Thursday, March 29, 2012

Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens by Jonathan Pinnock reviewed

Now, this is curious.  In general, I’m not the biggest fan of comedy novels.  I love Adams and Pratchett in small doses, but even the masters can get a bit much for me.  But I’m doing my second consecutive review of a comic fantasy (or should that be fantastic comedy?) novel which I absolutely loved.

I’d been looking forward to reading Jonathan Pinnock’s Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens (especially having a signed copy complete with an elaborate tentacle) and I wasn’t disappointed.  As the title suggests, it’s a science fiction sequel to Pride & Prejudice, and it probably works best if you know something of the original – I do, although I’m not particularly a Jane Austen reader – but I think it would work too even for a reader who doesn’t.  The humour takes in a wide range of targets, literary and contemporary, as well as references to the better-known adaptations of the book.  Elizabeth’s favourite horse is called Keira, while there’s a reference (of course) to Darcy and a wet shirt.

Essentially, Regency Britain is threatened by tentacle-covered aliens – there’s no obvious reasons for the tentacles, but they’re aliens, after all – and the focus of their schemes appears to be Elizabeth Darcy, née Bennett.  Her sister Lydia has vanished; her husband is acting strangely; the odious clergyman Mr Collins is running a mission in London for fallen women who are never seen again.

Elizabeth’s only ally is Wickham, the villain of Pride & Prejudice, whose caddishness is revealed as a cover for his role as a kind of Regency James Bond, complete with a delightful arsenal of steampunk gadgets.  Together, they have to face not only the aliens, but zombie wannabes in Bath (a sly dig at another Pride & Prejudice parody), shockingly unconventional artist-types in the quiet village of Glastonbury, assorted ghosts and, most fearsome of all, Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

In the spirit of the original, this is all punctuated by increasingly desperate letters from Elizabeth’s sister, Jane, who, with her husband Bingley, seems to be falling for every con ever conceived by the human mind.  Some might sound rather familiar.

I won’t spoil the jokes by quoting anything, but suffice it to say that numerous times I laughed loud enough to be glad I was on my own.  (Hint – perhaps the loudest was about Mr and Mrs Hurst and their son.)  The scenes where the aliens are speaking to one another are hilarious.

The odd quibble might be made about the sense of one or two elements, such as tying in Jack the Ripper (if the victims were all from the Regency period, how were their names known in the 1880s?) but it’s really not the kind of book where such quibbles matter.  Just go with it and enjoy the laughs.

All I can say is Ek-ek-ek-ek, which means “very highly recommended” – or possibly something about meerkats.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

As Time Goes By

How does a writer make time pass in a fantasy world?

That might seem a strange question.  After all, fantasy epics can often sprawl over many years, and they almost always have vast quantities of history behind them.  Sword & sorcery series will frequently follow a hero through his/her life – even Conan grew from a footloose youngster to a married man.

Still, the vast majority of fantasy authors seem to impose a kind of artificial present onto their world.  Take Earthsea as an example.  The books certainly cover Ged’s lifespan, and LeGuin has written stories that cover events from history, such as the founding of Roke, but everything is done from the point of view of a “present” that seems to be vaguely at the end of Ged’s life.  It’s unthinkable that we should ever find out what happened to Earthsea after this, while the older stories are cast as more like legends than in-the-moment tales.

The most obvious exceptions seem to be cases where the author has a fixed reference point outside their world.  Tolkien moved easily enough from the First Age to the quest of the Lonely Mountain to the War of the Ring – but he was “translating ancient texts” from a contemporary viewpoint.  Lewis showed us Narnia from start to finish, but from the viewpoint of visitors from our world, whose experience was that the whole thing took place within a single lifetime.

Star Trek does it well (and I think we can agree that’s as near as makes no difference a fantasy world) showing the “present” as being variously the 22nd, 23rd or 24th centuries.  Both DS9 and Voyager look back to the Original Series, while Enterprise foreshadows aspects of all the later-set shows.  That too, though, has a link to our present, though it’s projected into the future, not the past.

In a fantasy world that has no obvious point of contact with our own reality, though, why does there need to be any fixed point of the “present”, beyond the perspective of each individual story?  The kind of model I described using Earthsea as an example (and I want to make it clear that, in every other way, this is a series I absolutely adore) is like a picture.  We have a foreground, where the action is taking place; we have landscape and people in the distance – history and legend – which can never be anything other than background; and we have the plane of the picture (the “present”) beyond which nothing exists.

OK, that can work perfectly well, especially if there’s a large enough story to tell in the “present”, but it’s not the only way of approaching a fantasy world.  Instead of a picture, I like to create something more like one of those computer-generated virtual tours, where the background in one view can become foreground in another, and you can look back at where you were a moment before.

In my stories, I show different periods, as well as locations, of the same world over a ten-thousand-year span, although most of the stories are from the last four-to-five thousand years.  Several stories contrast different eras, including one that’s set partly right at the end of the ten thousand years, at a stage when the culture has planes and computers, and partly in a primeval city ten thousand years before.  The influence of time doesn’t always go one way only.

