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NaNoWriMo 2015: Winner (just)!

Crikey, didn’t November fly by? One minute it was Halloween and we were all sitting in the Forum exchanging plots and twists and character bios for NaNoWriMo, the next it’s the eleventh hour, St Andrew’s Day, and I’m adding the last however many words needed to get over the line. But get over the line I did – 50,164 words in 30 days. Presenting cheesy grin!

So that’s all very nice. Even nicer was witnessing a lot of happy WriMos throughout various newsfeeds and write-ins, and a buddy’s page that was liberally peppered with purple ‘Winner!’ bars.

Nicer still, now NaNoWriMo is done, I don’t feel like taking Year Zero and shoving it through a shredder, or at least not yet anyway. Instead, I’m rather keen to keep adding to it. I’ll aim for 1,000 words per day, similar to when I was finishing The Floors, although this time I won’t be working to a silly self-imposed deadline. Again, feel free to crack the whip if you see me slacking.

I’m still none the wiser how long Year Zero will be. Given what I’ve written so far, plus the scenes I still want to write, not to mention the plot, lest we forget, the story could hit 225,000 words if I’m not careful (that’s in the region of 750 paperback pages, folks). I fear it could put Year Zero at risk of being junked unseen by agents or publishers. (Mind you, given some of the rates I’ve seen offered of late, I don’t imagine I’d have any problem finding someone out there to edit the thing!)

Luckily I have a number of red pens left over from editing The Floors. I’ve a feeling I might need them. Let’s get a first draft done before all of that, eh?

TTFN.

LP

 

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25,000 words down. Time for a cover!

Year Zero cover 1What-ho, peeps, it’s your least humble servant Mr Poll here again, this time with a short and sweet NaNoWriMo update.

This is one of those me-me-me posts (yes, another one!), so feel free to skip this if you aren’t, you know, me.

Anyway, with the halfway point of the month fast approaching I’ve just hit the 25,000 word mark, so things are trundling along nicely. It’ll be interesting to see where in the story I’ll be come 50,000 words, because at the moment there’s still a fair amount to get out of my head, and I still need to somehow knit large chunks of it together into a workable narrative. I’ve a feeling this could weigh in around twice as long as The Floors, though bear in mind I rather underestimated how long that would be. (“100,000 words too long,” you say? Tsk! Meanie.)

The biggest positive for me so far is that Year Zero is shaping up a lot better than The Forum of the Dead, my last NaNoWriMo attempt. There haven’t been too many bad days, touch keyboard, when I’ve felt like giving up and doing something less maddening instead, and even then I’ve at least managed to write something. Of course, whether said something survives a second draft, who knows, so long as I get to a second draft.

A sign that I’m feeling more positive about Year Zero is that I’ve knocked together a cover for it. Not bad for an hour’s messing about with Inkscape, and a fitting contrast to The Floors. The cover might change over the coming however-long – for example, I might yet put this out under (gasps) my proper actual real proper name – but for now it’s a useful placeholder.

Anyway, like I said, a short and sweet update. I’ll befoul the cyberwaves once more when I hit 50,000 words. I bet you can’t wait!

LP

NaNoWriMo 2015

NaNo2015 ParticipantGoodness me, it seems like an awfully long time since I was last blathering up the blogosphere. What’s that? “That’s because it has been an awfully long time?” Yeah, well, try not to sound too pleased about it, because I’m back to befoul the cyberwaves again. You lucky, lucky people!

So why have I come back? Well, partly because WordPress renewed my domain name and it would be a shame to see $26 go to waste, and partly because there’s another NaNoWriMo on the way!

Now, if at this point you are wondering what the hell a NaNoWriMo is when it’s at home, then seek ye the National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo sees lots of people hunker down over their laptops and writing pads during the month of November, all feverishly trying to squeeze 50,000 words of a novel onto the empty page before the end of the month. That weighs in at just under 1,700 words every day, which is chickenfeed to seasoned pros like Alexander McCall Smith, who can push out 1,000 words in an hour, but often proves a little trickier for most mere mortals.

Now, your least humble servant, Mr Poll, here, did alright in the 2012 and 2013 NaNos, scoring just over 50,000 words in them both. (I was on hols for 2014’s NaNo.) 2012’s NaNo yielded my sci-fi horror novel, “The Floors”, which you can still see shamelessly plastered all over this blog. 2013’s NaNo brought about a solid chunk of a novel called “The Forum of the Dead”, which I then took around the back of the house and shot so as not to distress the kids.

Looking back, there was a big difference between my first and second attempts at NaNoWriMo. Back in 2012, the whole concept of “The Floors” was like some all-consuming forest fire sweeping through my mind. A maze of thirteenth floors? Bam! The idea had taken root, and it was more or less all my brain could think about until the book was finished, redrafted, edited, redrafted and put out there to buy. Sometimes, when that happens, the only thing I can do is to go along with it and try to enjoy the ride.

