Thursday, 31 May 2012

Character Songs: Seawoll

Detective Chief Inspector Alexander Seawoll

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Oh No My Ego Has Exploded!

I have become so brain numbingly, vastly, successfull-ish that I have been paid the ultimate accolade of having my pull quotes on the front cover of two, count them, two novels.

The first is this eyebending cover for Samit Basu's brilliant superhero fable Turbulence.

The second is the restrained minimalist cover for Paul Cornell's high octane supernatural police procedural London Falling.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Feed That Brain: The Land Where The Blues Began

If you want to eschew the superficial, avoid cliché, imbue authenticity into your work and, above all, write well - then it is vital to constantly fill your brain with new stuff. Sometimes you do this as part of organised research, sometimes just through the process of living in the world but, for me, the most fun is a proper non-fiction book. As in all things some books are more crunchy and nutritious than others so I thought I'd pick out my personal favourites.

The Land Where The Blues Began 
by Alan Lomax

There aren't that many folklorists who manage to generate an 800 page FBI file but Alan Lomax was never one to keep his mouth shut - even when the prevailing orthodoxy said he should. He spent a career finding and recording music - not to exploit it for his own ends but to preserve it for the future - and documenting the lives of the people that produced it.

The Land Where The Blues Began is Lomax's exploration of the Mississippi Delta and it's role in producing the most influential musical form of modern times(1). It's beauty as a brain feeding book is because it works at so many levels: -

As a general history of the blues - obviously - but also providing portraits of some of the extraordinary characters in and around the blue's scene. If you're writing fiction you can never read too many good descriptions of real people the more you are exposed to the human race in its astonishing variety the truer your fictional characters will be.

On top of that the book is a travelogue of the Mississippi Valley in the 1940s giving insights into the sights, smells, living conditions and social attitudes of the time. It was from this book that I first learnt about Beale Street and the Castle of Missing Men(2). It also gives a look, just for the icing on the cake, into the mindset of a southern born radical minded white man, his honesty as a reporter extending to his own reactions and habits of mind.

And it's quite short too and well written.

(1) It ain't jazz okay although that's probably the second most influential musical form of modern times.
(2) Beale Street is like a microcosm of Black American history in that you keep peeling away layers of indifference, racist historiography and downright suppression to find amazing stories - Robert Church anyone?

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

All Change for US Covers!

Del Rey have decided to release Whispers Under Ground with a new cover design and have informed me that future print runs of Midnight Riot and Moon Over Soho will have new covers as well. 

As you can see from the image to the left the new covers is a bit familiar. These covers have been very successful and I can see whyn Del Rey have adopted them but there's a secret pulp part of my soul that could have done with a bare midrift, or a tattoo, or a moody pair looking into the middle distance with expressions that suggest they're contemplating their next tax return.

Now I just have to persuade some one to change all the covers on the Goodreads site.

The City & The City & Those Other Places Who's Names Escapes Me

Medieval Novgorod
This Monday I sat down to a round table  discussion about London based urban fantasy with China Mieville, Suzanne McLeod and Kate Griffin.

Our talk turned, as all such conversations eventually do, to the comparative demographics of medieval cities. I threw, with misplaced confidence, some shaky and unsubstantiated figures around to hoots of derision from Suzanne and China and a raised eyebrow from Kate. 

To make amends I have spent whole minutes looking up data on the internet to get some figures which, if not necessarily accurate, at least sound vaguely plausible. 

London had an estimated population of 40,000 during the 14th Century, the next largest English city was York (12,100), followed by Bristol (10,000), Coventry (8,000) and Norwich (6,600)(1). By comparison modern Chipping Norton, until quite recently the UK's de facto capital, has a population of just under 6,000.

Paris, by comparison, was a mere 110,000 strong but I think we can put this down to Gallic exaggeration and say no more about it. Medieval Novgorod, which I had got into my head as much bigger is listed at only 30,000. 12th Century Constantinople had a population of 400,000 which is more like what I think of as a city. Baghdad had everyone beat in the high middle ages(2) by having a population of 1.2 million people. Chang'an during the Tang dynasty is said to be even bigger which is just typical of the Chinese and their competitive one-upmanship. Interestingly the larger cities of Medieval Nigeria are thought to have been in the 40-50,000 people range.

Suzanne McLeod is famous for her series in which she attempts to stuff every single urban fantasy trope into London and then invent a stack of new and exciting tropes of her own. 

