Here they are: the first five eliminations from our SPFBO batch over at Fantasy-Faction! We’ll be back in three weeks or so with another five . . .
Here they are: the first five eliminations from our SPFBO batch over at Fantasy-Faction! We’ll be back in three weeks or so with another five . . .
It’s not often you can grab an ENTIRE trilogy of awesome books for less than £3. So believe me when I say you should shoot on over to Amazon and grab all three books in the Song of the Ash Tree while they’re 99p apiece. DO IT!!
Someone *cough* may have gotten a bit carried away making banners during all the excitement. If you’re on social media, feel free to borrow the banners and share the love!
If you’re wondering why the name sounds familiar, it’s because Paternus was our pick to be a finalist in last year’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. Since then there’s been lots of ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ over whether or not the original cover did this crazy-arsed novel justice. Ashton finally decided to make the switch!
It looks AMAZING, guys. Check it out!
And here’s some Paternus-based wallpaper by John Anthony Di Giovanni!
It’s official: my editing services are now available for hire! I’m offering high-quality line editing, copy editing and proofreading at competitive rates, with a focus on self-published fantasy fiction. I’m even offering a 20% discount to participants (past and present!) in the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off! Check out this page for details, rates, and testimonials.
Head over to the page for full details. Please feel free to contact me should you wish to see my CV – and please don’t hesitate to spread the word about my new venture!
Ben Galley is an award-winning fantasy author from the UK. He is the author of the epic Emaneska Series, the weird-west Scarlet Star Trilogy and the brand new standalone The Heart of Stone. When he’s not dreaming up lies to tell his readers, Ben works as a self-publishing consultant, helping fellow authors to self-publish and sell their books at www.shelfhelp.info. He joined me recently on Fantasy-Faction to chat about his latest release. Here’s what he had to say!
Thanks for joining us, Ben!
Firstly, congratulations on your latest release. The Heart of Stone has met with praise across the SFF community – including right here on Fantasy-Faction! For those who’re unfamiliar with the book, can you tell us a little bit about it?
Thank you for having me! The Heart of Stone is a new grimdark standalone centred around a non-human protagonist – a golem called Task. He’s an ancient war-machine that has been bought by the losing side of a civil war. As well as being an unstoppable, nine-foot lump of stone, he’s a complex creature who has spent all his 400+ years serving the whims of humans and winning their wars for them. To put it bluntly, he’s pretty fed up of us, and just wants to get on with the ugly business of battle. However, a waif of a stable girl has other ideas for him.
Let’s talk about Task, then. What made you choose a golem to be the hero of your story? (Also, who would win in a three-way fight between Task, Smaug and Wun-Wun the giant?)
First of all, I needed something pretty formidable for the battlefield. A golem seemed to fit that role very well, especially as they rely on brute strength and their composition to break things, rather than magic or spells. They’re also exclusively man-made, which gives them a bond to a creator or a master. That gave Task his leash, so to speak, whereas with demons or dragons or any of the beasts I’ve used before, it’s hard to bind them to us lesser mortals in an entirely convincing way.
The other reasons was due to the intrinsic humanity that’s prevalent through all golem mythology I researched. There is a fragility to a golem that comes not only from their in-built weakness and ownership but from the fact they are always one step away from being human, and yet can never quite take that step. Because of this, there’s an internal struggle within a golem, and that suited Task’s mindset perfectly.
As for the big old fight, of course I’m going to say Task. He’d sit by and let the giant and the dragon go at it until Smaug turned Wun-Wun to cinders. Then, being stone, Task would endure the old drake’s fire until he was all out. At that point, Task would most likely go and snap his pompous little neck.
Ha! Now that reminds me – I’m a huge fan of Shale, the playable golem companion in Dragon Age: Origins’ ‘Stone Prisoner’ expansion. Unlike Task, Shale enjoys crushing things… especially birds, mages and anyone who tries to give it orders. Which fictional depiction(s) of golems had the most influence on creating Task’s personality?
Sadly I’ve yet to play Dragon Age, so Shale wasn’t an influence during the book’s creation, but it’s now firmly on my to-be-played list thanks to you! I actually struggled to find a huge number of golems in fiction, so the characters I looked to instead were Ben Grimm/The Thing from Fantastic Four, and the rockbiter Pyornkrachzark (yeah, I had to look that up) from The Neverending Story. Both these characters struggled with loss – be it their freedom, their strength, or their humanity. Physically, they were what I initially imagined for Task – big, imposing beasts of thick and gnarled stone. However, as I got further into the book, and started working with my cover designer Shawn, I realised Task should look more refined than this, perhaps a little more like Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still remake. And so, the personality of Task stayed, but the outer shell changed to fit with the cover. I’ve never done that before, but the artwork was so good it retroactively inspired me to make those changes.
