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This is the week – I think technically this is the very day, in fact – when The Free becomes an actually published book you can buy and read. It’s out there, online or bookshops, ready and waiting for you, right now! It’s in print, e-book and – an enjoyable first for me – audiobook format. I’d love to hear from anyone who listens to it, incidentally: fascinating to know how it works in audio for the new reader/listener.

Some folks have said nice things about it, if you need encouragement:

‘ … mesmerizing, magical and human.’Publisher’s Weekly starred review

‘ … complicated characters and vivid descriptions elevate this far above run-of-the-mill epic fantasy.’ Library Journal starred review

‘ … a gripping read … a lot of fun …’Graeme’s SFF

‘ … a blast to read, merging the standard medieval fantasy with Seven Samurai, complete with phenomenal set pieces of warfare and magic.’Staffer’s Book Review

You can even go read the whole first chapter, entirely for free (appropriately enough), over at the Orbit Books website. That’s got to be worth a try, right?

If you really want to make happy, though, the solution is simple: buy the book!

The Free Cover gif

The Free Cover gifAs with all my books, my local specialist sf/f bookshop, Transreal Fiction, offers a handy-dandy service for those interested in buying The Free: signing, dedicationing, personalising, that kind of thing.

If you’re at all interested in getting a copy that has been defaced adorned with scrawlings by my own fair hand, check out the options available at the Transreal website. For the measly price of cover price plus post & packing, you can require me to sign, dedicate or otherwise inscribe a brand-new copy of The Free just for you.

It’s a win-win, you know? Get yourself a unique copy of the book, support a real-life bricks and mortar store, entertain me. Smiles all round.

It’s been a while since a film I knew almost nothing about blew me away. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I watched a film without having first seen so much as a trailer for it (that’s the price you pay for living on the internet). I just happened to notice that this thing called 13 Assassins was on the telly, I vaguely remembered hearing something about it somewhere or other, and the description sounded like my kind of thing. So I set the magic box that sits under the TV to record it, and now here I am a while later having finally watched it and reporting that 13 Assassins is good. Really good.

It’s a 2010 remake, by Takashi Miike, of a 1963 original, of which I know absolutely nothing.

To deprive you of the opportunity of being as surprised as I was, here’s the trailer:

Which rather nicely highlights one or two of the things I found so striking about the movie. The colour palette for one thing, which somehow manages to be not only quite dark and muted, but also very crisp, enormously evocative of realism. All the visuals are great, in fact. There are some beautifully composed and posed single shots, lots of sequences that are visually memorable in a design sense, irrespective of the action they depict.

The sound’s the other technical thing that really wowed me. There’s not much in the way of music until really quite late in the movie. Before that, it’s all sharp, clear ‘realistic’ background noise. The loud rustling of the traditional clothes, birdsong. It made me wish, really quite intensely, that more western movies dispensed with music soundtracks. There’s a wonderful bit, towards the end, when the baddies apparently escape from the death-trap village (we’ll get to the plot in a minute), emerging cautiously to the edge of the countryside. And all you hear – after the tumult of battle that’s assaulted your ears – is birdsong. It’s a small detail but enormously satisfying, that little natural sound symbolising the propsect of escape from the hellish, man-made slaughter that’s behind them.

As for what the film’s actually about, plot-wise, it’s very simple. The eponymous 13 assassins set out to kill a tyrannical noble. They’re recruited, come up with a plan and try to execute it. That’s it. Because their plan revolves around fortifying a village and defending it against the noble’s vastly superior numbers, and for all sorts of other specific plot reasons, the whole thing’s structurally very similar to Seven Samurai and its US progeny, The Magnificent Seven. The miracle is that 13 Assassins doesn’t particularly suffer from the obvious comparison with Seven Samurai, one of the best films ever made (in my opinion, and that of plenty of others), because it is itself a fantastically accomplished bit of film-making.

