Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai


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Murder on the sea

My friend Shanmei, that usually writes Chinese-flavored, wuxia-style fantasies, is doing a series of historical mysteries set in the very first days of the last century, and based on the first-hand accounts of her grand-grandfather’s experiences in China and the East.

Murder on the Giava is the first of the adventures of Lieutenant Bianchi, an Italian officer attached to the Italian Expeditionary Corp sent to Peking in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion.

A smart, resourceful young man with a passion for photography, Bianchi is the sort of guy that notices things, and the go-to man when someone turns up dead on the ship that is carrying the Italian troops to China.

Murder on the Giava is a novella-length mystery, filled with historical detail and built around a baffling mystery.

Deception, sabotage, murder … and Bianchi has yet to set foot in China!
This is a nice start for a new series, and I hope we’ll see the sequel soon.
Meanwhile, you can get the book both in digital and paperback form, and it’s an excellent light reading for the summer.

(and yes, I translated it in English, so any problem with the text is my responsibility)


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A (Mary) Gentle thing: The logistics of Carthage

Rats and Gargoyles by Mary Gentle, is one of my favorite novels of all time, and Mary Gentle has always been on the list of authors from whom I hope, one day, to learn something.
What I find particularly appealing about Gentle’s work is the idea that the reader should do their job: think, connect the dots, fill in the blanks. This is part of what makes the Gentle so “difficult” but also, I believe, so rewarding for those who have the courage to face the reading.

In the past few days I received as a gift a copy of Cartomancy, the volume that brings together all the short fiction by the author (excluding the stories of the White Crow series, which are found in a separate volume). It is one of the many collections of short stories that came to me for my birthday – and I thought … why not do a series of posts, a piece on each short story?
And why not start with the stories in Cartomancy?

(also, this is a the first in a series of posts that I will do on my Patreon, both in Italian and English – this one is freely available here too, and on my Patreon page)

Let’s try.

Continue reading


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Reading Tanith Lee

It’s the sixth anniversary of the death of Tanith Lee, one of my favorite writers, and one I have a long history with. As I think I have often mentioned in the past, The Birthgrave was the second book I ever read in English, back in 1984. It was the one that got me hooked to reading in the original language, and it made me a Tanith Lee fan. It also dispelled this strange prejudice – that was at the time common in the Italian fantasy community – that Lee was bad, a writer of limited scope and poor ideas, a talentless hack and, worst still, a woman.
“She’s almost as bad as Michael Moorcock, and she’s an ultra-feminist!” a reviewer wrote.
Because thus was in ancient times.

Through the years I have read a lot of Lee’s work, and in the last few weeks I went on a shopping spree (my birthday’s coming, remember?) and started filling the gaps: the books I missed completely, and the books I read forty years ago in wobbly Italian translations, and now I feel like revisiting.
Ebooks are a boon, in this case.

So I got me a copy of Cyrion, a collection of fun sword & sorcery shorts I had given a wide berth to when it had been published in Italian, that ofer an interesting take on a somewhat Mediterranean/Middle Eastern fantasy. Cyrion’s adventures will serve me as a warm-up before I dive into the sword & sorcery collection Empress of Dreams, that has been recently published and collects Lee’s other sword & sorcery tales.
The title of the second collection is particularly apt, as it recalls C.A. Smith, sometimes called the Emperor of Dreams, and Tanith Lee S&S stories are somewhat similar, in tone and spirit, to Smith’s.

Then I’ve got me a copy of Companions on the Road, my old Italian edition being buried in a box here somewhere. I admit I remember very little of the book – I read it after the two-book series Don’t Bite the Sun/Drinking Sapphire Wine (still one of my faves from Lee), and the sudden shift to fantasy had left me cold and not very interested. And as I am at it, I might also re-read those two other novels.

Then, a collection of Indian fantasies (or science-fantasies), Tamastara, that I had completely missed at the time of publication. This one promises to be a nice change of pace – and I’m always interested in non-Western fantasies.

