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.

‘Emperor of Thorns’ by Mark Lawrence


We’ve followed him for ten years of his life. We’ve lived his journey from the storm-struck thorns to the throne of Renar, and still Jorg Ancrath can surprise us – in good ways as well as bad.

Follow me, and I will break your heart.

Winner of the 2014 David Gemmell Legend Award for Best Fantasy Novel, Emperor of Thorns concludes the groundbreaking Broken Empire trilogy by Mark Lawrence. Jorg is now aged twenty; the Hundred have been summoned to a Congress to decide the matter of the next emperor. The throne has sat empty for over a hundred years, but Jorg plans to remedy that with his secret knowledge, stalwart companions and unique brand of tact and diplomacy.

“I’ve been to Congression before, Makin. I know what games they play there. This year we’re going to play a new game. Mine.”

In addition to the upcoming Congress, an even bigger challenge awaits. The Broken Empire must prepare itself for the biggest threat to humanity since the Day of a Thousand Suns: the invasion of the Dead King’s armies.

Emperor of Thorns follows the familiar ‘Lawrence’ structure. Flashbacks interposed with present-day events create suspense, builds tension and reveals key information at critical moments. However, there is also a new addition: a third-person account of the necromancer Chella (a character who was central to the storyline of the previous book but was only ever seen from Jorg’s point of view). Though I wasn’t particularly keen on this new POV, it certainly makes for some interesting insights into Chella’s character, and gives Emperor of Thorns (Broken Empire #3) by Mark Lawrenceus inside information about the Dead King and his legions.

Some of the most entertaining parts of the Broken Empire trilogy are the tales of the road, and we are treated to a fair few of them here. Typically grim yet delightful, these anecdotes about Jorg’s younger days among his road brothers reveal much more about Jorg’s tragic, twisted childhood. Secrets that have so far been only partially revealed or hinted at – such as Jorg’s burning hatred for the clergy – are now fully unveiled in harsh and uncomfortable ways. Lawrence continues to display a penchant for putting the ‘dark’ in ‘dark fantasy’, but somehow the horror and violence is never simply gratuitous. Instead, it’s used to deliberately manipulate the reader’s emotional response and force us to acknowledge that his protagonist has been brutally moulded and pushed to similar violence by these horrific external events, rather than just because of his “dena”.

On a slightly less grim note, one of my favourite aspects of this book is its scale. Lawrence shows us more of the Broken Empire than ever before. King of Thorns introduced us to the rocky highlands of Renar, Maladon in the icy north, and the fetid swamps of Cantanlona, and Emperor of Thorns takes us even further. From the lifeless wastelands of the Iberico to the desert city of the mathmagicians, from the silent horrors of flooded ghost towns to the affluent city of Vyene, Lawrence spoils the reader with haunting yet spectacular imagery.

Lawrence’s third novel is a joy to read, filled as it is with amusingly casual turns of phrase, poetic internal monologue, and brilliantly integrated reminders of past events – and hints about things to come. The  author also delights in leaving delicious clues for the reader regarding the true nature of Jorg’s broken world (my personal favourites being the hilariously sanctified “guardian” of the Gilden Gate, the martial teachings of “Lee”, and of course the ironic original function of the empire throne itself).

Emperor of Thorns is a spectacular finish to a brilliantly original fantasy series. Does Jorg find redemption? You’ll have to read it and find out. Think you’ve guessed how it’s all going to end? I can guarantee that you haven’t.

Interview with A.F.E. Smith


Author Photo: AFE Smith (Darkhaven)A.F.E (aka. ‘Afe’) is celebrating the recent release of her third Darkhaven novel, Windsinger. Published by Harper-Voyager on 23 February 2017, Windsinger continues the tale of dark magic and darker political conflict that began in Afe’s previous novels: Darkhaven, and Goldenfire.

She writes for Fantasy-Faction; she’s just published her third full-length novel; she’s a part-time robin and a full-time editor; and she’s currently also rearing two children. How does she do it? Why does she do it? I tracked down this elusive author (who, by the way, assures me that the initials ‘A.F.E.’ hide a dangerous secret that can never be revealed) and settled down for a chat with the beautiful mind behind Darkhaven.laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

(LMH): Thanks for joining me, Afe, and congratulations on the recent release of Windsinger! (Which, as you know, I absolutely LOVED.)

How does it feel to have not one, not two, but THREE of your own books released into the wild?

(AFE): In all honesty, I don’t know quite how I feel about it. It’s a lot like having children, I suppose: a mixture of the very good (pride, amazement, satisfaction at having created a fully formed being independent of yourself) and the very bad (terror, stress, constant guilt that their imperfections are your fault, a helpless frustrated misery every time someone doesn’t like them).

That’s not a very upbeat answer, is it? Let’s go with … great. It’s great!

Your Goodreads bio ever-so-casually states that you ‘happen to be a robin some of the time.’ I have to ask: why only *some* of the time? And why a robin? It’s too small to be your Changer form. Is it your spirit animal? Your animagus form?AFE Smith: robin

I can’t be a robin all the time because they’re not very good at typing and they don’t like chocolate. So I mostly stick to being a robin online and leave the real world to my human form.

I think it’s probably more of a daemon than an Animagus. Which probably means I’m a witch, because bird-daemons tend to belong to witches. Yeah. A witch who blushes a lot, so has the most embarrassed-looking bird possible as a daemon. Makes sense.

