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Posts tagged ‘Fantasy’

‘The Changeling’ Included in 2014 Locus Recommended Reading List

Issue02_499x648As usual the February issue of Locus Magazine includes its annual Recommended Reading List, covering books and stories published over the previous calendar year. Compiled by the magazine’s editors, reviewers and a panel of outside critics, it always makes for fascinating reading, and this year’s list, which includes a number of books and stories I have read and would heartily recommend (David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, Garth Nix’s Clariel, Adam Roberts’ Bête, Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword, William Gibson’s The Peripheral) and a number I haven’t but I’m looking forward to a lot (Rjurik Davidson’s Unwrapped Sky, Ben Peek’s The Godless, Nina Allan’s The Race) is no exception.

At a personal level though I was delighted to discover my story, ‘The Changeling’, which was published in Jonathan Strahan’s Fearsome Magics (which also gets a mention in the Recommended Anthologies list) included in the list of Recommended Novelettes.

You can read the full list of recommended books and stories over at Locus. And if you’d like to read ‘The Changeling’ you can pick up a copy of Fearsome Magics (which also features stories by Garth NixKarin TidbeckKaaron WarrenFrances HardingeIsobelle Carmody and a bunch of other excellent people) from online and bricks and mortar retailers or through your favourite ebook retailer.

Fearsome Magics

Fearsome MagicsJust a quick note to say I’ve got a story in editor extraordinaire Jonathan Strahan’s new anthology, Fearsome Magics, which is due out today. The follow-up to Jonathan’s World Fantasy Award-nominated Fearsome Journeys, it’s also the second in his New Solaris Book of Fantasy series.

I haven’t read all of it yet, but the bits I have are terrific. You can check out the full table of contents over at Coode Street, but there are new stories by Garth Nix, Karin Tidbeck, Kaaron Warren, Frances Hardinge, Christopher Rowe, Isobelle Carmody and a bunch of other fabulous people. I think – I hope – my story, ‘The Changeling’, is interesting: to my mind it’s less fantasy than a sort of anti-fantasy, although I’m not going to say more than that.

Australian readers who’d like to pick up a copy can check prices on Booko; otherwise you can check out your favourite independent bookseller, head to Amazon or Amazon UK, or pick up the ebook for iBooks, Google Books and Kobo. In the words of the immortal Molly Meldrum, ‘Do yourself a favour …”.

Best Books 2013

The KillsBecause it’s Christmas Eve and I’m sure everybody’s mind is focussed on matters literary I thought I’d take a moment to pull together a list of some of the books I’ve most enjoyed over the past twelve months. As usual I’ve already made a start in my contributions to the annual roundups in The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, which also have contributions from Delia Falconer, David Malouf, Geordie Williamson, Felicity Plunkett and a lot of other people: if you have a chance I really do recommend checking them out.

As I said in my list for The Australian, I don’t think there’s any doubt in my mind that the best new book I read this year was Richard House’s 1000 page metafictional thriller, The Kills, a book I’ve been proselytising about ever since I read it back in August. In a time when it’s occasionally difficult to make a case for the novel House’s book (or books, I suppose, since it’s really four short novels) is a reminder of exactly why fiction matters: smart, savage, politically ferocious, it’s also technically and formally audacious, pushing the boundaries of what novels are by incorporating video and sound into its structure.

I was also hugely impressed by Rachel Kushner’s dazzling study of art and politics, The Flamethrowers, a book that’s distinguished both by its intelligence and by the electric energy of its prose, Margaret Atwood’s occasionally frustrating but ferociously funny Maddaddam, Karen Joy Fowler’s characteristically smart, self-aware chimpanzee experiment novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Philipp Meyer’s sprawling Texan saga, The Son and Patrick Flanery’s brilliant, angry and thrillingly unstable exploration of contemporary America, Fallen Land.

Another book I liked very much but which seemed to receive less attention that I would have expected was Julian Barnes’ Levels of Life. Although I’m a big admirer of Barnes I was a bit underwhelmed by The Sense of an Ending. But Levels of Life is a remarkable book, exhibiting both extraordinary control and a palpable sense of the raw, unprocessed (and largely unprocessable) nature of grief.

RevengeMeg Wolitzer’s The Interestings is another book that seems to have found a while to attract the attention it deserves, so it’s pleasing to see it turning up on a number of best of the year lists. Warm, capacious and very smart about the nature of friendship and the way age and success alters the dynamics of relationships, it’s also one of the most consistently enjoyable things I’ve read this year. And while I suspect it slipped under a lot of people’s radar, I loved Yoko Ogawa’s splendidly sinister matryoshka doll of a collection, Revenge.

