Tag Archives: Alan Baxter

‘Bound’ Review

Disclosure: I met Alan Baxter once, briefly, at Genrecon. He seemed like a great guy, and since then I’ve been following him on Twitter and FB and reading some of his short fiction. He’s a writer I admire, a local writer too. He’s always been generous with advice and with sharing his experiences of being a writer, and I’ve learnt a lot from him. He’s given me a very valuable perspective of what being a writer entails. I was really happy to hear that he got the book deal, and I was looking forward to reading about Alex Caine.

Review:

‘Bound’ drops us straight into the action. We’re in Caine’s head and he’s in a fight, an illegal MMA match somewhere in Sydney’s underworld. We are quickly introduced to Caine’s ability – to see the ‘shades’ of his opponent’s intent. It makes him a formidable fighter, so much so that he attracts the unwanted attention of an organised crime boss. When a mysterious Englishman arrives who recognises Caine’s powers, and offers to teach him more about himself, the fighter reluctantly follows his new mentor’s call. Thus begins a globe-trotting adventure of rapidly escalating magic and quests to find ancient objects of great power.

This is Urban Fantasy with a magical bent and lashings of sex and violence. If you like ancient prophecies and street fights and magic and shadowy organisations in the wainscoting of normal life, try this book.

There are possible spoilers from here on, but if you want to know more, and are prepared to risk spoilers, read on.

Photo courtesy of author's website

Photo courtesy of author’s website

There are some very cool concepts here. I haven’t read Baxter’s original – self-published – novels, but their titles echo here. Some characters sit meaningfully at the edges of Caine’s story and I suspect they’d be even more meaningful to readers familiar with Baxter’s earlier work. The magesign to which Caine is so perceptive is a great idea. Other elements are from more familiar tropes: elemental control, warlocks, grimoires, gargoyles, faeries, ancient demi-gods, shape-shifters. Baxter has thrown them all into a blender of his own design though, and they each come out with some new twist. It’s in combining these elements that Baxter is at his best.

I also really enjoyed the globe-trotting. Australia, England, Iceland, Canada, Italy, Scotland… it was like Bond, if Bond was a magically empowered brawler. Baxter evokes each location in his writing and the shifting geography, the litany of airports, adds a layer of the familiar and mundane over which the supernatural elements can rise.

As we become more familiar with Caine’s growing confidence in his own powers, we are shown the even greater forces opposing him. It’s a steep incline and Baxter drives us forward relentlessly, ever-changing, ever-escalating. The consequence of this is that the stakes quickly become very high indeed, perhaps too quickly. Caine’s transition from neophyte to dominance is even quicker. I found that he lost me a little somewhere on the climb. The Caine of the early chapters was a guy I could relate to. By the latter half of the book this was no longer the case. The previously engaging fight scenes lost their fizz when the outcome was no longer in doubt. A fighter out of his depth fighting for his life against two gargoyles is tense. An invincible superpower tearing through powerful opponents with ease, less so. I also struggled to maintain my sympathy for the character after his decision to take a life, even if that was a decision influenced by a force at that point uncontrolled. Another review I read suggested that Caine was an author-surrogate, and though I wouldn’t entirely agree with that assessment, I can see where it comes from.

The antagonists are varied. The sub-contractor was probably the most interesting, and I would have liked to have seen more of him. The Weird Sisters were also strong. Their introduction was one of the best scenes in the book, clearly the darkest and most horrific. I’m not easily put-off by horror, but that scene in a Scottish hotel required a pause for recovery. Again they were perhaps under-utilised. Other antagonists came and went.

Mr Hood and Miss Sparks are the most enduring, and ultimately the truest antagonists of the novel (other than the force behind the grimoire). I felt Miss Sparks was one of the more interesting POV characters. There seemed to be more to her than was revealed. Perhaps this waits for me in the second and third volumes of the series. Mr Hood was menacing and confident and a good counter-point to Caine. The Sparks/Hood relationship was repulsive and fascinating, even though the sexual elements of it sometimes dropped in with a thud. I have no qualms about the sexual content, and even as it is Baxter is never overly explicit with it, but there were some instances that felt gratuitous.

