Shortlist of 9 for Fantasy Book Review Short Story Competition

10 days ago I published a longlist of 22 entries for our short-story competition. After careful deliberation we have now shortened the list to 9 and I would just like to offer my commiserations to the 13 authors that have been lost from the longlist and sincerely hope that they were happy to know just how highly we rated their stories.

So here are the 9 stories that have made the shortlist, in alphabetical order, with the first paragraph of their story.

  • Coin-Operated Boys by Kirsty Logan
    That August, Elodie Selkirk became the latest lady in Paris to order a coin-operated boy. Despite her hooked nose and missing pinkie finger, Elodie was suffering from a rash of suitors; unfortunately for them, she was in no need of a gentleman. Elodie glanced down the hall to make sure that the maid was still safely in her room, as instructed – it was best to keep the boy a secret until she could check him over. She straightened the silk bow at her throat and opened the door.
  • For All Time by Jean Marino
    Sage watched the Heron skim the trees before its slow descent to the nearby marsh. When it dipped out of site, a shadowy mass in a maple tree caught her eye. Her dog growled, his silver scruff rising. Her initial trepidation waned, and she drew nearer, urged by her curiosity. A soft gasp escaped at the sight of a man dangling from the branches. Was he dead? As if in answer, his body twitched, sending her dog into a barking frenzy.
  • Howl by Rheanna-Marie Hall
    The fast moving mass of cloak and steel converged upon the hillside, a black spot against the dirty green of marshland scrub. Progress became slow as the riders snaked left to right in search of sturdier ground, their steeds’ hooves sinking into bog. Heavy armour only added to the difficulty.
  • Scholar’s Reprisal by Thomas Dipple
    “Scholar! If you stop that horse one more time I’ll let them kill you! Now ride!” Pursa felt the horse bolt as Carden slapped its rear with the flat of his sword blade. The beast charged on through the forest and Pursa cried out as his face was whipped by low hanging leaves and twigs.
  • Senescence by David Rudden
    My father built coffins for our village’s dead. He was a small man, his eyes two nail marks in an umber mass of beard and sun-darkened skin, his hands gnarled masses of knuckle and nail. When he worked, old scars shone white under sweat, a nonsense-scribble of forgotten wounds. As a child, my world was made up of things that he built; the walls of our cottage, the wide, low bed that we shared, the simple toys he had carved.
  • The Dwarf by George Poles
    Now it was the fashion in that state for beauty to seat itself by ugliness. How could the splendour of the graceful palaces of the rich truly be appreciated without placing them within sight of the poorest slums?  How could the elegant lines and delicate colouring of the finest artists be understood without the contrast of the rude sketches that were placed next to them?  Most of all how could the shining faces, slim bodies and gorgeous dresses of the young ladies of fashion truly be seen without the darkness of the malformed and misshapen beside them to reveal their light?
  • The Hearing by Mark Torrender
    The courtroom smelled of cedar and wood polish. Exactly what Jack Deacon expected. I bet all courtrooms smell this way, he thought as he straightened his Sean John gold paisley tie which he hoped would make an impression on the judge, daft as he knew that sounded. Jack had never been to court before – hadn’t even done jury duty – but here he was now fighting for justice. No one had ever done what he was attempting to do, and if it meant emoting blood, he’d emote blood.
  • The Price of Envy by Stephie Hall
    I distinctly remember that as a child the forest was a welcoming place. In my mind, it held a Narnian lamp-post, shining brightly with a welcoming yellow glow through the wintry storms. It was a place to play, where crisp new snow lay undisturbed by the rowdiness of my playmates. My secret place, where I could withdraw and dream up stories that were, in my mind, equal to those of the venerable Mr Lewis. I would hold out in hope, praying earnestly, in the way that small children do – how God must smile to hear the sweet, sincere prayers of those still untouched by the cynicism of Life – that a faun, brown coated and cloven hoofed, would come and invite me for tea. And my faun would be far superior to Lucy’s because in the forest of my mind there was no great evil, no Lilleth to bring her icy coach and tear us away to an evil place.
  • To Ashes by Kat Zantow
    I was twenty miles from the city of ashes when my eyes started sliding shut of their own volition. My body demanded coffee, and I obligingly cut off a honking sedan to make the exit. I followed the ramp to a small string of shops sandwiched between a church and a motel. The café looked familiar, so I parked out front. I hadn’t been to this place since I had escaped the City on the Hill with—

The above 9 stories are all now with Frank P Ryan, who will be selecting a winner and 2 runner-ups which we will announce on Tuesday (November 1, 2011) and published exactly a week later.

Congratulations to all who made the shortlist.

Please note: Although all short-stories have now been read not all may have, as of yet, received their free ebook. Over the coming days and weeks I will be cross-checking all submissions to ensure that all have had their details sent through to Swift Publishers. (Please feel free to leave a comment on this page if you have not received your free book.)

Longlist for the Fantasy Book Review Short Story Competition

Back in April 2011 we launched the Fantasy Book Review Fantasy Short Story Competition. As with any competition in its first year we were unsure as to how it would be received and how popular it would be. Thankfully it was a success and the excellent entries have given – and are still giving – us hours and hours of reading pleasure.

I know that many entrants have been waiting patiently for the release of the shortlist of 9, which I have had to keep pushing back while we read are way through almost 100 stories that came in during the last 2 days of the competition. And we still haven’t finished but we are almost down to single figures now!

Although I hadn’t planned to do so I cannot think of any reason why I shouldn’t publish the longlist as it currently stands. The list below will grow larger should any of the remaining stories score highly enough.

Before you look at the the list I just want to quickly explain the rating system we have used. We marked every story out of 40, awarding up to 10 marks each for originality of fantasy theme, characterisation, plot and overall quality. Any story that received 32/40 was very, very good. However, the stories listed below all received 33/40 or more and as such were just that little bit special.

The list below will be whittled down to 9, and then to 3. If you were on the longlist but do not make the shortlist then I hope you are not too upset – I reckoned (hopefully accurately) that you would like to know just how good we thought your submission was.

