A Game of Thrones by G.R.R. Martin

Winter is Coming.
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Martin crafts a complex and exhilarating story that leaves you breathless and yearning for more.

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire Book One) was first published in 1996 to relative success, which was further boosted by HBO’s serialization of the novel onto television. Inspired by greats such as J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Jordan and Robert E. Howard, Martin creates a rich world in the tradition of Middle-Earth set in a low-magic historical/medieval setting where the savagery of the Feudal system is as much a character as the people themselves.

Avoiding the cliches found in modern fantasy epics, Martin has ground the genre back to a relatable level – family dynamics. His mastery of the narrative is obvious not only in his ability to weave complicated plots and points of view together into a fast-paced political melee, but more his ability to draw his characters in a moral gray scale. With some exceptions, no character is specifically good or bad – they all fight for their honor, or their family, or their kingdom, or merely follow the customs or religious beliefs common and accepted in their homelands. Martin throws the reader into this Feudalistic maelstrom and expects the reader to make his or her own judgments on the characters. There are several characters that are clearly in the villain role, and yet Martin has managed to craft them all as multi-faceted and even sympathetic so that, right to the end, they remain ambiguous.

A Game of Thrones is Shakespearean tragedy dressed up with even more violence, dark energies, and plenty of sex: it is both equally a timeless classic and a post-modern marvel. Martin draws from multiple sub-genres so that there is something recognizable to all readers, no matter what fiction they normally read.

The only drawback is that Martin’s world is so rich in character and description that, for the first half of the book, it is often easy to get lost in the finer details, but as the book progresses and characters are killed off, the narrative becomes less muddy and becomes clearer and easier to follow.

An exciting read with many original and intriguing concepts as well as many familiar and more comfortable ideas. 8/10

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Zombie Britannica by Thomas Emson

51htaquclhl-_sx322_bo1204203200_Britain is suffering the most extreme heat wave it has ever experienced when suddenly the dead dig their way out of earthen and watery graves and swarm across Britain, devouring and dismembering everything living in their path.

Emson is a contemporary British horror writer, born in Wales and currently residing in England. He writes both Welsh and English books, and in 2008 his first English novel was printed.

Zombie Britannica follows half a dozen view points and jumps around Britain and the UK as it follows these groups in their fight for survival.

This is an action book – there is just enough character development to keep you invested and interested. The chapters are short and sharp, and by jumping frequently through the UK we can witness different viewpoints of the same event – a cleverly used device to maintain the momentum of a fast paced story. This pace begins on the first page and runs to the last page – a non-stop action ride filled with gore and viscera.

It is an entertaining book, but does little to add or expand upon the idea of zombies. Though, it should be said, his zombie apocalypse does return to the ‘classic’ film zombies where they rise from the grave. Nothing original, but a nice departure from the post-modern obsession with viral plagues.

The story does start to get tedious in places – there are only so many ways to describe a zombie biting someones throat out before the writer runs out of adjectives and starts repeating himself. Also there are some very clear  Stephen King tropes in this book. Anyone familiar with Stephen King would instantly recognize the character archetypes found in Britannica, which is not a bad thing – as they are used well and help make the story work.

There is also a barrage of pop-cultural references in this book; films, novels and TV shows get quoted in every chapter from various characters. Pop culture rises out of the grave just as readily as the corpses in this novel. In fact, the homage to George Romero films, the recycling of Stephen King characters and fight scenes straight from The Walking Dead or 28 Days Later gives this book the feel of a well-written piece of fan fiction.

Whatever the inspiration and direction taken in this book, it works. It is bloody, violent, funny and entertaining. Zombies are more popular than ever nowadays – in part to our cultural obsession with the apocalypse, but perhaps more so as a satire about capitalism and greed.

Zombies represent the endless appetite for more: more food, more money, more objects; More of everything. They are an allegory for our endless consumption of the world around us and it’s resources. Most importantly, though, zombies are an equalizer. It doesn’t matter how wealthy you are, what your religion is, your ethnicity, sexuality, political opinion: zombies don’t care. They bring everybody down to a level where we are all equals trying to survive.

