Last month, I was asked to contribute to Tor.com’s ‘Best of 2017 (So Far)‘ list! Here’s the list; you’ll find my picks a little way down the page.
Contributors were asked to limit our choices to just three. Which would you have chosen?
Last month, I was asked to contribute to Tor.com’s ‘Best of 2017 (So Far)‘ list! Here’s the list; you’ll find my picks a little way down the page.
Contributors were asked to limit our choices to just three. Which would you have chosen?
This review originally appeared on Tor.com on April 7, 2017.
Mark Lawrence’s latest novel, Red Sister, is a dramatic departure from the ‘grimdark’ trilogies for which he’s most widely known. The first in a brand-new series, Red Sister introduces us to a different world and whole new cast of characters. But before we discuss its merits, let’s get the inevitable comparisons with Lawrence’s existing work out of the way…
Without giving too much away, Red Sister weaves together three distinct timelines. The main part of the story follows protagonist Nona’s time at the Sweet Mercy convent, beginning with her arrival at the convent and focusing on her education, her developing relationships with her peers and mentors, and her martial training. Think Harry Potter meets Blood Song, but with an all-female cast. The second thread gradually reveals Nona’s past – from the unspoken incident in her childhood village, to the months spent in a slaver’s cage – and the third thread takes place a few years further on from the first, framing the rest of the story like a much more exciting version of Kote’s narrative in the Kingkiller Chronicles.
Readers familiar with Lawrence’s previous books (The Broken Empire, The Red Queen’s War) will likely either love or hate his use of alternating timelines; either way, Red Sister is a fine example of the trademark Lawrence non-linear narrative. The author wields flashbacks (and flash-forwards) with wicked skill, and I can say without hesitation that Nona’s tale surpasses even King of Thorns in the seamless inclusion of gasp-out-loud plot twists and edge-of-your-seat perspective shifts.
So: Red Sister shares obvious stylistic similarities with The Broken Empire and The Red Queen’s War. But that, my friends, is where the similarities end.
Nobody likes change. At least, not at first. I myself – a keen admirer of Mark Lawrence since 2013 – felt leery about this new world, these new characters. How, I asked myself, could Nona Grey’s tale possibly match up to those of her predecessors? Jorg Ancrath and Jalan Kendeth both leave behind big, bloody shoes to fill, after all.
Yes, fans of Lawrence’s writing will be accustomed to a very specific kind of protagonist: namely, a witty, self-centred young male. And when readers learned that the stars of Red Sister would be almost exclusively female, apprehension fluttered through a sizable portion of Lawrence’s fan base as they asked themselves: what if this decision to write an all-female cast was no more than a middle finger aimed directly at feminist critics of his other books? What if this new protagonist – this “Nona”– turned out to simply be a gender-flipped version of Jorg or Jalan – a pale imitation, rather than a unique individual?
“It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size.
For Sister Thorn of the Sweet Mercy convent Lano Tacsis brought two hundred men.”
I believe most of us were reassured, if not by Red Sister’s first line, then certainly by its second. I for one knew I HAD to read more about this woman – a bloody nun, no less – who is apparently so badass that it requires an entire army just to challenge her.
So who is Sister Thorn? Who is her aggressor, and what’s his beef? What kind of world is this, in which killing nuns is a) acceptable, and b) a military action? Well, to answer these questions would be spoiling it. What I can tell you is that Nona Grey is a compelling, sympathetic protagonist who eventually kicks arse in the most believable yet satisfying ways.
Arse-kicking aside, it’s Nona’s journey that is truly captivating. Lawrence beautifully captures the nuances of Nona’s personality, so that her character unfolds along with her gradually changing perspective – which is no mean feat considering that Red Sister is Lawrence’s first full-length foray into third person. And as she learns more about the world, so too is her narrative laced with a poignant series of brutal observations and uncomfortable truths.
“A man driving a wagonload of children in a cage doesn’t have to state his business. A farmer whose flesh lies sunken around his bones, and whose eyes are the colour of hunger, doesn’t have to explain himself if he walks up to such a man. Hunger lies beneath all of our ugliest transactions.”
Above all, Nona’s perspective is jaded, yet wryly positive. This is a young woman who tries desperately to see the best in people – in her friends, especially – even when the worst is staring her right in the face; a young woman who remains hopeful, despite having been thoroughly kicked around by the frozen world she inhabits.
