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Here are the first tales of the albino sorcerer-prince Elric: lord of the Dreaming City, last Emperor of Melniboné, traitor, kinslayer. Doomed to wander the multiverse, battered by the whims of Law and Chaos, in thrall to his soul-eating sword, Stormbringer, Elric lies at the heart of Michael Moorcock’s extraordinary mythology of the Eternal Champion

I’d better start with a confession. The only work of Moorcock I’ve read, Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles, I didn’t love. I just didn’t see it as a Who story as it contained too much Moorcock mythology that I didn’t connect with but  this new project I may change my mind and I’m tempted to read it again after I’ve understood him better and read the 1033 page The Cornelius Quartet, which contains the same (or similar) character of  Captain Cornelius.

Before entering The Michael Moorcock Collection (so called as Gollancz is trying to bring a vast amount of his work to print over a short space of time)  I needed to ask where to start? I tend to start at the beginning if it’s a series and if it isn’t a series well It’s not so hard with a debut author, or an author that has a couple of books as your options as limited, when you get to an author with a larger back catalogue, say Margaret Attwood, it’s trickier, but when you’re talking Michael Moorcock, now, that’s a different thing entirely. There are lots of entry points. Gollancz even wrote a ‘Reading List’ post after a little gentle persuasion. I could have started with Corum, I have The Cornelius Quartet, but Elric ‘the eternal champion’ was the character I most wanted to break:

Elric: An obvious one, this – Moorcock’s most famous creation, the albino prince with a melancholy air and a soul-sucking sword is one of the cornerstones of modern fantasy. Every anti-hero, every complicated loner, is built on Elric. Our new editions tell Elric’s story in the order in which it occurred (in fiction, not in publication), so the best place to start is probably Elric of Melniboné and other stories. There’s an argument for starting with Elric: Stormbringer! which contains perhaps the most famous of the Elric novels, but that isn’t out until March 2014.

So, I’m reading Elric in story order and this collection contains; Return of the Thin White Duke by Alan Moore, Putting a Tag on It, Master of Chaos, Elric: The Making of a Sorcerer, And so the Emperor Received His Education…: Elric of Melniboné, Aspects of Fantasy (I), Eric of Melniboné: Introduction to the 1986 Graphic Adaptation, El Cid and Elric: Under the Influence.

I could go thorough the stories one by one but that’s unfair to the flavour of this volume as it acts of an introduction to Elric, describes his beginnings and delves into the history of Melniboné and it makes me wonder if it was the right choice?

It wasn’t a bad choice but is a little disjointed if you’re looking for a pure escapist experience. Partly it’s because of the comic book script. It shows Moorcock has spent a lot of effort giving Elric a solid foundation. They tell the story of how Elric became King winning the throne from his cousin through as series of challenges in the dream realms but you’re not sure how dreamlike those experience are as they have connections to the present.

What does come across is that Moorcock wants to explore further than, say, the setting of middle-earth, which is on one plane of existence. Here we know that there are other dimensions and there are beings of Chaos and an eternal battle for balance being waged. Another this is that Chaos isn’t presented as something black. It isn’t exactly good but it’s not ‘evil’. So things have the potential be to get vert interesting.

To be honest I’m just not sure yet what to make of him as a hero or what ‘real’ adventures are going to be but I’m hoping that will change as Elric: The Fortress of the Pearl is a 224 page continuous adventure for the Pearl at the Heart of the World. And from the glimpses in Elric of Melniboné it has the potential to be quite an adventure.

Blood Music

Should we read older SF? Gollancz seems to think so. Their SF Masterworks line has, for the last 14 years, highlighted SF classics and kept them in print. This series of posts is here to try to do two things. One to expand this authors’ knowledge of classical SF, especially eighties SF, and secondly to ask the question are classics worth reading?

Blood Music is the story of Virgil Ulman, who works at a genetics research lab. As his colleagues work away on a biological chip Virgil has been recoding cells to do something quite different. His abandonment of research ethics leads to trouble from his employer resulting in the suspension of his research but not before he injects himself with the results of his experiment. Virgil is the catalyst but his invention gets centre stage.

