Book Review: The Bastard Legion #1 by Gavin G. Smith

The Bastard Legion: Book 1

Genre: Sci-fi
Pub Date: 2017
Publisher: Gollancz
Length: 336 pages
Kindle Edition: £2.99

Synopsis

Four hundred years in the future, the most dangerous criminals are kept in suspended animation aboard prison ships and “rehabilitated” in a shared virtual reality environment. But Miska Corbin, a thief and hacker with a background in black ops, has stolen one of these ships, the Hangman’s Daughter, and made it her own. Controlled by explosive collars and trained in virtual reality by the electronic ghost of a dead marine sergeant, the thieves, gangsters, murderers, and worse are transformed into Miska’s own private indentured army: the Bastard Legion. Are the mercenaries just for fun and profit, or does Miska have a hidden purpose connected to her covert past?

* SPOILERS*

This is book 1 in a trilogy, and the first novel, by Gavin Smith, that I have read. Will I be buying the rest? Read on…

But first, I want to tackle the ‘problem’ of men writing women. There has been much discussion across the media platforms about the, oft hilarious, but mostly irritating; to women, way that male writers portray female characters.

There seems to be some kind of gulf between male experience of how women behave and think, and what they lay down on the pages. Surely every single one of these men cannot be singletons, can they?

For as long as novels have existed, male authors have managed to write hilariously inaccurate descriptions of female characters. Indy100 – indy100.com

There have been occasional landslides of Tweets when another male writer is ‘revealed’ to have little working knowledge of how women perceive themselves.

the latest author to scale the whole mountain of male writers who get carried away when describing women, particularly their breasts. The Guardian: ‘A nice set of curves if I do say so myself’: a Twitter lesson in how not to write women‘ – theguardian.com

And the responses range from friendly micky-taking to total outrage. ‘Why can’t men write women?’ Goes the cry. Who are these men writing for? Not me.

‘She was 40 but could have passed for a year younger with soft lipstick and some gentle mascara. Her dress clung to the curves of her bosom which was cupped by her bra that was under it, but over the breasts that were naked inside her clothes. She had a personality and eyes.” The Guardian: All cleavage and clunkiness – why can’t male authors write women? – theguardian.com

Enter (into my sphere of reading), Gavin G. Smith. As I write this, I cannot recall a single moment in The Bastard Legion where Smith portrayed his MC in derogatory terms – I think she looked in a mirror once, and ran her hands through her short hair once or twice– that’s it. So what does Miska Corbin look like? Smith hasn’t given us an abundance of description. We know she has ‘dirty blonde hair’ with shaved undercut, she’s short, and she has ‘elfin’ features. He mentions her breasts once, and that’s only because one of her ‘crew’ is staring at them when he thinks she isn’t looking, and because he is a young man, a prisoner in a previously all male environment and probably hasn’t seen a female for a long time – unlucky him that he got Miska!

For me, Miska Corbin is an example of a female MC successfully written by a male. You see, women and men feel the same things, we all get emotional, and men don’t always express anger, and conversely, not all women cry. I felt that Smith had written a human being. Of course there has to be some physical description, we, the readers want to see what the writer sees, and he uses an economy of description that allows us to visualise her very nicely, thank you, without being a complete and total douche-bag slavering over his own creation.

Corbin comes from a military family, she was a marine; as was her father and her sister, and so trained in all kinds of weaponry and combat techniques. She’s also a hacker, a good one. And finally, she has a slightly unstable personality which means that she may, or may not, decide to blow a person’s head off – literally!- depending on her mood and what occurred prior to the current encounter.

I like her. I want to be her. She is Ripley for a new generation, with a sense of humour; if a little warped, and takes no shit from anyone. She is a great tactician and even in the direst situations, is capable of keeping her cool. So what’s her weakness? you may ask. Her dad.

Gunnery Sergeant Jonathan Corbin is dead and Miska, his youngest daughter, is determined to find out how/why/who. But Corbin senior’s death hasn’t prevented him from being a prime player in the story. He is a huge influence on our MC, and in Book 1 her raison d’etre. Her relationship with her father might be deemed unhealthy, but Miska Corbin seems to have unhealthy relationships with everyone she encounters.

