Monday, 30 January 2012

Review: 'Wintertide' by Michael J Sullivan

So finally I get to read this as part of the new world order, the six book series republished as a standard-issue trilogy. This and the final part, 'Percepliquis', comprise 'Heir of Novron' (after 'Theft of Swords' and 'Rise of Empire'). However, I'm going to review them separately, partly for completeness, to match the rest of my reviews, but mainly because I want to display the original covers. I much prefer the author's own artwork to the publisher's generic fantasy images (the cover for 'Avempartha' is quite the most beautiful I've ever seen).

This book suffers a little from being the fifth in the series. That makes for a lot of backstory to be explained, some of which is (inevitably) something of an info-dump, and everything has to be positioned for the final book. On the plus side, for the first time in the series, I get a sense of genuine depth - in relationships, and in situations. Gwen and Royce's love feels totally real, and Hadrian's dilemma with regard to Sir Breckton is particularly poignant, mirrored by Royce's situation later. I liked the idea that Saldur is doing all this to restore civilisation and get the roads fixed up (much better than a bad guy who is simply evil). And the ending is stunning. Not at all sure where this is going, but it doesn't look good.

The plot - well, it's the usual flimsy stuff, but it really doesn't matter. The author really knows how to pile on the pressure so that the pages just keep turning - that 'just one more chapter' syndrome. There are no exotic settings this time, which is a shame. Instead we get the tired old castle-with-dungeons backdrop, and the feasts and knightly tournaments, but although it's pretty silly it just about works. That's more than can be said for the characters, however. The nobility turn out to be just as one-dimensional as the peasants, sailors, thieves and all the other walk-on characters in previous books. And in all honesty, I have to say that romance is not the author's strongest suit. Apart from Gwen and Royce, who have had five books to develop a convincing relationship, the romantic pairings here are well short of being believable.

Rereading the previous four books while awaiting this one has highlighted for me the weakness of the female characters. Arista has veered from whiny aristocrat to unconvincing wizard to half-hearted rebel leader, while spending most of her time imprisoned or otherwise acting as motivation for men with swords to rescue her. Amilia may be the accidental saviour of the empress, but she mostly spends her time being bossed around by men while bemoaning her unworthiness, and falling for the first man who speaks kindly to her. Thrace/Modina had moments of self-reliance in 'Avempartha', although interspersed with running around screaming 'Daddy, Daddy!", since when she has been imprisoned and not entirely sane. Gwen was promising, having been a successful businesswoman and, when faced with the burning of her home town, managing to decamp to safety with all her employees and her furniture too, an impressive feat. But no, turns out she is only motivation for a man after all (with a side-order of plot device, being a seer). Shame. But I don't want to be churlish about this aspect of the books, because, after all, it's no more than many other authors do. There is still one more book to go, and therefore one more opportunity for some of the female characters to be more than passive to-be-rescued motivation or love interest for male characters.

Basically, I thoroughly enjoyed this. For all its shortcomings, it's a solid, entertaining, pacy read, with some moments of real pathos and a certain depth to some of the situations, while never getting too heavy. In places it felt a bit rushed, but that's better than being too slow. The comradeship between Royce and Hadrian is, as ever, the bedrock of the series, and I love the way they get each other out of trouble, no matter what. The dramatic about-turn at the eleventh hour was a bit of a stretch, but then did anyone really believe all the main characters were going to die? I don't think so. And a starring role for Esrahaddon's cloak? Brilliant! A solid four stars. And so on to 'Percepliquis'...

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Review: 'Emerald Storm' by Michael J Sullivan (reread)

Not a lot to add to my original review. There were a lot of new characters added in this book, some we met briefly in previous books, and some entirely new, and occasionally I got confused. The Tenkin, Staul, is particularly poorly introduced, seemingly dropped in from nowhere as if we should know who's being talked about, but if he was mentioned earlier it was very oblique.

The three women, Arista, Thrace/Modina and Amilia, continue their painfully slow rise to competence, although they still needed rescuing at regular intervals. Arista, in particular, is a puzzle. Despite Esrahaddon declaring in the previous book that she is potentially the most powerful person in the world, and other characters talking about her intelligence, she displays a breathtaking level of idiotic decision-making. A bloke with a sword saves her from one horrible fate, but instead of learning from that, she ends up even worse off. Silly woman. Amilia gets temperamental about Arista, and Modina must have elf ancestry to account for her amazing eyesight, managing to recognise the disguised Arista from her fifth floor window. Clever, that.

The other half of the book, the adventures of Royce and Hadrian, is a cracking read, with lots of action, an introduction to the mysterious region of Calis and its scary inhabitants, and the wonderful dwarf-built tower of Drumindor (which I would love to see realised on the big screen actually - a set designer could have terrific fun with it). I gave it four stars last time, and I see no reason to change that.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Review: 'Nyphron Rising' by Michael J Sullivan (reread)

I don't really have a lot to add to my previous review. This one felt like a more rational plot, more relevant to the over-arching story, and for the first time some real depth to the characters, especially Hadrian and Royce, whose backstories are partially revealed. Some of this was a little heavy-handed, particularly Royce's interaction with the Ratibor street urchin. Yes, we get it, the urchin is Royce, several years ago.

As in 'Avempartha', the women feel fairly caricatured. Thrace/Modina is effectively unconscious again for much of the book, Amilia is put in a nurturing role and Arista is still mostly the helpless baggage carted around by the men, or thrust into danger in order to be rescued, although at least she is beginning to develop some initiative (mind you, the transformation from helpless to rebellion-leader is not really believable). I understand what Sullivan is trying to do here, and I applaud his attempts to create strong female characters. It's just a pity that his method of doing that is to force them into a starting point where they are completely helpless or stupid or catatonic. Yes, they will grow over the course of the series, but since they start at rock bottom, that's not hard to achieve.

