Friday, 27 September 2013

What I've been Reading

I have a pile of posts waiting for me to complete them, but little time so I thought I'd do a quick round up of what I've been reading (mostly on the way to work).

My main reading material at the moment is Adrian Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt series, an epic fantasy series that's fascinating to read and has a host of brilliant ideas in it. The novels are well conceived and established (though it's a bit of a shock going from two very fat books to a much thinner third volume). There are a number of volumes in the house, since I've managed to convert Emma (she who is Fueled by Tea) to them soon after I'd finished Empire in Black and Gold). Em's raced ahead and has got 5 book under her belt to my three; I'm going slow because I don't want to burn out on them.

I'm a bit of an urban fantasy fan (though I'm picky with it) and recently discovered the Split Worlds trilogy by Emma Newman, which I love, and I'm getting book 3 tonight. Also on that front I discovered Tad Williams' Dirty Streets of Heaven, a noir tinged story set in the never ending cold war between Heaven and Hell. It was an interesting book, with a stronger mythos than I expected and pleasantly flawed characters on both sides. There was just enough nebulousness (is that a word - it should be) to cut any preachy feeling it might engendered and the feeling that the protagonists were down in the trenches whilst the Dukes and Archangels were living it large on the efforts of their subordinates gave it a true street level feel.

Charles Stross is a favourite author of mine but I'd never read the Merchant Princes. That's changed a little now as I've completed the Bloodline Feud. A good book but with an achingly slow start, once the book picks up it gets very interesting and has a lot of good ideas in it (I'm a sucker for world hopping stories though so that might just be me).

Currently I'm reading Gaie Sebold's Babylon Steel and finding it refreshingly mad. It's well written and has a good sense of place. It's urban fantasy in the sense that it takes place in a city, but apart from that I'd put it in a sort of sword and sorcery camp, with a liberal smear of sex to go with it. I'm looking forward to seeing how it turns out and will be getting the sequel.

Gaming wise I'm reading Numenera (well, I'm flipping through it and fiddling with bits of it but there's no point doing anything more than that until I'm in a position to run the game). It's a brilliant idea and draws on lots of SF I enjoy; though part of me wants to throw out the setting and do something more in line with Moorcock's Runestaff books.

Aside from that, I have three screenwriting books to be reading...

Next up is going to be book 4 of Shadows of the Apt and the start of the Sally Lockhart books by Philip Pullman.

What are you reading?

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Decisions

Right, that's it. I've come to a decision.

You should probably put that in your diaries or something.

Anyway, as I've said I've come to a decision. To whit, I've decided to have a huge push at my novel, Fatal Thirst (now on the docket to be the first in the Tantalus Trilogy) in addition to the work for University. I've decided to do this because I think I need long form work finished and ready for the time I complete my course and am subsequently casting about for stuff to do. Having something finished and ready to be published would be a really good position to be in at that point I think. My goal is to finish the rough of book one by Christmas. I think I only have about 50 or 70 thousand more words to write to get that done so it should be doable. I just have to focus and stop fannying about and letting myself get distracted.

This means that I need to adopt a more stringent approach to work than I have had - I need to start applying Heinlein's first law rather vigorously in fact. To this end I'm probably going to be clearing the decks of everything I can to make headway, sorting out my writing space (again - sigh) and just getting on with it. Which probably means my already sporadic posting record here is likely to get worse, though I'll try to put something up at least once a week.

I do have short stories to write, which is mostly going to be the Forest Women anthology I'm hoping to pitch to a small press next year some Markov stories and some attempts to work out what Urban Fantasy Birmingham's like (amongst others - the number of shorts I have to write is just silly to be honest), but the novel has to be the focus now. At least I have an idea of what needs to happen to deepen the plot and make it a more compelling read.

In the meantime I'm going to be at Andromeda One this Saturday (it's a writing event, I'm allowed out for those); so if anybody who reads the blog is likely to be there then hopefully I'll see you there!

Monday, 16 September 2013

RPGs: A Question of Structure

As I think has been established, I'm a roleplayer (I have a largely defunct gaming blog at Hastur's Hamster but I've sort of given up on it in favour of this blog - might as well as do everything in one place).

