Tag Archives: Fantasy

Review: ‘Road Brothers’ by Mark Lawrence

Disclaimer — All the way back in 2013, elsewhere on this site, I sung the praises of Mark Lawrence‘s Grimdark Fantasy trilogy, the books of the Thorns: Prince, King, Emperor. They’re very good. If you haven’t read them and you like that sort of thing, you should check them out. Unexpectedly, my faint voice of high praise reached Lawrence himself and he has such a commendably fine memory (or perhaps more commendably, fine record keeping practices) that he offered me the opportunity to read ‘Road Brothers’ a little earlier than many and for free. He didn’t specifically ask for a review (I don’t think), but I intend to give one and in the interests of open transparency, I felt you should know about how I came to read it. I judge this a fair & frank review, but you’re welcome to make your own judgement too.

First, the spoiler-free:
This is a collection of short stories set in Lawrence’s ‘Broken Empire’ and featuring characters from the two series he has set in that world.
If you know these characters, you learn a lot more about them, get to spend more time with them, understand their histories, gain insights into the thoughts and motivations which inform their actions… all of which is great if you’ve read the earlier books. I have, and I enjoyed (most) of these stories largely for those reasons. More on that later.
I wouldn’t recommend this collection as an entry-point to Lawrence’s work, but in this I’m in accord with the author himself. It opens with the advice to people who haven’t read his earlier work, and who are picking this up without that existing familiarity with his world and characters, not to buy the book.
The author. Telling potential readers. Do not buy this book.

It’s a gutsy move, but consistent with a similarly gutsy decision Lawrence made at the end of his first series and explained in the postscript of Emperor.
So if you’ve read Lawrence’s other books, this is definitely worth your time and money. If not, look elsewhere first and come back to ‘Road Brothers‘ when you’re ready.
Spoilers ahead:
image via Goodreads

image via Goodreads

You’ve been warned
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.
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The positives:
Much of this is exactly what you are expecting, and that’s likely a good thing, because you’re expecting well crafted stories with a strong sense of character and a a bit of black humour and a hard edge and difficult moralities. This book delivers all that. Blood, betrayal, lies deception, the callous and banal cruelties of which humanity is so exceedingly capable. Weak men pretending at strength, strong men worn down, widowers and one-time fathers bearing the great burden of inconsolable grief.

Lawrence has a gift for metaphor and simile. He scatters quotable bon mots and wry observation throughout these stories. He often holds up a critical mirror to our own world in the world of his Broken Empire. He asks if ours is less Broken, after all.

To the complaints:

