Thursday, 31 July 2014

Writing Process Blog Tour

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.  Well...actually, it was a fine summer's morning, and YA reader and author Kathy Palm asked me to share a few thoughts about my writing process.  Kathy can be found on Twitter: @KathleenPalm, or via her blog, Finding Fairies.

So what am I currently working on?  Anyone who is interested in my novel can find a brief synopsis here, and an extract here.  In addition to this, I've written a number of short stories, including 'The Long Walk', which was recently published by 'Shadows at the Door'.  In addition to those, I'm dabbling in historical fiction set in East Anglia in the dying days of the Heptarchy, while somewhere, up a mountain in India, four characters in another world entirely are besieged by lethal psychic snakes.  And in the glittering, rebuilt coastal city of Nuevo London, a young man at a party has no idea about the chance meeting which will change his world forever...

How does my work differ from other writers within my genre?  You'd have to tell me.  I'm not sure that anyone else is writing books about South African miners (in fact, if anyone else is, please tell me because I'd love to share notes with you.  The book has become terribly personal to me and I'm terrified that I'm not doing justice to my subject matter.)

My historical fiction is like a poor man's Bernard Cornwell.  My fantastical stories are based around exotic and crazy worlds, and I build those in painstaking detail in my mind (the characters, by extension, just live in them.)  I aspire to recreate some of the wonder I felt when reading Jeff Noon's 'Vurt', which remains the pinnacle of humanity's achievement in speculative fiction (Jeff can be found on Twitter too: @jeffnoon).

Why do I write what I write?  Because no-one else does (though that isn't to say that there aren't fantastic professional writers doing similar things all the time with much more aplomb.)  Quite simply, I'm writing the books I want to read.  The ideas are legion, constantly growing new limbs and spawning all over the place.  There's pushing and shoving, and frankly it might get a bit ugly unless I let some of them out into the light.

How does my writing process work?  There are only two times of the day, for starters: weekend mornings and when I'm burning the midnight oil midweek.  To some degree, this is a necessity thing - I have to fit around a day job, professional study, a demanding girlfriend and a persistent cat with attention deficit disorder.  The process itself is relatively straightforward - I start by crafting a handful of immaculate vivid scenes, write the filler that goes into the gaps, tie it all together with dubious threads and then sigh and start again.

I am definitely inspired by the successes of others.  Fortunately, the market for writing has never been healthier, and the author community on social media is tremendously supportive.  There are writers like Neil Gaiman who I admire tremendously for their consistency and their wit.  Some people are wordsmiths.  By comparison, I'm a journeyman, a grinder, someone who only progresses by crushing the narrative into submission.  If I were a sportsman, I would be a low-order batsman in a second XI county cricket side with an awful technique who should, by rights, hole out on my first ball and go home.  Where talent doesn't cut it, I have to settle for ugly persistence. 

I don't have a finished final draft yet.  You'll all know when I do.

'All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath' - F. Scott Fitzgerald

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Four Thousand Words reviews 'Metro 2033', by Dmitry Glukhovsky

It is hard to know where to begin reviewing a novel like Metro 2033, as it is stylistically asymmetrical from anything that I have previously read, while at the same time being a novel of outstanding ambition and scale that nonetheless does not quite manage to reach the heights that it sets itself.

The novel follows the story of Artyom, an unremarkable young man who is one of a clutch of just a few thousand survivors of the human race.  Born after a cataclysmic event that has rendered the surface world uninhabitable for humans, he, his step-father and his friends make their home in VDNKh, the northernmost occupied station in the Moscow Metro.

Warned by a wanderer of a terrible looming danger, Artyom accepts the task of travelling deep into the metro to the legendary city of Polis to warn the residents and ask for assistance.  On the way, he encounters all manner of ghoulish horrors, political refugees and larger-than-life characters.

