Excerpt & Giveaway: WORDS OF RADIANCE by Brandon Sanderson (Gollancz)

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Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance is one of the most hotly-anticipated epic fantasy novels of the year. Published by Gollancz (UK) and Tor Books (US).

Thanks to Gollancz, who also provided this excerpt (Chapter 3), there is a copy of the book up for grabs! All you need to do to be in with the chance of winning it is to re-tweet this excerpt on Twitter, follow @civilianreader, and include the hashtag “#CRWoR”. Simples. If you are not on Twitter, then you can leave a comment at the end, and I’ll include you in the random draw, as well. The winner will be selected at the end of the day (9pm) – unfortunately, the giveaway is for UK only.

(See banner, below, for upcoming stops on the blog tour.)

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Soldiers reported being watched from afar by an unnerving number of Parshendi scouts. Then we noticed a new pattern of their penetrating close to the camps in the night and then quickly retreating. I can only surmise that our enemies were even then preparing their stratagem to end this war.

— From the personal journal of Navani Kholin, Jeseses 1174

Research into times before the Hierocracy is frustratingly difficult, the book read. During the reign of the Hierocracy, the Vorin Church had near absolute control over eastern Roshar. The fabrications they promoted — and then perpetuated as absolute truth — became ingrained in the consciousness of society. More disturbingly, modified copies of ancient texts were made, aligning history to match Hierocratic dogma.

In her cabin, Shallan read by the glow of a goblet of spheres, wearing her nightgown. Her cramped chamber lacked a true porthole and had just a thin slit of a window running across the top of the outside wall. The only sound she could hear was the water lapping against the hull. Tonight, the ship did not have a port in which to shelter.

The church of this era was suspicious of the Knights Radiant, the book read. Yet it relied upon the authority granted Vorinism by the Heralds. Th is created a dichotomy in which the Recreance, and the betrayal of the knights, was overemphasized. At the same time, the ancient knights — the ones who had lived alongside the Heralds in the shadowdays — were celebrated.

This makes it particularly difficult to study the Radiants and the place named Shadesmar. What is fact? What records did the church, in its misguided attempt to cleanse the past of perceived contradictions, rewrite to suit its preferred narrative? Few documents from the period survive that did not pass through Vorin hands to be copied from the original parchment into modern codices.

Shallan glanced up over the top of her book. The volume was one of Jasnah’s earliest published works as a full scholar. Jasnah had not assigned Shallan to read it. Indeed, she’d been hesitant when Shallan had asked for a copy, and had needed to dig it out of one of the numerous trunks full of books she kept in the ship’s hold.

Why had she been so reluctant, when this volume dealt with the very things that Shallan was studying? Shouldn’t Jasnah have given her this right off ? It—

The pattern returned.

Shallan’s breath caught in her throat as she saw it on the cabin wall beside the bunk, just to her left. She carefully moved her eyes back to the page in front of her. The pattern was the same one that she’d seen before, the shape that had appeared on her sketchpad.

Ever since then, she’d been seeing it from the corner of her eye, appearing in the grain of wood, the cloth on the back of a sailor’s shirt, the shimmering of the water. Each time, when she looked right at it, the pattern vanished. Jasnah would say nothing more, other than to indicate it was likely harmless.

Shallan turned the page and steadied her breathing. She had experienced something like this before with the strange symbol- headed creatures who had appeared unbidden in her drawings. She allowed her eyes to slip up off the page and look at the wall — not right at the pattern, but to the side of it, as if she hadn’t noticed it.

Yes, it was there. Raised, like an embossing, it had a complex pattern with a haunting symmetry. Its tiny lines twisted and turned through its mass, somehow lifting the surface of the wood, like iron scrollwork under a taut tablecloth.

It was one of those things. The symbolheads. This pattern was similar to their strange heads. She looked back at the page, but did not read. The ship swayed, and the glowing white spheres in her goblet clinked as they shifted. She took a deep breath.

Then looked directly at the pattern.

Immediately, it began to fade, the ridges sinking. Before it did, she got a clear look at it, and she took a Memory.

“Not this time,” she muttered as it vanished. “This time I have you.” She threw away her book, scrambling to get out her charcoal pencil and a sheet of sketching paper. She huddled down beside her light, red hair tumbling around her shoulders.

She worked furiously, possessed by a frantic need to have this drawing done. Her fingers moved on their own, her unclothed safehand holding the sketchpad toward the goblet, which sprinkled the paper with shards of light.

She tossed aside the pencil. She needed something crisper, capable of sharper lines. Ink. Pencil was wonderful for drawing the soft shades of life, but this thing she drew was not life. It was something else, something unreal. She dug a pen and inkwell from her supplies, then went back to her drawing, replicating the tiny, intricate lines.

She did not think as she drew. The art consumed her, and creationspren popped into existence all around. Dozens of tiny shapes soon crowded the small table beside her cot and the floor of the cabin near where she knelt. The spren shifted and spun, each no larger than the bowl of a spoon, becoming shapes they’d recently encountered. She mostly ignored them, though she’d never seen so many at once.

Faster and faster they shifted forms as she drew, intent. The pattern seemed impossible to capture. Its complex repetitions twisted down into infinity. No, a pen could never capture this thing perfectly, but she was close. She drew it spiraling out of a center point, then re- created each branch off the center, which had its own swirl of tiny lines. It was like a maze created to drive its captive insane.

When she finished the last line, she found herself breathing hard, as if she’d run a great distance. She blinked, again noticing the creationspren around her — there were hundreds. They lingered before fading away one by one. Shallan set the pen down beside her vial of ink, which she’d stuck to the tabletop with wax to keep it from sliding as the ship swayed. She picked up the page, waiting for the last lines of ink to dry, and felt as if she’d accomplished something significant — though she knew not what.

As the last line dried, the pattern rose before her. She heard a distinct sigh from the paper, as if in relief.

