A Tale of Two Cons: Nine Worlds 2017 and WorldCon 75

It’s a TARDIS full of bras!

This summer I did the crazy thing that I last did back in 2014.  Two back to back conventions: Nine Worlds and WorldCon 75 in Helsinki.  Two crazy weeks of spending time with my geeky tribe, having my imagination and creativity stimulated and learning lots of things.  But they were very different events.

Things look different from up here – the view from the stage at Nine Worlds

In many ways, Nine Worlds has become my ‘home’ convention, even though its multi-disciplinary programming means it doesn’t always have the book content I instinctively crave.  This year I sought to help fix that, rather than just complain about it, by taking part in a panel for the first time.  My panel was Police and the Supernatural, which was a discussion about the works of Ben Aaronovitch and Paul Cornell, both of whom have written supernatural police procedurals set in London, but ones that are very different in style.  We turned out to be the second most popular programme item after the Saturday night cabaret and disco, so no pressure there then!  It was a brilliant experience, I have to say: my fellow panellists were awesome and the time flew by.  What was particularly lovely was having people coming up to me the rest of the weekend (and in Helsinki!) saying how much they’d enjoyed it.

From L to R: me in cosplay as Missy, with a woman wearing a knitted Dalek dress and another woman cosplaying as the 13th Doctor

There were some fantastic programme items at Nine Worlds.  Some were thought-provoking (including a deeply interesting session on architecture and world-building in fiction, plus one on robots, AI and the labour market) and some were deeply silly, but they all shared a generosity and humility from the speakers.  And I learned a lot, for example about theories of education through the example of teaching in Harry Potter, or some amazing examples of powerful women in West African history.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl

And it was just so much fun too.  As always, you stuck out if you weren’t in cosplay or dressed flamboyantly, and people were determined to enjoy themselves and facilitate the enjoyment of others by being relentlessly and furiously kind and thoughtful. Rarely have I encountered an environment that is so energetically inclusive and generous in its acceptance of others.  Diversity in all its forms is firmly within the DNA of Nine Worlds, proving that it’s possible to do with a bit of work – and it doesn’t take that much of it either.

Me wearing a dress with cats in space, standing next to a person cosplaying as No-Face from the film Spirited Away

Numbers were a bit down on last year, which was a bit of a shame.  I think that was in part because many people couldn’t afford the time or money for two conventions and had chosen to go to WorldCon instead.  Understandable, given how rarely it makes it across the Atlantic (of 75 WorldCons, only 8 have been outside North America, 5 of those in UK, and 3 of those in London).  But those of us there were made the most of it.

Me with Major Ursa, on Day 1 of WorldCon

WorldCon75 in Helsinki was a different kind of con.  Much more book-focused, but very traditional in its approach.  Being WorldCon, the spread of authors was much greater, with big names from the US and Canada that are rarely seen on this side of the Atlantic.  There is little like sitting there eating your dinner watching George R R Martin walk past, or going to what I dubbed the “Hangover Panel”: 2pm on Day 4 (the day after the Hugos) where famous writers like Robin Hobb, Elizabeth Bear and Jeff VanderMeer were talking about their cats.  With lots of cat pictures and funny stories about them ‘helping’ with the writing.

From the country that brought you Lordi: steampunk blacksmiths

WorldCon was huge.  There were around 7,000 people there, in a venue that was probably designed for about 4,000.  It got full very quickly, in a way the organisers had not foreseen.  This was the third-largest WorldCon in history, with the largest still being LonCon3 in 2014.  There were a lot of complaints about the crowds and the queuing, but the organisers were responsive and I never had any difficulties.  A bit of patience and planning got you into most things, and if you weren’t able to make it into one of the rooms then ther was bound to be something else on the programme that appealed.