One issue we've had in our gaming group is a question over structure. It's something that first arose because one of the players entered a profession that requires her to do shift work; so she isn't always available on gaming nights. Another player is an academic and consequently isn't always around either, which rather extends the problem. Recently the issue came up again because another friend has become fed up with the fact that the games we play don't last very long - we have three GMs in a group of seven people so it's not really an ideal situation. There are a few reasons our games don't last that long, sometimes if I'm running something (and I should say that it feels like an age since I actually sat down to run a 'proper' game rather than fill ins, one shots or short runs) I get annoyed with the system - I'm not hugely good at maths and find the mechanical side of gaming a chore at times. At the same time I like to have a system rather than plunging head first into free form gaming because that feels a bit too wild and woolly. The scheduling issue remains a problem - I tried running a game of the Laundry over the summer and found that I had to drop huge chunks of my plans because people just couldn't make the game. It's difficult to build enough flexibility into the game to keep everyone happy and roll with the punches sufficiently.

There have been other issues as well - the friend who's recently quit gaming ran a fantasy campaign where he effectively removed the players' choices and stumbled into referencing some bad stuff that had happened in one of the other player's past. Given that the arc focused on her completely it was unfortunate and I'm sure it was a mistake rather than anything. But the damage was done and she was rather upset that the changes had been introduced.

I suspect, from the perspective of a writer this simply underlines the truism that writing and gaming are different beasts. They may look similar but they have different pedigrees, methods and strategies. A book needs to be deeper and requires more thought than a game, which needs to be a lot more flexible than a novel, or even a short story. Gaming requires a hell of a lot more communication than writing ever did - because in truth the GM is just helping the players to create the game; it's a role of stage manager mingled with being a director in an occasionally hellish mixture. Where a writer handles everything, the GM really only sets the stage, provides the problem and then spends the rest of the time reacting to what the players do.

Our awesome Shadowrun game is moving from the realm of a collection of one shots and shorts to being an actual campaign. It may not have a big plot but there's enough going on to make it more than just random adventures. The character's have pasts, which have actually been developed through play and contacts based on what we've done in game - rather than being mandated by the players.  I feel very strongly that no matter how much you set things up to run in the long term, in a very real sense only what you do in the game actually counts. Even if you sit down to run a classic campaign like Masks of Nyarlethotep (which I won't be doing - my long standing love of the Cthulhu Mythos is slipping down into disgust I'm afraid), it only becomes a campaign through play - otherwise it's just a book.

This leads me, in a round about fashion to what passes for my point. Next year, once the MA is done, I'm hoping to run a game of Yggdrasil - a Norse set game with lots mythology and pathos set a few centuries before the Norsemen started to spread out into the British Isles and northern France. I'd like to make the game a long one (if only to prove my friend wrong) but circumstances dictate that it be carved into bite size chunks so that the focus can swing around a lot - allowing for a lot of spotlighting - and to allow for flexibility. My thought on this is to have one plot that chugs along and rises up as 'chapters' interpersed with a lot of smaller, more directed plots to spread out the characters' lives and create supporting casts and so on. I hope to do this to partly drive the other plot too, weaving the ideas in and out in the hopes of making the game more interesting.

To this end I've decided to set the characters up in the city of Klepp on the Norwegian coast, start them off in a boat where they'll (hopefully) go on a quest to recover a Maguffin (in this case a six year old girl called Osk, who seems to have an uncanny gift to know other people's secrets). After the initial arc of finding the mean people who've taken her and returning to Klepp the player characters will get individual plots and once those are solved we'll swirl back to Osk and the problem of more meanies who have nefarious designs on her. Once that's sorted there'll be more individual plots - rinse, repeat, rinse and repeat.

At the moment I'm trying to work out the plot regarding Osk and the first wave of smaller plots (which at the moment involve a gang of bullies, wolves, giants and a mysterious potion that the Jarl's wife drinks nightly), in the hopes of stealing a march on time and getting things nailed down. I'd probably have more if I knew what more of the characters are likely to be - at present I know I'm likely to get a skald and a travelling blacksmith but nothing more than that (to be fair I think it's a bit early to ask).

What I'm hoping from this is to get the best of both worlds, a campaign sized plot with the flexibility of short adventures and the ability to spot light characters to make sure nobody feels left out. No idea if it'll work, but I've got to try right?