There are flawed and burdened and broken women here, but significantly fewer of them and cast in lesser roles. In some stories, none at all. In others stories perfunctory or peripheral appearances. This is ‘Road Brothers’ after all, but Lawrence’s female characters are so significant and complex and interesting in his novel-length trilogies that their absence (or at least their lack of centrality) is felt here. It’s not that he can’t write women well, it’s just that here he doesn’t seem as interested in their stories as in the stories of his men.
If binge-reading, these stories take on a sense which might be called ‘consistency’ but is perhaps more a sense of sameness. Again the village raided. Again the murdered family. Again the man’s need for revenge. Again the witty remark, the clever ploy, the fortunate hand of fate. Always, always, burning thatch. Lawrence here burns a hell of a lot of fictional thatch.
This complaint only occurred when I read several end-on-end. When I spaced things out, about a story a week, the problem wasn’t so apparent.
My top three stories (and an honourable mention):
Sleeping Beauty
Know Thyself
Rescue
Bad Seed
To the specifics:
Below, my thoughts story by story. I took these notes contemporaneously, sometimes immediately upon finishing the story, sometimes as I was reading. I’ve cleaned them up for spelling, grammar, etc, but they’re otherwise my thoughts as they occurred.
Rescue –  Makin’s story. Very short. Effectively three scenes and heavy on memories and Makin’s internal thoughts. It becomes, quickly, Jorg’s story, even while Jorg takes no action within it. Makin loses centrality in his own story. Does a good job explaining his back-story and his loyalty/connection to Jorg.
Sleeping Beauty– This was a strong story, and perhaps because of being back in Jorg’s head and in first-person it felt more familiar to the Broken Empire. I got Resident Evil vibes from the bunker. Lawrence intertwined sci-fi and fantasy elements well (as he does in his long form writing) with the additional thread of the fairytales. The Goldilocks diversion wasn’t necessary to the tale, but worked. The revelations about the hook briars was good, but does this retcon his scars from the novels?
Bad Seed – great first line drops always to a slow build, and the little play on the 6th Sense twist is obvious early but confirmed late (in the sense it was confirmed after being obvious to the reader for too long. Guessing the twist a moment before the reveal is exciting. Guessing it and waiting on the ever-more-obviously-inevitable reveal, less so). The gap between childhood and adulthood is well-written. The loss of the family in a manner repetitive to others (Makin’s notably) felt unnecessary. We had no real connection to wife/sons, so would a burnt house not be enough to set him off? If he’s a natural born killer, why does he need the family-loss motivation? Surely the soldiers’ arrivals are sufficient motivation. He wanted to go to war, but war came to him. The scene in the field was very good, but the latter fight (1 v 6) was best when it was general ‘he threw himself amongst them’, rather than the blow-by-blow which slowed things down and made it all a little overly described. This especially the case when those blows rang at odds with a farmer who had done no violence for years. Throwing the perfect sword stab, sliding and cutting…
The skill in the writing elevated the story. The passage on a farmer’s relationship to killing (as contrast to soldiers’), and on tendons and slaughter and such were all poignant and offered depth to the narrative.
The frisson of meeting Jorg through Red Kent was good fan-service, as was the explanation for the name as a growth from the Old Tongue. Unlike Makin’s this was Red Kent’s story throughout.
Nature of the Beast: Sabitha (as with Lynch’s Locke Lamora stories?) It’s interesting that Rike’s story is not in his head (as others have been). The author’s note at the end of the story addresses this. Afemale first person protagonist, but even with a view from within her head, she’s secondary. This is not her story; it’s Rike’s. More burning thatch. Stakes are suddenly life and death and why we should care about either is never well established. We’re not sure if we should care about her curse or her death, and we’re given no real reason why we should. The curse is the link back to the main books, but while thematically ambitious (that compassion is a curse and a cause of suffering) I would have loved more exploration of that theme. Without it, the curse loses some of its gravitas.
Select Mode:
I had read this before as stand-alone.
Now, as then, this seems an earlier effort. I’m not sure where it comes in ML’s writing chronology, but the prose seems an earlier iteration, less practised and assured than he becomes with experience. I like the concepts here, of slow time, of the post-apocalyptic ruins, of meaning created in misunderstanding. But overall, for reasons I’m not sure I can entirely explain, I didn’t enjoy the story as much as I was intrigued by those elements of it.
Mercy
Another Makin story?
Oh. It’s a Gorlan story. Did we head-hop, or was that my misreading from the start?
And that ending left me wondering what was the point of having read it. Some minor tweak late to misdirect the real threat from a known character to an unknown? It then became a climax played out between two characters I didn’t care much about because they hadn’t been made important to me. Both were significant only in how they related to Makin. Put him in and his gravity pulls the narrative toward him. Take him out and the vacuum he leaves is too great.
A Good Name.
Intriguing first line. Concern creeps in that this is going to be mired in noble savage tropes, but I think Lawrence avoids falling for that. The exoticism is filtered throughout the story, rather than dwelt upon or fethisized. Usually, this is done deftly, but sometimes with a heavy hand. Snaga’s introduction is at best a convenient contrivance. I don’t get Harrac’s motivation here. He didn’t want to wait a few hours but then he gives years in service with Snaga. Why? Then a head-hop? It’s Snaga’s story now? Only briefly.
I loved the character in the Broken Empire books and he fascianted me for his (seemingly misplaced) loyalty to Jorg and in Jorg’s dependence on him. Here, with his younger version, I didn’t feel the same way. He didn’t feel like the same character, whereas the farmer who would become Red Kent felt like Red Kent even before he was (that makes sense, trust me). Younger Rike was obviously Rike. Makin too.
Choices:
Lawrence does an opening line really well, but some feel as though they were crafted independently of the story they open and then bolted on to draw the reader in. Gorgoth and… Jane. What were those parents thinking? That’s a strange pair of names to give. The ‘darkness is patient…’ line is a killer line. Lawrence sure knows how to write those lines. The descriptions here are well done, and I like the quest/journey through the ruins. It has a little the feel of a video game. The fight scene with the bot is a bit silly/contrived. Sudden introduction of Jorg feels rushed/forced.
The Secret:
The different structure here offers promise. The narrative within a narrative, interwoven timeframes, flashing back and forward. It’s good to see Lawrence experimenting with form. His novels and several of these stories are first person perspective, so this is a fresh approach.
The ‘lie’ which Sim reveals was revealed far before the narrative means to reveal it, or perhaps was obvious enough that the reader should have been expected to ‘get it’ before being given it. The explanation of Sim’s diversion is unnecessary. Again Jorg twists the piece to himself.
Know Thyself:
Where Jorg’s presence, or even nearness, seemed to drag other stories off their tracks a little, here he is at once absent and central from the start. It is Jorg’s actions which provoke the narrative here and thus he belongs in the gravity well of the story. Where elsewhere (to varying degrees) he felt like an intruder, here he truly belongs.
But it did make me think of the dog (Justice) again and I never wanted to think of the dog again.
Gomst is an interesting character and the hints at an interesting past are deft and full of intrigue.
I like that the focus shifts from Jorg to William, and that it is through Jorg that we get the first earnings of William
Hope you enjoyed the review. If you’ve read this far you’ve probably read the stories already, but if you just skipped to the end for my verdict it is thus:
This is a good collection of Grimdark Fantasy stories which I’d happily recommend to fans of the genre and of Lawrence’s other work.
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‘Control Point’ Review

