Where I get all sci-fi and fantasyish and do a bit of reviewing.

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Sometime ago I commented on this very blog that I’m in favour of doing what every teacher I’ve ever had advised and reading widely. I think I said it here. I definitely said it though, and it was definitely right-headed thinking when I did say it.

In that spirit I tend to read a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, and of different genres of fiction. Recently, though, I seem to have been stuck on a bit of a sci-fi/fantasy roll, and so I thought, “Hey!” (Yes, I actually thought “Hey!” with the exclamation mark and everything) “Why don’t I write a sci-fi/fantasy themed book review blogpost?” And I could think of no good reason why not, and there are no responsible adults around to stop me, so here it is.

Generally, I can swing either way on sci-fi and fantasy. I’m properly quite addicted to Terry Pratchett (to the point of wondering whether there’s a boxed set of all the Discworld novels that I could pass off as a single volume if I’m ever on Desert Island Discs). On the opposite end of the scale I don’t think I’d manage to finish Lord of the Rings even if I was marooned on a desert island and it was the only book. Doctor Who, I have adored since Peter Davidson’s incumbency. Star Wars (whisper it quietly so as to avoid actual physical violence) I can pretty much take or leave. Obviously, I’m talking original trilogy here. The prequels serve no purpose at all beyond providing an emergency Ewan McGregor fix and there are better ways to get that (Moulin Rouge, A Life Less Ordinary & Shallow Grave would be my picks). Even with the originals, I see that they’re culturally iconic, but I’ve watched them all, right through once in the cinema. I’d have no actual hard objection to seeing them again, but it wouldn’t obviously enhance my life.

So that’s where I stand on fantasy and sci-fi generally. Love some. Hate some. Tolerate others. Before I descend into separating all fantasy into Howard from Fresh Meat – if you’re not watching it, you should – style Good and Bad lists (Buffy=Good, Heroes series 1=Good, Rest of Heroes=Bad etc.), lets move onto some actual reviewing.

I’ve read three books with a fantasy vibe lately: The Untied Kingdom by Kate Johnson, Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde and American Gods by Neil Gaiman. They’re probably all more fantasy than sci-fi, but I don’t really have the mental energy to debate the difference. I could term them speculative fiction, but that sounds a tad unnecessarily wordy. Let’s just call them books and be done with it.

 

First up – Kate Johnson’s The Untied Kingdom

This novel is essentially a fantasy romance. The plot hangs off a regular girl from contempory Britain slipping through a crack in time and space and finding herself in an alternate version of reality, where the country is economically and technologically backward and in the midst of a civil war.

Judging from the acknowledgements, Johnson’s a bit of a fantasy fan herself, as she credits Terry Pratchett and Joss Whedon amongst her inspirations. There’s certainly more than a little bit of Discworld’s Sam Vimes about her male lead, and a big dollop of Bernard Cornwell’s Napoleonic Wars hero, Richard Sharpe. Nothing wrong with that – both are good templates for the tough working class boy made good character at the centre of this story.

I applaud the writer’s ambition. There’s a lot of advice given to writers about what you can and can’t do within a genre. Romance is a genre seen as being aimed squarely at women. Sci-fi has more of a teenage boy reputation. Putting the two together takes nerve, and it’s a risk which is largely sucessful. If anything I’d have liked a bit more of the alternate reality woven in around the central romance plot, but it’s a good read, and it’s brilliant to find a contemperary romance that feels original and has such an interesting premise. This novel is also one that demands a sequel. Without giving away the ending, I really do want to know what these characters do next.

 

Second up, Jasper Fforde and Shades of Grey.

Fforde is one of the big hitters in the comic fantasy market. He’s the author behind the successful Nursery Crimes and Thursday Next series. Shades of Grey is the first in a potential new series, and is based around the premise that people can only see certain colours, and colour perception is attribute around which society is organised. Good writing should engage a reader’s senses, so writing about characters who don’t perceive the world the way the reader does is hard. Two thumbs way way up to Fforde for absolutely pulling this off. Rather than alienating the reader from the characters, their world feels immediate and real.

In a sense this novel is 1984 with an magnified sense of the absurd. You have a dystopian society, an everyman protagonist who is starting to doubt the society he’s living in, and perhaps the beginnings of a relationship with a more rebellious politically aware woman. It’s intended to be the first in a series, and I think it’s probably the first time since the blessed JK hung up her Hogwarts quill that I’ve finished a book feeling bereft at the wait for the next installment. For me Fforde’s earlier series took a little while to warm up – the later books are much better than the earlier ones. This time he’s hit the ground running. Loved this book.

 

And finally, in my little fantasy reading phase, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

Gaiman himself is a bit of a god in the sci-fi/fantasy world, and he’s done some truly fabulous stuff. His Doctor Who ep in the last season was a stand out, and Good Omens (co-written with Sir Terry of Pratchett) is a proper pageturner. The premise of American Gods is intriguing – people from all over the globe populated America, so what happened to the gods they brought with them? Have those gods survived and what has been lost in translation to their new home? And how will they respond to the new “religions” of modern life?

