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.)

‘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.

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

‘The Grey Bastards’ by Jonathan French


The Grey Bastards is one of ten novels in the final round of Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) 2016. The review was originally posted on Fantasy-Faction on 31st December 2016; updates on the contest’s progress can be found here.

spfbo-lauramhughes-smallI have a bone to pick with you, Jonathan French, aka. author of The Grey Bastards. You, sir, owe me a great many hours of sleep; hours that were spent avidly following the grim adventures of Jackal and co.

Mr. French, the pacing of your novel is truly brilliant. Starting with a ‘bang’ and then racing from conflicts and schemes to plot twists and battles, Bastards is what one might call a ‘rip-roaring adventure’: brutal, brave, and utterly fearless. The chapters are long, yet each end in a way that compels you to continue reading. Not since Dyrk Ashton’s Paternus (Fantasy-Faction’s very own chosen finalist) have I devoured a SPFBO book so
eagerly.

Electing to tell the entire story through Jackal’s PoV is another engaging piece of trickery. As you’re clearly well aware, Mr French, keeping the reader invested in one character not only raises the stakes whenever he is in danger but also makes the book a journey of discovery for both protagonist and reader. In a genre dominated by sprawling, multiple-pov sagas, Bastards’ singular focus on one part of the world (and your protagonist’s place within it) is refreshing and exciting. Bravo, sir!

However: in some ways The Grey Bastards is an uncomfortable read. Did you know, Mr. French, that the word ‘fuck’ appears in your novel a total of 230 times? And ‘shit’, 69 times? Why is she even mentioning this? you might be wondering; after all, Hughes is usually the last person to be offended over a bit of bad language! My fellow swear-brother T.O. Munro observed not too long ago that ‘cussing and expletives are a fact of real-life and fantasy reading and writing should reflect that’. I happen to whole-heartedly agree. But I suspect that in this case, Mr French, there will be many others who don’t. Here’s why.

The word ‘quim’ appears 19 times. The word ‘cunt’, 12, and ‘cunny’, 6. Those under the impression that misogyny is exclusively the domain of men will no doubt label this phenomenon simply as ‘testosterone’. But even considering that 80-90% of the characters are male (or swine…), this is a whopping amount of misogyny (and vulgarity) for one book. And yes, even I took exception to it at first.

However, as the story went on and I became inured to the language I realised with a jolt that perhaps this is what you were trying to do all along. By involving the reader so thoroughly in the half-orcs’ vernacular that it becomes natural to us you make us unwittingly complicit in their worldview. And the moment we realise this, the more we come to understand the ‘mongrels’ and to notice that some characters use these terms less broadly than others. While many wield the word ‘quim’ about as naturally as an elderly person uses casual racism (by which I mean as a harmful yet unconscious product of their upbringing), others use it much more aggressively, either as an insult or as a way of deliberately demeaning certain individuals. Either way, such ingrained chauvinism is shocking . . . but it also tells us a lot about the nature of certain characters. And the rare moments of its absence also happen to be an excellent way of highlighting honourable actions that would otherwise have gone unnoticed by us.

The fact is, Mr French, your half-orcs have entirely different values to your readers. In many cases, these differences will be irreconcilable, and no doubt many a reader will criticise the book for its rampant and unforgiveable misogyny. To these readers I would simply say: well, what on earth did you expect? But I’d also encourage them to read on; to read between the lines, and to reserve judgement until the story is done. Because while the bigger picture changes very little, the ways in which it has changed are crucial. Subtle, even.

I’ll admit that ‘subtle’ is the last word I’d expect to see used when referring to a book featuring a hog-riding half-orc on the cover and emblazoned with the title ‘The Grey Bastards’. A book that, even for me, felt like entering some exclusive boys’ club, one where I wasn’t forbidden but neither was I welcomed. A book that is saturated with derogatory terms for women, and with characters who view women as little more than ‘walking genitalia’ (as Adrian aptly pointed out in their review on Bibliotropic). However, the initial sense of being ostracised vanishes within just a few pages. I daresay that no reader can refuse Jackal’s honest charm, or that of his companions Oats and Fetching. And the Kiln wasn’t built in a day; likewise, reform – of any kind – takes time, and every step is a step in the right direction.laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

To sum up then, Mr. French: I envy and admire you for this story you’ve crafted. Bastards is brutal. Bastards is brave. Bastards is utterly fearless and unashamed of being what it is. I greedily await more from Jackal and co., and fully intend to hound you for news about the hoof – a truer set of bastards you’ll never meet. I notice that you have a couple of other books available for purchase (at a very reasonable price, I might add) and I look forward to sampling these while I wait impatiently for you to take me back to the Lots.

For now, though, I’d like to raise a floppy tankard to The Grey Bastards’ brilliance. It’s the least I can do after such a satisfying ride, and I’m confident I won’t be the only SPFBO judge who does solauramhughes-sig

‘Hogfather’ by Terry Pratchett


‘On the second day of Hogswatch I . . . sent my true love back,

A nasty little letter, hah, yes indeed, and a partridge in a pear tree—’

Of the quarter or so of the Discworld I’ve explored, Hogfather is my favourite. Vadim Jean’s TV adaptation is superb: I watch it religiously every Christmas, struck each time by Hogfather by Terry Pratchettjust how much of it – dialogue, stage directions, settings, narration, everything – is lifted directly from the source material. This should tell you much about the quality of the book itself, for rare indeed is an original story ‘adapted’ for the screen with so few alterations.

For me, reading Terry Pratchett’s work is not only a joy but an indulgence, too. Sir Terry is one of my major influences. Those books of his I’ve read, I’ve re-read again and again, taking the time to savour the deliciousness of the prose, the wryness of tone, the trademark humour that is at once delightful and poignant.

Universally beloved as it may be, the Discworld series is notoriously uneven. However, one of the more consistent aspects of the books is the narrative voice. Pratchett tells his tales using an omniscient narrator, and there’s no doubt that this voice belongs to no character but Pratchett himself.

At the far end of the corridor was one of the very tall, very thin windows. It looked out on to the black gardens. Black bushes, black grass, black trees. Skeletal fish cruising in the black waters of a pool, under black water lilies. There was colour, in a sense, but it was the kind of colour you’d get if you could shine a beam of black through a prism. There were hints of tints, here and there a black you might persuade yourself was a very deep purple or a midnight blue. But it was basically black, under a black sky, because this was the world belonging to Death and that was all there was to it.

The colloquialism of Pratchett’s narrative voice is one of many things that makes the story come alive. More, the chatty – almost confiding – tone is inescapably full of vibrant humanity that makes the reader feel at once complicit and (to an extent) sympathetic with whomever (or whatever) is being described.

