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!


Interview with Marc Turner

Marc Turner (header)(Note: ‘Marc Turner Interview’ first appeared on Fantasy-Faction on 21st September 2016.)


Marc Turner is the author of the epic fantasy series The Chronicles of the Exile. I had the pleasure of interviewing him for Fantasy-Faction  in September to celebrate the release of Red Tide, the stunning third novel in this ongoing series.

Good morrow, Mr. Turner! To start, I’d like to mention that I’m rather fond of your work. I picked up When the Heavens Fall because reviewers compared it (favourably!) to classic fantasy series such as The Malazan Book of the Fallen and The Black Company. I certainly wasn’t disappointed, and I went on to enjoy your second novel, Dragon Hunters, even more.

How do you feel about the (inevitable) parallels that readers draw between your work and others? Are there any unlikely comparisons that have surprised you?

'When the Heavens Fall' by Marc Turner (cover image)MT: “Since When The Heavens Fall came out, I’ve been compared to so many different authors, I’ve lost count. One reviewer compared me to nine in a single sentence – and five of those I’d never even read before!

“Comparisons can be flattering, but I think they are also dangerous things because they create (sometimes unrealistic) expectations in the reader. I never compare myself to any other author. I can say which writers have most influenced me – Steven Erikson and Joe Abercrombie – but the degree to which readers see those influences in my books varies greatly.”

You might find this hard to believe, but there are a LOT of people who have yet to dip their toes (eyes?) into the Chronicles of the Exile. With that in mind, could you perhaps give us a quick rundown of what new readers can expect from the series . . . and what the rest of us can expect from book three, Red Tide?

MT: “Readers can expect to laugh, to cry, to wear out the edges of their seats, and ultimately to finish each book in the series with an overwhelming urge to buy the next.

“As for Red Tide in particular, there’s not much I can say without giving away spoilers. But it features an entire nation of pirates, a man who can make his dreams manifest in the waking world, and perhaps a sea dragon or three. It’s my favourite book of the series so far, and the response from readers has been very positive.”

It has indeed – with very good reason!

Following on from that, would you be so kind as to dazzle us with what I like to call a ‘shark elevator pitch’? (It’s exactly the same as an elevator pitch, but with sharks.) (Well, one shark. Who, by the way, is currently picking between his rows of teeth to try and dislodge the remains of the last author who stepped onto his elevator.)

No pressure…

MT: “If I had to describe the Chronicles of the Exile in a sentence, I would call it epic fantasy with a dark edge and a generous sprinkling of humour.Dragon Hunters by Marc Turner (UK cover)

“And your sharks don’t frighten me. I have sea dragons on my side.”

Damn you, Turner, and the sea dragons you rode in on. Looks like you’ll live to write another day!

Speaking of writing and living: what’s the most exciting part of being a professionally published author? Aside from no longer having to sneak around supermarkets slipping photocopies of your hand-crayoned manuscripts inside Weetabix boxes, of course.

MT: “I do that thing with the Weetabix boxes too! Did that too. I meant did that too, obviously.”

Obviously…

MT: “The most exciting part of being an author has got to be seeing a new book hit the shelves, but I also enjoy the build-up to publication. Among other things, you get to sign off on the final version of the manuscript, see the cover for the first time, and hold the advance reader copies of the book in your hands.”

That does sound exciting! And the most daunting part?

MT: “Time management. At the moment, I’m drafting book four in the series, preparing articles for a blog tour, writing two short stories for fantasy anthologies, promoting When The Heavens Fall in Germany (it has just been published there), and doing a load of signings at Waterstones. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. But since I became a full-time writer, it seems like I have a lot less time to actually . . . write.”

Well, you must be doing something right. It’s barely more than a year since your debut dropped but you’ve gained quite a lot of traction within the fantasy community in that time. How does the public’s reaction to your work – and to yourself – compare with any early expectations you might have had?

MT: “I don’t recall having any particular expectations – which is probably just as well.

Red Tide (UK cover) by Marc Turner“If there is one thing that has surprised me, it is the different reactions I receive to my characters. I think it is important that in books with multiple POV characters (like mine), each of the characters should have a distinctive “voice”. Inevitably that means readers will like some characters more than others, but I am taken aback sometimes by the degree to which different people respond to the same character.

“Take Romany from When the Heavens Fall, for example. Fantasy Book Review said the following about her: “Intelligent, cunning, immensely likeable, her affable irritation and eventual humanity in the face of the maelstrom of uber-fantasy is remarkably levelling.” Another reviewer, though, simply dismissed her as evil.

“Of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Even if it is wrong. ;)”

Indeed. Romany, evil? Pah! I’d call her chaotic-neutral at worst. 😉

Marc, in the past you’ve spoken at length about the importance of dialogue, and have (quite rightly) pointed out that writers can learn a lot about their craft from other artistic mediums, such as video games. But in a world such as yours – geographically sprawling, layered with history, packed with ‘epic’ elements such as gods, magic, battles and monsters – how would you rate the importance of dialogue in relation to all the other elements?

MT: “I’m not sure dialogue is more or less important than any other element of a fantasy novel, but it’s the part I enjoy writing most. It’s great both for shining a light on character and injecting humour. When I have cause to dip back into my own books, it’s usually dialogue that I end up reading.”

You certainly have a knack for it. I adored the barbed exchanges between Romany and the Spider in When the Heavens Fall, and without doubt one of my favourite aspects of Dragon Hunters was the snarky dialogue between Kempis and… well, everyone he spoke to. Are there any particular fictional characters and/or authors who inspired some of the witty repartee that makes your protagonists so much fun to follow?

MT: “The authors who have most inspired my dialogue are again Erikson and Abercrombie. I don’t think Erikson gets enough credit for his humour – or at least I don’t see him credited often enough. Though oddly when people discuss his most amusing characters, the names that most frequently come up are Tehol and Bugg, whereas I found their humour to be hit and miss. I find some of his other characters far more entertaining.”

Erikson is definitely a master of humorous dialogue, be it subtly barbed or openly cutting. Speaking of sharp-tongued protagonists: am I right in saying that you’re currently working on a short story starring none other than the infamous Mazana Creed? What can we readers (new and old) expect from her?Grimdark Magazine's 'Evil is a Matter of Perspective' anthology

MT: “Yes, Mazana Creed stars in a short story I have written for Grimdark Magazine’s Evil Is A Matter Of Perspective anthology. It is set a few years before the events in Dragon Hunters, and Mazana has been ordered to hunt down a notorious pirate in order to earn a place on the Storm Council. But, being Mazana, she’s going to do things her way.”