When we meet her, she has turned pirate. She has stolen a maximum security prison barge – think of those great 19th century hulks in the Thames, then imagine it four hundred, or so, years in the future, and in space, with weapons, now you got it. There are six-thousand prisoners on board, from car thieves to gang leaders, rapists and murderers, some so dangerous that they are kept in some sort of suspended animation. How does one small female maintain control over this motley crew? Explosive collars! How frackin’ cool is that?! Smith sticks our heroine (is she though? Really?) in this high-risk situation, but needs a way to force all those men to do her bidding. Threat of instant death is a great inducement to do as one’s told. And if one’s head pops off, well then, one less mouth to feed. With the aid of her fathers hologram, mechanoid guards and VR environments, Miska begins to train her own personal army.

I find it a really interesting premise – take a bunch of violent criminals and make them into a formidable fighting force. There is potential danger from the men she now lives on board with, there is threat from the Corporation that hires her to do a dirty clean-up job, and from the unknown killer, or killers, of her father. Miska Corbin is a walking magnet for endangerment. You’re never sure who might turn on whom, how far will a bunch of mercenaries go to ensure their own heads remain firmly fixed to their necks?!

It is action packed. And I mean, all the time, action, (maybe a little too much?) even the moments when she is netrunning with her enhanced abilities. This area of the story I found less easy to follow – but I have the same problem playing Cyberpunk TTRPG. She meets a human shaped virus, has her skin flayed by gritty sand, and when Smith writes, ‘she dropped a number of heavily occulted hacks,’ I couldn’t honestly swear that I totally understood what that means.

I’ve read reviews of books that compare them to TV shows or films. I’m not sure I like this habit. Some reviews of The Bastard Legion claim it was like Suicide Squad or Killjoys crossed with The Expanse. I hated Suicide Squad, thought it was poorly written, clichéd, weak. Loved the other two. The Bastard Legion is the first ‘military in space’ story I have ever read; I’d not heard of this sub genre before. It is not poorly written, clichéd or weak. Smith’s writing is strong, it has the feel of a chunky, persistent force, prodding and driving you forwards. The prisoners aren’t just faceless men, they are nuanced; some more than others, not all bad – sort of, and in a couple of instances come across as more sane and less violent than Miska.

It’s a pretty unique idea; stealing a prison and all the prisoners in it, and turning them into a well-oiled fighting machine, and I think that’s getting harder in sci-fi writing as technology in our world continues to advance, the writers have to up their game. Smith has a great premise and compelling main character; even though she ought to be locked up herself, who has some complicated relationships going on. Not just with her dead father – she and her sister really don’t get on, why does she give more slack to the prisoner Torricone? And what’s with the angelic, technologically enhanced Ultra?

There’s a lot going for The Bastard Legion – the mercenaries as well as the book – and I will definitely be purchasing # 2.

I’m giving The Bastard Legion

4 stars

Fantasycon -2018 Notes from a Newbie

This is a loooonnnnnggggg post, so grab a G&T and a settle in…

fantasycon18

So this weekend – happening now, as I write – is the Fantasycon 2018 convention. I, unfortunately, was only able to attend one day, Friday. (Boo)

Fantasycon, so I was reliably informed, is the extension of what started out in the early 1970s as the AGM of the British Fantasy Society.

I have been to conventions before, just not book/writer ones, and lord knows, writers – especially sci-fi and fantasy and horror writers, are a weird bunch – aren’t they?! So, wasn’t sure what to expect. Would there be loads of teen and middle-aged men in sweat-pants and lank hair wandering about like herds of obsessive bison, intent on visually feasting upon their favourite authors, leering at them through semi-steamed spectacles wiped on too-tight tee-shirts with images blazoned across them of dragons and heavy metal bands or D&D dice and doing heavy nasal breathing? Jeez, I hoped not.

And I was not disappointed. Sure, there were loads of guys, but there were plenty of women too, and none-gender specific visitors. People of all types; the hirsute and less so too!

The event was held at The Queen Hotel, Chester, with a plethora of people stuffed into a series of rooms to listen to a bunch of writers and editors and publishers ply their trade – and I did not hear a single disgruntlement all day. No whining, no arguments, no attitude, just a big group of people who all enjoy the same thing – it was very cool. (The bowler hatted Greeter was an excellent addition I may say.)