But still, a good read, the story easy enough to follow, and anything tricky explained a page or two further on. A little predictable, maybe, and simplistic in places, but then it's intended as entertainment so it would be churlish to complain about that. I'll stick with four stars.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Review: 'Avempartha' by Michael J Sullivan (reread)

After a nicely intriguing start, this one drops straight into all the things I disliked about it the first time round - unbelievable plot devices, lazy world-building, unconvincing characters and clunky dialogue. Thrace is particularly off-kilter. I can see what the author was aiming for, but (as with Myron) he has created a character whose total innocence of the wider world is simply not credible. Both Thrace and Arista, the two main female characters, come across as helpless creatures, simply being manipulated by other characters (Esrahaddon or Saldur), or else getting into trouble and needing rescue. Both women spend a considerable amount of time here either unconscious (Thrace) or a prisoner (both of them) or behaving stupidly (again, both of them), acting as motivation for the men. Ugh. Yes, I know things improve in later books, but still - ugh.

And the plot seems even sillier than the first time I read it. Even if you can buy into the peasants grubbing round in the mud, with a few pigs and goats and not much else (and it stretches credibility), why on earth would they sit around waiting to be taken by the dragon-like thingy? Even if they don't want to leave, why not build stone houses? Why not build a communal shelter where they can all sleep safely? Why not build an underground shelter? Just sitting in their (mostly wooden) houses waiting to be grabbed makes zero sense. And given the size of the uninhabited forest, there must be some other bit of it they could plough up, further away from the beastie.

But all that aside, the main feature of this book is the mysterious elven tower of Avempartha, and for me it was the star of the show. Firstly, the puzzle of getting into it, then Royce's awed wander through the interior  and the really cool 'artistic visions' room  - it was all terrific stuff. It was a pity we didn't get to 'see' some of the outcome of Esrahaddon's attempt to find the heir, which could have been done without revealing anything, but never mind. Also good: the river, Magnus the dwarf, Royce and Hadrian (of course), and Mauvin and Fanen, with an honourable mention for the bloke with the catapult thingy (a bit of initiative - wonderful!). I don't see any reason to change my three star rating, but nevertheless this is a good read (as long as you're not expecting great literature). [First read March 2011]

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Review: 'Stolen' by K A Krisko

I love a book which takes me by surprise, and this one I found totally unpredictable. The opening is intriguing - a young girl, Rioletta, is abducted by a strange tree-like creature who was himself abducted as a human baby (hence his name, Stolen). She is returned unharmed, but the adults at her village disbelieve her story. When she is a few years older, Rioletta is set the task of finding out exactly what happened to her.

Behind all this is the recent history in this world - about a hundred years ago, the population all moved away from the cities and began living a simpler life in villages, ruled by councils of sorcerors, where magic and technology are both tightly restricted. The different villages trade with each other, but there is political unrest in some of them, and some of the sorcerors are breaking away and trying to relearn the forbidden magics. All of this is intriguing, and a refreshing change from the more stereotyped fantasy settings.

The writing style is a little flat, with a rather cool, formal tone, which occasionally becomes clunky. Sometimes I felt that the dialogue was quite stilted, and a more informal or colloquial expression would have lightened things. There is quite a lot of exposition, but it is well-scattered and never becomes too much of an info-dump, and at least it makes it easy to work out what is going on. The characters are mostly a little flat too. The most interesting is Cardon - why is it always the troubled misfit who appeals most? The well-behaved ones so often come across as rather dull, and virtually everyone in the book is almost unnaturally well-behaved - mature, sensible and compliant. A few flaws would have made them more interesting, I feel.

This is not an all-action book, and anyone looking for epic battles and sword-wielding warriors had better look elsewhere. There are moments of sudden action, but they are swiftly over. Mostly the story unfolds gradually, through dialogue rather than high-octane adventure, and a great deal of the most disruptive events of the book are off-screen, as it were, and only revealed second or third hand. The best parts of the book, for me, were those where the characters were right in the middle of the action, rather than sitting around talking, and especially in the chaotic town of Tabor. The council building, with its hidden doors and distorting stairs, was wonderful, and I loved Cardon's created horses - one of those moments where I was completely taken by surprise, but which fitted perfectly with his personality and the needs of the plot. Very nice.

Some grumbles: the ebook formatting is not great, with blank pages and chapter titles the same size as the text. A map would have been useful, too. Although the author is very clear about which direction the characters are heading in, I found it hard to follow and a map would have made everything much clearer, especially as the locations of places are quite significant at times.

This is an unusual and interesting book which I enjoyed. It's one of the few books where I read the sample, liked it, bought the book and just carried on reading, instead of leaving it sitting on my Kindle for a while. I felt it sagged a little in the middle, with the long discussions about Tabor and its confusing multitude of councils, but it picked up again quite quickly. There are some great ideas here, especially the Lefollah (the tree people) and the well thought out background history, although some plot elements are perhaps not totally original, and anyone who's read 'The Lord of the Rings' will recognise certain scenes. The story was good, but I would have liked a little more emotion to bring the characters to life, and a little more tension, and a bit less sitting around talking. Nevertheless, a well-written book. A good three stars.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Review: 'The Crown Conspiracy' by Michael J Sullivan [reread]

With the final part of the six-book series in sight, I thought it would be fun to reread the earlier parts to see how they feel looking back with hindsight. I gave this first book three stars the first time round, as an enjoyable but fairly lightweight story, with some plot issues and not much depth to the characters. And although I got more out of it this time, seeing connections to later parts of the story, my opinion hasn't changed much. I liked the same things, and saw the same flaws, and it still feels like a three star book to me.

This time, after almost a year of reading other fantasy, I'm more impressed by the writing. One reviewer said that Sullivan doesn't use a single word that isn't essential, and compared to some authors this is true. Fantasy writers do tend to be verbose. It's a very spare, concise style of writing that puts the focus on the plot rather than endlessly describing characters or scenery. This keeps the action bubbling along, but I would have liked a little more detail sometimes, especially more emotion in the characters. However, I discovered quite a bit of nicely done description in a few places, which I obviously missed the first time round.

