The Hammer by KJ Parker, Reviewed

KJ Parker’s twelfth novel in thirteen years is detailed, slow-building but ultimately utterly compelling.

Gignomai (known as within the family as Gig) met’Oc, youngest son of the illustrious met’Oc family, is a loner in a family as skewed as anything created by Mervyn Peake. But Parker’s land is more like an early Australia, complete with savages who seem unable to see the settlers, and Gignomai seems at first read a much more ordinary youth.

The Hammer of the title refers to a device that Gignomai begins to build seven years after something happens at home – what it was is only made clear toward the end of the book, but it’s sufficient to cause the young man to run away repeatedly from home, and to bend his whole personality toward exerting a terrible justice.

In this vast, almost empty land, where a lone settlement and outlying farms are overshadowed by the plateau on which the met’Oc mansion rests, the met’Oc live by their own laws, refusing to accept that they no longer live in ‘civilization.’ 

The Hammer is a slow burning book that is laden down with the weight of detail of making things – of swords, carpentry and primitive heavy industry. It is also, with one exception, almost entirely devoid of the Fantastic, save for one important point that could be defined as SF or Fantasy. That the novel is classed as the latter is the rural -but certainly not bucolic setting- and the publisher’s classification.

KJ Parker is perhaps the most self-effacing writer since James Tiptree Jr. entered the field in the late 1960s – even Parker’s gender is unclear, although French publisher Bragelonne’s website implies that Parker the author is female. Without a single piece of short fiction published until 2009, Parker didn’t even have the traditional medium within speculative fiction for building a following – the novels have had to build a base on their own.

What is known about Parker is that she has previously worked in the law and as a journalist; nowadays she “makes things out of wood and metal,” and this fascination with craftsmanship runs right through her prose. The book is so full of the minutiae of manufacturing that initially it threatens to sink the story (though it does give it a refreshing solidity), a handicap that it gradually overcomes. In some ways The Hammer resembles a narrative avalanche; slow to start, almost unstoppable as it roars toward its climax.

• June 10th, 2011 • Posted in Reviews • Comments: 0

Terra Damnata, by James Cooper

Terra Damnata is the first book-length work by James Cooper, whose dark, disturbing stories of dysfunctional families have been ornamenting Black Static for the last three years.

Arthur Woodbury is the archetypal Everyman living in a suburb with a wife and daughter in the comfortable suburb of an unnamed city, his car a Volvo, a bottle of sherry in the house for visitors.

But there is a darker side to Arthur. He has a serious gambling problem, and is in debt to local casino owner Norman Foley, whose ‘enforcer’ Randall has a nasty reputation for violence. Worse, Arthur and Beth’s daughter Cherise has just been killed as the novel opens.

And one rain-swept night a rich businessman arrives offering a fortune in exchange for the right to buy Cherise’s body. Although Arthur is appalled at the idea, he realizes that the money offers a way out of his debts….

Most of Cooper’s regular themes recur; the Woodbury family are dysfunctional through tragedy, and while the purpose for which businessman Gerald Appleton wants the cadaver is eventually revealed to be part of Chinese society, for much of the book it seems decidedly creepy. As is often the case with Cooper’s work, he leaves his setting unnamed and background undelineated, as if preferring to let archetypes give the story their own imagery.

It’s an approach that carries risk; at times Arthur and other protagonists seem underdrawn, their motivations skimmed over, but Cooper is a stylish writer and imparts enough traction to the story to get away with it. With its character’s old-fashioned names and close focus, it’s a novella that is very British, and strangely redolent of 1950s thrillers with actors like Stanley Baker and Laurence Harvey.

Terra Damnata marks an important step in Cooper’s career; it is a novella from PS Publishing rather than a full-length novel, but it will hopefully lead to progressively longer works, and with a gorgeously macabre cover by Les Edwards, it is a fine book in its own right.

• May 25th, 2011 • Posted in Reviews • Comments: 0


E-books? I can almost hear you groan and mutter “Not that old chestnut again!”

Yes, I know, it’s almost been done to death. Is the traditional book doomed? Will e-books supplant them? Etc, etcetera, etbloodycetera. In fact, some of you may read some of the points below and get a certain feeling of deja vu…

Well, it’s popped up in the news again with a BBC item on how e-book sales shot up last year. Which is good news for me as an author, since Winter Song and all my other titles are available in both formats.

And as a reader I think that it’s a good thing in principle. I don’t use up as much space as for dead tree books, for one, and while I’m not entirely sure about the environmental benefits,   I’m willing to be convinced.