There are also a couple of books I came to late, but which blew me away. The first is A Death in the Family, the first part of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic six-volume autobiographical fiction, My Struggle. I’ve yet to read the second, A Man in Love, which was released in an English translation earlier this year, but I was mesmerised by A Death in the Family. The Sydney Review of Books has just published a brilliant review of the two of them by editor James Ley; if you only read one piece about Knausgaard it’s the one to read, not least because it’s very articulate about the reflexiveness of Knausgaard’s project, and about the Proustian edge to the books, which seems to me to have been mostly misunderstood. I suspect a lot of the impact of A Death in the Family is due to the power of the final third, and its unflinching depiction of the narrator’s father’s death of alcoholism and its aftermath, but the book is also fascinating for the way it explores the tension between mimesis and banality.

The other book I came to late was the late Ian MacDonald’s thrilling study of The Beatles, Revolution in the Head, which I read alongside Pete Doggett’s whip-smart account of the lead up to and aftermath of their breakup, You Never Give Me Your Money and Tune In, the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s huge but often fascinating biography of the band and its members, All These Years. While the others are all good, MacDonald’s book is hands-down the best book of pop music criticism I’ve ever read, although it’s given a run for its money by one of the other standout books I read this year, Bob Stanley (late of pop group, Saint Etienne)’s endlessly absorbing, occasionally problematic and constantly delightful history of pop, Yeah Yeah Yeah. I want to write something longer about Yeah Yeah Yeah at some point: for now I’ll just say that while Stanley lacks MacDonald’s deep critical intelligence he’s never less than engaging and his command of his extraordinarily diverse material is remarkable, and like many such works my arguments with it only added to the pleasure of reading it.

Caspar HendersonI have to confess I didn’t read as much Australian fiction as I should have this year, but of the things I did read a couple of books really stood out. One was Tim Winton’s Eyrie, a book that in its portrait of the contradictions underlying the West Australian boom was more explicitly engaged with contemporary Australia than a lot of Winton’s fiction, but the real standout was Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Flanagan seems to have spent most of his career looking for a way to marry his family history to the national narrative; in The Narrow Road to the Deep North he’s done just that, with remarkable results.

On the genre side of things I very much enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Graham Joyce’s slyly unpredictable follow-up to the wonderful Some Kind of Fairy Tale, The Year of the Ladybird, and Ann Leckie’s terrific debut, Ancillary Justice, as well as Paul McAuley’s final Quiet War novel, Evening’s Empires and Madeline Ashby’s queasily acute exploration of the line between human and Other, iD, but I think the thing I enjoyed most was Guy Gavriel Kay’s gorgeous, allusive sequel to Under Heaven, River of Stars. All Kay’s books are terrific but I suspect River of Stars is the best thing he’s written to date.

Of the non-fiction I read this year the best thing was Caspar Henderson’s prismatic exploration of our ways of thinking about animals, Nature and ourselves, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, but I was also dazzled by Mark Cocker and David Tipling’s astonishingly beautiful compendium of bird lore, Birds and People. I admired Cocker’s last book, Crow Country, very much, but Birds and People is a much more singular creation, and, interestingly, one that has more than a few resonances with The Book of Barely Imagined Beings. Other non-fiction books I enjoyed include Tim Dee’s deeply disquieting study of four spaces, Four Fields, Philip Hoare’s peripatetic exploration of the ocean and its meanings, The Sea Inside, psychiatrist Stephen Grosz’s wonderfully humane and psychologically sophisticated The Examined Life and John Ogden’s magnificent study of Sydney’s southern beaches, Saltwater People of the Fatal Shore (if you’ve got a moment the interview with Ogden on the ABC’s Late Night Live is well worth a listen).

And last, but not least, a book I came to late but loved quite immoderately, Stephen Collins’ delightfully weird contemporary fable, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil. As I said in my piece for The Australian on the weekend, even if you don’t normally read comics please take the time to track one down; you won’t be sorry.

And finally my best wishes to all of you for the holiday season: I hope you’ve had a great year and the twelve months ahead are full of life, love and all good things.

Stephen Collins, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil

Stephen Collins, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil

Beauty’s Sister out in paperback today!


