Saturday, 30 June 2012

Essay: On Publishers, Reviewers and Bloggers

This is a wonderful era for readers. Not only are more books being published than ever before, but online booksellers like Amazon have made them accessible to everyone with internet access at reasonable cost, and the ebook revolution has allowed aspiring authors to sidestep the stranglehold of the publishing industry altogether and sell directly to fans. Not everyone thinks this is such a great idea, but for readers there is now a vast amount of choice.

But that brings its own problems. No longer are genre fans limited by the shelf or two of big name authors at the local bookshop. lists no fewer than 35,000 fantasy books in ebook format alone at the time of writing [June 2012]. How is it possible to sift through all those to find suitable books? Amazon, it has to be said, has a few tricks to help, such as lists of best-sellers, and links from one book to other similar books. It's fairly broad brush, but with enough time to hop around, a buyer can find some interesting prospects. But how to choose between them all? This is where reviews come in handy; online booksellers like Amazon allow readers to post reviews of books they've read.

There have always been book reviews, of course. It's a well-established arrangement; publishers send out advance copies of new books to newspapers and magazines, who assign someone to read those of most interest to their readers and print a review to coincide with the publication date. The posh Sunday newspapers will often recruit a famous author to write a review of a book in their own field. The reviewer is paid by the newspaper or magazine, not the publisher, so they are free to be as critical or downright rude as they like. Such reviews are often well-crafted pieces of writing in their own right, academic critiques with an air of authority and often not a little snobbery. It's a cosy arrangement; the publisher gets some publicity for their book at minimal cost, the newspaper or magazine fills its pages with interesting material and the reviewer gets a little money and a chance to exercise his/her wit. Even the occasional negative review isn't a problem for the publisher; it reassures Joe Public that the review wasn't bought, and a really vitriolic outburst will generate a buzz. Genre readers usually had to look to specialist magazines for similar provision, but it worked in the same way.

Online booksellers brought fresh air into this stuffy little cartel, by allowing any ordinary Joe to post a review. Needless to say, most of these amateur reviews were short, badly written and fairly useless. It also didn't take long for authors to realise that they could post glowing reviews of their own books under a pseudonym, and get all their friends and relations to do so too. But amidst all the dross were a few people who posted long, thoughtful reviews. Some of them stayed with Amazon and became Amazon Vine members, receiving free products supplied by companies wanting a review. Some of them, realising the value in their reviews, set up their own websites and blogs to host them. Gradually more amateur reviewers joined the blogging bandwagon, until sometimes it seems as if every book reader in the world has their own review blog.

It didn't take the publishers long to latch onto the blogging world, as an extension of their existing program of sending out advanced copies of new books. Any blogger who built up a following could, if they chose, receive a deluge of free books, with no pressure to review them or even to read them. More recently, some publishers have started to cut back, with one, William Morrow, causing an uproar in the blogosphere by suggesting online reviewers who receive free books should agree to a contract - committing to a certain number of reviews, and publishing in a timely manner. Bloggers were outraged: we decide what we review, and when, and how, they stated.

It's easy to see what motivates the publishers. They are businesses whose purpose is to sell books. Sending advance copies to reviewers is part of their marketing budget; it's advertising, in other words. A blogger with a large audience is a useful tool, informing potential purchasers of a book's existence and giving an opinion on it. Bloggers who regularly produce positive reviews around the time of publication and who help to build up the buzz about a forthcoming book by showing book covers or hosting author interviews are extremely useful to publishers. As with newspaper reviews, the occasional negative review is acceptable to demonstrate the reviewer's independence from the publishers. And, just like newspaper reviews, the effects of a blogger can be quantified to some extent. Numbers of followers and unique visitors and page hits can all be tracked, and although no one knows how much of that translates into product shifted (ie books sold), it measures the audience in the same way as magazine circulation numbers, and it would be strange if publishers failed to take note of such things.

But what about bloggers? What motivates them? Undoubtedly they all start off as enthusiasts, who enjoy reading and are willing to take the time and trouble to express their thoughts for the benefit of others. It takes a lot of time to construct and polish the sort of detailed, thoughtful review that the best sites specialise in, and, unlike published authors, they don't get paid for their efforts. But blogs tend to grow. What starts out as a low-key affair ends up with thousands of visitors each day and becomes a different game altogether.

Now there are many review blogs out there which stay focused on the original objective of reviewing books the blogger likes to read, and are not much concerned beyond that. But for many established bloggers, and nowadays for many startup bloggers too, the reviews become subsumed into the greater enterprise of maintaining and growing the blog. With a little advertising, paid-for content or tie-in marketing, it can even pay for itself and enable the blogger to give up the day job. Then the emphasis switches to aggressively selling the blog by linking to it from as many places as possible, guest blogging on other blogs, actively touting for author interviews and the like, or even deliberately provoking controversy to get a buzz going.

This is an extreme instance, of course, and there is a whole spectrum of variation in the blog world. Bloggers get started in a variety of ways, and there are innumerable different paths each one can take. There's no right or wrong way to run a book review blog, after all, and most never make money from it. But one thing they all have in common: they are all part of the book publishing industry to a greater or lesser extent. Every time I post a review of a book, whether on Goodreads or Amazon or on my blog, I am in practice encouraging people to buy that book. Even a negative review can have that effect: 'I hated this book, it's full of gross-out violence, endless battles and boringly detailed world-building' is going to have some people saying, 'Wait, that sounds right up my alley'. Of course, everyone reading reviews of fantasy books on Goodreads or a blog dedicated to them is already a committed purchaser, but then a review encourages them to buy one book rather than another. It may not be a deliberate choice, but every book reviewer is part of the publishing industry.

