No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, September 25, 2001

Interview: Gwyneth Jones, September 2001

This interview took place in September 2001, at the monthly British Science Fiction Association night in London. This interview previously appeared in Vector (issue #221, Jan / Feb 2002) the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association.

TB: Bold as Love is quite a departure from your other books.
GJ: I wrote the story ‘Bold as Love’ first, for Paul McAuley and Kim Newman’s anthology In Dreams. It was not by any means the story of the novel Bold as Love, but it was the germ of the story. A bunch of rock stars - not immensely famous rockstars but just ordinary rockstars - are the leaders of the revolution. The story was about how lightly we would tread upon the earth if everybody lived the way they live at rock festivals: a bit of dodgy vegetable curry and everybody living in tents with diabolical sanitation. When that anthology was reviewed, the reviewers who mentioned my story all said ‘it’s a very strange aberration for Gwyneth Jones’. Which made me think … well, how little do they know? For the last god knows how many years I’ve been writing serious science fiction; but, in my spare time, I’ve been going to gigs and to festivals, and I’ve been buying music, as - no doubt - many other people who read science fiction have been doing. It’s been a part of my life. When I came to writing that story I realised that music has been very important to me, and when I’d done it, I knew I wanted to write about those people, that world, in a novel. This is what I do in my spare time, and now I’ve decided to write about it.
TB: So the novel’s a labour of love?
GJ: Yes. Terrific fun, great. It’s much closer to my life, closer to my own personal feelings, than the serious science fiction that I’ve written before, which has been talking to people about things that were going on in the world, and that I thought were worth talking about. But this is my daily life. Nightly life, maybe.
TB: It’s more light-hearted than your other novels.
GJ: Maybe this is one of the symptoms of middle age. You get to a point in your life when you look around and you think, ‘Hold on. This is all there is. There isn’t going to be any more. Isn’t it great!’ And you start enjoying what there is to be enjoyed. You don’t stop wishing that you could change things for the better, but you make sure you don’t miss any of the fun. Bold as Love is about that feeling: ‘Hey! Not much time left. Don’t want to miss any of the fun’.
TB: It’s a very near future - not today, not tomorrow, not an alternate Now as one reviewer’s posited, but perhaps ten or twenty years away?
GJ: Really, there is no date to Bold as Love. The Locus reviewer decided that it was set in 2007, because that makes 300 years from the Act of Union between England and Scotland. I had said at some point ‘three hundred years’, but I was rounding up, or rounding down… But I think this could be the real future, in some senses. All that has to happen really, to add to the mix we already have, is a huge economic crash, and I think that could be arranged… it could be very close. But of course, things wouldn’t turn out half so benign in England as they do in Bold as Love. A paved-over Police state, is more likely.
TB: Well, the character Ax is named after Axl Rose - but Guns’n’Roses weren’t big in 1985.
GJ: If there is a date, it would be 2013. If you examine the text carefully you’ll find information that supports this. It would mean Sage and Ax were born in January and February 1987, which makes them a Fire Rabbit and a Fire Dragon, according to the Chinese astrological calendar -which is where Dilip places them, when he’s doing the PR publicity poster, I think it’s the start of Chapter Nine. It also makes it possible for Dan Preston to have named Ax after Axl Rose, which is one of the jokes in the first chapters. It’s very embarrassing for Ax, he’s a musico, refined intelligentsia of the Indie Rock world, but his father is a pub-character, a total layabout with shameless heavy metal taste… Whereas Sage’s parents were older, middle-class hippie drop outs, from whom he inherited a huge black vinyl collection, and the Grateful Dead fixation; and Fiorinda’s miserable background is in the unfortunate-children-of-mad-megastar mode; there are plenty of examples. I’m talking ‘bout my generation’s children, fictionally speaking… and I worked it out carefully, in a way. But the dates will not add up. There’ll be anachronisms, and I don’t mind. I like them. There is a crucial mention in one of the last chapters of ‘Near Miss Year’ - apparently ten years before the events of this story there was an asteroid near-miss, and everybody spent a mad summer thinking the world was going to end. I put that in because I was writing