Monday, November 30, 2009

Hattori Hachi - The Revenge of the Praying Mantis by Jane Prowse


Synopsis:

Fifteen year old Hattie Jackson’s apparently normal life in Camden changes forever when her Japanese mother Chiyoko disappears one night under mysterious circumstances. Hattie is understandably startled to discover that she and her mother are, in fact, the last in a line of renowned ninjutsu warriors and that, if she is to stand any chance at all of rescuing Chiyoko, she must face her ancient family’s most implacable enemy – Praying Mantis. Before she can do that, however, she has much to learn …

Hattori Hachi - The Revenge of the Praying Mantis by Jane Prowse took me utterly by surprise. To be honest, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Maybe a book filled with a little bit more fluff with a teen angsting about boyfriends, clothes and whatever. Instead what I got was a girl called Hattie (Hachi) who was strong, independent, clever and remarkable in every way. Within the first 3 pages we know exactly who Hattie is, what her parents do, the fact that they used to travel quite a lot for her dad's work (he's a police officer) and that what's normal for Hattie isn't quite normal for us...her mother creates fun and exciting excercises for Hattie and had been doing so since she was a small child: running along high beams, climbing, kicking, punching, running, mental excercises and riddles.


It's only when Hattie's mother goes missing that Hattie realises her mother's been training her to become a ninja. Just like her. And that they are part of a long line of ninjitsu warriors. With the help of the fantastically named Mad Dog (Michael in real life) and their Japanese neighbour who is incredibly adept at disguises and is feroricious in her training of Hattie (her Western name), Hattie strengthens both body and mind. She goes through an entire and very intense training regime whilst trying to a) figure out what's really happened to her mother b) who the viscious enemy really is c) how to overcome the enemy and save her mother and try and fix the awful things the enemy had been doing in the area.


The big question in Hattori Hachi is: who to trust? Nothing is quite as it seems. As Hattie learns more about her inheritance, who she is, who her mother is, her place in the world, we can't help but root for her. Here we have a strong and individual young female character who is sporty, funny, intelligent and knows her own mind. She has a true friend in her BFF Neena and in Mad Dog she has the support and strength and training partner for her ninjitsu lessons. I am very impressed with Hattie, I love the fact that she can kick butt if she wants to but holds back and thinks things through - but not always. I love the fact that she comes across as this strong individual who is proactive and maybe a bit stubborn. She stays true to herself and to her family and most importantly, she believes in her training and knows that her mother would not have started her out on this path if she didn't think Hattie couldn't cope with it.


Jane Prowse has given us our own female Alex Rider. And I can't shout loud enough about Hattori Hachi. There's so much to her that it feels like she should have her own tv show or something. Her escapades around Camden with Mad Dog and Neena are well written - you never get the impression that the author has tried talking down to her audience. There is a strong sense of place and familiarity and Hattie's voice is loud and clear - her motivations easy to read and her enemies suitably scary, twisted and terrifying. It's this that makes Hattie unique and loveable. She's cool under pressure and can indeed kick the butt I mentioned earlier on.


Hattori Hachi is an involved tale of lost family, found family, lies and deception. All in a day's work for the training ninjitsu warrior.


I'd like to add that although most boys would look at the cover and the title and think "girly book" - it's anything but. If you've enjoyed writers like Eoin Colfer and Chris Bradford's Way of the Warrior (Young Samurai), especially when it comes to the action and the training scenes, this is definitely up your street! Hattori Hachi is definitely a 2009 recommended read.


Find the website for Hattori Hachi: Revenge of the Praying Mantis here. The follow-up novel: Hattori Hachi: Stalking the Enemy is due for release shortly.

**Exclusive** Chapter 1 of Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard



Thanks to the chaps at Angry Robot for this little exclusive - we get to serialise the first five chapters of Aliette de Bodard's Servant of the Underworld this week. Servant of the Underworld is due for release in January 2010. Holy cow - 2010!!!!!
Chapter 1

In the silence of the shrine, I bowed to the corpse on the altar: a minor member of the Imperial Family, who had died in a boating accident on Lake Texcoco. My priests had bandaged the gaping wound on his forehead and smoothed the wrinkled skin as best as they could; they had dressed him with scraps of many-coloured cotton and threaded a jade bead through his lips – preparing him for the long journey ahead. As High Priest for the Dead, it was now my responsibility to ease his passage into Mictlan, the underworld.


I slashed my earlobes and drew thorns through the wounds, collecting the dripping blood in a bowl, and started a litany for the Dead.

“The river flows northward
The mountains crush, the mountains bind…”

Grey light suffused the shrine, the pillars and the walls fading away to reveal a much larger place, a cavern where everything found its end. The adobe floor glimmered as if underwater. And shadows trailed, darkening the painted frescoes on the walls – singing a wordless lament, a song that twisted in my guts like a knife-stab. The underworld.

“Obsidian shards are driven into your hands, into your feet,
Obsidian to tear, to rend
You must endure–”

The copper bells sewn on the entrance-curtain tinkled as someone drew it aside, and hurried footsteps echoed under the roof of the shrine. “Acatl-tzin!” Ichtaca called.


Startled, I stopped chanting – and instinctively reached up, to quench the flow of blood from my earlobes before the atmosphere of Mictlan could overwhelm the shrine. With the disappearance of the living blood, the spell was broken, and the world sprang into sudden, painful focus.


I turned, then, not hiding my anger. A broken spell would have left a link to Mictlan – a miasma that would only grow thicker as time passed, darkening the shrine, the pyramid it sat upon, and the entire temple complex until the place became unusable. “I hope you have a good reason…”
Ichtaca, the Fire Priest of the temple and my second-in-command, stood on the threshold – his fingers clenched on the conch-shell around his neck. “I apologise for interrupting you, Acatl-tzin, but he was most insistent.”


“He?”


The curtain twisted aside, and someone walked into the shrine: Yaotl. My heart sank. Yaotl never came for good news.


“I apologise,” Yaotl said, with a curt nod of his head towards the altar, though clearly he meant none of it. Yaotl answered only to his mistress, Ceyaxochitl; and she in turn, as Guardian of the Sacred Precinct and keeper of the invisible boundaries, answered only to Revered Speaker Ayaxacatl, the ruler of the Mexica Empire. “But we need you.”


Again? Even though I was High Priest for the Dead, it seemed that Ceyaxochitl still considered me little better than a slave, to be summoned whenever she wanted. “What is it this time?”
Yaotl’s scarred face twisted in what might have been a smile. “It’s bad.”


“Hmm,” I said. I should have known better than to ask him about the nature of the emergency. Yaotl enjoyed keeping me in ignorance, probably as a way to compensate for his station as a slave. I snatched up my grey cotton cloak from the stone floor and wrapped it around my shoulders. “I’m coming. Ichtaca, can you take over for me?”

Yaotl waited for me outside the shrine, on the platform of the pyramid temple, his embroidered cloak fluttering in the breeze. We descended the stairs of the pyramid side by side, in silence. Beneath us, moonlight shone on the temple complex, a series of squat adobe buildings stretching around a courtyard. Even at this hour, priests for the Dead were awake, saying vigils, conducting examinations of the recently dead, and propitiating the rulers of the underworld: Mictlantecuhtli and his wife, Mictecacihuatl, Lord and Lady Death.


Further on was the vast expanse of the Sacred Precinct: the mass of temples, shrines and penitential palaces that formed the religious heart of the Mexica Empire. And, still further, the houses and fields and canals of the island-city of Tenochtitlan, thousands of small lights burning away under the stars and moon.


We walked from the bottom of the steps to the gates of my temple, and then onto the plaza of the Sacred Precinct. At this hour of the night, it was blessedly free of the crowds that congregated in the day, of all the souls eager to earn the favours of the gods. Only a few offering priests were still abroad, singing hymns; and a few, younger novice priests, completing their nightly run around the Precinct’s Serpent Wall. The air was warm and heavy, a presage of the rains and of the maize harvest to come.


To my surprise, Yaotl did not lead me to the Imperial Palace. I’d expected this mysterious summons to be about noblemen. The last time Ceyaxochitl had asked for me in the middle of the night, it had been for a party of drunk administrators who had managed to summon a beast of the shadows from Mictlan. We’d spent a night tracking down the monster before killing it with obsidian knives.


Yaotl walked purposefully on the empty plaza, past the main temple complexes and the houses of elite warriors. I had thought that we were going to the temple of Toci, Grandmother Earth, but Yaotl bypassed it completely, and led me to a building in its shadow: something neither as tall nor as grand as the pyramid shrines, a subdued, sprawling affair of rooms opening on linked courtyards, adorned with frescoes of gods and goddesses.


The girls’ calmecac: the House of Tears, a school where the children of the wealthy, as well as those vowed to the priesthood, would receive their education. I had never been there; the clergy of Mictlantecuhtli was exclusively male, and I had trouble enough with our own students.


I couldn’t imagine, though, what kind of magical offences untrained girls would commit. “Are you sure?” I asked Yaotl but, characteristically, he walked into the building without answering me.
I suppressed a sigh and followed him, bowing slightly to the priestess in feather regalia who kept vigil at the entrance.


