Wednesday 30 November 2016

REVIEW: Promise of Blood

This book took me a while to read - so you might take that to mean it's easily put down. Actually it wasn't really, the main trouble for me was that when I did put it down the bugger vanished. EVERY. TIME. I've never had a book that's such an escape artist. I half-thought the cover might have an adaptive camouflage mode...


When I did get to hold onto it for any period I found the book highly readable.

The characters and description are good. MClellan's real forte though is in building tension and intrigue, slowly raising the tempo while wrapping the various threads around each other in satisfying ways. The man's a story-teller.

I've read some excellent books of late, including Blood Song, Fool's Assassin, and The Name of the Wind. Promise of Blood held it's head up among that lot and wasn't overshadowed.

My only quibbles.

i) (trivial) One of the countries mentioned several times was called Fatrasta. And for some reason every time someone mentioned Fatrasta my mind filled with images of over-weight Rastafarians ... couldn't say why.

ii) The magic. I understand many readers love highly structured 'magic systems'. Brandon Sanderson (who I've not yet read) is famed for them. I wouldn't say Promise of Blood had a highly structured magic system, excepting that the different disciplines were clearly distinct - certainly we're not talking Dungeons & Dragons rulebook magic here. And I'm very glad of it. HOWEVER, for me the magic felt ... how can I put it ... fake? arbitrary? ... The thing to do is swallow it whole (which I managed) and enjoy the book (which I really did). But every once in a while the whole Privileged thing with special gloves and each finger linked to a different element just made me wince and want to say 'really?' ... and the powder mages with all their weird bullet magic linked to snorting gunpowder ... again ... why? what? And if gunpowder gives you magic powers to deflect bullets in flight etc... can't those telekinetic abilities be applied to objects that ... are NOT bullets?

Before I'm dragged to the guillotine ... note the FIVE STARS and the fact that these are QUIBBLES. I _really_ liked this book. Brian McClellan is a fine writer. I recommend you read his debut.

Finally - it was cool that Brian got his own love of cooking into the book in a big way. It was a refreshing and original idea.

You can go and 'like' my review on goodreads, if you like.

Monday 28 November 2016

SPFBO - runner up interviews, part 2

Coming 4th is generally held to be pretty hard if you're in the Olympics, but in the Self Published Fantasy Blog Off there are no medals for second place in the heats. 

As a small consolation I've invited the authors of the 2nd placed books (where the bloggers were ready to name such a book) to take part in an 'exit' interview, modelling it on these interviews I did with self published authors back in 2012.

Here's more from those who responded!

1. Score out of ten the following reason you write (10 = nail on head, 1 = no part of me has ever even thought this). You may qualify your numerical response with a tweet length text addition if you so desire.

-I hope to become rich

[Greg] 3. My high school drama teacher once told his aspiring actors "if you can do anything else and be happy, do that instead." I'd love to be able to support myself writing, but I'll keep doing it even if I never make money.

[Michael] 4 - If money was the only driver I’d be chasing something else.

-I would not be happy knowing only a couple of people ever read my stories

[Greg] 7 - Knowing that my stories entertain my readers, however many there are, is important. That being said, knowing my stories entertain a LOT of readers would be even better.

[Michael] 10 - That would mean either one of my parents or my sister didn’t even bother to read it. That’s just plain sad!

-To stay sane

[Greg] 8 - The stories come whether I will them to or not, and as I have an overactive imagination, writing them down is healthier than letting them stew in my head. I can get pretty cranky if I've gone too long without writing.

[Michael] 8 - I definitely feel anxious when I’ve not written in a few days. There is a workaholic element to it.

-To have people tell me how well I do it and how wonderful I am

[Greg] 7- As long as those praising me are being honest, I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy it.

[Michael] 7 - Reflecting on how I react to positive praise (Singing in the Rain style dance around the flat) vs soul crushing critique (moping), sums it up.

-To prove wrong somebody/bodies who said I wouldn't succeed

[Greg] 3 - I've had a lot of great support as I've pursued a writing career. My biggest critic is inevitably myself.

[Michael] 2 - There’s always going to be a lot of ‘sucking air in through teeth’ from people. If I took that to heart I’d have been scared off long ago.

2. You've opted to self-publish. Did you ever try to have a publisher do it for you? Are you still trying? How much success are you finding?

[Greg] I've got short stories published in a couple of anthologies and e-zines. I've tried the traditional route for novels as well, and continue to submit a few other manuscripts outside this series.  My writing time is limited enough that the timelines of traditional publishing are tough to manage. Of course, self-publishing brings different challenges and is a humbling experience. I'm still learning my way on the marketing side of things, which is one of the reasons I entered SPFBO in the first place!