‘I will never understand men, as long as I live and breathe,’ his mother said, pouring another cup of thick black coffee. ‘Always tinkering, always getting into trouble.’ p43

Let’s start with the power of genetics. The first 100 pages deals with Virgil’s transformation. He’s the host of his experiment but Greg Bear looks at the effect of his transformation of those around him as well as the effect on himself. It doesn’t seem sensible to inject yourself with genetically altered material without an idea of the outcome though this is exactly what Virgil does. In the present we have several genetic modified crops, gene therapy so it’s not by any means implausible to alter genes but we’ve not quite caused the alterations that occur in Blood Music. To be fair to Virgil he just thinks he’s storing them for later retrieval. It shows how naive he is.

For the first section it appears that Virgil is both Dr Frankenstein and his monster. But he’s not a monster as such. His body and health vastly improve and you’d be forgiven that he’s created a new form of superhuman. You’d also be wrong as in the second half everything changes.

While the focus is on Virgil we get to see him gain a girlfriend. And it’s that relationship which is a bit unhealthy, if not creepy. Actually all his interpersonal relationships are a little odd. I’m not sure if Bear meant to give us a warning about scientists working alone in a lab with obsessions focused only on their work but he has.

A tension between Virgil and his friend, a doctor, shows another side to our scientist, but reinforces that he is difficult and demanding. And through Edward we get one of the most dramatic moments of the book. The trouble is that if feels like Bear is treading water up until that moment because he wants to explore the implications of the experiment being out in the wild but he can’t do that until a big reveal. It’s his girlfriend I felt most sorry for, which shows that Bear can create some interest in characters but it’s not his strength. Or at least it didn’t feel like he’d created rounded ones that would have lasted too far outside this story.

After Virgil’s experiment is released things become less plausible but fascinating and it also gives a strong indication of the atmosphere in the eighties between Russia and America and perhaps Bears views on that. We move away from Virgil’s point of view and it’s replaced by those of another scientist but one we’ve already met, a girl who is all alone and Virgil’s mother who gains some twin companions. These three give different interactions with the experiment’s growing reach.

Bear is asking what if we altered our biology via genes? What if we made something intelligent? What would they do when they interact with us?

We’re now tipping into spoiler territory but the experiment has two effects; billions more observations taking place over a finite area and America’s plight causes hysteria around the globe. The implication, at least at first, is that without America the world would turn into chaos. I’m not sure that’s strictly true. But then we have the question of observation and how observing the universe can cause it to stiffen as observed things aren’t as free to change.

Blood Music is a novel of ideas and for that it is well worth reading. The science may feel a little old and dated though it still raises some valid and interesting questions. The structure is a little bit more problematic. It’s a novella expanded to a short novel and it doesn’t feel quite right. It’s not that it’s padded but it spends time in odd ways while before it feels its time to move on. For example the thread with the mother could have been told in one page but there needed to be a journey. But that then took focus away from the scientist and the girl.

Greg Bear makes you wonder how easily the world can change through the power of science and imagination. So does that make it a classic and should it be kept in print? It is a novel of its time and is standing up quite well. It’s a concept that still feels plausible though the worldwide consequences could be a little different now.

The next novel in the SF Masterworks Project is Grass by Sheri S. Tepper  and will be posted towards the end of August.

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So this dropped through the letterbox this morning thanks to Waterstones and after spending a little bit reading the opening I tweeted this: 

But it’s not the only place to start. After some nagging Gollancz editor Marcus gave some insight into what to choose and the how the releases of Moorcock’s work is going to happen:

“The most important thing to note is that really, you can start with any series. Yes, all of the works connect and build up into a wider mythos, but each of the series stand on their own. The best way, in my opinion, is to pick one you like the sound of and start from there. That’s what I did as a kid. However, here are a few pointers.”

(Via: Michael Moorcock Reading List | Gollancz blog)

I do like the fact that these are the definitive editions and things have been correctly and ironed out.

Now I really hope I like it.  