I remember the buzz surrounding the cover reveal last year; it was incredible, as is Shawn King’s design. How much influence did you have in the cover-creation process, Ben – and how far do you think The Heart of Stone’s cover has impacted its overall success?
Whenever I’m giving advice to fellow authors, I always say that professionalism and quality are paramount. The book cover, almost always being the first port of call for a reader, is arguably the most important aspect of a book. For my first standalone, and for what I believe to be my best work yet, I knew I had to pull out all the stops. Shawn King’s work had already caught my eye, and I knew he would be the perfect artist for the job. He completely understood Task, and he nailed his physical appearance, as I mentioned above. That’s definitely been a huge help in building buzz and getting the book noticed. Everybody that’s seen it has been so impressed with the artwork, and I don’t think as many early readers or reviewers would have said yes without it, despite its concept and protagonist. Here’s hoping the innards of the book are equally as impressive!
It’s clearly very different in style from your earlier work. Speaking of which…
You have two completed series under your belt. What led you to begin work on your debut, The Written? How would you describe the Emaneska Series – and would you recommend it as a starting point for new readers?
The Written was as much a foray into fantasy as it was a career move for me. I’d had the idea of writing a grimmer sort of high fantasy for a few years, and one night, watching BBC’s Merlin, I got so enraged at the pre-watershed nicety of it, I decided to plan out a book. I had the idea of a mage with a spell-book tattooed right into his back, making spells intrinsic but brutal on both the caster and unwitting victim. And so, Farden the Written mage was born that night. His story, and the world I built around him, led me on to write a four book series. It also marked the point when I decided to jump into the publishing industry, and make a grab for my dream of being an author. As well as Farden, that goal was what helped me to churn out those debut books.
Would I recommend it? Absolutely! I’m very proud of the Emaneska Series, but there’s a part of me that can’t help but cringe over it now that my style and skill have progressed. It’s definitely me being too close to my own work, however, so I still frequently recommend it to readers who are interested in dark, epic fantasies that span decades and continents.
Your best-known book is (arguably) Bloodrush. Now, I can’t help but notice that reviews of this novel – and the rest of the Scarlet Star Trilogy – often tend to include the word ‘weird’. How would you describe this series, and who would you recommend it to? (In other words, is ‘weird’ an insult or a compliment?)
Definitely a compliment. I think it comes down to the trilogy straddling a few genres, and so calling it weird is probably easier. First of all, it is described as “weird west”. At the same time, it’s also an alternate history series, set in a twisted 1867. It’s also a little steampunk, and the eponymous magic system is quite… out there. So yes, it is weird, but weird is good in my book (badoom tish).
I’d recommend it to any reader who wants a fantasy series that’s a little closer to the real world, or who enjoy a younger protagonist and a wide range of POVs. It’s also very fast-paced, with lots of intertwined mysteries, and also very magic-centric.
Small wonder it did so well in the inaugural Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off! (As readers may already know, Bloodrush reached second place, missing out on the top spot (which is determined by average score, and went to Michael McClung for The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble’s Braids) by just 0.25.) Ben, how did this affect you at the time? And in what ways has it impacted you since 2015?
For starters, I prefer “vice-winner”, and I shout the name of Michael McClung from the rooftops at least once a week, Kahn-style…
Of course, I jest, and in all seriousness, it was a fantastic opportunity and a pleasure to be ranked so highly. Bloodrush got a huge amount of visibility from it, and fantastic reviews from reviewers that might not have reviewed me without being in the competition. It also boosted the sales of the sequels, and other books too. It’s all about little steps when you’re marketing your own books, but the SPFBO felt like one big step to me, and in a great direction.
Oho, that’s a toughie, as I’m honoured (and occasionally disturbed) to know a good number of the finalists. Currently, I’ve got my eye on Paternus, The Grey Bastards, and The Path of Flames.
You’re not the only one!
If there happens to be a SPFBO3 . . . how likely is it that we’ll Task in there, fighting to claim the top spot with The Heart of Stone? (EDIT 23/5/17: there is! And he is!)