Sunday, 15 September 2013

A Disappointment

A few weeks ago I contacted my MP about the proposed plans to introduce an opt in clause for internet usage in the UK. I'm pretty sure you can Google for more details of the legislation, but I read what was proposed and had some questions, specifically:

What does 'esoteric materials' mean in the context of this legislation?
Given that LGBTQQ information will almost certainly be caught under this legislation will there be a push to develop informative web content to provide information and support for people in those sectors of society to help avoid alienation and bullying?
Can the government offer assurances that this legislation will not cover politically sensitive items in the news (so for instance that if a riot police officer were filmed beating up a peace protester the footage would not be censored)?
Can they assure us that there will be no function creep?
Can they assure us that the information stored will not be used as a  'suss law' to create lists of suspects in situations of sexual assault, rape etc (i.e. the first thing the police do is check the internet records of the ISPs and start rounding people who have accessed similar web content)?
Will there be a shift in sexual education in the UK to actually cover the social and relationship aspects, since the vast majority of sex ed in this country deals with the mechanics, which leaves teens in a situation where they know very little and turn to the 'net for actual information?

Lastly could you please ask them to explain how it will work in practice, there seems to be an attitude that computers are 'magic' which is extremely unhelpful.

As an additional question I asked if it would affect my work as a writer - so much is online now that it's hard to see how it wouldn't.

I got a reply on Thursday and I'm sad to say it was pretty much a large amount of cant, which did nothing to address my questions and, I regret, convinced me that this move has very little to do with protecting people and everything to do with trying to 'tame' the internet.


Urban Fantasy and the Riddle of Britain

Urban Fantasy is one of the fastest growing sub genres of fantasy, one that's allied with steampunk, horror and paranormal romance (and arguably crime fiction) in recent years to create a distinctly different flavour to swords and sorcery stylings of much of the genres out put. Largely existing outside of Tolkien's Shadow, these are stories that exist in the modern world, usually in cities (hence the urban part of the name) and often in slightly noir styled surroundings. There have been a number of successful series that support the sub genre, often falling into 'magical detective' or 'cute girl that kicks arse' as stereotypes.

The attraction lies in a number of places. Partly I suspect that its the strength of women in these stories that gives them that kick. You can have legitimate arse kickers without bending backwards to take account of differences in culture or historical facts about knights. It feels less incongruous to have a female vampire killer in modern day New York or London than it would at the court of Versailles or Ancient Rome. There's also the influence of Buffy and Charmed here, and the idea that in some respects Urban Fantasy taps into the same root idea as the superhero. I suspect that, like Steampunk, there's such a strong cross genre element at play that almost anything can be fitted into an Urban Fantasy setting.

So many of us are urbanites (and likely our families have been for a few generations) which adds to the sense of importance of the urban setting. We're familiar with cities in a way that we aren't with the countryside any more; that's become a place we visit, not somewhere we live. The genre is so popular because it connects to the world we know, on the other it allows us to take that world and recreate it; putting the wonder back into the urban landscape that becomes staid and stale through its familiarity. It allows us to re imagine our world in a more powerful fashion.

The other reason I suspect Urban Fantasy has become so popular is that it allows us to read about traditional monsters like vampires in a modern setting and without all that Victorian nonsense about virgins and wickedness. It casts them into another light entirely, as antagonists, allies or even love interests if you fancy a bit of free range necrophilia. What's more you can mesh them into the world, using the monsters to spice up urban spaces or add a threat to other, seemingly banal places. That dodgy club becomes a front for a vampire coven who use the patrons as easy prey. The kid who hangs out on the corner is suddenly not a potential thug but someone who sees things beyond the measure of the mundane world.

A lot of authors cast their world with huge arrays of monsters in a style I associate with White Wolf's World of Darkness. There's nothing wrong with this but I admit I find it a little tiresome, because it makes the world feel too full. If I hold up the Anita Blake universe and compare it with the Felix Castor one I do prefer the latter because there's only one source of the supernatural and whilst there might be lots of manifestations of the same thing it feels less crowded and less like the world and his wife has turned supernatural. I, hesitantly, would go further and say that my absolute favourite worlds are ones which are not only strange but where that strangeness is largely undiluted - the worlds of Neil Gaiman's American Gods or Tim Powers' Declare. The world's have a neatness that's pleasing and with the supernatural held at arms length they allow the mortal, mundane things to speak for themselves.

