I’m very pleased to announce that my poetry, “Seasons on an Alien World”, has appeared in Issue 86 of Andromeda Spaceways Magazine, an Australian speculative-fiction magazine published quarterly. There are over 100 pages of content from a plethora of authors, so head over to the ASM website to check it out!
As I watch the images of recent weeks — war, devastation, trains and platforms packed with fleeing civilians — I find myself reminded of the works of Alan Furst. I’ve been meaning to write more about my favourite authors, so this is a good place to start.
Furst’s novels are set in the 1930s and the 1940s, amidst the shadows of Europe: they deal with espionage, occupation, and resistance. The books are episodic; short on plot; and long on atmosphere. At their best, their writing is beautiful and evocative; consider the opening scene of Dark Voyage, in which a radio operator hears the final call of a distressed merchant ship, or Warsaw’s defenders in the opening scene of The Polish Officer. Eventually, Furst went downhill; his later books crept towards self-parody, to the point where I never picked up his latest.
His earlier books have lost none of their power:
The first in the series, Night Soldiers, is probably my favourite — certainly the most sweeping (and sprawling). It follows one man’s story across the years, from the terror and paranoia of Stalin’s Soviet Union in the 1930s, through the Spanish Civil War, and eventually, World War 2 itself.
I also really like the more focused Dark Voyage, about a single merchant crew recruited into the Allied cause.
And there are gems throughout the series: an Italian journalist ghost-writing the memoirs of an anti-Mussolini colonel; a one-time film producer helping a RAF pilot unload arms for the French Resistance; the titular Polish officer leading a trainload of people to safety.
The books are almost all standalone, so my recommendation would be to start with Night Soldiers and see where you go from there. If you like it, you probably can’t go wrong with books from the first half of the series.
As promised, I have added an aviation section to the recommended reading list. It includes four memoirs about civil aviation: Beryl Markham’s West with the Night, Mark Vanhoenacker’s Skyfaring, Ernst Gann’s Fate is the Hunter, and Rinker Buck’s Flight of Passage. It also includes one memoir of the US space program, Michael Collins’ Carrying the Fire.
I read most of these books over the last 12-18 months (the exception being Skyfaring, which I read several years ago). Together, they tell a wide range of stories, from Markham’s childhood in colonial Kenya to Collins’ experience with the Apollo program, and cover a period from the early 20th century to the last decade. Enjoy!
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Great fantasy gets its power from one of two sources: myth, history, or both. By this, I mean drawing on themes such as the rise and fall of empires, the struggles of individuals against fate and the gods, and the way in which cultures are shaped and formed by the interactions of different peoples — not copying the originals 1:1. The author’s imagination is either a third ingredient in its own right, or the next step in the process that transforms mythical and historical inspirations into a finished product.
My favourite works of fantasy, across different media, exemplify this. To pick a few examples:
Lord of the Rings combines myth, history, and in some ways, a very modern take on its subject. Its themes include temptation, sacrifice, the triumph of the meek — it’s notable that the heroes are the hobbits, Frodo and Sam, not Aragorn or Gandalf — and the fading of an enchanted world. The world itself changes, as peoples migrate and kingdoms rise and fall. At the same time, it’s also about the pity of war, the inevitability of change, and in Frodo’s case, the difficulty of returning home afterwards.
His Dark Materials is about a revolt against the heavens, while also drawing on the author’s imagination to create a wondrous world where a person’s soul takes animal form; talking, armoured bears rule the north; and balloonists ply the skies.
Princess Mononoke is about a conflict between peoples with very different worldviews and agendas, each protecting their own home. It’s also a story about human ingenuity pitted against the awesome powers of nature and the gods.
Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit is a stand-out for how well it blends myth and history. Its premise is out of myth: protecting a boy who houses a spirit that can save the land from drought. Its details are grounded in history: the land has a dynamic past and is populated by multiple ethnic groups, with distinct material cultures, belief systems (from village shamans to court astrologers), and traditions. The characters live in a waterwheel-powered mill and pay at the market with strings of cash. Everything feels well-thought out.
The converse of my theory is that I can’t stand generic fantasy settings that take themselves seriously. By ignoring the original foundations of myth and history, and aping bestselling modern works instead, they become devoid of awe, wonder, and originality.
A final, rather meta implication is that, just as fantasy settings often posit a world that declined from a golden age, so I tend to prefer older works and, in some cases, authors who wrote before the modern emergence of fantasy as a commercial genre:
Out of my favourite fantasy authors, the most modern is Daniel Abraham, whose Long Price Quartet dates to the 2000s.
Going back a generation or two are Terry Pratchett (my favourite Discworld novels were published between the 1980s and early 2000s), Lois McMaster Bujold (active from the 1980s; The Curse of Chalion, my pick for her best fantasy, was published in 2001), and CJ Cherryh (who published the books I have in mind in the 1970s-1980s).
Before that are Roger Zelazny (1960s onward, with the Chronicles of Amber, my favourite, published in the 1970s), of course Tolkien (1930s-1950s), and perhaps Dunsany (1900s) or Kipling (the 1890s, if you consider the Jungle Book fantasy).
Now, I am not saying that fantasy creators cannot be inspired by, or conduct a dialogue with, others. Discworld started as a parody, His Dark Materials was written as a rancorous response to Narnia, Cherryh’s Morgaine books bear the influence of earlier authors such as Moorcock, and Daniel Abraham’s Dagger and Coin series (written after the Long Price Quartet) both plays with and subverts the genre. The point is that these works had something interesting to say.
And that’s the value that myth and history bring to fantasy fiction — they make it interesting. They offer primal, powerful themes; conflict to drive the characters; and verisimilitude — the sense of an immersive and convincing world. I don’t think the genre would exist without these wellsprings, and to this day, they enrich works of fantasy.
