Here they are: the first five eliminations from our SPFBO batch over at Fantasy-Faction! We’ll be back in three weeks or so with another five . . .
Here they are: the first five eliminations from our SPFBO batch over at Fantasy-Faction! We’ll be back in three weeks or so with another five . . .
If you’re wondering why the name sounds familiar, it’s because Paternus was our pick to be a finalist in last year’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. Since then there’s been lots of ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ over whether or not the original cover did this crazy-arsed novel justice. Ashton finally decided to make the switch!
It looks AMAZING, guys. Check it out!
And here’s some Paternus-based wallpaper by John Anthony Di Giovanni!
Mark 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.)
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.)
This review originally appeared on Fantasy-Faction on 20 January 2017.
You may recognise this book. You should recognise this book. At least, you should if you’ve been following the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off and/or are part of Fantasy-Faction’s social media circles.
I myself have been desperately enamoured with Benedict Patrick’s debut novel since I first laid eyes on its cover last year. Jenny Zemanek did such a stellar job of its design that They Mostly Come Out at Night came joint-second in the SPFBO2 cover contest (ahead of 297 others!), tying with Timandra Whitecastle’s Touch of Iron and losing out by only two votes to Michael Miller’s The Dragon’s Blade.
To Patrick, it must seem as though he’s cursed to always be the ‘almost’ winner: They Mostly Come out at Night seriously impressed SPFBO judge Sarah Chorn of Bookworm Blues (who called it ‘delightfully weird’ and ‘completely unique’) in the first round, but once again missed out on becoming a finalist by a hair’s breadth. (In case you’re wondering, Sarah’s finalist was Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma by Brian O’Sullivan, which I also reviewed for Fantasy-Faction not too long ago).
But ‘not winning’ is by no means the same as ‘losing’. In an industry where a hundred thousand subjective tastes blend (and clash…) to determine the overall ‘quality’ of a piece of writing, success is not easily quantified. Is success at the Olympics defined only by who took home a gold medal? Of course not. There are all sorts of other considerations: age; level of experience; personal circumstances; even the conditions on the day of the event. Likewise, as patronising as it sounds, there are many, many authors who’ve entered the SPFBO and emerged as ‘winners’ regardless of where – or even if – they placed overall. And Benedict Patrick is one of them.
I’ve said before that self-published novels are judged using different standards to others; that reviewers are much more likely to consider and comment on details such as cover art, copyediting, and even typesetting. Unfair as this seems, it does help the average potential reader to easily distinguish the naff from the good . . . and the good from the great.
Let me assure you that, in all respects, They Mostly Come out at Night is as professional a book as you’ll find in today’s market, regardless of platform or publisher. Layout, design, cover, editing – every technical aspect is stunningly sharp, from the precise detail of the chapter headings to the bold, striking cover art. I’m sure readers will agree that such accomplishment deserves to be not only acknowledged, but spotlighted too.
In fact, while we’re here, can we just take a moment to appreciate the gorgeousness of *that* cover?
Impressive as it is, though, a great cover means very little without a great story to accompany it. Is Benedict Patrick’s sexy-looking debut actually all fur coat and no knickers?
The short answer is ‘hell, no!’ The long answer is that Patrick’s story is as superb as its cover is stunning; that such a fantastic debut deserves nothing less than to be as beautifully presented as this one has been.
At first glance, the conflicts within the story seem ridiculously simplistic; the protagonists, frustratingly obtuse. The author also quite often presents his story in a manner that is far more ‘tell’ than ‘show’, which some will doubtless find fault with. However, discerning readers will soon realise that all of the above are, in fact, very much deliberate. That the narrative is crafted to sound like a bedtime fable is a clear (and fitting) stylistic choice – and a skilfully executed one, too, hidden as it is behind the ‘actual’ fairy tales that appear as interludes between the main PoV chapters.
Dark as they are, these interludes are told in a manner that somehow manages to be wry, and eerie, and endearing – all at the same time. Though some are less sinister than others, these fairy tales have more in common with the Brothers Grimm than Walt Disney. The Magpie King and Artemis the trickster feature heavily in the stories, which are not only cunningly placed but also much more significant than they first appear.
Most importantly, They Mostly Come Out at Night managed to do something that, for me, very few other fantasy books ever have: it incites fear without being ‘scary’. If you were to ask me which other books left a similar impression on me throughout my reading life, I’d easily be able to give you just two: The Painted Man by Peter V. Brett, and Sabriel by Garth Nix. For me, no other author has managed to truly capture that sense of danger in the night; of terror at sunset’s approach, and an atmosphere stained with that deep-rooted and pervasive fear of the dark. Reading Patrick’s tale of monsters and Magpie Kings marked the first time in years that I’ve experienced that primal dread, that familiar foreboding – all without ever feeling as though I’d crossed from the realms of fantasy into horror.
The very first entry in Patrick’s darkly fantastical Yarnsworld universe (which he expands further in his second book: Where the Waters Turn Black), TMCOAN is a standalone novel that wraps up in a surprisingly tidy fashion . . . though anyone seeking a typical fairy-tale ending should look elsewhere. Nonetheless, it’s a satisfying denouement and a strong conclusion to a debut that is as gripping as it is unique. Patrick writes with imagination, skill and confidence, and it’s clear that They Mostly Come out at Night is the beginning of something brilliant.
The Grey Bastards is one of ten novels in the final round of Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) 2016. The review was originally posted on Fantasy-Faction on 31st December 2016; updates on the contest’s progress can be found here.
I have a bone to pick with you, Jonathan French, aka. author of The Grey Bastards. You, sir, owe me a great many hours of sleep; hours that were spent avidly following the grim adventures of Jackal and co.