In the UK the growth of Urban Fantasy seems to have inevitably led to the creation of a lot of series set in London. I say inevitably because, realistically, London is at the heart of Britain's culture and is the one of most recognisable places on Earth, let alone the UK. There's a chance to instantly connect with your readers if you mention a landmark or a place, other parts of the country don't have this advantage, they're less well known and perhaps as a result largely unexplored by Urban Fantatists. Would books set in Birmingham or Manchester sell overseas? A friend of mine, Loz, complained about this a few years ago but hasn't taken it upon himself to do anything about it (he's not a writer so fair play to him really).

There have been a few books set outside the capital, Emma Newman's Split Worlds novels take in Bath and are partly set in Manchester as well as London, whilst Lou Morgan's Angel books take place in an unnamed metropolis that could well be Brighton. The bulk of British UF is doggedly London based though. A convention taking place next weekend is having an Urban Fantasy walking tour of Digbeth which sounds amazing and I'm looking forward to it a great deal, if only because its a step towards taking the sub genre north to other parts of the country. It also feels in a weird way like a psycho-geography exercise, stamping new meaning on part of the city, which is brilliant.

Another issue is that Birmingham, certainly, seems to do its damnedest to throw its past away. Parts of history are willingly sacrificed to push the place forward. It sometimes feels like the past is irrelevant in a way that it doesn't in London. I suspect that's partially because of the scramble after the mythical 'Second City' status and partially the desire to keep up economically. It just makes it a little bit harder to build a setting that fits the place, the way that Neverwhere fits London. Perhaps other places are the same, (I don't know - how do you feel about it?) It makes me think that, where my hometown is concerned, a slightly different strategy is needed. If Birmingham is so set upon the future then perhaps there's a plot there after all. Beyond that it feels like any urban magic is hidden among the streets, which is arguably where it should be.



To that end, this weekend I decided to start an occasional thing on the blog - grabbing pictures of Birmingham and trying to put together pieces of flash fiction to inject them with the fantastic. It won't be anything I do regularly (too much to do to do it regularly) and it's at least an excuse to do some urban walking and see more of the city.

Friday, 13 September 2013

More on Whispers of the Flame

So I didn't win the Reader's Poll after all.

I was a little confused by the fact that I got an email this morning saying that Fiction Vortex wanted to know where to send my prize... Looking at the site, I found this: http://www.fictionvortex.com/2013/09/winners-of-the-august-2013-fiction-contest/ which is amazing and... Honestly I was a bit taken aback when they took the story as it had been around for so long (I first wrote it in 2009 and just kept tinkering with it)... Now that it's won something I'm even more shocked and all I can say is thank you to Fiction Vortex for publishing Whispers and for deeming it worthy of a prize and thank you to the people who voted for the story.

I'm truly touched, (probably in the head but that's another story) and think its amazing that I won.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Writing: A Quandary

I don't usually like to put up stuff that's too much in the real world, partly because my real life is quite dull (one thing about writing is that it takes time and that cuts away from the time you could spend bungee jumping, delivering mysterious boxes of chocolates and having torrid affairs). As a result my quandary is actually writing related and is this...

I'm unsure of whether I should push ahead with completing my trilogy of novels and see if I can find an agent (or pay for a professional editor and the self publish via Amazon or Smashwords or something like that) or if I should build up a good set of short stories that I can then turn to an agent when the trilogy's done knowing I'm in a position to say that I've had work in magazines x, y and z and am known and therefore hopefully it's more likely that my longer work will be picked up.

I'm not sure who reads my blog but all the same, if you've got any answers, I'd love to hear them. :)

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Yet More Distortions

Writing is an odd thing at the best of times and there are occasions where what you're working on turns round and just tells you that you've got stuff wrong.

In the past few weeks I've had one of those turns of events. The novel I've been working on, tinkering on, whatever you want to call it (the important thing I think is that its still unfinished) for ooh the past two years turned around and made it known that the amount of space I'd allocated to create it wasn't enough and it needed to be at least double the length. Now, bearing in mind that it's already 150,000 words, that really means I've got a trilogy on my hands.

