British Fiction Focus

Beyond the Black Crown

Welcome back to the British Genre Fiction Focus,’s weekly column dedicated to news and new releases from the United Kingdom’s thriving speculative fiction industry.

Last week, Jack Vance died.

He wasn’t British, so I won’t spend a long time talking about him in this specific space, but wherever he was born, he was from early on one of genre fiction’s single most significant figures. Speaking personally, his novels moved me more often and in more ways than the entire oeuvre of the vast majority of other authors, and I simply couldn’t bring myself to start this morning’s column without at least raising a glass to the magnificent man.

He will be missed.

His presence, however, will be felt for many years yet.

But the show must go on. And so it shall, with news of the Black Crown Project, the inaugural Geek Fest convention, a revised version of Arthur C. Clarke Award-winner Chris Beckett’s debut, and the winner of the second Terry Pratchett Prize.

There are a fair few new releases to look forward to, too, including Brian Aldiss’ final science fiction novel and the beginning of an exciting new series from Chuck Wendig, alongside short stories by the marvellous Margo Lanagan and a who’s-who of fantasy’s finest.


The Black Crown Project

Black Crown Project

First things first: what is the Black Crown Project?

A text-based adventure, essentially. If you’re old enough to have fond memories of Zork, you might just dig this thing. I’ll be the first to admit I did. I made a character — the trufflehunter Worrum, with +2 Strong Stomach — and paged through the character-creation questionnaire with which Black Crown begins. Before long I was chatting quite happily with a stuck pig, and pulling a map out of my mouth.

I don’t want to give away much more than that, actually, except to say that the Black Crown Project has already set itself apart by being darker by far than the games I played as but a babe.

Here’s a bit more about it:

Black Crown marks Random House’s first move into gaming as it seeks ways to broaden the platforms it publishes on.

Written by debut author Rob Sherman, players of Black Crown join the shady Widsith Institute as clerks, whose work is managed through the application of bespoke diseases, to facilitate the task of categorising and analysing the Institute’s archive of diaries and journals, belonging to the world’s greatest explorers, those who travel beyond the edge of the world.

Over the course of the story, users will begin to learn about the mysterious figure of the Miasma Eremite, who journeyed to the town of Loss, through the exploration of numerous bizarre objects and documents brought back to the Institute from its singular civilization.

Prepare for a weird and wildly imaginative experience, as you don the Dutch Frame, meet the mysterious clerk Wayle, confront the terrifying Shushbaby, descend to the Marvel Ouse and begin to uncover the nefarious Black Crown project.

The narrative will be an organic process, updated and added to in several stages after stage one’s month-long running time.

The whole thing is free to play, and indeed read — including the e-books Mour Mour Mour and Lincoln’s Bedsheet — which sounds like the perfect price-point to me. That said, Black Crown is a for profit project, and you can already microtransact a faster path through the story so far.

Whether you do or do not, there’s no harm in trying. Certainly, this experiment has elicited my interest, especially in the idea of gaming as a platform for book publishers. If Black Crown satisfies both its backers and its player base, I dare say it could take us to some fascinating places…

Geek Fest

Nine Worlds Geekfest 2013

According to the press release I received last week, and following a hugely oversubscribed fundraising campaign on Kickstarter this past March, Geekfest is a go!

Described as a the mutant hybrid of a science fiction convention crossed with a TED talks conference, Nine Worlds Geekfest will bring together hordes of UK geeks for a 3-day celebration of geek culture on August 9-11, 2013 in London.

As well as including the core elements of traditional science fiction conventions like literature and film, Nine Worlds seeks to broaden the scope of geekery to include many aspects of popular science and technology, while dispensing with the whole celeb photo and signing machine that turns many sci-fi events into all-day queuing marathons. As co-organiser Ludi Valentine explains, “Our guests are the writers, and creators, and scientists, the people who make awesome things happen, people with amazing stories to tell, and cool stuff to show you.”