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In January 2015 (over six years ago!), I posted a “recommended reading” list (which you can view here, or via the link at the top of the page). I love historical games and writing about historical games, so books exploring those periods seemed a natural fit for the site.
Now, I’ve begun adding to the list. First up is Ian W Toll’s Pacific War trilogy, in the military history section — I read this over late 2020 and early 2021 and loved it. Expect more soon, on topics such as aviation (taking up flight simulation has inspired me to read plenty of aviation memoirs), science fiction & fantasy, and video game development.
series is intelligent space opera that combines chases, imaginative alien
races, and social commentary. Or, alternately, “FTL with less shooting, more talking, and ten times the
backstabbing.” Recommended for space opera fans — and also my safest recommendation for new
There are five books in the series and it is
best read in order:
Book 1, The Pride of Chanur, is a standalone following an alien merchant crew who encounter a strange being, a “human”, and find themselves chased across the galaxy as a result.
Books 2-4, beginning with Chanur’s Venture, are a trilogy of the “one story cut into three” kind.
Book 5, Chanur’s Legacy, is another standalone, with a different lead character and a more humorous tone than most of Cherryh’s work. It deserves special mention for a prescient joke about email inboxes — not bad for a novel published in 1992!
I love The
Paladin. Like my other favourite Cherryh, the Morgaine
saga, it’s a story about the relationship between a man and a woman — in
this case, an exiled sword-master and his apprentice, a young woman on a quest
for revenge. Thus begins their adventure, which takes them through training,
danger, and eventually, a brush with their own legend. Don’t be fooled by the
lack of a high concept — this is a fine stand-alone, sometimes humorous, more
often exciting, and brought to life by its two leads. Well worth a look.
Since my last update, I’ve been lucky to play
three excellent (and very different) games, all Game of the Year material: Total War: Three Kingdoms, Rule the Waves 2, and Dragon Quest Builders 2. I also reread
an old favourite, Lord of the Rings,
and ploughed through a new favourite, the works of CJ Cherryh.
Total War: Three Kingdoms is the Shogun 2 successor I’ve awaited for the last 8 years, and the best Total War game to date. Everything I loved about Shogun 2 is back: the challenge, strong execution on both the campaign and battle layers, and a beautiful aesthetic. The challenge hit me very early on — playing Cao Cao (the recommended starting character!), I crashed and burned twice before succeeding on my third try. Even with that experience under my belt, it took me two tries to win as the Ma clan of Western China.
The campaign layer is immersive and well-designed. Each province is distinct, so geography matters. AI-controlled warlords play like believable characters: they have distinct personalities — Liu Bei will stand by his friends, while Yuan Shu is a treacherous opportunist — and act sensibly, for instance, by bending the knee to stronger powers. Interface improvements make even large empires manageable.
The same attention to detail is visible on the battle layer. Each individual battle feels like poetry in motion; even one-sided battles made me consider how I could best win while minimising casualties. Siege battles are interesting and dynamic for the first time in the series’ history. (Granted, after a certain point the challenge mostly comes from the campaign layer — the computer prefers recruiting cheap early-game troops, no match for a late-game human army.)
And Three Kingdoms is the best-looking Total War game since Shogun 2. Gone are the dark, muddy graphics of the Rome 2 generation, in favour of vibrant colours. The battle music is good (if not quite “Jeff van Dyck at his best”), and the strategic layer music is lovely and relaxing — the best in the series. I love this game, and I’m so happy that the developers did this period justice.
At the other end of the strategy spectrum is Rule the Waves 2, an indie game covering naval warfare between 1900-1955. What makes it so brilliant is how it captures the essence of strategy — reconciling objectives to limited resources. You are in charge of a Great Power’s navy, whether that be mighty Britain or nearly landlocked Austria-Hungary: you design ships, build them out of a finite budget, and command them in battle, a bit like an oceangoing version of a space 4X game. But unlike a 4X, you are not the leader of your nation. You cannot control world politics, or the rise and fall of international tensions. You cannot control the nation’s economy: the US will always be larger and wealthier than, say, Italy. You cannot control the government, which tweaks the naval budget, makes demands, and if you do badly enough, sacks you — the “game over” condition. You can influence these things – for example, ostentatiously warning of war will give you a bigger budget at the cost of higher world tension – but at the end of the day, it is up to you to make the most of what you are given. I’ve had spectacular results as Austria-Hungary, frugally upgrading my ageing battleships, focusing my meagre budget on fast, modern destroyers trained for night actions, and only picking fights I could win. I’ve had an equally spectacular rise-and-fall as France, building up a proud oceangoing fleet and dominating the Mediterranean, only to be crushed by enemies out of my league — first the British and then the Germans. I was a big fan of the first Rule the Waves, and its sequel has lived up to my expectations.
Dragon Quest Builders 2 illustrates what’s possible by combining the structure and narrative of one genre, the RPG, with the verbiage of another, the builder game. Like an RPG, it’s an epic voyage that takes the heroes across many lands. Like an RPG, you progress by solving NPCs’ quests in each location. But unlike an RPG, those quests typically involve gathering material and building towns.
It is a pleasure to make each area come to life with homes, workshops, kitchens, dining areas, and defensive walls. Add a localisation brimming with puns and wordplay, and the result is a blend of creativity with charm. I don’t have much experience with the builder genre — beyond bouncing off Terraria years ago — so this has been my pleasant surprise of the year.
A few months ago I re-read The Lord of the Rings,
accompanied by the Extended Edition movies, and rediscovered my appreciation
for Tolkien. Intricate, mythic, and at times moving, LOTR is a masterpiece. It is a
book that could only have grown out of its author’s lived experience. It makes no pretensions to realism; yet has
something important to say. It richly deserves its status as the foundational
text of the fantasy genre.