Part of this has been because I realised that there were plot threads that were just not going to get to a good place if I stuck with one book; in fact I wasn't giving myself space to explore all the pieces I had in place thoroughly. That didn't satisfy me as a writer, so I guess that the reader would find it frustrating as well. The other issue was that the plot I have, which is essentially a conspiracy/rebellion story, didn't feel like a one book deal and the more I thought about it the less it felt like something that I should think of as a 'do this book and come back to write different plots in the same setting' sort of deal. Once you have that sort of story in place, anything that follows it is probably going to feel disappointing - like starting off with the end of the world and then spending a book talking about the aftermath (I can see this working in some places but not in horror/science fantasy which is the niche that I'm working in for this story). Like it or not most fantasy series that consist of single book stories escalate the threats over time, allowing the heroes to grow to meet the threats more effectively. They don't start with a chance of Ragnarok.

So, a trilogy it is then. The lines are drawn, boundaries set. I know where the volumes end and I think I have about half of each book, although there's going to have to be some extensive rewriting. I even have names; to be specific the name I have for it at present is the Tantalus Trilogy, after Eve suggested the name this morning. Tantalus was a figure trapped in Tartarus in Greek myth after he tried to serve his son up to the gods as a meal, it seems an appropriate description for the more powerful members of my society. I'm still working on the individual book names but the original title, "A Fatal Thirst" is definitely going to be book one. I suspect the others will follow that line.

Of course the other thing that's great and annoying at the same time is that allowing myself a larger canvas to work with means I start thinking about things in a slightly different way. New connections are drawn as I start to work out the other stories that weave through the larger narrative. Suddenly I realise that of course one character will be doing x and y and that as a result z will happen and another, more independent line of story springs to life. Elsewhere I note that another character's desire for recognition means I have to show that they're treated shabbily by their peers and another section of book is born.  This is good, because I need these sections but also fills me with trepidation because it feels like I have a long way to go and because it feels as if I'll never finish the damn thing. In a sense I'm really hoping that this is it and I can complete the first volume by the end of the year. That probably means my Facebook break needs to extend until at least the start of 2014, which is good or bad, depending on how you look at it.

When I started Fatal Thirst for NaNoWriMo I was pretty much pantsing it and that's something that's pretty much continued. Now, I can see the patterns and things I need to add so I can put into the story to complete it. I can see the plots I need to integrate to make it a satisfying read - so that's my challenge for the near future and my priority.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Under the Trees

Under the Trees

I found you under the trees
Hidden amongst the grass
A jewel nested amongst
Dew laden blades of green.
A nest with a precious cargo
Lost from sight and memory

And the world disappeared
The traffic, urgent and loud
Fell quiet as I found you
Amongst silent sentinels
Their roots buried deep
Beneath the city streets

I breathed, let go the weight
That dogged my shoulders
Sitting on a picnic table
Listening to boys playing
Birds calling up in the trees

Let life fill me up to the brim
Dragging torpor from my bones
There in the early morning
I let the peace sink in and thoughts
Slip away, until I was empty

Ready to face the day.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Five Favourites: Novel Covers

1) Stormbringer

One of my favourite novels from my teen years, the cover just screams 'epic' and looks like a heavy metal album cover.



2) Halting State

This cover is just so odd and in keeping with the novel it's a cover for that it's charming.



3) American Gods

This is just so iconic, the road with the lightning strike.




4) Perdido Street Station

Whilst I do love the new covers for China's novels this image is just so strong. It's a beautifully wrought snapshot of an industrial fantasy city.




5) The Fire Sea

The fourth cover from the Death Gate Cycle, this now looks a bit dated and 'D&D'. Still there's something very iconic the dragon rising from the lava.





Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Fiction Vortex Reader's Choice Poll

My story Whispers in the Flame was published at this site at the start of August. The site has a poll of favourite fiction, and whilst it seems a bit cheeky... could you head over and vote please?

http://www.fictionvortex.com/2013/08/readers-choice-poll-for-august-2013/

Norsemen, Norsemen Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink

So we chatted about gaming last night, just to check where things were with the group and decided to keep playing Shadowrun and keep to our current structure - short adventures with call backs that link things together. Our Shadowrun GM has plans to spirit the group off to Europe and UCAS (not the admissions service) for a while whilst the heat dies down.

