Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Film Ramble: Top 10 Fantasy and Science Fiction Films of 2016

I can say nothing more about the state of genre filmmaking in 2016 than that I really didn't think I'd manage to come up with ten films for this list until December rolled around.  But then, didn't I say something similar last year?  So perhaps the problem is just that I've become a miserable sod with too-high standards for fantasy and science-fiction movies.

Yeah.  Perhaps that's it.

Certainly I'm at a loss to explain the affection for some of the films showing up on similar lists I've seen.  As far as I'm concerned, Tale of Tales should have been called Tale of Rambling Anecdotes That Don't Remotely Tie Up or Go Anywhere.  And 10 Cloverfield Lane?  The moderately amusing thriller that relied for its plot development on everyone doing the most ridiculous things possible at every turn, and which ended with J J Abrams copy / pasting in the third act from an entirely different script?  Then there was The Witch, a film I watched for a solid thirty minutes before I stopped laughing long enough to realise that this was actually how someone thought people spoke at any point in history ever.

Or, again, there were the things I really wanted to be great and that resolutely refused to be, like X-Men: Apocalypse, which - well, I didn't altogether hate, I guess.  Likewise, rationally, I know that Deadpool should be on here somewhere, and yet I find that I can't work up any retrospective enthusiasm whatsoever.  And then there's my cheeky number eleven spot, which is even more of a cheat since I just claimed I had trouble making my way up to ten:

(Honourary Mention) Kubo and the Two Strings

I don't know what it is, precisely, but I just don't get on with the works of Studio Laika.  I hoped Kubo and the Two Strings would be the film to buck that trend, and ... well, here it is, not in the top ten.  Kubo looked staggeringly lovely, there's no denying that; solely in terms of visual ingenuity, it's a masterpiece.  But what was all of that luscious artistry in service of?  A fetch-quest, chosen-one plot that felt like every other kid's fantasy movie, only grafted into an Eastern setting, set apart only by its thoroughgoing self-seriousness.  Hey, Kubo, I get that you're telling a story about telling stories, so maybe you could let two lines of dialogue go without reminding me?

And yet - so pretty.  Kubo basically gets a special mention for its superlative animation and its visual (if not narrative) imagination, and for the fact that as an animation nerd I couldn't rightfully leave off something so ravishing.  But, man, imagine this thing with a halfway decent script; now that would be sitting at the entirely other end of this list.

And now, without further cheating, my actual top ten...

10) High-Rise

I love Ben Wheatley so much!  And someone finally gave him a decent budget to play with!  And then he made his weakest film yet!  I'm inclined to blame this on the Ballard source material, since I increasingly suspect I don't like Ballard one bit; in fact, having watched both this and Crash last year, I know full well I don't.  Still, the fact remains that the result is something of an intermittently brilliant, frequently fascinating slog, a work of often phenomenal craft in service of a plot that seems determined never to gain any momentum, even when theoretically exciting things are being done by theoretically exciting people.  I doubt there will ever come a time when I hate, or even actively dislike, a Ben Wheatley movie, but I certainly did have a hard time staying engaged with this one, and that alone was enough to make it 2016's biggest disappointment.

9) Doctor Strange

It's a Marvel movie meets Inception!  Oh, but without the ingenious premise and plotting, and with a wholly generic three act structure in its place.  Okay, so that's unfair, there were some definite flares of ingenuity and imagination going on here: the action sequences were generally splendid, the ending was a novel, knowing twist that went against formula, and I for one really liked the fact that it refused to deliver on its trite love interest set-up and instead gave us two post-relationship characters relearning how to behave like decent human beings towards one another.  Oh, and the production design was an utter treat.  But for all that, I find it impossible to look back at Doctor Strange with much excitement.  In the end, it came and went and did not much more than it needed to, introducing a new character to the pantheon who'll no doubt be better served by better sequels.

