BOOK REVIEW: Tailchaser’s Song by Tad Williams

written by David Steffen

Tailchaser’s Song is a fantasy novel by Tad Williams, published by DAW books in 1985.  The story is set in a world of anthropomorphized cats, a quest fantasy with the young cat Fritti Tailchaser as the hero.  It is set in something like the real world, but from the perspective of cats, where humans are known as the race of M’an, descendents of cats who have been deformed by an ancient curse.

Tailchaser is a young feral cat, living near one of the towns of M’an, but not in a house.  He has always been an ambitious cat, wanting to make a name for himself, though he is happy with his life, and with his female companion Hushpad.  Local cats have started disappearing mysteriously, and the local leadership of the cats organizes a delegation to the royal feline court of Harar to report the disappearances and solve the mystery.  Soon after the start of the story Hushpad and the family of M’an who fed her mysteriously disappear.  Something insidious is afoot, and Tailchaser sets out to find out what it is, he is not included as part of the delegation so he sets out alone.  Soon he befriends a troublemaking kitten Pouncequick in the wilderness, who joins him in his journey.

The feel of the story as a whole is very epic fantasy, though it takes place in something like our world, it will be very familiar in tone to some of Williams’s later books, like the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series.  It’s interesting that “praise for the author” quotes on the cover refer to Watership Down by Richard Adams, about a group of anthropomorphized rabbits trying to find a new home after being driven from their own by impending disaster.  They are similar in a lot of ways, but this goes more into the fantasy realm–Watership Down was only fantastical in the sense that one of the rabbits had premonitions and the rabbits had some social structures that seemed unlikely in the wild.  Tailchaser’s Song, on the other hand, has entirely fantastical elements.

I love Williams’s work (the Otherland series being my favorite thus far) and so I’ve been meaning to go back and read his first published book.  I can definitely see similarity in the style and how that grew from there.  This one has some pacing issues, in my opinion, it takes a while to get going, and it takes a while after that to really get into what I’d call the main conflict of the story, and it frustrated me how little the stated quest really had to do with the story, in large part because Tailchaser really has no clue what’s happened to Hushpad so he’s really just setting out in a random direction hoping someone will know, without really any clear idea why they would.  Overall, it’s an enjoyable book and a reasonably quick read, and will especially appeal to you if you like anthropomorphic animals and quest fantasies.

Review: The Very Best of Tad Williams

written by David Steffen

Tad Williams is the well-known and talented SF author who wrote such well known works as TailChaser’s Song, the Otherland series, and the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series. Most people know him best for his novels, but what many people don’t know is that he is also a master of the short story form. Many writers have a strong tendency toward one or the other, but Tad Williams tackles both with equal aplomb.

If you want to check out some of Tad’s short story work, there’s no better place than The Very Best of Tad Williams, out this week from Tachyon Publications. It is comprised of eleven short stories written by Williams, one of them in a screenplay format. To get a sample of what’s in the book, you can check out StarShipSofa’s audio adaptation of Child of an Ancient City, which is one of the stories that appears in this volume.

My favorite in the bunch were:

The Storm Door
A paranormal investigator has been looking into an unrecedented increase in ghostly posessions by the dead. At the beginning the story seemed very familiar, but stick with it, it didn’t go where I expected.

The Stranger’s Hand
A strange pair of vagrants wander into town, one of them a mute with the ability to give anyone their heart’s desire. soon people are coming to the town from many miles around to visit the mute stranger. But who are they? What do they want?

Black Sunshine
This is the lone screenplay in the bunch. I’m not used to reading screenplays so I admit the format took a little bit of getting used to. This is a story told in two times–a group of kids going through a traumatic experience and those same people grown up coming back to their hometown to confront their past. Solid story. I’d like to see the movie if it’s been filmed.


I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

The Best of StarShipSofa

written by David Steffen

And here I am again with the latest in my “Best of” podcast series. If you want to see my other “Best of”lists, just click on “The Best Of” category on the right side of your screen.