Sounds intriguing! Oh, and while we’re on the subject: now seems like a good time to mention that you’ve also written a short story featuring Luker Essendar, who also happens to be the first character we meet in When the Heavens Fall. Do you have any more shorts lurking up your, um, shorts? And if you had to write a collection of short stories set in the Lands of the Exile, which characters would you pick to headline?

MT: “I’m writing another short story at the moment for the Hath No Fury anthology which has been funded on Kickstarter. It will feature Jenna from When the Heavens Fall – probably. In the future, I might do some more stories set in the Lands of the Exile featuring characters from the series. I like the idea of some detective stories starring Kempis and Sniffer from Dragon Hunters. Kempis himself is less enthusiastic about the idea, though.”

That would be epic! Please, please, PLEASE make this happen. (Please?)

Pfft. Fine, Kempis. Be like that. *sighs*

Before we finish, Marc, I have to ask: cats or dogs?

MT: “Ah, that age-old conundrum. Whichever one I choose I’m going to end up upsetting lots of people, so you’re probably expecting me to hedge my bets. No beating around the bush from me, though, I’m going to come straight out and say … neither. Give me a dragon any day.”

Well played, sir. Very well played indeed… though the correct answer was clearly ‘cats’.

Thanks so much for your time, Marc. Good luck with book #4!


Red Tide, the third book in Marc Turner’s Chronicles of the Exile, is available to buy RIGHT NOW. Additionally, you can read Marc’s short story, ‘There’s A Devil Watching Over You’, on Tor.com, or listen to the audio version on his website.

Marc Turner, author of The Chronicles of the Exile

NaNovember!


October has been ever so slightly crazy. I spent countless hours working on a short story in order to meet a submission deadline (which I did manage in the end – barely!). My ‘currently reading’ list is longer than ever before. NaNo is upon us. And the SPFBO has reached stage two!

SPFBO – Final 10!

We have our finalist!!!
Fantasy-Faction's SPFBO2 Finalist: Dyrk Ashton, Paternus

That’s right: earlier last month G.R. Matthews, A.F.E. Smith and myself announced Dyrk Ashton as our pick for Fantasy-Faction’s SPFBO finalist. Dyrk’s novel, Paternus, is a well-written and exciting tale of myths and monsters in modern-day society. We gave it a collective score of 9/10, and are proud to say that it 100% deserves its place amongst the final ten.

Speaking of which… here they are!

SPFBO 2016: the Final Ten!

Gorgeous-looking bunch, aren’t they? I’ve already begun reading Larcout, and I’m also particularly excited about Path of Flames, Assassin’s ChargeFionn and of course The Grey Bastards.

Not that I don’t have enough to read and review already… like:

Nothing is Ever Simple (Corin Hayes #2) by G.R. Matthews

Corin Hayes #1 and #2 by G.R. Matthews

A couple of days ago, my fellow indie writer (and Fantasy-Factioner!) G.R. Matthews released the long-awaited second book in his underwater SF series Corin Hayes. Here’s what I said about book one, Silent City:

Reader beware: if you suffer from thalassophobia (= fear of the sea), prepare to be chilled to the bone. . . because the world of Corin Hayes is entirely underwater.
[…] Short, entertaining and exciting: Silent City is the start of a series I’ll certainly be following with interest.

Read the full review on Goodreads or Amazon.

Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher

A bloody, uncomfortable, fascinating read. The first in Michael R. Fletcher’s Manifest Delusions series, Beyond Redemption pulls us into a world where anything is possible . . . so long as you’re insane. Dark, brutal and highly recommended.

Beyond Redemption by Michael R. FletcherYou can read my review on Fantasy-Faction. The sequel, The Mirror’s Truth, is due out in December.

Sabriel by Garth Nix

Back in my late teens I read, re-read and re-re-read Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom trilogy (Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen) more times than I could count. The recent release of Goldenhand unleashed a flood of nostalgia, so much so that I couldn’t resist revisiting the series.

Sabriel by Garth Nix

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and after a decade away from the series I’m thoroughly enjoying dipping in and out of this one. Sabriel sparked fond memories of late-night reading right from page 1, and I’m looking forward to reaching book two, Lirael, which was always my favourite of the three.

On Writing by Stephen King

This is another book I’ve been dipping in and out of. As such, progress is slow, but I’m picking up snippets of wisdom every time I sit down to read a few pages.

On Writing by Stephen King

Anyone who knows me is aware of my love of metaphors (or, as some would say, ‘overthinking’). In one chapter, King compares writing to archaeology: the story is always there, like a fossil beneath the ground, and writers should use whatever tools necessary to bring it to light. He goes on to say that you wouldn’t start digging with a toothpick; you’d begin with a pickaxe or even a jackhammer, only bringing out the delicate tools when you’re ready to reveal the details.

For someone like me (whose writing process generally involves obsessive plotting, second-guessing and re-writing) this is very relevant . . . as is the part where King opines that plot is “the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice.”

Ouch. Point taken. Time to just get on with telling the story. Sound advice (and just in time for NaNoWriMo!)

ARC Happy Fun Times

Because I’m clearly a masochist, I’ve also taken on ARCs from a small selection of awesome authors.

The Mirror's Truth by Michael R. Fletcher (FB header)

Michael R. Fletcher’s The Mirror’s Truth and John Gwynne’s Wrath are both currently adorning my Kindle, and I’m also lucky enough to have been offered an early copy of Red Sister from one of my favourite modern fantasy authors, Mark Lawrence. Positive reviews for this one have already begun trickling in, and I’m really, really excited to delve in to Mark’s new series, The Book of the Ancestor.

Malazan Art of the Fallen

You may have noticed my re-post of the Malazan article I had published on Tor.com in September. The re-post includes even more stunning art from the talented Chisomo Phiri (Shadaan on DeviantArt) and once again I’m encouraging anyone and everyone to go and check out his work.

'Silanah vs Raest': artwork by Shadaan

‘Silanah vs Raest’: artwork by Shadaan

On Righting

In October I ran two free promotions, most recently over Halloween. Danse Macabre now has another NINE (!) 4*/5* ratings and SIX (!) more reviews – as well as a place on its first ever LIST! (Angela Burkhead’s top Halloween reads for 2016).