I asked the players to look at the games I had on my list and they decided to play Yggdrasil, so I have a year to tilt at that windmill and build something awesome. Unsurprisingly I already have ideas about the game, its just a matter of getting everything down on paper and statted up, but that should be fun in itself. Its something I'll be doing very slowly because of my course and plotting and planning to do a PhD.


So far my plans involve a mcguffin, some breathtaking scenery and as much skullduggery, monster hunting and low cunning as you can shake a stick at. Oh and much drinking of ale and mead too. 



Monday, 2 September 2013

On Choosing an RPG to Play

I'm a gamer, I like dice of many different sides and colours. I like sitting around with friends to make up stuff about imaginary characters who, if they chose, could probably snap the players like twigs. I like to think that it goes hand in hand with my other pastime, writing (though the two should never be confused, I've learnt the hard way that gaming is gaming and writing is writing).

As I write this I'm looking down at a year long stint as a player, because I'm not going to run a game until Autumn 2014, after the MA I'm doing is done. One of the longest serving members of the group, also a GM, has just taken a break, citing reasons of burn out. Which leaves the other GM with the dubious pleasure of a full year of running games. On the one hand that sounds like Heaven, on the other, well it's a lot of work and strife he's potentially facing.

Despite my long stretch as I finish off the MA and work on my (now trilogy) of novels, I'm going to take the opportunity to look at gaming and try to plan out something long and flexible (oo er). A quick census of my collection revealed a lot of games I've never run before, some of which I've never even suggested as games to play; and that won't do at all. My original list of about six games expanded to a fulsome 24 (and then some) before I decided that was a nonsensical approach and decided to slash the numbers right down to a more sensible 14 and then down to eightish - the number fluctuates up and down depending on how attached I'm feeling to titles and how much I think I can get away with saying 'look I want to build my own world'.

I'm not too concerned about plot to be honest - one thing I've learnt from writing is that story is story and you either find a way into it or you don't. Stories are infinitely malleable and you can shape them however you want so a lot of the stuff that constitutes genre is simply set dressing to make the piece you're writing feel different. As a result, aside from one game on the short list I'm just planning to churn out the same plot and adapt it to the game I run, which takes some of the pressure off to be honest.

The short list I've ended up with is:

Dreaming Cities: A Tri Stat game that focuses on urban fantasy. It comes with three settings but, if I'm honest this is where I plan to build my own. I think I'll have to talk to my players and find out what they want.

Ashen Stars: A game where the players take on the roles of freelance police, effectively in a space opera setting. This feels like the most 'writerly' of the games because of the way the game's system is designed; its a detective game so there's a lot of focus on gathering evidence and things like that. The game boasts some fresh ideas and some lovely races that are just the right side of alien. There isn't much setting here beyond the broad strokes, because (and again this underscores the writerly nature of the game to me) the idea is that you generate places to support plots.

Yggdrasil: A game set in 6th Century Scandia (or Scandinavia if you prefer), this is a historical fantasy game that fully embraces the Norseman life without falling into the cliches of horned helmets. It's set before the 'Viking' period as well so the looting and pilaging opportunities will be fewer. The game is very involved with the concept of runes and fate, as well as the other things that RPGs normally touch upon.

AEON and Adventure!: A pair of games, part of White Wolf's AEON Continuum (a short lived attempt to do for Science Fiction what the World of Darkness did for horror. One, AEON (or Trinity as you may know it as the game company had to change the name after a law suit from MTV) is a nearish future game set in a world ravaged by superhumans, where the threat has returned from space. It attempts to mix lots of styles of SF together by creating genre theatres around the world, cyberpunk in North America, post apocalypse in Europe and so on. The characters are psions, people who have psychic powers (where that seems to extend beyond telepathy and psychokinesis and into body shaping and healing powers as well). There are orders, groups to belong to - as you might expect from a White Wolf game, which range from corporate movers and shakers, shadowy assassin revolutionaries and dedicated healers. Again there's nothing strange here.

Adventure! takes place rather earlier in the timeline, the 1920s and 30s in fact and draws heavily from the pulps of the day. The world is strange and largely undocumented. I get the impression that the setting is meant to put the characters in a similar niche to 'Brass's People' from Planetary; globetrotting heroes who band together to keep the world safe (for varying degrees of 'safe' of course).