This time, the podcast is StarShipSofa, the first (and so far, only) podcast to win a Hugo award. StarShipSofa was launched in 2006 by Tony C. Smith and Ciaran O’Carroll. Back then, they were an entirely nonfiction podcast, talking about authors and other science fiction related topics. About a year later, Tony went solo and launched the Aural Delights podcast as a separate cast which has been running ever since. Most episodes of Aural Delights includes one main fiction, one flash fiction, one speculative fiction poem, and a couple fact articles. If you want to learn more about Tony, the editor and co-founder, you can check out our interview of him that ran in October.

Now, keep in mind that StarShipSofa is a rather different format from the other podcasts I’ve reviewed so far. The other ones have been entirely fiction-focused, generally with an intro, the story, and the outro. This one goes for a more well-rounded aesthetic, which is good or bad, depending on what you’re really looking for. For the purposes of this list, I am only going to include the main fiction, and only stories which I did not first hear somewhere else. Not that there’s anything wrong with more than one podcast running the same story, I just want these lists to be about suggesting new fiction, so I don’t want to list the same stories over and over.

If you’re trying to decide whether you want to undertake this podcast, I’ll list some pros and cons:

The Good and The Bad

The Good:

-Tony seems like a genuinely nice guy. I’d love to buy him a pint at a pub some time.

-What really makes this podcast special is the community dynamic. Tony does a good job putting it together, but there is a lot of effort by a wide cast of contributors, and it’s fun to hear the variety of voices as well as the variety of the content.

-StarShipSofa was the first to win a Hugo, hopefully making it easier for other fiction podcasts to win the award in the future.

-They have a lot of Big Name authors, like Michael Moorcock, Paolo Bacigalupi, even Tad Williams.

-There is a lot of great nonfiction, especially Amy H. Sturgis’s Genre History segments, J.J. Campanella’s Science News, and Matthew Sanborn Smith’s Fiction Crawler.

-They have a team of really great fiction narrators. My particular favorites are Amy H. Sturgis and Lawrence Santoro. Note that Lawrence has graced Diabolical Plots’ Best of Escape Pod list, where he made Eugie Foster’s #1 story even better with his fantastic narration.

The Bad:

-The self-promotion in episodes of this podcast is way beyond normal levels, enough so that I almost gave up the podcast at several points. StarShipSofa has launched three related books, which is great, but for months before and after they insert long fact articles about the making of (Often 30 minutes or more apiece), constant reminders to buy the book, even recordings of people opening packages containing the books when they arrive in the mail. They advertise themselves as a science fiction magazine, but this non-stop self-selling makes it hard to take them seriously. They only pull this off at all because of their audio format, which I feel undermines the trust that they should be nurturing in the audio medium for professional science fiction publications in audio. Imagine if Gordon Van Gelder of F&SF released an anthology, and spend 60 pages of every issue of his magazine advertising it, ad nauseum. It would not go over very well, and I don’t think we should cut SSS any more slack because it is audio.

-StarShipSofa doesn’t pay their contributors.

-Many of the episodes are really, really long. This is understandable, considering the volume of their nonfiction content, but the average length is well over an hour, and some top out at three and a half hours. The end result of that is that not many of them are going to have a permanent home on my iPod–I’m still using a first generation iPod, and this takes up a sizable chunk of my hard drive.

The List

1. A Map of the Mines of Barnath by Sean Williams
Ooh, a dark and mysterious mine story. A man heads into the depths to find his missing brother. Rumor has it that disappearances are common, and there are rumors of something that lurks in the mines and steals people away. The way I just described it sounds a bit cliched,but it did not go the way I expected it, and the result was very memorable.

2. Pump Six by Paolo Bacigalupi
This is the story that convinced me to stick with StarShipSofa. A tale of the distant future where the old machines are still running, but no one remembers how any of it works anymore. Pump Six at the water treatment plant is having trouble, and no one knows why. The employee in charge of the monitoring station goes to find the answer.

3. Knotwork by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
The story stars a woman from another world where the people have a wide range of powers, the most notable of those being knotwork, a way to influence relationships and the minds of those around. When she came to this world she vowed never to use those powers again, but the knot of her marriage to a mundane is unraveling and now she must choose what to do.

