I know that as a writer I’m supposed to be a constant cheerleader for books and literacy and libraries, but there’s a part of me that always kicks against that sort of thing. I’m always quite self-conscious that there’s a great degree of self interest in these things, the pinch of salt that should be taken when someone advocates for the industry they work in. Of course we want you to buy and borrow our books, and those of our friends, who may notice the attention and reflect it back our way.
That might be a bit cynical. But that’s the other thing – the more time I spend writing and working with words, the more anything connected to them begins to feel like part of the work-grind. It can be hard to capture an upbeat readerly enthusiasm after staring blankly at a word processor all day.
Which isn’t terribly healthy unless you want to slide into a Marenghi-esque state of writing more books than you read, so I’ve been trying to find time to get away from screens and read more, including taking a month off to do some reading after my last big deadline.
These are the last seven books I read. You can probably guess the last one:
Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky
Post-apocalyptic Russian SF, apparently originally written online by a young author. There’s a certain looseness indicative of the book’s origins as a rambling web-screed, oddities and dead ends in the plot, but for the most part, either through sheer talent or the work of editors and translators to bash the original text into shape, the end product really feels like a coherent novel. It’s the kind of world-building I’m a sucker for, a densely imagined world of warring factions in the tunnels beneath a devastated Moscow, and the weird mystical and philosophical elements push the book outside of the genre comfort zone of resource banditry and radiation counters.
Years ago when I reviewed the game of the same name, I said I’d probably prefer to read the book, so never let it be said that I don’t occasionally follow through on my intentions. I also picked up the sequel, Metro 2034, recently, which is an indication of how much I enjoyed this initial outing.
Don’t Point That Thing At Me by Kyril Bonfiglioli
Remember Mortdecai, the Jonny Depp movie that was last year’s first big Box Office disaster, and was promptly dumped on Netflix by the autumn? Well, it’s existence prompted me to pick up the first novel the film was based on, just out of sheer perverse fascination, and it’s actually a very entertaining read, with caveats.
(I actually liked the film too, but that’s another story.)
Charlie Mortdecai and Jock are essentially a corrupted Bertie Wooster and Jeeves bouncing from disaster to disaster in a world of thuggish cops and elaborate art world cons, and how you react to their exploits depends very much on how you react to the louche, seedy tone of Charlie’s narration. Bonfiglioli is clearly riffing on Wodehouse, and there’s a similar humour but also callousness, crudity, brutality and plenty to offend. They’re a product of their age, and while that means some of the words and sentiments within can be distasteful, it also means the book is blissfully short and well-paced, a welcome alternative to bloated modern thrillers. Nasty fun, and yet again another series where I’ve picked up the next instalment.
Tomorrow Never Knows by Eddie Robson
Eddie’s a good friend of mine and sent me a copy of his first novel, so don’t consider this a review because I’m completely biased. Suffice to say this is exactly in my wheelhouse, SF that’s strong on character and worldbuilding that builds everyday lives and environments rather than focusing on the military or other crusading outliers. There’s more than a touch of Douglas Coupland in the way Eddie’s mostly young, disaffected characters intersect and go about their business, and a similar lightness of touch to the prose. Tomorrow Never Knows is an easy read but an intelligent one, and as the plotlines come together towards the end it develops a real page-turning momentum.
But don’t trust me on that.
Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto
Speaking of lightness, Banana Yoshimoto writes about heavy emotions with a lightness that I always enjoy and appreciate. Her stories are often about grief or loneliness but are never depressing, instead gracefully moving from one perfectly made observation to the next. As with the other books of Yoshimoto’s I’ve read, the plot here is a whole lot of domestic nothing, a young woman reaching towards adulthood, moving away from the seaside town in which she was raised then going back for one last summer. There’s a sick relative, some economic uncertainty, arrivals and departures. What matters here is the lead protagonist’s thoughtful inner life and observations on her family and friends, and the pleasant melancholy of time passing and being aware of it. Don’t worry about finding this novel in particular, just look for Yoshimoto’s work and pick up the first one you see. They’re all very good.
