Sunday, May 29, 2016

Assassin's Apprentice (Farseer Trilogy #1) by Robin Hobb #review

Title: Assassin's Apprentice (Farseer Trilogy #1)
Author: Robin Hobb
Publisher: Voyager, 1996

The first time I read Assassin's Apprentice must've been not long after the book first came out. I took the book out at the library and fair gobbled it down, along with the other books in the trilogy. To put it mildly, Hobb's writing keeps me up way past my bedtime. There are very few authors who can successfully manage that feat.

Yet even though I'd read the first three, I was aware that she'd written not only a second, but was busy with a third trilogy all featuring my dearly beloved Fitz and his friends Nighteyes the wolf and the enigmatic Fool. I simply had to revisit the setting, which meant I wanted to dip into the first trilogy again. Boy oh boy, I felt like I was stepping into that world with fresh eyes, and it was just as an emotive journey as it was before.

In a nutshell (and without giving too much away) this is a story about a young boy who's the bastard son of a king-in-waiting, who is trained to be a royal assassin, to do the king's "quiet work". Of course the events that transpire and the characters one encounters along the way are far more varied and unexpected. This is one of those books where you put your life on hold and live Fitz's life with him as he grows up, navigates the complexities of life at court, which includes a murderous uncle who's eyeing the throne though he's not quite next in line in the succession. To make matters even more pressing, their kingdom is under assault by seaborne raiders – the Outislanders. Fitz never knows a moment of true peace.

Fitz is not only an assassin, but he's also gifted (or cursed, depending on how you look at it) with two forms of magic – the Skill (which allows him to influence men's minds and communicate telepathically) and the Wit (which allows him to communicate and bond with an animal). The former is a magic practised mainly by the reining Farseers and the other is a reviled art that, if he's discovered to be in possession of it, will mean his death.

What makes this world for me is the how Hobb populates it with three-dimensional, authentic (and often quirky) characters whose whose motivations often place them at odds with each other. How the hell she even manages to keep all their timelines straight is absolutely stupefying, because every small clue, *every* detail she writes in, is often vital to the rest of the tale.

Unforgettable characters such as Chade, King Shrewd's older half-brother and master assassin; Burrich the stablemaster, who raises Fitz; Molly Chandler, the secret love of Fitz's heart; the Fool; Lady Patience... I fell in love with all of them, all over again, and getting to know them again made them feel like old, favourite friends.

For those looking for an insta-epic with clearly defined plot and HEA, this might not be the book for you. The storyline feels like real life – messy, inconvenient. Fitz makes many decisions that he'll later regret. There are times when you will want to yell at him to either do or do not ... Oh, and the consequences... Every action has its consequences, and Hobb *doesn't* pull her punches.

The world building is detailed, highly textured and yet again, you feel as if you're *in* the story as opposed to skimming through. I am reminded quite solidly, that this is one of those books that I will recommend to those wishing to get into fantasy for the first time, and that Robin Hobb is a master wordsmith who is partially responsible for having inspired me to tread this path of fantasy author myself. Though I'd read this book before, I feel I gained a lot more detail (and a greater sense of awe at Hobb's skill) the second time round. Who knows, in a decade or so, I'll do it all again.

Introducing Skolion – another way of looking at the publishing game

Once upon a time (possibly around about 2006 or 2007) I read this article by author Ian Irvine, and I thought to myself, "How difficult can this really be? I'm going to do better." I had my literary heroes, like Neil Gaiman, JRR Tolkien, Poppy Z Brite and Storm Constantine, among others, to look up to. I was in the process of writing my first novel, Khepera Rising, which back then I thought was just the dog's bollocks, and I'd soon be able to quit my shitty job as a newspaper sub-editor and live the high life as a successful (and wealthy) published author.

Yes, I can hear you laughing.

In fact, I'm laughing at my own naïve self.

My journey as a published author has been a long slog of trying to crawl out of the slush pile, and having moderate success in selling to an assortment of small presses and eventually self-publishing a few myself too. (Not to mention the countless rejections.) I consider myself lucky if I sell three or four copies of my novels each month. It's no reflection on my writing – it's just that I'm not writing the next FSoG or The Hunger Games. My career as editor has been far more financially viable than author...

And it's taken me a few years to make peace with the fact that I'll only ever have a small, niche readership, and those are the people for whom I'll continue to write stories.

Not too long ago, an author who, many years ago, was my introduction to SFF and remains a beacon in the literary world, Ursula K Le Guin, made a speech at an awards ceremony (and you can read the whole thing here), but this is the gist of what she says that resonates with how I feel about the stories that *must* still be told.

I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.

Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship. 

Truth be told, the overheads for producing books are hellish, and the competition in the market is fierce. The big publishers are going to be in it for the money. They will publish those books they know will sell to as many people as possible (celeb bios, cook books, self-help, politics, religion...) Sadly, this means that there are many of us whose voices will not be heard, who won't be given the same opportunities as those who're writing to satisfy trends.

That's not to knock the trends – they do fulfil a function (and keep publishers afloat). As much as some of us would like to frown at the Twilight franchise, I've lost count of the readers who gush on about how Meyer's books have introduced them to reading, and that they've become voracious readers since they first visited that tiny town called Forks... And some of those Twilight fans have gone on to read my books, so who am I to complain?

