Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Tales from the Bookshelf, Entry One: Magyk

It's a marvelous thing, to open a book and immediately be transported back to when you first read it. The smell of old paper rises as soon as you part the pages and all of a sudden you're back where you were when you read those words for the very first time.

When I first read Angie Sage's Magyk I was eleven years old, lying on a blow-up mattress on the hardwood floor of my new bedroom in the house my Dad was renting with his new partner. I didn't even have a bed yet, and I lay just above the floor of what was really a small dining room and did what I always do: opened a book. By the light of a lamp that sat on the floor near my head I was carried away in a small boat, scudding over the moonlit river on a breathless chase to escape the Hunter.

Over the course of this summer I'll be reading back through all my old series, taking myself back and reviewing them here armed with a combination of nostalgia and fresh perspective. I won't just tell you what the books are about, but what their strengths and weaknesses are, how they compare to what I remember and what I would think of them if I was reading them now for the first time.

Magyk is the first in a seven-part series about a young boy named Septimus Heap. Except Septimus dies as an infant in the first chapter, on the same night his father Silas finds a baby girl abandoned in the snow. The second chapter forms a bridge between the events of the first and the narrative proper which begins in the third, spanning the years between Sarah and Silas Heap's adoption of mysterious baby Jenna and the morning of her tenth birthday, when ExtraOrdinary Wizard Marcia Overstrand arrives to tell her that she is the Princess, daughter of the Castle's Queen who was assassinated on the orders of evil necromancer DomDaniel. With Jenna's identity discovered by the Supreme Custodian, DomDaniel's puppet ruler in the Castle, Jenna must come with Marcia to the safety of the Wizard Tower, centre of Magyk in the Castle. While the rest of the Heaps (Sarah, Silas and their six sons) go into hiding in the Forest, Marcia takes Jenna to the Wizard Tower to keep her safe, as she is the only thing preventing DomDaniel from returning to take over the Castle. Outside the Tower they find a young boy, forced into guard duty as a member of the Young Army, unconscious in the snow and carry him inside. When well-meaning but bumbling Silas shows up determined to give Jenna her birthday present and brings her youngest elder brother Nicko and excitable wolfhound Maxie along, the cast of the following chase is complete.

Magyk is full of memorable moments, and the group of six's escape through the rubbish chute after Marcia incapacitates an assassin sent for Jenna is one. Emerging from the chute in a rubbish dump near the pontoon cafe of Sarah Heap's friend Sally Mullin, the strange group know the Hunter will soon be after them, and flee downriver in a canoe lent to them by Sally. Through all of this Boy 412, as he is called for in the Young Army no-one is allowed a name, remains quiet and petrified, believing he has been kidnapped by mad wizards whom he has been indoctrinated to believe are the Enemy. Evading the Hunter after a tense river chase, the group seek safety in the home of Silas's Aunt Zelda, an elderly White Witch who is Keeper on Draggen Island, an egg-shaped island in the Marram Marshes. This is where most of the book is set, as winter sets in and the Big Freeze makes travel almost impossible. When the group are contacted by a Message Rat named Stanley, sent by Sarah with the news that Simon, the eldest Heap child, has gone missing, Silas sets off back to the Castle to find him but has no luck and spends the winter holed up in a tavern inside the Castle walls, kept company by the ghost of Alther Mella, both his and Marcia's former tutor as ExtraOrdinary Wizard who died trying to protect the Queen on the night Jenna was born. The misfortunes of several of the characters are offset by the whimsical tone of Jenna, Nicko and Boy 412's adventures on Draggen Island, where Aunt Zelda keeps them fed mostly with cabbage and owns a pet cat named Bert who has transformed into a duck. Another of my favourite scenes is when Boy 412, still silent but beginning to realize that he may have been rescued rather than kidnapped, falls down a hole while wandering with the other two through the fog and discovers a gold ring on the floor of a tunnel a-la The Hobbit. The Dragon Ring, as it is called, does not turn him invisible glows brightly when he needs it to and is featured on the cover of the book.

The novel's climax approaches when Stanley the Message Rat is made involuntary party to a trap set for Marcia, bringing a message to the cottage on Draggen Island that Silas wants to meet her which was in fact sent by the Supreme Custodian. When Marcia is captured and thrown in a deep dungeon, DomDaniel can finally return and claim his old title of ExtraOrdinary Wizard. He dispatches the Hunter to Draggen Island to eliminate the Heaps.

