may or may not be particularly good. This, I guess, is a common predicament for many readers, so it’s with a mix of sadness and delight that I can categorically say that both these anthologies have gone a long way toward my conversion into a more accepting and less discriminatory reader. Bravo to the pair of them, and bang goes all hope of me trying to catch up with my “Really Want to Read” list anytime soon... Bah, humbug!

 

DEAD MAN’S HAND

Edited by John Joseph Adams

Titan Books, 409pp large format softback, £8.99 cover price

DMH

Dead Man’s Hand is edited by John Joseph Adams, and dubbed a “Weird West” anthology themed around the classic American Old West, complete with all the terror and heartache associated with such turbulent times, especially if you happen to have a soft spot for the humble horse and/or those regularly involved in the odd Cowboy/Indian shootout at whatever Corral is flavour of the week on any given day!

 

Over the last few years, I’ve been convinced there’s a big gap in the market where cross-genre Westerns with a supernatural, fantasy and/or science-fiction bent should be sitting (in a similar vein to Defiance and the tragically short-lived Firefly TV series for example), and this anthology serves as a reminder there is a whole vista of endless possibilities surely going begging in this particular market? Interestingly (to me), the graphic novel/comics scene doesn’t suffer quite as much on this front, with titles like Jonah Hex, Rawhide Kid, Caliber, Wyatt Earp and Preacher among others all familiar to fans of this medium – these are still perhaps not “funky” enough to be considered “Weird West” (granted, some of the stories can be, though!), but nonetheless show that it’s a market that still has its fans. Walking Dead is arguably a “modern” western, but that’s an altogether different story, I suspect.

 

Featuring great work and a sparkling roll call of genre authors, there are some fabulous tales to be found herein – of alien gold fever, dodgy playing cards, clockwork gunslingers, and reanimated corpses among others. And despite a distinct “steampunk”-ish feel running through a number of the stories, they are all definitively set in the traditional “Wild West”, showing a marked variety in both theme and tone...

 

Rather than trawl through every story and commenting on each, I’d like to mention a handful that really stood out for me, while still offering an inkling as to how varied the content is, sooo...

 

Joe R Lansdale’s “The Red-Headed Dead” sees the classic return of his Reverend Mercer character in another supernatural battle with evil, and kicks off this collection in fine style, while “Second Hand” by Rajan Khanna takes the concept of a deck of cards and throws a whole new meaning of “dangerous death-dealing” at it...

 

“Hellfire on the High Frontier” by David Farland, “Strong Medicine” by Tad Williams and “Red Dreams” by Jonathan Maberry all play on the trope of an artificial gunslinger finding its place in the Wild West, yet all of these tales approach it from wildly differing angles, with Farland’s “Hellfire...” leaning particularly heavy on the concept of the new age supplanting the old, as it were...

 

“The Man with No Heart” by Beth Revis and “The Old Slow Man and his Gold Gun from Space” by Ben H. Winters both run with the idea of travellers from another world in a Wild West setting, with the latter sporting a particularly amusing take on the concept.

 

“The Hell-Bound Stagecoach” by Mike Resnick is another of the more light-hearted in this collection, and somewhat far away from the tale you’d be forgiven for expecting, given the title.

 

With names like Orson Scott Card, Walter Jon Williams, Elizabeth Bear, Alan Dean Foster, Alastair Reynolds, Tad Williams, and Christie Yant also among the contributor list – none of which I suspect will be lost on many BSFA members – this really is an excellent showcase of their work and adaptability.

 

FANTASY- FACTION ANTHOLOGY

Edited by Marc Aplin & Jennie Ivins

Fantasy-Faction Publishing, 313pp standard paperback,
available direct from the fantasy-faction.com website as paperback or ebook from £7.00

FFA

In stark contrast to Dead Man’s Hand and the Weird West, I suspect there is no real shortage of fantasy anthologies nowadays. Alas, many are on a set theme, be it Magic, Wizards, Dragons, Zombie Elf Demons, etc. so it came as a very pleasant surprise that the standout thing about the Fantasy-Faction Anthology – for me at least – is the fact that it also carries Non-fiction. That’s right, and you did read that correctly, this also has several Non-fiction essays in it; and frankly, they’re a delightful addition to an already great collection. I’ll talk more about that a little later.