Danse Macabre Free Promotion Graphic

Danse Macabre‘s success over the last few months has been a real confidence boost. Reading what folks are saying about it (including a recent review by Eric Fomley at Grimdark Alliance) inspires me to write more, which I think is part of the reason I worked so keenly on my short story submission last month. As such, I’ve made the (absolutely mad) decision to sign up for NaNoWriMo once again.

NaNoWriMo 2016 Participant Banner

In January this year I spoke about my ongoing struggles with depression; about why I closed down my original blog, and why I vowed not to bother with NaNo ever again.

After last year’s absolute failure (and its consequences) I’ll admit that the prospect of trying again terrifies me. But truth be told, I need a kick up the arse. This time, NaNo is going to be a tool with which I can hold myself accountable – not a means of quantifying failure.

So this year, I’m going to beat NaNo. Because I’ve made a promise to myself that this year I’m going to do it right. (Also that if I make it past 50k words by November 30th, I’m allowed to reward myself by finally starting a(nother) new game of Dragon Age: Inquisition.)

If anyone else is participating and wants to add me, you can find me here. Good luck to all, and see you on the other side!

Daniel Potter, ‘Off Leash’ (SPFBO review)


Off Leash was a semi-finalist in the 2nd annual Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. This review was originally published on Fantasy-Faction on 12th September 2016.


Off Leash by Daniel Potter
A few weeks ago, the SPFBO team decided on our seven semi-finalists. In some cases, the decision was easy. But when it came to Daniel Potter’s entry, Off Leash, we were uncertain as to whether or not it could hold its own in the next stage of the competition.

Why did we have doubts? Simply put: it’s an insane urban fantasy tale about a man who turns into a cougar, and we didn’t know what to make of it. Words like “strange” and “different” got thrown around very liberally during our group discussions. Off Leash is shamelessly, even proudly farcical, and I think we all had doubts about whether Potter was a serious SPFBO contender. We mistook the author’s light-hearted humour and sarcastic self-awareness for a lack of gravity – perhaps even of commitment – and we were absolutely wrong.

“Just great. I lose my voice but I get to keep my spare tire? Further proof that the universe itself is a sadistic bastard.”

It didn’t take long for our reservations to melt away. Potter’s jaunty prose and irreverent tone soon had us chuckling (and occasionally groaning) whilst turning the pages. Protagonist Thomas Khatt (geddit?) reacts to his improbable circumstances with dryly humorous observations, many of which involve his own newfound ineptitude at performing basic tasks.

“The stealth gig that cats are known for? We’ll file that under a learned skill and not a standard feature.”

The premise is batshit crazy. But its comedic potential is undeniable and Potter exploits it well, milking each scenario for every last drop of humour but very rarely taking any joke too far. It helps that Thomas, the protagonist, is quite cynical about the whole situation at first – mirroring our own scepticism, in fact!

“For a moment I feared I had fallen into a Disney film and the kitchen appliances were about to burst into song. I gave the toaster a withering look just in case.”

The narrator’s engaging voice brings to mind Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant, while the ceaseless flow of droll observations is reminiscent of the style of Sir Terry Pratchett. Whether or not you’re familiar with either author, my point is that in Thomas Khatt, Daniel Potter has created a protagonist who is a *lot* of fun to hang out with.

“Dogs rolling on their backs might be submission, but for us cats, it’s more a statement of ‘I will fuck you up’.”

Big cat or not, like any good protagonist Thomas would never have survived his first day on four paws without the help of a few secondary characters. In this case it’s Rudy the pyromaniac squirrel, and an ostracised Irish witch named O’Meara.

No, really.

“Wide eyes stared down at me from a face framed with fire-red hair. Her blue eyes followed the theme, the color of burning gas on a cook top.”

As you can see: surrealism (and hilarity) aside, Off Leash is very competently written. With the exception of a few proofing issues, it is also well edited. The story is well-paced and intriguing, and the narrative voice is distinctive, engaging and consistently entertaining.

“[the house] seemed to be trying to convince the smaller house to scooch out of the way by threatening to sit on it.”

With its on-point descriptions and funny-bone-tickling turns of phrase, Off Leash is perhaps the most entertaining SPFBO entry we’ve read so far. Admittedly, we had gripes. A few of Potter’s action sequences hurtled by so quickly that we were left unsure as to what was going on. And the ending somehow didn’t feel quite as climactic as we’d anticipated – though that’s perhaps because we’d been spoiled by the book’s rollicking pace up until then. One of the only entries written in first person, Off Leash is bold and it stands out from the crowd; and overall it’s a highly enjoyable read.

Potter’s debut may be a slightly unorthodox entry in a competition dominated by writers of ‘traditional’ fantasy. But that doesn’t make it any less than 100% professional. The editing, the cover design, the formatting, the interior art, the extra short story included at the end – all combine to complement the story and produce an end product that any author would be proud of. In the end, the deciding factor was not the book but the potentially divisive responses from the other nine judges in the final round. While Off Leash was a very strong contender, we reluctantly agreed that, of the few entries still remaining, it was probably not the most likely candidate to win. On the upside, though, we also agreed that we’d definitely like to read more of the Freelance Familiars series in future.

The Verdict: Consistently entertaining, slightly silly, and all around light-hearted tongue-in-cheek fun…though not entirely devoid of grimness! We enjoyed Off Leash’s quirky and irreverent tone, and overall we laughed at its absurdity far more often than we rolled our eyes at it. The author’s prose is direct and engaging, and while we weren’t initially convinced by the premise, the book’s voice and sheer personality quickly won us over.

Steven Kelliher, ‘Valley of Embers’ (review)


Review originally posted on Fantasy-Faction on 11th September 2016.


“Tough to be young or old in this Valley of ours.”

The night is dark and full of terrors, especially for the besieged inhabitants of the Valley of Embers. In Steven Kelliher’s secondary world only a handful of walled towns remain as the last bastions against the night, and the dwindling population of Emberfolk struggle to defend their secluded homes from the Dark Kind.

Fellow Factioners may have noticed that we’re currently participating in a little thing called the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. Here’s an important thing I’ve learned from judging: there are a LOT of self-published fantasy authors clamouring for attention. So many, in fact, that it’s hard to distinguish between those that deserve further notice and those who don’t. With this in mind, even the smallest flaws can turn out to be deal breakers in our decisions about which ones to continue reading; and we’ve found ourselves taking into consideration elements that we probably wouldn’t glance twice at in a traditionally-published work.