8) Star Wars: Rogue One

Only now do I realise that the most galling thing for me about 2016's blockbusters was just how many times a director I rate highly delivered subpar work.  And what better example could there be than Star Wars: Rogue One, the third film by the miraculous Gareth Edwards?  Seriously, did everyone who raved about this see the version that Disney hadn't hacked to shreds and then stuck back together with gaffer tape?  I don't believe I've ever seen a film that wore it's re-shoots so blatantly on its sleeve; just as one example, I defy anyone to make meaningful sense of the two protagonists' character arcs.  And yet the great bits are certainly great, the supporting cast do wonders at keeping the whole business afloat, and there's an undeniable thrill in seeing a genuinely visionary director set loose in the Star Wars universe.  But if this is how these new Star Wars movies are going to work, taking talented artisans and then cutting them off at the knees, then I suspect that me and they are going to fall out awfully quickly.

7) Fantastical Beasts and Where to Find Them

With no real investment in the Potterverse beyond the fact that I'd enjoyed the latter movies - and particularly the latter movies directed by David Yates, a cracking visual stylist with fine taste in cinematographers - I wasn't sure how excited to get about Fantastical Beasts, which looked for all the world like Rowling returning to a watering hole she had no real interest in drinking from except for the huge bundles of money littering the shore.  So that the result was at least endearingly odd is certainly something, I suppose.  It was too long, too sluggish, not half so pretty as I'd hope a Yates-directed, Potter-related movie to be, and Rowling's script seemed to have no clue how to marry up its A and B plots.  But in its best moments it had a heck of a charming vibe, built on some appealing characters, and there's a lot to be said for a story that takes the time to build its world and cast, especially in these fallen times.  As long as Yates stays on board, I suspect these might end up doing a perfectly good job of filling the hole in my yearly film watching that those annoyingly terrific latter Potter movies left.

6) Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice

The superhero movie of 2016 that everyone loved to hate, and only a madman would claim that Batman V Superman was an unqualified success, but for me it worked more often than it didn't - though, months later, I struggle to remember precisely why.  I suspect that my lack of investment in the DC universe probably helped matters, as did my mild exhaustion with Disney-Marvel's habit of sanding off the sharp edges from absolutely everything.  Snyder's movie was a weird old hurricane of a mess, like basically ever Snyder movie, but I was just ready for something so grandiose and idiosyncratic.  Honestly, I think this might be one of those films that everyone looks back on in five years time and realises they underestimated.  But if not then it still managed to be a willfully odd alternative to the increasingly suffocating Marvel formula, and to do what everyone seemed convinced couldn't be done: to usher in a new filmic Batman who feels like he might yet prove a satisfying replacement for Nolan's interpretation of the character.

5) Star Trek: Beyond

Better than Abram's two Star Trek movies was never going to be the highest of bars to leap over: frankly, having the least affection for the franchise and not just using it as an audition tape to make a Star Wars movie would have been a fine start.  And lo and behold, that's the main thing that Star Trek: Beyond gets right.  Justin Lin will probably never be the greatest of directors, and he doesn't even bring his action A game, but Beyond is eager and earnest in all the right places, and that alone felt like a breath of fresh air after the dour, preposterous work of confused fan fiction that was Into Darkness.  Beyond never achieves a great deal more than feeling like a strong episode of the original show made with an astronomical modern budget, but you know what, that'll do me.

4) Captain America: Civil War

I admit, in the first draft I rated Batman V Superman above this, and on the whole I still like it that little bit more - but there's no denying that probably has more to do with expectations than anything else.  At any rate, has a colon in a film title ever said so much?  Captain America: Civil War is two things slammed inelegantly together, a good Captain America movie and a great Avengers movie, and I would much rather have seen that equation the other way round, or maybe just had the Avengers material in its own damn film.  Still, there's no worse brand of criticism than reviewing the film you wanted rather than the film you got, and the film we got is about as spectacular as one of the increasingly overstuffed brand of Marvel ensemble movies could hope to be.  Deep, thrilling, involving and surprising, and (thank goodness!) they got Black Panther just right.  Frankly, if nothing else comes out of Civil War but a great Black Panther movie then I'll happily retroactively consider it a masterpiece for the ages.