4. The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang
A tale in India, tales within a tales. An alchemist has created a gateway through time, and this tells several tales of those who’ve passed through it in pursuit of their own goals and how each one turned out. Each story is interested in its own right and they all tie together into a great story as a whole.

5. Mars: A Traveler’s Guide by Ruth Nestvold
This was an odd story, but a good one, and was much-improved by the reading and editing. It’s told as one side of a conversation, a reference computer program responding to prompts that you don’t get to hear, as the unheard user asks questions, interrupts, and asks again. It starts a little slow, but the real story behind the scenes is implied by the answers and the questions you can infer from them.

6. Let the Word Take Me by Juliette Wade
This is a great story, typical of Juliette’s fare, rooted in her background in linguistics. After years of trying to translate the language of of chameleon-like aliens, the team of scientists in charge of establishing contact are at a dead end. They have to make a breakthrough, and soon.

7. Just a Couple of Highly Experimental Weapons Tucked Away Behind the Toilet Paper by Adam Troy Castro
Silly title, silly story. This had a Douglas Adams vibe to it, oddball alien races, entirely improbable inventions. Lots of laughs and fun twists.

8. Snatch Me Another by Mercurio Rivera
I first read this one over in Abyss & Apex and was glad to see it reprinted here. This is a followup to another short story by the same author showing the repercussions of a new invention called the “snatcher”, which opens a hole into other dimensions onto items that match a sample item inserted into the machine. The protagonist has recently lost her son to disease, and lives through most of the story in a drugged haze, but the very interesting world kept me interest, and it is very well told.

9. Flowers of Aulit Prison by Nancy Kress
A well-told alien perspective. An undercover agent in prison trying to learn information about a terrorist. What’s really interesting though, is her society’s point of view, that our reality is the end-result of our shared perspective of that reality, and anyone who violates that perspective is a dangerous criminal.

10. Boatman’s Holiday by Jeffrey Ford
Did you ever wonder what Charon, the boatman over the River Styx does when he’s on vacation? Okay, me neither. Rumor has it that there’s one patch of Hell that’s like an oasis in a desert, and Charon intends to find it.

Honorable Mentions

These are ones which ALMOST made it onto the list. But my Top Ten list with 15 entries is sort of a cop-out, so this is extra.

The Tenth Muse by Tad Williams
Yes, you read that right. Tad “Dragonbone Chair” Williams, author of many great novels, including the “Otherland” quadrilogy, one of my favorite series. This is a space colony story. First contact with a new alien race has just occurred, and the aliens are hostile as can be, blasting everyone in their path. The story is told by a child-like cabin boy, one of the lesser members, and the story centers around his interaction with a rich passenger and their dilemma as the alien presence isolates them from the transport channels back to the rest of the inhabited galaxy. This story was quite enjoyable. So far I’ve liked his novels better than his short stories, but I thought this was quite good.

When Harry Met Faerie: The Tolkien Solution to the Rowling Problem by Amy H. Sturgis
I would have put this on the list, except for my policy of keeping the list to fiction only. This is a great talk, nonfiction, that Amy has written regarding the value of science fiction and fantasy as a genre. In particular, addressing criticisms of JK Rowling’s work, which some say is too childish for adults, yet too adult for children. These are criticisms that have been leveled in the past, and Amy has put together a great discussion including quotes from JRR Tolkien and C.S. Lewis as well as JK Rowling. Very interesting and enlightening discussion that kept me interested from beginning to end. It’s a full length talk, longer than Amy’s usual Genre History articles, but well worth the 45 minutes to listen.

Edgar Allen Poe Special by Amy H. Sturgis
And another nonfiction entry by Amy H. Sturgis, which again made the honorable mention list because I’m keeping the main list reserved for fiction. In this episode, she’s taken over the helm of StarShipSofa and this episode is entirely dedicated to one of my favorite authors–Edgar Allen Poe. This includes discussion of his upbringing, his writing, his contributions to science fiction, and the mysterious circumstances of his death.