So, without any further ado, here is the current longlist, ordered by the date they were read and rated. I have included small snippets from the judging notes to help explain what exactly it was we liked about each story:

  • Adlers by Elaine Peake
    A thoroughly delightful story, well-written and featuring great characters and a great plot. Both engaging and charming;
  • The Price of Envy by Stephie Hall
    A great story that gets right to the root of what fantasy literature is all about and why it can have such a significant and everlasting effect on a developing mind. It also shows clearly how the loss of imagination and the loss of innocence are unfortunate side-effects of maturity. Powerful with bitterness and realism;
  • Night Swimming by Judy Upton
    A near-faultless short story written with great confidence and skill;
  • The Ladder by Pete Clark
    A chilling tale, containing elements of horror. A disturbing and excellently written short story that will make any parent confront their worst fears;
  • Of Demons by Tomos Lloyd-Jones
    A fantastic little story with a nice touch of dark humour at the end. Laugh out loud at some points, it is well written, amusing, and highly entertaining. Overall a great short story;
  • Horrific Accident by Alice Whitfield
    Top-notch characterisation as the author shows a keen observational eye. It was a brutal, depressing story of real life in a tough and often uncaring world;
  • The Dwarf by George Poles
    In a Brothers Grimm-style tale, the beautiful people of a kingdom buy deformed dwarves, the uglier the better, which they place beside them in order to set off their own good looks even more. A short fairy-tale that contains a lesson to us all;
  • Spellbound Dreams by Dawn McKinley
    A short story from a very talented author – everything was to a high standard;
  • Coin-Operated Boys by Kirsty Logan
    In an unusual short story, women can buy coin-operated boys who are perfect mannequins that act like humans, to be hired and used by ladies who need some company. An inventive plot, with a sinister undertone;
  • The Hearing by Mark Torrender
    A superb short story of a man who sues his Guardian Angel, for not saving him from a life changing injury, only to find out some home truths;
  • Legacy of the High King by Robert Kelley
    An excellent and interesting story about a man who is dragged into a story he doesn’t understand, where no one tells him the rules;
  • Night-whisperer by Ian Smethurst
    A tale of revenge against a Necromancer of intense power who is beaten by a victim of one of the Necromancer’s spells. Interesting to read and intelligent;
  • The Tower of Truth by Oliver Eade
    A fantastic story about a man who, at a fair, enters a ride and is shown the past/present and future, but unfortunately doesn’t heed the warnings given;
  • Scholar’s Reprisal by Thomas Dipple
    A story of betrayal from a king who wants more power but is served instead revenge by the people he tried to betray. It would make a good longer story as well;
  • Senescence by David Rudden
    Original, great characterisation and plot and all held together by an excellent narrative. A real gem of a short-story, powerful, thought-provoking and memorable;
  • The Ogre’s Elevator by Noel Williams
    A lovely, magical little story featuring paper aeroplanes and ogres;
  • Can you keep a secret? by Fabienne Maria
    Well, this one was a bit of a surprise! It took me three days just to open the attachment, and when I did the story itself did not have a title. Not the best of starts… But the story itself turned out top be a little gem, very original, good plot and characters and a great plot. A really unexpected success;
  • To Ashes by Kat Zantow
    I really liked this story of two people who have escaped from a firestorm that has destroyed their city, but who go back to finally lay to rest the ‘Patron’ who ruled and eventually cursed it to ruin. Moving amongst significant points, the ashes are mixed and tattooed onto the girl’s back, in a prison for the Patron. It’s very well written, with an urban fantasy feel but more fantastical, with magical tattoos and hellhounds roaming the charred city streets;
  • Howl by Rheanna-Marie Hall
    A wonderful little story about a Halfling whose son is taken from her and the revenge she seeks on the humans that stole him;
  • For All Time by Jean Marino
    An intriguing story of time travelling. When a man from the past falls into our future, sparks erupt between him and the woman who rescues him;
  • River Song by Cheryl Hartsell
    A beautiful story of two people who are no longer living, finding each other with the help of their dead relatives;
  • Arran of the Blood Red Army by Martin Leyland
    A great story about a boy on a trip with his aunt and uncle who discovers that he is able to see into a magical realm and discover his destiny, by helping protect very powerful magical artefacts.
  • The things we don’t say by Sonya Selbach
    An intruiging story of love lost and conspiracy. The story twists from memories to the present so we never know the full details, it leaves you wanting more.

Fantastic fantasy artwork: Night Watch (Discworld) by Paul Kidby

Chosen by Joshua S Hill

Last month we kicked off our series of special features, entitled Fantastic Fantasy Artwork, with Martin Springett’s The Fionavar Tapestry. This month it is Joshua S Hill’s turn to choose his favourite fantasy artwork and he unhesitatingly opted for Paul Kidby’s work on book 29 of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, Night Watch.

Paul Kidby's illustration that adorns the front cover of Terry Pratchett's Night Watch.

Paul very graciously agreed to talk about the creative process behind the Night Watch illustrations and so I began by asking him if Night Watch was the very first Discworld work that he had undertaken and what was it like to take over the reins from an artist as respected as Josh Kirby, to which he replied:

“The late great Josh Kirby was a kind and generous man who I had the good fortune to meet at various Discworld Conventions before his untimely death in 2001. He encouraged me in my work and we both felt that because our interpretations of the Discworld were so different that there was room enough for us both to explore and visually ‘mine’ its rich seams with our sketchbooks. I had already been working exclusively with Terry since 1995 and had established my own ‘look’ for Discworld and its characters, many of whom had made public appearances in ‘The Pratchett Portfolio’, ‘Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook’ the fully illustrated ‘The Last Hero’, various diaries, maps and the 2000 Discworld calendar.

“To then be asked to produce the cover artwork in 2002 for ‘Night Watch’ was indeed an honour and a challenge for me because I knew I was stepping into some very big shoes.  The fans knew and loved Josh’s distinctive style, which had become synonymous with Discworld book jackets all over the world.”

I was also interested in whether Paul had been asked to keep closely to Josh Kirby’s previous work.

