Monday, 20 June 2011

Chris Wooding – The Black Lung Captain

Recently I attended an event at the British Library entitled ‘Why Science Fiction Appeals To Everyone’. The panelists included China Mieville, Tricia Sullivan, Adam Roberts and Erik Davis. One of the main points put forward and roundly supported by the panelists was that cinema had changed science fiction from a genre of ideas (or ‘what ifs’) to a genre of
visual spectacle.

This is an important distinction. I’ve often felt uncomfortable when science fiction proudly proclaims itself ‘the genre of ideas’. I don’t read a huge amount of books outside of genre, but the ones I have read certainly had ideas in them. Those ideas didn’t feature spaceships, alien worlds, zap guns or quantum shenanigans, but there were ideas nonetheless.

Visual spectacle is something I can get behind, and it doesn’t have to occur on the silver screen, a readers mind is just as good a place to project. The turning point of modern cinema is that most anticipated (and often disappointing) of beasts – the summer blockbuster.The Black Lung Captain ably emulates the things that make the summer blockbuster successful and brings them to the printed page.

Much like the farm boy who races off in his speeder, only to find himself racing towards the Death Star just hours later, The Black Lung Captain not only captures the visual spectacle element of cinema but also the constant motion. Huge dreadnoughts and frigates held aloft by aerium gas do punishment to each other as smaller Firecrows and Windblades dogfight in gut-churning aerial acrobatics. The Arch Duke’s Century Knights face off against unspeakable horrors and there, always in the thick of it, is Captain Darian Frey.

I had a real problem warming to the crew of the Ketty Jay in the first novel, Retribution Falls. For the first six chapters I was confused why I’d want any of the characters to survive (a feeling that dissipated quickly I’m glad to say). In The Black Lung Captain Wooding makes good on the faith of the reader. The cast of ne’er-do-wells are eminently more appealing – especially the Captain himself.

As much as this novel is about crosses, double-crosses, epic air battles and the fates of thousands, there is a much more human edge to it. The Black Lung Captain is about family, not of the biological sort, but the families we make for ourselves. The crew of the Ketty Jay go through some very awkward growing pains over the course of the story, but they discover trust, camaraderie, and belonging through their adventures. The character’s personal journeys and the paths their relationships take with each other gives a real emotional core to the book that will have
readers hooked.

Ultimately this book has it all: devil-may-care swashbuckling, aerial chases, cigar-chomping sky pirates, implacable daemons, and the sort of kick-arse characters you want to hang out with all the time. I literally could not stop reading this book. Each chapter made me keen to discover what
happened next.

Book three of the Tales of the Ketty Jay, The Iron Jackal is due out
in October.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Thoughts on Gormenghast

This isn’t a natural choice of novel for modern times. The plot ambles around, confusedly, minor characters are seemingly given a great deal of the limelight, and the reader is kept off balance with regards to the protagonist. Should you root for Titus (not easy in Titus Groan, the first book), or Steerpike, who is as brilliant as he is ruthless. Let’s not forget Flay, who lacks initiative but is loyal to the last. Some other readers might yet take a shine to Dr Prunesquallor, who, despite being facetious in the extreme at least has a sense of self awareness the other characters struggle to manage.

Peake’s work is a strange one, deliberately strange. It’s as if Gormenghast (both the book and the castle of the same name) is such a damnably wretched place that the denizens will attach themselves to any fleeting moment of happiness, no matter how unsuitable. The stumbling, awkward courtship of Irma Prunesquallor takes up much of the second book, and is painfully embarrassing. It’s this celebration of the pathetic that lays bare all the neuroses and fragility of the human condition, although magnified through a particularly grotesque lens.

Grotesque is a particularly appropriate word for the Gormenghast books. Barely a single character is described as anything approaching normal. Flay is gaunt and hunchbacked, a gangly and peculiar creature. Swelter, on the other hand is corpulent and immense, as is Lady Groan herself, who has such a close kinship with birds they make nests in her hair. Steerpike is possessed of a bulbous forehead, hunched shoulders and red beady eyes. Even Titus is denied a handsome countenance. All a far cry from today’s airbrushed, waxed and tanned creatures that adorn multiplex posters and magazine covers.

It’s worth noting that Peake was also an illustrator, and it’s an artists eye for the minutia that crops up time and again in his prose. Woodland scenes are lovingly created and lavished with long descriptions. Brooding interiors and lofty halls both come under intense scrutiny, architecturally and by function. Gormenghast itself exists under a cloud of entropy, the effects of which are held at bay by the bitter Barqentine, Master of Ritual. Much of the daily life in the endless wings and annexes of the castle is carried out with a large measure of ennui, the legend and preservation of Gormenghast being the only reason to continue.

These elements combine to create an a gloomy invitation, but there is a lot of comedy, particularly in Gormenghast. The Professors, whilst all quite hateful, go to great lengths to behave as abysmally as any schoolboy prankster or truant, and Dr Prunesquallor’s management of his dim-witted sister (and her hot water bottle) should provide a decent counterpoint to the gloom of this crumbling edifice.

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The British Library is holding two Mervyn Peake events:

Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Monday 11th July 2011, 19:30 – 21:00, with Sebastian Peake and China MiĆ©ville

Mervyn Peake: A Celebration Tuesday 26th July 2011, 18:30 – 20:00