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Friday, 31 August 2012

Fantasy Review: 'The Queen of Mages' by Benjamin Clayborne

This is a curious one. I’m used to fantasy that starts off with swords being waved around, or a few magical thunderbolts, or perhaps some bizarre creature putting in an appearance. This is quite different: a political assassination, then it’s straight into an aristocratic world of balls and hunts and elegant meals and jewels and finery, and a mother trying to pair off her shy son with the wealthy (and beautiful) young widow next door. With very few changes, it could be a Regency romance. However, the beautiful widow also has a strange but intriguing ability to start fires with her mind, and that’s enough to keep me reading on despite the lace and robin’s egg soup.

The other big hurdle to overcome initially is the vast (and I mean vast) array of names and titles and estates. I felt I should be taking notes to try to keep up with it. A map would have helped with some of the references to places, too. It seemed as if every single character was named, and that means title, first name, family name, estate, plus all the servants, local officials, innkeepers, even the horses, sometimes. In the end, I just let it wash over me, and that was easy to do, because the writing style is nicely readable, with a generous dollop of humour, although it’s sometimes an odd and distracting mixture of modern idiom and old-fashioned language.

The world-building is a strange mix. On the one hand, the background is the totally conventional one: kings, dukes and counts, the usual array of merchants and craftsmen and peasants, castles and towns and villages and inns in a largely agricultural landscape. It's low-technology (no guns or steam), although the way of life, with trips into the countryside for recreation and elaborate entertainment for the wealthy, feels vaguely eighteenth century. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it feels very ordinary, somehow, as if there’s no scope for anything unexpected to happen. No orcs or dragons or unfeasibly hairy and aggressive beasties to pop out of the woods, nothing more threatening than a bear. The character names don’t help, either, for although they’re not all boring traditional (real-world) names, they’re also not distinctive enough to be memorable. They fall very much at the John Smith end of the naming spectrum, rather than the Drizzt Do’Urden end. Altogether it’s difficult to get fully immersed in the fantasy world when these aspects are so un-fantastic.

On the other hand, there are some nicely unusual touches - such as the trained valo or vala each titled aristocrat has, assigned on reaching adulthood, and far more than simply a servant. And the magic, while very low-key so far, is intriguing. It seems to have appeared out of nowhere in only a few people, and I’m very interested to find out just why that should be. I also very much like the differences in the way it manifests in different characters (I won’t say any more than that). The religion, too, is nicely worked out, with eight different ‘aspects’ and the effect that has on religious practices. This is incorporated into the marriage ceremony too, which is very neatly done.

One thing the author does really well is the change in point of view. Very often authors use this as an excuse to keep two or three sub-plots moving until everything merges at the end, but here it's used very cleverly as a way to keep the main plot on the boil, while also filling in background, developing characters and relationships, and simply giving the reader a variety of perspectives. There are also a small number of chapters taken from the point of view of a different character altogether, where necessary, and this works well to fill in gaps in the plot or, in one case, to introduce an important character. Very nicely done, and even when the four main characters split up and the points of view follow the different plot-lines, it’s still driven by the needs of the plot rather than some arbitrary system of alternating.

The characters didn’t quite work for me, but that’s mainly because I didn’t much like any of them. Amira is wilful, Dardan is petulant, Katin is grumpy and Liam - OK, Liam’s all right. Maybe that’s just my weakness for charming young men taking over, who knows. Even though I understood why they behaved that way (and everyone's motivations were very clear), it didn't make them engaging, to me, anyway. But that’s just a personal thing, they were interesting enough, particularly Katin, I think, who has a sad background and finds herself making difficult choices. I had a lot of sympathy for her, even while I disliked her. And there's clearly more to Liam than meets the eye. Of the minor characters - well, let’s just say that it pays not to get too attached to any of them. This book has quite a horrifying death count.

The biggest problem I had with the book is one that’s hard to put my finger on. Tone, maybe. Superficially it starts off as a frothy and lighthearted romp, with a strong romantic streak, a caper, basically. There’s a rather prim degree of morality - prostitution is a great evil, the good guys are heroically restrained before marriage (and when they do succumb, they feel obliged to marry immediately), the Big Bad is seen to be evil because he attempts to rape the heroine (he doesn’t get further than an attempted kiss, actually, and then even his mother apologises afterwards). Again, it's more like a Regency romance than anything else at times. Yet there are moments of desperate action, with bodies piling up in droves, much darker episodes, actions have serious consequences and our noble heroes don’t hesitate to kill anyone who gets in their way. There’s also some moderately graphic sex. It’s as if the book can’t decide whether it’s frivolous and amusing entertainment, or is aiming more for gritty realism, and ends up veering alarmingly from one to the other, at times. But generally it gets darker and less frivolous as it goes along, so don't be fooled by the light-hearted early chapters.

Second problem is the length of the book. Now, big is very much the standard in fantasy, but I have no problem with that, but all those pages have to be filled with something. Too much of this book is padded with excess dialogue or a detailed description of scenery or food or explanation of exactly how something was done. It would have worked better for me with some tightening up. Then in the second half, as our hapless main characters are racing about looking for help, they stagger from one estate to the next, or yet another village, and it all begins to seems quite repetitive. There was a point where I would actually have liked a band of marauding orcs (or maybe Vaslanders) to appear, just to relieve the monotony of approaching yet another duke or count who might help. Now, I fully understand why all this happened, and it's extremely realistic, this is exactly how people would behave in these circumstances (right, we've tried count this and duke that, let's try baron so-and-so...). It's also a good way of demonstrating the different reactions to this new magic, both in the aristocracy (still looking for political advantage, for the most part) and in the common folk (varying from uneasy acceptance to outright fear). There's also the mages themselves, and how they deal with their new powers. All of this is interesting and I applaud the author for covering the consequences of the magical outbreak so thoroughly, but it did inevitably involve some repetition. Although, to be fair, the different and wildly unpredictable ways the various lords and ladies reacted lead to some seriously exciting moments, it has to be said.