“I think Terry and the publishers knew that it would be best to accept a new approach with a new artist rather than to attempt to re-create the work of Josh for the cover art.  Every artist develops their own unique style which is as individual as a fingerprint and the differences between my work and Josh’s are marked; I work most often in a muted earth colour palette and try to capture a historical feel whilst Josh used a bright palette and filled his page with a myriad of fantastical figures in his own unique and distinctive fantasy genre. My Discworld illustrations were already known by the readership and although my interpretation was very different to Josh’s, it remained true to the spirit of Discworld.”

I then asked whose decision it had been to use Rembrandt’s Night Watch on the front cover and if permission had needed to be obtained before work could begin.

“The idea to paint a Discworld parody of Rembrandt’s own group portrait of the civic guard, ‘The Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq’  c. 1642, otherwise known as ‘The Night Watch’ had been in the back of my mind since reading ‘Guards Guards!’ and it was something I had been hoping for an opportunity to create.  The ‘Night Watch’ book jacket seemed to me to be the ideal occasion and Terry was happy for me to proceed with it.  My depiction is not a direct copy and the characters and costumes are all of my own design therefore permission was not needed to produce the painting, however the original version is also printed on the back cover with full credit given to the main man, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, himself and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam where it hangs.”

An image of ‘The Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq’ c. 1642, otherwise known as ‘The Night Watch’

Fans of the Discworld series will be aware that Paul drew Josh Kirby into the Night Watch cover as a tribute to the late illustrator, in exactly the same place as Rembrandt had drawn himself in the original.

Here Paul describes exactly where the two men appear: “The position of both Josh and Rembrandt is at the very back of the crowd just left of centre.  In my version he appears just visible behind the shoulders of Reg Shoe and Waddy; in Rembrandt’s original he is peering from behind the nattily dressed flag bearer and the soldier in armour.”

And so we come to the creative process itself and the moments that Paul remembers best.

“I rendered my parody in oils and the original is not large at approx. 51×51 cm (not as big as Rembrandt’s which is a huge 363×437 cm and was originally even larger before sections were cut from the sides to fit it onto the wall of the Town Hall on Dam Square where it ended up for a while).

“There had been a charity auction at a Discworld event whilst the book was being written and three fans had paid to be written into the ‘Night Watch’ story.  I was aware that the key characters in Rembrandt’s painting were local well to do society members who had all paid to be included in his painting.  It therefore seemed creatively fitting that the Discworld auction winners should also have their portraits painted into the cover. The original artwork is now owned by one of those featured on the cover.

“I also enjoyed including a young Nobby (in an over-large coat and battered top hat) who stands behind the young and old Vimes.

“I remember I was criticised at the time for producing a cover that was ‘too brown’ and not bright or eye catching enough – it is interesting therefore to note that it has become one of the most popular Discworld covers that I have produced.

“This painting was produced at a time when I was working in close partnership with Terry.  I initially put forward the idea, and we enjoyed discussing it and deciding which characters to include.  I produced a rough for him to see which showed a member of the city watch in the foreground. Terry suggested that figure should be changed to Lu-Tze, which was perfect.

“When I had finished the painting I took it back to him to approve and I was pleased that he liked it.

“I worked on this piece for four weeks.  Following the rough sketch I made a detailed tonal drawing which I then under-painted with Raw Umber to give form and strengthen the tonal contrasts, finally I added highlights and colour which I built up in thin layers of oil paint. As a commercial artist looming deadlines are an unavoidable part of the job and I do my best not to blot my copybook with the publishers by missing them, it would have been easy for me to spend another four weeks on this painting but that would have fallen into the realms of self-indulgence rather than professionalism!”

So when Paul looks back at his work on Night Watch does he see anything that he might want to change?

“I don’t generally enjoy returning to work on my paintings, my aim is to do the very best I can with the time available to me because otherwise I will be haunted by it from the bookshop shelves in years to come.  However in this case, with the luxury of time, I would finish this painting off by giving the soldier behind the dragon (who is in the position of Rembrandt’s dog) a body as at the moment he appears to be just a floating head!”

And then it was time for the final question – did Paul need to read the Discworld books he was asked to illustrate from cover to cover, or was it unnecessary?

“In an ideal world I do like to read the books because an in-depth knowledge helps me to gain valuable insight into the characters and enables me to avoid errors and include details, which I would otherwise miss.  More often than not however, the publishers need the cover art to start promoting the book before the transcript itself is complete.  In those cases I receive a detailed brief from Terry via the publishers, and perhaps a section of the text.  When I worked on the ‘Night Watch’ I was in the fortunate position of being able to read almost the whole novel, minus the final section, which is another reason why the job was such a pleasure for me to work on.”

I hope you have enjoyed reading about the creative process behind this fantastic fantasy artwork and I cannot thank Paul Kidby enough for his time and effort in producing such insightful answers.

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Fantastic fantasy artwork: The Fionavar Tapestry by Martin Springett

Over the coming weeks and months, all the reviewers here on Fantasy Book Review will be selecting their favourite fantasy artwork, choosing books that they are proud to have on their bookshelves, books that are worth buying for the covers alone.

I am very pleased to kick off this series of special features with the work of author, illustrator and musician Martin Springett. In 2006, Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry was reissued in the UK, gloriously adorned by Martin’s illustrations and I clearly remember picking up the first book and being enchanted by its beautiful cover. I could almost feel myself falling into it and I would spend longer and longer just gazing at it, connecting the illustrations to the story that was unfolding. I have many fine-looking books sitting on my bookshelf but the covers of The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road are without question my favourites of them all.

So, without further ado here is Martin, in his own words, talking about the process behind their creation:

“Creating images for book covers is one of the most enjoyable and challenging jobs I have as an Illustrator. No one does anything entirely on their own. There are many unseen connections in the creation of any work, but perhaps especially in the area of book illustration, where one is part of a team including publisher, editor, art director, illustrator, and, of course, author (I should add here that I haven’t had as much input from an author on subsequent cover projects as I had from Guy on these books). Generally the author does not choose the artist who will be creating the covers of his or her books, but will be consulted in the later stages, when the overall visual concept has been agreed on between artist and publisher. Some publishers will do this as a courtesy to the author, others will not. When reading the manuscript of a book I am to illustrate, I make notes on those visual aspects that appeal to me and that I feel give an overall sense of the story. Reading a manuscript in galley form is in fact a very different experience from that of reading a finished, bound book. I recall my first reading of The Summer Tree was from an unbound galley.