Inside, all was quiet, but it was the heavy calm before the rains. As I crossed courtyard after courtyard, I met the disapproving glances of senior offering priestesses, and the curious gazes of young girls who stood on the threshold of their ground-floor dormitories.


Yaotl led me to a courtyard near the centre of the building. Two rooms with pillared entrances opened on this. He went towards the leftmost one and, pulling aside the curtain, motioned me into a wide room.


It seemed an ordinary place, a room like any other in the city: an entrance curtain set with bells, gently tinkling in the evening breeze, walls adorned with frescoes of gods – and, in the centre, a simple reed sleeping mat framed by two wooden chests. Copal incense burnt in a clay brazier, bathing the room in a soft, fragrant light that stung my eyes. And everything, from the chests to the mat, reeked of magic: a pungent, acrid smell that clung to the walls and to the beaten-earth floor like a miasma.


That wasn’t natural. Even in the calmecac, there were strictures on the use of the living blood, restrictions on the casting of spells. Furthermore this looked like the private room of a priestess, not a teaching room for adolescent girls.


“What happened–” I started, turning to Yaotl.


But he was already halfway through the door. “Stay here. I’ll tell Mistress Ceyaxochitl you’ve arrived, Acatl-tzin.” In his mouth, even the tzin honorific sounded doubtful.


“Wait!” I said, but all that answered me was the sound of bells from the open door. I stood alone in that room, with no idea of why I was there at all.


Tlaloc’s lightning strike Yaotl.


I looked again at the room, wondering what I could guess of the circumstances that had brought me here. It looked like a typical priestess’s room: few adornments, the same rough sleeping mat and crude wicker chests found in any peasant’s house. Only the frescoes bore witness to the wealth of the calmecac school, their colours vibrant in the soft light, every feature of the gods sharply delineated. The paintings represented Xochipilli, God of Youth and Games, and His Consort, Xochiquetzal, Goddess of Lust and Childbirth. They danced in a wide garden, in the midst of flowers. The Flower Prince held a rattle, His Consort a necklace of poinsettias as red as a sacrifice’s blood.


Dark stains marred the faces of both gods. No, not only the faces, every part of Their apparel from Their feathered headdresses to Their clawed hands. Carefully, I scraped off one of the stains and rubbed it between my fingers. Blood.


Dried blood. I stared at the floor again – at what I had taken for dark earth in the dim light of the brazier. The stain was huge – spreading over the whole room, soaking the earth so thoroughly it had changed its colour. I’d attended enough sacrifices and examinations to know the amount of blood in the human body, and I suspected that the stain represented more than half of that. What in the Fifth World had happened here?


I stood in the centre of the room and closed my eyes. Carefully, I extended my priest-senses and probed at the magic, trying to see its nature. Underworld magic, yet… no, not quite. It was human, and it had been summoned in anger, in rage, an emotion that still hung in the room like a pall. But it didn’t have the sickly, spread-out feeling of most underworld magic. Not a beast of shadows, then.


Nahual. It had to be nahual magic: a protective jaguar spirit summoned in the room. Judging by the amount of blood in the vicinity, it had done much damage. Who, or what, had been wounded here?


I had been remiss in not taking any supplies before leaving my temple – trusting Yaotl to provide what I needed, which was always a mistake with the wily slave. I had no animal sacrifices, nothing to practise the magic of living blood.


No, not quite. I did have one source of living blood: my own body. With only my blood, I might not be able to perform a powerful spell; but there was a way to know whether someone had died in this room. Death opened a gate into Mictlan, the underworld, and the memory of that gate would still be in the room. Accessing it wouldn’t be a pleasant experience, but Huitzilpochtli, the Southern Hummingbird, blind me if I let Ceyaxochitl manipulate me once more.


I withdrew one of the obsidian blades that I always carried in my belt, and nicked my right earlobe with it. I’d done it so often that I barely flinched at the pain that spread upwards, through my ear. Blood dripped, slowly, steadily, onto the blade – each drop, pulsing on the rhythm of my heartbeat, sending a small shock through the hilt when it connected with the obsidian.


I brought the tip of the knife in contact with my own hand, and carefully drew the shape of a human skull. As I did so, I sang a litany to my patron Mictlantecuhtli, God of the Dead:

“Like the feathers of a precious bird
That precious bird with the emerald tail
We all come to an end
Like a flower
We dry up, we wither…”

A cold wind blew across the room, lifting the entrance-curtain – the tinkle of the bells was muffled, as if coming from far away, and the walls of the room slowly receded, revealing only darkness – but odd, misshapen shadows slid in and out of my field of vision, waiting for their chance to leap, to tear, to feast on my beating heart.

“We reach the land of the fleshless
Where jade turns to dust
Where feathers crumble into ash
Where our flowers, our songs are forever extinguished
Where all the tears rain down…”

A crack shimmered into existence, in the centre of the chamber: the entrance to a deep cavern, a cenote, at the bottom of which dark, brackish water shimmered in cold moonlight. Dry, wizened silhouettes splashed through the lake – the souls of the Dead, growing smaller and smaller the farther they went, like children’s discarded toys. They sang as they walked: cold whispers, threads of sound which curled around me, clinging to my naked skin like snakes. I could barely make out the words, but surely, if I stayed longer, if I bent over the cenote until I could see the bottom of the water…


If I…


No. I wasn’t that kind of fool.


With the ease of practise, I passed the flat of the knife across the palm of my other hand – focusing on nothing but the movement of the blade until the image of the skull was completely erased.


When I raised my eyes again, the crack had closed. The walls were back, with the vivid, reassuring colours of the frescoes; and the song of the Dead had faded into the whistle of the wind through the trees of the courtyard outside.


I stood, for a while, breathing hard – it never got any easier to deal with the underworld, no matter how used to it you became. Still…


I had seen the bottom of the cenote, and the Dead making their slow way to the throne of Lord Death. I had not, however, made out the words of their song. The gate to Mictlan had been widening, but not yet completely open. That meant someone in this room had been gravely wounded, but they were still alive.


No, that was too hasty. Whoever had been wounded in this room hadn’t died within – yet I didn’t think they’d have survived for long, unless they’d found a healer.

“Ah, Acatl,” Ceyaxochitl said, behind me. “That was fast.”


I turned much faster than I’d have liked. With the memory of Mictlan’s touch on my skin, any noise from the human world sounded jarringly out of place.

Ceyaxochitl stood limned in the entrance, leaning on her wooden cane. She was wearing a headdress of blue feathers that spread like a fan over her forehead, and a dress embroidered with the fused-lovers insignia of the Duality. Her face was smooth, expressionless, as it always was.


I’d tensed, even though she had barely spoken to me, preparing for another verbal sparring. Ceyaxochitl had a habit of moving people like pawns in a game of patolli, deciding what she thought was in their best interests without preoccupying herself much with their opinions, and I seldom enjoyed being the target of her attentions.


“I don’t particularly appreciate being summoned like this,” I started to say, but she shook her head, obviously amused.


“You were awake, Acatl. I know you.”


Yes, she knew me, all too well. After all, we had worked together for roughly nine years, the greater part of my adult life. She had been the one to campaign at the Imperial Court for my nomination as High Priest for the Dead, a position I neither wanted nor felt comfortable with – another of her interferences in my life. We’d made a kind of uneasy peace over the matter in the last few months, but right now she was going too far.


“All right,” I said. I brushed off the dried blood on my fingers, and watched her hobble into the room. “Now that I’m here, can we dispense with the formalities? Who was wounded here, Ceyaxochitl?”


She paused for a moment, though she barely showed any surprises. “Hard at work, I see.”


“I do what I can.”


“Yes.” She watched the frescoes with a distracted gaze. “What do you think happened here?”


I ran my fingers over the traces of the skull I’d drawn on the back of my hand, feeling Mictlan’s touch cling to me like damp cloth. “A nahual spirit. An angry one.”


“And?” she asked.


It was late, and someone was in mortal danger, and I was tired, and no longer of an age to play her games of who was master over whom. “Someone was wounded – at Mictlan’s gates, but has not yet gone through. What do you want to hear?”


“The nahual magic,” Ceyaxochitl said quietly. “I mainly wanted your confirmation on that.”


“You have it.” I wasn’t in the mood to quarrel with her. In any case, she was my superior, both in years and in magical mastery. “Do I get an explanation?”


She sighed; but she still didn’t look at me. Something was wrong: this was not her usual, harmless games, but something deeper and darker. “Ceyaxochitl…” I said, slowly.


“This is the room of Eleuia, offering priestess of Xochiquetzal,” Ceyaxochitl said. Her gaze was fixed, unwaveringly, on the hollow eyes of the goddess in the frescoes. “Most likely candidate to become Consort of Xochipilli.”


The highest rank for a priestess of the Quetzal Flower. “And she was attacked?” What was Ceyaxochitl not telling me?


“Yes.”


I stared at the blood on the frescoes – felt the anger roiling in the room. A nahual spirit would have had claws sharp enough to cut bone, and even a trained warrior would have had trouble defending himself against it.