She jumped, dropping the paper and scrambling onto her bed. Unlike the other times, the embossing didn’t vanish, though it left the paper — budding from her matching drawing — and moved onto the floor.

She could describe it in no other way. The pattern somehow moved from paper to floor. It came to the leg of her cot and wrapped around it, climbing upward and onto the blanket. It didn’t look like something moving beneath the blanket; that was simply a crude approximation. The lines were too precise for that, and there was no stretching. Something beneath the blanket would have been just an indistinct lump, but this was exact. It drew closer. It didn’t look dangerous, but she still found herself trembling. This pattern was different from the symbolheads in her drawings, but it was also somehow the same. A flattened-out version, without torso or limbs. It was an abstraction of one of them, just as a circle with a few lines in it could represent a human’s face on the page.

Those things had terrified her, haunted her dreams, made her worry she was going insane. So as this one approached, she scuttled from her bed and went as far from it in the small cabin as she could. Then, heart thumping in her chest, she pulled open the door to go for Jasnah.

She found Jasnah herself just outside, reaching toward the doorknob, her left hand cupped before her. A small figure made of inky blackness — shaped like a man in a smart, fashionable suit with a long coat — stood in her palm. He melted away into shadow as he saw Shallan. Jasnah looked to Shallan, then glanced toward the fl oor of the cabin, where the pattern was crossing the wood.

“Put on some clothing, child,” Jasnah said. “We have matters to discuss.”

*

Sanderson-SA2-WordsOfRadianceUK-Banner“I had originally hoped that we would have the same type of spren,” Jasnah said, sitting on a stool in Shallan’s cabin. The pattern remained on the floor between her and Shallan, who lay prone on the cot, properly clothed with a robe over the nightgown and a thin white glove on her left hand. “But of course, that would be too easy. I have suspected since Kharbranth that we would be of different orders.”

“Orders, Brightness?” Shallan asked, timidly using a pencil to prod at the pattern on the floor. It shied away, like an animal that had been poked. Shallan was fascinated by how it raised the surface of the floor, though a part of her did not want to have anything to do with it and its unnatural, eye- twisting geometries.

“Yes,” Jasnah said. The inklike spren that had accompanied her before had not reappeared. “Each order reportedly had access to two of the Surges, with overlap between them. We call the powers Surgebinding. Soulcasting was one, and is what we share, though our orders are different.”

Shallan nodded. Surgebinding. Soulcasting. These were talents of the Lost Radiants, the abilities — supposedly just legend — that had been their blessing or their curse, depending upon which reports you read. Or so she’d learned from the books Jasnah had given her to read during their trip.

“I’m not one of the Radiants,” Shallan said.

“Of course you aren’t,” Jasnah said, “and neither am I. The orders of knights were a construct, just as all society is a construct, used by men to define and explain. Not every man who wields a spear is a soldier, and not every woman who makes bread is a baker. And yet weapons, or baking, become the hallmarks of certain professions.”

“So you’re saying that what we can do . . .”

Was once the definition of what initiated one into the Knights Radiant,” Jasnah said.

“But we’re women!”

“Yes,” Jasnah said lightly. “Spren don’t suffer from human society’s prejudices. Refreshing, wouldn’t you say?”

Shallan looked up from poking at the pattern spren. “There were women among the Knights Radiant?”

“A statistically appropriate number,” Jasnah said. “But don’t fear that you will soon find yourself swinging a sword, child. The archetype of Radiants on the battlefield is an exaggeration. From what I’ve read — though records are, unfortunately, untrustworthy — for every Radiant dedicated to battle, there were another three who spent their time on diplomacy, scholarship, or other ways to aid society.”

“Oh.” Why was Shallan disappointed by that?

Fool. A memory rose unbidden. A silvery sword. A pattern of light. Truths she could not face. She banished them, squeezing her eyes shut.

Ten heartbeats.

“I have been looking into the spren you told me about,” Jasnah said. “The creatures with the symbol heads.”

Shallan took a deep breath and opened her eyes. “This is one of them,” she said, pointing her pencil at the pattern, which had approached her trunk and was moving up onto it and off it — like a child jumping on a sofa. Instead of threatening, it seemed innocent, even playful — and hardly intelligent at all. She had been frightened of this thing?

“Yes, I suspect that it is,” Jasnah said. “Most spren manifest differently here than they do in Shadesmar. What you drew before was their form there.”

“Th is one is not very impressive.”

“Yes. I will admit that I’m disappointed. I feel that we’re missing something important about this, Shallan, and I find it annoying. The Cryptics have a fearful reputation, and yet this one — the first specimen I’ve ever seen — seems . . .”

It climbed up the wall, then slipped down, then climbed back up, then slipped down again.

“Imbecilic?” Shallan asked.

“Perhaps it simply needs more time,” Jasnah said. “When I first bonded with Ivory—” She stopped abruptly.

“What?” Shallan said.

“I’m sorry. He does not like me to speak of him. It makes him anxious. The knights’ breaking of their oaths was very painful to the spren. Many spren died; I’m certain of it. Though Ivory won’t speak of it, I gather that what he’s done is regarded as a betrayal by the others of his kind.”

“But—”

“No more of that,” Jasnah said. “I’m sorry.”

“Fine. You mentioned the Cryptics?”

“Yes,” Jasnah said, reaching into the sleeve that hid her safehand and slipping out a folded piece of paper — one of Shallan’s drawings of the symbolheads. “That is their own name for themselves, though we would probably name them liespren. They don’t like the term. Regardless, the Cryptics rule one of the greater cities in Shadesmar. Think of them as the lighteyes of the Cognitive Realm.”

“So this thing,” Shallan said, nodding to the pattern, which was spinning in circles in the center of the cabin, “is like . . . a prince, on their side?”

