Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Review: 20 Years Later by Emma Newman



I was spurred to pick this book up by seeing the author speak at Edge - Lit, in Derby. She sat on the horror panel, 'Do We Still Need Monsters' (or some such, it was to do with whether monsters are still necessary  in any case - the answer was yes by the way) and I was impressed with the way she came across.  As one of my great loves is a good apocalypse story I thought it was worth picking up her debut novel and seeing what I thought of it.

In all honesty the answer to that, is that my feeling are quite mixed.  On the one hand the world Newman has created is vibrant, realistic and exciting. She ably sculpts a post apocalyptic London that seems plausible and dangerous, with inhabitants and gangs that feel as if they fit naturally into her setting.  The additional details of the gangs make them interesting to read, though they do raise a fair of number of questions; for instance if there are Bloomsbury Boys, why no Bloomsbury Girls?  Women are rare in the book, something which I'm frankly uncertain what to make of, is it a stylistic choice, an indication that Newman's more comfortable writing male characters or a not so veiled nod to the vulnerability of women in a world after an apocalypse with its resultant break down in law and order.

Other aspects are handled well, and in an intriguing fashion, the protagonist and his closest allies development of psychic abilities is nicely written, with Newman using a nice idea of a room where they meet when they're asleep that's almost equivalent to the mental network that John Wyndham uses in the Chrysalids, but with more show than tell.

The story itself, which ultimately concerns the reasons behind the apocalypse and the protagonist's discovery of his identity is interesting but feels slight in places and there's too much that feels unexplored; this is a world that cries out to be revisited and developed further.  There are so many questions to answer, concerning the world's set up, the startling abilities the young people begin to exhibit in the story, the power the Red Queen exhibits over people and whether she has psi abilities, and the events hinted at in the prologue and epilogue that I really hope that there's a sequel or three planned.  It would be a shame to leave the world undeveloped to the extent that it is currently.

The main problems I had with the book were that the characters sometimes felt very shallow and again, undeveloped.  They frequently didn't have particularly strong individual voices and it was hard to get a sense of who they were.  The other issue was the motivation for the apocalypse, which felt out of the step with the world, being caused by racism, rather than what currently feels more topical, religious intolerance (I know that they're only a hair apart but somehow the fact that it was down to the villains wanting to wipe out black people feels antiquated to me, as if it's a hangover from the 20th Century). This also has the effect of transforming the villain into a vaudevillian mustache twirler rather than a serious, credible threat, in a similar way to Alan Moore's penchant for making his villains homophobic.  For all his power, the people working for him, the atrocities he had committed, the reveal of his intentions wipes out any standing he has in one fell swoop, changing him into a one note caricature.

All in all I'd say that it's a good first novel, but one that isn't without its flaws and that cries out for a sequel at the very least.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

The Asylum 2012


Lincoln Castle courtesy of lincoln online live

A late post about this lovely event, out of the gate after most of the other attendees have posted blogs about it (I've had surgery for a hernia this week so I've not been working as diligently as I should; that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it. Like glue).  For the ooh five of you that don't know what the Asylum is (let's be optimistic and assume that I'm going to get more than five readers shall we?), it's a big steampunk event, that takes place in the absolutely gorgeous, and rather steep, city of Lincoln in the, erm, east of England... I'm not actually sure how to explain Lincoln's location, it's not really very north, or east, or midlandy but sits between the three.  Anyway the Asylum coats Lincoln with people in beautiful clothes, selling beautiful things, doing beautiful things (you get the picture).

All in all it was a highly enjoyable weekend; Eve and I had a lot of fun catching up with friends (we didn't get to do enough of this, boo to have friends who were working over the weekend) and seeing great stuff, with a couple of 'why the hell did I bother' moments thrown in, as is my wont (Guinness World Record Attempt I'm looking at you there I'm afraid, though I concede the fault was mine for not really having paid attention to what was going on and not assumed my pirate clobber which comes from a much more fantasy based version of steampunk was going to suffice).

