Saturday, 29 November 2014

If you go down to the woods today (spoiler free review of Fae - The Wild Hunt by Graham Austin-King)

When I was at primary school many moons ago, the height of technology was the old record player brought out for assemblies.  If it was your birthday that day you got to pick a record to play in celebration.  Seeing as how this was the late 1960s  there were only about three records to choose from, education budgets being no more generous then than they are now. The one I remember most was the "Teddy Bear's picnic."  There was the slight frisson of the unknown in the opening line "If you go down to the woods today you're in for a big surprise"  juxtaposed with the imagined friendliness of the teddy bears.  (Mark Lawrence in his Sleeping Beauty short story also takes a sideswipe at a few other fairy tales along the way - including a foolish Goldilocks getting her due come-uppance.)

Graham Austin-King weaves an effective story around a world where fairie stories commemorate in childish song and play an older colder reality of fear and threat.  It is a story well told, which builds in pace and engagement so that I ripped through the last few pages at a rate of knots, suddenly finding myself quite intolerant of the well meaning distraction of family calling me to watch the latest installment of "I'm a celebrity - get me out of here."  Ironic really as the threat in the woods near Widdengate is enough to have even the staunchest celebrity calling immediately for the champagne helicopter home.

The disparate characters, converge on the denoument over the course of many pages like tributaries to a stream where it is only near the end that one sees how they feed a single narrative flow.  This means at first the book can seem a little jumpy.  The opening is like a long prologue as Miriam and her son flee an abusive husband and father.  Just when I thought I knew where the story was going this opening sequence breaks off and we almost start again with three main characters, a reluctant ducal bride, a fostered boy and an ambitious sea warrior, all leading different lives in different places attended each by a handful of minor supporting characters.    However, having told my own tales through multiple points of view, I was happy to relax and be lead by the author through seemingly unrelated stories confident that he would weave them together in due course, and he did.

In some ways it reminds me of Michael J Sullivan's Ryria Chronicles, there is the same sense of a flowing story with engaging characters, and of a back story to elves and the fae which is not quite Tolkien.  However, Austin-King's story is darker than Sullivan's and his style allows (without excessively embracing) the coarse variety of language that one might expect from a variety of coarse people.  For example in a frozen sea a crew of young sea-raiders are warned in no uncertain terms of what they stand to lose should they relieve themselves with anything less than alacrity.

What's too like? well it is an engaging story that leads you along with enough sub-plots and character development to keep the pages turning as the deeper darker plot gradually uncoils in the shadows ready to bind our leading characters in a terrible finale.  The author teaches us early on that no character is safe and in the best GRRM tradition, that keeps the reader on the edge of their seat knowing that all characters are mortal.

(Just as an aside, if GRRM and Enid  Blyton had been swopped at birth what would they have written?  "Game of thrones on a Treasure Island, Game of Thrones fall into trouble, Game of Thrones Get into a Fix" and from GRRM we would have got "The Famous Five"  "The Famous Four,"  "The Famous Three" etc)

There is also some lyrical writing and imagery.  The bird's eye view of the sea-raiders island fortress was a particularly evocative introduction of a new setting and main character.  One could almost imagine the camera of a film adaptation sweeping in over the landscape and landing like the bird itself on the prow of the leading boat in a fifty ship race.

If it has a downside then it maybe just that it ends with something of a cliffhanger, but then that's not a problem for me as I've just got an Advance Reader Copy of book 2 and can plunge straight on.  The rest of you will have to wait a week or so!

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Of Nysta (Spoiler free review), of Reviews' Significance, and of Bad Ass female characters

I recently finished "Revenge of the Elf" by Lucas Thorn and as a result found myself conflicted with four different but related things that I felt the need to blog about and the most I could do to separate them was to give them each a section in this one post.