Control Point Review

I’ll open with a spoiler-free (tl;dr) summary of my feelings about the book and then go into more detail (potential for some minor spoiling therein).

ControlPoint_UK_Cover_Final

Précis:

I enjoyed the book. I rated it on Goodreads, and although it deserves more than 3 stars, I don’t think I can give it 4.

I particularly enjoyed the way it challenged and questioned enculturated values. I liked how Cole managed the powers and his action scenes were kinetic and visceral. As a writer I learnt a lot from the way he brought the genres together, forced a collision and made something new from what was there.

I will read the others in the series, and happily recommend the book to fans of comic book superheroes, military fiction and urban fantasy.

Detail:

Control Point is the debut novel of Myke Cole, and the first in a series of “Shadow Ops” novels (of which there are three, with a prequel due out next year). I picked it up because I came to know of Myke Cole through his blog, and through Twitter (@MykeCole). He’s one of those authors who is incredibly interesting when they talk about how they came to be writers and what writing means to them. He offers advice and engages with his fan-base, and his books were recommended or enjoyed by others I trust, and had a good cross-over with other authors whose work I’d enjoyed (Mark Lawrence’s review is here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/246427711?book_show_action=true&page=1).

Cole is a US Military vet, having served in Iraq, and is currently a member of the US Coast Guard. It’s not a common résumé for Fantasy writers, and the world he has created is not common Fantasy. It has been described as a cross between ‘Black Hawk Down’ and ‘X-Men’ (by no less a reliable source than Peter V Brett), and you can definitely see the way that the influences of his professional militarism meet his personal geekdoms, with influences apparent from the battlefield, to superhero comics to D&D.

In an unspecified near-future USA there has been an awakening of previously latent powers. People have discovered that they can control elements, or – in rarer cases – exhibit other ‘magical’ powers. This awakening is quickly legislated and the military steps in to attempt control. Oscar Britton begins the novel as a military man charged with controlling (or killing) the awakened latents (selfers), but he sympathises with those he must hunt. When he exhibits powers himself he is faced with an impossible choice, to submit, or to flee.