I'm glad to say that the flag parade on the Saturday went well, I carried the banner for Eve's pirate group (Emilia Etherheart's pirate crew if anyone's interesting in joining up for piratey doings, tea and cake) and didn't drop it - though I note with amusement that my face is obscured by the flag in the photos on Facebook and I felt sorry for the Lost Patrol who managed to lose half their flag group somewhere, reducing it to Arkwright and Linzi.  It's a shame that the plaques detailing all the flags and who they belonged to didn't get printed and that the planned announcement of each group also didn't come about. I'm not sure why it didn't happen but its a shame especially as I suspect that people put a lot of work into getting the words right as well as doing their flags.

The First Tea Company parade was gloriously shambolic in a way that only a fictional military company drawn together by a love of tea could be. It was the very opposite of the 3rd Foot and Mouth parade that preceded it, and was mostly concerned with people having tea and cake before getting on with the very serious matter of someone being tried for tea duelling (see here for an explanation:  http://frog101.wordpress.com/2011/07/14/tea-duelling-the-rules/), which ended up with a defence in the form of a song by Rachel Hayward and Robert Rankin whilst Michael Susan Smith did marvelously as the prosecution.

The last Broad Arrow Jack gig on the Friday night was masterfully performed and its a genuine shame to see the group split up. Their quirkiness was one of the great things about the group and I hope that Crimson Clocks the sort of successor group that a couple of members have founded will take on that aspect and really move it forward; steampunk is as much about whimsy as it is anything else.  The only bone I have to pick is that there was the lack of Drunken Steampunk, which was a shame but otherwise

The panels I attended were well put together, though the second one 'Write a Cog on it' benefited from a strong moderator in the form of Jonathan Green who steered the conversation a lot more effectively than the panel about publishing on the Saturday, which ended up feeling a bit more random in its content.  To me I must admit the publishing panel trod over a lot of familiar ground, this kind of discussion seems to be de-rigeur at most events that have a publishing or writing element, but for many of the delegates I'm sure it was more helpful.

On the Saturday I was also privileged to attend many friends' book launches and was really pleased to see my friend's Linzi Cooke's first novel the Home Front in print (her site is here: http://www.lmcooke.com/index.html) .  Whilst I don't know if I'll read it (that damnable not reading genres I write thing again), I'm so pleased that she's gone from being unable to show anyone her work to being a published author, with all the sudden elements of having a second job that that entails.

Picture

It was also good to see Raven Dane and Sam Stone launch their books (though Raven's book launch did reveal one of the flaws of the way that the book launches were originally being done - being in the middle of a trading hall with lots of people milling around talking made it so that poor Raven couldn't be heard over the background noise and David J Howe from Telos books had to do her reading for her).  Nonetheless the launch went well and .  To their credit the organisers realised that this was the case and moved the book launches to the cafe area, which was better if not truly ideal, and I'm sure that it's something they'll get sorted for next year if the same set up has to be used again.  Sam was launching two books, the fifth and apparently last in her Vampire Gene series and a stand alone steampunk/horror book called Zombies at Tiffany's, of which I've read some (I got bored on the way home and we had the book to hand).  Again David did one of the readings, which only confirmed what a good reading voice he has (up there with John Probert in my opinion).  Perhaps Sam should get him to record some of her stories when her next book of short stories comes out, whenever that is.

Oh and a little book from the Last Line with a story of mine was also launched... Check it out here: http://thelastline.yolasite.com/about-us.php

I must confess that we didn't do much of the nightlife this year, mostly because of both of us feeling tired on the Saturday night and Eve needing to get ready for the Illicit Market the next day - which led to something of a culture shock, watching actually television for something like the first time in a year and realising that our decision to abandon it when the digital switchover came about was the right one. That meant we missed the burlesque but that's okay as we have the lovely Enchanted Burlesque coming up in Birmingham soon - well next month.

