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There and Back Again: A Novice Con-Goer’s Tale

Prologue

No, I don’t live in a hole in the ground, but I do live in Devon, which bears a remarkable resemblance to the green and sheltered Shire. But even before Gandalf came calling, I’d heard tell of a land beyond the, erm, Salisbury Plains, a land containing vast treasures of tote bags and books, free alcohol and genre writers. And the lure of fame and glory proved too much. I wanted my fourteenth share.

Dispensing for the moment with Tolkienian simile, I decided it was time to get out and about in the big city and meet some fellow humans. This summer, London played host to several high-profile events sandwiched between two major SFF conventions: Nine Worlds and Loncon3. Here follows a novice’s account of her time spent among cosplayers and writers, artists and publishers, how she drank more than was good for her and ate a few too many hotdogs. Ok, not as glamorous as fighting giant spiders or barrel-riding, but I’ll take what I can get.

Chapter 1: Nine Worlds

Nine WorldsThe day before Nine Worlds, I drove the 170-odd miles to set up camp at my Aunt’s place near Heathrow. I was carrying several key items in my luggage: hand gel to fend off con crud (spectacular fail), books to get signed (spectacular win), sensible shoes for sword fighting and a plethora of tote bags in which to stash loot. All items selected after careful reading of informative articles posted on the blogs of publishers and veteran con-goers. As it transpired, I returned with four extra tote bags, having failed to foresee this popular freebie, a felt pigeon ‘borrowed’ from the display at Loncon (please don’t kill me), and my own special version of con crud. Not a bad haul, but I could have done without the crud.

I was a little nervous turning up on my own at the fairly grand Radisson, Heathrow. The marble-floored entrance hall was already dotted with myriad people, some of whom were unwitting mortals caught up in something they didn’t understand. A truly frightening Alien ambled past Wonder Woman and a pair of girls sporting Star Wars t-shirts – I seized upon the latter and mined them for information about the registration process.

The badges were obtained and we parted ways. I wasn’t alone for very long, however, before a man wearing a Cyberman head shirt began waving at me from the middle of the entrance hall. Of course it was the hugging legend that is Edward Cox, whose excellent book, The Relic Guild, is out this month. Buy it. While we made friends with the bar, I was mentally listing all the panels I was going to attend, being the good newbie con-goer that I am. Nine Worlds had a superb selection and that first day, I learned about Urban Fantasy, Time Travel and Writing the Inhuman.

Scott Lynch sigWe had the best entertainment in the Dragons vs Werewolves vs Vampires vs Warlocks panel, a death-match fought by expert warriors Joanne Harris, Gail Carriger, Elizabeth Bear and Scott Lynch, all of whom were kept in check by the unflappable Anne Perry. From the state of my Locke Lamora book, I suspect Scott took his defeat at the hands of Elizabeth Bear pretty hard.

I rather enjoyed Spock Vs the Sorcerers, billed as the ultimate smackdown between sci-fi and fantasy, (sci-fi won – BOO), and the panel on Epic Fantasy was a lot of fun – more Bear and Lynch, and smoothly moderated by Den Patrick. Several panels and visits to the dealers room later, I ran across the Goblin King himself (or herself as it transpired), but since I am not as pretty as Jennifer Connolly, I had to restrict my encounter with Jareth to the giving of a blue cosplay token. Saturday culminated in the Gollancz Party (Gollancz seems to have a lot of parties), home of the now infamous Macarena. I blame Ed Cox for getting me involved.

Sunday came and went in a geeky blaze of glory and all in all, I was pretty sad to be leaving Nine Worlds, where lots of amazing people let me hang out with them. However, I did take a Smaug-sized hoard of free books away as a consolation, and I am now a pro-water-dancer, as evidenced by this sword gifted by Syrio Forel himself.

Signed Sword

Chapter 2: Fantasy in the Court and GollanczFest

Fantasy In The CourtBefore Loncon3 kicked off at the end of the following week, there were two more genre events to attend: Fantasy in the Court and GollanczFest (what did I say about Gollancz and parties?). Sponsored by Tor UK and Harper Voyager, FITC was held in Goldsboro Books, which specialises in various beautiful editions. It was my first time in Cecil Court, as I’m not a Londoner, and if you’re of a literary bent and haven’t been before, I recommend a visit, as it’s a place that just has to be full of portals and secrets. There was free wine, books and LOTS of genre authors = winning combination. I met Joe Abercrombie *unprofessional squeal* and had a long conversation with the talents that are Joanne Harris and Samantha Shannon, while Sam Eades sneakily topped up my wine to dangerous levels.