Now many review bloggers don't see things that way at all. Their relationship with publishers, they seem to think, consists solely of receiving material from them (free books, author interviews and so forth) and doing whatever they like with them. No obligations, no responsibilities. When publisher William Morrow said of free copies of books: 'Your job is simply to review the book within a month of receiving it and post your thoughts on your blog or site', bloggers were outraged. Here's what blogger Justin [1] had to say recently: 'It bothers me that those in the business of selling books would think of me that way. I consider myself to be an arbiter of taste. My role, as I see it, is to help readers make informed choices about how they spend their money. If I sell some books as a result, that's fine, but not my ultimate goal.'

No, but it's definitely the ultimate goal of the publishers, and every book reviewer is a tool, intentionally or not, of the industry. But it's an uneasy relationship. Publishers are prepared to dish out free books (and interviews and other stuff), and they don't want reviewers to be seen to be in their pockets, so keeping a certain distance is part of the game. Reviewers, on the other hand, want the free stuff, sure, they want the big-name authors, they want to be the first with the hot new book, because that's what their readers want, but they also value their independence, and don't want to be poodles for the industry. Or at least, some of them value their independence. Here's what Justin, the blogger quoted above, went on to say:

'Either way, the answer isn't creating some cockamamie bureaucracy to hold bloggers accountable, or codify some quid pro quo that will only serve to taint blogger integrity. The answer is increasing the publishers access to the community and the community's access to them. It doesn't mean spending more money, just spending it smarter. Rather than casting out wasted review copies that never get read, invest in getting to know reviewers and what they like. Give them exclusive coverage. Be pro-active. Don't expect free books to be a tool by which they can be controlled. In short, treat them like journalists.'

I'm not sure that journalism is quite the analogy he wants here; journalists are paid directly by their industry, do what they're told and write to precise order. But I take his point about more targeted material. The whole book world has grown and fragmented so fast that it's hard to keep up. The fantasy genre has exploded into scores of sub-genres, and a fan of paranormal romance isn't going to read dense epic fantasy, while the steampunk aficionado probably isn't interested in werewolves. But more precise targeting of advance copies will save publishers money and lead to a better ratio of reviews produced, so they'll work that out for themselves eventually.

But it is interesting that, while on the one hand backing away from a close relationship with publishers, he also wants more access to them. Getting the balance right is very difficult, and every blogger has to decide for themselves just how cosy they want to get with the industry. Every blogger is an individual, after all, and, to repeat, there's no right or wrong here. If bloggers want to take the free books, and have the publishers pay for a large part of their hobby, good for them. But they should also be aware of the consequences of that decision.

In a recent thread on the topic of reviewing at the Westeros forum [2], I argued that every reviewer's judgment is affected to some degree by the relationship they have with publishers. Reviewers were very defensive about that, and I certainly don't question their integrity; undoubtedly they write their honest opinion of every book they review. But (and it's a significant but) if they don't enjoy a book, or don't finish it, they generally don't review it. When they give ratings, they tend to use a skewed scale such that even a relatively poor review merits 6 or 7 out of 10. They tend to chase big name or hot books. They tend not to review self-published works. Now, there's nothing wrong with any of this, and it goes without saying that not all reviewers follow all of these practices, but it does rather fall into the publishers' gameplan, because what they get is largely positive reviews of the books they are most actively marketing. And of course every time a reviewer picks up a book he or she has been sent for free and decides to give it a go, that too is playing the publishers' game, even if it's done entirely unconsciously.

My own decision was different. The first time I was offered a free book to review, I decided that I wasn't going to do that - not for a beginning self-publisher I'd met on Goodreads, and not for a big-name mainstream author either. Every book I've reviewed, I have bought in the regular way, from Amazon or some other bookseller. Some of them were free, of course, but they were free to everyone who bought that day. Even if an author asks me to review their book, I will only agree if I buy it myself, and it's something I would have bought anyway. Now, I don't for one second claim any moral superiority by doing this, and you could argue that I'm making a virtue of necessity, since my bijou blog is well below the radar of any self-respecting publisher. The big cheese blogs attract hundreds or even thousands of unique visitors per day, I managed just five at the last count. But it does mean that I can guarantee my independence.

Another thing I insist on is to review everything I read - or attempt to read. Even if I don't finish a book, I give it 1 star and explain just why I abandoned it. If I hated it, I say why, because I think it's just as important to say what I didn't like as what I did like. That way, if I give a book 5 stars, it's because I thought it was something quite special (only 4% or so of the books I've read this year, in fact). There are some reviewers who give 5 stars to 75% of all the books they review. That's not so much a rating system as a whitewash. Even if they are incredibly selective, or incredibly easy to please, it's hard to see any value in such a system. Equally, reviewers who only write about books they liked, or books they finished, or who have a rating system where 6 or 7 is as low as any review goes, are distorting their opinions. If I see a review with a rating of 8 out of 10, that sounds pretty good, right? But not if it actually means it was just middling. Of course, the rating always has to be taken in conjunction with the review itself, but it's an instant guide - did the reviewer like it a lot, a little or not at all? If it doesn't tell a reader that, it's useless.

Then there are a great many review bloggers who won't touch self-published works. They say: I can get all the reading I want from the mainstream publishing houses, I know their books have been properly edited, I know they'll be of a professional standard, I'll probably enjoy them and besides, I don't have the time to trawl through a mountain of self-published dross to find the few gems. That's fine, no problem with any of that, but it does totally play into the hands of the publishers. Of course they don't want their tame reviewers looking at self-published books, they want them advertising their own catalogue, naturally.

As for those who say that all self-published books are rubbish - wrong, wrong, wrong. I'm only a sample of one, but in my experience the self-published books I've read have been virtually indistinguishable from traditionally published works in terms of quality, and can be far more original. However, I concede that my definition of quality may differ from another reviewer's, I'm ruthlessly selective in what I choose to read and I may also be biased towards self-publishers. I also came late to the pleasures of reading large amounts of fantasy, so I missed out on many of the classic works of the genre, which makes me less critical of derivative storylines (although even I roll my eyes when farm boys have to find a magic sword to fulfill a prophecy).