(Can you tell I’m super excited about the recent announcement of Philip Pullman’s new book?)

I would never have guessed. 😉laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

Robins are always busy doing something. Flitting around, building nests, eating snacks, looking colourful… How do you manage to balance your writing career with a full-time day job AND two small, dependent humans?

With immense difficulty. Sometimes it feels like I’m doing too many things to be good at any of them. The writing gets done in lunch breaks and after the children have gone to bed, so it’s very patchy. I’m usually short on sleep and my house is a mess.

Why do I do this? I don’t know. Half the time I don’t even enjoy it. But you know how it is: if you’re a writer, you write. You write on the backs of receipts. You write in the shower. You write inside your own head. You just do.

I have to admit I’ve never written in the shower. But yes, I know how it is. Also, my house is a mess… and I don’t even have kids!laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

You work as an editor in your day job, right? Do you feel like this helps (or hinders) your own writing process?

Yes, I’m an editor. I think my job hinders my reading more than my writing. I’m so used to reading words slowly and carefully at work that I find it hard to sit back and get swept away by them when I’m reading for pleasure. Not like when I was a teen and inhaled books through my eyeballs. And if there are typos, my work brain kicks in straight away and the moment is lost. That’s when I find myself mentally editing the book instead of reading it, which isn’t what anyone wants.

Why do I do this? I don’t know. Half the time I don’t even enjoy it. But you know how it is: if you’re a writer, you write. You write on the backs of receipts. You write in the shower. You write inside your own head. You just do.

When I’m writing, though, being an editor is both good and bad. Good because I’m pretty sure the manuscripts I turn in are as clean as they can be. Also good because I understand the editorial process, so I don’t get precious about making changes. But bad because my instinct is to word everything perfectly in the first draft. I have to force myself to go with the flow and not trawl back over every line to make sure it’s correct.

Sounds to me like you’re an editor’s dream!laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

Can you give us a brief insight into how you came to be traditionally published? Was it, as they say, a matter of luck? Or was it pure talent? Hard work? Magic?

It’s magic, isn’t it?

I would say a mixture of all of them. There’s no denying that luck plays a key part in any author’s career. You and I both know there are far more good books out there than slots on a publisher’s list, so a lot depends on the subjective opinion of whoever happens to read your manuscript. Having said that, most people can’t get far without at least some hard work and talent, either. They’re like the other two corners of the triangle.

(I find questions like this hard to answer, because I’m always afraid that in reality I’m pretty talentless. Somehow I believe every bad review and none of the good ones … er, except yours, of course. Impostor syndrome is real and living among us in the form of a robin.)

There’s no denying that luck plays a key part in any author’s career. You and I both know there are far more good books out there than slots on a publisher’s list, so a lot depends on the subjective opinion of whoever happens to read your manuscript. Having said that, most people can’t get far without at least some hard work and talent, either. They’re like the other two corners of the triangle.

The actual story is that Voyager were holding an open call for submissions, back in … 2012? And I submitted – that was the magic part, I guess, because I had a months-old baby at the time and something must have kept him asleep long enough for me to do it – and the rest is history.

That’s incredible! (Also, please let me assure you once again that you are the opposite of talentless.)laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

As co-judges in this year’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, you and I are both aware of the ups and downs of self-publishing. With that in mind: what, for you, has been the biggest advantage of signing a *traditional* publishing deal?

Weeelll … semi-traditional. I’m digital first, which means some of the more obvious benefits of traditional publishing don’t apply to me. Having books in physical stores, for Darkhaven by Afe Smithinstance. Or marketing budget (though I believe not many authors see much of that, these days).

So the biggest advantage was really the validation it gave me. Which sounds a bit stupid; I know some of my self-published author friends would scoff at it. But I’m never convinced that anything I’ve written is good enough (see also: imposter syndrome). If I hadn’t been picked up by Voyager, I’d probably still be tinkering with Darkhaven, and Goldenfire and Windsinger wouldn’t exist.

(You might argue that Darkhaven could use a little extra tinkering. But there’s nothing to say it would have been the right sort of tinkering, if I’d kept on doing it myself, so on balance it probably worked out better this way.)

Definitely. Darkhaven is very, very good, but Goldenfire is bloody brilliant. For me, part of the enjoyment was in seeing you evolve as a writer throughout the series.laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

For readers unfamiliar with your work, can you tell us a little bit about it?

What is the one question every author has to be able to answer in a concise and compelling way that makes their book sound like the best thing in the world, ever? This one.

What is the one question I always find the hardest? … Yeah.

Yeah, sorry about that… Why *do* you think it’s so difficult?

I think it’s because each of the books is about one thing, and the series as a whole is about something slightly different. The books are kind of fantasy mysteries, I suppose. Darkhaven is your straightforward whodunit, except that the murder victim is the overlord of a small country and has the power to shapeshift into a large dragon. Goldenfire is about preventing an assassination plot. Windsinger focuses on the need to uncover a traitor before war breaks out. Each of those stories has a defined beginning and end within the confines of a single book, so in theory you could pick up any one of them without reading the others.The Darkhaven series by A.F.E. Smith

The series, on the other hand, is about the tension between tradition and progress; about the conflicting demands of loyalty – to yourself, your family, your country, your god; about technology versus magic; about revenge and justice and whether they can ever be the same thing; about love. It starts off small, but it gets bigger as it goes along. And I think the same can be said for the characters themselves, metaphorically speaking. Each book is set several years after the previous one, so there’s plenty of scope for growth.