The film’s essentially divided into two parts. The first, slightly longer, section sets up the plot, demonstrates the baddie’s profound and deranged badness with some really quite unpleasant scenes, assembles the goodies and gets them to the village. The second, far from short, part is wall-to-wall slaughter as the 13 go up against 200+. It’s savage, bloody (really bloody) and beautifully shot. And it’s never dull, which for a single, uninterrupted battle that’s probably the longest I’ve ever seen on the screen is no small acheivement. Especially considering that most of it is samurai fighting with swords. There’s some archery, some explosions, a little bit of spear- and rock-work, but in the main you’re watching the same swordy thing, repeated over and over. But it’s done with such panache, such stirring desperation, that it works brilliantly.

Which is not to say there’s nothing by way of character work, thematic undercurrent, even the odd touch of humour. All those things are there, and done well. I couldn’t help but notice that every single female character is a victim, which grated, and I confess to being a little confused in the first ten or twenty minutes, since to my uneducated eye everyone looked rather similarly dressed and coiffured and it was thus initially tricky to keep track of who was who. But once the set-up’s in place everything runs smoothly. You’re on rails, in fact, moving with the characters towards the inevitable, inescapable massacre.

And when you get to that extended massacre, it’s so visceral, so kinetic and so cleverly filmed and structured that you’re so engrossed you barely notice time passing. I didn’t, anyway. It’s not, though, really a celebration of violence. Clearly, it’s intended to be an exciting, invigorating specactle, but the film sows plenty of seeds for questions about why the characters are doing what they’re doing (honour, morality, politics, madness) and it is uncompromising in showing the cruelty and suffering that’re inevitable when a large number of folk with drawn blades try to settle an argument.

So all in all, I liked it quite a lot. If it sounds like your kind of thing from the above description, I think you probably would too.

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Only even more so than last time.  Current ‘feels like’ temperature according to the Met Office: -6°C.  It is 19th March, right?  I’m not trapped in some sort of time warp, right?

And lo, there came a time when the weather resolved to do just exactly whatever it felt like, irrespective of the long-established norms of socially acceptable behaviour.

And yes, I know I’m supposed to be providing Part 2 of my previous post.  I will.  Any day now, honestly.

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I got a very nice delivery from the postman the other day.  A letter (and a request) from a fan of The Edinburgh Dead, generous and warm enough to put a smile on my face.  Two things occurred to me about it:

first, yes a real letter.  Handwritten, in an envelope with stamps on it and everything.  The rarity of getting actually interesting stuff through that avenue these days is sufficient to make it a disproportionately enjoyable experience.  I mean, when was the last time you wrote an actual, physical letter to someone?  With a pen, in your own handwriting?  I actually can’t remember the last time I did it, but I’d guess it’s in excess of ten years; quite possibly a lot in excess.  It’s a bit of a shame, really, given how nice they are to receive.  But, of course, I’m fairly too lazy to actually conclude from this that I should start writing my letters by hand rather than just doing the e-mail thing.

Second, this letter only got written because, as it turns out, the fan in question had already tried to contact me – with the same praise and request – by the nowadays more conventional avenue of digital media, and failed to get a response.  So she took it upon herself to go the old-school route, and wrote to me via my agent.

Now, my failure to respond to the original approach was poor behaviour, for which I have reprimanded myself, but it was completely unintentional (honest).  I do try to make a point of responding in one way or another to any remotely sensible contact from readers (or anyone else, for that matter).  Apart from the fact that it’s only polite to do so, that sort of contact is precious beyond words to us writers, who are in the main a fretful and lonely bunch starved of human interaction.  Feedback from happy readers is – unless you’re a bestselling author whose royalty statements have numbers on them too large for the human brain to process – the very best, and sometimes just about the only, encouragement you could ever hope for.  I’m always grateful for it.

So, when I fail to respond to incoming queries, thanks, whatever, nine times out of ten it’s going to be due to an oversight on my part, not because I’m a callous soul, indifferent to the efforts of others.  It does happen now and again, and I apologise to anyone who’s been on the (non-)receiving end of my poor organisational skills.  You’re allowed to try and prod me into responsiveness again, should that have happened to you.

I’m guessing there are some writers around who find it completely impractical to actually respond to every contact they get from their readers, due to the sheer volume of adoration heaped upon them every day.  Prodding them with repeated questions is, I suspect, less likely to endear you to them.  I’m a softer (and less popular) creature than they, so I don’t mind.  I like it when folks tell me they enjoyed stuff I wrote, so thank you to any and all who’ve done so.  You undoubtedly helped, each time, to make my day a little brighter, and it’s much appreciated.