I’ve also finally become a CJ Cherryh fan, after previously finding her books (Downbelow Station) too dry and dense.
Her specialties are alien cultures (in both senses of the word) and driven,
desperate protagonists; both themes run through my recent reads. The Morgaine
saga follows a woman on an obsessive quest, seen through the eyes of her loyal
companion. The hero of Merchanter’s Luck is a traumatised
space smuggler pushing himself to the edge of endurance. The Faded
Sun trilogy tells the story of two tradition- and taboo-bound aliens
searching for their homeworld, and the human veteran who helps them. I’ve just
picked up another of her series (The
Dreaming Tree), have another on my shelf (the Chanur trilogy), and saved the final Morgaine book for later; I look forward to digging in.
Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is a magnificent science-fiction manga, richer and more complex than the movie of the same name. Both the manga (1982-1994) and the movie (1984) chronicle the adventures of Nausicaa, a courageous young princess and aviator who becomes the saviour of a devastated world. While the movie is better-known, the manga benefits from being able to explore its world and characters at greater length — and in greater depth.
The closest Western equivalent is Dune, in terms of themes, epic sweep, and at times, a penchant for the surreal. Both stories are concerned with ecology and the environment: the desert and its sandworms in Dune, a poisonous forest and its guardian insects in Nausicaa. Both stories involve prophecy, the fall of empires, and a vast, often geographically separated cast. What distinguishes Nausicaa is Miyazaki’s worldview: there are few truly wicked characters in his works. Even scheming, selfish characters often discover a hidden side. Instead, the true villains are hatred, anger, and sometimes, sheer stupidity.
The multi-layered storypermits multiple characters to shine. Like Paul Atreides in Dune, Nausicaa is a messianic figure who rallies downtrodden tribes, benefits from prophecy, and forms bonds across species. Unlike Paul, Nausicaa is a pacifist, and her concern for all living beings — plants, insects, and humans of every nation — is her defining trait throughout the story. Meanwhile, the most interesting character is Princess Kushana, promoted from the movie’s villain to the hero of a parallel plotline. Where Nausicaa operates on the level of the mythic, Kushana concerns herself with temporal power. Where Nausicaa benefited from a loving family, Kushana has been hardened by vicious court intrigue. And where Nausicaa’s circle of concern touches the whole world, Kushana’s initially focuses on the men under her command. Kushana’s story arc makes her both a useful foil to Nausicaa and my favourite character.
Art occasionally difficult to follow. While factions are distinguished by garb (and in one case, by speech bubbles in a different font), I found similarly dressed minor characters difficult to tell apart. Meanwhile, action scenes often required me to page back and forth to work out what was going on. This is one area where the coloured, animated movie has an edge over the manga.
Recommended for science fiction fans. Epic, engrossing, and imaginative, the Nausicaa manga is available in English as a handsome two-volume hardcover boxed set (Viz Media, 2012).
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I am pleased to present my first author interview. Django Wexler is the author of the Shadow Campaigns, a “gunpowder fantasy” series where clashing armies echo the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, while magic-users wage a covert war in the shadows. After reading the first book, The Thousand Names, I was hooked. His other works include The Forbidden Library, a young adult series.
Read on for more:
Hello, and welcome to the site!
I’d like to begin by asking about your journey as a writer. You got started via an interest in table-top RPGs, then wrote a number of novels before bursting onto the scene with The Thousand Names in 2013. How has your writing developed, during and since?
The state of my writing is a very hard thing for me to track from the inside, as it were. The first thing to realize is that I wrote a lot of stuff that never has (or will be) published, so by the time Memories of Empire, my first small-press book, came out, I’d had a lot of practice with trunk novels or fan-fiction. The Thousand Names was another three or four novels later, and close to five years, so it’s quite a jump!
One thing I’ve definitely observed is I’ve lost my taste for grand, over-complicated plots. I had a real yearning all through my gaming years to do something enormously epic in scope, and at one point I actually tried writing it — it was going to be nineteen books long, with huge continental maps and oceans of backstory, and one of those timelines that starts with “0: The Gods Create The World”. Fortunately I was dissuaded after only one novel from going on with it, because it would have been impossible to sell, but the further I come the less I really want to do something like that. I have too many different ideas to spend twenty years on one of them.
However! Nothing is every truly wasted. The whole Shadow Campaigns series actually came from one minor thread that was supposed to be woven into this mega-project, and another thing that I’m working on came from another.
How would you describe your current books? And what can you tell us about the other project that you’re working on?
The Shadow Campaigns is a fantasy loosely based on the Napoleonic Wars. It originally began as a project to do a fantasy retelling of the story of Napoleon Bonaparte, inspired by S.M. Stirling and David Drake’s The General series, which is the story of Belisarius. After I started writing it, though, it changed a lot, so it’s now only very vaguely a historical analogue. I pitched it as “A Song of Ice and Fire with guns” — a military/political fantasy set in the age of muskets and cavalry charges.
As for the next project, I have to remain fairly close-mouthed about it. There are quite a few on the horizon, though! More when I’m allowed to say.
Entertaining and immersive – this is sword-and-sandals fiction the way it should be. The first two books in this six-book series, Tyrant and Storm of Arrows, follow an Athenian cavalry officer who journeys across the Eurasian steppe. The third book, Funeral Games, passes the torch to a new generation: exiled twins flung into the wars of the Diadochi.
In terms of quality, Funeral Games is decent to good, a solidly executed adventure story in an original setting, with elements we’ve seen before. But the first two are something special, a vivid epic that blends prophecy, military campaigns, and the cultural intersection between Greeks and Scythians, beneath the looming shadow of Alexander the Great. Highly recommended for period/genre fans, and players of Total War: Rome 2.
