Behind the rain, on the other side of the sky
Well, it took me a week, but I reached the end of an epic journey
last night, completing Susanna Clarke’s enchanting first novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. And, for all that there were moments when I felt all too aware of the book’s length, when I reached the end I wanted more: to know whether Strange and Norrell ever resolve their situation, to hear of the Raven King in his prime, to see what was happening behind the rain, on the other side of the sky, where magician’s go when their stories end.
Is it a good book? Yes. Is is a great book? Only time will tell, but it’s certainly going to be the event book of the year. What’s it like? Hmm. Well, it’s a little bit Mansfield Park and perhaps a little bit Willoughby Chase. It’s filled with magic, both theoretical and practical, and with fairies (which was nearly a deal breaker for me, but I got past my prejudices), but it’s mostly the story of two odd men who are rivals, become friends, then rivals again, and then something else again. I remember when I first read Clarke’s World Fantasy nominated short story “Mr Simonelli, or The Fairy Widower”, and thinking she could probably write a terrific novel. She did.
I’m only too well aware that talking about reviews of your own books – responding to them in any way, really – is a tricky and, for the most part, ill-advised business.
That said, the couple of responses to Science Fiction: Best of 2003 that I’ve seen have, for the most part, been very positive . There’s a thread over at Night Shade that discussed the book, there will be a review in the July issue of Locus, and now Mark Watson over at Best SF has posted a review. All of which is very welcome, and quite flattering.
Interestingly, the observations about the book tend to be pretty consistent. Most say that it reads well and is entertaining, but have a consistent batch of criticisms:
- The book is poorly proofread. I can’t really comment on this because the copyediting/proofreading was all done after I’d finished my part on the book, and I haven’t re-read it.
- The book lacks interstitial material (story notes etc). (I think this is what Watson means by ‘having the least amount of editing done to an anthology’.) While there are reasons for this, they’re really beside the point. It was a real disappointment for Karen and I that we couldn’t get that material in the book, as we both think it’s an essential part of a year’s best annual. I’ve looked back at the draft material we’d prepared and don’t see much value in posting it here, but we certainly intend to rectify this next year.
- Some of the stories don’t “fit”. A couple people have commented on the fact that some stories aren’t that good, or that they aren’t SF or aren’t SF enough. I certainly stand by the quality of all of the stories in the book, and was pleased to see so many nominated for major awards, but I do see the validity in the ‘not SF’ argument. A book that calls itself the year’s best SF, should contain something that resembles that. Certainly, one or two of the stories in the book are on the fringes. The one thing that I take comfort in is that opinion is near unanimous that those stories are amongst the very best in the book (and of the year), so it’s not such a big deal.
All of which brings me to, how is the experience of having done my third year’s best annual (and first international anthology) going to color doing the next two (we’re contracted for Science Fiction: Best of 2004 and Fantasy: Best of 2004)? It’s a good question, even if I had to ask it myself. I’m certainly doing everything I can to read more widely than last year, and I’m trying to be a lot more aware of what I think makes a story both a good story and good science fiction or fantasy. I’ve got a great deal of confidence in the choices that Karen and I make, but I’m always eager to refine them (and, unfortunately, there are always non-qualitative factors that affect decisions in a particular story). I’m also determined to fit the interstitial material into the book, and to get it right to. The other thing I’d like to achieve with these books is to persuade readers that we’re not labouring under some disadvantage in doing a shorter book. It seems to me that editors like Terry Carr and Don Wolheim did wonderful ‘year’s bests’ at about the length we’re working with. The big books are great, but there’s something to be said for economy.
I’m in the middle of reading Susannah Clarke’s first novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which is a fearsomely long fantasy novel. When the advanced reader’s copy arrived a week or so ago I noticed that the front cover was black, the back was white, and the spine was half black/half white. Now, originally, I’d thought this was to reflect the fact that the publishers wanted to preview the fact that they’d be producing two separate dustjackets for the book, and superficially this is the case, but last night I realised the real reason. I was sitting in the office – enjoying reading the book but feeling as though I was reaching the point where, instead of wishing that I was reading the book, I was wishing I’d read it – that I had an epiphany. The color divide on the spine exactly denotes the halfway point of the book, giving feeble reviewers like your humble correspondent hope that the end is in sight, progress is being made, do not abandon hope. Considerate really, when you think about it.
This new blogger interface, which so many others have complained about, is truly crappy. I lost a post yesterday about John Birmingham’s new novel Weapons of Choice, pointing you over to Paul Di Filippo’s review at SciFi.com. I’m not going to redo it completely, but you might want to check the book out.
Vale Peter McNamara
Peter McNamara, editor and publisher of Aphelion Publications, died yesterday. I first had dealings with Peter in the first part of 1990, when he provided assistance with getting Eidolon on its feet. In the intervening 14 years, I think we were in the same place maybe three or four times, but we talked on the phone every few weeks, off and on, throughout that time, and even co-published a book in 1999. What was he like? Kind, generous, big hearted, full of life and full of humour. I realised this morning when I heard the sad, but not unexpected, news (he’d been sick for some time), that his achievements in speculative fiction (impressive though they are) and his contribution to Australian SF in particular, are actually in some ways the least of his achievements. His real achievements were his family (Mariann and Pat) and his enormous circle of friends. We should all be so well loved. Vale.