Or for future books set in between, perhaps? 😉laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

Many elements of Darkhaven – unusual magic, hidden identities, shady assassins, kickass characters – put me in mind of the excellent V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic.

Who would you say are your main influences? (And are there any authors whom you dream of being compared to?)

My influences are pretty much everything I’ve ever read. I think that’s true of all writers. We can’t help but pick up bits and pieces of the things we encounter and fit them together to form something new. Like decorator crabs.

Authors I love: Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett, Jacqueline Carey, Patrick Ness, Juliet Marillier, Katherine Addison, Neil Gaiman …

But recently I read The Curse of Chalion (I know, late to the party), so now when I grow up I want to be Lois McMaster Bujold.

(Note to self: read The Curse of Chalion. It’s been sitting on my shelf for years. Save me some breadsticks at the party, okay?)laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

Back to Darkhaven: which character in the series do you feel you identify with the most? And was he/she your favourite character to write? Why?

I don’t know that I identify fully with any of my characters. I think there’s a danger that if you create a character too much like yourself, you’ll end up wanting to give them all the best lines and never dream of killing them off. No-one likes a character who’s basically an author insert.

Having said that, there are bits of me in all the characters. Of course there are. Ayla got my stubbornness. Tomas, my apparently contradictory traits of paranoia and a desire to believe the best of people. Ree is the part of me who thirsts to prove herself, and Penn got my social awkwardness (poor Penn). (LH: I love Penn!)

My influences are pretty much everything I’ve ever read. I think that’s true of all writers. We can’t help but pick up bits and pieces of the things we encounter and fit them together to form something new. Like decorator crabs.

The most fun character to write is always Naeve Sorrow, who is the most unlike me: capable of anything, takes no shit, and doesn’t need to prove herself to anyone because she knows she’s awesome. I guess that’s why it’s fun. She also happens to be the character who everyone seems to like best, which confirms my melancholy suspicion that my imagination is way more interesting than I am.

Or that Naeve Sorrow is your superhero alter-ego lurking deep down inside…laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

It occurred to me quite recently that the premise of book one, Darkhaven, has similarities to the tale of Rapunzel. In particular, Ayla Nightshade bears every sign of embodying the ‘damsel in distress’ trope. The books are otherwise quite progressive in terms of themes and characters; why did you choose to portray her in this way?

There are two possible answers to that. I think both are true.

The first is that when I wrote Darkhaven, I hadn’t really found my voice as a writer yet. I’d been absorbing all these tropes without realizing it (I’m not sure I even knew tropes were a thing), so it was natural that some of them would find their way into my writing. I think we all go through that stage. Tropes are tropes because they appear regularly in the media we consume, and if you’re not aware of that, you simply internalize them. It wasn’t until after I wrote Darkhaven that I really started thinking about this kind of thing. (You could say, in a meta kind of way, that this is another example of the tension between tradition and progress that the series tries to grapple with. But maybe that would be pretentious.)

Tropes are tropes because they appear regularly in the media we consume, and if you’re not aware of that, you simply internalize them. It wasn’t until after I wrote Darkhaven that I really started thinking about this kind of thing.

The second, which is perhaps fairer to myself, is that I think it would have been unrealistic for Ayla to be any other way, given her upbringing. At the start of Darkhaven, she’s basically been trapped in one place her entire life. She’s grown up with a father who shows her no affection at all and forbids her to do much except prepare to be a future mother ofGoldenfire (Darkhaven #2) by A.F.E. Smith Nightshade heirs, and a brother who she loves but who she’s going to be forced to marry against her will (yeah, the Nightshades aren’t the most functional family). And maybe her mother would have been a counteractive influence to all that, but her mother is dead. So although she’s angry and determined, she’s emotionally stunted and lacks the skills to get much done, on a practical level. Perhaps it’s unfair to call her altogether a damsel in distress. She wants to fight, and she does keep fighting. She’s just not very good at it.

I guess all this goes to show that you can have a good reason for the presence of a problematic trope. Whether it’s sufficiently good is up to the individual reader. Still, I hope it’s clear that I don’t think ‘all women’ are damsels in distress. I have my wise-cracking, kick-ass female characters too (hello, Naeve Sorrow). And Ayla herself changes a lot over the course of the series, as she grows into herself and her abilities and leaves her father’s legacy behind.

Absolutely, which is another reason I’d encourage readers to proceed with the series.laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

In Goldenfire (book two) you introduce Ree (one of my favourite characters). You could argue that the ‘woman overcomes odds to prove she can fight like a man’ trope has been used many a time before. What makes Ree’s story different?

I think the interesting thing about Ree’s story is that it forces her to confront her own prejudices as much as other people’s. Often, implicit in a ‘woman proves she’s as good as a man’ narrative is the belief that it’s better to be like a man, to be strong in traditionally masculine ways. Being ‘feminine’ (or rather, possessing what have typically been considered feminine traits) is seen as a weakness. And that’s exactly what Ree believes, to start with. The flip side of her desire to prove herself in a man’s world is her belief that only a man’s world is worth being in. So when she encounters a girl who giggles and dresses in lace and uses her sexuality as a tool, she automatically despises her. But, of course, that makes Ree just as guilty as the boys whose mockery she’s fighting against: first, because being pretty and flirtatious isn’t mutually exclusive with being a warrior, and second, because choosing to forge a path that typically isn’t taken by your gender doesn’t make you somehow superior to someone who chooses a more traditional path. Equality isn’t about replacing one set of constraints with another.