In this age of extremes of wealth and poverty, every audience can relate to a story that negates these things and makes us truly equal. And these things are present in the book – Emson gives us characters from various walks of life; various sexualities and religions and social standings, and he brings them all down to the basest of levels where we can relate to them.

So perhaps, in that regard, this is one of the more intelligent and better written zombie books out there. It winks to us, the reader, while acknowledging the culture it comes from. It doesn’t try to be different it just grabs a proven successful strategy and holds on tight, taking the reader along with it.

A very enjoyable read and highly recommended to fans of horror, splatter-punk and zombies. And if you don’t enjoy it, it doesn’t matter: zombies don’t care about your opinions, they’ll devour you anyway.

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The Alchemaster’s Apprentice by Walter Moers

e5d03e0d818a7001a6c51edbd123d719Walter Moers is a german writer and artist. In 1999 the first of the Zamonia series was published in Germany, The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear, and was translated into English in 2000 for the UK and 2005 for America. It was an international bestseller (though it has retained some obscurity in the US.)

The Alchemaster’s Apprentice is the fifth book in the Zamonia series and is, like the rest of the series, illustrated throughout by Moers himself ( a talented artist with roots in German comics.) Their cartoonish appearance belies the fact that his books are for a more mature audience and it are filled with puns and references that an adolescent reader may not understand, but could still enjoy.

Zamonia is a fantasy land that instantly reminds me of Discworld or Hogwarts. Demons and witches and monsters and magic and violence are an accepted part of day-to-day living. It is tongue-in-cheek, very much like Pratchett’s works, but the humour is usually a bit more subdued (with some hilarious exceptions.)

The town of Malaisea (because it is so over-whelmed with poxes and sicknesses,) is ruled by the evil Alchemaster, Ghoolion, who uses potions and chemicals to create plagues and demons to harass and control the townsfolk. The story revolves around  our Hero, Echo. He is a crat – which is an animal almost identical to a cat, except it has two livers, can speak every language and has a perfect memory. Ghoolion finds him on the street, starving and near death. The Alchemaster makes a deal with Echo – he will cook for the crat and treat him to a life of luxury in return for the right to slaughter him and extract his fat and essence for his alchemical practises.

Echo, with nothing to lose, accepts the deal. He’s going to die any, he figures, so it might as well be in comfort rather than in hungry agony on the street. And thus the story follows the adventures of the crat in the decrepit castle of the Alchemaster.

The story follows the two characters as they develop a relationship each other and become valued friends. But this is of course, an awkward relationship because it will still culminate in Echo’s death. Echo discovers magic, strange creatures, has mystical and spiritual adventures and learns Ghoolions’ darkest deepest secrets. The Alchemaster, it turns out, is an amazing chef. Every day he creates culinary delights for the crat – sating and saturating him, priming his body for the harvest. This is the heart of the book – ingredient collecting, cooking and feasting – it is fantasy food-porn that elevates the experience of eating so high that it is almost worshipped: it’s like reading a transcript for Gordon Ramsey if he were cheffing for the staff at Hogwarts.

The story is very entertaining, from start to end. It is a journey of discovery for both the characters and the readers, who get to discover the land of Malaisea as intimately as the characters get to know each other. There are many genuinely touching moments and there is also much suspense – in essence this is a story of racing against the clock.

Moers shows us his delight in creating fantastical elements with long lists of ingredients. Many many long lists. In fact, the only downside in this book is probably how repetitive it can be with the characters listing things. It becomes boring and an effort to read through on some occasions.