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The City of Silk and Steel by Mike, Linda & Louise Carey
OUT NOW in HB

Synopsis

Once, in a city called Bessa, there was a sultan who was over throne by religious zealots, lead by Hakkim Mehdad, who didn’t like the way the sultan and his people enjoyed themselves. The sultan’s wives and children were slaughtered and his 365 concubines were banished and sent to a neighbouring caliph as a tribute. But something threatened the banished concubines and everything changed.

Comments/Thoughts/Analysis

Imagine you are in the desert and a group of you are sat around a fire and someone starts telling a story about a City of Women. You may think from the way the narrator tells the story of exiled concubines that it is just a tale that has no basis in reality and to be fair it does start as just as story. But our narrator, the librarian Rem, tells us how a city of women came to be and what they did afterwards.

The City of Silk and Steel is this story but it’s built from asides and reflections and futures of those involved and as it grows you end up seeing the full picture.

Even though you could think of it as an Arabian Nights style tale due to its setting and the classical feel it captures. The Careys have managed to take what may have been a safe linear tale and push themselves  into holding a reader’s attention as they pause, re-tell, give backstories, and make you as interested in the events of the characters lives have lead them here as to where they find themselves now.

An example of this is the titles of some the tales. Some are more ambiguous than others for example ‘Tales Whose Application is Mostly Tactical: Bethi’ versus ‘Giver of Gifts’. One of my favourites stories is ‘The Cook’s Story’ as it includes recipes but they are used to make a point. They show the contrast between the old Sultan and Hakkim and how the ascetic movement has effected the kitchens and the merchant’s who supply it. This technique adds a quality that is rare in most stories though to be fair most stories wouldn’t sustain this type of narration.

It works here as there is no main character as such, unless you’d define it as the city of Bessa, instead you have characters who are important to the tale. There are those that make decisions like Zuleika who changed the entire direction of the women’s lives,  Gursoon who makes sure they survive Zuleika’s actons, Rem not only narrates but gives commentary on events as she was there affecting them not in small part due to her sight of the past, present and future. Then there is Anwar Das who grows to be much more than a camel thief. There are other characters and other stories including the act of kindness that the women will come to regret in the end.

But it does show rightly that you can have all sorts of strong female characters and what women can achieve. When the tale starts most, but not all, of the women have no other recognisable skills than those needed to survive their role as concubines, which involve not only looking after the sultan’s physical needs but ensuring, along with his wives, that they diplomatically cool his fires when he could make rash decisions.

But as they need to survive outside the city their underused (and unacknowledged) skills have to be used and honed in order to trade as well as fight when needed. And this the heart of The City of Silk and Steel and the source of its title. The silk is the women and their soothing nature and the steel is the fight inside them and both are needed. Though it may not be enough but not for the reasons that you may think. A city run by women is a very successful one but compassion is sometimes a weakness.

The ease with which regime change occurs may be have some readers pausing to wonder why it wasn’t harder but then again it’s a story that plays out over several years and its focus is on the characters not particularly on capturing a true ‘reality’. The narrator freely admits that is a story not a historical record though it is both.

It is the record of Bessa but also a story about Bessa.

Summary

I was truly enchanted by The City of Silk and Steel. The narrative style is refreshing. The way in which the story passes back and forth. The changes in focus. The way it builds. And the devastating way it ends. You may think that it’s bound to be a happy tale. It is in lots of ways as the women are practical but even that isn’t enough.

The Carey’s sometimes gloss and lubricate in some places where more grit and resistance would make the journey feel tougher but when it matters they don’t hold back. You want the women to beat the odds. You know the dangers of what they are doing and all you can do is read and wait.

If you like classical feeling fantasy tales with modern complexities, which is enchanting, captivating and enjoyable then The City silk and Steel should be top of your list.

I’ve been keeping a record of which books are coming out when. Not only does it help me get organised as to what would be better to read when (if I have a review copy) or what I’m expecting if I’ve preordered it (though I tend to order ebook/paperbacks). It’s also interesting to see what’s getting released at the same.