The plot itself is rather good, and especially in the second half of the book, when the action takes over from too much frivolity, things get very dramatic indeed. The climactic battle is very well done, an extremely tense page-turner and very realistic, with everything following logically from what has gone before and the nature of the characters involved and their powers. Not the slightest sign of a deus ex machina anywhere. The aftermath sets the scene for the next book and also hints at some of the personal consequences for those with power. The second half of the book definitely has a more serious tone, as characters have to face up to the reality of the new world order - the mages with their power, and how it should be used.

I enjoyed this book a great deal, especially the second half. The author follows the ideas of the world he created and its magic system with impeccable logic, and isn't afraid to face up to the consequences, good or bad. I could have done with less emphasis on the romantic aspects, and the political machinations were impossible to follow without a basic list of families and estates, or better still, a map, but the action moments were terrific, genuinely exciting and unpredictable. Overall, I found it very difficult to rate. The plot, the magic system and the realism of people's actions and motivations would be a four star read, but for me personally the rather ordinary nature of the setting and some unevenness in parts of the writing keep it to three stars. If the story moves out beyond the immediate kingdom into the wider world in the next book and the author finds a more consistent tone, the rest of the series will be terrific.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

SciFi Review: 'Greener Grass' by Michael J Sullivan

This is a science fiction short story, a very different animal from the author's usual epic fantasy. It has all his trademark humour, fortunately (I love a book which makes me laugh), and is satisfyingly sharp and snappy, with a neat twist at the end, as required by all self-respecting short stories. It's also deeply thought-provoking and unsettling. I can't say much more without giving away the surprise, but the old adage 'be careful what you wish for' comes to mind. How the reader interprets it says as much about them as about the story itself, to be honest. A very interesting piece of writing. I'm not sure it has the legs to be expanded to novel-length, but it works very well in this format. Four stars.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Fantasy Review: 'Thorn' by Intisar Khanani

I loved this book, absolutely loved it. It’s an object lesson for me, actually, in not pre-judging a book, because this one ticks so many of my ‘no’ boxes: it’s YA, it’s a fairy-tale retelling, it’s first person present tense (“I back away...”, “I gaze at him”), it’s more or less a romance, it’s about a princess who doesn’t quite fit in, it has villains with no redeeming characteristics. Had I known all that beforehand, I would never have touched it and I would have missed a lovely, lovely story. As it was, it popped up on a list of free books, I started reading the sample and just kept reading, couldn’t put it down, in fact.

For those who know their fairy tales, this is a reworking of the Goose Girl story. I didn’t know anything about it, so maybe I missed a few subtleties, but I felt it worked perfectly well without any prior knowledge, and apart from a few oddities (like the talking Horse!) there was nothing in there that couldn't be found in conventional fantasy. One of the great strengths of this book is that the characters all feel truly rounded, so even though they are fulfilling traditional roles (the princess, the prince, the witch and so on) they have great depth and believable personalities. The villains seem at first glance to be simplistically cruel and evil, but they all have enough backstory to make them credible, if not exactly sympathetic.

The magic in the book is quite powerful, but the fundamentals are explained clearly enough to be believable, even the talking Horse. The author has thought everything out very carefully, and it works so well that when the heroine is rescued by magical means, it makes perfect sense. Not that she has to be rescued very often, mostly she is perfectly resilient and self-sufficient, and manages to get herself out of trouble and help others as well. I liked, too, that the magic is simply an integral part of life, everyone accepts it and it’s properly regulated. Interestingly, there is also religion, never explained or central to the plot, but just there, as a natural and perfectly normal thing. There are also social customs which are alluded to without full explanations, like a system of debt between people (if someone helps you out, you owe them a debt of comparable value). At one point there’s a discussion of a gift, and whether it incurs an obligation (a debt) or whether it’s just a gift, freely given, and a decision is reached without any attempt to explain the ‘rules’ of such an arrangement to the reader. I rather like this relaxed attitude towards world-building. Some things just are, and don’t need to be elaborated.

The character of Alyssa, the princess, is central to the story, naturally, and the first person narration makes it imperative that she is both likeable and believable. I feel the author pulls this off magnificently. Of course Alyssa makes mistakes sometimes, but she copes well with the strange events which overtake her, and is strong-minded, caring and intelligent without ever turning into the tedious type of kickass female protagonist so often depicted in fantasy these days. On the contrary, she often feels overwhelmed and suffers a great deal, but she always tries to do the right thing, as far as she can. There is a certain amount of angsting, but it's actually understandable, given Alyssa's predicament.

The plot rattles along very nicely, with some unexpected twists and turns. There are villains, of course, so bad things happen, but there are also friends who help out from time to time, just as in real life. Also realistic is that physical encounters have physical effects - if you roll down a cliff, for instance, or get beaten up, there will be cuts and bruises, maybe even broken bones, and time needed to recover. The climax is a bit of a show-stopper, a wonderful outbreak of magical manipulation with everything at stake, and no real certainty of how things will go. And the author neatly side-steps the clich├ęd ending. It's a fairy story, so of course good triumphs over evil, but the way that is achieved is refreshingly different. And there's not the obvious happy ever after, either. Rather, there's an acknowledgement that a lot has happened and there are bound to be scars, and a tentative sense of moving forward.