3) Moana

I'm already curious to revisit Moana, and to reassess my opinion of the time, that it was a great Disney movie that blew any number of opportunities to be an utterly top tier Disney movie such as we'd all still be talking about a decade from now.  When it plowed its own furrow it was gloriously, spectacularly distinctive; when it didn't, it was so generic that I would swear they literally copied bits of the script out of other Disney movies.  I mean, do we ever need another protagonist to audibly doubt that they really are the chosen one and then be reassured that, no really, they are the chosen one?  Well, conceivably, but for that same dialogue exchange to occur - what, fifteen times?  It felt like fifteen times.  Also, frankly, Moana herself had an annoying tendency to be the weakest link in her own movie; did she really have to be such an anachronistically stereotypical American teenager?  But, you know, other than that, I basically loved it.  Even the songs were great, and I try very hard to hate the songs in Disney movies.

2) Midnight Special

It breaks my heart a bit that I'm not giving this the top spot, because when I found out that Jeff Nichols, director of possibly my favourite genre movie of the millennium so far, Take Shelter, had another one out, I may have peed in my pants a little.  But I think, in retrospect, that I also entered with some truly unfair expectations, and also that if I'd seen Midnight Special first then I'd have unhesitatingly declared it a masterpiece.  It's a heartfelt drama about the awful lengths required of loving parents, especially of those whose children are, through no possible faults of their own, neither normal or entirely comprehensible.  And then second - a rather distant second in places - it's an ingenious science-fiction chase thriller built upon a chassis of other great science-fiction chase thrillers, most of them from the eighties.  Which, sadly, is the point at which it lost me a touch: I just don't have the nostalgia not to want Midnight Special to carry on being excitingly original all the way through to its conclusion.  Still, here's another one I'm eager to revisit, and I think maybe the love will come in time.

1) Arrival

It seems to be the case that whether you consider Arrival merely an exceptionally good science fiction film or a flat-out modern classic largely comes down to its ending, for there's not much question that the first two thirds are superlative: a delightful bit of smart genre movie-making told with utter seriousness by one of the better directors working today, abetted by a fine team of craftspeople - a sci-fi film with honest to goodness interesting cinematography! - and some fine acting.  Then that ending comes, and - well, it didn't work for me, but it wasn't film-wrecking either.  Still, even if I'm a little sad that I'm giving the number one spot to a movie I liked but didn't love, I refuse to bitch too harshly on Arrival, because it represents precisely the kind of thing I'd like to see more of in cinemas - and that the universe gave us a Denis Villeneuve adaptation of a Ted Chiang short story remains a wonder of the highest order.

Monday, 9 January 2017

2016: A is for Andrei Rublev, B is for Babymetal, C is for Cat Sisters

So, I've blogged already about what fiction I had out in 2016 - a novel, a short story collection in both paperback and hardback, a novella and the first issue of a comic book miniseries - and I've got to say, I'm hellaciously proud of all that.  I had some work out last year that I'm seriously pleased with, long, short and in-between, and that's no small thing.  Frankly, if 2016 had just been about the writing I had published then it would have been an infinitely better experience.

Now, it seems petty to grumble about a year when almost everything seemed to go wrong for almost everyone, but boy was that a rotten twelve months, practically from start to finish.  Sickness and surgery, professional setbacks, insurance nightmares, house problems, money worries, family health scares - it was just nonstop.  And even the publishing stuff, which looks impressive on the face of things, wasn't so good in practice.  Almost all of 2016's short story acceptances, for example, actually belonged to submissions made in the tail end of 2015.  Even then, it would have proved a high watermark year for sales had a small publisher by the name of Time Alone Press not reneged on the $300 they owed me, having strung me and sixty or so other folks along for more than a year.

But that's a subject we'll return to when I have more time, and also the extent of my complaining, because in time-honoured tradition (my own, established all of a couple of years ago) I want to take this opportunity to list a few of the good things that happened in what history's probably going to end up calling Year Zero or something equally portentous.

- Thanks to Ian Sales, I got back into World Cinema in a big way.  There have been amazing directors making amazing films all around the planet for, like, a century now.  Who knew?  Well, lots of people, obviously, me included, but I'd drifted into some awfully lazy film-watching habits and I'm immensely glad to have drifted back out.  Again, largely thanks to Sales and his pernicious influence (and gifting of surplus DVD box sets) I've been binging on works by people like Haneke, Herzog, Kieslowski and Tarkovsky, as well as discovering many a new director I'd never heard of and rediscovering some old favourites from my days as a shut-in cinephile teenager.