“The Forum of the Dead” was where things started to go a bit wonky. It started off as another simple idea: someone comes into possession of a laptop with a corrupt bookmark that, when clicked on, takes them to a web forum used by the dead. The whole thing was going to cover witchcraft and possession and the strange and valuable things squirrelled away in people’s attics, but by the end of 50,000 words I had barely scratched the surface of the story and, alarmingly, elements of it were beginning to resemble L. Ron Hubbard’s first draft for that whole Scientology thing.

Scrapping all of the effort that went into those 50,000 words – research included – wasn’t exactly a great confidence booster. Far from it. Since then, I’ve barely been able to finish anything fun and creative, which isn’t exactly spiffy.

So why am I going to put myself through all of that again? Several reasons. First and foremost, I need to get back into the writing habit again, otherwise what’s the point of this whole Lucian Poll thing? (Let me stop you there before you start.) I’ve had a story rattling around my head since “The Forum of the Dead” that I wouldn’t mind getting onto paper so I can go around thinking about some other things. I also hope that by getting back into the writing groove again I’ll start to enjoy my reading a little more. (It may just be that I’ve hit upon a string of duds on my bookshelves.) Last, but my no means least, I’m also keen to see who of my 2012 and 2013 writing buddies are taking part in this year’s event. If NaNoWriMo makes me dip more than the occasional toe into the murky waters of social media then maybe that would be a good thing too.

As for this year’s novel, it’s tentatively called “Year Zero” and, contrary to the zombie-esque title, will be a straight science fiction yarn. You may therefore see a… ah… rebranding going on here over the coming however-long. 😉 I feel I have a stronger grip on “Year Zero” than I did “The Forum of the Dead”, but it’s not burning a hole in my brain a la “The Floors”. I also reckon, should I win, 50,000 words won’t get me a huge way through the story, but I’m fairly comfortable with that. Science fiction and fantasy are a tad more forgiving of long stories than most other genres.

So, crises of confidence and life aside, you should find me at this year’s Norwich NaNo launch this coming Hallowe’en, where I’ll listen to the splendid story ideas of my fellow WriMos before stammering and blurting out mine.

If I get to the end of “Year Zero” then, with a bit of luck, I’ll have a story that fits this here blurb:


Welcome to Newich, a most unusual city.

In a strange and shapeless world, and surrounded by Erdd’s warm, blue-green oceans, there stands the makeshift metropolis of Newich, a four-hundred square mile patchwork quilt of a city. Except there’s a problem. Newich simply should not exist. Everything about the city is wrong, from its corrupted streets to its fused buildings, from its stuttering politics to its ten million lost and lonely inhabitants. But then the same could be said of Erdd itself, and the universe around it. Why else would the night skies blaze with the light of a billion, trillion stars?

No, something has gone very badly awry, something that has placed all existence on a knife-edge, and the root of it all lies somewhere in Newich. Inquisitor Eleda Paraczek is determined to unearth the truth, whatever the cost.

All she needs is the right confession.


Well, it’s early days.

In the meantime, keep your eye on the word count shown at the top of the sidebar, and be sure to crack the whip if you see me slacking. Especially given Fallout 4’s imminent release. (Come on, I’m only human!)

LP

Review: The Silence

A live televised caving expedition in Moldova takes a disastrous turn when a team of potholers and scientists opens up a large and hereto sealed underground ecosystem, releasing from it a swarm of vicious bat-like creatures that promptly feast on their liberators. The now-unmanned cameras keep on rolling, beaming the harrowing footage to a few horror-struck Discovery Channel viewers across the world.

Two such witnesses to the carnage are Ally and her father, Huw, whose stories we then follow as the world rapidly goes to hell. Ally is an easy-going fourteen year old girl getting on with life with her mum and brother in a quiet town in south-east Wales, not letting a thing like her lack of hearing hold her back. Huw, on the other hand, is holed up in a bed and breakfast on the Cornish coast, working lonely weekdays away from home. Both can scarcely believe what they have seen, and yet both are rocked by the footage.

At first the creatures escaping from the cave aren’t deemed much of a threat. As Ally scours the internet and social media for context, she finds many commentators dismissing the footage in one way or another. Surely it’s a movie trailer, right? Right? Well, sucks to be them, then. Shouldn’t have gone down there in the first place. Why should I care? I mean, Moldova is pretty far away, isn’t it?

Then the news stories bring home the terrible truth as towns, cities and countries begin to fall. The creatures are astonishingly quick, immediately attracted to the slightest noise around them, their appetites voracious. They have no eyes, their flesh is a sickly yellow, and their teeth – oh, man, so many sharp pointy teeth. Worse still, in this new ecosystem teeming with unsuspecting walking meat, and with no predators to speak of, the creatures swarm like locusts and breed like wildfire.

Both Ally and Huw know deep down that the situation is serious, perhaps even the beginning of the end. But what can they do? Should the whole family up sticks and run? Even if they did, where would they run to? And could they outrun the coming swarm?