The stigma of self publishing

Revenge of the Elf is an indie book, self-published and somewhat self-effacingly promoted by its author Lucas Thorn.  I know there is a stigma associated with self-published books, indeed I should know seeing as how I've self-published two myself with a third going live in a couple of days time.  It is a stigma which has some factual underpinning. Only the other day I saw a message on a forum from another would-be writing millionaire wanting to know why his 26 page book with a hand drawn cover, launched on the market for $3.99 had not yet knocked GRRMartin off the top of the rankings.  (OK I exaggerate, but only slightly).

There is no dishonesty in admitting that the range of quality in self-published work is far wider than in traditionally published work. This is because - as I have said elsewhere - the self-published body of work is mainly made up of all the unsolicited submissions that would previously have sat patiently in a publisher's slush pile waiting to be discovered, A lot of that would, in times past, have been left there rather than being sent naked into the amazonian marketplace.  But there would also be some gems that could or would have been extracted depending on how far the publisher's lists, preferences or risk appetite for something new allowed it.

And so there is a Goldilocks zone where the quality of self-published and traditionally published work overlaps.  It is a region where a self-published book has an opportunity, in the raw energy of its author's unfiltered (sometimes unedited) enthusiasm, to contribute something that the clinical efficiency of traditional publishing might have excised

Nysta #1, Revenge of the Elf is such a book..

Review of the Elf

I should by way of disclosure admit that some months ago Lucas Thorn wrote a thoughtful and fair review of my first book on his website.  This is a fact that Lucas did not tell (share or tweet) to me and which I only discovered recently entirely by the accident of googling my own book. However, we have exchanged views about the review-starvation that can afflict indie authors and the discovery of his review gave an added impetus to put my blogpost where my tweets were (or as we might have said in older days, to put my money where my mouth was).

Revenge of the Elf is a book without pretension, it is about coarse language and bloody violence as Nysta pursues revenge across a frozen and desolate wasteland.  The titular heroine is so hard bitten and bad ass she would make iron nails look like cheese-strings.   I had read the first 10% as a sampler and been intruiged, but I held off for a while from buying it based on some middle of the road reviews on the amazon website - the kind that damned with the faint praise of few stars.  That was a bad decision on my part which I will explore in more detail in a later section of this post.

It is a shorter book than its page count might suggest, but it has a visceral quality that reads well keeping me turning the pages, or flicking the kindle.  There aren't many books that hold my attention enough to be read in a few sittings over a couple of days. The opening scene with Nysta's husband, Talek is well written, drawing you into the experience of a great soldier brought low in enforced retirement.  The writing has a terseness that keeps it tight and free of the purple extravagance of some indie prose.  Description of scene and setting appear through the characters' story rather than as a writing exercise of its own, the book is about action and dialogue and the occasional internal ruminations of a guilt ridden central character drowning her sorrows in violence rather than drink, but all of it advancing the plot.

There is a gritty style to the book. The writing, dialogue and the action all have a certain edginess, an authentic voice of fury, desperation and despair and yes that means there's swearing, shitloads of it. The wandering wizard Chukshene is a useful foil to Nysta.    Lucas said of their scenes that "they sort of wrote themselves" and you can see that in the way the constant war of words plays out between them. There is a natural rhythm to the entertaining abuse they exchange inbetween eviscerating a wide variety of foes.

Nysta is a distinctive character who I want to know better. A warrior who has so many knives she has to give them all names to tell them apart. An anti-archetype (well pretty much an anti-everything) she is not willowy or ethereal, more waspish and feral. This is indeed a very different kind of elf.

The world building is subtle, all seen through the lens of the character's viewpoints and dialogue, but there is enough to stimulate a certain curiosity.  A world of (at least) three gods who came and fought each other on the earth.  None of them seem to be particularly godly, walking amongst the living and apparently as fond of a good piss-up as the next man, but their bar-room brawls last for centuries and desolate continents. Throughout the book we get tantalising glimpses of the mythology and culture of different people is from the character's interactions rather than through any tedious infodump.

