‘The Grey Bastards’ by Jonathan French


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2016: Top Ten of Everything!


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

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

Top 10… GOOD THINGS

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

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

Top Ten… BOOKS READ

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

Top Ten… ARTICLES & REVIEWS

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

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

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

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

A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers by Alyssa Wong

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

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

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

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

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

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

'The Bonehunters' by Steven Erikson

And the most popular by far:

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

'Silanah vs Raest': artwork by Shadaan

‘Silanah vs Raest’: artwork by Shadaan

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

Now for the final Top 10 list…

Top Ten… WANT TO READ IN 2017

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

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

Happy new year!

‘Larcout’ by K.A. Krantz


Larcout is one of ten novels in the final round of Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) 2016. Updates on the contest’s progress can be found here.


I’m not sure what I was expecting when I chose K.A. Krantz’s novel to be the first SPFBO finalist I read and reviewed… but it certainly wasn’t what I got! Even now, I’m not entirely sure that words can do justice to such a surreal reading experience… but here goes.

Larcout is… bizarre. It’s confusing. It’s uneven, and it’s disorientating, and it’s awesome. Above all, it’s most definitely unique.

Kasthu. Roborgu. Inarchma.

“Live. Learn. Burn.”

This maxim – held by Larcout’s protagonist and repeated throughout the novel – is just as relevant to the reader’s journey as it is to the story. Kasthu (live): just go with it. Roborgu (learn): all will eventually become clear. Inarchma (burn): be prepared to have your own preconceptions – of the book, the characters, and the genre itself – annihilated.

Blood-beings can be chattel or char.

The opening pages very nearly turned me into char. Frowning, squinting, grumbling – I read, re-read and re-re-read them, struggling to comprehend just what the hell was going on. Once I’d (sort of) figured it out, however, I was hooked. Chattel to the story, you might say.

I read the first chapter with increasing interest, savouring the details of this unique and fascinating new culture and its intriguing protagonist, Vadrigyn. A blighted land with six – six! – suns, a cruel and winged fire-blooded race known as the Morsam, a sentient sea that keeps them prisoner, and a half-breed outcast with both strength and intelligence – I loved it.

Each ridge in her vambraces was a piece of a Morsam who had challenged her right to live. The ones she currently wore were far from her only pair.

Yes: I absolutely loved the first chapter. But then…

… after a brief and violent scrap with her hated brethren Vadrigyn is magically transported to an arena, where she and others are expected to engage in combat before an audience of unseen spectators. After meeting a flurry of new characters and ‘passing’ the test, our protagonist is again uprooted and replanted somewhere new – this time to the insular Jewelled City, where she learns that she’s now ‘bonded’ with a mentor named le Zyrn. More, the bond can’t be severed until Vadrigyn passes her Trial of Identity… or until one – or both – die.

Larcout by K.A. KrantzI’ll be honest and say that I read these chapters with increasing incredulity (and raised eyebrows). Having looked forward to an account of Vadrigyn’s survival techniques and anticipated her cunning escape from the cruel and unforgiving land of her birth, instead I got to watch as she was bundled on the deus ex machina express straight into the Hunger Games and then on into the Capitol – all in the space of a single chapter.

Thankfully, things stabilise somewhat from there on in… though I can’t say I’m a fan of the jewelled city itself, which is a bit too fanciful for my liking. Repetitive and simplistic descriptions oversaturated with the names of precious stones abound; yet I somehow struggled to envisage the layout of the city itself, despite continual references to its different tiers.

However, I did appreciate the ways in which the city’s political, economic and geographical circumstances resonated with today’s issues and tense global climate.

This is about opening the gate and re-engaging in trade with our neighbors. It makes dire predictions about famine and plague descending upon the dome, and urges civil war if the gate remains closed. It accuses the Order of Minds of deceiving the populace, of tricking our people into believing we are prosperous as an isolated nation.

Brexit, anyone?

For me, this aspect of Larcoutian culture also has echoes of the Ministry of Truth from 1984: after all, the Order of Minds can provoke conflict, influence emotions and even alter memories, effectively controlling the desires and behaviours of the entire populace. This facet of the story is, unfortunately, not used to its fullest potential, and is relegated instead to a convenient feature of the plot to be called on only when necessary.

On the other hand, the fact that every Larcoutian citizen eventually develops some sort of similar supernatural talent is almost awesome enough for us to overlook this slightly disappointing unevenness. In addition to the Order of Minds, Krantz also gives us the Order of Stone (who can manipulate the earth to extract precious materials, and who are trained to use their powers for combat as well as construction) and the Order of Body (healers, essentially). The subtleties of each order – not to mention the convoluted way in which families are intertwined by the unpredictable mentor-acolyte bonds – adds yet another layer of conflict to the story, which is confusing but fascinating.

