THE TALES OF CATT AND FISHER Edited by Justina Robson

Carol Goodwin

As this collection features the work of three of our recent Guests of Honour; Justina Robson (editor), Adrian Tchaikovsky (author) and Juliet McKenna (author) I thought it might be of interest to Novacon attendees.

The Doctors Catt and Fisher are collectors, consultants and traders of magical artefacts with occasional forays into treasure hunting, although they prefer to let others take risks wherever possible. They are an enchanting pair of rogues (from a reader’s point of view at least) and I was delighted to see them get centre stage in this collection of short stories.  They appeared initially as secondary characters in the After the War shared-world series. (REDEMPTION’S BLADE by Adrian Tchaikovsky and SALVATION’S FIRE by Justina Robson).  This series is set in a fantasy world after the archetypal Dark Lord (the “Kinslayer”) has been defeated and explores the efforts of both people (including the Dark Lord’s slaves and minions) and countries trying to rebuild and survive in a devastated and upturned world. This new addition to the series is a collection of stand-alone stories all featuring Drs Catt and Fisher, and written by Adrian Tchaikovsky, Freda Warrington, Juliet McKenna and K T Davies and edited by Justina Robson.

Having four different author’s interpretation of the same characters is risky, but thankfully the quality of all four stories in this collection is excellent. Part of that I am sure is in the depth of the original characterisations. Dr Catt is supremely confident (sometimes overly so which can precipitate many of their misadventures), amusingly grandiloquent, persuasive and a little vain. Dr Fisher is the more taciturn partner, although he has a fine line in pointed, apposite observations. He is more than he originally seems and often rescues Dr Catt from some of his more impetuous schemes. There is a genuine affection between the pair who are united by their scholarly and acquisitive natures.

            The first story, “Belts and Bracers” (by Adrian Tchaikovsky) finds them in the country of Arvennir, where they have been selling magical artefacts to both sides in a nascent revolution, which unsurprisingly leads to complications! This culminates in a dodgy (and hilarious) prison rescue (complete with ill-fitting uniforms and fake moustaches!), encounters with shape-shifting “monsters” and elite guards, and accidentally helping to overthrow the despotic government. The plot is fast-paced, slightly ridiculous fun, and the prose and dialogue are a delight and almost Pratchettian at times.

            In the second story, “Secrets and Lights” by Freda Warrington, the story is told from the point of view of a young man, Crombie. The plot is again slightly preposterous, involving a large country bullying a small island community into building a lighthouse, as “compensation” for a shipwreck. As they will use any failure of the lighthouse as an excuse to bankrupt and occupy the island, there then ensues a quest to obtain magical scales from a giant moth’s wing which will protect the lighthouse. This has unintended (although probably predictable) consequences relating to attracting the wrong things to a magical light! The author has a different prose style to the previous story, but still catches the essence of the characters. “Fisher quietly saved their skins and let Catt take the credit because he preferred to direct attention away from himself”.

            The third story, “Taking Note” is by Juliet McKenna and concerns a magical pen that erases enchanted glyphs. There is an auction to acquire the item, in which Catt and Fisher craftily outmanoeuvre a rival, the use of the pen to lift a magical curse, and an epilogue back in Fisher and Catt’s shop. Whilst still enjoyable, this was probably my least favourite story, perhaps because Catt and Fisher are less prominent for much of the story. There are still some funny bits but the story felt to me more like three loosely connected stories and the ending didn’t quite fit my understanding of the doctors’ relationship.

            The final story by K T Davies, “The Unguis of Maug” opens with Doctor Fisher who, via an encounter with a street gang, takes on a young apprentice, Ash, much to Dr Catt’s disbelief and doubts. When they send Ash on his first “mission” accompanied by an alcoholic, disillusioned ex-Templar knight, what should just be simple scouting for information and rumours soon becomes something much more deadly. This story is particularly adept at adding depth to its characters. The cosy domestic arrangements and verbal repartee really showcase Catt and Fisher’s relationship, particularly Fisher’s simultaneous fondness and exasperation with his partner “Fisher folded his arms. It was either that or strangle his partner”. The introduction of the street urchin apprentice adds another amusing, disruptive factor. Dannoch, the soldier/babysitter they hire also has to confront past issues as well as deal with the fraught situation which again makes for a more satisfying read.