Guests include over a dozen big names in UK Sci-Fi & Fantasy lit, like Cory Doctorow, Stephen Hunt, Charlie Stross and Catherine Banner and lots of sci-fi TV writers. On the acting side, we’ve got Chris Barrie (Red Dwarf), a couple of Harry Potter actors and a few Doctor Who/Torchwood actors. And we’ve got people like Rhianna Pratchett (creator of the new Tomb Raider game), Kieron Gillen (Marvel Comics author) and lots of scientists, filmmakers, artists and academics.

There’s plenty more information about Geekfest available at the Nine Worlds website, where you can also order tickets. The early bird offer ended in May, I’m afraid, but the price of admission is still very reasonable if you ask me.

So who’s going to go? I must know! I’m pretty damn tempted myself…

Cover Art Corner: More Marcher

In May, Chris Beckett won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for his third novel, the deeply endearing Dark Eden. I read it when it was released last year, though I only got around to reviewing it quite recently.


I also enjoyed the author’s second novel. His first, however? To tell the truth, Marcher hasn’t been a reading priority for me, largely because Beckett doesn’t have a lot of love for it in its current form:

Marcher has been a sort of Cinderella among my three novels to date. I don’t mean that the others are ugly stepsisters. What I mean is that Marcher still sits in the kitchen while the others go to the ball.

Dark Eden and The Holy Machine have benefitted from editorial advice, copy-editing, and proofreading, and have come out as handsome, professionally produced books. Marcher was a publishing project that didn’t quite come off. The US small press publisher Cosmos hoped to get a deal with big chain bookstores, but that didn’t happen. It ended up coming out as a cheap low budget paperback, sold in places like petrol stations and drugstores, with every expense spared. There was no editorial input, no proofreading. Even the kindest reviewers find it hard to avoid mentioning the typos and errors on every page. Not that I can excuse myself from responsibility. Essentially what is now available is my final draft, and it doesn’t say a lot for my own editing, let alone anyone else’s.

A sad story. But one with a happy ending, as it happens, because in mid-2014, Newcon Press plan to publish an “extensively revised and in places completely rewritten” edition of Marcher, complete with stunning new cover art by Ben Baldwin.

There aren’t terribly many authors who have the chance to fix the mistakes they made in their debuts. I’m a very happy chappy that Chris Beckett will be one of the above.

Anywhere, Anywhen

Terry Pratchett Prize

Following the launch of the six-strong shortlist in early April, the winner of the second not-exactly-annual Terry Pratchett First Novel Award — aka Anywhere But Here, Anywhen But Now — has been announced.

The Hive is by Alexander Maskill, a bloody 21 year old (!) based out of lovely (?) Leicester, whose debut sounds markedly less comedic than the two books which tied for the prize in 2012. A statement that the Terry Pratchett Prize is as interested in straight-faced science fiction as it is the silly stuff, perhaps?

Via a blog post on Goodreads, here’s an early look at the book:

The Hive takes us to New Cairo, a city built on technology, from the huge solar panels that keep civilisation going in a changed world, to the artificial implants that have become the answer to all and any medical problem. When a powerful new computer virus begins to spread through the poorest districts shutting down the life-giving implants, it threatens to tip the city into a violent class struggle. Hiding out amongst the riots and underground resistance, Zala Ulora, one of the most wanted criminals in the city and a gifted hacker, must trace the virus to its source before it destroys the city, or the city destroys itself.

Sir Terry himself has this to say about the many and various submissions:

“2013’s shortlisted novels were of an exceptionally high standard. It was remarkably difficult to choose just one winner but we felt that Alexander Maskill’s The Hive was a unique and original take on Man vs. Technology in an altered future. Alex has a promising future for one whose first attempt at writing a novel has won him the prize!”