And it isn’t just the Larcoutians who possess these talents; our heroine has some fantastically lethal gifts of her own, not least of which are the Dorgof. The Dorgof – deadly, venomous parasites fused to the bones and muscles within Vadrigyn’s forearms – burst forth from her palms whenever she feels threatened, and make it impossible for any other living creature to make physical contact with her hands.

 Death by her touch was not instant, but it was assured.

As you can imagine, these living weapons make for plenty of vicious and bloody fights. Even when Vadrigyn refrains from calling on the Dorgof, her own Morsam strength and self-taught skill in battle make for some equally violent scenes – many of which I couldn’t help but picture in the slow-motion-blood-spray cinematic style of a Zack Snyder movie or an episode of Starz’ Spartacus.

Vadrigyn pivoted. Her fist connected squarely with the nose of the closest fool… and punched through the back of his skull. Blood and brain oozed down her wrist and stained her vambrace. The body reduced to sand, leaving her with a skull bracelet.

Fragile blood-beings.

Vadrigyn is a brilliant heroine because she’s strong in other ways, too. Resourceful, pragmatic, adaptable – our protagonist is quick to learn (roborgu) and becomes increasingly open-minded as the story progresses. She’s also surprisingly loyal, as well as (unsurprisingly) honest; and best of all, she sticks to her principles whilst also demonstrating a rare willingness to listen to reason.

The biggest issue I have with Vadrigyn’s character is the fact that she adapts a little too quickly to her sudden transition from Agenwold to Larcout. Though she’s at a huge disadvantage in every situation, she rarely proves to be less than competent. She dons women’s clothing and learns to dance with minimal resistance; and her grasp of Larcoutian politics and history is somewhat inexplicable considering that her entire life has been spent in an uncivilised land filled with blood and battle. The reader never really has cause to doubt that Vadrigyn will survive, and this sense of invincibility can, at times, make her difficult to empathise with.

If she could not have freedom, she would have dominion.

However, it’s impossible not to admire such aggressive resolve, and such flat-out refusal to become a victim. This mindset is what really makes Vadrigyn an effective protagonist. I shared her frustration with the Larcoutian women’s complicity in their own weakness; the refusal of even the most forward-thinking of them to understand that power lies not only in the body but in the mind. Vadrigyn is a perfect antidote to the Jewelled City’s strict patriarchy; and watching her demolish expectations, traditions, prejudices and manipulations is immensely satisfying.

I do feel obliged to point out that there are occasions where the author’s over-excited prose makes things more confusing than they need to be:

Vadrigyn stood helpessly frozen as disbelief rode the cold pulsing with every rampant heartbeat, threatening to collapse her skull and explode her lungs from competing pressures.

At times like these I would either re-read the lines until my eyes glazed over, or simply allow myself to drift over such segments until I reached a part less saturated with hyperbole.

It’s this unevenness that made Larcout so difficult to rate. In my opinion, the prologue deserves at least an 8; the second chapter, a 5 at best; and so on. An uneven yet well-written tale, Larcout is bizarre and imaginative, with moments of brilliance that shine brightly enough to banish the shadows of confusion that obscure its early chapters. Though far from perfect, I still find myself thinking about it (despite finishing it days ago), and can say with certainty that the sequel will make its way onto my ‘to read’ list.

This review originally appeared on Fantasy-Faction on 30th November 2016.

2016: The Worst of Times, the Best of Tomes


Ah, 2016. For various reasons, I’ve read nowhere near the amount of books I wanted to this year. But the ones I have read were pretty damn awesome. Here’s a few of the awesomest (note: not all of these were actually published in 2016!).

2016 shall henceforth become known as The Year in Which I Truly Discovered Self-Published Books. The abundance of awesomeness from the SPFBO (Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off) – as well as a few other gems – has left me seriously impressed with those who publish via this method.

(I spoke about self-publishing, and the many positive ways in which indie authors contribute to the genre, here.)

I’m pleased to say that I discovered – and read! – an entirely new trilogy in the form of Jeff Salyards’ Bloodsounder’s Arc. Here’s what I said about book three, Chains of the Heretic:

Bloodsounder’s Arc is a work of art, a dark and masterful tapestry of tension and momentum wherein each word weaves a more deftly spun strand than the last. The final triptych, Chains of the Heretic, is Salyards’ pièce de résistance, falling naturally but devastatingly into its place as the boldest and most brutal piece of the saga.