Bold as Love in 1999. Remember 1999? Eclipse Summer? That was a little Summer of Love, and I was in Cornwall for it, living on a beach, on the Lizard, and there were rock festivals all over the place. We didn’t get much of an eclipse but it was a great atmosphere, English outdoors community experience. I wanted to put it in the book, so I did, regardless. If there should be a previously unsuspected Near Miss in 2003, then be very afraid… I had never written in a scenario so close to the present before. I had to make a decision. Is it going to be all dovetailed in? Or is it going to be freeform? The moment I thought of that, the obvious answer was ‘freeform’. One of the things I might do on the website is make a little concordance of all the things that just cannot add up.
TB: You quote Marx at the beginning of the book: “All mythology masters and dominates and shapes the forces of nature, in and through the imagination. Hence it disappears as soon as man gains mastery over the forces of nature”. And you’ve added, “But, on the other hand …”
GJ: I’ve got a lot of time for Karl Marx. I really appreciate his writings. But I think he’s wrong there. I think that mythology will always reappear, reintegrate itself, grow again - like fungus or something - and I think one of the things that’s happening in Bold as Love is that the relationship between the technology and the human race has reached a cusp where it’s possible for people - to coin a phrase - to take over the means of production. One of the things that happens - and again, this is one of the things that would belong in the concordance, because as science goes it is, as far as I’m aware, total balderdash - is people becoming their own powerhouses. We get very energy-conserved hardware, so if you want to power a computer, you power it with your fingertips. I can’t bear to tell you the science, but it involves ATP - adenosine triphosphate - the molecule that is used in your cells for energy production. There is a sense in which technology reaches a point where it is loose in the community, and the big corporations - what am I talking about? They can always win - but in my world, in my vision, there comes a point where people can do it for themselves. ‘ATP’ means ‘take the power into your own hands,’ see, very literal. This is one of the things that made rock music a good metaphor, because this is the technology, for the feckless new millionaires of the first generation of big money rock and roll, and then again for the punks … where people, individuals and bands, were able to hijack the machinery, use it their own ways. The more available it becomes, and the more possible it becomes for somebody to say “I don’t need any of you, I’m just gonna bring out a record in my bedroom, and I’m going to press the discs and I’m going to sell them.” Doesn’t mean it’ll be a good record… but it can be done. Home publishing.
TB: Yes, there’s an Internet-based music industry in the novel.
GJ: Don’t ask me how the economics works. I know it does, I know people like Prince make stacks from download sites. But there’s no accountancy strand in Bold as Love
TB: That’s all very futuristic, but you also have echoes of British - no, English - mythology. Possibly because of the novel having three protagonists - two men and a woman - who are, let’s say, emotionally entangled, people are calling this an Arthurian fantasy.
GJ: It started with the idea of our hero, Ax, being a person who is a principled artist. He’s learnt his craft, he can play the guitar really well. He believes that Western civilisation is worth saving, and he sees it falling apart. He never imagined he would be in Yorkshire with an assault rifle, but he has always thought to himself, “I want to be one of the people that keeps things going. I can see that we’re getting to the point where we might fall off the edge of something. I want to be one of the people who makes the choice for the future rather than the Dark Ages.” Once I’d got that hero set up, because I’m English and because I’ve read a lot of Arthurian myth - and because I’m a science fiction and fantasy fan - I thought ‘Oh really? Well, this sounds like Arthur.’ And we have Fiorinda who is magic. She’s native magic, sovereign magic, that’s not all she is, but it makes her the queen. So I’ve got Guinevere. I invented Sage as Lancelot when I realised what was happening. But this is Arthur in a modern mode, this is not re-enactment fantasy. My Arthurian sense of it, it’s the sense of Ax being one of those people who tries to hold back the tide. I don’t know who Arthur really was; I don’t know if he’s a total invention. But if the Arthur story, fifth century dux bellorum holding back the barbarians, is a story of somebody trying to preserve a civilisation when it’s bound to go, then Bold as Love is an Arthurian story.