The Summer Tree book cover image: UK Reissue of The Fionavar Tapestry, 2006

“I was so caught up in the tale that my living room floor became covered in a blizzard of paper as I let the individual pages fall to the floor. Collecting them up again and putting them in order was a bit of a problem! The Summer Tree has a large cast of characters, and my first instinct was to try and depict this fascinating “parade”, but it seemed to me and to the art director that that would be too literal and ungainly. The publishers, McClelland and Stewart, were I think aware that this was a special book, and wished to have a cover that would reflect this. It was agreed that I should depict an image in the style and manner of a tapestry, decorative rather than literal, with none of the usual western perspective. This was deliciously freeing. I discovered an entirely new way of “seeing”. Instead of trying to convince viewers that they are looking at a three dimensional scene, I was concerned with form and movement on the surface of the picture, rather than attempting to create the illusion of depth. I became much more aware of design. It also gave me insight into images that were created in the medieval period. Ultimately I decided not to feature any of the main characters in the images I was creating for the covers. I think this was partly a reaction to trying to portray them in earlier versions, as I found that the more “realistic” detail I put in, the unhappier I became, as though I was doing a bad re-write and watching all the mystery of the story drain away. This was exactly in line with the way that Guy saw things as well. Somehow the cover illustration should intrigue, should retain the mystery; avoiding being too literal and yet still draw the reader in. In other words the book cover should say “Hello darling, I’m all yours, buy me” – or words to that effect. I met Guy for the first time when I was half way through the drawing of The Summer Tree cover. The circumstances weren’t that favorable at the time. I had made a lot of changes to the design already, and here was this pesky author wanting more. Luckily as it turned out, we were in harmony on the depiction of Fionavar. Guy was generous in his praise of where the cover was at the time, and I was happy to make what turned out to be a simple change: the colour of the unicorn. I’m sure most readers will have noticed by now that I didn’t give the unicorn wings, an oversight I have always wanted to correct. When I came to work on The Wandering Fire I knew exactly where I was. I felt at home being in Fionavar, and by this point I began to feel that I was depicting designs that the people of that world would create for themselves: large tapestries that would hang on the walls to commemorate great deeds or moments in their history. Actually, I have to believe in any world I am asked to create, if it is to have any resonance in my work. There is a technical difference between the first and second covers of the Fionavar books: The Summer Tree is basically a line drawing with colour rendered in inks and airbrush, whereas The Wandering Fire is an acrylic painting, with sky and snow created with inks and airbrush. The sea monster in The Wandering Fire was originally drawn up in black and white ink, but having gazed at so many brightly coloured medieval manuscripts, I knew I wanted to emulate their look, and was frustrated by the harshness of the line work. I did a little experimenting with acrylic, painted out the monster with white acrylic, and began to lay in washes of green and blue paint.

The Wandering Fire book cover image: UK Reissue of The Fionavar Tapestry, 2006

“The Wandering Fire was my second painting. I had always used inks before this, and so not only did I learn a new visual vocabulary doing these pieces, I found a new technique as well.

The Darkest Road book cover image: UK Reissue of The Fionavar Tapestry, 2006

“When I came to The Darkest Road I wanted to take the image to another level, and it has become my favourite of the three. I had become a great admirer of Guy’s work and we became friends during the creation of the trilogy. All that and more is in this image. I felt inspired during the work, and I painted the swan boat last, as I knew I was leaving the world of Fionavar, just as Leyse was. I have painted many book covers since then, but the situation with the trilogy was unique. After the success of The Summer Tree, the Canadian and British publishers basically said “go ahead and do whatever you want on the covers” which of course I was happy to do, so I had complete freedom within the confines of the visual concept now worked out. Also, as more and more publishers around the world bought the images for their editions, I had a financial cushion so I could — and these are the words every artist and writer loves– take my time and get it right. Generally of course, a cover artist is a hired gun. You’re not there to take your time and explore and ruminate to your heart’s content; there’s always a deadline. This is reasonable if not ideal: publishing is a business. Along with Guy’s input, the fact that the books were published in at least ten countries around the world with my covers, and can still be found on bookshelves here in Canada in their original covers sixteen years later, certainly makes the designing of these images unique in my career.”
Martin Springett

The words above have been reproduced with the kind permission of both Martin Springett and Deborah Meghnagi.

What is Martin Springett working on now?

October 18, 2011 will see the publication Caitlin Sweet’s The Pattern Scars (ChiZine Publications), a dark fantasy book which features Martin Springett’s work (not on the cover though). Click on the images below to view it in a larger size.

The Pattern Scars book cover imageAn illustration by Martin Springett featured in The Pattern Scars.Another illustration by Martin Springett featured in The Pattern Scars.

About The Pattern Scars
Nola is born into poverty in Sarsenay City. When her mother realizes that Nola has the gift of Othersight and can foretell the future, she sells her to a brothel seer, who teaches the girl to harness her gift. As she grows up, she embraces her new life, and even finds a small circle of friends. All too soon, her world is again turned upside down when one of them is murdered. When a handsome, young Otherseer from the castle promises to teach her, she eagerly embraces the prospects of luxury beyond what she can imagine and safety from a killer who stalks girls by night. Little does she know that he will soon draw her into a web of murder, treachery, and obsessive desire that will threaten the people and land she holds dear, and that she will soon learn the harshest of lessons: that being able to predict the future has nothing to do with being able to prevent it.

We hope you have enjoyed reading our special feature on Martin Springett and his work, the best place to visit to learn more about him and his work is http://www.martinspringett.com/

We also hope that you will let us know about your favourite book covers/illustrations. Please let us know all about your favourites by using the comments box below, including a link to the images themselves if possible.

