The Serene Wombles

Today marks one year since my very first post on this here writing and review site. And what a year it has been! Me with the reviewing, you with the sometimes reading my reviews. Not to mention the occasional paid writing success, the publication of my labour of love analysing the end of The Dark Tower, the completion of my novella, and so many other things. For the first couple of months this blog averaged six views a day, now it averages sixty-two, and around 1,800 views a month. It’s still an itty-bitty blog spewing into the ether, but it’s reassuring to know that some of you found something interesting in what I had to say.

Anyway, in celebration of ISotHM’s birthday, I’ve decided to cap off the year by handing out some meaningless awards: The Serene Wombles!*.

Eligibility for a Serene Womble in conferred by being the subject of a review in the past year. There may have been better or more worthy things that came out this year, but if I didn’t find them relevant to my interests, or if I simply didn’t have the time to review them, they won’t be eligible for a Serene Womble. I make no pretense that these awards are significant or important in any way, but I enjoy having the opportunity to praise and draw attention to things I have loved.

The Serene Wombles are divided into two categories, those that apply to recent releases, and special Time Travelling Wombles for the most awesome things in my Reviewing Through the Time Machine posts. The division between the former and the latter may at times seem arbitrary – why should a film that came out in 2009 count as a recent release, whilst a TV Show that ended in 2009 requires a time machine? It’ll always be a judgement call, and the judgement will have been made on a case-by-case basis at the time of reviewing. Sometimes I use a time machine for my reviews because I want to review something that came out in 1939, sometimes because I want to review something more recent that’s out of print, or because it’s a TV show that’s been cancelled. A show that was cancelled in 2009 therefore seems different to me than a film that was in the cinema in 2009, but may have only recently reached my eyes. At the end of the day, these are not the Oscars, they’re the highlights from a blog, and are therefore subject to my whim.

Let’s get started!

The Serene Womble for Best Film: Captain America: The First Avenger
Captain America: The First Avenger - posterEligible Films: Moon, X-Men: First Class, Green Lantern, Possession, Captain America: The First Avenger
There was some stiff and not so stiff competition in this category, but nevertheless, a clear winner. Moon was aesthetically pleasing, but a bit slow, and short on female characters and ethnic minorities. X-men: First Class was exciting and joyful, but deeply problematic in its representation of women and non-white people. Captain America was a fast-paced joy from start to finish that dealt expertly with its subject matter turning out something nuanced and impressive from a premise that could have been uncomfortably ‘all-American’ and patriotic. I’m very happy to award the first Serene Womble for Best Film to the First Avenger.

The Serene Womble for Best TV Show Game of Thrones
The Iron ThroneEligible TV Shows: Misfits, Dirk Gently, Outcasts, Being Human (US), 10 O’clock Live, Doctor Who, Game of Thrones, Torchwood: Miracle Day.
Will this be a surprise or not? I don’t know. I’ve done a lot of squeeing and cheerleading for several TV shows over the past year. If I wanted to split this into fiction and non-fiction I’d be able to reward 10 O’clock Live the way I want to, but then it would be the only one in its category. If you’d asked me half a year ago, I’d have said Misfits without a doubt. It’s very close, and I’d love to reward Misfits for its originality and indie-quirkiness. If I were judging on its first series it would have won hands down. I didn’t feel the second series was quite as strong throughout, though, and whilst I still loved it, A Game of Thrones wins in terms of groundbreaking TV for this year, bringing epic fantasy to hugely successful, internationally acclaimed television in a way I don’t think has been done before. Perhaps the closest previous offering would have been BBC miniseries such as Gormenghast and the 1980s Chronicles of Narnia, but I don’t think we’ve ever seen epic fantasy produced on such an international scale that was as sexual and violent and true to its source material. It also offered roles like that of Tyrion Lannister to the superb Peter Dinklage, allowing him to shine in a way that’s rarely possible in the sort of roles usually offered to actors with dwarfism. It was stonkingly well-cast all round as well as being a visually stunning and gripping adaptation of a beloved fantasy series.

The Serene Womble for Best Actor Eve Myles for her portrayal of Gwen Cooper in Torchwood: Miracle Day
Gwen looking bad-assEligible actors: too many to mention. This category is open to any actor in any recent production that I’ve reviewed in the past year – film, TV, radio, podcast, whatever. I’ve also made the decision not to distinguish on gender. It’s not something I really understand in this day an age. It’s not like sport, where physical differences might mean that men won over women disproportionately often. All that matters for this category is the acting. Having said that, maybe Eve Myles will be a controversial choice. You all know I supported Peter Dinklage for his Emmy, and his contribution to Game of Thrones certainly added to its win for TV show, but Eve Myles wins hands down, for me. I was blown away by her acting in Torchwood: Miracle Day. Any previous series of Torchwood? No, she wouldn’t have had a chance. I never really liked Gwen, before, but Eve Myles brought it this series, and she deserves recognition for a consistently shining performance on all different levels.