This raises another issue: why do fantasy stories always have to be set in an iron-age/mediaeval era?  It’s very tempting, of course – it’s such an inviting age to set fantasy in – and I’ve fallen to a certain extent into the Eternal Iron Age Syndrome – though with some excuse.  Nevertheless, I’ve also looked at this particular world’s neolithic, bronze-age, early gunpowder, industrial and high-tech eras, and I fully intend to explore these periods a lot more.

So how far can this process extend?  It seems to me that, unless your world is very vividly different from our own, there’s not a lot of point trying to extend it back before there were cities, or forward into a culture significantly more advanced than ours.  Either way, there’ll be little that marks the story out as belonging to that world rather than this.  I’ve written one story, for instance, that’s supposed to be set in my world’s paleolithic hunter-gatherer era, but there’s actually nothing that prevents it from being this world, or any other.  If my world had three purple moons, of course, I could illustrate where we were, but even that would only be cosmetic.  A big, scary forest is pretty much just a big, scary forest.

Similarly, events in a future-tech, spacefaring version of my world could refer back to places and events I’ve covered in earlier stories, but there’d be no great advantage to doing that, rather than creating the same things on a future earth.  And, once they get out among the stars – well, that’s even less distinguishable than a big, scary forest.

Still, this gives me a timescale to play with that stretches from urban neolithic to the computer age: plenty of room to have fun in.

I’m not, I should stress, trying to claim that I’m unique, and that no other author is approaching their world in the same way.  For one thing, I’m simply not well enough read in modern fantasy to make this claim.  I’m not aware of anyone else who’s using the virtual tour approach, though – but, if there is, I’d love to read them.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Flow - Guest Blog by Lindsey Duncan

As the first guest-post on this blog, I'd like to welcome Lindsey Duncan, whose contemporary fantasy novel Flow has just been published by Double Dragon Publishing.  Flow follows the water-witch Chailyn, on dry land for her first mission, and Kit, a contemporary teen with mysterious powers, as they seek the man who killed Kit's mother ... a goal which catches the interest of the darkest of fairies.  They must also deal with the Borderwatch, a zealous organization that hunts fairies and has been in a cold war with the water-witches for decades.

First of all – thanks, Nyki, for hosting my ramblings on your blog.  I appreciate the hospitality.  Is there anything to drink? {Anything you like, as long as it's virtual - N.}

As a fantasy writer, I prefer secondary world fantasy – stories in a setting other than Earth, however tweaked – due in part to the possibilities of worldbuilding.  (And to the fact that I hate messing around with guns, but that’s irrelevant for this discussion.)  However, in working on my contemporary fantasy novel, Flow, I got a chance to explore creating a mystical setting that grew out of the framework already in place – our own.

Because I had started with characters, I knew that I wanted a world where fairies existed and were the focal point of the supernatural.  I also knew that I needed an underwater society and water-based magic, though I only had a few thoughts as to what that should look like.  So I started with research, looking for a myth to use as foundation.  When writing a “traditional” fantasy, I sometimes work from myth, sometimes begin wholecloth – but the element is often transformed beyond recognition, or at least shrouded from a casual glance.  Here, I wanted the influences to be direct.

The place I started was origin stories for fairy – everything from aliens to the dead.  I encountered a Biblical legend that framed fairies as lost children from the Garden of Eden.  Eve, bathing her offspring, was called upon God to present them.  Ashamed of the still-dirty portion of the brood, she told them to hide … and those children, never acknowledged by God, became fairies.  Now, I’m not particularly religious, and I would be chary of creating a setting with this as acknowledged fact – but it seemed an excellent inspiration for various aspects of my fairies.  In particular, because I already knew I was featuring water, it sparked interesting potential explanations for how fairies interacted with that element.

The second aspect I considered was the physical origins, the homeworld – and again, I discovered an aspect of mythology that fit so well, it might have been designed for the story.  I already had it in the back of my head that the Vale, the realm of the water-witches, had some similarities to Atlantis.  In exploring, I found out that the Irish fairy realm, Tir na nOg (your spelling, capitalization, and use of accent marks may vary) was sometimes equated with Atlantis.  Why not fuse the two in the distant past of the setting?  (This is a setting choice that has no direct impact on Flow, but it influenced how I constructed the Vale.)

In other cases, I had a more fully-fleshed idea and wanted to give it a direct historical connection.  With the Borderwatch, I knew had a militant, non-magical organization that took a hard line stance towards fairies – and in building their history, I decided to give them origins in the American Revolutionary War, with founding members from the minutemen and militia of that era.

So in the end, the process of creating a supernatural setting for Flow was very different than the process for creating a new world wholecloth – less a matter of invention and more of excavation.  It was almost as if I hadn’t created something new so much as uncovered what was already there – or might have been.