- Same goes for music.  This has been something I've been experimenting with ever since I started
writing full-time, really, but 2016 was the year when my tastes got distinctly strange.  From J-Pop to Trance to Post-rock to African Blues, I feel comfortable in saying that my listening over the last twelve months has been on the eclectic side, and that I now have a pretty interesting CD collection - if only in the sense of that ancient Chinese curse, "May you have an interesting CD collection."

- I'm steadily getting back into shape.  I hope to have a crack at a Fells marathon later in the year, because, why not?  Okay, there are plenty of reasons why not, and they all start with "Hey, Tallerman, you do realise that running a marathon over actual wilderness is probably going to kill you?"  But let us not think too much of such reasons, or I'll bottle it before I ever get started.

- The benefit of having non-stop house problems and spending an inordinate amount of money I couldn't afford is that the house I bought five or so years ago as little more than a brick shell - sans heating, carpets, a shower, or much of anything else - is now finished.  Oh, sure, there are jobs I still want to do, it's probably in the nature of a more-than-a-hundred-years-old house that there's eternal scope for improvement, but all told it's a nice home these days.  And somehow the staggering amounts of work that have gone into the place only make it feel more special.

- And, as anyone who's even glanced at the blog will probably have noticed, I've been having a great deal of fun with the nineties anime watching.  That's drawing towards an end now, I think, partly for the reason that I've absolutely exhausted the limits of what can be reasonably found and partly because, let's face it, there are limits to the amount of nineties anime that any one human being can watch before they start to expect giant robots and tentacle beasts around every corner.

- And then there's the big - the very big, and the actually book-related - news.  Which is that, as of about a week ago, I've signed a contract for another novel.  If you're following my career even slightly then you can probably guess what it is, but the official announcement will be along very soon.  My promise to myself was that if I didn't have money coming in at the end of this third year of writing full-time then that would be the end of the experiment.  But I do, and it isn't.  This is, on a personal level, one hell of a thing.

Whatever global catastrophes await in 2017, I can't imagine that it's exactly going to be an easy year for me personally.  By no means have I made it, whatever the hell that would mean.  But I get to keep doing the job I like most and think I'm best suited to, and that surely has to count for something.  And I'll have at least one new book out.  This is exciting stuff, and definite forward progress!

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Books Out in 2016

So, to clarify, this is most definitely not one of those "stuff eligible for awards" posts that have been kicking about, because I don't do those.  I was raised to believe that if you have to ask for something then that something isn't worth having, which is probably why no one ever gives me anything and I get dirty looks in the queues at sandwich shops.

Wait, that's not true.  Well, maybe the bit about sandwich shops.  Still ... not an awards eligibility post.  More a "2016 was a rough old year and I could do to remind myself that I accomplished a few things" post.  And while, between you and me, it was all down to timing and weird luck and coincidence and I certainly wouldn't have chosen to have four (four and a half?) books come out in one year, it's definitely a thing that's happened.


The first - but by no means the last - of my longer works to get a bit experimental, Patchwerk was a big old risk, and one that in retrospect I only took because my brain was at that time just as exploded as its reality-skipping, genre-hopping, gender-flipping, rules-ignoring narrative.  It was a tough book to write on any number of levels, born out of a particularly difficult time, and in retrospect it's kind of amazing that, somehow, I not only got it finished but managed to sell it to the impressive Tor.com, as one of first titles in their then fairly new novella line-up.

Sadly, that was as far as the very good news went.  Despite some strong reviews, Patchwerk hasn't altogether found its audience, and Tor.com declined the follow-up novella I wrote for them, which is if anything weirder, wilder and more ambitious.  Here's hoping I can find a home for it elsewhere in 2017, because I do like writing these novella things and I'd hate to have to give up on the format.

The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories

Thanks to the ruptures and shenanigans at Spectral Press that took up such a disproportionate amount of my attention in 2015, I was more or less certain that my much-delayed debut short story collection would never happen - until it did, thanks to Michael Wills and Digital Fiction Publishing.  And Michael proved to be an absolute powerhouse, picking up a stalled project and kicking it into life in what felt like no time at all.