2016 has been a shite year for politics, pop-culture legends, and the general future of humanity. However, you can’t deny that it’s given us some excellent sequels.

2016 has seen the conclusions to several of my favourite series, including The Dagger and the Coin by Daniel Abraham, The Faithful and the Fallen by John Gwynne and The Red Queen’s War by Mark Lawrence.

We’ve also been gifted with the fun finale to Joe Abercrombie’s Shattered Sea trilogy, as well as two more instalments in Marc Turner’s spectacular six-book Chronicles of the Exile(Check out my post about meeting Marc here!)

I’ve also had the pleasure of starting one or two ongoing series by new (to me) authors Michael R. Fletcher, V.E. Schwab and Ruth Nestvold.

A few forays into the realm of shorter fiction have also yielded very pleasant results. Alyssa Wong’s very (very!) short but beautiful A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers left me keen to read more by this author; while the talent and variety on display in the Fantasy-Faction Anthology made me bubble with pride at being able to call myself a part of that community.Los Nefilim by T. Frohock... read by Kili-cat in 2016

And of course, one of my favourite reads of the year: Los Nefilima trilogy of novellas by the wonderful and talented Teresa Frohock, brought together for the first time in a single, brilliant collection.

Finally, the year wouldn’t be complete without revisiting at least one old favourite… or, in this case, two: The Bonehunters by Steven Erikson, and Terry Pratchett’s charming, witty and hilarious Hogfather.

What were your favourite books of 2016? And which ones are you most looking forward to next year?

‘Prince of Thorns’ by Mark Lawrence


 Let a man play chess, and tell him that every pawn is his friend. Let him think both bishops holy. Let him remember happy days in the shadows of his castles. Let him love his queen. Watch him lose them all.

Consider yourself warned: Mark Lawrence’s debut novel is not for the faint of heart. Prince of Thorns kicks off the notoriously dark Broken Empire trilogy, and readers should embark on Jorg’s journey fully prepared for blood, death and macabre humour of the kind one might find in the novels of Joe Abercrombie.

Right off the bat Lawrence throws us in amongst Jorg’s band of unscrupulous ‘Brothers’, who are not only looting and burning a village but also raping and murdering its inhabitants. (It’s at this point which many a reader has reached the firm conclusion that this merry tale is not to their liking.)

Prince of Thorns by Mark LawrenceSome would say that such a controversial opening chapter risks alienating readers who are familiar with more traditional fantasy openings, and they’d be right. But although it’s risky, that single scene is more than justified by the fact that it cleverly conveys so much about Jorg and his companions more than justifies its casual brutality. Jorg Ancrath has witnessed (and perpetrated) all sorts of atrocities during his transformation from privileged prince to dangerous rogue. Now, he has to confront dark magic, the walking dead and childhood horrors if he’s to succeed in conquering the known world.

Personally, I enjoyed the way Prince of Thorns shattered my expectations, and left me full of questions about the Broken Empire (some of which I’m still waiting to be answered!). Though the opening events well and truly hooked me, it’s the prose that sustained my interest throughout the rest of the book’s early chapters; Lawrence’s narrative style is a wonder to read. The narrator’s voice is distinctive, captivating and intriguingly changeable in line with Jorg’s raging internal conflict.

Jorg appears to be inhumanly detached from emotions (his own, and others’) to the extent that he’s essentially incapable of empathising with anyone around him. Alternately cold, hard, sarcastic, deadpan, humorous – none of these facets of the character are particularly likeable. However, it becomes clear that this is (to an extent) more a persona than a personality; and, while Jorg is clearly ignorant of what is happening to him, we as readers are able to recognise and appreciate the gradual emergence of compunction and sympathy. It’s a subtle development, but one which proves that characters don’t always have to be sympathetic to be engaging.

One minor gripe about the book is that I wish it included more of the Brothers than just the occasional entertaining anecdote or one-liner between chapters. Jorg might not care much about his Brothers, but I wanted to know more about what makes them tick. (Thankfully, Lawrence’s aptly-titled Road Brothers anthology goes a long way towards addressing this… though to my shame I haven’t read it yet.)

In a nutshell, then: Prince of Thorns is a dark novel, but not as dark as others would have you believe. The characters are entertaining, the world is fascinating, and the imagery is vivid and staggering. Many readers find themselves alienated by the beginning, but many more have (like me) read right to the end (three times!) and still come back for more.

