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Thursday, 28 July 2016

The Mage of Dust and Bone - a Fabled Lands novel

A while ago the literary agent for Fabled Lands LLP, the company that owns Dirk Lloyd and our FL gamebooks, came up with the notion that it might be a wizard wheeze to write a fantasy novel with an MG-to-YA spin. Game of Thrones for young teens, sort of thing.

My usual way of working with Jamie on book projects for Fabled Lands LLP is that we come up with a story outline together, but Jamie does most of the actual writing because the company can only afford to employ one person full-time. Sometimes, if I have a week or two to spare, I'll write the first few chapters to help Jamie get started. That's how The Wrong Side of the Galaxy began.

In the case of this kids' fantasy book, which we gave the working title Mage of Dust and Bone, I wrote the first twelve thousand words, but by then Jamie was assigned to write a Frozen-style novel for Fabled Lands LLP called A Shadow on the Heart, which we decided was a better commercial bet than this tale of yet another wizard-in-training. (Earthsea, anybody?) In any case, as usual I was taking the story much too dark for the tender sensibilities of the tween and early teen readers - or of literary agents, come to that. And so it got shelved. The ironic twist in this tale is that A Shadow on the Heart didn't actually get written after all and then Fabled Lands LLP ran out of money, so in fact it was an entirely wasted opportunity. Oh well, it's not like the world doesn't already have a tsunami of fantasy adventure novels to keep it going. Small loss.

The Mage of Dust and Bone may be of some interest to Fabled Lands readers because the nominal setting is Sokara during the civil war - though not quite the same as the world of the gamebooks. Dweomer, for example, in the novel is not a wizardly university but simply a Tintagel-like castle where an old Arch Mage teaches three apprentices, one of whom is our antihero, Forge Burntholm. At the start Forge is about fifteen years old, and has been studying magic for some time, but then the book flashes back to when he first meets the Arch Mage. This is the beginning of chapter four, and I'll run chapter five over the next few days.