Is it unfair that indie authors have to work harder than others to earn our regard? Certainly. After all, there are a huge number of self-published individuals who take their craft very seriously, investing time and money to produce a professional final product. But the truth is that for every one of these, there are a hundred others who’ve cut corners. Many first-time authors rush into things, publishing an early draft without bothering with beta reads or edits. Others forego the services of a decent cover designer or even a less-decent one. And then there are those who splash out with amazing cover art in the hope that it will compensate for a shoddily-formatted, poorly-written or uninspired story.

Looking at Valley of Embers, you’ll forgive me for initially suspecting the latter. I mean,Valley of Embers by Steven Kelliher just look at that cover. Look! Can you blame me for being a bit wary? Looks too good to be true, right?

Wrong! In addition to its impressive and lovingly-commissioned artwork, Valley of Embers boasts an attractive and professional design both inside and out. Appearances really do matter, and in terms of superficial features Kelliher has really knocked it out of the park. The story itself is slightly less spectacular, but is engaging and original nonetheless.

The underlying threat of dark creatures that only attack at night is strongly reminiscent of Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle. However, unlike Brett’s post-apocalyptic world, Kelliher’s Dark Kind are a relatively new phenomenon; and there are some townsfolk who remember the times before the monsters showed up.

An exciting premise, for sure. Kelliher makes the most of it by giving us a taste of combat on the walls right at the beginning, introducing us to protagonists Kole and Linn through their skill and familiarity with night-time battle. This straight-to-the-point introduction works well on the whole. But the quickly-escalating battle and the cryptic-but-hurried discussions that follow seemed (to me, at least) kind of stop-start. This may be entirely down to personal preference. In fact, I expect that plenty of readers will be enamoured with such a whirlwind opening. And why not? Kelliher’s action scenes are great (if occasionally confusing), his settings vivid and varied and his characters likeable.

True, the action is well-described. But for me the combatants are a little too blasé about the nature of the enemy: perhaps it’s the coward in me speaking, but I would expect to see a certain amount of terror in the defenders regardless of how accustomed they are to their daily nightmare.

Furthermore, what begins as a fast-paced and intriguing story gradually becomes somewhat uneven, and overall the pacing is a little ‘off’. Key events lack impetus due to too much or too little build-up. One or two major battles outstay their welcome; and more than a few exposition-heavy scenes could probably have been cut without detriment to the story. (In fact, some of the dialogue actually obscures rather than explains: the swapping out of noun phrases – Dark Kind, Eastern Dark, Sage, Sentinels, Night Lord, White Crest – is often confusing, and the characters’ conversations about the Valley’s history tend to involve as much repetition as they do clarification.)

If that seems like a whole lot of negative – well, welcome to the brutal world of self-publishing, where little gripes become big gripes precisely because traditionally-published novels have taught us to take their absence for granted. Don’t get me wrong: not once did I feel less than compelled to keep reading. But in many instances I was keen to read on because of my interest in the story rather than the specific scene in front of me. Most of the pacing issues would likely be fixed if exposed to an editor’s stern attention, as would the occasional homophonic typo, odd description or anachronistic simile.

If there’s anything the SPFBO has taught us it is that the more successful indie authors are those who have taken their reviewers’ criticism on board and used it to improve their craft. Standards are high. The writers who constantly strive to meet – and to exceed – those standards are the writers who eventually get noticed one way or another; while those who settle for second best will inevitably linger in perpetual obscurity. Having read Valley of Embers, Kelliher strikes me as one of the few with the potential to rise to the top; and while it’s evident that there is still room for improvement, so too is the fact that we have a talented new fantasy writer on the scene.

In spite of my whining I am very much invested in the story Kelliher has begun. Though not without flaws, Valley of Embers is a solid debut and a promising start to a new series.

Marc Turner, ‘Red Tide’ (review)


Marc Turner is without doubt one of the most talented fantasy authors to have debuted in recent years. His latest offering, Red Tide, is the thrilling third chapter in the six-book Chronicles of the Exile, and is guaranteed to leave fans of this series absolutely blown away.

Red Tide (UK cover) by Marc TurnerRed Tide begins just days after the events of book two (Dragon Hunters). The Sabian Sea is too dangerous to sail, and the Storm Isles are floundering in the chaotic aftermath of Dragon Day. But one city’s misfortune can easily become another’s gain, and it’s clear that the opportunistic rulers on both sides of the Dragon Gate intend to take advantage of the situation . . . if only to fight each other for the scraps.

Right from the outset Turner presents us with greed, murder and betrayal . . . in other words, everything you’d expect from a civilisation founded on greed, murder and betrayal. We catch our first glorious glimpse of the Rubyholt Isles: a notorious conglomeration of pirate communities, tenuously led by a greedy, murderous and treacherous Warlord. Within just a few pages Turner manages to introduce not only a brand-new, Viking-like culture, but also two compelling new PoV characters – both of whom are on opposite sides of a tense and unprecedented political conflict. Needless to say the conflict soon escalates, whisking us away to the city of Gilgamar and the schemes of Emperor Avallon and Emira Mazana Creed. Readers should expect to see some familiar faces from Dragon Hunters, as well as other (possibly half-forgotten!) ones from When the Heavens Fall (book one).

Perhaps the most notable thing about Turner’s writing is his versatility. The Chronicles of the Exile boasts a wonderful variety of styles, scopes, characters and tones, which makes each successive instalment feel strikingly different from the last. This gives it quite an experimental feel – particularly since the first two books not only feature entirely different characters and settings but also seemingly-unrelated plots – which is refreshing rather than disorienting. The complex, sweeping epic of When the Heavens Fall is vastly different from its sequel, Dragon Hunters, which is set entirely on and around the island city of Olaire and is written with a much lighter tone.Red Tide (US cover) by Marc Turner

Red Tide has more in common with the latter than the former, continuing the nautical theme and returning once more to the southern coast of the Sabian sea. Most importantly (particularly for those who were bewildered by their seeming lack of connection) Red Tide draws together some of the disparate elements of the first two books. He does this gradually and subtly, which I guarantee will lead to more than one ‘ah-ha!’ moment (or, if you’re anything like me, a flickering lightbulb moment of slow-dawning realisation).

Turner pulls each separate character steadily and irrevocably into the central conflict, then flings obstacles at them whilst also pushing them irresistibly towards one another. In contrast to the masterful slow-build of When the Heavens Fall, Red Tide is far more fast-paced: the tone is lively, and the action is consistently gripping. Best of all, Turner doesn’t exploit every single potential combination of characters. Instead, he teases us with near-meets, creating ‘what if?’ scenarios and then holding them tantalisingly out of reach.