But I’m hardly messianic about it, as some are (There’s an organization called EPIC made up of  e-book authors who are positively desperate to be proven right, that the traditional book is doomed – I’m not quite sure why they’re such zealots), and I don’t buy into the idea that the book is doomed.

For a start, the book’s demise has been prophecised since some bloke called Wells at the end of the nineteenth century mentioned it in The Shape of Things to Come, and it hasn’t happened yet. I seem to remember that with the advent of videos, pundits were gleefully predicting a similar death for cinema. What happened was that cinema changed its approach, making going to the films a social event.

Author readings at bookstores may be the first wave of a similar adaption in the book world, although that particular aspect may affect e-books every bit as much as traditional ones.

But while as a reader I approve in principle of e-books, I have several problems with the way they are at the moment, which is what has prompted this post. Increasing numbers or e-copies for review have caused me to scale back my reviews, and I only see the problem worsening.

E-books are being plugged because they represent a way for manufacturers to prise money out of you the consumer. You can’t upgrade a book – you can bring out new editions, but there’s no onus on you to buy it. Based on every piece of new technology of the last twenty-five years, that won’t be the case with e-readers; instead there’ll be a new version which probably won’t be compatible with the old one. So all these people who are gleefully converting their libraries to virtual will almost certainly have to do the same again with someone brings out The! All! New! NookPlus! But it’s a great way for publishers to cut costs, especially for reviewers.

Second, I’m still not absolutely convinced about the environmental case. Doesn’t the manufacture of Kindles and Nooks and iPads use up resources? And do downloads really have absolutely no environmental impact? I suspect that like the use of ‘clean’ fuels, we’re simply moving demand for resources from one area to another, as has happened in places like Indonesia when bio-fuel took off. And any environmental impact will only worsen with increased demand.

Lastly, and most importantly for me as a reviewer, I find reading e-books anything but the immersive experience I get with traditional books. In perfect light and sitting at the right angle, I can see the screen of my netbook, but that determines how and where I sit.  To have the print at 100% on pdfs, I find pages have to go across screen, so I continually have to back up to check I haven’t missed anything. Reducing the size to where it fits on a page makes it so small I struggle to read it. Printing pages out costs money, especially if it’s a 400-page book, for example.

As I get older, I’m becomingly increasingly oriented around what I can find in the local library, which in the case of Bath, is nine Kate Wilhelm novels I’ve never read…

I’m sure that future generations won’t have these issues, but I suspect that enough people will to secure the future of traditional publishing in some format or other.

Expect to see more posts when the BBC -or someone else- highlights the issue in the news again.

• May 5th, 2011 • Posted in Books • Comments: 0

The Alarm Clock Returneth

Ugh. Drat that alarm was my second thought this morning. My first was actually aaagh!! wassat? Before I remembered where I was, and more importantly, who I was. I hate that moment of dislocation more and more with each passing week.

Yes, Kate was back to work this morning, and despite the fact that it’s still officially the Easter holidays for us studenty-types, it’s back to work for me. So I posted something on the Film Mumblings blog, and I’m writing this, my 500th post here.

Most of this week -I suspect- will be given over to the final MAF blog, which is worth either 6 or 12 marks (I can’t remember which — it’s bloody important, though) and trying to whip the Genre critical piece into shape.  Although some thoughts about e-books are bubbling away, prompted by a news item about their burgeoning popularity, and I have some critiquing to do.

So I’d better get on with it…Abyssinia!

• May 3rd, 2011 • Posted in General • Comments: 0

On Holiday…Or Not

I realized yesterday as I posted the review of Interzone that it was my first post for a week. Given that I’ve been fairly quiet on other venues as well, a few of you might be forgiven for thinking that I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole.

You should be so lucky.

As I write this, at the same time last week I was on my way over to Gareth‘s place, to set off for Eastercon. Two days of long periods of relaxation, interspersed with frantic running around to get to and from signing sessions to promote Damage Time. Six of us ended up coming back from Birmingham Waterstone’s in a taxi to get back in time for the Illustrious signing.

That should have sounded a warning – the railway station was in chaos, which was only going to get worse by the evening. I duly found myself stranded by the chaos, although I eventually got home only an hour late by leaping in a taxi at Bristol Temple Meads.

So off on holiday on Sunday morning down to Poole. On the plus side, we were going on holiday. On the downside, I had a shedload of work to get through, and was suffering from tendonitis, preventing me from walking more than a few hundred yards without having to take painkillers.

In a way that injury was a blessing. Unable to go out, and with minimal distractions -since I couldn’t go for our usual long walks in the Purbecks or on the beaches, I had no option but to buckle down to editing Transtories. (More about that tomorrow) And since the weather was so good, I was able to read in the garden in the afternoon.