            While I had read the previous two books, I don’t think it is necessary, and this book could be easily read and enjoyed by someone new to them. This collection is one which made me frequently smile and often laugh out loud at the antics. Catt and Fisher are flawed, complex, morally flexible but very entertaining characters who have outrageous adventures and I highly recommend them and this book. Rebellion Press /  400 pages / ISBN: 978-1-781-08803-6 / Ebook, Paperback, Audiobook

                                                      

It’s A Cinema, Not A Heavy Metal Gig.

Tony Berry

During the lull between lockdowns I ventured out to the cinema to see Christopher Nolan’s film “Tenet”. Doing my bit to support the Arts and all that. The cinema was a Birmingham Odeon with a top-notch surround-sound system. Maybe a couple of dozen  people in the audience, nicely spaced apart, so great. Except, for the first time ever, I walked out after less than 30 minutes. Why? Not because the film was awful, but because the soundtrack was so loud as to be physically painful. It begins with a set-piece featuring an attack by unknown forces on a concert hall, so lots of gunfire and explosions. This had me shrunk down in my seat as I winced and stuck my fingers in my ears. And it didn’t get any better as the film progressed, with the dialogue at normal or quiet volumes, punctuated by Really Loud bursts of action and music. I decided that I couldn’t face this any more and left to go home, where I actually emailed the Odeon chain with a complaint and a demand for my money back. They replied with some guff about “we think it’s OK, it meets noise requirements (I bet it bloody doesn’t) and besides it’s not our fault it’s the way the sound is mixed by the director”. This is actually true.

It turned out I’m not alone here. A week or so after I’d seen the film I read an article by a reviewer who said he was looking forward to watching “Tenet” at home on his TV so he could turn on the subtitles. It seems Nolan likes to mix the soundtrack of his films like this. “My films are for modern cinemas with good sound systems”. Well OK, but that doesn’t mean you have to give your audiences tinnitus while they struggle to hear the dialogue. Nolan’s “Interstellar” is a decent enough film with a really good score; in fact I like the score so much I bought it on CD. It features a real church organ (recorded in Temple Church in London) and when I crank up my stereo I can rattle the windows out of their frames, which is fine because I’m enjoying a piece of music, not trying to figure out what Matthew McConaughey is mumbling (he does have a habit of saying his lines like he’s sucking a Werthers Original, but it’s the Director’s job to tell him not to do it). 

I suppose we should be used to this because of the endless Superhero films which, with a few exceptions, are BANG, quiet bit, CRASHING MUSIC, quiet bit, BANG, quiet bit WITH CRASHING MUSIC, and so on. Well, it ain’t good enough. I pay a car-loan to go and see a film and I want to enjoy it, not have to sit there in expectation of being temporarily deafened so I can’t hear the dialogue anyway. Directors like Nolan may think it all makes their films more dynamic, but he’s producing the bloody things for an audience of millions. He might reply “well this is my vision and if you don’t like it you can fuck off”, but let’s be reasonable here; I am willing to look at his vision because it’s unlikely to send me blind. On the other hand I don’t see why I should suffer damage to my hearing at the same time. No, I never got my money back.

I’d like to talk about books…

Yvonne Rowse, programme chief

There seems to have been endless media stuff produced for lockdown. I’ve even had to watch a few because Ian has made me. We watched One Man Two Guvnors and Jesus Christ Superstar and lots of little youtube shorts. My favourite, due to brevity and immense charm, is the Good Omens: Lockdown written by Neil Gaiman. I’m not a visual media person, however, so I read. Mostly I have been reading Covid-19 stuff and I’ve had enough. I need to read something, anything, else.

The trouble is, I’ve been infected with dread. I’d be an awful apocalypse novel hero. Here we are, in the middle of a cosy catastrophe (we can, except for the key workers, avoid the virus) and I am filled with anxiety. And that means I have been frozen into immobility.