There was a moment when Nysta flung a knife at a noise in the forest that I was reminded of an entirely different fantasy book, albeit it twisted through a wormhole of distortion. Chukshene, the wizard, works well as the coarse and cowardly lion to Nysta's anything but dainty Dorothy while they follow a ragged trail about as far from the yellow brick road as it is possible to get.

The book as a whole rattles along at a brisk pace driven by its expletive fuelled dialogue and it's non-stop action and there were times when I could perhaps have wished it a little slower, a little more measured.  The opening scenes with Talek were among my favourite, perhaps because the violence was curtailed by Talek's physical impairments and so dialogue and interaction took precedence over raw action.

Of recent books that I have read it reminds me most of "Those poor, poor bastards" the first in the Dead West series.  There was the same rapid acceleration to unrelenting action and the same authenticity of voice in the f-bombed dialogue and the same relief that the breathless pace was confined to a relatively short book.  This is a sprint of a read, not a marathon.

There are some points of style one might question, A dearth of pronouns or even nouns to take the subject in a sentence for example.  Instead of "She could move...." or "Nysta couldn't breathe...." we get "Could move.... and "Couldn't breathe..."  It adds a certain sense of urgency and pace to the text, but there is simply the question of whether it is overdone.  The borrowed references to other works and the punning humour that other reviewers found distracting did not affect me in the same way - perhaps because I was forewarned, perhaps because I am an undiscovered borrower myself.

But the essential question is, is this a good book? is this a great book?  Well it is certainly good, I wanted to finish it and I'm glad I did; that isn't always true when I read indie books, in fact it it isn't always true when I read any books.  But then again, this book always had a headstart over the others, I mean look at my recent reads "Half the World," "Those Poor, Poor Bastards,"  dammit look at my books, "Lady of the Helm"  "Wrath of the Medusa" d'you see what it is yet?  The common theme?

Bad assed female heroines!  What's not to like?  But that's another section to this post.

Should Reviews Count, either to authors or to other readers

Writing can be a lonely business and writers crave the validation of sales and of feedback.  But most particularly we crave that shangri-la, that perfect synergy of sale enhancing feedback - an amazon review.   But reviewing is an inexact science and authors can feel vulnerable to the perceived crippling effect of a negative review. And should we be swayed as readers or as writers by the opinions of a reviewer, for good or ill?

When I looked up Revenge of the Elf on  I flicked through the look inside and was interested, it held me.  Then I read the reviews, just the three of them, two 3* and one 2* it's not a ringing endorsement.  I read the comments, I get what the reviewers were saying, I didn't think I'd be as bothered about the things they mentioned as they were.  Hey, swearing, I've been known to go a  bit potty mouthed myself and words I read on the page only echo in my head, not out loud.  But still I came back to those star ratings, the words didn't put me off, but the numbers did.

Now in a previous incarnation I used to teach and I once spent a whole year word processing my comments for one class and sticking slips of paper in their books.  A monumental experiment to overcome the crippling disadvantage of my atrocious handwriting.  But Cyan Blaydon (not her real name) undid all my efforts.  After she had patently ignored my carefully constructed comments for the third week in a row I called her over to ask why she was paying no attention to my carefully considered advice.  "Oh I only look at the mark," she said.  There in is the rub for many a teacher, give a child a mark and they read little else.  And the same is true of reviews, give somebody a star rating, a mark out of 5,  and we weigh that far more than the message in the comment.  That was my mistake with "Revenge of the Elf" and maybe if we want to reform the review system we should simply ban star ratings and only allow text reviews which could be up or down voted for their helpfulness.

You see, reading is an interaction not a mathematics problem. In reading a book we form an opinion which grows around the point where our experiences meet the book. Our different experiences mean we all approach and see the same book from many different angles.  Now let's be honest, all of us have got angles where we know we look like shit, hey please take the photo from my good side, don't show my double chin.  The same is true of books.  For all books there are going to be some perspectives from which they look like a croc of shit - you want happy endings? you won't enjoy most Grimdark and you won't be wrong for not enjoying it - unwise to try and read it maybe, but not wrong.