He’s got his sights set on that top spot, as he’s keen to embarrass Merion from Bloodrush. Golems also don’t come second.
Regardless of contests or rankings, I have to say congratulations on living the dream as a full-time, self-published writer. Having managed to make a successful, self-sufficient career from self-publishing, I guess you could say you’re the ‘model’ self-published author. I’m sure you’re tired of people asking this, but… why self-publishing?
Thank you! That means a hell of a lot.
Over the years, I’ve distilled it down into the answer of, “because I bloody love it”. I’ve always been an independent person and somewhat of an entrepreneur, and so self-publishing fits me perfectly. I get to control every part of the polishing process, and then decide how a book’s going to be published. Not only that, I have more flexibility and agility in the meantime. Is it better than the traditional route? No, not better, but not worse, just different. The point is that authors now have the choice, and I will forever be grateful for that.
In addition to being pretty prolific, you also help others find success through your business as a self-publishing consultant. How is it that you manage to put in all this extra work *and* produce quality, full-length novels on such a regular basis? What’s your secret to your success, dammit?
The ultra top-secret secret is basically a 12-16 hour working day, during which I’m flitting between writing, marketing and admin, normally in that order. I always put writing first. If I don’t get my words down for the day, I won’t do any marketing or admin until I have. It also takes a bit of discipline, such as knowing where to spend your time, and making sure you structure your day accordingly. That’s why every morning I ask myself, “what’s the most important thing to me today?”, and then plan around that. That, and being surgically attached to an iPhone and iPad also helps, as I can work anywhere at any time. Before I left work to focus on books, that’s how I got my writing done – either writing on my phone or emailing myself snippets. I actually wrote most of The Written on my mobile when I worked behind bars.
I’m going to go ahead and assume that when you say ‘behind bars’ you’re not talking about the cylindrical iron kind. If you don’t mind me saying, you definitely come across as more of an accomplished geek than a hardened convict . . . Which reminds me: Marc Aplin recently published a (somewhat controversial) article about the importance of social media in which he declared that author ‘branding’ on social media is just as important as (if not more so than) the actual quality of their writing. What are your thoughts?
That’s another tough one, as I believe the whole publishing game, both indie and trad, comes down to how you make the reader feel, page by page. Yes, quality covers, professional editing, marketing and a brand all have a part to play, but the writing is still the core part of success. It doesn’t have to be the most excellent writing (cough, 50 Something, cough) but it simply has to evoke emotion. I’m not saying I’m a fantastic writer whatsoever, but I spend a lot of time crafting my plots, worlds and characters to ensure they do this, then I bundle it all up inside a professional, branded package. Saying that, from a discovery point of view, you’re not going to know a book’s worth without being convinced to have a read. That’s where the brand and social reach come into play, and that’s why I agree with a lot of what Marc wrote.
Our Overlord is wise indeed, and I certainly agree that ‘discovery’ is one of the toughest aspects of self-publishing. That said, would you consider taking a different publishing route in the future? Small-press? Traditional? Owl post?
I make it a rule to always consider anything that adds to the success of my books, or for me as an author. Although I’m a huge proponent of self-publishing, I hold the fantasy imprints and houses in high esteem, and it would be great to work with them at some point in the future. There are aspects of the self-pub route that traditional publishers are just better equipped for. However, it would have to be a good deal, or for a book (or books) that I’ve written with traditional or small press publishing in mind.
Back to your books, then. You’ve made it quite clear that The Heart of Stone is a standalone. However, you’ve also dropped cryptic hints on social media about your current WIP, Chasing Graves. Can you give us a clue as to what sort of story it is? (Also, is there *no* chance at all of seeing more Alabast and Lesky in the future?)
Chasing Graves started life in December as another standalone, as the single-story bug bit me pretty hard after finishing The Heart of Stone. A few months on, and as you might have seen from social, it’s now stretched into another trilogy of books. I can safely say it’s got nothing to do with Heart of Stone. Instead, it’s a new world with strong Egyptian influences, all about a society that revolves around the enslavement of the dead. It’s a concept that’s been rattling around my noggin for a few years now, and I had to get it out.
As for Task, I will be writing a few short stories based in the world, exploring some of his formative years, and I think I may do a few for Alabast and Lesky too, set after the climax of the novel. As for an ETA on those, it will most likely be after Chasing Graves is done and dusted in May/June.
Finally: if you were a golem, what material would you be made from, and why?