To begin with, Red Sister is disorienting. Readers old and new are confronted at the start by an entirely new perspective, a whole bunch of unfamiliar characters, and a somewhat confusing double-prologue. Furthermore, this is Lawrence’s first full-length work of spec fic that is not set within the Broken Empire.
The main thing you need to know about Nona’s world is that it’s bloody cold, and bloody brutal. On a planet where every habitable area is gradually succumbing to encroaching ice from both poles, the warring kingdoms are confined to the Corridor: a narrowing strip of land between the ice, where peasants scratch a living from the frozen soil and nuns live in isolated cloisters, guarding their own mysterious and much-coveted sources of heat.
In contrast with the travelogue-style adventures of Jorg and Jalan, much of Nona’s tale takes place within the Sweet Mercy convent. Here, she learns the subtle arts of poisoning, self-defence, and – most importantly – trusting her own instincts. Nona’s band of sisters are also developed in a nicely understated way, and they all play off one another in entertaining ways.
Add to all this Red Sister’s eminent quotability, and you’ll easily see why I had such a whale of a time posting Goodreads updates whilst reading it. Quips and bits of canny wisdom arise far more naturally here than they did from the nihilistic observations of Jorg, or the chuckle-provoking but occasionally forced witticisms of Jalan—yet another way in which Lawrence has evolved as a writer.
“Words are steps along a path: the important thing is to get where you’re going. You can play by all manner of rules, step-on-a-crack-break-your-back, but you’ll get there quicker if you pick the most certain route.”
While the princes of both Thorns and Fools did indeed break all manner of literary rules, you could argue that they took the longest route to get to where they were going—that Jorg’s philosophising and Jalan’s repartee were obstacles in the journey. Red Sister has a much subtler, “grown-up” tone; one which I’ve only ever seen Lawrence exhibit in The Wheel of Osheim (the concluding volume of his most recent completed trilogy). This bodes well indeed for his future work.
“A book is as dangerous as any journey you might take. The person who closes the back cover may not be the same one that opened the front one.”
Sister Kettle’s words are apt indeed. Like I said: nobody likes change. At least, not at first. But in this case, the switch in style, setting and substance from the Broken Empire to the Book of the Ancestor is perhaps the best thing Mark Lawrence has ever done.
Back in 2011, Liz Bourke declared Mark Lawrence’s writing to be problematic in her review of Prince of Thorns, not least because his debut novel was what you might call a “sausage fest.”
Despite these not inaccurate criticisms (which, believe me, Ms. Bourke is far from the only reader to have voiced), I – and many others – have spent the last few years eagerly devouring the regular instalments (one per year!) of fresh, sausage-y goodness.
But for those who remain unenamoured (or unfamiliar) with Lawrence’s work to date, Red Sister is the perfect point at which to become (re)acquainted . . . and this time, there isn’t a sausage in sight.
I suspect it’s going to be impossible for Lawrence to escape the notoriety that’s surrounded him since the release of Prince of Thorns. I’m also fairly certain that he wouldn’t want to; the bloke’s sold more than a million(!) books, after all. (No such thing as bad publicity, and all that.)
But with Red Sister being such a different project, you can understand why Harper Voyager have elected to make it look strikingly dissimilar from his previous books. In order to make Lawrence’s departure from the Broken Empire world abundantly clear, the publishers have switched from using the services of artist Jason Chan (with whom Lawrence has won double at the David Gemmell Legend Awards – twice!!) and instead chosen Heike Schuessler as the series’ new UK cover designer.
So while the US cover retains that gritty yet epic focus on the central character, the UK cover is almost mind-bogglingly different. As you can imagine, the cover reveal has been met mixed reception, with long-time fans expressing disappointment over the drastic change in style.
But as Lawrence himself has pointed out,
“It’s a tricky business. They wanted to signal that this is a whole new offering, not just another instalment of the world and stories begun in The Broken Empire and The Red Queen’s War. They wanted to invite in new readers who were perhaps put off by the piles of corpses &/or forest of blades emblazoning the front of my previous work.”
Whether you love or hate this new look, I’m urging you to read what’s between the covers before you judge. Red Sister contains familiar and much-lauded stylistic features of Lawrence’s writing, while dealing with brand-new characters and themes in an entirely original setting.
Readers who’ve enjoyed Lawrence’s earlier novels will also love Red Sister.
Readers who have never encountered the Broken Empire series should set it aside for the time being and instead dive straight into Red Sister.
