Monday, October 22, 2012

The Steel Remains: Old School Sword & Sorcery daubed in Gritty Realism

This book is an unabashed butchery of all fantasy tropes you can think of. A blurb by the King of Gritty Fantasy himself, Joe Abercrombie sets the stage for you "Bold, Brutal and Making No compromises..Morgan doesn't so much as twist the clich├ęs of fantasy as take an axe to them.."
Marking Richard Morgan's foray into Fantasy, the Steel Remains is a prized book you'll love if you like your epic fantasy tales dark, visceral and gory. Blood spritzes at a second's notice, people fly into guttural filthy curses at the drop of a hat, demons and ghouls out of your darkest nightmares leap out of the pages and you're always in the miserable company of this washed out war hero who bleeds rancor and cynicism out of every pore of his body. If you are still along for the ride, well sample this too: Extremely Strong Characterization, a no-nonsense plot that flies along at a break neck pace. Peppered with gratuitous explicit sex and some graphic violence (Mind blowing action sequences guaranteed to have you cringing and crouching for cover even as you read, it seems so real!!)

Tightly woven plot that remains uniquely fantastical with some deep overtones of Science fiction, it has been equal parts lauded and criticized for its unapologetic handling of a lot of themes like sexuality, races, politics to name a few. Needless to say, Morgan has ruffled quite a few feathers in the process. But I think he’s gone on to blast the doubting dorothies to outer space when he followed up this book with a sequel that amps all this themes and even the action to the next level. 

For me, this book is a winner at several levels. For one, the hero Ringil Esikiath is not your typical farmboy with a Destiny to achieve. He’s a middle aged war hero whose best days of war are far behind him. His company of misfits includes a 207-year old alien “female” engineer and an ex-soldier of the empire who is now a clan leader and has to fight jealous brothers, religious zealots and even Gods. When Ringil is dragged back from exile to track down a cousin sold in slave-trade, the trail uncovers a plot that might endanger the peace of the entire world. And possibly the only thing that prevents this is Ringil’s band of misfits. Well, simple enough in terms of plot but Morgan’s handling of this stereotypical fantasy plot is bloody and brutal, quite refreshing actually. Next, Morgan’s world building is truly world class. Writing in brilliant evocative prose, Morgan builds up a dark world co-inhabited by different races: war-weary cynical humans slaves to all the vices known to mankind (slave trade, getting high on Krizanz akin to weed or grass all the time, debauchery and sex – name it!) and portals that allow aliens like the Scaled Lizards, Kiriath or Aldrain to come in at will into the same world.  He even traces back history of the world in terms of the wars fought to bring out peace, builds up an order of the societal hierarchy in which people live in. Religion plays a pivotal role – what with the Empire having no excuse but to tolerate foul mouthed religious clergies since they helped the current emperor’s father win the war – but the interesting aspect of religion was better played out on the steppe lands where Egar, the ex-soldier of the empire has to deal with Gods – known as the Sky Dwellers who frequently manifest themselves and meddle with the puny affairs of humans.

Ringil gets the lion share of character study as he broods over his past, quips off cynical snarky barbs and constantly wallows in self-pity and doubt. Compared to him, Egar is a much more confident no-nonsense clan leader having to fight with issues of religious nuts trying to whip a mob against his practical mannerisms. Archeth, the alien Kiriath engineer was much more of an underplay as she struggles to live on in this world which was abandoned by her alien-brethren. One character I thoroughly enjoyed was the emperor, Jhiral : Shifty as a snake, snarky to the core. You cannot help but love this guy who is fighting to keep his throne, but still indulges in insouciant debauchery.
You might be put off by the excessive vulgar profanity and explicit sex ( groans! The sex is as non-romanticized as possible and might leave you a little sickened!) – this was the one thing that was rather annoying for me and grated on the reading pleasure of an otherwise slick action-packed fast-paced fantasy novel.  The twists are a little too predictable though the final revelation did blow my mind.  