The best self-published books are as good as anything put out by the traditional publishing houses, but then many such authors strive to achieve the same level of presentation, by paying for the professional services a publisher would provide - editing and proof-reading, formatting, cover art and so on. Unfortunately not all self-published books are treated to this kind of polishing, and it's true that many feature numerous typos, grammatical errors, plot holes and dodgy formatting. Although a lot of readers actually don't much care about that, and are surprisingly tolerant of cardboard characters, hackneyed plotlines and implausible contrivances, many are put off by obvious amateurism. This means a lot of work evaluating potential reading material to eliminate everything below your personal threshold of readability.

This is where the blogs are an essential component of the whole publishing industry, both traditional and self-published. Bloggers put out their own opinion of whether a book is worth reading or not, and this is particularly useful for unknown authors. But - crucially - while bloggers who review only traditionally published books, particularly new releases, are serving the needs of the publishing industry, those who review both are addressing the needs of the reader. Most readers, I would suggest, don't care where a book comes from. Those who buy online or read mainly using ebook readers, as increasing numbers do, may not even know who published a particular book. The price is probably the only indication (self-published ebooks are typically half the price of mainstream books). Obviously, bloggers don't have to review self-published books, but those who do are providing a useful service for readers. Just as publishers who ignore the growth of self-publishing will eventually be sidelined, so too will bloggers.

The book world is changing at dizzying speed. The biggest publishers are behemoths locked into antiquated practices, with timescales measured in years, unable to respond quickly to the evolving marketplace, like giant oil tankers trying to slow down. Meanwhile millions of individual readers are making daily incremental adjustments to the new world - ordering online, buying ebook readers, downloading books when they want them, reading books on phones and tablets, effortlessly keeping up with the changes. Reviews have adjusted as well; the slow pace of newspaper and magazine reviewing has given way to instant online feedback via Amazon or Goodreads, and bloggers have taken that a stage further.

But for the reader, blogs are not the final answer. Each one is written by an individual, each has its own quirks and prejudices, its own selection and rating processes, its own blend of reviews, interviews, competitions and off-topic meanderings. Blogs by their nature make it hard to find older posts, and not all bloggers are good at maintaining an up-to-date index of reviews. But the Amazon-style free-for-all doesn't work either; for every thoughtful, detailed review there may be scores of less useful ones - too short, too glowing, too false, too paid for. The reader ends up spending increasing amounts of time trawling the online booksellers, reader sites and blogs to get an overview of opinions on books of interest. For me, as a reader, the gold standard is a detailed, honest, thoughtful review, which tells me both good and bad about a book; and if a reviewer found a book unreadable, I'd like to know that too.

In an ideal world, reviewers and readers would get their heads together and produce some central source of information - a repository of the best unbiased reviews, a super-blog, if you will. To be truly useful, it would have to be independent of the professional publishing houses, and also not subject to 'gaming' by clever self-publishers. That means that participating bloggers would need to disentangle themselves from the embrace of the big publishers and become fully autonomous. I fully understand why many long-established bloggers are reluctant to do that, and there's no doubt that their current relationship with the industry has worked well for some years now.

I'm not trying to change what bloggers do, or the decisions they make on what to review, how they write their reviews, or whether they should employ a rating system. My only objective here is to point out what seems to me to be obvious: that the choices of individual bloggers, made with the best of intentions and with perfectly good reasons, mostly work to the benefit of the publishing industry, and limit their usefulness to potential readers. Fortunately, readers are an astute bunch, and they're perfectly capable of judging the quality of the information presented to them, of checking multiple sources, of downloading samples to judge books directly, of getting together with other readers to exchange information. They also have the ability now to connect directly with authors, and cut out traditional publishers altogether.

Book review bloggers still have connections with both publishers and readers, but at present they are mostly facing the publishers, acting as unpaid advertising for the industry, whether they realise it or not. But it's book buyers who have the power now, and bloggers who realise that and realign themselves to serve the needs of readers first will undoubtedly survive the years of change better than those who resist.

[1] Justin's blog post is here.

[2] Westeros thread on Reviewers vs Honesty is here.

[Update] Ros Jackson of WarpcoreSF has a post about review ratings and context here. Because of her comments, I've added a 'Review Policy' page to this blog, and put my own ratings statistics therein.

[Further update] Justin has published a response to this essay here, to which many bloggers have added comments.

[Yet another update] Independently, Elly Zupko posted an open letter to book bloggers requesting a more open approach to self-published authors on her website here with a number of comments, plus a follow-up post.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Fantasy Review: 'Klondaeg the Monster Hunter' by Steve Thomas

Most fantasy takes itself very seriously, so it's always refreshing to come across something that's just light-hearted fun. I enjoyed the author's previous comedy outing, 'Smite Me, Oh Dark One', as well as both his full-length fantasy books to date, 'An Exercise in Futility' and 'Harbingers of Mortality', so this was a must-buy for me.

The story features the eponymous monster hunter, his two-headed talking axe, a shape-shifting gnome, a retired hero, an oracle and a god or three, as well as a whole galaxy of monsters, and... well, no, I don't think I'll spoil the surprise by saying any more about it. It's laugh out loud funny, and if some of the jokes fall a little flat, it's partly because they arrive so fast it's hard to keep up. Recommended for anyone depressed by reading too much of the grimdark and gritty realism which infests the genre these days. Four stars.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Fantasy Review: 'Daughter of Dragons' by Kathleen H Nelson

I really like the premise of this one - a human child is left as a sacrifice for a dragon who decides instead to raise her with her own brood. When eventually the dragon-girl is forced to return to the human world, the resulting collision of cultures is very funny. The author has clearly thought through all the ramifications of the situation - Lathmi eats raw meat, for instance, and is ultra-strong and scarred from growing up around creatures not only much bigger than her, but equipped with vicious claws and teeth. And she really thinks she IS a dragon!