And that's where the star rating turns an opinion into a judgement.  Opinions are not right or wrong, they're opinions.  We might question the reasoning that led to an opinion, but it would be easier to do that without the distraction of this number of stars.

A book is not right or wrong like an answer in maths is.  There are books and authors I love and there are fans I know who border on the zealot, determined that anybody who does not love the book exactly as they do is "wrong."  I will defend to the death anyone's right to have a different opinion about a book than I do. (ok well maybe not quite "to the death" but I'd be prepared to get pretty stern about it - maybe even use capslock.)   The words of the reviewers tell us far more than the stars do, and certainly the sock puppet style reviews would carry a lot less weight if they relied on their words rather than their star rating to influence people.

I've been lucky in the reviews of my books, the ones who have liked it have found the strengths I hoped they would. The few who didn't have said things that I have understood.  The slow burn start that some appreciated as a comfortable settling into the story was a confusing turn off for others; the scene switching that injected pace for some was a distraction of discontinuity for others; the GRRMesque toying with the lives of characters added a thrill of uncertainty for some, but too great a sense of bleakness for others.  It is in truth the same book seen from different angles.   To a degree there are flaws that some tolerated because the positive outweighed the flaws, but for others (fortunately a small minority of reviewers) they were dealbreakers.

As an author I worry most about the reviews from people who didn't finish the book but nonetheless feel justified in making a judgement on the work as a whole.  One is always hopeful that other prospective buyers will read the words of the review and factor all those considerations into the weight they place on the star rating a sthey ponder whether to buy or not to buy.  They will, won't they?

But then I didn't with "Revenge of the Elf" and I, more than most, should have known better!

Bad-ass heroines

I was in a Waterstones book store once a while back (well to be honest I have been in several Waterstones several times but I have yet to achieve that ultimate Nirvana of an accidental lock in) when a couple walked past me towards the fantasy bookshelves.  The man declared loudly to his female companion that "any book with a female heroine was bound to be rubbish."  Even amongst sweeping generalisations this seemed to be wielding a brush of staggering width and as an author of a little self published book with several female heroines, I was perturbed by his strident prejudice

There are many successful books with female heroines, perhaps because there is something appealing about the assumed vulnerability of women being turned on its head by a character with powerful physical agency as well as femininity.  Since Eowyn first stepped out infront of fallen Theoden, pinned beneath Snowmane, and cried "begone foul dwimmerlaik, Lord of carrion, leave the dead in peace" fantasy fiction has had a soft spot for hard women.  In Lord of the Rings Eowyn seemed the only woman of agency, the only one prepared and able to take to the field of battle rather than wait at home for others to tell her if they'd won or lost (Arwen & Galadriel I'm looking at you here) and I loved her for it.

I did wonder if the hardboiled female fighter was a motif of male writers writing female roles.  I say this because the examples of bad-ass fantasy females that I know of are nearly all written by men

Nysta - Lucas Thorn
in "Revenge of the Elf"

Ferro - Joe Abercrombie
in "The Blade Itself"

Thorn Batthu - Joe Abercrombie
in "Half the World"

Dema the Medusa, Niarmit, Quintala - T.O.Munro (me)
in "Lady of the Helm" "Wrath of the Medusa, "Master of the Planes"

Red Sonja (the archetype) - Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith

Brienne of Tarth and Arya - G.R.R.Martin
in A Song of Fire and Ice

But then there is at least one exception

Grada - Mazarkis Williams in

and others may know of more.

