Guy Gavriel Kay’s River of Stars read by Simon Vance

River of Stars audio-book coverThe following is a review of the audio-book edition of Guy Gavriel Kay’s River of Stars, a return to the world and setting of his critically acclaimed Under Heaven, narrated by Simon Vance and first released in July 2013.

This was not my first experience of a collaboration between author Guy Gavriel Kay and narrator Simon Vance having late last year listened to Vance reading my all-time favourite Kay novel, Tigana. I thought then that the narrator had the perfect voice for the author’s beautiful narrative and so I felt confident that River of Stars was a close to a "sure thing" as you’re likely to get.

Before the review, the story: Ren Daiyan was still just a boy when he took the lives of seven men while guarding an imperial magistrate of Kitai. That moment on a lonely road changed his life – in entirely unexpected ways, sending him into the forests of Kitai among the outlaws. From there he emerges years later – and his life changes again, dramatically, as he circles towards the court and emperor, while war approaches Kitai from the north.

Lin Shan is the daughter of a scholar, his beloved only child. Educated by him in ways young women never are, gifted as a songwriter and calligrapher, she finds herself living a life suspended between two worlds. Her intelligence captivates an emperor – and alienates women at the court. But when her father’s life is endangered by the savage politics of the day, Shan must act in ways no woman ever has.

In an empire divided by bitter factions circling an exquisitely cultured emperor who loves his gardens and his art far more than the burdens of governing, dramatic events on the northern steppe alter the balance of power in the world, leading to events no one could have foretold, under the river of stars.

Guy Gavriel Kay is a very fine author, capable of writing wonderfully well within any genre. Those of use who read and review within the fantasy genre are forever grateful that he continues to produce books that belong to it. Kay’s forte is difficult to nail down – some might say alternate history, others historical fantasy and while both descriptions go some way to helping to explain his work to others neither are quite accurate enough. Perhaps the term often applied to Tim Burton’s films, a re-imagining, might convey well how Kay takes moment and place in time and uses it as the loom upon which he weaves his story.

Kay’s writing is, as always, poetic, the phrasing almost hypnotic. River of Stars is a large book that should be read/listened to carefully and steadily, as it is to be savoured. The book displays all the signs of being well researched and this allows for the story to evolve seamlessly as the cleverly interwoven storylines converge. Oh, and did I mention it’s inspired by Ancient China, which is a time I find particularly fascinating? There is however a rather dark feel to the narrative as all human life at this time is precarious and cheap with the lower classes of society in particular being used mercilessly by those of higher birth. The characters, both the low- and high-born are, as is always the case with Kay, well rounded and completely believable.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Simon Vance’s reading of Kay’s words as his delivery was subtle and nuanced. He wisely did not attempt to adopt Chinese accents for the characters, as surely that path would have only lead to disaster! Instead his delivery is quietly powerful and he cleverly uses subtle alterations that make it easy to identify between the large cast of characters. Vance is a narrator I would never hesitate to recommend and when provided with good source material the outcome with always be a pleasure to listen to.

Under Heaven was an excellent book and this ‘sequel’ is also very, very good. It is a rich and vibrant tale inspired by the decadent Song Dynasty. I would highly recommend River of Stars to fans of Kay’s previous works and for those with a love of historical fantasy, particularly concerning China.

8.8/10

River of Stars (unabridged) by Guy Gavriel Kay
Narrated by Simon Vance
Length: 20 hours, 48 minutes
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Limited

River of Stars is available only from Audible.co.uk

Fantastic Fantasy Artwork: The Spooks Series by David Wyatt

David Wyatt is an illustrator with a highly  impressive body of work. On my own book shelves alone his artwork can be found on familiar titles like Peter Pan in Scarlet, The Hobbit, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Larklight. He has also illustrated for Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett and Brian Jacques but the artwork that will feature as the fourth part of our ongoing Fantastic Fantasy Artwork series will be the brilliant cover and interior illustrations that he creates for Joseph Delaney’s soon-to-be-completed Spooks series.

The original (and best) cover of The Spook's Apprentice.David very kindly took the time to talk with me about both his work on the Spooks books and his successful long-time collaboration with David Fickling Books. I first asked David to recount his memories regarding illustrating the first book in the series, The Spook’s Apprentice:

"When I did the first Spook’s book way back in 2004, I had no idea I would still be involved in The Wardstone Chronicles 10 years later (I’ve just received the manuscript for book 14). The original hardback cover was conceived to reflect the fact that the story was narrated by Tom in his notebook, hence the rather minimal, scuffed old tome look. It helped that the book was slightly smaller in format than normal, giving it a pocket-sized feel. The texture of the illustration was achieved by scanning in an old leather bound copy of Coleridge poems. I did the type and the little Spook design to look like faded gold foil – a bit of embossing at the print finishing stage helped to make it look authentic. We still use this look for the Amazon Special Edition release, although the recent books you’ll find on the shelves use a more modern, traditionally sized approach by another illustrator."

Not only do the Spooks books have beautiful covers they also feature illustrations that head each and every chapter. These perfectly encapsulate the book’s atmosphere and they consistently bring to life a character, location or, even better in my opinion, a creature of the dark. I asked David how he approached this interior drawings:

An interior illustration from a Spooks book #1

"I chose the interior illustration style to be reminiscent of old wood cuts, but heavily reliant on silhouettes so I didn’t have to show too much detail. Readers of the Spook’s series will know things can get a little gruesome so I have to be careful about how much of that I reveal. I think I’ve relied less on silhouettes with each book – they can be a bit limiting – but I’ve tried to keep the high-contrast, chunky blackness going throughout.

An interior illustration from a Spooks book #2

Normally I read through the manuscript and make notes about potential images. Then I read through again and do some tiny scribbles to see what works best. I’ve had no direct communication with Joseph – very unusually with illustration I don’t even send in roughs. I just get on with the images and hope they’re ok – I think I’ve only had to alter one picture in all this time. I must stress this is not a normal state of affairs in my line of work!

The actual artwork is drawn simply with a felt pen that is scanned in. The heavy blacks are added digitally, with some improvements made along the way. Sometimes I use a bit of splatter, which is made with a toothbrush dipped in ink – this is done separately and placed on the artwork where needed."

An interior illustration from a Spooks book #3

David has enjoyed a long and productive relationship with David Fickling Books whose name is, in my opinion, the literary equivalent of the royal seal of approval. I asked him if he found that working for DFB had led to working on some of the very best books, which in turn led him to create some of his very best work:

"I’ve known David Fickling since the early nineties, when he was at Scholastic in a small office off of Cambridge Circus. He and his lovely team of designers really gave me my start in children’s book illustration and I produced loads of covers at that time, as well as illustrating books by Terry Deary and Philip Pullman. Even back then, we were aware of each others love of comics as a way of telling stories, but it’s only recently that we have embarked on a project, the Tales of Fayt, written by Conrad Mason. It’s essentially a graphic novel, but will be published initially in episodes in The Phoenix, David’s weekly comic. David (along with his son, Will, who has inherited his father’s enthusiasm for good stories) has been very involved in the creation of this project, and we have had several long and productive meetings to ensure we make it as good as we can. David has a very positive, encouraging manner that really makes you want to dig deep and do the best possible work, which explains his success as a publisher. Also, he is not averse to taking risks, which is becoming increasingly rare in mainstream publishing."

