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!


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.