But Le Guin has also gone on to investigate another publishing model – one that has become increasingly attractive to me, that of the publishing co-operative.

Anyone with a computer and the right software can publish a book now, which means that more books are being published each day than ever before. Readers are spoiled for choice, yet the problem comes in that not all books that are author published are quite ready or of a sufficient quality to pass muster. Small presses have, for the past decade, tried to find that happy medium between self- and traditional publishing, but anyone who's been keeping an eye on developments recently will see how many of these small presses have either imploded spectacularly or simply wasted away. And woe betide those who try to get their books into brick-and-mortar stores – I promise you, the returns alone are the death knell for most. Putting out many titles in the hope that some are a success also doesn't work. The shotgun approach sucks. Exceptional voices get lost in a torrent of merely adequate writing. There aren't enough sales to keep these companies afloat – as they too still have overheads (paying editors, designers...).

You try writing edgy urban fantasy featuring a bisexual black magician then see your book compete with the three raunchy paranormal romance titles released by your publisher the same week... No prizes for guessing which novels will receive the most marketing push from your publisher's social media...

Hence the inception of Skolion. We're a core group of SFF authors and folks with media savvy who have a great love of SFF. We understand that the traditional and small press models are untenable, and that although self-publishing is an option, it's so much easier for us to work together, pooling our skills and experience. Between us, we boast editors, designers, media gurus, marketing experts and a general understanding love for our genres. Our aim is to create the kinds of books we want to read. Our aim is to make good books. We might not be the next Twilight, but we want you to know that when you pick up one of our books, it will be something special, something different – a work of art made with love and passion that is most certainly not a commodity. Most importantly, we aim to empower our authors and put them in charge of their diverse stories that are told authentically.

At present, the co-op is by invite only, and we are keeping it low key so that our growth is sustainable. But if you're interested in what we offer, and want to keep up to speed with our doings, you're more than welcome to follow us on Twitter or like our Facebook group.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Velvet Goldmine (1998) #movies

In 1984, British journalist Arthur Stuart investigates the career of 1970s glam superstar Brian Slade, who was heavily influenced in his early years by hard-living and rebellious American singer Curt Wild. (IMDB)

I admit that I rewatched Velvet Goldmine in the wake of David Bowie's passing. It was purely out of nostalgia. This was also one of the few films I saw on the big screen way back when it first came out, possibly with an ex of mine during a time when we ourselves thought we were terribly glam wearing makeup and being all gothic and beauteous.

So, yeah, there's a big pile of nostalgia attached to this.

I wasn't a Bowie fan back then, however now I realise what an impact his music and style had on the goth scene – and how most of the bands that I look up to now were heavily influenced by the man. Glam rock was never quite my thing but I've gained an appreciation for it in my dotage.

I'll also admit that my interest in this film is very much for the visual elements (beyond perving at Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Ewan McGregor. Gosh darnit, I admit it. This film is all about perving at those two. I am a shallow, vapid creature who doesn't much care for Christian Bale.

There's really not much of a story, if you aren't dazzled by fangrrrling. Singer Brian Slade has an affair with guitarist Curt Wild. Everything goes south in a narcotic haze and then Slade fakes his own death at the height of his fame – and everyone's pissed off at him and his career nose-dives. Then there's some sort of hush-hush cover-up with intimations about a man who fell to earth a-la Bowie while the dull-as-dead-woodlice reporter tries to find out what happened to his hero way after the fact. And everyone damaged by Slade has his or her turn to Bare All The Uglies. There are even Men In Black. We never find out why there are Men In Black. And I'm fine with that. Really I am. Save that I don't think these magical elements were played up enough.

(There're also those who say that the film hints at Bowie's connection with Iggy Pop – I'd rather say they're inspired by the two. And the next person who sagely advises me of this fact can go blow themselves – I've heard that tired pony trotted out by folks so often I'm like meh. Tell me something new.)

Granted, there are magical interludes in the film – music videos within the narrative – that most certainly add a glamorous touch (and for those alone make this film worth watching). Yet at the end, once the glitter and grease paint has smudged off, and the sun has robbed night of her splendour, we're left with the ugliness of the people in the story. And perhaps that is the story – that we paint our faces to be what we're not and in that way become trapped. We create an ideal we can never live up to. The fairytale prince is ephemeral. He is not who you want him to be. And he's bound to disappoint you.

In the end, he is just as sad as running mascara after you've spent the last half of the night talking to God on the Big White Telephone.

Okay, I'm getting all heavy-handed with my clichés etc. This is a pretty film. I'll take it out, dust it off, and watch it once in a while just to feel that sick pulse of enjoying pretty boys wearing make-up shagging and prancing around in too-tight pants. Because it makes me happy-sad, and reminds me of my own stupid young adult years when I wanted something I could never have. That wasn't even real.

I'll leave you with that. You probably won't enjoy the film for the same reasons I do, nor feel disappointed with it for the same reasons I do. Maybe it's also because the film reminds me of who I never got to be. And also that the dream invariably turns to ashes in your mouth.

PS, I'm also really not in a very intellectual mood of present, so feel free to disregard everything I've written here as the ramblings of a middle-aged maggot.