A person dressed as an owl

But there were a couple of off-key aspects for me.  As with LonCon 3 this felt very US-centric and dominated by US concerns with a very low level of awareness of US cultural colonialism and its impacts.  That was uncomfortable for an event taking place in Finland, and at times it just felt plain tone-deaf.  The main example of this for me was a panel on resistance, which was composed entirely of US writers and led to a discussion dominated by Trump, healthcare and various issues in the US system, with only one panellist referencing non-US examples (Kameron Hurley talking about the experience of South Africa).  All of the over-riding cultural framing was the US narrative from its founding myths of resistance.  At one stage, one of the panellists suggested that paying one’s taxes in order to support other people in society was in some ways a rebellious act.  The audience pointed out with increasing irritation that this was normal in Europe.  In another panel, an audience member from the US questioned why the panel was discussing the work of two British writers rather than the US writers she named.

A recording of Tea and Jeopardy, with special guest George R R Martin

The panels themselves felt short – 45 minutes compared to the hour, hour and a quarter of Nine Worlds.  This meant they never really got beyond scratching the surface of a topic.  Panellists rarely got to speak more than twice during a discussion.  And some of them felt either poorly organised or poorly moderated – with panellists unsure why they had been selected for a particular panel, or with moderators taking a wildly different interpretation of the brief than appeared in the programme.

Authors talking about their cats

That sounds like I’m being harsh, and I guess I am.  But that didn’t stop it being an amazing event and an opportunity to meet and hear from people I don’t normally get to encounter in the UK.  But what really made the event was the awesome crowd of people I met and hung out with over the five days of the event, swapping ideas for panels and badge ribbons.

Best dressed club. From L to R: Ali, Helena and I

In two years’ time WorldCon will be in Dublin.  There’s a huge buzz about it already, and I’ve bought my membership.  I can feel in my water that it will be another big event.  Hopefully there will be a bit more sensitivity when it comes to some of the cultural issues (I can’t say I’m looking forward to having Irish history mansplained at me by Americans – I fear there will be some crashing insensitivity displayed, but it will at least highlight the difference between Irishness and the wholly separate identity of being Irish-American).

But that’s two years away.  In the meantime there’s next year’s Nine Worlds to plan for.  Excuse me while I go and think up some panel ideas.

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On Gollancz Fest and the importance of panel diversity

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Celebrating their 10th anniversary of being published: Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie and Tom Lloyd.
For much of my time at Gollancz Fest this weekend, this was my view: three white men.

When two of them are Scott Lynch and Joe Abercrombie you kind of have to acknowledge the awesome, but even so. Some stats about the event:

  • Day 1 morning – 13 speakers, 5 women (38%)
  • Day 1 afternoon – 12 speakers, 1 woman (8%)
  • Day 1 evening – 3 speakers, 0 women (0%)
  • Day 2 morning – 9 speakers, 2 women (22%)

I make that 37 speaker sessions in the programme, and 8 of them taken up by women. That’s just 21%. There were no speakers from ethnic minorities. But while the audience was also overwhelmingly white, the gender balance was much closer to 50/50.

This isn’t just about the numbers. For me, it was a pretty alienating experience sitting in that audience. The event was so tightly scheduled that there was little or no time for questions. So I sat there reflecting on how this was demonstrating in microcosm what society is like for many of us. If we are not represented in the conversation we can do little other than internalise the message that our place is to be the passive audience for the achievements and creative work of others. Seeing someone that looks like me on a panel does so many things. It can be inspirational, showing other women what can be achieved. But mostly it adds richness and freshness to a debate and conversation that otherwise risks becoming a tired rehashing of the same topics.

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Alastair Reynolds and Stephen Baxter. Talking about the Great Men of SF: Arthur C Clarke and H G Wells. Inevitably.
And what happens when diverse voices aren’t there? You only had to look at the Saturday afternoon panels to see. Of all the books mentioned during the afternoon panels, only one was by a female author (an essay by Rebecca Solnit that the moderator referred to when framing a question about people’s response to crisis). It was probably unintentional, but that will perpetuate the idea that the only good quality books are written by white men, making it even harder for anyone who looks different to get recognition. And the bias was reflected in the books on sale in the room too. While many of the men on the programme had multiple books by them displayed for sale, including in splendid 10th anniversary hardback editions, none of the women had more than a single title on offer, even though many of them are prolific writers. If you were Elizabeth Bear, there were none of your books on sale in the room at all. So, your husband might have to write in the blinding reflected light of all your Hugo and Locus awards (as he revealed during one of the panels), but none of your work was available to buy.