“Did you find her?” I asked. “She needs a healer, at the last – if not a priest of Patecatl.” There were healing spells – meagre, expensive things that the priests of the God of Medicine jealously hoarded. But a priestess such as Eleuia would surely have a right to them.


“I’ve had my warriors search every dormitory. We don’t know where Priestess Eleuia is. No one has been able to find her, or to find her trail. She is the only one missing in the whole calmecac, though.”


My heart sank. If it had been a beast of shadows… there were ways, and means, to track creatures of the underworld. But a nahual… There were too many of them in Tenochtitlan at any given time: any person born on a Jaguar day could summon their own nahual, though it would take years of dedicated practise to call up something material enough to carry off a human, or even to wound.


“I can attempt to track it,” I said, finally, even though I knew it was a futile exercise. Nahual magic was weak to start with, and the coming of sunlight would annihilate it. We had perhaps four hours before dawn, but I doubted that would be enough.


Ceyaxochitl appeared absorbed in contemplation of the brazier: a studied pose, it suddenly occurred to me.


“But I still don’t see–” I started, with a growing hollow in my stomach.


She turned, so abruptly I took a step backward. “I arrested your brother tonight, Acatl.”


Her words shattered my thoughts, yanking my mind from worries about Eleuia and the nahual to something much closer to me – and much more unpleasant. She had… arrested my brother?


“Which one?” I asked, but I knew the answer, just as I knew why she’d asked about the nahual magic, and why she’d waited for my confirmation before telling me anything. Only one of my brothers had been born on a Jaguar day.


“Neutemoc? You can’t arrest him,” I said slowly, but Ceyaxochitl shook her head.


“He was in this room, covered in blood. And there was magic all over him.”


“You’re wrong,” I said, because those were the only words that got past my lips. “My brother isn’t–”


“Acatl.” Her voice was gentle but firm. “When the priestesses arrived, he was searching the room, overturning the wicker chests and even the brazier. And I’ve never seen so much blood on someone, except perhaps the Revered Speaker after the Great Sacrifices. Your brother’s hands were slick with it.”


I finally dragged my voice from wherever it had fled. “My brother isn’t a killer.”


That made no sense, I thought, trying to close the hollow deepening in my stomach. Neutemoc was a successful warrior: a member of the elite Jaguar Knights, a son of peasants elevated into the nobility after his feats in the Tepeaca war. My parents had all but worshipped him, back when they had both been alive. He could do no wrong. He had always been the precious, beloved child – whereas I, of course, was less than nothing, a humble priest who had never had the courage to seek wealth and honour on the battlefield. Of course he was a warrior. Of course he’d know how to kill.


But surely… surely he wouldn’t do such a thing?


“I’m sure your brother can explain what he thought he was doing in her room. So far, he hasn’t been helpful.” Ceyaxochitl’s voice was ice again. She disapproved of Neutemoc’s arrogance, but I wasn’t sure why. Knowing my brother, he’d have said the wrong things to her. The Duality knew it didn’t take much to anger her these days.


I tried to think of something to say, but couldn’t form any meaningful words.


Ceyaxochitl tapped her cane against the clay of the brazier, with a hollow sound. “You’re the High Priest for the Dead, in charge of the Sacred Precinct. A case like this is your province, and mine.”


Guardian, and priest: a Guardian to wield the magic of the Duality, and a priest that of the underworld. We’d done it before; many, many times, both here and in the smaller town of Coyoacan. But this was different. I couldn’t…

Not Neutemoc. Duality, no. We’d parted ways four years ago, and the last thing I wanted was to see him again. I had left him alone in his grand house with his success, freeing him of the burden of my presence. His acts, in any case, had made it painfully clear that he might not completely share my parents’ disapproval of me; but that he would do nothing to change it, that he would not even speak up in my defence when Mother was screaming at me from her death-bed. The hollow in my stomach wouldn’t close.


I should walk away. That was the sensible option. Leave him to face the magistrates on his own, as he no doubt wished. But if I did this – if I ran away from him, at this moment – then I would be no better than him. I would prove, once and for all, that Father and Mother had been right: that I was a coward, unworthy of the battlefield.


The Storm Lord’s lightning sear him! What had he been thinking of?


“You want us to take the investigation,” I said to Ceyaxochitl.


She said nothing for a while. “No,” she said. “Not quite. I didn’t call you here at night for my own amusement, despite what you might think of me.”


“You don’t know what I think of you,” I protested, which was not quite true. I was wary of whatever she offered, with good reason.


Ceyaxochitl turned, slightly. Her face in the brazier’s wavering light was a statue’s: majestic, expressionless. “I could have dealt with this on my own. After all, guilt has already been established–”


“It hasn’t,” I protested – a reflex that surprised me by its vehemence.


“It has,” Ceyaxochitl said. She banged her cane on the floor; its deep sound punctuated each of her words. “Listen to the end, young man. As I said: I have no need for you. Strictly speaking, nahual magic isn’t your province, and it dissipates in daylight anyway. There has been no encroaching of the boundaries.”


“No,” I finally admitted. Aside from saying the death-rites, I maintained the boundaries: the fragile balance between the underworld and the world of the Fifth Sun. I dealt with the minor gods of Mictlan: the Wind of Knives, the Owl Archer, the Faded Warrior. “But–”


Ceyaxochitl banged her cane a scant hand-span from my exposed foot. I flinched. “Be silent. I summoned you to do you a favour.”


As you did by pushing my name for promotion at the Imperial Court? I thought, but bit my lip before the words could escape me.


Ceyaxochitl saw me, all the same, and smiled grimly. “You might not think it’s much of a favour. But the fact is, Acatl, I have no time to investigate this as it should be investigated. Either I end it swiftly by condemning your brother on scant evidence, or I leave it to you.”

“No time?” No time for my own brother – after all I’d done for her? No time to find a priestess who might be, if not dead, in mortal danger? “What’s so important?”


Ceyaxochitl grimaced. “Revered Speaker Axayacatl-tzin is ill. All the healers are by his bedside day and night. As Guardian, my place is with them.”


That the Emperor was ill wasn’t news. But, still, I had to ask. “Do you think it’s–”


“Magical?” She shook her head. “No. But he’s a man, Acatl. He may be Huitzilpochtli’s agent on earth, but even a god’s powers don’t guard you against wounds, or fatigue.”


“And so that takes precedence,” I said. Again, not a surprise. The Imperial Family always took precedence over us: a bitter, but necessary thought.


“It has to,” Ceyaxochitl said. “The fight for his succession has already started among the Council.”


The Imperial succession wasn’t my concern. Whoever was elected Revered Speaker would still want the dead to be honoured, and the balance to be maintained between the Fifth World, the underworld Mictlan, and the Heavens. Neutemoc was the one I needed to focus on. “So what you’re telling me…”


“Is that you can investigate this matter, but, as I said, you’ll be on your own. I’ll offer resources, but I can’t do more than that, or I risk my own position.” She didn’t sound thrilled by that consideration. But then she had always been independent, like me.


“You know I can’t refuse,” I said.


Her gaze was sceptical. She knew exactly the state of my relationship with my family, and the grievances between Neutemoc and me. I owed nothing to my brother – nothing at all. I could just walk away…


There was a tight knot in my belly; a constriction in my throat, as if I would vomit. I couldn’t let Neutemoc be executed. I couldn’t stand by and do nothing.


“Very well,” I said. I crouched on my haunches in the middle of the room, trying to forget the nausea in my stomach. “I assume you’ve sent search parties out into the Sacred Precinct.”
“Yes,” Ceyaxochitl said. “With jade amulets.”


I shook my head. “Jade won’t be of use against a nahual.” But it couldn’t hurt, either. “What can you tell me about Priestess Eleuia?”


Ceyaxochitl’s cane tapped against the frescoed walls. “An ambitious woman,” she said. “Still beautiful, considering that she was five years older than you.”

Thirty-five. For a woman, definitely past her prime.


“And?”


“All this is hearsay, of course,” Ceyaxochitl said. “Gathered from those few students bold enough to talk to me. But the head of the calmecac, Priestess Zollin, wasn’t overjoyed about Eleuia being foretold as the next Consort of the Flower Prince, Xochipilli. Zollin had ambitions of her own.”

“Was she born on a Jaguar day?” I asked.


Ceyaxochitl shrugged. “That can be verified. She could have hired someone to do the summoning, though.”


I shook my head, still feeling the roiling anger in the room. “Too much rage in here. Whoever did this had personal stakes.”


Ceyaxochitl bent to lift the reed mat from the ground with her cane. “I’ll defer to your expertise in such matters. What else? You’ll want to know about the people present in this section of the calmecac. Surprisingly few, considering how spread-out the place is.”


“You can’t account for them all,” I said.


“You’d be surprised,” Ceyaxochitl said, “at how many priestesses are awake at night.”


Of course. They would be going through their devotions, just like the priests in the other temples: blowing their shell-conches at regular hours, burning copal to honour their goddesses, and kneeling on the cold stones to pray for the welfare of the Fifth World. “So who was here?”


“In the vicinity of this room,” Ceyaxochitl corrected. “A handful of students. Another Jaguar Knight, Mahuizoh. And, of course, Zollin, whose rooms are just next to Eleuia’s.”