“Something like that. There is a complex sort of conflict between them and the honorspren. Spren politics are not something I’ve been able to devote much time to. This spren will be your companion — and will grant you the ability to Soulcast, among other things.”

“Other things?”

“We will have to see,” Jasnah said. “It comes down to the nature of spren. What has your research revealed?”

With Jasnah, everything seemed to be a test of scholarship. Shallan smothered a sigh. This was why she had come with Jasnah, rather than returning to her home. Still, she did wish that sometimes Jasnah would just tell her answers rather than making her work so hard to find them. “Alai says that the spren are fragments of the powers of creation. A lot of the scholars I read agreed with that.”

“It is one opinion. What does it mean?”

Shallan tried not to let herself be distracted by the spren on the floor. “There are ten fundamental Surges — forces —by which the world works. Gravitation, pressure, transformation. That sort of thing. You told me spren are fragments of the Cognitive Realm that have somehow gained sentience because of human attention. Well, it stands to reason that they were something before. Like . . . like a painting was a canvas before being given life.”

“Life?” Jasnah said, raising her eyebrow.

“Of course,” Shallan said. Paintings lived. Not lived like a person or a spren, but . . . well, it was obvious to her, at least. “So, before the spren were alive, they were something. Power. Energy. Zen-daughter-Vath sketched tiny spren she found sometimes around heavy objects. Gravitationspren — fragments of the power or force that causes us to fall. It stands to reason that every spren was a power before it was a spren. Really, you can divide spren into two general groups. Those that respond to emotions and those that respond to forces like fi re or wind pressure.”

“So you believe Namar’s theory on spren categorization?”

“Yes.”

“Good,” Jasnah said. “As do I. I suspect, personally, that these groupings of spren — emotion spren versus nature spren — are where the ideas of mankind’s primeval ‘gods’ came from. Honor, who became Vorinism’s Almighty, was created by men who wanted a representation of ideal human emotions as they saw in emotion spren. Cultivation, the god worshipped in the West, is a female deity that is an embodiment of nature and nature spren. The various Voidspren, with their unseen lord — whose name changes depending on which culture we’re speaking of — evoke an enemy or antagonist. The Stormfather, of course, is a strange off shoot of this, his theoretical nature changing depending on which era of Vorinism is doing the talking. . . .”

She trailed off . Shallan blushed, realizing she’d looked away and had begun tracing a glyphward on her blanket against the evil in Jasnah’s words.

“That was a tangent,” Jasnah said. “I apologize.”

“You’re so sure he isn’t real,” Shallan said. “The Almighty.”

“I have no more proof of him than I do of the Th aylen Passions, Nu Ralik of the Purelake, or any other religion.”

“And the Heralds? You don’t think they existed?”

“I don’t know,” Jasnah said. “There are many things in this world that I don’t understand. For example, there is some slight proof that both the Stormfather and the Almighty are real creatures — simply powerful spren, such as the Nightwatcher.”

“Th en he would be real.”

“I never claimed he was not,” Jasnah said. “I merely claimed that I do not accept him as God, nor do I feel any inclination to worship him. But this is, again, a tangent.” Jasnah stood. “You are relieved of other duties of study. For the next few days, you have only one focus for your scholarship.” She pointed toward the floor.

“The pattern?” Shallan asked.

“You are the only person in centuries to have the chance to interact with a Cryptic,” Jasnah said. “Study it and record your experiences — in detail. This will likely be your first writing of signifi cance, and could be of utmost importance to our future.”

Shallan regarded the pattern, which had moved over and bumped into her foot — she could feel it only faintly — and was now bumping into it time and time again.

“Great,” Shallan said.

***

The story continues in Words of Radiance…

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“Libriomancer” by Jim C. Hines (Del Rey UK/DAW Books)

Hines-LibriomancerUKAn action-packed, bibliocentric adventure

Isaac Vainio is a Libriomancer, a member of a secret society founded five centuries ago by Johannes Gutenberg. As such, he is gifted with the magical ability to reach into books and draw forth objects.

But when Gutenberg vanishes without a trace, Isaac finds himself pitted against everything from vampires to a sinister, nameless foe who is bent on revealing magic to the world at large… and at any cost.

This novel is an urban fantasy with a difference, and one that should really appeal to a broad swathe of SFF bibliophiles. Indeed, it has a little something for everyone. It’s fast-paced, amusing, cleverly devised, and above all enjoyable.

There’s a lot going on in the novel. The world building and magic system are great, and certainly endearing to someone who reads as much SFF as I do. How often have you wished you could reach into a book and take something out of it? Well, in Libriomancer, that is exactly what the protagonist is able to do. Using this device, Hines is able to mention a whole host of classics of the SFF genres.

“Libriomancy was in many ways a lazy man’s magic. There were no wands, no fancy spells, no ancient incantations. No hand-waving or runes. Nothing but the words on the page, the collective belief of the readers, and the libriomancer’s love of the story.”

One of the things that really shines through, therefore, is the authors clear love for these authors, novels and genres. It is also through this device that Hines is able to make his urban fantasy tale stand out from the pack – this is not your average UF, by any stretch of the imagination. In some ways, though, it is every urban fantasy – the proliferation of vampire fiction, for example, has had a real impact on the world in which Issac et al operate: there are now so many different variations of vampire (and werewolf, etc., etc.), all inspired or caused by accidental meddling with the contents of series.