The plot still feels a little flaky, a bit of a caper, with no real sense of true danger (and so not much tension). You always feel confident that our heroes will find a way out of whatever pickle they've got themselves into. There were a couple of times when a twist was explained to us (the business of stealing the letters, for example, and later the fact that the abbey is burnt out); it would have been more dramatic, perhaps, to see these things happening rather than be told about it.

What really lets the book down, I think, is the world-building, which feels quite amateurish. There's a pseudo-medieval bit with peasants and castles, divided up into kingdoms, there's an elvish bit, and (later) a dwarvish bit and a tribal bit, and around the edges are 'wilderlands' and 'the lost lands' and 'the goblin sea', and some history of an empire and a god-king, none of which quite rings true. Maybe it's the dull names - Avryn, and Warric, and Trent, and Chadwick, and Hadrian Blackwater and Royce Melborn. I suppose it's better than Fgthyzztia Ick'Maglorthen and the like, which look as if the cat walked across the keyboard, but still... And then there's Lake Windermere. I've been to Lake Windermere, and very pleasant it is too, but it drops me right out of any suspension of disbelief when a real place name pops up in fantasy. The medieval parts are just too clichéd to be interesting, but I liked the more original places - the enchanted wizard prison, for instance.

The characters never totally convinced me. Hadrian and Royce have a nice line in dry humour, but I felt we never really got under their skin (although I know this improves somewhat in the later books). Myron is by far the most interesting character in this book. His talents put him, I would guess, somewhere in the autism/Aspergers spectrum, and he was the only one to display real emotion, as he prepared to leave the abbey, his home, indeed his whole world, since the age of four. Although it's hard to believe he could be that innocent - surely he would have seen horses at the abbey at some stage? Arista and Alric are very one-dimensional, and Esrahaddon is no more than a place-holder (again, this improves in later books). As for Esrahaddon's archaic language, I didn't like it the first time round and I still don't. Maybe a Chaucerian scholar could have added some authenticity? Or perhaps Myron could have translated through a Latin-equivalent? But at least the author considered the likelihood of the language changing in 900 years, and I've heard that this has been tidied up for the new release, so no big deal.

In the end, it's still an enjoyable romp. Hadrian and Royce are still likeable, fun characters with a nice line in dry humour. The plot is still pretty silly. I enjoyed spotting all the references to future events, and as a series it's very well thought-out, but as a stand-alone it's somewhat flawed, so I'll stick with three stars.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Review: 'The Left Hand of Darkness' by Ursula le Guin

I have no idea how to rate this book. I can see perfectly well that it's a thoughtful, intelligent, well-written book (it is a sci-fi classic, after all), with some fairly profound themes running through it. It's a book that rewards careful reading, rather than being a dramatic race to the finish. The characters and background are beautifully drawn. And yet... somehow it's not engaging. It reads like an intellectual exercise, a very literate one, to be sure, but still, it felt to me as though the author's aim was to examine certain issues rather than simply telling a story. It was interesting, and enjoyable in its way, but not emotionally engaging.

I first read this around 1980, and it made enough impression on me that some images were etched indelibly on my brain. Basic premise: Gethen is a world of humans genetically modified at some point in the past to be hermaphrodite, only taking male or female physicality during a few days each month ('kemmer', like being in heat); Genly Ai is an envoy who arrives from an interplanetary confederation to invite the Gethenians to join their fellow humans in a loosely organised trading network of equals. It's an easy read, not too steeped in obscure terminology, and a lot of the background is explained in extracts from historical stories or recordings scattered throughout, or journal entries, or through the comments of Genly, the outsider. And, unlike most sci-fi, there is no advanced technology to deal with, no aliens, no squids in space - just humans with relatively undeveloped technology and recognisable social structures (specifically, a kingdom and a bureaucracy).

Apart from Genly Ai, the envoy, the other main character is Estraven, the king's senior minister of state, initially, and Genly's only friend. The fragile relationship between the two states, the kingdom and the bureaucracy, is a fundamental part of the plot, and the political machinations cause trouble for both Genly and Estraven, but the essence of the story is the question of trust, and how gradually all pretensions and evasions between the two protagonists are stripped away, leading them to a better understanding of each other.

The writing is gently literate, and becomes very philosophical at times. It would be possible to write a doctorate level thesis on some of the themes invoked - the duality of being, the nature of belonging and love and brotherhood, the pride of the individual or the state. There are the two wildly different political systems, and the book touches on religion and 'mind speech'. And there is Gethen (or 'Winter') itself, which is more than just a cold backdrop for the story, it actually becomes the story towards the end.

Ultimately, the book is enjoyable without ever becoming compelling. I liked the moments which illuminate the deep backstory (the origins of these not-quite-like-us humans on a planet with no other mammals), and there is much here that is very thought-provoking, but, while beautifully written, it is almost too cerebral to be emotionally engaging. The ending is a triumph, however, with Genly, the outsider who has been gradually and unknowingly assimilated, watching the arrival of his fellow humans, men and women, and seeing them as quite alien. A worthwhile read. Four stars.

Essay: On Self-Publishing

The advent of ebook readers like the Kindle and Nook has changed the face of publishing. Traditionally, an author would spend years writing, polishing, hawking the finished product around various publishing houses, receiving rejection after rejection before finally (if lucky) getting a contract. This would give them an advance (a usually modest sum of money to be offset against future sales), and a guarantee that their book would appear in print at some future date. Even then, the publishing houses had all the power, persuading the author to change parts of the book, constraining them within a marketable genre, controlling the cover art, advertising, number printed and other aspects of marketing and then, sometimes, dropping an author without warning. With fantasy, where the trilogy is the default state, this can be particularly devastating, leaving readers and writers alike in the lurch midway through a series.

[Edit: for an amusing look at the process of how authors attract the attention of publishing houses, see this blogpost by author Michael J Sullivan.]

[Another edit: for some interesting statistics on how self-publishing authors are doing, what works and what doesn't, see this review.]