“A Jaguar Knight?” Men in the girls’ calmecac weren’t rare or forbidden, but they usually left by sunset.


“Visiting his sister,” Ceyaxochitl said. “The girl says he didn’t leave her side.”


“She would.”


Ceyaxochitl nodded. “Of course. Blood stands by blood.” Probably another jab at me.


Or perhaps I was being too sensitive about the whole matter. The idea of Neutemoc arrested and tried had rubbed me raw, and I wasn’t really fit to judge Ceyaxochitl’s actions.


“What was Neutemoc’s reason for being here?” I asked.


Ceyaxochitl shrugged. “He won’t tell us.”


I turned, took a good look at the room. “I guess you’ve already searched it?”


Ceyaxochitl didn’t move. “Yaotl did. But if you want to see for yourself…”


I nodded. Yaotl had no magical sight. It was possible he might have missed something, though unlikely.


It was a brief search. Like all priestesses, Eleuia had been living in near-poverty. In the wicker chests I found a few personal belongings, and an unfolding codex on maguey paper, which opened with a rustling sound, to reveal the history of the Fifth World – from the primal fire from which Tonatiuh the Sun God had emerged, to the very end: the Celestial Women and monsters that would consume us before the earthquakes tore the land apart.


Aside from that… a few tokens, safely hidden under a pile of embroidered cotton skirts: an exquisite chalcedony pendant set in silver, in the shape of a dancer entwined with a warrior; and the same kind of pendant, this time in coral, with the dancer alone. Presumably, a third pendant with another type of inset stone, depicting the warrior alone, would complete the set. It was a fairly safe guess, though, that Eleuia had it around her neck.


I walked out of the room with Ceyaxochitl in tow, wondering how to proceed.


Outside, the night was dark, with only a few stars winking in the sky. Like all the rooms in the calmecac, Eleuia’s quarters opened onto a courtyard with a small garden – in this case, a pine-tree. There was faint magic in the courtyard: traces of a nahual, though without living blood I couldn’t place it more precisely.


“Satisfied?” Ceyaxochitl asked.


I took a quick look at the layout of the place. Only two sets of rooms opened on this particular courtyard: two wide entrances flanked by painted pillars, their curtains painted with the same dayflower design. The first were Eleuia’s, which I had just searched; I guessed that the others had to be those of her rival, Zollin.


I would have to talk with Zollin, to see what she’d really thought of Eleuia, and whether she’d summoned the nahual. I would also have to talk to Neutemoc – and the Southern Hummingbird knew I wasn’t looking forward to that.


But the most urgent thing was tracking the nahual. Which meant I needed to cast a spell; and unlike Ceyaxochitl, who was the agent of the Duality and had been entrusted with some of Their powers, I could only rely on my personal magic. Other than magical obsidian, our patron Mictlantecuhtli, God of the Dead, did not give His powers into human hands. Without the gods’ help, I could only work magic with living blood.


For this, my own blood would not suffice: I needed much more than I could spare.


“Do the priestesses have supplies here?” I asked.


“For using the living blood?” Ceyaxochitl rose, as regally as an Imperial Consort. “That depends what you want. They’re mostly small animals: birds, rabbits…”

I shook my head. For what I had in mind, I needed an animal connected with Mixcoatl, the Cloud Serpent, God of the Hunt. “I’ll return to my temple.”


End of Chapter 1

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Whitechapel Gods - S.M Peters



In Victorian London, the Whitechapel section has been cut off, enclosed by an impassable wall, and is now ruled by two mysterious mechanical gods. Mama Engine is the goddess of sentiment, a mother to her believers. Grandfather Clock represents logic and precision.

A few years have passed since the Uprising, when humans fought the gold cloaks, the black cloaks, and even the vicious Boiler men, the brutal police force responsible for keeping humans in check. Today, Whitechapel is a mechanized, steam-driven hell. But a few brave veterans of the Uprising have formed a new resistance, and they are gathering for another attack. For now they have a secret weapon that may finally free them... or kill them all.


Firstly, I confess to being seduced on sight by the cover of Whitechapel Gods- a very tasty bit of art.

As the name suggests, the action takes place in Whitechapel, tucked away in a Victorian, Steampunk London, albeit a dystopian version thereof. It’s a world under the dominion of two mechanical gods, Mama Engine and Grandfather Clock, who rule with an iron fist in every sense of the word, using the ruthless brass and iron cyborgs known as the Boiler Men to carry out their bidding. Choking smog blankets Whitechapel, carrying with it mutagens that can cause cancer-like growths of metal and wire to manifest in their victims. It’s a bleak and unforgiving setting, where not even death can offer a respite from the unremitting horror.

It’s an interesting premise, and one I was keen to explore. However, things don’t always turn out the way you want them to. My enjoyment of the vigorously paced story was undermined by a few things- there are a lot of voices trying to be heard in W.G, as the viewpoint shifts to various characters throughout. It’s a device which I think falls short of what was intended to bring to the story, and made it difficult to figure out which voice I was supposed to be listening to. Then there’s the powerful imagery that’s woven through the story; this is not usually a bad thing, but being reminded of the bleakness of the setting in every other passage takes it to the point of distraction and verges on overpowering.

There are several questions which beg to be asked- when did this start? how? what’s happened to the rest of England? but the answers are only hinted at in the vaguest of terms, which is a pity as it would have filled in a lot of blanks and stiffened the inherent structure.

There’s so much potential here, but it just missed the mark for me, which is a real pity as I desperately wanted to like this. It’s certainly the product of a rich and fertile imagination and I hope we’ll be seeing more from Peters in the near future.

Friday, November 27, 2009

A further Merlin signing


Received word that another signing's been arranged for some of the Merlin cast. This one takes place next weekend - 8th December.

Stars of the BBC ONE smash-hit drama THE ADVENTURES OF MERLIN, Colin Morgan (Merlin) and Bradley James (Arthur) and will be signing copies of the fabulous Merlin books at WHSmith, Lakeside, Essex on Tuesday 8th December from 5pm-6pm.

Let the magic begin...

WHSmith Lakeside Shopping Centre (event to be held outside of House of Fraser)
West Thurrock
Grays
RM16 3BG

Please ring to book tickets to avoid disappointment. 01708 869175

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

**Competition - Win Fallen by Lauren Kate**


What if the person you were meant to be with could never be yours?


17-year-old Lucinda falls in love with a gorgeous, intelligent boy, Daniel, at her new school, the grim, foreboding Sword & Cross . . . only to find out that Daniel is a fallen angel, and that they have spent lifetimes finding and losing one another as good & evil forces plot to keep them apart.


SOME ANGELS ARE DESTINED TO FALL...


Our friends at Random House Children's Books are pulling out all the stops for us - offering up some wonderful goodies to celebrate the release of Fallen by Lauren Kate in December. Check out the competition details below.

How this competition will work:


This is your chance to enter to win one of ten copies of Fallen, signed by the author.


Email us as per usual: myfavouritebooksatblogspot (at) googlemail (dot) com


Subject line: Fallen


The competition will run from today, Thursday 26th November until 9th December. Winners will be chosen through random.org.


UK entrants only!

Angry Robot Poetry Competition Winner


Drumroll please!

Out of 21 absolutely rocking entries, the winner of the Angry Robot competition is:

Books of horror, books of style
A genre implodes
An army then grows
And somewhere hidden, a robot will smile


A huge congratulations to danielleeloko78 - we hope you thoroughly enjoy your winnings.

I'd like to do an honourable mention here to two others which both Mark and I felt were so, so good.

Mike Jung gave us:

Automaton so furious, irascible machine
o praise be to your tales of wonder, glorious, sublime
prophets of phantasmagorica, of things unseen
Choleric artificial beast, beloved of all time

Dawn Welsh sent in:

An angel of death once told me
that before I die I would hear a winter song
a slight book of secrets
before sixty one nails went into my coffin

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

**Angry Robot Competition Now Closed**

Everyone, dudes, friends, bloggers, poets!

Hear me: the competition is now closed - we have had some awesome brilliant and very funny poems sent in and I'm scanning them all in so that I can take them home and share with Mark and via email to Lee and Marc at AR - we'll announce the winners tomorrow, 25th November. I'll email you if you've won and of course, your poem will be on the blog and probably everywhere else, including the AR blog and website.

Thanks everyone for joining in!

Monday, November 23, 2009

**Interview with Paul Sussman: writer and adventurer**


1. The Lost Army of Cambyses was your debut novel – how did you put together your two main characters, Inspector Yusuf Khalifa and Tara Mullray? I recall them being very solid and real characters, people I enjoyed spending time with.

The moment I started thinking about weaving a novel around the Cambyses legend, and setting that novel in Egypt, I knew I wanted to have an Egyptian detective as my hero. Visually he is – or at least I imagine him to be – a composite of two Egyptians I know, both archaeologists, both good friends. In terms of his character, I made him everything I would like myself to be but manifestly am not: patient, intelligent, courageous, morally upright, tough, unflappable. I knew I wanted to write a detective who loved his wife and family rather than being a screwed-up, hard-bitten loner - shortly before I began writing the book I had proposed to my long-time girlfriend (on top of the mountain that overlooks the Valley of the Kings) – and I also wanted to create a Muslim character who was a normal person rather than some fanatical stereotype. I thus had certain clear markers before I started writing. From there Khalifa grew and developed, and will hopefully continue to do so in future novels.