And as for readers who disliked either Jorg or Jalan, let me assure you: Nona Grey would kick both their arses, and turn Jorg’s Road Brothers into bacon for her breakfast.
The awesome folk at Tor.com have just published my fifth article over there! A Beginner’s Guide to Malazan Characters: Deadhouse Gates is a follow-up to last year’s guide to Gardens of the Moon.
Once again, there’s a whole bunch of fabulous artwork to accompany it, and I’d encourage you to check out all of these brilliant artists on DeviantArt!
Check it! I reviewed the incredible RED SISTER by Mark Lawrence over on Tor.com.
If you haven’t read the book yet, read it NOW!
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!
This article was originally published by Tor.com on 28th November 2016 as ‘The Faithful and the Fallen: An epic tale of Valour in the face of Malice, Wrath and Ruin‘.
Have you ever found yourself ambling around your local bookstore, mumbling as you search the shelves for something – anything – that will fulfil your need for fictional giants mounted on giant bears?
Search no longer, my darlings! I present to you: The Faithful and the Fallen by British fantasy author John Gwynne.
Beginning with Gemmell Award-winning Malice (Best Debut, 2013), Gwynne’s series is perfect for readers who prefer their fantasy with a touch of grit and darkness (a la the Drenai saga or the Warlord Chronicles) as opposed to the nihilism that the genre is finding particularly fashionable of late. This gorgeously-jacketed quartet – featuring Malice, Valour, Ruin and Wrath – is epic, but not in that sprawling, distant, ‘wait-where-the-hell-am-I-and-who’s-this-character-again?’ sort of way. It’s bloody but not bleak; traditional, but by no means tropey.
Still not convinced? Here’s five more reasons why you might just love it.
I don’t know about you, but I often reflect on the fact that there just aren’t enough ‘wyrms’ (with a ‘y’) in fiction these days. And no, I’m not talking about bog-standard dragons who’ve changed their name by deed poll to make themselves sound more interesting. I mean Proper Wyrms, the kind that show up in Germanic myths without wings or even legs and looking like pants-shittingly gigantic– well, worms.
The Faithful and the Fallen respectfully eschews elements of ‘high’ fantasy in favour of more unusual, folklore-inspired creatures. Dragons, elves, wizards and dwarves are nowhere to be seen; nope, instead, the Banished Lands are populated with giants, draigs, fallen angels and – yes! – wyrms. (And giants. Did I mention the giants? Riding bears?)
Godless, but green: Gwynne’s settings are, in many ways, unapologetically familiar. Appearing at first glance to be little more than another ‘Medieval Europe’, the Banished Lands are infused with nostalgia and a gentle Germanic ambience that enfolds the reader in a pastoral utopia.
But it’s not long before dark, haunting Celtic overtones start to bleed into the Tolkien-esque quaintness. Gwynne’s descriptions are subtly evocative, and carry a rich sense of history – in a similar vein to the works of Miles Cameron or Mary Stewart – which will appeal to folks who’ve visited the greener, untamed parts of Britain.
A significant part of book two, Valour, takes place in a Romanesque setting, while books three and four (Ruin and Wrath) introduce misty marshes and mighty forests; ancient fortresses and windswept mountain peaks. Such vivid variety is a welcome change from the gorgeous, but overly-comfortable starting location.
With its shifting scenery (cinematically comparable to Game of Thrones, Ironclad, Spartacus and Lord of the Rings) and mixed mythological influences (from talking birds to wolf companions to legendary weapons to GIANTS RIDING BEARS) Gwynne’s saga is much greater than the sum of its parts: and is no less than a brilliant blend of Arthurian motifs and Brythonic lore scaled to epic, Norse-like proportions.
The Faithful and the Fallen is a geographically-sweeping epic full of wicked and wonderful beings. Nonetheless, it remains admirably character-centred.
The quartet begins with just a handful of PoVs – including the ‘main’ protagonist, Corban. But as the story expands, so too does its cast. Gwynne’s structuring of these PoVs is especially smart: he introduces, and shifts between, new voices in a way that ups the complexity and creates excitement rather than confusion.
Honestly, I found Malice to be a little slow, and perhaps a little bit laborious: there are times when excessive detail in the child PoVs becomes repetitive. Having read the entire series, however, I now appreciate the first book’s investment in character-building.