The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Now a TV series on SyFy, though it hasn’t turned up in the UK yet. In terms of high concept pitches, this is basically Harry Potter in the style of Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ with a big dose of Narnia and a dash of Alex Garland’s ‘The Beach’. Focus in on those first two and there’s a high concept to die for, a school for magicians in upstate New York inhabited by the kind of laidback aesthetes that made Tartt’s campus thriller such an infuriatingly compulsive read, although Grossman’s characters are nowhere near as vile or snobbish – there’s no central crime here, and outsider Quentin Coldwater is welcomed into the magical academic community without any need for pretending he’s higher born than he is. Threats come from within and without, and Grossman is strong on both the logic of the magical world, and the more epic and whimsical fantasy that kicks off later on in the book. Really entertaining stuff and I can see why it got picked up for TV. Someone tell me when it’s on.
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick
Another TV related pick. I’ve only seen the pilot of the Amazon series, but I wanted to read the novel before embarking on the rest. I’ve never read Dick, only knowing him from the films of his work and his reputation. While this 1963 novel has some moments of disorienting trippiness as characters lose their grip – the kind of stuff I expected from the movies of ‘A Scanner Darkly’ etc – it wasn’t really these head-messing moments that impressed me so much as the detailed social interactions and internal responses of characters living in a world where, thanks to the Axis powers winning the second world war, racism in its various forms is the global, respectable norm and informs everything, corrupting every thought. It’s a brilliantly envisioned world, and one which has one of the best examples of Chekhov’s Gun I’ve read.
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
Finally, last year’s Booker winner, and a birthday present that I tore through in a month, its 700 pages passing by swiftly. The most serious and heaviest – in all senses – of the books I’ve listed here, James’ novel covers twenty five years of Jamaican crime at home and, later, abroad. Most of the characters are heavily fictionalised which allows James’ imagination to cut loose in their voices, with chapters of dense inner monologue and flowing dialogue from a large cast of characters. These voices are strong and diverse, and the differences between them and their changes over time are indicated by complex and subtle uses of slang and grammar.
Quotes on the cover compare the book to Tarantino but the 90s cult figure James reminded me more was Irvine Welsh – there’s a similar willingness to dive into the confused mindsets and precise diction of troubled, often addled characters, and James digs deep where Tarantino would show off. The exploration of poverty and crime reminded me of ‘City of God’, that sense of lightly skipping back and forth through history, the combination of wit and horror, with characters who can dole out both. Where James rises above all these comparisons is that, while he sympathises for all his characters, he doesn’t mythologise their crimes and vices above all else. Ultimately it’s the consequences and trauma caused by crime and violence that linger that live on in the reader’s thoughts rather than the acts themselves.
It’s a great novel, and a very novelistic novel, doing what novels do better than anything, digging into the psyches of its characters, turning thoughts to words in a way that creates the illusion of mental connection between characters and reader.
I wanted to re-enthuse myself about the medium. Job done.
I introduced Anvindr Godrichsson and his pack of Space Wolves in the short story In Hrondir’s Tomb three years ago, in Black Library’s emagazine Hammer and Bolter. As part of Black Library’s annual Summer of Reading campaign, where they release a new piece of fiction every weekday, that story has now been re-released as a standalone ebook. If you didn’t buy it in the original issue of H&B, or in the H&B Year Two e-compilation, or in the print Best of Hammer & Bolter volume 2… well, here’s another chance.
As part of the same campaign Anvindr and his pack return, some years later, in Hollow Beginnings. If the previous story hinted where I’ve been going with these characters, then this one outright states it. The title’s a bit of a giveaway.
I like writing Anvindr. As a Space Wolf he sees himself and his pack as legendary warriors engaged in a mythic battle, and being a Space Marine he’s pretty much right. But there are many ways to fight a war, especially a war for the survival of humanity, and Anvindr experiences a constant unease when dealing with branches of the Imperium with less honourable tactics than the Wolves. It’s the tension between his loyalty to the Emperor and his dislike of some of the Emperor’s other servants that makes him fun to write.
Speaking of which, I’ve been quiet for a while on here, and will probably be quiet for a while longer. We’ve had the Beginnings, now someone needs to finish the Rest Of.
New standalone eshort version of In Hrondir’s Tomb can be bought for £2.49 here.
Follow up eshort Hollow Beginnings can be bought for £2.49 here.