The Dark Tower series read by George Guidall and Frank Muller

Cover image of The Gunslinger audio-bookI read the Dark Tower books as they were published, ordered each new instalment as it was released, and thought the first three books were excellent. However, I found the going tough from there until, after reading book six, The Song of Susannah, I simply gave up. But I found that the story never left me and found it increasingly difficult to remember exactly why I never finished a series on which I had dedicated so much time.

So, after stumbling across the audio-book of the first book in a series of seven, The Gunslinger, I decided to listen, back-to-back, to the entire series. And it provided me with the most enjoyable 132 hours and 45 minutes of commuting time that I have ever experienced, so well do the books lend themselves to the format and in George Guidall and Frank Muller they showcase the talents of 2 excellent voice actors.

Yes, I still had big problems with the sixth book but it did not detract from the overall magnificence of the production.

For those who know absolutely nothing about the Dark Tower books, here is a brief outline of  Stephen King‘s magnum opus.

Set in a world that is weirdly related to our own, The Gunslinger introduces Roland Deschain of Gilead, of In-World that was, as he pursues his enigmatic antagonist to the mountains that separate the desert from the Western Sea. Roland, the last gunslinger, is a solitary figure, perhaps accursed, who with a strange single-mindedness traverses an exhausted, almost timeless landscape of good and evil. The people he encounters are left behind, or worse, left dead. At a way station, however, he meets Jake, a boy from a particular time (1977) and a particular place (New York City), and soon the two are joined, khef, ka, and ka-tet. The mountains lie before them. So does the man in black and, somewhere far beyond… the Dark Tower.

The Gunslinger is the shortest book of the series, and accordingly the shortest listen at 7 hours and 24 minutes. The narration is very good with George Guidall (who has recorded over 900 unabridged novels) fitting perfectly with the book’s western feel. But good as The Gunslinger was the second book, The Drawing of the Three, saw a change of narrator as Frank Muller took over the reins.

One thing is obvious – Frank Muller was born to read these books. He is simply magnificent and the way in which he brings each character to life is stunning. When I first heard him speak in Roland’s voice it was like hearing the voice I personally had for the character repeated back to me.

I had never heard of Frank Muller before but a little research showed that it was he that Stephen King always wanted to narrate his work and I instantly realised why. It is difficult to find the words to describe how good he is and so I will repeat an earlier point – when I read a book the characters will form a look and sound within my mind and somehow Muller managed to capture these perfectly (and I know I will not be alone in finding this).

However, my research into Muller also uncovered the tragic news that, in early June 2008, he died at the age of 57 following a courageous six-year battle to recover from a devastating motorcycle accident (Stephen King reads a dedication to Muller at the end of Wizard and Glass). And from that point on the recording was always tinged with a touch of sadness.

The following 2 books, The Waste Lands and Wizard and Glass, were great, with the latter book being much more enjoyable second time around. The 5th book, Wolves of the Calla, finds George Guidall once again behind the microphone and although he might not scale the same aural heights as Muller, he was the perfect choice to complete the series and, after a short period of transition, I found myself once again comfortable in his capable hands.

And then we come to Song for Susannah and I remembered the 2 reasons why I hadn’t enjoyed the book first time around. Firstly there is the fact that King had begun to write himself into the story. Not as a brief cameo (which would have been acceptable) but as an almost demi-god that was all-powerful. I found that this broke the spell under which the series has previously held me and King almost seemed intent on shouting “This isn’t real you know! These are just figments of my imagination!” from the highest peaks. To enjoy a series such as this you need to suspend your disbelief and as such the direction the author took seemed a peculiar one. Secondly there was the way the Japanese were portrayed in a section of the book. Now this might be by explained by stating that they could have been Susannah’s thoughts and words but it seemed completely out of place and reminiscent of George Lucas and his cringe-inducing Trade Federation in the newer Star Wars films. I have read a lot of Stephen King and have never found him the least bit racist (quite the opposite in fact) and this is why I was so surprised by the base ridiculing of the Japanese race.

And so, more than 10 years after I read the first page of The Gunslinger, I finally reached the 7th and final book, The Dark Tower. And once King himself finally (and belatedly) took a bow, the story moved towards a fitting climax. In fact, the ending still resonates with me now, many weeks after having listened to it, and I could not see a way in which it could have been done better. And so the decision to listen through the series in its entirety was rewarded amply as the series became a fine companion over the period of many months. As winter turned into spring and as spring turned into summer, I followed Roland Deschain across the desert all the way to the foot of The Dark Tower itself. It is a journey I will never forgot and one I will always remember fondly.

If, like me, you have a lengthy commute, I could not recommend more highly that you spend that time in the company of Stephen King’s epic, so wonderfully brought to life by Guidall and Muller.

Listen and enjoy.

9.3/10

The Dark Tower series (unabridged) by Stephen King
Narrated by George Guidall (The Gunslinger, Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah, The Dark Tower) and Frank Muller (The Drawing of the Three, The Waste Lands, Wizard and Glass)
Length: 132 hours, 45 minutes
Publisher: Penguin Audiobooks

Blurring The Lines: The Fantasy Thriller by Anne-Mhairi Simspon

The Fantasy Book Review. Not the Thriller Book Review, or the Romance Book Review. Genre is why we’re here. We love fantasy. We love the escapism, the larger-than-life characters, the extreme situations. To us, there is no real conflict unless it involves something undead which can only be killed by symbols combined with a sword which hasn’t been seen in a thousand years and a pure heart.

But the genres have more in common that we might think. You can’t have any one in isolation. Or rather, you can, but it would make for a fairly simple story. Fantasy began with friendship and a quest and weird and wonderful creatures and magic, but it has evolved. Fantasy no longer stands alone.

Tolkein is universally acknowledged to have written somewhat weighty prose. I will admit I only read The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings because I felt I should, for someone who loved fantasy so much. So it was more like homework, or research, than pure escapism.