While nowhere near the ‘shades of grey’ you’ll find in books by Mark Lawrence or Rebecca Levene, many of Gwynne’s characters – particularly later in the series – show how easy it is to find oneself on the ‘wrong’ side of a conflict, and how ‘evil’ can be a matter of perspective. It’s particularly interesting to watch some of the protagonists develop and change because of careful manipulation by others.
Here are some of the major players in book one:
CORBAN – Just your average blacksmith’s son. Nothing special about him at all. Nope.
CYWEN – Corban’s fiery knife-throwing sister.
SHIELD – Corban’s badass horse.
STORM – Corban’s big-ass wolf.
CAMLIN – Skilled archer and former brigand; fan favourite.
KASTELL – Unwilling heir; gentle giant-hunter (by which I mean he’s a gentle guy who just happens to hunt giants… not a guy who actively hunts gentle giants).
MAQUIN – Kastell’s loyal retainer and BFF. Also, HE – IS – SPARTACUS!
NATHAIR – The Fresh Prince of Balara; a bit of a tit.
VERADIS – Nathair’s first sword and blood brother (4 lyf).
Many of you may roll your eyes at seeing such a male-dominated character list. Rest assured, the gender imbalance is addressed in book two, Valour, with the introduction of more female point-of-view protagonists. And book three, Ruin, is notably populated with strong female characters of all ages, races and stations – as well as one or two non-humans.
Malice (and, to some extent, Valour) carefully builds the web of character relationships that is then brought beautifully to the fore in Ruin. No matter how grand the situation or how large the scale, Gwynne never lets us forget that this entire series is a sprawling net comprised of a thousand little strands of humanity – and it’s this that makes it such an engaging and emotional read.
The characters who survive Malice – several of whom were first introduced to the reader as children – grow and develop in interesting (and unusual) ways throughout the series. Corban’s tale is almost a coming-of-age story; except that the ‘farm-boy-with-a-destiny’ (as seen in The Belgariad, The Inheritance Cycle, The Demon Cycle, etc.) generally becomes omni-talented within an insanely short amount of time, and their eventual success is never really in doubt.
Corban, on the other hand, is entirely fallible. Love and loyalty confuse his decisions, and he makes plenty of mistakes along his entire journey (not just at the beginning). Furthermore, the skills he does possess are a result of growing up within a hard-working warrior culture.
But it would be reductive to label The Faithful and the Fallen as ‘Corban’s story’ when Ruin boasts a cast of no less than fourteen point-of-view characters. Unlike A Song of Ice and Fire, however – where you have eighty-nine protagonists spread over a million miles and whom you can easily forget about for entire books at a time – Gwynne’s are surprisingly story-focused. Many PoVs are part of the same group, so that often a change in PoV doesn’t necessarily signify a change in time, or even in location. This works fantastically for making battle scenes tense and pacy, and just overall keeps the pages turning.
(There’s one extended scene near the beginning of Wrath that utilises this technique perfectly. Short chapters that switch back and forth between two characters left me breathless and desperate to keep reading until the sequence reached its (very satisfying!) resolution.)
I’ve mentioned already that neither Malice nor Valour swept me off my feet. Ruin, however, totally blew me away. By the time you reach book three, you’re invested in the characters and the story, but you’re possibly also wondering if and when the shit is going to hit the fan.
And then you start reading Ruin.
The Banished Lands are at war. No longer charmingly rural, the Celtic settings have become wild and threatening: large parts of Ruin take place in uncharted forests, treacherous marshes and daunting ruins that create a tangible atmosphere of threat and tension. Furthermore, our heroes’ predicament becomes direr with each page you turn; and the author finally gives us a peek inside the minds of some of the series’ most hated characters.
The God-War is not good vs. evil: it’s well-meaning villains and tired refugees; messy skirmishes and small-scale ambushes; confusing conflicts with people on both sides getting lost and making mistakes; losses piling up as constant fighting takes its toll both physically and mentally. The last two books are suffused with a grit and intensity that in the first two books is (for the most part) lacking.
The action comes thick and fast, and it feels as though the reader is right there amongst the combatants: sweating and bleeding and dodging blades and arrows and fists from every quarter. Large-scale battles (which I found distant and impersonal in earlier books) are visceral and immediate, featuring character-driven narratives that make the fighting feel less glorious and more real.
As the books increase in length and complexity, so too do they become more engaging – a testament to the author’s continually improving skills. Each book is stronger than the last, growing in pace, intensity and sheer readability with every chapter.