The Serene Womble for Best Novel Jumper, by Steven Gould
Jumper - book coverEligible novels: A Dance with Dragons, by George R R Martin; Witch Week, by Diana Wynne Jones; Charmed Life, by Diana Wynne Jones; Hexwood, by Diana Wynne Jones; The Dragon Keeper, by Robin Hobb; Dark Lord of Derkholm, by Diana Wynne Jones; Jumper, by Steven Gould; Reflex, by Steven Gould; Jumper: Griffin’s Story, by Steven Gould; I, Zombie, by Al Ewing.
This was probably the hardest category to judge. So many entries, so many good books. It was particularly complicated by the whole Time Machine issue – unlike film and TV books can remain ‘current’ for a long time, and, for the most part, I only put them in the Time Machine category if they’re out of print (at least in the UK, where I live) or otherwise over-looked. So new books like I, Zombie are up against classics like Hexwood. This was further complicated because I reviewed some books before I introduced the Reviewing Through the Time Machine category of posting, and, what’s more, I reviewed a whole bunch of Steven Gould books in one post, two of which are out of print where I live, but three of which aren’t. Helm and Wild Side I had to order second-hand as ex-library books from the US, whereas Jumper, Reflex, and Jumper: Griffin’s Story I bought new. Give me some slack, I’d only been doing this blog 20 days by that point. Anyway, I decided to resolve this by saying that the three Steven Goulds I bought new belong in the ‘recent’ category, whilst the others will go in the Time Machine one. Once I decided this, my life became much easier.

I, Zombie was astoundingly original and tickled me, personally, but it has an odd break in the middle where it almost becomes another book and starts following a character much less appealing than the main character. Very close to winning, but not quite. Hexwood is a classic and one of my all time favourites – a got-to comfort book. It’s more cohesive than I, Zombie, and just as original, in its own way, but it’s also of a very similar mould to a lot of other Diana Wynne Jones books, with the strong female character who falls in love with a broken-yet-powerful charismatic and enigmatic man. In all honesty I would have felt I’d slighted one or the other if I’d had to choose between them. Jumper, on the other hand, is simply excellent. Tight and fast-paced, but full of interesting and engaging characters. This is the best superhero novel I’ve ever read, and much more interesting and original than most superhero plots full-stop. If only the film had been closer to the book! It’s got everything, as well as hitting some of my particular happy buttons, such as an expert handling of secret-identity angst.

The Serene Womble for Best Podcast The History of Philosophy Without any Gaps
'Philosophy' by xkcd
Eligible podcasts: The History of Philosophy Without any Gaps and Marco and the Red Granny
Only two entries in this one. I’ve mentioned more podcasts in passing, but these were the only two I reviewed. I was torn. I sort of felt like I should choose Marco and the Red Granny simply because it is an SF story, and the general purpose of this blog is to review SF/F/Spec Fic. But I also review stuff if I love it really hard, and The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps is well worth your time. Ultimately, I felt that although the ideas are bright and original, the pacing for Marco and the Red Granny was uneven and the central character a little difficult to engage with. I still think it’s a great podcast and think Hub are awesome for experimenting with the field of podcasting for longer fiction, but The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps won out. Hard to compare two podcasts of such different genres, but the latter is polished, entertaining, and informative.

Peter Adamson has a smooth and engaging podcasting voice. He’s also an expert in his field, and he brings in other experts to supplement his accounts and offer alternate view points. This podcast is pitched at just the right level – accessible for the interested layman but also informative for the experienced philosopher or historian. I’ve taught Ancient Philosophy, and I felt it really filled out my existing knowledge. This is great easy listening for the lady or gent on the go, looking for a bit of ear candy on the way to work, or down the allotment. You’ll drift in and out of an ancient world, feeling soothed and entertained, and you’ll actually come away having learnt something, as well. Of course, it’s not the same as reading the texts themselves, but I’m sure you’re all aware that there are more books worthy of your attention than anyone could read in lifetime. Let Peter Adamson do some of the work for you.

The Time Traveling Wombles

The Time Traveling Womble for Best Film Mr Smith Goes to Washington
(Embedding has been disabled for this clip, but you can go watch it here. Please note that this is the climax of the film, and as such both very famous and spoilerific. It contains nothing I didn’t know before watching the film for the first time, but if you want to avoid spoilers this is the clip I linked to in my original review.)

Eligible Films: Silent Running, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Bell, Book, and Candle
In a year when politics and big business has been prominently in the news, where a lot of people have felt the rich have been squeezing the poor, where democracy has sprung from revolution and here in the UK we debated and voted on voting reform, Mr Smith Goes to Washington held a particular relevance. 1939 to 2011, the issues are still the same. I was watching it in my bedroom with tears rolling down my face. I’d seen it before and known the plot long before I saw it, but it didn’t matter. ‘Filibuster’ is nearly synonymous with the above scene, to me. Maybe it doesn’t have quite the same familiarity with non-US audiences – I have a slight trans-Atlantic background, and it can make it difficult for me to judge these things – but people everywhere should watch this film. If they remade it now, it wouldn’t be as good, but if they released it now, it would still be relevant. Sometimes a classic seems ponderous and clichéd when viewed through modern eyes, but this one isn’t weighed down with its worthiness. It’s funny and moving and electrifying. It’s also quietly feminist in a way a few modern films could learn from. Clarissa Saunders is an icon to be envied – probably the brightest, most savvy person in Washington, embittered by politics, but still willing to hope when prodded by Mr Smith’s naïve enthusiasm. And this is 1939, folks!

Make time for this film. If there’s only one film I recommend that you go and watch, make it this one. It will reward you.