I would just like to thank David for his time in answering some questions and in kindly supplying the beautiful illustrations that accompany the words on this page. I hope others found the illustration process described as fascinating as I.

David Wyatt is the fourth featured illustrator in our Fantastic Fantasy Artwork series. Please see also:

My favourite audio-book narrators

The Amulet of Samarkand audio-book on my iPod using the Audible app.I had always enjoyed audio-books but until recent years had not really listened to that many, always preferring print over audio. But when life left me with less and less reading time, then took me off the train and put me behind the wheel of a car, I found that I had on average two hours every single day that the car radio and music albums couldn’t satisfactorily fill. And so I turned to audio-books and it has now become a source of entertainment that I simply cannot now live without. The earliest audio-book I can remember listening to was Watership Down by Roy Dotrice (who currently reads George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books) and I found it a wonderful – but abridged – reading (on cassette) of Richard Adams’ classic tale and I have since managed to get hold of it in mp3 format and it will always remain very special to me. I then purchased the BBC radio adaptations of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which are both very good, but I had still not yet listened to a full, unabridged reading of a novel. But this was soon remedied and a quick glance at my Audible library shows I now have more than 130 titles and the vast majority of them are excellent. The audio-book that initially converted me fully to the charms of the format was Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, read by the wonderful Simon Prebble. It was a book I liked but was finding it a bit of a struggle to read at a healthy pace as it is as a bit of a daunting read to be honest. But thanks to Prebble’s amazing array of voice talent I was suddenly having this book brought to life and read to me for over two hours a day and I loved every minute of it. I didn’t just listen to it on my commute, I listened to it at lunch, for a sly five minutes here and there during the work day, while I was washing up and last thing at night (of course using the 15 minutes timer so I wouldn’t be lost in the morning). And from this time I have since listened to some of the very best audio-books in the fantasy and fiction genres and this is what this page is all about. I’ve learnt a few important things along the way, like how epic/high fantasy can be problematic in audio-format due to the amount of invented names and places (the Wheel of Time, Sword of Truth and Shannara books being three good examples) and that urban fantasy is often a much better bet. Unabridged is always best, the only exception being The Bartimaeus Trilogy, which was abridged but did not appear to lose anything. So here are the narrators that have impressed me the most over the years. They have of course been gifted wonderful source material by some very talented authors but still, what they have done with it is truly memorable.

I would love for visitors to make more narrator recommendations do please use the comment box at the bottom of this page to do so.

Frank Muller

Frank MullerFrank Muller, who sadly died in 2008, was a classically trained actor whose background included many years on the New York stage at the Riverside Shakespeare Company, the Roundabout Theater, and the New York Shakespeare Festival. His numerous awards include the Audio Publishers Association’s 1996 Consumer’s Choice Audie Award for Best Unabridged Fiction, the 1997 Best Unabridged Fiction Audie Award, and nine AudioFile Magazine Earphones Awards. His finest moment came in 1999 when he was awarded the top achievement in audiobook narration, the AudioFile Lifetime Achievement Award.

I first heard Frank Muller read on the second book in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, The Drawing of the Three. I was stunned, he had managed to recreate the voice of Roland Deschain, the last gunslinger, from within my own mind and he had managed to take Stephen King’s magnum opus and make it even better to listen to than it was to read, which is no mean achievement. King and Muller are perfect together (I believe Muller was always King’s narrator of choice) and their collaborations together are must-listens for all fantasy audio-book lovers.

Recommended audio-books read by Frank Muller:

  • Dark Tower II: Drawing of the Three (Stephen King)
  • Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands (Stephen King)
  • Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass (Stephen King)
  • The Green Mile (Stephen King)
  • The Talisman (Stephen King and Peter Straub)

John Chancer

John ChancerJohn Chancer is an award-winning narrator of many audio books who has a long association with the theatre on both sides of the Atlantic. He has also been heard on many radio dramas, documentaries and cartoons in Britain and US.

I don’t know if John Chancer is British or American – and this is as big a complement as I can give. I first came across Chancer when listening to the excellent Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, a classic of the dystopian genre that he reads magnificently. And so I had absolutely no hesitation in then downloading the Haruki Murakami book Norwegian Wood when I saw he was the man doing the reading. Chancer is very fine narrator indeed.

Recommended audio-books read by John Chancer:

  • Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood)
  • Norwegian Wood (Haruki Murakami)
  • The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck) – non fantasy but I would still like to recommend

George Guidall

George GuidallGeorge Guidall has recorded over 900 (yes, nine hundred – I’m not sure I’ve read that many books) unabridged novels, bringing a consistent artistry to his readings and delighting listeners for over 20 years. His recordings have garnered uniformly excellent reviews from Audiofile, Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, and a variety of national newspapers and magazines. Guidall received an Audie Award for best unabridged narration of a novel for his recording of John Irving’s A Widow For One Year, an honor he captured again for his rendition of Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True. He holds the record for the most “Earphone” awards (over 70) given by the magazine to any narrator for excellence in narration.

As with Frank Muller, I first encountered George Guidall thanks to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. He reads the first book, The Gunslinger and then returned to complete the series by reading books six and seven. But it was on Neil Gaiman’s American Gods that I found him at his very best, bringing the award-winning story to life with brilliant portrayals of the large cast. I would not hesitate to listen to any book read by Guidall.

Neil Gaiman's American Gods within the Audible iPad app.

Recommended audio-books read by George Guidall:

  • Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger (Stephen King)
  • Dark Tower VI: Song of Susannah (Stephen King)
  • Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower (Stephen King)
  • American Gods (Neil Gaiman)

Sean Barrett

Sean Barrett As a child Sean Barrett appeared on BBC children’s television and in films such as Bang! You’re Dead, War and Peace, The Genie and Four Sided Triangle. Then, in the early 1980s, Barrett went on to voice acting and subsequently performed many voices including Tik-Tok in Return to Oz, a Goblin in Labyrinth and UrSu the Dying Master and UrZah the Ritual-Guardian in The Dark Crystal.

Rumour also has it that Barrett appears on the cover of a single by The Smiths… I think that Sean Barrett is probably my favourite voice actor/narrator because he creates such a wonderful atmosphere, has such a powerful, yet soothing voice and brings across the humour of any book extremely well. By way of a compliment I will happily admit that I would probably not have finished Paul Hoffman’s Left Hand of God trilogy but for the excellence of his readings. Indeed, I was so impressed by Barrett that I went looking for other works read by him and I was led to Kafka on the Shore, which is now by far my favourite Murakami novel and one that Barrett reads brilliantly. I was also introduced to Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole crime thrillers through Barrett, which he reads with such relish. If you see Sean Barrett’s name alongside a book you like, do not think twice and begin listening immediately.