The shape of Death was the shape people had created for him, over the centuries. Why bony? Because bones were associated with death. He’d got a scythe because agricultural people could spot a decent metaphor. And he lived in a sombre land because the human imagination would be rather stretched to let him live somewhere nice with flowers. People like Death lived in the human imagination, and got their shape there, too. He wasn’t the only one . . . 

Like so many of Pratchett’s novels, Hogfather revolves heavily around the power of imagination. The human mind is a wonderful thing, a tool of creation or one’s own worst enemy. In the Discworld, anything is possible . . .

. . . which isn’t always a good thing.

You see, strange things can happen when our imaginations are permitted to run amok. In Hogfather’s case, a sudden unexpected surplus of spare belief creates all kinds of bizarre possibilities when, in the absence of one huge anthropomorphic personification (think Easter bunny, Father Christmas, Cupid – that sort of thing), springs up lots of little ones. A single moment of spontaneous speculation – about the existence of, say, the Verruca Gnome, or the Eater of Socks, or the Stealer of Pencils – brings even the most bizarre ideas into being with a glingleglingleglingle of tinkling bells.

‘Careful!’ said Ridcully. ‘Careless talk creates lives!’

As you can imagine, chaos ensues. And when Death himself begins acting suspiciously, his adopted granddaughter Susan decides to investigate, assisted by a raven, the Death of Rats . . . and the ever-helpful Oh-God of Hangovers.

Would you be any good in a fight?’

‘Yes. I could be sick on people.’

Susan is mortified to find out that, in the absence of the Hogfather, Death has taken it upon himself to get the job done; and that, being somewhat out of touch with the laws of humanity (and physics), his disregard for the ‘rules’ soon causes quite a stir.

The mother took a deep breath. ‘You can’t give her that!’ she screamed. ‘It’s not safe!’

IT’S A SWORD, said the Hogfather. THEY’RE NOT MEANT TO BE SAFE.

‘She’s a child!’ shouted Crumley.

IT’S EDUCATIONAL.

‘What if she cuts herself?’

THAT WILL BE AN IMPORTANT LESSON.

Naturally, this leads to all sorts of hilarity. But when Death starts to learn that not everyone can (or should) get what they want for Hogswatch, his new understanding of life leaves him outraged.

IT IS HOGSWATCH, said Death, AND PEOPLE DIE ON THE STREETS. PEOPLE FEAST BEHIND LIGHTED WINDOWS AND OTHER PEOPLE HAVE NO HOMES. IS THIS FAIR?

The irony of Death being the only one to recognise the inequity among the living will not, I imagine, be lost on anyone. This theme is continued throughout the book in the enlightening exchanges between old man Albert and the naïve, uncomprehending Death.

Meanwhile, in the streets below, a nefarious plot unfolds among a group of criminal masterminds . . .

The other men looked at Medium Dave. He was known to Ankh-Morpork’s professional underclass as a thoughtful, patient man, and considered something of an intellectual because some of his tattoos were spelled right.

Medium Dave; Banjo Lilywhite; Mr Brown the locksmith; Chickenwire; Catseye; and Mr Sideney the wizard (he’s incognito!): a rough bunch for sure. But all pale in comparison with their employer, the terrifying Mister Teatime.

‘I want to be quite certain about this, Mister Teatime. You . . . have . . . applied . . . yourself to a study of ways of killing Death?’

‘Only as a hobby, sir.’

Mister Teatime (it’s pronounced teh-ah-tahm-eh) is, of course, an Assassin (the capital letter is important). With his unnerving glass eye and his penchant for unwarranted brutality, Teatime has surprisingly few friends . . . though, on the other hand, he doesn’t seem to have any enemies at all.

‘I know people say I’d kill them as soon as look at them,’ whispered Teatime. ‘And in fact I’d much rather kill you than look at you.’

Teatime’s twisted ambitions and childlike cruelty threaten to jeopardise all of Death’s hard work; but Pratchett’s brilliant narrative voice brings out the humanity in everyone (and every thing), and coaxes out sympathy for even the most despicable of characters in the smallest and unlikeliest ways.

Mister Teatime had a truly brilliant mind, but it was brilliant like a fractured mirror, all marvellous facets and rainbows but, ultimately, also something that was broken.

When the narrator’s voice takes over, it fluctuates between wry observation and sad, frank, simple statements. Quite often, these contrast with the way his characters view things, which leaves the reader somewhat conflicted.

Teatime was OK. True, after a few minutes talking to him your eyes began to water and you felt you needed to scrub your skin even on the inside, but no one was perfect, were they?

An omniscient narrative voice – especially one that addresses the reader directly – can easily come across as pretentious; not so with Pratchett. A continual undercurrent of irreverence keeps the story relatable, rising frequently to the surface as bizarre juxtaposition and hilarious bathos with the intention of reversing conventions and shattering tropes.

But mostly? It just sounds bloody beautiful.

Between every rational moment were a billion irrational ones. Somewhere behind the hours there was a place where the Hogfather rode, the tooth fairies climbed their ladders, Jack Frost drew his pictures, the Soul Cake Duck laid her chocolate eggs. In the endless spaces between the clumsy seconds Death moved like a witch dancing through raindrops, never getting wet.

Poeticism aside, Pratchett weaves a captivating tale without ever sacrificing that down-to-earth British humour that is so integral to the Discworld, and which makes everything somehow less and more grand simultaneously. Whether it’s the ageing wizards not allowed new pencils without presenting the stubs of the old ones, or Death eating a biscuit, or the Tooth Fairy lamenting the fact that she has to pay for her own tooth-collecting equipment – little things like that make them more relatable, more realistic, and thus, more real.

He raised his hands, and seemed to grow. Light flared in his eye sockets. When he spoke next, avalanches fell in the mountains. HAVE YOU BEEN NAUGHTY . . . OR NICE?

At first glance, Hogfather is a silly story; a fantastical take on our own seasonal traditions. But it’s also a subtle expose of the ridiculousness of real life – which, as we know, is often stranger (and far more ridiculous) than fiction. Beneath every laugh-out-loud pun (or ‘pune’) and slapstick scenario lies a point waiting to be driven home to the reader; and if anyone knows how to drive a point home, it’s Sir Terry.

Pratchett delivers his message like the conductor of an orchestra. Fully in control, he uses words to nudge and guide and pluck our humours, finally wielding the moral in a hammering crescendo and striking deep some profound insight about humanity.

The omnipotent eyesight of various supernatural entities is often remarked upon. It is said they can see the fall of every sparrow. And this may be true. But there is only one who is always there when it hits the ground.