Hines-LibriomancerFor the most part, the novel rattles along at a good pace, and from the moment Isaac’s library is invaded by vampires at the start, until the revelations and ‘boss fight’ at the end, it rarely lets up. I felt a slight dip in the middle, perhaps, but it picks up again nicely, once Isaac and Lena start making proper headway into their investigation. The characters are varied and well-rounded, and develop appropriately over the course of the novel. Hines writes some great combat/fight scenes, too, taking full advantage of how varied a battle can be when you have a potentially limitless variety of weapons to choose from (assuming, of course, that you have the appropriate book to hand…). This could have felt silly or forced, but it didn’t – the author managed to make this unbelievably awesome skill fit very well into the story, and he places ‘realistic’ limitations on the magic, too. I really wish I was a libriomancer… And I would also like a pet fire spider. Despite the fact that it would probably make my skin crawl…

Speaking of Lena, Isaac’s partner. I’m not 100% sure that her origin story and nature, and the way they are handled in the story, really do what they’re supposed to. That may sound vague, but I don’t want to ruin the story for others, and it’s not really that central a concern for the story. I think he was trying to make a statement about the male gaze, masturbatory teenage male fantasies, and so forth, but I don’t think the point was made as well as intended. I did, however, also learn why people find Gor novels so hilariously awful (I’ve seen them mentioned a lot, but had no clue what they were, or why they were considered so terrible). Certainly, Hines is able to weave into the story some good commentary on the state of the genre(s), and contemporary conversations and debates that are energising the readership and blogosphere, without it being clunky.

Alongside the excellent magic system, there was also some interesting commentary on contemporary, non-fiction issues. Particularly, PTSD, and the way they Hines attached this to the libriomancer idea of “locking” people (and books). I thought he handled and discussed this very well. (It is, again, not a huge part of the story, but it stood out for me.)

Overall, then, Libriomancer has a really intriguing premise, and is very well-executed urban fantasy. This was my first Hines novel, and it won’t be my last. Roll on the sequel, Codex Born!

***

Libriomancer is out now as an eBook, and will be published in paperback by Del Rey UK on March 6th, 2014. The novel is also already out in the US, published by DAW Books. Codex Born is also already out as an eBook (in both the UK and US), and Del Rey UK published it in trade paperback at the end of last year. The UK and US covers are below.

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Review: Tanya Huff’s “Confederation” #1-3 (Titan Books)

Reviewed by H.

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A cracking first three novels in Huff’s military science-fiction series

In the distant future, humans and several alien races have been granted membership in the Confederation — at a price. They must serve and protect the far more civilized species who have long since turned away from war. When her transport ship is shot down, a routine diplomatic mission across the galaxy becomes anything but, and Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr must fight to keep her platoon alive.

These three novels – Valour’s Choice, The Better Part of Valour, and The Heart of Valourare the first in Huff’s Confederation series, which have finally made their way to UK shores thanks to an extensive new deal with Titan Books (who are also publishing Huff’s Enchantment Emporium novels, The Silvered, and, perhaps, more in the future?). The series is already at five books in the US (published by DAW), with a sixth, Peacemaker (TBC) in the works. These novels are a lot of fun.

The main character, Sergeant Torin Kerr is a great protagonist, and a great guide to this future setting. She is likeable. She plays the part of frontline officer who is willing and able to keep the Top Brass in check, able to navigate military politics without treading on others’ toes. She’s a great character – gutsy, capable, and kick-ass. Everything a reader could hope for, from a veteran Marine.

Kerr’s tendency to talk back does bite her in the ass in The Better Part of Valour, when she is sent on a “special mission” for speaking her mind to a superior officer: she is assigned as leader of protective detail of a scientific exploratory team, who have been dispatched to investigate an enormous, derelict spaceship. Naturally, things do not turn out as simply or as smoothly as originally hoped. By the third novel, Kerr’s military career has become a bit less action-packed, and she’s found herself sidelined into attending endless briefings and debriefings, with no apparent end in sight. So, when she’s offered the chance to go to Crucible, the Marine Corps training planet, as a temporary aide to Major Svensson, she readily agrees. It was meant to be an easy assignment, lasting no more than a month, while the Major tests out his new body (his previous deployment reduced him to little more than a brain and a spinal cord…). Upon arrival on the planet, however, all hell breaks loose, and it’s up to Kerr to look after a platoon of green recruits, to keep them alive until the cavalry (hopefully) come to rescue them.

The other races Torin and her comrades face and fight are all interestingly portrayed and developed – whether they are villains or just strange allies (who, uh, eat humans…), they can be just as fun as the more humorous characters. Through the various species’ and characters’ interactions, Huff does a good job of exploring our reactions to the Other, and also how we can overcome differences to work together for common purpose.

The battle and combat scenes in all three of the novels are very well-written: intense, fast-paced and ‘realistic’ – no doubt, the author has benefited from her own military career and also her family’s. Although, I must admit that reading about the characters and seeing them interact and develop was more of interest to me (military sci-fi is not my usual bag of tea). After reading these, I’ll have to check out The Silvered (fantasy) and also The Enchantment Emporium (urban fantasy) – it’ll be interesting to see if Huff writes as well in those genres as in this one, although I have no doubt she does.

Overall, therefore, while Valour’s Choice is perhaps my favourite thanks to the newness and sense of discovery I felt while reading it, the series maintains its quality and addictiveness over the next two books – there’s a great balance of humour, story, and action. The changing supporting cast also keeps the stories fresh, although sometimes they took a little bit of getting used to. The novels are quick, fun reads that are not dumbed down. I blitzed through them, and can’t wait to read the next one! Keep them coming!

Valour’s Choice, The Better Part of Valour, and The Heart of Valour are all available now in the UK from Titan Books. The fourth and fifth novels in the series – Valour’s Trial and The Truth of Valour – will be published in April and June, respectively.

For Fans of: Rachel Bach, Elizabeth Moon, Robert Heinlein, David Drake, Jack Campbell, Star Wars, Star Trek, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica

“Breach Zone” by Myke Cole (Headline/Ace Books)

ColeM-SO3-BreachZoneUKThe explosive conclusion to Myke Cole’s first trilogy

The Great Reawakening did not come quietly. Across the country and in every nation, people began “coming up Latent,” developing terrifying powers — summoning storms, raising the dead, and setting everything they touch ablaze. Those who Manifest must choose: become a sheepdog who protects the flock or a wolf who devours it…

In the wake of a bloody battle at Forward Operating Base Frontier and a scandalous presidential impeachment, Lieutenant Colonel Jan Thorsson, call sign “Harlequin,” becomes a national hero and a pariah to the military that is the only family he’s ever known.