Recommended audio-books read by Sean Barrett:

  • The Snowman (Jo Nesbo)
  • The Left Hand of God (Paul Hoffman)
  • The Last Four Things (Paul Hoffman)
  • The Beating of His Wings (Paul Hoffman)
  • Kafka on the Shore (Haruki Murakami)

Roy Dotrice

Roy DotriceRoy Dotrice is an award-winning actor who has earned two places within the Guinness Book of Records. The first being for the greatest number of solo theatre performances (1,782), and the second for having recorded the highest number of character voices by a single actor in the first book in the series (A Game of Thrones, in which he voices a total of 224 characters).

I first encountered Roy Dotrice in the 1980s when my sister received the audiobook edition of Watership Down as a present. Before long ownership had passed to me by virtue of borrowing it and never giving it back. I have listened to Dotrice tell the stirring tale of Hazel, Bigwig, Fiver and company at least once a year for the past three decades. He managed to bring as much life and individuality to the characters that it was like listening to a full cast dramatisation. When I learned that Dotrice would be reading the A Song of Ice and Fire series I was delighted, and the verve and skill with which he delivers these large books is mightily impressive considering he has recently passed his ninetieth birthday. One of my favourite narrators.

Recommended audio-books by Roy Dotrice:

  • Watership Down (Richard Adams)
  • A Game of Thrones (George R. R. Martin)
  • A Clash of Kings (George R. R. Martin)
  • A Storm of Swords (George R. R. Martin)
  • A Feast of Crows (George R. R. Martin)
  • A Dance With Dragons (George R. R. Martin)

Karen Archer

Karen Archer.To all of her performances, Karen Archer brings a seamless fluidity and humanity combined with precision and attention to detail. These qualities have made her a familiar voice in the many documentaries she has recorded for National Geographic and Discovery Channel. Karen has made numerous broadcasts for BBC Radio, twice being a member of BBC Radio Drama Company. Her work in the theatre includes classics such as Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts and contemporary roles such as Annie Wilkes in an adaptation of Steven King’s novel Misery. Her extensive television work has included Assistant Chief Constable Anne Stewart in the police drama series The Chief and Queen Elizabeth I in David Starkey’s acclaimed historical series, Elizabeth. Karen has read a biography of Queen Elizabeth I for Naxos Audio Books. For Craftsman Audio Books she has recorded the complete Snow-Walker trilogy by Catherine Fisher and A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin.

The Earthsea books are amongst my very favourites. They are beautifully written, imbued with such a sense of calm and thoughtfulness that reading them can instil a feeling not unlike meditation. Karen Archer reads them perfectly, matching precisely Le Guin’s masterful prose. A must listen for all fantasy fans.

Recommended audio-books read by Karen Archer:

  • A Wizard of Earthsea (Ursula Le Guin)
  • The Tombs of Atuan (Ursula Le Guin)

Simon Vance

simon-vance-portraitSimon Vance caught the acting bug while attending the Brighton School of Music and Drama on Saturday mornings. He was given a reel-to-reel tape recorder and started recording funny voices and silly noises. In the 1970’s he began a broadcasting career at BBC Radio Brighton. In the 1980’s he became a newsreader and presenter for BBC Radio 4 where he discovered a knack for narrating audiobooks when working for the Talking Book Service of the Royal National Institute for the Blind. In the 1990’s he began doing audiobooks commercially for the first time and has since has received 7 Audie nominations and received 27 Earphone awards.

My first encounter with Simon Vance came when I began listening to  his reading of Tigana, one of my favourite books of all time, which he delivers perfectly, doing the book complete justice. And it is for the reading of Tigana that Simon Vance appears on this page and I look forward to listening to him read the story to me once again in the not to distant future.

Recommended audio-books read by Simon Vance:

  • Tigana (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  • The Fionavar Tapestry (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  • River of Stars (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  • Weaveworld (Clive Barker)
  • Bring Up the Bodies (Hilary Mantel) – non fantasy
  • Frankenstein (Mary Shelley)

Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana within the Audible iPad app.

Tom Stechschulte

Tom Stechshulte.Tom Stechschulte is a prolific audiobook reader, having read, amongst others: Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men and The Road, James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island.

I now associate Tom Stechschulte with the very best dystopian fiction, namely The Road by Cormac McCarthy and Swan Song by Robert McCammon. His reading voice is the very epitome of sonorous, the voice he uses for the Man from The Road and Joshua from Swan Song being absolutely perfect. I could – and will – listen to him narrate The Road every year, it is a perfect book read beautifully.

Recommended audio-books read by Tom Stechschulte:

  • Swan Song (Robert McCammon)
  • The Road (Cormac McCarthy)

Steven Pacey

Steven Pacey.Steven Pacey is a versatile actor and narrator who balances audiobook work with a busy theatre career. He is often recognized for his skill with characters and the scope of his talents in audiobooks for both adults and children. He is brilliant at bringing out the unusual British blend of suspense and humour in audiobooks for older children. His narration of Gentlemen & Players by Joanne Harris won an Earphones Award.

Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy is brilliant fantasy but also very, very funny, especially when read by Steven Pacey. His portrayal of the irascible djinni is a joy to listen to and he capture the sardonic wit to perfection. And a sign of his versatility is how comfortably he then turns to something far darker in John Lindqvist’s Let the Right One in, a modern take on the vampire novel set in a bleak Scandinavian setting. His reading of Gentlemen & Players is on my must-listen-to-next list.

Recommended audio-books read by Steven Pacey:

  • The Bartimaeus Trilogy (The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem’s Eye and Ptolemy’s Gate by Jonathan Stroud)
  • Let the Right One in (John Lindqvist)

Simon Prebble

Simon Prebble.British born performer Simon Prebble is a stage, film and television actor who has played everything from Soaps to Shakespeare. As a narrator of some 350 audio book titles he has received critical acclaim from both fans and peers. He is one of Audiofile’s ‘Golden Voices’ and Voices of the Century’, and has received over 24 ‘Earphone’ awards, 5 ‘Listen Up’ awards and has been nominated 11 times for the ‘Audies’, the industry’s own ‘Oscars’. In 2005 he was named ‘Narrator of the Year’ by Publisher’s Weekly.

Simon Prebble may well be the individual I have most to thank in regards to my conversion to the love of audiobooks. I was reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and while finding it a very good book I was having difficulty making much progress, often reading little more than 10 pages a night. It was a dense read (in a good way). So I downloaded the audiobook and from that moment on I listened to it at a rate of about 4 hours a day (about 120 pages) and so was finished in less than a week. And what a story it was, and what a feat of narration, to bring a large cast to life using brilliantly sounding, and authentic, voices. I was sorry when the reading finished and have since listened to it twice again. Prebble is also excellent at narrating the Sherlock Holmes stories. His Narrator of the Year award was well deserved.