But ebooks have made a huge difference. Now authors can format their own work and self-publish the resulting ebook on Amazon alongside the big-name authors. They have to do their own pre-publication work - editing, proof-reading, cover art and so on - or else pay someone to do this for them, and they have to find ways to market it themselves too, but they have full control over the process and make their own decisions on pricing, length, genre and format, as well as artistic decisions. There are a few notable success stories, where authors have made a lot of money from self-published books. Some get picked up by publishing houses. One author, Michael J Sullivan, self-published after his six-book series was dropped just before publication, released them slowly, tirelessly promoted them to success and then royally annoyed his hard-won fanbase by signing up with a different publisher just before the final book came out, delaying the ending by months. But generally self-publishing is not going to make an author much money (but then very few authors of any description make a living out of writing).

For an author, self-publishing makes a lot of sense. You can skip the tedious part (the years of rejection slips and will-they won't-they wavering while the manuscript sits on a desk somewhere getting dusty) and jump straight to publication. Amazon in particular makes it incredibly quick and easy to publish that opus magnus gathering dust on a hard drive somewhere. One author (Andrea K Höst) had a book spend a staggering ten years with one publisher, which was always just about to come to a decision on whether to publish, before she took it back and self-published. Self-publishing gives an author total control, a higher percentage of the purchase price and a direct link to readers. It works both for new authors testing the waters, and long-established ones who can release out-of-print books, or works of no interest to their current publisher. On the other hand, there's no expert advice, no monetary advance, no marketing and no chance to sit back and wait for the royalties to flow in. The most successful self-published authors are those who made sure their work was professionally edited and presented, and then worked hard to promote it through blogs, social networking, paid reviews, giveaways and clever pricing strategies.

For the publishing houses, self-publishers are a threat, just as digital downloads were to the music industry. They cut out the middle man by connecting directly with the consumer, undercutting standard prices and then pocketing the profits. For the music industry, common sense eventually prevailed when the producers began to distribute digital tracks themselves, allowing consumers legal access to their preferred format. For digital books (ebooks), there has never been a large scale illegal industry, but conventional publishing has not yet embraced the rising tide of self-publishers. One day soon, publishers will realise that there's money to be made from helping out self-publishers (with proofreading, cover art, formatting, reviewing and the like), but they haven't quite got there yet.

For readers, however the book is published, the problem is to wade through the waterfall of printed books and ebooks now available. There are many thousands of fantasy books printed since 1954, when J R R Tolkien released the gold standard, 'The Lord of the Rings', and its hobbits, orcs, wizards, dwarves and elves first burst upon an unsuspecting world. Apart from a wobble in the 90s, the number produced each year has steadily increased. Locus magazine notes that in 2010 there were over 3000 works published in the broad genre of fantasy, science fiction and horror, of which 2000 were new and 1000 reprints. Of those 2000 new works, 614 were fantasy, 384 were paranormal (sparkly vampires, time-travel romances and the like), 285 were science fiction and 251 horror, with the rest being anthologies, omnibus editions, humour and so forth.

Amazon, the world's largest bookseller, lists 140,000 titles available in the UK under the fantasy heading (which includes both horror and paranormal, but not sci-fi). There's some overlap between formats, so the 76,000+ in paperback gives a better idea of the numbers in print, and there are almost 30,000 ebooks listed at the time of writing [December 2011], with over 1,600 released in that month alone. That's a lot of fantasy. Of course, most of these are conventionally published - printed by a publishing house, distributed to bookshops and libraries all over the country, driven by the container-load to Amazon warehouses and (as an afterthought) made available as an ebook - poorly transcribed, badly formatted, missing artwork and overpriced, as often as not.

But for the reader, these are the easy ones to find out about. The handful of really big releases each year, or those which coincide with films or TV shows, will be advertised on billboards, on buses, in cinemas and on TV, reviewed in upmarket newspapers and magazines, and available in every bookshop and library in the country. You can hold the book in your hand, admire the cover, read the blurb and even read a chapter or two before you buy. It's surprising, actually, how many people buy fantasy books because of an appealing cover. Smaller releases will still make the bookshops, and you can read about them on blogs, social networking sites and discussion groups dedicated to the genre and on online booksellers like Amazon. Many of these also have reviews and rating systems, so you can find out the opinions of those who have already read them. Almost everything well known will have hundreds or even thousands of reviews. Even if you don't have a Kindle, with an ebook reader on your computer, tablet or phone, you can download a sample of the book. And if you don't want to trawl through all this information, established authors and publishing houses may have a track record, so you may feel safe in taking a punt on a new book by so-and-so. Eventually, all the popular books work their way through to the second-hand market, where you can pick up a copy for a song (hardbacks are particularly good value, but with fantasy, beware of picking up just part of a series - it can be disconcerting to find yourself reading book 3, with no idea what's going on).

With self-published books, virtually none of this infrastructure is available. The author may well be unknown, with no previous publications and few reviews, or even none at all. Or, worse still, the only reviews may be too glowing to be real. And the vast majority of self-published books are invisible - out there, somewhere, but impossible to find. So how does anyone manage to find new material worth reading?

The first place to start is Amazon. The Kindle section doesn't make any obvious distinction between professionally published books and any other kind, but there are a few clues. Price is the most obvious one. A professional product will cost much the same as the cheapest printed version: around £5 for a mass market paperback (around $8 in US terms), and more for a hardback. Self-published books tend to be £3 or less ($5 or less). Some will be less than £1 ($1.50) or even free. A self-published work may only be available in ebook format, not in a printed version at all. And self-published works often have few reviews, or none at at all (although this is sometimes true of professionally published books outside the mainstream, too, or from outside the US/European axis).

Amazon displays lists of the 100 top-selling Kindle books in various categories (from generic ones like 'fiction' to more useful genre categories). There's a free list as well as a paid-for list. The free ones are worth a look, because sometimes an author with a long catalogue will give away the first of the series to entice readers, and there are plenty of out-of-copyright classic works, but for fantasy I've found that a paid-for book is more likely to be of readable quality. The paid-for list will be a mixture of big-name best-sellers, and smaller authors who have either aggressively marketed or have found an updraught of reader response. But a few authors have found ways to 'game' the system; with specialised genres, it's easy to get into the best-seller lists with just a small number of sales, so an unscrupulous author can buy his own book repeatedly over a short time (and Amazon gives him back 70% of the cost, so it's not as expensive as it looks).