This book surprised me. It may be YA, but it addresses some very profound issues, like the nature of justice, the corroding effect of revenge, questions of loyalty and trust and honesty, and the inner goodness (or not) of people, regardless of what they look like, or their rank. The romance element follows a traditional path but with great originality and commendable restraint. The writing style is eloquently literate, and I barely noticed the use of first person present tense. I had a very few minor quibbles - there were a few places early on where I wasn't clear about relationships or what exactly was happening - but nothing major enough to spoil my enjoyment. A terrific read. Five stars.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Fantasy Review: 'Assassin's Apprentice' by Robin Hobb

I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to get around to reading Robin Hobb. At the time of writing [August 2012] there are 15 of Hobb’s books in the UK Amazon Kindle charts. So, a popular writer, then. This book was written in 1995, and it makes an interesting contrast with more recent works by other authors, which are far sharper and pacier. This is a slow, intricate read, with a great deal of evocative description, and little in the way of dramatic action at first, although things pick up quite a bit in the second half.

The story is told in the first person by Fitz, the bastard son of the heir to the throne, and therefore everything hinges on his character and the way that is conveyed. Since the story starts when he is only six years old, there is quite a lot of slow development before anything much happens. It does mean, though, that the reader is swept into Fitz’s world in a very direct and engaging way , and Hobb does this very well. We really feel what Fitz feels.

I do have some issues with the plot. Fitz’s very existence causes huge political problems for his father, who is forced (or perhaps chooses, it’s not clear) to abdicate from the succession because of it. The question is, why? Hereditary rulers have an obligation to produce as many heirs as they can, and a few illegitimate ones never cause any grief. A bastard son or three can be relied upon to be loyal to the family without having a claim on the title, except as an emergency backup, so what’s the big deal? They can be sent off to take care of the difficult parts of the realm, leaving the legitimate heirs to run the main show. It’s the middle classes, generally, who have a problem with illegitimacy, since extra children are such an expense to educate or to marry, and might insist on a share of the family business. And down amongst the peasants, an extra child is a bonus again, because it’s one more pair of hands to work the fields or to be sold off for profit. Sweeping generalisation, of course, but still. Now, the king (Fitz’s grandfather) does the sensible thing and has him trained up to be useful to the family, but there is still a strange air of shame hanging over his whole existence.

This is one aspect of fantasy world-building which always fascinates and often frustrates me. An author can impose on their world whatever social conventions the imagination can come up with, so why is it that what they so often come up with is exactly what we find in our own society, sometimes in even more extreme form? Alcohol and gambling are freely available, but drugs and prostitution are illegal. Marriage is a one man, one woman affair. Adultery is bad, sex before marriage is bad, illegitimacy is bad. It’s especially grating when the whole plot hinges on some part of this. The term ‘fitz’ actually means recognised child from outside marriage, so why the agonising over it? But maybe that’s just me.

The story is essentially about Fitz growing up, at first on the sidelines of the royal family, under the rough care of Burrich, one of the stablemasters, and later, when he is brought informally into the fold, as a slightly semi-detached member of the family. It has to be said, it’s a pretty miserable childhood, with no one offering him any affection at all, and he himself is not allowed to grow close to any individual (human or animal). I found it strange that no one, in the whole castle, takes much interest in him beyond what’s required of them as part of their job, and everyone seems to dislike him simply because of who he is, which I found very hard to believe. There are one or two characters who might have some basis for dislike, perhaps, but generally people treat him appallingly simply because he’s a bastard, and there seems to be so little justification for such an extreme attitude that it comes across merely as a convenient plot device, the archetypal bad-guy-without-a-reason.

Of the other characters, Burrich, the gruff man better with horses and dogs than children, is a more-or-less credible character, and the Fool is wonderfully mysterious, but most of them, including Fitz himself, don’t quite have the depth that would make them real. The Fool, for instance, is never seen playing his official role, he simply pops up out of the blue to drop cryptic hints or to help Fitz out for vague reasons. The royals, too, rarely appear except as plot devices. So although they’re not exactly cardboard cutouts, neither are they fully realistic. Somehow, it’s the people of the Mountain Kingdom who come across as the most real, rather than those of the Six Duchies, who range from the slightly odd to the outright barking.

There is magic in Hobb’s created world, but it isn’t well-defined so far, and only pops up when needed to steer the plot. Fitz’s capabilities in particular come and go at convenient moments. Some aspects, for example, the Forged (people taken by raiders and returned devoid of all humanity) are never explained, nor are the raiders themselves. Now this might be something that is revealed in a future book, but in this book it leaves a big hole in the centre of the plot - the raiders raid because they do, and they create the Forged because they do. Since this is a major problem for the Six Duchies and essentially the central conceit of the plot, I do feel it needs a little more motivation than this.

Towards the end, the pace picks up and actually becomes a real page-turner, with the sort of breathless excitement where you just have to keep reading. It’s quite traumatic, too, as Fitz is left to struggle with a huge who-can-I-trust dilemma, with the various stages very cleverly revealed. This is all very nicely done. But then there’s a totally unrealistic ending which is a complete let-down, and honestly, under the circumstances, there’s just no way that would ever work.

I’m very torn on rating this one. On the plus side, this is an emotionally engaging and absorbing story with some dramatic action, a nice degree of magic and a sympathetic main character. There’s a certain depth underlying things, too, with questions about loyalty and trust and families. On the minus side, far too much of the plot depends on characters acting violently against Fitz simply because he’s a bastard, the mysterious raiders and the Forgings are unexplained, and the ending is just too eye-rollingly neat. The writing style, which is evocative without being overwrought, tips the balance to four stars.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Mystery Review: 'Locked In' by Kerry Wilkinson

The word that springs to mind with this book is pedestrian. It plods along with ponderous attempts at humour, mind-numbing detail about, well, everything really (honestly, we don’t need to know all the legal requirements when interviewing suspects), fairly dull characters and a plot that never quite comes to life. It was a debut, so I’ll work on the assumption that the author will improve with time and experience.