“Picture to yourself the sickest place in the whole of Zamonia! A little town with winding streets and crooked houses, and looming over it a creepy-looking castle perched on a black crag. A town inflicted with the rarest bacteria and the oddest diseases: cerebral whooping cough, hepatic migraine, gastric mumps, intestinal acne, digital tinnitus, renal measles, mini-influenza, to which only persons less than one metre tall are susceptible, witching-hour headaches that develop on the stroke of midnight and disappear at one a.m precisely on the first Thursday of every month, phantom toothaches experienced only by persons wearing a full set of dentures.”

The opening paragraph is long but also adequately prepares you for the rest of the book. It sets the scene and setting wonderfully, and new comers to the franchise can read it as a stand-alone book, or fans can read it and delight in an expansion of a world they already love. It is a wonderfully entertaining read and it deserves it’s bestseller status. I look forward to discovering more books by Moers.

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White Dwarf Magazine

gw-60249999302White Dwarf was first published in 1977  and, edited by Ian Livingstone, specialised mainly in Dungeons and Dragons and other role-playing games. Eventually, when Games Workshop began producing their own miniatures, the magazine branched off from D&D to be it’s own separate brand, dedicated to Games Workshop products.

Almost 40 years later and the magazine is more popular than ever, and is a major source of inspiration for artists, writers, gamers and model makers worldwide. Each issue of the magazine serves to market the latest Games Workshop products, mainly: Warhammer Fantasy Battle, Warhammer 40,000, Lord of The Rings, Necromunda and The Black Library. The Black Library is the stand-out division as it produces novels, audio-books, graphic novels and comics, all centred within the Warhammer Games Universe with under 700 different novels and anthologies so far.

White Dwarf magazine also has game reports written up into a fictional account of battle, short stories to expand on backstory for product lines, and incredible artwork – often there are detailed sketches and concept art or full colour paintings. White Dwarf is a fantastic source of inspiration for anyone interested in Science Fiction or Fantasy.

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Raven, Swordmistress Of Chaos by Richard Kirk

tumblr_nf54wuwoos1snghrzo1_500Interestingly, Richard Kirk was actually a pseudonym for two writers – Angus Wells and Robert Holdstock. Both these writers have an impressive bibliography; Wells having a rich background in fantasy and westerns, and Holdstock with an even more impressive background in Celtic, Nordic and mythic fiction. It is not known which elements of the book either contributed to, and not being familiar with either of these writers their styles are indistinct while writing as Richard Kirk.

Raven is a classic Barbarian/Dark Fantasy novel in the same vein as Druss The Legend, Conan (or more on a more aesthetic level,) Red Sonja. The book starts with our other main protagonist – Spellbinder – who finds Raven fleeing a life of rape and torture as a slave, hunted by slavehounds across a barren wasteland. A giant black raven intervenes and fends off the slavehounds, and Spellbinder takes this a sign that she is of immense importance.

He trains her and then takes her on a pilgrimage to an ancient artefact believed to be a fallen God. It is here she hears her destiny spoken to her from the artefact, and it promises her vengeance against her raper if she quests for an artefact of great magical and spiritual importance. She accepts this destiny and Spellbinder leads her on a great adventure filled with pirates, beastmen, wizards, and sex.

Judging from the cover of this book I assumed it would be an overly-sexed adventure that read like a bad 70’s science fiction film. It was actually surprisingly well written, though one of the authors had a penchant for over using adjectives and in particular had an affinity for platinum (platinum armour and weapons and jewellery appear in almost every chapter). The (male) authors tried to create a female hero that was strong and independant; and this translated into a cheesy 70’s character who uses her sexuality and her ‘fragile female exterior’ as weapons of distraction and negotiation, and this often comes off as more of an exploitation of Raven instead of an empowerment. (On a sidenote, the best female leads in fantasy fiction, in my opinion, are those in Le guin’s EarthSea series and Goodkind’s Sword Of Truth series.)

