Friday, 2 December 2016
Kingdom Asunder, by Thaddeus White
Earlier this year, I reviewed The Adventures of Sir Edric (Volume One) by Thaddeus White. It was an enjoyable ride - though there were elements I wasn't keen on. I particularly hoped for a tighter plot and a better time for the female characters. Well, step forward Kingdom Asunder.
This is book one of the Bloody Crown trilogy, a tale of treachery and political rivalries in a fantasy kingdom where magic is a tool wielded by he who has most power, and strange beings lurk ready to wreak havoc when human knights are busy waging war upon one another.
The story gallivants all around the different factions, but the strongest characters that we keep returning to are Princess Karena, who steps up her machinations when her brother, the King, is grievously wounded, kickstarting the political upheaval as rivals seek to claim the crown; the manipulative Charlotte, who appears to be choosing her own side while letting others think she is on theirs; and the hapless hostage Sophie, held against her will as a bargaining chip in the war.
Each is an intriguing character, but Karena shines, a woman who uses those around her to suit her needs in the bedchamber or the battlefield, while her giant cat Golhenga prowls around with a snarl and willingness to protest its mistress with tooth and claw.
I'd say maybe there's a few too many characters that we spend time with, some fleetingly, but this is a heady brew of political intrigue, in which those most suited to the crown are often denied, be it by bloodshed or biology. Karena is a warrior queen in all but the rules of patriarchal lineage.
It's hard to judge some of the elements in the first book of a series - as you don't know how parts given small play here will turn out in two books' time - but magic feels like a peripheral part of the universe here except when it comes to its use for healing wounds, or for the denial of healing as part of the plotters' bid to usurp the king. The supernatural beings too seem like a minor presence, although one that schemers again put to use for their ends.
In short, intrigue is at the heart of this story and intriguing it certainly is. I really enjoyed reading this, and I salute the writer!
AI rating: 4/5
Tuesday, 29 November 2016
This article previously featured in The Tribune on November 25.
Broadway has been in the news this week - thanks to the cast of Hamilton and their message for the next US vice president. Hamilton, of course, is something of an unstoppable juggernaut at the theatre, booked out until the latter part of next year. But was it always so? This week's shows peer behind the scenes on Broadway.
Patrick Hinds is the enthusiastic host behind the Theater People podcast, a show that seeks to get to know the people who stage the plays and musicals known around the world.
In a recent episode, he chatted to Thomas Kail, the Tony-winning director of Hamilton.
But Hinds doesn't just explore the show of the moment, he chats at length with Kail about the build-up to the show, and Kail's past before that, as director of the likes of In The Heights and Magic/Bird.
Kail's a fascinating guest to listen to, observing how he feels the role of director is akin to that of a sports coach, and how he has also been drawn towards directing the likes of Lombardi in his career, the story of Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi.
He also tells of how the runaway success of Hamilton started to come to light as they worked on the production, and public interest hit fever pitch even without much in the way of pre-press for the show.
It's a great listen and makes a very good companion piece for the next podcast, Broadway Backstory.
Broadway Backstory also comes from Patrick Hinds, this time teaming up with Today Tix to take a look at how shows came to reach Broadway.
The first show under the microscope is In The Heights, directed by Thomas Kail and with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Following the footsteps of the show from creation to success is fascinating, with so many places along the way where things could have gone wrong, but just fell together right - from the invitation to use a theatre space inside a drama bookshop that happened to have the spare space after a fire forced its relocation, to the connections made that brought the show its producers.
There's also the changing face of the show itself, with Miranda saying how a key plot element, involving a gay character exploring his situation in a Latino neighbourhood, was rethought after a producer pointed out it had been done before. Miranda initially bridled against the change until the producer sent him to watch Avenue Q and there, Miranda saw his main plot play out in a subplot of the other show and admitted that something needed to change.
This is a thorough exploration of the history behind the show, and really makes you appreciate the years of effort it takes to transform an idea into a reality.