The background world is the usual generic template - there are peasants grubbing around in the dirt, boorish and ignorant, and a sprinkling of cities, where the rich and powerful live in luxury, while the lower ranks live in abject poverty with a fairly easy-going attitude towards sanitation and the laws of property. So nothing very original there. It also leads to some fairly lazy plot devices - attacks by ruffians of one sort or another to create dramatic tension and push the story along. I've never understood quite why these fantasy worlds have to be so lawless - in reality, any world with so much corruption and violence would be unable to operate at all, or would devise means to deal with it. And outlaws would never fight to the death, as they so often do in books - they steal from those unable to fight back, and then retreat as soon as there's any real opposition.

Apart from all the outlaws, rogues and thieves, there is also a Big Bad, called the Dark One (now there's an original name), with a minion and a number of summoned demons as runarounds. I don't really see the attraction in world domination, myself, but it seems to be a popular ambition in fantasy. Fortunately there are some nice additional touches here - the demons are not just generic evil thingies, but actually have independent personalities and act on their own agendas.

The magic of this world isn't particularly original either. It's not clear to me whether magical ability has to be inborn, or can be acquired by anyone willing to learn, but there are various kinds of spells - the kind that involves drawing hexagrams on the floor, the kind that can be done just by mind-power and the kind that involves knowing the true name of things. There's a price to pay, too, so that spell-makers can use a great deal of energy, both mental and physical, and while using magic they are vulnerable to other sorcerers. This is fine. The problem with all this is that there seem to be few limits to what can be done, and sometimes it's all just too convenient. The plot requires the good guys to find out something about the bad guys? Let's have a dream-spell and go in disembodied form to his hide-out. Even though this was actually a lovely dramatic sequence, nicely done, it still felt like a bit of a cheat. And later on, when our heroes get into a bit of bother, they conveniently have a reason why they can't just whip up a spell or two and escape. This is always a problem with magic, though, but here I don't feel the author quite makes the constraints convincing enough.

Behind all this rather unoriginal surface, however, is an interesting story of two species, both intelligent and resourceful, with their own cultures, beliefs and lifestyles. The dragons in this book are not cute or anthropomorphic, they are fearsome creatures with a different way of looking at the world. The humans are not exactly civilised, and both sides have their share of aggression and intolerance. Lathmi is caught between the two worlds, neither one thing nor the other, and although she eats raw meat with her bare hands, she has her own measure of wisdom and is not the barbarian the humans mistake her for. This dichotomy raises all the difficult questions: how much of so-called civilisation really matters anyway? what's the good of table manners when it's not safe to walk the streets? and the ultimate question, what does it really mean to be human?

The author isn't afraid to address those questions head on, and she also has the courage to follow her characters and their difficulties to their logical conclusions. So sometimes they fail, they get hurt, they get angry and frustrated, they make stupid decisions or mistakes and sometimes, when faced with insuperable odds, they may die. So far, so good. Apart from Lathwi herself, the other main characters - Pieter the trapper, Liselle the sorcerer, Jamus the lady's man, and Pawl the swordsman - are all nicely drawn and sympathetic. And of course the dragons are terrific characters in their own right. The minor characters are less interesting, and the bad guys - well, I've never been a big fan of irredeemable evil. I also wasn't much fussed about the idea that all the ruffians, mercenaries and so on were 'Southerners', but it seemed logical that the uneducated peasants were a superstitious bunch, willing to sacrifice the odd virgin for good fortune.

There are quite a few minor typos and grammar issues, but nothing overwhelmingly awful, and on the whole the writing is fine. The final chapters were a bit of a muddle of dragons, demons, mercenaries and magic, so that it was hard sometimes to work out quite what was going on, but happily the author wasn't afraid to take difficult decisions and managed to avoid the sugar-sweet ending. Of course, the magic was a bit convenient, but I very much liked that the final confrontation was largely a question of female strength and spirit. The character of Lathmi was very well conceived and executed from beginning to end, and the dragons are wonderful, both endearing and also entirely alien. A very readable, entertaining story with plenty of action, let down only by an uninspired set of villains and a rather too unlimited version of magic. Three stars.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Fantasy Review: 'Children of Another God' by T C Southwell

This was one I picked up for free in my early days of Kindle enthusiasm, and, as always with free books, there's no knowing quite what you'll find when you open it up. This one has a fascinating premise - the Mujar, a race of demi-god-like people with vast powers, who have an uneasy and unfriendly relationship with the resident humans of their world. The humans despise them because they won't use their powers for good, and seem oblivious to the usual human emotions, although they sometimes form loose clan bonds with them, providing the 'comforts' the Mujar crave (although they don't need them) in exchange for work and occasional protection. They can't be killed, but humans trap them in pits from which they can't escape.

Talsy, an eighteen year old, forms a bond with one of the last free Mujar, Chanter, and uses him to escape from her dull life. They form a kind of clan bond, and travel through the landscape getting into and out of trouble, while Chanter attempts to fulfill a commitment acquired from an earlier encounter. And, as far as the plot goes, that's about it. There are two forms of plot device in use: Talsy wanders off by herself, some bloke attempts to rape her; and Chanter tries to rescue her, gets captured and the evil humans (which is almost all of them) try to inflict as much damage on him as they can. This gets tedious pretty quickly. It's a shame that the author's imagination can think of no better plot device than violence and (for women) sexual violence. Are humans really so devoid of any semblance of civilisation that violence is the first and last resort?

This book exemplifies everything that's good about self-published books, and at the same time a great deal that's less good. On the good side of the equation, the story is brimming with creativity. The concept of the Mujar is brilliant, and the author captures the 'otherness' of Chanter perfectly; not just by description, but by his actions and the way he speaks. There are some delightful interludes when he goes off to be his wild self for a while, changing form into a bird or a wolf or a dolphin, as the mood takes him. The living death of his captivity, trapped by accident or design, is very moving. The mysterious Black Riders, while having the world's least original name, are also intriguing, and the backstory, the history of this world, is touched on here and there, and there's obviously a detailed mythology behind the fairly simple upper levels. The scenario also raises some quite interesting questions about the nature of humanity.

