Last month, I was asked to contribute to Tor.com’s ‘Best of 2017 (So Far)‘ list! Here’s the list; you’ll find my picks a little way down the page.
Contributors were asked to limit our choices to just three. Which would you have chosen?
Last month, I was asked to contribute to Tor.com’s ‘Best of 2017 (So Far)‘ list! Here’s the list; you’ll find my picks a little way down the page.
Contributors were asked to limit our choices to just three. Which would you have chosen?
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!
This review originally appeared on Tor.com on April 7, 2017.
Mark Lawrence’s latest novel, Red Sister, is a dramatic departure from the ‘grimdark’ trilogies for which he’s most widely known. The first in a brand-new series, Red Sister introduces us to a different world and whole new cast of characters. But before we discuss its merits, let’s get the inevitable comparisons with Lawrence’s existing work out of the way…
Without giving too much away, Red Sister weaves together three distinct timelines. The main part of the story follows protagonist Nona’s time at the Sweet Mercy convent, beginning with her arrival at the convent and focusing on her education, her developing relationships with her peers and mentors, and her martial training. Think Harry Potter meets Blood Song, but with an all-female cast. The second thread gradually reveals Nona’s past – from the unspoken incident in her childhood village, to the months spent in a slaver’s cage – and the third thread takes place a few years further on from the first, framing the rest of the story like a much more exciting version of Kote’s narrative in the Kingkiller Chronicles.
Readers familiar with Lawrence’s previous books (The Broken Empire, The Red Queen’s War) will likely either love or hate his use of alternating timelines; either way, Red Sister is a fine example of the trademark Lawrence non-linear narrative. The author wields flashbacks (and flash-forwards) with wicked skill, and I can say without hesitation that Nona’s tale surpasses even King of Thorns in the seamless inclusion of gasp-out-loud plot twists and edge-of-your-seat perspective shifts.
So: Red Sister shares obvious stylistic similarities with The Broken Empire and The Red Queen’s War. But that, my friends, is where the similarities end.
Nobody likes change. At least, not at first. I myself – a keen admirer of Mark Lawrence since 2013 – felt leery about this new world, these new characters. How, I asked myself, could Nona Grey’s tale possibly match up to those of her predecessors? Jorg Ancrath and Jalan Kendeth both leave behind big, bloody shoes to fill, after all.
Yes, fans of Lawrence’s writing will be accustomed to a very specific kind of protagonist: namely, a witty, self-centred young male. And when readers learned that the stars of Red Sister would be almost exclusively female, apprehension fluttered through a sizable portion of Lawrence’s fan base as they asked themselves: what if this decision to write an all-female cast was no more than a middle finger aimed directly at feminist critics of his other books? What if this new protagonist – this “Nona”– turned out to simply be a gender-flipped version of Jorg or Jalan – a pale imitation, rather than a unique individual?
“It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size.
For Sister Thorn of the Sweet Mercy convent Lano Tacsis brought two hundred men.”
I believe most of us were reassured, if not by Red Sister’s first line, then certainly by its second. I for one knew I HAD to read more about this woman – a bloody nun, no less – who is apparently so badass that it requires an entire army just to challenge her.
So who is Sister Thorn? Who is her aggressor, and what’s his beef? What kind of world is this, in which killing nuns is a) acceptable, and b) a military action? Well, to answer these questions would be spoiling it. What I can tell you is that Nona Grey is a compelling, sympathetic protagonist who eventually kicks arse in the most believable yet satisfying ways.
Arse-kicking aside, it’s Nona’s journey that is truly captivating. Lawrence beautifully captures the nuances of Nona’s personality, so that her character unfolds along with her gradually changing perspective – which is no mean feat considering that Red Sister is Lawrence’s first full-length foray into third person. And as she learns more about the world, so too is her narrative laced with a poignant series of brutal observations and uncomfortable truths.
“A man driving a wagonload of children in a cage doesn’t have to state his business. A farmer whose flesh lies sunken around his bones, and whose eyes are the colour of hunger, doesn’t have to explain himself if he walks up to such a man. Hunger lies beneath all of our ugliest transactions.”