I’m delighted to say my novelette, Beauty’s Sister, which was published as a digital-only Penguin Special last year is now available as a nifty orange Penguin paperback. You can see the rather lovely cover on the right (I know it’s been said before, but the orange Penguin livery is one of the truly great pieces of design), and if you’re in Australia you should also be able to buy it at your local bricks and mortar bookshop (elsewhere you’ll have to check out online retailers or buy it in digital form for  KindleiBooks,Google Play, or Kobo (or for Kindle in the UK)).

As the blurb below explains, ‘Beauty’s Sister’ is a reworking of ‘Rapunzel’, but along with ‘Catspaw, or The Rakshasa’s Servant’, it’s also one of a series of “tales” I’ve been working on over the past year or two. At some point they’ll hopefully form a cycle of some kind, but for now I’m just enjoying exploring the things they let me do with magic and fables.

Anyway, the blurb is below. If you’d like to buy a copy check out your local bookshop or take a look on Booko. And as I said above, if paper is no longer your thing you can also buy it for for KindleiBooks,Google Play, or Kobo (and for Kindle in the UK)).

“A story of jealousy, passion and power, Beauty’s Sister is a dark and gripping reimagining of one of our oldest tales, Rapunzel, from acclaimed novelist James Bradley.”“Juniper, living deep in the forest with her parents, is stunned to discover that the beautiful girl living isolated in a nearby tower is her sister. When the two girls meet, what begins as a fascination and a friendship ultimately develops into something truly sinister.

I hope you like it. I’m thrilled it’s now in paperback.

Catspaw, or The Rakshasa’s Servant

rakshasaJust a quick note to say I’ve got a story in the May issue of Aurealis, which hits the interwebs today. Entitled ‘Catspaw, or The Rakshasa’s Servant’, it’s basically a contemporary folk tale, and was inspired by a post on Lev Grossman’s blog which reproduced the image on the right, an image that will be immediately recognisable to anybody who played Advanced Dungeons and Dragons in the 1980s (next up, a story called ‘The Unbearable Squareness of Gelatinous Cubes’).

Anyway, you can purchase Aurealis from Smashwords for AU$2.99, which seems an absolute bargain for a story that features duelling shapeshifting tiger demons. And which is really a tribute to my many years as a devoted player of role-playing games.

The Hobbit

The trailer for The Hobbit has been released …

Lev Grossman’s The Magician King

I’ve just uploaded my review of Lev Grossman’s The Magician King, which appeared in Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald to my Writing page, but if you can’t be bothered clicking through I’ve attached the text below. To sum up in a sentence, it’s brilliant: funny, addictive and ferociously intelligent, and if you haven’t read it or its prequel, The Magicians, you should do so immediately.

You might also want to check my partner, Mardi McConnochie’s piece about it over at her blog, Big Red. You’ll be glad you did. And if you’d like to read more about Grossman and his books, you can visit his website.

The Magician King
Lev Grossman

A few years ago A.S. Byatt wrote a famous critique of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, dismissing them as “jokey latency fantasies”. In it Byatt argued that unlike works such as Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising or Alan Garner’s troubling and often unsettling children’s books which demand children grapple with a world larger and stranger than they had previously imagined, Rowling’s books allow children to fulfil their infantile fantasies of unrecognized importance and power.

Whatever one makes of Byatt’s argument, it’s difficult not to wonder whether her essay played a part in the formation of Lev Grossman’s exuberantly entertaining 2009 novel, The Magicians. At once loving homage and deadly accurate deconstruction, it imagined a world where magic is real, and asked, with considerable sophistication, what it might mean if that particular fantasy came true. And in the process it created something at once strikingly original and deliberately subversive, not just a story about the loss of illusions and the beginnings of adulthood that was simultaneously an exercise in re-enchantment but a exploration of the manner in which power and trauma distort our inner selves.

The Magicians centres on Quentin Coldwater. “Sarcastic and spookily smart”, Quentin is also, as his friend Julia admits to herself at one point, “basically a kind person who just needed a ton of therapy and maybe some mood-altering drugs”. Lonely and isolated at high school, Quentin’s one solace (other than his hopeless passion for Julia) is his absorption in the Narnia-like Fillory novels. Yet when an alumni interview for Princeton turns into an exam for an ultra-secret, ultra-exclusive school for magicians called Brakebills, Quentin finds himself initiated into a world where his oddness is no longer a liability, and where, amazingly, Fillory is more than just a story.

Grossman’s follow-up, The Magician King, begins two years after the events at the end of The Magicians. Quentin is now one of the kings of Fillory. It’s a good life: populated by magical creatures and impossibly beautiful, Fillory is as close to perfection as any place could be. But as Quentin is beginning to realise it’s also a little bit boring. And so, when a carelessly arranged day in pursuit of an enchanted hare ends in tragedy, Quentin decides to embark on a quest. As quests go it’s no big thing, just a trip on a refitted sailing boat to an island in the Eastern Ocean to find out why the inhabitants haven’t been paying their taxes. But for the now-restless Quentin it seems enough just to have a purpose again.