I don’t just mean that there’s more action (although there is!). The author’s portrayal of certain characters’ motives and emotions becomes much more powerful, granting the reader intriguing insights into nearly every aspect of the overarching conflict. With so many disparate groups of characters to keep track of, each chapter is a keyhole through which we glean hints of what might happen, and through which we gain numerous perspectives on events.
With perspective comes understanding, and readers will no doubt find themselves surprised by their own changing attitudes towards certain characters. Viewing a battle – along with its associated victories, losses and deaths – from different sides of the conflict brings humanity to every character, no matter how despicable they may seem. And with humanity comes sympathy.
Ruin is one of the very few books that has ever managed to bring me to tears (a reaction previously provoked only by Robin Hobb and Steven Erikson) and I confess to feeling physically sick with nerves at several points during both Ruin and Wrath while I waited to see what became of a beloved character.
What’s truly special about Gwynne’s stories, however, is that they can be tragic without being ‘tragedy’. The Faithful and the Fallen embraces the underlying hope that traditionally characterises the fantasy genre, that sense of an ever-present light amongst the darkness; the hope that good will push back against evil, no matter how grim the situation may seem.
Clearly influenced by the likes of David Gemmell and Bernard Cornwell, Gwynne’s prose is as economic as it is brutally beautiful.
If my words have failed to convince you, however, then let’s look at the facts.
Gwynne has released four full-length novels within the last four years. His first quartet is now complete, so you don’t have to worry about cliffhanger endings and decades-long waits! And with a new series (also set in the Banished Lands) slated to begin next year, Gwynne is a solid bet for those who appreciate regular, reliable releases.
Lastly… who wouldn’t want to read books written by this guy? Really? LOOK AT HIM!
Fans of traditional fantasy will fall in love with The Faithful and the Fallen. Readers who like their fantasy more epic than a flame-breathing oliphaunt, however, should be aware that this series is something of a slow-burn. The weight of history and prophecy and the sheer lore of the world creeps up on the reader rather than smacking them in the face; but although the series takes a little while to get going, before you know it you’ll be hooked. And Wrath is a fitting finale to a worthy series: a spectacularly epic and ambitious tale that delivers everything it promises, and more. Trust me when I say it’s worth the wait.
So next time you’re in a bookshop and you hear somebody muttering “giants… where are all the giants?” you’ll be able to step in and give them exactly what they need.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
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!
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!
Gorgeous-looking bunch, aren’t they? I’ve already begun reading Larcout, and I’m also particularly excited about Path of Flames, Assassin’s Charge, Fionn and of course The Grey Bastards.
Not that I don’t have enough to read and review already… like:
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.
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.
You can read my review on Fantasy-Faction. The sequel, The Mirror’s Truth, is due out in December.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
Because I’m clearly a masochist, I’ve also taken on ARCs from a small selection of awesome authors.
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.
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.
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‘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.
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!
I’ll be honest: I fell flat on my face the first time I tried to read Gardens of the Moon. Gods, assassins, soldiers, mages, immortals – you name it, Erikson’s debut is rife with it. The sheer amount of new characters leaves many readers thumbing through the earlier chapters again and again, muttering all the while about maybe having missed something.
But fear not, new readers! Your friendly Malazan holiday rep is here to save you from this fate. Just sit back, relax and enjoy this handy guide to Erikson’s inimitable characters and the tangled web of factions that connects them.
The Malazan Empire assimilates each culture it conquers. Most of the books tend to concentrate mainly on its military – but before we begin, here’s a brief overview of those at the very top of the food chain.
Formerly known as Surly. Once a bog-standard barmaid . . . until the night she assassinated the previous Emperor, Kellanved, along with others belonging to the Emperor’s ‘Old Guard’—including his chief adviser, Dancer.
Unhealthily obsessed with the colour green. Commands a faction of elite assassins known as the Claw who, loyal to Empress Laseen, played an important role in her bloody coup.
If the Clawmaster is Laseen’s hidden left hand, the Adjunct is undoubtedly his counterpart. Adjunct Lorn is the public face, voice, and sword arm of the Empress, and is fiercely loyal to Laseen (like, Brienne of Tarth-scale loyalty). Lorn wears the Adjunct’s traditional rust-coloured, magic-deadening sword, so there’s no danger of not being recognised (and feared) wherever she goes. But beneath the chip on her shoulder and the trappings of authority, she’s just a woman doing her job.
