Hey, June!

Back in March, Fantasy-Faction’s head honchos (Marc Aplin and Jennie Ivins) asked me to step up and help out with editing duties. Having written regularly for the site since July 2016, I’m familiar with the contributing team and was excited to have an opportunity to assist with acquiring, organising and editing new content. Marc’s day job has kept him away from FF throughout the past few months; when I agreed to step in, Jennie was finally able to take a well-earned break to deal with some important personal issues.

On April 9 – just one year after my grandad’s passing – my grandma died. Those who know me well are aware that this preceded my Annual Mental Breakdown. During the AMB (’17 edition), I threw myself into my new role on FF, despite Jennie’s compassionate offer to let me step away again. I buried myself in my FF editing responsibilities, and did the same with other projects and interactions in an attempt to escape from the fact that I was completely and utterly failing at Real Life.

The usual counselling, medication, GP visits and back-to-work interviews came after, and while I’m still a bit fragile I’m happy to say that the worst has passed.

However, continual involvement in online projects (such as FF) has left me somewhat burned out. Running a site that large is hard, guys – especially when you’re doing it alone. This is why I intend to stay on as assistant editor while handing the main reins back to Jennie. It’s been a challenging and eye-opening three months, but it’s also been a lot of fun. I’d like to say a brief but heartfelt THANK YOU to everyone involved in making my editorial stint such a rewarding experience. You’re amazing.

After sitting down and having a serious think about what I want to do with my life, I’ve realised several things.

  1. My own writing has been suffering for a long time
  2. I enjoy (and am good at) editing, and would like to do more of it
  3. I need to work harder and make big changes in order to fix both of these things

As I’ve already mentioned, I’ve made the decision to step back from my role at Fantasy-Faction for the foreseeable future. While I’m no longer running the show over there, I intend to continue as an active part of the team and of the SFF community whilst focusing more closely on my own writing and editing.

Here are some of the things I will still be doing:

  • Co-ordinating the SPFBO effort on Fantasy-Faction
  • Building a client base for my freelance editing/proofreading business
  • Reading, critiquing and/or reviewing the few beta projects & ARCs I’ve already committed myself to
  • Writing my own book!

Mr Hughes and I are also moving house in a couple of weeks. While this is currently making everyday life even more stressful, we’re both looking forward to it, and I intend to do whatever I can to make the most of our fresh start. With that in mind, I’ve set up a Patreon page (which you can check out here) which will hopefully enable me to realise my own goals while continuing to support self-published fantasy authors.

Thanks again to the amazing friends and family who’ve put up with me during the last few months. <3

NEW: Editing Services

It’s official: my editing services are now available for hire! I’m offering high-quality line editing, copy editing and proofreading at competitive rates, with a focus on self-published fantasy fiction. I’m even offering a 20% discount to participants (past and present!) in the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off! Check out this page for details, rates, and testimonials.

Head over to the page for full details. Please feel free to contact me should you wish to see my CV – and please don’t hesitate to spread the word about my new venture!


A Beginner’s Guide to Malazan Characters: Deadhouse Gates

The awesome folk at Tor.com have just published my fifth article over there! A Beginner’s Guide to Malazan Characters: Deadhouse Gates is a follow-up to last year’s guide to Gardens of the Moon.

Once again, there’s a whole bunch of fabulous artwork to accompany it, and I’d encourage you to check out all of these brilliant artists on DeviantArt!

Interview with Ben Galley

Ben Galley is an award-winning fantasy author from the UK. He is the author of the epic Emaneska Series, the weird-west Scarlet Star Trilogy and the brand new standalone The Heart of Stone. When he’s not dreaming up lies to tell his readers, Ben works as a self-publishing consultant, helping fellow authors to self-publish and sell their books at www.shelfhelp.info. He joined me recently on Fantasy-Faction to chat about his latest release. Here’s what he had to say!

The Heart of Stone (cover)

Thanks for joining us, Ben!

Firstly, congratulations on your latest release. The Heart of Stone has met with praise across the SFF community – including right here on Fantasy-Faction! For those who’re unfamiliar with the book, can you tell us a little bit about it?