Mr. French, the pacing of your novel is truly brilliant. Starting with a ‘bang’ and then racing from conflicts and schemes to plot twists and battles, Bastards is what one might call a ‘rip-roaring adventure’: brutal, brave, and utterly fearless. The chapters are long, yet each end in a way that compels you to continue reading. Not since Dyrk Ashton’s Paternus (Fantasy-Faction’s very own chosen finalist) have I devoured a SPFBO book so
Electing to tell the entire story through Jackal’s PoV is another engaging piece of trickery. As you’re clearly well aware, Mr French, keeping the reader invested in one character not only raises the stakes whenever he is in danger but also makes the book a journey of discovery for both protagonist and reader. In a genre dominated by sprawling, multiple-pov sagas, Bastards’ singular focus on one part of the world (and your protagonist’s place within it) is refreshing and exciting. Bravo, sir!
However: in some ways The Grey Bastards is an uncomfortable read. Did you know, Mr. French, that the word ‘fuck’ appears in your novel a total of 230 times? And ‘shit’, 69 times? Why is she even mentioning this? you might be wondering; after all, Hughes is usually the last person to be offended over a bit of bad language! My fellow swear-brother T.O. Munro observed not too long ago that ‘cussing and expletives are a fact of real-life and fantasy reading and writing should reflect that’. I happen to whole-heartedly agree. But I suspect that in this case, Mr French, there will be many others who don’t. Here’s why.
The word ‘quim’ appears 19 times. The word ‘cunt’, 12, and ‘cunny’, 6. Those under the impression that misogyny is exclusively the domain of men will no doubt label this phenomenon simply as ‘testosterone’. But even considering that 80-90% of the characters are male (or swine…), this is a whopping amount of misogyny (and vulgarity) for one book. And yes, even I took exception to it at first.
However, as the story went on and I became inured to the language I realised with a jolt that perhaps this is what you were trying to do all along. By involving the reader so thoroughly in the half-orcs’ vernacular that it becomes natural to us you make us unwittingly complicit in their worldview. And the moment we realise this, the more we come to understand the ‘mongrels’ and to notice that some characters use these terms less broadly than others. While many wield the word ‘quim’ about as naturally as an elderly person uses casual racism (by which I mean as a harmful yet unconscious product of their upbringing), others use it much more aggressively, either as an insult or as a way of deliberately demeaning certain individuals. Either way, such ingrained chauvinism is shocking . . . but it also tells us a lot about the nature of certain characters. And the rare moments of its absence also happen to be an excellent way of highlighting honourable actions that would otherwise have gone unnoticed by us.
The fact is, Mr French, your half-orcs have entirely different values to your readers. In many cases, these differences will be irreconcilable, and no doubt many a reader will criticise the book for its rampant and unforgiveable misogyny. To these readers I would simply say: well, what on earth did you expect? But I’d also encourage them to read on; to read between the lines, and to reserve judgement until the story is done. Because while the bigger picture changes very little, the ways in which it has changed are crucial. Subtle, even.
I’ll admit that ‘subtle’ is the last word I’d expect to see used when referring to a book featuring a hog-riding half-orc on the cover and emblazoned with the title ‘The Grey Bastards’. A book that, even for me, felt like entering some exclusive boys’ club, one where I wasn’t forbidden but neither was I welcomed. A book that is saturated with derogatory terms for women, and with characters who view women as little more than ‘walking genitalia’ (as Adrian aptly pointed out in their review on Bibliotropic). However, the initial sense of being ostracised vanishes within just a few pages. I daresay that no reader can refuse Jackal’s honest charm, or that of his companions Oats and Fetching. And the Kiln wasn’t built in a day; likewise, reform – of any kind – takes time, and every step is a step in the right direction.
To sum up then, Mr. French: I envy and admire you for this story you’ve crafted. Bastards is brutal. Bastards is brave. Bastards is utterly fearless and unashamed of being what it is. I greedily await more from Jackal and co., and fully intend to hound you for news about the hoof – a truer set of bastards you’ll never meet. I notice that you have a couple of other books available for purchase (at a very reasonable price, I might add) and I look forward to sampling these while I wait impatiently for you to take me back to the Lots.
For now, though, I’d like to raise a floppy tankard to The Grey Bastards’ brilliance. It’s the least I can do after such a satisfying ride, and I’m confident I won’t be the only SPFBO judge who does so
Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma is one of ten novels in the final round of Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) 2016. The review was originally posted on Fantasy-Faction on 4th December 2016; updates on the contest’s progress can be found here.
Brian O’Sullivan’s SPFBO offering – Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma – was something of a bumpy ride for me, at least at the beginning. Upon reaching the end of the first major chapter I felt as though nothing had really happened. However, by that point, I did know the entire detailed history of several minor characters… as well as Bodhmhall’s vegetable patch.
I was just 12% in when I first started to jot down notes condemning various aspects of the book. Oddly enough, my complaints echoed the pattern of unevenness which I also found in Larcout: a solid opening, followed by a disappointing shift in tone and location. I felt so strongly about the first chapter following the prologue that I began highlighting passages in the book and making notes in preparation for this review. Looking at these notes now, my early complaints seem to boil down to three main issues.
Firstly, a simple pet peeve: the dreaded Physical Description.
By anybody’s reckoning, she was a striking woman. Tall and slender with a generous mouth and intelligent, brown eyes, her looks had been spared the ravages common to many of her contemporaries: the trials of childbirth and the arduous physical labour required to sustain the community. Daughter of Tréanmór, rí of Uí Baoiscne, Bodhmhall had enjoyed a privileged childhood in the fortress of Dún Baoiscne, something she increasingly appreciated as the years rolled by.