Nicko, Jenna and Boy 412 manage to escape the Hunter and discover a beautiful dragonlike boat in the underground passage Boy 412 found earlier. Zelda freezes the Hunter, but all four are shocked when DomDaniel's sullen apprentice who was sent along reveals himself as Septimus Heap, stolen at birth by the midwife as he is the powerfully Magykal seventh son of a seventh son. Despite the protagonists' vigilance the Apprentice manages to escape and returns to DomDaniel, who resolves to eliminate the Heaps himself after the Hunter's failure. Nicko, Jenna and Boy 412 follow him to DomDaniel's ship, the Vengeance, where they discover Marcia is held prisoner. In the climax of the book a tumultuous storm sweeps over the Marshes and the nearby sea rises to flood them. Nicko, Jenna and Boy 412 sally out in the Dragon Boat, a sentient creature that was once a dragon, to rescue Marcia. With their help Marcia manages to escape and reclaims the all-important Akhu Amulet from DomDaniel, returning the power of ExtraOrdinary Wizard to her. DomDaniel is killed when his ship sinks in the marsh and is swarmed by predators. He makes one last bid at survival by possessing his Apprentice, whom he sends to kill Jenna, but is thwarted again and his spirit flees back to his corpse, leaving the Apprentice an empty husk which Zelda determines she will nurse back to life. In the final scene, all of the Heap family (including a sullen Simon, who ran away to marry his sweetheart Lucy Gringe but was imprisoned by the Supreme Custodian after Lucy's father tipped him off and escaped only after coming to value himself and his ambitions above his family) gather on Draggen Island where Zelda scries her duck pond to discover Boy 412's true identity. Showing signs of being strongly Magykal, Boy 412 has accepted Marcia's offer to be her Apprentice, and his single request is to know who he is. In the final flashback it is revealed that the midwife who stole baby Septimus was to hand him over to a servant of DomDaniel but mistakenly had her own son taken instead, leading the poor boy into a life of thinking he is Septimus Heap and disappointing his master, and baby Septimus to grow up in the Young Army, as Boy 412.

Reading this book again as an adult is obvious that Boy 412 is really Septimus from various hints throughout the story, including the fact that 412 adds up to 7. This is very much a book aimed at children, with a weak antagonist in DomDaniel who comes across as nasty rather than evil and the Hunter's comical fate as a memory-rewritten buffoon. The Magyk is often fun and silly and little in this book takes itself seriously, but there is richness to Sage's writing and a homeliness to her characters and settings that gives it an enduring charm and provides the true magic in Magyk.                

Thursday, 10 July 2014

A Writer On: David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas

What do an eighteenth-century Pacific explorer, a bisexual musician from the period between the World Wars, a vivacious female journalist from the 70s, an elderly publisher from current-day Britain, a serving-clone from futuristic Korea and a simple tribesman from the post-Apocalyptic future have in common?

This is question that all readers of David Mitchell's acclaimed novel Cloud Atlas must ask. Mitchell's narrative spans centuries, six stories in different genres with vastly different protagonists linked together by a common thread. The narrative builds on itself like a triangle, the first part the book moving forwards in time with the first half of the first five stories, is capped by the uninterrupted sixth story, then collapses backwards through history finishing the first five stories in reverse order. This structural experiment could very easily have failed by being too confusing or breaking the reader's emotional connection to the characters (which was the case with the novel's movie adaptation), but by subtly linking each story to the one that preceded or follows it Mitchell has crafted a masterpiece.

The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing is set out as its name suggests as a series of journal entries written by the story's protagonist Adam Ewing. An American from San Francisco, Ewing faces many trials and tribulations as he explores the 1800s Pacific aboard the ship Prophetess. When he saves the life of a native slave, Autua, he was no idea that by doing so he has also saved his own.

Letters from Zedelghem takes the form of a series of letters sent by the protagonist, Robert Frobisher, to his friend in London, Rufus Sixsmith, during the period between the two World Wars. Disowned by his family and fleeing debt, Frobisher makes his way to Belgium and talks his way into becoming assistant to Vyvyan Ayrs, an elderly composer whose blindness means he can no longer compose music until Frobisher offers to write it for him. Staying at Ayrs' luxurious home Zedelghem, Frobisher begins a dangerous game when he enters into an affair with Ayrs' younger wife.

Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery is written like a spy novel. Set in America during the 70s, journalist Luisa Rey investigates rumours of corruption at a new nuclear power plant after a chance encounter in a broken down elevator with a now elderly Rufus Sixsmith, one of the scientists who worked on the plant's development. As Luisa's investigations unveil a web of corruption and murder she herself becomes a target for the power company's hired killers.

The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is a comedy set in modern-day Britain. As in independent publisher Cavendish's books rarely sell, until a former thug and author of autobiography Knuckle Sandwich murders an arrogant critic at a public function. Cavendish begins raking in the royalties but is forced to go on the run when the author's brothers track him down and demand a huge sum. Sent by his long-suffering younger brother to what he believes is a countryside hotel, Cavendish finds himself trapped in an old-people's home with no way of escaping.

An Orison of Sonmi~451 is a science-fiction piece set in a futuristic world where corporations and consumerism have replaced democracy as the governing forces in human lives. A clone or 'fabricant' grown only to serve 'pureblood' customers at the diner where she lives and works, Sonmi~451 develops critical thinking and is rescued by an underground network of rebels who want to use her as a figurehead to incite a fabricant uprising. The entire story is narrated by Sonmi in an interview where she speaks into a recording device or 'orison'.

Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After is the capstone story of the novel. Set in post-Apocalyptic Hawaii inhabited by several fairly primitive human clans who worship Sonmi as a deity, the protagonist Zachry and his family are forced to play host to Meronym, an exotic woman from a technologically advanced people. As Meronym slowly changes the way an initially suspicious and truculent Zachry thinks, he begins to break his people's taboos and eventually must fight for survival by her side when his clan is raided by a feared warrior tribe.

Though incredibly disparate, these six stories are linked in by minor occurrences and a larger common thread. Whilst exploring Zedelghem Robert Frobisher discovers the first half of Adam Ewing's journal in a library, the same first half readers first get to read, which breaks off in the middle of a sentence. After Rufus Sixsmith is assassinated, Luisa Rey discovers a bundle or letters among his possessions, the first half of his old friend and lover Robert's correspondence from Zedelghem which made up the first half of the Frobisher story. As a publisher, Timothy Cavendish receives a submission of the first half of the Half Lives manuscript that makes up the first part of Luisa's adventure. In the futuristic world Sonmi~451 watches the first part of Cavendish's ordeal as an ancient film, which freezes at the point his narrative cuts off. While suspiciously searching Meronym's possessions, Zachry discovers the Orison and views a hologram of Sonmi's interview but is caught at the point her story first stopped. After Sloosha's Crossin' the novel begins to move backwards, finishing the five un-ended stories. In its epilogue Zachry's son shows the Orison to his children and that leads into the last half of Sonmi's story, which ends with her final request being to watch the film about Timothy Cavendish. Cavendish's tale ends with him receiving the second half of the Half Lives manuscript and publishing it. After her investigation finishes, Luisa discovers the rest of Robert Frobisher's letters and buys a record of his music. Towards the end of Frobisher's narrative, he finds the last part of Adam Ewing's journal.

Apart from this genius interweaving of narratives, the characters themselves are connected. Robert Frobisher's musical piece, Cloud Atlas Sextet, is listened to by Luisa Rey and played in the diner where Sonmi works. Robert Frobisher has a comet-shaped birthmark, as does Luisa Rey, and inexplicably Sonmi~451 despite being a clone, and finally Meronym as well.  As Zachry philosophises lying on an escape raft leaving his island behind with Meronym's people:

"I watched the clouds awobbly from the floor o'that kayak. Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an' tho' a cloud's shape nor hue nor size don't stay the same it's still a cloud an' so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud's blowed from or who the soul'll be tomorrow? Only Sonmi the east an' the west an' the compass an' the atlas, yay, only the atlas o' clouds."