The Defenders by Phillip K. Dick
PKD is one of my favorite SF authors of all time. His writing contains really great ideas that have been copied time and again, always with less effectiveness than when PKD himself wrote them. His work has inspired many movies, including many great ones like Bladerunner and Total Recall (as well as some which were badly botched by the filmmakers, the more so whenever they deviated from the original ideas). This story is not among my favorite PK Dick stories, which is why it’s not on the main list, but it has some neat ideas and is worth listening to. It takes place in a future where automation has advanced much further than today, to the point that robots are fighting our wars on the surface while humans huddle in caves underground. The robots report back all the information, showing images of blasted cities and desolate landscapes, but recent discoveries have revealed to the humans that things are not what they seem.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Diplomat by Matthew Sanborn Smith
“Take me to your leader,” the tiny aliens say as they go door to door trying to find the ultimate authority of human civilization. This cliched opening line doesn’t work so well in this future earth, as no one seems to agree who’s in charge, as they talk to one-man nations and personality conglomerates. I got a lot of laughs out of this story.

Walking the Tightrope: Tad Williams

Tad Williams is a science fiction and fantasy author who has written many excellent novels, including the Otherland series and the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series. Shadowmarch is his current series in progress, with the third of fourth books scheduled to be released in early 2010 with the title “Shadowrise”. He is also writing a young adult series called Ordinary Farm with Deborah Beale, his wife, with the second book scheduled for 2010 titled “A Witch at Ordinary Farm.” Check out his website, and while you’re there, check out the message board.

If you haven’t read his work, you’re missing out. Pick up a copy of one his novels, starting with The City of Golden Shadow, the first book in the Otherland series.

David: On your site you mention that you’ve “had more jobs than any sane person should admit to”. Not including writing, what was the job you liked the most? Hated the most?

Tad: Liked the most? Probably working at Apple, mostly because it was interesting observing the culture. I also liked doing instructional film strips and manuals as a technical artist. It was a fun company and I liked the people. I was the best at drawing hands! Least favorite was probably my time as a business-drone in a suit and tie, collecting overdue loan payments from deadbeats and sad, broke people.

David: At what point in your life did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

Tad: When I was offered my first multi-book contract. I always knew I wanted to be a CREATOR, but what form that creating would take was very much up in the air. If I’d been offered a contract first to do cartooning or screenwriting this would be a much different interview today.

David: How did you pull off the first big sale to DAW? Did you get an agent before submitting?

Tad: Nope. I was an over-the-transom author — in other words, the slush pile. We were all lucky it worked out; we’ve helped each other sell a few books over the years.

David: If you had to pick one defining moment of your writing career to date, what would it be?

Tad: Oh, I think getting that first acceptance letter. That’s when you know it’s real. That’s when you begin to think, “Maybe my life does have some shape after all…!”

David: The Otherland series is one of my favorite stories of all time. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, so what was the first step when you came up with this one. Where did the plot for this one start snowballing in your head?

Tad: I used to say (truthfully) that it began when I heard the author of “A River Runs Through It” being interviewed on the radio, and began thinking about rivers-as-metaphors, and then about a river that was ONLY a metaphor, which led me to the virtual river that runs through the story. But I realized later that it really started when I was six and captivated by the Storybook Land ride (or whatever it was called) in Disneyland, where Snow White sits in the boat and says, “Oh, look, there’s Toad Hall! And Sleeping Beauty’s Castle!” as you sail past these little miniatures. That idea — all the stories on the banks of a single river — clearly was the true genesis of OTHERLAND.

David: Early on in Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, there’s a scene where Simon sneaks through the throne room and looks at the throne, a scene which pays off two books later in a reveal about Bright-Nail’s true lineage. Do you labor over a scene like that more than others, because you know it’s going to tie in later?

Tad: No, because I often don’t know exactly why it’s significant when I write it. (I can’t remember in that case how much I knew.) If I’ve figure it out later I may make some changes in rewrite to make sure the point I want is clear but not oversold, but often I leave it the way it was so it slides past as naturally as possible. I pride myself that the best way to read my books is for the second time, to pick up the things that blended into the background the first time.