The Time Traveling Womble for Best Actor James Stewart
James StewartEligible actors: again, too many. Anyone who acted in any of the productions I reviewed through my time machine. Jean Arthur and Lee Pace are honourable mentions, as are Kristin Chenoweth and Kim Novak, but there was really no contest. When Jimmy Stewart brings his game to town he’s incandescent, and there’s no denying that he’s on fire in Mr Smith Goes to Washington. And I’m not just talking about the filibuster scenes where he’s all sweaty and hoarse, for which he supposedly swabbed his throat with mercury. I’m talking about the quiet naïvety and straight played simplicity that makes his earlier scenes a delight as well. Well done, Jimmy. Not that you need praise from the likes of me to go with your Oscars and 80 odd years of critical acclaim. I hope that we’re still singing your praises long after I’m gone, too. A stunning performance, simply stunning. Can’t think of when I last went to the cinema and saw a performance like that.

The Time Traveling Womble for Best TV Show Pushing Daisies
Ned and Chuck - Pushing DaisiesEligible TV Shows: Pushing Daisies
OK, so it was the only one in its category, but it still would have won. I did have plans to review other TV Shows, but time got away from me. My description from the review is still true: ‘The most beautiful, funny, poignant, stylish, and original television show ever to get axed.’ I still ache inside over the fact that there were only two seasons, and both were only half as long as a proper season, due to the writers’ strike and the cancellation. If I had one credit to spend on giving one cancelled TV Show the time it deserved… well, I don’t know, it would be a very tough competition between this and Firefly. It’s that level of originality and quality. If you haven’t seen it, do so, now!

(Incidentally, Brian Fuller is still my top choice to make a Chrestomanci TV series. Lee Pace would make an ace Chrestomanci/Christopher Chant. Just think about it – a quirky show with magic and style, Lee Pace in exquisitely cut formal wear. Brian Fuller, hear my prayer…)

The Time Traveling Womble for Best Novel The Wolf Within
The Wolf Within, cover Eligible novels: Helm, by Steven Gould; Wild Side by Steven Gould; The Silver City, by Pamela Belle; The Wolf Within, by Pamela Belle.
One of my favourite novels. This book is just awesome for the secret identity angst, pushing all my buttons. It just goes to show that it isn’t always a mistake to jump into the middle of a trilogy. This is the second book of the Silver City trilogy, but, although I enjoyed the first book, the second is a tighter, more swiftly paced, more deeply characterised novel. The first couple of chapters are a little awkward, but once it gets going this is a book that grabs you and won’t let go. Credit should also be given for the range of different cultures, mix of races, and positive depictions of women and gay characters. In all cases the characters are fully rounded and not simply there to make for diversity. If only there were more books like this.

And last, but by no means least:

The People’s Choice Award Torchwood: Miracle Day
Torchwood: Mircale DayPerhaps the most arbitrary of all the awards, this is the one you voted for with your feet. The selection for this award is based solely on the review post with the single largest number of hits. Until a few days ago it was Doctor Who, ‘A Good Man Goes to War’. I assumed it still would be until I checked just now. That post is still the one with the largest number of hits in a single day (210), but Torchwood: Miracle Day, has hedged into the lead with (at time of posting) 446 hits to 434.

What does this signify? Who knows. Attention could mean love or hate, although I imagine I would have received more trolling if it were hate. Would the number of hits for all my ADwD posts add up to more if I put them together? Maybe, but let’s not forget that this was just the first post out of several for Torchwood as well, and I’m not sure it would be right to pit multiple posts against single reviews. You might suppose that this is also unfair on my more recent posts, having had more time to garner hits, but given that this beats my most popular Misfits post from last autumn by 162, I think it legitimately says something regarding what you guys enjoyed reading about.

Thanks again for staying with me through the year and helping me build this blog into something worth both my while and yours. It’s been fun!

*I use ‘womble’ here in the sense that derives from gaming speak, i.e. a combat womble is a character maxed for combat skills – they might have strength, dexterity, and constitution at 18, but wisdom and intelligence scores of 6. I therefore figure that someone who had maxed for happiness would be a serenity womble. No copyright infringement is intended for The Wombles, which are cute, rubbish collecting rodents.

Reviewing Through the Time Machine: The Wolf Within, by Pamela Belle

Reviewing through the Time MachineIt’s all been very current around here lately, and although I’m desperately trying to reign in my impulse to post (because twice a week is really enough) I’m also conscious of things I said I wanted to review at the start of the year, and haven’t yet. Top of that list is The Wolf Within, which will always have a place in my heart, and deserves to be better known. Let’s start the show!

Title: The Wolf Within
Author: Pamela Belle
Series/Standalone: Book two of the Silver City Trilogy
Genre: Fantasy
First Published: 1995
Edition Reviewed: 1995
Hb/Pb: Hardback
Awards: British Fantasy Society Award nominee
Price: N/A Out of print, but available from £4.57 (pb) and $10.76 on Amazon Marketplace at time of posting.
Read my review of book one, The Silver City, here.

Cover Art

The Wolf Within, Cover

I have to start with the cover art, as this is what originally drew me in. I saw it from across the library, and it called to me in every way, hitting all the right notes to capture my wombling heart. Cover art is so important. It has helped me to find some of my very favourite books and added to the atmosphere and feel of the reading experience. I value my Kindle, but one thing it truly does lack is cover art, and I think it’s a great shame so many ebooks skimp on providing eReader suitable art. I mean, just take a look at this:

Admittedly, the choice of colours for the typography is terrible. Although it does pick up on colours within the painting you can barely read that red title on that orange background, and that bright blue writing stamped right over the top of the ghostly wolf’s head in the sky is just awful. But the cover art itself is pretty good. I love that kind of sunset light. We see an arid, desolate landscape that somehow, despite its openness, manages to create a sense of claustrophobia – of encroaching night. You just know, looking at this image, that that ghostly wolf is going to be fucking over those two people in the foreground.