Thanks to Rebellion PR Necromancer Michael Molcher I’ve been doing some interviews and guest blogs to promote ‘Dead Stop’. Reviews are also starting to turn up, so I thought I’d put all the relevant links in one place, here, and update this post as more go up in an attempt to not drive everyone crazy with repeated signal boosts for each one:
Switching Worlds guest post at Troubled Scribe (added 17/3/14)
Interview at Fantastical Imaginations (added 12/3/14)
Review at the Cult Den (added 20/5/14)
I’ll add updates as more bits appear. Hopefully if you haven’t tried ‘Dead Stop’ already some of this will persuade you to do so – you can buy it direct from Rebellion’s store HERE or from the Amazon Kindle Store HERE.
Most of them were rubbish, utter garbage. A couple were good. Only one was *really* good.
That was the first issue of Martin Stiff’s ‘The Absence’, then a self-published mini-series. Now Titan Books have collected the whole six part series as a lovely, not too-expensive over-sized hardcover, and I highly recommend it.
‘The Absence’ sees Marwood Clay, a Second World War veteran with hideous facial scarring (see cover image) returning to his home village, which is not keen on his return. The village is scarred not just by the loss of young men through the war, or the traumatic events that led to Marwood’s departure, but a deeper malaise – people are leaving, disappearing in the night. Are they just fleeing this miserable dump, or is something more sinister or supernatural going on?
Marwood’s return is paralleled by the arrival of a newcomer, a wealthy scientist determined to build a mysterious ‘house’ in the village, and the stories of these two outsiders – the outcast and the incomer – entwine as the two collaborate and conflict while trying to solve the village’s mysteries.
This is a great book, an intriguing mystery with involving characters that has fringe, fantasy-tinged elements but never descends into a supernatural pot boiler. Stiff writes well, and writes better as the book goes on, and his black and white line art has a scratchiness that melds reality and cartooning in the best Eddie-Campbell-esque way.
‘The Absence’ kept me guessing as to what was going on, and how it would end, all the way through, without ever cheating the reader. Mysterious small towns, from Night Vale to Sleepy Hollow, are big right now, and this is a bracing British equivalent to those American locations. Go get it.
* I’m going to try and write a review or blog post a day as a warm-up exercise. You can probably guess the time limit I’m setting myself.
Out today, my e-novella for Abaddon’s ‘Tomes of the Dead’ line, ‘Dead Stop’, with the amazing Pye Parr’s amazing cover art, as seen right here. You can buy it for the ridiculously low price of £2.99 NOW RIGHT HERE NOW BUY.
‘Dead Stop’ has the standard noir premise of a femme fatale hiring a hapless narrator to kill someone – although in this case our hero is a psychic, the femme is a ghost and the target she wants killed is her own zombie body.
I would be lying if I claimed to be anything other than smug about this premise, and I’m really pleased with the way the novella has turned out. It’s written in the first person, but I’ve given the protagonist a heightened version of my own voice, which as I’m from Harrogate rather than LA twists away from noir cliche in a way I think is really fun.
It’s also been a chance to pour years of thinking too much about zombies into a story, and the novella format allows for a really tight horror adventure – it’s hardly a scientific comparison but a prose novella feels to me about the same ‘amount’ of story as a movie, which allows for a cinematic momentum, if that doesn’t sound too ridiculously pretentious.
As you can probably tell I’m very proud of this one, and I think it’s the most accessible thing I’ve done. So please buy it, read it, review it, tell people about it. Then tell me, I’ll be very grateful.
Finally, ‘Tomes of the Dead’ is a thematic line rather than a shared world, so although there has been at least one sequel in the range authors have the freedom to pitch any story they want, providing it’s about zombies. What I’m saying is that you don’t need to read any other ‘Tome’* to understand ‘Dead Stop’, it’s a complete standalone.
No excuses, you can read it now with no preparation or homework, so please do.
* Although if you do want to I can highly recommend Al Ewing’s excellent ‘I, Zombie.’ (No relation to the old DC Comic of the same name.)
Oh look, I haven’t updated the blog in ages. Two updates in 2013! That’s competent. Never mind.