Thank you for having me! The Heart of Stone is a new grimdark standalone centred around a non-human protagonist – a golem called Task. He’s an ancient war-machine that has been bought by the losing side of a civil war. As well as being an unstoppable, nine-foot lump of stone, he’s a complex creature who has spent all his 400+ years serving the whims of humans and winning their wars for them. To put it bluntly, he’s pretty fed up of us, and just wants to get on with the ugly business of battle. However, a waif of a stable girl has other ideas for him.

Let’s talk about Task, then. What made you choose a golem to be the hero of your story? (Also, who would win in a three-way fight between Task, Smaug and Wun-Wun the giant?)

First of all, I needed something pretty formidable for the battlefield. A golem seemed to fit that role very well, especially as they rely on brute strength and their composition to break things, rather than magic or spells. They’re also exclusively man-made, which gives them a bond to a creator or a master. That gave Task his leash, so to speak, whereas with demons or dragons or any of the beasts I’ve used before, it’s hard to bind them to us lesser mortals in an entirely convincing way.

The other reasons was due to the intrinsic humanity that’s prevalent through all golem mythology I researched. There is a fragility to a golem that comes not only from their in-built weakness and ownership but from the fact they are always one step away from being human, and yet can never quite take that step. Because of this, there’s an internal struggle within a golem, and that suited Task’s mindset perfectly.

As for the big old fight, of course I’m going to say Task. He’d sit by and let the giant and the dragon go at it until Smaug turned Wun-Wun to cinders. Then, being stone, Task would endure the old drake’s fire until he was all out. At that point, Task would most likely go and snap his pompous little neck.

Ha! Now that reminds me – I’m a huge fan of Shale, the playable golem companion in Dragon Age: OriginsStone Prisoner’ expansion. Unlike Task, Shale enjoys crushing things… especially birds, mages and anyone who tries to give it orders. Which fictional depiction(s) of golems had the most influence on creating Task’s personality?

Sadly I’ve yet to play Dragon Age, so Shale wasn’t an influence during the book’s creation, but it’s now firmly on my to-be-played list thanks to you! I actually struggled to find a huge number of golems in fiction, so the characters I looked to instead were Ben Grimm/The Thing from Fantastic Four, and the rockbiter Pyornkrachzark (yeah, I had to look that up) from The Neverending Story. Both these characters struggled with loss – be it their freedom, their strength, or their humanity. Physically, they were what I initially imagined for Task – big, imposing beasts of thick and gnarled stone. However, as I got further into the book, and started working with my cover designer Shawn, I realised Task should look more refined than this, perhaps a little more like Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still remake. And so, the personality of Task stayed, but the outer shell changed to fit with the cover. I’ve never done that before, but the artwork was so good it retroactively inspired me to make those changes.

The Heart of Stone (detail)I remember the buzz surrounding the cover reveal last year; it was incredible, as is Shawn Kings design. How much influence did you have in the cover-creation process, Ben – and how far do you think The Heart of Stone’s cover has impacted its overall success?

Whenever I’m giving advice to fellow authors, I always say that professionalism and quality are paramount. The book cover, almost always being the first port of call for a reader, is arguably the most important aspect of a book. For my first standalone, and for what I believe to be my best work yet, I knew I had to pull out all the stops. Shawn King’s work had already caught my eye, and I knew he would be the perfect artist for the job. He completely understood Task, and he nailed his physical appearance, as I mentioned above. That’s definitely been a huge help in building buzz and getting the book noticed. Everybody that’s seen it has been so impressed with the artwork, and I don’t think as many early readers or reviewers would have said yes without it, despite its concept and protagonist. Here’s hoping the innards of the book are equally as impressive!

It’s clearly very different in style from your earlier work. Speaking of which…

Emaneska by Ben GalleyYou have two completed series under your belt. What led you to begin work on your debut, The Written? How would you describe the Emaneska Series – and would you recommend it as a starting point for new readers?