There's not much information in the lists, so you have to click through to the book's home page and read the blurb to see if it sounds like your cup of tea. Very often you can tell right there that's it's not your thing - key words like 'vampire', 'demon', 'wizard', 'adult themes', 'unicorn' and so on are big clues. A teenaged lead character makes it likely to be a young adult book. Urban fantasy will be set in a modern city. A half-dressed man (or woman) on the cover is likely to indicate a paranormal romance. Even if it's not quite what you're looking for, Amazon has one other trick up its sleeve - the 'customers who bought this also bought...' list. This doesn't work so well for books that haven't sold many copies, but a more popular book may be linked to up to 100 other books. This works very well for specialised genres.

But if the blurb sounds interesting, then the next step is to read the reviews, and this is where the whole business gets very fraught. Many self-published works have no reviews at all, which is no help. But even where there are reviews, they are not necessarily very useful. There is nothing to stop the author, author's spouse, mother, publisher, best friend and work colleagues from writing reviews (everyone has an Amazon account, after all, and there's no need to have bought the book to post a review). Authors sometimes create 'sock puppets' (fake accounts) to post multiple reviews. They can also pay reviewers or use one of the new sites such as BookRooster and who, for a fee, will pass the book out to independent reviewers. This guarantees a certain number of genuine and honest reviews on Amazon (and possibly other sites), but again, there's no assurance that the reviewers know anything about the genre.

The Holy Grail for readers is the honest, unbiased review which explains both the good and the bad aspects of the book. I find the poor ratings (1-3 stars) are actually the best guide. If a reviewer explains what he/she didn't like, that gives me a good feel for whether I would or wouldn't like it. The ideal is two or three long, detailed reviews which are moderately critical. After all, something that one reader may hate (lots of graphic sex, a religious theme, gory battle scenes, a traditional farm-boy-turns-hero story, a complex political plot) may be exactly what someone else is looking for. And actually, this is also what authors want, too, precisely because it's what readers want (and conversely, it's always helpful to know what turns readers off). So where else can a reader find suitable reviews?

On the surface, blogs specialising in reviews for a particular genre would seem to be the perfect answer. After all, they read lots of likely books, giving them a good basis for comparison, and they give them detailed, honest reviews, don't they? Well, maybe. In my experience, they tend to be more focused on giveaways, publicity puffs from publishers, interviews with authors and (sometimes) telling cute stories about the kids or their own technology disasters than actually reviewing the books. They also have the problem of all semi-professional reviewers - they get books for free from publishers and authors, so they are really NOT going to be putting out bad reviews. They're not, after all, going to bite the hand that feeds them. And because they're in bed with the publishers, they are very resistant to self-publishing authors, or anything too far from the mainstream (some of them are downright hostile to self-publishers). The best of them will give sufficiently detailed reviews that you can at least make up your mind whether it's the sort of book you might like, and you can then check other reviews on Amazon and elsewhere for a better idea of quality. There is also a growing number of review blogs specialising in indie and self-published books, of various genres.

I've found that Goodreads is the best place for information. It's a social networking site (sort of), although you don't have to use it that way. I have a small number of fantasy-loving 'friends' whose reviews I trust, and the site gives me updates on what they're reading, rating and reviewing. That gives me lots of ideas for new reading material. I also belong to a couple of fantasy discussion groups, and they have 'what I'm reading now' threads and specific book threads which also throw up good ideas. I also check out every author publicising their own new releases (these are often very cheap, and although some are terrible, I've found a number of good ones).

So having found possible books to read, and checked the blurb, and read all the reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, the final step is to download a free sample from Amazon. This gives you the first 5-10% of the book to read so you can determine the writing style, the level of formatting or spelling errors, and so on. I give books two to three pages to hook me. If the first pages are interesting and the author can write grammatically, then I'm in. There are sites other than Amazon where free samples are available - Smashwords is a popular one with authors, because it's geared up for self-publishers, helping them to format ebooks in various configurations for different ereaders, selling the books and facilitating reviews. For readers, however, it's a mess - hard to find anything, and with a high proportion of rubbish (in my experience).

The final consideration is price - I'll pay a standard paperback price for a book by an established author, but I expect a self-published work by an unknown to be cheap. I don't mind taking a punt on something really cheap, but not on a full-price book. But contradictorily, I'm wary of free books. Sometimes this is just a hook to draw readers into a long series at regular prices, and these are usually good value, but for the rest - if an author doesn't value their own work, why should I? I'm more likely to abandon a free book, or leave it sitting, untouched, on my Kindle, and I'm more likely to write a brief, scathing review.

If all this sounds like a long-drawn-out and time-consuming process, it doesn't have to be. I've streamlined it to a matter of seconds to skim-read the blurb and a few reviews, then decide whether to download the sample. From there, it only takes me a page or two to decide on whether I want to read the whole book. This is a fairly ruthless approach, but since I already have a long list of books already downloaded, there has to be a strong hook right at the start to draw me in.

So how good are self-published books? The worst are terrible - badly edited, with trite plots, cardboard characters and clichéd magic systems - but these are easy to weed out. It doesn't take more than a few paragraphs of the sample to determine whether the author is acquainted with grammar, spelling and apostrophe usage. But there is a whole tranche that rises above that level but is still derivative and dull. Sometimes a good opening can suck you in, only to find the plot tediously predictable. But, to be completely honest, a fair few professionally published works fall into the same traps. Just because a book has been deemed worthy of publication doesn't make it enjoyable.

The real joy of self-published works is that authors are constrained only by their imagination. The best are original and unpredictable, and I take real pleasure in finding a writer who takes me to unexpected places in unusual ways, even if the writing is not always outstanding. Self-published books come to the reader directly from the creative mind of the author, without any intervention from those with financial or marketing considerations foremost, and as such even the worst of them deserve to be cherished. 

