Traction City Blues

Being nasty pays. This blog has had more visits since my grumbles about Steampunk last week than in the whole of its existence up to then. Also, a lot of people have got in touch via Facebook etc. to tell me about Steampunk books which are worth reading: Boneshaker has many fans; Scott Westerfield's Leviathan is very good, I'm told, and Dru Pagliassotti's Clockwork Heart sounds intriguing. My old friend Justin Hill points out very wisely that "every day someone reads a book for the first time in their lives. Whatever the subject matter is and even if it's been done before it's still new to them!" and I'm sure he's right, especially in the case of children's books. (But look what he's done to the font! It's gone all serif-y. What's that about? That's the last time I'm quoting Hill...) All the same, as a writer I still can't help feeling that the Steampunk genre has become as pleasureless as an overcrowded beach and it's time to light out for new territories (or at least head back to old ones that are less popular now).

One of the things that has got me thinking about all this is that I'm about to dive back into the London of Mortal Engines. Every year on World Book Day the lucky children of the UK are each given a £1 book voucher and offered a range of specially published £1 books to choose from. Each book contains two stories by different authors, and next year one of them will be me. I've been asked to write a 10,000 word story set in the WOME, and since a lot of the readers will be coming to it for the first time it seems to make sense to return to London.

So I'm planning something set about thirty years before Mortal Engines, when the city is still one of the great predators of the Hunting Ground. All the action will take place on board London, perhaps in the dingy middle tiers which didn't feature much in the first book. I think the story will revolve around a policeman hunting Something Nasty that is lurking in the shadows of the city. It's a tricky gig to pull off, because whatever happens obviously has to be so inconsequential that nobody mentions it anywhere in the Mortal Engines quartet, and yet not so inconsequential that there's no point reading about it. However, some e-mail chats with Jeremy Levett have given me an idea of what the Something Nasty might be, and I'm also hoping to squeeze in a guest appearance by the young Anna Fang, who looks less and less as if she'll ever star in her own range of spin-off graphic novels, so deserves a cameo here by way of consolation prize. (Maybe there'll be a chance to use some of David Wyatt's stunning sample artwork, like the 'Wanted' poster above.) As usual I have no idea what's going to happen or how it will all turn out, but I plan to start writing next week and see where it goes.

Needless to say, now that I look again at this lumbering London which I invented nearly twenty years ago I find it's not nearly as Steampunk as I thought! The neo-Victorian fashions are obviously confined to the upper tiers, and down where this new story operates I'm seeing grimy lino, flickering lightbulbs, rumbling engine-ducts and hot metal pavements embossed with those herring-bone patterns like on the sleeve of Fear Of Music. The pesky airships will be confined to their quays, and we won't talk about them. In keeping with the police-y plan the working title at the moment is Traction City Blues, but of course all that may change once pencil is set to paper. You know how to make God laugh, don't you? Tell him your plans...

The Liberators

Philip Womack is swiftly establishing himself as the Alan Garner for our times; an author of page-turny fantasy thrillers in which modern-day children are caught up in adventures involving ancient mystery and magic. It's quite a well-worn subject, and can easily fall flat, but Mr Womack pulled it off very convincingly in his debut, The Other Book and he scores again with The Liberators, which was published earlier this year.

The Liberators begins as thirteen-year-old Ivo Moncrieff arrives in London to spend the Christmas holidays with his aunt and uncle. Within a couple of pages he has been handed a mysterious, precious object by a stranger, and then witnessed said stranger's gruesome murder on a tube train. From then on the pace never lets up, the plot assembling itself around Ivo in a series of bold, interlocking coincidences, which might ring false in a different sort of book but don't jar at all in one which obeys the logic of dreams. Ivo's aunt, an artist, is painting a portrait of the attractive but dangerous Strawbones Luther-Ross, who, along with his brother Julius, heads a secret society called The Liberators which is preparing to overthrow the Apollonian forces of order and usher in an age of total, Dionysiac freedom. There is, of course, a rival secret society dedicated to stopping them, but it is comparatively weak, and it falls to Ivo and his new friends Miranda and Felix to try and defeat the brothers' plans.