  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke)
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle)
  • The Pickwick Papers (Charles Dickens)

Samuel West

Samuel WestSam West is a British narrator, actor and director. He has recorded over fifty audiobooks, among which are the Shakespeare plays All’s Well That Ends Well, Coriolanus, Henry V, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Richard II and Macbeth, the Wind on Fire trilogy by William Nicholson, the Arthur trilogy by Kevin Crossley-Holland, five books by Sebastian Faulks and two by George Orwell.

It was on John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids that I first heard Samuel West narrate and I was very impressed by how he managed to perfectly encapsulate the era in which the book was set. He told that story with such skill and aplomb that when I saw that he has also narrated George Orwell’s 1984, a book I had long wanted to read, I didn’t hesitate to download it straight away. And the book itself, and the reading, are just as magnificent as I hoped they would be. West read dystopia very, very well but judging from the list of the works he has also done he appears to be as comfortable and as skilled across all genres. If there was a book that appealed to me and it was available as an audiobook read by West I would not hesitate for one second to download it immediately.

  • 1984 (George Orwell)
  • The Day of the Triffids (John Wyndham)

Stephen Fry

Stephen FryStephen Fry is a comedian, actor, writer, presenter, and activist who needs little introduction, especially here in his native UK where he has achieved national treasure status. To me he is best known for his comedy work with Hugh Laurie, his long-running television series QI and for his roles in the ever-popular Blackadder comedy series.

His is also a narrator of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and boy does he do it justice. Not all actors have a varied array of voices and accents. In fact, in my experience, famous actors do not often make the best narrators due to their lack of vocal diversity but Stephen Fry does not fall into this category. His reading of the seven phenomenally successful novels is perfect, from his Harry, Ron and Hermoine through to his – in my opinion – fond homages to the great British actors from the film adaptations, namely Robbie Coltraine, Kenneth Branagh, Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson, this is a collection of audiobooks to, well, treasure.

  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (J. K. Rowling)
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (J. K. Rowling)
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (J. K. Rowling)
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (J. K. Rowling)
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (J. K. Rowling)
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (J. K. Rowling)
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (J. K. Rowling)

And so that brings to an end a list of the best narrators I have so far encountered. The criteria for inclusion is a minimum of two excellent readings and this has naturally led to the exclusion of several other fantastic narrators. So I have listed some other great fantasy audio-books and their readers below:

  • Robin Hobb’s Soldier Son Trilogy, read by Jonathan Barlow
  • The BBC adaptations of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings
  • Stephen King’s The Stand, read by Grover Gardner and Under the Dome, read by Raul Esparza
  • Gene Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer, read by Jonathan Davis
  • Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s The Strain, read by Ron Perlman
  • Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief, read by Allan Corduner
  • The Graveyard Book, read by the book’s author Neil Gaiman
  • Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, read by the author and full cast
  • J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, read by Martin Shaw
  • Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, read by Sir Ian McKellan
  • Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife, read by William Hope and Lauren Lefkow
  • Raymond E. Feist’s Magician, read by Peter Joyce

I am always on the look out for more audio-book recommendations so please let me know what else I should be listening to by leaving a comment below. I hope you have found this list useful.

Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep read by Will Patton

Doctor Sleep audio-book cover.The following is a review of the audio-book edition of Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, a sequel to The Shining and narrated by Will Patton, first released in September 2013.

I came to listen to Doctor Sleep with the advantage of having just recently read The Shining. Although it is not essential that all read The Shining beforehand it is certainly recommended. The first two thirds of Doctor Sleep concern the life and times of Danny Torrance, the young boy from The Shining, and what happened to him following the terrible events at the Overlook hotel. The first thing that struck me was that although Doctor Sleep and The Shining obviously share much in common, there is still a decidedly different feel to each. The Shining, by its nature, is a claustrophobic, insular book with a main cast of just three but Doctor Sleep has a more epic feel to it, both in terms of involving a war against an ancient evil and in the larger size of the cast.

So what has happened to Danny Torrance after his experiences in the Overlook Hotel? He is still haunted by those events and has been drifting for decades, desperate to shed his father’s legacy of despair, alcoholism, and violence.
Meanwhile, on highways across America, a tribe of people called The True Knot travel in search of sustenance. They look harmless – mostly old, lots of polyester, and married to their RVs. The True Knot are quasi-immortal, living off the ‘steam’ that children with the ‘shining’ produce when they are slowly tortured to death. Now working at a hospice in rural New Hampshire, where his remnant ‘shining’ power provides the crucial final comfort to the dying Dan is slowly getting his life back together. He then meets Abra Stone, a very special 12-year old girl he must save from these murderous paranormals.

Over the past decade I have listened to over a dozen Stephen King audio-books and they are all either good, very good or superb. For Doctor Sleep I would put the first two-thirds at very good but the final third as just good. The narrative reminded me strongly of Wolves of the Calla as a major part of that fifth Dark Tower novel involved the life story of Father Callahan, a recovering alcoholic who once wandered America to escape his past and his fears, finding solace at the bottom of a glass. And as the book begins we discover that Danny is now a alcoholic, something he thought he would never become after witnessing they effects alcohol has on his father, and as we follow Danny from place to place King recounts his life since the Overlook burned down to the present day. Initially it makes for compelling but of unavoidably depressing listening as the life of an alcoholic is nothing but tragic – this is something Stephen King understands from first-hand experience (write about what you know as the old adage goes). But thankfully we get to see redemption due to friendship and the AA, but just as Danny is once again beginning to enjoy his life, working and helping old people in a retirement home, the ancient threat of the True Knot rises to cross his path and that of a very special little girl.

I enjoyed the the first two-thirds of Doctor Sleep immensely, finding Danny’s life both fascinating and heart-breaking. It was a dark tunnel down which he was travelling and one which I hoped there was light at the end of. But the final third was a problem for me some major characters began behaving in classic horror-movie idiot style – doing the stupid things you know they simply shouldn’t and probably wouldn’t do. And so the book looked like it was going to finish on a bit of a dud note for me but luckily things picked up again as the end neared and King delivered a fine coup-de-grace, as he does more often than not. When trying to pin-point the other reasons I felt the spell broke for me slightly I would mention that as the book enters its final third becomes more action and less character-driven and the Stone family (Abra, her parents and her great-grandmother) began to irk me somewhat, with the parents in particular being rather stereotypical, something I feel King is hardly ever guilty of. But the overall impression of the book was definitely positive and I would happily recommend, but feel compelled to mention that I felt it lost a bit of its mojo towards the end.

The book is read by Will Patton, a winner two Obie Awards for best actor (Fool for Love and What Did He See?) and the narrator of almost 50 audio-books. As with all Stephen King audiobooks the quality of the writing helps the narrator, especially with credible dialogue, and Patton is comfortable with both male, female, young and old. At times you forget that it is just one person doing all the voices, which is always a very good sign. I liked Patton’s voice and reading style and would certainly listen to more books read by him.