Personally, one of my favourite aspects of Red Tide – and of the entire series – is the way the author conveys the sheer scope of his world without ever going overboard (see what I did there?) with the details. He uses brief conversations, cryptic naming traditions, local legends and stunning scenery to hint at a vast backdrop of unknown elements. In Red Tide, the focus lies on what lurks under the sea: readers can look forward to terrifying glances of The Rent (a vertigo-inducing black hole beneath the waves), the Dragons’ Boneyard (along with its chthonic web-spinning denizen) and of course the deadly coming-of-age trial known only as the Shark Run. Turner gives us the impression that a vast amount of history and lore is straining to just burst into the story and cause untold chaos. Most impressive is his ability to do this without deviating from the main plot whilst also (conversely) raising more questions than he answers.

Why should you pick up this series? Well, if I haven’t managed to convince you how effing fantastic the latest release is, just take a look at the reviews for books one and two. You’ll find a lot of favourable comparisons to other authors in the genre – and it’s easy to see why.

For a start, When the Heavens Fall is threatened by the presence of immortal, crazy-powerful supernatural beings. Turner’s descriptions of these – understated, yet chilling – strongly bring to mind the Taken in Glen Cook’s Black Company. Then in Dragon Hunters the author entertains us with the sort of quirky, rock-hard, dark-humoured characters you’d expect to find dwelling in Steven Erikson’s Malazan series.

Red Tide brings the best of both. Furthermore, the Abercrombie-esque diversity of the characters – be it Amerel’s unforgiving pragmatism or Romany’s sardonic humour; Senar’s wry indecision or Galantas’s arrogant charm – ensures that every PoV has its own way of entertaining the reader (incidentally making it very difficult for the reader to choose who to root for!).

“What was she thinking? This couldn’t be murder; this was war. Killing wasn’t murder if you stole the victim’s country while you were at it.”

So, if you enjoy the novels of Glen Cook, Joe Abercrombie and Steven Erikson, chances are you’ll love Marc Turner’s stuff. But though the series does have plenty in common with First Law, Malazan, Black Company and others, the world Turner has created in The Chronicles of the Exile is deep, unique and entirely his own. Turner’s star is on the rise: Red Tide is his strongest outing to date, and one of the finest fantasy novels of 2016.

A Motherfuckin' DRAGON


If you’re still undecided about starting the series, you can read a Chronicles of the Exile short story for FREE over on Tor.com.

This review was originally published at Fantasy-Faction.com on 19th September 2016.

Hola, October!


Signed and Cactigraphed Books by Tom Lloyd, Elizabeth Bear, Scott Lynch and Joe Abercrombie

Guys – it’s October already! September flew by so quickly, probably because it was even more spiffing than August.

For starters, I attended my FIRST EVER SIGNING (!!!), a Gollancz event at my local Waterstones on which I wrote up an excitable little piece earlier this week. Basically I got giddy at meeting the Bear and co., and for the rest of the evening it was subliminal selfies (copyright: Steven Poore) and happy cactigraphs all round.

The entire evening reinforced my determination to join a traditionally-published (and fun!) team such as Gollancz

… a determination which was bolstered by yet another handful of amazingly kind reviews on Goodreads! I published Danse Macabre in October 2015, and the reviews it’s acquired over the last twelve months have been unanimously positive. As you might imagine, this has done wonders for my confidence in my own writing ability; self-publishing my first ever finished piece of fiction is perhaps one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Danse Macabre by Laura M Hughes

Speaking of self-publishing: the #SPFBO is nearing the end of its first round! Four of the ten participating blogs have announced their finalists, with more soon to follow.

Over on Fantasy-Faction we eliminated another two entries. I wrote a fond review of Off Leash by Daniel Potter, which you should definitely check out along with A.F.E. Smith’s fantastic review of A Song of Blood and Stone by L. Penelope.

Our remaining three semi-finalists are Dyrk Ashton (Paternus), Amy Rose Davis (Ravenmarked) and Aderyn Wood (The Raven). We’ve actually picked our finalist… but aren’t quite ready to announce them yet. 😉

SPFBO Semi-Finalists: Fantasy-Faction's remaining three

It isn’t just SPFBO stuff I’ve been covering for Fantasy-Faction. In last month’s round-up, I shared my excitement at receiving an ARC of Red Tide by one of my favourite modern fantasy authors, Marc Turner. The book was amazing (as if that was ever in doubt), and as well as reviewing it I also had the opportunity to interview Marc as well!

And that’s not all! Earlier in the month, Tor.com published an article I wrote about The Malazan Book of the Fallen.

My First Article for Tor.com

The article – which marks my first ever piece of paid AND solicited non-fiction writing! – is essentially a rundown of the major characters introduced in Gardens of the Moon, and seems to have received a very positive response on the whole. (Better yet, I have at least four more articles for Tor.com lined up over the next six months or so. Watch this space!)

The gorgeous illustrations in the GotM article are all provided by the talented Chisomo Phiri (aka. Shadaan). You should definitely check out his spectacular portfolio on DeviantArt!

'Blacksword Visits' - Malazan Art by Shadaan

artwork by Shadaan

In other news, I’m currently working on a short story, which I intend to submit to Ragnarok’s upcoming Hath No Fury anthology.  But more on that next month . . .

Happy October!

Ruth Nestvold, ‘Yseult’ (SPFBO review)


Yseult reached the semi-finals in the 2nd annual Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. This review was originally published on Fantasy-Faction on 31st August 2016.

***

A Tale of Love in the Age of King Arthur. A fitting subtitle, but in general one that is likely to discourage more readers than it attracts.

Romance in fantasy is a contentious issue. Lots of readers (myself included) are relatively indifferent to it, and neither seek it out nor avoid it. On the other hand, I’ve seen many an online discussion on the topic in which the majority of comments fall into two categories: ‘love it’ and ‘oh dear god MY EYES’. And this is a real shame, because it means that the latter will always miss out on well-written, beautiful stories such as Yseult.

Ruth Nestvold’s retelling of Tristan and Isolde is a solid adaptation that manages to capture the mischief and high spirits of Béroul’s original translation, as well as evoke a convincing sense of Arthurian Britain. From the humble roundhouses of Eriu to the dramatic promontory of Dyn Tagell, Yseult is rich in vivid settings that draw us in and anchor us firmly in the characters’ place and time.