TB: Is mythology destiny?
GJ: Ax is not just dux bellorum of the British. Ax has an agenda, and his agenda is about art, friendship and concern for others … I don’t want to say any more than that. The story does go on being Arthurian, but different things can happen with a myth.
TB: Near the beginning of the book, Fiorinda asks someone, ‘Is politics really the new rock’n’roll’?
GJ: I was thinking to what extent music had been my politics. What happened to me was that I read these rock’n’roll biographies looking for rock’n’roll ideas the same way as I’d look for science ideas to put in a book. I realised this actually is the story of my life, because when Bob Dylan - and all those other people whose names we’ve forgotten because Bob Dylan became It - when they were looking for the roots music of America, I was looking for the roots music of England. I, and my sisters, and my friends, were getting into Cecil Sharp: we were playing and singing English folk songs. We were part of that Zeitgeist. Folk music was big when I was thirteen or fourteen, and that’s where I was, and then… the Beatles, and all that followed. What I realised when I started writing Bold as Love is the importance of rock’n’roll - well, not just rock’n’roll, popular music, which becomes ‘folk music’ if it lives. That it goes right back to medieval times in my personal knowledge, which is quite amazing really, a thousand years. ‘Sumer is Icumen in’ was written in Reading, did you know? By a monk. Isn’t that fascinating? Synchronicity, eh? Unluckily, most of our really well known English pop/folk music dates back to the Napoleonic wars (which makes it awkward in Bold as Love because the French are supposed to be our friends). I don’t know if rock’n’roll is politics, but it’s been my cultural history, it’s had a significant part in shaping my life. I hadn’t really realised that when I started writing Bold as Love, but now I do.
TB: I’m not going to ask you how close the politics are to your own.
GJ: Well, there are lots of different politics in the book.
TB: I probably will ask you which bands you had in mind, though.
GJ: There are three main bands in Bold as Love. … I should say, Bold as Love the book has a website. I’ve never done this before. I have a website of my own, which is autobiographical and has essays on it. I decided that if I was going to write a book about rock’n’roll bands, it had to have a website, and I have gone all the way. There’s a quiz, there’s a letters page, there’s everything you would expect to find, and there’s also merchandising - band T-shirts and so on. Ax Preston is the lead guitarist and frontman of a band called the Chosen Few, who come from Taunton. You can get the Deconstruction Tour T-shirt for his band. The Chosen Few are just a virtuous indie guitar band, and I didn’t have a closer model than that. Does the name Reef mean anything to you? West Country guitar band? Almost famous in 1999? Something like that. Held to be good, not famous yet but might be… There are always a few bands like that around. Or you might think of them as Radiohead, though of course they come from Oxford, not far enough west.
TB: Radiohead, only more cheerful?
GJ: More cheerful, and more metal-oriented. Some of you may know Deconstruction in this world is a very over-the-top heavy metal event that’s been happening for the past few years. My Deconstruction’s an eco-warrior deconstruction: theirs is just a chance to make a lot of noise, drink a lot … but I was amused when I found out there was a real ‘Tour’. Many points in common with reality, that’s a good sign, I think. Then there’s DARK, from Teesside, the band Fiorinda plays with. There are several models for Fiorinda’s band. One is that they are Nirvana: Nirvana’s big album is Nevermind. DARK’s big album is No Reason. They’re the raving anarchist kids. Sage and Ax, the men, are the grown ups. Fiorinda is the monster teenage loony.
TB: And she sounds like P J Harvey.
GJ: I thought of Elastica, but for a singer … I looked and listened, and listened and listened: and Polly Harvey, P J Harvey, she has the voice: she’s Fiorinda, near as can be. Cerys Matthew, also, looning around in her party frocks… Then there’s Aoxomoxoa and the Heads. There is an English band called the Heads, they come from Bristol, they’re into psychedelic hard rock: but actually, my Aoxomoxoa and the Heads are, schematically, shall we say, the Grateful Dead. They’re technos, not a guitar band, but they are carrying the futuristic-tech-in-Rock strand; and they have other Dead-like characteristics. But Sage is also a very contemporary figure, I mean 2001 contemporary. In many ways it’s horrifying to me to realise that a lot of the things that Marshall Mathers has to say about himself, and that are said about him, could easily be said about my Sage, who is a very laddish sort of rockstar, who’s made a lot of money out of making himself very popular with a bunch of deranged teenage louts. But he actually has a more responsible side. I don’t know that Eminem does. I think that chap is a conceptual artist, really.