All the time I was reading Cloud Atlas I felt as if a tiny version of David Mitchell was standing on my shoulder, asking into my ear "do you get it yet?" I felt as is if there would be some point, some insanely clever twist at the end that snapped all the stories together as parts of a larger story. There's wasn't. Mitchell makes his point two-thirds of the way through the book, and the rest is only a clever tidying up of loose ends. Nevertheless, Cloud Atlas is a masterful narrative of unparalleled depth and variety. Anyone who wants to publish anything ever should read this book.    

Thursday, 26 June 2014

A Writer On: Me, apparently...

In a turn of events that my reveals my general ignorance of the blogging world I have so recklessly plunged into, I have been nominated for the Liebster Award. Please, hold the applause. The five people who are going to read this have probably all been nominated too.

Apparently anyone with less than a certain number of followers can be nominated (no surprises I'm eligible), and after listing eleven facts about yourself it's basically one of those 'answer these questions then pass it on' deals that spend most of their time floating around the shallow end of social media. Nevertheless, it was the delightful Lola who put me up to this, so her questions are worth answering.

Eleven alarmingly quirky facts about me:

1. I love the smell of cardboard. Seriously. Given enough time in a warehouse full of empty cardboard boxes, I could get high.
2. Power-points that are left switched on with nothing plugged into them irritate me. Usually enough to go and switch them off.
3. Same deal with crooked photos or paintings.
4. My love for cats could put many crazy cat women to shame.
5. I feel I would be happier if I lived in medieval times, despite the widespread poverty and plagues and such, because I love the idea of a world that can still contain big unknowns and 'undiscovered' lands. Plus, I'd be decent with a sword.
6. I am black-belt in karate and an instructor.
7. I own over 250 books, the majority of which are fantasy, spread between two bedrooms at home and my Dad's place.
8. As a child I invented something called a 'Tuckey'. It involved filling a cup with bathwater while the tub was emptying, stuffing a flannel inside and capping it off with the bath plug. Patent pending.
9. When shaving I remove the ends of my moustache first, to enjoy the moment that I look like Hitler.
10. I love immersing myself in water so much, I look forward to taking showers.
11. When bored I look up and correct Wiki entries on my favourite fandoms.

Now, on to Lola's questions.

What is my least favourite book genre?
Does non-fiction count? 
What is my least favourite colour?
I find orange very insincere. 
Pick one fictional character to snog, marry, avoid.
For completely shallow reasons I'd enjoy making out with Kaylee from Firefly. If I had to marry any fictional character it would be Marshall from How I Met Your Mother, even though I'm not gay, because he'd be the best husband ever. As for avoid, I think it's wise to give the dark lord Sauron a wide berth. 
What is your favourite TV program from childhood?
Blue Water High is the only thing I can remember being devoted to when I was young. It's the closest I've ever been to surf culture. 
Were you ever afraid of a children's show character?
Not that I can remember. 'And They Shall Know No Fear' and all that. 
What fruit do you consume most frequently?
Bananas. Emphasising the not-gay thing again. 
Would you rather be able to do a backflip or stand on your head?
I'm close to being able to do both. Backflip would be more fun, because headstands move all your blood to your head. 
(Question eight was answered in question seven)
What style(s) of dance have you had lessons for?
None. Don't tell my girlfriend. 
Which of your own characters are you most proud of having created?
Well, I'm not proud of Harlan, him being a psychopathic serial killer and all, but he is pretty cool. 
Would you rather like in Westeros/the Free Cities, Middle Earth or Narnia?
Middle. Earth. I'm planning to frame a map of that place and put it up on my wall. 

Well there you have, a lot of useless information about me. Check back next post when I write about something interesting (maybe).


Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Brotherhood in Murderland

For this post I'm changing my normal tone to do what most people do with blogs: write about personal experience. Unless you have specific interest in my life, feel free to stop reading here.

There's something about the male psyche that is intrinsically drawn to the sound of machine-gun fire. Luckily for the world at large, the only kind I've ever used are fired with the left mouse button.

I'm not a big gamer, despite the fact that several of my friends are. When I do game, I almost always play a tie-in from something else I like: the first real game I ever played was Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets for PC, and a shameful portion of my life at 13-14 was spent conquering and re-conquering Middle-Earth as various races from Lord of the Rings. It wasn't until later that I got my first taste of a first-person shooter, during Friday lunchtimes at my high school when a loose collective of the thin and pasty would gather in one of the computer rooms to eschew sunlight and social interaction in favour of simulated violence.