The Written was as much a foray into fantasy as it was a career move for me. I’d had the idea of writing a grimmer sort of high fantasy for a few years, and one night, watching BBC’s Merlin, I got so enraged at the pre-watershed nicety of it, I decided to plan out a book. I had the idea of a mage with a spell-book tattooed right into his back, making spells intrinsic but brutal on both the caster and unwitting victim. And so, Farden the Written mage was born that night. His story, and the world I built around him, led me on to write a four book series. It also marked the point when I decided to jump into the publishing industry, and make a grab for my dream of being an author. As well as Farden, that goal was what helped me to churn out those debut books.

Would I recommend it? Absolutely! I’m very proud of the Emaneska Series, but there’s a part of me that can’t help but cringe over it now that my style and skill have progressed. It’s definitely me being too close to my own work, however, so I still frequently recommend it to readers who are interested in dark, epic fantasies that span decades and continents.

Bloodrush (cover)Your best-known book is (arguably) Bloodrush. Now, I can’t help but notice that reviews of this novel – and the rest of the Scarlet Star Trilogy – often tend to include the word ‘weird’. How would you describe this series, and who would you recommend it to? (In other words, is ‘weird’ an insult or a compliment?)

Definitely a compliment. I think it comes down to the trilogy straddling a few genres, and so calling it weird is probably easier. First of all, it is described as “weird west”. At the same time, it’s also an alternate history series, set in a twisted 1867. It’s also a little steampunk, and the eponymous magic system is quite… out there. So yes, it is weird, but weird is good in my book (badoom tish).

I’d recommend it to any reader who wants a fantasy series that’s a little closer to the real world, or who enjoy a younger protagonist and a wide range of POVs. It’s also very fast-paced, with lots of intertwined mysteries, and also very magic-centric.

Small wonder it did so well in the inaugural Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off! (As readers may already know, Bloodrush reached second place, missing out on the top spot (which is determined by average score, and went to Michael McClung for The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble’s Braids) by just 0.25.) Ben, how did this affect you at the time? And in what ways has it impacted you since 2015?

For starters, I prefer “vice-winner”, and I shout the name of Michael McClung from the rooftops at least once a week, Kahn-style…

Of course, I jest, and in all seriousness, it was a fantastic opportunity and a pleasure to be ranked so highly. Bloodrush got a huge amount of visibility from it, and fantastic reviews from reviewers that might not have reviewed me without being in the competition. It also boosted the sales of the sequels, and other books too. It’s all about little steps when you’re marketing your own books, but the SPFBO felt like one big step to me, and in a great direction.

Speaking of steps, you’ll no doubt be aware that the SPFBO2 is in its final stages. Which authors (if any) have caught your eye? (Are you rooting for anyone in particular?)

Oho, that’s a toughie, as I’m honoured (and occasionally disturbed) to know a good number of the finalists. Currently, I’ve got my eye on Paternus, The Grey Bastards, and The Path of Flames.

You’re not the only one!

If there happens to be a SPFBO3 . . . how likely is it that we’ll Task in there, fighting to claim the top spot with The Heart of Stone? (EDIT 23/5/17: there is! And he is!)

He’s got his sights set on that top spot, as he’s keen to embarrass Merion from Bloodrush. Golems also don’t come second.

Regardless of contests or rankings, I have to say congratulations on living the dream as a full-time, self-published writer. Having managed to make a successful, self-sufficient career from self-publishing, I guess you could say you’re the ‘model’ self-published author. I’m sure you’re tired of people asking this, but… why self-publishing?

Thank you! That means a hell of a lot.

Over the years, I’ve distilled it down into the answer of, “because I bloody love it”. I’ve always been an independent person and somewhat of an entrepreneur, and so self-publishing fits me perfectly. I get to control every part of the polishing process, and then decide how a book’s going to be published. Not only that, I have more flexibility and agility in the meantime. Is it better than the traditional route? No, not better, but not worse, just different. The point is that authors now have the choice, and I will forever be grateful for that.

Shelf Help by Ben GalleyIn addition to being pretty prolific, you also help others find success through your business as a self-publishing consultant. How is it that you manage to put in all this extra work *and* produce quality, full-length novels on such a regular basis? What’s your secret to your success, dammit?