A highly readable book, covering tanks from inter-war designs to the Pershings and Comets of 1945. For me, it stands out due to: (1) its plethora of period photos; and (2) its emphasis on practicalities. Until reading this book, I never appreciated the importance of vehicle reliability; consider this comment from a British officer:
“It is evident that the commander of a unit equipped with Shermans can be confident of taking 99% of his tanks into battle, at any rate during the first 2,000 miles of their life. On the other hand, if he were equipped with Cromwells or Centaurs he would be in a continuous state of anxiety as to whether enough of his tanks would reach the battlefield to carry out the normal tasks expected of the unit.”
This is reinforced by the author’s “ranking” system. Each chapter includes a “Tanker’s Choice” for that year — the best vehicle on the battlefield, such as the Tiger in 1943. Each chapter also includes a “Commander’s Choice” — a cheap, reliable, “good enough” vehicle, such as the StuG III in 1943, the T-34/85 in 1944, or the M4A3E8 Sherman with HVAP ammo in 1945. I don’t think the popular imagination makes this distinction enough.
A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan – the adventures of a young woman who sets out on an expedition to study dragons. Continued in The Tropic of Serpents. I quite like these – decent, easy reads with a distinctive first-person voice. I also like their meandering tour of the setting, which seems analogous to early nineteenth-century Earth.
Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed. Fast-moving sword and sorcery yarn, in which an ageing, world-weary monster-hunter battles necromancers in a fantastic Middle East. Would make a great game.
I wanted to go into a bit more detail on this week’s books – Night Soldiers, by Alan Furst (novel) and The Grace of Kings, by Ken Liu (novel).
Night Soldiers is billed as a spy novel. I say ‘billed as’ because it’s really a collection of vignettes, loosely linked by the 1930s-1940s world of espionage. Here, a Bulgarian lad comes of age as a trainee spy in Moscow, amidst the terror of Stalin’s purges. There, a lethargic American joins the OSS, parachutes into occupied France, and discovers his talent for sabotage. It’s a vivid, immersive read – although as with the novels of Patrick O’Brian, the emphasis is on atmosphere rather than plot, so it may not be to everyone’s taste. If you’re interested in the era, give the sample chapter a look.
The Grace of Kings is a much-hyped epic fantasy inspired by Chinese history. It’s interesting, both for its setting and its style. It also tells a pretty good yarn!
Grace of Kings is the story of two men, Kuni the trickster and Mata the warrior, as they rise to power. Their adventures are, essentially, a fantasy retelling of the fall of the Qin Dynasty and the rise of the Han. (Seriously, knowing a bit about the period was enough to let me guess where the plot would go. I even guessed how specific incidents would unfold.) The Chinese influence extends beyond the setting – the mythic tone, the occasionally detached prose, and the willingness to tell rather than show remind me of the pre-modern literary conventions of Three Kingdoms. My main complaint is that one or two character actions felt contrived, seemingly so as to stick to “history”. Overall, a recommended read for fans of epic fantasy novels and grand strategy games (and maybe even Konami’s Suikoden RPGs).
Finally, I read Terry Pratchett’s Maskerade (novel) – his parody of The Phantom of the Opera. Decent, amusing, with some pointed comments on superficial beauty. Recommended for Discworld fans.
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert Massie (non-fiction). Finally finished after several months. Good book! Perhaps better in its first half, which deals with Catherine’s life before taking the throne — as the title suggests, the emphasis is definitely on Catherine the person rather than on Catherine the ruler. Recommended for fans of Europa Universalis 4.
Sagittarius Rising, by Cecil Lewis (non-fiction). Another book I finished long after I began, this is the beautifully written memoir of a WW1 British fighter pilot, containing some beautifully poignant moments — at one point, the author recollects his mother making him sit for a new photo before he went off to war, so she’d have something to remember him by if he never came back. (Happily, the author lived on to a ripe old age; he wrote this book in the 1930s.) A brief coda deals with his post-war career trying to establish aviation in China.
The Mechanical, by Ian Tregillis (fiction). Clockpunk fantasy set in a world where the Netherlands invented and enslaved clockwork robots, then used their new toys to dominate the world. It’s a dark, entertaining read; I think I preferred the author’s earlier Milkweed Triptych, but this is worth a look if the premise interests you.
Wyrd Sisters, Witches Abroad, and Lords & Ladies, by Terry Pratchett (fiction). The delightful adventures of three witches: stern, practical Granny Weatherwax; bawdy old Nanny Ogg; and idealistic young Magrat, as they romp through skewed versions of fairy tales and Shakespeare. I’d rank these amongst Pratchett’s better novels, due to their humour (Witches Abroad is especially hilarious) and engaging cast. If I had to pick one, it would be Lords & Ladies, which is the best plotted and has my favourite “character moment” of the three. Highly recommended to fantasy fans!
I knew of him before then. I spent a lot of time in bookshops, haunting the fantasy & science fiction aisles, and the garish, glorious covers of his books stood out. I think I even played one of the spin-off adventure games. It wasn’t until The Last Hero, released in 2001, that I actually read one of his books. I’ve been a fan ever since.
Pratchett was very funny. I still laugh when I think about the unhygienic frying pan (containing one single nutrient, crying because it was all alone). As observed in many obituaries, he was also remarkably humane. Fantasy and science fiction are packed with unreasoning monsters — “always chaotic evil”, in the old parlance of Dungeons & Dragons. Not Pratchett. Everyone in his novels is a person: sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes bigoted or stupid, never mindless. Sometimes, Pratchett played this for laughs, as with vampires who’ve given up drinking human blood. Sometimes, it could underpin an entire story, as in the case of troll vs dwarf racism. And his talents extended beyond Discworld. Readers of this blog might be interested in Only You Can Save Mankind, a clever riff on Wing Commander (and video games more generally). What happens when the aliens decide they’ve had enough of being slaughtered by the player?