*  *  *

Chapter Four

The first time Forge remembered meeting the Arch Mage, he was nine years old and running home through the woods near his home. He had jumped the brook, ducked under a branch still heavy with last night’s rain, and there in front of him stood a stranger who seemed to be made of sky and sunlight.
Forge took a step back and looked again. The stranger was a normal man, no phantom of the woods, but he was not like any woodsman that Forge had ever seen. He must have been old, very old, but the only impression he gave Forge at the time was of boundless and ageless vigour, as if he’d grown there among the ferns and belonged to the wild as much as any bear or deer. Greying hair curled down to his shoulders, and there was a silver circlet on his brow, but it was his gaze that dazzled Forge. His eyes were bright - brighter than the raindrops on the leaves, that caught and danced the sunlight in a thousand fractured colours - and yet as dark and secret-laden as the cool shade under a stone.
His cloak, swept back from wide angular shoulders, hung like a black waterfall. His blue robes, as fine as any king’s, were tucked up into his belt, revealing strong leather boots with silver buckles. And beside him on the ground were half a dozen big wooden travelling chests, as if he’d just that minute got off a carriage or a boat. Which made no sense, of course, because the forest track they were on was no wider than a fox, and even in winter the brook was so small that a grown man could stand astride it.
‘Where did you come from?’ demanded Forge, who always acted bold if he felt nervous.
There was a long silence as the stranger studied him. ‘Many places,’ he said at last, and though he spoke very softly, his voice rang out clearly against the rushing water of the brook.
‘You must have come from one place last,’ insisted Forge.
‘From the sea. A place called Dweomer.’
‘That sounds a long way off,’ said Forge, for whom the next village over was an unimaginable distance.
‘Long enough to be thinking of lunch. I’m hoping your mother will have her fine herb salad ready. Maybe even some fresh-baked bread, eh?’
Forge bristled defensively at the reference to his home life. ‘How did you get here?’
‘You meet a traveller on the river bank. You’re a smart boy. How would you say he got there?’
‘This isn’t a river. It’s just the brook.’ Forge jumped over to the other side and back with a snort of contempt.
‘Just the brook, you say? Well it goes up and up into the hills, further than you’ve ever been, and miles down there to the sea, which you’ve never seen.’
‘You couldn’t get a boat on it, though.’
The stranger frowned and bent forward a little towards him. ‘Where did you get that idea? You used to know better when you were this high.’
Forge looked at his hand, held just so far off the ground. A yearling lamb might fit under it. Forge had less experience with young children, but he thought the Greysons’ toddler was about that tall, and he was two or three summers now.
‘We’ve never met,’ he told the Arch Mage.
‘Hmm. What a lot you’ve got to remember. Come on, let’s find your parents. Then we can make a start.’
He swept off through the undergrowth, straight in the direction that the Burntholm cottage lay. Forge followed, more to keep an eye on him than because he wanted to look like he was doing as he was told.
‘What about your boxes?’
The Arch Mage kept on walking. ‘You know the thing about travelling chests, Forge Burntholm?’
‘They travel. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they get there before we do.’
Forge looked back at the spot where the Arch Mage’s boxes had been just a moment before. The ferns were still pressed flat, the oblong outlines clearly visible, but of the boxes themselves there was no sign.
He ran ahead to the cottage, intending to warn his mother about the stranger, but as he banged in through the gate he found the boxes piled up in the middle of the lawn. His mother, who had been bending over the weeds, looked up as she heard him. He saw her face as she caught sight of the boxes – first a puzzled frown, then a smile as she saw him, and then all expression and colour drained out of her face and he guessed the Arch Mage must have appeared at the gate behind him.
Forge’s mother looked back at the thick clump of weed she was grasping, and she braced to uproot it, but it seemed that all her strength had gone. After tugging weakly at it for a moment, she straightened up, turned and went into the kitchen. By the time Forge and the Arch Mage came in, she was already filling the teapot.
‘Mistress Burntholm, I hope I find you well,’ said the Arch Mage.
’I found him in the woods, Ma,’ said Forge, going over to stand beside her.
She barely looked at the Arch Mage, just gazed sadly down at Forge. ‘I never thought… I didn’t think the years would turn so quick.’
The Arch Mage stooped under the wooden beams with their hanging bunches of onions and drying herbs. ‘Nothing’s written yet. No decision taken that can’t be undone. I can turn around and go, and the current of your lives won’t show a ripple.’
He sat at the table and waited while Forge’s mother poured steaming cups of tea. The sun blazed out on the lawn, but here in the kitchen with its clay-brick floor the day was still cool. They drank without saying anything, which made Forge think that the Arch Mage must either be an old friend of his mother’s or else somebody she didn’t like.
The Arch Mage looked out of the window at his pile of boxes. ‘Late again. Where’s it got to now?’
He muttered this under his breath, just talking to himself. They lapsed back into silence. Forge took the opportunity to hang around out of the Arch Mage’s line of sight and study him. The impression of wildness and nature was less obvious but still there. He sat at the kitchen table as if he belonged there just as much as the stove or the woodpile, or the basket where the cat normally lay – except that it had bolted up the stairs the moment it saw him.
Wrapped around his left hand was a gold ring that fascinated Forge. He tried not to stare, but from the moment he noticed it he found his eyes being pulled back, finding more details each time he looked. The ring was in the shape of a golden serpent, the band winding down from the wrist and around the hand so that the serpent’s head lay flat above the first knuckle of the Arch Mage’s middle finger. The metal was stamped with a pattern of scales, intricate and lifelike, and it had tiny black eyes that gleamed liquidly against the glinting sheen of the head. It looked so real. If Forge had found something like that under his heel when he was out in the woods, he’d have jumped ten feet.
As the Arch Mage raised his cup, his sleeve fell back and Forge was able to see that the golden coils wound all the way up his forearm, thickening as they went. The bright band against the hard-hewn brown flesh of the Arch Mage’s arm put him in mind of ivy wrapped around an oak. Strange too that it didn’t hold his arm stiff, as you’d expect a metal band like that to do. It must have moved with him.
The snake’s eyes blinked. Forge bolted for the door and ran straight into a leather apron that felt like it had a brick wall behind it. His father. He held Forge’s shoulders, laughing, but he fell silent when he caught sight of their guest.
‘Those’d be your cases, then. I remember now.’
‘All but one,’ said the Arch Mage, ‘but I expect it’ll be along in its own good time. How have you been, Gar Burntholm?’
‘Hale as horseshoes, Magister, if you’d asked me yesterday. Now, seeing you here at my table, and knowing what that means – ’
‘As I told your wife, there’s no step taken yet that it’s too late to turn around and go back. We’ll sit here and talk awhile, if you like. Smoke a pipe or two and mull it over.’
‘Burntholm,’ said his mother with sudden hope. ‘We could – ’
Forge’s father shook his head, always stubborn. ‘No, we spoke about all this before and the years haven’t changed anything.’
Forge was full to bursting with questions. ‘Who is he, Poppa?’
He got a slap across the back of the head for that, as he expected, but an answer too. ‘Don’t be rude, Forge. This is the Arch Mage of Dweomer. I’ve a mind to have you scrape the Magister’s boots.’
‘They’re not muddy, Poppa. He got here by magic – ’ Ducking another half-hearted cuff, and bowing to the Arch Mage. ‘Begging your pardon, Magister, but I reckon you did, didn’t you? And your travelling chests too.’
The Arch Mage reached out to him. It was his left hand, the one with the gold serpent ring, and Forge detached himself from his father’s grip and stepped nearer, half-hypnotized by fascination and the tug of fear.
Their fingers touched. Forge jumped. ‘What do you feel?’
‘Something stung me,’ said Forge. ‘Just for a moment. It’s gone now.’
‘Like calls to like. That sting is the stroke of a current you’ll learn to use. Did you know that rain can carve a mountainside? Wind shapes rocks. Rivers scoop out the landscape. A current just like that is flowing inside you.’
Forge squinted at him, unsure if he was being teased. ‘Do you mean blood?’
‘Blood? A surface thing. You used to know to look below the surface, Forge. A broken pot is not the anger that broke it. And so too life. It’s what runs inside the current, is life, while blood and sap are only what flow on top.’
‘I don’t understand.’
Forge went to draw his hand away, but the Arch Mage caught his wrist and with the other hand plucked a sprig of dried lavender from the potpourri bowl on the table. He placed it in Forge’s palm and curled the fingers round it.
‘Say what you feel.’
Forge shrugged. ‘Tickles a bit, I suppose. It’s scratchy.’
‘Not like a fresh flower. That would be soft, wouldn’t it?’
‘It’s just to make the kitchen smell nice,’ said Forge patiently, as if the Arch Mage were the child.
‘Imagine it now. You’re holding it in your hand, now hold it in your mind.’
Though he gave a small scowl of defiance, Forge closed his eyes. He pictured the desiccated blossom clutched in the pink darkness of his hand, its purple hue half rusted away, its scent pungent but powdery now that the life was gone.
‘You can see it?’ He nodded. ‘Now remember this flower as it was when your mother cut it. Picture it bathed in sunshine. It’s sturdily watered. Can you see it rippling there in the breeze? A growing, living thing. A bee settles on it, attracted by the colour and the scent. Feel it against your skin. Do you feel it?’
Forge opened his eyes, startled. Slowly and disbelievingly he unfolded his fingers. The lavender lay there bright and fragrant, as alive as if it had been cut just that moment.
There was a long silence as they all bent to look at the tiny miracle. Finally Forge’s father spoke. ‘Now see if you can do the same for my wrinkles.’
It was his usual plodding humour, brought out as clumsily as a bit of scrap iron. Forge had always enjoyed his father’s quips, groaning delightedly at them along with his mother. This time, with the Arch Mage there, he winced. It was the first time he was conscious of being embarrassed by his parents.