 

Although this anthology can be considered very much a new kid on the block for fantasy fans, the website itself, www.fantasy-faction.com, has been around since 2010 (and seen over 3m visitors up until mid-2014 apparently – I suspect it’s a lot more nowadays as there’s some cracking stuff on there). One can hardly say this first anthology was rushed, either – Marc Aplin, one of the co-editors for this and also the “ff” website founder, thought it a good idea to open this anthology up to all his website visitors with an ambitiously generic “just write fantasy” caveat... 1700 submissions and two years later, and this is the result – but my, what a wonderful little package they’ve put together!

d1 d2 d3

 

This is a stirring collection and a marvellous volume in its own right, but as mentioned above, is made all the more entertaining because the stories are interspersed with non-fiction pieces. I’d like to stay on this point as I think it’s one worth celebrating. Those of you with older heads and greying hair may well recall that back in the late 70s there was a paperback magazine published by Ace Books called Destinies, edited by James Baen – this carried a number of fabulous science fiction tales by the likes of Larry Niven, Poul Anderson, Joe Haldeman, Gregory Benford and many other genre stalwarts (it did tend to be an “all-male party” back then, so I apologise in advance: that’s a different topic entirely)... but crucially, also featured articles dubbed “Speculative Fact” (later “Science Fact”) from Jerry Pournelle, Charles Sheffield, Frederik Pohl, and a number of other “science writers”. Similar magazines were around, but Destinies and the revised New Destinies were among the most prominent here in the UK if memory serves (and it doesn’t always, so forgive me if I’ve got that wrong).

 

Anyway, returning to the Fantasy-Faction Anthology and the non-fiction to be found therein, we have Richard Morgan to thank for “Killing the Magic (And Putting it in a Box)” which effectively tells all you naysayers and “fantasy realism” buffs where to park your troublesome thoughts on the so-called authenticity (and otherwise) of fantasy fiction. In stark contrast to this, we have both Anne Lyle and Kameron Hurley writing about bringing some consistency to your fantasy worlds, the former in a well-informed piece about “Historical Research for Fantasy Writers” and the latter discussing the thorny topic of “Creating Better Fantasy Economies: Who Does All The Work?” On a more light-hearted note, James Barclay covers “The Preservation and Evolution of Elves” with his usual wit and candour, while Mark Charan Newton writes a piece entitled “Advice I”d Give My Younger Self” that really does speak to the writer in us all.

 

So that’s the non-fiction well covered, so what about the fiction?

 

There were many standouts for me, but Mark Lawrence’s “The Dream-Taker’s Apprentice” and Richard Ford’s “The Halfwyrd’s Burden” both struck me as simply “Fantasy done right”, whilst “The House on the Old Cliffs” by Adrian Tchaikovsky, “Misericordia” by Rene Sears and “The Dealer” by Miah Sonnel all took the generic fantasy setting and made good with it in a twisty, gnarly “let’s shake things up a bit” way. Lastly, both “The Unsung” by Jessalyn Heaton and John Yeo Jr.’s “Overdue” remain touching and poignant tales that lingered in the mind for a good while after I read them.

 

In summary, a lovely collection of both fiction and non-fiction, and a very high bar with which to set the standard of future volumes to come... And I know there’ll be more to follow, but at least Marc has agreed to draft in some extra help for the next one, to ensure it doesn’t take quite so long to compile. I wish him and the rest of the fantasy-faction.com team the very best of luck in maintaining this kind of quality and consistency, however, because I suspect they’re going to need it. Highly recommended.

 

 

THE ART OF JIM BURNS: HYPERLUMINAL

THE ART OF JIM BURNS: HYPERLUMINAL

Foreword by Joe Haldeman

Titan Books (2014), 160pp h/back, £24.99

 Hyperluminal_cover

An exclusive preview by Alex Bardy

 

 

My relationship with the art of Jim Burns goes back a very long way, over 30 years now. At the time I had just discovered a world of fantasy and science fiction through our school librarian, and still remember rushing home on a London bus having just picked up Raymond E Feist’s Magician and the first two volumes of David Eddings’ Belgariad books from a cramped treasure chest called Forbidden Planet in Denmark Street, my mind full to bursting with all the amazing covers and artwork I’d just been exposed to while dawdling around in a zombified state of blissful ignorance and wondrous abandonment. Shortly thereafter I also came across an insignificant library book called The Majipoor Chronicles and subsequently discovered a whole world of roleplaying games, Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks, and a boxed boardgame called Battle Cars by a company called Games Workshop... And that’s when I became smitten, so much so that I bought my first ever art book when I next visited that shop, the book was called Lightship and featured some of the most amazing images I’d hitherto ever seen — the stunning artwork therein subsequently forming the basis of so many home-brew roleplaying scenarios, story ideas, and yes, more than a handful of crazy boyhood dreams, too (Jim’s aliens were always sexy!). The rest as they say, is history...