And let’s take a look at them. We have a hot Christian Slater look-a-like who seems in a pretty bad way, being watched over by a hot black lady. That snaking river in the background speaks of a journey – they’re going somewhere, and they’re all alone. And why does he look so fucked up? What happened to these people?

Now, I’m not going to lie to you, part of the reason this book jumped off the shelf at me is that the guy looked really hot. I must have been 14? 15? Well… sex sells. And sexy men with angst sell to 15-year-old girls. I wasn’t really in to vampires, but this was right up my alley. Plus, I was just starting to get really fed up by the way that all the smart strong women in Anne McCaffrey novels always ended up falling for even stronger men. You don’t know much about who that woman is on this cover, but you can tell just from how she’s holding herself that she’s strong, and it’s pretty clear that she’s the one who’s looking after him. AWESOME. Target demographic achieved.

Also, let’s not gloss over this, given the white-washing scandals of recent years: this is an inter-racial couple, and that black character still looks black. That stuff shouldn’t matter. It shouldn’t be a big deal that there’s a black woman on the cover and she actually looks black – the cover itself isn’t making a big deal out of it, after all – but the world is what it is. Having read the book, it would have been equally representative if he’d been shown standing protectively over her, as so many fantasy novels do. Especially given the dark lighting, it would have been easy for the artist to maybe pale her out a bit and at least make her race appear ambiguous. But they didn’t. This is a cover that isn’t drawing on stereotypes for male/female relationships, and it isn’t assuming that I’ll be less likely to buy the book if, *gasp*, I know in advance that not all the characters are white. I like that about it.

I can’t tell if this cover was done by the same artist who did the cover for The Silver City, as my copy is the very same one I first saw in the library and later bought, and I think whatever credit there may have been must have been cut out, but it looks like the same style, and its equally worthy of praise. Well done to you, unknown artist!


Bron is a young boy with immense magical power. He was bred for it in a world where most people believe that magic can only be obtained through taking the drug Annatal. Under the control of the priestess D’thliss, his father, Ansaryon, a prince of Zithirian, was coerced into raping his sister, and Bron was the result of that union. Bron was raised by D’thliss in secret, as she used the boy’s power to enhance her own. She planned to overthrow the city, with the help of Ansaryon’s brother, Tsenit, and the fearsome warrior tribe, the Ska’i. Both D’thliss and the Ska’i worshipped the death god, Ayak, and D’thliss dedicated Bron to him as a small child. Realising Bron’s power, the Ska’i kidnap the child and his foster-brother, but in trying to force Bron to use his power for them, they kill his foster-brother, and Bron reacts with anger and grief. He kills them all.

This is the terrible secret that lies in Bron’s past. He’s taken to the beautiful hidden city of Sar Dyenyi to recover and grow up in peace with Ansaryon’s cousin, Kefirri, whom he loves and trusts. But he is haunted by what he has done, and by visions of the wolf god, Ayak, who tries to persuade him to use his power again. During a visit from his father, now King of Zithirian, Bron falls from a high tower and, in front of everyone, slows his descent with magic to save his life. Although their king is a sorcerer, magic has long been viewed with suspicion by the people of Zithirian and Sar Dyenyi, and it is clear that Bron can no longer stay in his mountain seclusion. Ansaryon takes him back to Zithirian to train him, making it known to all the people just what Bron can do, and, indeed, what he has done.

Bron has few friends in Zithirian, but he does renew his acquaintance with Herris, son of Kaydi, a leader of the resistance under Tsenit’s rule. He reluctantly accepts training in magic from his father and grows into a man. He decides to enter the Bridal Race – a test of endurance seen as right of passage in Zithirian – a year early, but as he does so, tragedy strikes. Part of the race involves swimming across the Kefirinn, the river that runs through the city. As Bron goes to cross he sees a large log that is being swept downstream, and which is going to hit a man he knows. He calls out to the man, but because of past rivalry, Gorseth ignores him. Bron goes in to save him, but is hit by another log, which he hadn’t seen following the first. Both of them die… except that Ayak is not willing to accept the death of such a prize as Bron, yet. He calls to Bron’s half-brother, Hommen, and guides the child to where Bron can be found.

Realising that Bron is still under Ayak’s control, and concerned for his other children, Ansaryon decides that Bron must be sent away – to his wife Halthris’s people. But Bron knows that this will not be good enough. He makes a plan in secret to escape the city, with Herris’s help – to head south in the hope of somehow finding away to the semi-mythical island of Jo’ami, ancient island of sorcerers. He hopes that once there he will be able to find help to free himself from the wolf within.

Bron’s journey is far from straightforward – there are no easy routes to Jo’ami, and as a young man travelling through strange countries on his own, Bron still has some growing up to do, which is somewhat complicated by his peculiar talents, and by Ayak’s constant threat. He travels through wilderness, finding the ruined city of Tyr. He passes through Kerenth, land of women, and unwittingly attracts the attention of the young ruler, Inrai’a. She wants him for her consort, but he is rejected by the goddess Sarraliss, who can see the mark of the wolf upon him.