As you can see, the prose itself is highly competent. However, I found myself continually irked by repetitive sentence structures:
Off to her right, on the western ridge, a murder of ravens suddenly took flight, crowing up from the trees in an angry flutter of wings. With a shudder, Bodhmhall forced herself to open her mouth and stuck out her tongue to taste the air. Almost immediately, she withdrew it with an expression of revulsion. […] Absorbed in her contemplation, she barely noticed this fresh disruption. Startled, she turned…
This infuriating repetition is the second issue. The third – and most prominent – is the infodumps. The narrative frequently devolved into history lectures that had me skim-reading many a page and the openings of certain paragraphs left me sighing with impatience:
“Even after all these years…
“Many years later…
“Twenty-five years later…
“Over that time…”
History, geography, economics – the author appears keen to ensure we have a firm grasp of… well, everything. But for me, the most awkward instances of this would occur each time we’re introduced to a new character. For example, Bodhmhall walks past a warrior standing on guard duty. She does not interact with him; nonetheless, we’re treated to a detailed account of his personality and his place within the ráth’s hierarchy.
A tall and pleasant youth, Aodhan had inherited his father’s easy manner but was already …
This continues for almost an entire page. The same thing happens with the character of Cairbre shortly afterwards. It’s clear that Cairbre is some kind of adviser when he comes to speak to her, yet the author insists upon dedicating a page and a half to his not-so-abridged life story.
At the time, I found this method of compartmentalising of characters to be very odd and more than a little jarring; as though Fionn is a wiki, and every time a new character is mentioned the reader is forced to follow the hyperlink and read their character summary before being allowed to proceed. In short: after a promising prologue, I felt completely let down by the first chapter. Unnecessary physical descriptions of the protagonist, repetitive sentence structures, and pervasive infodumps made for a difficult (and frustrating) reading experience.
Thankfully, it soon became clear that most of my complaints were present (or at least noticeable) only in Bodhmhall’s problematic first chapter. My disappointment promptly dissipated once I reached chapter two, and was (more or less) kept at bay for the rest of the book.
I’ve since read Jared’s review of Defence of Ráth Bládhma, in which he talks about the book’s ‘functional’ tone and observes that it continues throughout the entire novel. After careful consideration, I can confidently say that I disagree with this assessment. In my opinion, the ‘functional’ tone and overly-detailed prose are limited to Bodhmhall’s chapters and reflect her character’s worldview as opposed to the author’s style. As the leader, it’s her place to worry about the details; and as a druid, it’s imperative that she possess a wealth of knowledge about her land and people.
That said, it’s only by contrast that we come to appreciate Bodhmhall’s calming narrative voice. The alternating PoVs of Bodhmhall and her lover, Liath Luachra, complement each other perfectly; Liath Luachra’s brusqueness and humour provide a pleasant counterpoint to Bodhmhall’s grave pragmatism. Her grim sarcasm is particularly welcome:
Ah, yes. The Great Wild backs down when I tramp through its forests. Wolves shit themselves and slink into the undergrowth at my passing. Even the Faceless Ones, the ghosts of hazy glades, hide and tell each other fearful tales of the dreaded Liath Luachra who will come through the shadows to take their heads.
You can probably guess that Liath Luachra’s chapters were by far my favourites. Tough, tenacious and unflinchingly truthful, Liath Luachra is an admirably strong female protagonist. Her own inner conflict – between her past and present self, her loyalty to Bodhmhall and her own sense of right and wrong – is as engaging as her woodland exploits, and her fighting scenes are stark and exhausting.
The attack on the ráth itself was, I felt, a little bit anticlimactic, largely due to one or two instances of foreshadowing that never actually came into play. And the supernatural elements –the sinister ‘Tainted One’, Bodhmhall’s gift – played a disappointingly small role. However, besides being a captivating sub-plot and fuel for nightmares, I get the impression that there’s a much larger force at work, and that the Tainted One’s assault on Ráth Bládhma was only the beginning. And besides: Liath Luachra’s pulse-pounding finale more than made up for whatever else may be lacking.
The actual scale of Ráth Bládhma’s story might be modest, but this only serves to magnify the importance of events and the significance of each life lost. Even the battle-hardened Liath Luachra thinks twice before taking on an opponent, even one who is unprepared. Second century Ireland is cold, dirty, brutal and ugly, and its inhabitants’ moment-to-moment fight for survival even more so.
In fact, this sense of realism is one of the things I enjoyed most about both PoVs. Both protagonists have their faults, and each have their weaknesses. Bodhmhall is the spiritual leader of the community at Ráth Bládhma; as such she faces constant doubt and a ceaseless barrage of difficult decisions. Liath Luachra is a skilled warrior, but she’s haunted by dark memories and is far from invincible.
I admire the way O’Sullivan does what he feels is necessary to tell his story. Defence of Ráth Bládhma is not dense or complicated, but nor does it compromise to pander to more casual readers. This includes making the choice to retain aspects of the book that some readers will understandably find fault with.
For instance, the chapters are very long. While this isn’t something that bothers me personally, I understand that for some it can make reading feel like a chore. In O’Sullivan’s case, however, this structural choice suits the story perfectly. By giving the reader plenty of time to fully immerse themselves in each PoV – rather than jumping about from one to the other – the author ensures that the book is built around character relationships as much as external conflict (another aspect on which Jared and I clearly disagreed!).
The chapters may be long, but the book itself is relatively short. Once I’d overcome my initial teething problems with the first chapters I found myself flying through it, eventually realising that even the character infodumps (or ‘wiki entries’, as I referred to them earlier) have a purpose: to keep the focus on the two central characters, both of whom I developed a strong emotional connection to.