TB: I was thinking more Oasis …
GJ: Oasis?!
TB: Not for the music, but for the attitude.
GJ: Oh yes, yes. “There is this plate-glass window saying ‘Throw a chair at me’”. Sage is a serious large-about, and to some extent there’s some Noel/Liam stuff going on between Ax and Sage. But his bad taste is more calculated, I think, than anything Oasis were capable of. Arbeit Macht Frei is the title of Aoxomoxoa and the Heads’ last album before the book begins. It means ‘Freedom through Work’, and it’s written in wrought iron on the gates to Auschwitz. The Heads say it’s a comment on global capitalism. This is where Sage stands, like Eminem: ‘I’m saying really terrible things: yes. But it’s because the world’s a really terrible place…’ I’ve worn the T-shirt. Occasionally someone will accost me and say ‘Freedom through Work. That’s German, innit?’ Nobody has come up to me and said ‘How can you do that?’ which is rather shocking, really. How close the historical horizon is. How soon we forget.
TB: On to the artwork: the cover of Bold as Love is a pastoral landscape by Anne Sudworth
GJ: It’s beautiful, isn’t it. But it didn’t grab the buyers! I had a dispute with the management about the cover. It was me going for guitars, the management going for unicorns and fairies… er, I mean, “something that shouts ‘Fantasy!’” was the actual words. I said ‘please, no’ because I think if you put spaceships on the front of a book, people will not be happy when they open the book and there are no spaceships in it. They will realise that they have been tricked, and they will not be pleased. If it isn’t a genre fantasy, don’t give it a genre fantasy cover, was my argument. So we got an empty landscape… and I suppose I was wrong. I usually am. Sigh.
TB: Inside the book, by way of contrast, you have a frontispiece by Bryan Talbot, with Sage, Ax and Fiorinda. He’s also done the sketches on the flyers for the book, and the illustration for the excerpt, ‘The Salt Box’, in Interzone.
GJ: I’ve known Bryan for a while, and I really admire his work. When I’d written Bold as Love I wanted people to read it for me to tell me what I was up to: because it was so different from what I’d done before. I sent the book to him, and he read it and liked it. So I said ‘Would you draw them for me, Bryan?’ And he did! The frontispiece of the book is a bit hard on Ax. I think it emphasises the Rock Dictator aspect. But that’s fair enough. It’s a reading. And the portrait sketch - that is Ax! When I saw the sketch of him coming out of the printer, I thought, ‘Yeah! Now I know what Ax Preston looks like.’ I really like the Sage picture as well. Fiorinda - well, she wasn’t entirely Fiorinda for me when I first saw her (though now, I wouldn’t have her any other way). She looks older than sixteen, and colder… But that’s true to what I wrote, to the impression she makes, though not true to what I know, and what people will find out, if they read the book. A passionately loveable heroine, Roz Kaveney said, and that made me very happy, because that’s what I meant her to be… But I’m really thrilled to have these brilliant pictures by Bryan.
TB: The excerpt in Interzone [#169], the first chapter of Bold as Love, was the subject of a complaint, wasn’t it? You’re Public Enemy Number One, accused of publishing material liable to incite paedophiles.
GJ: David [Pringle] was pretty doubtful about publishing this: he said, ‘but there’s no fantasy in it, Gwyneth’. He finally agreed to publish it because he liked the story, although it had no elves, dragons or werewolves in it. Poor chap! In the middle of July he got a crank letter which he naturally ignored. The crank letter said that ‘The Salt Box’, by Gwyneth Jones, was obscene, liable to encourage paedophiles, it was child pornography and he was going to report it to the police. David came back from holiday two weeks later, and the police turned up and took away copies of the magazine: ‘Got to follow up these complaints, sir’. So I got a phone call - I was on holiday in California - to tell me that the first chapter of my book, which was due to be published the next week, had been seized by the police. I was, er, astonished. What happens in this story is that a twelve-year old girl, whose mother is a rock journalist, she has no idea who her father is, has a cold, miserable childhood. Then her mother’s glamorous sister appears and introduces her to the world of celebrities, and the twelve-year old girl knows that her mother doesn’t approve but that just thrills her the more. Her aunt takes her off to a country house