Fantasy

Strange Days (or why Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell deserved better than we gave it)

We’re only just past the solstice, and yet the internet is already awash with “Best of 2015” posts, listicles (Christ) and countdowns. And as I am an easily-herded nerf, I thought I might as well get in on the act – but with one slight difference. I’m not going to talk about the 10 Best Things I Watched (one of those would almost certainly start a fight. I’ve already come to near blows with one friend about it, and I can probably do without setting myself up for a scuffle with the entire online world…). I’m going to talk about the one thing that really stuck, and to suggest that – if you haven’t already – you give it a look.

Yes, I’m going to bang on about the TV adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR NORRELL.

Sorry, but as I’m the one with the metaphorical microphone here and it’s my name on the url… my rules.

To come entirely clean: when this was announced, I was… shall we say, cautious? It’s my favourite book. I remember buying the book when it came out (on the day it came out, if memory serves. In Waterstones on Gower Street. What an oddly specific thing to remember) and loving it – but I also remember that it took me months to get through, partly because I was afraid if I fell asleep reading in bed at night, the hardback would fall on my face and break my nose.

I mean, I’ve not got a great nose, but I’m kind of used to it by now.

To summarise: it’s a big book.

And it’s not just big, it’s dense. It’s a whole world, intricately bound up in real and borrowed history and its own mythology… and its footnotes.*

How the hell do you turn that into a television series?

I dodged all the promo I could: the interviews, the trailers, the production stills. Everything. I think I saw one teaser for it and then shut my eyes and stuck my fingers in my metaphorical ears and sat there shouting “LalalalalaI’mnotlisteningIcan’thearyoulalalala” until the first episode.

Whooof.

I say again: whooof.

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Somehow, writer Peter Harness managed to take this enormous, complicated, footnote-heavy** beast of a thing and unspool it, line by line. Somehow (and I can only assume this was by Actual Magic) he gave us a story which felt like being inside the novel to watch – even with the cuts and shuffles and conflations that have to happen in the process of an adaptation.

The experience was the same, even without the pineapples or Jonathan Strange’s hallucinated candles-inside-heads (which you’ll just have to read the book to understand. But when you do, know those candles are the most perfect depiction of living with manic depression I have ever come across.) It looked wonderful, too: the fairy ballroom at Lost Hope was as desperate and menacing as anyone could have hoped, and Hurtfew Abbey’s library was the library I’d always dreamed of.

Could anyone have made Vinculus as wild and as wily as Paul Kaye did? Would Childermass have been a more businesslike man-of-business, bound more tightly to his cards than to his master, in the hands of someone other than Enzo Cilenti (whose Yorkshire-ninja eyerolling was an utter, utter joy)? Doubtful.

Lord & Lady Pole, Lascelles, Drawlight, Arabella, Wellington, Stephen, Major Grant (a character drastically different from his novel-self… and yet somehow still *right*) – all felt as though they had simply strolled off the page, complete in themselves. How much work must that have taken, somewhere in the background, to make it look so easy?

Then, to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Where do you even start? Perhaps by noting that Mr Norrell seemed a lot… nicer, in his own way (sympathetic, perhaps? Although he still had his moments…) than book-Norrell***. But in the hands of Eddie Marsan, his journey from the solitary last magician in England to the wild-wigged Norrell of the final episode was a joy. The same was even more true of Bertie Carvel’s Jonathan Strange, who became – through war and loss and madness and magic – who he was always capable of being. I’ve always had a lot of time for the Strange of the novel, and so he was the one I was most nervous about. And yet… this Strange? What a Strange he was. I could go on about him, and how right he was, for days, but I shan’t. Ask me sometime over a drink.