I realise that much of this review focuses on the negative. This is because I suspect that in other circumstances I might not have persevered, and am keen to assure anyone encountering similar issues that the book is in fact well worth continuing with. In actuality, I LOVED this story. The first thing I did after finishing it was to head over to the author’s website – on which I discovered a bloody fantastic pronunciation guide (with audio clips!) – and add the rest of his Fionn Mac Cumhaill books to my wishlist.
Larcout is one of ten novels in the final round of Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) 2016. Updates on the contest’s progress can be found here.
I’m not sure what I was expecting when I chose K.A. Krantz’s novel to be the first SPFBO finalist I read and reviewed… but it certainly wasn’t what I got! Even now, I’m not entirely sure that words can do justice to such a surreal reading experience… but here goes.
Larcout is… bizarre. It’s confusing. It’s uneven, and it’s disorientating, and it’s awesome. Above all, it’s most definitely unique.
Kasthu. Roborgu. Inarchma.
“Live. Learn. Burn.”
This maxim – held by Larcout’s protagonist and repeated throughout the novel – is just as relevant to the reader’s journey as it is to the story. Kasthu (live): just go with it. Roborgu (learn): all will eventually become clear. Inarchma (burn): be prepared to have your own preconceptions – of the book, the characters, and the genre itself – annihilated.
Blood-beings can be chattel or char.
The opening pages very nearly turned me into char. Frowning, squinting, grumbling – I read, re-read and re-re-read them, struggling to comprehend just what the hell was going on. Once I’d (sort of) figured it out, however, I was hooked. Chattel to the story, you might say.
I read the first chapter with increasing interest, savouring the details of this unique and fascinating new culture and its intriguing protagonist, Vadrigyn. A blighted land with six – six! – suns, a cruel and winged fire-blooded race known as the Morsam, a sentient sea that keeps them prisoner, and a half-breed outcast with both strength and intelligence – I loved it.
Each ridge in her vambraces was a piece of a Morsam who had challenged her right to live. The ones she currently wore were far from her only pair.
Yes: I absolutely loved the first chapter. But then…
… after a brief and violent scrap with her hated brethren Vadrigyn is magically transported to an arena, where she and others are expected to engage in combat before an audience of unseen spectators. After meeting a flurry of new characters and ‘passing’ the test, our protagonist is again uprooted and replanted somewhere new – this time to the insular Jewelled City, where she learns that she’s now ‘bonded’ with a mentor named le Zyrn. More, the bond can’t be severed until Vadrigyn passes her Trial of Identity… or until one – or both – die.
I’ll be honest and say that I read these chapters with increasing incredulity (and raised eyebrows). Having looked forward to an account of Vadrigyn’s survival techniques and anticipated her cunning escape from the cruel and unforgiving land of her birth, instead I got to watch as she was bundled on the deus ex machina express straight into the Hunger Games and then on into the Capitol – all in the space of a single chapter.
Thankfully, things stabilise somewhat from there on in… though I can’t say I’m a fan of the jewelled city itself, which is a bit too fanciful for my liking. Repetitive and simplistic descriptions oversaturated with the names of precious stones abound; yet I somehow struggled to envisage the layout of the city itself, despite continual references to its different tiers.
However, I did appreciate the ways in which the city’s political, economic and geographical circumstances resonated with today’s issues and tense global climate.
This is about opening the gate and re-engaging in trade with our neighbors. It makes dire predictions about famine and plague descending upon the dome, and urges civil war if the gate remains closed. It accuses the Order of Minds of deceiving the populace, of tricking our people into believing we are prosperous as an isolated nation.
For me, this aspect of Larcoutian culture also has echoes of the Ministry of Truth from 1984: after all, the Order of Minds can provoke conflict, influence emotions and even alter memories, effectively controlling the desires and behaviours of the entire populace. This facet of the story is, unfortunately, not used to its fullest potential, and is relegated instead to a convenient feature of the plot to be called on only when necessary.
On the other hand, the fact that every Larcoutian citizen eventually develops some sort of similar supernatural talent is almost awesome enough for us to overlook this slightly disappointing unevenness. In addition to the Order of Minds, Krantz also gives us the Order of Stone (who can manipulate the earth to extract precious materials, and who are trained to use their powers for combat as well as construction) and the Order of Body (healers, essentially). The subtleties of each order – not to mention the convoluted way in which families are intertwined by the unpredictable mentor-acolyte bonds – adds yet another layer of conflict to the story, which is confusing but fascinating.
And it isn’t just the Larcoutians who possess these talents; our heroine has some fantastically lethal gifts of her own, not least of which are the Dorgof. The Dorgof – deadly, venomous parasites fused to the bones and muscles within Vadrigyn’s forearms – burst forth from her palms whenever she feels threatened, and make it impossible for any other living creature to make physical contact with her hands.
Death by her touch was not instant, but it was assured.
As you can imagine, these living weapons make for plenty of vicious and bloody fights. Even when Vadrigyn refrains from calling on the Dorgof, her own Morsam strength and self-taught skill in battle make for some equally violent scenes – many of which I couldn’t help but picture in the slow-motion-blood-spray cinematic style of a Zack Snyder movie or an episode of Starz’ Spartacus.
Vadrigyn pivoted. Her fist connected squarely with the nose of the closest fool… and punched through the back of his skull. Blood and brain oozed down her wrist and stained her vambrace. The body reduced to sand, leaving her with a skull bracelet.
Vadrigyn is a brilliant heroine because she’s strong in other ways, too. Resourceful, pragmatic, adaptable – our protagonist is quick to learn (roborgu) and becomes increasingly open-minded as the story progresses. She’s also surprisingly loyal, as well as (unsurprisingly) honest; and best of all, she sticks to her principles whilst also demonstrating a rare willingness to listen to reason.