David: How different was the experience of submitting and publishing a young adult book, as opposed to novels for adults?

Tad: Hard to say because there were a lot of strange ups and downs on this one — our publishing company had to let several publishers and editors go, and one of them was ours, who had made a big deal out of our book. We were then handed to a new publisher whose work load had just gone from about 18 books to 60. She’s done a great job, but we obviously didn’t get as much attention as we would have. I’ll know better once things have stabilized a bit.

David: How has co-writing been different than writing solo? Is it easier or harder? How do you and Deborah split up the work?

Tad: The first book was all over the place because we started it and rewrote it several times. In general we plot together, then Deb is writing the first draft, then I’m rewriting, then we kick it around ’til we’re happy. As far as the process itself, we haven’t done it enough for me to be able to be really specific — after I rewrite the second volume I’ll be able to generalize better. I’m enjoying it, though, and she’s an excellent collaborator (and my favorite person.)

David: When writing a series, how far do you plan ahead? Do you know how it will end before you write a word, or is that still up in the air until you reach the ending? Do you prefer to outline or just write on the fly?
Tad: It’s always a tightrope walk between too much outline and too little. If you over-plan, then you lose the spontaneity, not to mention the fact that with a really big book it’s an exercise in complexity theory — you literally CAN’T figure everything out ahead of time. But if you don’t plan at all then your structure suffers, the story wanders, all kinds of bad stuff. So you have to find your own point of exquisite tension between the two, learn to trust yourself, and go for it.

David: Which do you like to read better, science fiction or fantasy?

Tad: Doesn’t matter. What I like best is good storytelling — and that’s true even for non-fiction. The outward form it takes is almost irrelevant, although I do like fantastical things. But if you asked me to name my ten favorite books they’d be pretty evenly split between several forms of fiction and some history and journalism.

David: What is your ideal writing environment?

Tad: A room with a decent view of the outdoors, good lighting, and lots of research material (which in my case means primarily books and the internet) close to hand. I use a computer, so I need one of those, too. And I like quiet, but I’m not a fanatic about it.

David: If you could only give one piece of advice to aspiring writers, what would it be?

Tad: Write. Write and write and write. Oh, and finish things. (That’s two, I know. Hey, you’re talking to Mr. Long Books.)

David: If you could meet one fictional character who was not created by you, who would it be and why?

Tad: The Blue Fairy, so she could make me into a real boy.

David: What was the last book you read?

Tad: Last book I FINISHED? “NOW DIG THIS — the Unspeaking Writings of Terry Southern”. Last book I read, probably a dozen pages of “The Battle of Hastings” this morning while I was hanging out with the dogs.

David: Your favorite book?


David: Who is your favorite author?

Tad: Couldn’t pick one. Me, I guess, because I’m always happy when nice things happen to that particular writer.

David: What was the last movie you saw?

Tad: In a theater? UP. On television? LOUDQUIETLOUD: A Film about the Pixies.

David: What is your favorite movie?


David: Do you have any upcoming publications we should watch out for? Can you tell us a little bit about them?

Tad: The third and fourth parts (the ending) of the Shadowmarch series will be out next spring, SHADOWRISE and SHADOWHEART. Then not too long after we’ll have our second Ordinary Farm book, tentatively titled A WITCH AT ORDINARY FARM.

David: Do you have any works in progress that you’d like to tell us about?

Tad: Just the next set of books, which should be a bit different — shorter, more modern, but still full of swingin’ action! (Sorry, I was channeling Stan Lee for a moment.) The first one should be called SLEEPING LATE ON JUDGEMENT DAY.

David: Thanks, Tad, for taking the time to answer these questions.

Also thanks to Craig Steffen, Gary Cuba, Chris Cuba, and Anthony Sullivan, for your contributions to the interview.

When I was offered my first multi-book contract. I always knew I wanted to be a CREATOR, but what form that creating would take was very much up in the air. If I’d been offered a contract first to do cartooning or screenwriting this would be a much different interview today.