What I also found surprising about this story, is that Raven took a backseat to the story. The true main character was Spellbinder, whilst Raven stands at his side or in the background. It’s ironic, that in trying to create an independent heroine, what they manufactured instead was a woman so objectified by the authors, that she functions little more as a plot device in her own story. All the major action revolves around Spellbinder, and in the possibly most exciting action sequence in the book (Spellbinder versus the monstrous leader of Beastmen in the jungle) it actually takes place off page, and what we read about is Raven nervously waiting whilst Spellbinder defeats the monster and recovers the artefact.

However, towards the end of the book Raven does start to develop her own gravitational pull and the story is drawn back towards her. The action focuses on her and she almost develops as a character. But then the book ends. I read this book with the expectation of it being a cheesy 70’s barbaric fantasy, and keeping these things in mind, it didn’t disappoint. It was exactly what I expected, perhaps pleasantly downplayed in some parts, and though the characters were a bit two-dimensional with little development, the world was nicely realized and was enjoyable to travel through. I would recommend this book to any fan of fantasy, not because it is great, but because it is not. Sometimes we need to read an enjoyable average novel to more thoroughly enjoy the more well written modern novels available.

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The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

hobbit_coverPublished in 1937 to critical success and several awards, The Hobbit has endured generations as a beloved classic children’s story. One of the first true fantasy novels, it is (with The Lord of The Rings) undoubtedly the most influential piece of literature on the fantasy genre, setting the tropes and cliches that endure within the genre even now.

To accurately review this novel is difficult, as it carries much nostalgia and it becomes too easy to compare it to The Lord of The Rings or to compare it to the film adaptations. It is also important to remember, despite it’s impressive prose and fantastic and often dark and violent elements, that this is a children’s story, and thus it shall be reviewed as such, not as an adult fiction book.

“In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.” These are the opening words of which Tolkien first wrote on a blank page he uncovered when marking School Certificate Papers whilst working at Pembroke College.

The Hobbit is an episodic quest about a quiet and unassuming character – a Hobbit – named Bilbo Baggins. He is recruited by the wizard Gandalf and a band of twelve dwarves to accompany them across the world and retrieve treasure from an ancient dwarven city inside a mountain guarded by a dragon. It is a simple premise, like most children’s stories, and has an uncomplicated plot. Each chapter introduces a character or creature and a new location, and the protagonists must overcome the obstacles and journey onwards to the next chapter.

The story, however simple the synopsis, is actually complex for a children’s book. It deals strongly with themes of heroism and the main characters all have strongly defined complex arcs. These arcs include descents and recoveries which are neither labeled as good or bad, just accepted as part of the human (or dwarf or hobbit) experience.

Bilbo, as the starring protagonist, matures emotionally and intellectually throughout the book. Rather than each episode merely being filler between the first and last pages, they each serve to teach our Hero a lesson and throughout the book his layers of naivety and wholesome innocence are stripped away and replaced with stoic layers of wisdom, leadership and even disenfranchisement. Bilbo’s character experiences a thorough evolution throughout the book, and by the last chapter he is almost unrecognizable from the first.

This kind of full realization of a character learning through his experiences so thoroughly and fully was an unexpected facet when the book was first published. Readers, children and adult alike, were pulled uncontrollably along with the story and critics couldn’t stop raving about it.

The real genius of the book, however, is the true main character. It is not the powerful wizard Gandalf, nor the Hobbit Bilbo, nor the Dwarf King Thorin nor any of his ilk. It is, in fact, the world itself. Tolkien was a master world crafter, and the geographies and cultures and histories of Middle Earth are the true main characters. It is a fantastic milieu where the story itself is a machine to drive the world.

“There was a dim sheet of water no longer overshadowed, and on it’s sliding surface there were dancing and broken reflections of clouds and of stars. Then the hurrying water of the Forest River swept away all the company of casks and tubs away to the north bank, in which it had eaten out a wide bay. This had a shingly shore under hanging banks and was walled at the eastern end by a little jutting cape of hard rock. On the shallow shore most of the barrels ran aground, though a few went on to bump against the stony pier.”