Nowadays, the style varies but there is, I think, a tendency towards action rather than description. Short sentences that move the action or the development of a character or relationship forward are more common now, rather than twenty pages of description relating to trees and the precise way in which they grow so as to provide optimum coverage and foraging possibilities for the small animals that live in and around them, none of whom are actually relevant to the story. Sound familiar? If it doesn’t, you probably haven’t read Tolkein.

I never really got on with Tolkein’s style. I’m probably too young, but I’ve always preferred the snappier, action-filled books, like Terry Pratchett’s, or Anne McCaffrey’s. I realised one day that I wanted my books to read more like thrillers. Action-packed, always moving forwards, plenty of doing and not much scenery. So I decided to do some research. I bought a few Patterson books and got a feel for the style. Then I realised I pretty much wrote like that anyway.

Which was a bit of a blow. I mean, how depressing is it to do research and then discover, not only that you already knew this stuff, but that you hadn’t known you knew it? If that’s never happened to you, it’s mildly depressing. I mean, writers are supposed to be into the introspective stuff, right? Apparently I hadn’t been doing it properly.

So I like writing thriller-type fantasies, where the action moves fast and you only hear about the trees if they’re going to fall on someone’s head. Which, when they do, they do with the utmost amount of noise and fuss but not a single adjective or adverb. Verbs, baby, VERBS are where it’s at!

Unfortunately this has made me the pickiest reader on God’s green Earth. I used to be happy to sit back and read a book and all I’d notice were the typos. Now I notice the entire chapter that does nothing to advance the action, I notice the adjectives/adverbs/run on sentences and I notice when a character is being a big fat out-of-character wussy wuss and it all annoys me. That never happens to me when I read thrillers. But it happens quite a lot when I read fantasy books.

This makes me sad. But there’s nothing I can do about it, except write fantasy books in the style of a thriller, where every word counts and not in the style of a traditional fantasy book where entire chapters will be spent discussing the main character’s family history and what she sees when she looks in the mirror.

Who cares if she looks in the mirror? Is she about to see in the mirror a demon metamorphose behind her in a cloud of mist? Is the mirror suddenly going to break into seven pieces and split her soul into seven pieces and each piece of the mirror trap a piece of her soul in a different world? Is the damn thing going to crack because she’s so damn ugly and this happens every damn day and why can’t she remember her mother’s advice not to look in the mirror because manticores always break the damn mirror?

You see what I mean? Thrillers are big on action and plot. Maybe I should only read thrillers. Or I could find authors who write fantasy with tight prose. Peter V Brett’s The Painted Man (The Warded Man in the U.S.) is an example of this.

Oh, you thought there was a point to this post? Er… wait, yes, there is! The point is that the genres are no longer as cut and dried as they used to be. Next week I’ll talk about romance in fantasy. Which I generally don’t write, so that will be a learning curve for all of us.

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All her life Anne-Mhairi has told herself stories, even when they involved her dolls and toy horses, or lego dogs and horses (which the instructions were wrong about, so she made up her  own). To find out more about her experiences in sharing these stories with the rest of the world, check out her website here. Anne-Mhairi also writes The Elemental Races, a collaborative serial where the readers dictate the hero’s actions at the end of each episode. Voting goes through Saturday midnight (US Pacific Coast time)

 

Nostalgia Lane #1: Ladyhawke by Joan D Vinge

In the late 1980s I came across a book that really enchanted me. It made a strong and lasting impression on my adolescent mind and I’m sure it played no small part in forging an everlasting love for the fantasy genre. The book was Ladyhawke and its author was Joan D Vinge. So, more than twenty years on, I thought I would revisit it and see if the magic was still there.

Back then, should anybody mention the film Ladyhawke, I would be compelled to say “Ah, but you should read the book, it is much better” or “The film just doesn’t do the book justice”. On re-read I find that these comments are at best ill-judged (at worst idiotic) as I found the book to be an expansion on the screenplay. The difference then was my imagination created vivid settings and characters that no film would ever match, hence the reasons I thought the two so different.

I’m sure that you can already tell that the experience second time around was not quite as fulfilling, but such is the curse of nostalgia. But I still found Ladyhawke to be a fun read and the core elements of the story are just as excellent as ever. For those unfamiliar with the story, here is  brief synopsis:

No one ever escapes the dungeons of Aquila… But Philippe Gaston did. The thief known as the Mouse escaped through the cracks where the rats couldn’t run. Running for his life and pursued by the Bishop’s guards, he was saved by the sword-arm of the dark rider on a great black horse… Who was this fearsome warrior, silhouetted against the darkening skyline with the strange and beautiful hunting hawk on his fist… And why did he so fear the black fall of night? Together they must journey towards a day of destiny… A day without light and a night without darkness, when the Bishop of Aquila must face the lovers he has cursed and the Evil One can claim his own…

And it is the curse laid upon the two lovers that made the book so special for me. The curse meant that he, Navarre, was by day a man, by night a wolf. It also meant that she, Isobelle, was by day a hawk, by night a woman. Never could they be together in human form, other than for a split second at dawn and dusk. I’m sure you will all agree that it is a great basis for a story, classic fantasy, and the pain, suffering and hopelessness of Navarre and Isobelle is brought clearly to the page by Vinge’s clever writing.

ladyhawke

Picture: In 1982 Richard Donner produced a directed the film Ladyhawke, starring Rutger Hauer, Michelle Pfeiffer and Matthew Broderick.

Vinge, best known for her Hugo Award-winning novel The Snow Queen and its sequels, already had a fine pedigree in movie serialisations with Star Wars: Return of the Jedi – The Storybook (1983), The Dune Storybook (1984), Return to Oz (1985), Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) Santa Claus: The Movie (1985) and Lost in Space (1998) to her name. And she did a sound a thoroughly professional job with Ladyhawke. It is a poignant and moving novel, with a simplicity of narrative that is refreshing.

Did it read as well second time around? Not quite. Although still a very enjoyable story with a great plot it does read more like a screenplay than a story. I would still recommend it though, particularly to young adults and those who like a large slice of romance in their fantasy. As for me, Ladyhawke will always have a fond place on my bookshelf and in my heart.