The author’s message is hidden in plain sight, like the ubiquitous floating logs in cartoons that you only realise are crocodiles when you’re already standing on them (and by which point, you’re screwed). Witty, sharp and achingly simple – Pratchett’s genius lies in his ability to seamlessly blend moments of fragile beauty with piss-yourself-laughing comedy. What’s *not* to love about his unique Christmas story?

Ho. Ho. Ho.


This review originally appeared on Fantasy-Faction on 23rd December 2016.

2016: Top Ten of Everything!


Everyone else is doing it… if that’s not a good enough reason for me to do it too, then I don’t know what is. No, YOU’RE too impressionable. And so’s your mum.

In 2016 a massive bunch of cool things happened. Here’s ten of them! (In no particular order.)

Top 10… GOOD THINGS

  1. I had the privilege of beta reading the finished first drafts of two immensely talented friends: Kareem, and Sadir. (Thanks for making my own efforts feel so inadequate in contrast, guys…)
  2. I joined Marc Aplin & Jennie Ivins and the rest of the Fantasy-Faction team as a contributor!
  3. I released Danse Macabre in paperback on Amazon and Barnes & Noble!
  4. I’ve had the absolute pleasure of participating in the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off as part of the Fantasy-Faction judging panel!
  5. I’ve made a fuckton of new friends via social media, including readers, writers, and all-round beautiful weirdos. (You know who you are…)Dyrk Ashton inspirational quote
  6. I contributed two articles to Tor.com – and got paid to do so!My First Article for Tor.com
  7. I joined Reddit, and had an epic time as Writer of the Day on r/Fantasy!
  8. Danse Macabre picked up a lot of momentum, and now has 30+ reviews on Goodreads – including write-ups from the likes of T.O. Munro, G.R. Matthews, T.L. Greylock, Booknest.eu, Hobgoblin Reviews, Observant Raven Reviews, Dyrk Ashton, Richard Ford, J.P. Ashman, and Grimdark Alliance!
  9. I finally met Marc Turner, one of my favourite modern fantasy authors, in person – as well as Joe Abercrombie, Tom Lloyd, Elizabeth Bear and Scott Lynch!Bear-Lloyd-Hughes Subliminal Selfie
  10. I finished writing two short stories and several poems, and am finally back on track with writing my novel thanks to the encouragement of friends (not to mention the liver-shaving daredevil antics of that fellah Benedict Patrick, aka. Ben Paddy, aka. the Rogue with the Brogue).

A fuller rundown of my 2016 antics can be found here. But now…

Top Ten… BOOKS READ

Now, on to my top 10 reads of 2016! I briefly reviewed my reading year here, but here’s the Official Definitive Top Ten:

Top Ten… ARTICLES & REVIEWS

These were, according to WordPress, the ten most popular posts of the year:

10 – Janny Wurts & Raymond E. Feist, ‘Daughter of the Empire’ (review)
Daughter of the Empire cover image

9 – Mark Lawrence, ‘The Wheel of Osheim’ (review)mark-lawrence-wheel-of-osheim-cover

8 – 2016: The Worst of Times, the Best of Tomes

A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers by Alyssa Wong

7 – Steven Erikson, ‘Gardens of the Moon’ (review)steven-erikson-gardens-of-the-moon-cover

6 – T. Frohock, ‘Los Nefilim’ (review)t-frohock-los-nefilim-cover

5 – Review: Jeff Salyards, ‘Veil of the Deserters’veil-salyards-bloodsounder

4 – Daniel Abraham, ‘The Dagger and the Coin’ (series review)The Dagger & the Coin Quintet by Daniel Abraham

3 – Self-published authors and the SPFBO: revitalising SFF
Ragnarok Covers: The Amra Thetys series by Michael McClung

2 – Steven Erikson, ‘The Bonehunters’ (review)

'The Bonehunters' by Steven Erikson

And the most popular by far:

1 – A Beginner’s Guide to Malazan Characters: ‘Gardens of the Moon’

'Silanah vs Raest': artwork by Shadaan

‘Silanah vs Raest’: artwork by Shadaan

For what it’s worth, my personal favourites are the Self-Publishing/SPFBO article, the Los Nefilim review, and of course my interview with epic fantasy author John Gwynne (as well as my article about why his books are awesome).

Now for the final Top 10 list…

Top Ten… WANT TO READ IN 2017

In addition to the gorgeous-looking titles on my backlist, here’s a few upcoming releases I’m looking forward to:

And there it is! 2016 has been miserable in many ways, but in terms of reading it’s been ace. Bring on more of the same in 2017!

Happy new year!

Interview with John Gwynne


John Gwynne’s novels have been nominated within all three categories at the David Gemmell Legend Awards. Book one, Malice, won the Morningstar Award for Best Debut in 2013, and since then the series has received more and more praise with each instalment. John joined me over on Fantasy-Faction to celebrate the recent release of Wrath, the fourth and final novel of The Faithful and the Fallen.The Faithful and the Fallen quartet by John Gwynne

(LH): Firstly, congratulations on wrapping up your first series! How does it feel?

(JG): Thank-you, Laura. Finishing WRATH, and with it, the whole Faithful and the Fallen series, has been quite a moment for me. There are a lot of emotions tied up in it. It feels exciting, fantastic, a Author John Gwynne, accompanied by dogs and axeslittle bit terrifying. And very strange to not be thinking about the next part. Bittersweet is a word I’ve used a lot when thinking or talking about finishing the Faithful and the Fallen. It’s been a part of my life for over fourteen years.

Getting to write Wrath was like present-opening time. When all those threads and scenes I’ve had in my head for so long finally happened. I loved that – writing scenes that I’ve been imagining for soooo long. But writing those scenes was also a bittersweet experience, because it meant it was THE END, and that meant saying goodbye to characters that have become possibly a little too real to me!

Bittersweet is a word I’ve used a lot when thinking or talking about finishing the Faithful and the Fallen. It’s been a part of my life for over fourteen years.

In saying that, it’s not out yet, so saying goodbye to a series in this publishing world is a staggered, lingering, drawn out goodbye. You finish the first draft. Then comes the edit. After that the copy-edit. Then the proof read. And eventually publication. And now finally we’re here. It’s definitely not a clean-cut ending, which in this case is a good thing. It eases the blow a little.

Readers are already saying that Wrath is your strongest work to date. From Malice to Wrath, to what extent would you say your writing has evolved as the series has developed?