[Michael] I didn’t submit Dragon’s Blade but I do intend to try traditional when I have something fresh to offer. Weighing success has to be a relative thing and it’s so hard to gauge, even more so in self-publishing. Book 1 is in profit so I see that as good sign going forwards.

3. How much hard work is self publishing? What fraction or multiple of the time you spend writing do you spend on the business of self publishing and self promotion? 

[Greg] Lots! You have maximum freedom, but all the responsibility (and every decision) is on you. I'm fortunate to have an editor, cover artist, and book designer that I have complete trust in, and that helps. I spend too little time on self promotion, partly because I have a natural aversion to it, but also because I quickly learned that you could spend essentially infinite time self promoting with poor return on investment. Right now I'm focusing on increasing my catalog of works while reacting to targets of opportunity as they come along.

[Michael] I actually used an indie press to help me. Some call this ‘assisted self-publishing’. It meant paying a premium but led to less stress for me and professional help every step of the way. Honestly my time has probably been split 50/50 over this last year. I’m remaining hopeful that percentage will shift in favour of writing as time goes by.

4. Write one short paragraph to convince readers your book's the self-published work they should experiment with _or_ supply three paragraphs from your book to do the talking for you. Which do you choose?

[Greg] In an attempt to turn a previous weakness (setting) into a strength, I wrote a book where the gods are imprisoned in the world's hollow center, and the metal mined to make that prison can be combined with human souls harvested from Heaven and Hell to forge magical tools that drive the economy. Humankind slew the city-sized beasts the gods created to destroy civilization and now the beasts' corpses serve as cities in turn. People live in the bones of a viper draped across a mountain pass, or the mile-high skull of a crocodile, or the husk of a tarantula whose horse-sized offspring punish any violent act carried out in the body of their mother. My heroine, Ses Lucani, is an apprentice jailer of the gods and the teenage daughter of bitter enemies. Her parents, a powerful business magnate and a terrorist, refuse to acknowledge she even exists until someone tries to break the gods free of their prison on her sixteenth birthday.

[Michael] Slightly cheating with one small extra line but here you go…

“They feel heavy,” said Darnuir. “Heavier than any stones their size should be.” His head began to pound again, more acutely and painfully than ever. He winced. “What magic is this?”
“It is not magic but memory,” Blaine said.
“I was not aware that memories had a weight,” Darnuir said.
“Oh but Darnuir, memory is the heaviest of all things,” Blaine began solemnly. “Even the strongest shoulders will be hunched by it in time. Nothing weighs upon us more, nor for longer, than memory.”

5. The first great book, poem, and album that pop into your head?

[Greg] Blindsight, by Peter Watts. "The Raven" by Poe. American Idiot by Green Day.

[Benedict] Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, On First Looking into Chapman's Homer by John Keats, Hopes and Fears by Keane.

6. What has been the most effective mechanism (which is open to others) in getting readers? (we can omit the SPFBO)

[Greg] At the risk of this sounding like a cop-out, it's going to differ for everyone. Simple networking and word-of-mouth has worked best for me. Find people you know who are passionate about books and, if they like your work, get them talking. I'm also fortunate to have a large network of fellow writer friends from the Superstars Writing Seminar (a seminar about the business aspects of writing, both traditional and indie, that I recommend wholeheartedly). They graciously provide all forms of support, including that of a signal boost when you publish something.

[Michael] Getting a Bookbub feature deal was a stroke of luck and the most effective in terms of volume, but it’s not a steady way to bring in readers. Bloggers and booktubers have been great to me in the main. To that end I say hone your pitch/blurb to perfection and make sure your cover is of the highest quality.

7. Any last thoughts? 

[Greg] This has been such a great experience. I'm honored to have made it this far, and I'd just like to thank you again, Mark, for the contest and the opportunity of this interview. I'd also like to thank Lynn of Lynn's Books for giving so much of her time and energy to SPFBO. It's days like this that keep me going past the frustrations and disappointments. To potential readers out there: take a chance with an unknown author (doesn't have to be me!). If there's one thing I've learned, it's that being unknown has zero correlation to the quality of the work. If you like what you find and you have friends and family with similar taste, think how easy your holiday shopping just became!

[Michael] There is no denying self-publishing is difficult but breaking into the traditional system is no picnic either. So do what’s best for you and your goals for that book. For me, it’s not even been a full year since release yet. Twelve months ago I’d never have imagined being interviewed on Mark Lawrence’s blog. So you never know what might happen. If you write, go to conventions if you can. Connect not just with readers but other writers too. If you’re unable to meet people in person then do so online (Fantasy Faction, reddit etc.). Be genuine and be generous to others. You’ll feel better knowing you’re not alone and good things will come in time. 