Maybe. Maybe not. All they know is that in order to survive they will need to be very, very quiet.

A couple of years ago I tore through Tim Lebbon’s fairly lengthy end-of-the-world novel Coldbrook and thought it was a riot. Picking up a copy of The Silence, however, I was struck by how similar the premise seemed. It was as if someone had replaced the flesh-hungry zombies of Coldbrook with flesh-hungry du Maurier-esque birds, then reset the apocalypse simulation and hit the play button. Even so, I had enjoyed Coldbrook more than enough to buy The Silence without a second thought, and, y’know what? I’m glad I set my cynicism to one side, because The Silence is excellent.

There is a lot to like here. The pacing of the book is spot-on. The vesps – little, hungry buggers that they are – overwhelm Europe at a frightening pace, and yet, at the same time, Lebbon manages to keep the horror away from Blighty’s shores for as long as possible, ratcheting up the tension brilliantly as Ally and her family struggle to cope in a land fast losing itself to panic. The writing is smooth as silk and, like Coldbrook before it, I tore through The Silence in only a few sittings, probably leaving scorch marks on the pages.

Not only is the pace expertly judged, but so are the reader’s expectations as the story develops. As bizarre as it sounds, I swear Lebbon is telepathically linked to the reader. There were a number of times I found a nagging thought developing along the lines of “surely if everything was going to hell, then such-and-such would have happened/run out/gone off by now” only for that very thing to happen within a couple of chapters.

There’s also a nice bit of symbolism threaded through The Silence, if you go in for that kind of thing – perhaps nothing too subtle if even I’d spotted it, but pleasing all the same. (I’ll keep shtum on that one, in case you’re tempted to have a read.)

But the biggest triumph of The Silence is Ally. She is one of the best-written characters I’ve read for a while, matched only perhaps in my recent reads by Jamie Morton in Stephen King’s Revival and the hapless hikers of Adam Nevill’s The Ritual. It’s quite cunning, really, in that it’s Ally’s normalness that defines her. Any prejudices taken into this book melt away within a few chapters. While we’re never left in any doubt that Ally cannot hear, it seldom seems to matter. She’s just getting on with it, signing with friends and family who know how, and lip-reading those who do not, no biggie, no dramas.

There were niggles and downsides to The Silence, but these were fairly minor. For example, Ally’s chapters within the book noticeably outshone those that focused on Huw. I don’t quite know why, but I never really connected with him. Perhaps it was his tendency to gush with love at the slightest sight, sound or whiff of whichever family member was nearest him. Then again, I am a bitter and cold-hearted sod, so bear that in mind.

I also felt there were small inconsistencies in what it would take to attract a nearby vesp. The slightest whisper could set one upon you, but in other scenes you could gather up a bag of odds and sods with the things peaceably perched almost on your shoulder. Nothing truly jarring, and perhaps easily overlooked.

One plus point, and a rare one for a Titan Books first edition, is that I found no typos in the book! Huzzah! It’s such a shame, then, to find they’ve gotten Ally’s name wrong on the cover. Hey ho, I guess you can’t have everything. (By the way, the copy-proofing offer still stands, guys.)

So, in summary, should you give The Silence a whirl? Absolutely. Read it as if you were watching a movie, and be sure to check your fingertips for burns as those pages fly by. It’s not quite a 5/5 from me, but, equally, it seems harsh giving it only 4/5. Heartily recommended.

Interzone Reader’s Poll 2014: my picks

Following a crafty break from t’internets, your least-humble servant has returned to pollute the information superhighway with his usual brand of excessive verbiage and questionable wisdom, this time focusing on the reader’s poll currently doing the Interzone rounds. “Interwhat?” you might ask. Interthis…

Click to jump to the TTA Press website

Interzone is a long-running UK magazine dedicated to science fiction and fantasy, and each issue is filled with commentary, reviews and short stories from around the world that tend towards the literary end of the spectrum. A long-standing tradition of the magazine has been to invite its readers to vote for the stories it has published during the previous year. Readers can vote positively or negatively, however they see fit.

So without further blathering, here are my top 5 Interzone stories of 2014:

Marielena by Nina Allan (Interzone 254)

Another knockout story from Nina Allan, whose novella “Spin” won a BSFA award last year. (And rather good it is too. You can read my review of it here.)

Noah Wahid seeks asylum in the UK but he is finding the Border Agency painfully slow to deal with. He is a passionate man whose fire is frequently stoked by those who add nothing to society, whether they’re a jeering pack of feral youths or a filthy bag lady. Nobody he meets seems to appreciate what they have, especially when compared to the chaos and violence he has fled, and all the while his mind is tormented by glimpses of his love, his muse, his demon, Marielena. She taunts him for running away, she mocks his newfound pauper’s existence, she fuels the growing anger and frustration he feels inside.

But then Noah learns that not everyone he meets is a perfect fit for his prejudices, and discovers there are some among us who are just as alien to their situation as he.