This show is one I wish I could love - but they are presently plagued by technical troubles, it would seem.
I listened to two different shows, and each had substantial difficulties with the sound quality.
And yet, if you can listen through the murk, the expertise on hand is top notch.
In one show, we had Adam Roberts join host Michael Lueger to talk about music theory in musicals - such as the signature tunes of different characters and how the music can signify their development, such as with Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. He also spotlights moments where artists confound expectations, such as in A Chorus Line, where the audience expects individual leads to emerge, but each member of the chorus line has their own story, their own song, their own motifs and the audience is left to choose for themselves the characters they are drawn towards.
The second show, a look at performances of medieval plays in the 21st century, suffered most of all from poor sound quality - but again the expertise in the discussion was top notch.
I do hope they get their technical hiccups sorted - if they do, this is a show that really can open your eyes to aspects of the theatre industry.
Saturday, 26 November 2016
Watchers of the Fallen, and Rising, both by Brian Rella
Take one part Stephen King, a healthy splash of HP Lovecraft and a dash of action thriller and Watchers of the Fallen is the heady cocktail served up at the end.
Brian Rella writes like a man with a clear love of his genre - the action comes thick and fast, with the horror mixed into the thrill ride rather than lingered on for too long.
The book tells the tale of Jessie, an adolescent girl who falls haplessly under the spell of the tome of Arraziel, which allows her to unleash magic and demonic creatures from beyond but which comes at a price.
She has aged beyond her tender years, something which sees her exploit her situation and leads to uncomfortable moments of her youthful sexuality and the evil beings who would exploit that.
Jessie has surrendered herself to the evil - and finds herself being pushed along by voices from the other side, even as she thinks she is in control.
Against her stands Frank, a Watcher, and his allies, as they try to stop Jessie from freeing the evil that lurks on the other side of madness. Questions linger over Jessie's intentions - and whether something remains of the innocent girl that didn't understand what fire she was playing with.
The story moves at a rollicking pace - though Jessie quite often comes across as petulant rather than evil. I heartily recommend you read the prequel, Rising, which expands on Jessie's story to reveal how she got to be where she is at the start of the novel, and the choices she made that brought her there.
At times, she is a frustrating figure, at others sympathetic, leaving her opponents, the heroes of the hour, uncertain of how much they should be trying to fight her - or to save her.
This is a book you'll blitz through in no time, a real page-turner, and with more to come with book two of the series now out. The production values are high, with great covers and solid editing, producing a book that would not sit out of place alongside some of the classic horrors of the 80s, when King, Herbert and Koontz haunted the bookshelves of the day.
AI rating: 4/5
You can learn more about the work of Brian Rella at his website, www.brianrella.com.
Thursday, 24 November 2016
For Black Friday, Inklings Press has teamed up with several other writers from the SciFi Roundtable group to offer readers some bargains!
You can pick up the third book of Cris Pasqueralle's ongoing series, available from Friday.
Bryan Pentelow's Sea Change is available for just 99c or 99p.
S E Sasaki's Welcome To The Madhouse is available FREE.
And the Inklings collection Tales From The Universe is available free from Black Friday through to the day after Cyber Monday. Follow the link below to pick up your copy.
Sunday, 20 November 2016
This article previously featured in The Tribune Weekend section on November 18.
For many, the past week and a bit has been rather stressful - sorry,
Hillary - so this week's podcast column takes the weight off our
shoulders, and plays it for laughs.
Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me
A lighthearted look at the news comes from the Wait, Wait... crew. This
long-running NPR show can be caught up with in the podcast version, and
the latest show takes a pop at the new Trump order with all the
lightheartedness of an entire room in denial and hoping to be woken up
Recorded in front of an audience, this is a fun show, with
self-deprecating panelists bantering about the news and some of the
weird things found in it - such as Trump's strategist actually, honest
to goodness having his pants catch on fire while writing a speech.
There's no serious political talk here, it's all played for fun, so if
you're trying to get the US election out of your system, this is your
port of call.