So with that in mind here a selected few from the books that are coming out this week either for the first time or now as paperbacks:

The Curve of the Earth

The Curve of the Earth by Simon Morden

WELCOME TO THE METROZONE

Post-apocalyptic London, full of street gangs and homeless refugees. A dangerous city needs an equally dangerous saviour.

Step forward Samuil Petrovitch, a genius with extensive cybernetic replacements, a built-in AI with god-like capabilities and a full armoury of Russian swear words. He’s dragged the city back from the brink more than once – and made a few enemies on the way.

So when his adopted daughter Lucy goes missing in Alaska, he has some clue who’s responsible and why. It never occurs to him that guessing wrong could tip the delicate balance of nuclear-armed nations. This time it’s not just a city that needs saving: it’s the whole world.

I started the first book of this series (this is book 4) when it first came out to sample Simon’s writing but sadly it got pushed aside for other things. So when Orbit but out the first trilogy as an omnibus ebook earlier month (The Petrovitch Trilogy)  I thought it was a good chance to catch up especially as Pornokitsch are such fans.  Equations of Life is zipping along. I really have no clue what’s happening but it’s got that pulp thriller feel that’s dragging me along and it’s glorious for that.

 

Wolfhound Century

Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins

A thousand miles east of Mirgorod, the great capital city of the Vlast, deep in the ancient forest, lies the most recent fallen angel, its vast stone form half-buried and fused into the rock by the violence of impact. As its dark energy leeches into the crash site, so a circle of death expands around it, slowly – inexorably – killing everything it touches. Alone in the wilderness, it reaches out with its mind.

The endless forest and its antique folklore are no concern to Inspector Vissarion Lom, summoned to the capital in order to catch a terrorist – and ordered to report directly to the head of the secret police. A totalitarian state, worn down by an endless war, must be seen to crush home-grown terrorism with an iron fist. But Lom discovers Mirgorod to be more corrupted than he imagined: a murky world of secret police and revolutionaries, cabaret clubs and doomed artists. Lom has been chosen because he is an outsider, not involved in the struggle for power within the party. And because of the sliver of angel stone implanted in his head at the children’s home.

Lom’s investigation reveals a conspiracy that extends to the top echelons of the party. When he exposes who – or rather what – is the controlling intelligence behind this, it is time for the detective to change sides. Pursued by rogue police agents and their man-crushing mudjhik, Lom must protect Kantor’s step-daughter Maroussia, who has discovered what is hidden beneath police headquarters: a secret so ancient that only the forest remembers. As they try to escape the capital and flee down river, elemental forces are gathering. The earth itself is on the move.

This is one of those early review buzz novels. I’m not sure the blurb does it justice but a sample review:

“Peter Higgins does two things amazingly well. The first is turn a phrase: his imagery is studied, vivid, measured, striking: at times gorgeous, at times repellent, but never less than apt. The second is tone: there is a fantastically melancholic-yet-oppressive air about the scenes in Mirgorod, a combination of claustrophobia and instability accentuated by Higgins’ facility with the numinous—and he brings the numinous to the fore.”

(Via: “Wolfhound Century Is On My Back/But I Am Not A Wolf”: Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins | Tor.com)

To be honest I’d be reading it now if I wasn’t reading this instead:

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The City of Silk and Steel by Mike Carey, Linda Carey & Louise Carey

Once, in a city known as Bessa, there was a sultan named Bokhari Al-Bokhari, who was thrown down by the zealots of the ascetic Hakkim Mehdad. The sultan, his wives and children were put to the sword, while his 365 concubines were sent to a neighbouring caliph as tribute, Hakkim having no use for the pleasures of the flesh.

But a day after the caravan had departed from Bessa, Hakkim discovered the terrible secret that the concubines had hidden from him.His reaction was swift and cruel.

Kill the women of the harem forthwith, along with their children and maidservants. Let not one survive. Their bodies let the desert claim, and their names be fed to silence.