Cole’s greatest strength is in his world-building. On gross structure this is familiar from any number of superhero origins, but it is in the minutiae that Cole’s world takes shape. Each chapter presents excerpts of speeches, legislation, media, etc from this new world which gives us a better insight into how society has sought to adjust. From this we can hold a mirror to modern cultures. The novel forces us to ask how we balance liberties against regulation, how we respond to de-centralised terrorism, how existing cultural and religious world-views have adapted – some better than others. The heavy-handed government control of the US is more criticised than endorsed. Cole takes an interest in the fictional indigenous of his magical source-world, and his understanding of Islamic and Native American cultures adds nuance and depth to what might otherwise have been a one-dimensional speculation.

That our protagonist finds himself more often opposing than endorsing his government’s militarist approach is particularly interesting, given Cole’s own history. If anything this is overplayed. The gung-ho militarists are obvious antagonists. Unfortunately Britton – our protagonist in this world, from whose perspective it is shown to us and to whose internal monologues we have access – is often a confused and confusing moral compass. Perhaps this puts the need to moralise back on the reader, something with which I am generally more comfortable, and yet the character suffers because of this uncertainty. From the beginning, when teenaged selfers are attacking their school, Britton sides with them over his command structures. This jarred me, as a reader, because the actions of the selfers were unsympathetic – they obviously needed to be stopped.

The pacing is rapid, the novel quite heavily plot-driven. This can mean that the prose is stark and direct, sometimes to the extent that it felt lacking. I think this is a necessary quality of the prose for the story being told, and this was a debut novel, but it makes no claims to high literature. This is fast-moving pulp and should be enjoyed as such.

Similarly, most characters are to be taken on face value, and while some show development and growth many others come into the narrative, serve their purpose, and depart the stage. Many remain archetypes or sketches throughout, and while this is a criticism, I think it’s one that flows inevitably from keeping the plot moving quickly. The character I found most sympathetic was the indig ‘Marty’, and he becomes a key motivation for the protagonist, as well as a key player himself in the build to the climax. Too often I confused characters, or forgot their names, or forgot which call-sign went with which name, etc. In large part this is my failing, but it also suggests perhaps that many of the secondary characters weren’t memorable beyond being a super-power in a uniform.

For Military/Fantasy/Sci-Fi with fast-paced action and a 2nd world twist this is a good series to get into.


Good v Evil

To prepare for the upcoming World Fantasy Convention, Damien Walter recently penned an article on modern Fantasy in which he noted that the genre has changed since Tolkien was writing (nearly 60 years ago).

While exploring this utterly unremarkable idea Walter managed to make a few comments which  momentarily swept across the plains of social media, being widely condemned. I suspect some of that criticism was born of a defensive reflex ingrained into sci-fi/fantasy readers since high school and reinforced by those who continue to dismiss or demean genre fiction.  In other cases the criticism seemed to me to be a genuine misreading, or misunderstanding, of Walter’s point. I suspect he sees his article as being a largely sympathetic treatment of Fantasy and its audience. This is not how it was received, I think for two reasons.

1. The changing nature of the battle(s) between good and evil.

Walter says “It would be very easy to assume those books are just generic copies of The Lord of the Rings, cashing in on the apparently endless thirst for Tolkienesque fantasy…” and though he goes on to suggest that there is more to the genre now than such an assumption would allow, the damage is done.
Why is that the ‘easy’ assumption to make?
Do we assume of any other genre that it is merely reproducing the works of a seminal author half-a-century after that author’s success?
Do we assume modern Sci-Fi is just repeated re-workings of Asimov? That modern crime is merely derivative copies of Agatha Christie?

For Walter to make that assumption so easily, or even to acknowledge that others will, reinforces the negative perception of Fantasy that so many modern Fantasy writers have worked so hard to change. This attitude recurs in the following paragraph, where in celebrating Vance, Leiber, Moorcock and Gemmell, Walter says that their “remarkable novels… belie their origins in pulp fiction.” Here then is that condescending arrogance that ruffles the feathers of so many readers who are sick of being told that their preferred reading is somehow lesser, that Fantasy is (ironically) ‘unremarkable’.