Dystopian fiction has become rather passe of late, with the last couple of years seeing a huge influx of self-published works set in worlds gone wrong.  However, I have never before encountered a world as genuinely confusing and terrifying as Glukhovsky's metro.  He immediately sets out a sense of foreboding and threat.  'The metro consisted of numerous passages and corridors, spreading into the depths of a gigantic cobweb.'  When describing a tunnel in the new, nightmarish low-light world, he manages to make the world itself seem like something alive.  'As porous as a sponge, it greedily swallowed the rays of their flashlight, which was hardly sufficient to illuminate even a foot ahead.'  The action takes place across a version of the real Metro network, and my paper copy of the book has a much-needed map that is very helpful to reference.  E-book readers may be resigned to visualising the network instead.
For those like myself who have never known the joys of Moscow's staggeringly-beautiful real-life system, the fall from grace is captured perfectly.  As well as the threat of natural disasters like floods and cave-ins, the metro is inhabited with all manner of mutants, psychic assaults and other unholy ways to die.  And die people do.  'He stopped and turned his head to the left so sharply that Artyom could hear how his vertebrae cracked.  "I've died.  There is no more me." And, straight as a cross-tie, he fell face down.'

Glukhovsky cleverly avoids the preferred dystopian device of one-government control.  Instead, his Metro has a chaotic tribal system based around beliefs in which communists battle fascists, religious groups fight with savages and the Kremlin is both possessed by demons and used as a repository for biological weapons.  The single underlying currency that unites everyone is bullets, but even they are no protection if you cannot guard your mind.

So massive is the scope of this tale that it is hardly surprising that there are loose ends and unresolved dilemmas.  I'm hopeful that some of these may end up being resolved in the follow-up, 'Metro 2034' but there are so many abandoned threads and so much background information that it is sometimes difficult to see what as a reader you are supposed to be following.  Characters appear, are built up and then discarded in so many short paragraphs.  The feeling is akin to browsing through an otherworldly junk shop containing memorabilia from Alice in Wonderland, the Communist Manifesto and the story of the Tower of Babel, but with nothing quite taking your fancy enough for you to want to take home with you.

The other element of the story that suffers as a result of the scope is the rhythm, which is horribly disjointed in places and goes from fast-moving to snail-crawling and back again without warning.  It is worth noting that the book was serialised for free on the internet prior to release as a novel, so this may go some way towards explaining the ebb and flow of the narrative.

A little side note about characters is worthy too.  Artyom is a simple everyman with limited ability to defend himself from the psychic assaults that crush other people.  His character is largely unexamined until close to the end of the book when his survival against the odds up to that point lends him the feeling that he is invulnerable.  Other characters, such as the irrepressible Khan, are woefully underused.  There are no prominent female characters at all.  While I recognise that Russia currently (and in the context of the future world presented here) may be a patriarchal society, it is good to note that this oversight is rectified in 'Metro 2034'.

If you can get past the frustrating gear-changes that threaten to derail the narrative, there is a lot to experience and enjoy in Metro 2033.  It goes without saying that this book will not be for everyone, but fans of horror, politics, science-fiction and dark humour will all find something here.  Even if this doesn't look like the sort of book you would expect to enjoy, I would urge that you try it anyhow.  The Metro is just too captivating...