But it’s meant for a strange, claustrophobic existence that doesn’t really feel like a proper holiday at all. So I shall have no option but  to take another one, later this year…

• April 29th, 2011 • Posted in General • Comments: 0

The Sixty at Eastercon

One of the things I’m most looking forward to at Eastercon this year is getting my hands on a copy of  The Sixty: Arts of Andy Bigwood .

In case you’re unfamiliar with his name, Andy has done the artwork for my two of my three previous anthologies, so I freely admit to a tinge of nepotism. But more pertinently, he’s has been a finalist for the BSFA award in three of the last four years, and has won twice, for his cover for Ian Whates’ Subterfuge, and the year before for Cracked World for Whates’ previous anthology DisLocations. (sigh, I knew them both before they were famous…) So the BSFA think he’s good as well. 

One of the things I love about Andy’s work is that with its spaceships and other SF tropes it’s reminiscent of the cover art from the early 1970s, by artists like Bruce Pennington and Eddie Jones; but while Andy’s work is tech-heavy, there are hints that he’s beginning to experiment, to play with other form.

As I said last time, I’ll be signing both books, as will lots of other authors, such as Gareth L Powell and Andy Remic; The Sixty includes all the aforementioned, plus my own Displacement, Sam Stones’ Killing Kiss, and many, many others. All illustrations are accompanied by short passages from the texts illustrated, and Andy may have an original short story or two in there from various authors.

It promises to be a wonderful book.

• April 10th, 2011 • Posted in Books • Comments: 0

One Day

It was raining earlier, so deciding that we’d wait it out, I’ve just returned from a late trot round the park with Alice. Rarely have I needed a walk so badly as a result of reading a book.

I’ll come back to that in a moment, but first a quick reminder that there’s just one day left to submit to my anthology Transtories

But back to why I needed that walk.

I’d just read One Day by David Nicholls, and found myself shocked by the violence of my emotional reaction; walking Alice round the park meant that I had a chance to work out my thoughts about why I’d gotten so upset.

But first, a warning.  There is a major spoiler following, and while I’m not normally reluctant to reveal twists if they’re germane to the ending, this would actually destroy the very effect I’m trying to explain – SO FINISH READING NOW if you don’t want to know what happens.

The plot of One Day revolves around the long-term love affair between Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morley, students in Edinburgh who share a one- night stand after their graduation ceremony on St. Swithin’s Day, 1988 (that’s July 15th, for those of you who don’t know the legend). The novel charts their anniversary over the next nineteen years – usually they spend it together, but sometimes just write to each other.

Because by 1989 Dexter and Emma have gone their separate ways: Emma finds her ambitions worn down by life in the late 80s and 90s; she takes up acting, in an interactive drama troupe, then gets a dead end job in a fast food chain, before training as a teacher. Dexter drifts through life on charm, before blagging his way into the media on the strength of his looks.

In the late 90s Dexter’s fall from grace as a TV presenter is as sudden as his rise, while Emma quits her teaching job after an abortive affair with her headmaster. Dexter marries while Emma lives alone, but they continue to see each other each year, and there is never any doubt that love will prevail in the end.

Are you still reading? Didn’t I tell you to stop? Okay, on your head be it…

Dexter finds that his wife is cheating on him, and the following year Emma is shocked by how gaunt he looks after his marriage implodes. Emma by this time is a successful children’s novelist living in Paris, but realizing that this may be their last chance, she leaves her boyfriend to return with Dexter, helps get him back on his feet, and they marry on St Swithin’s Day, 2003.

So far, so contemporary romance; I know exactly where this is heading, except that there are still sixty-five pages to go, and there must be another twist. Sure enough life’s not so good by 2004; Dex and Em are trying for a baby, and they quarrel, and they arrange to meet in the evening to celebrate their anniversary – it’s a working day in the shop for Dexter, while Emma tries to write, goes swimming and heads for home:

The rain became heavier, oily drops of brown city water, and Emma rode standing on the pedals with her head lowered so that she was only vaguely aware of a blur of movement in the side road to her left.

The sensation is less of flying through the air, more of being picked up and hurled…the people crouching over her seem fearful and are asking her over and over again are you alright are you alright. One of them is crying and she realizes that she is not alright….

Then she thinks of Dexter…he’ll wonder where I am, she thinks. He’ll worry….