At last he makes his way to Toktel’yi, seat of the empire, and most dangerous city in the world for Bron. Unlike Zithirian, sorcery is openly embraced in Toktel’yi, and Bron is aware that he would be very easily detectable if he should draw attention to himself with his magic. His magic makes him a prize in his own right, but he is also the son of the northern king Ansaryon. The ruthless young emperor, Ba’alekkt, has been looking hungrily towards the silver city, and to have Ansaryon’s eldest son in his possession would be a coup.

Bron finds work as a musician in the Golden Djarlek, and attracts the attention of the proprietor, Mallaso – that formidable lady you see on the cover with him. Mallaso is a former slave, captured in the Toktel’yan conquest of Penya, saving up her money in the hopes of one day retiring to Tekkt with her daughter, who is living there with a kind family under Mallaso’s pay, away from the dangers of the capital city. They begin a tentative romance, but when Bron reveals his magic in anger in the middle of the race day crowds, they are forced to flee the city.

Mallaso longs to rejoin her daughter on Tekkt, but Bron must still complete his journey to Jo’ami, and now the emperor knows he is alive and within the bounds of the empire…

Why do I love it so?

Come on, a hot man with god-like magical powers, cursed by a terrible thing he did in his past – when he was a child and didn’t know any better – who also happens to be a bastard prince (the fruit of an incestuous union, no less), forced to conceal his identity? You know why I liked this. Add to that the plentiful strong women, a rich world that unashamedly departs from the standard western fantasy tropes of faux-feudal Europe, a good mix of races, plus several gay characters to boot… this book really has a lot going for it beyond the fact that it hits my personal sweet spots. No wonder it was nominated for the British Fantasy Society Award.

Not that it’s perfect. The first couple of chapters really struggle under the strain of info-dumping as the author fills us in on the considerable back story of the first book. The nice thing about this is that it means you can jump right into The Wolf Within even if you haven’t read The Silver City – just as I did. On rereading, however, its somewhat torturous. Just take my word for it that things really, really pick up.

Bron is an intensely charismatic character. Even though we view most events from his point of view, he remains somewhat enigmatic in his quiet reserve. This is a person who has grown up with the burden of intense self-control and the knowledge of what could happen if he allows his guard to slip. He doesn’t make friends easily, as a result, and I’m not sure how well I could sustain a conversation with him if I were to meet him in real life, but as a character he’s deeply appealing.

Mallaso, although we don’t meet her until half-way through the book, is a wonderful character in her own right. So much more than a love-interest – full of goals and intense emotions of her own, many of which have nothing to do with Bron. In fact, it’s fair to say that he does nothing but wreak havoc in her life. As a former slave and prostitute she could have been the worst cliché of a whore with a heart of gold, but her past forms a rich tapestry that contributes to both her strengths and her sorrow. She is never ashamed of her sexuality, and it becomes an expression of strength when she performs the dances of her people. Here we see how erotic dancing can be integrated into a character and the customs of a people without reducing the performer to a sexual object (Mr Martin, take note!).

Of course I adored the tense moments of revelation as Mallaso learns more of Bron’s past, that he is a sorcerer, and then the extent of his sorcery when he reveals too much at the race course. This book is full of moments that tickled my Secret Identity Angst button, but it has many other wonderful moments besides. One hidden treasure is Bron’s discovery of the ruined city of Tyr. With the modern obsession of cutting out anything that isn’t integral to the action, I wonder if this would have made it past the editor’s cut. In many ways, this is ‘just’ colour, but it fills in the rich background of this world. And, I love a good ruined city. I love a mystery. I loved this.

Some of the best moments of the book occur further down the line from where I had to stop my plot summary. I would hate to spoil it all for you. In truth, I adore the ending. I am denied the opportunity to discuss the wonderful character of Al’Kalyek, Ba’alekkt’s High Sorcerer, and friend of Ansaryon from the first book. The interactions between Al’Kalyek and Bron, and Bron and Ba’alekkt, are compelling. The ending is haunting and satisfying.

Where The Silver City was over-long, The Wolf Within is tighter and stronger. The opening chapters are a little awkward, but I would urge you to read on – you will be rewarded. Where the antagonists of The Silver City lacked depth, Ba’alekkt is complex, terrible, and charismatic.

The wealth of different societies and cultures is also a joy. Belle is adept at evoking the atmosphere and feel of her different settings. On earlier readings, I was not overwhelmed by the depiction of Kerenth. I found Inrai’a childish and annoying, and the gender role-reversal a little simplistic, but on rereading, I found it more nuanced. Inrai’a is young and foolish, but not without strength. The exploration of sexuality and how we read sexual attitudes in terms of vitality and weakness also has some interest. In a land where a warrior class is not needed due to the protection of a goddess, it makes sense that the physical strength of men could be seen as suited to more menial, physical tasks, whilst women take care of the more cerebral business of ruling and politics.

This is a book with much to offer on top of a rollicking good story. It deserves to be rediscovered in the new millennium. Go find yourself a copy and have a read!