The games played there were varied, but the important part is that I was introduced to online multiplayer gaming. Those lunchtimes lost their attraction for me after a while, but gaming never has, and it was through them that I met some of my best friends. A large part of what kept me sane through the trials and tribulations of VCE was coming home and joining a Skype call with my friends before we all jumped on someone's server and unwound with whatever game we enjoyed at the time. Some of us from those days have gone their separate ways now, but those that remain are a close-knit group I am lucky to be part of, and even though we only see each other a few times a year the friendship remains because we talk over Skype and bond over simulated slaughter on a regular basis.

Whether it's building houses to keep the monsters out, mowing each other down with hails of bullets or standing back-to-back against hordes of infected, these guys are my gaming-world brothers. Even when it's each other we're pinning to walls with crossbow bolts or vaporizing with explosive barrels (which is most of the time) the bond is strong and the laughs just keep rolling out. In the spirit of friendship, we annihilate each other.

I know these guys have my back in the real world because they've got it in there, and I will always have theirs. So this is a shout-out to my gaming buddies Nimrod, DeltaHax and TrolleyFodder, may the slaughter never cease.

Your friend,

Amoeba Man   Creepy Magee   DeadPotato   FlawlessCowboy    


Sunday, 1 June 2014

A Writer On: The F Word

Once more I acknowledge if not apologize for the long gap between posts. I have been busy getting published. I am pleased to say Deakin University's Arts journal 'Wordly' has published a piece of mine examining the plot differences between Game of Thrones Season 3 and the book upon which it is based, and many thanks to Lola for getting me the opportunity. The piece may be appearing on their online blog in which case I will provide a link. Now, onwards.

This post is about something deeply personal to me. Fantasy.

Fantasy is something I have loved since I was a child, and it's probably not an exaggeration to say that fantasy novels have been one of the greatest shaping forces in my life. Growing up I greatly preferred roaming Deltora, the Edge, Aloria, Alagaesia and Middle-Earth to anywhere I went in real life, and now that I'm older the love has continued as I explore Westeros and begin to craft my own lands.

George Martin, the man responsible for Westeros, once wrote a short essay entitled 'On Fantasy' that, when I read it, felt a chord being struck in my soul. Here it is in abbreviated form:

"The best fantasy is written in the language of dreams. It is alive as dreams are alive, more real than real, for a moment at least - that long magic moment before we wake.
Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab... Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true?
We read fantasy to find the colours again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.
They can keep their heaven. When I die, I'd sooner go to Middle-Earth."

In just a few paragraphs Martin has found the heart of why fantasy speaks to me and countless others. Compared to reality, fantasy is a wonderland, despite its dangers. There is a core of escapism to most fantasy enjoyment, and a large part of why I loved it so much as a child was because it allowed me to escape the bleak reality of my social existence.

One of my primary motivations in becoming an author is so I can speak to kids who every day go through what I did, and offer them a means of escape and conciliation. That said, there is another reason.

Many people don't understand the appeal of fantasy, and that's fine. I do pity them, however. For some, they don't see the attraction in immersing yourself in something that is not real, has no relation to everyday experience and no practical benefits. Perhaps their reality has always seemed more preferable to any other. Perhaps they simply haven't tried fantasy yet. Perhaps their minds just don't work that way. These people can be just as happy as those who enjoy the non-real, but not reading is like not listening to music, or never eating gourmet food. You can survive that way, but your life will never be as enriched.

Speaking from experience, fantasy stories serve a purpose beyond escapism. Fantasy is a means of truth-telling. Pre-postmodern fantasy is often criticised for its simplistic, black-and-white morality, but what these stories tell us is that it is good to act in these ways and not others, that anyone no matter how humble can achieve greatness, that all it takes to overthrow great darkness is the courage and love of a few, and that, in the end, good will always triumph. Naive though these views may seem, it is only the people who don't understand fantasy saying that, and they are beliefs that I have carried into my (semi) adult life and am determined to use to make this world a better place. That is the true effect of fantasy, and it is a lesson that needs to be shared.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

A Writer On: A Day in My Life

A day in the life of a writer, accuracy sold separately. Also in second person, because.