A reliable indicator of a good story is a count of how often one checks their progress while reading it. I don’t recall doing this at all while reading Marielena, it’s that good. The writing is excellent, but then fans of Nina Allan’s work already know that. Noah Wahid is a wonderfully complex character. He is an eloquent, well-read man who has fled a regime intolerant of intellectuals, and the reader gets a real flavour of his plight. Noah’s arc (sorry) is also perfectly judged, with the reader rooting for him one moment and finding their sympathies tested the next. I found Marielena a fine counterpoint to the island mentality that pervades the UK and the current heat of Islamophobia we find rippling across media outlets the world over, and it is my standout read of Interzone’s 2014.

My Father and the Martian Moon Maids by James Van Pelt (Interzone 253)

A man visits his father in a care home and is reminded of happier times when he was a boy and his father was a UFO obsessive, going so far as to build a comically simple detector in his closet. His father would stand by the telescope he had built in the back yard, not looking through it but straight up into the stars. There was never any doubt in his father’s mind that UFOs existed, but now that mind is being cruelly eaten away by Alzheimer’s. When the man takes his father for his next doctor’s appointment, he makes a fateful decision to stop by the old family home.

I really liked this story. Up to a point My Father… can be read as an affective meditation on how all fantasy eventually succumbs to reality. You might read a novel, but then you’ll eventually put it down. You might meet a Martian Moon Maid at the Cinderella City mall, but eventually she will clock off her shift and go home. You might become lost to Alzheimer’s but even then something very real and final will release you from it. As the story alternates between past and present, we therefore witness real life overtaking the fantasy worlds of both the boy and his father at much the same time, and, when this happens, how soon they then drift apart.

I especially liked the ambiguous ending of this story, and how, by turns, it can be seen as a happy outcome or an equally alarming one. This is a story that somewhat belies its daft-sounding title, and one I would very much recommended you check out.

Ashes by Karl Bunker (Interzone 251)

Neil is handed a small box containing the ashes of Lucia, his former partner, and is immediately reminded of their adventures together. They would travel the war-ravaged world, seeking abandoned new-tech sites created by rapidly-advancing AIs, trying to figure out what they were building and why. The AIs responsible had all disappeared, each of them reaching a stage in their development sufficient for them to suddenly “wink out”. When Neil learns of a new-tech site in which Lucia had grown interested before falling ill, he knows he has found an appropriate location to scatter her ashes.

I’ve chosen Ashes for the sheer number of ideas fizzing beneath the story’s surface. It’s an excellent example of unobtrusive world-building. In the space of 5,300 words not only do we have Lucia’s wake and Neil’s journey to scatter her ashes, but also a history of the AIs and how they helped the human race destroy themselves, an interesting philosophical debate as the remaining AIs attempt to discuss “winking out” without doing so themselves, a believable world littered with new-tech sites and the mysteries surrounding them, and so on and so forth. It all made Ashes a really entertaining read.

Fly Away Home by Suzanne Palmer (Interzone 251)

Some way into the distant future Fari blasts asteroids for a living for the Baselle Mining Corp, a deeply-religious company that values women far less than they do men. She excels at her job, mixing it with her male colleagues with consummate ease, earning their respect if only a fraction of their wages. Indeed she is one of the best slaves… er… employees of the Corp, which poses an awkward anomaly for the new hard-line Rep in town. When the Rep takes it upon himself to push Fari’s buttons, Fari pushes back and then some.

Another from Interzone 251 (2014’s strongest issue by a distance) Fly Away Home is a straight story that engenders some complex emotions in its readers. Baselle is an amalgam of many existing cultures that routinely piss on women’s rights, but it’s this hesitancy to single out a particular culture that stops me just short of calling Fly Away Home an important work. (Of course, given the number of brainwashed lunatics we are led to believe walk in our midst, this is perhaps understandable.) Nonetheless it is a great and thought-provoking read and well worth checking out.

Wake Up, Phil by Georgina Bruce (Interzone 250)

Laura Harrison works for an interplanetary company called Serberus, a company fighting a bitter war against a rival called Callitrix. Laura is a level two employee working on the third floor. She drinks Serberwater, eats Serberus Low Cal meals and tows the Serberus line. When she is called up to the eleventh floor she is nervous. Few people return from the eleventh floor. Once there she is instructed by Doctor Thrum to lose a few pounds with the help of a diet pill called Serberitum. When she does her life is transformed. She now works for Callitrix on the thirteenth floor. Or does she? And what’s the deal with her neighbour Phil? Why is he looking after an identical copy of himself?

I don’t normally seek out stories that take the reader down the rabbit hole, but there was a playfulness I really enjoyed about Wake Up, Phil as Laura found herself flip-flopping between Serberus and Callitrix. The story also makes a pleasing and subtle dig at the march of globalisation in depicting a future where war is fought by companies, not countries. This is a fun story that’s definitely worth a read.