Numenera: The new game. I grabbed this on impulse after seeing some people rhapsodying over it on an RPG site. It's set in the '9th World' an epoch in the far future and the characters are people who shift through the rubble of ages, have adventures and generally get on with strange things.

Lastly we have the Reserve List, in case it all falls flat.

SLA Industries: An old game but one I love and haven't run for about a decade. SLA casts the characters as Ops working for an all powerful company and cleaning up its messes.

Changeling the Dreaming: The fifth of the original World of Darkness games, here the PCs are Changelings, dual soulled beings who interact with the unseen world around them. They're creatures of imagination and dreams, fighting against the inevitable onset of Winter; a time when these things won't exist and the world will be duller and shallower for it.

It does suffer a little from the original WoD's 'scientists ran over my dog' syndrome but at the same time it's an evocative game, full of beauty and wonder (which are surely needed to make the darkness deeper).

And that's it - this is what I'll be presenting to people tonight.

Review: Empire in Black and Gold

The first book of the Shadows of the Apt series, Empire of Black and Gold, is a thick brick of fiction. In many respects that's to be expected, it is a fantasy novel and in particular it's of that stripe of fantasy that's grown fatter over the past few decades. It has a relatively detailed map as you might expect if you're familiar with this sort of fiction, though the list of characters and places only appears at the start of book 2, Dragonfly Falling. I'm quite glad to see the list, because if I'm honest I did find that at times in Empire, I had trouble remembering who the various characters were, the book's so busy.

As I mentioned in my review of Tchaikovsky's book of short stories, Feast and Famine, I've owned Empire of Black and Gold for a long time and it's only in the last couple of weeks that I've started reading it. Approaching it I was cautious, I'd enjoyed his voice in the short stories but I was less sure about a 611 page novel. As it happens I found it interesting from the get go, Tchaikovsky's world is interesting and nuanced and the presence of the insect kinden makes for a far more interesting world than one stocked with traditional fantasy races. As a reader I knew that everyone was human... but not human at the same time and it was fascinating to see how the insect and human natures balanced each other and what each kinden could do.

There are some very interesting distinctions at play within the world, beyond the various kinden you have the idea of the Apt and Inapt, which rules which of the kinden can use technology and magic respectively. This is something that's coded into the character's genetics - an Apt character can't use magic beyond the their 'ancestor art'; tricks that cleave to the things the insect their kinden draws its lineage from can do. In contrast the Inapt cannot understand technology at all but can understand sorcery (though as of the first book only two kinden have expressed a huge talent for it). All in all this creates a modern division between the world of machinery and mass production and the longing for a simpler world where traditional artisanship creates things of beauty but are out of step with the world (oddly parallelling the steampunk community's concerns). This seems to one of the core elements of the books, as great in its distinction as the one between the Wasps and the other kinden.

The novel's introduction to the Lowlands is gentle. I feel you can see the setting's roots as a roleplaying game here and in the opening of the main plot (as opposed to the fall of Myna). The basic premise of the series, that the Wasp Empire is spreading, conquering all in their path and have just broken off a 12 year war with the Dragonfly Commonweal. Their eyes turn south towards the Lowlands and our introductory character Stenwold Maker is alone in realising the threat. Where he sees danger, the other Beetle kinden see opportunity, misunderstanding the Empire's ways. They believe they can trade with the Wasps safely, that there is a limit to their ambitions. Quite apart from the echoes of World War 2 this throws up, the world also feels very much analogous with Ancient Greece and Persia, where the Lowlands are a series of small city states, many of them ruled by Ant kinden who like nothing more to war upon each other and Beetles who's main interest in profit (again this feels like Ancient Greece).

In contrast the Wasps organisation and ruthlessness calls back to the perceived nature of the Persian or Roman Empire, or perhaps to Fantasy's roots as Sword and Sorcery.  In many ways there's an odd timelessness to the series; mixing the ancient world with steampunk technology and some aspects of Medieval life. All in all though it feels very different to the standard fantasy world though, even if the history is as rich and long as any other settings'.