weekend. The country house belongs to an ageing megastar. She thinks she’s there because her aunt wants to give her an exciting time. Actually, she’s been groomed and she is being presented to this elderly, fifty-plus rockstar as his treat for the weekend. Of course, he’s paying for it: he’s paying Fiorinda’s aunt. She gets, shall we say, seduced by this rockstar. She is not fazed, she is not a victim, she does not feel herself to have been raped: her attitude is ‘ugh, he’s disgusting; but you never know, it might be a break’. I suppose that was what Disgusted of Wilmslow found so outrageous. I hadn’t thought I was writing child pornography. I’d read and assimilated what happened in the back of the music business, and this was the milieu that I was writing about. And because I also write fairy tales, dark fairy tales, it struck me at once: well, this is what happens. The father goes after his daughter. And although it’s not obvious from the version in Interzone, the rockstar turns out to be Fiorinda’s father. Like the king in the fairy tale. In the modern form fairy tales don’t tell you why the daughter’s getting persecuted: it’s because the father wants her sexually, (and also magically, in this case); and she flees from him. That’s some of what happens in Bold as Love.
TB: There are other sections in Bold as Love which deal with child abuse and paedophilia: I don’t think any of them, unless the reader has a very hyperactive imagination, could be read as any sort of incitement. They are damning of the people involved.
GJ: Well, I was talking about was the counterculture, which has its demons, just as global capitalism has its demons. Hmm. Maybe, freedom from constraint corrupts, just the same as power… Everybody wants to be free. I wanted to show both sides of that, the good and the bad. And the bad’s pretty bad. But thinking of some of the things I’ve written … I never expected to get into trouble with the police for this!
[Audience] What’s the final outcome of the complaint?
GJ: That is a dispute between me and David at the moment. David had a policewoman come round on August 2nd. (You remember the dates, because you imagine the day in court! That might happen). She took the stuff away, and she told him she’d be back to him in a couple of days. She wasn’t. When I got back to England on 14th August, I rang him and said ‘So what happened with the police?’ He said ‘Well, nobody got back to me, and I’ve mislaid the scrap of paper on which I wrote down the policewoman’s name’. He would have been all right ringing the police station and asking to speak to a particular person, but he’d have had to ring up and say ‘Er, you know about that obscenity charge?’ He didn’t feel like doing that, and I don’t blame him! I said ‘I’d really like to get off the hook: I’m sure they’re not going to prosecute, but I’d like somebody to say that they think the story’s OK.’ But as of now, it seems I’m never going to get that. There’s a lingering dissatisfaction about it, that I’m never going to be able to get somebody to say ‘that was ridiculous’.
TB: There’s a lot of grim stuff in the book, but despite that it’s light-hearted, and almost Utopian. It’s a better future than many.
GJ: It’s a very optimistic version of what’s going to happen in the next few years to this country. It’s about dealing with all the problems that we have, and dealing with a lot of disintegration and collapse in a way that not only avoids major grief for major sections of the population, but has the people feeling that they’ve done a good job. Blitz spirit. It’s total fantasy!
TB: You have that line about helping other people as routine medication: “We’ll give the patients rock’n’roll for heavy medication, voluntary work as routine antidepressants. If we pitch it with enough conviction they’ll buy it.”
GJ: Ax’s theory is that, since we’re social animals, being good to others is a drug with a very pleasant kick. We all know it. It’s the way we’re wired. We’re supposed to look after each other. Ax’s theory that he tries to put into practice is that, in times of crisis, you can get people to go back to their wiring, go back to their original nature, and look out for each other.
TB: The paragraph goes on, “We all know only too well human beings will do any fucking thing, no limit, if it’s seen to be normal and taken for granted.” (p??)
GJ: One way or the other, yes. People will send the Jews to the death camps, or they will go and do voluntary stints in hospitals. You may not remember this - though of course I do because I had invented it the year before - but at the beginning of this year Gordon Brown suggested we should have a Volunteer Initiative. That’s what happens in Bold as Love: people go along and do their two or three hours of hospital cleaning or whatever, as if there was a war on. Of course it’s not going to happen. But Bold as Love’s a pantomime, and I hope it makes people feel better: that’s what it’s meant to do.