Which brings me to Silhouette. I didn’t like Silhouette. I understand how she was necessary to the narrative and how Caine couldn’t have achieved what he did without her. I understood why he went from Welby to Silhouette, why he came to depend on her, and then she on him. I didn’t feel that the emotional connection really evolved naturally, but that wasn’t really a problem – emotional connections can be unexpected and inexplicable. I just didn’t like her, as a character. She promised to become quite interesting, briefly, or to reveal a side of herself to which Caine was unaware, but it never really happened. As Caine’s power grew her independence and agency seemed to contract accordingly. A shame, because she entered with a certain sense of self that seemed by the end to have been diminished. Her (many) sex scenes with Caine were unsexy, probably deliberately so, and some of them deeply discomforting – for much the same reasons as with Hood/Sparks.

‘Bound’ kept me hooked throughout. I finished the whole thing in a week, and there’s plenty in it to keep you wanting to turn the next page (or swipe the screen in my case). It’s the novel of a writer who knows his craft and can deliver on a promise. I’ll read the others in the series too, at least because I’m interested in where Baxter goes from here. With such a powerful protagonist, and such powerful enemies already defeated, I’m sure there’ll be something even bigger to come.

***Alan Baxter will be in Melbourne this Friday (26th Sept) and will be signing books. Check out his website – http://www.alanbaxteronline.com – or follow him on twitter – @AlanBaxter – for details.***


2013

Well, this year is about wrapped up, and as is the want of the season I figured I’d take a look back and see if I could somehow parse some meaning from all of those events that occurred:

Best Books:

I read some excellent books this year.
Noteworthy was Joe Abercrombie’s ‘Red Country‘, which was much anticipated and lived up to lofty expectations. I really liked the returning characters and the new ones even more so, and Joe’s continuing breadth of hybridised genres remained an invigorating force on my appreciation of modern Fantasy writing.
I also read several of Chuck Wendig’s books. You might have noticed I referenced him repeatedly this year on the blog, and with good cause. I ‘discovered’ his writing through the terribleminds website and his advice to writers, and I’m glad that this led me to his fiction. The Miriam Black books were great. His Corn-Punk YA and Atlanta Burns stories were good excursions into a genre I don’t read enough of, and Blue Blazes was great. I still have a special place for the first of his books that I read though, the tales of Coburn, a vampire who wakes up in the zombie apocalypse and must become a shepherd to his ‘sheeple’

Against this stiff competition though rose Mark Lawrence’s trilogy (Prince, King, Emperor of Thorns). It has caused some controversy in some circles but I didn’t find the protagonist as shocking or evil as some of the criticism would suggest. He wasn’t a good guy, but I think he was trying to be without really knowing how. In that sense he wasn’t so much different from other protagonists I’ve read. He was younger in book 1, but as the book progressed that feature became less pronounced, and given the images of teenage ‘soldiers’ coming out of Syria I had little problem accepting it. The world was interesting, but several queries regarding technology level and such went unanswered. I would happily recommend them and look forward to reading Lawrence’s future works.

Best Graphic Novel:

It’s a small field, as I don’t read too many, but I did finally get around to reading “Red Son”. I’m not really a fan of DC and certainly not of Superman who I think tends to fascistic fantasies of control, or to some infantile desire to be protected and guided by a greater being. I was interested in how the Superman mythos would play out against the Soviet political ideals, and while ‘Red Son’ touched on this paradox it went largely unexplored. In the end I felt that the Red Son Superman was still an American, transplanted into Russia, rather than a full exploration of what a Soviet Superman would truly mean. It was an interesting and thought-provoking read though.