Referring then to the successful authors of modern Fantasy (Abercrombie, Lawrence, Brent Weeks) he uses that lazy and ill-defined pejorative Grimdark. I have discussed the term before, as have others more qualified to comment than myself.

Walter claims that “while it claims greater moral complexity, grimdark fantasy frequently offers a disappointingly one-dimensional portrayal of the battle between good and evil, where evil usually wins because it is the only game in town.”
Nonsense.

What Walter fails to recognise is that the characters and worlds of Abercrombie and Lawrence (I haven’t read Weeks, yet) are far from mono-dimensional. Even to make that suggestion calls into doubt his knowledge of the authors he has named.
He then goes on to misdiagnose how the treatment of concepts of good and evil has changed.

Tolkien had a simple view of good and evil. A good race, or rather an alliance of good (white) races…

 have to defend their homes from an encroaching menace: the evil (dark) races.

By this world-view the enemy is utterly defeated when the leader is defeated. The battle between good and evil is fought between an army of each, with battle lines drawn, to the death. This is perhaps a view to be expected from a man who had experienced trench warfare; who had returned from the hell of chemical weapons to the bucolic surrounds of English pastoralism; who had seen all the power of industry turned to the destructive effort of war, and thus rejected industry as being itself destructive.

How could we, the modern readers, share this view? We are now more than a decade into the War on Terror. We have witnessed the fall of Sadaam, the killing of Bin Laden, Gaddafi murdered in a ditch by revolutionaries. We have seen Egypt fall and rise and fall again. Seen tyrants overthrown and replaced by corruption or chaos, have seen the empires of democracy spying on their own citizens. I cannot see a world in which good gathers its (white) people to its cause to defeat the encroaching evil (black) people. But that doesn’t mean that good and evil no longer battle.

Modern Fantasy does not show a world where evil is the ‘only game in town’. It shows a world in which the battle between good and evil takes place not between people, but within. Each character has good and evil within them, and each must allow that battle to be fought. In some evil wins, but not in all. Interestingly, the protagonists are seen by others as evil, perhaps even acknowledge that evil in themselves, but wish they could be better. The characters we hope to see succeed, Logan, Glokta, Shy, and yes even Jorg and Monza, (and why not throw Jaime Lannister in for good measure?) believe themselves to bad, but hope that they can be better. (For Jorg that hope comes late, and slow, and even as it comes he resists it – because he’s not one to be pushed – but it is there).

Sometimes these characters don’t achieve ‘goodness’; sometimes they are trapped by circumstance or history or any number of other forces, just as some good characters are corrupted, unable to maintain their goodness in the face of circumstance.
I want Glokta to succeed because I want for him the same thing he wants for himself, it’s just that he has given up on achieving it, while I hold hope. I want Logen to find peace because I want to believe that men can redeem themselves of past misdeeds, especially when those misdeeds weren’t entirely voluntary. I want Jorg to be a better person, because he’s not a very good person.
This isn’t to say that the battle between good and evil doesn’t take place. Many such battles are taking place, fought by independent splinter cells and sleeper agents, the battle-lines ill-defined and constantly shifting.

Which brings us to…

2. Fantasy is not just for boys.

It’s frustrating that this even needs to be said, but for Walter the success of evil he believes defines Modern Fantasy “says more about the psyche of the young male readers and writers who dominate grimdark fantasy than anything else.”

This is just so wrong-headed that I can’t even bring myself to invest much energy in the debate.
On Goodreads, the 5 star reviews for ‘The Blade Itself‘ include reviews from Maria, Kat, Inara, Annie, Faye, Sara and many other female readers. Likewise for ‘Prince of Thorns‘ we find Amanda, Rose, Natalie, Georgia, in the top dozen or so.
I could go on, but really – why bother.
As to only young men writing Modern Fantasy…
Ursula LeGuin, Robin Hobb, Trudi Canavan, Marion Ziommer Bradley, Janny Wurts, Anne McCaffery… of course JK Rowling. These authors aren’t mentioned as Grimdark, but I wonder if that’s because of how subjectively applied is the label. I do know that from my own experience in Australia I have met many talented women writing Fantasy and Spec-Fic. I struggle to believe that they are the exception.