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Can you find a book by a woman here? I count four on the whole table. That’s less than the number of books by Joe Abercrombie on sale.
I wasn’t the only one who noticed the problem. If you checked the GollanczFest hashtag on Twitter you could see in amongst the enthusiastic live tweeting of the wit, humour and insight of the panellists an increasingly vocal set of grumbles about the diversity issues of the event. By the third all-white, all-male panel of Saturday afternoon it was getting pretty vocal indeed, with links being shared to pieces about the importance of panel diversity and ways of improving it.

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Definitely no books by women here …
I’m a firm believer that providing feedback is the best way of getting issues like this addressed. During a lull this morning Marcus Gipps, one of the Gollancz editorial team, was filling time and asked for feedback, so I raised the issue. Fair play to him, he ruefully acknowledged that it hadn’t been the best, and they’d clocked all the comments made on Twitter. He pointed to some scheduling difficulties that had apparently made it difficult to achieve greater representation. It was a very graceful response, and I hope that the organisers will take the feedback on board if they run a similar event next year. But as a publisher-run event, GollanczFest can only draw on Gollancz writers. Looking down their list of authors I can’t help but wonder if it’s Gollancz that has the diversity problem rather than GollanczFest.

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Joanne Harris (with Ed Cox). One of the few women there.
Either way, as a community we deserve better. And unless we keep highlighting these issues they won’t get fixed.

UPDATE: I’ve had some fantastic conversations this evening with various Gollancz staff. I’ve been really touched by the way they’ve approached this issue with a genuine willingness to engage. I’ve been told that there had been plans for an additional three female panellists, but they’d had to pull out at the last minute for various reasons, including childcare reasons. The opening out of the programme to non-Gollancz writers like the awesome Catriona Ward and Antonia Honeywell (who write for other Orion imprints) was in part intended to address the gender balance issues. I’m also told that Gollancz only publishes Elizabeth Bear in ebook, hence the lack of physical copies of her books for sale. Refreshingly, Gollancz have acknowledged that these points aren’t the whole solution, and they will reflect further. I’m left feeling much more positive. This is why it’s important to speak up in a respectful and constructive manner, folks.

Avon Cosplay: How To

“Do you know what,” Sophie said as she pointed at my brand new, black knee boots, “if you got yourself a silver leather tunic you’d be Avon.”  As is so often the case, Sophie gets the credit for coming up with an idea that I’m mad enough to turn into a reality.  And this one is mad: cosplaying Avon from Blakes 7 feels a bit like heresy, even if it does fit with my hipster 1970s British SF cosplay aesthetic.

2846744For those of you unfamiliar with the source material, Blakes 7 was created by Terry Nation, the creator of the Daleks, in the late 1970s.  The pitch was for the Dirty Dozen in space – a drama that followed the exploits of a mismatched crew of convicted criminals who had escaped from a tyrannical Government on a stolen spaceship and under the leadership of the messianic Roj Blake. the only innocent man among them.  Famously made on a shoestring budget and with a notoriously inaccurate title (Blake only appeared in the first two series, and there were never seven of them …) it was still a massive hit, pulling in weekly viewing figures of around 11m, despite being scheduled against Coronation Street.  The strength was in the scripts: this was a drama influenced by Thatcher and the Northern Ireland Troubles, where the ‘good’ guys cause more death and destruction than the ‘bad’ guys, and men of principle become the very thing they despise.  It’s a series whose influence reaches far, into Firefly, Farscape, Dark Matter and any other number of series you could mention.