In the fight for Latent equality, Oscar Britton is positioned to lead a rebellion in exile, but a powerful rival beats him to the punch: Scylla, a walking weapon who will stop at nothing to end the human-sanctioned apartheid against her kind.

When Scylla’s inhuman forces invade New York City, the Supernatural Operations Corps are the only soldiers equipped to prevent a massacre. In order to redeem himself with the military, Harlequin will be forced to face off with this havoc-wreaking woman from his past, warped by her power into something evil…

In this, the final part of Cole’s first trilogy, we have an excellent conclusion. Not only do we see the events of the last three books come together, but the story digs deeper and offers more than either of its predecessors. The author has really pulled out all the stops for this one, and written a really fantastic novel.

The novel is set predominantly in Manhattan, with a few scenes and events taking place in or around the New York area – for example, Bookbinder is on a ship off the coast, testing a new device just as the action kicks off. Harlequin is at the centre, which I liked, as it turns out he is a far more nuanced character than we might have seen in the previous novels (which were through the eyes of people who often were on the wrong side of him). As he takes command of the incursion on Manhattan, we get to see him in action, struggling to keep the hordes from the Source at bay, while also attempting to marshal allies from the Manhattan Selfer underground and also keep the military and law enforcement forces available in line and manning the barricades.

The action is as well-written and realistic as before, with plenty of intense moments that place the reader right alongside the combatants, in the thick of the fighting. I particularly enjoyed seeing the sorcerers let loose, unleashing their myriad powers in devastating and creative ways – the way Cole has developed and devised the various ‘schools’ of magic is fantastic, and he always surprises with the ways in which the powers can be interpreted, and yet still grounded (somewhat) in reality. It was also great to read about the urban conflict taking place in neighbourhoods I have spent many a day walking. I don’t know why everyone seems so keen on destroying New York City in fiction, TV and movies…

What I found most interesting with this novel was how the action was not the best element. In fact, it faded slightly into the background for me. I thought the flashback chapters, detailing Harlequin’s past with Scylla, were absolutely superb, and showed that Cole is not just an excellent military-sci-fi writer. (True, we knew this from Control Point and Fortress Frontier, but in Breach Zone his talent really shines on all fronts.) With this, his third novel, Cole has well and truly arrived. He has written a novel that is just better in every way. The balance between action, character development and world-building was spot-on. As with the previous two novels, I also really liked the use of chapter epigraphs to add further colour and background to the world/reality he has created.

As I mentioned on Twitter when I was reading it, Breach Zone is like a perfect blend of Marvel’s Avengers and the Battle for Helms Deep. Only, better. To draw another comparison to comics, it’s not difficult to see similarities between Scylla and X-Men antagonist Magneto, as she espouses a similar reorientation of society, with the latents on top. Cole’s use of the flashbacks to detail her evolution from high-powered CEO to prisoner of the SOC was deftly done, fleshing out her character and showing us the dangers of government paranoia, overreach and overreaction. She’s a tragic figure, and her relationship with Harlequin just one of the casualties of a frightened government’s policies to control that which it cannot control, nor understand.

If you haven’t read any of these novels, yet, I strongly urge you to do so. I’ve been saying it ever since I read Control Point, but with each novel it becomes clearer: Myke Cole is a fantastic new talent, and if each of his novels improves on the last, it won’t be long before we see him climbing ever-higher on the bestseller list.

Highly recommended.

***

Also on CR: Interview with Myke Cole, Guest Post (Influences & Inspirations)

Myke Cole’s Shadow Ops trilogy – Control Point, Fortress Frontier and Breach Zone – are published by Headline in the UK and Ace Books in the US.

An Interview with JOHN MEANEY

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John Meaney is the author of the now-complete Ragnarok science fiction trilogy and more. His latest novel, Resonance, was published in December 2013, and I thought this would be a perfect time to get in touch and ask him about his work, the trilogy, and more…

Let’s start with an introduction: Who is John Meaney?

Just some weird bloke, you know?

A little grey-haired geezer who might surprise you by dropping into box splits at fifty-six years of age. Runs up mountains and lifts big, rusty weights. Pounds the crap out of heavy punch bags. Survived over forty years of martial arts training, despite or because of starting out as a podgy, asthmatic couch potato. Didn’t feel he’d accomplished anything until twenty-five years after starting, when he left the elite shotokan dojo of the late Enoeda sensei (as the least of the students) and realised what he’d been through.

As a young guy he dropped out of his original physics degree in his final year, due entirely to a philosophical crisis, and wrote unpublished fiction before getting his head together. He passed up the chance of finishing the degree and took a programming course instead, leading to his first computing job. At the same time, he studied all the higher-level physics and computer science modules that the Open University offered and gained his degree with the OU. Recognised as a physics graduate by the Institute of Physics, he later gained an MSc (with distinction) in Software Engineering at Oxford University. Despite being a working-class boy raised in Slough, he thinks that Oxford rocks.

He worked for three IT departments in the South East during the 1980s, was a senior consultant for a Very Large Software House during the 90s, and worked for an IT training company before becoming a freelance trainer and consultant, so that he could manage his time for writing books. Bizarrely, his most interesting computing assignments came after selling his first novel, and involved frequent travel to the US and Europe, and a couple of trips to Asia.

He lives in Wales, laughs a lot, and hardly ever takes himself seriously.

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I thought we’d start with your fiction: Your latest novel, Resonance, was recently published by Gollancz. It’s the third in your Ragnarok series – what can fans of the series expect from this final book? How would you convince a new reader to check out the series?