FYI: The original review was posted at halfstrungharp.com on 18th September 2013. It was the second review I ever wrote – and Mark was the first author I ever interacted with on Twitter!

BOOK BOMB! ‘Rough Magick’ by Kenny Soward


That clever bastard Mark Lawrence is a veritable wellspring of good ideas. First he gave us the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off; then, the page one critiques for aspiring writers. Now, it’s BOOK BOMBS!

Admittedly, Mark has ‘borrowed’ the idea from a certain Larry Correia (who, I’m informed, has been pushing this laudable feature for years). But the intention is the same: to support a lesser-known SFF author by spreading the word and boosting their sales as much as possible over a 24-hour period. You can read what Mark has to say about it on his own site.

Without further ado, I give you ROUGH MAGICK (GnomeSaga #1) by Kenny Soward! (Just $1.21 on Amazon, or 99p on Amazon UK!)Rough Magick (GnomeSaga 1) by Kenny Soward

(Buy it.. buy it now! And be sure to check for updates on Mark’s blog!)

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


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!


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!

Aloha, August!


I can’t say I’ve ever used the word ‘awhirl’ in casual conversation before – well, apart from just now – but I’ve spent the past month awhirl in Cool Book Stuff™. Such as . . .

Cool Book Stuff™ #1

I’m now officially a member of the Fantasy-Faction team!

Fantasy-Faction

I’ve followed the site – co-edited by Marc Aplin and Jennifer Ivins – for years, and have always admired the quality of its articles and the regularity of its reviews. I’m flattered and grateful, excited and proud beyond belief to be able to call myself part of the team. (I’ve got a PAGE and everything!)

Cool Book Stuff™ #1.1

And as if that wasn’t amazing enough, I now get to join in with the Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off (#SPFBO) for the first time. And as part of the F-F judging panel, no less!

SPFBO2 Banner by Matt Howerter

graphic by Matt Howerter

I’m a bit late to the party, but playing catch-up has been a lot of fun. I’ve read, scored and commented on the opening chapters of at least ten submissions, many of which have pleasantly surprised me. In fact, there’s more than one that I’ll probably go on to read even if it doesn’t make it through this round.


Cool Book Stuff™ #2

As you can probably guess, my own writing has taken a bit of a back seat whilst I focus not only on reading and reviewing, but also beta reading.

It’s been pretty much one year exactly since my first ever writing buddy (Kareem Mahfouz: notorious whiskey-sponge with the enviable power to pull entire storylines out of his arse as he writes) sent me the first prologue of the first draft of his first novel. Now – twelve months and 192,000 words later – I have the final part of his first draft to read and feed back on, which I’m REALLY looking forward to.

In fact, I got so excited by the story that I made a thing inspired by Kareem’s favourite character:

'Mouse'

Remember the name: Kareem Mahfouz. You heard about him here first, people!


Cool Book Stuff™ #3

Danse Macabre by Laura M HughesMy own word count may have ground to a temporary halt, but the reviews for my novelette, Danse Macabre, have been unexpectedly flooding in!

It’s a very small flood, I’ll grant you. But quality beats quantity every time.

Seasoned reviewer James McStravick shared his thoughts over on his blog, The Observant Raven; and the excellent T.O. Munro (author of Lady of the Helm) penned a particularly detailed and thoughtful review in which he called Danse Macabre “well-written”, “ingenious” and “captivating”.

To be honest, I’m still in shock. Awesome-shock.


Cool Book Stuff™ #4

Since my Kindle (Mr. Norrell) appears to have gorged himself on ALL THE THINGS over the last few months, I’ve compiled some of the best-looking indie books he’s found into a reading list:

Indie Reading List, August 2016Just look at those bad boys! Norrell’s definition of ‘new’ is somewhat questionable – I’ve had some of those books since the last SPFBO! – but still. Enticing, eh?

Right now I’m working through The Spider’s War by Daniel Abraham (which is great, by the way), but it shouldn’t be too long before I get around to this little beauty:

Valley of Embers by Steven KelliherThat’s an eARC of the upcoming Valley of Embers by indie author Steven Kelliher. The first in the Landkist saga, it’ll be available to buy on 16th August 2016 from Amazon.


That’s it (for now). July, I’m sorry to see you go. You’ve been a really positive month for me. August, you– oi! August! Listen! You have a lot to live up to, so you’d better start right now.

Oh! And for those who’re interested in the brilliant SPFBO, I urge you to take a few moments to check out the main page on Mark Lawrence’s site. Like, right now.