Right from the start, Paul Darrow stole the show with his characterisation of Kerr Avon, the cold, calculating fraudster.  Avon is probably the truest antihero in the history of British television: scriptwriters were famously told to always give him two reasons for any choice he made, the altruistic one and the self-interested one.  This computer genius is not the awkward, bespectacled geek one sees in contemporary dramas.  He is resourceful, ruthless and with cutting remarks and sarcasm as sharp as his cheekbones.  As a child I was captivated by the slow reveal of his character’s tragic backstory of betrayed love, and his sparring with the evil Servalan, where sex was just another weapon in their tussle for power.

img_2498Costumier June Hudson brought a fantastic look to the second series, in particular.  There was a hell of a lot of beautifully tailored leather and some iconic looks.  Paul Darrow (and Jacqueline Pearce) would cheerfully wear anything she designed for him, leading to some pretty amazing outfits.    One of Avon’s most famous is known as the ‘oven ready’: a glorious tunic made from silver doe-skin, worn with thigh-high Household Cavalry-style bucket boots.  If you listen carefully, you can hear them squeaking as he walks around the set.

So if I was going to cosplay – or rather crossplay – Avon, the oven-ready was an obvious choice.  Swap the tunic for a mini-dress and you’re home free.  To be honest,  I’m surprised no-one seems to have done it before.

avon-and-orac-2-nw2016Unlike last year’s Missy, which was an epic make, this costume was one pulled together mostly from commercial sources.  The dress is one I found on eBay.  It’s a Marks and Spencers silver sequinned dress which comes in both regular and petite lengths (this is the regular).  The sequins give it the same look as the doe-skin.  The polo neck is one I had already.  Instead of ski-pants I’m wearing 120 denier opaque tights, and the boots are model’s own, from Ted and Muffy (formerly Duo).  The studded belt was another eBay bargain.

Where this costume got spendy, was in the accessories.  My teleport bracelet was one I bought through Horizon, the Blakes 7 fansite.  It’s made by Martin Bower, the original designer, from the original materials (all except the pink perspex, which is a replacement).  The Liberator gun was from Century Castings, with the webbing belt another eBay find.

The finishing touch is my mini-Orac.

img_2156In one of the episodes of the second series, Gambit, Orac shrinks himself and is taken on a heist by Avon and Vila.  (And in that episode, Avon is wearing the silver doe-skin tunic.)  My Orac was an impulse purchase from an amazing prop-builder called Richard Bailey, who I found on Facebook through one of the Blakes 7 fan groups.

Nine Worlds Geekfest 2016

Another awesome Nine Worlds has finished.  As I think I said last year, of all the conventions on the calendar, it is far and away the most welcoming and inclusive, which creates a joyful and creative atmosphere.

I’m on the come-down from a brilliant weekend, and recovering from the heady mix of lots of people, days packed full of content, and late nights socialising.  Inevitably, that makes my reflections a little fragmented, but I’ll pull out some thoughts.

This year we were at a new venue, the Novotel London West in Hammersmith.  After last year’s hotel debacle, this was a refreshing change and it proved to be a much better location.  The food was better, the rooms were better, the space worked really well for the event, it was easier to get to, there were more facilities (shops and restaurants) close to the hotel and the staff were amazing, with prompt and friendly service.  I really hope we will be back there next year.

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Missy with a knitted Dalek cosplayer

Cosplay has become a big part of my con-going experience.  This year I reprised Missy, but with a twist.  At last year’s con Laurie Penny remarked after seeing my costume that she’d only just realised just how much Missy looks like a suffragette.  As a proud feminist that really chimed with me.  So what better to do at a convention that prides itself on its progressive ethos, than to cosplay Missy as a suffragette, campaigning for more Time Ladies to appear in Doctor Who?  I made her a sash, with the slogan “Time For Ladies”, suggested by a fabulous friend of mine.  I’ll post about the making process for that sash in due course.

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Awesome photo by Duncan Lawie. (Thanks!)

I also brought a new costume, a female Avon from Blakes 7.  (I tried it at EasterCon earlier this year, but this is the first time I’ve managed to get pictures of it – the 1970s concrete exterior of the hotel also provided the perfect spot for a dystopian photo shoot.)  Regular readers will know that I’m a huge fan of the series, so the appeal of cosplaying my all-time favourite character was hard to resist.  I still feel slightly uncomfortable about doing it, as if I have no right to attempt something so iconic, but it’s a great character to play.  And it’s wonderful to see just how much love there is out there for the series.  I had people running across the hotel foyer to give me cosplay tokens, and I had some great conversations about my costume and the series.  Come find me as Avon at a future con and I might even let you pet my Orac.  I’ve blogged about putting this look together in another post.