The ultra top-secret secret is basically a 12-16 hour working day, during which I’m flitting between writing, marketing and admin, normally in that order. I always put writing first. If I don’t get my words down for the day, I won’t do any marketing or admin until I have. It also takes a bit of discipline, such as knowing where to spend your time, and making sure you structure your day accordingly. That’s why every morning I ask myself, “what’s the most important thing to me today?”, and then plan around that. That, and being surgically attached to an iPhone and iPad also helps, as I can work anywhere at any time. Before I left work to focus on books, that’s how I got my writing done – either writing on my phone or emailing myself snippets. I actually wrote most of The Written on my mobile when I worked behind bars.

I’m going to go ahead and assume that when you say ‘behind bars’ you’re not talking about the cylindrical iron kind. If you don’t mind me saying, you definitely come across as more of an accomplished geek than a hardened convict . . . Which reminds me: Marc Aplin recently published a (somewhat controversial) article about the importance of social media in which he declared that author ‘branding’ on social media is just as important as (if not more so than) the actual quality of their writing. What are your thoughts?

That’s another tough one, as I believe the whole publishing game, both indie and trad, comes down to how you make the reader feel, page by page. Yes, quality covers, professional editing, marketing and a brand all have a part to play, but the writing is still the core part of success. It doesn’t have to be the most excellent writing (cough, 50 Something, cough) but it simply has to evoke emotion. I’m not saying I’m a fantastic writer whatsoever, but I spend a lot of time crafting my plots, worlds and characters to ensure they do this, then I bundle it all up inside a professional, branded package. Saying that, from a discovery point of view, you’re not going to know a book’s worth without being convinced to have a read. That’s where the brand and social reach come into play, and that’s why I agree with a lot of what Marc wrote.

Our Overlord is wise indeed, and I certainly agree that ‘discovery’ is one of the toughest aspects of self-publishing. That said, would you consider taking a different publishing route in the future? Small-press? Traditional? Owl post?

I make it a rule to always consider anything that adds to the success of my books, or for me as an author. Although I’m a huge proponent of self-publishing, I hold the fantasy imprints and houses in high esteem, and it would be great to work with them at some point in the future. There are aspects of the self-pub route that traditional publishers are just better equipped for. However, it would have to be a good deal, or for a book (or books) that I’ve written with traditional or small press publishing in mind.

Ben GalleyBack to your books, then. You’ve made it quite clear that The Heart of Stone is a standalone. However, you’ve also dropped cryptic hints on social media about your current WIP, Chasing Graves. Can you give us a clue as to what sort of story it is? (Also, is there *no* chance at all of seeing more Alabast and Lesky in the future?)

Chasing Graves started life in December as another standalone, as the single-story bug bit me pretty hard after finishing The Heart of Stone. A few months on, and as you might have seen from social, it’s now stretched into another trilogy of books. I can safely say it’s got nothing to do with Heart of Stone. Instead, it’s a new world with strong Egyptian influences, all about a society that revolves around the enslavement of the dead. It’s a concept that’s been rattling around my noggin for a few years now, and I had to get it out.

As for Task, I will be writing a few short stories based in the world, exploring some of his formative years, and I think I may do a few for Alabast and Lesky too, set after the climax of the novel. As for an ETA on those, it will most likely be after Chasing Graves is done and dusted in May/June.

Finally: if you were a golem, what material would you be made from, and why?

The flesh of my fallen enemies. Or perhaps gold. That would be gangster.

It . . . certainly would. Thanks, Ben!

Ben can be found being loquacious and attempting to be witty on Twitter (@BenGalley), Facebook (@BenGalleyAuthor) or at his website www.bengalley.com. The Heart of Stone is available to buy RIGHT NOW.

 The Heart of Stone

SPFBO3: Blog Harder (With a Vengeance)

SPFBO BannerMark Lawrence has done it again. And by ‘it’, I mean kicked off another bollock-chillingly thrilling round of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, aka. SPFBO3 (Check out my updated SPFBO page for more details and a brief run-down of what the contest is all about, as well as links to other related articles.)spfbo-lauramhughes-small

In the meantime, here’s some banners I cobbled together. Feel free to share, download, use, mock, lick, shit on, etc., however you see fit. And if you’re on Twitter, be sure to check out the #SPFBO hashtag!

