Friday, August 09, 2013

SFFWorld Round-up (2013-08-09): AJ Smith, Joe Hill, Neil Gaiman, Michael J. Sullivan

Another round-up of the week's postings at the SFFWorld blog.  New additions from Mark and I, plus some interviews Dag (the esteemed site owner of SFFWorld and man in the shadows) at the main SFFWorld site.

First up, Mark just posted his review of AJ Smith's debut novel, The Black Guard, which is the first installment of his Long War sequence:

It must be said that are many similar debuts out there at the moment. In my opinion, The Black Guard is one of the better ones. What works here for me more than other recent debuts I’ve read is the characterisation. Generally the characters are recognisable and yet different enough to be entertaining. The reader will identify with the good guys and hiss mightily at the bad, though there’s a nice touch of greyness in there too. In particular, their dialogue is appropriate to the setting and worked for me, a problem I’ve had with many recent debuts. One warning: there is profanity and rather bloody mayhem here (it’s not really a Young Adult tale) but it was refreshing to find that, unlike some ‘Grimdark’ books of late, it doesn’t reduce the overall impact by overdoing the violence or the expletives.


Before I get too carried away, it must be said that the book isn’t entirely perfect. We could quibble about the huge dollops of set-up dialogue in conversations at the beginning of the novel, a slight lag in pace in the middle of the novel and the occasional over-the-top Conan-esque moment, but generally what happens works well and keeps the reader’s attention over a 600+ page book.

My big review of the week is (so far, and likely to remain) my favorite novel published in 2013.  The novel is the third from Joe Hill and is a masterpiece of horror / dark fantasy, NOS4A2:

For my tastes, a villain is much more terrifying if he is calm and calculated rather than a slavering creature who shouts. On this count, Joe Hill’s creation of Charles Talent Manx is one of the creepiest individuals in modern Horror literature. In interviews with Joe Hill (particularly this great one which first aired on The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast), he’s mentioned getting Manx’s voice right was a challenge. The hard work paid off because the character, conversely, seems effortless and a fully-formed creation. The man speaks as if he is of a different era, does not use contractions (is not v. isn’t; do not v. don’t) and abhors curse words, is quite concerned about what is proper, and loves Christmas. Well, concerned about what is proper aside from abducting kids, turning them into monsters, and feeding off their life force. In other words, Charles Talent Manx is a prime example of the Affably Evil character.


The structure of this novel is quite powerful and epic. We are introduced to Manx (the villain), we then meet Vic. They have an encounter that leaves them both scarred, which is only a precursor to their return match-up. In many ways, this reminded me of an Epic or Heroic Fantasy where the hero gets a measure of their enemy and defeats that enemy at great cost with a knowledge that a final encounter looms. Throughout the novel, this tension (added by the build-up to the Christmasland reveal) is so thick and absorbing that not reading NOS4A2 was a painful thing for me.

Sunday, Mark had a look at one of the biggest releases of the year, Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane:

The tale is told with a combination of Gaiman’s typical lyricism and deceptive simplicity, giving the story a dreamlike quality that makes it at times both real and unreal. The narrator seems a likeable sort who is drawn into events beyond his ken, and as a result we are sympathetic to his rather confused viewpoint. It also means that we side with him when an accident on his part leads to an opening being created between ‘here’ and ‘there’, and consequently ‘a baddun’, taking the form of attractive Ursula Monkton sets up in the narrator’s world. ‘Ursula’ is referred to as ‘a flea’, vermin that need removing from the world. Here she entices the narrator’s parents into events, and so secures a hold in the present world.

The narrator’s allies are Lettie Hempstock, the narrator’s friend, Mrs Hempstock, Lettie’s mother, and Old Mrs Hempstock, Lettie’s grandmother, who live in the cottage at the end of the lane. They are not what we seem, but instead seem to be some sort of guardians between this world and what lies beyond, something which may be to do with Lettie’s duckpond, her ‘ocean’, which suggests, in a very Dr Who-type moment, that at one point the narrator is suspended between all time and space, accessing something much bigger. 

Lastly, Michael J. Sullivan provided a guest post to the SFFWorld blog, in which he discusses the notion of bringing secondary characters more fully into the spotlight:

Dag also posted his interview with author Douglas E. Richards.

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