But the negative is that the author doesn't quite seem to know what to do with these great ideas. The world-building is perfunctory, to put it mildly. There are vast expanses of nothing very much, and here and there the occasional city, depicted as a seething pit of corruption, violence and general nastiness. And Chanter and Talsy simply wander around, without much obvious purpose, and, quite frankly, without using any intelligence whatsoever. When they come to a city, Talsy decides to get fresh supplies. Well, that's fine. But why then walk right through the city, dangerous for both of them? There must be other ways to cross the river that divides it. There must also be other, safer ways of obtaining supplies - towns or villages or trading posts, for instance, or simply finding a farm and offering to work for a day or two. And Talsy is irritatingly helpless, swooning or falling over or getting lost or putting herself at the mercy of lecherous men at the most inconvenient moments. Chanter isn't exactly the best protector, either, since he always seems to disappear at crucial moments, leaving Talsy in peril and setting up another dramatic rescue.

Apart from the mysterious Chanter, none of the characters filling the landscape are at all compelling. Mostly they are cartoonish in their simplicity - brutish, ignorant louts, hell-bent on mindless destruction, and this goes for both the peasants and the more educated members of society. Very occasionally there will be an act of random kindness, but it seems to be more a matter of plot contrivance than anything else. None of the characters felt truly rounded or believable, they were all simply ciphers for good or evil behaviour. Talsy ought to be more realistic, but her behaviour is mostly irrational and her function is either to reveal information by asking naive questions, or to get herself into trouble and create a dramatic incident.

It never made sense to me that the local population was so united in its hatred of the Mujar. Given that the Mujar never harm them, and could, if treated well, bestow 'wishes' on them, it would seem more sensible to try to exploit that facility. And everyone, peasant and ruler alike, knew all about them and hated them equally; more likely, surely, that the uneducated would fear them, and have only a rudimentary idea of their powers, while the more educated would understand them better. But no, everyone hates them, to the point of mindless resentment even when Chanter uses his powers for their benefit. I found this really unbelievable, and unfortunately much of the tension at various dramatic moments hinges on this factor - oh no, Chanter's been captured again, the evil humans are going to beat him senseless and throw him in a pit, just because he's a Mujar. Can he escape? Can the helpless Talsy rescue him?

I found this a frustrating read. In many ways, it's an interesting story, filled with original ideas, but the author seems to be more interested in the mythology of the Mujar and admiring Chanter's beautiful body than in developing a coherent and absorbing story, or compelling characters. The plot is driven by the sheer stupidity of some characters, a ludicrous division into good and evil (the good are the 'chosen', everyone else is 'unworthy'), combined with the Mujar's largely unexplained rules which prohibit any kind of sensible relationship with the humans. There were moments of poetic mysticism, which then lurched into quite unbelievable contrivances, and occasionally became a simplistic lecture on environmentalism (let's all live in harmony with nature, people, and not kill anything or build machines or use oil or - heaven forfend - cut down trees). There was also a rather too heavy romantic element, which is clearly going to get more complicated in later books in the series. On the plus side, the writing is fine, and thankfully free of typos or clunkiness. For those who like this sort of thing, the author has written many more books in several different series, and the first of each is permanently free, so at least you can try it out. Unfortunately it's not for me. Two stars.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Sci-Fi Review: 'Caliban's War' by James S A Corey

I don't read a lot of scifi these days, although it was my drug of choice for a decade or more, but I love Daniel Abraham's fantasy works so this is a must-read for me. Written under a pseudonym with co-author Ty Franck, this is the second in the Expanse series. If the first had a sort of detective-noir feel to it, this one is much more classic space-opera, with space ships, inter-planetary alliances, zero-gravity battles, hi-tech weaponry and all the usual shenanigans, and although there is a bit of a mystery to solve, it's no more than backdrop for the action. I suppose a lot of scifi falls into the traditional grooves, and this one feels like it's made from the Firefly cookie cutter. Holden is the renegade captain (Mal), Alex the ace pilot (Wash without the dinosaurs), Naomi is Zoe and Amos is Jayne. There's even a Kaylee, Sam the red-headed pixie on Tycho, but thank all the gods, there's no lipsticky Inara.

Holden is the sole point of view character retained for this outing; Miller, the shoot first forget the questions cop, was.... hmm, eaten by? killed by? absorbed by? the alien monster thingy in part one. We have three new main characters; Avasarala is an elderly diplomat from Earth, Prax is the botanist from the moon Ganymede, and Bobbie is the marine from Mars (sorry, just can't say Martian marine, sounds too weird). These soon coalesce into two pairs and eventually overlap, and the authors manage to sweep the plot forward by deftly swapping from one to another. All four are interesting, well-drawn characters, and the minor characters are likeable too, especially Holden's crew. Prax comes in handy for the sciencey bits, while Avasarala is pulling the political strings of the complex tensions between Earth, Mars, big business and the outer planets. And Bobbie? She makes one hell of a warrior babe, that's all I can say.

The book seemed slow to get going, I thought. There was a lot of scene-setting and general background that wasn't exactly filler, but didn't seem to get very far, but to be fair, there are several new characters and a heap of backstory to get across. But almost imperceptibly the pace picks up and then we're off into the usual action-packed whirlwind. There were a few creaky moments, when the rationale for a character to do something obviously essential for the plot seemed a bit dubious, but really, it doesn't matter much. And just occasionally, when they do something completely and utterly in character, it feels absolutely punch-the-air glorious.