Poetry in Fantasy

So, this is a divisive thing. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about random poetical interludes in fantasy writings. The use in fantasy is no surprise, really. Much early fiction we know about was poetical. That’s how you got your story remembered. The metre helped your verse steep in a performer’s brain, back when people hadn’t moved to see that writing could be used for fiction as well as accounting. And even when fiction became a genre divorced from both the performative and poetical aspect, if one wrote epic, one could not help but think of Homer, Virgil, and (later) Milton. Not to mention the folk music in which the fantastical continued to breathe in the shared consciousness to preserve aspects of celtic culture, and other magical tales: fairies, druids, dragons and other lore*. (See, for example, the Ballad of Tam Lin, which inspired Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock.)

Verse is embedded in fantasy.

However, I don’t know about you, but I can’t write poetry for toffee. And neither can many much more successful fantasy authors. I have no fixed opinion on Tolkien’s verse, but at least half the people I know who call themselves fans readily confess to skipping the ‘song bits’. (I can’t bring myself to skip any of it, personally, but I can’t deny it wasn’t the main draw on the books.) I’ve heard the same about Watership Down, but I have to say, on rereading, I found the rabbit epics both captivating and spine-chilling. (But then, that is a book very carefully and subtly tied to the Homeric root.)

In the average fantasy, though, what is your opinion? Love? Hate? One can’t blame an author if they aren’t a natural poet, but then, why try if you know you suck? And yet…

And yet some poems of fantasy and SF poetry genuinely catch me. Take but one piece from Anne McCaffrey’s song-rich Pern books:

Drummer, beat, and piper, blow,
Harper, strike, and soldier, go.
Free the flame and sear the grasses
Till the dawning Red Star passes.

I know this rhythm is yanked from some famous poem, but I can’t for the life of me think what it is**. I just know that if I start out intoning the original I usually end up wanting to finish with the one from Pern. And that’s OK – every poet is a thief. Churchill stole rhythms from classic literature to create some of the most powerful and iconic speeches in history, and I think that’s a good thing.

Or take John Brunner. I remain in profound awe of his achievement in Stand on Zanzibar, not least the folk poems and dirty limericks that add colour to the ‘Tracking with Close-ups’. Oddly, on a random flipping through of this rather lengthy book I only found the dirty ones about the woman who attacked the super-computer, go figure (e.g. one of 5 poems given in ‘Tracking with Close-ups’ 17):

The case of Teresa’s instructive-
It shows how extremely seductive
A shiggy can be
If her an-atom-ee
Is first rendered super-conductive

I also find Pamela Belle’s sparsely but powerfully used poetry profoundly moving. Take this, describing Sar D’yenyi, and giving us a first, personal glimpse into Ansaryon’s heart, as he quotes it:

Though skies may fall, and put an end to dawning:
Though seas run dry, and fiery mountains roar:
I once saw Sar D’yenyi in the morning,
And my heart is filled with joy for ever more.


Some fantasy poetry sucks bottom, I think most people would agree to that, but some of it is profoundly beautiful, moving, and effective. Do you have a favourite bit? Is there some fragment of made-up epic you want to hear the rest of? These are just some of my favourite SF&F fragments, what are yours?

*Of necessity I realise I’m giving a woefully brief and hopelessly anglocentric account.

** I remembered. Try this on for size:
Double, double, toil and trouble
Fire burn and cauldron bubble
Free the flame and sear the grasses
Till the dawning Red Star passes…

Oh, wait now, I’ve done it again…

Reviewing through the Time Machine: The Silver City, by Pamela Belle

Reviewing through the Time MachineYou may have heard me tweeting about this one-off and on since the Autumn, when I started rereading it. Here are the vital stats:

Title: The Silver City
Author: Pamela Belle
Series/Standalone: Book one of the Silver City Trilogy
Genre: Fantasy
First Published: 1994
Edition Reviewed: 1995
Hb/Pb: Paperback
Price: N/A Out of print, but available from £0.01 + P&P on Amazon Marketplace at time of posting

Cover Art

The Silver City: Cover Art

The Silver City: Cover Art

I don’t always review the cover art along with the book, but sometimes it’s either relevant or worth it for its own sake. If you want to know more about the plot before deciding to give your attention to the whole review, feel free to scroll on down to the ‘Plot’ section. I usually find, though, that having a look at a cover can help in deciding if something is my sort of book. I used to think judging a book by its cover was a bad thing, but I don’t anymore. Judging by the beautiful Michael Whelan artwork that used to adorn the covers of The Dark Tower led me to one of the most influential books in my life. But that’s another story. The point is that books can be wonderful objects as well as wonderful stories, and a good cover conveys information as well as added entertainment.

Unfortunately, my scanner squiffed the colours substantially, and try as I might I couldn’t get the silvery blue of the city at the same time as the fiery red of Halthris’s hair. This is an unfortunate compromise. To see what the colours should be like, please refer to the slightly blurry image here at Library Thing. (Neither version reflects the fact that the author’s name is actually in gold-coloured metallic lettering, but that’s the sort of thing scanners can be forgiven for struggling with.)

I like this cover. It’s maybe not the most exciting cover you’ve ever seen. It hasn’t got a man with a sword, or a dragon, or a wizard, or all three. But even though I like men with swords, and wizards, and dragons, I like this cover not only in spite of their absence, but because of it. This book doesn’t have a dragon, but it does have men with swords, and some wizards, and you could easily have slapped them on the front and made it look like all the other covers with men and swords and wizards on them. The protagonist is a woman, but there are a lot of other significant characters, including a love interest who is a wizard who sometimes uses a sword. In a lot of other book covers you might see the female protagonist depicted, but in the embrace of her lover, and surrounded by the other significant features of the book. Take a look at this cover for Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight – a deliberately feminist novel that (despite the problems a modern reader might find) was pretty significant in its day, and that I still rather like. I like this art, too. But can you see Lessa in this picture? Oh yes… she’s way down there underneath the dragons, being embraced by F’lar.