In situations of stress I normally knit and read. The first acts a little like meditation. The second takes me to different worlds where I am integral (as the reader) to helping all the great characters do great things. In books I have many friends. We are doing things more interesting than singing happy birthday twice (maybe three) times while washing our hands and bickering about what essential item we forgot to buy and can’t face going back for. In books exciting things happen, important things. Mostly no-one sits all evening eating a family size bar of chocolate.

The problem has been finding suitable books to read. I am really struggling at the moment with even mild peril. I mean, even when I’m pretty sure that everything will end up alright. I’m not just talking about death or injury; even mild embarrassment is causing me to leave a book unfinished. Jo Walton, our former Guest of Honour, has two potential solutions, as described on tor.com. Either Books in Which No Bad Things Happen or Books That Grab You. In the first there is no worry, in the second you are immersed so deep that the ‘real’ world has been left behind.

Before finding these two articles I had been reading the Chalet School books and Georgette Heyer. All were pretty much re-reads, though there are some Heyer books that I can’t finish due to fear of impending (but not terminal) dread. But I’ve read all I’ve got.

I can’t read Paladin of Souls again. I think it has one more read in it before it is sucked dry of all goodness. I’m saving that for my deathbed. My Margaret Mahy books are in pretty much the same state, even the short stories and although I could read and reread The Boy Who Was Followed Home every day it doesn’t take long, even when the pictures are examined minutely.

So, I am working my way through the books recommended both in the articles and the comments. It is worth reading all the comments as some dispute other recommendations. And Nevil Shute is recommended in the ‘grabby’ books. I can certainly say that On the Beach did not let me go once started but it has a devastating finish and, along with Ancient Light, is on my list of books to never ever read again. Not that they are bad, just that they’ll tear your heart out and leave you traumatised for weeks.

So, I reread At Amberleaf Fair (Phyllis Ann Karr) and have the Moomin books piled up ready to go. 

What books are keeping you sane and why?

Blackpool Remembered

Alex Storer

All you classic Doctor Who aficionados out there might be interested in an epic free new ebook from John Collier, entitled Blackpool Remembered. The book celebrates the original Doctor Who exhibition on Blackpool’s Golden Mile, which ran from 1974 to 1985.

I became involved in this project in April – over a month into lockdown. John Collier contacted me, as he was keen to use some of my own written memories and photographs of the original exhibition, as featured in my 2011 mini-book, Who, Where and When. Due to lockdown, John finally had the time to dedicate to his long-gestating idea of creating a detailed and comprehensive book about the exhibition – and was now looking for contributors.

I completely re-wrote my account for John’s book and one thing soon led to another. I was soon writing more pieces and working together on year-by-year floor plans. This was just the kind of Doctor Who project I had always wanted to be involved in. Soon, ideas were being exchanged, memories discussed, and having put John in touch with ex-K9 assistant operator Steve Cambden, the momentum was really growing. I volunteered to illustrate the cover, but this soon led to me producing several exclusive illustrations throughout the book.

Over the following months, Blackpool Remembered evolved into a much bigger beast than either of us ever expected. The interest and subsequent reaction has been phenomenal. We have met so many great people along the way, willing to share their personal recollections and photographs with us. It has been so rewarding to re-visit the exhibition through all of this, and for me as an artist, this is the most gratifying kind of creative collaboration. It isn’t very often that so many different elements and interests collide to create something really special, but this has been one of those moments, all thanks to John’s vision for the project.

The end result was a gobsmacking 400+ pages long, jam-packed with photographs, memories and nostalgia from over 80 contributors – with several names that will be familiar to those of us in the Whoniverse. It is an absolute must-read for anybody who ever visited the original exhibition or has an interest in the show’s props and costumes.

Blackpool Remembered was released as a free digital publication at the end of August, and recently exceeded 7,000 downloads. A revised version is currently in the works with updates to things like the floor plans, which were always going to be a work in progress, and John has started work on a follow-up publication.

I never thought time travel was possible until my involvement in this book – but it took me right back to 1985, as an awestruck seven-year-old, wandering those exhibition corridors deep beneath the Golden Mile.

Head over to blackpoolremembered7485.wordpress.com to download the free book and find out more.