So all in all a good weekend, as I said.  Congratulations to Raven Dane for winning best novel, to Geof Banyard for being inducted into the Victorian Steampunk Society and Jemma Hewitt for winning the best nonfiction category.  And if anyone else knows who won the other awards please tell me.  

As ever with the Asylum I've come away with a head full of ideas for all sorts of things; stories to write, costumes to make (or try to), props to create (ditto) and various other things.  Which all sums up to me the wonder of steampunk, the manic, frenetic creativity, the conviviality and kindness that permeates the community and makes it such a great, welcoming phenomenon. Cheers to you all and hopefully see you all next year.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

The Dark Future Quartet: Jack Yeovil

book cover of 

Demon Download 

 (Dark Future)

by

Jack Yeovilbook cover of 

Krokodil Tears 

 (Dark Future)

by

Jack Yeovil


Commissioned by Games Workshop in the late 80s and early 90s the Dark Future quartet, of Demon Download, Krokodil Tears, Comeback Tour and Route 666 are set in the Nottingham based games company's post apocalyptic near future setting, all written by SF's worst kept secret Jack Yeovil (aka Kim Newman). The sequence as published goes: Demon Download, Krokodil Tears, Comeback Tour, Route 666, but I would the chronological order of the books is this: Route 666, Krokodil Tears then Demon Download and finally Comeback Tour, if you want to read the sequence of events in chronological order (it's not necessary to do so but at the same time, I know some readers like to).

It isn't clear from the novels what sort of disaster has befallen the world to throw it into such horrific and ridiculous state of affairs but it obviously draws from horror, cyberpunk (both in culture and technology, and the immense influence of Japan) and a number of other genres, mashing them all up into a dark, crunchy set of stories where the world has gone seriously off kilter.

I'm uncertain how much of the history detailed in the books is Yeovil's own creation and how much came out of the minds of Games Workshop's writers but from the very outset you know that we're not in Kansas any more. This is a world where the space race was more aggressive, where Rock and Roll died a death when Elvis Presley went back into the army and Oliver North lucks his way into being President of the USA. The Soviet Union shows no sign of slowing down, even if Yeovil successfully predicts that he'll be President (a feat he repeats with Drew Barrymore's success in film. The forces of law and order have all but given up, leaving freelance police known as Sanctioned Operatives, to hunt down, and in many cases, kill criminals, with a particular emphasis on gangcults, a series of paramilitary organisations that have taken over large parts of the country, driving it into chaos and despair. These range from ultra right wing groups like the Confederate Air Force (CAF) to the Daughters of the Revolution, a strange group of girl gangsters who dress like First Wives, to the teenage rebellion that is the Psychopomps gang, a set of teenage girls who idolise Russian music idols, engage in lesbianism and seem to catch the spirit of the Punk, Grunge or Riot Grrrl scenes down to the expectation to live fast and die young (pretty corpse optional). The line between the line between the Sanctioned Operatives and the Gangcults they hunt seems quite blurred, and in Comeback Tour the line is almost non-existent in the form of the Good Old Boys, who are really just another wing of the CAF.

book cover of 

Comeback Tour 

 (Dark Future)

by

Jack YeovilRoute 666 (Dark Future)

Against this hellish world we find the Josephites, a religious sect with similar origins to the Mormons, setting up home in Salt Lake City and growing ever stranger and more sinister with each book. They are the prime movers for the evil that stalks the setting (and also provide the only hint of the overlap with the Warhammer universes, in that Tzeentch is mentioned as one of the Dark Ones that the leader of the Josephite church, Nyugen Seth serves) shown to have resources and strange powers at their disposal and to be willing to use them. One of the great disappointments of the novels for me is that there's never any great explanation for some of the things that the Josephites undergo; why for instance do their bodies become more like dolls, losing their genitalia and even nipples? It's a nice touch that shows how strange and deviant (if I may call it that) their religion is but it would be nice to know the workings that lie behind the transformations.