Her latest; The Shifting Price of Prey is out in June 12th in the UK. I have an advanced copy and you don't - so there!

China Mieville has been voted the SFF writer most likely to win a Man Booker prize(3). I was tempted, during the round table, to insert a plastic tube into his head and siphon off some of them brains.

He has a new YA out called Railsea which proves that what children really want is weird and terrifying.

Kate Griffin writes what I like to think of as transcendental urban fantasy in which she sets out to prove that not only are things not what they seem to be but even stranger you could think possible. I remember cursing as I shelved her books in my section at Waterstones - I really wish I'd thought of some of those ideas.

Her latest book in the Matthew Swift series (which started with A Madness of Angels) called The Minority Council is out now - so you have no excuse not to own a copy.

(1) Manchester at that time had a population of twelve and one half a goat.
(2) High as opposed to the Low or Stinking middle ages.
(3) Well voted by me anyway.

Monday, 21 May 2012

My Personal Golden Age: Part III - The Men With the Golden Slide Rules

Someone once said that Science Fiction was the poetry of the Engineer(1) and these men express that muse. When they dreamt of rocket ships they dreamt of the mass ratios and specific impulses that would take them to the stars.

As a writer Robert Heinlein was the least limited of our group. Whatever you think of his politics, and I suspect most people misunderstand his politics, he was the one that consistently wrote rounded and diverse characters. I use 'rounded' advisedly, they're not always three dimensional but you certainly don't cut your fingers on them when you pick them up. He also pioneered the use of the 'surprise ethnic' to get non-white characters past his editors. This technique relies on the sad fact that even the most conscientiously racist editor tends to be, shall we say, keen to finish once he's three quarters of the way through a novel. He's therefore likely to miss the fact that the protagonist is from the Philippines and fall down in his sacred task of ensuring that delicate white sensibilities are untroubled by the notion that the human race comes in more than one colour.

Fortunately I don't have to resort to these measures and so what I take from Heinlein is the 'breezy exposition' technique.This where you take some technical detail that you need for your plot, adopt a jokey, folksy style, stir in a couple of humorous similes and, metaphorically, put your arm around the reader's shoulders and explain just how the universe works. If you do it right then the reader can get all the way to the end of the book before going - 'Hold on a minute!'

Arthur C. Clarke was another engineer with a taste for free love but a love of really big ideas. I've always felt that Clarke's reiterated belief that we would evolve to let slip our mortal forms and become one with the cosmos was a yearning to escape the class and sexual restrictions of 1940s Britain.

His prose is what critics call 'workmanlike' meaning that it gets you from point A to point B without trying flash you some leg or sell you a bridge. A style ideally suited to the 'fuck-me' concepts of Childhood's End, The City and the Stars and and Rendezvous with Rama.

In my opinion 2001 is not a significant work and without the vast gravitational attraction of Kubrick's film it would be lost amongst the intellectual grandeur of Clarke's other work. Strangely what I always take away from Clarke is an immense sense of sadness and loss in the face of eternity.

Isaac Azimov makes Arthur C. Clarke's prose style appear positively chatty and verbose. He was the master of the puzzle, the howdunnit and the shaggy dog story. Ironically, given that he seemed to regard characterisation as something that happened to other people, he is the most sociological of the men with the slide rules. Azimov often looked at the impact the choices made by a society would have on the individual, the culturally induced agoraphobia of the Terrans in The Caves of Steel or its mirror counterpart in The Naked Sun are good examples.

It took me a while to determine what Azimov's influence on me might be, largely because it was such a huge but nebulous influence that I almost overlooked it. Azimov's big lesson for me was how maintaining internal consistency, even if it is just for a span of a short story, is the key to keeping the extraordinary narrative afloat - even if it is a shaggy dog story based on an excruciating pun(2).

(1) Actually that someone was me, just now, for this blog but you got to admit it sounds like the sort of thing someone might say.
(2) Shah Guido G - the horror, the horror!

Friday, 18 May 2012

Rivers of London on Crime Novel Long List

Rivers of London is on the 2012 Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of The Year Longlist. You can read about it here.

This comes as a complete surprise to me so I'll post more as soon as I know it.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Currently Reading: Medieval History and Romanticism

Occasionally I get distracted and while I prepare for the completion of the next book I have been doing the ground work for a project that has long been simmering away at the back of my brain. To this end I have kindled Life in a Medieval Village by Frances and Joseph Gies and William Morris's The Well Beyond the Woods

Much of this material is also useful for book 5 which will be slightly more countrified than previous Peter Grant books. I always like to get maximum mileage out of my reading.

