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Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett (1998)

Carpe Jugulum
Carpe Jugulum

Who doesn’t love a good cravat? A silk waistcoat embroidered with peacocks? The widow’s peak, the glint of the fang? The thing about vampires is they’ve got style. Everyone knows that about vampires, who knows anything about vampires. The only problem is that by now maybe vampires know this, too.

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is home to vampires, witches, wizards, golems, goblins, elves, and a race of Scots-adjacent ‘pictsies’ known as the Nac mac Feegle. In a world that is disc-shaped, riding on the back of four elephants, themselves positioned on the back of the great turtle A’ Tuin as it travels through space, this is hardly surprising.

There are forty-one books in the Discworld series, their setting ranging from city of Ankh Morpork to the more rural settings of the Ramtop Mountains and the leas of the Chalk. In such a vast fantasy world, it often seems difficult to make inroads, especially if unfamiliar with the series. But, as the title of Pratchett’s book reminds us, maybe it is best to simply carpe jugulum. Go for the throat.

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Where to begin with James Blaylock?

Lean in! Close. Closer. I am going to whisper a secret…

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The Last Coin

Good writers keep the rules. They learn syntax and expression, the subtle formulae of narrative arc and tension. For the architecture of character development they memorize each separate building-code requirement. The Rules: professionals read, practice, and solemnly promise to obey.

They lie, of course. There are no rules to writing. Only good writing advice. How is that possible? I have no idea. I only dangle the idiot point to lure you sufficiently close to SHOVE YOU IN THE RIVER.

Done. Splash and curse a bit while I settle here on the bank and light a pipe. We are waiting for a raft to come by. It’s in no hurry; nor the river, nor we. Well, me anyway.

While treading water I invite you to appreciate the wonder that is a large river meandering through wild lands, past small towns, heading on to adventure and the sea. Do you not feel that, besides being damned cold, a river is the perfect road for adventure? It has no idea where it goes. It just does; forever on its way.

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The Ascent of Rum Doodle (1956) & The Cruise of the Talking Fish (1957) by W.E. Bowman

The Ascent of Rum Doodle
The Ascent of Rum Doodle

I was given a copy of W.E. Bowman’s entire published works in an omnibus edition as a gift and I turned my nose up at it. I mean, I accepted it courteously and my face undoubtedly even had a smile on it, but I really wasn’t that enthusiastic. I had hoped for a book by an author I knew, a reliable favourite. I read the back cover blurb and leafed through it dejectedly. My fear was that it was going to be unfunny, irritating, perhaps twee, like so much other ‘humorous’ fiction I had been exposed to in the past decade or so. I put the book away in a box. And that’s where it lingered for a number of years until one day I chanced upon it again.

I can no longer recall what compelled me to try reading it. I had moved house and maybe it was the first book to resurface when I unpacked. I don’t know. I settled on a sofa and opened it and began reading with no great expectations of finishing it. A few pages later I was regretting that I hadn’t jumped right in when I first had the chance. Here was monstrously brilliant prose and exactly the kind of ecstatically daft comedy I enjoy best. The omnibus contained only two books, The Ascent of Rum Doodle and The Cruise of the Talking Fish, the first two novels in the ‘Binder Trilogy’, because that was the totality of Bowman’s published output. The third volume exists only in manuscript form and may never be published.

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Bête by Adam Roberts (2014)

Bête
Bête

Bête is set in a world where green activists (or terrorists - depending where you stand on the story's events) develop a microchip that allows animals the power of speech. Although the initial wave of 'cunning' animals is small, the chips are easily replicated and passed on - before long, hundreds of thousands of 'Bêtes' on are on the prowl. As well as the expected results (our protagonist, a cattle farmer is suddenly out of a job as Britain goes vegan), there are great repercussions: what does it mean to be 'human'? Or a 'citizen'? To be represented, and, quite literally, heard?

Roberts is one of the modern masters of 'big idea' science fiction - a single concept, extrapolated and explored through all its various ramifications and permutations. And the talking animals of Bête are no exception - but like his literary predecessors, Roberts cleverly limits the story to something more manageable. Bête is, for example, a quintessentially British novel - along the lines of After London or even the works of John Wyndham, one gets the impression that the world extends only so far as the ocean.

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Where to begin with E. Nesbit?

"After Lewis Carroll, E. Nesbit is the best of the English fabulists who wrote about children (neither wrote for children) and like Carroll she was able to create a world of magic and inverted logic that was entirely her own." - Gore Vidal

"There is no bond like having read and liked the same books." - E. Nesbit

The_Enchanted_Castle_cover
The Enchanted Castle

Edith Nesbit, aka Edith Bland (married name), known to most of us as E. Nesbit, lived from 1858-1924, and she had a really interesting, convoluted life. Her husband had an affair with a friend of hers, and the friend/mistress came to live with them as a housekeeper. Edith and her husband had 3 children but adopted the housekeeper's 2 children (...that wound up being Edith's husband's real children).