Friday, 18 July 2014

Houses Built Close Together

Zuboja township, Bojanala District Municipality, South Africa
November 1982

As a child, Sithi Nzeogwu's mother had told him that even a small house can hold a hundred friends. She also told him that houses built close together burn together.
Their house in the township wouldn't have held a dozen friends, never mind a hundred. It stood on a ramshackle plot at the edge of the town, the sheeted walls bolted onto one another at random angles like a patchwork quilt. The window frames were devoid of glass and sloughed with dirt. There was no fenced yard, just a wide dustbowl dotted with patches of thorns that sloped slowly downhill towards a creek at the back.
The last of the evening sunshine daubed the horizon orange as a figure ran behind the house in a wide circle. It was a boy, sixteen, but tall and skinny for his age. He had a deflating football bouncing between his feet. Though there was no crowd, he provided a dramatic commentary on the speed and swiftness of his movements, a sidestep here, a feint there. He could hear the cheers of a hundred thousand people as they urged him on.
Standing awkwardly to the left hand side of an invisible line marked with a shirt at each end, a second boy, some five years younger or more, squinted into the light. He had jet black hair and a fat nose, but every other part of his body was hopelessly skinny. As the striker bore down on him, he made no attempt to narrow the angle of the shot that followed, raising his arms in a half-hearted fashion as the ball flashed past him and rocketed into the back of the house. A woman shrieked in the distance.
The older boy let out a victory whoop, blazed past his younger counterpart, almost knocking him aside, and pulled the front of his t-shirt over his head in celebratory fashion. He stood there for a few seconds, saluting a sunset he couldn't see, before pulling the shirt back down and finding himself looking down at an accusing pair of eyes.
'Baako, I don't want to play any more.'
'Sithi, it's more fun if you actually try to save them, you know.' Baako jogged to the ball and flicked it up between his heels and onto his shoulder, where it rested for a second before falling back to the floor and throwing up a tiny cloud of dust.
'I don't want to play any more.'
'Yes, you said,' Baako agreed, lowering his shoulder and jinking past an invisible challenge. 'But if you won't play, who will? My friends aren't around this evening so you have to be in goal.'
The younger boy watched him gloomily. 'I always have to be in goal.'
'It's because you're rubbish at football,' Baako said with evident relish. 'You think they would have asked Pele to play in goal? He's the master, he scores the goals.'
'You're not a master,' Sithi said. 'Pele is much better than you.'
'Maybe,' Baako says, 'but can Pele do this?' He abandoned the ball, sprinted over to Sithi, tripped the younger boy up and then sat on him.
At that moment, an older woman opened the back door and stepped out into the evening. Her face bore the early lines of a hard life, one that had persevered through defeats and sorrows, but more through bloody-mindedness than virtue. She glanced suspiciously at Baako, who was by now wearing a very innocent expression.
'Baako! Get off your brother!'
'Mother, I was just helping him up.' Baako stood and dragged Sithi more or less upright before nudging him in the ribs.
Sithi was a mess, his clothes more dirt than cloth, and his face was caked with mud. 'He tripped me,' he said, in a small reedy voice.
'Sithembile, don't tell tales on your brother. We're supposed to be a family. Can't you two just get along?'
'He's too weak to even play in goal,' Baako grinned.
'I'm not weak!' Sithi yelled back. Unfortunately for him, his voice had yet to break and his yell came out more as a squeak than a shout, which made his brother laugh.
A shadow passed over their mother's face. 'Baako, if you have to play football, don't kick it against the side of the house. You're knocking things off the shelves and you know that you don't want to be waking your father.' The sudden silence that followed this was telling; all of them were afraid of the man sleeping in the front room.
Their mother smiled then, breaking the spell. She said, 'Baako, if you must play, take it down to the creek.'
'The creek!' Baako smiled and lurched at Sithi, grabbing his collar. The younger boy, nimble and well-versed at dodging attempts to dunk him in the creek, slipped away, leaving only his shirt behind as a prize. From a safer distance, he sat and glowered at his brother.
'You'll need to come in soon,' their mother said. 'If you're smart, you'll be in bed before he wakes up.'
Baako waited until his mother's shuffling steps were lost to the wind before pouncing once again on Sithi, who curled up into a ball and lashed out ineffectually with his stumpy legs. It was a brief struggle, and then the younger boy was being held in a headlock and marched towards the creek.
'If you don't want to play football, little brother, maybe it's time for a swimming lesson.'
'No,' Sithi protested feebly.
'Ah, but yes,' Baako said. He had a full foot in height and a significant weight advantage over Sithi. To an observer, it might seem as unnatural a matchup as watching a gorilla wrestle with a dog. The younger boy did have one advantage though; his natural cunning. By letting it appear as though he was even weaker than he was, Sithi was able to manoeuvre his mouth into position. Just as Baako thought he had won the fight, Sithi clamped his teeth down hard onto his brother's arm.
Baako sucked air in as the pain hit and he let his brother go. It was only a temporary respite for Sithi. Before he could gain any distance, the older boy kicked his legs out from under him and before he could regain his feet, he had Baako's knee pressed against his throat. It was not a play-fight any longer.