The plot is incredibly simple: a body has been found in a locked house, and no, it's not got one of those doors that locks itself when it shuts. So the mystery boils down to: who had a spare key? You would think this was a fairly straightforward matter, especially when a second body turns up, murdered in exactly the same way, but apparently not. And not only does the detective find the problem terribly difficult to solve, but the author wants us to know every last iota of research into police procedures that had to be trawled through to create this book. I hate to break it to him, but those of us who've read more than one or two of these books actually have a pretty good grasp of such things, or as much of them as is relevant.

Memo to authors: if it's crucial to the plot, by all means mention it, otherwise, don't clutter the reader's brain with useless information. Case in point: we learn the exact layout of the detective's flat - clockwise from the door, Jessica's room, Caroline's room, bathroom opposite the door, then the kitchen, finally the living room... got all that? Good. I committed that map to memory on the assumption it would turn out to be important, and details of the furnishings, too (brown fabric sofa, matching recliner, glass-topped table, TV positioned between the windows... zzzzz).

Then I hit a major problem. While interviewing the wife of the second victim, our stalwart detective discovers that they were burgled a year before, just like the first victim. Hold it right there - because I don't remember any reference to a burglary at the first house. I reread the most likely sections but found nothing. Even the glorious Kindle search function failed to come up with anything of the type. Did I miss it? Was it just a throwaway mention in passing? If so, it needed a bit more emphasis if it's actually a Significant Plot Point.

At this point, I basically lost all interest. A book that apparently wants me to clutter up my head with a whole encyclopaedia of minor details, while simultaneously skating past a major development so skillfully that I didn't even notice it and can't find it later, is not the book for me. I had a guess at who the murderer was, and fast-forwarded to the end to find - yep, I was right. So no mega plot twist, it seems. Now, lots of people appear to have thoroughly enjoyed this book (as in huge numbers, it’s been a massive hit, and the author now has a publishing deal on the back of it, so what do I know?), and maybe all that detail really was crucial in the end, but unfortunately it never really came alive for me. One star for a DNF.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Fantasy Review: 'On Dark Shores: The Lady' by J A Clement

It's really hard to know what to say about this one. It starts well, with a truly atmospheric couple of chapters, but then the reader is dumped into a generic fantasy town with a generic fantasy villain and a generic fantasy situation - you know the sort of thing, there's this bad guy who runs the pickpockets, the brothels, the drugs trade, and our orphaned heroine is forced to be a thief in order to avoid a Fate Worse Than Death (ie working in the brothel). But why? Is there no honest work she can do? In the whole town, is there only one person who's prepared to give her work? If she lived there before, how come she doesn't know anyone else? Sorry, it makes no sense to me. And when she defies the bad guy, she discovers that actually there are worse things than working in a brothel. This part was quite hard to read, in fact.

Then there's the writing style. There are a lot of characters (which is fine) but the author chooses to head-hop from one to another with gay abandon, which simply gets confusing. This makes the story lose all focus, since we’re just getting used to one character and it’s on to the next. It's very difficult to develop a rapport with any of them when we jump in and out of heads so rapidly. The whole effect was made worse in the version I read because there were no gaps between one point of view and the next, not even a blank line or two (stars or some such would have worked better). [Edit: this seems to be a problem only with the Kindle for PC app; the formatting is fine on the Android app and the Kindle.]

This is not to say that the book is bad, it really isn't. The opening is terrific, and there are some really interesting things going on behind the scenes - Copeland's loss of memory, for instance, what's that all about? Blakey and Mickel have intriguing backgrounds that I would definitely like to know more about. And there are moments when the writing is wonderful. There are no typos and no creative grammar or spelling. But for me it was ruined by the trite and unoriginal nature of the story - thieves, whores, an unbelievable premise for the heroine, bad decisions all round - and a confusing approach to telling the story. And there was no real resolution here, this book is just setup for the next. For those who aren't bothered by any of that, there's an interesting and dramatic story in here, with the promise of some intriguing reveals in future books, but it just didn't work for me. I've given it two stars because at least I finished it (although I skimmed the second half), but it came very close to being an outright DNF.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Mystery Review: 'The Crossing Places' by Elly Griffiths

Right, first problem: the book is written in third person present tense (‘she sighs..., she eats..., she puts...’). I daresay the author has perfectly sensible reasons for this stylistic choice, but I really hate it. It grates on me, and gets between me and the story. I don’t know how commonplace this is, but it feels pretentious. And even though I sort of got used to it, every few pages there'd be another phrase that felt awkward, and I'd get annoyed all over again.

For those who can put up with it, though, this turns out to be a hugely enjoyable book. It's a fairly conventional mystery - ten years ago a child vanished, never to be seen again, and now another child has vanished - a plot which must have been done, with variations, a million times over the years. What makes this one different is the setting - a very evocative piece of eastern England, with salt marshes, an eerily empty landscape and lots and lots of weather, lashing rain, howling gales, crashing thunderstorms, you name it.

The other big attraction is the main character, Ruth Galloway, a large, frumpy (and not bothered about it) archaeologist, more interested in her prehistoric finds than in other people. Ruth is intelligent, self-sufficient and independent, needs her cats more than she needs a man, and when she gets into trouble she's perfectly capable of getting herself out of it. Thank goodness for a strong female character who's not skinny or beautiful or unnaturally competent - you know, just a perfectly normal woman. She has her moments of self-doubt, of course, but when she's down she's just as likely to turn to a female friend as to a bloke. And she's funny, in a genuinely laugh-out-loud way. I totally loved her.

The policeman on the case, Harry Nelson, is a slightly generic grumpy cop, but he too is very likeable, in his way, and the relationship between the two is very believable. The other characters don't have much screen time so they tend to be a bit cardboard, but they aren't over-the-top cartoonish, and even the walk-on parts are fine. And the plot burbles along nicely.