I worry sometimes about the depiction of women in my books - do I get it right?  am I doing more than writing as Mark Lawrence once put it "men with tits"  but then would it matter if I was?  Is it better to say any role could equally well be given to a man or a woman, because dammit they are all people and our motivations are more similar than they are different.  Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the variation within each gender is greater than the variation between genders so that any character you could imagine could equally well fit into a female or a male role.  Or are there demonstrable differences that should appear once you put the female in the physically powerful role, should she be made to play the same role differently than if it were a man cast as the warrior/assassin.

But then, the author makes the decision who is female and who is not and the reader accepts that and then goes own to make their own decisions about how that character is presented.

Either the reader considers the suppression of traditional femininity in pursuit of aims achieved through violence, is an interesting subversion of typical female roles that offers greater empowerment and equality to the character.  Or they consider that the branding of a violent protaganist as female is a cheap attempt to add an interesting dimension to an otherwise stereotypical character.
As you can see I have more questions than answers, and I guess the answer is in the writing and the fact that the range of extremes of person and character within each gender makes almost any potential badass female both a credible and interesting protaganist.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

"The Broken Road" by Teresa Frohock - my spoiler free review

I like quality writing but I will confess it is plot that draws me in and on through a book, and "The Broken Road" certainly delivered in that regard.  There is conflict and rivalry, prejudice and despair as ignobility and nobility struggle for supremacy in the privileged palaces of the magically gifted chanteuse.  But the author makes some great leaps of imagination and creativity that set this setting apart from the predictable canvas of epic fantasy. This is more merely than an unexpected heir fighting decadence and disadvantage to assert the moral purpose of rulership and in so doing endeavour to avert world wide disaster.

Travys, the second son of a manipulative royal mother is crippled by his muteness, for in this world magic can only be channelled through voice and sound and Travys cannot wield his own power on his own.  There is also a parallel world that bleeds into the land of the Chanteuse through frayed borders and it is the obligation and the peril of the chanteuse that they alone can close these portals to keep their own world safe.  And as this action packed story progresses, Travys learns more of a risk his mother once took and how that blighted his birth and stole his true inheritance.

And as he travels into that past, Travys discovers that the world so dangerously twinned with theirs has already fallen to an invader, an invader that wants fresh conquests having plundered a world that is eerily familiar to the reader more so than to Travys.  And Travys must find a way to severe the link between these conjoined worlds and restore the dignity of royal power in the face of so many who would wish him anything from failure to outright harm.  

The book is full of intruiging motifs, introducing but not labouring new concepts of magic and of aliens and enemies.  The writing immerses the reader in the experience of a place and people, rather than lecturing them in its geography and culture, and for a book that is in so many ways so different to the norm that is no mean achievement.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The making of Engaland - Spoiler free review of the Empty Throne by Bernard Cornwell

When I was young there was a book in my parents house called "The making of England" It was a slim volume about the history of one of the most exciting periods in the British Isles.  Not to be confused with many similar titled volumes, this history book targeted at young historians began with a description of how in 870 AD no-one walking from Dover to Durham would have known what England was or could be, for the island was just a collection of fractured kingdoms.

I don't know how that book went on because after that intriguing opening it faded into worthy dullness despite several attempts on my part to probe its leaden depths.  It padded the void of sparse dark ages facts with a filling so bland not one scrap of it has troubled my memory.

Bernard Cornwell has taken that same context and period, the reigns of Alfred and his offspring and turned, it into a glorious multi-volumed pageant of action and excitement grafted onto the bare bones of known historical facts.  It may not be history, but it bloody well should have been.  The tale of Uhtred, part witness, part mover and shaker in the greatest period in the formation of England is a story of intricate plotting, compelling characterisation and beautiful writing.

When I reviewed his last book in this series (#7 The Pagan Lord) I worried that the tale was becoming stretched with the resolution of Uhtred's life's ambition always slipping beyond his reach like the end of a rainbow.  But that was to perhaps do a disservice to Cornwell's vision.  Throughout this book there are references to Alfred's ambition for a single country of Engaland and that is the real tale in this series. I suspect that resolution for Uhtred will come with resolution for England and we shall at last see how the gnarled warrior we have lived with became the ancient but crabby narrator we met briefly in the early books.