The action of the book is non-stop (and sometimes violent), and the supernatural threat well-captured. What the Liberators stand for is not some unexplored concept of Evil, but total freedom, which sounds quite attractive until you stop and think about it. This Mr Womack manages to make us do in the brief pauses for breath between one adventure and the next. The magic which the brothers work is captured in quick, spare prose; precise descriptions of bizarre events spring from the well-observed London background in a way which makes them seem oddly vivid and believable. At times like these Mr Womack's writing put me in mind of Saki, or a cheerier M R James.

But what The Liberators mostly reminds me of is the books that I remember enjoying as a boy, and I think one of the reasons for that is the conspicuous posh-ness of its protagonists. Young Ivo Moncrieff is an appealing hero, but the very fact that he's survived to the age of thirteen with a name like Ivo Moncrieff tells us that the school he is on holiday from is nothing like the school I went to. His aunt and uncle hob-nob with politicians, while Miranda and Felix spend a lot of time trying to escape from their private tutor - probably the first time that that particular plot device has been used in a real-world setting for forty years.

As a child, I was quite used to reading about children who had cooks and nannies and went to stay with wise old relatives in rambling country houses. I suppose the authors I read had all grown up among the upper middle classes of twenty or more years before, and were drawing on their own childhood experiences, which were nothing at all like mine. But I never minded this, or thought it strange; indeed, the worlds these book-children inhabited, with their servants and boarding schools, their unknown freedoms and unimaginable self-confidence, seemed pleasantly fantastical; it was quite easy to imagine such children encountering ancient magic or setting off on unsupervised sailing holidays. Nowadays, although there are few occupations more deeply middle-class than that of the children's author, the protagonists of the books themselves tend to have backgrounds more like those of the 'average' reader, and if rich people appear at all then they generally turn out to be the villains. I wouldn't for one moment argue that the heroes of all children's books should be well-heeled, but it's refreshing to meet one who is, and quietly heroic of Philip Womack to challenge the prevailing fashion. I look forward to seeing what he does next.

Lego Salthook

Three posts in a single day? I only hope someone's reading all this tripe... But I couldn't resist posting this. You can find more details here.

Fever Teasers.

Here's a nice image of London by Gofftopia. It looks a bit too small to my mind, but it's got bags of atmosphere, and if you ignore St Paul's cathedral on the top there it could probably pass for one of the traction castles which roll around in Fever Crumb's era. That's why I've swiped it to illustrate this post. For after a few happy weeks spent illustrating Poskitt's new book (Murderous Maths - Easy Questions, Evil Answers) it'll soon be time for me to get back to work on Fever 3 (which still lacks a proper title, unfortunately.)

I've pretty much finished a first draft now, although the exact ending is slightly up for grabs. Now that I've had a break from it I'm going to read back through, work out what it's all about, hopefully find a name for it, and start again. It's shaping up to be a big book - not quite as fat as A Darkling Plain but certainly on that scale - and I have mixed feelings about that, as I enjoyed working on the smaller canvas of A Web of Air, and see that as the model for future visits to the WOME. But in Fever 3 I don't really have any choice; we need to find out what's happening in London, how Charley Shallow is getting on, what makes Quercus tick, all sorts of things. There are lots of new characters to fit in, too; like the waif-prophet Cluny Morvish, and the mysterious Borglum and his Carnival of Knives (though he's teetering on the edge of being written out at the moment). There's a perilous journey to the far north which currently forms the heart of the story, and leads to some discoveries about a) Stalkers, b) the Scriven and c) the Sixty Minute War, all of which is good, I think, although it draws the focus away from London, which maybe isn't. The promised mammoths are all present and correct, and the rival nomad empires of the north are all uniting against the Movement and its plans. But the big battle I had hoped to end on turns out to be a bit dull when it's actually written down - I remember now why I've always avoided large-scale battle-scenes before - and in the sweep of the story some of the characters are getting slightly left out.