(Click on each image for an enlarged version.)

Red Sister by Mark Lawrence – review on Tor.com!

Check it! I reviewed the incredible RED SISTER by Mark Lawrence over on Tor.com.

If you haven’t read the book yet, read it NOW!

‘Relics’ by Tim Lebbon

‘I like the fact there can be so many secret places in a city filled with people. It gives me hope.’

‘Hope for what?’

Dean frowned, unsure. He searched for the words. ‘For wonder,’ he said at last. ‘Mysteries. Mysteries are important, don’t you think?’

Mystery. Wonder. Secrets. If you recall, these are three things which also happen to characterise Fantasy-Faction’s pick for the SPFBO final – aka. Paternus by Dyrk Ashton – in which a young woman discovers that mythological creatures are alive and kicking in present-day America.

You might notice some aspects of Ashton’s quirky tale mirrored in Tim Lebbon’s latest offering, Relics, which tells the story of a woman who gets the shock of her life when she runs into walking, talking legends while searching for her AWOL fella in modern-day London. I’m sure you’ll agree that in terms of premise they’re similar enough to warrant the comparison. However, they differ greatly when it comes to execution.

Unlike Paternus, which is fast-paced and packed with mythology and monsters from the beginning, Relics doesn’t really kick off until the halfway mark. In fact, it takes around 30% of the book for anything to happen. Perhaps a lack of familiarity with the urban fantasy/thriller subgenres meant that my own preconceptions were unrealistic, but I expected the story to start with a bang and instead found it somewhat lacklustre – not to mention needlessly convoluted.

Let’s start with the daft subplot about rival gangsters, which wouldn’t feel out of place in a Matthew Reilly novel and which I can only describe as ‘random’.

‘I want you to see something.’

‘And what’s that?’ Angela asked.

‘My fairy.’ The woman’s gaze did not falter. […]

‘Boring,’ Angela said. ‘Already saw an angel today.’

That’s an exchange between one of the said gangsters and Relics’s protagonist, Angela Gough, who just happens to be studying for a PhD in Criminology. For all the emphasis on how her past research has made her aware or these people’s terrifying reputations, Angela’s sullen attitude and cocky behaviour when meeting them is totally at odds with the fear she feels in the pages leading up to these meetings. Inconsistencies like these mean she’s not easy to sympathise with, or to understand; her motives are all over the place, and her character arc is riddled with little contradictions.Relics by Tim Lebbon

Initially, Angela seems like a modern, independent woman in a healthy, long-term relationship with a modern, independent man (Vince). No unnecessary drama, no shock-value domestic abuse; just two protagonists we can quietly root for. But later – when Angela starts dreaming about Vince proposing to her (despite saying earlier that she wasn’t interested in marriage), and lamenting the fact that Vince never wanted to start a family – the author brushes on tired old tropes of ‘the long-term girlfriend’, which naffed me off massively. In her dream of the ‘perfect evening’ with Vince, Angela actually ends the conversation by saying, ‘I suppose you’ll want sex now.’ That one line of dialogue contains negative stereotypes of both genders, which I found infuriating; it’s as if the author couldn’t help but assume that ALL women think and behave in these ways, even when there are bigger things at stake. It’s for these reasons that I didn’t give very much of a damn about Angela until much later.

Thankfully, I didn’t abandon the book (though I was tempted to on several occasions). And while it still (for me) doesn’t entirely live up to what it seems to promise (the ‘black market’ mentioned in the blurb is merely a sketchy plot device; Lebbon never really explains what people do with the titular relics, or who is interested in them, apart from a couple of sadistic ‘collectors’ who also happen to be notorious London gangsters, because of course they bloody do.), it delivers in other, unexpected, ways.

‘Our Time ended so long ago, and since then we’ve been creatures of shadows. We’re tales told around campfires, legends passed down through the generations. We’re whispers and glimpses. You’ll find us in storybooks and make-believe films, but through it all we’re in hiding.

‘If we’re fiction, we’re left alone. […] If we’re fact, we’re hunted.’