Well said!laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

Afe, there’s a strong emphasis on identity in your novels. In particular, Goldenfire uses romantic relationships in order to foreground issues of sexual and personal identity (to the chagrin of some of your readers).

Furthermore, your books feature several gay protagonists – which is still (sadly) somewhat revolutionary in a series that appears to target Young Adult readers – while Windsinger also introduces an asexual character, who suffers shaming and abuse from his father for his ‘abnormality’.

Were any of these aspects a result of conscious decisions on your part, or did they arise as a natural part of the characters’ development?

Oh, certainly a conscious decision. I think writers have a responsibility to make a conscious decision about the gender, race, sexuality, etc. of their characters. Because if you don’t make a conscious decision, you make an unconscious one. You default to whatever you’ve learned to think of as the ‘norm’.

I think writers have a responsibility to make a conscious decision about the gender, race, sexuality, etc. of their characters. Because if you don’t make a conscious decision, you make an unconscious one. You default to whatever you’ve learned to think of as the ‘norm’.

The odd thing about sexuality, in particular, is that portraying people of different sexualities is often seen as somehow a political decision, whereas making everyone heterosexual isn’t. And I think that’s because of the default position I just mentioned – if you’re not making a conscious decision, you don’t realize it’s political. But the truth is, not questioning the default is as political a position as anything else, because it’s only those of us who conform to the ‘norm’ who can afford not to question it.

The other aspect of this, though, is that I didn’t want sexuality to be the focus of the series. Books about what it’s like to be LGBT+ in a society that isn’t fully accepting of that are valuable and important, but I think it’s also valuable and important to have books that present diverse sexualities as an accepted and unremarked fact. Because if you can offer a world where straight isn’t the ‘norm’ but just one way of being – as intrinsic and irrelevant to a person’s character as eye colour – then maybe we can start to question our own norms. I think both kinds of book are needed.

The odd thing about sexuality, in particular, is that portraying people of different sexualities is often seen as somehow a political decision, whereas making everyone heterosexual isn’t.

Having said that, you correctly point out that Lewis’s asexuality results in shaming and abuse. But that’s a result of the family he comes from and the expectations he’s under. Most ordinary people in Mirrorvale would have just as little reaction to asexuality as they do to any other kind of sexuality, but among wealthy families who expect their children to marry and procreate for the good of their bloodline … well, again, it’s that tension between tradition and progress.

Exactly, and it’s pretty clear to the reader that Lewis’s father’s behaviour is not only unjust but also illogical.laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

Your novels are wonderfully diverse. One of my favourite aspects of both Goldenfire and Windsinger is the way you empower sexual and racial minorities by ensuring that they’re represented with nuance and compassion.

Reading Windsinger, I felt particularly strongly about Zander, the immigrant who finds himself isolated and displaced when his adopted country descends into war with his country of birth. Why did you choose to explore this theme?

Again, there are two answers to this. (I’m terribly indecisive, can you tell?) (LH: Never! :p)

Windsinger (Darkhaven #3) by A.F.E. SmithThe first answer is that I wrote Windsinger at a time when I was struggling with myself and with the world. I was sinking in and out of depression, trying to keep my head above water even though half the time it didn’t really seem worth it. (Depression is great at making everything seem pointless.) And, you know, there was a lot going on in the world that contributed to that. Still is. It feels as though in many countries, people have descended into the mindset required for war: the one that labels whole groups of human beings as other. And I think one of the frightening things about that – and this is something Zander experiences – is how close to the surface that mindset turns out to be. We do it with people of different ethnicities, cultures, religions. Different genders and sexualities. We’re perfectly capable of labelling every single person who doesn’t support our own political party as stupid, unworthy, lesser. We mistrust anyone who isn’t like us – when if you cut the categories fine enough, we all end up in a category of one. Anyway, it preyed on my mind enough that it found its way into the book.

It feels as though in many countries, people have descended into the mindset required for war: the one that labels whole groups of human beings as other. And I think one of the frightening things about that – and this is something Zander experiences – is how close to the surface that mindset turns out to be. We do it with people of different ethnicities, cultures, religions. Different genders and sexualities. We’re perfectly capable of labelling every single person who doesn’t support our own political party as stupid, unworthy, lesser. We mistrust anyone who isn’t like us – when if you cut the categories fine enough, we all end up in a category of one.

The second answer is that a lot of what happens in Windsinger is a natural result of what happened in the previous two books. War has always been on the horizon for Mirrorvale. And the seed of people’s attitudes towards Zander was there in Goldenfire. So it’s the logical next step for the character and the plot. I think exploring themes only works if they come out organically.

I agree, and I think Windsinger is a must-read in today’s climate – it’s eye-opening, for sure.laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

I admire and respect the fact that you explore social issues in a way that highlights the problematic aspects – the barriers, as it were – as well as the ultimate ideal. (You touched on one example earlier when you talked about Ree fighting against the sexist, misogynistic attitudes of her male competitors, yet unconsciously inflicting that same scorn and prejudice on her fellow women.)

Going forward, are there any other issues that you intend to tackle in a similar manner?