This tremendous, sprawlingly neat (neatly sprawling?) adaptation deserved better than it got. I’ve seen a handful of award nominations, particularly in design and effects categories – and there’s another thing. It wasn’t awash with effects, but when they were there, they were good. Really good – but it should have found a wider audience. Was it because there was magic (and therefore must be one of those “fantasy things” – insert a Childermassian eye-roll here)? Was it because it was period (and therefore must involve Mr Darcy-alikes sitting around discussing a maiden aunt’s health and copious subtext)? Was it because it built, rather like the novel, enveloping you and wrapping its raven-winged world around you?

Maybe the scheduling had something to do with it: it ran through the late spring, despite feeling like it really should be something to watch in the winter, when the wind was howling outside and the rain was lashing against the windows****. I can only assume it ended up where it did so that the episode featuring (an absolutely immense take on) the Battle of Waterloo ran the same week as the anniversary of the battle itself – which is a lovely nod to the history, true, but perhaps served the endeavour a little less well.

Whatever the reason, it feels like JSAMN should have had more. More coverage, more viewers, more love. It certainly earned it. It felt like it was a labour of love – the feeling that is stitched into certain books and films and shows; a feeling that can’t be faked. I wish that had been better repaid – or perhaps I should say, more widely repaid, because as far as I can see, the people like me who loved it really loved it.

So, I’ll hang my fangirl hat back on the peg for now – as I say, ask me about everything this adaptation did right sometime, and make sure you’ve not got anywhere to be for a while. In the meantime, in this endless, grey, wind and rain-lashed winter, do yourself a favour: whether you’ve read the book or not (and I can’t urge you strongly enough to do that, if you haven’t) find the box set of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, either on DVD or Blu-Ray or from the BBC Store or wherever else you buy your media. Turn off your phone. Draw the curtains and light a candle… and watch.

And I’ll see you on the other side of the rain.

 

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*It seems pretty apt to include footnotes on a JSAMN post, so here’s something I discovered when I was re-reading the novel on a never-ending train journey through Yorkshire this autumn: if you want to find the women in the novel, look for them in the footnotes and they’re everywhere. Women as magicians, women as pupils of the Raven King himself. Women of importance; women who matter. Because, for the most part, where do women throughout history end up? In the footnotes.

** So. Many. Footnotes.

*** I suspect the hand of the author: in this case, Peter Harness. I rather wonder if he doesn’t have a soft spot for Mr Norrell and his books. Don’t we all?

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****Rather like today, come to think of it

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Archer’s Goon

A little while back, SFX Magazine approached me and asked me whether I’d be interested in contributing to their regular “Book Club” feature. It runs at the back of every issue, focusing on a different book each time. And you know me. I like to talk about books. I particularly like to talk about books I like, and why they’re… y’know, awesome.

So of course I said yes, and the first book I’ll be discussing is ARCHER’S GOON by Diana Wynne Jones.

Funnily enough, it turns out this will be the 100th SFX Book Club, and given the current concern about level of representation female authors receive in the SFF world, it’s a wonderful coincidence. 100 feels like a significant number, somehow: and given the context of those two (brilliant) blogposts, it’s nice that the slot goes to a book by an outstanding fantasy writer who happens to be a woman, and whose loss is still felt so keenly by the genre.

The great thing about the Book Club is that it isn’t just me blathering on (after all, I do plenty of that here). So, if you’ve read ARCHER’S GOON, get in touch! You can comment on the book – did you love it / hate it / never read it because… – on the SFX forum, their Facebook page or via their Twitter, or you can always leave me a comment or tweet!

Vincent Chong mini-Q&A

Fresh from his recent World Fantasy Award win and just in time for Christmas, Vincent Chong – one of my favourite artists – has announced he’s releasing limited-edition prints of some of his work, including the art he did for editions of The Shining and Dr Sleep.

Vincent Chong illustration for “The Shining” limited edition

Even if those don’t take your fancy, his art is gorgeous (I have a ridiculous amount of it around the house, including a print of his “Fallen Angel” – natch – in my kitchen) and he has a huge portfolio of work available as standard prints too.

