Sticking with my good intentions, this is a review of a tremendous book I have just finished reading.
Dark Feathered Hearts is the fourth and final volume of The Book if the Colossus by John Collick. I have read and enjoyed the previous volumes and was more than keen to get my hands on the last installment.
It’s over! The Book of the Colossus is finished. The third volume, AntiHelix added a new dimension to the story, deepening the characters and the relationship between Max and Abby, at the same time accelerating the rhythm. This final volume not only has a multitude of threads to bring together without getting them hopelessly tangled, it adds even more. The plot is intricate and the cast of players pretty huge by the finale, but John Collick manages to weave in the loose ends without ever losing sight of the main picture.
The Abhumans make a surprising and loveable constant element, to the extent that the little furry buggers and the Brittle Hag’s amazing ship feel like home—not exactly comfortable, but familiar in their strangeness. Crysanthe is still with us—all hard edges to strike sparks off Abby—and the Machine Men. The Black Roses flutter in and out, as is to be expected given the title, and if there is a thread I would have liked to have lingered with longer, it was this one. For the previous three volumes the Black Roses have been the shadowy bad guys, epitomised by the dastardly Odilon, but enigmatic and intriguing. I was still intrigued by them at the end of the story. What exactly their game was remained an enigma, but this is not our world, and it doesn’t function like a cricket match.
The world of the Colossus is so huge it defies description. I am put in mind of a Hieronymous Bosch painting, tiny grotesque figures scuttling across a vast canvas of fiery reds and dull shadow, mountains looming in the obscurity and crawling with horrors. But the canvas of the Colossus shifts and changes as we travel through loops in time and space across the dying singularity and the prone body of God. The colours are violets and dull reds and oranges; the seas are acid and full of rusting wreckage, the debris of massive destruction and ancient wars. Its denizens are humanoid or machine, or something that lies in a weird zone between the two. Then there are the Giants, miles-tall loose cannons, there is reality and there is God’s mind, and there is the creation called Rebecca, a spot-on portrait of insufferable adolescence. Last of all, there are the Gods. If there is a single image that sticks with me, haunts me even, it is of the Gods, monstrous, fantastic, shining or hideous beings, infinitely cold and merciless, and their infinitesimally slow march through the God Door.
Perhaps it’s because I didn’t want it to end. Perhaps because I raced to finish, not wanting to put the book down, that the extraordinary denouement came too quickly for me. But that’s a fault I would only find with books that I am reluctant to admit have finally come to an end, that the last word has been read, and I have to let the characters continue their journey without me. This has been a tremendous journey, beautifully written and extraordinary in its visual scope. Read it.
If you haven’t read any of this series yet, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It really is extremely good.You can read my review of the first volume, Thumb, here.
John Collick’s Amazon author page has all the details.
AntiHelix is the third volume of John Collick’s science fantasy series, The Book of the Colossus. I have read and enjoyed all three books, and this latest volume is perhaps my favourite. If you haven’t started this series yet, you should. Here are the links to John’s author pages with the details.
This third volume of The Book of the Colossus is a real tour de force. John Collick’s depiction of this dark, decaying world he has created never falters. As soon as I opened this volume, I was back beneath a black sky, among red and ochre landscapes strewn with dead machinery. Some of the characters Abby and Max picked up in Ragged Claws are still with us, as well as a host of new ones. What I particularly like about the structure of AntiHelix is the separation of story threads. Max and Abby, with their escort of the touchingly faithful Abhumans, take almost second place to the story of General Crysanthe Uella, her fall from grace and her emergence as a force to be reckoned with, even when she is obeying nobody’s orders but her own. Crysanthe is a tremendous character, complex and likeable possibly because she isn’t loveable. She’s all hard angles and rather humourless, but her qualities come out as the story progresses and all her certitudes fall apart. There are so many good characters in this story, but I won’t mention my favourite because he starts of as so NOT a favourite character that even to mention he was my favourite will spoil the surprise. John Collick does an astonishing job with his creations, giving them such individuality I can actually see them. One of the ways this book builds on the preceding volumes is in the colour. Onto the colours of a dying fire of the previous books, Collick adds layers of brilliance with his weird and wonderful characters who sparkle like fireworks. This is a world I have really come to believe in, and really believe it is worth saving. Although I felt that the couple Max/Abbey plays second fiddle to the grand tragedy of the Uella family and the corrupt decadence of the Empire of the Ear, they come over as all the more human. Abby’s erratic behaviour and humours, the rows with Max, making ups and explanations, rather than soap opera, are so believable. The final scenes, that have a touch of a Feydeau farce are wonderful. I didn’t know whether to laugh or steel myself for tears. Where Ragged Claws seems to pack an awful lot of action into the last scenes, accelerating as if time (or the book) is running out, AntiHelix is beautifully paced. The alternating story line helps to keep the tension taut, and takes the pressure off Max and Abby to perform constantly. And the tension never lets up, like a high wire act with no safety net, and where up in the shadows, something nasty is playing with a pair of wire-cutters. I can’t recommend this series highly enough. Thumb introduces a weirdly intriguing world and concepts that are pretty extraordinary. Ragged Claws takes us into even more elaborately constructed dimensions. In AntiHelix I would say that John Collick has really got into his stride, producing a novel close to science fantasy perfection. I can’t imagine what the fourth volume will bring, but it’s sure to be brilliant.