Now, the second big problem is the ending, on several levels. I know it's standard nowadays for this sort of story to reach a climax with a hugely dramatic incident, with the protagonist in all sorts of danger, but honestly, that gets terribly tedious. There's actually a lot to be said for the old fashioned approach: Hercules Poirot exercises his leetle grey cells, summons all the suspects into the drawing room and reveals with a flourish that Lady Cynthia and the housemaid are long-lost twins separated at birth, that the mysterious woman on the landing was in fact the Honourable Hugh in a blonde wig trying to find the secret room, and the dagger was hidden in the aspidistra pot all the time. But no, what we get here is half the characters milling improbably about in a storm in the middle of the night. Yawn. And as for the big look-what-I've-found reveal - no. Just no. Completely impossible location.

And yet, despite these issues, I thoroughly enjoyed this. Partly it's the character of Ruth herself (and honestly, I totally identified with her, in innumerable little ways, and I rarely do that with fictional characters). Partly it's the humour, which improves any book, in my opinion. And partly it's that indefinable something that makes a story completely believable - characters react to events in a normal way, don't make stupid decisions, ask all the right questions, agonise over the things that really should worry them (but not too much) and in general behave like normal rational human beings. There are more books in the series, which I shall definitely be getting. Four stars.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Fantasy Review: 'A Song For Arbonne' by Guy Gavriel Kay

I really wanted to give this five stars. In many ways it was a perfect book - a great story of a country fighting for its very survival, some truly compelling and heroic characters, emotional resonance and an ending that was true to all of those elements and entirely fitting. And to start with, yes, I got swept up in it and in Kay’s wonderful writing. But somewhere around the midpoint it got sticky for me. It was just too over-the-top melodramatic in the worst kind of eye-rolling way. I did my best, but maybe I was just in the wrong mood for it, because it was all a bit much.

I’ve only read two of Kay’s other books, ‘Tigana’ and ‘The Lions of al-Rassan’, but that’s enough to put him up there with my favourite authors. However, they’re not light reading, with their nuanced world building, deeply compelling characters and emotional intensity, so I tend to keep them for a time when I have the leisure to savour them. Kay favours settings which are only lightly disguised real-world historical places, and this is no exception, being analogous to medieval southern Europe. Arbonne is a place of troubadours singing of courtly love for unattainable married women, and is ruled by a woman, in contrast to northern Gorhaut, a deeply unpleasant patriarchal society.Although this is clearly a fantasy world, and the real world inspiration never intruded, there isn’t much magic involved; it’s there, and very obviously so, but it’s added to the mixture with a very light hand. One plus point: the author’s somewhat overwrought writing style can be a bit much in some contexts, but it actually works well in this setting, and enhances the atmosphere.

Of the characters, I loved both Blaise and Bertran, and Valery too. They don’t feel like particularly original characters, but they worked for me. In fact, there were a surprising number of these complicated, deep-thinking men - macho warriors who are also in touch with their feminine side. The women have their good points, and they are all strong, independent-minded and sensible, if teetering a little on the edge of fearsome, sometimes, especially the goddess’s high priestess, who can be seriously spooky. But really, these families are so dysfunctional, they make the average soap characters look like paragons of normality. I found it quite hard to believe that Blaise would turn out so rational and honourable, given the father and brother he was blessed with. But then Ademar, the northern king, is the opposite - the weak, foolish and dissolute son of an honourable father.

The plot is one of those teetering-on-the-cusp-of-war affairs. You know it’s going to happen and all the moves are laid out well ahead of time, so it isn’t a surprise, although there are lots of twists and turns along the way. Many of the twists are excellent - dramatic, exciting, unpredictable and not at all contrived. And some of them just fall off a cliff into grandiose melodrama, and become almost eye-rollingly bad. Kay’s writing rescues things from complete idiocy, but really, sometimes I just despair of him. The story’s got a driving pace of its own, there’s no need for the totally over-the-top flourishes. [View spoiler below for details]

Some minor quibbles. Firstly, all the main characters are beautiful, intelligent, witty and talented, not to mention expert lovers. And heroic and honourable and politically astute. Real life isn’t devoid of such striking people, of course, but living, as I do, in a country which still has a hereditary monarchy, I can vouch for the fact that centuries of aristocratic inbreeding is no guarantee of beauty, intelligence or even sanity. Quite the reverse. You might get the odd example, but an entire bookful is stretching credibility. But this is fantasy, so the incredible is (just about) allowed. And in contrast, the villains are stupid or evil or incompetent or all of the above.

Secondly, much of the book hinges on the two very different cultures of Arbonne and Gorhaut. Trouble is, even though Arbonne has a female ruler, worships a goddess alongside a male god and appears to treat women in a deeply respectful, not to say adoring, way, it’s still fundamentally patriarchal. The countess rules only because the count, her husband, has died. There’s still the burning desire for a son and heir. Women are still married off for pragmatic reasons, that is, to produce said son and heir. Men still drive many of the political decisions. Setting women on a romantic pedestal serves only to keep them in their place (in bed, mostly). Yes, they have more freedom and a certain amount of real power, but it’s not exactly an equal society. It’s almost as if, even when he’s trying his damnedest to describe a society where women are equal, yet still different from men, somehow the author can’t quite leave behind the inherent inequalities of our own society. Maybe he thinks that’s really the natural order of the world, or he simply can’t imagine anything different, I don’t know. And the end result is that, in order to make a strong contrast, Gorhaut has to be a deeply unpleasant society which keeps women subservient both by law and by brutality. A more subtle contrast would have been more effective, I think. Or maybe I’m just wearing my grumpy feminist hat today.

I think Kay just about gets away with this, by showing towards the end the real power of women, in both the political and personal spheres, and also their strength of character. So although the ending is, inevitably, a mega-battle between large numbers of men with swords, Kay shows how the women work behind the scenes in more subtle but equally important ways. The ending was heavy on the symbolism and the grand gestures and the clever twists, but in this kind of book, that’s par for the course and entirely proper. So overall a great book that was just a little too melodramatic for me, so four stars. A very, very good four stars.