If they follow the same schedule they did with the previous winners, Transworld are likely to publish The Hive next May. Then again, two books tied for the prize last time, so it’s entirely possible that Alexander Maskill’s debut will make it to market rather faster than either Apocalypse Cow or Half-Sick of Shadows.

In any case, congratulations to the young author who won this year’s award.


Split Worlds Any Other Name Emma Newman

Any Other Name (Split Worlds #2), by Emma Newman (June 6, Strange Chemistry)

It’s been an interesting year…

Cat has been forced into an arranged marriage with William — a situation that comes with far more strings than even she could have anticipated, especially when she learns of his family’s intentions for them both.

Meanwhile, Max and the gargoyle investigate The Agency — a mysterious organisation that appears to play by its own rules — and none of them favourable to Society.

Over in Mundanus, Sam has discovered something very peculiar about his wife’s employer — something that could herald a change for everyone in both sides of the Split Worlds.

Mookie Pearl the Blue Blazes Chuck Wendig

The Blue Blazes (Mookie Pearl #1), by Chuck Wendig (June 6, Angry Robot)

Meet Mookie Pearl.

Criminal underworld? He runs in it.

Supernatural underworld? He hunts in it.

Nothing stops Mookie when he’s on the job.

But when his daughter takes up arms and opposes him, something’s gotta give…

Courts of the Feyre The Eighth Court Mike Shevdon

The Eighth Court (Courts of the Feyre #4), by Mike Shevdon (June 6, Angry Robot)

The Eighth Court has been established, but petty rivalries and old disputes threaten its stability. The mongrels that make up the court are not helping, and Blackbird enlists the help of the warders to keep the peace.

Has Blackbird bitten off more than she can chew, and can the uneasy peace between the courts continue under such tension and rivalry?

Fearsome Journeys Jonathan Strahan

Fearsome Journeys, edited by Jonathan Strahan (June 6, Solaris)

An amazing array of the most popular and exciting names in epic fantasy are set to appear in the first in a brand new series of anthologies from the celebrated master anthologist Jonathan Strahan.

Featuring original fiction authors such as Trudi Canavan, Daniel Abraham, Saladin Ahmed, Elizabeth Bear, Glen Cook, and Scott Lynch, many more exciting names will appear in this collection.

From dragons to quests, cut-throats to warriors, battles and magic, the entire range of the fantastic is set to appear on this first Fearsome Journey!

Finches of Mars Brian Aldiss

Finches of Mars, by Brian Aldiss (June 6, The Friday Project)

Brian Aldiss has announced that this book will be his final science fiction novel. And what a way to end one of the most illustrious careers in the genre!

Set on the Red Planet, it follows a group of colonists and the problems they have in setting up a new society. Life can be sustained but new life will not prosper — the women on the planet only ever give birth to stillborn children.

Exploring many of the author’s classic themes, this is a landmark novel in any genre.

The Pirates Wish Cassandra Rose Clarke

The Pirate’s Wish (Assassin’s Curse #2), by Cassandra Rose Clarke (June 6, Strange Chemistry)

After setting out to break the curse that binds them together, the pirate Ananna and the assassin Naji find themselves stranded on an enchanted island in the north with nothing but a sword, their wits, and the secret to breaking the curse: complete three impossible tasks. With the help of their friend Marjani and a rather unusual ally, Ananna and Naji make their way south again, seeking what seems to be beyond their reach.

Unfortunately, Naji has enemies from the shadowy world known as the Mists, and Ananna must still face the repercussions of going up against the Pirate Confederation. Together, Naji and Ananna must break the curse, escape their enemies — and come to terms with their growing romantic attraction.

Merchant Princes Omnibus The Revolution Trade Charles Stross

The Revolution Trade (Merchant Princes Omnibus #3), by Charles Stross (June 6, Tor UK)

For one ex-journalist, the nightmare has just begun.

Miriam Beckstein has said goodbye to her comfort zone. The transition from journalist to captive in an alternative timeline was challenging to say the least. As was discovering her long-lost family, the Clan, were world-skipping assassins.