Individual Pratchett books were hit or miss. As a whole, his work was great. If asked to pick favourites, I would name two from Discworld: Guards! Guards! and Night Watch, written thirteen years apart. Both star the same character, veteran policeman Sam Vimes. When we meet Vimes in Guards, he’s a pathetic drunk, worn down by a thankless, dangerous career; amongst other things, Guards is the story of Vimes rediscovering his duty. Guards isn’t very deep, and it doesn’t delve into the serious themes that the later books do. It’s also, for me, the single funniest thing Pratchett has written, spoofing everything from secret societies to heroes who always win when the odds are a million to one. Night Watch, in which an older, tougher Vimes finds himself caught up in a revolution, is a different beast — topical, in light of the last few years, and far more serious. The Vimes of Night Watch wears a lilac to commemorate fallen friends; I thought it would be appropriate to use a picture of a lilac to accompany this post.
We are the poorer for Pratchett’s death. I find myself thinking of his take on the afterlife, and specifically, what happens (spoiler warning) to an old schoolteacher who tags along with a group of ageing barbarians. The deceased barbarians can look forward to Valhalla, the teacher knows, but he’s rather surprised when after dying a hero’s death, the Valkyries carry him away to the barbarians’ afterlife. I’m sure the Muses themselves would have showed up for Pratchett.
RIP, Sir Terry. By now, I bet you have the Muses crying with laughter.
An Elephant for Aristotle, by L Sprague de Camp (novel) A troop of horsemen from Alexander the Great’s army transport an elephant from India back to Greece. Unfortunately, this is one more historical novel whose premise is better than its execution. A long way from the author’s best book; it could really have done with the humour and charm that characterise his speculative fiction.
Girl Genius (webcomic) – For the last couple of weeks, I’ve binged on this long-running “gaslamp fantasy”, whose heroes inhabit a world where seemingly every mad scientist trope is true (at one point, two characters agree that the best way to cure a third is to kill him… and then bring him back to life); the heroine herself is the heir to the maddest, baddest scientists there were. GG is colourful, imaginative, and often funny. It also labours under the weight of a rambling plot, with a new complication or cliffhanger every few pages. I suspect part of the problem is that GG is an ongoing, serialised work, and hence not constrained by the need for concision! Still, worth a look for speculative fiction fans.
The Janissary Tree, by Jason Goodwin (novel). Great concept – detective novel set in 19th century Ottoman Istanbul/Constantinople. Somewhat patchy execution; the resolution of the central mystery is contrived even by the standards of the genre. I think it works best as a love letter to a vanished world.
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert Massie (non-fiction). Now this is more like it. The first few chapters bring the young Catherine and her world alive; I look forward to consuming more! Worth a look for Empire: Total War and EU4 fans.
Lest Darkness Fall, by L Sprague de Camp (novel – the first Amazon link goes to my paperback edition. There also looks to be a newer Kindle omnibus). A time traveller journeys back to Ostrogothic Rome, on the eve of the Dark Ages. Luckily, he just happens to have the historical knowledge to turn the tide. I’ve enjoyed this alternate history romp since I was a teen; it’s clever, funny, and the characters are a blast. Clearly, the author was having the time of his life! Here is a more detailed writeup.
Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely (non-fiction): A breezy, entertaining romp through one of my favourite topics — behavioural economics. Still, I’d rank this second to Professor Ariely’s free online course – he is a very good presenter, and in his hands, the subject comes alive on screen. Watch out for the course the next time it comes up.
Southeast Asia in World History, by Craig Lockard (non-fiction) – A brief overview of Southeast Asian history, about the only one I’ve found. As one Amazon reviewer points out, it possesses the usual strengths and weaknesses of its kind — trying to cover a lot of history in a very short book will provide a quick background… wrapped up in a dry list of dates and names. I am only halfway through the book (up to the eighteenth century); I’ll see if the second half picks up.
The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith (novels) – JK Rowling’s pseudonymous crime fiction. Solid, entertaining stuff — I like it better than Harry Potter. The main characters are fun to be around, although the secondary characters (especially in Silkworm) are a bit too grotesque. I look forward to the next book.
Song for a Dark Queen, by Rosemary Sutcliff (novel) – The story of Queen Boadicea of the Iceni, narrated by her harpist. Beautifully written, and utterly bleak.
Inspired by similar lists created by Tim Stone of RPS and Bruce Geryk, I am very pleased to unveil my recommended reading list for fans of this site! You can access it here, or by clicking the “recommended reading” list at the top of the page.
At this stage, the list is dominated by history and historical fiction, with a bias towards my interests — economic, military, and world histories (by subject), and the early modern period to the present day (by era). Please let me know if you’d like more recommendations on a particular era — I had to prune quite a few books, especially for the early modern period onwards.
Over time, I will add to the list (this will be noted on the front page). I hope you find it useful.
The Milkweed Triptych, by Ian Tregillis, comprises three novels: Bitter Seeds, The Coldest War, and Necessary Evils. Together, they form proof that a good author can outshine the most hackneyed premise.
The trilogy takes place in a world where Nazi Germany fields superpowered warriors and a desperate Britain responds with forbidden magic. In the hands of 99% of authors, the result would have been pulpy, campy, trashy. Not here. While the three books are quite different (in tone and even in genre1) from one another, they nonetheless form a clever, often dark, and surprisingly restrained story – and it is a single story; each book is one part of the greater whole, not a standalone.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to explain what’s so clever about the series without getting into at least mild spoilers. Here’s the spoiler-free version: the action, which is spectacular in both senses of the word, is just the tip of the iceberg. The world is well-drawn – I have seen utterly unconvincing works where the author dumped superpowers, or magic, or the paranormal into a real-world setting without the least bit of thought about how this would have affected history 2. Tregillis doesn’t make the same mistake – it helps that his prose and research are both generally good 3. And his characters are vivid. When one managed to find happiness after a lifetime of misery, I wanted to cheer. When a particularly unlikeable soul found himself the butt of the author’s black humour, I laughed. When the tension mounted, I was almost afraid to find out what would happen next.