Everything about her husband screams "OMG RED FLAG" to me. He lived with his mother and had a kid with another woman who thought they were engaged at the same time that a pregnant Edith was marrying him. The other woman? A friend of his mother's, so he continued to live at home with mom after marrying Edith because he didn't want mom to know that he had gotten married to someone else. He apparently went broke frequently also. One website I read called him "feckless" and while I think it fits, I don't think it goes far enough. I do think of words with "f" and "c" and "k" in them though, when I read about these things...

From most accounts, Edith put up with all of this because part of her innate personality: to be a caretaker and forgiving person. But oddly enough, this didn't always translate to her kids. She appeared to run hot and cold in waves, not just with her own children but with all kids. Strange in one of the western world's most beloved authors for children, no? I found it fascinating. She has this talent and does it, and she sacrifices a lot to adopt her husband's out-of-wedlock kids with her own friend, and she loves them… but then she also just couldn't even sometimes. I get it, Edith, I get it.

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Mort by Terry Pratchett (1987)

Mort
Mort by Terry Pratchett

A cleverer person than me would probably open a piece like this with the argument that if death (Death? DEATH?) is the ultimate expression of reality we’ll all face one day, then perhaps fantastical literature is humanity’s way of expressing hope in the face of that truth: Storytelling as an act of creation beyond the reach of that grim but grinning full stop that awaits us at the end of our own stories.

I would likely also nod to the way that myth, folklore and fantasy have always ultimately been one of our finest tools for telling ourselves stories about what happens beyond the last page as it were - ‘what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil’ as Shakespeare had it - but really I’m here to talk about Mort, not death, and while the latter may be somewhat unavoidable in the long run I am here to fully recommend introducing yourself to the former as soon as possible.

Mort is the fourth book in Terry Pratchett’s epic Discworld sequence, but to my mind it’s actually one of the best titles to introduce new readers to his work.

His first two books, The Colour of Magic and its direct sequel The Light Fantastic are hilariously re-readable romps for SF&F fans where the territory is instantly recognisable even if Terry’s books are the notable exception on the fantasy bookshelf because they don’t bother to include a map.

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The Woven Path by Robin Jarvis (1995)

TheWovenPath
The Woven Path

When I try to explain why Robin Jarvis’ books are so compelling to people who haven’t read his work, I reflexively reach for the word un-patronising. It’s the best way I can explain it; the reason I was so drawn to Jarvis’ books when I was young. Yet as an adult, I found myself hesitating before giving The Woven Path to a distinctly worldly ten-year-old; not because I thought he might roll his eyes at the teddy bear on the cover, but because I was concerned the book might leave him an emotional wreck. 

And yet, this is precisely what I loved, and still love, about Jarvis. As a kid who was small for my age and looked younger than I was, I inevitably ended up being talked down to, and so was always on the look out for things that might be trying to patronise me. At first, I was doubtful of the Jarvis books I encountered, with their garish, cartoony covers. But then I opened The Alchymist’s Cat, book one in the Deptford Histories trilogy and…

How wrong I was.

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Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines (2001)

Mortal Engines
Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

There’s something pleasingly difficult to categorise about Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series. Is it YA? Science fiction? Post-apocalyptic? A resource-constrained dystopia? Should it be classified as steampunk?

You could make convincing arguments for and against each of these propositions, but regardless of what you decide, it is determinedly its own thing. A wildly inventive romp, traversing continents and leaving deep impressions on every page. And, if elements of the world Reeve builds conjure echoes of Brexit, or Trump’s wall building, or a myriad of urgent environmental concerns, then that’s because the scope he plays with is so undeniably epic.

Mortal Engines, the first in the quartet and published back in 2001, begins sometime beyond the 35th Century, a long time after the Sixty Minute War, with London chasing a small mining town across the dried out bed of the old North Sea.

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Which Witch? by Eva Ibbotson (1979)

Which Witch?
Which Witch? by Eva Ibbotson

Rats (literary ones) have been a big influence on me. From James Herbert’s horror stories at an age when I shouldn’t have been reading them to Alan Moore’s use of a rat king as a fearsome science-fiction weapon in The Ballad of Halo Jones, they’ve been present in many of my formative genre reading experiences.

It was no different when I came across fantasy, and discovered a book that contained one of the most memorable use of rats I’ve ever read. It still sticks in the mind with incredibly clarity now, and I first read it over thirty years ago. The sequence was so disturbing to me that I read it many times over because I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It fascinated me to find something so grotesque in a book of light comic fantasy, and it taught me something new: behind every happy tale there lurks a darkness that fantasy can confront, particularly when it’s aimed at children.

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"4 British Fantasy Books I Love that No One Else Has Read" by Kirsty Logan

The Dribblesome Teapots
The Dribblesome Teapots by Norman Hunter

1. The Dribblesome Teapots, Norman Hunter

This has been one of my favourite books since I was about 7. It's a collection of surreal and funny fairytales set in the world of Inkrediblania, where a queen promises half her kingdom for a teapot that doesn't dribble, a man wears coloured ribbons on his arms to tell people the day of the week, and people are called the Earl of Lateleigh, His Decorative Flamboyance Prince Rococo of Okoko, and Ferdinand Fitzluvly (the court tailor, of course). As well as being a feat of imagination, Hunter's wordplay delights me every time I read it. It's been a huge influence on me as a writer: it encouraged me to use my imagination, make use of fairytale tropes, and play with language.

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