Best Film:

Surprisingly few real contenders here. I saw many of the big ‘tent-pole’ movies and usually came away with mild disappoint. ‘Elysium’ didn’t live up to its aesthetic and tried to sledgehammer me with a political message. ‘Into Darkness’ was silly, burdened by fan-service and more spectacle than substance. ‘Iron Man 3’ had some good sequences but seemed to lose the sense of character. ‘Man of Steel’ did a wonderful job of setting up and re-imagining a familiar origin story, but the Krypton scenes were unnecessary, the whole final act was terrible and Snyder’s misogyny kept rearing up ugly. ‘World War Z’, again, sacrificed story to spectacle. ‘Desolation of Smaug’ looked amazing but was weighed down under its own attempts to be an epic far beyond the proportions of its source material. ‘Pacific Rim’ had awesome robots and kaiju… and that is all. ‘Django Unchained’ was disappointing – particularly in the manner by which it relegated its eponymous character to secondary and tertiary roles when Waltz and DiCaprio were on-screen.

I think therefore that ‘Gravity’ gets the nod. Sure there were problems, as Neil DeGrasse Tyson pointed out, but it was a great experience. I saw it in IMAX 3D and it was beautifully immersive. I love Cuarón’s long tracking shots and the film’s opening was a wonderful example of how the technique can be well used.

(Special mention to ‘Wreck-it Ralph’ for being an absolutely awesome movie to watch with the kids).

Best Event:

Two great events for me this year as a writer.

Firstly, Genrecon 2013 gave me the opportunity again to meet so many other writers in such a diverse range of specialities, and at different stages in the auctorial development. The panels and workshops were excellent, the community supportive and inclusive, the international guests warm and engaging, the banquet after-party sufficiently well lubricated.

Secondly, I saw George RR Martin and Michelle Fairley in conversation, hosted by the Wheeler’s Centre in a side-show to their Supernova commitments. Michelle was wonderfully entertaining and forthright. GRRM went over some adages with which I was already familiar – it must be tremendously difficult to answer the same questions in new ways – but also added some interesting insights into his process and the story thus far (such as his being uncertain that Bronn would even survive the Eyrie, only to watch as the character became important as a sounding-board for Tyrion, and then important in his own right).

Writing:

I have taken some strides here too, but not as many as I had hoped. I’m much more organised with my submissions tracking spreadsheet and a good list of potential markets to explore (thanks in particular to Peter Ball and Alan Baxter); I pitched my novel MS again and felt a lot more confident and assured in doing so; I have five finished short-stories this year, for a total of about 30,000 words.

I am not unhappy with that, given all of the external pressures on my time, but I want to increase that figure. Alan Baxter estimated himself as having completed over 250,000 words this year and Chuck Wendig has something like 600,000. Chuck’s a full-time pen-monkey, but he has a toddler and I am sure many of the same concerns and excuses that I do, so I’m not going to point at any of those as a way out, I’m just going to look at my 30,000 or so, nod, and acknowledge that I could do more.

2014:

Goals then?

  • To write over 50,000 words in 2014. For those not good on the maths, that’s about 1,000 a week. 200 words a day x 5 days a week. That looks do-able.
  • To have completed 6 short stories. That’s one every 2 months. I’ll need to do this and more to hit the 50,000, so hopefully this is a goal I can meet and exceed.
  • Reading 10 novels. That’s about one very 5 weeks, and I suspect this will be the tough one., because I want to hit this goal without including the reading I have to do for work, but perhaps the work reading will have to contribute.
  • Reading 100 short stories. That’s 2 a week, and I think this is an achievable one. I’ve subscribed to Daily Science Fiction, so even if I just read all of them I will be fine, but I’ll get subscriptions to a few other mags as well so that there’ll be the variety. I’m also reading Raymond Chandler’s short stories for work. I may or may not include these toward my goal.
  • Blogging. 1 post a month, at least, and I ambitiously hope to get one up every fortnight.

So there you have it: 2013 tucked into the past and a clear guiding line through 2014. Thanks for following and being a part of it. I appreciate that there is some sense of an audience out there and it helps me to stay motivated knowing that there are readers waiting.

Happy New Year to you all. Hope it’s been a good ’13 and a great ’14 ahead.