You also get to hear from sportscaster and guest Joe Buck, who shares
the wisdom of bladder control for sports broadcasters - and the time
when he was caught short and had to call a touchdown from the gent's
Ask Me Another
Getting away from the news entirely, we have Ask Me Another, a quiz
panel show with little in the way of serious answers.
It's good fun - the latest edition also featuring actress Brooklyn
Decker from Netflix show Grace and Frankie, chatting about working
alongside Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda - and being more than a little
amazed at Fonda's figure.
The show's again recorded live in front of an audience - this time in
Dallas during a roadshow - and features some fun snippets along the way,
such as Ryan Gosling's brush with boy band fame and rebranding sports
teams by changing just a letter. Pop this on during your lunch break to
take off the strain.
Good Job, Brain!
On a smaller scale, there's Good Job, Brain, which sounds like the kind
of party night you want to have with your family.
Grab a drink and enjoy the listen as the team go through all kinds of
trivia, from the tallest building in the world to the real names of
musicians. And a host of questions about cute robots.
The only glitch here is the latest show hasn't been that recent - but a
book is coming out and a live event is coming up in December, so it
looks like they are getting back on track. Here's hoping, because this
is a nice hangout to listen in to.
Got a podcast you think should feature in the column. Tweet me! I'm at @AlteredInstinct.
Friday, 18 November 2016
Red Sun Magazine
Not so long ago, I reviewed the debut issue of Red Sun Magazine. And by darn, if issue two isn't here already.
The previous issue was very much focused on military sci fi, while this issue takes more of a tilt at fantasy, starting off with an interview from the team over at the Cromcast. It's a podcast that loves and adores the work of Robert E Howard, creator of Conan, King Kull and many more great tales. Their knowledge and affection shines through - and I can honestly say I'm going to have to go and look up the implausibly titled Pigeons From Hell based on their recommendation. And, with podcast reviewer hat on, add them to my list of shows to feature.
Fantasy is also the focus of articles by Judith Field and Karen M Smith, the latter taking a particularly interesting look at fantasy without magic and the implications of such a world. It's a fine line to thread between that and historical fiction, but Smith proves a thoughtful writer, and it's an interesting approach to take.
For many, though, the big reason to grab the magazine will be the short stories it features - and this issue includes tales by Michael Reyes, Alexis Lantgen, Ben Howels and Kevin Weir.
The Phonebooth, by Reyes, is a descent into madness, as crackly voices over a phonebooth warn deadbeat ex-con Romero not to trust mobile phones, because they are "spreading the infection". What is real and what is only in Romero's head blur as he tumbles through a world where things no longer make sense to him, and towards a nightmarish conclusion.
The next story up is a corker - Earth Is For Earthers, by Lantgen, is a belter of a tale about intolerance. Humans living on Utopia who were forced to modify their own genes to survive return to a very unwelcome home, where their changed appearance is enough reason for their fellow humans to distrust them. This is a really superb story, and heartbreaking with it, as two star-crossed lovers get caught up in a sea of bitter prejudice.
Howels' story Body of Evidence is more squarely fantasy, with a trial for murder being interrupted by the arrival of the local arbiter, and his pet shapeshifter trog. Neatly written, the balance of power shifts abruptly through the story as the truth begins to out.
Kevin Weir rounds out the collection with his tale Sanguinary, with a modern day magician packing a spell in one fist and a shotgun in the other. It gets bloody. Weir also has an interview featured here, in which he chats about his other work and his inspirations.
This is a really professionally packaged publication - and now down to $1.99. For that price, you can't fall off. It's a great new addition to the ranks of science fiction and fantasy magazines.
AI rating: 5/5
Monday, 14 November 2016
Rey de Noches, by Sean Torres
There's something of an air of a Japanese roleplaying game to this novel.
If you ever spent hours on those top-down explorations, starting out with one plucky hero and a couple of friends and building your team up as you go, then something of the narrative of this will be familiar.