Now civil war rages in her adopted home, she’s pregnant with the heir to their throne and a splinter group wants her on their side of a desperate power struggle. But as a leader or figurehead?

Meanwhile, unknown to the Clan, the US government is on to them and preparing to exploit this knowledge. But it hadn’t foreseen a dissident Clan faction carrying nuclear devices between worlds — with the US President in their sights.

The War on Terror is about to go transdimensional. But Mike Fleming, CIA agent, knows the most terrifying secret of all. His government’s true intentions

Watersong Tidal Amanda Hocking

Tidal (Watersong #3), by Amanda Hocking (June 6, Tor UK)

With Penn and Lexi determined to kill Gemma and replace her with another siren, Gemma’s life is in grave danger… unless she can break the curse before it’s too late. With the help of Harper and Daniel, she’ll delve deep into her enemies’ mythical past—and their darkest secrets.

It’s Gemma’s only hope of saving everything she holds dear: her family, her life, and her relationship with Alex—the only guy she’s ever loved.

Yellow Cake Margo Lanagan

Yellow Cake, by Margo Lanagan (June 6, David Fickling Books)

Yellow Cake brings together another ten short stories from this extraordinarily talented writer – each of them fiercely original and quietly heartbreaking.

Ranging from fantasy and fairy tale to horror and stark reality, what pervades these stories is the sense of humanity. The people of Lanagan’s worlds face trials, temptations and degradations. They swoon and suffer and even kill for love. In a dangerous world, they seek the solace and strength that comes from family and belonging.

These are stories to be savoured slowly and pondered deeply because they cut to the very heart of who we are.

Paladins Legacy Limits of Power Elizabeth Moon

Limits of Power (Paladin’s Legacy #4), by Elizabeth Moon (June 11, Orbit)

The penultimate volume in this epic fantasy of elves, dragons and kingdoms under threat, from fantasy legend and Nebula Award-winning author Elizabeth Moon.

The Lady of the elves has been slain and King Kieri injured by the iynisin, a corrupted race of elves whose poisonous touch means grisly death for all who stand in their way. As the Lady’s elves retreat to bury their dead, strange discoveries are made in the palace, revealing old secrets about the ancient alliance between humankind and elves. Meanwhile, in the kingdom of Tsaia, young Prince Camwyn begins to exhibit dangerous signs of magery. Discovery of magical blood so close to the king will put his brother’s rule in jeopardy, but he has nowhere to turn when even his own family might put him to death for treason.

Love Minus Eighty Will McIntosh

Love Minus Eighty, by Will McIntosh (June 11, Orbit)

A novel of love and death, in no particular order.

The words were gentle strokes, drawing her awake.

“Hello. Hello there.”

She felt the light on her eyelids, and knew that if she opened her eyes they would sting, and she would have to shade them with her palm and let the light bleed through a crack.

“Feel like talking?” A man’s soft voice.

And then her mind cleared enough to wonder: who was this man at her bedside?

She tried to sigh, but no breath came. Her eyes flew open in alarm.


What a lot of awesome!

Count me in for The Blue Blazes and Love Minus Eighty, mateys. I can certainly see Yellow Cake and Fearsome Journeys figuring into the Short Fiction Spotlight at some point, also.

A word to the wise before I say goodbye: next time we’ll be doing things a little differently around here. I don’t want to spoil the surprise under the details are definite, but suffice it to say, there are some ch-ch-ch-changes on the way.

For this week, though, that’s it for the British Genre Fiction Focus! As ever, I invite you to continue the conversation in the comments, and remember to check in again next Wednesday for another edition of your regular roundup.

Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and, where he contributes a weekly column concerned with news and new releases in the UK called the British Genre Fiction Focus, and co-curates the Short Fiction Spotlight. On occasion he’s been seen to tweet, twoo.


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