Monday, 14 May 2012

My Own Personal Golden Age: Part II - The Old Guys

Since the Peter Grant books hit big people have often asked me about the author's that influenced me. These days I pay attention to authors but back in the Golden Age I thought in terms of individual books or series. These books were all enormously influential and looking back I can put some names to titles. I've divided them up into roughly historic waves but I certainly didn't read them in this order.

On a side note; I've tried as much as possible to show the covers of the editions that I first read the book in.

The Old Guys
These were the guys who were in on the start of the 20th Century who were writing science fiction and fantasy when nobody really knew what science fiction was or how they were going to market it.
I've always had a soft spot for the term Scientific Romance which were was often used to describe the works of H.G. Wells. You can make an argument that even today you can still divide science fiction writers into the followers of Wells or his near contemporary Jules Verne. One, internationalist, progressive, more concerned with the implications of technology than the technology itself, the other; nationalistic, conservative, interested in how technology works and the things that it might make possible. Certainly British Science Fiction has always favoured, I put it no stronger than that, the Wellsian side while American writers favoured Verne(1).

Even a partial list of his books is almost a list of the origin stories of the genre; The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau(2), The War of the Worlds and the Food of the Gods - a novel that prefigures our fears that we might be supplanted by a superior race of our own making.  Given that he built most of the engine parts that drive Science Fiction to this very day I'm glad that I read him first when both me and the tropes were fresh and raw. Nowadays he reads like steampunk but back when the world was new so was he.

So too were the interplanetary stylings of Edgar Rice Burroughs who if he didn't invent it certainly perfected the Planetary Romance which has informed everything from Jack Vance, Michael Moorcock and James Cameron's Avatar(3).

I remember his work in fragments like scraps of brilliantly coloured wrapping paper found in a draw years after a birthday. I remember having to look up the word 'sward', upon which my memory insists our hero was swooning. I remember the nudity, the dangerously egg laying women and head shaped creatures with their detachable bodies. I remember a tremendous amount of sword play, shouts of despair and agonising last minute reversals. These books did seem archaic when back in the Golden Age - both the language and the breezy racism marking them as being from an earlier age.

After HGW and ERB comes EES. I sometimes wonder whether Iain M.Banks, Ken Macleod and the rest of the Scottish Space Opera renaissance how directly their work is linked to that of E.E. "Doc" Smith. Ironic post-modernist deconstruction, my arse, big technology doing hugely awesome things to illustrate your utopianism - that's what it's all about.

As with Burroughs I remember his books as isolated fragments; the lightning rod at the start of Masters of the Vortex, the parachute infiltration of Atlantis and the idea that two entire Galaxies were colliding in both a physical and a political sense.

As to the influence these authors had on my writing? I'd have to say that their influence is felt, ironically, through their influence on the writers who came after them. In this I suspect I'm typical of your late twentieth century SF writer.

So I think we'd better move onto the next wave of the Golden Age - The Men With The Golden Slide Rules.

(1) Obviously there are many, many exceptions to this. If you're wondering why Verne isn't in this list it's because I manage to miss reading his books until after the Golden Age was over.
(2) I love the way you can draw a direct line between this book at Jurassic Park.
(3) Which explains all the mighty whitey stuff.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

The Translators: Christine Blum

I've always found it strange that we don't celebrate the work of our translators more than we do. As a writer with a typically British facility with foreign languages I've always been in awe of people who can carry on a conversation in a second language let alone translate a book. My French translator introduces himself here but now it is the turn of Christine Blum who had the daunting task of translating the jazz stylings of Peter Grant into the language of Goethe.
I am Christine Blum, to some also known as Crystal or Fall. I live in South-Western Germany, in a town called Offenburg between the Black Forest and the French border, together with a good friend and a cute feral killer cat. I was always interested in foreign languages and translating, but my first choice of studies was - - - medicine. Until I realized that I absolutely didn't want to work as a doctor or do scientific research. So I switched to cultural studies, musicology and Russian literature. While still at University I began translating roleplaying rulebooks for a small German publishers, and after graduating I was lucky enough to find more publishers to work with, translating mainly fantasy and mystery fiction – which I like best indeed, even if I never consciously sought to work in that genre. I have been working as a literary translator (English and Russian to German) since 2005 now.