 

Roll on a few years later and the fanboy in me attended Conspiracy ’87 in Brighton, knowing full well that Jim Burns was the artist guest of honour, and bursting with confidence that interviewing the great man himself would simply be the ‘best thing evah’... I still recall trudging upstairs every day with my Philips tape-recorder in tow —just a bit bigger than the Wii game console is today— to the gob-smackingly massive art gallery where Jim’s work dominated fully half the floor, and still remember all too clearly that whenever I tried to nab even five minutes with this awesome artist hero of mine, he was either too busy or just about to head off to a panel, or had to be somewhere else, or half a dozen other things were going on at the time just to spite my efforts. All of which meant I never did get that damned interview, and the friends I went along with spent most of the weekend mocking me because they knew I’d wasted most of it chasing a ghost while they’d been doing all sorts of mega-exciting fun things like meeting authors and listening to panel discussions, etc. A conspiracy, indeed, then...

Jim_Burns_The Reality Dysfuntion

Fast forward to the present and imagine my delight when Titan offered me the chance to preview a new and altogether staggeringly gorgeous Jim Burns art book almost thirty years since that young dreamer first found himself agape in that shoebox paradise shop in Denmark Street...

 

Due for release on Thurs 14th August at LonCON, one of the biggest World Science Fiction Conventions ever to hit the UK, and covering the man’s earliest memories of scribbling what he callS “identifiable ‘somethings’”, The Art of Jim Burns: Hyperluminal talks about his childhood love of machines (the look of them rather than how they work), his discovery of great comic artists, and too Frank Hampson’s Dan Dare, a character that can probably be said to have defined the artist’s future even way back then.

Karl and the Ogre

With thoughts of Dan Dare fresh in his head, Jim Burns joined the RAF and trained as a pilot because he believed he’d get a chance to fly spaceships when Britain eventually made it into the big black void... this apparently never happened. Nowadays it’s too easy to point and laugh at the folly of this, moreso when we learn that he dropped out of the RAF the same time Britain dropped out of ‘The Space Race’, opting to go to Art College instead... But of course, Jim Burns has been flying through the universe ever since, visiting different worlds, introduced to alien cultures, exploring new vistas of dimensional space and discovering weird and ancient artefacts along the way. What’s more, he’s documented and recorded it all for the rest of us, and in such painstakingly drop-dead gorgeous detail that we really cannot complain — if a picture’s worth a thousand words, Jim’s are worth at least twice as much — and on that basis he’s already written several million volumes, and given the world a body of work that is frankly, mind-blowing.

The Reality Dysfunction (Night's Dawn 1)

Being taken on by the Young Artists agency in his last year of college, Jim Burns found paid work from the get-go, and has been lost in the joys of creativity ever since. Reading between the lines as the highly acclaimed artist recounts his life and work and the many commissions he’s had (both private and commercial), it’s clear that he’s grateful every day to be where he is, having turned an obsessional hobby into a life-long career and feels both incredibly fortunate and very humbled by where it’s brought him today: multiple awards, high acclaim, and a much sought after collector’s market for his art.

Other Edens 3

As for the book itself and the images therein, it’s a large format hardback and features a stunning collection of 300+ carefully chosen and iconic works from Jim’s vast array of book covers, concept sketches, and many never-before published personal commissions. There’s a foreword by Joe Haldeman, but the rest is all Jim Burns, and other than the occasional lapse and regret that his fantasy output isn’t quite as much as his science-fiction work, it’s clear that the boundaries have become somewhat blurred over the years and Jim seems all the happier for it.

The Naked God (Night's Dawn 3)

In conclusion, my only quibble is the lack of an Index, especially since every piece of work is named and dated by year. This proved a tad frustrating when both Joe and Jim referenced work within the book that I then had to fish around for, but this decision was no doubt made in order to feature a few more pages of art instead, and that is after all, why one purchases such a beautiful art book in the first place... And it’s a wonderful collection, make no bones about it — if you recognise the value of a good book cover, or just love your art without pretension, you will pore over every one of these and dream of faraway lands and exotic worlds, and you’ll be thankful that Jim Burns has done all that travelling just for you...