The third book is more of a conventional action/adventure story than the earlier two, right down to the generic “angry man with a gun” cover art. This has earned it a number of lukewarm reader reviews; I think it’s still pretty good, and it derives emotional heft from the first two books. ↩
The most egregious culprit I can think of, offhand, would be Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook. ↩
Based on other reviews, I understand that the author messed up several details of daily life in Britain. I also found the worldbuilding more convincing in book 1 than in book 2. Other than that, I thought the research in the first book, in particular, was excellent. The author nailed a very minor detail that I only picked up because I read some crunchy, specialist WW2 histories earlier this year. ↩
If most fantasy – and most adventure – fiction (such as Bujold’s own Vorkosigan series) is about the bold young (wo)man who saves the day through his/her prowess, Chalion is the opposite. Its middle-aged hero saves the day through courage, and decency, and self-sacrifice. As a teenager, that left me lukewarm. As a grown-up, I love it.
If that interests you, the current offer is a bargain. You can even have the book emailed to your Kindle – I just tested this! If you enjoy fantasy, or if you liked Bujold’s other books, check this one out.
Last week, I read an urban fantasy novel, Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London (released in the US as Midnight Riot), about a modern London constable who becomes apprentice to the last sorcerer on the force. The very next day, I read its sequel, Moon over Soho. And the day after that, I read the third in the series, Whispers Under Ground. Three books in three days – they’re that good! And that addictive.
To start, I should get my one criticism of these books out of the way: their plots do not hang together very well, with Rivers of London being the most egregious offender. However, Aaronovitch writes with such exuberance that I can forgive him the wayward plots. What does he do right? That’s a longer list.
Once upon a time, in the land of Zanzib, there lived a young carpet merchant named Abdullah. Abdullah’s life was safe but dull, and his only excitement came when he daydreamed himself to be a long-lost prince. Then one day, a man offered to sell him a magic carpet…
Castle in the Air is a 1990 children’s novel by the sadly deceased Diana Wynne Jones. It’s billed as a sequel to the better-known Howl’s Moving Castle, but it stands alone very well – I did fine despite having forgotten pretty much everything about Howl. In fact, Howl fans might be advised to approach this as a separate story – Amazon reader reviews suggest the two books are only tangentially connected.
Connection or no connection, this is a book that does well on its own merits as a light-hearted romp through a fairy-tale world. Castle in the Air is the kind of book where chapter after chapter, the hero escapes from the frying pan only to land in the fire. The surprise, and the fun, lie in discovering how he makes it out each time! It helps that the characters are so vividly drawn. We’ve seen Abdullah’s archetype – the dreamy lad whose wish for adventure comes true – a thousand times before, but Jones breathes life and charm into him all the same. Consider this description of Abdullah’s imaginary backstory: Continue reading “Book review: Castle in the Air, by Diana Wynne Jones”
The Lantern Bearers, a 1959 historical novel by Rosemary Sutcliff, is officially a children’s book. It is also one of the best, most mature stories I have read in a long time, with a simple but powerful appeal. When it comes down to it, most stories – books, films, games – show us the world as we would like it to be. Some show us the world as their creators think it is. Some show us the worlds we fear. But every so often, one will show us* the world as it really is. And in TLB, I feel lucky to have read one of those rare gems.
Set in fifth-century Britain during the Anglo-Saxon invasions that followed the Roman withdrawal from that island, TLB tells the story of one Roman who stays behind to make a stand. Instantly, that tells us something. Regardless (no spoilers!) of what will happen to the characters, we know how this war will eventually end. We know the Roman Empire, both as a whole and in Britain, will collapse. We know the Dark Ages are about to descend. And that sense of changing times is imprinted on every page of TLB. It propels the world. It propels the plot. It, notably, propels the characters – the subtitle of this book could be, “Times change, and people change with them.” The realism with which they do is one of the book’s greatest strengths. This, I felt as I read it, is how people would really behave.
Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is the latest instalment in what is, probably, my single favourite speculative fiction series – Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga. For 26 years, Bujold has chronicled her hero, frail-but-driven princeling Miles Vorkosigan, as he grew from a teenager desperate to prove himself into a mature, confident adult. In CVA, she switches tack to focus on one of the series’ supporting characters – Miles’ cousin and sometime sidekick, Ivan Vorpatril. I’ve been looking forward to this book for a very long time, so how did it compare to my expectations?
In a nutshell, Tchaikovsky’s strength is his imaginative setting. His brew of magic, steampunk mad science, and creative, insect-themed fantasy races grabbed me from the very first page of book 1; that hold continues in #5 and #6, in which Tchaikovsky takes his characters to new and wondrous locales. Tchaikovsky’s weakness is his tendency to use that fascinating world as nothing more than a backdrop for generic fantasy plots, populated with largely generic fantasy characters.
This is where the difference between #5 and #6 becomes apparent. In #5, Tchaikovsky plays to his strength and avoids his weakness. It is the closest he has come to a character-driven story – while there’s an exciting external conflict plotline, the heart of the novel is about two people trying to cope with the scars left by earlier books – and it works. The resulting sense of depth makes #5 by far my favourite in the series – even if I did giggle at one character’s overly melodramatic fashion sense.
Unfortunately, #6 didn’t live up to that. #6 has a strong middle section in which the characters explore their new surrounds, but my suspension of disbelief was badly marred by a ludicrously slimy early villain who did everything short of tying widows to lightning-powered train tracks. In general, #6 also feels far less character-driven, and far more action-driven, than #5 – in this regard it’s a throwback to the earlier books in the series, and that just isn’t something I enjoy as much as I did #5.