Then Emma Mayhew dies, and everything that she thought or felt vanishes and she is gone forever. (pp.384 – 385) 
I’m a little embarrassed now at how much I mourned a fictional character. It took me several minutes to be able to pick up the book again, and continue, now in a very emotional state, reading what happens over the last fifty pages. Which is not at all what I expected — but I won’t tell you, because you’ve had enough spoilers for now.

All writers manipulate their readers, but Nicholls is extremely adept, while I had some personal hot buttons which Nicholls pressed. Dex and Em are depicted in all their beautiful and awful detail, and Emma reminded me so much of my ex, while the sheer shock of the accident only adds to its verisimilitude; if TV has one massive failing it’s (generally) telegraphing plot twists through the soundtrack.

The strength of the novel (and the point of this rather rambling post) is that you may think that you know what’s coming, but life doesn’t give you spoiler alerts.

• March 31st, 2011 • Posted in Books • Comments: 0

Bradley P. Beaulieu Interviewed

Bradley P Beaulieu came 2nd in the 2004 Writers of the Future contest, and has subsequently sold short stories to Realms of Fantasy and Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show. His first novel, The Winds of Khalakovo will be published in April 2011 by Night Shade Books — it is the first volume of The Lays of Anyushka trilogy. He’s stopped by to answer a few questions.

So to begin, if you could pick anyone at all, who would you most like to meet?

Anyone alive? I’d probably pick Cate Blanchett. She’s such an interesting actress. She’s so good at her art, and I think it would be fun to talk to her about her process, how she prepares for roles. And I suppose it doesn’t hurt that she’s beautiful, nor that she played the part of one of the more interesting characters in The Lord of the Rings.

Anyone at all? This may sound a bit easy, but I’d love to talk to J.R.R. Tolkien. He came from a different time, and has paved the way for so much that followed. It would be interesting, not only to talk to him about his writing, but to let him know how much he means to so many others, including me.

You like spicy food. What dish do you most like to cook?

My favorite recipe is one I haven’t tried before. I love cooking, but I still have a lot to learn. There are a ton of things I haven’t made yet, even mainstays in traditional western cooking. When I was living in California, I fell in love with fish tacos, especially Ensenada style fish tacos. The fish is deep fried in light batter and then put on a bed of white cabbage or lettuce over fresh corn tortillas and topped with a light sour cream sauce and cilantro and light Mexican cheese. I tried quite a few places until I found the on I liked the best, and then I tried recreating the recipe. I’m pretty close now. The batter’s tricky to get right, as is the frying of it, but I’ve experimented with a few sauces, and I’m pretty happy with the recipe now. The traditional recipe doesn’t have a ton of spice, but I have a spicy tomatillo sauce and I add chipotle puree to the sour cream sauce to add some zing. When I get it right, it’s one of the best meals I make.
Tell us about your fantasy kingdom – what cultures and/or countries have you drawn inspiration from?
The Winds of Khalakovo draws heavily from Muscovite Russia and ancient Persia (and also a bit from the Ottoman Empire, though that has much more play in Book 2, The Straits of Galahesh). Perhaps not so obviously, I draw heavily from Buddhism as well. It was the central belief system I started with when I was in those earliest of brainstorming sessions. I’d determined early on that the most common form of magic would be commanded by a select few people, and that because of their beliefs they would be used by others who are not so caring as they. From this mindset sprung the Aramahn, the peaceful people who draw their beliefs from Buddhism but their culture and customs from ancient Persia. The Russian influence came later as I was using the portraits I’d collected at the Royal Gallery in Edinburgh to try to figure out who they were and how they fit into the story.
As the story began to evolve, it became important to have one culture be imperialist in some way, and the other welcoming, almost to a fault, as the Native American peoples were to the colonialists. And then it was important to put these two cultures in conflict. The most compelling way for me to do that was to have one culture be ruthless in their grab for land and resources, but to also keep the other culture relevant in some way—and this is one of the more interesting facets of the story to me: the Aramahn are necessary to the current way of life on the archipelagos that comprise the Grand Duchy of Anuskaya. They provide for commerce and trade not only among the islands, but with the large, neighboring continent of Yrstanla. It was very intriguing how the Aramahn both detest what the Grand Duchy has done to them and the islands and yet also help them in the hopes that they will one day come to find enlightenment.
I read with interest your influences, which include the usual suspects like G.R.R.M, but less obviously, Glen Cook. What particularly draws you to epic fantasy?
I suppose at this point it’s ingrained. Check that. It was probably ingrained by the time I left junior high—long, long before I started thinking about writing as a career. The earliest novel I remember reading that affected me to any great degree was The Hobbit in third grade, followed quickly by The Lord of the Rings. I read various others in the years that followed, like David Eddings’ Belgariad, and Fred Saberhagen’s Book of Swords, Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant, and later, Glen Cook’s Black Company, and C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy. I read various other things, including Science Fiction, but I was always drawn to the scope and grandeur of epic fantasy. I was drawn to technology at an early age, and I suppose even then, like now, I was a bit of an escapist. The epic fantasies seemed so romantic and wondrous, I couldn’t keep away from them. And so when I started to work out stories, dabbling in writing in college and then more seriously in my early thirties, my mind was naturally drawn to these same types of stories.
I noted that you’ve written a number of first novels of trilogies, with the possibility of sequels. What’s next after this trilogy? Any ideas? If things aren’t firmed up yet, what would you like to do? 
I have two possibilities that I’m mulling over right now. (I like to let things germinate for quite a while, so it’s important for me to get my hindbrain working on these as early as possible) The first is a science-fantasy called The Days of Dust and Ash. Think Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind meets The Coldfire Trilogy. I’m excited about this story, because it’s a departure from what I’ve written in the past, though it will still be fantastic and wide in scope. The story focuses on a young girl who is summoned from the dust, a global consciousness that was created as the last great age of technology fell under a nanite plague.
The other is called From the Spices of Sanandira. I sold a novella with the same title to Beneath Ceaseless Skies last year, and it will be appearing sometime this spring. It’s a story that springs from Sanandira, a large desert oasis known for its caravan trade and spice bazaars. It’s got a strong Thousand and One Nights feel to it. The novel is not so much an expansion of the novella as it is a re-imagining of it. It will probably focus on a pair of twin sisters, one of whom is sold to one of Sanandira’s famed assassin rings at a young age. The other girl (the protagonist) finds her sister by happenstance years later, and because of this chance meeting is drawn into the world of intrigue her sister walks every day.
Thanks for stopping by Brad, and good luck with the launch; enjoy the moment.
• March 10th, 2011 • Posted in Interviews • Comments: 0