The short answer is I don’t really know. I hope that I’ve become a better writer, I’ve certainly strived to. Malice was the first thing I’ve ever written, creatively – up to then the sum total of my writing career was all essays and a couple of Dissertations – so four books later I really hope that I have become a better writer. It’s probably best to leave that up to you and the readers of the series to decide. I would say I think there’s less padding in my writing, now. A little more confidence in seeing a scene clearly and just getting on with it. 

As a reader, I agree wholeheartedly. I found Malice (and to some extent, Valour) lacked the sense of straightforwardness and urgency that characterises the later books. Ruin was utterly gripping, and Wrath is even more so!

Malice by John GwynneFor me, it wasn’t the reviews that persuaded me to read your books. It wasn’t even the blurb. No, it was the glorious sight of Malice adorning the tables at my local Waterstones. Even in paperback, it’s simply gorgeous!

How did you feel when you first saw Malice in print? (Admit it: you had a major ‘Gollum’ moment, didn’t you?)

It really was like that. The magic of receiving author copies of a book never goes away, I love it, but that first time, it really is special. I remember my editor Julie Crisp – now a fantastic literary agent, by the way – sent me a single copy before I received my box of official author copies. She was so happy with how the book had come out and wanted me to have that moment of glee as soon as was physically possible! Opening that box and seeing the shiny hardback of Malice with that awesome red-hilted sword was utterly amazing. It was definitely a ‘wow, this is a real book,’ occasion. There have been a few ‘dance-a-jig,’ moments along the way, and that was one of them.

Marc Turner said something similar when I interviewed him. Seeing your first book in print seems to be *the* universal ‘milestone’ moment!

I’m sure others will agree that you struck gold regarding your covers. In fact, your books are amongst the most beautiful I own. It’s no coincidence that I voted for Paul Young in the Ravenheart category at this year’s Gemmells: just like the others, Ruin’s art is subtle yet epic, and the design is simply stunning.

How much influence did you have with regards to cover design?

I’m so glad you like the covers, Laura. I LOVE them. Paul Young at Pan MacMillan has done an amazing job on all four covers. To me they really are the perfect fantasy cover; simple, with classic weapons, a sense of gritty history as well as epic fantasy, and the backgrounds, subtle but saying a whole lot about the story. Whenever I see them my eye is drawn to them, and I don’t think it’s just because they’re mine (precioussss).

Opening that box and seeing the shiny hardback of Malice with that awesome red-hilted sword was utterly amazing. It was definitely a ‘wow, this is a real book,’ occasion. There have been a few ‘dance-a-jig,’ moments along the way, and that was one of them.

I don’t know how much influence I’ve had on the cover art. It’s a dialogue, and there has certainly been a lot of that between myself, Julie Crisp and Bella Pagan at Tor UK. Concepts, ideas, attempts at setting the tone of each book, and a multitude of images, all are emailed back and forth. I have to confess it is one of my favourite parts of the publishing process, and seeing what Paul Young and the design team at Pan Macmillan put together is always glorious.

They really are beautiful… and, of course, preciousssss.

John, you’ve spoken on many occasions about the late David Gemmell and the great influence he’s had on your own writing, which subtly emulates many features and themes of the Drenai saga. Arguably, the most distinctive of these (aside from the writing style itself) is the ever-present sense of light amongst the darkness; the hope that good will push back against evil, no matter how grim the situation may seem.

The similarities are obvious. But what would you say are the biggest differences between your work and Gemmell’s? (Did you consciously try and ensure that there were differences?)

David Gemmell is one of my favourite authors, and it’s true that a disproportionate amount of my teenage years was consumed by his books. Legend was the first book that I stayed up all night to read, because I just had to know what happened next! When it comes to comparing my writing to Gemmell’s, though, I have to say I’ve never thought about it in terms more detailed than I love Gemmell’s work. Much like you are what you eat, I suppose, there is an element of you write what you read!

Waylander by David GemmellOccasionally I will receive an email from a budding writer asking for tips and advice. I don’t feel overly comfortable in dishing out advice, but the one thing I can say is what worked for me. Write what you want to read. That’s what I did, and I guess the writers that you love to read will have an influence upon what you create. I loved Tolkien’s epic-ness (is that a word?) Cornwell’s historical grittiness (and no-one writes a battle scene like Cornwell) and Gemmell’s flawed, human characters who still manage to say something about courage and heroism. When I sat down to write I made no conscious decisions about similarities or differences from my favourite writers, but I suppose I hoped I might capture something of those elements that stand out to me. Epic and intimate was my mantra, what I strove to create. By epic I mean sweeping, grand vistas and a conflict that rose above border disputes or politics, and by intimate I mean connecting with characters, caring about what happens to them.

A tough balance to strike, but somehow you make it look easy!

Just one more Gemmell-related question:

Your agent is, of course, John Jarrold. I’m curious to know what he first said to you all those years ago. What was the main reason he gave for him scooping you of all people from the top of the pile? (Is it a first-name thing? It is, isn’t it?)

John is a complete professional. He’s worked with just about everyone in the business, whether as editor or agent. He has a lifetime of knowledge and a terrific reputation in the publishing world, and I was over the moon when he took me on as a client. I won’t put words into his mouth, but loosely paraphrasing he said something along the lines of this. To take on a new client, firstly I have to love the manuscript on a personal level. Secondly, I have to believe that it has commercial legs, that it will fit well in the current fantasy market.

Also, he only works with people named John.

I knew it!

Switching the focus to the future: eighteen months ago, you announced that you’d re-signed with Pan Macmillan for another epic fantasy series. You’ve since announced that the first book in this series will be titled Dread (which is VERY cool). When can we readers expect to get our grubby mitts on it? (Also, which drawer do you keep your super-secret manuscripts in? Asking for a friend.)

DREAD is finished. Well, the first draft, anyway. That means there’s still the edit, copy edit and proof read to go. I haven’t been given a publication date yet, but I would guess at the latter half of 2017. But don’t quote me on that.

The manuscript is locked in my office drawer, watched over by a stuffed crow who may or may not shout STEALER at anyone brave enough to open the drawer!

 Nice! Bet it’s no match for Craf, though. 😉

John, you’ve also confirmed that the new series is set in the Banished Lands, aka. the same location as the Faithful and the Fallen. What else can you tell us about it without giving too much away?

Yes, indeed. I couldn’t quite prise myself away from the Valour by John GwynneBanished Lands! DREAD takes place 130 years after the events of WRATH, and is really about how the world has changed as a result of those events. It also explores parts of the Banished Lands that we didn’t see so much of in The Faithful and the Fallen. And of course, not everything is rosy…

Sounds ominous… but not entirely unexpected from a book titled Dread! Speaking of titles… Malice, Valour, Ruin, Wrath, and now Dread. How long do you plan on continuing the tradition of kickass one-word titles? And what happens when you run out of cool nouns to use?