On March 2, 2002, Vinge was severely injured in a car accident that left her with “minor but debilitating” brain damage that, along with her fibromyalgia, left her unable to write. She recovered to the point of being able to resume writing around the beginning of 2007. At the time of her accident in 2002, she had been working on a new, independent novel called Ladysmith, set in Bronze Age Europe; she resumed writing Ladysmith once she was able to begin writing again in 2007.

I’m pleased to say that Ladysmith will be available in paperback in November 2012.

Hellblazer: Pandemonium reviewed

World weary occult detective John Constantine is blackmailed by British Intelligence into undertaking a special interrogation assignment in war-torn Iraq. His guide and fixer is Aseera al-Aswari, an Iraqi archaeology graduate who happens to also be the bait used by the Intelligence Service to entrap him into their service.

Forming an uneasy alliance suffused with sexual tension, Aseera leads Constantine to Abu Ghraib to interrogate a prisoner with unnatural abilities that have thus far frustrated all attempts at questioning. Constantine’s unique knowledge of the supernatural allow him to recognise and communicate with a djinn inhabiting the prisoner’s body. The interrogation reveals much larger and darker forces at work. The culmination of Constantine’s investigations lead him to Kutha, ancient temple of Assyrian deities. Here, he discovers that war is hell in the most literal sense – that the horror, violence and fanaticism of the Iraqi war is being channelled by old adversary the demon Nergal into feeding the economy of Hell. To win vital concessions, he uses his innate cunning to champion the forces of good in the game of war – allegorically an ancient form of poker – where the stakes are the very souls of the war’s victims.

Pandemonium is a welcome return by the original writer of Hellblazer, Jamie Delano. His definitive writing style portrays Constantine at his dubious best: acerbic, antagonistic, witty, contrary – a chain-smoking, foul-mouthed cynic of uncertain morality with an innate ability to mix with all walks of society without being a part of any. Pandemonium pulls no punches: you are thrown straight into Constantine’s murky world without preamble or prior explanation. The story provides an alternative take on a contemporary theme, namely the War on Terror. It’s inventive, mixing enough fact with the fiction to make a satisfyingly plausible yet fantastic storyline. The novel has the feel of film noir throughout with gritty dialogue and a brooding atmosphere. The narrative is provided through the character of Constantine – a man of few words, that nevertheless thinks volumes. He is a character of contrasts that is neither good nor bad, black nor white but a smoky, amoral grey that nevertheless has a fundamental belief in people. When he speaks, he can be terse or dismissive, though in stark contrast often his inner monologue rambles. Sometimes he drops a philosophical gem, equally often it’s a throwaway line that merely serves as a vessel for his black sense of humour (a djinn in a bottle of gin?).

The artwork by Jock I have to say at first glance I wasn’t really taken with. I confess to having a predilection for more detailed artwork from artists such as Simon Bisley. However within a few pages, I revised my opinion since any other style would have detracted from the storyline. As portrayed, Jock’s work is minimalistic, edgy, dark and urban and really marries with the narrative perfectly. In this case, less is definitely more – I am therefore a convert.

Because the reader is dropped straight into the thick of it, I believe Pandemonium is really fodder for existing fans of Hellblazer rather than casual readers. That isn’t to say it wouldn’t prove to be an entertaining read for the uninitiated, but at £14.99 retail for the hardback, most casual readers I think would baulk. But those fans previously acquainted with Constantine’s complex character will doubtless derive the most from this particular novel. For them it pays in spades. Get it.

Fantasy Book Review Fantasy Short Story Competition 2011

*** THE COMPETITION IS NOW CLOSED – THANK YOU FOR ALL THE FANTASTIC ENTRIES ***

The winning short-stories will be announced on November 1, 2011 with the stories being published both here and on the Swift Publishers website the following week.

UPDATE – A longlist of 22 has just been announced. The shortlist of 9  will be published as soon as we have read each and every submission.

This year, Fantasy Book Review, in association with Swift Publishers, is delighted to be able to run a short story competition. The writer of the winning fantasy short story will receive an Apple iPad (we are working on also having the winning entry published), the two runner-ups will receive Amazon Kindle. The best news of all is that each applicable entry will receive a free copy of Frank P Ryan’s fantasy ebook THE SNOWMELT RIVER (read our review here). Everybody wins!

The winner of the Fantasy Book Review Fantasy Short Story Competition will receive an Apple iPad

Full rules and conditions can be found below but in brief it is imperative that all submitted work be the author’s original work, between 2,000 and 5,000 English words with a fantasy theme woven throughout. Entries can be submitted from today (April 10, 2011) up until September 10, 2011, with the winners being announced on November 1, 2011 and published on the site exactly one week later.

Fantasy author Frank P Ryan has very kindly supplied a guide to how to write a fantasy short story especially for the Fantasy Book Review Short Story Competition 2011. Full of sound advice and tips it is an essential guide for anyone sitting down to write a fantasy short story.  You can view and download the PDF by either clicking here or on the screenshot below.

How to write a fantasy short story by Frank P Ryan

So, what are you waiting for? Why not start writing today and when you are happy with your mini-masterpiece, simply email fantasyshortstorycompetition@fantasybookreview.co.uk with your entry as an attachment (please read terms and conditions below for full submission details). If your entry meets the qualification guidelines in the terms and conditions you will receive a copy of THE SNOWMELT RIVER ebook to the email address associated to your submission.

As well as attaching the short story in Word document, please answer the following questions within the body of the email:

Your full name (first name and surname):
Country of residence:

All that is left to say is good luck and happy writing and that if you have any further questions please do not hesitate to contact us.