The biggest issue I have with Vadrigyn’s character is the fact that she adapts a little too quickly to her sudden transition from Agenwold to Larcout. Though she’s at a huge disadvantage in every situation, she rarely proves to be less than competent. She dons women’s clothing and learns to dance with minimal resistance; and her grasp of Larcoutian politics and history is somewhat inexplicable considering that her entire life has been spent in an uncivilised land filled with blood and battle. The reader never really has cause to doubt that Vadrigyn will survive, and this sense of invincibility can, at times, make her difficult to empathise with.
If she could not have freedom, she would have dominion.
However, it’s impossible not to admire such aggressive resolve, and such flat-out refusal to become a victim. This mindset is what really makes Vadrigyn an effective protagonist. I shared her frustration with the Larcoutian women’s complicity in their own weakness; the refusal of even the most forward-thinking of them to understand that power lies not only in the body but in the mind. Vadrigyn is a perfect antidote to the Jewelled City’s strict patriarchy; and watching her demolish expectations, traditions, prejudices and manipulations is immensely satisfying.
I do feel obliged to point out that there are occasions where the author’s over-excited prose makes things more confusing than they need to be:
Vadrigyn stood helpessly frozen as disbelief rode the cold pulsing with every rampant heartbeat, threatening to collapse her skull and explode her lungs from competing pressures.
At times like these I would either re-read the lines until my eyes glazed over, or simply allow myself to drift over such segments until I reached a part less saturated with hyperbole.
It’s this unevenness that made Larcout so difficult to rate. In my opinion, the prologue deserves at least an 8; the second chapter, a 5 at best; and so on. An uneven yet well-written tale, Larcout is bizarre and imaginative, with moments of brilliance that shine brightly enough to banish the shadows of confusion that obscure its early chapters. Though far from perfect, I still find myself thinking about it (despite finishing it days ago), and can say with certainty that the sequel will make its way onto my ‘to read’ list.
This review originally appeared on Fantasy-Faction on 30th November 2016.
Note: For an updated version of this article, visit Fantasy-Faction.
Self-published authors get a lot of flak.
Even armed with a bargepole, many readers won’t touch them. These readers will assure you that indie books are unprofessional; that they’re inherently inferior and therefore not ‘proper’ books.
Admittedly, it’s not too hard to find examples of substandard writing amongst the masses and masses of self-published works. Perhaps readers have simply had their fill of lazy prose and sloppy formatting and are wary of encountering more.
Or maybe it’s not the books that are the problem. We’ve all come across the ubiquitous indie author who takes the ‘stuck record’ approach to self-promotion. You know the one, whose constant passive-aggressive ‘BUY MY BOOK’ posts soon become so irritating that we have no choice but to issue the offending author with a cease-and-desist before gouging out our own eyes and/or unfollowing them on social media.
Whatever the reason, indie books – particularly within SFF – have garnered a reputation for being second-rate, amateur and inconsistent . . . a reputation which is (for the most part) unfair and undeserved.
Is there anyone who hasn’t heard of Michael J. Sullivan? Or Anthony Ryan? Both authors’ hugely popular fantasy debuts – The Crown Conspiracy and Blood Song, respectively – began life as (you guessed it!) self-published novels. Now, they’re practically household names.
Inspiring, without a doubt. But in terms of popular opinion, such accomplishments have done surprisingly little to change attitudes towards indie authors. Using Ryan or Sullivan as the benchmark for measuring ‘success’ suggests that the singular goal of self-publishing is to become one of the ‘lucky few’ who eventually get picked up by traditional houses; in other words, it reinforces the idea that self-publishing is merely the means to an end.
But do all indie authors want the same thing?
While every author is unique, many share similar goals. Most prominent amongst these is the desire to be noticed.
In February 2015, author Mark Lawrence (The Broken Empire, The Red Queen’s War) took to his blog to ponder the problem of self-promotion, observing that:
“…as a new author, particularly a self-published one, it is desperately hard to be heard. It’s a signal-to-noise problem. Who knows how many Name of the Winds or [fill in your favourite] are lost to us because they just couldn’t be seen? None? A hundred?”
He was right; moreover, plenty of voices agreed with him, and before long well-respected bloggers were clamouring to help him find a frequency on which some of the more deserving voices could finally be heard.
273 writers responded to the call for self-published authors. That’s 273 writers who submitted manuscripts to the contest. These were promptly split between ten participating bloggers, who spent the next six months wading through their ‘slush pile’ in the manner of a literary agent. Samples that failed to shine were soon cast aside, and eventually each blog was left with only one.
Round Two kicked off as soon as the final ten were announced. Each blogger proceeded to read and review all finalists in full, eventually assigning each novel a rating out of 10. As you might already have guessed, the entry with the highest score at the end was declared the winner.
And the grand prize? Well, as Mark Lawrence announced at the start:
“There’s no other prize. The winner will get the publicity of being the winner, plus the bonus of being reviewed on the blogs of 10 highly respected fantasy bloggers.
“Frankly you can’t buy better publicity than that.”
Voila! The first step towards changing attitudes was complete. While the inaugural SPFBO didn’t exactly break down the barrier between indies and their potential readers, there’s no denying that it was a step in the right direction. The process gave a leg-up over the barrier for a handful of hidden gems, making them more visible while also filtering out less polished books.
In the end, 273 books were whittled down to one winner, and the title went to The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids. The author, Michael McClung, landed a publishing deal with Ragnarok along the way, and is now preparing for ‘Rok’s impending release of the fourth Amra Thetys book, The Thief Who Wasn’t There.