When I first thought of inviting unorthodox authors to let rip on my blog, I had a few names in mind. One of them was John Collick, both of whose books I have read and very much enjoyed.
I first came across John when I was Googling Noggin the Nog (we all have our favourite forms of procrastination) and his blog post came up. When I’d finished with Noggin, I went on to read his very thoughtful and funny piece about the Moomins, and I said to myself, this bloke is right on my wavelength. When John wrote an article about The Singing Ringing tree I decided that whatever this Thumb novel was about, I was going to have to read it. Someone whose literary enthusiasms range from Moomintroll to Mervyn Peake was not going to produce a string of formulaic banalities. I wasn’t disappointed.
Time to hand over to John and let him explain how and why he is writing a series of novels that just don’t fit into any category Amazon has yet discovered.
Jane: Tell us what the story is about, the setting, the background, and where it takes the reader.
John: I’m jumping the gun to the next question as well but the best way to start is probably to explain where the original idea for The Book of the Colossus came from. Long ago I had a dream of an enormous mannequin hundreds of miles long lying in a desert. It was being built by a society of people to save them from something, but they’d been creating it for so long that they’d forgotten its original purpose. As the eons slipped by they splintered into competing groups, each associated with a part of this giant body, and started fighting amongst themselves. Over the years I played with the story in my head, and each time the colossus got bigger until, in the final version, it’s half a million miles from head to toe (roughly twice the distance from the Earth to the Moon).
The series is set at the end of time, when all the stars and planets have vanished and the remnants of humanity live on an artificial landscape created as a work bench for this immense figure they are fashioning out of scrap stolen from the past. Somewhere in the void is a portal leading to the next universe, but only Gods can pass through. Of all the sentient races left in the dead universe, only humanity lacks a God. Hence the mad scramble to build a deity that will save mankind.
The first book, Thumb, is set in a backwater city in the shadow of God’s left hand. The two main characters, Max and Abby, rescue a stranger from the wilderness only to find that she is a refugee from an invasion fleet bearing down on their home. In trying to stop the advance they discover a secret about the nature of the unfinished God’s mind that threatens the future of humanity. In the second book, Ragged Claws, Max and Abby make their way through the vast body of the sleeping titan in an attempt to save the colossus from destruction. Right now I’m working on AntiHelix, the third novel. This is a tale of politics and betrayal set in the corrupt Empire of the Ear, and will be released at the beginning of 2015. The fourth and final book doesn’t have a title yet.
Jane: What on earth inspired the story in the first place (and I don’t necessarily mean which illicit substances)?
John: Apart from the initial dream I can think of countless ideas and images that have influenced the books. I’m a massive fan of Franz Kafka and I wanted to explore the question, what would a science fiction adventure story by Kafka look like? The city of Metacarpi, which lies in the shadow of the Thumb, is based on Kafka’s Prague. I’ve tried to write the tales as exciting page-turners, but in a universe that is very surreal and dream-like. If I was pitching the series to Hollywood I’d probably describe it as Indiana Jones meets Kafka.
Other writers who have been a massive influence on me are Mervyn Peake, Michael Moorcock and J. G. Ballard, all of whom take images and ideas from 20th century urban landscapes and turn them into vast shadowy realms inhabited by strange creatures and splintered societies. There are also a couple of paintings by Francisco Goya – Saturn Eating His Children and The Colossus.
Several people have assumed that because The Book of the Colossus is about man making a God at the end of time it’s a tale with a Christian message. Nothing could be further from the truth and I’m not in any way religious. In one sense I tried to take the story of Frankenstein one step further. In Mary Shelley’s classic, the hero played at being God by creating a monster, who he then abandoned. What if man builds God? What is his duty and responsibility to this vast, powerful being which is ultimately nothing more than a means to an end – a divine slave?