Morgan brings all his strengths as an award winning SF writer to this book and it shines through – The Steel Remains is firmly an old school sword and sorcery story spun on its head, given some refreshing sensibilities daubed in dark humor and gritty cynical realism. Not for the squeamish, but c’mon! Richard Morgan writing a Fantasy Novel ? You never expected it to be a children’s picture book did you! Recommended. Four stars.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Middle Book Phenomenon for Justin Cronin

I got sucked into the world of Justin Cronin's vampires in The Passage a few months back and ever since I have been just panting for the next book in the series to come out. Well as luck would have it, I couldn't have timed it better. Book two of the trilogy, "Twelve" is out !!

National Post Books got the immensely talented author talking - he who claims that he spends six months wandering around the house in a bathcoat muttering to himself while in the stages of "writing" - and well, gets expansive about book two and even talks about venturing beyond the Passage, away from the vampires.

All that and more :

Monday, October 15, 2012

Author Interview | Krishna Udayasankar, The Aryavarta Chronicles

As you would have noticed, my blog is still evolving. Keeping in with the stages of evolution for a book blog, now I venture into the newer arenas with an author interview! Yes!! Pretty damn big for me to host a bestselling author up on the blog and then proceed to peel the layers to get down to the "real" person behind that smiling face on the book jacket. Wait up while I pat myself a few good times on the back ( on an interview well done and also to make myself believe that this actually happened :D )

Since you're chomping at the bit, let me hold back no further. Today we have the super talented Krishna Udayasankar who's made quite a splash in the Indian literary scene with her debut novel, Govinda, Book one of the Aryavarta Chronicles. While I quite enjoyed book one, don't take my word for it. The Hindu speaks highly of the "epic revisited" in that despite the burden of detail, the pace of this novel never lapses into a lull. 

Anyways, Krishna (the author and not the inscrutable scheming grey titular character of the book) was kind enough to answer my questions despite the fact that she's incredibly busy writing the sequel to book one, called FireWright. She gets candid and talks about her inspirations, her love for story telling, lays open secrets to the indian publishing scenes, social media and rounds it off with some terrific advice to the aspiring writers. So please give her a warm and rousing welcome:

Hi! Congratulations on becoming the next big thing on the Indian literary scene :) Looks like Govinda is selling like hot cakes all over, but I think it's all well deserved. For starters, why don't you give us your “writer” introduction.
Hi Sachin! Thanks so much for this opportunity, and all those nice things you just said about Govinda. The good news for readers is that the book is way, way more interesting than I am, so… (laughs) I’m just a very everyday kind of person, really – It’s my characters who are strapping, pithy and all heroic. I’m a pizza-loving, masala-movie watching, regular person. As a kid, I’ve lived in many places in India; I’ve also spent some years in Africa and now I live, work and write in Singapore.  

I am going to label Aryavarta Chronicles as an “India inspired Fantasy”, since it obviously draws on the biggest ever epic that we all have grown up with. So what drew you to the fantasy genre?
 Umm… would you believe it was fed to me with spinach? (Grins). I’m serious! What happened was: when I was a kid I was a terrible eater, particularly when it came to green veggies. Imagine this Incredible Hulk kind of scene with green goo all over the place… anyway, so then, my parents realised that I was a total sucker for mythohistorical and mytho-fantasy stories. I’d be totally distracted, and I’d keep opening my mouth to ask questions, and they would shovel the greens into me…
As I grew up, I realised that both my dislike of green veggies as well as the many questions I had relating to these stories had been deeply ingrained in me, as had been a love of reading, particularly the epic genre, both Indian and otherwise. No seriously; these stories have become such an intrinsic part of our culture and social fabric; they are used to legitimize or justify today’s social structures and norms. So to me, they are one possible way of understanding the world we live in – and the first frame of reference I turned to when my turn came to write.

 How/When did you decide to become a storyteller?
 The funny part is… and ok, confession time… I actually thought I’d end up a poet. I totally love poetry and so, I decided, somewhere in late 2008, that the meaning of life was to write or die trying. Also, I don’t quite remember the details - you know how one blocks traumatic moments out - but I was also trying to paint, literally paint, on canvas, a scene of Ganesha as scribe around that time. And so there it was! A week later, I began working on a satirical poem based on the Mahabharata. Somewhere down the line, it turned out to be The Aryavarta Chronicles. I’m still trying to figure out how some of that that happened! 