In an example of a different kind of success, close runner-up Ben Galley has since continued to advance a professional and prolific self-publishing career that began over seven years ago. Galley not only provides ‘Shelf Help’ sessions for aspiring indies, but also spends an inexhaustible amount of time writing fiction, promoting his work and building momentum for the release of his eighth novel, The Heart of Stone.
Confession time: I had very little personal interest in the SPFBO when it began. I admired the concept and the mind behind it, of course, but initially dismissed the contest itself as a publicity ploy. Here, I thought, was a token gesture of indulgence, the same sort that spurs celebrities to adopt baby gorillas.
You know what? I’m ashamed of my former cynicism snobbery (let’s call it what it is, folks); and I couldn’t have been more wrong.
In March this year the process began again. This time around, my own involvement as part of Fantasy-Faction’s judging team has changed my perspective even more. The positivity, enthusiasm and professionalism of the entrants in our group swiftly banished any lingering reservations I may have had, as did the overall quality of the entries submitted.
In fact, several bloggers were so impressed by their batch of books that Lawrence hosted a cover contest during the early stages of the competition.
Looks aren’t everything; but they do speak volumes about the amount of pride an indie author has in his or her own work. Though we know it’s shallow, most of us do judge a book by its cover. When our first glance shows us an attractive design and professional layout it makes the world of difference.
Sure, it’s what’s inside that really counts . . . but let’s face it, nobody would voluntarily show up for a job interview without first combing their hair and stepping into something smart. First impressions are crucial.
But even if you do everything right, what happens when somebody else shows up? Somebody who’s also done everything right?
Back in July, Jared at Pornokitsch was torn between two books for his finalist. He spoke so highly of both that Mark Lawrence himself was inspired to read the eventual runner-up, and was so impressed by the book that he now goes out of his way to make sure others recognise the author’s talent.
The author in question is Josiah Bancroft. The book is Senlin Ascends. Chances are that many of you have already heard of it; earlier this year, The Wertzone described Senlin Ascends as “SFF’s first genuinely evocative work of self-published literature” and suggested that it “may mark a serious turning-point in the field.” Lawrence’s baby gorilla has grown swiftly indeed, and now ascends the tower a la King Kong in New York. Bring on the bi-planes!
Though none have become quite as well-known as Mr. Bancroft (yet!) there are a host of other SPFBO entrants now fighting for pre-eminence on many a reading list. Authors such as Ruth Nestvold, Benedict Patrick, Daniel Potter, L. Penelope, Michael R. Miller, David Benem, Moses Siregar III, Blair MacGregor, Rob J. Hayes, T.A. Miles, Timandra Whitecastle, Tyler Sehn, Amy Rose Davis . . . talented folks one and all, who might not have reached the final but have earned a place on the SFF community’s radar nonetheless.
If these guys are so good (you might be wondering) then why are they self-published at all?
Just last month, a thread about this topic sparked a host of detailed and thoughtful responses from readers on r/Fantasy. The main issue of debate was around the barriers faced by indie authors, with most commenters agreeing that quality and discoverability are two major ones. Some suggested that the ‘good’ self-published books stand out by virtue of the author having invested in professional cover design, formatting and editing. But others argued that there are too many poor-quality products for sale on the internet to even bother looking. Why, they asked, should readers waste their time sifting for talent amongst those who ‘couldn’t even get published’?
Put it this way: if an author is struggling to find a publisher, does that mean their work is crap?
A lot of people will say ‘yes!’ (and in many cases, they’re probably right). Realistically, though, traditional publishing houses turn down manuscripts for all sorts of reasons. We’ve all heard how books like Carrie, Harry Potter, Dune, Dubliners, and even The Diary of Anne Frank received multiple rejections before finally finding success. Examples like these – along with Blood Song et al. – are proof that what G.R. Matthews refers to as the ‘snob factor’ is, in many cases, unjustified.
Clearly, not all books that ‘can’t get published’ are objectively inferior. But here’s what some folks are still struggling to understand: ‘going indie’ is more and more frequently becoming a first choice rather than a last resort.
Believe it or not, plenty of writers balk at the thought of handing over their intellectual property to someone else.
Michael McClung (winner of the inaugural SPFBO) spoke recently about the drawbacks of switching from indie to traditional, and observed that the benefit of reaching a wider audience can come at the cost of frustrating and unforeseen delays. Traditional publishing, he says, can be incredibly stressful for an author who is not prepared to cede control over the entire process to somebody else.
Perhaps this is why so many authors cite a determination to retain control over one’s own work (and agenda) as a motivation for choosing self-publishing. For some this is a purely artistic choice; for others, it comes down to practicality or expedience. Regardless of merit, every author’s reasons are unique, be it J.P. Ashman’s commitment to producing a full-length epic or T.O. Munro’s freedom to set his own deadlines in keeping with a busy day job.
Then there are the ‘hybrids’. Some authors travel both paths at various times to suit their changing needs. An example of this might be an author whose novels are trad-pubbed, but whose short stories require a different platform or be lost to obscurity. Or perhaps someone whose books have been trad-pubbed in some countries but not in others.
And this approach supports authors who, for whatever reason, have been let down by traditional publishing. Michael R. Fletcher’s first Manifest Delusions novel, Beyond Redemption, was bought and published by Harper Voyager in 2015. The book was a critical success, but a commercial disappointment. When HV declined to publish the sequel, The Mirror’s Truth, Fletcher decided to switch to indie. Likewise, author Joel Minty is going to great lengths to prepare himself for self-publishing after falling victim to the collapse of Realmwalker Publishing Group – just days before his debut, Purge of Ashes, was set to be released.