SPOILER ALERT:

The over-the-top moment that got up my nose: I’m thinking here of Blaise being tied to the bed by Lucianna, about to be gutted by the Arimondan, and one by one major characters leap out from behind the arras to say ‘wait a moment...!’. And then Blaise challenges the guy to a duel, for heaven’s sake! Talk about stupidly contrived plot twists. As if the hero’s going to die at this point anyway... grumble, grumble. Pah!

Friday, 3 August 2012

Essay: Dear Aspiring Author...


Or how self-publishing authors can reach their audience

So you've written your masterpiece, or perhaps twenty masterpieces, and you've dutifully printed them out double spaced and sent off numerous queries to likely agents and publishers, and you've papered the walls of your study with the resulting rejection slips. Well, maybe you used them for toilet paper, or threw darts at them, or kept them in a filing cabinet so you can exact a suitable revenge when you're on the bestseller lists, whatever lights your candle. Or maybe you just don't want all that hassle, or perhaps you're an established author, but your current publisher won't touch that edgy novel you've been working on. So you've realised your only option is to self-publish. You've organised some cover art, and had ten friends read your work looking for typos, you've managed the ebook formatting, you've agonised over pricing strategies and - hey! Success! Your book is up on Amazon (or Smashwords or Barnes and Noble or wherever). And you've set up a blog and submitted copies to a hundred possible reviewers and dissuaded your mum from writing an 'It was AWESOME!!!' review on Amazon and - then you waited.

So now what? Now you need to let people know your masterpiece is out there. This is the hard part. Getting noticed on Amazon (or anywhere else) is well-nigh impossible, and you may be feeling a bit nervous at this point. You wrote your book because you really wanted to tell that story, but maybe nobody will ever buy it or read it. Well, I have good news for you. Somewhere out in the world are people who are just as keen to read your book as you were to write it. How do I know this? Because I am one of them. I love to read, and I'm very open to indie and self-published works. Well, to be completely honest, I personally may not want to read your particular book (if it's angel/werewolf all male erotica or cute talking animals - probably not), but however specialised your genre, somebody somewhere will love it, I guarantee it. So your first task is to -

Connect with readers

So how do you find readers? Bookshops, libraries and other real-world places, even if you can get permission to do some selling there, will only reach a handful of potential fans, so you will need to use the internet. You probably already belong to writers' groups online, but although these people may help with critiquing and other advice, they're trying to sell to you rather than buy from you. You may have followers on your blog but at this stage they too are probably fellow authors. What you need is places where avid readers congregate, and that means social networking sites aimed at readers such as Goodreads, Shelfari, LibraryThing, BookJetty, weRead and the like. There are also a few specialist websites, like FantasyFaction.com, which are very welcoming to self-publishing authors, so try the forums there, and there are forums on the booksellers, too (although the Amazon ones can be a bit of a bunfight). If you belong to Facebook or similar, there may be groups there (I wouldn't know, I'm not on Facebook).

I am going to take Goodreads as my example, because it seems to be the biggest of its type and it's also the one I know, but the others are very similar, as far as I can see. Goodreads encourages authors to sign up, both to catalogue, rate and review the books they read and also to list the books they've published. It also has numerous groups, each with its own discussion forum, for various inclusion criteria - there are groups for genres and sub-genres, for specific authors, for nationalities and so on. There are also groups for indie authors, but again these are not necessarily stuffed with potential readers. If you can't find an appropriate group (for that werewolf homoerotica, for instance) you can start your own.

The best groups are those aimed at your specific genre or sub-genre, because its members are those most likely to be interested in your book. Most groups have very strict rules for self-promotion which can be summarised as - OK in the self-promotion folder, not OK anywhere else. And even where it's allowed, don't overdo it. Now you might think that all this is very limiting - how can you possibly sell your books when you can't even mention them outside of a tiny little authors' ghetto (which many group members never bother to read anyway)? Indirectly and subtly is the answer. Don't think of it as selling - it's simply a way of communicating with readers, informally and socially. So read the threads, and join in the ones that interest you, or start your own and - enjoy!

In time, you will become known on the groups that you belong to, and if you post interesting and insightful comments, occasionally people will look up your profile to find out more about you. You can help this process along by discreetly mentioning your author status: "As an author myself, I've found that..." or "I've never written about dragons in my own books, but I enjoy Robin Hobb's series...". Don't overdo this, and don't mention your books directly. Shelfari will flag author's names above their posts, but Goodreads has neither an author flag nor a signature option, which is a pity.

So the next question is - what will people find when they go to -

Your profile page

It may seem obvious, but it should be an author page. When you first join Goodreads, a profile page is created for you automatically but it's designed for readers and you need to join the Author Program to ensure that your profile shows you as an author. This is your shop window, as it were, so make sure all your published works are shown there, with correct titles, cover images and no duplicates (contact the Librarians to correct any errors).

What else? To make sure your profile page is successful in drawing potential readers (or at least not turning them away), you need to think like a reader. What do readers look for from an author page? I can only speak for myself, but I look for a clean, professional presentation. So a photo is good - a nice head and shoulders shot that looks like a studio effort. The blurb should tell me a little bit about you, but more about the books - in particular, I like to know whether you write epic fantasy, modern fairy-tales, paranormal romance or lesbian steampunk. But don't write too much here because it pushes the books further down the page.

Since your page shows you as both author and reader, it will also show your Goodreads shelves and statistics, and experienced users will know at a glance whether you're really a Goodreads user or are just there to promote your books. Users will have a lot of books shelved and rated, and possibly reviewed, and will have recent updates.