How did you develop your craft? Did you write short stories first, join workshops, writing groups etc ?
 No, not really. I mean, I used to write as a kid, and then it was mainly poems and short stories yes, but as life caught up with me. I kept having to write though not always the things I wanted to write - I graduated from the National Law School, Bangalore, spent some time working for an NGO, then went on to study International Business at Sydney before ending up with a PhD in Strategic Management from the Nanyang Business School, Singapore and beginning my career as an academic. All of these personas required a fair amount of writing, though of different kinds. Still, it let me bring together words and writing with ideas that I find interesting – socio-economics and such.

But at some point, it just wasn’t enough. When I look back now, I wonder how I went all these years being anything but a writer – But I also know if it weren’t for the things I’ve studies and done, I couldn’t write the way I do, in terms of content and style, both. Every book is, in that sense, a product completely, of a writer’s life. But I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge also that I’ve had some wonderful mentors and teachers – right from my English teacher in the eight grade, to a poet who guided me through a mentorship program that I applied to in late 2008, and to many others who shared openly of their skills. If it weren’t for these people, you might just be suffering my really bad verses,

Govinda is such a fantastic character. Not to say, others are less, but you built up that aura especially around Govinda and Panchali. Not giving away too much of the plot, but did you receive flak for having portrayed them as such? Also your interpretation of other characters is a kick in the nuts for all the TV Generation kids who grew up on BR Chopra version of them. Tell us something about the momentous research you did to paint those characters of yours.
Thanks! Am super-glad that you like these characters. No, I didn’t get flak as such, but there were some surprised folks. Having said which, I think when a story has its own logical integrity, an internal consistency, people tend to be more accepting of the way things are shown, because it makes sense in the context. At the end of the day, the stories we tell are bigger than us and faith in those tales is never faith misplaced.

Of course, as you note, the way these guys are shown is not some flight of fancy, but based on research. I stand on the shoulders of giants – the amount of material that is out there – both popular and scholarly, which deals with the epic and the epic ages both is simply astounding. It took many months of painstaking work trying to reconcile legend with logic and scholarly evidence and variations in popular narratives across India and other parts of Asia too. I don’t even want to try and summarise it right now, because that would take us the rest of the day, but I do try to give some idea in the note at the end of the book, and there are some essay on the Aryavarta Chronicles website as well. Basically, as someone trained in social sciences research, I have tried my best to bring that strength to my books when coming to conclusions on why or how events, or relationships, happened in a particular way - the internal logical consistency that I just mentioned. 

You called your mother a closet feminist. Guessing from Panchali’s characterization, how much of yourself have you written into her character?
Not much, really. I think Panchali is a way better person than I can ever hope to be. She does have a couple of irritating traits of mine – that certain air of being a know-it-all…Yeah, that bit is me, alright. But not much else. As far the feminism goes, I don’t think Panchali is that far out there. Rather, I’d just say she’s the new normal, if you know what I mean. I think its time we stopped looking at people who stand up for basic human dignities as being revolutionary or feminist in any way. And that’s the kind of spirit I’ve tried to bring out through Panchali. So yes, I suppose that’s another trait she shares with me, and many other people… she doesn’t think she’s feminist or liberated or such. She just thinks she’s normal, she’s even weak at some points of time, but she tries and that’s what counts.

What’s the best and worst writing advice you’ve got?
The best advice I’ve read, and appropriated for my own, is from Isaac Asimov. I’m paraphrasing badly here, but Asimov has this logic that the best kind of book to write is the kind of book you like to read. And this is not just about the pleasure of writing, but the simple market logic that those who share your reading tastes are just as likely to enjoy the book you write, if you enjoy it qua reader…. Asimov explains it a lot better, trust me.
Worst advice – I don’t think I got any, as such. If I did, I probably ignored it. 

What were your 1-2 biggest learning experience(s) or surprise(s) throughout the publishing process?
 I learnt patience. And patience. And patience. Also humility. Once I was done with the manuscript and it went out, I remember feeling like: “what on earth could be more important for all those editors out there than reading this?” But everybody has a life and those lives go on.
It’s the same thing once the book gets published. Readers read the book. They like it, maybe they talk about if for a while, and then they go on to the next book. Sometimes they will come back to this book, to think about it or perhaps read it again, and for that I’m always grateful. But it is weird to see how something that was the centre of your universe for years has such a fleeting life in someone else’s.