Which was awesome, undoubtedly.  Still, there was no way the deluxe hardback edition I'd dreamed of, the one that would really showcase the fabulous art Duncan Kay had produced, would happen - until Ian Whates and NewCon Press stepped in and suddenly we were talking about the most ridiculously lavish hardback I could have imagined.  That both editions have made it comfortably into profit is the icing on an already icy cake.  Now to figure out how to make the audiobook happen...

The Black River Chronicles: Level One

The jewel in the crown of my 2016, I'm still a little in awe of the fact that Level One is out there and finding readers at a rate of knots; thanks to my collaboration with Michael Wills, this book sprang from nowhere and then snowballed, going from conception to release in somewhat less than a year.

The result is a book I'm terrifically proud of, and one I could never have come up with on my own.  At a point when my own projects were getting increasingly dour, Michael's input and concepts were a handy reminder that books could be cool, fun, exciting things.  And I don't think it's a stretch to say that that's precisely what Level One ended up being: cool, fun and exciting, with the warmest heart of anything I've written and characters I fell in love with almost from the moment we came up with them.  That readers seem to be finding our party of hopeless heroes-in-training pretty lovable as well is a huge relief.

C21st Gods #1

Another book that spent so long in development hell that I'd essentially given up on it by the time it finally shuddered into life, C21st Gods found its artist and publisher pretty much simultaneously - and suddenly my poor, deceased comic book project was alive and kicking.  And not only that but the publisher was Rosarium, one of the boldest, most exciting indy presses out there, and the artist was Anthony Summey, who turned out to be the perfect fit: not many people could nail both the horror and science-fiction elements of a comic that's called C21st Gods for very good reasons.

Those reasons are going to become a great deal more apparent this year, when we get to the second two issues of the mini-series and start drifting further away from Lovecraft pastiche and nearer to - well, talking a little more about the twenty-first century, I suppose, its gods and its horrors.  But in the meantime, issue #1 is definitely the place to start, what with it being the first issue and everything.


I suppose that, while we're hear, it would be remiss not to mention the short stories I had out in 2016 - especially given that, now that I add it all up, 2016 was a heck of a good year for short fiction coming out.  New stories-wise, I had (in no particular order) my Lovecraftian military horror Great Black Wave in Nightmare, dark fantasy tale The Magpie of Souls in Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, weird SF story Team Invasion at Liminal, my crime debut Step Light in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and more horror in the impressive Mysterion anthology (Golgotha) and the most recent issue of Pantheon magazine (Knock, Knock.)  As for reprints, those were split nearly between Digital Fiction PublishingDancing in the Winter Rooms, Passive Resistance and Black Horticulture - and exciting new market Great Jones Street, who took Jenny's Sick, Great Black Wave, Ill-Met at Midnight and A Killer of Dead Men.

Phew!  That turned out to be more of a list than I remembered.  Okay, I feel a little better about 2016 now.

But only a little.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Five Anime Shows For Fans of the Black River Chronicles

Anyone who's visited my blog will probably have noticed that I'm a big fan of anime, and that enthusiasm was a small but meaningful element that went into crafting The Black River Chronicles: Level One.  After all, Dungeons & Dragons has made its way to Japan just as it has to pretty much everywhere, and Japan has been feeding its own interpretations of D&D-styled fantasy back to the West ever since.  So if you're someone who's enjoyed both Level One and anime, or if you like the former and have been thinking about dipping a toe into the latter, then I'm confident in recommending any or all of the following:

Little Witch Academia

If you thought Black River had an irresponsible attitude to sending students into potentially fatal situations then you haven't seen anything yet: welcome to Luna Nova Magical Academy, where the teachers apparently think nothing of having a dungeon in the basement full of actual monsters, up to and including the occasional dragon.

Little Witch Academia definitely follows in the tradition of works like Harry Potter and The Worst Witch, but with a greater emphasis on humour and a more D&D-style approach to its zany world, making it perfect for fans of Level One.  The characters are instantly adorable, the plots are witty and clever, and the animation and design work are flat-out gorgeous.  So far, all that exists is the original half hour episode and a slightly longer sequel, The Enchanted Parade, both of which you can find on Netflix - though apparently there's a series on the way, which is good news indeed.