8.5/10

Doctor Sleep (unabridged) by Stephen King
Narrated by Will Patton
Length: 18 hours, 32 minutes
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Doctor Sleep is available only from Audible.co.uk

I definitely recommend the Doctor Sleep audio-book as I think it is one of King’s “good” books. And if your are on the look-out for more then I can strongly recommend It (read by Steven Weber), ‘Salem’s Lot (read by Ron McLarty), 11/22/63 (read by Craig Wasson), Under the Dome (read by Raul Esparza) and all the Dark Tower audio-books (now totalling 8), read wonderfully well by George Guidall and the much-missed Frank Muller.

Vespasian: Rome’s Executioner read by Peter Kenny

Vespasian: Rome's Executioner audio-book cover.Vespasian proved to be quite a turn-up for the audio-books. Seldom have I not especially liked a book’s beginnings yet by the end been completely won over – it often happens the other way around but I am delighted to say that Vespasian managed this feat. And to try and explain why I think this happened I would first mention that the book starts fast and gets even faster before thankfully settling down. It initially put me more in mind of a screenplay than a novel, which is unsurprising considering its author, Robert Fabbri, has worked in film and TV for 25 years. So it was a bit like, “Yeah, it would make a good action movie, but this is a book, what about the characters, what about Rome and its politics?”. But, once the initial action was over, which involved the hunt for a priest required for “questioning” in Rome, the story became all about politics and intrigue, the characters really took shape and I found myself enjoying the rather grisly tale immensely.

Before I continue with the review, here is a little more about the story which begins in Thracia in the year AD30. Vespasian’s patrons in Rome have charged him with the clandestine extraction of an old enemy from a fortress on the banks of the Danube before it falls to the Roman legion besieging it. His mission is the key move in a deadly struggle for the right to rule the Empire. The man he has been ordered to seize could be the witness that will destroy Sejanus, commander of the Praetorian Guard and ruler of the Empire in all but name. Before he completes his mission, Vespasian will face ambush in snowbound mountains, pirates on the high seas and Sejanus’s spies all around him. But by far the greatest danger lies at the rotten heart of the Empire: at the nightmarish court of Tiberius, Emperor of Rome and debauched, paranoid madman.

Vespasian’s author Robert Fabbri has – as already mentioned – worked in film and TV for 25 years. As an assistant director he has worked on productions such as Hornblower, Hellraiser, Patriot Games and Billy Elliot but his life-long passion for ancient Roman history inspired him to write the Vespasian series and this passion really shines from the pages. Fabbri uses contemporary speech and this will always divide opinions – I personally found it a little strange at first but very quickly it felt natural. The narrator, Peter Kenny (who was uniformly very good) chose to give the Romans English accents and again, while it took a little getting used to it soon flowed nicely and my favourite character voice was that of Magnus (please forgive misspellings of names as was an audio-book and I had no access to the written text), who was given a decidedly Ray Winstone-like voice that worked really well. Kenny’s other stand out voices were Vespasian’s Uncles Gaius and the mad-emperor Tiberius but he also coped admirably well with the female leads, with Antonia, sister to the emperor, being particularly noteworthy. Kenny also uses clever -and authentic sounding -accents for the Thracians, Greeks and other races.

Once the setting moves back to Rome the politics of the time take centre stage. And the politics are probably not that different than those of today except for one important element – the body count. Death, and more pertinently execution, is a daily occurrence and once back in Rome the cast of Antonia, Tiberius, Macros, Sejanus and company (we mustn’t forget a young Caligula) are using any trick possible to get what they want – which is of course, as always, power and money. All this political intrigue was really well handled and fascinating to listen to. I don’t know how close to history Fabbri kept, much falls in line with what I have previously read but the portrayal of Tiberius seemed to have made use of a liberal amount of artistic licence. What the author does brilliantly is make it clear that these were very dangerous times to be alive, the life of a slave was meaningless to the elite but even those high-born were not immune to threat and could find themselves assassinated simply for having the wrong relatives or for supporting the wrong people. Death seemed to hover over ever character in this book.

It is hard, if not impossible, to find Ancient Rome anything but fascinating and this book covers a period which I knew little about and was delighted to learn more of. I had previously read books about Caligula so it was good to read about the years just prior to his turbulent rein. The book’s ending is exceedingly brutal and unpleasant and although I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it, there is no doubt it will remain within the mind for a long time afterwards.

Would I read another Fabbri book? Yes, I would, and I would certainly listen to another book read by Peter Kenny.

8.3/10

Vespasian: Rome’s Executioner by Robert Fabbri
Narrated by Peter Kenny
Length: 12 hours, 20 minutes
Publisher: AudioGO Ltd

The audio-book review copy of Vespasian: Rome’s Executioner was kindly supplied by AudioGO, the home of BBC Audiobooks.

Robert Aickman’s The Unsettled Land read by Reece Shearsmith

The cover of The Unsettled Dust audio-book.The following is a review of the audio-book edition of Robert Aickman’s The Unsettled Dust (a collection of supernatural short stories first published in 1990), narrated by Reece Shearsmith and first released in July 2013.

I think Robert Aickman’s The Unsettled Dust will firmly divide opinions. I can’t see any reader, or listener, simply saying "it was alright" – I think they will either really like what they find, or really dislike it. The potential for the reading enjoyment of Robert Aickman’s work lies in whether the reader wants, and indeed expects, a certain structure to the narrative, whether they need a beginning, middle, and most importantly a end. You see, Aickman revels in an ambiguity, his stories do not have traditional endings and for a lot of people this will be a problem. It was for me. But if this type of story telling works for you then you are in for a treat as Aickman is very, very good with words and descriptive text.

Aickman was born in London in 1914 and published twelve volumes of horror stories, two fantasy novels and two volumes of autobiography before his death in 1981. Called by some "the supreme master of the supernatural" he was awarded both a World Fantasy Award and British Fantasy Award for his short fiction. As I have already said, his work my not have been my particular cup of tea but the praise for his short works is effusive, particularly amongst fellow writers:

"Reading Robert Aickman is like watching a magician work, and very often I’m not even sure what the trick was. All I know is that he did it beautifully." Neil Gaiman

"Robert Aickman has a gift for depicting the eerie areas of inner space, the churning storms and silent overcasts that engulf the minds of lonely and alienated people. He is a weatherman of the subconscious." Fritz Leiber

"From the first I understood that he was a deeply original artist. This in no way implies that I understood Aickman immediately because I didn’t. Sometimes I would look up at the end of a story, feeling that the whole thing had just twisted itself inside out and turned into smoke – I had blinked, and missed it all. It took me a little while to learn to accept this experience as valuable in itself and to begin to see how the real oddness of most of Aickman’s work is directly related to its psychological, even psychoanalytic, acuity." Peter Straub

