Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

December 29, 2010

Fantasy cover artwork

Filed under: essay — Tags: , — Sam @ 12:02 am

Cover image: The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock HeartA dear friend gave me a book earlier—The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart, by Mathias Malzieu (tr. Sarah Ardizzone), and the first thing that struck me about it was that the cover is gorgeous. We checked inside: Chatto & Windus. “Oh, it’s not a genre imprint, that explains it.”

It’s a wrap-around dust jacket, with elegant, energetic artwork by Benjamin Lacombe. The two dancing figures are very stylised, done in glowing colours with doll-like skin and simply but cleverly textured clothing swept by motion. Their pose, and the whole energy of the picture, flows towards the right as if her beckoning hand were about to reach a little farther and lay the book open to us—though she has her eyes averted, and he looks alert and a little suspicious.

Behind them, brass gears turn, part of some gigantic clock with its workings laid bare and the hands an afterthought, with (on the back of the book) two dark and villainous silhouettes running across the cogs. The colours are warm but muted and patchy, as though stained with soot, and behind them a tall, crowded city rises. Done in smudged and softened pencils, the steep tiled roofs and chimneys are all a little crooked, and a few shadows (perhaps birds, or planes; perhaps dragons, or ornithopters) fly in the hazy air. The sky is clear and parchment-pale, a frame for the title, and the four corners are all subtly shadowed giving a sense of enclosure and an enhanced book-ness.

The layered dimensionality of it suggests depth and complexity, while the swept and stylised nature reminds us that this is a text to be read rather than a secondary world to be vicariously experienced.

I only have one criticism, and that’s the style & placement of the author’s name. The font is rather more generic than I’d prefer, but the white text hides against the red skirt, an effect made worse by the tangential swirls. The metadata format (title horizontally at the top, author’s name at the bottom in smaller text, both centred) is so pervasive that it would only be interesting if it were something else.

The contrast with most recent fantasy releases is rather sad. The artists who do covers for most fantasy books (most from larger UK publishers, at any rate) are very accomplished, but have an absurdly small artistic vocabulary. There will be at least one figure, either full-length or a headshot; cloaks, cleavage, and swords are common, as are straps, buckles, and stubble. Perhaps there will be a horse, or swirly magic instead of a sword. There will often be a monster; if so, it will have spikes or trailing bits. The landscape will be dramatic and gloomy, and probably on fire. The “generically mediaeval” school of fantasy architecture is going out of style, but gothic spires, dark alleyways, and pseudo-Mediterranean terraced vistas are still popular.

The painting will have been done almost photorealistically in oils or acrylics, or with digital-native techniques; the desired effect seems to be disintermediation, removing as many traces as possible of technique or painterly vision from between the prospective reader (for these are always aimed at the person who has not yet bought the book, rather than at the collector or the admirer of beauty) and their potential tour of its secondary world. The scene will inevitably stretch to the edges of the cover, without frame or background panels, and it will be oriented either into the centre of the cover or towards the viewer. There will be very little on the spine, and nothing (a plain black background, or a simple empty land- or skyscape) on the back cover so that the wordy blurb and the pull quotes from other authors stand out.

In addition, everyone is young, white, slim, able-bodied, and beautiful. If there are any older people, they will be male and probably Wisely Bearded. They may or may not bear any actual resemblance to the characters inside the book, but will certainly be the artist’s literal interpretation, and a faithful attempt at rendering people who could actually exist—and who could, plausibly, be the reader, or at least their idealized versions of themselves. The reason so many have hoods shadowing their faces is the same reason so many romance/erotica books have headless women in corsets, or disembodied legs; nobody wants to know, for certain, that it’s Not Them.

December 14, 2010

Some recent reads

Filed under: review — Tags: , — Sam @ 10:31 pm

Surface Detail – Iain M Banks

A story of the harrowing of a virtual Hell, and associated shenanigans. To those who’ve read more of the Culture novels than I have, a particular line at the ending may fall less resoundingly flat. Also: gold does not float in mercury just because it has a lower atomic number. Gold sinks quite hard in mercury, because it has a much higher density. Also, gold dissolves in mercury. Otherwise, good.

Amity – Jeremy D Brooks

A sysadmin has his life destroyed by an internet site where anonymous people compete to outdo each other in sick and tasteless humour, and virtual vandalism. Not for anyone offended by, er, much of anything. Free to download here, though I don’t know for how long.