The BBC have started to show a series hosted by Sebastian Faulks on Saturday nights called Faulks on Fiction.  This comprises various talking heads holding forth on fictional characters, interspersed with lots and lots of clips from television adaptions of said books. It sounds as dry as dust, but it’s absolutely brilliant, helped by a webpage at the Beeb with a reading list to die for.

Part 1 -which is on the iPlayer for another 19 days- featured heroes, starting with Robinson Crusoe, moving swiftly through Tom Jones (no, not the singer!) and Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair.

Part 2, which brings me to the subject in my usual meandering way, is all about lovers, and asks the question, how much does fiction influence the way we perceive love? Think about it — how many stories feature what happens after the hero and heroine get togther?

You may argue that this is because what happens after boy/girl get boy/girl inherently boring, but maybe that’s the case because Shakespeare et al have so culturally hardwired us that most of us can’t imagine an alternative (most of us being the portion of society that turns books or films into bestsellers — in other words the audience) .

It’s quite ironic that I’ve heard so many singletons lately bitterly resenting the cards that those in relationships are supposedly exchanging, blithely ignoring the fact that people in relationships don’t need to anonymously send each other cards.  In fact, after over a quarter of a century Kate and I have adapted Valentine’s Day to an extent that the card-manufacturer’s target audience would have trouble recognizing it!

I bought Kate a card, but not of the traditional Valentine’s variety, while she bought me Brian Moore’s autobiography Beware of the Dog.  (Far more mentally nourishing and enjoyable)

How did you celebrate the day -if you did- while simultaneously subverting it?

• February 15th, 2011 • Posted in Books, General • Comments: 0

Reading Matter

It’s that time of year again when people start to look back, peaking around about December 30th when it’s hard to find a TV programme that isn’t a retrospective (which is a good reason to watch DVDs, or better still to turn the box off).

SF is no exceptions to this, and a couple of sites have already started, running their ‘best of/ the following are eligable for’ lists, while the ToC for Rich Horton’s Years Best has already popped up at SFSignal, which also carries Jonathan Strahan’s ToC. Interesting that they have at least two overlaps, Peter Watts and Elizabeth Hand, while Neil Gaiman has different entries in the two collections.

I already have a heavy reading list, and adding in the reading I’ve already done for the Nebula means that I’m almost ready to cry mercy. I’ve already read a lot of the contenders due to reviewing Asimovs and F & SF for Suite101, but there are a lot of other worthy works and authors out there.

At some point by the 30th, I shall endeavour to post my own list, but meanwhile, what do you think are the best stories and novels of the year?

• December 16th, 2010 • Posted in Awards, Books, General, Reviews, Writing • Comments: 0