The thing is, I don’t really set out to tackle issues. They just emerge from the plot. I think if you set out to write issue-based fiction it can become kind of preachy. It’s the difference between “I’m going to write a book about prejudice!” and “I’m going to write a book about war, murder, kidnap, airships and flying unicorns that also happens to touch on what it’s like to be discriminated against because of where you were born.” I hope very much that I fall on the right side of that line.

So the answer to your question, I guess, is that I don’t intend to tackle any issues. But I fully expect them to emerge, because characters are people, and people are messy and interesting.

Agreed, and I for one look forward to seeing what emerges in future!laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

If there was a single message you’d like readers to take away from the first three books – what would it be?

Hmm. That’s a tricky one. Do my books have messages? I guess there are one or two buried in there. The importance of trying to understand other people, maybe. Of approaching them as individuals, rather than categorizing them by the ways they are different from you. Of continuing to have faith in people, generally, no matter how misplaced that faith may feel when the world seems to be going to hell …

To paraphrase, I guess Tomas Caraway has it right: “Anyone can hate. It’s love that requires courage.”

Spoken like a true hero!laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

Now for one or two lighter questions before we wrap things up…

First – I’ll admit I was surprised at the minor role Ayla’s shapechanging ability plays (in the first two books, at least). What made you want to write about shapechangers and not, say, dragons?

I tend to write my magic small. By which I mean, I’m not really interested in spectacle so much as people. What’s interesting about shapeshifters is that they’re basically humans who have an extra ability. A superpower, if you like. But the thing about being a human with a superpower is that your powers are only as strong as you are. So, for instance, it makes sense to me that in the first book, Ayla – who has barely been allowed to use her power due to her father’s dislike of the form it takes – wouldn’t automatically think to wield it, even in a dangerous situation. Her natural instincts have been suppressed. But you see as the series continues that over the years, she becomes more and more comfortable in her own skin, and therefore more and more able to wield that power effectively and listen to herself. You can read that as an analogy to whatever you like. She’s every person who’s ever had part of themselves suppressed by a disapproving upbringing.

I tend to write my magic small. By which I mean, I’m not really interested in spectacle so much as people. What’s interesting about shapeshifters is that they’re basically humans who have an extra ability. A superpower, if you like. But the thing about being a human with a superpower is that your powers are only as strong as you are.

But the point is, if I’d written about dragons, they’d be dragons. Powerful and alien and not at all subject to human frailty. Which is of course excellent, in its own way, but not what I was interested in writing about.

While we’re at it, then: what’s the significance of Ayla’s Changer form?

Within the books, it represents a break from tradition. The discovery that an impure/hybrid form might actually be more powerful than the handful of pure forms historically preferred by the Nightshade line. (You can read that as a comment on the importance of opening yourself up to new influences and new ideas, if you like. I think it’s clear by now which side I tend to favour in the battle between tradition and progress, though I wouldn’t come down fully on either side.)

Outside the books … the significance is pretty much golden winged unicorns are awesome.

‘Golden winged unicorns are awesome’ is also an excellent message for people to take away from the books.laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

You’ve said about the robin… Changers, however, are HUGE. What would your changer form be, and why?

OK, so the five pure Changer forms are Firedrake, Unicorn, Hydra, Phoenix and Griffin. And there are hundreds of hybrid forms as well, many of which don’t have names (see: Nightshade desire for purity). I’m kind of shy and grumpy, so I’d probably be a Unicorn/Hydra hybrid. Which I imagine as one of those horses you get in heraldry where it has front legs but then the body turns into a snake. What’s that called? *Googles* Apparently, a hippocampus. A hippocampus with a unicorn horn.

(After I wrote that, I had the urge to create a cheesy ‘What’s your Changer form?’ quiz. And since it’s always advisable to listen to one’s urges, I went ahead and did it. So if you’d like to find out what your Changer form would be, you can do it here. Turns out, according to my own quiz, I’m a Feathered Serpent. So there you go.)

Hieracosphinx

Move over, hippocampus lady – I’m a hieracosphinx!

And finally… what can readers expect to see next from A.F.E. Smith? Do you have plans for more Darkhaven goodness? Or something entirely different?

I have plans for four more Darkhaven books. However, whether or not those plans ever come to fruition depends entirely on whether the first three sell enough to make it worthwhile for my publisher to contract me for more. Publishing is a business, after all.

Authors I love: Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett, Jacqueline Carey, Patrick Ness, Juliet Marillier, Katherine Addison, Neil Gaiman …

But recently I read The Curse of Chalion (I know, late to the party), so now when I grow up I want to be Lois McMaster Bujold.

In the meantime, I’ve been working on another project, a young adult fantasy series, the first of which is being considered by an agent right now. (One of the downsides of my route to publication was that I bypassed finding an agent, which I wouldn’t recommend if you’re at all interested in getting into – and staying in – traditional publishing. So I’m trying to rectify that.) The new series is quite a complex beast, so I hope it will find a home.