Friday, 22 July 2016

All four Critical IF books reviewed

I came across this video by Marco Arnaudo in which he reviews the Critical IF books and, not being entirely indifferent to praise, I figured I'd post it here. My only quibble is that in the books you create your character by choosing four out of a list of twelve skills, not ten as stated in the video. You know me; there had to be one quibble.

Normally Mr Arnaudo reviews boardgames on his YouTube channel, but judging from the shelves there I'd say he appreciates a good book, so maybe he'll look at more gamebooks in future. And I see he's got Douglas Wolk's Reading Comics there. Good choice, sir.

And in case you haven't yet read Heart of Ice and you're swayed by the review (from 19m 45s in), don't let me stop you:

Meanwhile the rest of the Critical IF series can be found here.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Ankon-Konu no longer inconnu

I wasn't going to post full images of the new artwork Russ Nicholson has been doing for The Serpent King's Domain on the grounds that the backers of the Kickstarter campaign ought to see it first. But now that it's gone up on the project's Kickstarter page, the cat is out of the bag so here are a couple of illustrations. For the rest, just hit that KS link.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Gamebook design: finding workarounds for missing codewords

A guest post today from Paul Gresty, who is currently hard at work on both The Serpent King's Domain (Fabled Lands book 7) and The Frankenstein Wars. We'd pile on more projects, but he's only got two hands.


The TV Tropes website is fascinating. It bills itself as 'The All-Devouring Pop Culture Wiki,' and that's a pretty accurate description. It highlights recurring narrative devices or production approaches across a wide spectrum of media, ceaselessly noting, never judging. Really, take a look at the page for any long-running series, and see how easy it is to lose an hour there.

TV Tropes has long since outgrown its initial TV-only remit. It was on the TV Tropes Fabled Lands page that I first realised how insanely hard it is to achieve the title of Saviour of Vervayens Isle in Over the Blood-Dark Sea. Spoilers for that book from here on in.

To get that title you have to start in Over the Blood-Dark Sea, and roll 10–12 in the opening paragraph when you roll two dice to determine your starting position. And even then, it's not guaranteed. That'll be why none of my Fabled Lands characters, who tend to start out in The War-Torn Kingdom, have ever had that title, then.

Early on in my planning for The Serpent King's Domain, I decided I wanted to incorporate another avenue to Vervayens Isle (it was suggested in the Fabled Lands Facebook group, too). It's a nice little area that, if my own experience is common, almost never gets played through. Surely, any continuity problems would be simple enough to iron out. Something like:
Do you have the title Saviour of Vervayens Isle? If you do, turn to 632. If not, turn to Over the Blood-Dark Sea 151.
Easy, right?

Um… no.

Y'see, a problem occurs because it's possible to visit Vervayens Isle without picking up that title. There's an encounter there (spoiler: the gorgons) that should surprise the player, if he or she comes across it. Loop through that more than once, and you lose any sense of continuity. And, the Saviour of Vervayens Isle title aside, there are no codewords, nor even any tick boxes, to check whether you've been to that island before.