'Let me up! Let me up!' Sithi shrieked.
'Not till you learn your place, little brother.' Baako's lips were twisted into a sneer that made him look unconscionable and ugly. When he pulled this face, he reminded Sithi of their father, and a hundred other beatings undeserved.
'You were going to dump me in the creek!'
'Now I'm not going to bother. You should just be thankful that I don't snap your neck.' Baako reached down and cuffed the younger boy around the head, like he might do to a errant dog.
'I'm not afraid of you,' Sithi whimpered. But he was.
'Apologise,' Baako demanded, leaning more weight onto his knee. Sithi said nothing. But Baako demanded again, and this time raised his fist and let it hover over Sithi's face, high and slow and dangerous.
'I'm...I'm sorry, Baako,' Sithi said. In the end, it is his sense of injustice and not his fear that reduces him to tears.
'Remember, little brother. I'm the oldest. The oldest, and the strongest. You'll never be stronger than me.' Baako cuffed him again, harder this time. 'Don't you ever forget that.'
Thirty years will pass from the time that his brother's knee is lifted from his throat, but Sithembile Nzeogwu has never forgotten it.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Four Thousand Words reviews 'Assassin's Apprentice', by Robin Hobb

'Assassin's Apprentice' is the first book in the Farseer Trilogy, one of several fantasy series' by Robin Hobb.  Hobb is a pen name for Margaret Ogden, who has written ten other books under alternative names, as well as a plethora of short stories and collections.

I read Assassin's Apprentice as the designated monthly novel of the Norwich SciFi and Fantasy book club, where it received ratings of between 7 and 9 out of 10.  I tend towards the lower end of that spectrum, but every fantasy novel I read these days is compromised unfairly by due comparison to Game of Thrones.

'Assassin's Apprentice' follows the story of the upbringing of royal bastard Fitz, sometime son of the King-in-Waiting, Chivalry Farseer.  From his earliest memory of being dumped on the royal doorstep, Fitz makes a home at Buckkeep Castle, including friends, enemies and lessons.  When he reaches his teenage years, King Shrewd moves him from the protection of stablemaster Burritch to the care of the Royal Assassin.

The long years of Hobb's own long apprenticeship are immediately apparent, with her words bringing to life a colourful kingdom that immediately felt very real.  Each chapter begins with a telling of a minor matter of history or intrigue about the Six Duchies, and this helps to bring them to life.  A reader can fully appreciate Buckkeep, 'an end place for a journey, a panorama of noise and people', the kingdom of Jhaampe, 'best compared to chancing upon a patch of crocus, pushing up through snow and black earth' and the salty spray that heralds the unwelcome arrival of raiders from the Outislands.

Outislanders  - Vikings that zombify their victims.

Less engaging is the interaction between characters, and the necessity of the POV means that you typically see more of the characters in relation to Fitz, rather than as a complex web of interrelationships that bind characters to one another.  This is not a deal breaker by any means, but inevitably the narrative suffers in comparison to Game of Thrones, which has the luxury of multiple POVs to build greater complexity.

That same POV is guilty of other sins as well.  Fitz narrates directly, which would give him scope to grip the reader, but there is a notable degree of drag in many of the scenes, and lulls both before the action truly begins and whenever there is even the most scant opportunity for pause.  At one point halfway through the book, Fitz mentions the killing of many men in the service of his king, but the details are glossed over within a sentence and we are instead shown an instance where he employs diplomacy and his knowledge of animals to defuse a relatively minor matter.  There is no doubt that this was a deliberate decision, but for me it undermines the premise of the title and left me distinctly underwhelmed.  I felt like the real action was happening somewhere off the page.

There was also a certain sense of disappointment about the Wit and the Skill, trite names for important concepts within the novel.  That the chief scourge of the Kingdom, the raiding Outislanders, have the ability to somehow dehumanise their victims, making them little more than zombies, is an interesting idea, but the name they give to this process - Forging - somewhat undermines the fearful nature of the concept.

A love story is hinted at, and then seemingly disregarded.  Obviously, this is something that may be explored more fully in future books, but it contributed once more to a feeling of a story that falls rather flat in the wrong places.  Fortunately, the supporting cast is more well-rounded than Fitz himself, adding emotional depth that the main character fails to supply.  There is one particularly satisfying moment when a notably foul character receives a lesson, and I felt genuinely cheered by this.

Overall, 'Assassin's Apprentice' is an extremely well-written effort set in a simple but effectively designed world.  It is clear that Hobb can create absorbing characters, but I felt she could have done more to swiftly capture the events that drive the narrative and engage me as a reader.  While I would be happy to read more fiction set in this world, I wouldn't rush to read more about Fitz.

Robin Hobb's next novel, 'The Fool's Assassin' (book 1 of a second trilogy about the same main character) is set for release in the UK in August 2014.