[Update: for a list of 20 best-selling self-published books in the fantasy/sci-fi genre, have a look at Michael J Sullivan's guest post on The Ranting Dragon blog here.]

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Review: 'Call of the Herald' by Brian Rathbone

So - there's a prophecy, and a farmboy, sorry, farmgirl, with unexpected talents, and a holy war... Stop me if any of this sounds familiar. Well, nothing wrong with the traditional storylines, if they're done well, and the author makes a reasonable show with this one. There's a prologue, which sets the scene and gives a bit of useful background, and then there's a comet, and then straight to our heroine, sweeping out the barn and away we go, with the unexpected outbreaks of power, and the hasty escape from trouble.

I like to know what sort of a world the author has created for the story, and this one is in many ways fairly conventional - low technology agricultural. However, this is not the usual European medieval setting with mud-splattered peasants and castles and knights. It feels to me like a western - everyone rides horses into town, leaving them at the stables, women are called Miss so-and-so, there's a more stratified society (poorer but hardworking country folk, richer town folk with fancy clothing, nobles) and children are educated until adulthood. It takes quite a sophisticated society to value education for everyone, that is, an extensive bureaucracy that requires even ordinary workers to keep records, more usually associated with industrialisation. And how come even the poor farm kids can afford horses to ride? I'm curious, too, about what sort of society allows a teenage girl and three teenage boys to go camping together - a very trusting one, I suppose. But it's just conceivable that I'm overthinking this :-)

There doesn't seem to be anything very much to distinguish this world from our own, at some time and place. The birds, animals, plants and tools all seem very familiar, which is a little disappointing. It seems a little unambitious in a fantasy book not to throw in at least a few little touches that make the setting seem more alien, although I liked the cave which had signs of a former civilisation inside it, and the circle of very ancient trees. The magic, too, is a rather generic some-kind-of-power affair at the moment, with unknown capabilities, but the author has a whole trilogy to develop that aspect.

The characters are rather poorly defined at present. Catrin, the lead character, is quite meek to start with, and spends a great deal of time weeping over something or other, and although she is very capable, has little self-confidence (but she is only a teenager, so that's to be expected). Her sudden change to assertive I'm-taking-control mode felt a bit abrupt to me, although I suppose the signs were there. The three boys are not well-differentiated - I could have done with some clues about physical differences, or behavioural quirks, perhaps. The most interesting characters, to me, are the two older men, Benjin and Wendel, who obviously have some history behind them. But generally the characters feel believably ordinary, no wizards or kickass warriors here.

The plot is the usual thing - farmgirl revealed as a person of power, has to escape from bad guys who want to kill her. That's about it, really. So there's a lot of trudging through the scenery, interspersed with close encounters, and fraught escapes. But to be honest, most of the tension of the journey came from the natural hazards - the wild boar, the hornets' nest, the swamp, and so on. There is also a lot of detailed description of fishing and hunting expeditions, which the author is obviously quite knowledgeable about, and so will the reader be by the end of the book. For anyone who enjoys battles and hand to hand combat, this is probably not the book for you. There is a certain amount of fighting towards the end, and we are left in suspense as to the fate of several characters. However, there is never any doubt about Catrin's survival, so although the final scenes were quite dramatic, there wasn't a great deal of tension in them.

There's nothing actually wrong with this book. On the plus side, it's well thought out, the pacing is good, there are no typos. I liked that there are multiple point of view characters, even quite minor ones, and often quite brief, to keep us updated on other parts of the plot. But on the other hand, the plot is familiar and predictable, the characters are not especially interesting, and the world is nothing very special. The magic is a bit vague, but I assume more will be revealed in the rest of the series. It's just that nothing about the book really stands out. It's a workmanlike effort, and perfectly readable, but it never quite came alive for me and it's not intriguing enough to make me want to read the rest of the series. Three stars.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Review: 'Heku' by T M Nielsen

Uh-oh, vampires ahoy. I obviously didn't read much about this or try a sample before I downloaded it, because it really isn't my thing. But I'll try anything once, and it was free, which is good, right? Well, I got through 20 pages, before it became obvious where the story was going and I just couldn't read any more. If you're a fan of big, hunky male vampires (or heku in this incarnation) and red-headed beauties with a scent exquisite to said heku, then this is the book for you. Enjoy!

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Review: 'Voice of the Lost' by Andrea K Host

This is the second part of the duology begun in 'The Silence of Medair'. It demonstrates the greatest strength of self-publishing, in that it allows the author the freedom to break away from the tired old tropes and traditions, and create something stunningly different. This is a wonderful, character-driven story with great depth.

The plot is too complicated to summarise briefly - suffice it to say that 'wild magic' has been let loose on the world, with strange and unpredictable consequences. This allows a number of dramatic twists - or rather, abrupt shifts of direction, which are in places hard to keep up with. I was repeatedly taken by surprise at these shifts, never seeing any of them coming, although they were all logical within the constructs of the story. Medair's capable self-reliance in the first book is no use in this wild-magic-driven world, and she becomes not much more than baggage for the skilled mages (adepts) at points, and dangerously close to the helpless female needing to be rescued. This is less disappointing than it might be, since the adepts are almost as helpless - even the most skilled are lost in the new world order, struggling to make the right decisions and find a way back to some kind of stability.

It has to be said that, although the events in the book are very dramatic, it's not really an action book. The main focus is Medair herself, her struggles with her own feelings and her constant rationalisations. There is a lot of angst here. Having failed in her original quest to defend her country against invasion, she has now accepted that the invaders are the establishment and has joined forces with them to defeat the new invaders, who are trying to restore the old order of five centuries ago. But naturally she feels all the guilt of her decisions, and this is where the book raises all the interesting questions: can you ever stop hating? where does hate end and love begin, and can you love and hate at the same time? when does an invading army become part of the invaded country? how do you live with your choices even when they were the best (or perhaps least worst) at the time? how do you know you made the right choice? can you make the right choice for the wrong reasons? And then there are the questions of race: are the small number of remaining 'pure blood' Ibisians less a part of their new home country than those of mixed blood? And is someone more (or less) Ibisian or Palladian because of the way they look? And the author cleverly addresses the issues without ever pulling out cultural or racial clichés. This is very elegantly done.