But one of the most important items on your author page is actually quite inconspicuous - the link to -

Your website

You might have a full-blown website with its own wonderfulwerewolves4ever.com domain name, or it might be a ready-made blog, but either way it must look good. Again, it's a shop window, so make it clean, easy to navigate around and informative. Forget the writing tips, cute cat stories and excitable parenting tales; your front page should showcase your books. And (just in case there are any publishers loitering) have a clear 'contact me' link. The writing tips can go on a separate page, and the personal stuff on a separate blog altogether (look professional, right?). All that's needed on your book website/blog is a brief biographical summary.

When I (as a potential reader of your books) visit your website, I'm looking for really basic information: what books are available, in what formats and where can I buy them? what are they about? will I like them? Sample chapters and reviews are useful too. If I'm already reading one of them, I'll also be looking for some background information - more about your created world and characters, maybe, and please, please, please - a hi-res map (I love maps). And if I'm a fan already, I'll want to know when your next book will be out.

Again this should be obvious, but a list of links to pages on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords (and everywhere else your book is available) should be somewhere easy to find. Prices are useful, too, but make sure they're up to date. There's nothing more off-putting than thinking a book is really cheap and finding, when you click through, that it's not any more. On the other hand, you'll lose custom if you show the price as higher than it is. So keep the links and information up to date, or don't show them at all. And the same goes for -

Your book pages

Back on Goodreads (or your preferred site), every individual book has its own page, showing basic information like publisher, page count, format, cover image, blurb and so on, and also reviews and ratings from readers. Again, this needs to be tidy, with all the correct information and cover image. The Librarians can correct any errors. On this page, prospective purchasers can click directly through to Amazon or a range of other online sellers to view the book there, maybe download the sample and (you hope) buy it. This is the moment of truth, so make sure that all those links work. There is nothing more frustrating for a customer than getting one of those 'sorry, can't find it' pages.

So now you're all set. Your book(s) is/are out there, you've made it easy for people to find them, check them out and buy them. Suddenly you have readers. Before you know it, you'll be -

Getting reviews

This is where things may get sticky. You wanted people to read your book, now they have. But readers are opinionated, and some of them like to post reviews. And not all those reviews are going to rave about your book. Now rationally, you know all this; check out a few of your favourite reads and see just how many negative reviews they get. No book is perfect, no book is going to be loved by every single reader. Widely read books with thousands of ratings and reviews will have their share of 1* reviews as well as the 5* ones. So cherish the positive ones, ignore the negative ones and learn from the detailed ones (the ones that list plotholes, or explain just why your characters don't work or your magic system is unoriginal). There are two golden rules for reviews:

1) There's no such thing as a bad review. This may be hard to believe, but it's true. I once wrote a 1* review that wasn't much longer than: EEK! Vampires!!! Well, I bought it by mistake. And of course, there are vast armies of people who will read that and say: Mmmm, vampires... my favourite. Now a review that says: this is a dreadful book, it's so badly written it's practically unreadable - that's more difficult, but (and this is hard to believe too, but it's also true) some people will read that and say: gotta check that out, nothing can be that bad. And unless the reviewer says exactly how it's badly written, that kind of review is not going to impress potential readers anyway. Avid readers (Goodreads members, for example) are a sophisticated bunch, and they know how to read between the lines (of reviews just as for books). So don't agonise over it. Eventually, there will be a spread of reviews and ratings which give a better picture.

2) If you're tempted to reply to a review - don't. Just don't. No matter what. Don't even post a 'thanks for your thoughts' comment, or if you really must, keep it private (I actually like it when an author thanks me for a review, but not everyone does, so be cautious). Don't correct errors. Don't explain, don't defend, don't attack, just don't. Let it go. A public thank you makes you look needy, corrections make you look pedantic, explanations make you look obsessive, a defensive attitude makes you look arrogant and any kind of attack on a reviewer makes you look like an asshole. Once you start a dialogue, it's liable to spiral out of control and be reposted all over the internet for the amusement of a bunch of strangers who will now never, ever buy one of your books. So just don't.

The only exception to this is if the reviewer makes derogatory personal comments about you. Then you can politely ask the site to remove that review. But bear in mind that criticism of your book is NOT a personal attack.

But hopefully the reviews and comments will be positive or, at the least, constructive, and you can bask in the warm glow that comes from knowing that this story that's been in your head for months and years is now out in the world and bringing pleasure to complete strangers. So now you can focus on...

Building your fanbase

There is one blindingly obvious way to do this: write more books. If you have a drawer full of rejected manuscripts, short stories and novellas - now's the time to dust them off, polish them up and get them published. If you haven't, then fire up the word processor. But it goes without saying, everything should be of the same high professional standard (no first drafts).

What should you focus on? If the published work is part one of a trilogy, then by all means devote most of your efforts on part two, but your fans (you have fans now, remember?) will want to know more about this world you've created and the characters in it, so give them more information. If you have short stories that fill in some of the background, that's a good start. Put them out on your website or publish them on Amazon for free, as a taster. If you have part two mostly written, post a sample chapter or two on your website. If your master-work has a complicated magic system or religion or political structure, post some of your notes on those topics. If you have a map, post that too. All of this keeps your fans interested, and gives them added value.

Your website (or blog) should also keep fans informed about the progress of the next book. You should post something regularly just to update people with the current situation. Remember, your website (or blog) is aimed at readers, not necessarily other writers, so keep the technical details of self-publishing for a less conspicuous part of the website, or a different blog altogether. And if you get a nice review, it's usually OK to post a snippet or two, with proper attribution to the reviewer and a link to the full review. But if you want to post your thoughts on reader-related issues, like new kinds of e-readers, or discuss possible cover art, that's fine too. And if people leave comments, it's nice to respond. This is the time when purely social sites like Facebook come into their own, too, and by all means Tweet away.