… but it’s a rather dull, housekeeping kind of question, which is why I didn’t reveal it in the post title but went with a tantalising come-on instead.

Anyway, the question is this: does anyone else out there sometimes – not infrequently, in fact – have trouble getting this here website/blog to load in their browser?

For the last few weeks, I’ve been getting intermittent delays in loading the page that are sufficiently long that the browser (two different broswers, in fact) gives up in disgust and just hits me with an error message.  Sometimes repeatedly.  Can’t figure out whether it’s my software, my internet connection or the website and its servers themselves.

I would really, really appreciate it if anyone who’s got any difficulties to report lets me know, either in comments or by e-mail.  Would help considerably in either figuring out what the problem is, or (if no one’s got any problems but me) resigning myself to individual frustration.

Thanks.

Knight Attack!

Just thought this was kind of funny, though no doubt not for the people directly involved:

Four Knights Steal 20,000 euros from a Medieval Festival in France.

So much for the chivalric code.  Sir Galahad would not approve, methinks.

I learned a new word recently.  Sadly, I can’t remember where I discovered it – possibly in Aristoi, by Walter John Williams, but I’m not at all sure.

I like learning new words, which I guess is a good thing for a writer.  The pinnacle of pleasure, when it comes to adding words to one’s vocabulary, is when you experience, think or see something and have no word to describe it, only to discover that such a word exists and precisely and evocatively describes the thing or sensation for which your vocabulary had no answer.  That’s a good feeling, right there.

(Quite often, incidentally, in such a case it’ll turn out there’s a word in German for whatever it is you currently lack the right word for.  It’s easy to have words for all sorts of specific, obscure things – especially states of mind – when you’re allowed, indeed expected, to make new words by gluing together old ones.  Hence Schadenfreude, and Weltschmerz, both glorious words.  This is a very sensible way of organizing a language, if you ask me.)

Slightly less satisfying, but still jolly good, is when you discover a new word for something that you did not know needed a word to describe it, but as soon as you hear the definition you think: “Yes, of course there should be a word for that; and this new word I’ve been given is a perfect fit.”  Such were the circumstances surrounding my acquisition of the word … SKEUOMORPH.

The dictionary that’s always by my desk defines skeuomorph as (brace yourselves):

‘… a decoration or decorative feature in architecture etc, derived from the nature of the material originally used, or the way of working it; a retained but no longer either functional or incidental characteristic of an artefact …’

i.e., in the aspect that pleases me most, a skeuomorph is a deliberately included feature of an object that serves no useful function, but is retained as a ‘call back’ to the manner in which that object, or similar ones, were formerly made.  Wikipedia, naturally, has lots of examples, of which my favourites are:

spokes on car wheels or hubcaps, which aren’t structurally needed but are there as an echo of how wheels used to be made;

fake woodgrain printed on all kinds of stuff that isn’t wood, but is used for things that wood used to be used for;

tiny, non-functional handles on bottles of maple syrup.

It had never occurred to me before, but as soon as it was pointed out, I thought: “Yes! Of course there should be a word for all that stuff.”  And if we’ve got to have a word for it, skeuomorph is an excellent choice.  Sadly, I can’t think of any likely scenario in which I’ll have an excuse to use it in my writing any time soon, but I’ll keep it mentally filed away for future reference.

Two other thoughts this word discovery prompted:

1.  Words derived from Greek, like skeuomorph, look and sound cooler than words derived from Latin.  On average.  That is my opinion, and I’m sticking to it.

2.  There should clearly and indisputably be a word for ‘the pleasure of learning a new word that satisfyingly describes something the learner was previously unable to concisely describe’.  In the possibly unlikely event that a word for this sensation does not already exist in German, I believe the people of Germany have a moral duty to the rest of the world to come up with a suitable word as a matter of urgency.

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So, here comes one of the oldest stalwarts of fantasy literature, roaring in from the horizon for another crack at the big screen.