Patrick Rothfuss (GollanczFest)I had barely twenty-four hours to recover before it was off to Waterstones Piccadilly for GollanczFest. I had to make a tough call over which room to choose – the first room hosted SFF greats such as Adam Roberts and Connie Willis. However, with a book out next year, I opted to support my fellow débuts and instead watched an interview with Gollancz authors Den Patrick, Edward Cox, John Hornor Jacobs and Jon Wallace. Joanne Harris opened with a reading, Sarah Pinborough eloquently grilled Joe Hill, and the elusive Patrick Rothfuss – whose beard I swear is sentient – entertained everyone with a Q&A to round off the evening. Again I was surrounded by free wine and books. What more could one want? For those that aren’t in the know, there is a BAR – yes, an actual bar – at the top of Waterstones Piccadilly. To put this in perspective, our little shop in Exeter has a Costa and a toilet. Suffice to say, I am slightly jealous.

Chapter 3: Loncon

Loncon 3And then it was time for the epic convention of Loncon3. Armed with my Nine Worlds knowledge, I relocated to Romford (thank you again, Auntie), and ventured onto the DLR for the first time – a smooth experience once I learned not to get off at Custom House. Based in the vast Excel Centre, Loncon bore little resemblance to the cosiness of Nine Worlds. The average age of participants jumped about thirty years, which in itself is representative of the established institution that is Worldcon. I was stunned by the scale of the thing and perhaps for this reason I preferred Nine Worlds.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Loncon. I managed one panel (for shame) during the three days I was there and spent the rest of the time drinking cider, eating dodgy hotdogs / burgers and getting told off by various jobsworths: the self-appointed gatekeepers of the dealers hall. Still, there were over 600 items on the schedule, which meant there was something for everyone. One of my more poignant memories is trying to crash the Gollancz party, where entry had to be sanctioned by a scary woman with a list of names. If you weren’t on the list, you weren’t getting in. A few of us snuck in later, of course, once the wine had started to flow…

Interlude: George and Robin

This was a one-off night billed by Harper Voyager as world-exclusive. Despite the price tag, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to watch (arguably) the two greatest living fantasy authors in conversation. The Freemasons Hall in Holborn played grand host to George RR Martin and Robin Hobb, who attracted an impressive crowd of 1200. Editor extraordinaire Jane Johnson’s interview questions were well-chosen and it was fascinating to hear both authors speak about their roots and the origins of their writing careers. For superb and detailed coverage of the event, see Fantasy-Faction’s own article right here.

GRRM and Robin Hobb

Afterwards, I even bumped into some of the members of the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club (SRFC), a group of like-minded people who gather every month in London to casually talk, well, fantasy. Founders Den and Jen explain it all on Pornokitsch.

Chapter 4: FantasyCon

I’m writing this final chapter on the train home, having spent the last four days in beautiful York surrounded by people who love fantasy as much as I do – a fact that would have greatly cheered my geeky teenage loner self. FantasyCon was the smallest of the conventions I attended this summer, but it couldn’t have taken place in more appropriate environs. York is full of mead and swords, crossbows and drinking horns, and old, old walls. In fact, two people – I won’t name them in case they come after me – left the city armed with dual blades inspired by certain Tolkienian weapons.

Jen Williams sigI restored my convention integrity by attending no fewer than four and a half panels whose subjects ranged from working class heroes to chosen ones. It would have been good to see a little more happening on the Friday and Sunday, but at least I got to explore some of York in the obliging September sun. As it was, I’ve taken away some treasured memories: a hysterical curry experience in Micklegate Street (Jen Williams testifies to the bizarreness of York town centre on a Saturday night), attending an epic edition of Super Relaxed Fantasy Club where I heard some excellent readings, and a blurry but amusing recollection of the Gollancz (again!) karaoke, at which several people invariably embarrassed themselves.

Epilogue

Of course, none of these cons could have happened without the dozens of organisers and volunteers who put in so much time and effort. Nine Worlds was especially inclusive socially and I always felt at ease there. It’s at events like these that you realise how many genuinely lovely people there are in the SFF community, who do their best to make everyone feel welcome and valued. As a newcomer, it was reassuring to witness the kind of camaraderie that exists between writers, readers, fans and industry professionals, and wonderful to experience it first-hand. Thank you all for making me welcome.

Did I have the most amazing time? Yes. Am I going to spend the same obscene amount of money on cons in 2015? Probably. As Ed Cox so kindly reminded me after I teased him about being on panels with scarily famous authors: it will be your turn next year. Gulp. Perhaps I’ll stay in the Shire after all.

Title image by Matt Farrow.

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