Honourable mentions

The following stories also tickled my sci-fi fancy, and are worth checking out. Predvestniki by Greg Kurzawa (Interzone 250); Ghost Story by John Grant, Old Bones by Greg Kurzawa (both Interzone 251); The Posset Pot by Neil Williamson, A Brief Light by Claire Humphrey (both Interzone 252); The Bars of Orion by Caren Gussoff; The Golden Nose by Neil Williamson (both Interzone 253); A Minute and a Half by Jay O’Connell; Dark on a Darkling Earth by T. R. Napper (both Interzone 254); Must Supply Own Work Boots by Malcolm Devlin; The Calling of Night’s Ocean by Thana Niveau; Finding Waltzer Three by Tim Major; Mind the Gap by Jennifer Dornan-Fish (all Interzone 255).

Boos and hisses

I wouldn’t be so mean as to mark down any particular story. They were all clearly good enough to appeal to someone, after all, and Interzone would be a poorer magazine if it published the same kinds of story over and over again. That said, there were stories here that won’t sway me from my reading prejudices any time soon. Stream of consciousness still makes me want to chew out my eyeballs, and I have yet to read a story that has been successfully written in the second person. Maybe in 2015? Maybe.

That’s that, then

So those are my picks for the Interzone 2014 reader’s poll. If you aren’t familiar with the magazine then I hope to have given you a flavour of the kinds of stories you can expect to find inside. It’ll be interesting to see how close (if at all!) my choices match the magazine’s wider readership.

Laters taters,

LP

World Fantasy Convention 2014, anyone?

Last year’s World Fantasy Convention in Brighton was a blast. There were lots of interesting panels and kaffeeklatsches, lots of authors milling about the place who I’d read, lots of other authors who were patiently sitting in my to-be-read pile (which, in the spirit of Bill Hicks, can now only really be measured in bookcases), and lots of authors who weren’t on my radar but now very much are. There were engaging readings a-plenty, a cool art show, surprise appearances – and the dealers room! Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh my. How I left that little haven of geeky splendour with any of my credit rating intact is beyond scientific explanation. So, yeah, pretty damn awesome.

But then it was my first convention, so maybe I was swayed by the novelty of it all. Maybe I’d hit lucky on a really good shindig. The rather splendid She soon put that theory to the test and acquired a pair of tickets to attend the British Fantasy Society’s FantasyCon 2014 in York.

Guess what? Another fine old time was had there too! It was good to catch up with now familiar faces and putting a few faces to names whose work, until then, I’d only read in magazines like Black Static and Interzone. (Hat-tip to Ian Sales for helping me plug a few cavernous holes in my sci-fi reading.) There were some fascinating panel discussions, book launches (including one for Gary McMahon’s latest book, “The End”, giving me the opportunity to hold up the signing queue for ages while I talked his ears off) – and the dealers room! Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh my. I bought so many books that I pretty much induced a flat tyre on the way home.

(Two notably poignant purchases were made. First was PS Publishing’s collection of Graham Joyce’s short fiction, 25 Years in the Word Mines.

25 Years in the Word Mines

Unfortunately, Graham’s health had deteriorated in the run-up to the convention and he sadly died shortly afterwards. Second was Cemetery Dance’s The Century’s Best Horror Fiction.

Joel Lane's CD Century's Best Horror Fiction

It was only when I picked these up that I realised the whole dealer’s table comprised books once owned by Joel Lane, who had passed away towards the end of last year. His family were selling Joel’s books to help raise money for his mother. Given that one of Joel’s stories features in the second volume of this collection, I have an uneasy feeling I may have purchased the contributor’s copy he would have received from Cemetery Dance. Either way, these are two books I’ll be taking extra-special care of.)

So, yeah, with only two conventions down, I can safely say I rather like these get-togethers.

But now it’s time for the big test. In around five hours’ time both She and I will be setting off for what is probably my first proper holiday in over twenty years, and in the middle of it lies this:

Yes, there are panel discussions a-plenty, there are readings galore, there are more kaffeeklatches than you could shake a gnarled wooden staff at, there are numerous film showings and artworks to gawp upon – and the dealers room! Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh my!

Oh, and of course there’s D.C. itself.

It’s looking pretty good. If I don’t get shot for jaywalking, or slapped in Guantanamo Bay for goofing about, then I hope to blather all about it sometime upon my return.

Laters, ‘taters.

L.P.

FantasyCon 2014, anybody?

Having had a royally good time geeking out at last year’s World Fantasy Convention down in Brighton, I’m looking forward to attending this year’s Fantasycon in York all thanks to the really rather splendid She. (Thank you, She!)

While there hasn’t been a whiff of a programme yet, I know some of the events I’m keen to attend, namely:
– The book launch of Best New Horror Volume 25 (do you think Stephen Jones would mind signing my copies of volumes 1-23?)
– The book launch of The Spectral Book of Horror Stories (check this one out – the line-up is very impressive)
– The Pointless game, if it goes ahead (I’m not taking part, I hasten to add!)