So, blah, blah, blah, lunch, G & Ts, admiring the ladies washrooms, big gold doors, what did I actually do? Surely Alexandra, you ask, didn’t you go to meet, connect, get some lowdown on the industry? Didn’t you attend writers panels/talks? After my gin(s), here’s what Alex did next:-

Image result for bsfa fantasycon 2018

  1. Blogging in Genre Fiction – on the panel – Kate Coe, Alasdair Stuart and Micah Yongo. Moderated by Kit Power. Kit is a staff writer for Ginger Nuts of Horror, Alasdair has been a journalist and now does RPG writing, co-owner of Escape Artists podcast runs his own blog ‘The Man of Words‘. Kate is a writer of fantasy fiction as well as being an editor and blogger. Micah is the author of Lost Gods and blogs on The Mancophile.

The panel were asked, how did they decide on the content for what to write on their blogs – Kate said hers could be anything from snippets of writing, new ideas, what has inspired her and so forth. She also discussed about permission to write, post information, or photo’s that others might have shared with her; it came across as very important to her that she be appropriate with the material she blogs. Alasdair talked about being naturally enthusiastic, a natural critic and his love of comics. He seemed to have boundless mental energy and just a love of writing in many forms. Kit was keen to give indie fiction a spotlight, a voice. When asked about building an audience, the responses ranged from writing regularly, putting out a newsletter, cross-referencing to networking, linking to Twitter and Facebook and giving time and space on your own feeds to other workers in the industry. How did they find blogging different from their fiction writing? Micah enjoyed the freedom of writing without being edited by someone else, that is used different ‘muscles’ from writing a novel. there is, he added, no obligation to anyone, he came up with a lovely term – ‘palette cleanser’ – in that, one could allow oneself to free flow when blogging, before returning to the oft restrictions of writing in a specific genre.

All in all, an interesting panel with some sound advice for writers who blog. I have visited their sites and signed myself up to them.

2. The Elderly Guard – on the panel – Mark A. Latham, Dion Winton-Polak, David Stokes, R.B. Watkinson. Moderated by Charlotte Bond. Mark is a writer and editor and has around fourteen books to his name. Dion is a freelance editor, with This Twisted Earth anthology and Sunny With A Chance of Zombies under his belt. David runs a small press called Guardbridge Books. Rosa (R.B) is a writer of fantasy fiction. Charlotte writes horror, fantasy and sci-fi. (*I arrived a couple of minutes late so did not account for everyone’s status’ or genres).

The panel were discussing why – if there weren’t – any or more older heroes/heroines in the fantasy genre. Where are the older characters in leading roles? Dion cited Cohen the Barbarian, from Terry Pratchett’s books, as well as the witches; Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg. David cited a number of books that do contain older characters – The Powder Mage trilogy by Brian McClellan, the Chalion series by Lois Bujold as well as Kings of the Wild by Nicholas Eames.  Asked about why is fantasy so fixated on teenagers? Dion said  it’s what we read and connect with as children, there is a kind of wish fulfilment which we then slowly lose as we age. The world becomes less ‘pliable’ as we age.

The genre – fantasy –  seems to automatically attract younger people, who then stay with it; the reader, like the young hero, learns of the world (presented by the author), as the story progresses. The elderly hero already knows his or her world, and so presents a different angle for both writer and reader. Young hero’s, all agreed, have to learn something towards the end of the story – the older one already has – otherwise he/she wouldn’t have reached old age! Although Rosa did point out that older does not necessarily mean wiser! Also posed was the question, a hero having a mid-life crisis, why is that any different from the teen? (Interesting point, speaking as someone in mid-life, am I having a crisis? I don’t know, I’ll tell you when I stop shouting at everything and everyone). There is, it was pointed out, the trope of the ‘old soldier’ on one last mission, who represents resistance to change maybe, this hero knows he needs to change or die – though we didn’t resolve the mid-life crisis question! Annoying stereotypes included, the ‘caring’ mum, the older ones who don’t believe it’s happening, or having dementia. Books cited by the panel also included, The Whitby Witches by Robin Jarvis, The Gunslinger by Stephen King, The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro and Snakewood by Adrian Selby.

A very interesting and engaging panel.

3. Shared Worlds – on the panel – Dion Winton-Polak, Pauline Kirk, Gavin Smith and Adrian Tchaikovsky. Moderated by Cheryl Morgan. Dion is a freelance editor, Pauline writes sci-fi and, in collaboration with her daughter, thrillers under the pseudonym P.J.Quinn, Gavin is a writer of sci-fi, Adrian writes sci-fi and science fantasy.

