This month, we have two cracking new self-published books for you: one novel, one collection of short stories.
The Blackbird and the Ghost
Tan Wenlock (the Blackbird), adventurer and rogue, seeks his fortune on the infamous Boiling Seas. A place where sailors fear to venture, there are strange islands and stranger ruins lurking in the ever-present occluding steam rising from the alarmingly-warm seas that give the area its distinctive name.
The treasure Tan pursues might have the power to change the world, but he just wants it to change a life other than his own. If he has any chance of reaching his goal he’ll have to brave dangerous streets, steal forbidden knowledge, and descend into the very bowels of the earth. He’ll have to lie, cheat, steal, and fight to stay one step ahead of the ghosts of his past.
That the author is both historian and comedian is evident right from the beginning. The tone is very Indiana Jones, complete with clever traps and ingenious puzzles. It’s a strong, intense, cliff-hanger start, and one that really hooks you in. Those hooks draw deeper when the story switches to three weeks prior, and you start to get to know the loveable rogue Tan and his witty and charming internal monologue. Tan is more than your average thief, at times appearing more interested in the history of the item he’s ‘acquiring’ rather than the item itself. Then there is the interplay between the characters, which is one of the highlights of the book. Original wit and humour are evident throughout.
Starting at the end of the tale and backtracking to the beginning is a tried and tested method of engagement, and the author manages the transition deftly. However, this is at the expense of pace — as backstory and world-building take centre stage in the first few chapters following the switch. It’s worth it, though, as the author creates a vibrant, dark, and dangerous fantasy landscape through which the Blackbird moves.
I loved the style, which combines adventure and archaeology with fantasy — boiling seas warmed by underwater lava, ancient libraries, underground caverns, mines, and swooping airships. The writing is rich and warm, filled with soft humour, an easy-to-read style, and descriptive prose that is so rich you can almost reach out and feel the warm misty spray of the sea and the cold grip of the caverns.
From the quality of the prose, you wouldn’t expect The Blackbird and the Ghost to be a self-published novel. It seems clear the author is either good at self-editing or has had some help in this regard; it’s polished, more so than most self-published works. A great work of fantasy adventure fiction that deserves to be picked up by a major publisher.
Author: Hûw Steer
Available: Kindle Unlimited, paperback
Back in the 20th century, many authors cut their teeth by writing short fiction. It was an easier route to seeing their work published in magazines such as Weird Tales, Asimov’s Science Fiction, New Worlds, Interzone, Amazing Stories, or Astounding Science Fiction, before the internet and the ebook changed the publishing landscape. While the short story is still going strong and web-based magazines such as Strange Horizons and Clarksworld now lead the way, you don’t often see self-publishing authors releasing their own collections before establishing themselves with larger works of fiction.
Then again, no writer publishes a book in a vacuum, and Catching Light didn’t take the usual route to publication. Alec Lamberton had wanted to write since that fateful night in 1969 when humanity finally broke the confines of our small planet. Despite his energy and a promising start, life moved Alec in a different direction; and it wasn’t until many years later that this book was born, after he was forced to take a career break due to illness. He realised that the scriptwriting he had been practising for years had honed his skills for writing short fiction. The result is this book: a collection of stories Lamberton has written over the years, almost half a century in the making.
I picked up Catching Light as a diversion from my melancholy mood after finding out that Clive James, an author and presenter I had always admired, had lost his ten-year battle with leukaemia. On opening the book I find a quote by none other than James himself:
“All I can do is turn a phrase, until it catches the light”
I’ve read thousands of books and this is the first I’ve seen that opens with a quote by James (other than his own work). The title of this collection is of course a play on this line.
The idea was to offer the reader a number of perspectives rather than one long story, that they can dip in and out of at will. The result is an interesting collection, each story offering something different and yet many with a clear influence from 20th century science fiction (without the misogyny and racism). ‘Green and Pleasant Land’ is set in the time of William Shakespeare, in a reality in which the Punic Wars ended differently, giving rise to a strikingly alternate country. Three of the stories begin as a ‘last man on Earth’ scenario, but go way beyond that into a post-human galactic civilisation of artificial beings.
There are eighteen stories in all, each different in tone and style — from poem, to fantasy, to reflective piece. The quality of the writing is good; it’s clear the author has spent a great deal of time making sure each story is as polished as it could be. There are also some great ideas here, offering fresh perspectives on the usual science fiction tropes.
A few of the stand-out stories for me include ‘The View From Here’, which offers a dialogue on climate change, looking back on how tough recovery could be for our descendants with all the damage we are doing now. ‘The Call’ is also about climate change, but with a much more personal approach, as Alec receives a video call from his great-great-grandson who lives in a much-changed 2092.
Catching Light shows that self-published short story collections can work. An interesting book with some solid, intriguing ideas.
Author: Alec Lamberton
Available: Kindle Unlimited, paperback