Taking a long view across the novels, all of them are fine works of fiction that do a good job of being an entertaining read and it's hard to say fairer than that about gaming fiction (let's face it G.W. aren't going for high literature here, and thank goodness for that). These are pulpy stories, designed to be read for fun and nothing more. The only deep meaning in them would seem to be, 'when you dine with the Devil, use a long spoon'.

As a result we're treated to a cavalcade of dead authors (in what I suspect is an updated scene from the original version of Demon Download, a number of Kim's, erm I mean Jack's friends being killed by a mad member of the US Cavalry), movie references, in the form of what seems to be a Silence of the Lambs reference in the form of Ottokar Proctor, a serial killer genius, and in the form of the motel at the start of Krokodil Tears which is more than a blatant hat tip to Psycho. Beyond that Yeovil lets his imagination run riot, throwing in all sorts of wonderful things that are dark and nasty to spice up both world and plot. Oh and lots and lots of love for Elvis.

Each novel deals with an attempt by the Josephites to usher in the end of days in some regard, either by using a demon computer programme that loves to play with machines, summoning a dark god to fight a showdown with a teenage cyborg girl or triggering a laser weapon in space. I don't suppose that I'm giving away too much to say that they fail (it would difficult to have a series if they didn't) and that the protagonists seem to be chosen by fate to oppose them.

Taken as they are there's precious little I can find about them that's negative. They aren't high art, but they don't pretend to be and the references come less thick and fast than in Newman's other books but that may be a blessing, as there's less to catch up with or go hunting for (I don't mind doing this, but must admit that I'm waiting for Jess Nevins to start doing Anno Dracula guides in the same way as he crowd sources information for the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen books). If I were to have a complaint, its that there doesn't seem to be enough here, so much is left cloudy and the sense of there being an eventual end to the series where answers are revealed seems to have been lost.

My other complaint is probably more to do with my understanding of the text than anything Yeovil intended. There's part of Krokodil Tears that states the identities of the other warriors, doing it in such a way that it suggested that there would be a team up and that the small band of warriors would take the fight to Seth in Salt Lake City. The novels don't deliver this and I'm not sure if this is my reading the situation wrong or if further novels were planned and various plans were unable to be fulfilled. All I will say is that meeting between Krokodil and Sister Chantal would have been glorious to read, just as I would have enjoyed Elvis meeting Aaron Stack. Ah well, perhaps the non Yeovil novels continue the trend and I just need to explore them a little more (though I think I'll do so through the library).

Kingsford: The Hound


Evening fell over Kingsford and the high street slowly emptied of people. Businesses shut their doors and only the handful of pubs and restaurants stayed open to customers. Teenagers congregated near the Fat Fish, a chip shop that tolerated their presence as long as they bought chips and did not cause too much trouble. The town's men retired to the Kings Head or the Swan to drink away the stresses of the working day. A few of them chose to go down to the old High Street and drink at the Green Man, the town's oldest pub, with its heavily carved sign in the shape of a leaf moulded face. Aiden and Brendan's father invariably ended up at the Man if he went drinking in town. He usually wound up debating some facet of local history that was probably petty and irrelevant but which he felt was important enough to enter into arguments with the Kingsford Tower Society, the local history group that took its name from the ruined tower near the town's centre. It was the same beat that the town had marched to for centuries, unchanged through enclosures, industrialisation and even the arrival of the modern age.

Tonight, though nobody was likely to notice it, there was something different in the town. Amongst the litter, the chip wrappers and pop cans, that tumbled down the Colchester Way there was an interloper; a curiously shaped rag. It was a long, tatty thing that trailed several tails behind it, and was covered with white marks that might have been letters or runes but were so obscure that even an Oxford Linguistics Don would have trouble understanding them.