In the first book’s prologue, you meet resurrected humans in crystal bodies, waking up on the Moon and staring up at space. One of the stars in Orion’s belt has changed colour, which means that a million years have passed since the humans lived their original lives. And the mysterious Kenna, their leader, makes it clear that the final battle, Ragnarok, is imminent.

After the first two books, readers know that a darkness has subtly influenced selected individuals across millennia of human history, starting in what we now call the Viking Age, and significantly during the twentieth and twenty-seventh centuries. And they’ll know that the darkness commenced its voyage from the far side of a cosmic void that’s one hundred and fifty million lightyears across, and has been heading for our galactic centre for at least that number of years.

MeaneyJ-Ragnarok1&2

They’ll also have been following the intricate links between the various timelines, both overt and covert, obvious and subtle. If the readers are astute, they’ll have paid particular attention to surnames, since a passing character in one timeline may be the ancestor or descendant of someone they know from another century.

What I’ve promised is Ragnarok, or Ragnaroekkr, as a galaxy-spanning battle that follows on from the previous machinations. And with luck I’ve delivered, with billions of resurrected humans following the nine leaders whom you may (or may not) expect. (One of the subtleties is that everything comes in threes and nines, primarily nines, matching Old Norse memes, including their cosmology.)

To the new reader, the good news is that you don’t have to wait for the ending! Try the books if you like multiple-timeline stories: there’s a 27th century timeline that forms the spine, comprising every second chapter, set in the Pilots future that features in four of my other novels. Cities where quickglass buildings alter their shape, including room furnishings, at will. A city-world in the golden fractal continuum that underlies this universe. Political intrigue within and across the universes.

The 20th century timeline features a Jewish physicist whom you first meet as a student in 1920s Zurich, before she escapes Europe to work in Bletchley Park and later for its intelligence-community descendant, one of the few who can perceive the darkness. Her conflicted Russian counterpart is an agent of that same darkness.

Among the Norse, a young warrior originally called Ulfr will also face the darkness, and in many ways become the enemy, while his actual enemy Stigr, the one-eyed poet, is his darkness-controlled nemesis. In total there are five important timelines running through the trilogy, with some others added painlessly as we go along .

And everything links together. I made it happen.

To the long-term reader, here’s something which appears to make folk smile: the Ragnarok trilogy spans a far greater period than my Nulapeiron trilogy, whose mere 1400-year duration is buried deep within the Ragnarok timeframe. In Resonance, the final Ragnarok book, some of the key chapters take place on Nulapeiron…

I haven’t just linked a tangle of timelines together in one trilogy. I’ve linked every single short story and novel that I’ve ever written in the Pilots universe, that’s twenty years of my life, all coming together in Resonance. And in a way that also works, so I’m told, for someone who’s not read any of that other stuff.

Spacetime is big. We are thin ghosts in a universe whose greatest density of stuff consists of something whose properties we don’t know and which we cannot see, hence dark matter and dark energy. For dark read invisible. And this is the universe we really, really live in.

My goal has been to write an exciting story that hints at the cosmic context which is all around us, all the time.

MeaneyJ-NulapeironTrilogy

What inspired you to write this series? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?

The general mental process involves a foreground/background duality. Fragmented visual images of particular scenes come to me, and set up a tension against a more abstract visualisation of – typically – weird but real physics.

For the latter, I mean concepts like the absence of timeflow, of past-present-future, from any of the equations that are considered fundamental. Time appears as a geometric dimension, not something with flow. And photons can travel a billion lightyears in a vacuum, can be created and destroyed with a lifetime that is literally zero in duration. Or they can be slowed down passing through a medium, and begin (after perhaps a billion lightyear journey that was instantaneous) to experience time.

This is John’s brain on physics…

More normally, one of the particular human images that came to me was Ulfr, a young Viking, walking into a village to see one of his friends tied to a post while the other villagers throw axes at him. I know where that came from.

ColumP-NordicGods&HeroesWhen young, I read poet Padraic Colum’s Norse tales for children. A decade later, I read more deeply, and was struck by a particular paradox: gay Vikings (not a term you meet every day: stereotypes are insidious) were often punished in exactly that manner – tied to a post and used as a target for axes – while Loki and Odin were themselves practitioners of dark magic, called seithr, being shape-shifters and gender-changers. The Trickster and the All-Father both belonged to the dark side, at least partly, unlike Thor and his mates.

I use different spellings for the mythological names in the books, incidentally, partly because I got all geeky about Old Norse, partly to distinguish what I was writing from, let’s face it, the Marvel universe. (I’m not knocking Marvel. When I turned my beard into a goatee a few years back, I went round saying: “The truth is… I am Iron Man.” My extended family know I’m strange.)

Likewise, scenes from Gavriela Wolf’s student life in 1920s Zurich just popped into my head, but I can work out where they came from. Once, on one of several week-long business trips to Zurich, I wandered around inside the ETH, the university where Einstein studied and taught, at night when everything was deserted. (Because I could.) And in that mental landscape appeared distorted images of things that happened during my own student days in Birmingham.

Then of course there are the images with no obvious roots: humans of living crystal awakening on biers; Pilots flying through a golden universe with physically fractal dimensions; the glorious image of Labyrinth, the infinitely complex city-world I can scarcely imagine: depicting my mental image in detail would have been impossible, but it was mind-blowing.

Welcome to John’s brain on physics and fiction…

The trick is to be able to place all of reality subtly out of focus, any place, any time.

If you want to be weird, that is.

How were you introduced to genre fiction?

When I was five and eligible to join the local library (in north-west London), my mum took me to sign up and take home my first books, including the story of a young boy who hid behind some wooden crates before sneaking on board a rocket to the moon.