Above all, Nona’s perspective is jaded, yet wryly positive. This is a young woman who tries desperately to see the best in people – in her friends, especially – even when the worst is staring her right in the face; a young woman who remains hopeful, despite having been thoroughly kicked around by the frozen world she inhabits.
To begin with, Red Sister is disorienting. Readers old and new are confronted at the start by an entirely new perspective, a whole bunch of unfamiliar characters, and a somewhat confusing double-prologue. Furthermore, this is Lawrence’s first full-length work of spec fic that is not set within the Broken Empire.
The main thing you need to know about Nona’s world is that it’s bloody cold, and bloody brutal. On a planet where every habitable area is gradually succumbing to encroaching ice from both poles, the warring kingdoms are confined to the Corridor: a narrowing strip of land between the ice, where peasants scratch a living from the frozen soil and nuns live in isolated cloisters, guarding their own mysterious and much-coveted sources of heat.
In contrast with the travelogue-style adventures of Jorg and Jalan, much of Nona’s tale takes place within the Sweet Mercy convent. Here, she learns the subtle arts of poisoning, self-defence, and – most importantly – trusting her own instincts. Nona’s band of sisters are also developed in a nicely understated way, and they all play off one another in entertaining ways.
Add to all this Red Sister’s eminent quotability, and you’ll easily see why I had such a whale of a time posting Goodreads updates whilst reading it. Quips and bits of canny wisdom arise far more naturally here than they did from the nihilistic observations of Jorg, or the chuckle-provoking but occasionally forced witticisms of Jalan—yet another way in which Lawrence has evolved as a writer.
“Words are steps along a path: the important thing is to get where you’re going. You can play by all manner of rules, step-on-a-crack-break-your-back, but you’ll get there quicker if you pick the most certain route.”
While the princes of both Thorns and Fools did indeed break all manner of literary rules, you could argue that they took the longest route to get to where they were going—that Jorg’s philosophising and Jalan’s repartee were obstacles in the journey. Red Sister has a much subtler, “grown-up” tone; one which I’ve only ever seen Lawrence exhibit in The Wheel of Osheim (the concluding volume of his most recent completed trilogy). This bodes well indeed for his future work.
“A book is as dangerous as any journey you might take. The person who closes the back cover may not be the same one that opened the front one.”
Sister Kettle’s words are apt indeed. Like I said: nobody likes change. At least, not at first. But in this case, the switch in style, setting and substance from the Broken Empire to the Book of the Ancestor is perhaps the best thing Mark Lawrence has ever done.
Back in 2011, Liz Bourke declared Mark Lawrence’s writing to be problematic in her review of Prince of Thorns, not least because his debut novel was what you might call a “sausage fest.”
Despite these not inaccurate criticisms (which, believe me, Ms. Bourke is far from the only reader to have voiced), I – and many others – have spent the last few years eagerly devouring the regular instalments (one per year!) of fresh, sausage-y goodness.
But for those who remain unenamoured (or unfamiliar) with Lawrence’s work to date, Red Sister is the perfect point at which to become (re)acquainted . . . and this time, there isn’t a sausage in sight.
I suspect it’s going to be impossible for Lawrence to escape the notoriety that’s surrounded him since the release of Prince of Thorns. I’m also fairly certain that he wouldn’t want to; the bloke’s sold more than a million(!) books, after all. (No such thing as bad publicity, and all that.)
But with Red Sister being such a different project, you can understand why Harper Voyager have elected to make it look strikingly dissimilar from his previous books. In order to make Lawrence’s departure from the Broken Empire world abundantly clear, the publishers have switched from using the services of artist Jason Chan (with whom Lawrence has won double at the David Gemmell Legend Awards – twice!!) and instead chosen Heike Schuessler as the series’ new UK cover designer.
So while the US cover retains that gritty yet epic focus on the central character, the UK cover is almost mind-bogglingly different. As you can imagine, the cover reveal has been met mixed reception, with long-time fans expressing disappointment over the drastic change in style.