How difficult is it to write as a published writer? I’ve heard stories of expectations and deadlines wearing one down. Is it true? How is your second book faring with all this?
Writing as a published writer certainly is different. The first time round, it felt like there was nothing to lose, or everything. Now, it is different. I think as one changes and learns as a writer, one’s fears and insecurities too evolve. With the second book, I know, my consistent self-question is whether I have more words left in me, or it was a one-shot, flash-in-the-pan kind of show. This will change, I know, by the time I get to the next book.
Umm…having said which, I’m slowly learning to accept this as part of the process – It has taken me a while to even say ‘I’m a writer,’ and now I’m trying desperately to take that sense of ‘I’ and ‘my book’ out of the equation, because that sort of hubris simply gets in the way of writing. It’s a very personal, philosophical process at times. But that’s probably why I love it!

I see you are super active on the Social Media platform. On this topic, what are you doing the build a platform and gain readership? How important is it for an author to do this?
It seems to be pretty important these days… Well, personally, I’m a facebook addict, and these days have gotten hooked on to twitter as well, so I don’t mind it too much. I also really enjoy having conversations about the book and such, so social media works really well for reclusive people like me! But I honestly don’t know how much it helps to gain readership… and I don’t think it ought to either. People should to read this book, any book, because they think it’s a good story. The paradox however is – how would people know it’s a good book, if one is an unknown, first-time writer? And so it seems there’s no escaping social media!

Would you ever consider going indie? Now that you’re a recognized name, would you consider going the self-publishing route?
Not really. Not because I have anything against it, just that I don’t think I have the bandwidth to deal with the variety of activities going Indie would involve. Self-publishing is a very entrepreneurial activity, so this is more a personality choice than a perspective choice. 

On the publishing note – Literary agents are still a growing curiosity in the Indian literary scene.  How does one connect to publishing houses in India? Do we just submit to the slush pile, pray to all 330 Million Gods and wait?
You know, I always feel embarrassed to comment on this, simply because I realize I’ve had a very easy ride as compared to many others out there. My agents - Jacaranda – were wonderfully friendly and efficient both, and they signed me on very early in the game. That not only gave me some validation, but it also made it easier for me to focus on writing and not worry about what would happen next. Also, I’ve heard horror stories of manuscripts taking years to be read or sold, but The Aryavarta Chronicles had been on the market for about ten months or so, before Hachette India expressed interest. Having said which, I do think the publishing scene in India is a lot easier to break into than elsewhere. Many publishers outside the country don’t encourage direct submissions by writers, so literary agents are a must, but I think in India the strategy of submit-and-pray still works. Given, as you say, that we have 330 million of them, hopefully one of them is listening!

Final note, What is your advice to other aspiring writers?
Wow! Don’t know if I’m qualified to give advice. OK, so let me get all self-important and say three things.
First, on a practical note: Make sure you work at language, and if you can, get an editor. If you are writing because you want to be a writer, you love your words; you love this craft. So give it the best you can. If you’re writing because you want to become a multi-millionaire – I don’t have a problem with that, but then you certainly won’t want my advice (Smiles).
Second: Write. Writing is a discipline, it is meditation. I don’t believe that writers necessarily must be tormented souls, but they mostly are passionate ones. Discipline makes it easier to stay consistent and keep the flow going.
Three: Ignore all advice. Writing is possibly the most personal thing you do. 

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Govinda and cannot wait for the Firewrights to come out.  I want it like yesterday, since you ended up book one with that revelation. Thank you so much for your time !

Thank you, Sachin, for this amazing opportunity and for your encouragement. Can I also say, I hope the day is not far when we have a role-reversal, and I get to read and interview you about the book you’re now working on. Super-excited about it, so all the best!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Adamantine Palace: A fiery scorching debut

Book Review: The Adamantine Palace by Stephen Deas

I have not read Stephen Deas before. I should have. He’s already a phenomenon in the fantasy scene. Having completed an astounding epic fantasy series called the Memory of Flames, he’s sitting pretty on top of the pile. Adamantine Palace is his debut novel and introduces us to the world of Dragon Realms where Kings and Queens rule with an iron fist the lands divided between and pay their homage to the Speaker of the Realms, a powerful figure who arbitrates between the dragon lords and rules from the Adamantine Palace and of course, where the skies are ruled by the magnificent creatures of fire, dragons. 