This, then, is the tale – or tales – of how a remarkable group of women fight together to survive both the fury of Hakkim and the rigours of the desert. It is the tale of Zuleika, whose hidden past holds the key to their future, and of Rem, the librarian whose tears are ink. Of the wise Gursoon, who defines the group’s conscience, and of the silver-tongued thief, Anwar Das, who knows when to ignore that conscience.

This is the tale of the forging of a rabble of concubines, children, camel-herds and thieves into an army of silk and steel. It is the tale of the redemption and rise of Bessa, fabled City of Women. And it is the tale of an act of kindness that carries the seed of death, and will return to bring darkness and the end of a dream . . .

I’ve not finished it yet but I’m enchanted. The way it’s told with stories within stories weaving together like a tapestry. The female character are so varied and full of strength and it’s nice to see a story told from that angle. There are so many enjoyable things. 

I’ve also nabbed an interview will all three authors, which is going live on Thursday. 

That’s it for this week. Anything I’ve missed?

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I was recording today’s episode of The Readers and Simon and I talked about challenges. I don’t really do challenges. There are so many out there that I could join in but it’s not really my thing. Simon though was talking about his Persephone Project and something clicked. Why not have a personal, self-directed reading project of my own?

Since I’ve not been accepting review copies on mass (a few sneak in the house but I’m OK with that) I’ve had a chance to really tackle the shelves and one thing I’ve been doing is organising. Simple things like putting all the books by the same author together unless they are Vintage Classics or SF Masterworks whose spines make a great sight.

And one thing I’ve noticed is that I’ve got a small batch of SF Masterworks (The Body Snatchers, Gateway, Roadside Picnic and The Forever War) that are currently unread and I’ve not really read that many more books in that cannon. Strangely, after I had this moment I saw on Graeme’s blog that he has near enough a shelf to tackle of his own.

Now, part of my anxious state is that I’m feeling a little lacking in older works as well as being behind on what’s current. So what better solution than giving myself the challenge of reading at least one SF Masterworks a month?

I asked twitter what they’d choose so I’ve selected another four to those above:

  • Flowers for Algernon
  • Rendezvous With Rama
  • Lord of Light
  • Babel-17 

They are already on their way.

I think that these eight are a good mix to get me started but I wonder what the others will be? I’ve got a minimum of four to find. Any suggestions?

ROBOTS C HB2

This is the latest iteration of the cover for my forthcoming Collected Short Stories, which Gollancz are putting out next year. It is, in a nutshell, yet another blinder played by the genius people at Blacksheep. I’m very conscious how lucky I have been with my cover art, and each of the last few (all Blacksheep designs) have upped the bar. I didn’t think it was possible to get any better than the cover for Jack Glass, but this comes close to topping it.

(via Adam Robots)

I have a bit of a thing for covers on books and this has got to be one of my favourites for quite some time.

Also, I’m very much looking forward to reading some short stories from Roberts as I love him as a novelist. Anyone know if he has any shorts that are easily accessible at the minute?

 

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I enjoyed listening to The Steel Remains and I have The Cold Commands lined up on my iPhone though it’ll have to wait until I’ve finished Ready Player One read by Will Wheaton(!) and The Player of the Games (which I started before needing to get RPO read for the book club) and quite possibly Whispers Underground

Anyway as fantasy series goes it’s definitely different. Nice to know it’s got a series name Land Fit For Heroes and that work is progressing on the follow-up if a little uncertainly:

Currently TDD is planned as a single volume to wrap up the trilogy – but it’s looking to be a dangerously fat volume, and I’m not sure how happy I am about that. So we may be talking about two books rather than one, forming a Land Fit for Heroes quartet. But that again will depend on finding a decent narrative shape for each of the two potentially slimmer books – I hate cliff-hanger finishes with a passion, and want to avoid writing one at all costs. Have to see how it shapes up further down the road……

via Richard Morgan on THE DARK DEFILES (The Wertzone)

And you can find an extract of The Day Defiles here: Quest Fellow Blues

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Absorption by John Meaney (Gollancz)

Across the ages there are characters three things in common: they glimpse shards of darkness moving at the edge of their vision; they hear echoes of a dark, disturbing musical chord; and they will dream of joining a group called the Ragnarok Council.