But as Lawrence himself has pointed out,
“It’s a tricky business. They wanted to signal that this is a whole new offering, not just another instalment of the world and stories begun in The Broken Empire and The Red Queen’s War. They wanted to invite in new readers who were perhaps put off by the piles of corpses &/or forest of blades emblazoning the front of my previous work.”
Whether you love or hate this new look, I’m urging you to read what’s between the covers before you judge. Red Sister contains familiar and much-lauded stylistic features of Lawrence’s writing, while dealing with brand-new characters and themes in an entirely original setting.
Readers who’ve enjoyed Lawrence’s earlier novels will also love Red Sister.
Readers who have never encountered the Broken Empire series should set it aside for the time being and instead dive straight into Red Sister.
And as for readers who disliked either Jorg or Jalan, let me assure you: Nona Grey would kick both their arses, and turn Jorg’s Road Brothers into bacon for her breakfast.
Back in March, Fantasy-Faction’s head honchos (Marc Aplin and Jennie Ivins) asked me to step up and help out with editing duties. Having written regularly for the site since July 2016, I’m familiar with the contributing team and was excited to have an opportunity to assist with acquiring, organising and editing new content. Marc’s day job has kept him away from FF throughout the past few months; when I agreed to step in, Jennie was finally able to take a well-earned break to deal with some important personal issues.
On April 9 – just one year after my grandad’s passing – my grandma died. Those who know me well are aware that this preceded my Annual Mental Breakdown. During the AMB (’17 edition), I threw myself into my new role on FF, despite Jennie’s compassionate offer to let me step away again. I buried myself in my FF editing responsibilities, and did the same with other projects and interactions in an attempt to escape from the fact that I was completely and utterly failing at Real Life.
The usual counselling, medication, GP visits and back-to-work interviews came after, and while I’m still a bit fragile I’m happy to say that the worst has passed.
However, continual involvement in online projects (such as FF) has left me somewhat burned out. Running a site that large is hard, guys – especially when you’re doing it alone. This is why I intend to stay on as assistant editor while handing the main reins back to Jennie. It’s been a challenging and eye-opening three months, but it’s also been a lot of fun. I’d like to say a brief but heartfelt THANK YOU to everyone involved in making my editorial stint such a rewarding experience. You’re amazing.
After sitting down and having a serious think about what I want to do with my life, I’ve realised several things.
As I’ve already mentioned, I’ve made the decision to step back from my role at Fantasy-Faction for the foreseeable future. While I’m no longer running the show over there, I intend to continue as an active part of the team and of the SFF community whilst focusing more closely on my own writing and editing.
Here are some of the things I will still be doing:
Mr Hughes and I are also moving house in a couple of weeks. While this is currently making everyday life even more stressful, we’re both looking forward to it, and I intend to do whatever I can to make the most of our fresh start. With that in mind, I’ve set up a Patreon page (which you can check out here) which will hopefully enable me to realise my own goals while continuing to support self-published fantasy authors.
Thanks again to the amazing friends and family who’ve put up with me during the last few months. <3
It’s official: my editing services are now available for hire! I’m offering high-quality line editing, copy editing and proofreading at competitive rates, with a focus on self-published fantasy fiction. I’m even offering a 20% discount to participants (past and present!) in the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off! Check out this page for details, rates, and testimonials.
Head over to the page for full details. Please feel free to contact me should you wish to see my CV – and please don’t hesitate to spread the word about my new venture!
The awesome folk at Tor.com have just published my fifth article over there! A Beginner’s Guide to Malazan Characters: Deadhouse Gates is a follow-up to last year’s guide to Gardens of the Moon.
Once again, there’s a whole bunch of fabulous artwork to accompany it, and I’d encourage you to check out all of these brilliant artists on DeviantArt!