'Wanderers'

Jim Burns will be signing his new book at the gala opening of the Art Show  at Loncon3, this Thursday 14th August at 4.30pm, sponsored by Titan Books. 

 

Event Horizon Convention by Peter Ray Allison

Event Horizon, Derby, 28th April 2013

Derby is quickly gaining a name for itself as a viable location for conventions, usurping other contenders to the throne such as Birmingham and Leicester.  Following in the footsteps of Alt.Fiction and Edge-Lit at Quad (which in itself hosts a barrage of events and conventions of interest to genre fans), Event Horizon is the latest convention to open in what is the most haunted city in England.

Prior to attending Event Horizon, my initial preconceptions of the convention were not promising.  Promoted through an extensive Facebook campaign, plus a barely-used Twitter account, the lack of a formal website left me wondering just how reliable the convention promised to be.  Offsetting my concerns was the long list of attendees that included – amongst many others - the lovely Virginia Hey (Zhaan of Farscape and Warrior Woman from Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior).

Unlike the dedicated literary conventions of Edge-Lit and Alt.Fiction, Event Horizon had a much more multi-media approach.  However, this did not stop there being a strong author presence, in the form of Sarah Pinborough, Paul Kane and Marie O’Reagan, all of whom gave an engrossing talk on the subject of horror writing, as well as being happy to sign their latest books and chat with fans.

As well as authors, there were (what do you call a group of actors?) actors and actresses in the main area.  Barring a few more noted genre actors, the actors that had been assembled were gathered from the iconic films and television series’ of yesteryear.

In some ways, Event Horizon tried to blend all aspects of different types of sci-fi conventions.  Alongside the authors and actors, there was also a strong trader presence, from both local and national sellers, offering a truly diverse selection for genre-shopping, from books and comics to miniatures and collectibles.

There was small presence of costumers (including one dressed as an Imperial Officer from Star Wars, who saluted my light-sabre wielding daughter), and children were more than welcome, with under-ten’s admitted free of charge and offered their own separate gift bag.  Rusty Goffe was especially friendly, taking the time to chat with young and old alike, and my daughter charmed the authors after carefully bringing them a drink.

Whilst the venue was well laid out and made for impressive surroundings, the bar offered a limited food menu (hamburger, hotdog, chip butty, or chips!).  Similarly, the lack of any ATM within the convention (at least that I could find) made trying to find some extra cash for signings difficult.

As a first time event by the organisers, Event Horizon was a fun day.  Certainly my daughter and I both left having both had a great time.  I hope that the - yet to be confirmed - next Event Horizon in 2014 will now have the reputation and acumen to invite a stronger presence of genre actor, authors and publishers for what should to be an excellent event.

Book Review: Redshirts – John Scalzi

Disclaimer - the below review contains spoilers so if you're thinking of reading this fantastic novel, go ahead and read it; don't let this review ruin it for you.

John Scalzi is an author that has intrigued me for some time. His blog is a welter of diverse and interesting posts and his novels often mix up ideas and scenarios that result in brilliant stories. Enter Redshirts.

The book starts out with us meeting the main protagonists who, it doesn’t take long to work out, are the type of extras in a sci-fi series that we all recognise. They are the guys that get killed in strangely inventive but slightly clichéd ways; they are the ubiquitous redshirt of Star Trek, the character that is introduced at the beginning of an episode and given just enough lines for you to take seriously before he/she is unceremoniously killed for purposes of plot. The parody is well handled by Scalzi and skilfully written never turning into full-blown absurdity but playing with tropes just enough to set the pace of the book.

*Spoiler Alert*

But, once settled into what appears to be a satirical look at bad space faring TV shows the book takes a very interesting turn. The protagonist Andrew Dahl and his cohorts soon become aware that they are mere extras in some strange fictional world and that they are being manipulated by ‘The Narrative’. Before long they work out that life on their space ship 'The Intrepid' is far more dangerous should you be either a) on decks 6-12 during any kind of battle, b) be on an away team to another planet/spaceship or c) standing next to the captain, doctor, chief engineer or some such other ‘main’ character type when anything happens. Faced with this knowledge Dahl and his friends work out that they are on a show called The Chronicles of the Intrepid and begin to use the fictional world to their advantage, travelling back in time through a black hole to move from their fictional world to the real world where they are written.