Not me. Not quite, anyway.

I won’t be attending under this ‘ere pseudonym, which will make the book signings I attend that much easier. It also means I won’t be grabbing people by their conference badges and not letting go until they buy a copy of The Floors, which is probably best for all concerned. (That said I’ll probably stick a few copies on the freebie tables and hope they elicit a review.)

I’ll still be fairly easy to spot, though, what with my silly facial hair and all-new Gordon Freeman specs. (Three weeks later and my inner gamer is still squishy with nerdish glee about them.) If in doubt, you’ll probably find me in the dealer’s room buying every book and magazine in sight and having them all sent to the hotel room.

Incidentally, if anyone knows a good black market dealer for internal organs to help finance my book-buying habit let me know. I mean, they won’t be my organs, of course, but they don’t need to know that.

Much obliged,

LP

Review – The Wise Man’s Fear

Note: This review contains spoilers for “The Name of the Wind”.

“The Wise Man’s Fear” is the follow-up to 2007’s “The Name of the Wind”, with the third and final part of the trilogy allegedly due in 2015.

In the first book we were introduced to a man called Kvothe. His is a name known across the Four Corners of Civilisation thanks in part to his exploits over the years, and thanks also to the exaggerated and sometimes untrue legends that have been told and mistold about him (some of which Kvothe wilfully started himself). But now he’s in hiding, living life as an innkeeper with his understudy, a demon fella called Bast. When a passing scribe called the Chronicler unearths Kvothe’s true identity, he deems it high time his life story was committed to paper in his own words.

By the end of the first book, covering the first fifteen or so years of Kvothe’s life, he had developed indomitable skills in the magical art of sympathy, generally been brilliant at anything he put his mind to, was banned from the University’s library, ultimately expelled from the University (and quickly readmitted – a bit of a cheat if you’ve read the blurb to the first book), met Denna (the supposed love of his life), lost Denna, found Denna, lost Denna, found Denna, lost Denna, found Denna, lost Denna (you get the idea), and, in a flash of emotion, managed to call the name of the wind – one of the main reasons he had come to the University in the first place.

In the real world, however, something is not quite right. Kvothe seems no longer able to muster up the slightest bit of magic, and, as “The Wise Man’s Fear” progresses, it’s clear he is no longer the skilled fighter of legend either. Is he keeping himself in check, or is he all talk and no trousers? Meanwhile his understudy, Bast, has revealed himself to be a bit of a bad ‘un, threatening Chronicler (somewhat unnecessarily) to bring the old Kvothe from out himself.

Okay, so that was the first book in a very small nutshell. For the first 300 pages of “The Wise Man’s Fear”, see above as it’s essentially more of the same. (No bad thing.) After that we then hit a huge 700 page tangent which basically covers Kvothe’s Gap Yah. It’s perhaps better to be armed with this knowledge before heading into this 1000 page novel, because otherwise, once things shoot off in a different direction, you might start asking yourself whether Rothfuss is ever going to get back to the story.

Maybe this was a deliberate ploy. A life story in which you know what to expect speaks of a dull life indeed. What is more definite is that the trilogy forms as much a character study of Kvothe as it does his life story. We are introduced to the man in the rather pompous “You may have heard of me” speech (see the blurb at the top of my earlier review), and then the remainder of the trilogy is spent substantiating each of those claims while at the same time fleshing out his character.

So in this book we see Kvothe turn from a boy into a man, into a killer of men, and he also does his best Anjin-san impression (a wink to any Shogun fans out there). Oh, and he finds Denna, loses Denna, finds Denna, loses Denna, finds Denna, loses Denna, finds Denna, loses Denna, yada-yada-yada. Meanwhile, during the interludes in his story, we see more evidence that Kvothe may be something of an unreliable narrator, especially as he is given to making up some of his own legends.

So is “The Wise Man’s Fear” any good? Yes it is, but it’s not quite as good as “The Name of the Wind”.

Again the writing is first-rate, although a writerly tic seems to have crept in that I’m sure didn’t appear in the first book (i.e. the whole “grinned a malicious grin”, “screamed an ear-piercing scream”, “sneezed a snotty sneeze” kind of thing), but this is a minor quibble.

The attention to detail and the characterisation is, for the most part, excellent – the exception being Denna, whose repeated appearances of little consequence in the story begin to test one’s patience.

But there are some larger faults to overcome. Once Kvothe’s Gap Yah begins, the flow of the novel becomes choppy, tangential and uneven in a few places, and, while some of this is acknowledged intra-story, I’m not sure they are all deliberate plays on the erratic and elastic nature of storytelling. For example, having ingratiated himself with a very rich and powerful man, Kvothe is then suddenly tasked with leading a band of mercenaries to hunt down a bunch of bandits. Why would the man choose a kid to do that ahead of, oh, I don’t know, virtually anybody under his command?