And because he’s not just a fabulous artist but a lovely guy, he’s also popped by the blog to answer a few questions. Like he had a choice…

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Q: Who are your favourite artists (or what are your favourite works of art)?

A: At the moment one of my favourite artists is Shaun Tan. His illustrated story books are simply beautiful and I love all the imagination and touches of surrealism that go into each one.

Q: Who or what do you think has inspired you the most?

A: Dave McKean‘s work has probably been the single biggest inspiration to me; it was seeing his covers for the Sandman comics (in the The Sandman Dust Covers collection) that first opened my eyes to the possibilities of combining digital techniques with traditional ones and what you could achieve by blending the two. It played a big part in shaping the style I developed and the techniques I’ve ended up using for my own work since.

Q: Is digital art more democratic than, for instance, a watercolour?

A: I’ve always liked the idea of anyone being able to own a copy of the artwork that isn’t seen as ‘less-than’ the original in some way, rather than there being one original that only a few could enjoy.

 Q: If you could illustrate any book, what would it be?

A: Nothing in particular springs to mind right now… I used to think I’d quite like to do my own reinterpretation of classic children’s books such as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. But having illustrated so many authors’ books over the years, I guess what I’d really like to do is come up with my own story to illustrate.

Q: What interests you as an artist? Do you find yourself coming back to the same kind of themes or ideas?

A: I like creating imagery that has various layers to it, and perhaps could be interpreted in different ways, or contain small details that people pick up on repeated viewings. I also love interesting textures so I continue to incorporate a lot of them into my work. Overall, I think my approach is more about building atmosphere and emotion in my art rather than producing images that are overly polished.

Q: What’s the last book you read, and the last film you saw?

A: The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave and Thor: The Dark World.

 Q: What are the best and worst things about your job?

A: Some of the best things…being able to get up whenever I want! And also not having to work alongside people I don’t like or becoming embroiled in inevitable office politics. And some of the worst things…getting a bit stir crazy working on my own at home and not having anyone around to have a natter with when I want!

Q: Finally… tell us a secret?

A: My biggest secret is that % &@?’£ ^&$**@ $*%^!!!

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Vincent Chong is an award-winning freelance illustrator and designer.  Since 2004 he has brought his creative vision and distinctive visual style to a wide range of projects for both print and the web.  Currently living and working in the UK, his art and design has been published internationally and can be seen on book covers, magazines, CD packaging, websites, flash games and book trailers.  He has worked for clients around the world including HarperCollins and Little, Brown and has illustrated the works of  authors such as Ray Bradbury and Stephen King.

You can follow his blog here.

Nine Worlds

6a00d8345295c269e201901e93506c970b-800wiNext weekend (this weekend? I always come unstuck at the start of the week. Unstuck in time, unstuck in reality… all of that. Anyway. Moving on) I’ll be at the new Nine Worlds convention near Heathrow, along with many, many awesome people.

The convention runs from Friday afternoon through to Sunday, with pretty much everything you could think of on the programming somewhere: books, games, TV, film, cosplay… the works.

There are also live-gaming streams happening and – somewhere – I’m sure I saw mention of a gin appreciation session. Now, I don’t need anyone to teach me to appreciate gin (can do that quite well myself, actually) but I may well pop in there just in case they need a professional, as it were…

The full programme’s online here.

Uh… wow.

In terms of what I’m actually going to be doing, you can find me here:

Friday, 10.15pm: NEW VOICES SLAM SESSION, in the Lobby room. I’ll be doing a short reading, along with other writers like Adam Christopher, Emma Newman and my Agency Group stablemates Liz de Jager and Jennifer Williams. It’ll be fun. Bring a drink, bring a friend.

Saturday, 3.15pm, NEW VOICES, OLD GHOSTS: REINVENTING MYTHOLOGY AND THE SUPERNATURAL panel along with Kate Griffin, Ben Aaronovitch, Barry Nugent and Jo Fletcher.