As people post reviews or leave comments on your blog or even email you directly, you will be building a list of names and contact addresses. Be cautious how you use this information, though, since not everyone will welcome a direct approach from an author. Don't send out frequent mailshots, but an occasional mailing to announce a new book is fine. Personally, I hate it if I've read and reviewed part one of a series, and then find out much later that part two has been out for months, and I didn't even know. So when you publish something new - tell the world. Tweet it, blog it, Facebook it, post announcements everywhere self-promotion is allowed. If someone reviewed and liked a previous book, it doesn't hurt to ask them privately if they would like an advance copy of the new book for review. Not everyone will be interested, and some will take the free book and not post a review, but you might get lucky.

What about 'friending' people who read your book or post reviews? It's all too easy on social networking sites to send out invitations to all and sundry, and frankly, if it's just someone who added your book to a to-be-read pile, it makes you look needy. It's fine if it's someone you've had some real correspondence with - beta readers, for instance - but otherwise I think the contact should all be the other way. Your fans can follow you, or click the 'I'm a fan' button, if there is one, and of course they may want to be friends, but let the approach come from them. And don't resort to trickery or inducements to add extra followers - it's much nicer if they come of their own free will.

And finally... what NOT to do

I've made a lot of suggestions for things you can do to let people know about your book, and to grow your fanbase from there. But there are a few things you should never, ever do, either because they're dishonest, or they get up people's noses, or they're just rude. You should NEVER:

·         boast online about how good your book is;
·         contact everyone who shelves, rates or reviews it;
·         respond publicly to reviews;
·         post fake reviews, or get others to do so;
·         namedrop or link to the book in random threads;
·         repeatedly hype the book, even in the self-promotion folder;
·         recommend your own book when people ask for suggestions.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I'm a reader actively looking for new fantasy to read, and I've been frustrated over and over again by authors who make it difficult for me to find their books. Unintentionally, of course, but the obstacles are there. Goodreads, Shelfari and the like are a wonderful resource for readers, but they can also work for you as an author. If you're a skilled Facebook user, or blogger, or other type of networker, then by all means use those methods as well, but it also pays to be where the avid readers hang out.

But always bear in mind: these sites are there for readers first and foremost, so wear your reader hat often and your writer hat just occasionally. Ultimately it comes down to some very simple rules: be professional; be considerate; be humble. And remember: out there are people who really want to read your book. All you have to do is find them.

Yours sincerely,

A Reader

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Fantasy Review: 'The Black God's War' by Moses Siregar III

I really wanted to like this book, truly. I’ve heard so many good things about it and I really tried, but it took me three goes to get past the first few chapters and that’s always a bad sign. The premise is intriguing: two countries, two religions, two forms of magic, two royal sons fighting a long-lasting war that only one of them can win, both endowed with powers. Interesting ideas about faith. But a book can’t just be about ideas, it has to be a story first, and that’s where this book failed for me.

The setting is evocative of ancient Greece or Rome on the one side, with its pantheon of gods, and on the other is vaguely eastern, with its rajah and mysticism. There’s not a lot of detail beyond the immediate surroundings, not much sense of long history and there’s an element of info-dump sometimes. For instance, we are given a great deal of information about Rezzia’s gods right at the start - what they represent, even what they adherents wear. It’s impossible to take in.

The war itself is quite bizarre. Rezzia and Pawelon are separated by a deep gorge, the main crossing place being protected by a walled citadel on the Pawelon side. The Rezzians march out from their camp into the gorge, across the plain at the bottom and try to climb up to the citadel. Meanwhile the Pawelons simply pop them full of arrows and spears as they climb. Lots of them get killed, they withdraw, they try again. And this has been going on for ten years. Now, I’m not exactly skilled in the art of war, but hasn’t it crossed anybody’s mind that perhaps it’s time for Plan B? Like maybe march down to that nice big lake at the end of the gorge and boat across into Pawelon? Or at least try to find another route across the gorge, which is hundreds of miles long? No?

The characters fall into matched pairs. Caio and Rao, the two princes. Ilario and Aayu, the two friends. Lucia and Narayani, the sister and lover. Vieri and Devak the king and rajah. Strategos Diulio and Indrajit the two war chiefs. All neatly symmetrical. Even the personalities and traits of the two are matched, in many cases. The two princes are both terribly good people, wanting above all to help their people. The two friends are suitably sturdy, loyal stalwarts. The king and rajah are both domineering characters, cruel and intolerant towards their children. And so on. But none of them really captured my attention as real people rather than symbols. Lucia had potential, but as far as I read we never really see her character in full flower, she is no more than victim of the Black God and, through her own goddess, hyped-up warrior.

Apart from the logic flaws of the war, I had two main problems with the book. One is the writing style, which seemed very stilted and somehow clunky. There were phrases that made me laugh out loud - even though I knew what the author meant, it just came out wrong. And there was great deal of describing what characters were feeling, rather than showing it. Now to some extent this is inevitable when what they're feeling is religious fervour and dogmatic belief. It's hard to show such things. But it gave the whole book a slightly distant, artificial feel to it, so that I was never fully drawn into the story.

The other problem I had was the magic. On one side, the characters called on the power of their individual gods to intervene in their affairs, which they often did. They were physically present and even showed themselves, sometimes, or gave specific instructions, or led the characters to do certain things. And they used their powers in battle, although not always with the expected results. The other side had sages who acted as magicians, capable of great feats of magic which they, too, used in battle. The end result is two sides hurling thunderbolts at each other, essentially, and frankly, I just hate that sort of magic. It's really not interesting.

I got about a third of the way through before giving up. This is just not my type of book. It’s not that this is a bad book, in any way. In some sense, it’s a very good book, tackling some interesting concepts in quite an ambitious manner. It may be that the whole book, or perhaps the whole series, would resolve some of the issues I had with it, who knows. I suspect, though, that the author is more interested in the ideas incorporated in the story than the story itself. On the plus side, it's a literate and thoughtful piece of work, and I understand why it appeals to so many people. It's just not for me. One star for a DNF.