And hats off to television… It’s a huge time waster for adults with unfulfilled dreams, but Supercar and Fireball XL5 and Torchy the Battery Boy laid down some of the basic circuits in my brain. I was six when Dr. Who first aired, and boy do I remember it. I read my first Marvel comics at the same time: for me, the Golden Age of Comics is, well, six.

Two years later I was reading Robert Heinlein and Andre Norton, and my fate was sealed.

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How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry? Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?

Let me put it this way. I would never encourage anyone to become a writer. But if someone absolutely has to become a writer, then – provided they’re polite and honourable – I’ll do whatever I can to help. (Although, let’s face it, the best help is simply an instruction to knuckle down, write every day, read as much as you can, and live your life.)

As a profession, writing sucks. In fact it barely passes the definition of a profession, not when the average annual earnings for writing come to four thousand quid. Why do writers even bother to produce books for publishers? Oh, only because we have to. There’s a devil riding our backs, didn’t you know?

I could have earned an awful lot more by making different career choices at many stages, starting long before I got published, and staying full-time within the computer industry. One of many examples: when I received news of my first ever book deal, in 1996, it was via fax to my hotel room at Worldcon in Los Angeles. During that same trip, a computer industry contact offered me a job in San Francisco. But I had a book to finish…

On the other hand, consider the pop-psychological advice on how to spend money on yourself. Given a choice of a material item (which you’ll soon take for granted) or an experience, always choose the experience. It stays with you forever, and the joy can be fresh every time you remember.

No computing job could compare with the triumph of selling my first book.

As for working practices, I realised a long time ago that I needed to be able to trigger the right mental state at will. I wrote my first two novels on a busy commuter train, working long days for Europe’s largest software house, and training at one of the toughest dojos in the world. Cue music…

I write to movie soundtracks, particularly Hans Zimmer’s work, just as Anne McCaffrey used to. It was a strategy that worked for her, and when I tried it, it turned out to be perfect for me as well.

I also use a colour scheme (normally on a dedicated machine) that looks radically different from anything you’d see if I were performing any other task on a computer. My dedicated writing machine is permanently disconnected from all networks.

By preference, I write first thing in the morning, before any other major tasks.

Research-wise, I don’t do anything radical. For deep background on the next book, I read a dozen or fifteen books in one field I didn’t know, a couple of years ago while still in the middle of the Ragnarok trilogy. But that interest spins partly from a foreign trip made decades ago: hands-on stuff. When it comes to cities on Earth in anything like the present day, I use locations I know, at least in passing. Travel is a wonderful thing.

For Ragnarok, I did no directed research in advance. Rather, it came from my existing long term interests, from the Norse mythology to the Bletchley Park codebreaking and the dark-matter physics. While the trilogy was in progress though, I did have to dive in deeply, reading dozens of books, many obscure, as the bibliographies at the end of the books indicate.

It’s hard work. It’s supposed to be.

When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Aged eleven, and for three years afterwards, I found that my English teachers would accept short stories in lieu of essays for homework assignments, and I can remember some of them still. One featured a meditation on infinite reflections in a barber-shop mirror, foreshadowing my interest in recursion, meta statements and paradoxes. Another, supposed to be an essay entitled “The Salad Bowl”, turned into an assassination thriller set in a botanical garden. They were the beginning.

The year after that, a different English teacher poured scorn on the idea of submitting science fiction instead of essays. Her discouragement might have been as important as the earlier encouragement. Sod her, in other words.

The realisation that I wanted to write professionally occurred while I was a physics undergraduate. That was painful, because when you write for publication it begins with rejection. Fifteen years later, of course, that becomes sheer joy, when publication happens.

In my case that was a short story called “Spring Rain”, published in 1992 in Interzone, then edited by David Pringle. That man started the career of a huge percentage of British writers. And we are very, very grateful.

What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?

The genre… Ask most people whether they like science fiction, and their answer will be based on Dr. Who or Star Trek, or a movie based on a game. Elements of written SF bleed out into the greater cultural awareness, but the process is subliminal. From the outside, the genre is misunderstood, as it always has been.

I don’t think this matters. When John le Carré was asked about the changes made to his story for the Tinker, Tailor movie, he pointed out that most people don’t read. Insisting on some kind of purity is irrelevant.

As for judging the state of the genre as We True Readers perceive it… I’m too aware of the books I haven’t read, the authors whose works I’m unfamiliar with, to form a judgement or want to. I will say that it’s a mature genre, which offers different challenges to writers compared to something new.

By that I mean, once there were the Three Big Names in our field. Now, no one could occupy a similar position. No space opera will ever have the impact of Foundation. Not unless someone breaks new ground to the extent that the genre itself is reborn.

As for my own work, that is seriously for other people to judge. I know that I’ve written each book to the best of my ability at that time. That’s all I can do. And of course, reading a book is a deeply personal experience, just like the writing.

Meaning and significance are decided subjectively and individually.

What other projects are you working on, and what do you have currently in the pipeline?

All I can say about the next book is that there will be one.

For most writers, and probably most people engaged on projects of great personal significance, public discussion of goals is the wrong way to go, while the optimum approach is to keep everything locked up in a mental pressure cooker. Keep pressurised until done.

That’s only a generalisation: Charlie Stross can discuss details of a new project in detail with his friends (it’s an honour to hear them), and people who know Larry Niven say that he’s the same. It works for them, clearly.

If I were writing more science fiction, which is going pretty well for me, I’d feel no need to be mysterious or guarded… but in fact I’m jumping to a totally new genre.

I’ve nailed the first draft of something very new, having previously thrown away a 65,000-word prototype. I’m taking it seriously.

Really seriously.

For a sedentary occupation, writing can feel a lot like a white-knuckle ride.

What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?

I’ve just finished reading the latest George Pelecanos thriller, immediately preceded by the latest C.J. Box. In the past month I’ve ripped through a lot of fiction, including Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden, two Harlan Cobens, an early Robert B. Parker for the umpteenth time, and Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep. At other times my fiction reading drops right off, but not for long.

