Airship Shape and Bristol Fashion is published by Wizard’s Tower Press who also produced the tribute Colinthology. They are a curious publisher who specialise in science fiction and fantasy but don’t want submissions and won’t read them if you send any. This isn’t the only reason they have become a firm favourite, they are also very friendly and are big fans of the south west.
The short stories in the current Roz Clarke and Joanne Hall edited work are Bristolian from title to end. The title is a play on the phrase ‘shipshape and Bristol fashion’, a term dating from 1840 when talking about the treachorous port of Bristol. Its very high tidal range of 13m meant that if things weren’t tied down they would end up overboard.
Not only is the time period fitting to these stories but their genre seems surprisingly apt. “Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery, especially in a setting inspired by industrialized Western civilization during the 19th century.” It all makes for a very respectful tribute to this city. The following quotation from the introduction says it quite nicely:
Take a walk around Bristol, and history seeps from the walls. The city can claim more than its fair share of firsts, including the first iron-hulled steamship, the first female doctor, the first chocolate bar and the first use of nitrous oxide as an anaesthetic, the invention of the Plimsoll line, the first undersea telegraph cable, the world’s first test tube baby and the first transplant organ grown from stem cells, and a large share of the world’s first supersonic airliner. Now, from this fertile ground comes an anthology charting other realities and alternate histories, in a collection as rich and varied as the true history of this great British city.
— Gareth L. Powell
“Not bad for a little city” said Bristol Culture editor, Martin Booth, when I read the above to him and he would add that Bristol is where Ribena was invented too.
Airship Shape and Bristol Fashion doesn’t shy away from the less glamorous aspects of the city such as its slavery connections and the tobacco industry but all is included in a rich Bristol setting.
Two excellent stories from its collection are Joanne Hall’s Brass and Bone which is based in Clifton and touches on the use of the Suspension Bridge in both folklore and local awareness.
The Girl with Red Hair, by Myfanwy Rodman is written so beautifully and hauntingly while making sure to use Bristol to its most picturesque best, never losing sight of its story. Not all the stories are as strong but all are true to their setting.
Eye Contact by Fergus McNeill on the other hand is a debut novel published by the same company that has published Stephen King. They are big and they have money to spare. McNeill’s work is about a serial killer whose method of choosing victims is in the title.
It starts on Severn Beach with a body and then begins from the serial killer’s perspective in Clifton. There is a subtitle in parentheses – DI Harland Book I and it has a sequel, published in 2013, with its follow-up title DI Harland Book II.
As all slickly published and promoted books, these days, there is a trailer.
Eye Contact is set in Bristol but it has no love of the city. At least none more than a passing acquaintance because of the fact that it is set here. Clifton Down, Whiteladies and Starbucks feature prominently in the beginning and even after a walk up to the Clifton Observatory, and the obligatory mention of the Suspension Bridge there is no sense that these characters are part of their setting.
Clifton is an obvious choice of a setting for tourists and casual Bristolians but when a character in Airship Shape and Bristol Fashion visits a pawnbroker on Hobbs Lane then you know you’re reading someone who knows their city.
Eye Contact could be set anywhere without the story changing. The depth of the characters doesn’t go far enough to touch anything more than a curiosity about the plot. The writing is smooth, it’s slick and it’s glib. If you like Peter James then you’ll like Fergus McNeill, and if you love Jeffrey Archer then you’re in for a treat.
For the purposes of this tournament however, there is only one choice for the work that is shipshape and Bristol fashion and it’s the collection of short stories which references many airships. Not bad for a little publisher, who certainly outshone Hodder & Stoughton on this occasion.