The characters themselves are well-drawn enough that we can understand and sympathise with their dilemmas. The focus in this book is almost entirely on Medair and Illukar, with the rest more in the background, but even so they all have their own problems to address - Ileaha in particular. I was disappointed that we saw so little of Avahn, however, since he was so easy to like, being more outgoing than most Ibisians. Fortunately Illukar opens up a lot in this book. I was a little surprised that some of the Decians became important characters here, since, although they were always important to the plot, the characters themselves seemed to be very much on the periphery in the first book (but on reflection, all the clues were there, I just wasn't paying attention - I was too focused on the Ibisians). And I was again delighted to see so many women in important roles - rulers, warriors, mages and not a whore in sight.

I have the same issues with the magic here as in the first book - it seems, at times, just too convenient, too powerful, and wild magic, in particular, seems to obey no real rules. This makes it possible for almost anything to happen at any moment, and the ending, as far as I could see, just came out of nowhere. I like magic to conform to some kind of system, so that when it's used you can see exactly how it might happen (so you say 'oh, of course' rather than 'wait, what?'). But on the other hand, it was a very fitting end for the story, totally appropriate for the characters, so it made complete sense in that way.

This is not a book for everyone. Those who prefer lots of action, big battle scenes and the like, will be disappointed at the introspective nature of the book. It's not that there is NO action, there is in fact plenty happening and very dramatic it is too, but it's mostly the salad garnish to the main dish of Medair reflecting on her decisions, her feelings and her guilt. I can't imagine what a mainstream publisher would do to a book like this, but personally I'm very glad that the author eventually managed to self-publish and put it out into the world as it was meant to be - quirky, original, intelligent and thought-provoking. I don't often give out five stars, and never before to a self-published work, but this deserves it.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Review: 'Rivers of London' by Ben Aaronovitch

I don't normally read urban fantasy, but this combination of a police procedural and a little light-hearted magic was irresistible. It's funny, the protagonist is very likeable and it's a very pleasant way to spend some Christmas money. But I do find urban fantasy unsettling, and I'm not sure why. I can be quite happy reading about a wizard meeting a balrog in the Mines of Moria in company with two men, four hobbits, an elf and a dwarf, but a wizard meandering round Covent Garden and Hampstead and Staines chasing after a malevolent ghost in company with a river sprite seems kind of weird to me.

The problem with all urban fantasy is that, without the usual world-building going on in the background, it throws the other aspects - plot, character, magic - into sharper relief. The characters here are all perfectly nice and believable, but they're mostly terribly ordinary, especially the hero, Peter Grant, and his colleague and would-be girlfriend, Lesley. The 'wizard' is rather ordinary, too - a little eccentrically dressed, perhaps, but in London that is unremarkable. Only the river spirits have a bit of character, but there too they are superficially ordinary folks who just happen to be river spirits, and the joke wears a bit thin after a while. The magic is a bit Harry Potter-ish, only without the magic wand, in that a Latin word is associated with each 'spell', so nothing very unusual there, and the plot is fairly slight, too. So not many big surprises, and I found it a bit dull in places.

If this sounds a bit negative, it's mostly because I'm used to reviewing books where these things matter. Here, they don't, much, because it's simply a charming and amusing way to pass the time. The hero is a nicely laid-back sort of guy, the humour is premium quality dry British and the murder-mystery style is more Agatha Christie than anything else (or maybe Midsomer Murders - cosy with a slightly surreal twist). It's not earth-shattering (but then it doesn't try to be), it's just plain good fun and I liked it. And Peter must be the nicest protagonist in the world. I wanted to give it four stars, if only for the humour, but realistically it's a three.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Essay: Review of 2011

It's traditional in the blogging world to write a review of the year. This is not a traditional blog, but nevertheless there is some point to summarising things. At the start of 2011, I had a shiny new Kindle loaded up with free classics, a few old favourites and the first handful of my attempt to work my way through the best 100 science fiction books. Early in January, this project got derailed in spectacular fashion. I read George R R Martin's A Game of Thrones, and it completely blew me away. From then onwards, my aim was simple - to catch up with the forty years of fantasy since I first read Lord of the Rings.

I've read 98 books this year, of which 54 were fantasy and the rest a mixture of sci-fi, murder mystery, non-fiction and general fiction. I rated 7 of them as 5*; 43 at 4*; 32 at 3*; 11 at 2*; and 5 at 1*, an average rating of 3.33. [Statistics from Goodreads.] I have bought 141 books for my Kindle, of which 29 were free, 28 were less than £1, 16 less than £3 and 68 were above £3, an average price of £2.87. The most expensive book was A Dance With Dragons at £11.99. Because I'm playing catch-up, few of the books I've read were published this year.

Best of the year (5* reviews, in order of awesomeness):

The Long Price Quartet by Daniel Abraham: This is the finest fantasy series I've read to date. There are four books in the series: A Shadow in Summer, A Betrayal in Winter, An Autumn War and The Price of Spring. I read them in their two-book omnibus form, Shadow and Betrayal and Seasons of War. The first of the four has some flaws, but the second is excellent and the third and fourth books are just awesome. The series has an original setting, a brilliantly simple magic system, great characters and a plot that derives entirely from these elements. It is one of those rare books where the prologue is not simply relevant, but the crux of later events. Not everyone likes the curious poses used to modify the language, or Abraham's spare writing style, but those who can get past that are rewarded with a stunning and profound piece of writing.

Stormlord Trilogy by Glenda Larke: This is almost as good as Abraham's work. Again, there's an original setting, a brilliantly simple magic system, and a tight, character-driven plot, with an elegantly understated writing style. It doesn't quite have the depth of Abraham's work, but it was a terrific, readable series. Of the three books (The Last Stormlord, Stormlord Rising and Stormlord's Exile [published 2011]), the third has a few minor plot flaws, but it's still an excellent series overall, exactly what fantasy should be.