Sword Art Online

Despite huge popularity, Sword Art Online has proved something of a love-it-or-hate-it show.  Personally, I tend to find myself both loving and hating it at different points, and even sometimes within the same episode.  Still, there's no doubt that when this action-filled drama about players trapped in the worlds of elaborate multiplayer video games works, it really does work; after all, what better excuse could there be to indulge in some old-style fantasy than to trap your characters in an MMORPG?

It's true that Sword Art Online tends to veer between the ridiculous and the sublime, but it's picked up a massive following for a reason.  The first story arc in particular is excellent, and the recent Mother's Rosarium mini-arc was perhaps the show's finest moment.  What I enjoy most, and what was something of an influence on Level One, is how it finds that perfect balance of treating its characters as sometimes clumsy teenagers and treating them as people on the verge of adulthood.  So if that appeals then you could definitely do worse than to give SAO a try.


A bit of a cheat this one: Mushishi isn't much like Level One at all, but it's also the only show here that had a direct influence.  All I'll say is that I happened to be watching Mushishi when Mike and I were discussing how magic might work in the world of The Black River Chronicles - and I'd be lying if I said that one particular element didn't work its way into the Unbalance, much as the show's attitude to the supernatural helped me figure out how to tackle magic in a way that felt true to the setting we were building.

Anyway, Mushishi is nothing like the other shows on this list: it's meditative, cerebral fantasy, and quite adult, if only in its openness about admitting that sometimes awful things happen to good people for no particular reason.  Nevertheless, if I wouldn't necessarily recommend it as something you'll enjoy if you liked Level One, I'm happy to recommend it to anyone with broad tastes in fantasy: if you're after something a little weird, sometimes a little scary, but deeply heartfelt and imaginative, then Mushishi might be for you.


The oldest show here, as well as the longest running, Slayers is quite a bit further up the comic spectrum than Level One, to say the least.  Following wonderfully-named sorceress Lina Inverse and her companion (and frequent adversary) Naga the Serpent, Slayers is the definition of irreverent: no fantasy cliche is remotely safe here.

On the other hand, it's a show made with clear affection for the stereotypes it spends so much time and humour exploding, and, like all the best parodies, it even manages to work really well as the thing that it's parodying: however silly Lina and Naga's adventures get, they're still rousing stories jam-packed with outrageous spells and monsters.  If you love classic fantasy but don't mind seeing it laughed at mercilessly, and can cope with some slightly dated animation, then Slayers just might be what you've been waiting for.

Chaika the Coffin Princess

The most recent show on the list, Chaika's probably the one that hits the most perfect balance between delivering classic fantasy and affectionately spoofing that selfsame classic fantasy.  I mean, not even a single episode passes before a unicorn gets exploded!

There seems to be a bit of a renaissance in anime fantasy shows right now and, of all the ones I've seen, Chaika is my current favourite.  It's a somewhat old-fashioned plot told with enough of a twist to feel very fresh, and incorporates broader influences in an appealing way; the fact that the main character is a reference to my favourite Western hero was enough to make me fall in love basically from the first minute.  Also, it occurs to me that the titular Chaika is a lot like what the result would be if you somehow crossed Tia and Arein, and male hero Toru isn't a million miles away from Durren, either.  Basically, Chaika is a ton of fun, and a near-perfect blend of humour and original-yet-nostalgic high fantasy.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Book Ramble: Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum

Trust that rabble-rouser Ian Sales to add a fifth entry to a series that he was referring to as a quartet from the moment the first book was published.  And trust him, as well, to make that fifth part stick out like a sore thumb from its four predecessors: a short story rather than a novella, and one that start out as a work of autobiography before - well, becoming something quite different.  Or maybe not.  Look, it's not the easiest of works to explain, okay?  And I haven't even mentioned the appendices...

The truth is that, despite what its author has been heard to claim and even what the cover says, A Visit to the Air and Space Museum isn't really the fifth book in the Apollo Quartet at all.  The clue's right there in the title: look, it's even the biggest word.  This is a coda, and an enticing one at that, an epilogue that finds yet another way to upend a series that had already gone to some bafflingly convoluted and self-referential places.  There's always been a level of in-jokery ticking away beneath the Quartet, but it's never been more visible than here.  And it helps that the in-jokes in question are both satisfyingly strange and rather funny - albeit funny in the specific way that a Zen kōan is, rather than, say, the way a good episode of Futurama is.