Grimdark

So I’ve basically played the role of a vaguely interested observer in all this, but something Joe Abercrombie tweeted today – a piece by Daniel Abraham in Clarkesworld – has finally motivated to reach into my proverbial pockets and draw out two-cents, which I now humbly submit to the debate.

As Abraham notes the moniker “Grimdark”  is taken from Warhammer 40,000 (affectionately known as 40k). I played the game as a young fella. I had my armies (Eldar predominantly, but I did put a bit of an Orc Horde together and was compiling some Imperial Guard when I gave it all away. The miniatures  including some incredibly carefully and poorly painted Banshees and Scorpions, were sadly lost in a house-fire) and would spend long afternoons plotting the fractional movements required for victory or poring over a codex seeking some tactical advantage. I didn’t get too much into the surrounding mythology of the 40k universe, but it grew exponentially whilst I played and subsequently. I am aware now that entire novel series are devoted to the expanded universe, in much the same way you’ll find with Star Wars and Dragonlance and such.

I am familiar with the line from which “Grimdark” apparently comes: In the grim darkness of the future there is only war.

Two of my favourite modern Fantasy authors (Abercrombie and Richard K Morgan) have been labelled as writing Grimdark, as well as Mark Lawrence,  an author highly recommended to me and near the top of my to-read list (after I finally finish Red Country, which I am powering through at amazing pace). Judging by Abercrombie’s thoughtful response, and Richard Morgan’s, neither of them are thrilled at the assignation (though Joe seems to have embraced it with his twitter handle), but more on that latter.

Mark Lawrence’s response basically summed up my own, but seeing as we’ve made it this far, let’s unpack it a bit.

Genre is a fraught concept. At its best it’s a useful framework for understanding tropes and narrative archetypes, at its worst it’s a cage, a ghetto, a straight-jacket. Mieville’s reference to Tolkein as the “Big Oedipal Daddy” of Fantasy is perhaps a starting point in identifying how the Fantasy genre came to be seen both from within, and from without. Fantasy was escapism for nerds. It was largely derivative to its progenitor (and “Author of the Century” no less) and it operated within variations of his British agrarian idyll being threatened by malevolent forces.

Arguably this continued until recently, arguably very recently, arguably it continues still. Many would point (as Abraham does) to Thomas Covenant, and fair enough. Others would point to George RR Martin, whose Game of Thrones was published in 1996 and featured many of the traits now assigned to Grimdark: the amorality, the incest, the rape (so much rape, so casually put to the page), the murders, the attempted (and successful) infanticides, regicide, ultimately (spoiler alert of sorts) the death of the apparent protagonist before the end of the first book.

But Grimdark seems a more modern label than either of these. Perhaps it is the HBO effect and GRRM’s ever-growing fanbase, but even that is older than Grimdark, being in place for two years at least. And so the finger is pointed at Abercrombie (whose First Law books were published in 06,07 and 08), Mark Lawrence (Broken Empire 2011, 2012…), and Richard K Morgan (A Land Fit For Heroes 08, 10…).

Morgan is particularly interesting, because it’s his Fantasy books that see him labelled as Grimdark, but his previous series (published between 2002 and 2005 and focussed on Takeshi Kovacs) wears a label of sci-fi/noir. As Morgan himself points out it is the elements of Noir that he brings to Fantasy which are most likely what is used to label his work Grimdark. The Kovacs novels have been credited with reviving Cyberpunk (the genre spawned, or at least identified, by William Gibson‘s Neuromancer) by grafting “the Gibsonian subgenre” back onto pulp fiction, and I think particularly in this Noir Pulp. It’s a link Abraham makes as well in his Clarkesworld piece, though by Abraham’s distinction I personally see Kovacs as more Hard-boiled than Noir. Kovacs does make moral decisions that go against his self-interest, the difference perhaps is that Morgan makes his protagonist pay the cost of those decisions. Kovacs gets no free pass for having done, or having tried to do, the “right thing”.