The flesh of my fallen enemies. Or perhaps gold. That would be gangster.
It . . . certainly would. Thanks, Ben!
Ben can be found being loquacious and attempting to be witty on Twitter (@BenGalley), Facebook (@BenGalleyAuthor) or at his website www.bengalley.com. The Heart of Stone is available to buy RIGHT NOW.
Mark Lawrence has done it again. And by ‘it’, I mean kicked off another bollock-chillingly thrilling round of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, aka. SPFBO3 (Check out my updated SPFBO page for more details and a brief run-down of what the contest is all about, as well as links to other related articles.)
In the meantime, here’s some banners I cobbled together. Feel free to share, download, use, mock, lick, shit on, etc., however you see fit. And if you’re on Twitter, be sure to check out the #SPFBO hashtag!
(Click on each image for an enlarged version.)
This review originally appeared on Fantasy-Faction on 20 January 2017.
You may recognise this book. You should recognise this book. At least, you should if you’ve been following the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off and/or are part of Fantasy-Faction’s social media circles.
I myself have been desperately enamoured with Benedict Patrick’s debut novel since I first laid eyes on its cover last year. Jenny Zemanek did such a stellar job of its design that They Mostly Come Out at Night came joint-second in the SPFBO2 cover contest (ahead of 297 others!), tying with Timandra Whitecastle’s Touch of Iron and losing out by only two votes to Michael Miller’s The Dragon’s Blade.
To Patrick, it must seem as though he’s cursed to always be the ‘almost’ winner: They Mostly Come out at Night seriously impressed SPFBO judge Sarah Chorn of Bookworm Blues (who called it ‘delightfully weird’ and ‘completely unique’) in the first round, but once again missed out on becoming a finalist by a hair’s breadth. (In case you’re wondering, Sarah’s finalist was Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma by Brian O’Sullivan, which I also reviewed for Fantasy-Faction not too long ago).
But ‘not winning’ is by no means the same as ‘losing’. In an industry where a hundred thousand subjective tastes blend (and clash…) to determine the overall ‘quality’ of a piece of writing, success is not easily quantified. Is success at the Olympics defined only by who took home a gold medal? Of course not. There are all sorts of other considerations: age; level of experience; personal circumstances; even the conditions on the day of the event. Likewise, as patronising as it sounds, there are many, many authors who’ve entered the SPFBO and emerged as ‘winners’ regardless of where – or even if – they placed overall. And Benedict Patrick is one of them.
I’ve said before that self-published novels are judged using different standards to others; that reviewers are much more likely to consider and comment on details such as cover art, copyediting, and even typesetting. Unfair as this seems, it does help the average potential reader to easily distinguish the naff from the good . . . and the good from the great.
Let me assure you that, in all respects, They Mostly Come out at Night is as professional a book as you’ll find in today’s market, regardless of platform or publisher. Layout, design, cover, editing – every technical aspect is stunningly sharp, from the precise detail of the chapter headings to the bold, striking cover art. I’m sure readers will agree that such accomplishment deserves to be not only acknowledged, but spotlighted too.
In fact, while we’re here, can we just take a moment to appreciate the gorgeousness of *that* cover?
Impressive as it is, though, a great cover means very little without a great story to accompany it. Is Benedict Patrick’s sexy-looking debut actually all fur coat and no knickers?
The short answer is ‘hell, no!’ The long answer is that Patrick’s story is as superb as its cover is stunning; that such a fantastic debut deserves nothing less than to be as beautifully presented as this one has been.
At first glance, the conflicts within the story seem ridiculously simplistic; the protagonists, frustratingly obtuse. The author also quite often presents his story in a manner that is far more ‘tell’ than ‘show’, which some will doubtless find fault with. However, discerning readers will soon realise that all of the above are, in fact, very much deliberate. That the narrative is crafted to sound like a bedtime fable is a clear (and fitting) stylistic choice – and a skilfully executed one, too, hidden as it is behind the ‘actual’ fairy tales that appear as interludes between the main PoV chapters.
Dark as they are, these interludes are told in a manner that somehow manages to be wry, and eerie, and endearing – all at the same time. Though some are less sinister than others, these fairy tales have more in common with the Brothers Grimm than Walt Disney. The Magpie King and Artemis the trickster feature heavily in the stories, which are not only cunningly placed but also much more significant than they first appear.