But if that implies that the book doesn't altogether stand alone then - well, no, it doesn't altogether.  I mean, A Visit to the Air and Space Museum has no shortage of its own merits: it's a satisfying short in its own right and I certainly wouldn't discourage the reader who's only picked at the series from taking a look.  However, this definitely isn't the place to start.  And even if you've already dipped into the Quartet, it isn't essential in the way that, say, All That Outer Space Allows is.  (Which it really is; if you haven't read All That Outer Space Allows, please make all reasonable efforts to do so.)

But as what it claims to be, A Visit to the Air and Space Museum does a fine job of deepening and enriching the series it concludes.  When the Apollo Quartet finally gets released in a collected edition - and seriously, why aren't publishers clamoring to make this happen? - this coda will find it's perfect place and function, I think.  Then again, that's hardly a reason not to give it a look in the meantime.  Especially since - oh, right! - you can download it for free.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Writing Ramble: Why It's Okay to Question Contracts

You know, I could give you a dozen reasons why it's okay, as a writer, to question contract clauses you're unsure of.  And then I could give you a dozen more why it's not only okay but something you're being remiss if you're not doing.  While 'contract lawyer' may not be there in your job description, it should absolutely be in your personal list of auxiliary jobs that you've picked up at least a passing knowledge of.  Because if you're even a little bit serious about being a writer - or, for that matter, a professional creative of any sort - then you're going to find yourself signing contracts.  And if you don't read them, and in reading understand them, then there's a fair old chance that somewhere along the line you're going to get screwed.  Because that's what bad contracts are designed to do: to rip off one party in favour of another.

But I don't want to talk about bad contracts, at least not the kind of bad contracts that are written by the kind of publishers that deliberately concoct bad contacts, because in my experience they're by far the minority and that's a whole different discussion.  What are far more common, and sadly perhaps a little more insidious, are largely decent contracts written by genuinely well meaning publishers, which nevertheless contain some wholly crappy clauses because writers don't ask enough questions.  And by bad I mean here needlessly prejudicial - usually because they ask the writer to make unrealistic guarantees for unlikely worst case scenarios or because they tie up rights in ways that make reselling them in the future all but impossible.

Bad contract clauses, I've come to think, are basically viral.  They get repeated either because a publisher has cribbed them from another publisher or because they've splashed out on lawyers, and a part of the job of lawyers is to protect their clients while stripping as much as possible from those they're dealing with - which they generally do by regurgitating old contracts that did those things.  In my experience, it tends to be the case that the publishers in question generally don't even realise they're asking anything unreasonable because no one's ever stopped to point that out.

I mention all this because earlier in the year I found myself having to ask for changes on contracts from two different publishers.  And the reason I thought the subject worth posting about was that they both in wholly reasonable fashion, and really couldn't have been much nicer.  In the first instance, the contract had lawyerly fingerprints all over it and all in all was a bit of a monster; when the publisher realised just what they were asking they came back with something four pages shorter and about a thousand times more reasonable.  The second instance came down to worries over one specific clause, and we got round that with a bit of tweaking.  But the crucial point here is that both experiences were entirely pleasant.  Most publishers are decent folks who have no desire to rip off or even inconvenience you.  Raise polite concerns and you'll get polite responses in return.  And if that's not the answer you get then you may have stumbled across one of those rare publishers who genuinely are trying to exploit you, in which case, far better to learn before there's ink on paper.

As a closing note, and for anyone who doesn't feel they have the knowledge or confidence to go negotiating contract terms, here's a link to a model contract from the SFWA, who are fantastic for this sort of thing.  There are tons of similar resources out there, both from the SFWA and elsewhere, and if you have worries then it's not hard to confirm whether they're justified and to find something you can point a publisher to that explains your position.  It might take a little time and effort, but that's sure to be worthwhile for a contract you won't regret in a few years' time.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Level One: The Locations

As befits a story about a party of teenage trainee heroes being sent on a variety of increasingly life-threatening quests, there are a fair number of locations in The Black River Chronicles: Level One, and many more that are alluded to but not seen - at least not in this first book of the series.  Here's a look at some of the more significant...

