By John Berlyne
My regular readers - always assuming such people exist! - will know that I am a fan and advocate of the excellent work being produced by Peter Crowther's PS Publishing imprint. Over the last three or four years, Peter has built this enterprise into the premier genre small press currently operating within the UK and his hard work and dedication has been recognized on both sides of the Atlantic in terms of awards, nominations and, most importantly, sales. "Small" press is no longer an accurate name tag.
One of the things about PS that most impresses me is the varied and eclectic list Crowther has built up in this time. There have been original works from many big name authors, but it is perhaps the lesser known writers that the PS list has introduced me to that I am most grateful for. It is through the platform provided by PS Publishing that I have become familiar with works by a number of excellent authors - James Lovegrove (See my review of Untied Kingdom), Mark Morris, Mark Chadbourn, Eric Brown, Conrad Williams, Tracy Knight, Steven Gallagher and others.
Added to this list is another name new to me - Cliff Burns, a Canadian writer who according to the jacket notes has been around a while, and whom, amongst his many anthology and compilation appearances, has authored six collections and chapbooks and is currently finishing up a debut novel - a novel I will definitely be watching out for thanks to PS Publishing.
Righteous Blood by Cliff Burns
Also Reviewed from PS Publishing: Light Stealer by James Barclay
Righteous Blood contains two new Burns stories, Living With the Foleys and Kept as well as a learned and insightful introduction by Tim Lebbon. The first story concerns a homeless man who has found himself shelter in the garage of a family home. There he manages to conceal himself for a good long while, going about his business, but always aware, via the thin walls and air-conditioning ducts, of the various goings on in the house. He learns of the marital troubles between the husband and wife and of the teenage growing pains of both son and daughter. Feeling himself almost one of the family, he cannot but help becoming emotionally involved in these matters, to the point where he decides to intervene.
The genius of this story is two-fold. Firstly I was struck within a page by the very real sense of danger Cliff Burns is capable of conveying in his work - this extends into the second novella in spades. Living With the Foleys contains dangers that are multi-layered and dependent on character point-of-view - whether it be the danger of unknowingly having an intruder in one's house or the ever present danger of discovery at any moment. In the company of his misfit friends, with whom he congregates daily at local café, our homeless protagonist, Phil, is a fine, decent and moral fellow, but as Burn drip-feeds us Phil's back story, clueing us in to exactly how he has arrived in these dire straights, it becomes clear that this is a man with a satchel full of secrets. A man who in spite of his reasonableness is as dangerous as hell. And when set against the behaviour of the dysfunctional family who is it in this cast of characters that the reader dare define as normal and well adjusted?
The other aspect that is so impressive here - and this is something even more apparent in the second story, Kept, is Burns' ability to wrong foot us. Reader sympathies and affiliations are bounced around from pillar to post and I wonder if this a motif prevalent throughout his work. In his introduction, Lebbon talks about "creation of belief". He says "To read something unexpected, unpredictable and original is refreshing and... well, surprising," and he's absolutely right. In Kept, the unexpected and unpredictable elements make this one of the best stories I've read so far this year. I wouldn't dare, having read it, ever assume that I could tell where a Burns story might be going. To begin with Kept reads as a conventional serial killer story, but through a lingering and ever building sense of sheer weirdness, the reader's loyalties are ruthlessness toyed with by the author. Rarely have I felt so damn uncomfortable reading a story! Kept spirals gloriously into stranger and stranger realms until it finally tips the starting premise on its head and forces the reader to totally redefine who is the good guy and who the bad. And it is tremendous, rip-roaring, slashing and slicing fun along the way. Unconventional and exciting, Righteous Blood gets a big fat thumbs up!
Light Stealer by James Barclay
Also Reviewed from PS Publishing: Righteous Blood by Cliff Burns
Light Stealer is another notable release from PS Publishing and British fantasy writer James Barclay, author of the acclaimed series, The Chronicles of the Raven, (comprising Dawnthief, Noonshade and Nightchild) and of Legends of the Raven (comprising so far of one volume, Elfsorrow [see my review]) all published here in the UK by Gollancz.
This novella delves into the back story of Barclay's novels. Set in the land of Balaia and against a timeline three hundred years earlier than The Raven books, the story concerns the creation of the Ultimate Spell - Dawnthief - by the arrogant, eccentric and supremely talented mage, Septern. Acknowledged to be perhaps the greatest magic user ever, Septern is a man who can see deeper into the intricacies of the mana spectrum than anyone else. In doing so, he figures a way to create this spell, which effectively would bring about the end of the world.
Living with his four students in a secluded manse, Septern announces his discovery and arrogantly adds that he has decided to take the news himself to a council of the four constantly bickering colleges of magic. One student in particular warns his master of the dangers of this course of action. Each of the colleges would stop at nothing to acquire this Ultimate Weapon - both as a lever against the aggression of their rivals and as a deterrent against the enemy that threatens all of civilized Balaia - the evil Wytch Lords and their hordes of Wesmen.
Like so many gifted people. Septern is not worldly in the way of politics. In his arrogance, he ignores, or perhaps deliberately defies, this sound advice and sure enough is soon caught up in some very dangerous business indeed. It is clear that the Wytch Lords too have somehow got wind of this powerful spell and their soldiers now descend upon Septern's manse, manned only by the junior adepts. Realising his own poor judgement, Septern must now return home to secure his discovery and put it beyond the reach of all the warring factions.
Light Stealer is another example of Barclay's sharp story telling abilities and fans of his work will, I'm sure, enjoy this new piece of Balaian history. The events described here have been alluded to in the novels and so to have the chance to read the fictionalised account is real treat. If you're not familiar with The Raven novels however, you might find yourself a little adrift here. Certainly the author is assuming you have knowledge of both the magic systems and political make-up of his imaginary land.
Interesting though Light Stealer is for fans of The Raven books, I do wonder if Barclay might have been better served saving this material for a prequel novel or perhaps even another series. Clearly he is a writer, for the moment at least, more at home with the longer form. The impression one gets from Light Stealer is of a rather telescoped story. Events tend to tumble on top of one another and characters do seem to come to their conclusions quickly and without much consideration of other possibilities. I also think greater care might have been taken with the setting. The only indication of the timeline being three hundred years previous to The Raven stories is information given to us in the jacket notes. I would much rather have had this shown to me through the narrative - but I guess there simply wasn't the time and space to do this in a novella. For all this, the story moves along with great pace and with Barclay's customary touch of the gruesome and it remains an interesting addition to a fascinating and admirable series.