The locations range from his ideal visage of Britain, to the desolate and war-ravaged lands that take inspiration from the war zones he saw in Europe during WWI. And within these lands are the rich cultural heritages of peoples present and gone that Tolkien had been constructing since before the war had ended.

Again, though the story is simple and contains only the barest hints of unrealized sub-plots, the writing is superb. Throughout the book Tolkien’s mastery of prose creeps through and inserts itself, childish encounters described with fiercely accurate details and fairy-tale landscapes that are so fully imagined and well described that it puts many adult fiction books to shame. The prose here is unassuming and does not patronize the reader. Settings and events are described in a fluent and matter-of-fact way, which accepts the reader and invites them into the fictional world, rather than trying to compensate for the burden that they seem to most narrators.

It is an encompassing read, and is an excellent introduction to Middle Earth as it is a pivot point in the universe upon which all of Tolkien’s stories lead to or are based upon and influenced by the events within. The Hobbit is a fine vehicle for which Tolkien was able to market Middle Earth, and one for which enabled him to create The Lord of The Rings and change the face of literature forever.

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Thieves’ World: Beyond Sanctuary By Janet Morris

7155Thieves’ World was originally an anthology of short stories created by Robert Lynn Asprin in 1978. The concept was that a setting was provided and rules were established, and then writers given the privilege to establish their own characters and stories within this shared world.

Lynn Abbey, one of the co-editors of the original anthologies, revived the series in 2002 with her novel Sanctuary. For a full list of all entries into the series, I recommend the Wikipedia page, as the list is enormous.

Thieves’ World is a Dark Fantasy novel – a saga of sword and sorcery in the tradition of Conan The Barbarian, or Druss the Legend. The world is full of wizards, demons, dark-magics, gods, barbarians, prostitutes and thieves – It is as colourful as it is bloodthirsty and with a huge wealth of backstory to draw on.

This book is my introduction to the series, and to be honest, the first chapters felt like I had walked into the middle of a conversation – I didn’t know who or what was going on, though I soon got the gist of it.

I felt the first quarter of the book suffered from too much exposition – the author seemed obligated to acknowledge all source material by dropping as many names and ideas in as possible. This did help me to visualise a rich and complex world, but at the same time it was distracting and I often got lost. Most of this info dumping was irrelevant, and many things were not brought up again.

However, once the exposition was out of the way and the plot could take over, the author found her voice more clearly. Janet Morris writes eloquently and once you become accustomed to the small quirks of her writing style, it becomes almost lyrical; the world becomes less distracting and more interactive, the story gains depth and the characters become easier to invest in.

Our main character is Tempus – he is an immortal Demi-God leader of a band of mercenaries who trek out from the city of Sanctuary to battle against demons and wizards and Gods. I forget exactly why they do this, or what their motivations were. The groundworks of this book were laid in the confusing and somewhat rushed first quarter.

However, on a genre as stylistically defined as Dark Fantasy, many of the characters were too similar in archetype, and I often found myself back-reading to find out just whom I was reading about. But, I repeat, once the chaos of city life is left behind, the story flows like a deep river, and you are swept away and carried with it.

If you are not familiar with Dark Fantasy, consider it thus: In Beyond Sanctuary the main characters are savage barbarians who are just as blood-thirsty and rapacious as their enemies; the demons they fight are just as vile and self-serving as the Gods that they worship; the world they inhabit is filled with wastelands and storms and magical realms populated by flesh-tearing beasts and witches and all manner of hell-spawn.

Half the outer wall was crumbled; debris and bodies were everywhere. Tempus’ eyes were smarting from the sulphurous fumes and the stench of rot that set in once these ancient foes met death. His sword glowed pink and dripped with acid blood and wherever he stepped ichor, in grainy puddles, ate into the paving stones.

I enjoyed Beyond Sanctuary and look forward to reading more in this series. Good dark fantasy is hard to come across, and this series has the benefit of dozens of authors over many many decades fleshing it out and developing the world and the characters.

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