Thanks again for having me, Nyki.  Don’t mind the scuff marks on the carpet. {It's nothing to what the dragons leave behind - N}


Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Grunts by Mary Gentle reviewed

Mary Gentle is one of my absolute favourite authors, and I’ve read most – but not quite all – of her books.  No two are really alike, so it’s hard to pick my favourite, although on balance I’d probably pick Rats & Gargoyles.

One I hadn’t read till now, which is probably more different than most, is Grunts, her comic fantasy novel from 1992.  All her books have their comic moments, handled beautifully and woven into the fabric of a more serious story, but I did wonder what an entire novel of comedy from her would be like.

Grunts starts with a very familiar situation.  The Light and the Dark are massing their forces for the final battle for their world.  On the side of Light are noble elves, sturdy dwarves, human paladins, subtle wizards and humble halflings.  The Dark Lord has in his Horde trolls, necromancers, witches, the undead – and, it goes without saying, orcs. 

As usual, the orcs are there to make up overwhelming numbers and be mown down by the heroes of Light – but this changes when a group of orcs finds an unusual dragon’s hoard, consisting of weapons gathered from other worlds – strange, magical weapons like Kalashnikov AK47s, armoured personnel carriers and even helicopters.  There’s a curse on the hoard, though, that compels any users to become what its original users were.

So is born the Orc Marine Corps.

We follow General Ashnak, with his habit of chewing unlit cigars; Major Barashkukor, with his Stetson and shades; Commissar Razitshakra, who monitors ideological adherence to the Way of the Orc; the insane weapons development scientist Ugarit; and the formidable Badgurlz squad.  At the same time, we follow a pair of halfling thieves who come over like a psychopathic version of Merry and Pippin: happy, carefree halflings who’d slit their granny’s throat for a few coppers.

The Last Battle goes the way it must – after all, the Light is outnumbered and without a chance, so its victory is inevitable.  But that’s only the beginning.  In the post-war world, Ashnak takes the Orc Marines into arms dealing, encompassing all their customers in the curse (forest elves as marines are particular fun), before the Dark Lord re-emerges in an unexpected form, with a dastardly new plan for world-domination called “an election”.  And then the alien giant bugs invade.

It’s that kind of book.  Without Mary Gentle’s perfect tone and pacing, it might end up being an amorphous series of jokes that topple over, but the heart of this novel is its great characters and their gradual growth and development.

The orcs aren’t nice.  They’re engaging, they’re fun, and we’re rooting for them, but any time we’re tempted to start thinking of them as “goodies”, they launch into a gleeful massacre of innocents or wholesale torture which, seen objectively, is pretty horrific – but funny.  Perhaps the funniest moment in the whole book – “pass me another elf, Sergeant” – is also the sickest, in context.  It works because she’s inveigled us into reading the book as orcs.

On the other hand, the paragons of Light are variously racist, murderous, cynical, hypocritical, and politicians.  Especially politicians.  So, all in all, we tend to feel a good deal of sympathy with Ashnak and co.

There are great one-liners all the way through the book – one, plucked at random, is the definition of the difference between police and secret police.  Regular police are “Uniformed officers of visible integrity who keep the government in power,” while secret police are “the same as regular police, but without the uniforms and the integrity.”

I think, though, my single favourite line in the entire book – which I won’t spoil by quoting – is when the marines find a stash of books from our world, including one by Pliny.  It’s a priceless line, which could conceivably have been the original seed for the entire work.

Though perhaps not a book for those with delicate stomachs, I found Grunts a sheer joy from beginning to end, and I can definitely recommend it.  Mary Gentle has demonstrated she can do SF, fantasy, alternative history and cyberpunk supremely well.  Add comedy to that.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

At An Uncertain Hour now available on Kindle

At An Uncertain Hour
by Nyki Blatchley

Published by Publishing

Cover art and design by Peter Joseph Swanson

At An Uncertain Hour has been available for nearly three years as a paperback, but the good people at StoneGarden have now made it available for download to Kindle.  It can be found here on for £1.94 and here on for $3.08

As two armies stand poised for the final battle of a millennium-long war, the immortal, charismatic leader known only as the Traveller reflects on what led him, long ago, to begin this war of liberation.  Amid the alarms and encounters of a sleepless night, he thinks back over three thousand years of life: the loves and hates, the victories and disasters, the moral dilemmas – and the lost love he still mourns.  As battle is joined, the tale has a few more twists to throw at the Traveller.

Meet the Traveller, the unforgettable hero of this fantasy epic: immortal but unswervingly human, with a huge appetite for life and an insatiable curiosity about the world.  Torn between his desire for a free, wandering life and his inability to turn away when he sees injustice and oppression, he has become a legend throughout a world that is not unlike our own, full of love and idealism, hatred and cruelty.  Let him tell you his story, the epic tale in which the Traveller’s fate has become inextricably linked to that of his world.

K. A Severson, writing for, said:

The Traveller and the people he’s known are all very interesting and the way their stories interlock kept me turning pages until long past bedtime...Blatchley’s pacing is good and how he plays different time periods in the Traveller’s life as he tells his own story is great.