Well, I wish you the best of luck in both endeavours. Whatever happens, I look forward to seeing more of your stuff. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat . . . and congratulations once again on the new book!

laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

Windsinger is the third book in A.F.E. Smith’s exciting Darkhaven series, and you can order it NOW.afe smith robin

‘Darkhaven’, ‘Goldenfire’ & ‘Windsinger’ by A.F.E. Smith


You could be forgiven for assuming A.F.E. Smith’s debut is a tame, fluffy tale about a magical unicorn. I assumed the same. But trust me when I say that there’s *nothing* tame or fluffy about Darkhaven.The Darkhaven series by A.F.E. Smith

Firstly, let’s get one thing straight: that’s not actually a unicorn. It’s an alicorn; a hybrid of the ‘pure’ Changer (shapeshifting) forms of griffin and unicorn. Why does it matter? Because the Nighshade family pride themselves on the purity of their unique bloodline.
According to its current patriarch – who follows the Targaryen-esque approach of, um, ‘keeping it in the family’ – his daughter’s alicorn form is as shameful as her rebelliousness is unacceptable. (He himself takes the ‘pure’ form of a mighty firedrake, because ‘nothing keeps Darkhaven by Afe Smithpeople honest like the fear of a fire-breathing lizard turning up on their doorstep.’)

And so Darkhaven kicks off with a prison break. Ayla Nightshade, assisted by her brother Myrren, escapes from the citadel – on the same night as their father is brutally murdered by a Changer. Obviously, this looks bad for Ayla, who spends the rest of the book trying to survive long enough to clear her name. But the search for answers turns up some uncomfortable truths about Ayla’s ancestors… and a few dark secrets about the goings-on within Darkhaven’s walls.

Ayla is dynamic and determined; a bit of a ‘damsel in distress’ type, but the writer makes it clear that this is situational – a product of her isolated upbringing rather than any fault in her character. But while Ayla is a likeable enough protagonist, the true stars of the story are Tomas Caraway (a disgraced former Helmsman and struggling alcoholic) and Naeve Sorrow (a mercenary).

In fact, Sorrow is (for me) a highlight of the entire Darkhaven series.

‘I come in peace,’ Sorrow drawled, offering him the knife hilt-first. ‘This was just in case I met anyone I didn’t like on the way.”

Essentially a murder-mystery in a fantasy setting, Darkhaven is a solid debut; not quite great, but certainly very, very good. Goldenfire, on the other hand, is brilliant. Characters who were sketched out in Darkhaven are filled in and brought to life in Goldenfire, as is the steampunkish city of Arkannen. Furthermore, the entire world feels much more three-dimensional, as Goldenfire’s plot is inextricably interwoven with its politics and economicsGoldenfire (Darkhaven #2) by A.F.E. Smith (as well as its characters, of course).

Set three years after the events of Darkhaven, Smith’s second novel explores the idea of an inherent conflict between tradition and science when Ayla Nightshade’s position of absolute power is challenged by an assassination threat from the neighbouring country of Sol Kardis – whose number one export just happens to be firearms. Darkhaven’s struggle to reconcile the inevitable technological advances of an industrial revolution with the need for gun control is a really fascinating underlying aspect of the story. (It’s particularly thought-provoking when political dissenters apply words like ‘tyrant’ and ‘monster’ to our very own Ayla Nightshade.)

Goldenfire is, in many ways, a self-aware deconstruction of judicial and societal issues. It’s also a well-written (and bloody exciting) mystery novel that uses its killer plot and engaging characters to unravel these issues in a succinct, honest and wry – if cynical – manner. I really admire the skill with which Smith carefully picks out narrative details to highlight problematic issues – such as feminism – without ever sounding preachy.

Ree flinched as a dozen heads turned her way. She could see how they expected this to go. Either she and the other girl would become great friends and form their own exclusive little circle separate from the rest, or they’d be bitter rivals who constantly vied to beat each other in training. Those were the only two narratives open to her. That was what happened when you were part of a minority: to everyone else, your identity was intimately bound up with the group you belonged to.

The extract above is taken from one of Goldenfire’s early chapters. In it, Ree Quinn – a noble-born girl from the provinces – is disgruntled to learn that she’s not the only person vying for the distinction of becoming Darkhaven’s first female Helmsman. In her desperation to separate herself from other women and escape the sort of sexist abuse she anticipates receiving from the male hopefuls, she herself unwittingly inflicts that same misogynistic attitude on her female peer. Ree’s hypocrisy isn’t immediately obvious, and just as she learns the error of her ways, so too does Smith ensure her readers emerge a little bit more enlightened than before.

Suspenseful and cleverly crafted, Goldenfire is a massive step up from Darkhaven (and is actually my favourite book of the series so far). From start to finish, every page is pure adventure, and the new characters – Ree, Zander, Penn, Miles – are a welcome and dynamic addition to the existing cast. (The return of Naeve Sorrow is also a HUGE selling point, obviously.) Furthermore, while it builds on the events of Darkhaven whilst also Windsinger (Darkhaven #3) by A.F.E. Smithsubtly setting the stage for Windsinger, the plot of Goldenfire is wonderfully self-contained and its resolution wholly satisfying. It also left me with a big, goofy smile and a desperate urge to read more.

Luckily, Netgalley obliged with an e-ARC of book three, Windsinger – the awesomeness of which I’ve been shamelessly touting on social media for the last couple of weeks. Because even though I thoroughly enjoyed the fast-paced story and light-hearted tone of Goldenfire, there’s no arguing that Windsinger is a better, more fulfilling book.

Chillingly relevant to today’s social and political climate – which, I think we can all agree, is a particularly ripe breeding ground for contention – Windsinger is darker and more serious than its predecessors. The stakes are higher – for Ayla, for her citizens, and for Mirrorvale itself – and issues which had hitherto been present in the background now take centre stage.