So far as Tara Mullray goes, I think I had less of an idea of her character at the beginning of the book than I did about Khalifa’s – she became more and more real to me the more I wrote. With Khlifa I felt I knew him from the outset. With Tara, it was a slightly longer introduction. I suppose the one clear character note I had from the very start was that I wanted a strong personality who would help drive the narrative rather than simply being the passive, wishy-washy love- interest.


2. Did you notice that there are rumours that the lost army may have been found? What are your thoughts?

I have indeed seen this story, and am of course fascinated by it. It’s not 100% new since some of the Persian-era objects mentioned – arrowheads, pottery etc. - were actually found back in 2000 by an Egyptian geological team doing survey work in the area, but a considerable number of other artifacts would now seem to have been brought to light and it looks extremely promising. It’s difficult to give an informed comment before the finds are properly published, and I’m slightly concerned that Zahi Hawass (the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities) has posted a disclaimer on his website saying that the stories are unfounded, and the team who claim to have discovered the army are not working with official sanction. It’s also slightly unusual – very unusual in fact – for such a potentially huge discovery to be announced not through proper archaeological channels but via a TV documentary. If it is the remains of the army, it is of course tremendously exciting – one of the great archaeological discoveries of the last fifty years - but I think we have to wait for more details before we can be sure.


3. The amount of work and research you do for each novel must be tremendous – how do you know when is it enough in order for you to sit down and write the story? Also, how do you prevent yourself from going a bit crazy and putting in too much information so that the story gets bogged down?

I’m a bit of a scattergun researcher in that I will do a huge amount of reading and traveling before I actually start writing, but there will always be new things I need to know as the story progresses and so I will research those as and when the need arises.

Thus with the Hidden Oasis I spent a great deal of preparatory time in Egypt exploring and familiarizing myself with all the various different settings that appear in the novel – including spending a number of weeks out in Dakhla Oasis with a group of Bedouin. I also read extensively about everything from the reign of pharaoh Pepi ll to ancient Egyptian sun cults to the early 20th Century exploration of the western desert to the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. All of that gave me the basic landscape of the book. As I wrote it, however, and the story grew and unfolded, I found myself constantly having to research extra titbits of information – types of weaponry, for instance, or the mechanics of flying a Microlight aircraft.

All of which is a slightly longwinded way of saying that however much preparatory research you do, there will always be extra things you haven’t thought of. In that sense, research is an ongoing process that only ends when you finally get the book written and edited. Perhaps a better way of putting it is that research-wise I am chronically disorganized!

With regard to the second part of your question, when you expend a huge amount of time and energy researching, there is always a tendency to try to include everything you have found out. With my first book, the Lost Army of Cambyses, that was certainly the case. I remember thinking “I’ve spent two weeks living in a fly-blown, cockroach infested dive in Siwa Oasis and I’m buggered if I’m not going to put ALL of that research to use.” The result was page upon age of excruciatingly unnecessary detail about Siwa, the desert, Berber culture etc. all of which gradually got edited out as the novel went through successive drafts.


With my second and third novels my writer’s radar became more attuned to what was needed and what was excess baggage. Even then the early drafts still contained a lot of extraneous detail that was fascinating to me but slowed the plot down and ended up being cut out in later edits. When I researched Cairo’s Zabbaleen community, for example – which plays a part in the Hidden Oasis - I ended up taking about 200 photographs and filling an entire notebook with notes, all of which got boiled down to a few paragraphs of description. How to wear your research lightly is a skill I am still honing.


4. You seem as happy writing about guns and weapons as you are about historical fact and fiction – have you ever trained in weapons use?

I’d love to be able to say that I spent five years in the SAS and am a ruthless, heroic, stunningly good looking all-round real-life action hero, but sadly it would be a big fat lie. The truth is that apart from having an air rifle as a child, and shooting a .22 rifle – badly - in my school cadet force my experience of weaponry is non-existent. I’m flattered that you think I’m a weapons expert, but all my descriptions and references are the result of other people’s knowledge. I do work hard to make sure I get the facts right – I remember spending the best part of a day on the phone trying to pin down the precise noise a particular type of gun makes when it is fired – but if you ever need someone to protect you in a shoot-out I’m probably not your man.


5. Your bio on the RBOOKS.CO.UK website mentions that you had the opportunity to dig in the Valley of the Kings. Were you lucky enough to be part of a dig that found anything interesting?

I excavated in the Valley of the Kings for a number of years in the late 1990s and early 2000s as part of an expedition called the Amarna Royal Tombs Project – without doubt one of the happiest times of my life. I won’t bore you with enormous detail – if you want to know more check out the website of Egytologist Nicholas Reeves, who led the expedition.

Among other discoveries we found the first – and so far as I am aware only – pieces of ancient jewellery to have been unearthed in the Valley since Tutankhamun was found in 1922. And, also, an ostracon – a small piece of flat, white limestone – bearing the name, in hieroglyphs, of a previously unknown ancient Egyptian queen: Tiy-i-y.

Exciting as these things were, the artefacts that really thrilled me were objects we found that shone a small light on the lives of normal, everyday ancient Egyptians, in this case the workers who dug and decorated the tombs in the Valley. Objects such as the ostracon bearing a scurrilous cartoon of (apologies for this) a man masturbating. Or the set of ancient bronze chisel heads. Or the stopper from an ancient beer jar. Objects that reveal people who lived over 3000 years ago and yet in many ways were exactly the same as us.


6. Were you initially trained as a journalist and how did your love for archaeology come about?

I never actually trained as a journalist – as with field archaeology, I very much learnt on the job. Back at the early 1990s I was at a loose end after leaving university and found myself selling advertising for a magazine that had just started up – the Big Issue. It was a wonderful environment, vibrant and exciting, if totally chaotic, and as well as advertising sales I also pitched in and wrote the odd film and book review. Because I was so useless on the advertising front the decision was taken to allow me to write full-time and it all developed from there. To my dying day I shall be grateful to the Big Issue and its founder John Bird for giving me both the to spread my wings as a writer.

Archaeology has fascinated me since the age of six when my aunt took me to see the Tutankhamun exhibition at the British Museum (I remember going home afterwards and immediately starting to dig holes in our back garden in Watford in the hope of discovering similar treasures). I became a dedicated Mud lark, going every weekend to dig on the Thames foreshore, and from there graduated to “trowel fodder” - i.e. general dogsbody – on digs around the UK. In 1998 the two worlds – archaeology and writing – came together when I was invited to join the aforementioned Amarna Royal Tombs Project as a diarist and field archaeologist.


7. Are you currently / will you soon be part of more archaeological digs?

Sadly it has been a few years since I last wore my field archaeologist’s hat. With two children under the age of two and a half it simply isn’t feasible for me to disappear into the Egyptian desert for three months, nor will it be for some while yet. I dearly hope to return to digging one day, however. It’s in my blood.


8. In The Hidden Oasis you’ve moved away from Inspector Khalifa and you’ve given us two brand new main characters, Flin and Freya. Both very strong, very interesting characters who come alive on the page. How much do you work on your character development or is it something that comes to you naturally?

Having written two books with Khalifa as my main protagonist - which actually isn’t very many – I took a conscious decision to base the Hidden Oasis around different lead characters (although I couldn’t resist bringing Khalifa in for a brief cameo appearance).

The character development question is very much tied up with the initial planning of the book. Some writers get the spark of an idea and simply run with it, seeing where it leads them, essentially discovering the story and characters as they write them. Sadly I don’t have enough imagination or self-confidence to do this and instead spend many, many months just turning an idea around in my head, adding to and expanding it, building it up. I will then spend another month or so producing a detailed plan of the book – literally chapter by chapter – and only then will I actually start writing.

During this extended preparatory period the different personalities in the book will gradually develop and grow in my mind so that by the time I start writing I have a reasonably clear idea of who my characters are, what drives and motivates them, what they look like.

It is only as I actually write them, however, taking them from scene to scene through the story, that they become real to me as I fill in the detail of their lives, thoughts and feelings. For instance, Freya’s troubled relationship with her sister was always part of the plan, but as I wrote, the intricacies of that relationship started to reveal themselves, the small details that hopefully make the characters rounded and believable. At the risk of sounding horribly pretentious, it’s a bit like sculpting: you get the basic form and outline of a character, and then slowly fill in the finer points to create a believable whole. I don’t want to go overboard here, though - it’s an adventure novel, not Flaubert!


9. Your antagonists across all three books are notable for breaking the “muah hah hah I am bad” confines. Especially in The Hidden Oasis, all is not as it seems, when it comes to the antagonists. My question is: how do you manage to write your antagonists with such ease – as a reader you can see their motivations and you “get” where they come from?

You’re very kind, although I have to say that set against characters in, say, an Ian McEwen novel, or a Philip Roth, mine probably come across as pretty shallow and lumpen!