Likewise with Abercrombie’s flawed “heroes”.  Logen Ninefingers has a past he wants to escape, but can’t. In much the same way as Morgan’s protagonist Ringil Eskiath (who shares a name with a Tolkeinian sword), Ninefingers isn’t given the freedom to just put aside the consequences of his past acts. He wants to be a better person, but it’s not going to be easy to change, and will be harder still to convince others of the change. Shivers suffers even more-so. The change in the Northman is pronounced, from when we first meet him during the final stages of the First Law, through his Styrian experience and his final, decisive, blow in The Heroes. It is not a change for the better. And yet it is a change we, as readers, can understand, perhaps even sympathise with. Is it enough to mean well, even if your actions bring ill consequences? Can we redeem our wrongs by good acts? Would I not too struggle to maintain the finer parts of myself if I had suffered as he suffered? I think these are essential questions for readers of this sub-genre, whatever we decide it should be called. I think these are essential questions for readers of all literature. Especially that last one.

Is it not this question that we ask ourself as Casablanca ends? Would I send the woman I love away, on a plane with another man? Would I risk something of myself for others, even if there was little hope of personal gain and a genuine risk of personal suffering?
When Harry Lime, atop the ferris-wheel in The Third Man, asks how much money it would be worth for one of those specks to simply stop moving, are we not being asked how much we value human life, being challenged to explain that value, or at least to respond in some way to a character who values it little at all?

Certainly in gritty stories, in amoral characters – or just overly pragmatic ones – we are challenged. I enjoy as a reader that I am. I enjoy as a writer exploring those questions and developing ways in which I can use characters to provide different perspectives on these questions and others like them.

The problem then with Grimdark is that it is used so often pejoratively, and often by those who are seeking to define what they dislike about a certain type of story. Abraham sub-titles his piece “Literatures of Despair” – a phrase he explains, but which I don’t accept. Morgan’s response dialogue is telling. The complaints (of the straw man) become ones of taste and of subjectivity. Some blood, but not too much. Some danger posed to the protagonist, but don’t kill him. Some hint of the enemy being evil, but no rapes or torture. A little military-based murder is ok, but no gore please.

I think allowing anyone – even a readership – to define a genre in such a way, to set up boundaries and borders in which writers should (or must operate), is a stultifying influence. Even more so if those arbitrary borders are then policed by self-appointed guardians, wielding indignation and harking back to a supposed Glorious Age.

If Grimdark is Noir come to the Fantasy worlds then it is no new thing. Indeed it’s taken a generation or two to move from the mainstream into Fantasy. In 1991 Silence of the Lambs swept the Oscars:  Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Picture. The cinema-going audience were ready for a story in which the secondary character, an advisor to the FBI (and thus in some way on the side of the ‘good guys’ even if reluctantly) was a cannibal serial-killer. Lector’s escape was celebrated, anticipated not as a defeat of the ‘good’ but as a victory for a character with whom the audience had become fascinated.

On television we watch Dexter, the serial-killer with a ‘Dark Passenger’ and a mission, and hope he doesn’t get caught. We admire Omar Little, a man we have witnessed murder and steal. We hope that Walter White can keep cooking and distributing crystal-meth, because doing so doesn’t make him a bad guy… not exactly… kind of… I don’t know. And that’s the point. These characters are fascinating and exciting and wonderful precisely because I can’t answer that question.

Is it any wonder the audience of modern Fantasy is ready for similar characters? Is it not a good thing that I started questioning why I should still be barracking for Monza to get her revenge, that I should question whether the world wouldn’t be better off if the ‘bad guy’ had’ve just killed her off in chapter one? I want characters who are flawed, who make mistakes, who do things I would never do, who suffer in ways I hope never to suffer. If it serves the story, put those guys through the wringer. Carve them up, piece-by-piece, and let’s examine what’s left at the core of them.

All of that’s fine. All of that means that I – now only two chapters into Red Country – honestly don’t know if I want Shy South to catch up to the bandits who took her brothers or not… and surely that uncertainty, that hesitancy, surely that’s a powerful narrative force.