The first book traces the Machiavellian plots and the titanic struggles between the scheming kings and queens as they vie for the position of the Speaker. It also draws up a parallel plot of the dragons within this realm who are domesticated with the help of potions brewed by the alchemists and thus serve their riders in each kingdom. All except for one, the rogue dragon called Snow, the perfect white whose senses awaken and now lives only to avenge her sisters and brothers against the alchemists for having imprisoned the free dragon spirits. 

Stephen Deas’ first novel is a breezy attempt – without having gone over the top and kept the perfect balance – at epic fantasy drawing up an exciting new world filled with angry fire breathing dragons and traitorous prince and backstabbing princesses tied to each other’s fate as they plot and manipulate for the ultimate prize – the throne of the Adamantine Palace. He keeps the writing pretty simple – giving us a wickedly twisted plot written in clear lucid straightforward language pulling no punches – combine that with some well written action set pieces ( Ah! Soaring through the skies with the wind tearing at your clothes while the fire breathing monster underneath you scorches the sky with huge balls of fire, give more of that to me please! In fact, Deas sets the pace right in the prologue that starts off with a bang – on top of a dragon, nonetheless!) and deftly written court/palace intrigue that twists and tears through the book. Deas is no GRRM, though he tries earnestly and pretty hard. A decent bit of world building dealt with juicy morsels thrown in at random, a very engaging style of writing and some wonderful characters redeem him though.  There is very little magic in the book though, manifest only when Deas introduces us to some foreigners (TaiTaikayie – apologize for the spelling, but reminded me so much of the Dothrakis? Is it just me? ) for a brief while.  . Full points for the entertainment and having kept it engaging without wearing down the pace through info dumps. A lot of time a new author building his own world, gets excited and carried away by the stories and goes into a nose dive of tiresome lengthy expositions. Stephen Deas keeps a tight ship, straight as an arrow, Ace story telling.

Deas’ main characters are neither black nor white.  They are real, driven by the all-consuming desire to covet power. A bunch of scheming, bloodthirsty self-centered and ruthless power mongers. Chief among whom is Prince Jehal, a shameless insouciant womanizer who will charm his way into any girl’s (preferably princesses!), pants has no qualms about his ambitions and will use whoever will get him to his goals. Through sex, sycophancy or even the sword.  Potions and poisons, he swears by. His indeed, was the most colorful character that stuck with me throughout the book. The others, Queen Shezira with her own devious plans to become the speaker, plays her dice using her daughters as pawns in this game of power without any compunction or regrets. Princess Jaslyn, her daughter who loves her dragons more than humans, finally comes around caught in the web of politics by the end of the book, I am hoping to see more of her by book two and beyond. Princess Lystra plays the coy sassy princess betrothed to Jehal but sadly gets wasted as the plot thickens. I was so hoping Deas would use her better. Speaker Hyram who is about to name his heir, sadly remains a delusional old man who cannot match wits with the razor sharp cunningness of the others in this entangled twisted power play.

A parallel plot to this game of thrones, is the story of Snow. A dragon who has gone rogue and whose senses have awakened, who longs to free the rest of the dragons from the torpor brought on by the alchemists. Breathing fire, burning and destroying anything that comes in her way, Snow remained one of my high points of the book. Unapologetically aggressive, driven by the burning sense of correct a wrong, blazing through the skies – very enjoyable. With the dragon, is Kemir, an ordinary sell-sword (mercenary) caught up in this deadly game and who loses his only family, out to avenge his murdered cousin. Probably the weakest characterization among the lot.

Overall, a pretty fast light read. None of the conflicts introduced in book one come to a resolution and hence you would be itching to get your hands on the book 2. But yes a solid debut. I can already smell the fumes in the air, the stage is now set for a crackling book two. Bring on the King of the Crags. Let the world be ripped by the flames of revenge.