‘People are far better at noticing how they’re different than how they’re the same. I see it year after year when I’m training new recruits. And war only brings it out more strongly. It turns everyone into patriots.’ One corner of his mouth turned up. ‘Not that I object to people being proud of their country, obviously. But there’s a difference between that and hating everyone else’s.’

Racism lurks below the surface of Goldenfire; it’s the driving factor behind the Helm’s suspicion of Zander, who is an immigrant from Sol Kardis. In Windsinger, this prejudice is right there in front of us, devolving into discrimination and violence as soon as diplomatic relations between Mirrorvale and Sol Kardis collapse.

The day after Sol Kardis declared war on Mirrorvale, a woman walked right up to Zander in the streets of the fourth ring. ‘Kardise scum,’ she hissed at him. And spat in his face.

[…]

‘For the Mirrorvalese to turn on us that quickly, that violently … it makes me think, maybe they hated us all along. Why else would they be so unable to separate a country from its individual descendants? Maybe they never looked at me and saw a person. Maybe they always just saw a Kardise boy.’

Smith uses Zander’s chapters to foreground incidences of hate crimes in a way that the reader can’t ignore, and heavily emphasises the fear and loneliness that accompany life as a minority. She deliberately juxtaposes these chapters with those of other characters – who are utterly oblivious to the various sorts of bigotry taking place right in front of them.

Zander approached the street vendor. Easy to see, now, why the youths had picked on him. By the colour of his skin and the cast of his features, he could have been Zander’s older brother.

‘Are you all right?’ Zander asked.

The vendor’s gaze flicked up, then quickly back down again. ‘Sod off.’

‘I just wanted to … I mean, I’m Kardise too, so …’

The man’s head lifted again, a scowl touching his features. ‘I’m not Kardise. I’m Mirrorvalese.’

‘I’m sorry, I –’

‘Just stop talkin’ to me, will yer? Anyone sees us havin’ a chat, they’ll think we’re plottin’ a murder.’ He turned his back on Zander and began to walk away, flinging a glare over his shoulder. ‘A pox on you and your bloody country.’

If Smith has shown us anything, it’s that there’s no such thing as good and evil; only shades of grey, shadows, and perspective. But sometimes, when you believe strongly in something, even the most hardened and morally-ambiguous person will see the necessity of taking one side to prevent the other from succeeding.

Sorrow propped her head on her hand and sighed. First he accuses me of trying to do the right thing, and now he tells me he trusts me. What am I, a fucking priestess?

Still, she was working against the kind of people who thought peace with an old enemy was a betrayal, rather than a genuine chance for change. The kind of people who would happily engineer a war, because they’d never have to fight in it. The kind of people who could use the phrase Kardise scourge to refer to ordinary citizens of Mirrorvale, getting on with their lives, who happened to have one or more foreign-born ancestors somewhere in their family tree.

Yes: if there was ever a right side, she was on it. That had to count for something.

Yes: even Naeve Sorrow – a notoriously unscrupulous mercenary – has a better sense of right and wrong than a huge percentage of Arkannen’s average population. Again, though, Smith doesn’t sermonise about morality; nor does she belabour the point. Amidst the frank conversations and philosophy are much wryer (yet equally discerning) observations about the dangers of judging people by their appearance or country of origin.

He looked sad. ‘It’s hard to believe of her. She always seemed such a sweet girl.’

Sorrow rolled her eyes. ‘Your problem, Tomas, is that your natural paranoia is in constant tension with an almost pathological desire to believe the best of people. Sweet tells you nothing. Fuck it, I could be sweet if the occasion demanded.’

They looked at each other. Caraway’s lips twitched. Sorrow glared at him for a moment before conceding. ‘Maybe not. But you take my point.’

Finally, characters like Sorrow and Caraway and Zander are full of hard-won wisdom, and Windsinger has important messages for all who’re willing to listen.

If one man in a hundred is a traitor, and I allow that knowledge to close my heart to the other ninety-nine, who is the winner then?

Insights and social commentary aside, Windsinger is a tense, exciting continuation of one of the most entertaining series I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Smith’s writing is powerfully emotive (Windsinger had me shedding tears in more than once place) and her storytelling has rapidly evolved from good to great to WOW.

Though it does take a much more serious turn in book three, the Darkhaven series is nonetheless 100% fun. With a diverse range of sympathetic characters and a metric fucktonne of page-turning action, A.F.E. Smith’s Darkhaven novels will leave you breathless, with a grin on your face and your heart aching for more.

Windsinger (Darkhaven #3) is available now.lauramhughes-sig

This review was originally published on Fantasy-Faction on 10 February 2017.
Darkhaven, Goldenfire, Windsinger by A.F.E. Smith

‘King of Thorns’ by Mark Lawrence


Anyone will tell you that the middle part of any trilogy is usually the weakest; that it functions mostly as filler between books one and three, a tiresome interlude between the start and the big finish. Not so with King of Thorns: it’s fast-paced, tense, action-packed, and has several thrilling plotlines that make for a more exhilarating read than even the trilogy’s first instalment, Prince of Thorns. No wonder it was shortlisted for the 2013 David Gemmell Legend Award (losing out to Brent Weeks’ equally worthy The Blinding Knife).