The story then sags when Kvothe essentially drops everything to get his end away with Felurian, a powerful faerie famed for bonking men to death. The subsequent chunk of story, in which Kvothe struggles to learn the language and the fighting skills of the Adem, also grinds on by. While I can understand why those sections were there, I swear I could hear the story groan under the sheer weight of Too Many Names. If it wasn’t a shopping list of Kama-Sutra-esque acts of nookie, such as the fluttering hand, the harrowed hare, or the chuckling chaffinch (okay, maybe not that last one) it was a litany of fighting styles lifted from some beat-em up’s list of special moves. Some fight scenes therefore became comically abstruse and rather dry, and, as a result, very nearly broke the spell weaved over me by the first book.

Once free of this saggy midsection the story picks up strongly and for me to blather any more about it would spoil the fun.

In short, it’s only a 4/5 from me, but, despite it’s faults, “The Wise Man’s Fear” is still a fair distance ahead of the pack and, for most of those 1000 pages, it is a solid, enjoyable read. I can’t wait to tuck into the final book.

Review – The Name of the Wind

‘I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep.
My name is Kvothe. You may have heard of me.’

For a while I wondered what all the fuss was about Patrick Rothfuss. I’d picked up a copy of “The Name of the Wind”, read the above blurb and thought, “Meh. It’s a fantasy novel about a braggart.” I then picked up a copy of “The Wise Man’s Fear”, read the blurb and thought, “Again, meh. More of the same.” The covers: “Meh. A shadowy cloaked figure. Well, shit, I’ve never seen that on a fantasy novel before.”

And yet there was something. Since its publication seven years ago the paperback of “The Name of the Wind” has undergone over twenty printings in the UK alone. The thing has been a solid seller. I also saw just what he meant to those who had read his work. (Boneman, if you’re reading this, you won me over!) At a recent convention Rothfuss was one of the most laid-back and approachable people there. So I picked up the novels again. I began to wonder how a 700 page novel could span only a single day (“The Name of the Wind” is subtitled “The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day One”). Heck, the follow-up 1000-pager spans the whole of day two…

Long story short: dammit, I became interested, and so it wasn’t long before I bought them both.

If the above blurb left you somewhat in the dark (as it did me), let me say what you’re looking at in this novel (and its sequels) is a man’s life story told in his own unhurried words. The first day’s storytelling forms the bulk of “The Name of the Wind”, the second “The Wise Man’s Fear” and so on. As Kvothe tells his story, so we see the making of the man and the legends that have grown around him. Once you know that, the above meh-worthy blurb starts to make sense.

So is it any good? Good lord, yes, and the key to its success, for me, is the word “unhurried”. It’s a crying shame when you read a decent-sounding story and see it slavishly adhere to some bullshit action-action-action axiom, as if the author is thinking to themselves: “If I don’t blow some shit up or kill someone off soon my publisher’s marketing department says the average reading demographic will switch off and… and… and…”

Thankfully there’s no such nonsense here. Thanks to the narrative device of Kvothe telling his life story, combined with Rothfuss’ determination not to rush things, “The Name of the Wind” has a real kick-off-your-shoes-and-gather-round-the-fire storytelling style, and once you find yourself lost in its world, you won’t want to leave.

In this first novel we find Kvothe living under an assumed name, seemingly content to live his days as an innkeeper while secretly tutoring his student, a demon called Bast. To many he was Kvothe the bloodless. He was Kvothe the Kingkiller. His story is told and mistold across the land, and now, for some reason, he is in hiding.

When a passing scribe unearths Kvothe’s true identity he convinces the man to tell his story, and so we begin.

“The Name of the Wind” covers Kvothe’s first fifteen years. As the son of troupers, the child Kvothe is an astonishingly quick learner, helped in no small part to his exceptional memory. (Hence the lengthy, vivid account of his life story, I guess!) When the troupe takes in an arcanist, Kvothe’s mind is lit up by the old man’s knowledge and the workings of a type of magic called sympathy. By the time the old man leaves the troupe, Kvothe’s thirst for knowledge is unquenchable, and so he sets his heart on studying at the University and soaking up its vast library of books.

But a great tragedy befalls the troupe at the hands of a legendary monster called the Chandrian and Kvothe is consequently forced to eke out a living begging and stealing in a large town called Tarbean. Broken, alone, and filled with a desire for revenge, Kvothe the boy is forced to rebuild himself anew.

As this is someone’s life story, “The Name of the Wind” is told in a fairly linear fashion. To further describe the story would therefore spoil the fun. Needless to say you won’t be disappointed if you decide to amble through its 700 pages.

And amble you should. Rothfuss takes his time when it comes to writing, and so it would be a crying shame to blast through the story in one sitting. No, this is a story in which to enjoy a good, long wallow. Soak up the brilliantly-drawn characters and the bustling ambience of each scene. Admire the incredible imagination at work, the attention to detail and the wonderful prose. (The first page is so beautifully written it quite rightly bookends each novel.) In short, read it in the same spirit it was written and enjoy.