I’m not saying that all covers of books that contain women have to have a woman dominating their cover art, but it does say something about this book that it does. And that’s what the cover should do: tell you something about the book at a glance. I look at this book and I instantly feel a little more included. It’s possible that others will look at it and feel a little more excluded – I understand that – but there are plenty of other books out there without (fully clothed) women on their covers, and I think it’s good to have a bit of variety. If I’m browsing a bookshelf in a bookstore (those bookstores that are left!) my eye is caught by those that look a little different. The pale background amongst all those blacks and dark blues on the fantasy shelves probably helps, too.

Well, enough of that – it clearly can’t have been that good a marketing tactic; the book’s out of print! But I liked it. There are other things that are more prosaically good about this cover, too. First thing is that I can tell the artist was actually given a fairly detailed description of the character. The only things that’re missing are the tattoos, and it’s implied that most of those are in less visible places, anyway. The artist has also used those details, along with the background, to tell us a lot about the story. Here’s this strong woman, but she’s clearly tribal, and she’s out of place against the pale city in the background. Yet she’s not ill at ease – her stance is one of readiness and strength. She’s a warrior, and she’s not intimidated by her unfamiliar surroundings. Her splash of colour over what we assume must be the towers of the Silver City is a contrast that speaks of breathing new life into something old and staid. Yet she’s gazing off into the distance, not down at the city, thinking about some problem that they will both face that comes from the outside. That’s a pretty good introduction to the central enigma of the book. I’m intrigued, aren’t you?

Well, then: on to the plot!


Halthris is a warrior of the Tanathi, a nomadic people who wander the plains and steppes near Zithirian, the Silver City, famed for its wealth and pale stone buildings. Whilst out hunting with her tribe, Halthris stumbles upon a massive army of the terrifying Ska’i. The Ska’i have always been vicious raiders, but, like the Tanathi, they were composed of wandering tribes who rarely came together with one purpose. A fearsome new chief, Quenait, has somehow joined them together. Reasoning that Zithirian is too juicy a temptation for the Ska’i to pass up, Halthris and her band decide that the city must be warned.

Upon reaching the city, however, Halthris is caught up in courtly intrigue, and fears that her message will not get through. At first it seems that she’s had the worst possible luck. When she first comes to the palace she is taken to meet Prince Ansaryon – second of the king’s three sons, rumoured to practice forbidden magic, generally reviled by the populace, and unpopular at court. Although he says he is keen to help her, and seems concerned at her words, the pace of ceremony at court is frustrating for the forthright tribeswoman, and she wonders if he is deliberately obstructing her. Would it have been better to have met first with the youngest Prince – the healthy, active, handsome, and popular Tsenit? The crown prince (if you were wondering) is a drunk and largely irrelevant, except perhaps for the fact that his death would advance the ambitions of either of his brothers, should they be murderously inclined.

Finally, she is heard, but the king doesn’t sense any urgency – he suspects that she is exaggerating, or that her ‘uncivilized’ mind has multiplied the Ska’i numbers in fear. Unsurprisingly, the Ska’i appear on the scene before the king comes to his senses, but with enough time for him to close the city gates once they have been seen. The king is belatedly terrified and demands that the Tanathi warriors who have come with Halthris to the city bolster his personal guard. And then: treachery! Someone opens the gates in the night, not only to the city, but to the palace. The Ska’i butcher most of the royal family, and it seems likely that either Tsenit or Ansaryon is in league with the Ska’i and has made a play for the throne.

Much of the tension of the first few chapters is probably meant to be about whether Ansaryon or Tsenit is truly EVAL. If you don’t want to know the answer to that, look away now, as most of the rest of the book assumes knowledge of this. I don’t think it’s that much of a spoiler anyway. This is a fantasy novel. Strikes me that the target audience is most likely to be rooting for the dark, mysterious, bookish social outcast over the handsome, jock-like Tsenit. Ansaryon’s character becomes progressively more interesting as the book progresses, and we’ve seen from the get go that he’s complex and troubled. I’m going to put my hands up and say that I actually read the second book in this series first, by mistake, but I really don’t think anyone else is likely to be fooled. Belle gives Ansaryon too my screen time and sexual tension with her protagonist for me to have much doubt in my mind.

So, by fortune, Ansaryon ends up with the Tanathi as they flee the palace. The Tanathi have personally seen his sister, the king, and the crown prince die, which leaves just Ansaryon and maybe Tsenit as immediate heirs. (Oh yes, there’s a sister – didn’t I mention her before? She’s sad, and probably mad, and that’s about all we need to know about her. She is important, but why isn’t revealed until the very end, and it really is a spoiler.) But the suspense as to who’s the evil one doesn’t stretch out much further. Everyone’s a bit freaked as Ansaryon reveals that he is indeed a mage (it’s illegal in Zithirian for anyone save the priesthood), but he uses his magic to save their lives and guide them to the secret city of Sar D’yenyi that guards the mountain mines from which Zithirian draws its money. He keeps it together just long enough to reach the city and tell his cousin to avenge him and the rest of his family, before keeling over. At which point it’s pretty clear that he’s a goody.