Here it helps that the only route to that island comes in paragraph 1 of one of the books. Because this creates a work-around to check that the player hasn't started in Over the Blood-Dark Sea – that is, to check which book the player has started in. If you've played the demo version of The Serpent King's Domain, you may have acquired the codeword Gloom in paragraph 1. So it's a sure bet that, if you have that codeword, you've never visited Vervayens Isle.

Similarly, if you own the more recent republication of The War-Torn Kingdom, you'll have noticed that you obtain the codeword Auric in paragraph 1 of that book. Again, if you have that codeword, it's certain you didn't start out in Over the Blood-Dark Sea. (I'm hesitant to speak for Dave and Jamie, but if you only own the large-format edition of The War-Torn Kingdom, I'd say it's fine to award yourself the codeword Auric for starting out in that book anyway.)

So if during your travels through The Serpent King's Domain you come across a paragraph that says something like this:
If you have the codeword Auric or Gloom, turn to 582. If not, turn to 147.
… then it's really checking if you've been to Vervayens Isle. And if you don't have those codewords, but you've never been to Vervayens Isle, feel free to go there with my blessing anyway, even if you're not strictly playing 'by the book'. That's precisely why that paragraph's in there – to permit access to a location that's impossible to reach otherwise.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Deadman Diaries

I'm a big fan of film noir. An ordinary Joe in a fix that tips him over the edge of the safe little bubble we normally live in and into a crazy whirlpool of existential nightmare: from Sunset Boulevard to Max Payne, all it takes is the slick of rain, ominous bars of shadow, a heavy-lidded femme fatale and a patina of luminous monochrome, and I'm hooked.

So it's a particular delight to discover the latest gamebook adventure from Cubus Games (developers of The Frankenstein Wars and Necklace of Skulls) is a noir thriller called Deadman Diaries. It takes the form of a diary written by a guy who's deep in gambling debts and now needs to do whatever he has to, legal or otherwise, to stay alive. So you can help him find a way to pay off the mob, or you can lead him further astray with a view to getting him killed in a variety of different ways.

The text is by Ricard Fuster and the artwork is by Gerard Freixes. As it says in the logline, life's a bitch and then you die. Grab your ticket to the long goodbye for iOS here and for Android here.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Even gorillas gotta start small

Photo copyright Lalo Pangue; Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

Developing a show for television can be a rabbit hole experience. Leo Hartas and I spent a year working on a show called Carnival Park. Why was it called that? Because the producers liked the name. Well, of course they did; they picked it. Three production companies were involved – in Britain, Spain and Norway – and they were pleased as punch that Carnival Park sounds similar to Carnaval Parque sounds similar to Karneval Park. In meetings, somebody would say the name and that was often the only time that all the producers could prick up their ears and smile at each other in mutual recognition

So Leo and I had to fit a story and characters around a title. In television parlance, at least among writers, the technical term for that is arse about face. Yet it keeps on happening. Producers acquire a property – or, very often, simply imagine they have acquired a property. Writers, being a biddable tribe of fellows devoted to developing TV shows on a non-profit basis, then go along with the producers in the hope that the whole process will end in a commission.

That commission seldom happens. And the reason it seldom happens is because the producers have led the creative process. If you end up hired (that should be “hired” in inverted commas, by the way) as a writer on a TV show, tear up whatever they give you and create your own vision. It may not get made, but it’ll have a lot better chance. And, crucially, you might stay sane.

One example of a show concept I worked on briefly. Some producers felt that they had some claim to the King Kong IP. Now that one, let me tell you, is a real tangled web. Between Universal, RKO and the estate of producer Merian C Cooper, there was a bit of a ding-dong over King Kong that went on for years, nay decades. The final legal ruling? It’s simply too tedious to go into. I’d rather be shot off the top of the Empire State Building. If you are interested then (a) may the ape god help you and (b) here are the full wearying details on Wiki.

Where was I? Oh yes, notwithstanding all of those earlier court battles over the rights, these producers believed they had found a loophole or something that would allow them to create a "King Kong Junior" television show and/or videogame for kids. Maybe they intended to change the character’s name, though the treatment I knocked up indicates that at the time they briefed me they had no fear of a court battle with either NBC Universal (who would have had a case) or the Cooper estate (who wouldn’t).

What is even more astonishing is that this is only one of three "junior King Kong" projects (one a movie, one a game) that I've been roped into by different groups of producers over the years. It's one of those concepts - others are any famous literary character as a vampire or vampire hunter, or any famous historical character plus zombies - that keep churning around in entertainment industries whose corporate crushing of real inspiration and open access to bullshit artists have left them repeatedly scraping the same place in the bottom of the same barrel.

For curiosity’s sake, then – as this is a TV show that has literally no hope of ever getting made, other than by NBC themselves – here is that treatment. The show's title? Yeah… Not my idea. Don’t shoot me, I’m just the keyboard monkey.