So that’s the capital. But Gardens of the Moon takes place in the field, so here’s a quick rundown of the imperial army’s key players:
The Malazan army is a motley conglomeration of races, cultures, genders and skillsets. From crossbow-wielding marines and heavyweight frontline fighters to ex-assassins and necromancers, its soldiers are both the heart and the backbone of this series.
Commander (‘High Fist’) of the Malazan campaign on Genabackis (aka. the continent where GotM takes place). Has one arm.
Soldier, optimist and son of . . . Toc the Elder! (Bet you didn’t see that one coming.) Desperately needs someone to buy him a t-shirt that reads ‘Wrong place, wrong time.’ Has one eye.
High Mage (aka, top dog). Aloof, enigmatic and uber-powerful. Bit of a worm, though . . .
Big heart, big magic, big body. Not so much a cougar as a cradle-snatcher…but we all have our flaws.
Remember the “Old Guard” I mentioned above? The ones Empress Laseen is no longer a fan of? Well, most of these guys—now fighting in Onearm’s Host—were as good as part of it. We first meet the Bridgeburners in the aftermath of a sorcery enfilade outside the city of Pale, during which most of their company were “accidentally” decimated by their own side.
Wet-behind-the-ears nobleborn with a habit of inadvertently paving the road to hell. Reluctant buddy of Adjunct Lorn. Recently handed a commission as Captain of the Bridgeburners. Veterans one and all, the Bridgeburners don’t take kindly to highborn officers: Paran is the latest in a long line of Captains, and the grunts are busy planning his “welcome” before he’s even arrived. Poor guy.
Whiskeyjack is The Man: a tough-but-fair, salt-of-the-earth-type soldier. The most well-known Bridgeburner Sergeant, Whiskeyjack also happens to be Dujek Onearm’s BFF and leads his own eclectic squad of Bridgeburner soldiers. Including . . .
MMGA (Makes Mages Great Again). Seriously, even if you despise mages you’ll hit it off with Quick Ben: he’s smart-mouthed, highly strung, and perhaps one of the cleverest characters in the whole damn series. Goes to extreme lengths to lurk beneath the high-command radar and appear less powerful than he really is. Certified badass.
Also a certified badass. Huge and muscled, ex-Claw Kalam seems an unlikely assassin, though it’s true he can probably crush your skull with his bare hands. But he’s light on his feet and quick with his knives . . . and always has Quick Ben watching his back.
Sapper. Loves playing with munitions more than he loves life itself. Slightly deranged. Invents card games using the Deck of Dragons (aka Tarot cards that most people are afraid to even share a room with).
Hedge’s best friend. Also a sapper/explosives expert/crazy card-game swindler. Surprisingly prescient. Carries a fiddle.
You’ll come across a nameless dark-haired fishergirl in one of the earliest chapters. Keep your eye on her, because it isn’t long before she reappears as a creepy-ass recruit named Sorry. There’s something odd about her, alright…and her presence makes even her grizzled tough-as-old-boots squadmates nervous.
As of the opening of GotM, the city of Pale has fallen to the Malazans. This leaves Darujhistan as the last remaining free city on Genabackis . . . and the location of the story’s big climax.
Darujhistan’s social and political factions are many and varied, but can be loosely divided into four influential groups:
Nasty bastards. Ostensibly the rulers of Darujhistan, their political strategies consist mainly of bitching, backstabbing, and brown-nosing. Of all the fancy-arsed nobles’ names flung around here the only ones you need to pay attention to are Turban Orr, Lady Simtal and the D’Arle family (and of course, Challice. Who the f*ck is Challice?!)
Magic bastards. The real power within the city, these shadowy figures are more interested in peace than politics. Led by High Alchemist Baruk, their ranks also include an absent-minded old scholar…and his familiar, a flying monkey known as Moby.
A small but passionate community of banjo-playing dwarves.
No, not really.
A shifty bunch of thieves, cutthroats, beggars, scroungers and miscreants. Naturally, these are the guys we spend most of our time in Darujhistan with, so here’s a quick overview of some of the standouts:
Beneficent Kruppe refers to himself in the third person. But Kruppe’s new (and cheerfully unaware) friends should not let Kruppe’s cherubic appearance and rambling demeanour deceive them: oh, no! For affable Kruppe is a master of sleight of hand; and Kruppe assures dear readers that he is, indeed, far more cunning than they might think.
Thief, but by choice rather than necessity. Astoundingly naïve. (Like, seriously. The dude is oblivious. Adorable, yes. But also facepalm-provokingly oblivious. Consider yourselves warned!)