In my defence, I’ve been busy. Last year I wrote the longest book I’ve ever written, 150,000 words, and that’s just winding its way through the editorial process, so I have no idea when it’ll be out.
I also wrote a novella, Dead Stop, for Abaddon’s Tomes of the Dead zombie line, which will be coming out as an ebook soon? I think? You can keep an eye on that here.
There are a couple of things of mine you can go and read right now, both ebooks that came out in December and which I didn’t promote as much as I should have in the pre-Christmas carnage.
First up I contributed a new Doctor Who story to the charity anthology The Twelve Doctors of Christmas, a spin-off from the recently revived fanzine Cygnus Alpha. The collection was edited by John Davies with art by Simon Brett and others, and is a great collection of talent. My story is called Gaudi Night, a pun I’ve had back-pocketed for years, features the Fifth Doctor as played by Peter Davison, and sees the Doctor facing off against one of his oldest and greatest nemesises. You can pick up either the whole collection or just my story as an ebook via the donation page here.
Secondly, December also saw tw0 linked Warhammer 40,000 Imperial Guard stories by me appear as ebooks. The Siege of Fellguard and The Hour of Hell overlap, but not only can you read either of them individually without missing anything , but if you do read both together you’ll see certain events from different perspectives, with hopefully minimal repetition. As well as ensuring the stories could be read either apart or together, there was also the separate challenge of adapting both from background text provided by Games Workshop, so the Fellguard stories were an interesting project to work on. I’ve always wanted to try doing an adaptation, and I think this one went pretty well. They’re not microshorts – together they’re over 20,000 words, the length of a short novella – so should provide a pleasingly hefty read.
Aside from the technical side of things, I hope people enjoy the Fellguard stories, which feature colourful characters having terrible things happen to them in the grim, dark 41st century. There’s a lot of action, some repulsive Chaos baddies and quite a few horrible deaths. Something to lift the spirits in the post holiday lull, I hope.
OK, back to work on the next thing. Happy New Year!
With that in mind, here’s my charmingish daughter modelling The Best of Hammer and Bolter Volume 2, which she finds fascinating, mainly because it’s such a big book. True! At a rodent-killing 896 B-format pages its by far the biggest book I’ve been involved in.
My story in the book, In Hrondir’s Tomb, is a bit of a lead-in to my next 40k project, which I’ve just delivered a first draft of.
If you know every word of the timelines in the main Warhammer 40,000 rulebook then you might be able to guess which.
I’m very, very excited to be able to say that my first Warhammer 40,000 novel is out today as an ebook premiere: Iron Guard. You can see the cover on the right, complete with my name in a delightfully big, bold font, and buy the book directly from Black Library here.
I approached Black Library about the possibility of writing a full length novel after finishing edits on my short story Sanctified, and was asked to pitch something for their Imperial Guard line, war stories about the human forces of the Imperium in the 41st century.
After knocking proposals and outlines back and forth between myself and the editors, we eventually settled on the Mordian Iron Guard as my protagonists. Although the Mordians are well established in the 40k universe, the specific regiment and individual characters are all original, and I was given great leeway to fill in any gaps in Mordian culture.
As the book only came out this morning I won’t talk about the plot beyond saying that it takes a relatively green Mordian recruit from the sunless world of Mordian to a deserted mining world, where he discovers first hand the full horrors waiting out in the 40k universe, ready to prey on unwary humans.
Having read through the book very recently while proofing, I’m very pleased with how Iron Guard turned out, and look forward to hearing from readers.
Iron Guard is available as an ebook for £6.50 from Black Library, right here.
Hammer and Bolter #20, the latest issue of Black Library’s monthly fiction e-magazine, is out now, and contains my story In Hrondir’s Tomb.You can buy it from the Black Library site here, for the wonderfully low price of £2.50.
Hrondir is my second published Warhammer 40,000 story, although the third written after [REDACTED], which will hopefully be coming to a release schedule near you at some point soonish. (OK, strictly speaking [REDACTED] is a [REDACTED] but you get what I mean. Or maybe not.)
I’ve previously played around the periphery of the 40K universe, with a member of the Adeptus Mechanicus in Sanctified (still available as an ebook here, folks) and the [REDACTED] in [REDACTED], but In Hrondir’s Tomb is my first go at writing for the big stars of the Imperium, the Space Marines.