To me, the novel's opening felt a little like a roleplaying plot. As I read I felt there were moments where I could identify the practice combat, to make sure that the players know what they're doing in a fight. The escape and action on the Sky Without, an airship out of Collegium, has the sensation of a first plot arc in a game; there's even an old spymaster to set the characters on their path and to give them a sense of the broader picture. Of course it works as a first arc in the novel too, but there seemed to be something quite roleplaying game based about the characters actions and the way things pan out. I'm not sure if that reflects Tchaikovsky's background as a gamer himself or it's just happy coincidence.

It's when the characters reach Helleron that the action really starts, with a brave decision to split the party early on through an elegant device; a face changing assassin who pretends to be the characters' contact. Plots spin off this action gracefully, allowing the reader to get a strong sense of the city and its inhabitants as they encounter pretty much all the classes of people there, from grasping factory owners only too happy to sacrifice their pride in return for business, the people of the slums and, lastly, the criminal gangs that make up the city's various 'fiefs'. As a reader this allows us to get a strong sense of Helleron's nature and to appreciate more of the ways the insect kinden are expressed. In particular it allows for the introduction of the Moth Achaeos and some of the setting's history (namely the Revolution of the Apt, where the Moths were defeated by Beetles and Ant kinden and forced back to the mountains).

From there things get worse, but to the author's credit he doesn't use this as an excuse to the tip the novel into a pit and keeps things on an even keel. He takes the opportunity to develop the Wasps, in particular Captain Thalric, who's been assigned with hunting down and destroying Stenwold Maker and his agents. That he takes the time to flesh out the enemy makes the story more interesting, that in some ways Thalric's motives are admirable makes it more so. This is no cackling mad man intent on conquest for the sake of it; I almost got the sense that the Wasps initially stumbled into Empire, even though they clearly believe in the superiority of their kinden and their intent has changed to underline their belief that they should be in charge (it would be nice to see where this belief comes from).

Character work is nicely handled, the protagonists are given pleasing depth early on and the expanding cast is nicely juggled, displaying a good amount of thought that's gone into their development. It's good to see that things aren't left of fester too long, issues are dealt with as quickly as they can be and Tchaikovsky takes the developments and runs with them, using them as fuel for the burgeoning relationships that pepper the books. Whilst the romances in the Wheel of Time were long dragged out chains that took forever to get anywhere, in Empire in Black and Gold we see swift development, by the end of the book we have a new status quo to deal with at both macro and micro levels and see characters make sacrifices that I suspect will only lead to the worst.
The story manages to avoid cliche for the most part, though it strays close when some of the characters are forced to enter Drakyon Forest, another point where the story reaches back to the revolution. Whilst there's a strong justification for it and its well handled; even going onto be another building block for the future of the series,  there's something just so archetypical about the haunted forest as an idea that it seems a little near the 'Big Guide to Fantasyland' that it sticks out a little. The only other things that seem cliched concern Thalric and the secret organisation he's involved in, the Rekef. This feels like its straight out of a spy novel or TV show, possibly no bad thing but at the same time the organisation feels, well as if its been used thousands of times before (I appreciate there are very few ways to describe an espionage ring that aren't verging on cliche, its just that here, in the heady stew of elements that Tchaikovsky's cooking with they stand out as in someway uninspiring). Then too there's the character of Ulther, Thalric's former mentor who's now the stereotypical aging governor, who's more interested in his harem of body slaves and what he can reap from his position than in being a good citizen. Whilst the incident is necessary to deepen our understanding of Thalric and to knock some of the 'tough soldier doing what he can for his people' off his shoulders, the character of Ulther is scarcely developed enough to give him a strong standing in the book. In the end it doesn't matter, he's a bump in the road after all.

Empire in Black and Gold has been the first epic fantasy I've read in about a decade, long exposure to this kind of book eventually killed my love for them. It's fair to say that Shadows of the Apt has changed that. The series feels fresh and innovative, whilst it's hard to conceive of any sort of fantasy that's completely free of Tolkien's Shadow, the series feels like it draws on older works. It's well written and a well designed world, Tchaikovsky certainly doesn't lack craft on either the writing or world building fronts, and  the series has potential from the very start. With well written characters and a good sense of pacing this is a strong piece of fiction without tipping into 'grimdark' territory or commiting the sins of previous fantasy series. If you're looking for a series that feels different but is definitely in the epic fantasy camp, then my gut feeling is that this is for you.