Though we only meet a handful of the remaining ‘Kin’ (including Lilou, who just happens to be the best POV character in the book), one of Relics’s most enjoyable quirks is the way it subverts our expectations about mythical characters (again, very much like Paternus). For example, a quick Google search of ‘satyr’ paints a picture of a half-man, half-goat, one who’s young, drunk and constantly randy. Lebbon’s satyr, on the other hand – the psychopathic Ballus – suffers from erectile dysfunction, and loves nothing more than to crunch people’s skulls beneath his hooves, and dwells in an abandoned swimming pool with the dismembered remains of creatures he’s murdered. Carousing, fornication, or even solidarity with his fellows could not be further from this satyr’s mind.

‘Don’t make the mistake of thinking we’re all alike. Do you assume that a satyr thinks the same as a nymph bitch? You think this satyr—‘ he tapped his gray, hairy chest ‘—thinks the same as any other satyr? Don’t paint me with the same brush. I’m unique. I’m Ballus.’

Add to that a nymph who does her best to avoid being attractive, and a Nephilim who is monstrously un-angelic in both appearance and personality, and you have characters who are less alien and somehow more like flawed humans – just as some of Lebbon’s humans are clearly more bestial by nature than the creatures they hunt.

At this point I feel like I should probably add that if you don’t like seeing foxes get ripped in half (or people being tied to chairs and then bludgeoned with decomposing body parts), then Relics is probably not the book for you.

We’ll be fine. […] We’ve got wonders on our side.’

‘One of those wonders gored me with a dead thing’s splintered thighbone.’

‘Nobody’s perfect.’

As you can probably tell, I enjoyed (and would recommend) Relics in spite of my earlier complaints, which were largely a result of the high expectations I had going in. Plenty of people will be familiar with the author, Tim Lebbon (who is primarily a horror writer), and will likely have heard of his work even if they haven’t read it. After seeing the press release for Relics (not to mention admiring that striking, ominous black and blood-red cover design) I fully expected to be thrilled, and was disappointed to find that the supernatural elements are virtually non-existent until a good chunk of the story has gone by (and the fact that we spend much of that time following the protagonist, Angela, as she wanders around her apartment, goes out for coffee and occasionally talks to her friend also makes Relics a bit of a chore to read at times).

But if anyone picks this one up and discovers the same issues, rest assured that your patience will be rewarded when the sh*t finally hits the fan. Relics is an urban fantasy thriller, with a killer climax and some smart twists on classic myths and legends. A few more twists on tropes and characters, too, would have made it much more recommendable; as it is, it’s relatively fun, harmless pulp that many of you will probably enjoy.

Unless you’re a fox.

This review originally appeared on Fantasy-Faction on March 12, 2017.

‘Ex-Heroes’ by Peter Clines

There really isn’t that much to say about Peter Clines’ Ex-Heroes other than that it’s full of zombies, superheroes and fun. (Think X-Men meets The Walking Dead.)

The Mighty Dragon. Stealth. Gorgon. Regenerator. Cerberus. Zzzap.

They were superheroes fighting to make Los Angeles a better place.

Then the plague of living death spread. Billions died, civilization fell, and the City of Angels was left a desolate zombie wasteland.

But the ex-humans aren’t the only threats the heroes face. Another group is amassing power . . . led by an enemy with the most terrifying ability of all.

In a post-apocalyptic future where the majority of the world’s population are zombies – or ‘ex-humans’ – a small community struggle to survive in their makeshift ‘town’ (a converted film studio in Los Angeles). Beset from all sides by millions of ‘exes’ and the remnants of a mean LA gang called the SS, the survivors are almost wholly dependent on the help of a group of superheroes.

That’s right. Superheroes.

'Ex-Heroes' by Peter ClinesSt. George can fly and breathe fire. Gorgon can drain the strength from his opponents just by making eye contact. Stealth is a super-fast ninja who can blend with her surroundings. Cerberus has a kick-ass metal suit with cannons loaded onto the arms, and Regenerator can heal both himself and others with a touch. (They’re basically the Avengers, but somehow cooler.) The heroes have to work together to protect the survivors against a new threat: someone is co-ordinating the ex-humans, giving minds to the mindless and making them more dangerous than ever. And this mysterious someone has a personal grudge against one of our heroes . . .