I think there are also lots of unconscious influences as well. Jane, you pointed out a similarity between bits of Ragged Claws and Tove Jansson’s Moomin books and after thinking about it I can definitely see echoes. My problem is that I’ve lived with this idea for decades and so in my head it all seems very logical. When readers tell me the stories are really weird and sometimes quite disturbing, or that they’ve given them nightmares, it takes me by surprise.
Jane: Did you try to get agents/publishers interested? What reactions did you get?
John: I wrote a first draft of Thumb about ten years ago and sent it to John Jarrold, who is one of the best agents in the SF/Fantasy world (he’s worked with the late Iain Banks and George R. R. Martin among others). He liked the idea but thought the writing wasn’t good enough. I asked if he’d be my editor and to my delight he said yes. So the last two years have been a brutal masterclass in how to write. He tore Thumb version one to pieces and I had to totally rethink my approach for version two (which is the one that was released). I told John my goal was to indie-publish something that was of the same quality as the authors he represented, so if he’s happy with the book and gives it the nod then I know the only reason it would get rejected is because it’s simply not commercial. I can’t over-stress the importance of having an editor who is both an expert and utterly ruthless, and I’m really lucky to have one of John’s calibre to work with. His recipe is very simple – a story must have pace, clarity and a strong POV.
Jane: Has it been a handicap not being able to stick a handy label onto your books?
John: I don’t think Thumb and Ragged Claws are that left-field (though again I’ve lived with them for so long my judgement’s probably clouded). Personally, genre-wise, I’d put them alongside books by Iain Banks, Gene Wolfe, J. G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock and Jack Vance, who all have written surreal and quirky dark science fantasy. If I were to put a label on the books, apart from science fantasy, I’d call them New Weird – similar in tone and themes to China Mieville’s books or Clive Barker’s fantasies. There’s a strong tradition of unusual and grotesque dream-fiction running through British and Irish culture, from the Gothic novels of the 18th century, through writers like Lord Dunsany and William Hope Hodgson to people like Moorcock. These days it gets buried under the steampunk, vampires snogging werewolves and space opera that are currently dominating the corners of Waterstones where we lurk.
Jane: How do you tackle promotion?
John: I’m not sure I’m the best person to ask because I suspect I’m not great at it. One thing I’ve tried to avoid is promoting too aggressively. I think that too many authors constantly plug their books on Twitter and Facebook, often to each other, and I find myself just tuning out the constant “5 stars times 722 on Amazon – ‘A Great Read’ says someone no-one’s heard of”. I think that a couple of years ago everyone was sold the get-rich-quick dream of self-publishing and when the dream doesn’t materialise people become more strident and desperate. All my promotion efforts go into my blog, johnguycollick.com and my author’s Facebook page. I try not to talk about the books too much, and instead I post or write about things that I think my readers would be interested in – articles on art, literature, astronomy, film reviews etc. It seems to work because I get about 400 daily visitors to the blog, though it hasn’t yet translated into massive sales.
Jane: If you were to direct the public towards your novels, whose fans would you solicit?
John: I’d like to think that anyone who likes Science Fiction, Science Fantasy or Weird Horror would find the books interesting. In my head I was writing for fans of Iain Banks, Michael Moorcock, J. G. Ballard, Clive Barker and Jack Vance. I wanted to make sure that they were, above all, exciting character-driven adventures with protagonists readers could root for, despite them inhabiting a universe that is very strange. The feedback I’ve been getting has been positive – people enjoy the tales even if they find parts unsettling. I’m actually quite pleased to think that readers think some of the concepts are disturbing – it shows that the books are resonating with the readers.
Jane: Anything else, advice, experiences, anecdotes you’d like to add, feel free.
John: One thing that’s surprised me is how the books take on a life of their own when others read them. From things people have said it’s clear that the characters and universe of Thumb in their minds is often very different to mine.
My advice to anyone like me would echo what every successful author I know has said to me – write because you enjoy writing and have stories you want to tell, and be prepared for a very long haul. I don’t expect to gain any major traction for five, if not ten years. I’d also re-iterate John Jarrold’s comments to me – pace, clarity and a strong POV. By clarity he means don’t assume that because a scene or world is perfectly understandable in your head then it’s obvious to everyone else. Make sure the reader understands what’s going on at all times. And write and write and write, and read, and then write more. Isaac Asimov was once asked what he would do if he found he only had eight minutes to live, and he answered that he’d type a little faster.
Thank you, John, for that insight into your world. I have to say that I found your books fascinating. Not disturbing, but the reader has to be prepared to have his/her mind boggled. Constantly. Definitely not to be missed by fans of Mervyn Peake and Clive Barker. I am looking forward to reading the third volume, already fastened my safety belt, but Ragged Claws is a hard act to follow.