These early chapters unspool with a brisk efficiency, but the novel only really kicks into gear when Quentin stumbles on a golden key, which when used does not transport him somewhere magical, but dumps him and his childhood friend and fellow tetrarch, Julia, back on Earth. Desperate to return, the two of them must navigate a hitherto unglimpsed magical underworld populated by self-trained wizards and witches, and utterly unlike the cosy prep school world of Brakebills, a process that gives Quentin his first glimpse of the price Julia, who was rejected by Brakebills, paid to acquire her powers. But as they discover on their return to Fillory, their experiences on Earth were only the prelude to a much larger and more perilous quest to save not just Fillory, but magic itself.

If much of the pleasure of The Magicians lay in its unfeigned delight in the books from which it drew its inspiration, much of its power lay in the tension between the magical elements drawn from C.S. Lewis and Harry Potter and elsewhere and the restless, dissatisfied and painfully human dramas of its protagonists. For all its playful energy it was ultimately a surprisingly dark book about loss, and failure.

Something similar is true of The Magician King. Once again the book riffs wickedly on the tradition it inhabits, managing to seem as comfortable invoking the secret lore of 1970s role-playing games and Neal Stephenson novels as it is gesturing to Le Guin and Tolkien. And once again it manages the not-inconsiderable feat of managing to be both extremely funny and utterly believable.

Yet it is also a more ambitious book than The Magicians. Moving beneath its surface are a series of deeply disquieting questions about the corrupting nature of power and the theological underpinnings of fantasy worlds such as Narnia. The gods Quentin and his friends glimpse are not benevolent, but cold and distant, while their expressions on Earth are not just capricious but actively malevolent. Certainly it’s safe to say that you’ll never look at Aslan the same way again.

Despite the achievements of writers such as Guy Gavriel Kay and Neil Gaiman Fantasy is a genre that has long struggled to be taken seriously, often treated as faintly ridiculous or an embarrassing overhang from childhood. In The Magician King Lev Grossman demonstrates it is neither, producing a book that does not simply crackle with energy and ideas, but which manages to be at once an inquiry into the underpinnings of the tradition it occupies and a brilliantly eloquent demonstration of its possibilities. The Magician King is not a book for children, or even a book about the stories of childhood for grown-ups. It is quite simply one of the smartest, funniest, most exciting novels you’re likely to read this year.

Originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 October 2011.

On Fairy Tales

Jan Pienkowski, Sleeping Beauty, from Jan Pienkowski, Fairy Tales

Jan Pienkowski, Sleeping Beauty, from Jan Pienkowski, Fairy Tales

Hiding from Monday’s downpour in the Bondi Junction Westfield, I came across the new Puffin edition of Jan Pienkowski’s Fairy Tales in our local Borders. Originally published in the 1970s, it was a book I loved as a child, as much for its stunning illustrations as for its text. Taken with my discovery I bought it, and brought it home, thinking I could read it to my daughter when she is a bit older.

Clearly I didn’t do much of a job of hiding it, because last night she found it, and bringing it into the kitchen, demanded my partner, Mardi, read it to her. Because she’s not three yet we’ve generally shied away from reading her fairy stories, wary not just of their violence, but of the often complex ideas they involve. At first Mardi refused, telling her it was too long, and too complicated, but Annabelle insisted, and so Mardi sat down and read her ‘Snow White’. I was cooking dinner, so I could see Annabelle listening as the story unfolded, completely enthralled. Once or twice she asked questions, or pointed to a picture, but for the most part she was spellbound, despite the story running to more than 40 pages, and being filled with things she had never heard of, such as dwarves and spells, and kings and queens. And, once it was done, she asked for another, and then another.

Anyway, this morning before childcare I came into her room to find her seated on the floor with her teddy on her lap, and the book open in front of her. Turning the pages carefully she pointed to the pictures, explaining to teddy, ‘that’s a bad lady,’ and ‘that’s a dwarf,’ and ‘that’s a witch casting a spell’. And as she did I was struck anew by the thrilling power of old stories, of the way they seem somehow to be already there, somewhere deep inside of us, waiting only for us to call them back, into the light.

Update: This post reminded me of this piece, which I wrote in 2007 to coincide with the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:

The Lands Within

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