A Clash of Kings by George R R Martin: This is the second of the five books so far released in the A Song of Ice And Fire series. It's taken fifteen years to get this far, with increasing gaps between releases, and two more at least to come, so judgment is reserved on the overall quality. Of the five, the first, A Game of Thrones, is in many ways the most revolutionary. Martin's easy writing style, broad canvas, tight plotting and larger than life characters are dramatic, but his tendency to kill or maim even main characters without obvious reason kept it to 4 stars for me. But this second book has the same elements without gratuitous deaths, a book-long plot thread in the slow build to the battle for King's Landing, a starring role for the wonderful Tyrion and some elegant use of the shifting points of view to keep the plot moving along, which made it the standout 5 star entry. Of the rest, the third book, A Storm of Swords, was too dismal to merit more than 4 stars, and began the out-of-hand plot-free sprawling which marred the fourth and fifth, A Feast For Crows and A Dance With Dragons [published 2011].  It's hard to see how Martin can pull this one back into shape.

Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss: This is a debut work, and pretty stunning it is too. With an original story-within-a-story concept, intriguing back-story and a wonderfully lyrical writing style, this was a joy to read from beginning to end, even though nothing much actually happens. Although I have to admit I didn't like it well enough to pay hardback prices for the follow-up, which is interesting.

The Lions of al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay: Not everyone likes Kay's over-wrought writing style, I'm not a fan of the thinly disguised historical setting and in some ways Tigana was the better book, but this has great characters, a suitably large-scale plot, and an ending with true emotional resonance. It's also deeply thought-provoking.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline [published 2011]: This is technically science fiction, but since it features an unlikely hero who has to join forces with a mismatched set of fellow-travellers on a quest to seek out the three magic keys giving access to special portals, and reach the enchanted egg before the evil corporate clones who plan to rule the world... has to be fantasy, right? It has its flaws - slightly dodgy world-building, not quite believable characters, a formulaic and predictable plot - but it's just so much fun.

Honourable mentions (self-published):

Self-publishing gets a bad rap, and there's no doubt there's a lot of dross out there - poorly written, derivative, full of plot holes, badly edited. Nevertheless there are some real gems for those who have the patience to seek them out. Of my 98 books read in 2011, 28 were self-published (not quite 30%).

The Stone Dragon by Tom Kepler [published 2011]: A most unusual and charming coming-of-age story, with deeper undertones about the nature of consciousness and dreams. And dragons. Very readable.

The Silence of Medair by Andrea K Höst: A true antidote to all those patriarchal pseudo-medieval affairs. This features a world where women can and do take up any career for which they have an ability, they can inherit and rule, they can wield magic, and the heroine is simply a woman with no unusual talents beyond loyalty fulfilling her obligations as best she can. Unconventional (to put it mildly) but a pleasure to read.

The Shaihen Trilogy by S A Rule: The three books (Cloak of Magic, Staff of Power and Spirit of Shehaios [published 2011]) share an unusual world, more egalitarian than the standard pseudo-medieval affair, with an intriguing magic system. The first book has a slightly fey air, with dragons, unicorns and a phoenix in the mix, whereas the second is a much darker, edgier affair, and both were excellent, with a deeply charismatic central character, Kierce. The third, which had largely different characters and a different setting, I found less interesting, but still very readable. There is more to come, apparently.

Stormfront by F K Wallace [published 2011]: This is the second part of the Stormwatcher trilogy. The first is Storm Rising [published 2011], which is a fairly conventional sword and sorcery type story, although very literate and with some good characterisation. This part builds on that to create the wonderfully complex character of Tiel, and is almost totally character driven. An excellent read. The third part is due out in 2012.

Honourable mentions (other):

The Folding Knife by K J Parker: A quirky fantasy with no obvious magic at all, all built around one unusual character and his rise to fame and fortune. Not to everyone's taste, but I found it fascinating, and very funny.

The Dragon's Path by Daniel Abraham [published 2011]: The first part of a new trilogy, The Dagger and the Coin, contrasting the two approaches to empire-building, war or economics. Great characters, as always, a slightly patchy plot, and world-building which is sketchy for now, but has promise, especially the twelve races derived from humans. More conventional than The Long Price, but hopefully will display the same depth in the end.

Leviathan Wakes by James S A Corey [published 2011]: Daniel Abraham again, this time in collaboration with Ty Francks, a traditional sci-fi affair with a detective noir feel. A nice pacy read, light on science, heavy on characterisation and inventiveness, elegantly bouncing the plot between the two point of view protagonists.

Principles of Angels by Jaine Fenn: Sci fi again, although with a fantasy air about it. This is the first of a sequence of (more or less) stand-alone works in the same world, Hidden Empires. This has a charming protagonist, a less believable second protagonist, and some flaws, but I enjoyed it immensely.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor [published 2011]: A wonderfully poetic writing style combines with an unconventional heroine, some imaginative back-story and a little angel-demon romance to produce a terrific debut. Not all of it is totally successful, but absorbing, nonetheless.

Worst of 2011

It isn't really fair to talk about the 'worst', as if there's some absolute objective scale of measurement. I've given five stars to books others find unreadable, and vice versa, so I don't think my opinion is sufficient to condemn any book. There were a few I really hated, or couldn't finish, this year, but let's leave them unnamed. But there is one that must be mentioned as my most disappointing read: A Dance With Dragons by George R R Martin [published 2011]. It was (marginally) better than my worst fears, but still nowhere near as good as I'd hoped. The writing is as colourful as ever, and the characters still leap off the page, fully realised and larger than life, but the plot... The sprawl is now at the point where it will be almost impossible for the author to pull things together. The magic is a mess, forward progress is glacial, dangling plot threads are more tangled than the average set of fairy lights, the cast of thousands (and their wives, children, retainers, supporters, swords, dogs, etc, etc) is impossible to keep track of, and there is still no sense of where any of this is going. It's out of control, and I have lost confidence in the author to get on top of it (but I would love to be proved wrong).