If anybody had been observing they would have noticed that the rag was slightly different to the rest of the rubbish. Whilst it, for the most part, followed the rest of the trash, scuttling along the pavement and over lumpy cobblestones there was something odd about it. Occasionally it was almost as if it paused in its travels, even when the wind blew, driving its discarded companions forward, the rag would hang in place, as if there was something more to it than a ripped, ratty piece of cloth. Of course if anybody had noticed it they would have dismissed the observation as ridiculous. Pieces of litter did not pause and almost seem to look around. They certainly did not rise up against the wind, spreading their tails about them and turn slightly this way and that, as if they were seeking something. Nor did they rush across the road, in defiance of the weather to blow further down the street, on the other side. Such things are impossible, the observer would tell themselves and they would either forget all about it or reserve it for an amusing anecdote of the type that gets recounted only after enough drinks have been consumed that tongues are loose and nobody will believe what you say anyway.

As it was the only person to pay attention to it tonight was Brendan. His train had been delayed and he was walking briskly home, with a view to taking the shortest route possible and sharing a beer with his brother. He reached the high street and stopped as the rag blew past him in the light of the dying sun.

Something about it attracted his attention, a slight and undefinable essence, he supposed, although he could not be sure that the word was correct: there was simply a feeling of strangeness that emanated from scrap. It was as if it had a presence on another level, identifiable by an extra sense beyond the normal five. As he watched it rose above the other litter, almost to the height of his face, and hung vertically in the air.

Cautiously he stepped towards it and at his movement it span about to face him.

*

“Who is the stripling? Why does he notice the poppet?” The voice of the old mage, Feydo, echoed about the dark, vaulted chamber at the top of the Crimson School's highest tower. He, along with his apprentice, Alastair, and Darian, the envoy from King Oberon's court, stared into a deep marble basin, large enough to accommodate a giant. Steam rose from it, laced with the scents of various herbs that aided with concentration and the ability to perceive things that lay beyond the realm of sight.

“Another mortal, master, that's all.” Alastair said hastily. “I don't imagine he even sees our emissary, he's probably looking at something else.” All the same, he ushered the poppet further down the street at haste, sending it flying along with the tails flexing to steer it more swiftly.

Beside him Darian shifted uneasily. “How can this take so long? The town is barely anything, a speck of no importance and yet we have been sat here for hours whilst your spy flutters about doing nothing.”

“Hold your tongue, popinjay,” Feydo growled. “You don't understand the deeper mysteries nor the purpose that we work to.”

“Then explain it to me, or dismiss me so that I may work some feeling back into my buttocks!” The courtier snapped. If his blades had not been confiscated at the school's gates he would have been sorely tempted to draw his rapier there and then.

“Peace, Sir Darian,” Alastair said, placing a placating hand upon his sleeve. “It is simple, we must work within the laws of the realm we seek to influence. At this stage, we cannot simply animate a stone or a tree and send it to crush all in its path until we find the vixen, or take over the mind of a human; we must work within nature's patterns.”

Darian rose and stretched. “So what you're saying that our magic is almost useless for the task at hand, is that right? We cannot use it for anything beyond what, influence?” He began to stalk towards the high Gothic doors in disgust, “I'm sure his Majesty will be delighted to learn that even the finest arcane school in the realm can do nothing to actively destroy that traitorous thief! I'm sure that he will overlook your failure, since you tried so hard.”

Bitterness stung his words, he did not truly care for the School's fate but the glorious future of Darian Morgannason was suddenly less a shining path than one strewn with thorns, which led downwards to a destination labelled Disgrace. The King had not so far shown much in the way of forgiveness to those that disappointed him. Even minor failures were judged harshly; the General who had failed to capture Yelena was working a long stretch of hard labour in the Winter Mountains, mining ice and snow to send to the Blistering Desert, where the summer never faded and water was almost impossible to come by. Darian feared that if he failed, his next posting would be the governorship of the place; to be stuck in the feral heat with nobody but the various savage tribes of nomadic goblins and djinn for company.

He reached the doors, put his hand to push them open and screamed as intense heat bit into his skin. He pulled his hand away, staring in disbelief at the scar that spread across his palm.