Although this is sci-fi, the technology is really not the point. It's obvious that a great deal of research has been done behind the scenes, but it very rarely breaks out into impenetrable jargon, and even when it does, there is usually another character there to say, on the reader's behalf, what does that mean, exactly? But none of it stretches credulity overmuch, and for me, as a fantasy fan, it's no problem to accept the high-tech 'magic' of instant wound-repairing medical equipment or fancy weaponry, in the same way I accept wizards with healing spells, or a magic sword. The nature of the setting also lends itself to some very atmospheric moments peculiar to space opera - the zero-gravity bounces, the weird moons, the outside-the-ship moments, the sheer scale of the universe - which the authors convey very well.

My biggest complaint would be that too much of the plot hinges on finding and recovering unharmed Prax's small daughter, Mei. Given the interstellar nature of the conflict and the countless unnamed minions who died along the way, it seems unrealistic to devote so much effort to one child. I appreciate the need to humanise the conflict, but it still seems excessive. There also seemed to be a lot of emphasis on individuals who got close to mental breakdown, either by highly stressed circumstances, or lack of sleep, or just personality. I'm not quite sure what purpose this served, except to ramp up the tension a bit. But these are small points.

The ending fell a little flat for me, seeming to be no more than a sequence of high tension encounters which were actually resolved very quickly, without any unexpected twists or great drama. The authors are very good at not spinning the action sequences out too far, but these felt almost abrupt. There were a few moments of near Galaxy-Quest-ness, but it's hard to write this kind of stuff without evoking parody, and the authors deftly sidestepped the worst of it. And the dramatic reveal in the final paragraphs was hardly unpredictable - well, if I could see it coming, anyone could.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed most of the book, up until the last few chapters, even more than the previous one in the series. I liked Bobbie the marine, I liked the little romance Holden had going, I liked seeing more of Amos, Alex and Naomi (who make a great team), and Avasarala had all the best lines. The writing is taut, the pacing is perfect, and the authors ping-pong the plot between points of view effortlessly. And no, I have no idea who wrote which characters. A good entertaining read with plenty of action and a few moments of real depth lurking beneath all the drama. Four stars.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Review: 'Building A Blog For Readers' by Nick Thacker

This is a free book that purports to help you become a successful blogger by asking 101 questions; when you have answered them all, you should be able to create and build that successful blog. What is a successful blog, you might ask? That's probably question 5, 'What do you hope to gain from your blog?'. So yes, you really do have to provide all the answers yourself. It's aimed squarely at those who want to start blogging in order to make money from it. I'd always thought people start blogging because they have thoughts or events or opinions or wisdom that they want to share with the world, but apparently quite a lot of them just want to get rich. So although the book pays lip-service to those who blog purely for fun or out of generosity, there's a lot of talk about growing and business plans and profits and the like.

I'm not exactly the target audience for this book. Although I have a blog, it exists solely so that I have somewhere to dump all my Goodreads reviews so I can easily access them. I don't do anything to advertise it, apart from putting the url on my profile page, and just once linking from a book review to a series review that was only on the blog. It's a constant source of amazement to me that people manage to find it and read it and post comments on it and even tweet about it, it seems. I check my stats every day and admire the (very small) numbers. But I'm not interested in 'growing' it, and I'm certainly not interested in making money from it.

Nevertheless, I thought this book might be interesting to me as a (sort of) blogger. First problem is that on Kindle for PC, the ink is green. Seriously. It's OK on the Android app, so I don't know what that's all about. Second problem is that there just isn't much content. Each page (or question) is just a few lines long, and really, it's not exactly earth shattering. Here's question 21, for example, 'What preparation does your ideal reader go through before they purchase?':

'What kinds of research does your ideal reader do before they purchase big-ticket items?
'Do they read Consumer Reports, other blogs, Amazon reviews, or ask their spouse? Do they have enough disposable income to buy whatever they want, whenever they want it?
'Answering this question can give you a few insights:
'It can help you understand your future readers better
'It can help you offer products that they need and want
'It can give you an idea of places to promote your website and blog'

And that's it, in its entirety. And then, towards the end of the book, there's an 'inspiration from other bloggers' section, where they say - pretty much the same things. Now, I can imagine that all this might just possibly be helpful to a few folks without any idea where to start, by focusing them on what matters to them and pointing out a few pitfalls. There are also a few tips about technical stuff which are slightly informative. There's nothing you couldn't find out from a couple of hours on Google (and reading a few blogs!), but it's free, so it just about scrapes two stars. But really, don't pay for this.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Review: 'The Kinshield Legacy' by K C May

At first glance this is a fairly standard fantasy story. There's the humble man destined to be king, there's a warrior babe (actually, a whole organisation of warrior babes), there's a villain bent on world domination, and there's a bit of a mystery: whatever happened to the previous king? What about the magic sword, I hear you say? And the prophecy? And there ought to be a wizard... Yep, got those too. There's probably nothing here that the average fantasy fan hasn't seen a hundred times before, and there are no prizes at all for guessing where things will end up, it's obvious right from the start.

But still, there's always room for a new take on the old stories, and this one has a fresh feel to it. The hero has a certain charm, for a start. It's very pleasant in these days of gritty realism and world-weary, cynical heroes to find one who actually behaves like a hero, and rescues damsels (or blokes) in distress; although, being of humble origins, he does all this while wiping his nose on his sleeve and scratching his balls. There's a certain amount of puking and shitting going on too. But - praise be! - no rape, no lovingly described disembowellings, a very minimal amount of torture and the fights are nicely done, realistic and not too long, without wallowing in it. And three cheers for a hero who is himself rescued from time to time. I do like proper teamwork on a quest (well, of course there's a quest, didn't I mention that?).

The setting is pretty traditional, too - a low-technology sort-of medieval world, with a clear class system and the usual array of merchants, craftsmen and the like. The towns have a grubby underbelly, with poverty, thievery and bad sanitation practices. There's some nice original terminology to spice things up: warriors are called battlers, for instance, mercenaries are warrant knights (and also serve as a rough and ready form of law and order) and the local chief of town Whatever is Lordover Whatever. None of it is hard to work out, but it gives the created world a feeling of otherness, as if it's not just another rehash of the medieval period.