I’ll carry on with one word titles until I can’t think of any more, or I have no more books set in the Banished Lands left to write. I think all ‘Banished Lands,’ Tales should have one-word titles. It’s a little strange, because the original title of Malice was ‘So Deep a Malice,’ which is part of a line from Milton’s Paradise Lost. I still like that title, but Bella Pagan at Tor UK suggested the shortened version, for multiple reasons – the punchiness of it, plus the marketing perspective – back then books sales were shifting towards thumbnails, which has only grown, and so presented another set of criteria to consider in the complex science that is book covers. I have to say, Bella was right, Malice and the continuing one-word titles feel perfect fits for the series.

They’re certainly very striking!

Now, you’ve also written one or two short stories based on characters from the Banished Lands and featuring in anthologies such as Blackguards and Legends II. Do you plan on writing more? Enough for, say, a Joe Abercrombie/Sharp Ends-style collection?

I loved that book! I’m writing a short story set in the Banished Lands at the moment, a tale about how Balur the giant became Balur One-Eye. Because I’m a bit weird and think of the Banished Lands as a semi-historical reality, there are endless stories to tell. It’s a bit like plucking moments from history! So, yes, I think the short stories could go on indefinitely. A bit like Tolkien’s Silmarillion, I suppose. I do have some short stories set in other worlds in the pipeline, as well.

The Banished Lands feel so real – I’m not surprised you (and your readers!) think of them as semi-historical. I look forward to eventually glimpsing these other worlds and characters, too. But for the time being: if you could choose one character from The Faithful and the Fallen to take on a spinoff adventure, who would it be and why?

Alcyon, the giant. He’s got a story that has a lot of room for exploration, and he’s a character that has really grown during the series.

Also Craf, Brina’s talking Crow. I think he’s got a lot to say, and is very good at getting himself into awkward and potentially entertaining situations.

Craf is great! I actually laughed out loud earlier today at one of his scenes. I was reading Wrath on the train, and got one or two funny looks…

You’ve been asked many times before about the writers who influenced you, most frequently listing David Gemmell, Bernard Cornwell and J.R.R. Tolkien in your responses. Are there any other authors who’ve made an impression on you more recently – or even influenced your writing in any way?

Oh, absolutely. I’m always reading something and thinking, “They’re fantastic, I wish I could write like that!” When it comes to prose amongst contemporary fantasy writers I Wrath by John Gwynnedon’t think you’ll find anyone better than Mark Lawrence. There’s a sparse poetry to his writing that is beautiful. Joe Abercrombie is a genius with character, where you can tell who’s who just by reading a sentence of their dialogue. Bernard Cornwell’s mentioned above, but he’s still writing, and reading his work is like viewing a masterclass. I love Christian/Miles Cameron’s books, both his fantasy and historical novels. For me he has that elusive balance in his writing, where everything comes together perfectly. Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt is a great series, and I love Sebastien de Castell’s Greatcoat’s books – a wonderful blend of rip-roaring pace, loveable rogues and action. Another historical novelist whom I admire greatly is Robert Low, who has written the Oathsworn series about a hard-nosed band of Vikings. It’s fast-paced and fantastic, with prose that I wish I could emulate. Also, Conn Iggulden, what a terrific writer that man is!

I don’t feel overly comfortable in dishing out advice, but the one thing I can say is what worked for me. Write what you want to read.

So many others – Robin Hobb, George R.R. Martin, Brian Ruckley, Giles Kristian, Manda Scott, Justin Cronin…

I think I might be getting carried away here!

 No, no – I love your enthusiasm! That’s quite a list, however… so let’s narrow it down. If you could pick any 3 living authors to blurb your books, who would you choose and why?

Any of those mentioned above! Actually, I’ve been fortunate enough that some of those mentioned above have read my books! Conn Iggulden read Malice and posted his review on Amazon, which blew me away. When I first saw it I just thought it had been written by some imposter, or unlikely namesake, J but as time went on it gnawed away at me – was it THE Conn Iggulden??? Eventually I messaged his agent, asking them to put me out of my misery, and it turned out it was the real Conn Iggulden. That really made my day!

I’m always reading something and thinking, “They’re fantastic, I wish I could write like that!” When it comes to prose amongst contemporary fantasy writers I don’t think you’ll find anyone better than Mark Lawrence. There’s a sparse poetry to his writing that is beautiful.

Also, Mark Lawrence is quoted on the front cover of WRATH, and Christian/Miles Cameron has been heard to say kind things about my books! Thinking about it, that’s pretty awesome!

That really is something! I imagine having established authors praise your books (particularly without being solicited to do so) must feel like a stamp of validation – not to mention an enormous confidence boost.

Though actually, when it comes to praising your work, some of your keenest supporters can be found under the same roof. Anyone who has ever spoken to you – either in person or via social media – knows that you’re a proud husband (to one) and father (to four).Ruin by John Gwynne

In fact, you’ve said before that your family is the reason you write. Is it true that you would never have started writing The Faithful and the Fallen without their (rather forceful!) encouragement?

That’s absolutely true. Caroline, my wife, has said for more years than I can remember that
I should have a go at writing a book. I’m not even really sure why she used to say that. Maybe because of the bed-time stories I’d tell our children. I used to tell her stories, too, but mostly snippets from Lord of the Rings or the Silmarillion – this is back before the films had been made. I do recall telling her the tale of Beren and Luthien while we were sat having a coffee whilst out shopping. I remember she cried – though at the time I thought it was because she wanted me to stop, or her bum had gone numb, or something like that!

Ha! So romantic…

I made the definite decision to have a go at writing in 2002, when we all came back from seeing The Two Towers at the cinema. We were all sitting around the table having dinner, and Caroline voiced again that she thought I should write a book. Of course my children all added their voices to that. Initially I told them what a silly idea that was, and gave a few reasons. Some quite important ingredients were missing, I said, such as plot, character, and a significant dose of talent. But the wave of opinion could not be silenced so easily, and after a while I thought, ‘Why not? I’ve been thinking about a hobby I could pursue from home,’ (my daughter, Harriett, is profoundly disabled. I used to teach at my local University, but stepped out of it to help Caroline in caring for Harriett. So I found myself largely at home 24/7, and was thinking about some kind of a hobby, a bit of me-time.)

So I thought, ‘Okay. Let’s give this writing-a-book malarkey a go.’