7:15 AM: Thanks to an accidental nudge of the tuning dial on your alarm you are woken by the polite voice of a Christian radio presenter. You turn him off without looking and try to hold onto that cool dream you were having. You're sure there was a cat in it...

7:16 AM: Your feet hit the floor and you're awake. Perhaps not quite ready to take on an army of ninja assassins, but give it a couple of minutes.

7:24 AM:
Breakfast is a bowl of cereal. Its the crappy Aldi version of Milo, but you console yourself with the thought that it might be better for you and fight the temptation to do as invited by the box and count the spots on Coco Cheetah. You should read instead. Where did you finish last night?

7:43 AM: What clothes should you wear today? The same ones you wore yesterday? That'll do. It's only uni and your friends all know you're lazy.

8:09 AM: You reach the top of your street and try to think of a poetic way to describe the morning. Failing, you put your headphones in instead.

8:33 AM: Here's the train. You scan each carriage as it goes past to make sure you don't get in with anyone dodgy, and then pick the first carriage you didn't look at for the thrill of the unknown.

9:38 AM: Campus again. Didn't this place used to cooler? Oh look, here comes Lola. Now the day is worth investing energy into.

10:20 AM: You'd think that in a fiction unit you might learn something about writing fiction. Instead, you're all subjected to two hours of this woman's banal droning. What would dying of boredom be like?

12:41 PM: The couch is comfy and the gang's all here. You've got your arm around Molly, and Lola and Watson are sitting opposite. Let's face it, this is the only reason you got out of bed this morning.

6:02 PM: Why is it always dark outside when you leave uni these days? You answer yourself with the line from Game of Thrones and refrain from saying it aloud.

8:13 PM: Karate is good. You throw a jumping spinning inwards crescent kick for no reason other than the second of air time it gives you. It was really cool, but no-one was watching.

10:35 PM: So tired. You really should go to bed, but you know you'll stay up on Facebook until eleven. Maybe you could write a new blog post...

Here's links to the blogs of two of my uni friends. We often mention each other, so we've decide to connect our blogs and use consistent code names so we can tell a linked story. I would never really be friends with someone named Lola.

The Blogging of an Aspiring Writer                                    Not a Sexy Vampire

Until next time,

Thursday, 27 February 2014

A Writer on: Books that More People should Know About (Part 1.)

A few years back when I was starting to make decisions about what I wanted to do with myself after high school, I was torn between two passions. One was conservation, my desire to protect animals and the environment from misuse and exploitation. The other was writing.

One afternoon I was sitting at home, passing the time by perusing the blogs of some of my favourite authors. It was while watching a video by Henry Neff, the author and illustrator of The Tapestry, that I had a minor epiphany. In a video response to some fan questions Henry spoke about the joy of going on tour, of meeting readers who loved and had been moved by the stories he told. This made me realize that I wanted to know what that was like. I decided then that writing was the career path for me.

For a while now an idea for a series of posts extolling the virtues of some books and book series I feel are not nearly well enough known has been brewing in the back of my mind, and I can think of no series deserving of far more attention than it gets that Henry Neff's The Tapestry

Can you imagine the world under control of a malevolent, immortal being who has the ability to literally erase things from history? Can you imagine the continents divided up into strange new feudal kingdoms ruled by demons, where monsters wander abroad, ogres haunt the valleys and goblins trade with humans? Can you imagine being one of the few people in existence who remember civilization as it used to be? And can you imagine one small bastion of goodness and freedom, sending its agents trained in the arts of combat and sorcery out into this strange and dangerous world on a desperate mission to restore humankind's mastery of our own planet?

This is Rowan Academy, a hidden training ground for young Potentials gifted with the ability to use magic on the coast of New England. When The Tapestry series begins with its first novel, The Hound of Rowan, demons have yet to seize control of the planet and Rowan is only a boarding school, albeit one that teaches classes of magic as well as the usual subjects and plays host to amicable ogres and over-enthusiastic hags. At the beginning of Neff's story our hero, Max McDaniels, seems nothing more than a serious young man, living with his father since the mysterious disappearance of his mother years ago. However, he soon proves to be far more, when a vision of the figures in a tapestry coming to life singles him out as a Potential. Whisked off to Rowan to join others just like him, Max meets his sickly but genius roommate David Menlo and a host of other memorable and lovable characters. However, all is not well: agents of an unknown Enemy have been kidnapping Potentials before they can reach Rowan, and Max himself was targeted on his way there.