This is easily a 5/5 from me, and sets a very high bar for any future fantasy I read. Heartily recommended.

Review – The Blue Blazes

The Blue Blazes is the first book in a trilogy from the popular and prolific penmonkey Chuck Wendig, with the second book, The Hellsblood Bride, due at the start of 2015.

In it we are introduced to Mikey “Mookie” Pearl, a soldier for The Organisation – a powerful crime syndicate that keeps New York’s assorted gangs in check, and which also happens to be the only thing standing between New York and the hellish underworld beneath. Mookie is a big man, which comes in handy when smashing goblin heads together. How big? Well, if you were to gaffer-tape Arnie, Stallone, Van Damme and Lundgren together into a single hulking, sinewy mass of muscle, then you’d be in the right ballpark. So, yeah, Mookie’s a big fella, and he’s about to hit upon a series of big problems.

His teenage daughter, Nora, forever pissed off with her Dad, is making waves in the criminal underworld in the guise of her alter ego, Persephone, and she is determined to either bring Mookie to heel or to bring him down. Things take a turn for the worse when The Boss of The Organisation reveals he is dying, a revelation that, if made public, would invite a power play that would destabilise the uneasy treaty between New York’s assorted gangs. And then there are the growing attacks from assorted horrible creatures from below, from goblins only too happy to lay eggs in your warm bits to wraith-like phantoms that stab thoughts and memories from their victims.

Then things go all to hell when The Boss’s heir apparent meets a particularly gruesome end, seemingly at the hands of Persephone…

For those unfamiliar with Chuck Wendig and his writing, let me try to describe it. Imagine a barbecue upon which there sizzle a tasty array of quarter-pounders, sausages, a couple of corn cobs and one of those big mushrooms. Then imagine someone comes along and slaps a whopping forty-eight ounce steak on the grill, dwarfing everything else on it, and marinaded in the most insanely hot chilli sauce. Once cooked they then drench it with even hotter chilli sauce and serve it up with a side order of another forty-eight ounce steak.

That, folks, is Chuck Wendig. We’re talking big. We’re talking strong flavours. And while The Blue Blazes is about as subtle as a pyroclastic flow through a primary school, it is nonetheless ridiculously entertaining. It’s like reading a long-lost Paul Verhoeven film created somewhere between Robocop and Total Recall. Bold is the word here, from the characterisation to the dialog and set pieces, and such unashamed comic book styling forms a large part of the book’s charm.

But there’s more. The jokes hit home when they need to. The action is riotous and blood-thirsty. The horror is icky and uncomfortable when it needs to be. Wendig’s New York and the sprawling underworld beneath it are well-realised and strangely believable.

The structure of the book is spot-on too, with each short chapter prefaced with an excerpt from a pioneer’s journal to help the reader keep up and to also flesh out the immediate story ahead. It all helps make this a mighty smooth read and the pages fly by so quickly you risk friction burns on your fingertips.

And yet for me it is not a five star book. Why? Well, there are a handful of reasons.

First and foremost there are some fairly big plot holes to pass, perhaps requiring Burnsy’s All-American quad bike and a helluva run-up. It may be that I missed a page reading so fast, but I think these niggles hold true. (A cynic may suggest the speed of the book helps distract the reader from seeing the holes – I wouldn’t be quite so snide.)

First: Nora, as Persephone, giving the criminal fraternity what-for – I can get behind that. What I struggle to believe, however, is that nobody in New York’s underworld knows Nora is Mookie’s daughter. Mookie is a high-ranking operative in The Organisation. I don’t care how careful he has been, it would be highly improbable for him to hide his family from his “other” family.

Second: the story seems to break its own rules. The Blue Blazes is a drug-like mineral rubbed onto the temples to enhance a user’s strength, stamina and perception, like some kind of computer game power-up. When “Blazing” a human’s third eye is also opened to view the world anew and to see some people for what they really are: children of the underworld, for example, or maybe one of the maligned half-and-halfs. Think John Nada putting on the shades in “They Live”. But this additional property of Blazing, not to mention its addictive qualities, seems to be largely forgotten around halfway through the story. Humans just get to see those gruesome buggers whether they’re Blazing or not, and the Blue no longer seems to have any adverse after-effects.

Finally, and this isn’t really a plot hole, there’s Nora herself. Frankly someone should have thrown her down a well and filled it in with concrete afterwards. While her existence and actions were integral to the plot, her “annoying teen with Daddy issues” act was a bold flavour too far, and the conflicting insights into her mind felt at times like she was panel-beaten to fit into the story.

While I found these niggles irksome, they didn’t really derail me from the story. If you are willing to let these kind of gremlins whizz on by at a hundred miles per hour and to go along for the ride I would heartily recommend The Blue Blazes. It’s enormous fun and I look forward to book two.

4/5