Doesn’t matter where you live in the world. Or when. Don’t let anybody tell you that being a 15-year-old kid is easy.

Take TABU. He’s keen, clever and wants to know about everything. Most of all, he longs to know what lies beyond the massive stockade doors and high rock walls that separate the coast of his Pacific home from the island’s mysterious interior.

“No one knows. Don’t ask!” his teacher, the village shaman HORANGI tells him.

“It’s dangerous. Keep out!” warns his mom, MAHINA.

“Get lost, freak!” say the other kids.

Tabu is the odd one out among the island’s kids. He has the problem of being short-sighted in a time and a culture that has never discovered glasses. He can’t join in the ball game because he's barely able to see his hand in front of his face. He blurts out secrets without realizing who he’s talking to. Squinting up at the white peak in the centre of the island, he reckons “it looks like a skull” - but everyone else just thinks that’s just Tabu with his head in the clouds as usual.

Tabu’s dad, LANI, used to be the local sports hero – he could dive deeper, row faster and throw a spear further than any other man on the island. That’s until a busted leg put him on the sidelines of life. He’s more disappointed at himself than at his son, but he has no idea how to bridge the gap between them. Tabu's mom was once the local beauty, the aloha version of prom queen, but in twenty years she’s gone from drop-dead gorgeous to a danger to shipping. Even Horangi is careful not to get on the wrong side of Mahina.

As for Tabu’s kid sisters, HIKA and HOKA – he thinks of them like a pair of chattering monkeys whose sole aim is to drive him up a palm tree. He sometimes almost wishes they’d get sacrificed to the god Kong who lives on the other side of that wall. (Not that anybody gets sacrificed anymore. That was all in the bad old days. But it’s a threat Horangi still uses to keep folks in line.)

Tabu has one thing going for him. He’s like a dolphin in the water, slicing through the waves, diving down to pick up pearls from the sea bed. Nobody is a better swimmer. And on his fifteenth birthday, at the annual flower festival, he reckons he’ll get a chance to prove it.

Except… OROTO the school bully gets all the trophies. And he doesn’t want to be shown up by a kid who can’t tell a stone crab from a coconut at twenty paces. So Oroto talks Horangi into holding a qualifying round. The swimmers have to identify various threats like jellyfish, shark fins, and so on. As the pictures are held up, it’s all a blur to poor Tabu. He’s sent packing without even having dipped a toe in the sea.

He’s furious. He never got a chance to show what he could do. The injustice almost makes him choke. Ashamed of his tears, he hides out in his hut far from the feast. As night falls after the contest and Oroto gets all the prizes and garlands, Tabu listens to the merriment and has never felt so low. He thinks he’s alone there till he notices his dad, sitting out on the veranda staring at the moon.

Tabu’s dad knows about unfairness. He went from hero to zero overnight when he injured his leg. Reminiscing over long-faded glories, he tells Tabu about the night he climbed over the stockade wall. Like Tabu, in those days Lani had a thirst to find out for himself about whatever was forbidden.

“You went to the interior? What did you find?” Tabu asks him.

“I don’t know. Coming back I fell from the wall. That was how I broke my leg. Never played the ball game again. Never been much of a hunter since then, or much of anything except a drunk I guess. I was in a fever three days and they say I was raving about all kinds of crazy stuff.”

“What kind of stuff?”

“Only Horangi knows. He sat up with me in the medicine hut and he’s not telling. But your mother – she was there when they found me, and she took my pack home. And these are the things I brought out of the interior with me, son. They’re yours now.”

Lani takes three things out of an old box under the bed. There’s a scrap of stiff paper, glossy on one side. Tabu has never seen a photo. “It’s such a lifelike picture!” he says, peering at it. The image shows a baby with a streak of white in her black hair.

There’s also a little metal frame with two circular bits of glass in it. Tabu notices how it concentrates the firelight into pinpoints on the wall behind him. He lifts it to his eyes – and everything snaps into focus. He hooks the frame over his ears and gasps as he sees the stars for the first time. A million tiny jewels like fireflies across the universe. “I can see you, pop. I can see everything. It’s so sharp!”

And then there’s the third item. It’s hard and white and it’s as big as a mango pit. “What’s this?”

Lani dips his hand in a pot and brings out something small. He puts it into Tabu’s hand. A milk tooth. “Remember when you were a little kid and you’d wiggle those loose?”

Tabu compares it with the big white object. It’s a tooth as well – but what a tooth! Tabu holds it up beside his jaw. “Whatever animal this came from, I could get my whole head in its mouth.”

Lani sees Tabu look up towards the huge wooden gates that seal off the interior of the island. “Don’t go there, son,” he says, rubbing his aching leg. “You don’t want to end up like me.”

Well, that’s it right there. That's the choice in life, isn't it. Do you stay where it’s boring and safe, or do you go looking for everything that’s good and bad and in-between? Every generation, every one of us has to make that choice for themselves. To Tabu, it’s no dilemma at all. Life in the village holds nothing for him. And thanks to the spectacles, he can see clearly now.