Fortunately, he doesn’t die (this is still fairly early on in the book, so is hopefully not too much of a giveaway). It turns out it’s not just getting stabbed up by the Ska’i that’s ailing him. One of the more interesting things about this book is that to do magic you need to take the drug Annatal. But once you take it you’re addicted and you’ll die if you stop. (Yes, yes, the drug/magic link that that Buffy storyline made tiresome, but Belle honestly doesn’t harp on that aspect.) Ansaryon left Zithirian with a horse, a sword, and not a lot else. He’s in withdrawal. Fortunately, Halthris has a rare natural ability to thought-link, which she has only used to communicate with her hunting cat prior to this point, but whilst sitting vigil over Ansaryon, he is able to reach out to her via this link, and she keeps him alive. He becomes the only known person to survive Annatal withdrawal, and, miraculously, keeps his powers.

Having recovered, Ansaryon reveals his powers to the shocked populace of Sar Dyenyi, but they grudgingly accept him as ruler over the usurper Tsenit, especially after he uses that power to repel an attack by the Ska’i on the mountain fortress itself. He then sets off on a trip to garner support from the local kingdoms and the Empire of Toktel’yi. Halthris goes with him, leaving his cousin Kefiri behind to man the fort and stay safe as the last heir to the throne if Ansaryon dies.

Naturally, Kefiri, being 17 and foolish, doesn’t like being told to stay put, and she sneaks away to try and help build a resistance in the city of Zithirian, which, fortunately for her, a woman named Kaydi was already doing. This gives the opportunity to reveal the last (and in some ways most important) significant character of the book: Bron. Bron is a small waif of a child who first appears to Kaydi’s son, Herris, in Zithirian. Then to Kefiri and Halthris in Sar Dyenyi, apparently as a refugee… then shortly afterwards in one of the kindgoms Ansaryon goes to for help, at about the same time that Kefiri is meeting him again in Zithirian; and lastly in Toktel’yi, in the heart of the emporer’s palace, a place he couldn’t possibly have been. How can he be in so many places at once?

There’s a darkness that surrounds Bron, a darkness that stinks of socery. Yet he’s also just a little boy, apparently terrified of his ‘grandmother’. In some ways, The Silver City is more about the mystery that is Bron than it is about the political intrigue of Zithirian and the menace of the Ska’i. Which is probably a good thing, as he’s a much more interesting character than the generic menace of the Ska’i whose motivation seems solely founded on greed and their worship of the death god Ayak.

This is a book with plusses and minuses. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The Wolf Within, its sequel, is a much better book, and in many ways The Silver City would work better as a prequel. I don’t think that’s just because I read the second book first, not realising it was part of a series. Although the focus of the action is on Halthris, wherever you go (both figuritively and literally) there’s Bron. If you wanted to regard it as an origin story, it’d make a very good one. A haunting one.

Naturally, I like this book because it has a lot of strong women – it’s like a balm to my soul. But what I really like about it is the gender balance. Yes, Halthris is a strong warrior woman, but there are plenty of strong men, as well. We also see a strong mother, in the form of Kaydi, and a strong woman who very definitely isn’t good, in the form of the High Priestess D’thliss. And then there’s Kefiri, who… pretty much performs the traditional role of the feisty princess that the Evil King seeks to subdue. I think we’re meant to see Kefiri’s role as important, too, but I can’t think of a single thing she does that actually helps the resistance. And that’s… OK. There should be crap women as well as crap men in a book that really reflects reality. There’re role models enough in Halthris and Kaydi.

Some of the characters are not as well-filled out as they could be. The Ska’i, D’thliss, and Tsenit, whilst they all have personalities and motivations, are fairly stock fantasy Evil. If you see the real baddies as Ayak and emperor-in-waiting Ba’alekkt, you can find some much more interesting hints, but they don’t really come into fruition until the second book.

This is a long book that could be shorter. Belle excels at creating vivid impressions of differing societies and their customs, but I did sometimes find myself looking ahead to where the next dialogue was. The action doesn’t really get going until after the Ska’i attack, and most of the really good shit happens in the last third. However: this is also a woman who can write passion, and who can craft a punch.

The love story between Halthris and Ansaryon is a slow build, sublimated to much of the other action. But that’s OK. It’s surprisingly realistic. It’s rare to read a book where the protagonists get together in a way that would amount to anything more than a one night stand in real life. But not only that, when they finally realise and reveal the full extent of their feelings for each other on a hot Toktelyan night, the tension between them is palpable and vibrantly real.

As for punch, well. I can’t give too much away, but it’s quite an ending. I knew what was going to happen, rereading it, but it still managed to sock me one good.

It’s not a perfect book, but you can get a second-hand copy for practically nothing. This is not a YA novel – it’s long, it’s not about teenagers, and it’s barely about love – but if you know a teenage girl who’s looking to move on from Anne McCaffrey to some role models with real bite, you wouldn’t go far wrong with this. And for adults, too, if you like a fantasy novel that does something a little different, then I think, despite the cookie-cutter bad guys, this could be one for you.

If, on the other hand, I’ve put you off with the negative side, let me say this: the sequel to this book is one of my all time favourites. I don’t feel I suffered much by starting there, but I don’t think you’ll suffer by starting at the beginning either. I promise to review The Wolf Within soon, but in the meantime, spend a penny (plus P&P) on The Silver City – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.