Some grumbles. Firstly, the bad guy is just too much of a caricature. He's just evil incarnate, with no redeeming features whatsoever. And he has some very powerful magic, so everything just falls into his hands (with some nice exceptions; the magic sword, it turns out, has a mind of its own). Frankly, I've never quite understood the attraction of world domination myself. If you have all that magic at your disposal, why not use it to become unspeakably rich, or (as in one book I read) to win at gambling, or pull women. Sounds like far more fun than all that bothersome ruling. But there's a nice touch in all this; the villain, it turns out, has a plot-related reason for all that villainy, it's not something trite like being abandoned by his mother, or dropped on his head at birth, or (the usual reason) just because...

Secondly, the inevitable problem with rehashing the traditional tropes is that large parts of the plot are just too damn predictable. Yes, there are occasional minor twists, but basically anyone with some knowledge of the genre could map most of the story out way ahead of time. So although the plot builds up a nice head of steam and rattles along very pleasantly, every once in a while there's a real eye-rolling moment, and the magic is a very convenient device. Not quite deus ex machina, but slightly contrived, shall we say. In the middle things got quite complicated. There are a lot of characters, a lot of hopping about from one town to another, and a lot of pieces of information known by some characters but not by others, and I lost track of who was doing what where - and often why, as well. But the author was obviously on top of it, and it's not the sort of book where you absolutely have to keep up or you miss the point of the ending.

This is not a particularly deep book, so anyone looking for profound subtext should move right along. Nor is it wildly original, there were too many cliches and a certain amount of contrivance. The good characters are a little implausibly good, the bad guys are just a little too evil, and nothing terribly unexpected happens. Nevertheless, it's good solid entertainment, well written and well thought out and with enough freshness to make it palatable to all but the most jaded tastes. I liked the idea that the ex-peasant and future king has appalling table manners (well, he would, wouldn't he?), I liked that there were so many competent female characters, I liked the many minor characters who were well rounded and interesting, without hogging the limelight, I liked the little touches of humour. An enjoyable undemanding read. Three stars.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Review: 'If Walls Could Talk' by Lucy Worsley

This is a fairly lightweight and easy to read discussion of the history of the four main rooms of the house: living room, bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. Starting with the medieval manor house with its single large room, the author describes the origins of each separate room, how they were used in the centuries since and what that says about the society of the time. This could have been very dull and dry, but actually it's a lively read, filled with anecdotes and stories of the people of the time, gleaned from contemporary writings. Occasionally the author resorts to the more speculative 'could have been', and if I have my suspicions that some of this is perpetuating popular myths, it's none the less entertaining, for all that.

For anyone interested in the medieval period, there's a lot of material here that doesn't usually find its way into history books. Most interesting to me are the fixed beliefs that people of earlier centuries held which affected not just their lifestyles but also their health and (ultimately) their life expectancy. And yet there was a curious logic to it. Not eating raw fruit and vegetables? Dangerous in the age before clean piped water. And almost anything might be feared without the knowledge of how diseases could be spread. Even today, when we have more scientists at work than ever before, there's still mystique surrounding what we should eat and drink, and how best to live our lives.

Anyone looking for the raw research data won't find it here, although there's a detailed bibliography. It's also got a very English feel to it. The rest of the UK gets an occasional mention, the rest of the world or recorded history before medieval times, hardly a word. This is a gentle overview of the subject, not inaccurate but sugar-coated and pre-formed for easy digestibility. It's also short; fully a third of the book on my Kindle is taken up with the bibliography, index and a whole series of pictures which should more properly have been in the body of the text, but presumably wouldn't fit. But as light background reading, it's useful enough and quite enjoyable. Three stars.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Review: 'Not A Gold Rush' by Dave Cornford and Steven Lewis

Self-publishing is very much the flavour of the month, but the whole industry is awash with rumour and speculation, with very few hard facts. This book attempts to fill the gap a little, if not with hard facts, then at least with a few statistics. In February 2012, the authors sent questionnaires to 1,007 self-publishing authors and this rather slim volume is the result: an assessment of what works and what doesn't for authors publishing and marketing their own books.

Of course, a certain amount of caution is in order. The respondents were self-selected, for one thing, although it's hard to know how else to choose - randomly pulling names from Amazon, perhaps. But it's possible that these particular authors were willing to participate because they were more successful, or simply more vocal or more committed to self-publishing.

For new authors looking to this survey for reassurance, it's not easy to find. Successful authors were more likely to be women, more likely to have a degree, had been writing for longer, wrote more per day, had more books for sale. None of these are things an individual can do much about. Romance was the most successful genre, but again, a committed fantasy writer is hardly likely to switch. But looking at the figures more closely shows just how misleading statistics can be. Almost half of romance writers in the survey had previously had a traditional publishing contract; in other words, they were professional writers with an established fan-base who simply switched to self-publishing to make more money (and perhaps to have more control over their writing).

In the detail of the report is quite a lot of meat about what might actually help to sell self-published books. Getting professional help with editing, proof-reading and cover art, for one thing, and also the fairly obvious one - get plenty of reviews (although paid reviews are not effective). Getting the word out, whether by blog or Twitter or via email, is also important. There are some useful ideas here, and although there's nothing wildly original, it's good to see some numbers rather than speculation or anecdote.

This is a very short book but for serious self-publishers it's a must read. There's a mass of useful information, and although some of it is discouraging (half the respondents earned less than $500 in the previous year), there are plenty of helpful tips, and the underlying message is simple: keep writing, be professional, build your fan base and you can earn money from your books. I would have liked more graphs and charts, and more raw data instead of analysis, and perhaps a lower price for such a modest volume. However, for those squinting at the graphs on a Kindle, they are all available in an easier-to-read format on the authors' website. Three stars.