That night, Tabu packs up a kit bag and climbs over the stockade wall. His adventure is about to begin.

On the far side of the island lives a teenage girl with a white streak through her jet black hair. Poppea (POPPY, to you) is like a fairytale princess living in a tall half-timbered cottage that stands on a rock a few hundred yards out from the shore. It’s the sort of home you’d expect to find in a quaint European village with cobbled streets rather than on a tropical Pacific island. How did it get there? In fact it was built from the wreckage of the Prospero, a ship that was wrecked here over a decade ago.

Poppy’s mother is ALTAIRA ADAMS, the Prospero’s captain, who came to the island years ago in search of a mysterious flower said to hold the secret of eternal youth. Yep, Altaira is a bit of a mad scientist if you want the truth. She’s been so obsessed with her quest that she’s hardly noticed her daughter growing up.

Left to run wild, Poppy soon took to going off for days at a time. And she has made a friend. A big, hulking, loyal friend called KONG, who at this tender age is still “only” about twelve feet tall.

But Poppy has never seen another human being of her own age. So you can just imagine the mixture of fascination, wariness, excitement and jealousy that arises when these three come together: Tabu, Poppy and Kong.

As the series progresses, our heroes discover more about the island and the fabulous wildlife that inhabits the interior. Studying the native myths, Poppy’s mother believes the island was originally a huge meteor that fell thousands of years ago, capping an erupting volcano. The heat of the lava reacted with the strange extraterrestrial rock. The remarkable soil of the island possesses strange properties that has caused life to thrive and mutate, leading to the incredible flora and fauna that lives there now. She scoffs at Tabu’s belief that the island spirit watches over them – yet she can’t deny that in her expeditions to the interior in search of the immortality flower, she has had some pretty uncanny experiences.

And now the scene is set for a series of fast-paced fantasy-pulp adventures. Many seek the source of eternal youth – can our heroes protect their island paradise? Horangi suspects Tabu of breaking the sacred rules – can he avoid being branded a heretic? In the dark heart of the island, prehistoric monsters reign supreme – can Kong look after his human friends as their thirst for exploration takes them into danger? And when armed hunters come from the outside world to trap Kong – what can Tabu and Poppy do to save him?

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Fantasy and SF books

The book reviews in the last post proved more popular than the role-playing stuff that preceded it. I admit I'm surprised, but we live in an age when politicians and bloggers alike are buffeted by the forces of populism -- interesting times, as the Chinese say. So here are a few more reviews, this time all of genre books so you can see how picky I am. I'll save the best till last.

American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from the 1940's Until NowAmerican Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from the 1940's Until Now by Peter Straub
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Quite a curate's egg. Some of the stories are what I would expect of "the fantastic" - elusive, oblique, unsettling, breathtakingly fanciful, or all of the above. Joe Hill's "Pop Art", for example, in which the narrator remembers his inflatable childhood friend. That's a world in which people just are sometimes inflatable and Hill runs with the idea. But contrast that with Poppy Z Brite's "Pansu", which relentlessly expounds a feeble idea about exorcism; it might as well be one of Ross Rocklynne's problem-solving SF stories, only with made-up stuff in place of clever physics. Or Caitlin Kiernan's "The Long Hall on the Top Floor", which is hardly a story at all but more like a treatment for a formulaic TV series about a drunken, hip-but-bitter psychic investigator; Constantine lite. Or look at the way Jane Rice in "The Refugee" feels obliged to painstakingly lay out the crumbs of plot and evidence to coax us towards the denoument of a rather undistinguished werewolf story.

But then there are gems too. John Collier's "Evening Primose", about the shadow community living in a department store; Tennessee Williams's poignant, spectral "The Mysteries of the Joy Rio"; Truman Capote's inexplicably threatening "Miriam"; John Cheever's "Torch Song"; Shirley Jackson's "The Daemon Lover" (there's the twisty nightmarishness I wanted); Mary Rickert's disturbing and ambiguous examination of grief and guilt in "The Chambered Fruit"; Benjamin Percy's dislocated existential horror "Dial Tone" - these and others make the collection worthwhile.

A Maze of DeathA Maze of Death by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It shouldn't work, this. It gives every indication of being slapped together with no planning, the characters are opaquely written, the set-up is both contrived and confusing. Yet somehow Dick pulls a workable yarn out of the hat. Maybe that's because the experience of reading it throws you into the same state of fretful bafflement that the characters are experiencing. Or maybe it's simply because, when it comes to paranoid delusions, Dick knows whereof he writes. It's not great but worth reading to see what the brush of genius can do to transform a mess.

Second Foundation (Foundation, #3)Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This one is more fantasy than SF. A mutant with mind-controlling powers disrupts Asimov's rise-of-empire story. That's fun for a while, but Asimov can't think of a way out so he gives the entire Second Foundation the same powers, and they wave a mental wand and that's it. All sorted. As for what those powers are - we all had them once, apparently, but lost them with the development of language. Oh, Isaac, that's lazy.