Like so many others, these authors turned to self-publishing out of necessity; a necessity born of the determination to deliver to their readers what they promised.
But readers shouldn’t presume that every self-published author has already tried – or even desired – to be traditionally published. Just like everything else in life, the pros and cons of each approach are entirely subjective depending on the author’s individual goals and definitions of ‘success’.
Moreover, the reflexive dichotomy of traditional ‘versus’ self is both divisive and demeaning. To borrow the words of author Blair MacGregor:
“Dichotomy is easy. But conversation isn’t all that challenging, either. The longer we permit “versus” to dominate, the greater the disservice we do to talented writers.”
MacGregor goes on to suggest that people seem less interested in talking about self-publishing than they are in debating its worth.
MacGregor’s contemporaries have also drawn attention to this issue: Timandra Whitecastle – whose grimdark debut Touch of Iron aims to redefine ‘strong’ female characters – recently expressed similar views about the frustrations caused by those who insist upon such a divide. When making the decision about which approach to take, says Whitecastle, she found little value in objectively comparing the two, and focused instead on which methods would best facilitate her creative desire to “break the mold.”
This is where the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off comes in. The SPFBO breaks down these barriers by encouraging readers to treat self-published books just like they would any other kind.
Book looks interesting? Check it out.
Like the sample? Buy the book.
Enjoy the book? Tell your mates; leave a review. After all, the SPFBO aims to recognise and reward talented, hardworking authors with honest feedback and well-deserved exposure. As I mentioned earlier, the greatest prize on offer here is increased discoverability . . . a prize which thousands of less-known writers covet dearly.
A great many of this year’s entries fell at the very first hurdle, cast aside after just a few pages. But after six months of indecision, the participating blogs have selected their finalists, and round two has begun! And here’s the most exciting part: in a contest largely hinging on judges’ personal tastes, it’s anyone’s game.
Standards continue to rise as more and more authors set their sights on the SPFBO. Indie authors are working harder and longer, pushing themselves to the absolute limits of capability, and it is they – along with those who follow, support and promote initiatives like the SPFBO – who help keep this genre fresh and dynamic. Everybody wins!
Finally, any indie authors still choosing to operate under a half-arsed mentality of, ‘eh, I’ll just publish it through Amazon’, will inevitably get pushed to the bottom of the pile as those who are serious about making things work will continue to hike to the top – egged on by readers, peers and other like-minded artists within this incredibly supportive community.
If you’re following the SPFBO final then let us know about any entries that have caught your fancy! Join in on social media and weigh in with your own opinions using the hashtag #SPFBO.
Oh! And check out this year’s final ten:
Off Leash was a semi-finalist in the 2nd annual Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. This review was originally published on Fantasy-Faction on 12th September 2016.
A few weeks ago, the SPFBO team decided on our seven semi-finalists. In some cases, the decision was easy. But when it came to Daniel Potter’s entry, Off Leash, we were uncertain as to whether or not it could hold its own in the next stage of the competition.
Why did we have doubts? Simply put: it’s an insane urban fantasy tale about a man who turns into a cougar, and we didn’t know what to make of it. Words like “strange” and “different” got thrown around very liberally during our group discussions. Off Leash is shamelessly, even proudly farcical, and I think we all had doubts about whether Potter was a serious SPFBO contender. We mistook the author’s light-hearted humour and sarcastic self-awareness for a lack of gravity – perhaps even of commitment – and we were absolutely wrong.
“Just great. I lose my voice but I get to keep my spare tire? Further proof that the universe itself is a sadistic bastard.”
It didn’t take long for our reservations to melt away. Potter’s jaunty prose and irreverent tone soon had us chuckling (and occasionally groaning) whilst turning the pages. Protagonist Thomas Khatt (geddit?) reacts to his improbable circumstances with dryly humorous observations, many of which involve his own newfound ineptitude at performing basic tasks.
“The stealth gig that cats are known for? We’ll file that under a learned skill and not a standard feature.”
The premise is batshit crazy. But its comedic potential is undeniable and Potter exploits it well, milking each scenario for every last drop of humour but very rarely taking any joke too far. It helps that Thomas, the protagonist, is quite cynical about the whole situation at first – mirroring our own scepticism, in fact!
“For a moment I feared I had fallen into a Disney film and the kitchen appliances were about to burst into song. I gave the toaster a withering look just in case.”
The narrator’s engaging voice brings to mind Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant, while the ceaseless flow of droll observations is reminiscent of the style of Sir Terry Pratchett. Whether or not you’re familiar with either author, my point is that in Thomas Khatt, Daniel Potter has created a protagonist who is a *lot* of fun to hang out with.
“Dogs rolling on their backs might be submission, but for us cats, it’s more a statement of ‘I will fuck you up’.”
Big cat or not, like any good protagonist Thomas would never have survived his first day on four paws without the help of a few secondary characters. In this case it’s Rudy the pyromaniac squirrel, and an ostracised Irish witch named O’Meara.
“Wide eyes stared down at me from a face framed with fire-red hair. Her blue eyes followed the theme, the color of burning gas on a cook top.”
As you can see: surrealism (and hilarity) aside, Off Leash is very competently written. With the exception of a few proofing issues, it is also well edited. The story is well-paced and intriguing, and the narrative voice is distinctive, engaging and consistently entertaining.
“[the house] seemed to be trying to convince the smaller house to scooch out of the way by threatening to sit on it.”
With its on-point descriptions and funny-bone-tickling turns of phrase, Off Leash is perhaps the most entertaining SPFBO entry we’ve read so far. Admittedly, we had gripes. A few of Potter’s action sequences hurtled by so quickly that we were left unsure as to what was going on. And the ending somehow didn’t feel quite as climactic as we’d anticipated – though that’s perhaps because we’d been spoiled by the book’s rollicking pace up until then. One of the only entries written in first person, Off Leash is bold and it stands out from the crowd; and overall it’s a highly enjoyable read.