We were all sitting around the table having dinner, and Caroline voiced again that she thought I should write a book. Of course my children all added their voices to that. Initially I told them what a silly idea that was, and gave a few reasons. Some quite important ingredients were missing, I said, such as plot, character, and a significant dose of talent. But the wave of opinion could not be silenced so easily, and after a while I thought, ‘Why not?’

That was only the beginning, of course, and starting a book is one thing, but finishing it (especially when it just won’t stop growing!) is entirely another! The support of my family, particularly from Caroline, made writing Malice possible, and without her or my children’s support I am certain that it would never have seen the light of day.

Sweet! And now (fourteen years later!) it must be incredibly special having children who’ve essentially grown up with your series in the same way you did with Gemmell’s. Am I right in saying that two of your sons are particularly devoted followers of Corban and co.?

Yes, you are, although, to be fair, they haven’t had much choice in the matter. My eldest son, James, managed to escape much of the madness by becoming a responsible adult, getting a job and moving out. He’s a dairy farmer, works all hours but I have still managed to suck him in! It was his farm field where my author-photo was taken, and he can be spotted wielding a sword in the photos, though he is covered in a lot of blue woad!

A traditional Gwynne family portrait

Awesome! And the other two?

Edward and William weren’t so lucky. I must confess to reading chapters of Malice to them as bedtime stories, and plot twists would often be the topic of conversation around the dinner table. There was no escape for those two, bless them. William has an amazing memory and eye for detail – I think he’s a budding proof-reader – and often pulls me up about errors and inaccuracies I’ve made (hopefully before the books went to print!), and Edward has been my companion throughout the series. My first reader (rule of thumb, if Edward cries, it’s working) and shieldman to every convention, event and book launch I’ve attended. It has made a lot of great memories – stand out amongst them is catching them re-enacting battle scenes from the books! I can tell you, that makes a fantasy-writing dad very proud!

That sounds phenomenal! (No, I’m not crying. YOU’RE crying. *sniff*) Do you think that having your family so closely involved with the writing process affects your stories (in terms of language, plot choices, character arcs, etc.)?

Yes, most definitely. When I started writing my family were my audience, the only people that I was certain would ever read my scribblings. My rule of thumb has always been, ‘write what you want to read,’ but of course I hoped that they would enjoy it, too.

The support of my family, particularly from Caroline, made writing Malice possible, and without her or my children’s support I am certain that it would never have seen the light of day.

The Faithful and the Fallen is not a series of children’s books, but it never became too graphic in its adult-ness (though some of the battle-scenes in the last two books may be pushing that a little!). I’ve never thought of the Faithful and the Fallen as a sermon or preachy morality tale, but it does show characters in dark situations, and hopefully highlights how important individual choices are to our lives. Not just the big events, but the small choices that no-one sees except us. The famous quote by Edmund Burke is wrapped up in The Faithful and the Fallen – “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men to do nothing.”

You know, I actually noted down a quote from Wrath that sums that up really well. Corban tells the Jotun leader, “If you choose not to fight against Asroth, then you have already chosen him.” Pertinent, and brilliant.

Is there anything you (or your sons!) would say to anyone who hasn’t yet read your books?

I would say, if epic fantasy with a historical twist and a large dose of betrayal is your thing, then give them a go. What have you got to lose?

Ed: If you’re looking for a series with characters that you love like your brothers-in-arms, or hate like they’re your worst enemies, then this could be for you.

Will: Make sure you have some free time if you start reading the Faithful and the Fallen, because once you start, you won’t stop.

*I will be paying Ed and Will handsomely for these spontaneous quotes!

 Spontaneous, perhaps, but both accurate summations!

Before we finish, I have one or two super-serious questions. For instance, who would win in a fight between a draig and a velociraptor?

Oh, a draig, probably without breaking sweat. Think, giant Komodo Dragons, bigger than a horse, on steroids and with anger issues. A pack of velociraptors might have a chance, or at least draw some blood, but one of them! Nope.

Eek! Move over, Godzilla! Speaking of whom…

If you had to pick just one of your characters to defend the world against Godzilla, who would you choose and why?

Maquin, no question. His focus and lack of ego, combined with his all-round badassery, of course, would single him out as the man to get the job done.

Now THAT’S a fight I’d pay to see. Thanks for taking the time to join me, John. Congratulations again on completing the series, and good luck with the next one!

Thanks so much, Laura. It’s been a real pleasure, and thank-you for thinking of me and taking the time to make this interview happen.

Always a pleasure!

Wrath, the fourth and final book in John Gwynne’s epic fantasy series The Faithful and the Fallen, is available to buy RIGHT NOW. Check out my review here.The Faithful and the Fallen quartet continues

Decemberrrrrrrr!


A quick drive-by update on the last 30 days…

I posted an article about the merits of self-publishing (and of Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off) for which I received an overwhelmingly positive response. You can read it here.

SPFBO2 (Banner design by James Cormier)

design by James Cormier

I also finally pulled my head out of my arse and sorted out the paperback version of Danse Macabre. This is now available worldwide from Amazon, or (at extra cost) from myself. The latter can be signed, dedicated, doodled or otherwise personalised to your specification; here’s a few I’ve already released into the wild!

img_2125img_2122  img_2108slothyimg_2126

In other news, I’ve been falling behind on… well, everything. Most prominently of all is NaNoWriMo (which I’ll admit was something of a foregone conclusion), but also with beta reading for two of my good friends.

I have, however, managed to read and review one or two books this month, including the phenomenal Wrath by John Gwynne and the uniquely brilliant SPFBO finalist Larcout by K.A. Krantz. I’ve also just finished Fionn: Defence of Rath Bladhma by Brian O’Sullivan (another SPFBO finalist), which is well written and highly engaging.

Wrath by John GwynneFionn: Defence of Rath Bladhma by Brian O'SullivanLarcout by K.A. Krantz

Speaking of John Gwynne, the fabulous Tor.com published an article I put together on The Faithful and the Fallen. Check it out!

Excitingly, I finally had the opportunity to meet Marc Turner! I spent an enjoyable afternoon at his book signing in Leeds, which – naturally! – featured both cactigraphs and subliminal selfies. In addition to signing my copies of The Chronicles of the Exile, Marc generously gifted me the signed US hardbacks of his series. What a guy!

me-and-marc215086216_10154827048814497_353557429_n15050222_10154827049659497_2041297709_n  

That’s about it. I’ll be posting reviews as usual through December (both here and on Fantasy-Faction), and perhaps a ‘Best of 2016’ list too. Other than that… see you in the new year!

Self-published authors & the SPFBO: revitalising SFF


Note: For an updated version of this article, visit Fantasy-Faction.