Equality, Diversity and Appropriation

Recently (actually about a month ago) Joss Whedon spoke at an Equality Now function. In some circles this was lauded (Jezebel called it perfect), others were less certain (such as The Mary Sue), and many were downright critical. I don’t want to down-play the importance of the feminist discussion, and we should all recognise just how problematic is the depiction of women in genre fiction and genre fandom. (If you don’t, try scrolling through the images here, many of which are drawn from Whedon’s own work).

I am a Whedon fan, but not a full Whedonite. I loved Buffy and Angel. I loved Firefly. Dollhouse, not so much. Serenity was ok. Cabin in the Woods was clever but problematic in many ways, not the least of which was that in its knowing parody of sexist horror tropes it conformed to all of the sexist horror (as explained brilliantly by Kirstyn McDermott). But I digress. With no disrespect to the importance of the feminist discussion,  an article by Clem Bastow got me thinking about Orientalism, another aspect of equality that genre fiction needs to confront.

Rebecca Brown’s essay on Orientalism in Firefly/Serenity gives a great outline for what Whedon has done in drawing on Oriental aesthetics and culture, but what he has not done is drawn into stark focus by Mike Le. A future culture in which Western and Oriental language, fashion and philosophy is blended, but no one exists who is of Asian appearance? Le rightly asks if such a gendered world could have been made – a world of male and female cultural equality – without female characters. I suspect not. I am certain, not.

I was reminded of Richard Morgan’s future/noir novels in which Takeshi Kovacs is protagonist. The character is explicitly located as being culturally Japanese/Slavic (and fiercely pedantic of the pronunciation of his name: Koh-vach). For all sorts of reasons related to the technologies available in Takeshi’s world the physical appearance of the character is less relevant than you might assume, but this is the internet’s #1 image of him:

And here he is on a book cover:

That’s some obvious white-washing, and even if we give Kovacs a re-sleeving pass, there’s plenty more examples of Asian characters being white-washed, or erased, or presented in yellow-face. I could go all the way back to Mr. Yunioshi, or David Carradine in ‘Kung Fu’but unlike black-face, this is not some embarrassing relic of the past. Tom Cruise as the ‘Last Samurai’, Keanu as the main one of ’47 Ronin’, 2010’s all-caucasian ‘Last Airbender’, 2012’s ‘Cloud Atlas’, even ‘Pacific Rim’ cast Clifton Collins Jnr as Tendo Choi.

On his blog over the past months Alan Baxter had guest posts from people discussing their early inspirations in genre fiction. The post by Thoraiya Dyer on the Feist/Wurts ‘Empire trilogy’ struck a cord with me because I too read and greatly enjoyed those books. For me they were one of the first examples – perhaps the first example outside of folk stories and mythoilogies – of Fantasy from a Non-Anglo perspective. Much as with ‘Dune’, which I also read as a teen, I was fascinated by the different culture, the different way of life, that was presented.

Mara of the Acoma is a young woman, powerless by the regular measures of the genre. She is no warrior, no adept of magic, has no divinely assured destiny. She is unprepared fro the challenges she faces but survives and overcomes them by the force of her agency and wits. Here she is on the cover:

That's her there, the white-chick dressed in white with blonde hair

That’s her there, the white-chick dressed in white with blonde hair


Never mind that Mara is obviously described as dark-haired. Never mind that the buildings of her world are more rice-paper screens than towering spires of marble. Never mind that she really has no use for a sword. And yes, the civilising white saviour comes in later to show her how much better things could be if only her culture were whiter and more European, but until that point the books did an excellent job of introducing me, and apparently Thoraiya, and I’m sure many other readers, to new cultural influences on Fantasy. I sure do hate the character of Kevin, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Paul Atreides is the privileged white male, but he  only comes into his power when he leaves that world. Re-reading ‘Dune’ recently I was struck by how my younger self had missed the obvious parable: when a technologically superior force invades a desert to extract from it the natural resources required to maintain their technologies,  the native inhabitants look to a religious leader to mount a rebellion against their oppressors. Again – Paul is the white saviour, giving the Fremen a leader that couldn’t have come from within, but still, this was the 70s.