The panel were asked what attracted them to the idea of shared worlds. Pauline, coming more from the collaboration angle described how she enjoyed working with her daughter. Adrian and Dion hi-lighted the difference between joining a shared world as a writer, or being the person (editor?) who created the world. It was enjoyable to see what others would make of it, “What people will do with the toys you create.” A.T, and how the hive mind sees things that either might not have occurred to you, or that you don’t have the necessary tools to do so, DWP. Pitching an idea to a publisher might be for a number of reasons – for the cache, for money, or pleasure, but being aware of the canon of the existing world. The ‘bad bits’ seemed to be mostly having to mould yourself to the other world, sticking to the familiar (to the audience/reader), having constraints if you decide to write for, for example – Doctor Who (Oh how I dream of writing for Doctor Who…). Gavin admitted that authors can be quite insistent on doing their own thing and that writing a novel can be rather self-indulgent and although one might have an editor to contend with, writing for an existing franchise means contending with the publisher, the producer, the franchise, editing by committee. As an editor Dion noted that it can become difficult keeping track of what all the writers have produced and ensuring everything fits in the shared world.

What makes a good Shared World? Cheryl asked. “Consistency is vital.”G.S. “In itself it should be credible.” P.K. Adrian suggested the idea that creators should make a ‘bible’ of their world, and include items, backstory and leave ‘hooks’ that other writers can work with. When asked if there was a particular Shared World they would like to write for, both Gavin and Adrian said they would like to write for Wild Cards (George R.R. Martin series), though Gavin said without the least trace of rancour (!) that he would be happy to do anything for financial gain – you heard it here – Gavin Smith IS a gun for hire! Cheryl would like the chance to write for Marvel, preferably X-Men and/or Avengers.

Something I did not know – Amazon is playing with the idea of making a Lord of The Rings TV series (Gag). Asked, if offered the chance, would they write for it. All said yes – apart from Dion who isn’t a writer – with varying degrees of enthusiasm. And what would they NOT want to write in/for? Worlds that aggrandise evil said Pauline, she said these were ideas that she doesn’t share. Star Wars, Gavin said (Liking him more and more). For Adrian it was stuff that’s become ubiquitous – zombie survival and similar tropes.

This was a great panel, with lively banter between the writers; especially Adrian Tchaikovsky and Gavin Smith. A bunch I could definitely enjoy a pint with (if they’d have me)

4. Adventures in Self-Publishing – on the panel – Richie Valentine Smith, Steve McHugh, Iain Grant and Rachel McLean. Moderated by Heide Goody.  Richie writes the Words of Power fantasy series, Steve writes urban fantasy, Iain co-writes with Heide, comedy fantasy and Rachel writes dystopian, political thrillers.

Straight in with – the benchmark for average earnings of a professional writer is…       £10, 500. The panel were all very honest about where they were in relation to this, some hovering below, others above, a couple way above. Iain maintained that a main skill in self-publishing was to understand that you had to become a salesperson in most instances – 30% writer, 70% salesperson. You need to be persistent about self-promotion, “…just because it is good, doesn’t mean it will sell.” He and Rachel also talked about how important book covers are; readers will forgive poor grammar (apparently) as long as there is a good story and engaging cover – the cover draws people in, and once they have bought it, then that’s it, sold.  Heide claimed to enjoy the variety of moving between the writing and marketing. Richie spoke of persistence and making contacts. Rachel told us to be entrepreneurial, learn new skills – and this- publishers do NOT always do the marketing for you! So how to divide your time – Iain is lucky in that he does 90% of the writing most of the time, whilst Heide seems left to write AND market their books! Although Steve does have a publisher, he still does his own publicity, via social media. Richie does not have any social media accounts and sees this as his downfall, plus he offered a little piece of info for budding self-publishers of sci-fi – the BFS does NOT revue self-published books. Rachel was insistent that engaging with other writers on social media does not help with sales, you need to find readers, you need to join Facebook groups, you need to be prepared to read other peoples work, keep communicating and learn the skill of marketing – not sales. When asked what they would spend £300 on in regards to self-publishing, the cover came top for most of the panel – get it properly edited, proof-read, copy edited, line edited and so forht – but the cover will sell the book! Some examples given, for the writer who pays for everything are – cover: up to £1000 if Fantasy, £160 for comedy. Editor £200, Marketing £500 and up. Rachel revealed that she had spent £400 for all her editing (of one book), £200 for a proof-reader  (70 – 80,000 words) and £300 on the cover.