So far as “bad guys” go – “good guys” as well in fact - I’ve never really liked books in which the antagonists are all bad, and the protagonists all good. Cartoonish, cardboard cut-out characters. I like to create personalties that at least have a little bit of depth and shading to them. In the real world even the worst of villains always have a back-story, some reason why they are as they
are, and I try to do the same with my fictional antagonists. They might do dreadful things, they might be loathsome, you might not be rooting for them, but at least you can understand them, see a little of what has turned them bad.

Interestingly – and I think this is probably the same for many writers – I find the bad guys (and girls) a lot easier and more fun to write than the good ones (Khalifa is the exception – writing him has always come very naturally to me). I’m loathe to psycho-analyse myself, but I suspect that writing villains allows me to access and explore some of the darker corners of my own psyche. Which frankly doesn’t reveal me as a particularly nice or stable person!

10. Have you had any influences in your writing career?

It very much depends what you mean by influences. The answer is certainly yes, but different things and people have influenced me in different ways. In terms of situations that have influenced me, and provided material for my novels, obviously my experiences out in Egypt as an archaeologist have played a huge part in my writing, as has my work as a journalist (one of the minor characters in The Last Secret of the Temple, for instance, an Israeli war hero now working for peace with the Palestinians, was directly based on a man I once interviewed in Jerusalem).

My time at both the Big Issue, and also feature-writing for CNN.com – the online portal of CNN news – were crucial in helping me to develop my style as a writer. Going even further back I had an English master at school, Mr. Morton, who inculcated certain basic rules of writing to which I still adhere to this day (he absolutely hated the words “get” and “got”, insisting they weren’t proper words, but rather cheap and lazy substitutes. Even now, if ever I find myself using one of them, I have to delete it and find something more suitable, although every now and then one does slip in, causing me untold angst and guilt).

My agent, Laura Susijn, and my editor, Simon Taylor, are both huge influences – without them my books wouldn’t even exist. More obliquely, the works of Iain Banks, Mervyn Peake, H. Rider Haggard and Alexandre Dumas have, among others, all influenced my style and the sort of stories I tell. To be honest I could go on and on.

Probably the most honest answer I can give is that to a greater or lesser extent almost everything influences me. I am forever taking things on board – sights, sounds, smells, people, situations, conversations - and filing them away at the back of my mind for possible future use.

11. And although The Hidden Oasis is only to be published in the next few weeks, am I allowed to ask what else you have planned? A return for Flin and Freya on another adventure? Or are we seeing Khalifa reprising is role?

I think Flin and Freya are going to be one-off characters, specific to the Hidden Oasis. For my next novel I am returning to my old friends Inspector Yusuf Khalifa of the Luxor police, and Inspector Arieh Ben-Roi of the Jerusalem police.

12. What are you reading at the moment?

I’m one of those terrible, disorganized people who always have two books on the go at the same time, and a teetering stack of books beside the bed that I never seem to get around to starting. Right at the moment I am just finishing Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and re-reading Judith Herrin’s Byzantium, a wonderfully accessible study of the Byzantine Empire. My next book is definitely going to be Iain Banks Transition (I interviewed him once – wonderful man). Strangely I read very little in the genre in which I write.

13. Have you ever considered writing action / adventure fiction for younger folk?

That’s a very interesting question. I was babysitting for some friends of ours across the street a couple of weeks ago and ended up reading a chapter of a young adults’ adventure book to their ten-year old son. I can’t remember what it was called – something about spies and assassins and football – but it was tremendously exciting and I found myself thinking how much fun it would be to write something like that. In fact I even have a small idea forming at the back of my head about a brother and sister whose parents are archaeologists and who end up going on all sorts of adventures – basically the same sort of thing as I currently write minus all the bad language. I’m currently in “thinking about my next Khalifa book” mode, however, so whether I will get around to it I can’t say. The idea definitely appeals to me.

14. Do you have any advice for action adventure (and thriller) writers who would like to break into the market?

I could obviously go on here about making sure you do your research properly, know the world you are describing, have the courage and discipline to edit your work back so that you keep up the pace of your narrative etc. You can find out all that elsewhere, however, from people who are far more qualified to talk about it than I am (Stephen King’s On Writing is an excellent introduction to the writer’s art, even if he does contradict much of what I have said above).

The one thing I will say is NEVER GIVE UP. Almost every writer – myself included – has tales of endless rejection letters. Obviously not every aspiring novelist will get published, but at the same time there is a huge market out there for exciting fiction, and if you are at all good you will make it in the end.

The Hidden Oasis by Paul Sussman was released on 19th November 2009 by Transworld books, an imprint of Random House UK. There is also a chance to win a copy of The Hidden Oasis for those cleverheads out there: http://thehiddenoasis.wordpress.com .

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Thoughtbubble



I stumbled across Thoughtbubble purely by chance- I think it noted on a friend's Facebook update- and, since Liz was going to be off gallivanting with the SCBWI crowd in Winchester over the weekend, I quickly signed up... although I freely admit that the guest list was a significant factor in the decision making process!

After hauling myself out of bed on Saturday morning, I wolfed down my breakfast, said my farewells and trudged down to the station to start my journey to King's Cross and from there to Leeds. Apart from the unexpected complication of Kings Cross tube being closed, necessitating a bracing walk from Euston, it was pretty painless all in all. The train wasn't very full at all, letting me sprawl across two seats; it was also clean, quiet and a lot faster than it would have been by car! I grabbed a large coffee from the trolley and settled back with Devil's Kiss by Sarwat Chadda, which I've been meaning to read for ages- I'm sorry I didn't do it earlier, it's a fantastic read! I almost finished by the time we rolled into Leeds, having only managed to tear myself from the pages to stuff some Jaffa Cakes into my mouth since we left London.

Anyway, after an amusing exchange with a local taxi driver which saw me paying £3.90 to be driven around the block and him losing his precious place in the taxi queue (he could have just told me to take a left and walk 300 yards..) I checked in at my hotel, stashed my bag, freshened up and decided to take a walk to the Armories rather than another taxi.

This way I got to see a bit of the city- I quite liked the feel of it, which surprised me and my pre-conceived ideas of the North a bit. I arrived at Saviles Hall in good time and picked up my ticket, which I had pre-booked via the website- I was impressed with the organisation- within 30 seconds of arriving I had my tickets & programme and was set loose on the jam packed hall.

It was crammed with exhibitors, fans and cosplayers, all of whom seemed to be in good spirits, which must've rubbed off as I hardly felt the urge to lash out when I got poked in the eye by a scythe and subsequently slapped in the nuts by somebody's wayward scabbard. I did a couple of circuits to see what was what before settling in for a bit of serious browsing, although I was torn by the choice of rifling through loads of cool stuff or joining the constantly replenishing lines of fans queueing up for signatures and sketches.


After an hour or so of this I got a seat for the "Do zombies read comics" panel, a discussion on the rising and/or continuing popularity of zombies in comics and horror. I figured it'd be interesting, given my known predilection for the shambling hordes, and would give me a chance to hear Ben Templesmith, Antony Johnson, Charlie Adlard & Sean Philips answering the questions I would've like to have asked- but without queueing for the next 6 hours.

The discussion was interesting.. there were a couple of questions that fell a bit flat (Sean Philips stating that he couldn't really offer a further opinion because he'd never seen a zombie movie in his life and wasn't interested in reading horror either certainly squashed a couple of threads) but the questions from the audience, which I was lucky enough to hear as I was in the front row (next year get wireless mic's guys), prompted some interesting discussions about the pros and cons of using zombies, and trying to create the right atmosphere for horror in a comic format.


After the panel, it was back to (sh)ambling around the hall and visiting the sister site around the corner where the remaining talks were being held, and which would also be the venue for the after party. Here too things were running smoothly, with several volunteers about to keep everyone moving.

So, all in it was a really good day- when I did eventually get to chat with some of the artists, they were friendly and enthusiastic, even after a long day and several hundred sketches down the line. It's always cool to see writers and artists giving something back to their fans like that, and being so gracious about it. It really makes it a pleasure to be, and stay, a fan.

An abundance of keen exhibitors, ranging from independent artists and writers, to the long established ports of call like Travelling Man, meant that the trade stands were varied and each had something new and different to catch your eye, made it a browser's paradise. The talks/ panels were equally varied and very popular and the large guest list meant that no matter what your particular poison was, the was someone there who you'd want to see.

Hats off to the crew who kept things running behind the scenes - and a big thank you to the lovely Red Bull girls who braved the elements and kept my caffeine levels at a high enough level not to get snarly every time a squealing Pokemon careened into me.

The after party was pretty much open to all, and apart from the bar running out of draught, was a pretty relaxed affair. I migrated to one of the couches and had the first of many beers, getting caught up in a wide ranging conversation with immensely affable and erudite Mike Carey, Martin Conaghan and friends. Typically, I spent most of it just grinning quietly and sipping my beer.. a trend which followed me all the way through to the late night bar in our hotel where I wound up discussing the allure of Steampunk with Bryan Talbot and pimping Scott Westerfield's Leviathan.

I just I'd been introduced before the third bottle of Leffe.

