Monday, July 11, 2011

Faction's Got Talent

They’re here. They’re not here. Get used to it.

So we’re told at the back of the Faction Paradox anthology, A Romance In Twelve Parts, from Obverse Books. And I wonder if Obverse are aware just how apposite that tag line is, when all is said and done and the stories have all been read. Sometimes the Faction feature prominently, sometimes they don’t appear to feature at all.

Now, I’m a Faction novice. I’d read of some of their exploits in the BBC Books Doctor Who range and all I really knew about them was that they were a time-travelling voodoo cult who took a contrary view to the Time Lords’ official policy of non-intervention. They were all blood and TARDISes and animal skull masks. There endeth the sum of my knowledge.

Post-anthology, I can’t swear to being any further informed, but the journey through these twelve different takes on the Faction universe made for an interesting exploration. Not a rollercoaster, because these tales are almost universally thoughtful, deserving of a more measured and attentive pace, and while story length varies widely only one drags its wheels like a repeatedly delayed train.

But let’s accord a few words to each, since one of the great disappointments when reading reviews of anthologies to which I’d contributed was finding I’d failed to get so much as a mention. (Declaration of interest: I know some of these authors, at least their internet personae, and I can only hope any brutal honesty from here on in may compensate for any accusations of bias aimed my way. It also may lose me some friends!) So, here we are, in no particular order but saving the best until last:

Daniel O’Mahony, I’ve long suspected, operates on a different intellectual plane to me and unfortunately his tale, Print The Legend, stands as Exhibit B in this respect. It’s probably incredibly clever and some of the writing is exquisite, but I found the story bordering on impenetrable and taxing on the patience, with no real reward come the end. A sort of value subtracted tax. It’s a grander, more ambitious exploration of the theme of the opening story – The Storyteller by Matt Kimpton - and, for my money, ultimately less successful. For his part, Kimpton really captures the spirit of a campfire storyteller and the doomladen mood of a Viking saga, and even if the voice isn’t especially reader-friendly, it’s convincing and consistent and delivers a simple and effective twist.

Gramps by Jonathan Dennis is something of a curiosity – and yes, it does kill the cat. It’s an engaging piece right up to the end when it ultimately leaves you shrugging and moving on to the next story.

Blair Bidmead (Now Or Thereabouts), Scott Harrison (Holding Pattern) and David N Smith & Violet Addison (Nothing Lasts Forever) do a better job of serving up well-written tales that leave a more lasting mark. Bidmead’s offering suffered a little for me in that it parodies The Apprentice and I’m about as familiar with the show as I was with the Faction, but I could appreciate the humour in a detached sort of fashion. Harrison kicks off with what feels like a very traditional SF story, which becomes a sort of Tomb Of The Faction and ultimately illustrates just the kind of bloody temporal shenanigans I’d imagined the Faction got up to – the slitting of throats and timelines. Meanwhile it’d be easy to dismiss Smith & Addison’s contribution as a sort of Doctor’s Wife without the humour – and I’m still half-tempted to do so – but it has just enough going for it to mark it out as something different.

Alchemy by James Milton falls into a similar above-average bracket, but has a more interesting concept at heart – a conflict between magic and science, and the inevitable hollowness of vengeance. There’s more of an imaginative vision at work too.

Less visionary, perhaps, but better still is Mightier Than The Sword by Jay Eales. It surely owes a lot to Quills, but it has a novel feel to it and what really sells it is the voice, giving us one of the few central characters in the book who we can properly connect with. Makes for a refreshing and accessible read, while still being as intelligent as the O’Mahony tale, for example.

Stuart DouglasLibrary Pictures is similarly entertaining and accessible and, unlike a lot of the stories on show, remembers to bring the fun. By throwing Iris Wildthyme into the mix, he gives us the Faction tale that has most in common with Doctor Who and even though I’m not especially familiar with Iris – and know nothing of her companion, Panda – this was the story I felt most at home with.

The top stars of the anthology though were Dave Hoskin, Ian Potter and Phillip Purser-Hallard.

Tonton Macoute by Dave Hoskin is freakishly imaginative and the eponymous creation is a truly fearsome figure, highly memorable, and the twist is ingeniously cruel. The Story Of The Peace is a tale that – like Library Pictures – remembers to bring the fun and when it comes to razor wit, Ian Potter’s is the Gillette Mach Fusion Supersonic Turbo model. The best a reader can get. Very sharp stuff.

And finally, A Hundred Words From A Civil War by Phillip Purser-Hallard is – as well as supremely witty – a truly epic tale of wonderful impossibilities, each constituent piece in the jigsaw a masterpiece thumbnail sketch on imagination overdrive. Ambitious, smart and entertaining. It’s the longest story in the collection in terms of pages, but doesn’t feel like it at all.

Overall, it’s a beautifully packaged and presented volume and Messrs Miles and Douglas have done a professional job of editing. Yes, there’re a few typos that slipped through the net, but pick any commercially produced hardback or paperback and hand it to my wife and she will find you errors. It happens. In any case, the technical nitty gritty aside, the job of editing an anthology hinges on gathering together a suitably engrossing set of tales around a central theme and on that front they score major points. The collected talent is impressive, albeit that the writing sometimes impresses more than the story.

And did I need to know about the Faction prior to reading? Well, there are a few references to 'the Enemy' and so on that might leave you with questions about the ins and outs of the background, but nothing too distracting. And a good percentage of the tales can be considered in the ‘They’re not here’ category, so the Faction aren’t really a factor.

One thing I will say though, Obverse Books are here. Get used to it. And. more than that, do give their range a try. They’re producing some very worthwhile reads and they definitely have an eye for talent.

Do check out their site for this and other titles:

Obverse Books