Forward to today and I am reading Mazarkis Williams’ first novel, clearly set in an Orientalist culture. I am not far into the novel, so I won’t comment further, but it is still difficult to see this culture as anything but the Other. Perhaps that is for me as a reader to overcome.

My own writing draws on the culture I see in the streets and workplaces where I live, in my friends and the friends of my family, in the public spaces I frequent, but my novel, especially in its earliest drafts, was set in the pseudo-Euro tropes of lazy Fantasy. As a young writer one tends to reproduce what one has read. As Neil Gaiman says, “Most of us only find our own voices after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people.”

I think the question that fascinates me here is when writers can draw upon cultures of the Other to add to their world (as I believe Morgan did with the Kovacs novels), and when does it become white privilege mining other cultures and appropriating elements that then become stereotypes?

I don’t have the answer, but much as with good art – I feel that I know it when I see it.


Craft v Platform

There is a tension in some, it would appear, between two apparently opposing forces: the practice of one’s craft, and the building of one’s platform.

I’ve discussed this before, but really, I have never thought of this – what I’m doing here – as ‘platform’. The concept that blogging, maintaining a site, setting up a page, being active on twitter, attending cons… that all of that could be merely some effort to ensnare potential readers, that always struck me as slightly nefarious. Dishonest at worst, a mistake of priorities at best.

I always figured on doing all those things because I like doing them. I like here tapping away and throwing my words out into the churning void of bandwidth and opinion that is the internet. I liked going to Genrecon and meeting a community of people who shared my passions, or gave me new insights into passions related but different, or even new insights into my own. I like interacting with people on Twitter, on Facebook, wherever else it might be. So I hadn’t really felt the tension between these things and the craft of writing, other than the obvious mismanagement of time that could occur.

But Jane Friedman’s post on Writer Unboxed got me thinking about this tension anew last month, and as a result I went away from the website here, I left neglected my Facebook Page, I went away from Twitter… ok. That last one’s not true. Twitter is a difficult thing to shake. I did though take a more passive role on twitter, allowing those I follow to guide me to links and such, but not tweeting (much).

What then has been gained from this month of social media ‘sabbatical’? What gained from a month devoted to craft rather than the building of ‘profile’?

  • I finished writing my draft of Old Man Madigan. It comes in at 10,000 words and I’m wondering now whether I submit it to a market which may be prepared to serialise it, or whether I go in hard with the editing shears and cut.
  • I started expanding some ideas for other short stories, tentatively entitled: Pareidolia, Watchers, Melange. They run a gamut of weird urban/psychological, scif-fi futurism, alt world Fantasy.
  • I wrote a draft of ‘The Witch Way’, a Fantasy short story  at 5,000 words and in need of an edit.
  • I completed a draft of ‘Leaving the Farm’ which had been kicking around in my head and on my computer for years, never really having much structure or purpose. It’s 2150 words and not really genre fiction at all to be honest, straight up Lit Fic with a rural bent.
  • I did a heck of a lot of reading: Chuck Wendig’s Bad Blood, Shotgun Gravy, Bait Dog, Blackbirds, and Mockingbird; Joe Abercrombie’s Red Country; Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns (and currently reading King). Reviews to come.
  • And I sent out a query email for Exile, in the hope that an agent may be interested.

An agent was, and requested chapters, and so I’ve sent them now. I’m cautious and nervous and excited and apprehensive and uncertain and hopeful and worried and blasé… all at once or vacillating between the states. In one sense it’s not a step I haven’t reached (and stumbled upon) before, but I feel it’s progress. The last time an agent requested chapters it was on the basis of a face-to-face meeting, not so in this case. The agent currently considering my submission asked to see more based solely on the few paragraphs into which I distilled my novel. So that’s a good thing, to know that the query email worked, to know that I can pique the interest.

All in all a productive month, especially as I look back on it now. So what’s in store for this month? I hope to edit those two stories that are complete drafts, and to send them out. I have a list of markets to which I can submit (thanks Peter M Ball and  Alan Baxter) and I intend to put that list to use… and of course to check my emails obsessively, in the hope of good news.