Most importantly, They Mostly Come Out at Night managed to do something that, for me, very few other fantasy books ever have: it incites fear without being ‘scary’. If you were to ask me which other books left a similar impression on me throughout my reading life, I’d easily be able to give you just two: The Painted Man by Peter V. Brett, and Sabriel by Garth Nix. For me, no other author has managed to truly capture that sense of danger in the night; of terror at sunset’s approach, and an atmosphere stained with that deep-rooted and pervasive fear of the dark. Reading Patrick’s tale of monsters and Magpie Kings marked the first time in years that I’ve experienced that primal dread, that familiar foreboding – all without ever feeling as though I’d crossed from the realms of fantasy into horror.
The very first entry in Patrick’s darkly fantastical Yarnsworld universe (which he expands further in his second book: Where the Waters Turn Black), TMCOAN is a standalone novel that wraps up in a surprisingly tidy fashion . . . though anyone seeking a typical fairy-tale ending should look elsewhere. Nonetheless, it’s a satisfying denouement and a strong conclusion to a debut that is as gripping as it is unique. Patrick writes with imagination, skill and confidence, and it’s clear that They Mostly Come out at Night is the beginning of something brilliant.
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.
I 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
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.
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 so
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.)
A fuller rundown of my 2016 antics can be found here. But now…
Now, on to my top 10 reads of 2016! I briefly reviewed my reading year here, but here’s the Official Definitive Top Ten:
These were, according to WordPress, the ten most popular posts of the year:
And the most popular by far:
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…
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!
Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma 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 4th December 2016; updates on the contest’s progress can be found here.
Brian O’Sullivan’s SPFBO offering – Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma – was something of a bumpy ride for me, at least at the beginning. Upon reaching the end of the first major chapter I felt as though nothing had really happened. However, by that point, I did know the entire detailed history of several minor characters… as well as Bodhmhall’s vegetable patch.
I was just 12% in when I first started to jot down notes condemning various aspects of the book. Oddly enough, my complaints echoed the pattern of unevenness which I also found in Larcout: a solid opening, followed by a disappointing shift in tone and location. I felt so strongly about the first chapter following the prologue that I began highlighting passages in the book and making notes in preparation for this review. Looking at these notes now, my early complaints seem to boil down to three main issues.
Firstly, a simple pet peeve: the dreaded Physical Description.
By anybody’s reckoning, she was a striking woman. Tall and slender with a generous mouth and intelligent, brown eyes, her looks had been spared the ravages common to many of her contemporaries: the trials of childbirth and the arduous physical labour required to sustain the community. Daughter of Tréanmór, rí of Uí Baoiscne, Bodhmhall had enjoyed a privileged childhood in the fortress of Dún Baoiscne, something she increasingly appreciated as the years rolled by.
As you can see, the prose itself is highly competent. However, I found myself continually irked by repetitive sentence structures:
Off to her right, on the western ridge, a murder of ravens suddenly took flight, crowing up from the trees in an angry flutter of wings. With a shudder, Bodhmhall forced herself to open her mouth and stuck out her tongue to taste the air. Almost immediately, she withdrew it with an expression of revulsion. […] Absorbed in her contemplation, she barely noticed this fresh disruption. Startled, she turned…
This infuriating repetition is the second issue. The third – and most prominent – is the infodumps. The narrative frequently devolved into history lectures that had me skim-reading many a page and the openings of certain paragraphs left me sighing with impatience:
“Even after all these years…
“Many years later…
“Twenty-five years later…
“Over that time…”
History, geography, economics – the author appears keen to ensure we have a firm grasp of… well, everything. But for me, the most awkward instances of this would occur each time we’re introduced to a new character. For example, Bodhmhall walks past a warrior standing on guard duty. She does not interact with him; nonetheless, we’re treated to a detailed account of his personality and his place within the ráth’s hierarchy.
A tall and pleasant youth, Aodhan had inherited his father’s easy manner but was already …
This continues for almost an entire page. The same thing happens with the character of Cairbre shortly afterwards. It’s clear that Cairbre is some kind of adviser when he comes to speak to her, yet the author insists upon dedicating a page and a half to his not-so-abridged life story.
At the time, I found this method of compartmentalising of characters to be very odd and more than a little jarring; as though Fionn is a wiki, and every time a new character is mentioned the reader is forced to follow the hyperlink and read their character summary before being allowed to proceed. In short: after a promising prologue, I felt completely let down by the first chapter. Unnecessary physical descriptions of the protagonist, repetitive sentence structures, and pervasive infodumps made for a difficult (and frustrating) reading experience.