Apart from my work I'm performing my own songs together with fellow filker and songwriter Eva; we're known (as far as we're known) as "Summer & Fall": (sorry, our homepage is in desperate need to be revised!). In addition I'm also a pen & paper roleplaying gamer and a geocacher.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Fol-der-o diddle-o-day

This song is based stolen from Steeleye Span - the original can be found here.

As I was going to Downing Street all on election day.
A pretty little Liberal girl I met upon the way.
Her business was for canvassing with policies for the fray.
And we both jogged on together my boys fol-der-o diddle-o-day x2

As we jogged on together my boys together side by side
By chance this election's voting by chance it came out tied
For fear that I might lose it I unto her did say.
I'd like to give you a cabinet post fol-der-o diddle-o-day X2

As we negotiated terms my boy on the outskirts of the town.
At length this fair young damsel she stopped and looked around.
O since you want it badly enough give a shot at PR to me.
I will if you come to the rose garden with me fol-der-o diddle-o-day x2

And when we got to the rose garden the media were out in force.
I joined this girl on the podium and charted a middle course.
The wailing of the labourites such a sight I never did see.
And we both jogged on together my boys fol-der-o diddle-o-day x2

Oh since you've had your will with me come tell to me your name
Likewise your occupation and where and whence you came.
My name is David the Eton Boy from Newbury Town come I
And I live with the boys of the Bullingden Club fol-der-o diddle-o-day x2

And when she got to government her policies were not sold.
And the losing of electoral reform it made her blood run cold.
It's gone, it's gone, it's gone, she cried, I'm stuck with austerity now.
For he lives with the boys of the Bullingden club fol-der-o diddle-o-day x2

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Whispers Under Ground: The Tour Dates

I've just been sent this event list by Jon Weir at Orion Books and I'm blogging them in case the six of you want to turn up. I will do more detailed blogs as the dates approach - I'm thinking of cake for Covent Garden - but for now here it is in rough.


Thursday 21st June – 6.30pm
Waterstones Piccadilly
Talk and signing.


Friday 22nd June – 7pm
Waterstones Guildford
Talk and Signing


Saturday 23rd June – 4pm
Forbidden Planet, Shaftesbury Avenue
Talk and signing


Monday 25th June - 8pm
Topping and Co
Talk and Signing


Tuesday 26th June – 1pm
Waterstones New Street

and then......


Tuesday 26th June –7pm
Waterstones Deansgate
Talk and signing


Wednesday 27th – 7pm
Waterstones Nottingham
Talk and Signing

A Rest!



Thursday 28th – 7.30pm 
Waterstones Brighton Clock Tower
Talk and signing


Friday 29th 1.00 PM
Waterstones Convent Garden
Signing + I'm thinking of cake for this one as a thank you for everyone who supported me in the far off days of last year.

Dull Political Post - Ignore

While responding to this article in the Guardian -  No, Boris – spending more on London won't fix the country's economic woes.  Which includes the sub-headline:  London gets the lion's share of taxpayer money for health, housing and transport. Now Boris wants to blow more on the capital. But his argument is flatly wrong.

Using the figures provided by the writer, Aditya Chakrabortty, economics leader writer, I spent 10 minutes with my spreadsheet to get this....


Spending Population        pop%    spending
North East
4 24,378      2,515,442 4% 5%
North West 11 63,663      6,853,200 11% 12%
Yorkshire and the Humber 8 44,427      5,142,400 9% 8%
East Midlands 6 35,238      4,172,179 7% 7%
West Midlands 8 46,591      5,267,237 9% 9%
8 44,098      5,388,140 9% 8%
14 78,957      7,753,600 13% 15%
South East
11 63,109      8,000,550 13% 12%
South West
7 41,546      4,928,458 8% 8%
Total England 79 442,007     50,021,206 83% 82%
9 51,629      5,222,100 9% 10%
5 29,121      3,006,400 5% 5%
Northern Ireland 3 18,898      1,799,392 3% 3%

541,655     60,049,098

Which I think shows that regional spending in the UK is largely in line with population.  True London does get 15% of the spending with 13% of the population but then basic services cost much more than in the rest of the country. It certainly doesn't constitute the lion's share.

Now I agree with Chakrabortty that we need to spread the economy more evenly throughout the country but this kind of mendacious, statistically illiterate attack on London and Londoners while fashionable in this Olympic year is not exactly helpful.