Still, it's a good story with at least one compelling character in 14-year-old aspiring novelist Arcadia Darell, a prototype for feisty teen investigators.

There's one slip-up where Asimov puts us inside the head of a character who could not possibly be thinking what he tells us she is because it later turns out she's been on top of the whole situation all along. Isaac, that's careless; you were pantsing it, I suspect.

At the end, having enjoyed the ride, I still had to wonder why Hari Seldon didn't just put the psychologists (who are really kind of psycho-economists) and the physical scientists on the same planet. It would have saved a lot of confusion. That'll be why, then.

Quite a lot of typos in these editions, by the way. You can work out what was meant but it's irritating.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry AugustThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another real curate's egg. I liked the concept, and it takes some getting your head around. To summarize: because in consecutive lifetimes people you met in the previous lifetime remember that as their last lifetime too, it seems that the entire world must reset when every single ouroboran from the dawn of time to the end of the human race has completed one life. Which was kind of fun to think about.

This means that you can send messages forward as far as you like in one instantiation of the world, but you can only send a message back by one generation at a time. Nonetheless, our narrator gets a message that the end of the world is happening sooner than it used to. He soon twigs that it's because of a rogue ouroboran in his own lifetime (1919 to the early 21st century) who is meddling in the old Things That Man Was Not Meant etc.

Now here's the biggest flaw in the book. We are asked to accept that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds, just as long as ouroborans do nothing to try and improve the human lot. Create antibiotics 50 years early? Why, you fool, there'll be a dotcom crisis in the 1960s and nuclear war before 2020.

[Spoilers here on in...]

There's nothing wrong with SF taking a reactionary view. What would paperback sales be like in Boko Haram territories if it couldn't do that? But the dramtic flaw here is that we are presented with this intriguing, unexplained phenomenon of reincarnation, and one of the characters is trying to build a magic mirror - sorry, quantum mirror - which might well tell him and us what lies behind it all. But he's the bad guy. We're supposed to root instead for the plodding narrator who is doggedly trying to stop him so that dotcom crises and humanitarian disasters can happen when they're supposed to as ordained by - whatever, whoever. Personally I think the story would have worked better if the narrator was trying to cause change and reveal truths rather than putting all the genies back in their bottles.

The author does well at evoking the sense of many different lives lived. Less so at the emotional journey. The narrator's relationship with his real and adoptive fathers interested me far more, but was much more sketchily covered, than his struggle to stop anything different or interesting from ever happening. At one point his nemesis marries the woman he himself loved a dozen lives earlier. The reaction s both too little and too much - "I crawled into the bushes and wept." Dude, it was like 800 years ago. I can pass old flames in the street without going nutso, and that's just a matter of decades.

But then, our hero is an eidetic. Or rather, to use their own terminology, a mnemonic. He remembers everything. Often these eidetics are troublemakers, because they take vaccines and gunpowder back to earlier times. But wait a mo', every message passed back down from the future must do that... Moving on.

The style is rather uncomfortably prosaic and stilted. An attempt to render how somebody born in 1919 would write? Perhaps, but some poetic licence would have made it more tolerable. The ending is a little rushed, the bad guy all but throwing himself onto the pyre. It had the smack of author fatigue to me; time to wrap up and work on something else.

Still, an interesting concept - even if it is never actually explored either emotionally or scientifically. Maybe that will be in the sequel, but 400 pages was quite enough for me.

(Editing anomalies: a "temporarily" that should have been "temporally" and a strange lapse into Chaucerian idiom with "nor in no life". Blame the publisher for those; authors have enough to do thinking this shit up.)

A Monster CallsA Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The story of a 13-year-old boy whose mother has cancer. As with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, who would drown this kitten? It's the sort of book publishers absolutely love doing, because they can't always judge literary quality but worthiness is obvious to all. "Brave, compassionate, beautiful..." say the cover quotes; they write themselves. It's the kind of thing that almost has me rooting for the tumour.

It's in the past tense, which makes it almost a collector's item among kids' books these days. The style is...

Well, the style. It is.

That is the style.

A bit like Dr Seuss? That's what I thought too. Okay, it is for kids, but I grew out of Dr Seuss by age 6 or so. After a hundred pages the shallowness of that screenplay-like prose really grates. But it is in the past tense, I give it points for that.

Some light spoilerishness now. The most interesting part to me was the main character's relationship with his tormentor at school. The denouement of that was thoroughly unsatisfying (the author's inspiration simply took an afternoon off) and the aftermath completely unrealistic. I don't think criminal cases involving bodily harm are left for school authorities to adjudicate, for example, nor is prosecution solely dependent on pressing charges.

The monster is okay, but it doesn't have much to do except tell a series of stories that feel like padding - probably because they are. The ending is all tell not show, but it's relentlessly worthy so librarians will love it.

A part of the proceeds from the book do go to charity. But you could always cut out the middleman.