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Look what I made!

The programme was great, as always, with some really thought-provoking sessions.  The stand-out one for me were Alex Lamb’s session on modelling complex systems.  Alex is the author of Roboteer, but he’s also a part-time stand up and improv, as well as having worked creating agent-based modelling systems for academic research.  He is clever, funny and has tremendous energy.  He got the whole audience for his session playing variants of Rock, Paper, Scissors, and then showed how the insights from that could be modelled in increasingly complex (and beautiful) ways.  Though it led to the depressing insight that we are doomed to society ultimately collapsing once corruption takes hold.  Honourable mentions also go to sessions on monsters in art history, how writers get and refine their ideas, a taster session on metal clay work, and a glorious end-of-con session on writing humour.

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Kate with BB8

If I have one small complaint, it’s that there didn’t seem to be as many sessions on books as in previous years, and some of those in the evening slots proved to be a bit … drier … than I might have expected for that time of night.  (There seemed to be no equivalent of last year’s gloriously hilarious panel discussion on writing sex.)  From talking to one of the organisers, it sounds like there had been some difficulties behind the scenes that may explain it.  I think the new model for organising content tracks may not have helped either.  I really hope that gets sorted for next year.  I love the broad church of fandom that Nine Worlds includes all under one roof, but I’m primarily a lover and reader of books, and if I’m give a choice I will gravitate towards book panels and events.

Photo courtesy of Kate

But as always, the thing that makes Nine Worlds is the people.  Friends make the weekend special, and are the source of all the best memories.  The late night room parties.  Enthusiastic dancing at the Bifrost disco.  Heckling panels via text message.  Cosplay photo shoots where it’s hard to keep a straight face.  But there are also smaller moments of joy too.  Catching up with people you haven’t seen for ages.  Making new friends and planning future shenanigans.  Finding out an author friend has given a character your profession, after a chat you’d had at EasterCon.  But mainly just the simple joy that comes from hanging out together and chatting.

FO:  Two By Two

Recently I did something I’ve never done before: I took part in a gift swap through one of the Ravelry groups I am a member of. it was organised by Lola from Third Vault Yarns.

The rules were pretty simple.  Each of us would take it in turns to host Sadie, a knitted bunny, for two weeks.  At the end of the fortnight Sadie would get posted on to the next person in the chain with some surprise gifts.  There should be one handmade gift, which didn’t have to be knitted, and one shop-bought gift.

I received a beautiful handmade notions pouch with some stitch-markers and a colourful scarf  The pouch is large enough for a small project  and the scarf has quickly become my go-to office wrap for when the air conditioning is fierce or i just feel the need of an extra layer

Unfortunately, the package spent a week at the sorting office waiting to be collected, so I only had a week with Sadie. She missed the chance to come with me to the Sri Lanka Test Match at Lord’s, and I didn’t get to take her on a business trip to The Hague.  But we packed in some fun.

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After spending some time chilling with Baby Groot, I took Sadie to a recording of a Radio 4 comedy called the Now Show, which was doing a special for the EU referendum. The recording was at the beautiful Radio Theatre in Broadcasting House. Unfortunately I couldn’t get any pictures of the auditorium (not allowed).

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But I did get this snap of Sadie meeting a Dalek just outside.

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And later that week Sadie helped me vote in the EU referendum itself.

But it wasn’t long before I had to wave Sadie off on her travels again, this time with gifts from me.

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My handmade gift was this pair of fingerless mitts, made in Rowan RYC Baby Alpaca DK. The pattern is Hands of Blue by Lucy Hague, a Firefly/Serenity-inspired pattern. I love the texture  created by the twisted stitches. I also popped in some handmade stitch markers and a notebook before sending Sadie on her way.

FO: Narcissa socks

It’s been a while since I’ve posted an FO.  So let’s put that right.  Here are my Narcissa Socks.