Assassin. Member of the Guild of Assassins. Hates it when other assassins rely on magic instead of assassin-y skills. Enjoys assassinations and long walks up haunted towers (to lie in wait before assassinating someone).
Fop. Dandy. Handsome layabout who offers his “services” as an escort to rich women. Also in cahoots with Assassin-y McAssassinface Rallick Nom in a super-secret plan involving their drunken mate, Coll.
Oh, and lastly: be sure to keep an eye out for the mysterious “Eel”. Slippery fellow, that one.
So there you have the Daru. But what about their allies? And what if the Malazans aren’t their only enemies?
Finally, let’s meet a few of the free agents. These fantastical figures are some of the most powerful – and unpredictable! – players in Erikson’s long game.
Rake is literally the Son of Darkness. As in, his mum is Mother Dark. This makes him sort of a cross between Ozzy Osbourne and Jesus: ageless, intelligent, and powerful beyond all measure, Rake is the brooding-but-badass leader of the Tiste Andii race.
FYI: You know how the elves in Lord of the Rings are tall and majestic and distant and cold and also just a little bit depressing? Picture them with midnight skin and moon-white hair. Now imagine that some of them are also capable of shapeshifting into dragons, while others wield primeval magic and weapons with impossible skill. And then – just for kicks – place them all on a colossal flying mountain and name it “Moon’s Spawn”.
Are you picturing it? Good. That’s the Tiste Andii.
A.k.a. the big bastard with the hammer. (No, not Thor. Different dude; different hammer.)
Caladan Brood doesn’t get all that much page time. Nonetheless, he’s a huge presence throughout the…which, let’s face it, isn’t all that surprising when you take into account the fact that he’s a not-quite-human warlord carrying the only weapon capable of waking the Sleeping Goddess, Burn. Did I mention he’s been carrying that bad boy around for more than a thousand years?
FYI: Before the events of GotM, Brood and his BFF Rake started a kind of heavy-metal supergroup: Brood’s tribal armies and Rake’s Tiste Andii got together and swore to defend the Free Cities (like Pale and Darujhistan) against the Malazan Empire. They also recruited the legendary Crimson Guard mercenaries, along with other slightly more unsavoury allies. Such as . . .
The third wheel in the Brood/Rake (Brake?) bromance. This grouchy old git is the naysayer of the group…and yet strangely impressive. Ancient, bitter and universally hated, yes. But Kallor is also no slouch with the enormous sword he carries, and despite his age he’s more cunning than a fox who’s just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford. Too bad allies and foes alike mock his self-styled title; and too bad that, despite lugging his decrepit throne along with him everywhere he goes, in actuality he is—in the words of renowned bard H’etfield James– “King Nothing.”
Speaking of lost glory and immortality . . .
The first T’lan Imass (undead cavemen tenuously allied with the Malazans) we meet, Onos T’oolan is without doubt the most skilled swordsman among the thousands-strong ranks of walking dead. Don’t get the wrong impression, though, because shambling zombies the Imass ain’t.
Fun fact: a friend of mine once told me he imagines the T’lan Imass to look like Iron Maiden’s skeletal mascot, Eddie. To this day I can’t decide if that makes them more or less terrifying. Either way, Tool is metal AF.
I could happily ramble on forever about ALL THE CHARACTERS in Gardens of the Moon, as well as the factions they represent and the profound motifs they introduce—epic motifs like power attracts power; war destroys the things you love; progress vs stagnation; and mega-shark vs giant octopus…
For now, though, I hope I’ve managed to give new readers a glimpse of what (for me) makes this book so special. Erikson’s tale is essentially about the nature of humanity, and he adopts a more intimate approach to character-building than any other epic fantasy author I’ve encountered. He delights in showing us that the gods are fallible just as much as he revels in portraying the quiet heroism of lowly soldiers. He creates characters who are physically alien or barbaric, but in whom we can nonetheless recognise something of ourselves; and he puts each and every one of his little guys through the wringer. Not because he’s cruel—though some would say that’s a matter for debate!—but because he knows full well that the surest way to evoke a visceral response from readers is to simply give us characters that we care about and relate to.
Credit for all artwork featured in this article goes to digital artist Chisomo Phiri. Check out his full portfolio on DeviantArt!
This article appeared in its original form on Tor.com. You can read it here.
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.
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. 😉
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.
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!
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 . . .