Feydo's voice rumbled across the room, “I did not give you leave to go, courtier.” He rose, cross-legged in the air; steam pulling up from the pool and condensing under him until he was sat firmly upon an incongruously white, fluffy cloud. With a gesture he propelled himself across the chamber. “You did not listen,” he admonished. “We are not engaged in a fruitless search at all, we simply seek the obvious, something to act as our agent in the mortal world.”

“Which would be what?” Darian demanded angrily.

“We will know when we find it. One does not hurry magic.” Feydo replied cryptically.

“Master, it has found something!” Alastair shouted from the other side of the room and the others sped back to their places to stare into the boiling, bubbling water.

*

The dog was big, heavily muscled under its glossy coat. A basket muzzle constrained its mouth but even so it was barking as best it could at the piece of rag that hung above it, hovering just out of reach. The beast lunged up at it, but the rag kept just out of reach.

Brendan stood at the edge of the Green Man's beer garden staring at the scene in bewilderment. He had pursued the strange cloth as it hurried through the town, moving faster once it realised that the youth was following it. The thing had made a sudden bolt for the pub, as if something had drawn it to the old, medieval building. It had hovered about the sign for an instant before suddenly rising over the roof and down into the pub garden at the building's rear.

Now the patrons, most of them old men, were staring out into the garden to see what was causing Mungo, Fred Cooper's dog, to make such a racket.

“What the hell's wrong with your dog, Fred?” The landlady Lisa Bannister asked nervously; she did not like dogs overly much, especially not the big type. She had read in the paper about another child being killed in a savage dog attack only last week; her thoughts were drawn to her own children, sleeping upstairs.

“No idea, daft animal,” Fred said and strode to the back door, “Hoi Mungo, down!” His tone brooked no disagreement, in normal circumstances that would have been the end of it. Mungo was a good, well trained, dog; he obeyed his owner.

Tonight though, things were different, all the obedience training in the world would make no difference. The rag seemed to make a decision, it darted forward and settled onto the dog's back.

“Wait,” Brendan ran forward. “Leave him alone!” He had no idea why he did such a thing, but the sense that had alerted him to the rag's presence also told him that no good could come of what it was doing.

The rag writhed on the dog's back, the tails spreading over its short black fur. Where they settled they seemed to meld, shifting slightly as if they were looking to find the right place. Slick ichor seemed to rise from the beast's body, tentacles of dark purple matter rose and fell between the animal and the piece of cloth.

Brendan grabbed at the rag, trying to pull it off, ignoring Fred Cooper's cry of, “Brendan Fletcher, what are you doing with my dog?” The cloth felt slick; it was clammy and unnaturally warm, as if it were a living creature. He struggled to grip it, it slipped from his grasp and he realised that less and less of it was rising from the dog's flesh.

Mungo barked furiously, louder and louder. Brendan was suddenly aware of how much the dog's jaws gaped. There was a ripping noise, the muzzle split, falling useless and broken to the ground.

Fred Cooper came running out of the pub, as fast as he could. “Mungo, down! I said down damn you.” He glared at Brendan, “And as for you, when I see your father ...”

His voice faded away as the dog, Mungo no more, snapped his head around. Brendan made a last grab for the rag but it was gone, reduced to nothing more than a pattern in the dog's fur. The last tentacles writhed and settled down into the beast's flanks, vanishing completely.

Fred tried again, “Mungo.”

The dog ignored him, turned towards Brendan, a deep growl rumbling in his throat. A wrench of his neck snapped the chain that tethered him to the pub's veranda, his collar came away in scraps as his throat grew thick and mastiff like. He took a step forward, head dipping maliciously, eyes shining with a terrible green light; eager to be rid of the pest of a human that had harried the thing that bonded to him, whispered to him and slowly ate away at his mind, would keep eating until the dog was a hollowed out puppet fuelled only by faerie magic.

The last of the sun's rays' vanished beneath the horizon and there was only the night and the dog. Brendan made his decision, turned on his heel and ran.

“Mungo?” Fred Cooper asked, but the dog was gone, running after the blonde youth, over the back wall and away into the rest of the town.