And finally, I got a copy of Dreams of Dark and Light, a hefty collection of science-fiction and fantasy short stories.

Tanith Lee had an unique voice, and an extreme versatility, and is one of the writers one should read to learn how it’s done. It will be a pleasure spending my summer nights reading her stories.


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Birthday book haul, a preview: going Baroque

At the end of May I am in the habit of celebrating my birthday – because life cycles, growing older and wiser, that sort of stuff.
I usually celebrate with a fine dinner (details as soon as we’ve settled for a menu), and by spending an inordinate amount of money in books and ebooks.
This year I started early, because special offers and massive discounts don’t wait for the aforementioned cycles.
So yes, it’s still two weeks away, but I went and bought a few ebooks “for my birthday”.

And right now I’ve just finished cleaning up and setting straight my old Kindle reader, because one of the birthday books is the complete Baroque Cycle, by Neal Stephenson.
All the 3500 pages of it.

Neal Stephenson and Peter F. Hamilton are, to me, the best reason to invest in an e-reader: the guys write great books, but also, alas, BIG books. They don’t seem to be able to keep it under 1000 pages.
This means their books, while being a lot of fun, are also heavy, expensive, and require a lot of shelf space.
And believe me, I’ve fallen asleep while reading Hamilton’s Great North Road, and it hurt.

So, I spent an hour looking for online how-tos and stuff, and breathed new life in my old Kindle, and then loaded the 4 mega file of the Baroque books.
It will be a pleasant summer night read.


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Cover reveal: The Devourer Below

I am pleased to share the gorgeous cover, designed by John Coulthart, for the forthcoming Arkham Horror Anthology, The Devourer Below, edited by Charlotte Llewelyn-Wells and published by Aconyte/Fantasy Flight. The book will be published in July, but the cover was revealed only today.

The volume includes a story of mine, set in Arkham during the Jazz Age, and called All my friends are monsters. I am very proud of being part of this project, and I am extremely pleased with my story.
But then, I’d have to be, right?


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The burgers always taste the same

I was talking with my friend Lucy, a few moments ago. We were discussing the first pages of a book we’ve both picked up and, alas, dropped real fast. The first pages are critical, and here, in two pages, we got such a distillation of elements done to death in the last thirty years, that we were both unable to go on. And we talked about this, comparing our reactions.

Now, I am not a big fan of gore-drenched slasher-fests, and so my distaste for the self-congratulatory tone with which the violence was portrayed in the text was somewhat natural. Lucy is more into this sort of books, and what she objected to was the cliché feel of the whole thing.

“We’ve seen it done better, a thousand times, since the ’90s”

she said.
And she is perfectly right.
And yet the book is selling like hotcakes, and it’s got a brace of rave reviews.
What the hell happened?

My take on the thing is, the book caters for the lowest common denominator, and that’s what the majority of the target audience is expecting. What they actually demand.

So a good strategy is to feed the audience a checklist of expected cliches, in the expected order, and with a language as commonplace and plain as possible.
Anything new, different and original might scare the target audience away.

And this, really, is the only thing that might convince me to go on reading this book – to see if the author is smart enough to hook his target audience in the first stilted throwaway pages, and then, once the readers have been hooked, reel them in and hit them with a few original twists.
It would be great.
But I doubt this is how it goes.

Talking with Lucy, we remembered the song Styx used to sing…

I like fast food
The burgers always
taste the same

Entertainment should be entertaining and, in this instance at least, it is not entertaining to me, or to Lucy.
We have been there already, now we want something more, something better.
I’d go as far as to say we’d be happy with a less-than-perfect story, as long as it goes someplace we’ve never been before, or throws a different light on ideas we are familiar with.
But we have to accept that to the majority of the readers, the lowest common denominator, the burger-like story that always tastes the same, is perfectly fine.

It’s a very unpleasant situation – both from a writer’s and a reader’s point of view.