I concluded my review of parts #2-#4 by saying, “I do plan to check out the next book at some stage, and I hope Tchaikovsky learned his lessons.” I don’t think he did – or rather, he did for #5, only to seemingly forget them for #6. That leaves the series as interesting, original, readable beach/airport novels (almost literally – I read #5 and #6 during down time on my travels). Will they ever be more? After six books, I doubt it. But sometimes, a good beach novel is exactly what I need, and when I do, I will happily reach for Tchaikovsky #7.
Calling all lovers of good books! Patrick O’Brian’s entire Aubrey & Maturin series (which you might remember from the Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany movie a number of years ago) is now available on Kindle. Now you can carry around an entire Age of Sail magnum opus in the palm of your hand! No more waiting for the next book (and there will be a lot of them; O’Brian completed 20 entries before his death) to arrive!
There are two disclaimers:
1) I’ve only read the hardcopy editions, so I can’t testify as to the quality of the Kindle editions. Anyone who’s read a lot of Kindle books will know there are plenty of shonky e-book conversions out there; hopefully this won’t be one.
2) While the books themselves are excellent, they are so unique that I hesitate to recommend them without a caveat. Despite appearances, they are not nautical adventure novels. Oh, there’s plenty of adventure, and much of it nautical, but at their core these are slice-of-life novels where those lives just happen to be largely spent aboard Royal Navy warships during the Napoleonic Wars. Their core appeal comes from the sensation of being utterly immersed in an unfamiliar world, and to this end O’Brian breaks many of the conventional rules of writing. The prose is dense with both nautical jargon and period language; O’Brian will often skip over explosions in favour of co-protagonist Dr Maturin’s scientific expeditions; the weather is as much a danger as the French navy; the entire plot of the novel may end in a fizzle. It’s testament to O’Brian’s skill as a novelist that he succeeded despite this.
And he did succeed. O’Brian’s books bring the days of wooden ships and iron men alive for me — the only other historical fiction I’ve found equally effective being Bengtsson’s The Long Ships. They’re filled with memorable characters, great worldbuilding, and, yes, exciting set-pieces. They even contain the most erudite double entendre I’ve ever seen! If you like history, and you like books, you have to at least check these out. I started with Book 1, Master and Commander; I’ve also seen it suggested that readers could start with Book 3, HMS Surprise. Wherever you jump in, I hope you have fun, and don’t get caught by a lee shore!
Japan is best known in western geekdom for her video games, anime, and manga, but from time to time, we see the novels (often illustrated YA “light novels”) that inspired some of these works. These usually come out in the West under the auspices of manga publishers: transhuman space opera Crest of the Stars, coming-of-age fantasy The Twelve Kingdoms, and high-fantasy spoof Slayers were released by the now-defunct Tokyopop, while economic fantasy Spice and Wolf (my review here) is published by Hachette’s manga/graphic novels imprint, Yen Press. (One exception is Moribito, published by Scholastic.) Yet in the West, these are nowhere near so well known as their adaptations – it’s reasonably common for science fiction, fantasy, and video game geeks to watch anime; rather rarer for them to read the source novels. Why?
I can think of several potential explanations:
Poor quality? At first glance, this is an unlikely culprit – the respective anime adaptations of Crest, Twelve Kingdoms, and Moribito are all excellent, at least as good as any live-action Western competition. If there’s a problem, it must be peculiar to the books – such as prose. The only one I’ve read, Spice, suffers from a weak localisation, and one Amazon review suggests that so does Crest, but without further data I couldn’t say if the problem is more widespread. Still, a possibility.
Lack of Kindle availability? Ebooks have been a boon for mid-tier fiction, yet none of the books I mentioned above is available for Kindle! (At least in the case of Spice, its few illustrations are no excuse; they’re mostly black-and-white, which the Kindle screen can handle.) I don’t think this is individually decisive, and certainly there are light novels that buck the trend by appearing on Kindle, but it surely can’t help.
Poor market positioning? I have not seen these books marketed at all beyond the manga crowd, despite their potential appeal to science fiction and fantasy buffs! The closest they’ve come has been the Spice novels, which use photorealistic dust jackets to conceal manga-style covers. This seems the most likely suspect to me – if sf/fantasy communities aren’t even discussing these books, even to say “they’re bad!”, that suggests the problem is awareness.
For whatever reason(s) it occurs, this phenomenon is too bad – not only do some of these works deserve to be better known, but I’d like to see the fruits of creative cross-pollination. And if any readers are familiar with these markets, I’d love to hear your insights. Either the problem is not so easy as I’ve made it sound – or else there is an opportunity here, waiting for somebody to grab it…
Dragonfly Falling, Blood of the Mantis, and Salute the Dark are respectively books 2-4 in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt series, and the quickest way for me to describe them would be “more of the same”. Together with book 1, they constitute a distinct story arc within the overarching series, and as #2-#4 in particular feel like one giant novel, I have chosen to review them in a group. (You can find my review of book 1, Empire in Black and Gold, here.)
These books are “more of the same” in a literal sense: they follow the same protagonists along the same story arc begun in Empire in Black and Gold. They are epic fantasies, and they offer an imaginative world with some spectacular set-pieces. And they represent an improvement over the first book in one small but noticeable way – no more head-hopping!
Unfortunately, they also offer too much of the same in one key way. Where Empire’s plot was strong and tightly focused, its sequels introduce a common genre problem: sprawl. Over these books, the characters fan out across the world, meeting new faces, discovering new locations, and getting into subplot… after subplot… after subplot. I didn’t care for all of these, but I’m willing to concede that’s a matter of taste; besides, I loved one particular subplot, almost Miyazaki-like in its evocation of a brotherhood of aviators. The problem isn’t so much the quality of the subplots as their quantity: they slow down the story to a crawl, culminating in a weak book 3/early book 4. It doesn’t help that the sequels fall into another genre trap, noticeable character plot armour, that the first book cleverly sidestepped.