This sort of practical information is what I found really helpful, often there is a kind of moving mass of information of ‘around this much’, ‘depends on…’ and so forth. This panel’s openness was refreshing. they also gave some hints and tips:-  visit Deviant Art for potential cover artists. Join reader Facebook groups. Do not e-mail another author. Do not add people to your author page. Do not bombard people with your latest title. Be nice.

5. The End of The World – on the panel – Tiffani Angus, Helen Marshall, Jane O’Reilly, Duncan P.Bradshaw. Moderator was Leila Abu el Hawa. Tiffani is a university lecturer and writer of Fantasy, Erotica and more, Helen writes about weird realities and the apocalypse, Jane writes sci-fi space opera, Duncan writes horror and post-apocalyptic zombie tales.

This was, despite the theme –  the End of the World guys! A really light-hearted get together. Leila asked the panel members, as it was the end of the world, who would be your sidekick, what song would play and what special skills did they bring along? Jane chose Captain America as her sidekick, because, duh, looks good as well as kicking ass. She chose REM ‘End of the World’ and as she is a self-proclaimed bossy person, her special skill was supervising Steve Rogers. Duncan very diplomatically chose to have his wife (who was in the audience!) as his sidekick, he chose ‘Well Done’ by The Idles as his track and his special skill is that he is annoying! Helen chose co-panellist Tiffani as her sidekick (because apparently she’s scary to cyclists! I dunno, wasn’t me who said it!) ‘The Final Countdown’ as her track and her special skill? Summon soup – this turned out to be some kind of in-joke that kept getting referred to throughout. Tiffani kept with the apocalyptic them by choosing Imperator Furiosa as her sidekick, ‘Mo Fo’ was her song and her skill is that she is bossy too!

Asked what they enjoyed about apocalyptic fiction, Tiffani said she liked playing with the idea of how things fall apart and are put back together again. Duncan said we would discover people’s skills, our innate abilities and that quality humans have for muddling through. Jane said in regards to writing, one can kill off everyone you hate, but that she found apocalyptic stories fundamentally optimistic; people survive, we can go on after disaster. How has Apocalyptic Fiction changed? Jane said the social situation has changed, the rise of different diseases and technology. Helen remarked at the way people in 14th century literature were much better at thinking about and dealing with death – ‘Dying well’ – which we seem unable or unwilling to do nowadays. After lots of discussion about the role females do or don’t play in dystopian/apocalyptic stories; including TV shows, the panel were asked, What tropes are you tired of? Jane said why is everyone always filthy?! There are tonnes of baby-wipes out there to use. Tiffani hated the way women still had shaved armpits. Helen lamented how quickly people became cannibals. And Duncan was tired of the same old gangs – every story has the heavy-handed, thick-headed leader, etc. And what would these guys save for our future dear reader? Turns out flushing toilets, soap, libraries, music and chocolate!

I think it was a wobbly discussion that seemed more about the writers sharing with each other, than offering budding writers much to go on.

 

Embarrassing moments –

When asked if I was an author too “…I do write, er…I suppose so… am I a writer? yes, yes I am a writer.” Honest mate! I suddenly felt like a complete fraud. I was talking to a guy who had published 5 fantasy fiction novels – what the hell have I done?!

To meet or not to meet. I have an appalling habit (I call it a strength) in that my Default position is –  Tactless, I once vaguely insulted Richard Hammond from Top Gear, but that’s another tale. So I had just listed to Dion Winton-Polak talk, he had once rejected a story I submitted – to introduce oneself or not?! Hm, how to not be offensive – Christ! I might need to go back to him at some point in the future! “Hi…I just…I wasn’t sure if I should…I just wanted to say hello…” He shook my hand, peered at my name badge and… it was fine. Phew. He was in fact, extremely pleasant and I didn’t insult him.

Waving. And waving some more, at some guy who didn’t even know me!!!!! I don’t know why. I just did. Okay!?

Getting caught mooching around the hotel corridors – I wasn’t a staying guest – I’m just a nosy person.

That concludes my ‘report’ about my first ever Fantasycon. Would I do it again?

Hell yeah!