And Peter Straub’s words are very telling – the first time reader/listener will probably be left more than a little bemused – I was – and as most reviews are based on the first read I acknowledge that this may be a problem and a likely reason for my slightly negative summation. The first three stories in the collection (The Unsettled Dust, The House of the Russians and No Stronger Than a Flower) meandered rather aimlessly through my mind and I could find no attachment to either the story or the characters, which is something vital to me when listening to a story. But from there on things improve: The Cicerones, The Next Glade, Ravissante, Bind Your Hair and The Stains proved to make for much more enjoyable listening. But I still had issues. I found the overall tone of the works to be highly misogynistic and while it is always difficult to tell whether these sentiments are the author’s own or his characters, by the end of the last story I believed that these characters simply echoed Aickman’s own thoughts on women and while the stories were written quite a long time ago they were still very difficult to read as a result. And the second problem I had was that while the characters spoke and behaved late nineteenth century, early twentieth, while the stories were set at least fifty years later, which proved a little jarring.

The narrator of The Unsettled Dust is Reece Shearsmith, a talented actor and writer who is arguably most famous for co-writing and starring in the award-winning television series, The League of Gentlemen, alongside Steve Pemberton, Mark Gatiss, and Jeremy Dyson. And the connection between The League of Gentlemen and Robert Aickman is strong: Jeremy Dyson has previously adapted Aickman’s work into drama in a number of forms and with Mark Gatiss adapted Aickman’s short story "Ringing the Changes" into a BBC Radio Four radio play. Dyson also directed a 2002 short film based on Aickman’s story "The Cicerones" with Gatiss as the principal actor. So it is fair to say that Aickman has been a massive influence on Shearsmith and the rest of the League. Because I didn’t overly enjoy the stories themselves it is a little difficult to comment on Reece Shearsmith’s narration other than to say he has a pleasant reading voice who relies of subtle delivery changes to distinguish between characters rather than opting for accents. It was the subject matter itself that led my concentration to waver, not the quality of the narration, which was fine.

Maybe the problem was that the stories simply didn’t lend themselves well to the audio format and would have been better read instead. This is something I have encountered several times before. Unfortunately I found myself constantly losing concentration and finding that minutes had passed without anything having sunk in. This could be because I rarely felt that anything was really happening, finding little to engage me. And I found the treatment of women and "foreigners" (a word used too often in the narrative for my liking) to be – using the kindest word available – dated.

I can only recommend Aickman to those who enjoy ambiguity, those who do not require traditional endings to stories and are happy to read said stories numerous times to understand the nuances and hidden meanings.

6.0/10

The Unsettled Dust (unabridged) by Robert Aickman
Narrated by Reece Shearsmith
Length: 8 hours, 36 minutes
Publisher: Audible Ltd

The Unsettled Dust is available only from Audible.co.uk

Brandon Sanderson’s The Rithmatist read by Michael Kramer

A cover image of The Rithmatist audio-book.The following is a review of the audio-book edition of Brandon Sanderson’s The Rithmatist, first released in May 2013 and narrated by Michael Kramer.

Brandon Sanderson was an author I had long wanted to read but for a variety of reasons had been unable to. So when the opportunity arose to listen to – and to review – the audio-book version of his latest work I did not hesitate for even a second. Sanderson is one of the most respected names in the fantasy genre, he is a winner of many awards and arguably best know for both his Mistborn novels and for having been chosen to complete the Wheel of Time series after the death of its author, Robert Jordan. The person chosen to read was Michael Kramer, an American narrator who has won both the AudioFile Earphones and Torgi awards for his work. Kramer has an already established connection with both Sanderson and Jordan, having narrated Sanderson’s The Way of Kings and The Alloy of Law as well as all of Jordan’s Wheel of Time novels.

So what is a Rithmatist and what is the book all about? A Rithmatist has the power to infuse life into two-dimensional figures known as Chalklings. And the Rithmatists are humanity’s only defence against the Wild Chalklings – merciless creatures that leave mangled corpses in their wake. Having nearly overrun the territory of Nebrask, the Wild Chalklings now threaten all of the American Isles. Joel wants more than anything to be a Rithmatist but being the son of a lowly chalkmaker at Armedius Academy he can only watch as Rithmatist students study the magical art that he would do anything to practice. Then students start disappearing; kidnapped from their rooms at night, leaving trails of blood. Assigned to help the professor who is investigating the crimes, Joel and his friend Melody find themselves on the trail of an unexpected discovery – one that will change Rithmatics, and their world, forever.

I enjoyed the reading of The Rithmatist. The story itself was classic fantasy with the seemingly inconsequential Joel becoming embroiled in matters that affect the high and mighty. Events also lead him closer to realising his dream – that of becoming a Rithmatist. The story showcases something I believe Sanderson is very well know for – a unique, clever and interesting system of magic, but be warned, you will have be concentrating fully to take it all in, and to understand it all, first time around. The setting of a book at a type of boarding school, or in this case and Academy, is always a winner for me and I’m surprised (and somewhat relieved) that more authors have not tapped into this rich vein – it is one of the many things that made Harry Potter such a success, as it adheres to a kind of wish-fulfilment in the reader, and there are definitely similarities to be found in Sanderson’s new book and Rowling’s work, most notably the friction evident between the populace and the Rithmatists (which reminded me of the pure-blood/mud-blood resentments felt at Hogwarts) and the character of Nalazar (a teacher who is so obviously evil he couldn’t possible be, could he?) has more than a touch of the Professor Snape about him. But these are elements that have been used successfully in young adult fiction for time immemorial and I really like them, but more importantly, so do thousands of young adults. The narration itself is skilled with Kramer making each and every character clearly distinguishable, his portrayal of the male Joel and female Melody being the stand-outs from what is a very accomplished reading.

The Rithmatist is a murder mystery and coming of age story rolled into one. It has a distinctly scholarly feel and will appeal to young adults who don’t mind having an educational feel to their fantasy reading. A good book, very well read.

8.3/10

The Rithmatist (unabridged) by Brandon Sanderson
Narrated by Michael Kramer
Length: 10 hours, 26 minutes
Publisher: Audible Ltd

The Rithmatist is available only from Audible.co.uk

Ryan and Joshua have both reviewed The Rithmatist and their thoughts can be read here:
A book review of The Rithmatist

Tales of Terror from the Black Ship read by Bill Wallis

Audio-book cover image of Chris Priestley's Tales of Terror from the Black Ship read by Bill Wallis.A few years back I read and thoroughly enjoyed Chris Priestley’s Tales of Terror from the Tunnel Mouth, so when the opportunity arose to listen to an audio-book version of Tales of Terror from the Black Ship I jumped at the chance.