“I made mock of the dying at Mabberton and now their ghosts watched me burn. Take the pain, I said, and I will be a good man. Or if not that, a better man. We all become weasels with enough hurt on us. But I think a small part of it was more than that. A small part was that terrible two-edged sword called experience, cutting away at the cruel child I was, carving out whatever man might be yet to come. I promised a better one. Though I have been known to lie.”

As you probably know, King of Thorns is the second instalment in Mark Lawrence’s post-apocalyptic, dark fantasy (aka. ‘grimdark’) Broken Empire trilogy. Picking up the story of Jorg Ancrath four years after the events of Prince, Jorg is now King of Renar, and must King of Thorns by Mark Lawrencedefend his position against popular Prince Orrin of Arrow. However, due to earlier events Jorg has had certain memories removed from his mind (convenient, I know). These memories are revealed through a series of flashbacks in a style similar to that of the novel’s predecessor, but much more cleverly and intricately crafted. The ‘present day’ plot of the novel is centred on Jorg’s plan to defeat the Prince of Arrow; a plan which is progressively revealed throughout the story and leads us with ever-increasing momentum towards the adrenaline-filled finish.

Prince Orrin is everything you’d expect to see in a traditional epic fantasy. He is handsome and moral, gracious and brave, and above all he wishes to secure peace and prosperity for the empire . . . and we spend the entire novel rooting against him (well, I did). I really like the fact that the author has managed to deconstruct traditional fantasy archetypes to such an extent that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ become merely a matter of perspective. Orrin is the golden fairy-tale prince, and yet somehow our Little Jorgy – severely flawed and of dubious morality – manages to emerge the hero.

I’ll be honest: the first time I read this book I had two major issues with it, the first being the flashbacks. There are four (I think) different time frames/points of view, and I initially felt these to be chaotic, distracting and occasionally repetitive. I felt that they detracted from my enjoyment of the main story by disrupting my sense of time and place. I got that they were being strategically placed to build towards the big reveal, but felt that there was too much back and forth within the narrative.

Now, having read this book a second time, I find it difficult to reconcile my initial response with what I’ve just read. For a start, I realise that the sense of dislocation is deliberately evoked in order to create an empathic link with Jorg: we feel but a tiny fraction of what it must be like to be suddenly hit by a memory you have no recollection of having lived through. Secondly, the ordering of the flashbacks is anything but chaotic. The narrative is artfully constructed so as to reveal crucial plot points at strategic moments, as well as to both shock and tease the reader; and what I had at first thought to be random revealed itself instead to be a complex web of memories cunningly fashioned by the author in a way to make one gape with admiration.

King of Thorns (Jason Chan art) by Mark Lawrence

Artwork by Jason Chan

My other initial problem with the book was that I didn’t enjoy the ‘Katherine’ chapters. I found the saga of her diary entries to be an unnecessarily dull counterpoint to Jorg’s narrative, and found myself wishing her journal pages had never been found. Of course, reading the novel again made me realise why her chapters are a vital part of the on-going Sageous plotline, and her sad words resonated far more poignantly because I was aware of how it was going to end. I’m more willing now to accept Katherine as a necessary part of Jorg’s story.

I’ll admit: there were parts of this book that I found difficult to read, and which I know have caused outrage amongst readers elsewhere on the web. A scene which I’ll refer to only as the Justice of King Olidan actually hurt me to read, even more so the second time because I knew it was coming and was powerless to stop it; and yet, I found myself elated that Jorg was able to re-live the memory and re-evaluate the lessons he thought he’d learned from the experience. The fact that the reader is made to experience such feelings is a testament to the author’s ability to feel, and to write in a way that makes others feel too.

On a similar note, King of Thorns feels a lot more personal than Prince, perhaps because scenes such as these allow the reader to connect more with the protagonist: Jorg has stabilised a little and matured emotionally, and we live through this transformation as much as he does. There is also a lot more focus on his internal struggle with the way he has lived so far – here’s a powerful example:

“I told Coddin that stubbornness led me to climb, and perhaps it did, but there’s more to it. Mountains have no memory, no judgments to offer. There’s a purity in the struggle to reach a peak. You leave your world behind and take only what you need. For a creature like me there is nothing closer to redemption.”

I don’t want to mislead anyone into thinking that this is some kind of sappy coming-of-age drama, by the way. I mentioned in my review of Prince of Thorns how the first book came under fire by those who were outraged by the immoral actions of the central character within the first few pages; if those same people have decided to read King of Thorns I’m guessing they’re currently rolling in their graves after choking on their own moral indignation. There’s some dark stuff here, darker than the first book, with enough creepy situations and haunting images to give you nightmares for a month. There’s action – lots of action! – and the flashbacks are written in the present tense, which really draws you into the moment and uses the “elephant of surprise” to keep you on the edge of your seat, right up to the eventual reveal of the final heart-breaking secret.

I’m hopeful that the final instalment in the trilogy, Emperor of Thorns, will prove to be as good as this one. What with the subtle transformation of Jorg’s character, the driving themes of memory and destiny, and the intriguing foreshadowing of the Dead King, I can’t wait to read it. According to Jorg,

“A time of terror comes. A dark time. The graves continue to open and the Dead King prepares to sail. But the world holds worse things than dead men. A dark time comes.

My time.

If it offends you.

Stop me.”

I don’t think I’ve ever shivered with anticipation before; but after reading those closing lines, how could I not?

This review was originally published on halfstrungharp.com on 23rd September 2013.lauramhughes-sig