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Non-fiction-wise, I’m currently reading Brian Clegg’s Dice World, Alfred Ayers’s Language, Truth and Logic, and Nick Lane’s excellent Life Ascending. Plus some heavy-duty computer science stuff, because I can.

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What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?

I was Stephen King.

More precisely, I once spent several hours being Stephen King.

To add some extra precision: when I was learning advanced hypnosis from Paul McKenna, I used a technique called Deep Trance Identification… with trusted hypnotists around me. It’s method acting taken to its extreme, because it involves deep, deep trance, to the extent that your facial features and voice alter totally, as you become convinced you’re someone else.

The purpose is to gain insight into an individual’s talent. It’s also a controlled form of deliberate, temporary psychosis. I went so deep, I think I freaked out one of Paul’s assistants. But it was very interesting…

Afterwards, I had to leave the course venue and sit in a lonely graveyard for two hours to recover my own identity. If I ever did.

I should add that I’m a clean-living, teetotal vegetarian – the most mind-altering substance I would ever imbibe is coffee. I’m one hundred percent a rationalist (and hypnosis is a straightforward neurological phenomenon – a trance state is obvious when measured with even the crudest EEG – and mainstream medicine, used every month by the NHS for surgical patients who are allergic to anaesthesia).

But shhh… Don’t tell Mr. King. He’s got a phobia of therapists and hypnotists, though I can’t imagine why. What’s the worst that could happen? It’s not as if someone could, like, enter a strange trance and steal his soul. Surely he couldn’t believe that?

Ha, ha, ha…

What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?

Wouldn’t it be nice if “world peace” were a realistic answer?

Within SF fandom, I’m enormously honoured to be Guest of Honour at two conventions: Confetti in Gothenburg, Sweden – having been a guest at Fantastika in wonderful Stockholm last year – and the British national convention (Eastercon) in Glasgow, both happening in April.

In my fifth decade of martial arts training, I have fitness goals that are important to achieve this year, but the real joy is simply the continuing hard work of running, lifting weights, bodyweight exercises, bag work, solo drills and sparring with my equally mad mates. I look forward to every single training session, six a week at least.

In computer science, I’m looking forward to teaching another in an annual series of graduate training programmes that I enjoy immensely. A total blast.

And, oh man, the writing… Finishing the new book and finding out what happens next.

I can’t wait.

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Resonance is out now, published in the UK by Gollancz.

TANYA HUFF Finally Coming to the UK! (Titan Books)

I’ve been aware of Tanya Huff’s writing for a long time – her novels have been mentioned on so many of the US-based book blogs that I read. I also consider he agent a friend. And, of course, I know of the TV show, Blood Ties, that was inspired by her Urban Fantasy series of the same name (sometimes called the Victoria Nelson Series, after the protagonist). I have, however, never read a single one of her novels… This year, Titan Books will be publishing two of her novels, which should help me remedy this oversight – and very soon. Here are the details…

HuffT-TheSilveredTHE SILVERED

The Empire has declared war on the small, were-ruled kingdom of Aydori, capturing five women of the Mage-Pack, including the wife of the were Pack-leader. With the Pack off defending the border, it falls to Mirian Maylin and Tomas Hagen — she a low-level mage, he younger brother to the Pack-leader — to save them. Together the two set out on the kidnappers’ trail, racing into the heart of enemy territory. But with every step the odds against their survival, let alone their success, grow steeper…

This sounds like a pretty interesting fantasy novel. Maybe a little steampunk-y, given the US cover? Regardless, I’m certainly intrigued. The Silvered is already available in the US, published by DAW Books.

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HuffT-C1-ValoursChoiceVALOUR’S CHOICE

In the distant future, humans and several alien races have been granted membership in the Confederation — at a price. They must serve and protect the far more civilized species who have long since turned away from war. When her transport ship is shot down, a routine diplomatic mission across the galaxy becomes anything but, and Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr must fight to keep her platoon alive.

This is the first novel in Huff’s Confederation series. I believe Titan will be re-issuing all of the books in this series, although I’m not sure of the timetable. The rest of the series: The Better Part of Valour, The Heart of Valour, Valour’s Trial, and The Truth of Valour. [In the British spelling, of course…] The Confederation series is also published in the US by DAW Books (first published in 2000).

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Neither of these UK editions have a Goodreads listing, yet, but I’m sure that’ll be fixed in the near future. I’m really looking forward to both of them. Be sure to follow the author on Twitter, for more up-to-date news and all the usual stuff one finds on Twitter.

Review: THE VIOLENT CENTURY by Lavie Tidhar (Hodder)

Tidhar-ViolentCenturyUKA strange-yet-brilliant blend of Watchmen-style Super-Heroes and John le Carré Spy Fiction

They’d never meant to be heroes.

For seventy years they’d guarded the British Empire. Oblivion and Fogg, inseparable at first, bound together by a shared fate. Until a night in Berlin, in the aftermath of the Second World War, and a secret that tore them apart.

But there must always be an account… and the past has a habit of catching up to the present.

Recalled to the Retirement Bureau from which no one can retire, Fogg and Oblivion must face up to a past of terrible war and unacknowledged heroism, a life of dusty corridors and secret rooms; of furtive meetings and blood-stained fields, to answer one last, impossible question: What makes a hero?

The Violent Century is, much to my shame, the first novel of Tidhar’s that I’ve read. And it’s quite the impressive accomplishment. Tidhar is not a stranger to pushing the envelope – see, for example, his World Fantasy Award-winning Osama – and in The Violent Century, he has created an original, engrossing fusion of noir-ish super-heroes and gritty espionage thriller. The publicity material that came with the ARC managed to capture it very well – “Watchmen meets John le Carre”. This is a very good novel. Continue reading