[Audience] Given the background of Islamists in the book, is there anything in it you would have rewritten in the light of the events of September 11th?
GJ: No. I had the largely Muslim - or at least politically largely Muslim - state of Yorkshire trying to declare UDI, and I had Ax and the Counterculturals going in and saying, ‘No! We can’t afford to break up any more! You’ve got to join in!’ I don’t want to change that. If you read the book, you’ll find out what the result is.
[Audience] In the excerpt you read out to us, do we ever get an explanation for the ghoul?
GJ: Nope! But one of the things you’ll find out in Bold as Love, which you can disentangle from the rest of the book if you look for it, is that spooky things are happening. It’s very much a realist near-future fiction, but there are things like the ghoul, and Fiorinda’s magic: and there are a couple of other strange things that show the rise of irrationality - no, not irrationality. The simplest way to put it is the way Sage keeps putting it: ‘The world is getting stranger’. Something has happened and the world is getting stranger, and all kinds of things are coming out of the woodwork. It’s not a new idea. No, you don’t get an explanation of the ghoul: but if you read an Ann Halam book called Don’t Open Your Eyes, (which came out in 2000 from Orion children’s books) you’ll find the very same ghoul. Er, sort of.
[Audience] The very last thing in the book says ‘Continued in Castles Made of Sand’. Is it written? When’s it coming out? And how many are there going to be?
GJ: It’s written, it’s with Jo Fletcher now, I’ve talked to her about it, and I’m just about to start the revision. It’ll come out some time in 2002. May 2002 is the date I have at the moment. How many are there going to be? If I have my way, there’ll be quite a few. The world has fallen apart, there’s been a huge economic depression, and there’s trouble in Europe. I can get quite a few years’ mileage out of that, and a lot of strange things can happen before I start writing Bold as Love: The Next Generation.
TB: Are you going to put excerpts on the website?
GJ: I’ve only put the first couple of paragraphs of Castles Made of Sand on the website, because I’m still working on it. But there will be chapters that probably won’t turn out to be chapters, and I’ll post them. Outtakes.
[Audience] Do you see Bold as Love as a complete departure for yourself from your previous material?
GJ: What I’ve got in Bold as Love is the idea that rockstars can be fantasy characters, and the rockstar concept, the music, is a thread through our times; and an idea of what’s going to happen in the near future. I don’t think it’s original, but it’s flexible and good as a framework. There are all kinds of topics to be dealt with, like AI, like … hmm, not to give too much away, anything that’s science-fictional, can be dealt with in the Bold as Love fantasy scenario, with the Bold as Love characters. That’s what I intend to do. I don’t think I’ve changed track, but I’ve come round to the idea of using a certain scenario, and a certain set of people, as the vehicle of what I want to write about. I want to tell these people’s stories, as the story of their world.
TB: How did it feel to be writing two heroic, brave males after all those years of writing ineffectual, flawed men?
GJ: I don’t think I’ve been writing about ineffectual, flawed men! Definitely not! That’s a base calumny on Sid Carton, Atoon of Jagdana, Endang of Gamartha, James and Luci in Kairos and even on Johnny Guglioli… whereas, arguably, Mishy Connelly in Phoenix CafĂ© isn’t strictly a man at all. My male characters are no more flawed or ineffectual than anyone else involved in my stories. They’re sometimes heroic, sometimes childish, sometimes wise, sometimes stupid … but they’re complete human beings. I’ve always done that. I’ve never been a woman who makes the men out of cardboard, or just brings them in for sex interest. Male characters that I’ve written before have been off the centre of the book, maybe: and I know to some people that seems like a deliberate insult to the male. But it isn’t. Ax and Sage are not so different from their predecessors: it’s just that they are in the centre of the book, and that was decided by the scenario.
[Audience] Have you ever considered doing a graphic novel with Bryan Talbot?
GJ: I’d love to. Alas, Bryan Talbot doesn’t need anybody to do graphic novels with him. He’s Renaissance Man, he can do it all. He doesn’t need me: I need him to draw the pictures, but he doesn’t need me to tell the stories. In a perfect world, maybe, one day. But how does it go? ‘Time is short, art is long’, and I think Bryan has enough to do with his own ideas.