On Cover Art and the Judging of Books Thereby…

At last year’s Genrecon one of the undoubted highlights was a snark presentation of covers given by Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. Of course her particular focus was the Romance novels, an easy target perhaps for snarking, what with Fabio and man-titties (as opposed to man-boobs) and various other such tropes. It came to me though that Fantasy was as easily lampooned, the Hooded man, the enthroned King, the busty and poorly armoured warrior woman.

Covers are vitally important, despite the old adage that does not bear repeating. Perhaps in the ebook market this is less true, as opening a new ebook usually will take you to page one rather than to a cover, but with the flood of product a good cover is still an effective way to draw clicks to your Goodreads, or Amazon, or Kindle store presence.

I was surprised to hear from published authors how little control they had over the covers with which their novels appeared. I did here some anecdotes of cover artists communicating with the author, or perhaps even reading the book, but these were told as exceptions, remarkable precisely because they were not the rule. In some cases the author hated the cover which the publishers used.

Some years ago my sister recommended a book to me:

A-Game-Of-Thrones-George-RR-Martin-Book-Cover

This is (I think) the 1997 edition.

On the back cover, below the blurb, there’s an image of a white wolf running through the snow.

Here, I thought, is everything I hated about Fantasy.

The swordsman in black, the black warhorse, the snowy castle, the raven…

Could these images look more hackneyed and clichéd?

It looked terrible.

I read a chapter or so in case she asked me about it, then it was shelved.

Some years later I found this book in a book store:

AGoT_UK_Current

This is the 2003 edition under the Voyager imprint.

There’s a few extra endorsements, as over the intervening years and sequels Mr. Martin’s work had gathered a following and some rave reviews, but they’re mostly the same.

The blurb is much better on this than on the original, and I’m certain that that played a role in my selecting it too.

I bought it and began reading it without ever making the connection to the book my sister had given me.

It was only when I was several chapters into the book, and hooked, that I started to make connections with the earlier book I had shelved (or in fact, by that time, boxed-up and stored under the stairs).

For five years I had ignored a great Fantasy novel because of its cover.

Another example of a cover leading me to great fiction is Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes

The-Heroes-HB2front

I had a voucher to a bookstore sent to me as a Christmas gift, and I went in to buy China Mieville’s collection of short stories “Looking for Jake”, but I had some money left over and no real plan so I browsed the shelves.

Abercrombie’s views on maps have been well explained, and he included none in his First Law trilogy (which also have great covers), but this cover (as with the covers for “Best Served Cold” and “Red Country”) manages to convey I think a very real sense of Abercrombie’s world and the style of Fantasy he writes.

I like them far more than the hyper-real close-ups of the US covers.)

I bought it, loved it, and went back through the First Law and “Best Served Cold” in a matter of weeks.

Here’s the jacket of Heroes in all its glory (click the image to enlarge):

The-Heroes-HB_jacket

Recently the author Mark Lawrence responded to some suggestions comparing his cover for King of Thorns to GRRM’s Game of Thrones (specifically the Sean Bean cover that was released to tie-in with the success of the television series)

2013-01-03-book-cover-twins

Lawrence’s response was to refer to similar covers back through the history of genre and still being released:

Conan_the_LiberatorPromise_of_Blood
His point of course is well made. The mere similarity of having your protagonist (if Ned is the protagonist) sitting a throne is as much a part of Fantasy as the heroine swooning in the strong arms of her hunk is a part of Romance.

It’s always tempting of course to judge these covers. Whether they are examples of the best the genre has to offer, or some of the worst covers in the history of literature, there’s no denying their effect. It was suggested that the success of Fifty Shades of Grey in breaking beyond the Erotic Fiction market and into the mainstream was (in part) because it didn’t look like a typical Erotica cover.

It’s also worth acknowledging that the covers do not always reflect or represent the novel in the way the author would wish though, so in the interest of dispelling that hoary old cliche and admitting that of course we all do judge books in this way I invite you in the comments to nominate others.

What covers have made you pick up a book you went on to love?

What covers have drawn you to a book that you hated?

What covers have chased you screaming away swearing never to inflict such rubbish upon yourself… at least until they repackage it?