Not just any Space Marines, either, but Space Wolves, one of the more popular and unique chapters who had already starred in a long-running novel series of their own, and recently been given a new spin by Dan Abnett in the New York Times bestselling Prospero Burns.
So, no pressure there, then.
The story introduces Anvindr Godrichsson and his pack, Grey Hunters of the Fourth Company. They’re on the world of Beltrasse to fight the Tau, but find something entirely different deep beneath the ground of Beltrasse, in the tomb of Hrondir.
I wrote the story at the end of last summer. The attic where I used to write was in the process of being redecorated to become my daughter’s bedroom, and I wrote a lot in the evenings, sat with the laptop on the bare wooden floor. Occasionally, Georgina would be around to ‘help’, as the accompanying photo shows.
In spite of such challenges, it was a fun story to research and write, and while being an entirely self-contained story it sets up characters who could be revisited later. Fans with an encyclopedic knowledge of the 40k timeline may spot a name that appears in the existing background, and have an inkling where this might be going… but that would involve a whole load more redactions, so let’s not think about it right now.
I enjoyed putting a pack of Space Wolves in a situation different to the battlefields and savage wildernesses they’re most comfortable with. I hope people enjoy the results.
So, at the end of summer 2009 I wrote my first Warhammer 40,000 short story, ‘Sanctified’, for the anthology ‘Fear the Alien’.
(You can read a bit about how that happened here.)
The one-line pitch was simple enough: Die Hard on an Imperial spaceship, with a member of the Adeptus Mechanicus fighting off Dark Eldar who are attempting to hijack the ship and spirit it off into the webway.
Oh, and the Adept has a morbid fear of all things alien, and has to overcome this crippling xenophobia to save the day. A nice simple character arc that fit the title of the book snugly.
(That’s a minor writing tip for anyone pitching to a collection or series, by the way – treat every aspect of the overarching project, even the title, as a ticklist to work through with your pitch, and try to get as many (if not all) of those boxes ticked in as thematically a cohesive way as possible.)
As I’d had limited contact with the universe of Warhammer 40,000 since dabbling in 40K as a teenager, I needed to do some catching up. Thankfully there are a lot of 40k resources online, and the official Black Library site contains lots of pdf extracts of books that can be downloaded for free, so I could get an overview from those.
However, there’s no substitute for actual in-depth reading of the source material. Here’s my stack of ‘Sanctified’ related stuff, as piled up in a flat I moved out of 18 months ago:
Up top, ‘Mechanicum’, actually set 10,000 years earlier than 40k during the Horus Heresy, is to my knowledge the only book BL have put out to date (or at least, still have in print) to focus on the Adeptus Mechanicus almost exclusively. So, although the 30K setting means that this is the Brotherhood at their peak rather than in their cranky, degraded 40K state, it was still a useful crash-course in what the organisation is all about.
The other three are all books that feature the Dark Eldar (including only one book in the Soul Drinkers Omnibus, the last one). Considering the tight deadline, I didn’t read all of them all the way through before submitting the story, but they were all useful in their own way. In terms of the way I needed to treat them in my story, as a barely comprehensible, fast-moving threat, action sequences early in both ‘Brothers of the Snake’ and ‘Dark Disciple’ proved very handy.
Later sections of ‘Dark Disciple’ and the Soul Drinkers book (the name of which currently escapes me) feature the DE in more detail, expanding on how they act around each other and towards humans, which wasn’t really necessary for ‘Sanctified’ (where they never speak to the hero) but which was interesting background nonetheless.
Not pictured was the middle book in Dan Abnett’s ‘Ravenor’ trilogy, which I picked up for something like 50p of store credit at a second hand book place I used to frequent (last of the big spenders, me) in the exploratory, ‘do I actually want to do this?’ phase before starting serious thinking about my story.
That book convinced me there was a lot of fun to be had with 40K and that I should push full steam ahead, and I’ve since upgraded to a nice shiny new Omnibus of all three ‘Ravenor’ books, which is sitting in my ever-expanding stack of 40K research by my bed. It’s a very fun kind of research, even if the growing stacks of books do constitute a minor health and safety hazard that I occasionally kick over in the dark.