Saturday, 5 – 6pm: SIGNING at the Forbidden Planet table, along with Ben Aaronovitch. I know. You may have to nudge me…

If you’re around, come and say hi. It looks like a brilliant line-up, and it would be fantastic to see a new convention get off to a flying start.

So. Nine Worlds.

Come for the programme…

… Stay for the Loki.

 

 

 

FantasyCon 2012

 This weekend sees the annual convention of the British Fantasy Society, FantasyCon, which is heading back to Brighton for the second year in a row. It’s a hugely friendly event with authors, editors, agents, readers and publishers all getting together to spend time together. And there’s a disco. And bars which never seem to close…

I’ve been involved in the background of this one for the first time, helping to organise the reading slots which will be running from the Friday afternoon through to the Sunday lunchtime. We were incredibly fortunate that – thanks largely to the overwhelming success of last year’s event – we had a fantastic pool of potential readers to pick from, and we’ve put together a reading programme which should have something for everyone, including Kate Griffin, Will Hill, Joe Abercrombie, Adam Christopher, Gary McMahon, Mike Carey, Stacia Kane… and more, mixing familiar names with debut authors and up-and-comers.

And that’s just the readings. There are all sorts of book launches, parties, panels, signings and events spread throughout the weekend.

I may have been running around working on this one, but they aren’t letting me off yet. I’ll be popping up a few times across the weekend – so if you want me, I’ll definitely be at these events (and will probably be running around or lurking in the background at a few others. I’ll be the one with a vaguely panicked expression…)

FRIDAY 28TH SEPTEMBER:

4 – 5pm, PANEL: YOUR FIRST CONVENTION. (Fitzherbert Room)

I’ll be discussing conventions with Guy Adams, Tim Lebbon, Joanne Hall and super-con-organiser Mandy Slater: how they work, what to do (or not to do!) and how to get the most out of them. Whether you’re an FCon newbie, a convention virgin or an old hand at both, come along.

8.30 – 9pm: READING. (Room 134)

Solaris are launching their new MAGIC anthology at FantasyCon, so I’ll be reading my short story from that, “Bottom Line” for the very first time. If there’s time, I’ll also try and squeeze in a very short excerpt from BLOOD AND FEATHERS. That’ll be a section I’ve not read before (basically, come to enough events I’m reading at, and you may well hear the whole book by the end of it….)

11:30pm – midnight: JUST A MINUTE (Regency Lounge)

This is the scary one. I’m playing the legendary game against James Barclay, Rob Shearman and FCon Guest of Honour Muriel Gray, all under the watchful eye of Gollancz’s Gillian Redfearn. Swing by the lounge to watch us all fail to talk for a minute without hesitation, repetition or deviation on any given subject. Heckle, cheer, laugh… whatever. But bring your moral support. And gin.

SATURDAY 29th SEPTEMBER

2 – 3pm: MAGIC LAUNCH (Bar Rogue)

Along with other contributors (including Rob Shearman, Alison Littlewood, Thana Niveau and Will Hill) I’ll be signing at the launch of the fantastic Solaris anthology. I’ve read a couple of the stories in this now, and I can promise you it’s worth it…

5 – 6pm: launch of A CARNIVALE OF HORROR: DARK TALES FROM THE FAIRGROUND (Regency Lounge)

Another anthology launch: this time, a collection of dark circus stories, edited by the Paul Kane and Marie O’Regan and featuring my story “Face of the Circus”. I’ll be signing, as will Rio Youers, James Lovegrove, Muriel Gray and the cover artist Ben Baldwin.

I’m incredibly excited about both these anthologies, as I’m very proud of those stories and I’m thrilled to be in such amazing line-ups.