All in though, it was a great way to wrap up a day which had exceeded my expectations by a very comfortable margin. I'll definitely be going again next year!

Friday, November 20, 2009

This weekend, we've ...


well, sort of.

Mark's heading off to ThoughtBubble in Leeds for the weekend. Expect photos of loot and much misbehaviour...

I'm off to SCBWI British Isles conference in Winchester. *rolls eyes* The excitement is rife!

Normal service will resume Sunday/Monday.

Ultramarines : The Movie




I was at Games Day back in September when they were handing out these innocuous postcards.. I grabbed one in passing and stuffed it into my bag without paying much attention to it. About an hour later, while sitting having my 8th cup of coffee for the morning, I fished it out and looked at what it said- Ultramarines - A Warhammer 40,000 Movie.

I decorated the table with cheap coffee when it registered. A proper 40K movie has to be one of the most longed for events for any fan -the powerful imagery and rich mythos of the 40K universe has been crying out for someone to do it justice for years.

Just look at youtube for an easy example - a quick search for '40K' clocks up over 18,000 hits- a lot of them Frankensteined from old games intros, trailers and in-game cut scenes.

On Wednesday Codex Pictures announced the director and screenwriter for the movie:

"The director is Martyn Pick, whose credits include the 2009 film The Age of Stupid, on which he was animation director; London 2012, the promotional film commissioned by Film London and the London Development Agency which was premiered at the Beijing Olympics; the 2001 US Budweiser NBA commercial; and the celebrated BBC promotional trailers for the Euro 2004 soccer tournament. Martyn was chosen to direct Ultramarines for his renowned and highly distinctive ability to fuse live action and animation and the fluid, rich painterly style of his film-making.

The screenplay has been written by someone who needs no introduction to Warhammer 40,000 fans – best-selling author Dan Abnett. Dan has penned more than 25 books for Games Workshop’s Black Library, with total sales in excess of 1.2 million copies. He also works regularly for 2000 AD, Marvel Comics and DC Comics and has recently seen publication of the first of three novels for HarperCollins' new sci-fi, fantasy and horror imprint, Angry Robot."

There's an interview with Dan regarding the movie too:




You can sign up for updates here.


It's all pretty damned exciting and it's good to know that, unlike some other spin-offs, the script has been in good hands.


Now gives us some footage!

Heroes in the Wind: From Kull to Conan by Robert E Howard, edited John Clute


Synopsis:


Howard's swashbuckling fantasy stories feature the adventures of the enigmatic Conan: a free barbarian from distant Cimmeria who ventures into the splendid kingdoms of the south to find his fortune in the lost eons of the Hyborian Age between the sinking of Kull's Atlantis and the dawn of history. Cunning thief, captain of mercenaries and corsairs, lover of sultry temptresses, Conan follows his destiny into demon-haunted treasure towers and across the plains of death. And at last, like Kull before him, he slashes his name across the scrolls of royalty as King Conan, usurper-lord of imperial Aquilonia.


I came to Conan quite late in life - purely because of the movies made starring Arnie. My dad however had read the novels and was a big fan of Robert E Howard and had read his westerns. Yes, you read that correctly - the creator Kull and Conan wrote pulp westerns. And I subsequently read them because those were some of the only books my dad allowed himself to buy.


When I received my copy from Penguin to read and I flicked through it, I felt like I was sitting down with an eccentric uncle with an even wilder imagination than mine. I loved how John Clute portrays Howard, bashing out these stories through the night on his typewriter, shouting out the words, much to the shock and horror of his neighbours. I never knew much about Howard and the introduction revealed that he was an incredibly prolific writer, deeply committed and eccentric. I also didn't know he killed himself and this fact really made me feel sad and even more driven to get into these stories.


Heroes in the Wind is a collection of some of Robert E Howard's stories as chosen and edited by John Clute. These may not be to everyone's taste but I would say that they are definitely worth a read, as an introduction to Conan and Howard's writing. You may think you know Conan's stories through the movies but here we have four of his adventures and it is plain to everyone who is a fan of epic pulp fantasy that Howard's characterisation and prowess as storyteller rubbed off on many of the first generation writers of epic fantasy. The descriptions aren't just graphic violence, some of it is genuinely lyrical and there is a simplicity of language in some places which gives you chills.


My favourite line has to be: "Spears bent his armor and swished empty air, and his sword sang its death-song."


I can do worse than point you to this page on Wikipedia, which has the content for this book listed, as well as a breakdown of plot for each along with some art work.


These stories follow amongst others Kull the Atlantean and Bran Mak Morn, King of the Picts, viscerally depicting their struggles and wars, whilst "Queen of the Black Coast" is overrun with pirates and dark deeds.


We run the gamut of stories and emotions here and I loved it. I sort of regret receiving a copy as I think this will make an interesting present for Mark. He's a big enough fan already!


Howard's writing is unashamedly masculine and riddled with fantastic cliches but he writes with such obvious energy and enthusiasm, creating his own worlds and genuinely seeming to live in them, that he can be forgiven for forgetting that us girls are readers too. These short stories will be a perfect treat for any older teen son, husband or dad who secretly would like to wave an axe about themselves.

Heroes in the Wind is out now from Penguin in the UK.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Fallen by Lauren Kate


Synopsis:


What if the person you were meant to be with could never be yours? 17-year-old Lucinda falls in love with a gorgeous, intelligent boy, Daniel, at her new school, the grim, foreboding Sword & Cross . . . only to find out that Daniel is a fallen angel, and that they have spent lifetimes finding and losing one another as good & evil forces plot to keep them apart.

SOME ANGELS ARE DESTINED TO FALL...



Author Lauren Kate has us meeting Luce - cleverly - just as one of the teachers at her new school, Sword and Cross, takes another group of newbies around the campus. We get intro'd to the other newbies in the group and shown around the truly dismal sounding school. Two of the group are returning students and one of them, Cam immediately seems fascinated with Luce. He’s got the bad boy thing down to a “t”.

There is a mystery about Luce - something we’re not being told. There are referrals to a fire and to someone losing their life. As the story continue we learn that a fire took the life of a boy Luce had grown close to. She managed to escape. And because she can’t tell the authorities how she did that, and after some evaluations, she’s been sent to Sword & Cross for her sins.

I have to admit that Luce was by far not my favourite character in Fallen. She’s maybe a little too nice, too shy and quiet and too immediately obsessed with Daniel, the second boy she notices at S&C and feels disturbingly drawn to. Daniel however treats her like rubbish and I felt that Luce had drawn the short straw as she focuses so much of her attention so immediately on Daniel and figuring him out. Cam’s interest in Luce does not wane. She likes him, likes the fact that he notices her and buys her small gifts. When he sees her, she gets cuddles. She feels that she belongs. Daniel acts temperamentally towards her, even when they happen to be alone. He makes no sense, at all – but of course there’s a bigger reason behind all of this and one which is easy to figure out. Or so you would think.

One person who I really liked and felt empathy for is the new friend Luce makes – Penn. Penn is invisible and likes it that way. Not genuinely invisible just not someone anyone else at the school really notices. She has free run of the place as she’s been there that long. Her dad had been the groundskeeper and when he died she got to stay behind at Sword & Cross. She’s a bit geeky, a bit nerdy and knows almost everything about everyone at the school as she sneaks down into the records room to find out about others and merrily hacks computers.

Another friend Luce makes is Arriana who is either the coolest kid you would ever want to meet or completely and utterly bonkers. You aren’t quite sure if she’s playing with a full deck of cards and it makes her character surprisingly likeable. She struck me very much as being modeled on Angelina Jolie’s character in Girl, Interrupted. She defends and cajoles Luce in equal parts and at one stage called Luce her “pet”. This immediately set alarm bells ringing because I know my angelic lore pretty well as I’m a bit weird and nerdy that way too. So my suspicions were immediately aroused.

With Penn by her side, Luce tries to figure out Daniel’s history. But there’s nothing to discover. He’s an orphan and has one miserable sheet in his folder with very little information about it. They enlist the help of the school librarian to help figure out who Daniel is. But try as they might, they don’t find anything much except for an obscure reference to a book written by someone with the same name as Daniel and it’s about angels…

Fallen is definitely going to have a lot of fans – there is a lot of tension between the three characters of Luce, Daniel and Cam. And although you know Luce and Daniel are these star-crossed lovers and somehow meant to be, I couldn’t help but like Cam and wishing he would beat up Daniel for being such an eejit. There, I’ve said it. I’m a fan of the truly bad boy. Not entirely sure what that says of me!

I know other readers may mention the violence and the action in their reviews but to be honest, it’s not more and no less than I’ve read in other YA novels but I would say some of it descriptions used were lovely and cinematic in a Sam Raimi/John Carpenter kind of way. Make of that what you will! *g*

There is a lot of uncertainty in Fallen – the whole who are the good guys / bad guys, is Luce actually going mad, was she genuinely responsible for the fire that killed the friend she was with before the story starts and subsequently the second fire that caused the death of someone else she is with later in the story, who is to be trusted, are the presumed good guys really as snowy white as you would expect? Is the school genuinely that creepy and are her parents seriously that odd that they don’t notice how peculiar the school is they’ve sent their daughter to? A lot of questions are thrown up and I am keen to see if Lauren Kate’s going to sweep us off our feet in the two follow-up novels and answer all of these. It’s definitely a slow-burner and I hope that Luce becomes more active in books 2 and 3 as it would be sad to see a character that holds so much potential just frizzle out.