The Black River Academy
To call it a building was misleading in itself: the Black River Academy looked more as though a dozen edifices of various functions had been thrown together, castles and libraries and temples and halls tumbled one upon another.
The Black River Academy has been around for a very long time indeed, but, like the Ship of Theseus, it's done so more by changing than by staying the same - to the point where its hard to say whether the establishment as it now exists is really the same place that was founded centuries ago as the Conto Martial Academy.
Academic life at Black River is marked by a certain steely-eyed pragmatism, as is perhaps inevitable for an organisation that spends most of its time thrusting young people into danger and preparing them for an existence of facing even greater dangers.  However, that shouldn't imply that the academy doesn't care about its students, or that efforts aren't made to keep them on the straight and narrow.  If perhaps it's not always possible to turn out heroes, Black River certainly does its best to produce graduates who lean more towards the Lawful Good end of the spectrum.  However, that's not to say they always succeed, or that there aren't those among the academy's hierarchy who have their own, less well-intentioned agendas.
There was a certain basic level of luxury expected of a wealthy Luntharbour merchant. 
As Durren's home town, Luntharbour is a place we hear a lot about in Level One without ever actually seeing.  We learn that the city houses wealthy and stolid merchant folk, who have little time for fripperies such  as magic.  They trade both inland and with the nations - such as Tia's people, the dun-elves of Sudra Syn - beyond the expanse of the Middlesea that divides the northern and southern continents.  But Luntharbour has more than its share of poverty too: at one point Durren notes the many homeless there, "the sailors too devoted to drink to take ship and the petty craftsmen whose debts had consumed their fragile livelihoods."
Growing up in a large and cosmopolitan city explains a lot, too, about Durren's reactions to the places he encounters around Black River: the academy is as far from civilization as he's been, and nearby towns such as Olgen seems barbaric by comparison to Luntharbour's grand mansions and teeming dockside.
The Monastery of the Petrified Egg
The place didn't entirely emit the sense of brooding malevolence Durren had been expecting.  In fact, with its whitewashed walls, many small windows and gently curving arches, the monastery appeared quite peaceful. 
Most who use magic consider it to be an essentially benevolent force that can be controlled with care.  But there are others who feel the need for greater diligence, lest the cosmic force known as the Unbalance should one day rupture beyond all hope of restraint.  So it once was with the priesthood of the monastery where Durren, Tia, Arein and Hule find themselves sent on their third quest: the place was devoted to the meditative practices used to heal the Unbalance, with the power of those who live there amplified by the ancient, vastly powerful artifact in their care.  But the problem with ancient, vastly powerful artifacts is that if their owners suddenly decide to start using them for evil instead of good then someone has to go and try to stop them...
The Wilderness
Durren found himself wondering if all their quests would see them transported to dark forests in the middle of nowhere. 
There are a lot of wild places in the world of Level One, and the party see plenty of them before the book is out.  Theoretically they should be where our ranger protagonist Durren is in his element - but then, this being a book called Level One, Durren's woodcraft isn't the greatest.  As it is, it generally falls to Tia and her wider first-hand experience to pick up the slack.
The Ruins
The surrounding forest had taken its toll, as branches thrust at crumbling walls and creepers dragged at the brickwork.  Still, something about the cut of the stones and the sheer extent of the damage told Durren that what he was looking at belonged to centuries long past.
To say too much about the ancient ruins the party stumble across would be a major spoiler, not just for Level One but potentially for its sequels also.  (Which is, in itself, admittedly a spoiler ... those things are tough to avoid!)  So let's just say that there are ancient ruins out in the wilds near Black River, and by ancient I mean ancient.  They might once have been anything, but they were clearly important - and the events that lead our young heroes there suggest that they're still important to at least someone.
And if you haven't yet delved into the world of The Black River Chronicles: Level One and would like to, you can pick up a copy at Amazon UK here and Amazon US here.

photo credit: thevitruvianman Newark Castle via photopin (license)
photo credit: Lucas Marcomini When in Venice, Get Lost via photopin (license)
photo credit: varmarohit Nature's Best via photopin (license)