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Someone asked me whether I’ll be at the Big Solaris Give-Away & Signing on the Saturday afternoon: the answer to that is “sort of”. I’m not actually involved (I think the lovely Solaris crew will all need a bit of a break from me, to be honest…) but I may well be hovering somewhere in the background and I *will* be around most of Saturday afternoon – most likely either hanging out in the bar or running interference on launches and other events. So if you have a copy of BLOOD AND FEATHERS that you’d like me to sign, just keep an eye out for me and I’d be delighted to oblige!

As an aside, we’re also running a CHARITY CUPCAKE SALE on the FRIDAY AFTERNOON from 2 – 3pm (I think it’s in Bar Rogue, but please check the programme). All cakes are being made specifically by a group of crack volunteer bakers and have a fantasy theme. I’m told there *will* be some GF / vegan choices too, and all proceeds will go to the National Literacy Trust.

My contributions will have a Once Upon A Time theme, and (barring bakery disasters, which are entirely possible, given this is me…) be:

Rumpelstiltskin’s Revenge: chocolate & rum cupcakes with chocolate fudge icing… and plenty of gold.

Snow White: rose-flavoured cupcakes with vanilla icing

The Dark Curse: blackberry and lemon marbled cakes with chocolate icing

So there you go. FantasyCon’s shaping up to be a fantastic (gettit?) weekend all round. Weekend memberships are now sold out, but there may still be some day tickets available for the Saturday.

If you’re coming, I’ll see you in Brighton in a few days. The full programme is online here, with details of launches here. I’m looking forward to it….

2012 Gemmell Awards

I was lucky enough to be invited to this year’s David Gemmell Legend Awards, held at the Magic Circle in London. The annual awards aim to recognise achievement in the field of fantasy writing, as well as to promote and raise public awareness of the genre. This year’s winners can be found listed on the Gemmells site.

It was a fantastic evening, with a lovely awards ceremony and reception, with lots of familiar faces in a venue full of fascinating magical bits & pieces. The dress code had said “dress to impress”, so that’s what people did. (I have now used up my entire quota of “looking posh” for the year and fully intend to spend the next six months back in my Converse and my jeans with holes in.)

Yes, there are photos. The ones of me I have shamefully stolen from other people (who I hope will forgive me!) and the ones taken by me are probably a bit blurry…

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This is as good as it gets, basically. And even then, I manage to un-glam myself by chewing in the photo. (I’d never make a model. Too busy scarfing down food, if nothing else.)

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With Marie O’Regan and Paul Kane.

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One thankfully not of me: Gillian Redfearn of Gollancz and Lizzie Barrett looking fabulous at the pre-awards drinks reception.

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Sarah Pinborough is busy tweeting incriminating photos of… well, *everyone*.

The whole evening ran beautifully, and the organisers can feel tremendously proud of themselves and their efforts. Congratulations, too, to all the winners and the nominees.

Next year, the ceremony will be held later in the year, and in a different location. It will, in fact, be the opening event of the 2013 World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, which promises to be pretty spectacular…

You Know What You Love…

I have a Shiny New Thing. I do. Once Upon A Time.

I watched the pilot last week, and completely fell for it. It’s both terribly, terribly sweet and really quite dark. However, the reason I’ve fallen quite so hard and quite so fast is this:

 

Rumpelstiltskin.

He’s always been one of my favourite fairy-tale characters (his story, The Juniper Tree & Baba Yaga being the three I love… most)  so I wasn’t quite sure what to think when I spotted Once Upon A Time. But it’s brilliant. And having checked the writer roster, I can see why I’m enjoying it: given my unashamed love of Lost, Tron: Legacy and – basically – anything Jane Espenson touches, this one was a pretty safe bet.

If you’ve not come across the show – and without giving anything away – it’s two interlinking stories, set in two different worlds: the world of fairy tales, and the real world: specifically the town of Storybrooke, Maine, with actors playing roles in both.

Rumpel, and his decidedly creepysexy real-world counterpart Mr Gold, are both played by Robert Carlyle, who looks like he’s having an indecent amount of fun.