Now, call me a grump (it has been known), but I think this is a pretty bad trailer. Not because of its impact on my desire to see the film – it looks like DVD fodder for me, but I thought that before the trailer ever saw the light of day – but because of the way it’s put together. The thing looks, to my aged eye, like it was cut and pasted by a toddler with attention deficit disorder. In the main, it’s a succession of bogglingly brief images of people shouting, fighting and bonking, intercut with horses and writhing cgi tentacles; some of the action is so brief, particularly in the second minute or so, it hardly has the time to register on the retina, let alone the brain, before it’s snatched away. The only extended (using the term loosely) scene is of some witch summoning up sandy ghost things to fight our hero, and it doesn’t look too bad, but the rest of the trailer’s a pretty formless stew.

It all screams ‘brainless spectacle with no interest in narrative or character, made for those of limited attention span’, which may or may not be an accurate representation of the movie. As it happens, I quite like a bit of brainless spectacle with no interest in narrative or character now and again, and my attention span is certainly not what it once was, but if you’re going to go that route, you still ought to have some spectacle coherent and spectacular enough to last more than a fraction of a second in the trailer, surely? If you’re going to rely on the wow factor to compensate for the absence of substantial content – which is a fair enough approach to trailers – at least give the images enough breathing space to elicit a wow. As it is, all this elicits in me is ‘oh, look what’s that … wait, it’s gone, what’s this now … no, gone, we’re back to those tentacle-things again … oh, no, it’s the beast with two backs … damn, I’m starting to get a headache …’ Maybe I’m just getting old.

Which may also be the reason for my increasing dissatisfaction with the technological sheen of movies these days. CGI and 3D just don’t really do it for me. Especially 3D, which I increasingly think is the curse of 21st century movies (true, I’ve only seen a couple of movies in 3D in the last few years, and neither of them was Avatar, but I stand by my only lightly informed opinion).

My anti-CGI inclination is a bit more surprising to me. As I said, I like spectacle, and I certainly like the way the advances in special effects have freed up cinema to do sf and fantasy on a grand scale, but there remains – with a few honourable exceptions – a weightless, inconsequential quality to even quite sophisticated CGI that somehow distances me from the images on the screen. For all the technologists’ talents, they still can’t quite replicate the texture and presence of reality inside their magic boxes, and I find myself noticing it more and more. There have been a few rare occasions in the cinema when I’ve totally, 100% forgotten that I’m looking at wholly digitally-created images – now and again with Gollum in LotR, for example – but generally, even when the CGI is done quite brilliantly, there’s always some tiny, near-dormant niggling part of my brain that is distantly aware that what I’m seeing isn’t real, and that can sometimes be just enough to dilute the immersive effect of the movie.

All this technological genius applied to films has produced a medium that looks, to my jaundiced eye, more than a little decadent. Awash with money and capabilities that have induced a kind of wanton frenzy, admitting of no restraint, that creates weightless, rather debased, wonders on a gargantuan scale.

Enough moaning, though. It’s more pleasing to reflect on the source material for all this: Howard’s original Conan stories. I re-read a few of them not so long ago, in the decidedly not weightless, very much real, collected edition that’s one of my favourite book-as-objects I possess.

I’m by no means an uncritical fan of this stuff.  Some of the stories feel a little over-extended, their length not quite justified by the content, and some of the racial and sexual assumptions don’t exactly jibe with modern sensibilities.  But still, I find a good deal to enjoy.  There’s an energy and conviction to the stories that’s very engaging, and on the whole they’ve aged remarkably well, considering how the world and the genre have changed since they were written.  I suspect the discerning fan of fantasy might well find their time better spent going back to source and reading or re-reading Howard’s original tales rather than sitting in a dark cinema being beaten over the head with 3D CGI.  But that’s just me, grump that I am.

One unfortunate consequence of switching to this shiny new website: the rss feed for blog posts has changed, so it’s time to subscribe to a new feed, folks! www.brianruckley.com/feed/ is what you’re looking for.  Please subscribe!  Even if you’ve never used an rss feed before, make mine your first!  (In fact, if you’ve never used an rss feed before – seriously, this is stuff that will make your life better.  Seriously.  Go forth and become an rss feed junkie like the rest of us.  You can thank me later.)

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