Dark Satanic MillsDark Satanic Mills by Marcus Sedgwick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The only graphic novel in my reviews of 2013 (though not, of course, by any means the only comics work I've read this year) this is a quite unsettling approaching-apocalypse story with some of the DNA of Survivors, Quatermass IV and 1984 - along with much that is original and brilliant in its own right.

The White DarknessThe White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is beautifully written, has an intriguing premise (Captain Oates lives on as the imaginary friend of a 14-year-old girl) and convincingly rounded characters.

You can see there's a but coming, can't you? I found for the first quarter of the book that the story didn't really bite. That bit is like a long set-up that is all put across in wonderful prose, but it lacks the intrigue factor needed to make you keep on reading. It was only when the narrator gets to Antarctica (I'm not giving anything away here) and things start to go wrong that the novel becomes really compelling.

One problem, I decided, was that there is plenty in the set-up that the reader can see but the narrator cannot. This creates a disconnect between us and our protagonist. That's all very well when the narrator is somebody like Charles Pooter. We may not connect with Pooter or even respect him that much, but we do find him endearing. That's comedy. But in a dramatic tale like this, where the narrator is our sole point of contact with a story that is hopefully going to move us (and it does) it is potentially fatal to find that you're distanced from that narrator for a good chunk of the book.

So, overall I recommend this (and my wife btw would give it 5 stars) but you do need to be patient with the slow build-up.

The Battle Of The SunThe Battle Of The Sun by Jeanette Winterson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The caveat first: it's a kids' book, so I'm not the intended audience. I'm trying to think back to what books I'd have read at that age. Robert Heinlein's juvenile novels (Red Planet, etc). Dracula. Mike Moorcock's Mars books. Very different.

It's full of inventive ideas and Ms Winterson is obviously enjoying herself, to such an extent that it often feels as if she's making it up as she goes along. That's okay, by the way, as long as you don't drop any plates. And she doesn't.

The style is lush and lyrical, but feels a little repetitive after a while. No doubt that's deliberate (it creates an incantatory feel) so is only a complaint from an adult reader's perspective.

Likewise the perfunctory characterization. It's like a fairytale, so there's no depth or complexity there. A character is brave, or devious, or ruthless, or honest, and motivations are: greed, love, fear. Lacking that, it reads like a role-playing game write-up in which characters are seen doing things but we never really go inside them. I'd have preferred fewer characters with more time given to them, but children now have different expectations from when I was reading Heinlein and Stoker.

Btw I only discovered halfway through that it's sort of a sequel to Ms Winterson's other kids' book, Tanglewreck. I'm not sure that matters - you can read this one on its own - but it was odd.

Riddley WalkerRiddley Walker by Russell Hoban
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Now that everybody is in such a flappy fuss about Station Eleven (give it three years and you'll have to Google it) this seems like a good time to re-read possibly the greatest work combining narratology, theatrical performance, and post-apocalyptic future history. Hoban said he could never spell properly again after confabulating the narrator's language, but it was worth it.

Titus Groan (Gormenghast, #1)Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It took me more than 30 years to read this book. After originally abandoning it a few chapters in, I nearly gave up at the same point. There's a whole world and a lot of characters to introduce, and Peake wasn't writing for an audience of TV-weaned YA goldfish. He takes his time but suddenly it pays off. You really know these characters because he has put care into making them individuals. His prose is beautiful and he has the most vivid visual imagination of any author I've come across.

It is, in short, a masterpiece. Normally I reserve 5 stars for books that I feel affect me profoundly and permanently - that "change my life", as all great art should on some level. I regret not coming to Gormenghast a lot sooner. If I'd read it 32 years ago it would have stretched me to create more interesting fantasy worlds in my own books.

(Thanks incidentally to Marcus Sedgwick: it was his superb comparative review of Gormenghast and Lord of the Rings that sent me back to the book after so long. I feel I need to acknowledge that, having just trashed his latest book in another review. And one day maybe I'll read Lord of the Rings.)

Death Is a Lonely Business (Crumley Mysteries, #1)Death Is a Lonely Business by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A magic realist whodunit in which the young Bradbury is himself the protagonist. Only, being Bradbury, it's never as simple as that. The murderer seems to be more existential than physical, the familiar landscape of LA suddenly far more fantastical than Mordor. The one flaw is that Bradbury, as a writer who notoriously disdained plotting, allows an important character to slip out of the story while two others, introduced later and in whom we are consequently less invested, become more prominent than they really should. But imagine it as a sixtysomething author getting up and just improvising a prose-poem of dread, beauty, loneliness and the desire to connect with others and you can't help but applaud.

Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of TekumelEmpire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tekumel by M.A.R. Barker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've read it more times than I could count and I've spent as much time in Professor Barker's imagination as on the planet Earth. EPT is the most perfect example of the proliferating story threads that Damien Walter describes as one of the chief joys of reading a roleplaying game ( I'm not religious, but if I was this would be my Bible.

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