Or TFW you can’t come up with a clever blog title (1). I have not done bloggery as I should, owing to other stuff to have been doing (25% through The Hawk and the (some other animal) as I write) and so a number of separate posts on stuff I’ve stumbled over and liked are going to be Frankensteined the crap out of in near-English wording. There follows ergo a rather rushed runthrough of what, in my personal and generally uninformed opinion, is good stuff.
Let’s start with the stuff I’m supposed to actually know about. Peter Newman’s The Malice is out, sequel to the brilliant, original and very well-received The Vagrant. This is a marvellous series, shades of Wolfe, Moorcock and Warhammer 40k, dancing on the line between SF and fantasy. Newman is an exceptional writer, and his 2nd book is every bit as good as his first. The setting is a world overtaken by chaos and corruption, thronging with invading demons, with some bastions of order and a great grimy no-man’s land between. The world is full of marvellous characters – shysters, fallen knights, demon lords, mad scientists – and there’s a lot of deep characterisation given very economically even for small roles. I especially liked the way that use of language (or lack of it) is such a defining tool of characterisation.
Another cracking fantasy I got a chance to look at is Tom Lloyd’s Stranger of Tempests (out 16th June). This is a cracking, fast-paced heroic fantasy about a mercenary company and its newest member, which is territory many writers have looked at. Lloyd’s take is one of the best and most engaging I’ve read, though. It’s a high magic setting (2) with a very likeable cast. Lloyd jokingly describes it as “Malazan marines team up with Lara Croft & travel across Joe Abercrombie’s Red Country with a detour through the deeps of Moria” and, although that doesn’t do it justice, it’s a good description if you take it in the best possible sense.
NK Jemisin’s The Fifth Season is a book I’ve meant to get round to way before now. I’ve enjoyed Jemisin’s writing before, and I think this is a stand-out even for her. It’s a brutal book set in a fascinating world – one dominated by earthquakes and natural disasters, where a caste of geomantic magicians are hated, feared, enslaved and used in equal measure. The book’s several viewpoints take us to, from and through a cataclysm described at the outset as “the end of the world” even for a world that has whole deep-rooted traditions for surviving disasters. Beyond the story itself, which showcases prejudice, fear and exploitation from many angles, the world itself is beautifully formed (and broken), every aspect of it fitting together with a proper sound logic.
Finally, you should also definitely read some Peadar Ó Guilín. I’ve just finished his SF trilogy, The Inferior, The Deserter and The Volunteer, which are also pretty damn apocalyptic. It’s hard to say much without spoiling the many reveals, but the first book kicks off with a tribe of primitive humans locked in carnivorous combat with a variety of equally savage alien races, while some manner of high-techery is obviously going on above. A bit like Smythe’s Way Down Dark, this is a book about people whose entire world is falling down, but whose viewpoint is such that they can’t appreciate it, while the reader can, and can only look on aghast. Ó Guilín’s new YA book The Call is also recently out, a story about the Sidhe taking a terrible revenge on modern day Ireland. I got a chance to hear him read a section of it last year, and it was dynamite stuff.
Anyway, enough books. Let’s go outside the comfort zone
Not so far outside the zone, then. I have been playing Sunless Sea, from Failbetter who made Fallen London (and sponsored the Kitchies awards?). I have tried to get into Fallen London twice and not managed it, but Sunless Sea turned out to be my game big time. Basically, it’s Victorian times, London has been dragged into a cavernous realm by bats, none of that’s important and you’re a ship’s captain setting out into a great dark seascape in the hope that you won’t die. Which you will, because it’s a rogue-like, but there’s a mechanism to build on your previous deaths so that’s all fine. Play switches between guiding your little ship about discovering islands and avoiding monsters and text adventures ashore. Sunless Sea is in a style I recently heard described as “Gothic Whimsy”; a lot of it is darkly humorous, and it could probably just have stuck with that, except, except… aided by a fantastic soundtrack, this is a game that switches from the risible to the remarkable very deftly. There’s a lot to explore, out on the Unterzee. Every island, every officer you pick up, has a story, and those stories are often tragic, immersive, deeply engaging. And the further you go from London, the weirder things get, until you’re like Roy Batty at the end of Blade Runner, stumbling over the revelations you can never quite impart to the doubting listeners. And your actions change things, even as you are changed by them. I scoffed a bit at the idea of replayability, but I’ve gone through three long-lived captains so far (3) to see how the same stories work out with different choices. I’ve colluded with apes, spiders and tigers against my own kind, I’ve eaten with devils and gone mad with sunlight, I’ve lost dear friends, saved others, and found out that some stories don’t work out happily no matter how you try to change them. It is a very good game. It also has the potential to be very frustrating at the start when you’ve no cash and die a lot, but there’s a function where you can turn on save points, and if you get stuck there is a wiki to look things up in.
All right then. Ready the pillory. I’m going to talk about the Warcraft movie.
Computer game movies are usually terrible, let’s just put that out there. They generally come across as projects which were nobody’s labour of love, flung out half-formed in the assumption that the franchise name will bring people in anyway. With a few notable exceptions (4), fantasy movies are also generally bad, and the reason for that is harder to define, but secondary world fantasy seldom does well on the screen.
Warcraft has garnered some stinking reviews, and in my fairly strong opinion does not in any way deserve them. I enjoyed it; it was a good fantasy film, and also a good Warcraft film speaking as a player of many years’ standing. There was a lot to like. The characterisation was good for many of the characters – there was depth and conflict in most of the cast, and the humour came over as character-driven rather than forcibly inserted by Witty-quip 3000 in post production. The SFX was extremely good – a lot of the film was rather beautiful to watch, even. I never got yanked out of immersion by ropy CGI. Duncan Jones, of Moon fame, took what could have been either a dull stock fantasy or just lazy franchise fayre and made a good film out of it. So there.
I am in no way qualified to be a comics pundit (although I guess I missed my natural segue, as Paul Cornell has written a Warcraft prequel comic), but I have discovered The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (North and Henderson) and I haven’t stopped giggling since. It does the same number on the Marvel universe as another old favourite of mine, Next Wave, except it explodes less of it.
(1) Which erroneously suggests I ever did
(2) This seems to be a trend at the moment, a swing from the low-magic settings fantasy has been dominated by for a while.
(3) And an undisclosed number of short-lived ones.
(4) No, not Hawk the Slayer.