Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Tome of the Undergates: Some impressions

The latest "Big Idea" post on John Scalzi's blog "Whatever" has kind of stirred me into some kind of...thing.

Sam Sykes has written a Big Idea post about his debut novel, Tome of the Undergates. Not only have I been reading this one, but I've been kind of sort of having a Twitter interaction with Sam himself (his twitter profile). We've talked about video games and stuff. We're totally like BFF now. Who wants to touch me? I SAID WHO WANTS TO F#*$#%G TOUCH ME?!

Whew. Anyway. When I saw that Tome was available on Kindle, and at a reasonable price, I bought it rather impulsively. I'm now about 20% in, and I'm of two minds about this book...on one hand, Sam has a VERY strong grasp of prose for fun's sake. Meaning, he's not some pretentious writer's workshop obfuscator, but he's also not some low-brow hack. I love his action scenes, and he never lets things get too quiet. His characters speak naturally, relative to their crazy-assed personalities.

On the other hand, the book is pretty much a role playing game session on paper. More specifically, it's a D&D/WRPG in the "Planescape: Torment/Dragon Age: Origins" milieu, right down to characters having inflexible classes ("Rogue", "Archer", "Healer-Priestess"...I'm surprised he's not called anyone a "tank" yet.) So things get really, really game-y. For some that's good, for some that's bad, but forwarned is forearmed as they say. I personally enjoy playing these kinds of games, but the jury's still out if I want to read a story which is essentially someone else playing these kinds of games.

What's more, these people are horribly, horribly broken. Broken beyond all hope of sympathy, from me, anyway. I know that Sam thinks it's part of their charm, or raison d'etre even (you would know that too, if you read the Whatever post...did you?), It's really, really hard to care about them. REALLY hard. I'm not sure in what world "genocidal fury tempered by occasional attraction" qualifies as essentially human, but it's not one I'm sure I want to live in, even by proxy. And I still haven't figured out why they're together. Apart from two of the characters seeming to have serious schoolgirl/boy crushes on others, for the most part they seem almost murderously hateful toward each other. Nothing really shows why they are together as a party...not even money seems strong enough a motivator to overcome the revulsion that seems to flow between nearly all of the main characters.

In that Big Idea piece, Sam wrote "It’s about a world that makes such people that can be bound together only by their own self-loathing and what they find in each other to keep going." is absolutely descriptive of this book. Thinking about doesn't sound very fun, actually. Self loathing mixed with hatred for everyone around you makes for...suicide? Psychopathic rampages? A journey of self-discovery? A very special "Blossom"?

I hope I find out soon.

That all being said, the book is not, by any rubrik, a bad one. It's quite well written and immensely fun in lots of parts. But the parts that are not fun are all the more unpleasant because of the contrast. I will continue reading, and unless the ending is utter crap (I suspect it's not) I'll likely read the sequels. SO I'm hooked, I'm just not sure how happy I am about the fact...
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Friday, September 17, 2010

What do YOU think?

I keep an eye on Angry Robot (as you can see from the banner), and I got an email from them that made me think a little bit.

It starts out straight-forward enough:

New Australian author Jo Anderton has signed with genre masterminds Angry Robot for at least two novels in her Veiled Worlds series. The worldwide deal, covering physical books and eBooks, was done by agent Anni Haig-Smith and Angry Robot’s publishing director, Marc Gascoigne. Debris will be published in the autumn of 2011, with direct sequel Suited to follow in 2012.

Congratulations to Jo Anderton, and good on you! I wish I could say the same.

Then there's this:
Angry Robot’s man with the cheque book Marc Gascoigne said, “With the ever-increasing popularity of Japanese and Korean anime, manga and computer games, it’s been surprising that there hasn’t been more SF and fantasy showing its influence. Debris’s mix of SF and fantasy themes, exotic future-medieval settings, Dune-esque warring factions, and a fabulous kick-ass heroine is exactly the sort of on-trend science fiction Angry Robot was set up to publish. We’re damned pleased to have Jo on board.”

Japanese and Korean Anime and Manga? I guess he doesn't know that Korean uses a different language from Japan, and thus different words for their comics and animation (Manhwa is apparently the word for both.) But ok, a little linguistic confusion happens.

Really, it's the jump in the middle there that seems odd to me. OK, so mixing SF and Fantasy themes and a future-medieval setting can be pretty Manga-ish (but the real source in these books will be seen later), but "Dune-esque warring factions and a fabulous kick-ass heroine" are not a particularly defining feature of the form, are they? I mean, I'm sure there are a few manga/anime that feature them, but the vast majority seem far more personal/individual, with male heroes. (One might almost say that Dune would be an influence for the former...)


Jo added, “I’ve been reading Angry Robot books since their first giant, metallic steps and absolutely loving them. Debris started out as an idea about a magical version of the industrial revolution and a scarred garbage collector who saves the world, but still has to pay her rent. Add a few motley companions, a pinch of probably-misinterpreted quantum physics, and far too much time spent in front of various Final Fantasy video games. I’m thrilled my books have found a home at Angry Robot."

So the books actually don't have any Manga influence, at all. I mean, there are FF manga, sure, but...she said games.

Anyway, yeah, I'm nitpicking, I know. My real confusion comes from this attitude expressed in the press release that some nebulous influence manga/anime/"computer games" might have had on the books is part of the marketing strategy. Is that important? Is the fact that Jo played a lot of FF before/while writing the books a selling point? I'm honestly asking here. Sure, I don't think it is, but maybe someone does. Do you?

The thing is, I could see marketing books based directly on manga/anime because of the appeal to the fanbase. But saying "This author likes video games! And those video games are Japanese!" seems like a bit of a stretch. Is a fan supposed to read that and say "Oh! Hey, I played a lot of FF, so these books must be EXACTLY RIGHT FOR ME!"

I seriously don't want anyone to think I'm criticizing the author, or even Marc Gascoigne. I'm simply a little confused by this marketing. Wouldn't it be better to let the books stand on their own merits, rather than going out of your way to make a (fairly flimsy) connection to another (increasingly less) popular artform? From what details they gave, the books do sound interesting, but really, there's not much there...I wish they'd said more about the books themselves.

For what it's worth, I've been piqued. I'll see if I can't review this one, see what's what.
Click Here to read the rest.