Neff's story takes off from there, and since it has spanned four novels to date there is regrettably far too much narrative to cover in one post, even briefly. However, it is not only the storyline of The Tapestry that makes it one of the greatest little-known series in modern fantasy. As well as writing the novels Neff illustrates each chapter with beautiful black-and-white drawings, using a combination of freehand and computer techniques, and the resulting images capture perfectly the essence of their corresponding chapter and the series as a whole. Ships are tossed in high seas, mythical creatures frolic amidst bowls of fruit and stacks of books, trees are lashed by winds under stormy skies and the darker inhabitants of Neff's world cast their shadows on the walls or peer malevolently from the edges of the frame. The chapter illustrations and the chapter names themselves personify the understated romanticism that Neff weaves through his novels.

Don't just take my word for it though. Read them for yourself. My friends will tell you how irritating I can be when I want someone to read something.  

Monday, 27 January 2014

A Writer On: Matthew Reilly's Ice Station

Hello again,

It has been some months since this blog's inaugural post. I'm lazy.

The land of mysticism and magic where I live has just come through a heatwave, and finding myself in the local library I picked up Matthew Reilly's Ice Station, hoping that a book set in Antarctica would help make me feel cooler.

For those of you who don't know (though that should be relatively few) Matthew Reilly is a popular author specializing in action adventure books. I own four of his books, a trilogy in which a team of characters must race around the world and recover lost treasures to prevent the Apocalypse, and a young adult novel set in the near future amidst the world of hover-car racing. Ice Station is the first in Reilly's most popular series featuring Lieutenant Shane Schofield, A.K.A Scarecrow, a career soldier who charges around shooting bad guys, blowing things up and saving the day in general. In this novel, Scarecrow and his unit of elite soldiers must secure Wilkes Ice Station, an Antarctic research centre where an alien spacecraft (OMG!) has been discovered in the ice.

Thankfully, (spoilers) the vessel turns out to be man-made, but plenty of completely implausible things still happen in this novel. Though they set in the real world, Reilly's novels are basically paper and ink versions of Hollywood action flicks on steroids. Ice Station features a fifty-page gun battle, a hovercraft chase across the Antarctic plains and an explosion every ten pages or so. Reilly stretches reality to breaking point with characters who spend hours swimming around the Antarctic ocean and wandering across icebergs without suffering any cold-related damage, mutant elephant seals and a trained fur seal named Wendy who swims through a pod of killer whales to save people. Yeah.

As previously mentioned the hero of the story is Scarecrow, the indestructible man. Throughout the non-stop adventure Scarecrow survives a gun-battle that leaves most of the combatants dead, falling into a pool filled with killer whales, falling under a speeding hovercraft, falling off a 150-foot ice cliff, single combat with a another trained soldier while his hands are cuffed, being dangled upside-down as killer whale bait with his hands still cuffed, an attack by a mutant elephant seal and a nuclear explosion. Very few of the other characters are so lucky, with about 90% of them getting shot, stabbed, eaten or vaporized. Except of course for the 12 year-old girl, who survives everything.

Reilly's writing is simple and straightforward, with no metaphors and only brief, practical descriptions of the environment. It is good enough to make you care about the characters - and bad enough to stop you caring after one too many of them get killed off. Reilly tends to explain things about his characters in exposition rather than through their actions or words, and irritatingly over-uses italics. In some action sequences nearly every verb is stressed, as is all the dialogue. At best its distracting, at worst its ridiculous. He also tends to re-use ideas. In every one of his action novels there is at least one, but more likely two or three, traitors secretly working for the bad guys. The main antagonist is almost always a figure from the hero's past, and one of the scenes in Ice Station is almost exactly the same as one in Five Greatest Warriors.

But at the end of the day, how much does this matter? It irks me, a writing snob, but I still read and enjoy his books and will read Ice Station's sequel, Scarecrow. Furthermore, something Reilly himself commented on in the afterword, men who don't read will often read his books, and possibly try other authors afterwards. Getting more people into reading is more important overall that writing really good books. And, to be honest, the intense, over-the-top action is really fun to read.