Wednesday 16 November 2016

REVIEW: The Daylight War


There are almost no authors I wait on. George Martin is one, Peter Brett another. I'm hooked on these books. They're the fun, exciting, imaginative fantasy I used to love way back in the 80s, but written for the new millennium with all the additional sharpness and insights that entails.

Brett combines a wonderful idea - the particular combination of 'bad guys' and magic that drives the series - with great characterisation across a broad cast.

To deliver literary punches, to write scenes where we care who lives and who dies, takes time. Time to wind up for the blow. Time to put lives behind those name-tags, time to make the solutions to problems meaningful rather than arbitrary. Fortunately it's time well spent. I found the Inervera back-story absorbing both in its own right and for the second perspective it offered on events in Desert Spear. I am not a person who believes there's a 'now' in storyland and that unless we're moving the plot forward in the 'now' then nothing is happening. If the story of Inervera's initiation into the disciplines of her craft is well told (and it was) that's as interesting to me as the 'now' at Cutters' Hollow and the coming attacks. I don't see one as more valid and important as the other.

It is true that the timeline doesn't advance a great many days past the point reached in Desert Spear. However an enormous amount is learned in that space of days, a hell of a lot of stuff blows up, ichor and blood splatter the page, and a good time is had by all... kinda. Well, by this reader at the very least.

Insert: Having had a chance to see reaction to this book over the past 6 months I have this to add. I've seen quite a few negative reactions to The Daylight War on forums/blogs. This seems to be part of how stuff works. By the time a series is getting established it's often only the people who are upset by the turn of events who bother to register their opinions. I could say the same about George Martin's A Dance With Dragons for example - but both The Daylight War and A Dance With Dragons have thousands of ratings on Goodreads and average scores of 4.23 and 4.29 respectively... so it seems that the bulk of readers are enjoying them a lot and not saying much!

For me these were three quite different books, and that can always cause problems in terms of reader expectations.

The Warded Man: A book of discovery - new world, new enemies, new magic, new characters.

The Desert Spear: Exploring a new point of view and setting up the human vs human conflict.

The Daylight War: Really focused on the characters. One might call it soap opera - but that's not a bad thing if it means putting characters we love through their paces - exploring the relationships, putting them under stress and seeing what happened. 

So, yes, The Daylight War delivered like a... deliverer. I got my new information, I got my development of the demon world and the daylight world. I got my fix of the main cast and a collection of new faces. I got my mass battles, touching moments, tension, fun... I'm a happy camper. Just need the next book now.

You can go and 'like' my review on goodreads, if you like.

Sunday 13 November 2016

In a bold move...

This follows on from a forum discussion about my upcoming book Red Sister.

Someone picked up on a line in the publisher's release about the book deal (not a line I wrote).

In a bold move, RED SISTER features Mark’s first ever female protagonist, Nona; a girl with a mysterious past and a dangerous future. 

What, they asked, was bold about having a female protagonist?

Well ... from my perspective, nothing. Perhaps if I thought that the readership I've built across my first six books on the back of two male protagonists lacked the ... flexibility ... to try a book with a female protagonist then it might be considered bold to abandon them and try to build a new readership. But I don't believe that's true.

However, the thread did set me to thinking, and I pointed out that the "bold" probably didn't refer to a fantasy book that simply had a female point-of-view character (of which I can immediately name dozens) but a fantasy book with only one point-of-view character, and that character was female. At which point I struggled to think of one.

So, hit me. A non-YA fantasy book with a single point-of-view character, who is female. To make it harder, let's rule out urban fantasy and paranormal romance. Focus on epic fantasy and its closest cousins.

I'm sure there must be many and the "bold" is still a strange choice of words. But I don't recall reading one. Expand my horizons. More points for a famous example.

Here's a list. Let me know if there are errors. It's easy to forget a PoV

Kushiel's Dart, by Jacqueline Carey
Paladin of Souls, by Lois McMaster Bujold
Spiritwalker trilogy, by Kate Elliott
A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin
Ash, by Mary Gentle
Son of Avonar, by Carol Berg
(many more suggested in comments below so, yeah, not that bold!).

I am finding many of the suggestions are people remembering that the MAIN protagonist was female but on closer inspection it turns out that there were male PoV characters in the book...

EDIT: In other news, this blog post has been accused of coming across as a male saviour and acting as if I'm doing something new and fresh with a female PoV and also rubbing people the wrong way in the tweet linking it ... by quoting "in a bold move" from the line I take to task.

Based on the actual content of the post I find myself astonished. It was my intention to bring attention to books from an entirely female PoV in the area in which I write. I thought this would be a good thing to do. If it has offended people I can only apologize, while at the same time struggling to understand how.