Self-published authors get a lot of flak.

Even armed with a bargepole, many readers won’t touch them. These readers will assure you that indie books are unprofessional; that they’re inherently inferior and therefore not ‘proper’ books.

Yarnsworld #1 and #2 by Benedict Patrick

… and yet some self-published authors produce work that’s MORE professional-looking than the stuff you find in bookstores! (Image: the Yarnsworld series by Benedict Patrick)

Admittedly, it’s not too hard to find examples of substandard writing amongst the masses and masses of self-published works. Perhaps readers have simply had their fill of lazy prose and sloppy formatting and are wary of encountering more.

Or maybe it’s not the books that are the problem. We’ve all come across the ubiquitous indie author who takes the ‘stuck record’ approach to self-promotion. You know the one, whose constant passive-aggressive ‘BUY MY BOOK’ posts soon become so irritating that we have no choice but to issue the offending author with a cease-and-desist before gouging out our own eyes and/or unfollowing them on social media.

Whatever the reason, indie books – particularly within SFF – have garnered a reputation for being second-rate, amateur and inconsistent . . . a reputation which is (for the most part) unfair and undeserved.

‘Success stories’

Is there anyone who hasn’t heard of Michael J. Sullivan? Or Anthony Ryan? Both authors’ hugely popular fantasy debuts – The Crown Conspiracy and Blood Song, respectively – began life as (you guessed it!) self-published novels. Now, they’re practically household names.

Ryan, Sullivan

Anthony Ryan and Michael J. Sullivan both began as self-published authors before finding mainstream success

Inspiring, without a doubt. But in terms of popular opinion, such accomplishments have done surprisingly little to change attitudes towards indie authors. Using Ryan or Sullivan as the benchmark for measuring ‘success’ suggests that the singular goal of self-publishing is to become one of the ‘lucky few’ who eventually get picked up by traditional houses; in other words, it reinforces the idea that self-publishing is merely the means to an end.

But do all indie authors want the same thing?

300 authors, 10 blogs, 1 winner:

the great Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off

(SPFBO)

While every author is unique, many share similar goals. Most prominent amongst these is the desire to be noticed.

SPFBO2 Banner by Matt Howerter

design by Matt Howerter

In February 2015, author Mark Lawrence (The Broken Empire, The Red Queen’s War) took to his blog to ponder the problem of self-promotion, observing that:

“…as a new author, particularly a self-published one, it is desperately hard to be heard. It’s a signal-to-noise problem. Who knows how many Name of the Winds or [fill in your favourite] are lost to us because they just couldn’t be seen? None? A hundred?”

He was right; moreover, plenty of voices agreed with him, and before long well-respected bloggers were clamouring to help him find a frequency on which some of the more deserving voices could finally be heard.

273 writers responded to the call for self-published authors. That’s 273 writers who submitted manuscripts to the contest. These were promptly split between ten participating bloggers, who spent the next six months wading through their ‘slush pile’ in the manner of a literary agent. Samples that failed to shine were soon cast aside, and eventually each blog was left with only one.

The SPFBO Final Ten (2015)

#SPFBO 2015: the final ten

Round Two kicked off as soon as the final ten were announced. Each blogger proceeded to read and review all finalists in full, eventually assigning each novel a rating out of 10. As you might already have guessed, the entry with the highest score at the end was declared the winner.

And the grand prize? Well, as Mark Lawrence announced at the start:

“There’s no other prize. The winner will get the publicity of being the winner, plus the bonus of being reviewed on the blogs of 10 highly respected fantasy bloggers.

“Frankly you can’t buy better publicity than that.”

The end of the beginning

Voila! The first step towards changing attitudes was complete. While the inaugural SPFBO didn’t exactly break down the barrier between indies and their potential readers, there’s no denying that it was a step in the right direction. The process gave a leg-up over the barrier for a handful of hidden gems, making them more visible while also filtering out less polished books.

In the end, 273 books were whittled down to one winner, and the title went to The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids. The author, Michael McClung, landed a publishing deal with Ragnarok along the way, and is now preparing for ‘Rok’s impending release of the fourth Amra Thetys book, The Thief Who Wasn’t There.

In an example of a different kind of success, close runner-up Ben Galley has since continued to advance a professional and prolific self-publishing career that began over seven years ago. Galley not only provides ‘Shelf Help’ sessions for aspiring indies, but also spends an inexhaustible amount of time writing fiction, promoting his work and building momentum for the release of his eighth novel,  The Heart of Stone.

The Heart of Stone by Ben GalleyBloodrush by Ben GalleyThe Written by Ben Galley

SPFBO 2: 2016

Confession time: I had very little personal interest in the SPFBO when it began. I admired the concept and the mind behind it, of course, but initially dismissed the contest itself as a publicity ploy. Here, I thought, was a token gesture of indulgence, the same sort that spurs celebrities to adopt baby gorillas.

You know what? I’m ashamed of my former cynicism snobbery (let’s call it what it is, folks); and I couldn’t have been more wrong.

In March this year the process began again. This time around, my own involvement as part of Fantasy-Faction’s judging team has changed my perspective even more. The positivity, enthusiasm and professionalism of the entrants in our group swiftly banished any lingering reservations I may have had, as did the overall quality of the entries submitted.

In fact, several bloggers were so impressed by their batch of books that Lawrence hosted a cover contest during the early stages of the competition.

SPFBO Cover Contest 2016

Looks aren’t everything; but they do speak volumes about the amount of pride an indie author has in his or her own work. Though we know it’s shallow, most of us do judge a book by its cover. When our first glance shows us an attractive design and professional layout it makes the world of difference.

The Dragon's Blade by Michael R Miller

Sure, it’s what’s inside that really counts . . . but let’s face it, nobody would voluntarily show up for a job interview without first combing their hair and stepping into something smart. First impressions are crucial.

But even if you do everything right, what happens when somebody else shows up? Somebody who’s also done everything right?

On Ascension

Back in July, Jared at Pornokitsch was torn between two books for his finalist. He spoke so highly of both that Mark Lawrence himself was inspired to read the eventual runner-up, and was so impressed by the book that he now goes out of his way to make sure others recognise the author’s talent.Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft

The author in question is Josiah Bancroft. The book is Senlin Ascends. Chances are that many of you have already heard of it; earlier this year, The Wertzone described Senlin Ascends as “SFF’s first genuinely evocative work of self-published literature” and suggested that it “may mark a serious turning-point in the field.” Lawrence’s baby gorilla has grown swiftly indeed, and now ascends the tower a la King Kong in New York. Bring on the bi-planes!