I did struggle to get into this book – it’s not that I wouldn’t recommend it, but it’s a Big Book. I think it is one to take on holiday or on a long train journey – somewhere where you’re going to be able to settle down and read for a couple of hours at a time. It’s one that you need to read your way into. It took me a while to get going with, I think, because I was pushed for time and reading only a few pages at a go.

We do also need to talk about the length. The edition I have is labelled “Author’s Preferred Text” – words which I naturally greet with the same trepidation as the phrase “Director’s Cut.” Sure – it could mean that the evil corporate sales people bowdlerised your work and you’ve now been able to restore the fully glory of your artistic vision. More often I just think that writers and directors need to know when to step away from the thing they’re working on and move on. Anyway. Gaiman acknowledges that this edition is 12000 words longer than the originally published version. I haven’t done a comparison, so I don’t know which words were added, but my feeling is that this book is slightly longer than it needs to be. So, I would recommend this book, but I would probably suggest seeking out the shorter original text and saving it for a day when you can really settle down with it and immerse your brain in Gaiman’s world.

So that is what I have been reading of late. Next up I’m going into a Crime phase (reading, not doing). It was quite rightly pointed out to me, by my very wise senior sibling, that for all my “Read widely” waffle I very rarely read crime fiction. To right this wrong, she has also provided me with a shelf of crime fiction to get my teeth into. CJ Sansom, Minette Walters, Harlan Coben and Michael Rowbotham here I come.

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8 thoughts on “Where I get all sci-fi and fantasyish and do a bit of reviewing.

    Helen Harron said:
    November 8, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    Haha finally I’m treated with the correct level of respect. As this comes just 2 days after I commented that I’d read your blog it makes me doubt your sincerity though. Good luck with the crime… xxx

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    BarJoker said:
    November 8, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    Great post Alison. Totally with you on Doctor Who and Star Wars, but frankly I think it should be illegal to review fantasy unless you have completed Lord of the Rings 😉

    Gaiman’s ‘Neverwhere’ was definitive, but have to admit I have struggled with his other stuff. But I don’t think he is trying to be an ‘easy read’ these days, to be fair. Can’t comment on the Fforde or Untied Kingdom (surfeit of comic sci-fi, don’t fancy YA), but I would like to take this opportunity to say that as regards the field of F&SF, after his last book I have renounced Iain Banks forever…

    Enjoying your blog, thoughtful and wide-ranging, nice to see a writer blogging about something other than writing!

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      alisonmay responded:
      November 8, 2011 at 3:55 pm

      Aw. Glad you like the eclectic nature of the blog.

      I did try to read Lord of the Rings several times, but I never got past about p50. I sat through all three films – don’t know if I get any points for that, but if I do they’re probably devalued by the fact that even the films were dragging a bit by about 2/3 through the second one. I think I just found it a bit excessively earnest.

      I did like American Gods, but as you suggest, it’s not an easy read. You meet a lot of characters who then don’t appear for quite a long time, so if you’re reading in short chunks you end up with a lot of flicking backwards to work out who’s who! On the comic sci-fi front you might like Shades of Grey – it’s not as overtly comic as Fforde’s earlier stuff, and I felt like it had a bit more emotional punch too.

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    BarJoker said:
    November 11, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    The other thing that puts me off American Gods is the lingering aftertaste of Marie Philips’ Gods Behaving Badly, which made me want to claw off my own face…though I’m sure the two bear absolutely no similarity to each other! 🙂

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    Anita Chapman said:
    November 16, 2011 at 11:55 am

    Hello Alison,
    Liz Crump (http://liz-crump.blogspot.com) kindly nominated my blog for The Liebster Blog Award yesterday. I’ve been asked to forward this award to five blogs that I enjoy reading. I chose yours because I enjoy your passionate posts about writing. To accept and read about the award, click here
    http://www.neetswriter.com/2011/11/liebster-blog-award.html
    Anita X

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    Clare Wartnaby said:
    November 17, 2011 at 10:29 am

    Hi Alison – I have effectively seconded Anita’s award nomination (above) and also nominated you. Anita kindly nominated me as one of her five. It left me in a quandry since I presume I’m meant to nominate new people, but her and your blogs are two of my favourites, and both ones I want to recommend. If you go to http://clarewartnaby.blogspot.com/2011/11/liebster-blog-award.html you can see what I put, but obviously, don’t feel you’ve got to do your bit twice if you accept the award (no need to do the thanks bit for me etc)! It’s just that your blog’s hugely readable and interesting and I wanted to have it in my list, dammit!

    All the best, Clare

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      alisonmay responded:
      November 25, 2011 at 9:11 am

      Thanks Clare. It’s completely amazing to be offered these awards and to get any sort of positive comment on my little tiny insignificant corner of cyberspace. I shall be blogging about Blog Awards at some point in the next couple of weeks (when I get to sit down for more than about 4 minutes at a go!), so watch this space x

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    In which I am a bit randomly reviewy | alisonmay said:
    May 29, 2013 at 10:49 am

    […] quite often. They the things I reviewed had some sort of vague relationship to each other, like these which have a sci-fi vibe going on. Sadly, my cultural diet of late has lacked an overarching theme, […]

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