Fallen is published on 17th December here in the UK by Random House.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Celebration Time with Angry Robot


If you follow me - LizUK - on Twitter, you'll know that I've been raving about Mike Shevdon's urban fantasy offering: The Sixty One Nails these past few days. My new obsession clearly impressed (or scared, I'm not sure) Lee and Marc at Angry Robot and they approached us to run a fantastic competition.


To celebrate the publication of The Sixty One Nails (next week) Angry Robot are offering up the following competition:


One winner will win ALL of these lovely books:


Moxyland
Slights
Nekropolis
Book of Secrets
Angel of Death
Kell’s Legend
Winter Song
Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero
Sixty-One Nails

How do YOU win all these cool books? Well, for a change we've come up with a challenge (insert evil manical and robotic laughter): write a 4 line poem about Angry Robot, it's authors or its books. Email your entry to us at: myfavouritebooksatblogspot(at)googlemail(dot)com. The competition is open WORLD WIDE. The competition will run for ONE week, closing date for entries will be 24th November 2009. The winning entry will be chosen by us, then published here at the blog and it will also appear on the Angry Robot website.
Lee and Marc will package the books and send it off to the lucky winner.

Edited: we're extending the competition as gremlins got into our google-account and we've been spammed to high heaven which means we've subsequently lost all entries, except for the one sent in by"edifanob". Please re-enter!

Monday, November 16, 2009

**Paul Magrs Chats about Effie, Dr. Who and Whitby**

Hell's Belles - Paul Magr's newest release

I am extremely chuffed and very honoured to host Paul Magrs on MFB. *flailing* I've only recently succumbed to his writing, as I've started reading Never the Bride and am utterly loving it. When his publicist offered me a chance to interview him I jumped at the chance. So, no more gushing, let's chat to Paul.

**

What is your writing day like?

*I write first thing in the morning, if I can. I like to write a thousand words a day, if possible. With the first mug of sugary tea of the day. The rest of the morning is spent on correspondence and business stuff, and drafting the previous day’s work. Then after lunch I either go to work – Manchester Metropolitan University – where I teach on their MA in Novel Writing and also Writing for Children. There I give tutorials and workshops in the afternoon and evening. If I’m home I like to get on with an afternoon project – or reading. I like to read as much as I possibly can. Some afternoons I’m on the train – heading off to give a reading or a workshop, or coming back from the same. This autumn has seen me visiting all kinds of places and setting up my stall.

What have you just completed?

*I’ve just published a collection of short fiction, ‘Twelve Stories’ with Salt Books. (www.saltpublishing.com). This has come out alongside ‘Hell’s Belles’. The stories are my best from the last twelve years and I’m very proud of them. I have also just finished my second draft of the next Brenda and Effie novel, ‘The Bride That Time Forgot.’ Which I’m very, very excited about.

Any hints about the next project?

*Top secret! Though there are more Brenda and Effie ideas, more Doctor Who projects and further Iris Wildthyme stories coming up…


Tell us more about Brenda and Effie and their adventures in Whitby: i.e. how you came up with the idea of them, what the people in Whitby think about you using their town and have you ever had weird / gothic experiences yourself?

*I’m afraid I’ve never had any supernatural adventures of my own. I think, faced with anything like that, I would keep a surprisingly cool head. It takes an awful lot to put me off my stroke.

The Brenda and Effie adventures began with a short story on Radio Four, which explored the characters of these strange elderly women who lived in the spooky seaside resort. (That first, embryonic, rather dreamlike story is one that I included in ‘Twelve Stories’). I always knew that there was more to tell about Brenda and Effie, and I wanted to involve them in some lovely mysterious tales. I saw potential in them and their town as a place readers would love to return to.

I go to Whitby every year and the wonderful people at The Whitby Bookshop have thrown parties for me on Hallowe’en, during Goth Weekend. People have turned up dressed up and full of questions about the Brenda and Effie books. What they most often want to know about are the real life locations of places such as The Deadly Boutique or The Christmas Hotel. ‘Hell’s Belles’ includes a map! For the first time we’ve got a map of the town according to Brenda and Effie, and hopefully people will be able to use it…


Can you give us more information about Iris Wildthyme? Just read what you had of her on the blog and laughed out loud – really interesting character, we need to know more!

*Iris Wildthyme is a transdimensional adventuress – a time-travelling rock n roll ratbag, who rattles about the universe in a large red London bus. She does everything Doctor Who doesn’t: she’s a drinker and a floozy; her adventures often go terribly wrong. She travels with a querulous art critic Panda and the two of them bicker their way through outrageous escapades. The Iris Wildthyme audio adventures are released on cd and download by Big Finish Productions (www.bigfinish.com) and there are a series of hardback short story anthologies published by Obverse Books (www.obversebooks.com). She’s a character I’ve been writing about for a number of years and I’m very proud of her, as I am of Brenda and Effie. I’m very lucky in that lots of my projects involve working with these characters I have carefully evolved over time and love working with again. Each time it is like being reunited with old friends.

How did you come to write stories Dr. Who?

* I’ve written original Doctor Who novels for BBC Books and audio dramas for Big Finish Productions and also BBC Audio. I’ve always been a Doctor Who fan, but my professional involvement with Who began in 1997, when I was commissioned to write my first Doctor Who novel, ‘The Scarlet Empress’ by the BBC. It was a rollicking Arabian Nights-type adventure story. Almost every year since has seen me write something Doctor Who related. I find it hard but very rewarding work. It’s like contributing a little bit each time to a fairy tale or a legend. Sewing a few extra sequins on a corner of the Bayeaux Tapestry.

Who is his favourite Dr. Who / companion? We wont’ tell anyone else, we swear!

* My favourite Doctor is the fourth Doctor, Tom Baker. And I love his current TARDIS team, that he has in the five part BBC Audiobook adventure, ‘Hornets’ Nest’, which I wrote, and which is being released, one disc per month, this autumn and winter. Amazingly, after 28 years away, Tom Baker is back as Doctor Who! He is ably helped and hindered by retired army captain, Mike Yates and the sardonic Mrs Wibbsey, his housekeeper at his secluded cottage in Sussex.

What are your favourite books / authors at the moment?

* My favourite books – my top ten – is something I’m wrestling with on my blog at the moment. I think I love Susan Cooper’s ‘The Dark is Rising’ more than most books I’ve read. I’ve reread it umpteen times. But it’s up there with Anne Tyler’s ‘Saint Maybe’, which is a gentle, bitttersweet family saga, and Armistead Maupin’s ‘Maybe the Moon’ which is the heart-breaking and hilarious story of a famous midget living (as it were) in reduced circumstances.

Will you be doing appearances next year?

* Whenever and wherever I can! I love giving readings and meeting readers. I almost always say yes when asked. My most immediate engagement is at Manchester Central Library on December the tenth. As for next year – it’s all up in the air – but I’m hoping to be in Whitby for Beltane at the end of April.

Are we going to be seeing any young adult novels from you?

* You certainly will. I love writing YA books and in March Simon and Schuster are bringing out a novel called, ‘The Diary of a Doctor Who Addict’ – which is about friendships, family and fandom and about learning to write.

Also, tell us one or two truly random things very few of your fans would know.

* I’m forty! I’m forty on the very day Hell’s Belles comes out. Not a very fascinating fact, but one that’s preoccupying me quite a bit just at the moment…

And finally – any advice for aspiring writers who want to break into writing genre fiction.

* Don’t just read the genre you want to write for. There’s so much to be learned from reading books in genres you’d never even considered reading before. Books are so tailored for particular audiences these days. As writers we can become anyone we like. We can step out of our comfort zone – and maybe into other people’s. There’s so much to be learned by doing that. I’m very interested in people who can blend different genres successfully.

**



Thank you Paul for a fantastic interview. And also thank you to Headline Review for the opportunity to interview Paul!


Paul's newest Brenda and Effie novel, Hell's Belles, is out on 12th November 2009. This is a bit of further info on Hell's Belles taken from the PR sheet:


In Hell’s Belles we find Penny, who is running away from a life of domestic strife and into mysterious Whitby – where she hopes to find herself. But in her quest for self-discovery, Penny may have stumbled on something far more sinister: the gateway to hell…..Whitby is no ordinary seaside resort.

When a film crew comes to town to remake the sixties schlock horror movie Get Thee Inside Me, Satan, Brenda and Effie suspect something strange is afoot. Female lead Karla Sorenson is reprising her role and she doesn’t look like she’s aged a day. Surely that’s not possible? Then there are the disturbing rumours surrounding the original movie – a cult classic that is, quite literally, spell-binding. As events spool out of control, Penny’s new boss Robert draws her deeper into the movie’s peculiar mystery. But can it be stopped before all hell breaks loose?


Find more information about Paul and his books over at: http://www.paulmagrs.com/