Potter’s debut may be a slightly unorthodox entry in a competition dominated by writers of ‘traditional’ fantasy. But that doesn’t make it any less than 100% professional. The editing, the cover design, the formatting, the interior art, the extra short story included at the end – all combine to complement the story and produce an end product that any author would be proud of. In the end, the deciding factor was not the book but the potentially divisive responses from the other nine judges in the final round. While Off Leash was a very strong contender, we reluctantly agreed that, of the few entries still remaining, it was probably not the most likely candidate to win. On the upside, though, we also agreed that we’d definitely like to read more of the Freelance Familiars series in future.
The Verdict: Consistently entertaining, slightly silly, and all around light-hearted tongue-in-cheek fun…though not entirely devoid of grimness! We enjoyed Off Leash’s quirky and irreverent tone, and overall we laughed at its absurdity far more often than we rolled our eyes at it. The author’s prose is direct and engaging, and while we weren’t initially convinced by the premise, the book’s voice and sheer personality quickly won us over.
Yseult reached the semi-finals in the 2nd annual Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. This review was originally published on Fantasy-Faction on 31st August 2016.
A Tale of Love in the Age of King Arthur. A fitting subtitle, but in general one that is likely to discourage more readers than it attracts.
Romance in fantasy is a contentious issue. Lots of readers (myself included) are relatively indifferent to it, and neither seek it out nor avoid it. On the other hand, I’ve seen many an online discussion on the topic in which the majority of comments fall into two categories: ‘love it’ and ‘oh dear god MY EYES’. And this is a real shame, because it means that the latter will always miss out on well-written, beautiful stories such as Yseult.
Ruth Nestvold’s retelling of Tristan and Isolde is a solid adaptation that manages to capture the mischief and high spirits of Béroul’s original translation, as well as evoke a convincing sense of Arthurian Britain. From the humble roundhouses of Eriu to the dramatic promontory of Dyn Tagell, Yseult is rich in vivid settings that draw us in and anchor us firmly in the characters’ place and time.
Nestvold’s writing has a charming quality, suffused with the quiet confidence of long familiarity with her characters and the world in which they play. The tone and style – along with the carefully-researched druidic, Celtic and Roman place names – sound authentic but not archaic; and while I did find myself a little bewildered at times (particularly at the start!) the wonderfully comprehensive glossary quickly cleared up any confusion.
Another aspect of Yseult which I admire is the skillful way the author maintains a cohesive timeline – without feeling the need to fill in all the gaps. The first section in particular is very well structured, cutting between important scenes with minimal disorientation; and the epistolary-style segments are a nice way of bridging the later chapters in a way that avoids repetition and unnecessary detail. On the whole, the pacing is similarly controlled, though some of us felt that it was perhaps a little *too* languorous in places. This, along with the occasionally ponderous prose, was the main issue cited by those of us who struggled to engage with Yseult. In fact, it was the only real sticking point on which we just could not seem to agree!
Speaking for myself, the issues I had with the book arose from what I perceived as unevenness. The entirety of part one – which is excellent, by the way – centres on the trials and inner strength of Yseult’s mother in addition to the childhood and adolescence of Yseult herself. So when the fabled romance finally began in part two I was somewhat taken aback by the way it was presented. It begins sweetly, and is interwoven with other events that keep the story rolling. But when our two protagonists finally get frisky, the frequent use of (for example) words like ‘ass’ and ‘cock’ when describing sex scenes felt jarring and not at all consistent with the subtle character development, beautiful Irish words and mellifluous descriptions to which I’d become accustomed.
Not only does it feel as though the sex scenes were written by a totally different author, the story itself seems less compelling the more it focuses on Drystan and Yseult. In fact, I almost abandoned the book at one point: despite thoroughly enjoying part one, I began to find the story tedious. Increasingly frequent repetition – particularly the author’s fixation with describing Yseult’s ‘moonlight’ hair and Drystan’s ‘forest-green’ eyes – started to really grate on my nerves. But it wasn’t until I reached the 44%-mark that I realised – with much disappointment – I just wasn’t enjoying Yseult enough to justify continuing with it.
Thankfully, I went back to it a few days later; and after a bit of perseverance I started to realise that Nestvold’s ‘tale of love’ encompasses far more than ‘just’ romance. Each and every character is motivated by different kinds of love, sometimes simultaneously and often conflicting. Yseult finds herself torn between her romantic love for Drystan and filial love for her mother, cousin and son. Marcus is motivated by self-love; Kurvenal, by platonic love for his best friend. Arthur is driven by love for his country, and everywhere deeds both good and evil are committed in the name of love and loyalty to one’s religion.
On the whole, Yseult is strongly reminiscent of Mary Stewart’s fantastic Arthurian Saga: a patient, introspective narrative that concerns itself mostly with magic, politics and belief. Nestvold takes the same murky time period, adds a familiar legend and then remoulds it with enough creative flourishes to make it feel fresh and original. The author develops her characters well (although antagonists such as Marcus and Andred are too-quickly painted as unsympathetic villains) and makes sure to give them and her readers a suitably poetic send-off at the last.
The Verdict: After reading a swathe of SPFBO entries that tended more towards the traditional/epic we found this historical fantasy to be a rather captivating change of pace. However, while we all agreed it was well written, not all of us found it engaging. We acknowledged that others’ opinions would likely differ as vastly as our own, which is why we’ve made the decision to eliminate Yseult in favour of others with the potential to appeal to a broader audience.