The pattern is from Knitting Wizardry, which is the UK title of a book of patterns inspired by Harry Potter.  The book was a birthday present from a friend of mine.  When I saw these socks, and that the pattern was by Rachel Coopey – one of my favourite sock knitting designers – I knew they were the first thing I wanted to make from the book.


The complicated lace pattern – and the rash of baby knitting I’ve had to do recently – means these socks took longer to make than I was hoping.  I cast them on in May last year, and finished them early in April.  (That’s nearly a whole year for a pair of socks!)

Plus they’re right and left-footed, with a column of twisted stitches running down the outside of each foot.


The yarn is a beautiful variegated skein of Posh Elinor, in a colourway called Time, Gentlemen Please.  I love the mix of bold blues, with touches of purples and browns in there too.  I’ve had it in my stash for a while, waiting for the perfect project.

Now I just need to work out what to make from the book next.

Arthur C Clarke Award Shortlist 2016

On Wednesday night I was lucky enough to be at the announcement of the shortlist for the 2016 Arthur C Clarke Award.  The announcement took place at the launch even for the Sci-Fi London Film Festival, at Stratford Picturehouse.  There were canapes and I had a badge that entitled me to free wine.  If only it worked for more than just that night.

Award Director Tom Hunter announcing the shortlist

The Clarke Award is in its 30th year.  As a juried award it will always carry a certain cachet  The announcement of the shortlist just 24 hours after the Hugo shortlist was inevitably going to show up the differences.  The Hugos have always been a bit of a popularity contest, even before their recent Puppy-infested controversy.  By contrast, the Clarke Award is a juried award, and it often ends up reflecting a uniquely British take on genre fiction.  I frequently disagree with the judges’ choice of winner, but the shortlist is always an interesting snapshot of the state of genre fiction in the UK that year, and every book is an interesting read.

This year’s shortlist is no different.  The six books announced on the night were:

  • The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Europe at Midnight – Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
  • The Book of Phoenix – Nnedi Okorafor (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Arcadia – Iain Pears (Faber & Faber)
  • Way Down Dark – J.P. Smythe (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Children of Time – Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tor)

It’s a really interesting list and I have a huge amount of respect for the team of judges who have managed to whittle a submissions list of 113 books down to a shortlist of just six.  As Award Director Tom Hunter said, “This is a quintessentially Clarke Award kind of a shortlist. Look once and I’m sure everyone will see a choice they agree with. Look twice, and you’ll likely see a new book you want to read next. Look a third time though, and I hope you’ll see how well all of these six books sit together, and how they represent a particular special moment in time for UK science fiction. In other words, like all great books, this is a shortlist that rewards the more you read into it.”

I’ve read two of them already.  I really enjoyed the Becky Chambers, but it feels a bit lightweight to me for the Clarke.  I’d pegged it more as the kind of book that would be a Hugo contender (though it didn’t make the shortlist).  And even though I found the Tchaikovsky interesting and engaging, I preferred Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora as a colony ship story.  Even if it lacked Tchaikovsky’s super-evolved spiders.

Of the others, I already had Way Down Dark by J P Smythe on the TBR pile.  Much as I love Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, I thought his novel The Machine was far the stronger and more interesting book of that shortlist.  David Hutchinson made the shortlist last year with Europe in Autumn (to which Europe at Midnight is the sequel).  I haven’t yet read it (part of my failed bid to read the Clarke shortlist last year) but I’ll move that one up the list pretty sharpish.

Of the other two, I’m probably most excited by Arcadia.  I really loved An Instance of the Fingerpost by the same author, when I read it several years ago, so I’ll be interested to see how he’s evolved as a writer.  There’s quite the buzz about Arcadia at the moment.  I haven’t yet read any of Nnedi Okorafor’s writing, but I’m looking forward to The Book of Phoenix.  She is gathering a real head of critical praise as a writer.

If you’re interested in sampling the shortlist, by the way, all three of Hodder‘s shortlisted books are on offer on Kindle at the moment. I’m intending to read as many of them as I can between now and the announcement of the winner later this year.

In the meantime,  I’ll leave you with these pictures of some of the awesome cosplay on show on Wednesday night.