Yseult by Ruth NestvoldNestvold’s writing has a charming quality, suffused with the quiet confidence of long familiarity with her characters and the world in which they play. The tone and style – along with the carefully-researched druidic, Celtic and Roman place names – sound authentic but not archaic; and while I did find myself a little bewildered at times (particularly at the start!) the wonderfully comprehensive glossary quickly cleared up any confusion.

Another aspect of Yseult which I admire is the skillful way the author maintains a cohesive timeline – without feeling the need to fill in all the gaps. The first section in particular is very well structured, cutting between important scenes with minimal disorientation; and the epistolary-style segments are a nice way of bridging the later chapters in a way that avoids repetition and unnecessary detail. On the whole, the pacing is similarly controlled, though some of us felt that it was perhaps a little *too* languorous in places. This, along with the occasionally ponderous prose, was the main issue cited by those of us who struggled to engage with Yseult. In fact, it was the only real sticking point on which we just could not seem to agree!

Speaking for myself, the issues I had with the book arose from what I perceived as unevenness. The entirety of part one – which is excellent, by the way – centres on the trials and inner strength of Yseult’s mother in addition to the childhood and adolescence of Yseult herself. So when the fabled romance finally began in part two I was somewhat taken aback by the way it was presented. It begins sweetly, and is interwoven with other events that keep the story rolling. But when our two protagonists finally get frisky, the frequent use of (for example) words like ‘ass’ and ‘cock’ when describing sex scenes felt jarring and not at all consistent with the subtle character development, beautiful Irish words and mellifluous descriptions to which I’d become accustomed.

Not only does it feel as though the sex scenes were written by a totally different author, the story itself seems less compelling the more it focuses on Drystan and Yseult. In fact, I almost abandoned the book at one point: despite thoroughly enjoying part one, I began to find the story tedious. Increasingly frequent repetition – particularly the author’s fixation with describing Yseult’s ‘moonlight’ hair and Drystan’s ‘forest-green’ eyes – started to really grate on my nerves. But it wasn’t until I reached the 44%-mark that I realised – with much disappointment – I just wasn’t enjoying Yseult enough to justify continuing with it.

Thankfully, I went back to it a few days later; and after a bit of perseverance I started to realise that Nestvold’s ‘tale of love’ encompasses far more than ‘just’ romance. Each and every character is motivated by different kinds of love, sometimes simultaneously and often conflicting. Yseult finds herself torn between her romantic love for Drystan and filial love for her mother, cousin and son. Marcus is motivated by self-love; Kurvenal, by platonic love for his best friend. Arthur is driven by love for his country, and everywhere deeds both good and evil are committed in the name of love and loyalty to one’s religion.

On the whole, Yseult is strongly reminiscent of Mary Stewart’s fantastic Arthurian Saga: a patient, introspective narrative that concerns itself mostly with magic, politics and belief. Nestvold takes the same murky time period, adds a familiar legend and then remoulds it with enough creative flourishes to make it feel fresh and original. The author develops her characters well (although antagonists such as Marcus and Andred are too-quickly painted as unsympathetic villains) and makes sure to give them and her readers a suitably poetic send-off at the last.

The Verdict: After reading a swathe of SPFBO entries that tended more towards the traditional/epic we found this historical fantasy to be a rather captivating change of pace. However, while we all agreed it was well written, not all of us found it engaging. We acknowledged that others’ opinions would likely differ as vastly as our own, which is why we’ve made the decision to eliminate Yseult in favour of others with the potential to appeal to a broader audience.

Daniel Abraham, ‘The Dagger & the Coin’ (series review)


The Dagger & the Coin Quintet by Daniel Abraham

 
Reviewing an entire series in one fell swoop can be tricky. Luckily, I’ve got the perfect metaphor to carry us through this one . . . but more on that in a moment. First, here’s a quick introduction for those who’re not familiar with the series.

The Dagger and the Coin is a fantasy quintet that blends myth, violence and political intrigue to create an entertaining and thought-provoking tale about what can happen when absolute power is placed in the hands of one man. Daniel Abraham shows us how quickly and unexpectedly a kingdom can dissolve into chaos and war, and how easy it is for an entire civilisation to succumb to fear and prejudice.

What I like most about Daniel Abraham’s writing is his clean, engaging style. He doesn’t dazzle us with descriptions or confuse us with cleverness. Instead, he patiently draws us in with easy prose and a conversational tone that eases the reader into a familiar, close relationship with each character.

And now on to the metaphor (which, by the way, I intend to mangle extend past recognition by dragging weaving it through this entire ramble review). Here it comes.

Sometimes spectacular, often laugh-out-loud funny and always engaging: Daniel Abraham has crafted a character-driven series that becomes stronger and more complex with each instalment . . . kind of like a river. No, really.The Dragon's Path by Daniel Abraham

Let’s start at the beginning (or should I say ‘source’?): The Dragon’s Path, in which various characters’ lives first begin to trickle downhill and mingle together. Abraham does a creditable job of introducing the protagonists – including Cithrin (a banker’s apprentice), Marcus (a jaded mercenary) and Geder (a quixotic nobleman) – using alternating PoV chapters. Most of these the reader will continue to follow throughout the series . . . and through both sides of the conflict.

Right from the get-go, Cithrin and Geder are established as the ‘major’ characters. Already embarked on radically divergent paths, events soon begin to shape their thoughts and personalities in very different ways that nonetheless force both to shed their innocent naïveté. That Abraham juxtaposes Cithrin (representing trade, or ‘coin’) and Geder (symbolising war, or the ‘dagger’/‘dragon’s path’) isn’t immediately obvious in The Dragon’s Path; but it soon becomes a pivotal part of the saga.

Some readers dislike being thrown into a secondary world and bombarded with unfamiliar names and races and cities. I’ll admit that I found The Dragon’s Path a bit confusing at first! But while it takes roughly the first half of the book for the characters to fully begin to form, the other aspects of the world soon fall into place. Abraham sacrifices clarity at the beginning in order to convey the diversity of his world in a more organic way, and I guarantee it won’t be long before you’re familiar with all thirteen races: pale, slender Cinnae and black, chitinous Timzinae; sharp-toothed Tralgu and tusked Yemmu; otter-pelted Kurtadam and the elusive Drowned. (For those who are interested, Abraham actually has a handy guide on his website – creatively presented as a historical record!)