Ben Galley is an award-winning fantasy author from the UK. He is the author of the epic Emaneska Series, the weird-west Scarlet Star Trilogy and the brand new standalone The Heart of Stone. When he’s not dreaming up lies to tell his readers, Ben works as a self-publishing consultant, helping fellow authors to self-publish and sell their books at www.shelfhelp.info. He joined me recently on Fantasy-Faction to chat about his latest release. Here’s what he had to say!
Thanks for joining us, Ben!
Firstly, congratulations on your latest release. The Heart of Stone has met with praise across the SFF community – including right here on Fantasy-Faction! For those who’re unfamiliar with the book, can you tell us a little bit about it?
Thank you for having me! The Heart of Stone is a new grimdark standalone centred around a non-human protagonist – a golem called Task. He’s an ancient war-machine that has been bought by the losing side of a civil war. As well as being an unstoppable, nine-foot lump of stone, he’s a complex creature who has spent all his 400+ years serving the whims of humans and winning their wars for them. To put it bluntly, he’s pretty fed up of us, and just wants to get on with the ugly business of battle. However, a waif of a stable girl has other ideas for him.
Let’s talk about Task, then. What made you choose a golem to be the hero of your story? (Also, who would win in a three-way fight between Task, Smaug and Wun-Wun the giant?)
First of all, I needed something pretty formidable for the battlefield. A golem seemed to fit that role very well, especially as they rely on brute strength and their composition to break things, rather than magic or spells. They’re also exclusively man-made, which gives them a bond to a creator or a master. That gave Task his leash, so to speak, whereas with demons or dragons or any of the beasts I’ve used before, it’s hard to bind them to us lesser mortals in an entirely convincing way.
The other reasons was due to the intrinsic humanity that’s prevalent through all golem mythology I researched. There is a fragility to a golem that comes not only from their in-built weakness and ownership but from the fact they are always one step away from being human, and yet can never quite take that step. Because of this, there’s an internal struggle within a golem, and that suited Task’s mindset perfectly.
As for the big old fight, of course I’m going to say Task. He’d sit by and let the giant and the dragon go at it until Smaug turned Wun-Wun to cinders. Then, being stone, Task would endure the old drake’s fire until he was all out. At that point, Task would most likely go and snap his pompous little neck.
Ha! Now that reminds me – I’m a huge fan of Shale, the playable golem companion in Dragon Age: Origins’ ‘Stone Prisoner’ expansion. Unlike Task, Shale enjoys crushing things… especially birds, mages and anyone who tries to give it orders. Which fictional depiction(s) of golems had the most influence on creating Task’s personality?
Sadly I’ve yet to play Dragon Age, so Shale wasn’t an influence during the book’s creation, but it’s now firmly on my to-be-played list thanks to you! I actually struggled to find a huge number of golems in fiction, so the characters I looked to instead were Ben Grimm/The Thing from Fantastic Four, and the rockbiter Pyornkrachzark (yeah, I had to look that up) from The Neverending Story. Both these characters struggled with loss – be it their freedom, their strength, or their humanity. Physically, they were what I initially imagined for Task – big, imposing beasts of thick and gnarled stone. However, as I got further into the book, and started working with my cover designer Shawn, I realised Task should look more refined than this, perhaps a little more like Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still remake. And so, the personality of Task stayed, but the outer shell changed to fit with the cover. I’ve never done that before, but the artwork was so good it retroactively inspired me to make those changes.
I remember the buzz surrounding the cover reveal last year; it was incredible, as is Shawn King’s design. How much influence did you have in the cover-creation process, Ben – and how far do you think The Heart of Stone’s cover has impacted its overall success?
Whenever I’m giving advice to fellow authors, I always say that professionalism and quality are paramount. The book cover, almost always being the first port of call for a reader, is arguably the most important aspect of a book. For my first standalone, and for what I believe to be my best work yet, I knew I had to pull out all the stops. Shawn King’s work had already caught my eye, and I knew he would be the perfect artist for the job. He completely understood Task, and he nailed his physical appearance, as I mentioned above. That’s definitely been a huge help in building buzz and getting the book noticed. Everybody that’s seen it has been so impressed with the artwork, and I don’t think as many early readers or reviewers would have said yes without it, despite its concept and protagonist. Here’s hoping the innards of the book are equally as impressive!