Written for ages 9+ the Tales of Terror series is a perfect example of how an author can chill and thrill a young audience without giving them nightmares. And you can almost taste the salt in the air when listening to Bill Wallis’s superb reading, so well does he encapsulate both the gothic and nautical flavour with his impressive array of accents. Bill Wallis is a British character actor whose face and voice has been seen and heard on radio, television, and in the theatre for many years. In 1995 he presented and narrated a semi-dramatised documentary titled “A Pleasant Terror” on the life and works of M. R. James and this work left him perfectly placed to bring Priestley’s ghostly tales to life.

As the narration begins we readers/listeners find ourselves at the Old Inn, where we are introduced to a bereaved father and his two children. It is three days into a storm and the children have been struck-down with illness and their father, seemingly come back to his senses, goes to fetch a doctor. While they await their father’s – and the doctor’s – return they pass their time reading their favourite ghost stories to each other but when a stranger, an old mariner with a gold tooth, arrives at the inn he begins to regale and terrify the brother and sister with some stories of his own. And so begins some wonderful story-telling reminiscent of the Hammer House of Horror in its pomp. The stranger recounts tale after tale to thrill and disquiet the children, all set aboard ship. And while this is happening the story of the children, their father and the inn which they inhabit also unfolds.

I will not give away anything about the tales of terror themselves save to say that the story with the seemingly angelic little boy, and the story with the snails are those that I remember most vividly. But it is the overarching story of the brother, sister and father that held the most punch.

Chris Priestley is brilliant at writing ghoulish stories for younger readers and when his words are spoken with as much as skill and relish as Bill Wallis manages here then the result is a must-listen to audio-book for anybody 8+ with a penchant for the macabre!

9/10

Tales of Terror from the Black Ship (unabridged) by Chris Priestley
Narrated by Bill Wallis
Length: 5 hours, 39 minutes
Publisher: AudioGO Ltd

The audio-book review copy of Tales of Terror from the Black Ship was kindly supplied by AudioGO, the home of BBC Audiobooks.

Where Are All the Minorities?

Author photo of Lane Heymont.By Lane Heymont

I grew up reading classic literature, contemporary literature, philosophy, scientific books, and fantasy. A lot of fantasy. I must have read a thousand fantasy novels in my days, if not more. For the most part they all ignored my existence, or rather, represented only the existence of one culture: Western Europe, so much to the point that it was a running gag among my friends.

I remember saying, “So you’re telling me in a world of ogres, orcs, dragons, and hobbits, there’s no black people?”

To this day, the only people of color I’ve seen in a fantasy – taking place on a secondary world – is the Dragonlance series, and frankly, only one or two characters make appearances if I remember correctly. Neither of the characters could be considered the protagonist.

I have a major issue with this. Why? Because, when I read, and more importantly, write, I like to feel this magical, wondrous sense called “reality”. This is of the utmost importance, despite the notion of “suspension of disbelief” which is so critical to enjoying the fantasy genre; I have to somehow identify with it.

Cover image of The Freedman and the Pharaoh's Staff by Lane Heymont.While writing The Freedman and the Pharaoh’s Staff, my debut novel about the relationship between racism and a myriad of people – black and white – I faced a lot of criticism, rather, warnings from beta readers when I explained I was writing from the perspective of an African-American character. Ironically, the only people who objected were white people. However, it made me wonder if their protests were me writing about black characters, or from that point of view. Basically, having a minority/person of color protagonist was their issue.

On one level I can appreciate the trepidation some white or non-minority authors might feel, but to give in to that worry is to commit robbery. You rob the readers of a chance to see a fantasy novel based in reality where not only white characters are presented as heroes. You rob people of the chance to read about someone “who looks like them.”

I’ll repeat that: who looks like them. I’ve heard those words said a lot when it comes to the fantasy genre. A number of friends, who happen to people of color, have often said as a child they wondered why there were no heroes who looked like them. The appearance is less the issue, and more the feeling of being ignored. That’s a horrible feeling.

Why exactly are people of color so underrepresented in fantasy? There’s this concept of the Other, a prominent notion in continental philosophy, which is the idea that something unfamiliar to us, something outside our “known world” is different. By nature, humankind fears what is different – at best, misunderstands what is different.

Psychologically, this affects every interaction we have, or even think, in relation to the Other. So, it’s safe to say for white writers who may have limited experiences or relationships with those outside their race might consider writing from a minority perspective the Other.

The Freedman and the Pharaoh’s Staff relies heavily on the idea of the Other. Ku Klux Klan characters hate, attempt to enslave, and even murder African-American characters because, at its base, they are the Other. Narce, the most hateful and morally despicable character in my novel, is fuelled by hatred based on fear and ignorance. Sure, he’s evil, but despite his horribleness he’s still a human who functions as defined by human psychology.

So, it feels like white authors have an easier time, or are more comfortable, writing from the perspective of dragons, ghosts, elves, Minotaurs, and other non-humans than another human being. Seems ironically odd, don’t you think? And the writing suffers for it, as does the cause.

Stories, even fantasy stories and those that require the suspension of disbelief, need to be grounded in reality. What’s interesting in the real world is the myriad of human cultures, not ogres or hobbits or lizard people. Not to say lizard people should be compared with a real world culture, and frankly, I am not a fan of how many authors base a non-human race on a real world culture. That’s the definition of a culture thief.

Writing The Freedman and the Pharaoh’s Staff was invigorating and refreshing as a fantasy reader, because the genre had started to frustrate me. How many times can you read about dwarves, ghosts, fairys, and the like, without having them converge into this amorphous blob? Sure, one author’s vampire is different than another’s, but vampires are vampires.

As a reader I wanted something different and as a writer I needed something different. At the time I began The Freedman and the Pharaoh’s Staff I was enrolled in an African-American Literature class. It inspired me, and I ran with the story of Jeb – a former slave and freedman, and his brother-in-law Crispus who must defend their town from the Klan.

As soon as I put my finger to the keyboard I knew where I was going. Magic? Of course, it’s a fantasy, but like in all good stories, the system of magic needs to be consistent and make sense. I chose Voodoo magic because it’s one of the most defined systems, since it’s a religion interlaced with real laws of magic. It works if you believe it.

So my plea with authors is to provide us with more minority protagonists—strong, honourable, realistic characters and there will be no issue. Overcome your anxiety of offending people by writing from a place of honesty and most importantly, respect.

Lane Heymont was born in Pennsylvania. He earned a BA in Liberal Arts with a focus on literature and history. He also holds a double minor in psychology and business. After college, Lane turned his focus back to writing. He has several short stories published, one of which was recommended for a 2012 Bram Stoker Award. The Freedman and the Pharaoh’s staff is his debut novel from Sunbury Press.

In Search of the Perfect Fantasy TV Show

Fantasy Island 1978 show.Is this even possible? I mean, were there any fantasy TV shows before, like, the 90’s? Come with me then, dear traveller, and let us investigate this mystery. If you were kind enough to read my previous article, wittily called In Search of the Perfect Fantasy Movie, you will have an inkling as to what I am looking for  – it needs big swordfights, a range of fantasy creatures,  good dialogue, magic and bad men in helmets. I know, right? This should be easy!