In the second half of book 4, though, Tchaikovsky rediscovers his muse.The subplots come together, the action speeds up, the story arcs incubating since book 2 finally come to fruition, and the plot armour vanishes. And this is what redeems these books. At that magic moment in book 4, I went from dissatisfied to newly enthralled, and that momentum carried me through to the end.
Ultimately, these books aren’t quite what I’d hoped: compared to his debut, I think Tchaikovsky took two steps forward and one big step, labelled “PACING”, back. Nonetheless, they finish well enough to be worth a look for people who enjoyed book 1. I do plan to check out the next book at some stage, and I hope Tchaikovsky learned his lessons.
The city states of the Lowlands have lived in peace for decades, bastions of civilization, prosperity and sophistication. They have been protected by treaties, trade and a belief in the reasonable nature of their neighbours.
But meanwhile, in far-off corners, the Wasp Empire has been devouring city after city with its highly trained armies, its machines, its killing Art . . . And now its hunger for conquest and war has become insatiable. Only the ageing Stenwold Maker, spymaster, artificer and statesman, can see that the long days of peace are over. It falls upon his shoulders to open the eyes of his people – as soon a black-and-gold tide will sweep down over the Lowlands and burn away everything in its path.
But first he must stop himself from becoming the Empire’s latest victim.
– Official blurb for Empire in Black and Gold
Empire in Black and Gold, the first book in the Shadows of the Apt series, is a promising epic fantasy novel by Adrian Tchaikovsky. While Tchaikovsky uses the genre’s basic building blocks – a formidable danger, an oblivious civilisation, plucky heroes between the two, and cool set-pieces – he creates something new and fresh by dragging those old tropes into the industrial age.
Tchaikovsky’s prose, characterisation, and plotting are solid.None of these will win any awards, but they get the job done. I cared about the protagonists – the beautiful swordswoman and her plain sister, the nerdy engineer and the laughing dandy, the ageing mentor and the few surviving comrades of his generation. I was intrigued by their antagonist, a spy/secret policeman. I wanted to know what happened next, and when I powered ahead, the prose mostly stood out of my way. Tchaikovsky does have a jarring habit of head-hopping (switching from one point-of-view character to another within the same scene), but I grew used to this after a while. Otherwise, his writing carries the book through both fight scenes and quiet moments.
Where the book shines is in the power of the author’s imagination; with seemingly every page, right to the very end of the book, I would find something new to delight me. Two things exemplify this. First, the fusion of magic and technology. Smoke-bellowing, tank-like battering rams pound city gates into the dust; winged infantrymen drop down amidst hot-air balloons; ballista operators shoot it out with fireball-throwers. It’s a breath of fresh air in a genre that, even after breaking out of D&D pseudo-medieval settings, is still stuck largely in a pre-industrial age. Second, its assortment of fantasy races: not elves and dwarves, but humans who took on the aspect of totem insects. Winged, child-sized Flies are excellent couriers and scouts, Beetles are unglamorous but inventive, Spiders are attractive but devious, Ants share a telepathic link, and so on. This is the originality with which good speculative fiction is made.
Overall, Empire in Black and Gold isn’t the best fantasy book ever, but I had a lot of fun with its combination of (a) external conflict, (b) a weird and wonderful setting, and (c) decent execution. Recommended to genre fans, and I look forward to reading the rest of Tchaikovsky’s work.
You can buy Empire in Black and Gold from Amazon US here.
The Children of the Sky, Vernor Vinge’s latest science-fiction novel, is the direct sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep (my review here). As such, I wouldn’t recommend starting the series with this book! That said, if you are familiar with Fire, I don’t think you need to re-read it – I enjoyed Children despite having read Fire so long ago, I only remembered its general premise.
Whereas Fire took place on two levels – a galactic storyline ran in parallel to events on the world of the Tines, the book’s featured alien species – Children takes place solely amidst the latter. Its plot was interesting enough to keep me reading, but I have a couple of complaints. One, not only does the ending suffer from “middle book syndrome”, but the lack of resolution felt a bit strange to me in light of previous developments. If A, B, and C already happened, then surely <character>’s fate shouldn’t have been left open? Two, while Vinge normally writes effective villains – his future totalitarians in ADeepness in the Sky were far more chilling than lesser authors’ Space Nazis/Commies – he slips here. One villain in Children was so slimy, and in such a way, that it felt as though Vinge was trying too hard to manipulate the reader’s (my) emotions. (This character also represents something of a missed opportunity – had he been less black-and-white, I think that would have given one plotline a bit more heft.)
However, that one villain is the exception. Otherwise, Vinge’s characterisation and “micro”-level writing cement him in the top tier of space opera authors, and he particularly shines at depicting aliens. I could simply list what I like about his writing – clever concepts, lively dialogue, likeable aliens – but it would probably be more effective to point you to this excerpt from chapter one.
Notice how many things Vinge does right in that excerpt. He gives a clear sense of the characters’ personalities, right down to the doorman. He gives an especially clear sense of Tycoon’s personality, first through the environment Tycoon has created, then through others’ reactions, and finally through the introduction of Tycoon himself. He gives a good sense of the world, starting with the contrast between servants/merchants/royalty and the word “factory district”, and he gives a great sense of how humans might look through another species’ eyes. All that just from the first two and a half thousand words!
Of course, Vinge doesn’t fire on all cylinders for every page; that excerpt is probably one of the better scenes. But even if the book as a whole is probably “decent” or “good” rather than “great”, itsbest sequences are sheer delight. That delight is what I remember when I look back on The Children of the Sky, and that delight is what makes me recommend it, despite my complaints, to series fans.
You can buy The Children of the Sky from Amazon US here.