It’s clearly very different in style from your earlier work. Speaking of which…
You have two completed series under your belt. What led you to begin work on your debut, The Written? How would you describe the Emaneska Series – and would you recommend it as a starting point for new readers?
The Written was as much a foray into fantasy as it was a career move for me. I’d had the idea of writing a grimmer sort of high fantasy for a few years, and one night, watching BBC’s Merlin, I got so enraged at the pre-watershed nicety of it, I decided to plan out a book. I had the idea of a mage with a spell-book tattooed right into his back, making spells intrinsic but brutal on both the caster and unwitting victim. And so, Farden the Written mage was born that night. His story, and the world I built around him, led me on to write a four book series. It also marked the point when I decided to jump into the publishing industry, and make a grab for my dream of being an author. As well as Farden, that goal was what helped me to churn out those debut books.
Would I recommend it? Absolutely! I’m very proud of the Emaneska Series, but there’s a part of me that can’t help but cringe over it now that my style and skill have progressed. It’s definitely me being too close to my own work, however, so I still frequently recommend it to readers who are interested in dark, epic fantasies that span decades and continents.
Your best-known book is (arguably) Bloodrush. Now, I can’t help but notice that reviews of this novel – and the rest of the Scarlet Star Trilogy – often tend to include the word ‘weird’. How would you describe this series, and who would you recommend it to? (In other words, is ‘weird’ an insult or a compliment?)
Definitely a compliment. I think it comes down to the trilogy straddling a few genres, and so calling it weird is probably easier. First of all, it is described as “weird west”. At the same time, it’s also an alternate history series, set in a twisted 1867. It’s also a little steampunk, and the eponymous magic system is quite… out there. So yes, it is weird, but weird is good in my book (badoom tish).
I’d recommend it to any reader who wants a fantasy series that’s a little closer to the real world, or who enjoy a younger protagonist and a wide range of POVs. It’s also very fast-paced, with lots of intertwined mysteries, and also very magic-centric.
Small wonder it did so well in the inaugural Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off! (As readers may already know, Bloodrush reached second place, missing out on the top spot (which is determined by average score, and went to Michael McClung for The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble’s Braids) by just 0.25.) Ben, how did this affect you at the time? And in what ways has it impacted you since 2015?
For starters, I prefer “vice-winner”, and I shout the name of Michael McClung from the rooftops at least once a week, Kahn-style…
Of course, I jest, and in all seriousness, it was a fantastic opportunity and a pleasure to be ranked so highly. Bloodrush got a huge amount of visibility from it, and fantastic reviews from reviewers that might not have reviewed me without being in the competition. It also boosted the sales of the sequels, and other books too. It’s all about little steps when you’re marketing your own books, but the SPFBO felt like one big step to me, and in a great direction.
Oho, that’s a toughie, as I’m honoured (and occasionally disturbed) to know a good number of the finalists. Currently, I’ve got my eye on Paternus, The Grey Bastards, and The Path of Flames.
You’re not the only one!
If there happens to be a SPFBO3 . . . how likely is it that we’ll Task in there, fighting to claim the top spot with The Heart of Stone? (EDIT 23/5/17: there is! And he is!)
He’s got his sights set on that top spot, as he’s keen to embarrass Merion from Bloodrush. Golems also don’t come second.
Regardless of contests or rankings, I have to say congratulations on living the dream as a full-time, self-published writer. Having managed to make a successful, self-sufficient career from self-publishing, I guess you could say you’re the ‘model’ self-published author. I’m sure you’re tired of people asking this, but… why self-publishing?
Thank you! That means a hell of a lot.
Over the years, I’ve distilled it down into the answer of, “because I bloody love it”. I’ve always been an independent person and somewhat of an entrepreneur, and so self-publishing fits me perfectly. I get to control every part of the polishing process, and then decide how a book’s going to be published. Not only that, I have more flexibility and agility in the meantime. Is it better than the traditional route? No, not better, but not worse, just different. The point is that authors now have the choice, and I will forever be grateful for that.