Saturday, September 01, 2001

Shadow -- K J Parker

A man wakes up, half-immersed in a stream that runs through a battlefield, with no recollection of his identity. Overhead, crows circle, waiting. He has a vague memory of arguing with his reflection in the water, but that must have been a dream. Poldarn, taking the name of an obscure - and possibly made-up - god whose priestess he encounters, quickly adapts to a life without a past. His vivid dreams hint at that past, from a bewildering number of viewpoints: which dreams are truly his memories? Against a backdrop of a crumbling empire, beset by Viking-like raiders, Poldarn tries to reconstruct his identity. There are those who recognise him, but none of them live long enough to tell him his name. All that he can be sure of is his superlative skill with the sword and his ability to survive.

With the help of the fake priestess, Copis, he becomes a divine impersonator, a high-risk courier, and a button merchant - each role leading to another teasing encounter with a nameless face from his past. Legends and folk tales seem to link his fate with the story of the god Poldarn: could he, in fact, be a god and not know it?

Meanwhile, the sword-monk Monach (‘just a word for ‘monk’ in the southern dialect’) has been instructed by his Order to find the man who is calling himself Poldarn. The Order’s purposes are unclear, even to Monach, but they’re privy to knowledge about the god Poldarn that might help the mortal version to make sense of everything that’s happening to him.

K J Parker’s first fantasy trilogy, beginning with Colours in the Steel, met with critical acclaim for its straightforward grittiness, dark humour and attention to technological detail. The setting of the Fencer trilogy was a world of minimal magic, with few of the supernatural or mystical elements that have come to typify post-Tolkien fantasies. Shadow is similarly prosaic, focussing on the mundane rather than the magical. Parker conveys an intimate understanding of the mechanics of day-to-day life in a mildly industrialised Renaissance world - button-making machines, sword-fighting technique, the decades-long war against the raiders - without losing the tension of the narrative or glorifying its nastier aspects.

There are other similarities to Parker’s earlier novels. The prophetic dreams: the mirroring of dream and reality, highlighted by identical phrasing: the sheer complexity of plot, which is hinted at rather than revealed. Parker also has a rare gift for characterisation, and the plot is driven by credibly flawed individuals, rather than high-minded archetypes. Poldarn’s quest for his identity takes some improbable turns, working towards a revelation that is genuinely surprising and keeps the reader guessing until the end.

Shadow proclaims itself as ‘Book One of the Scavenger Trilogy’. Does the world really need another weighty fantasy trilogy, at over £10 for the trade paperback editions? Yes, when it’s by a writer as fresh and innovative as K J Parker.

White as Snow -- Tanith Lee

Tor’s Fairy Tale series, edited by Terri Windling, has published a number of elegant literary fantasies since its inception in 1987. Each novel in the series aims to retell a classic fairytale in a new and startling way, restoring elements of sensuality and terror which have been bowdlerised by well-meaning children’s editors over the years. Authors to date have included Pamela Dean, Charles de Lint and Jane Yolen: the latest in the series, White as Snow, is Tanith Lee’s interpretation of the tale of Snow White.

It’s far from the first time that Tanith Lee has used fairy tales as a source. Her 1982 anthology, Red as Blood, retold a number of classic tales in styles ranging from the high-tech science fiction romance of ‘Beauty’ (Beauty and the Beast) to the more familiar surreal horror of the title story - another version of Snow White.
In recent years, Tanith Lee’s adult fiction has seemed ever darker and more decadent: her prose can, at worst, be overblown and humourless. Only her juvenile novels (such as the Wolf Tower and Unicorn sequences) retain the wit and vigour of earlier works.

White as Snow is, in that sense at least, a refreshing departure from form. Lee intertwines the tales of the evil ‘stepmother’ and her affection-starved daughter with elements of classical myth and medieval romance. Arpazia is a spoil of war, raped and impregnated by the conquering king: her disowned daughter Candacis, known as Coira, is no sweet cipher, but a complex personality in her own right. The dwarves, too, are finely-drawn individuals with unexpected depth, rather than the circus troop one might initially take them for.

The tale unfolds against a lightly-drawn backdrop reminiscent of medieval Italy. There’s a dreamlike lack of any sense of place and time. Nothing from the wider world crosses the boundaries of the narrative, although there are vague references to other lands, other wars. Christ and his mother Marusa are worshipped, but the women of the walled town go into the woods at solstice and equinox to pay homage to the forest king, remembering the old myths. Coira’s nickname is given to her by her nurse: it’s the name of the corn-goddess Demetra’s daughter, who was stolen away to a place under the earth by Hadz, the King of Death.

As if acting out a play, the characters in the novel perform various interpretations of the roles suggested by their names, at once blind to the myths and archetypes they embody and desperate to escape them. Unravelling the original texts of the fairy tale, as well as the Disneyfied popular conception, White as Snow marks a return to the clarity and vision of Tanith Lee’s finest fantasies.