If you want to read some of John’s very eclectic articles, I strongly recommend you visit his website.
You can find his books on Amazon here and here.
The world John Collick has created is not one the reader can ever get to know. It is as limitless as the imagination of its author. There are none of the familiar physical features of our world, not even of our fantasy worlds. Take a medieval vision of Hell, give it the Spielberg treatment, remove all the laws of physics you ever learnt at school, people it with the monsters you used to draw when you were ten, and you’re ready to dive in. Take the cover illustration. That isn’t a fanciful image produced by a cover artist who hasn’t got a clue what the book is about—that weird white thing is one of the central characters, and a very accurate portrait it is too. I’m not even going to begin to describe the story; suffice it to say it’s like nothing on earth.
I must admit that I hesitated slightly at the opening scenes of this latest episode in Max and Abby explore the end of time. How many fantasy novels have I read that begin with the hero leaping out of the window of an inn in a low-life quarter of a scruffy town to rescue a damsel in distress? How often does the hero end up with a long-term girlfriend or eternally grateful prince/priest/mage in tow after saving her/him from ruffians? However, I should not have doubted: Ragged Claws is anything but predictable. After only a few paragraphs we part company with the trope, and Max and Abby are plunged into the next absolutely mind-boggling leg of their journey in the company of two enigmatic characters who grow more and more unsettling as the story progresses.
This is a wonderful book, a massive canvas of purple and blood red skies, oceans of liquid metal, decomposing cities full of fear and squalor inside the body of God (yup, that’s right), nightmarish beings, and exquisite beauty. It isn’t for the squeamish either. Be prepared to be splattered with blood, red and white, and fountains of tripes and engine oil. One of my favourite images is of a beach on the edge of a sea of some molten metal, composed of minute cogwheels from the millions of dead machines and war engines lying at the bottom of the ocean. It is a vividly visual book, deep blues and purples shot through with the artificial lights of a dying universe, filled with crumbling skyscrapers miles and miles high built from rusting girders or filthy green glass, and the furtive, almost invisible remnants of humanity.
Every good story has a quest, and Max and Abby’s is not to defeat evil and bring back the good old status quo. It is no less than to ensure that the construction of God is completed so that he (it?) can carry humanity through the god door and into the next universe before this one flickers and dies.
This is a very strange and beautiful book, and I can’t recommend it highly enough to readers who appreciate the world of fantasy comics, early sci-fi films, or simply being carried along on rusty tracks faster than the fastest fighter jet and tossed into a universe of immense empty darkness, and savage metal claws.
Thumb is like nothing I’ve read before, and I absolutely loved it. If this is steampunk, I’m a convert, but if you are already a fan, don’t expect steam-powered horses and musketeers taking potshots at airships. The atmosphere is more like the original Star Trek series, complete with polystyrene scenery and murky colour, but instead of being set in a studio, the playground is an immense dull orange wasteland littered with waste building materials, stretching thousands and thousands of miles, punctuated by wormholes stretching back millions and millions of years. This immensity is broken by man-made monuments that soar high above the clouds, secured and protected by chains and gun installations of colossal proportions, but higher, bigger, more colossal than anything imaginable is God. Or rather God’s body. For this wasteland strewn with rubbish is the table on which God is slowly but surely being constructed.
Into this vastness, in the shadow of God’s left thumb, John Collick has set his handful of characters. Each is a brilliantly-drawn, real human being, Max and Abby are both tough and hard-bitten, funny and a bit gauche, with enough of the little child searching for a lost affection to be terribly endearing. Even when the story veers from Indiana Jones type adventure to surreal horror, it never loses its tenderness and humour. The not so endearing characters are true products of an immense, impersonal world, cold and relentless as machines.
In this flat singularity, rolled out in space like a giant workbench, there seems to be nothing but machines. And, of course, God. Ever-present, too colossal to see, the carcass of God fills the world, the atmosphere and beyond. After a million years of work, God is almost complete; all he needs is his mind. The construction of God’s mind though, is proving a far more hazardous enterprise than all the rest, and not everything in the universe is happy about the idea of God’s completion.
Max and Abby find themselves at the centre of one of the most original concepts I have ever read in a fantasy story: protecting the creatures who each possess a part of God’s mind, from the villains, human and alien, who want to destroy them. To say any more would spoil the story.
This is a remarkably creative piece of writing, highly recommended to anyone who enjoys sci-fi/fantasy, steampunk, or 1960s TV space operas.