Fantasy Book Review

Rules and Conditions of Entry

The 2 runner-ups will receive an Amazon Kindle.Please read the following points carefully before emailing your submission:

  1. All rights to the submitted story will remain with the author. However, by entering the competition you are agreeing – in the event of said story being a winning entry – to the publication of the submitted story on Fantasy Book Review;
  2. The submitted story must be the author’s own original work without copying in whole or in part from any other source. Plagiarism will result in immediate disqualification;
  3. The story must be written in readable English;
  4. The story must not have been published previously in any journal, compendium, book, or formal digital publication;
  5. Entrants may submit only one short story;
  6. Submissions from two or more groups of individuals will not be accepted;
  7. The story will consist of a minimum of 2,000 words and a maximum of 5,000 words;
  8. Entries must be typed in English and submitted as a Word document (.doc or .docx) attachment on an email (we cannot accept handwritten or printed entries);
  9. No updated or revised entries will be accepted after initial entry;
  10. Entries must be received on or before September 10, 2011;
  11. The winner and two runners-up will be announced on the websites http://www.fantasybookreview.co.uk and www.swiftpublishers.com on November 1, 2011;
  12. The judges decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into;
  13. An iPad will be awarded to the overall winner, Amazon Kindles to two runners-up;
  14. Entries cannot be returned;
  15. The winning entry and the runners-up will be published Fantasy Book Review and Swift Publishers (www.swiftpublishers.com) on November 8, 2011;
  16. Swift Publishers will undertake to provide an e-book copy of the fantasy novel, THE SNOWMELT RIVER, by Frank P Ryan, to all entrants once their entries are formally accepted by Fantasy Book Review. These ebooks will be sent as e-mail attachments to the e-mail address provided by the entrant. The entrant will be contacted by e-mail and asked to nominate their choice of e-formats from pdf, e-Pub and Mobi Pocket. Only a single copy will be sent to each entrant. For these purposes, the onus to provide a functioning and reliable e-mail address will be on the entrant;
  17. The organisers reserve the right to disqualify entries deemed unsuitable;
  18. All care will be taken but no responsibility will be accepted for misplaced work. Fantasy Book Review cannot accept responsibility for lost, damaged or delayed entries. Proof of posting or digital transmission is not proof of receipt;
  19. Employees, contractors or persons directly or professionally associated with Fantasy Book Review or Swift Publishers may not enter this competition;
  20. Short-listed entrants may be asked to confirm the originality and/or authenticity of their entry;
  21. All entrants agree to be bound by the rules of the competition. Failure on the part of any entrant to adhere to any or all of these rules will render the entry in question invalid;
  22. Prize-winners may be required to participate in publicity (photographs, interview, quotations, etc.);
  23. The promoters reserve the right to change prize specifications subject to availability at the conclusion of this competition. No cash or alternative in whole or in part of the prizes will be offered;
  24. Canvassing of adjudicators will result in automatic disqualification;
  25. Notwithstanding that the winners may have been declared, if the organizers discover before the distribution of prizes that for any reason under these rules a winner should have been ineligible to enter the competition or if the entry should have been declared invalid, the organizers reserve the right to determine that a winning entrant is disqualified;
  26. The promoter does not commit to notifying unsuccessful entrants of the competition or to returning unsuccessful entries;
  27. Postage and all other associated costs are the responsibility of the entrant;
  28. The promoter reserves the right to amend any part of these terms and conditions and/or the rules of the competition as might be required without notice;
  29. The promoter reserves the right to change any aspect of this competition for any reason whatsoever without notice.

The Amulet of Samarkand: A Bartimaeus graphic novel reviewed

Adapted by Jonathan Stroud and Andrew Donkin. Art by Lee Sullivan. Colour by Nicolas Chapuis.

Fantasy Book Review Young-Adult Book of the Month, April 2011

Nathaniel, a young magician’s apprentice, has revenge on his mind. Desperate to defy his master and take on more challenging spells, he secretly summons the 5,000-year-old djinni, Bartimaeus. But Bartimaeus’s task is not an easy one – he must steal the powerful Amulet of Samarkand from Simon Lovelace, a master magician of unrivalled ruthlessness and ambition.

It is very difficult to review this graphic novel without constantly referring back to the original book. I am a big fan of the trilogy (The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem’s Eye and Ptolemy’s Gate) and count it amongst the best fantasy trilogies available so I will get the first question I asked myself out of the way early and quickly… Is this graphic novel as good as the book upon which it is based? Not quite, but almost. And for the remainder of the review I will try to keep comparisons to a minimum and treat it as the separate medium that it is.

The Amulet of Samarkand: A Bartimaeus graphic novel cover

The first thing you notice upon picking up this graphic novel is the artwork. The work by Lee Sullivan (Transformers, Judge Dredd and Doctor Who) is stunning, detailed and spookily close to my own imaginings of the characters and locations. If you add to this the vibrant colours of Nicolas Chapuis (who has previously worked on the graphic novel adaptation of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time) you are presented with a graphic novel that is beautiful to look upon. In fact, excellency marks all aspects of this graphic novel, from the story to the art, colour and lettering it is obvious that those involved in their roles are amongst the very best at their craft.

The book is of course reduced (496 to 144 pages) and there is much to to this graphic novel that is cinematic with a screenplay feel. The most important thing for me was that the relationship between Nathanial and Bartimaeus was able to build as it had in the book and that the humour, such a vital ingredient in the trilogies success, was successfully transferred across. This task fell to Andrew Donkin, the co-writer of the successful graphic novel adaptations of Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl and Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident. Donkin achieved  the transfer with great aplomb and many of the poignant and laugh-out-loud moments are thankfully still to be found.

This graphic novel should appeal on all seven planes, from those familiar with the books to complete newbies. Where I think this may well come up trumps is with a reluctant reader – a youngster confronted with a graphic novel will react differently to one with a 500-page book of words shoved under their nose. It would be nice to think that said reluctant reader, upon enjoying the graphic novel, felt compelled to give the book a try and thereby be rewarded with an even fuller story. I believe that this was the case with the Artemis Fowl graphic novels, hopefully the same will happen here.

Everybody involved in this book has done a marvellous job and should be congratulated. That this is currently available on Amazon for just over a fiver offers great value for money considering the work that has gone into creating it. Highly recommended.

The Bartimaeus Trilogy (The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem’s Eye and Ptolemy’s Gate), and the prequel Bartimaeus: The Ring of Solomon have now sold more than six million copies around the world.