I honestly can’t remember the last time I had this much fun reading a book. The heroes are all hugely likeable – my personal favourites were Gorgon, Zzzap, and of course St. George – and there’s a great blend of excitement, humour, horror and pathos. The action scenes are frequent and imaginative, and the author manages to strike a perfect balance between ridiculous and brilliant when it comes to the exaggerated powers of the superheroes. Just awesome.

This review was originally posted on halfstrungharp.com on 19th April 2014.lauramhughes-sig

‘The Ninth Rain’ by Jen Williams

Writing fantasy fiction is about asking ourselves, ‘What if?

When writing The Ninth Rain, I imagine Jen Williams asked herself much the same thing. What if Tolkien’s elves began to lose their immortality? What might happen if they The Ninth Rain by Jen Williamsrealised that drinking human blood could partially restore it? What if they then realised that the blood infected all who drank it with a wasting disease known as the Crimson flux – and that now their species is dying out faster than ever? What if witches were not only locked away, but their abilities exploited to produce drugs which their captors then deal and become rich?

As you may have gathered by now, The Ninth Rain is Jen Williams doing what she does best: traditional tropes with a twist. Like many aspects of her Copper Cat trilogy, the tropes in The Ninth Rain are recognisable, yet strange. For example: when Williams introduces the Eborans – an unnaturally beautiful, long-lived race who keep themselves separate from mere mortals – readers might roll their eyes and mutter ‘elves’. In a dark spin on the traditional, Williams takes the Tolkien-esque elves (and other wonders) and filters them through her own unique imagination. She then takes what’s left in the filter – the grit, the dirt, the uncomfortable, the bitter and the hard-to-chew – and mixes it with all kinds of unlikely ingredients with the experimental skill and competence of a chemist.

It was the Wild, festering behind gigantic walls. Enormous trees loomed over them, strange twisted things, their branches intertwining and spiralling around each other, as though they were blind and reaching out for their neighbours. Noon saw bark of grey, black and red, leaves of a diseased green , running with yellow spots. There were mushrooms too, bloated things like corpses left in the water too long, bursting from the trunks of the strange trees or erupting out of the black earth. It was already an overcast day, and dismal light within the compound was strained and jaundiced, almost as though it were an afterthought. A deep feeling of unease seemed to ooze from the deep shadows that pooled around every tree.

Atmospheric settings such as this form an eerily beautiful, almost sentient backdrop to the huge chunk of the book that’s focused on archaeology. Much of the plot revolves around the discovery and exploration of alien artefacts; this ‘treasure hunt’ is led by Lady Vintage de Grazon, who also happens to be one of the most engaging (and entertaining!) protagonists I’ve had the pleasure of spending time with lately. In fact, each of Williams’s three main POVs are portrayed in a very human way, so it’s easy to forget (despite consistent yet unintrusive reminders to the contrary) that Vintage’s companions are, essentially, a lich and a vampire-elf. On the flip side, infrequent glimpses into the minds of the antagonists remind us that so, too, are their enemies only human, and that regular people will do terrible things given sufficient motivation.laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

Someone much smarter than I am could probably write at length about the subtexts and deeper meanings running through The Ninth Rain; the theme of prejudice sustained with violence; of appearances vs. reality; of parasites, and the possibly unjustified stigma of consenting, symbiotic relationships between individuals, and between a planet and its population. Williams also layers her tale with metaphors for all kinds of things – sexual repression, hypocrisy, our responsibility to protect the natural world instead of destroying it – but she never throws it in your face. The fact that all these issues are brought up (if not dealt with) without sounding preachy is another huge mark in the author’s favour.

All in all, Williams has crafted a well-paced story set in a fascinatingly original world that foregrounds a small cast of diverse and irresistibly flawed characters. Though slow to start, The Ninth Rain is rarely less than compelling, and is unquestionably a strong introduction to the Winnowing Flame trilogy. Engaging and exciting, The Ninth Rain is Jen Williams at her absolute finest.