As the novel progresses the meta-fiction that Scalzi has created begins to ask some very interesting questions. Dahl begins to question notions of free will, individual existence and what reality really means whilst the awareness of realising that it could all be fiction slowly takes its toll. At the heart of the novel remains an intriguing and well crafted adventure story full of wonderfully realised characters (extras) and set across alternative universes (meta-fictions). The book is a fast and fun read, punctuated with dark humour and driven by a great plot full of ideas. Whilst the post-modern, self-awareness of the parody is great the book is more about the characters and their stories – all of them, even the extras. At the end of the book, Scalzi writes three Codas, each featuring characters peripheral to the main ‘redshirt’ action. All of them deal with some very poignant ideas, not least the last which I challenge you not to be moved by.

Once again John Scalzi has written a novel that surprises and entertains but that also sticks with you long after you’ve finished reading it. Well recommended in my humble opinion.

Book Review: The Cold Commands – Richard K. Morgan

I am a little late to the party reviewing Richard K Morgan’s Cold Commands, the second in his ‘A Land Fit for Heroes’ series but I found the book so intriguing and the writing so well crafted that I thought a straggler wouldn’t be turned away..

The book, once again, centres around the main characters of Ringil Eskiath, Egar Dragonbane and Lady kir-Archeth Indamaninarma, three characters who neatly drive the three entwining aspects of the story. Ringil’s involvement with the dwenda, a dark and strange elder race who deal in magic and myth, brings to the fore the conflict left over from The Steel Remains. Egar’s boredom with living in the city spurs him into a strange adventure that results in the uncovering of the dwenda’s interference amongst the religious of Yhelteth whilst Archeth, still juggling her position in the royal court, attempts to make sense of the arrival of a new Helmsman, a type of AI that resides in alien technology. The strands of the story are beautifully spun together by Morgan. The three characters are eventually reunited as events draw them together in a fascinating web of action and mystery which, at its centre, cleverly sets things up for the final book The Dark Defiles.

What Morgan achieves is to blend a number of amazing and thrilling factors into one intense fantasy trilogy. We have an anti-hero in every sense of the term in Ringil, the homosexual, warrior warlock who has become twisted and changed by his dealings in the ‘gray places’ of the novel’s alternative and magical reality. We have Egar, a horse-tribe barbarian who is growing old and is beginning to use his brain before his brawn. And then we have Archeth, a half-human half-alien who was left behind when the Kiriath, her father’s people, left the planet hundreds of years before. The trilogy of tropes introduced by the trio of characters is wonderful. Magic and swords mix with science fiction and technology building a world with a rich and highly imagined history.

Each of Morgan’s actors has evolved since the end of The Steel Remains, changed by circumstance and age and the story reflects that. The individual attitude of Morgan’s players (and their actions) reveals characters that are all too human. Dealing within a society divided along political and religious lines, Archeth is constantly confronted by her own past as she tries to help the current emperor rule his lands fairly, constantly conflicted by her need to help her friends. Egar, now Archeth’s bodyguard, finds himself in the middle of a growing plot due to his own boredom and though he has grown wiser with age he is not so wise as to avoid getting into some serious situations – ones that require Ringil and Archeth to intervene – but which also uncover a sinister plot. Ringil, now an outlaw bent on destroying the slave trade, is the most affected of the bunch. Twisted by the events in The Steel Remains, and changed by his constant slipping between reality and the gray places, he has begun to master its magic, altering him even further. Whilst Archeth’s mission revolves around trying to make sense of the Helmsman and their cryptic messages, Ringil must once again face the dwenda if he is to save Egar from execution.

With such strong and deftly rendered characters leading the story along, The Cold Commands is an intense and gripping roller coaster of a novel. Morgan’s writing is gritty and realistic, never flinching from the grimy truth of the characters and world he has created. The braiding of each storyline into one is beautifully handled and in no way contrived and the wonderfully constructed races and realities Morgan has crafted are stunning. The Kiriath and their strange, alien technology, their immortality and helmsman is at odds with the brutal blood and guts of Yelteth whilst the godlike dwenda and their magic is a dark force that changes everything it touches. A muti-layered, multi-charactered mountain of a novel, Morgan has produced something that both affirms and subverts what fantasy writing is. I, for one, cannot wait for the next novel.