Winter Song – Colin Harvey

An entertaining planetary romance, though it would be improved by cutting the initial space-battle sequence with its (sparse) infodumps on future society and going straight to the bit where our protagonist wakes up on a cold planet, taken in by an abandoned colony with a Norse-like culture, trying to deal with the sentient computer download in his head. The central female character is good, very competent and not just a love interest, but the other women she’s contrasted with are all either sexually manipulative or shrewish & jealous. (eARC – Angry Robot)

Damage Time – Colin Harvey

A future cop story, and a book about a man trying to find himself after having his memories stolen. Strangely for this genre, the protagonist only loses his memory halfway through, which means that a lot of the usual impact of the plotline is lost. I’m not at all convinced it works. There’s a creditable attempt to counter some transphobia, notably through the mouth of a liberal imam (who explains about khuntsa), but that’s rather counteracted by the appalling ignorance about trans issues that the characters display, and which isn’t countered by the text. Both this and Winter Song also show poly families and bisexuality as the norm in their futures. (eARC – Angry Robot)

WTF FTW and Makers – Cory Doctorow

The more interested an author is in making political, economic, or social points, the more likely they are to resort to Idiot Ball plotting. Doctorow is a definite example of this, and it’s frustrating, but since those points are what drives Doctorow’s writing in the first place we’ll have to live with it. WTF is about gold farming in developing nations and union-forming; Makers is about interesting things you can do with 3D printers, techno-junk, and the vast untapped forces of geek nostalgia. Like all Doctorow’s work, you can read them for free here.

December 11, 2010

Edmund Glasby – Disciple of a Dark God

Filed under: review — Tags: , , — Sam @ 12:55 am

I have a review of this up at Beyond Fiction. Some choice quotations from it:

[V]ery definitely the kind of swords & sorcery that everybody used to write… Our protagonist, Everus Dragonbanner… could easily be a novelization of someone’s old school D&D campaign… the most toxically misogynist book I’ve read in a very long time… faintly purple… outbreaks of passive voice…

December 10, 2010

Best of 2010, and Christmas Giveaway – Erekos by AM Tuomala

Filed under: meta — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 1:49 pm

Now closed! Congratulations, Penelope Friday!

This year’s Best Of post is early, because I’ve managed to arrange a special treat for you! But first, the results. I’ve read enough Really Good Books this year that I’m splitting the nomination in two, for Best From Large Publisher and Best From Small Publisher. (Er, that’s “large” as SF&F imprints go, which is not “large” in absolute terms.) NB: I’m including self-published pieces, and pieces only published on the web, under “small publisher”. Any suggestions for a better name for the category gratefully received!

Out of all the good books from large publishers, Catherynne M Valente’s The Habitation of the Blessed utterly blew me away, and sails away with the nomination to some fantastical shore. In second place, if I were awarding second prizes, we have The Meat Tree, a re-envisioning of the story of Blodeuwedd by Gwyneth Lewis.
Honourable mentions also go to Pennterra by Judith Moffett, and to Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey.

I’ve read fewer from small publishers this year, and that’s something I want to remedy in 2011. On the other hand, there have been a couple of books that were absolute standouts by any measure, and the winner is Erekos by AM Tuomala. Second prize would go to Akačehennyi on a Diet of Dreams, by Kayleigh Ayn Bohémier, a blog novel published by the author under a Creative Commons license.

Erekos cover

I liked Erekos so much, I want to share the love—and the publisher, Candlemark & Gleam, agree with me, so they’ve donated a copy for me to give away. It’s a digital-only book, and you’ll get your choice of either direct digital delivery (ePub, PDF, or mobi format) or a special gift package with all three formats on a CD, so you have something to put under the tree this Christmas. This is a worldwide offer, but if you choose the CD option we can’t guarantee getting it to you by Christmas unless you live in the US. We’ll try our best, though!

The competition will be open till midnight GMT on Wednesday 15th December, and all you have to do to enter is comment below and tell us who your favourite goddess is. Mythological or fictional, we don’t mind. You can also enter by Twitter, if you use the hashtag #erekos—please spread the word!

Jordan & Sanderson – Towers of Midnight

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 1:42 am

I read this yesterday evening, after finding it unexpectedly in the library, and it’s let me crystallize something about the change between authors that was nagging at me. (No spoilers.)

Sanderson actually wants to finish.

I’m not saying Jordan was consciously spinning things further and further out, but I was getting the distinct feeling that he didn’t know where he was going overall. He obviously had the plot mapped out and knew what had to happen where in the story, but I can’t get any clear sense of overarching themes to it all and he kept dragging in new characters and plotlines. To me, that reads like an author trying hard to refine and direct his vision of what the series is for, especially after the explicit bait-and-switch from Book 1; everything I’ve heard on that topic is about a move away from portal-quest fantasy, but not any kind of towards.

Sanderson, on the other hand, is nothing if not workmanlike and direct, and it shows. In the two Wheel of Time books he’s written, the plot strands have been coming together at warp speed, and we get much less time-wasting. Mind you, there are still a couple of new developments that are less deus ex machina than

I’m starting to wonder if the Wheel of Time series, taken as a whole, is more of a response to Eddings than to Tolkien. It’s exploring some interesting variations on the One Ninja theory of history, given the contributions of everyone involved (though the side of the Shadow is still as hopelessly blundering as always). It could have something to say about free will, determinism, and redemption, but I honestly don’t know what.

There is always the big theme of gender relations, but Jordan & Sanderson’s treatment of identity politics is so hopelessly reductionist and naive that trying to say anything in that format is like playing patience with no hearts or diamonds and expecting it to come out.

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