I would argue that TV has had a much longer and more comfortable relationship with fantasy than cinema has, I don’t know why but TV was pushing out successful fantasy and sci-fi shows since the late 60s. Considering the budget constraints, this seems surprising, but they made up for it by concentrating on story and character rather than the visual aspect. I‘m not going to discuss sci-fi here for obvious reasons.

1970's show Monkey.I’ll admit that there wasn’t much in terms of hardcore fantasy output before the 80’s and if there was it was often left in the realm of kids TV – not to belittle it, I was a small kid once (as opposed to the big one now) -  and the occasional mad foreign import. Yes, Monkey! I loved that show, based on the ancient text Journey to the West, it used to be on at a mad time – like 6pm on BBC2 – and it was amazing. The dialogue, the voices, the huge fights when Monkey would summon his army by blowing on his chest hair and the amazing fx! It was bonkers but brilliant. I got some of the videos released in the 90s and watched them again – I could spot the wires now but it was still fun for all of that. If anything, I could appreciate the wit and mickey taking of the dubbing actors more. You know, I think this show is ripe for a western make-over and it should star Nathan Fillion. Not that I’m in any way biased.

Knightmare.The 1980’s were still a bit bereft of any good fantasy. It was the time of Fighting Fantasy and the rise of Games Workshop, so I wasn’t surprised to see Knightmare on ITV. It was the fantasy equivalent of the awesome Adventure Game. I always felt for the sprog whose job it was to walk around in the helmet, in what was in reality big empty room. Livin’ the dream, huh.

There was something on called Robin of Sherwood with a dreamy, folksy soundtrack by Clannad. Starring Michael Praed, then Jason Connery, it was actually pretty gritty and kinda cool with a good supporting cast (Ray Winstone for example). It tried to place itself in an actual historical context but had fantasy elements such as sorcery. It was cancelled after three seasons.

Come the 90s, things started to pick up due in no small part to Sam Raimi and his cohorts of terror. They kicked off with the long running Hercules starring Kevin Sorbo and then the spin off Xena, Warrior princess. Based on Greek legends, with the gods of Olympus pitching up to meddle in things, the show branched out to include other elements of ancient lore. They also had the good sense to base themselves in the heart of fantasydom on Earth – New Zealand. Both shows had decent runs and were good fun. They also had the secret weapons of Bruce Campbell and Ted Raimi as recurring characters.

Apparently there was a Conan series. It didn’t last long and the bloke looked silly,

Worth a mention is a British show called Dark Knight which ran for two seasons at the turn of the century on Channel 5. It played on the Ivanhoe myth and was created by the man who came up with Hawk the Slayer and even had the guy (Peter O’Farrel) who played the dwarf in Hawk, playing a dwarf in this. It is very reminiscent of The Legend of the Seeker (more of that in a moment). The stories had some good fantasy fare going on but the effects were sometimes no better than what they used in Knightmare.

Legend of the Seeker.Later, in 2008, came Legend of the Seeker – shoot in New Zealand (tick), based on the Terry Goodkind novels (tick) with red-leather wearing, bisexual, phallus truncheon wielding, dominatrix warrior women called Mord Sith (TICK). This show took a little time to find its feet and get over the LOTR comparisons but it was getting really interesting when it got cancelled after season two, which was a real shame. It had a good cast, likeable male/female leads – great support from Bruce Spence as the wizard Zed (who actually did shoot fireballs from his finger-tips) and a brilliant villainous turn from genre fave Craig Parker, perhaps better known as the elf Haldir from LOTR.

Also starting that year was the British-made show – Merlin. As the title suggests, it was a retread of the Arthur legend but focussing on Merlin’s early years. Now into its fifth season, this show has benefited from having a strong central cast and an excellent dynamic between Arthur and Merlin as they bicker and spar off each other. Whilst there are many standalone episodes, there have always been season arc plots which move the story towards what we know is an inevitable set of events. As the show has matured so have the scripts and storyline. I could go on but I have to front up and say that as I am currently writing for Merlin the Game anything I say could be construed as blatant self-interest…cough…

Camelot – another retread aired in 2010. It depicted a vision of what might actually have happened and placed itself as historical fiction rather than fantasy although Merlin (a good Joseph Fiennes) was a genuine wizard and employed magic as did Morgan le Fay. The look and feel of the show was pretty good and ramping up the adult nature of it was no bad thing but unfortunately, the central character was a bit naff and the whole thing never really fired the imagination – cancelled after season one.

2011/2012 saw some new entrants. Grimm and Once Upon A Time, both riffing off of fairy tale characters, they have clever premises. I like the concept of Grimms being monster hunters and this being a sort of police procedural show. Once Upon a Time’s fantasy/reality cross over is a good idea although OUAT’s fantasy settings do strike me as a little twee – but I suppose it is a fairy tale. Both have been commissioned for second series.

Sinbad debuted in 2012 – another British production – it looks lavish and has good production values but right now, I feel a little cold about it. The crew just aren’t making me happy right now – they just aren’t like the gang from the good ship Serenity…

Game of Thrones.Okay, I’ll mention it now. Game of Thrones. Brutal, sexy, visually stunning and a great cast and story. Yes. This is the biggest boldest work of television fantasy ever. A completely realised fantasy world that we know is going to get larger and more fantastical as the story develops. Made by HBO who have set the standard for grown-up television, I can’t help but compare it to LOTR due to the sheer size, scope, care and attention that this show has been given. I am intrigued to see how they handle Martin’s later novels in the series and also how the viewers deal with an ever expanding cast of characters and storylines.

Something I’m sure you have noticed is the particular theme running through the shows I have mentioned. All of them, (bar Knightmare which doesn’t really count) have been based on either myths,legends or books. Not one of them has been an original piece of work. I find that interesting. Yes, movies have done that too, but a lot of them haven’t. Why do television production companies choose this path? Perhaps because they know they cannot compete on budgets and cannot make event style television so instead they rely on appealing to public awareness and understanding of the material they are relating. Of course, Game of Thrones production values have been excellent and arguably, whilst GRRM has a large following, they certainly couldn’t have generated enough audience appeal by themselves.

It is clear that there is a hunger for quality, adult, genre entertainment that isn’t just about horny vampires and werewolves. So thank goodness for HBO. I wonder what will happen next? No doubt we’ll still get the usual run of glossier vanilla fantasy fare, bet let’s up the ante a little. Something that takes the marker placed by GoT and develops a world with many races and tensions and magic. Hell, Sci-Fi’s already done it (Star Trek , Battlestar, Babylon 5 par example) so why can’t Fantasy – how about doing something with Feist? That would work very nicely. Or Gemmell. Or Cook. Or Abercrombie. Or Erikson? Or just think up something original? It’s okay, it can steal from all the above, I really don’t mind!