Thankfully, it soon became clear that most of my complaints were present (or at least noticeable) only in Bodhmhall’s problematic first chapter. My disappointment promptly dissipated once I reached chapter two, and was (more or less) kept at bay for the rest of the book.
I’ve since read Jared’s review of Defence of Ráth Bládhma, in which he talks about the book’s ‘functional’ tone and observes that it continues throughout the entire novel. After careful consideration, I can confidently say that I disagree with this assessment. In my opinion, the ‘functional’ tone and overly-detailed prose are limited to Bodhmhall’s chapters and reflect her character’s worldview as opposed to the author’s style. As the leader, it’s her place to worry about the details; and as a druid, it’s imperative that she possess a wealth of knowledge about her land and people.
That said, it’s only by contrast that we come to appreciate Bodhmhall’s calming narrative voice. The alternating PoVs of Bodhmhall and her lover, Liath Luachra, complement each other perfectly; Liath Luachra’s brusqueness and humour provide a pleasant counterpoint to Bodhmhall’s grave pragmatism. Her grim sarcasm is particularly welcome:
Ah, yes. The Great Wild backs down when I tramp through its forests. Wolves shit themselves and slink into the undergrowth at my passing. Even the Faceless Ones, the ghosts of hazy glades, hide and tell each other fearful tales of the dreaded Liath Luachra who will come through the shadows to take their heads.
You can probably guess that Liath Luachra’s chapters were by far my favourites. Tough, tenacious and unflinchingly truthful, Liath Luachra is an admirably strong female protagonist. Her own inner conflict – between her past and present self, her loyalty to Bodhmhall and her own sense of right and wrong – is as engaging as her woodland exploits, and her fighting scenes are stark and exhausting.
The attack on the ráth itself was, I felt, a little bit anticlimactic, largely due to one or two instances of foreshadowing that never actually came into play. And the supernatural elements –the sinister ‘Tainted One’, Bodhmhall’s gift – played a disappointingly small role. However, besides being a captivating sub-plot and fuel for nightmares, I get the impression that there’s a much larger force at work, and that the Tainted One’s assault on Ráth Bládhma was only the beginning. And besides: Liath Luachra’s pulse-pounding finale more than made up for whatever else may be lacking.
The actual scale of Ráth Bládhma’s story might be modest, but this only serves to magnify the importance of events and the significance of each life lost. Even the battle-hardened Liath Luachra thinks twice before taking on an opponent, even one who is unprepared. Second century Ireland is cold, dirty, brutal and ugly, and its inhabitants’ moment-to-moment fight for survival even more so.
In fact, this sense of realism is one of the things I enjoyed most about both PoVs. Both protagonists have their faults, and each have their weaknesses. Bodhmhall is the spiritual leader of the community at Ráth Bládhma; as such she faces constant doubt and a ceaseless barrage of difficult decisions. Liath Luachra is a skilled warrior, but she’s haunted by dark memories and is far from invincible.
I admire the way O’Sullivan does what he feels is necessary to tell his story. Defence of Ráth Bládhma is not dense or complicated, but nor does it compromise to pander to more casual readers. This includes making the choice to retain aspects of the book that some readers will understandably find fault with.
For instance, the chapters are very long. While this isn’t something that bothers me personally, I understand that for some it can make reading feel like a chore. In O’Sullivan’s case, however, this structural choice suits the story perfectly. By giving the reader plenty of time to fully immerse themselves in each PoV – rather than jumping about from one to the other – the author ensures that the book is built around character relationships as much as external conflict (another aspect on which Jared and I clearly disagreed!).
The chapters may be long, but the book itself is relatively short. Once I’d overcome my initial teething problems with the first chapters I found myself flying through it, eventually realising that even the character infodumps (or ‘wiki entries’, as I referred to them earlier) have a purpose: to keep the focus on the two central characters, both of whom I developed a strong emotional connection to.
I realise that much of this review focuses on the negative. This is because I suspect that in other circumstances I might not have persevered, and am keen to assure anyone encountering similar issues that the book is in fact well worth continuing with. In actuality, I LOVED this story. The first thing I did after finishing it was to head over to the author’s website – on which I discovered a bloody fantastic pronunciation guide (with audio clips!) – and add the rest of his Fionn Mac Cumhaill books to my wishlist.