Aside from his agreeable prose, another distinguishing feature of Abraham’s writing is his depiction of female characters – something that he also carries over into The Expanse, his co-written SF series published under the pen name James S.A. Corey.

Both female leads in The Dagger and the Coin are strong in different ways (none of which, thankfully, involve clichéd and improbable skill with sex or weapons) and are equally as well-drawn and likeable as Naomi, Bobbie, Avasarala and co in The Expanse. Cithrin, although very young, is well-versed in her knowledge of banking and finance, and skilfully uses this knowledge to turn many poor situations to her advantage; while the much older Clara exploits her gender’s inferior position within society to acquire items and information that her husband and sons aren’t able to access.

The Dragon’s Path does an excellent job of setting future events in motion, and in hindsight gives the reader some intriguing hints about the bigger picture. It also successfully establishes characters and setting, and Abraham displays impressive originality in terms of worldbuilding. But he also isn’t ashamed to embrace the familiar, and so the perplexed reader will soon find themselves grounded by a comforting backdrop of classic fantasy elements that I like to think of as the author’s gentle homage to the genre.The King's Blood by Daniel Abraham

This is particularly evident in book two, The King’s Blood, in which mercenary Marcus and apostate Kit embark on a quest to find a magic sword and kill an evil goddess. Agreed, this sounds like the clichéd plot of an old role-playing game; yet seeing these two cool characters paired up on a wild adventure is actually a LOT of fun. The fact that Abraham acknowledges the cliché with a few dry remarks from Marcus is a perfect example of how he’s using The Dagger and the Coin not only to pay tribute to traditional fantasy elements but also to mess around with (and poke fun at!) our expectations.

If the events of The Dagger & the Coin are a river with The Dragon’s Path as their source, then The King’s Blood is the young river stage: downhill (obviously…), and increasing pace rapidly. Book two takes a somewhat darker turn and remains more or less focused within the city of Camnipol, where social and political discord is beginning to form cracks in this once-stable capital.

The King’s Blood unfolds the tale of Camnipol’s gradual descent into civil war, which we witness through two main PoVs – each on a different side of the conflict. These two characters (who shall remain unnamed because SPOILERS) are really well-written: in The Dragon’s Path both were likeable for different reasons, but now we’re presented with a new side of them. Both have their reasons for doing what they do, but it’s difficult to decide which is right and which is wrong. The ambiguity of the characters and the fallout from their decisions – not to mention the reader’s conflicted emotional response to certain characters’ story arcs – creates a darker tone than book one, seeping subtly into the narrative and setting the mood for the rest of the series.

On a lighter note I think most readers tend to be pleasantly surprised by how interesting Cithrin’s chapters are. Even for someone like me (i.e. someone who can barely look at a bank statement without getting cross-eyed) the details of her financial schemes actually become one of the most exciting plot points. But although Cithrin plays a crucial role in future events, she spends much of book two waiting in the wings.

The Tyrant's Law by Daniel Abraham

No matter, though, because there’s another character in The King’s Blood who may surprise you. Clara, the middle-aged wife of Baron Dawson Kalliam, receives a lot more page time here than in The Dragon’s Path. Mother to four children, Clara’s main purpose is maintaining the house and participating in social events with other wives of the rich and powerful. This might not sound like the makings of an interesting character, but in reality it’s a breath of fresh air from the morally-grey ‘grimdark’ antiheroes that populate (and dominate) so much of recent fantasy. Lady Kalliam has a unique perspective on events; she’s a very brave and sympathetic character, and the way she deals with her trials and tribulations while still remaining gracious is lovely to read about.

As you can tell by now, Abraham’s protagonists are the undisputed stars of the stage. But likeable characters alone are rarely enough to win over most readers. That might explain why the adjective I see most often used to describe the Dagger and Coin series is ‘good’ . . . which, while positive, is about as lukewarm as praise gets. I suspect that the relatively slow pace is the main reason many people aren’t blown away by the series early on, and it’s true that neither The Dragons Path nor The King’s Blood could ever be described as ‘rip-roaring’.

However, those who persevere will find that the series isn’t so much slow as it is slow-burn; and The Tyrant’s Law, the middle novel in the quintet, is like the first major set of waterfalls in our story-river’s (remember the river?) path. As in the first two books the story and the action begin slowly and build steadily. But there’s a turning point around the halfway mark when The Tyrant’s Law starts to thrum with a real sense of urgency, and the final quarter begins a brilliantly tense convergence between two of the characters.

The world of The Dagger and the Coin seems to exist in spite of the story, not because of it. It’s vivid but organic, which (for me, at least) is the most vital aspect of convincing, immersive worldbuilding. The Tyrant’s Law is the first book in the series where the diversity of the different races becomes a contentious issue, and the fact that we the reader have already spent two books peacefully co-existing with those who are now reviled makes us feel especially uncomfortable with the rising bigotry.

Geder’s chapters are particularly powerful here, and the tragic-comic story of his unwitting rise to power continues to be fantastically told. The transition of a clumsy, loveably inept minor noble into a hateful yet well-meaning tyrant has been so subtle and seamless that it remains hard not to feel sympathetic towards him . . . whilst also wanting to smack him ‘round the head with the flat of Marcus’ culling blade. Geder’s volatile, pliant nature (and the sinister figure who’s taking advantage of it, of course) tends to be the catalyst for most of the events from here on in.The Widow's House by Daniel Abraham

It really is compelling to see how Geder – blinded by good intentions and personal insecurity – drags an entire country along behind him as he stumbles over the edge of each waterfall. And if The Tyrant’s Law is the tumbling waterfall, then The Widow’s House is unquestionably the calmer, middle stage of the Dagger & Coin story-river. Languid and meandering, it is a marked change of pace from the excitement of book three. However, it continues steadily towards the end of its journey: calm on the surface, but shedding innocent corpses in its wake like silt deposits and leaving the ground behind it irrevocably altered.

Once again, the protagonists are the most engaging feature of The Widow’s House; and once again, Geder Palliako edges into the lead as my personal favourite. The Lord Regent is child-like and peevish, petulant and bitter . . . yet strangely sympathetic at the same time. He’s the nicest of people, and he’s the villain of the piece; a tyrant who simply does not realise he’s a tyrant. A social outcast for most of his early life, he’s so desperate to be liked that he’s blind to the fact that everyone is terrified of him. He’s ruled by his own insecurities, which are fuelled and manipulated by Geder’s most trusted ‘friend’: Basrahip, the spider-priest pulling Geder’s strings in an attempt to turn Camnipol into a platform for the chaotic cult of the spider goddess.