Though none have become quite as well-known as Mr. Bancroft (yet!) there are a host of other SPFBO entrants now fighting for pre-eminence on many a reading list. Authors such as Ruth Nestvold, Benedict Patrick, Daniel Potter, L. Penelope, Michael R. Miller, David Benem, Moses Siregar III, Blair MacGregor, Rob J. Hayes, T.A. Miles, Timandra Whitecastle, Tyler Sehn, Amy Rose Davis . . . talented folks one and all, who might not have reached the final but have earned a place on the SFF community’s radar nonetheless.

If these guys are so good (you might be wondering) then why are they self-published at all?

‘Can’t get published’

Just last month, a thread about this topic sparked a host of detailed and thoughtful responses from readers on r/Fantasy. The main issue of debate was around the barriers faced by indie authors, with most commenters agreeing that quality and discoverability are two major ones. Some suggested that the ‘good’ self-published books stand out by virtue of the author having invested in professional cover design, formatting and editing. But others argued that there are too many poor-quality products for sale on the internet to even bother looking. Why, they asked, should readers waste their time sifting for talent amongst those who ‘couldn’t even get published’?

Put it this way: if an author is struggling to find a publisher, does that mean their work is crap?

A lot of people will say ‘yes!’ (and in many cases, they’re probably right). Realistically, though, traditional publishing houses turn down manuscripts for all sorts of reasons. We’ve all heard how books like Carrie, Harry Potter, Dune, Dubliners, and even The Diary of Anne Frank received multiple rejections before finally finding success. Examples like these – along with Blood Song et al. – are proof that what G.R. Matthews refers to as the ‘snob factor’ is, in many cases, unjustified.

The Stone Road by G.R. Matthews Black Cross by J.P. Ashman Lady of the Helm by T.O. Munro

Clearly, not all books that ‘can’t get published’ are objectively inferior. But here’s what some folks are still struggling to understand: ‘going indie’ is more and more frequently becoming a first choice rather than a last resort.

‘Going indie’

Believe it or not, plenty of writers balk at the thought of handing over their intellectual property to someone else.

Michael McClung (winner of the inaugural SPFBO) spoke recently about the drawbacks of switching from indie to traditional, and observed that the benefit of reaching a wider audience can come at the cost of frustrating and unforeseen delays. Traditional publishing, he says, can be incredibly stressful for an author who is not prepared to cede control over the entire process to somebody else.Ragnarok Covers: The Amra Thetys series by Michael McClung

Perhaps this is why so many authors cite a determination to retain control over one’s own work (and agenda) as a motivation for choosing self-publishing. For some this is a purely artistic choice; for others, it comes down to practicality or expedience. Regardless of merit, every author’s reasons are unique, be it J.P. Ashman’s commitment to producing a full-length epic or T.O. Munro’s freedom to set his own deadlines in keeping with a busy day job.

Then there are the ‘hybrids’. Some authors travel both paths at various times to suit their changing needs. An example of this might be an author whose novels are trad-pubbed, but whose short stories require a different platform or be lost to obscurity. Or perhaps someone whose books have been trad-pubbed in some countries but not in others.

The Mirror's Truth by Michael R. FletcherAnd this approach supports authors who, for whatever reason, have been let down by traditional publishing. Michael R. Fletcher’s first Manifest Delusions novel, Beyond Redemption, was bought and published by Harper Voyager in 2015. The book was a critical success, but a commercial disappointment. When HV declined to publish the sequel, The Mirror’s Truth, Fletcher decided to switch to indie. Likewise, author Joel Minty is going to great lengths to prepare himself for self-publishing after falling victim to the collapse of Realmwalker Publishing Group – just days before his debut, Purge of Ashes, was set to be released.

Like so many others, these authors turned to self-publishing out of necessity; a necessity born of the determination to deliver to their readers what they promised.

The ‘Great Divide’

But readers shouldn’t presume that every self-published author has already tried – or even desired – to be traditionally published. Just like everything else in life, the pros and cons of each approach are entirely subjective depending on the author’s individual goals and definitions of ‘success’.

Moreover, the reflexive dichotomy of traditional ‘versus’ self is both divisive and demeaning. To borrow the words of author Blair MacGregor:

“Dichotomy is easy.  But conversation isn’t all that challenging, either.  The longer we permit “versus” to dominate, the greater the disservice we do to talented writers.”

MacGregor goes on to suggest that people seem less interested in talking about self-publishing than they are in debating its worth.

MacGregor’s contemporaries have also drawn attention to this issue: Timandra Whitecastle – whose grimdark debut Touch of Iron aims to redefine ‘strong’ female characters – recently expressed similar views about the frustrations caused by those who insist upon such a divide. When making the decision about which approach to take, says Whitecastle, she found little value in objectively comparing the two, and focused instead on which methods would best facilitate her creative desire to “break the mold.”

The Blood-Tainted Winter by T.L. GreylockSword and Chant by Blair MacGregorA Touch of Iron by Timandra Whitecastle

Dismiss the dichotomy;

break the mold

This is where the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off comes in. The SPFBO breaks down these barriers by encouraging readers to treat self-published books just like they would any other kind.

Book looks interesting? Check it out.

Like the sample? Buy the book.

Enjoy the book? Tell your mates; leave a review. After all, the SPFBO aims to recognise and reward talented, hardworking authors with honest feedback and well-deserved exposure. As I mentioned earlier, the greatest prize on offer here is increased discoverability . . . a prize which thousands of less-known writers covet dearly.

SPFBO2 (Banner design by James Cormier)

design by James Cormier

A great many of this year’s entries fell at the very first hurdle, cast aside after just a few pages. But after six months of indecision, the participating blogs have selected their finalists, and round two has begun! And here’s the most exciting part: in a contest largely hinging on judges’ personal tastes, it’s anyone’s game.

Standards continue to rise as more and more authors set their sights on the SPFBO. Indie authors are working harder and longer, pushing themselves to the absolute limits of capability, and it is they – along with those who follow, support and promote initiatives like the SPFBO – who help keep this genre fresh and dynamic. Everybody wins!

Finally, any indie authors still choosing to operate under a half-arsed mentality of, ‘eh, I’ll just publish it through Amazon’, will inevitably get pushed to the bottom of the pile as those who are serious about making things work will continue to hike to the top – egged on by readers, peers and other like-minded artists within this incredibly supportive community.

If you’re following the SPFBO final then let us know about any entries that have caught your fancy! Join in on social media and weigh in with your own opinions using the hashtag #SPFBO.

Oh! And check out this year’s final ten:

SPFBO 2016: the Final Ten!

SPFBO 2016: the Final Ten!