In addition to being pretty prolific, you also help others find success through your business as a self-publishing consultant. How is it that you manage to put in all this extra work *and* produce quality, full-length novels on such a regular basis? What’s your secret to your success, dammit?
The ultra top-secret secret is basically a 12-16 hour working day, during which I’m flitting between writing, marketing and admin, normally in that order. I always put writing first. If I don’t get my words down for the day, I won’t do any marketing or admin until I have. It also takes a bit of discipline, such as knowing where to spend your time, and making sure you structure your day accordingly. That’s why every morning I ask myself, “what’s the most important thing to me today?”, and then plan around that. That, and being surgically attached to an iPhone and iPad also helps, as I can work anywhere at any time. Before I left work to focus on books, that’s how I got my writing done – either writing on my phone or emailing myself snippets. I actually wrote most of The Written on my mobile when I worked behind bars.
I’m going to go ahead and assume that when you say ‘behind bars’ you’re not talking about the cylindrical iron kind. If you don’t mind me saying, you definitely come across as more of an accomplished geek than a hardened convict . . . Which reminds me: Marc Aplin recently published a (somewhat controversial) article about the importance of social media in which he declared that author ‘branding’ on social media is just as important as (if not more so than) the actual quality of their writing. What are your thoughts?
That’s another tough one, as I believe the whole publishing game, both indie and trad, comes down to how you make the reader feel, page by page. Yes, quality covers, professional editing, marketing and a brand all have a part to play, but the writing is still the core part of success. It doesn’t have to be the most excellent writing (cough, 50 Something, cough) but it simply has to evoke emotion. I’m not saying I’m a fantastic writer whatsoever, but I spend a lot of time crafting my plots, worlds and characters to ensure they do this, then I bundle it all up inside a professional, branded package. Saying that, from a discovery point of view, you’re not going to know a book’s worth without being convinced to have a read. That’s where the brand and social reach come into play, and that’s why I agree with a lot of what Marc wrote.
Our Overlord is wise indeed, and I certainly agree that ‘discovery’ is one of the toughest aspects of self-publishing. That said, would you consider taking a different publishing route in the future? Small-press? Traditional? Owl post?
I make it a rule to always consider anything that adds to the success of my books, or for me as an author. Although I’m a huge proponent of self-publishing, I hold the fantasy imprints and houses in high esteem, and it would be great to work with them at some point in the future. There are aspects of the self-pub route that traditional publishers are just better equipped for. However, it would have to be a good deal, or for a book (or books) that I’ve written with traditional or small press publishing in mind.
Back to your books, then. You’ve made it quite clear that The Heart of Stone is a standalone. However, you’ve also dropped cryptic hints on social media about your current WIP, Chasing Graves. Can you give us a clue as to what sort of story it is? (Also, is there *no* chance at all of seeing more Alabast and Lesky in the future?)
Chasing Graves started life in December as another standalone, as the single-story bug bit me pretty hard after finishing The Heart of Stone. A few months on, and as you might have seen from social, it’s now stretched into another trilogy of books. I can safely say it’s got nothing to do with Heart of Stone. Instead, it’s a new world with strong Egyptian influences, all about a society that revolves around the enslavement of the dead. It’s a concept that’s been rattling around my noggin for a few years now, and I had to get it out.
As for Task, I will be writing a few short stories based in the world, exploring some of his formative years, and I think I may do a few for Alabast and Lesky too, set after the climax of the novel. As for an ETA on those, it will most likely be after Chasing Graves is done and dusted in May/June.
Finally: if you were a golem, what material would you be made from, and why?
The flesh of my fallen enemies. Or perhaps gold. That would be gangster.
It . . . certainly would. Thanks, Ben!
Ben can be found being loquacious and attempting to be witty on Twitter (@BenGalley), Facebook (@BenGalleyAuthor) or at his website www.bengalley.com. The Heart of Stone is available to buy RIGHT NOW.
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.)
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!
It’s BACK! Need I say any more?