 

If you’re already watching it, you’ll know exactly what I mean. And if you aren’t, you should really think about starting…

Please.

British Fantasy Awards: voting now open

In case you hadn’t noticed – which by now, I highly doubt (but that’s me – always late to the party) – voting for the British Fantasy Society’s annual awards, the British Fantasy Awards, is now open.

This year sees an overhauled system with a view to creating more interesting and relevant awards: one which nominees are genuinely excited to be shortlisted for, and which the eventual winners feel proud to be taking home.

We want people to care about these awards. We want them to reflect the passion that so many of you have for genre literature – whether you come down on the horror or the fantasy side of the fence; whether your thing’s major publisher or independent press… or whether you love all of the above.

We want it to mean something when a book wins a BFA: we want it to be seen as an endorsement of quality, voted for by readers, writers, editors… anyone who loves genre.

We can’t do it without you.

Without your votes.

Without you shouting for the books you’ve loved; the books you think deserve it.

You don’t have to have read every single book out there. You don’t have to have read every genre book published in the last year. You don’t even have to have an opinion on every award category. All we’re asking is that you recommend a couple of books. That’s it.

You can recommend three things in each category (ideally giving us as many details, like publisher, as you can – it makes our lives easier and helps the team check that your recommendation is valid). You don’t have to recommend three, though: one recommendation in one category is enough, if that’s all you want to include. It still counts.

Don’t tell me you’ve not read at least one genre book in the last year that you think is worth nominating – I simply won’t believe you.

You will need to be a member of the BFS (or a member of FantasyCon 2011 or FantasyCon 2012) to be eligible to vote. If you don’t already fall into one of those categories, why not join the BFS? Or get your membership to FCon 2012 – I can guarantee you’ll have a great time.

And if you are already eligible, go and vote. Now. Use your voice. Thank the writers, the editors, the artists, the publishers… everyone involved in making the books, the stories, the art you’ve enjoyed over the last year.

This is your chance to champion them. Don’t waste it.

Ego, Ego, Ego

One of my mad-dash self-pimping posts, this. If you’re averse to the odd spot of self-promotion and shoes with goldfish in the heels* then this is probably the time to look away…

If you’re still here, that’s good. This was worth sticking around for.

Last week, Solaris announced the line-up for their autumn anthology (you might well have read “End of the Line” or “House of Fear”, which were released in 2010 and 2011 respectively). This year, the theme – and the title – is Magic.

Full details including the line-up are on the Solaris blog, and if you look carefully, you’ll see that the “and others” includes, umm, me.

I can’t even begin to explain how excited I am about being involved in this: quite apart from the fact that so many of the people on that list are authors I admire hugely, Audrey Niffenegger is the kind of name that makes my jaw go from here ^ to here _.

The Time Traveler’s Wife is one of my favourite books (because I am a girl and in love with Henry, even though he’s an idiot for most of the book, yes, I know, don’t even try.) and so for me, this is a very, very big deal.

Random other pimpening: I’ll be turning up at the SFX Weekender coming up next weekend – I won’t be doing anything other than mooching around and enjoying myself, hopefully, but there’s a good chance I’ll be lurking around the Rebellion / Solaris & Abaddon crew at least some of the time so if you spot me, come and say hello! You can even ask about the fish.

I’ll be at a couple of conventions this year, attempting to sound intelligent… or at the very least, to smile nicely while failing to sound intelligent.

You can catch me at AltFiction in Leicester (April 14th & 15th), where I’ll be wearing my editor’s hat (which has a really big feather in it and goes nicely with the shoes) for one panel to discuss SFF non-fiction. Then I’ll be joining in with the “New Writers” panel, with Jon Weir, Tom Pollock and Vincent Holland-Keen – I’m particularly looking forward to this one.

I’ll also be at the Discover Festival in Snibston (May 18th – 20th), where it’s entirely possible I could be wearing a different hat. With or without feather…

*Note: no goldfish were harmed in the making of this blog post.