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Friday 11 November 2016

Genres are stupid.

It's official. I can't write click-bait pieces. Something in me compels moderating sentences even at this crucial opening stage where the reader is hoping for a rant...

Of course labels are useful to a certain degree. But, like democracy, they are also broken to a certain degree. There's no perfect system and here I poke at the imperfections.

I use labels. I have a soft spot for zombie movies to enjoy with beer and peanuts to hand. And so I have on occasion Googled "best zombie movies" and checked to see if I missed one.

But the flip side of this approach is that it often walls us away from something great based on a one word label that wholly fails to capture the brilliance of the thing we're denying ourselves because of a trivial categorization.

And I see it taken to such extremes...

(click for detail)

When someone asks for very specific elements in a book, and I have seen requests like "should include centaurs and detailed accounts of sword-making", they appear almost to be taking the quality of the book as irrelevant. Give me a book that justifies this label. Not give me a good book.

Similarly when they use a broad label to rule out an ocean of novels it seems equally strange. Some readers may say, for example, "I don't want to read any steampunk" or "If there's an airship in it, count me out," And I boggle. It's the fault of the label ... of the idea of a label ... that these ten thousand hugely varied things can be tied together with one word and that one word can then allow them to be safely discounted from your consideration. Maybe you once read a book that sat under Label A and didn't like it. Maybe you read three. And now all books under Label A are tarred by association. You walk right past that shelf.

Consider it again. Literally, if there is an airship in it ... I'm out. The presence of a mode of transportation seals the deal. Forget how compelling the story is, how vital the characters, how powerful the prose. How you might need to put the book down and breathe away the excess emotion. Nope, it has hot air in a bag. I'm out...

Free choice is exactly that, free, and everyone is totally entitled to make it based on arbitrary considerations, prejudice, or the shake of a magic 8-ball if they so desire. I'm just encouraging a step back from the ontological brink,

Labels are too small for novels. A good book, whatever its page count, is a vast, sprawling thing, a work of intellect, poetry, insight, fun, enthusiasm, loves, tragedy, questions and more questions. Anyone, for example, who sidesteps the excellent Senlin Ascends because it contains an airship or can be stamped with the label STEAMPUNK, is missing out on a brilliant, literary journey.

And from my own personal corner. Anyone who avoids my work simply because someone else has stamped it GRIMDARK and they now expect some shallow tale of nihilism and violence, is likewise discounting something that may prove very different to their expectations.

When we label books it's rather like trying affixing a postage stamp to a container ship and considering you've covered it.

When I write I make no effort to colour between the lines. I wander from fantasy to sci-fi to horror. I may even stray into romance. And when you can't even keep within one of the very top level labels it seems strange to tow around a label from the sub-divisions of just one of those.

OK, you got me. Genres aren't stupid ... but it helps to think past them sometimes.

Friday 4 November 2016

REVIEW: The Colour of Magic

RIP, Sir Terry.


So - to the review!

I hadn't reviewed this because I read it so long ago that all I could remember was that I loved it.

To remedy the situation I took our very old and battered copy (bought in 1987) to the hospice on a weekend stay with Celyn:

I've just read this in slightly over 24 hours ... which is extraordinary for me. I normally take a month to read a book. 

It is, to be fair, both a very readable and a very short book (65,000 words - a short fantasy these days is ~100,000 words).

I was surprised to find how much of this I remembered, especially as I last read it 28 years ago!

It's a very funny book with some GREAT one-liners. I particularly liked one that said about men falling foul of the thieves' guild (I paraphrase) '... men who wouldn't be going home again ... unless they happened to live near the river and their corpses floated by on the way to the sea."

And this from the character Twoflower was poignant:

"When I think that I might die without seeing a hundredth of all there is to see it makes me feel," he paused, then added, "well, humble, I suppose. And very angry, of course." 

Anyway - incompetent and cowardly failed wizard Rincewind falls in with Twoflower, the naive tourist with an impossibly optimistic attitude, oodles of gold, and an indestructible, vicious and implacable treasure chest on legs to defend him.

Hilarity ensues as Twoflower tries to see everything, Rincewind tries not to die, and the gods play games with them. We get a great tour of the Discworld, its geography, magics, and inhabitants, all of which are so fantastically imaginative and amusing that even geography becomes a joy.

This isn't Terry Pratchett's best book but it's full of all the great stuff that gathers together into its peak a few books into the series. It's certainly an excellent book though. Pratchett has an incredibly rare talent for compressing humour into one-liners that are witty, incisive, and yet never feel mean - it's not jokes that you feel are directed _at_ anyone, just mined from the stuff of life.

I had a great time revisiting this book and if you've not tried it - now's the time!

You can go and 'like' my review on goodreads, if you like.