Review: 'The Way of the Black Beast' by Stuart Jaffe

I'm not at all sure what to make of this book. On the one hand, it has a lot of elements that I normally find appealing: a post-apocalyptic setting, a kickass female protagonist, characters with a lot of history, an unpredictable world. But somehow, it didn't grab me, and I've been puzzling over why. There's nothing terrible about it, nothing that jumps out at me - it's well plotted, the characters have depth, the world is full of surprises (and I love to be surprised!), but for some odd reason it didn't resonate with me. Just a mood thing, I suppose.

One problem is that I often found it difficult to visualise the settings. Sometimes I would have to reread a section because I'd misunderstood where things were or what was going on. I'm still not very clear whether the setting is meant to be some real-world place, or if it's a created world. I kept seeing it in my mind as the southwestern US, but I could be completely wrong about that. Either way, the book failed to provide me with as much detail about the backdrop as I wanted, but another reader likely wouldn't find it a problem.

However, the world is filled with a whole heap of weirdness. The author has a stunning imagination to create so many odd beasties and devices and situations. There was almost too much creativity (and that's not a criticism that's often levelled at a fantasy work, let's be honest). But perhaps less of the bizarre and a bit more of the familiar would have helped me get into it. In some ways, the deluge of originality reminded me of my one attempt at a China Mièville book. It's not that I dislike weirdness, but I'm not too keen on the absolutely anything goes end of the spectrum.

The plot - well, what plot? Malja (the kickass female, who has a wicked curved blade called Viper) and her mute magician sidekick, Tommy, amble round the countryside trying to find information about two men who mistreated Malja, so that she can take her revenge. And that's about it. Along the way, they have some adventures, make some new friends, Malja (and Viper) kill a lot of people and mutant beasties, while she tries to prevent Tommy from killing anyone because killing is a Very Bad Thing. Now, it's not that any of this is uninteresting, but it's a fairly delicate thread on which to hang an entire book, and it was all a bit episodic. It just felt like a series of setpiece battles, interspersed with odd moments of introspection round the campfire, where Malja muses on the fact that killing is a Very Bad Thing. Sometimes the musings jumped about rather abruptly - Malja's childhood with the bad guys, her childhood with the good guy, her meeting with Tommy, and a few other odd events in her past - and it wasn't always easy to keep up.

Malja herself is a fairly standard issue Warrior Babe (tm), basically a killing machine, and somehow the odd doubts she feels don't quite work to make her a fully rounded character, at least not for me, although I did enjoy finding out where she came from, that was a fun reveal. The author has put a lot of effort into developing Malja - not just her history, but her feelings for Tommy and her interactions with the other characters, and if it didn't totally convince me, that's partly a side effect of her Warrior Babe role. The (almost) invincible warrior, whether male or female, is not one I find particularly compelling. Tommy - now, Tommy's interesting, but he would be much more interesting if we could either hear him speak or get a viewpoint from inside his head, but failing that he's no more than a blank.

The other characters are actually rather well-drawn, although in some cases it takes nearly the whole book to get to the point where we really understand them. This is partly because they pop in and out of the plot quite a bit, and partly also because most of them start off as bad guys, and it takes a while to shift loyalties and see them as good guys (that is, those who are on Malja's side). But the author deals with that, and their changing status is reflected in Malja's attitude to them - it takes a long time for her to trust them.

The magic system is rather nice - each spell is worked by a single tattoo on the magician's body, and they prepare the spell by focusing on the tattoo. So spells take time to be generated, and they also drain the body of energy, making the magician not just tired but also hungry. Now this is all quite neat. What I disliked is that there seem to be virtually no limits to the sort of spells that can be created. Energy fields, heat and light, levitation, physical changes to the body, creating artifacts, even huge buildings - all of this and much more can be done, and it has the inevitable result that in a sticky moment, a new spell will turn up to create a problem for our heroes or to rescue them. This is just too close to deus ex machina to be comfortable.

One aspect of magic that was quite cool was the association with music. The author is obviously a blues fan, because there's a troop of blues musicians who have a very clever and original role in the story. I also liked the implications of the 'frames' that play a pivotal role in the plot (I won't say any more, because I don't want to spoil the surprise). It does mean that in future books the author has a huge amount of scope to take the story wherever he wants to go.

The final quarter or so of the book builds to an action-packed climax. Actually, there's a bundle of action all the way through (Malja's a Warrior Babe, after all), making the whole book seem like a loosely connected series of escalating battles, separated by those introspective moments round the campfire. For those who enjoy lots of bloody fights against increasingly difficult opponents, this book will suit you very well. I found myself wondering from time to time just why they were all doing this (revenge? a flimsy excuse for putting your life on the line quite so many times). It was also rather convenient that nobody actually seemed to want to kill Malja. After a humungous battle, which our heroes survive by the skin of their teeth, the bad guys invite them into their headquarters and sit down to explain things. And this happened repeatedly. Either they want Malja dead (in which case fight to kill and don't talk about it) or else they don't (in which case, call off the aggressive minions). But maybe I'm looking too hard for a logical plot in this kind of book.

Now if this sounds quite negative, this is just how it took me. Maybe on a different day, under different circumstances, I'd have enjoyed it more. I had to keep stopping and starting, which was disruptive; on a long journey, where I could have got really into it, it would have worked better for me. On the plus side, it's well written, with just a few minor typos, it has good pacing and plenty of action, as well as an imaginative range of beasties, which added a degree of unpredictability to every encounter. The use of magic, both via tattoo or by music, is ingenious, and I like the idea that the misuse of magic caused the downfall of civilisation, so that magicians are now both feared and loathed (and often kept in slavery). The role of magic to provide power (in batteries, for instance) is a neat idea. The encounters with the remnants of civilisation were very cool. And I really like the implication that modern civilisation before the Devastation was driven by very powerful magic (like electricity, presumably). So although it didn't entirely work for me, I still enjoyed it. Three stars.