The trick, I think, will be finding a way to keep the multiple storylines and points-of-view going, but make it as much about the characters as A Web Of Air is. Which is easy enough to type, but a lot harder to do. Bother. Anyway; second draft, here I come...

HeroPress Interview,

Back at the turn of the year I broke one of my own most basic rules by Googling my own name, to see if this blog was showing up on their listings yet. It wasn't, but I did come across HeroPress, which has since become one of my favourite blogs. Devoted to all things geeky (including Sci-Fi, Dr Who, comics and role-playing games) HeroPress is fandom at its most appealing; literate and amusing, caring deeply about the things it likes, but never taking them too seriously. I enjoy reading it even when it's talking about things that don't interest me at all, like comics, or scary-lookin' horror films. And happily for me the Acrobatic Flea, who runs it, is a great friend of the WOME* and regularly reviews my books. I've just done an interview with him to mark the publication of A Web of Air, and you can find it here.

*That's 'World Of Mortal Engines', in case you've just joined us.

Those Magnificent Men...

Two of the best writers I know are friends of mine from my Brighton days; Brian Mitchell and Joseph Nixon. Their expertly wrought comedy sketches decorate many an Edinburgh Festival and improve a few otherwise lacklustre Radio 4 comedy shows, but to see them at their finest you need to seek out their plays. The latest of these is Those Magnificent Men, which is currently touring, and arrives at London's Greenwich Theatre this week. I was lucky enough to catch it last Saturday in the tiny village hall at Ideford, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Those Magnificent Men tells the story of Alcock and Brown, as played by CP Hallam and Richard Earl (above), the pioneer aviators who were the first to fly non-stop across the Atlantic, taking off from Newfoundland and landing in a peat bog in the west of Ireland. They are almost forgotten figures now, and part of the purpose of the play is to remind us of their huge achievement, and to celebrate the old-fashioned yet admirable British virtues which they represent; pluck, modesty, professionalism, and an almost insane willingness to take risks.

Actually, I think Mitchell & Nixon share these same virtues, although the risks they take are intellectual rather than physical: you seldom find them clambering onto the wings of biplanes to scrape ice from the engines, but all their plays mix uproarious comedy and deep seriousness in ways that lesser writers would never be able to pull off. In Those Magnificent Men, for instance, without ever being disrespectful to the real Alcock and Brown, they manage to turn their heroes into a classic British comedy duo in the tradition of Morecambe and Wise, with CP Hallam's Alcock the long-suffering straight man and Richard Earl's Brown the buffoon. And as if history and comedy were not enough, there are points where the characters step out of the action and era of the play to discuss the whole notion of biographical dramas, and shoot down in flames the recent trend for plays and films based on the lives of politicians, comedians and celebrities; works which twist the facts to make the story more interesting and whose authors, as Mitchell & Nixon write in their introduction to the play, "exploit a subject's name and standing while availing themselves of the privileges of fiction'. The truth, they insist, is always more interesting, and they prove it by using no made-up dialogue during the long airborne sequence which forms most of the second act, relying instead on Alcock and Brown's own accounts of their adventure.

The staging, by New Perspectives Theatre, is witty and imaginative. The duo's Vickers Vimy aeroplane is played by what appears to be a table and some tea chests with dustbin lids for propellors. It only just fitted into Ideford Village Hall, a space not much bigger than my living room, but such is the magic of theatre, and so good are the performances, that it was perfectly possible to believe that it was flying through fog banks high over the Atlantic.

This is a superb piece of theatre, beautifully written and engagingly acted, and it deserves to be widely seen. If you live in the London area, you should hurry to the Greenwich Theatre, where it will be showing from the 5th to the 8th of May.