Meanwhile, the insidious currents of treachery finally start to draw the other PoVs together. Cithrin’s chapters are often the most interesting: I mentioned earlier that she is the ‘coin’ in The Dagger and the Coin, and she uses manipulation and money (rather than force) to undermine her enemies. This thread of the story focuses entirely on economics, and is well written and original. (I actually would have liked to see Cithrin’s manoeuvring play an even bigger part. Perhaps we might see a spinoff at some point in the future, Mr. A?)

So. Geder is intriguing, Cithrin is cunning . . . but the real darling of The Widow’s House is Clara. Brave, practical and loyal, her chapters always make for a pleasantly easy read – a trend which continues into book five, The Spider’s War.

The Widow’s House may have lulled us into believing that The Spider’s War will be a quick, smooth strait that takes us through to the end . . . but not so in our Dagger and Coin river. Just as you think you’re nearing the mouth you realise too late that there’s one more unseen waterfall. Only those who survive the drop will crawl from the wreckage to finally paddle down the delta and float off in their own separate directions.

From the very beginning of The Dagger and the Coin, Abraham uses Geder’s story arc to paint an increasingly horrifying scenario of a world where absolute power is held by one man alone. Nowhere is this more apparent than the final book. It’s hard to be specific without vomiting spoilers (or spiders) all over the page, so I’ll switch to vagueness for this last part.

What a finale! The Spider’s War is a worthy – though somewhat bittersweet – ending to an original and (at times) unpredictable fantasy series. Abraham demonstrates how alternating PoVs *should* be used: switching back and forth with skill and cunning, heightening tension and uncertainty in the build-up to the big finish. Moreover, he also takes the time to thoroughly wrap up surviving characters’ story arcs in a variety of (mostly) satisfying ways, striking a fine balance between breathless action and patient closure.The Spider's War by Daniel Abraham

There isn’t much else I can say without repeating myself. The characters are developed consistently and intriguingly (although, amazingly, they can still surprise us . . . even after spending five books in their company, and even when their actions are in no way at odds with what we know about them as a character), and the writing style remains as engaging as ever. The Spider’s War is certainly one of the strongest Dagger and Coin instalments, and is pretty much everything you could ask for in a finale. And while there’s nothing remotely resembling a cliffhanger, there are plenty of plot threads that are tied off less tightly than others – welcoming (but not demanding) an eventual return to the Dagger & Coin universe.

But for now, that river has run its course. I highly recommend Daniel Abraham’s work to any and all readers of SFF, and I’ll certainly be taking a look at his Long Price Quartet in the near future. Some people say the best writers are the ones who, at the end of a series, leave you desperate for more. However, much rarer (and arguably more special) are the voices and the tales that we choose to revisit. And having finished The Spider’s War I know for a certainty that I’ll be returning to Cithrin, Clara, Geder and co. in the future. I miss them already.


Review originally published on Fantasy-Faction on 17th August 2016.

Salut, September!


September makes me happy for two reasons. Not only is it the month in which summer finally fucks off, but it’s also the month of my birthday! And its arrival calls for a quick recap of what I’ve been up to in August.


G.R. Matthews, Forbidden List (trilogy)

The wonderful G.R. Matthews (author of Silent City and The Forbidden List  trilogy) kicked things off with an interview at the start of the month. Matthews runs a ’10 Quick Questions’ series each week, featuring a range of awesome indie authors, and invited me to join him for rambles and randomness. You can read it here.

CEVAK

As promised in last month’s roundup I’ve finally made time to beta read my good friend and writing buddy Kareem Mahfouz‘s work-in-progress (and future bestseller). The big finale is shaping up to be Awesome (yes, capital ‘A’) – so Awesome, in fact, that I cobbled together another dodgy-looking graphic for one of my favourite characters.

In other news, the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) is well underway, and I’m having a whale of a time discovering new indie voices along with my fellow judges: A.F.E. Smith, author of Darkhaven and Goldenfire (Harper Voyager); and the above-mentioned G.R. Matthews.

I recently wrote my first ‘elimination article‘ for Fantasy-Faction explaining why certain entries just didn’t make the cut, and also contributed to the subsequent post that announced our final seven. Even more recently we eliminated Terminus by Ryan Howse, shortly followed by Ruth Nestvold’s Yseult; and the final seven became a final five. We have until next month to pick our *drumroll* FINALIST, after which we’ll then read and rate the other nine that made it through. Exciting!

SPFBO - Fantasy-Faction's Final Five

In addition, I finished reading The Spider’s War by Daniel Abraham. Abraham is becoming a ‘go-to’ author for me: his work is consistently fun to read, with reliably solid characters and easy prose. I reviewed The Spider’s War on Fantasy-Faction, along with the rest of the Dagger and Coin quintet (which I highly recommend!).

Thiefbreaker-seven-lines-facebook

Once again my own writing progress has taken a hit. But on the plus side I’ve resolved to cut down on the amount of planning I do, and to not worry about writing things chronologically. (I like to call this the ‘patchwork quilt’ method.) I’m also giving myself the freedom to work on other things alongside my main WIP, which is a lot of fun. There are two other projects I’m currently messing with: a third-person, multiple PoV novella; and an experimental first-person piece which I may write as a serial. Both are set in secondary worlds; but while the novella will focus on the rising tension among a group of thieves who are being hunted, the serial is a humorous dialogue-driven travelogue/detective story.

And speaking of writing . . . At the beginning of August, a lovely lady named Bridget McGovern dropped me an email out of the blue. Much to my surprise and delight, she invited me to contribute an article to Tor.com – which should be appearing on the site sometime this month!

Just one more exciting thing before I go. One of my favourite modern fantasy authors, Marc Turner, sent me an advance review copy of his upcoming novel, Red Tide. Published on September 20th 2016, Red Tide is the third instalment of Turner’s epic fantasy series The Chronicles of the Exile. Not only will I be reading and reviewing this in time for its release date – I’ll also be interviewing Marc himself! Questions will cover a range of topics – from reading and writing to other (less relevant) things – and both the interview and the review of Red Tide should be up on Fantasy-Faction within the next few weeks.

So, September: d’you think you’ll live up to August’s levels of awesomeness? *rubs hands together*

Tweet - Red Tide ARC