There are some books that I read that make me wonder ‘Why didn’t someone convince me to read this earlier?’ Absorption is one of those books. But luckily I read a great review of the sequel, Transmission, and decided that if the second one sounded that good I really should give it a go.

I have to say what kind of put me off in the first place was the same thing that intrigued me: I wasn’t sure how John Meaney would mix of viking myth and space opera elements together. And I should have had a little faith as he twists them around each other very tightly. I don’t know yet what shape he’s making but Absorption definitely sets the stage.

As will all multipoint stories there are some views that are more appealing to follow that others.

Luckily John doesn’t force it by lingering with characters that at that point don’t move the story forward though their lack of stage time in latter chapters is oddly noticeable when you are waiting for them to reappear during scene changes and as will all multipoint stories there are some views that are more appealing to follow that others.

He’s chosen a diverse crew to build up his story. My favourite is probably Roger, a young man that has all manner of talents including being able to travel between dimensions. Meaney also invokes Germany between the world wars – a time and place that I’m starting to feel is a lazy shorthand but not in this case – Meaney looks at the point where physics was on the turn with a greater understanding of the underlying patterns in the universe, which is a good introduction to the scientific complexities (and perhaps impossibilities that he invokes).

It’s nicely compressed something is happening constantly. It doesn’t feel drawn out maybe in a couple of places oddly directed but who knowns where those threads are heading? I’m looking forward to reading Transmission to find out where this SF Norse myth mix is going next.

Paperback jacket

Or The Bull Kills You by Jason Webster (Vintage)

Either you kill the bull, or the bull kills you – traditional proverb. Chief Inspector Max Cámara hates bullfighting but one hot afternoon in Valencia he has to replace his boss, judging a festival corrida that stars Spain’s most famous young matador. That night, he is summoned back to the bullring where the young matador’s dead body now lies, naked and mutilated.

It has to be hard to bring something new to the crime genre. But crime happens everywhere and this time we’re off to sunny Spain. I initially thought this was going to be a crime in translation but like Martin Walker’s Bruno, Chief of Police series Cámara is written by a non-native that’s made the place a home, and like Walker brings out an accessible view of the culture and the place. Or at least that’s what comes across in Or The Bull Kills You.

Setting it at the time of the festival of Fallas is very immersive not only do you get to a Valencia in the raw it tightens the tension as Cámara of investigating the death of such a high profile figure. Though I wouldn’t say that makes him a worse detective. He’s very shambling. He likes an early drink and a not entirely legal recreational smoke. He is however endearing. And a good policeman even if he’s not that methodical he does have a policeman’s nose.

Webster keeps everything flowing nicely and you get a not exactly subtle but not force fed either lesson in bullfighting.

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The Steel Remains by Richard K. Morgan

Ringil, the hero of the bloody slaughter at Gallows Gap is a legend to all who don’t know him and a twisted degenerate to those that do. A veteran of the wars against the lizards he makes a living from telling credulous travellers of his exploits. Until one day he is pulled away from his life and into the depths of the Empire’s slave trade. Where he will discover a secret infinitely more frightening than the trade in lives.

Now The Steel Remains I confess took me three goes over three different formats to get into. The first two were a review copy, and I bought the ebook to try out the format on my new Sony Reader, but I didn’t get very far. There was something in the opening that didn’t quite gel. So I wrote it off as not for me.

When I was choosing my next audio book a while ago I thought I’d give the sample a go and I’m glad I did (I immediately bought The Cold Commands so that’s a giveaway really). Simon Vance is an amazing narrator so that eased me back into the story.

Morgan challenges expectations from the off. His lead hero is gay and excellently portrayed as a hero who is gay rather than a gay hero. A distinction that is important. Morgan has aliens which haven’t elevated the level of technology to higher or a lasting degree apart from in strengthening swords. But by respecting as at the same time subverting lots of fantasy troupes to me it feels fresh and something I enjoyed listening to.