Our hero, Ruiz, lives in a land of darkness. There is no sun in this world. Time passes in phases of night, and true night, and time is measured with the changing colour of water and the use of magic.
For years, the king of the land has been dormant - and Ruiz hopes through his quests to claim the title of King of Night.
Again, in that JRPG style, quests are given to him, by a scroll that when he completes his latest task, up comes the next one. These are usually specific tasks he must complete that are clear in terms of how he must go about doing so, but when a new task comes up simply telling him to end the chaos facing the land, he must be more resourceful than ever before.
The quest style remains, though - object A is important to character B, who trades it for information on where to go to find character C, who provides clues to the next step, and so on. Along the way, Ruiz meets other remarkable characters, some of whom prove to be allies in his task. Not all of the steps naturally flow on from one another, and it's hard to see why Ruiz is required to follow some of the steps he takes other than it gives him something to do to keep the novel going.
And here we come to the nub of the problem with the novel - it feels like it isn't ready for publication yet. It's still in need of a good, structural edit - there are magical elements which seem lovely but have no relevance to the ongoing plot, there's a prologue that involves a young, brash and somewhat sexist Ruiz that seems redundant, and we jump a number of years from there without it being quite clear what the timeframe is.Beyond that, the language of the book itself is hard to follow, as if it has been badly translated. We are told that Ruiz "held orange eyes", he's not the only one whose eye colour is described as "held" either. Does the author mean "had"? There are incorrect words as you go through too, making it look like the editing has been done by spellchecker - where an error isn't highlighted because it's an actual word, just the wrong one in that circumstance. For example, "No knowledge for permanently changing one's physical traits was known, even with magic; despite there being ways to only temporary change it." It should be temporarily - and even then the sentence structure is clunky.
There's an excess of quote marks around words that don't need them, too, as if to add emphasis.In short, there are too many errors to allow the reader to become immersed in the story. And that's a real shame, because Torres is onto something with the universe he has created, filled with that slightly steampunk vibe that the Final Fantasy games toy with, and his own heady swirl of magic and technology.
With strong editing for his future work, his ideas could very well shine. As it is, the problems stifle his voice and for that reason, I have to give an honest assessment that a book that is not ready for publication only deserves a single star. Fix its problems, and let the imagination fly, and it would be worth more.
AI rating: 1/5
Destiny of Kings, by Fiona Tarr
I've never read anything quite like Destiny of Kings.
The story tells the tale of the rise of the Biblical David - he of Goliath fame for those whose Bible years might be long behind them.
We first encounter David as a youth, a humble shepherd, and follow him as his path takes him towards the war that his brothers are fighting and that seminal encounter with the fearsome warrior Goliath.
But by golly, the story doesn't half cover some range in David's life - that battle with Goliath is quite early in the book, and that's not nearly the most dangerous enemy he faces. That would be the sinister, sorcerous, sultry Jezebel, whose machinations are fueled by the dark magics she sacrifices innocents to power. Hers is a path of blood and sex, quite different from the valorous yet innocent David.
What makes the book different from any I've read previously is the strong Christian presence in the book - faith and religion shimmers through every page.
In his greatest moments, David is overtly directed by God himself in his actions. This intervention feels a little odd as you read the book - because it disrupts the storytelling you might come to expect. Because David is so clearly directed by a higher power in these moments, in storytelling terms it robs him of his independent agency. It's not David that defeats Goliath, it's the power of God that does so, acting through David.
Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing if this is your genre - though it's certainly new to me, and in storytelling terms took something of the peril away. But then this isn't a fictional story made of whole cloth by the writer, it's her fictional interpretation of the Biblical story - and in those terms, she does a marvelous job of fleshing out the world that David strode in all those years ago.
There are some editing tweaks that wouldn't go amiss, but for me, the story is a solid three-star read - yet for those with a keen interest in Christian fiction, I wouldn't be surprised if you added an extra star on top.
AI rating: 3/5