So, I am content to sit back and enjoy the ride through however many volumes it takes in eh hands of an absolute master storyteller in complete command of his material.

But what of this story what does it bring that is new?

Well Uhtred's children - his son Uhtred and his daughter Stiorra take a more central role - with the son even stepping up for a first person appearance in the prologue.   We see Uhtred still weakened by the wound he sustained at the end of The Pagan Lord, suddenly feeling his years,  And his search for a cure winds alongside the usual context of saxon politics and treachery and marauding danes and norsemen.  It is a story of sustained pace turning many corners where you are almost scared to see what lurks in wait.  But this one is seasoned by an Uhtred not just showing his age, but forced to admit weakness, plagued by a physical frailty that, with characteristic guile he consistently turns to his advantage.

Cornwell works well with the names of genuine history and there perhaps is the reason why it takes a writer of his class to bring this world to life.  For the saxons were so unimaginably confusing with their names Aethelflaed, Aethelred, Aethelhelm, two Aethelwolds, Aethelstan, Aelfwynn, and then for variety Eardwulf and Eadith.  It is surely this more than the blank dark age record which had history teachers of yesteryear scampering for the certainties of 1066 onwards and its easily reconciled Williams and Henries and Richards and John as they sought something that might lodge in a recalcitrant pupils' head.

Still Cornwell slips lightly but faithfully through the phonetic confusion to give us a tale that begins to hint at the series' glorious conclusion.

I have found other history books of the dark ages which have salved the wound of boredom that "the making of England" inflicted and that adds an extra dimension to my reading of his books.  More so than the characters, when the place name Brunanburh appears I know we have our first sight of the scene where in time the series' final segment must play out. Cornwell's placement of Brunanburh is a piece of foreshadowing, like knowing the sex of a baby before it is born.  It echoes through the ages like Camlann does from his trilogy of Arthur.

For those who want to know more, well google the name (and Camlann come to that), for those who like surprises, just wait - I am sure Cornwell will deliver.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August - my Spoiler Free Review

I loved this book, I love this book.  It is the kind of book I wish I had written and that is more than mere hyperbolic praise.  I once had a half-formed idea for a novel, a tale of a man who endlessly repeats the same decade of his life, beginning with his facing up to a terminal diagnosis with an intention to walk off a cliff in fog and finding instead he stumbles ten years into his own past and repeats his life again seeking by some means to relive those vital years, it was in concept a kind of Groundhog Decade if you like.

Claire North has gone that one step further to write a book about a Groundhog Life, the eponymous hero cycling through an endless loop of existence and, like Tom Hanks's character in the film, struggling to make some sense of the opportunity of this unique curse.

However, this book is so much more than a clever core idea. Its narrator leads us through the story of his lives with assurance and aplomb as you would expect from a man who draws on hundreds of years of experiences and retains the knowledge of all of his past lives.  The fantastical premise is delivered with such credible precision and consistency that I was not just drawn in but engulfed by the story.  I mean this is a book I read in two sittings over the course of one weekend, and have risen from my reading desk only to launch straight into my writing desk.

Harry is not the only one of his kind. Though exceptionally rare there are others like him a community of the endlessly looping who live alongside the terminally mortal "linears" and the book asks reasonable questions about what it must be like to be one of these cursed or blessed people, not so much "tomorrow" people as "today" people.  

The book toys entertainingly with ideas of what it is "to be" that we are all of us little more than the sum of our memories, the experiences that shaped us and to be immortal but within the same span of seventy years or so.

It shakes the tree of conventional chronology, with Harry's lives often described in the same parallel lines that they are lived.  Harry zig-zags along and between potentially endless layers of parallel universes, like different versions of the same world's history lined up side by side on a book shelf.

To live so long one needs must become some kind of polymath and the author conveys well the sense of a man who has become knowledgeable in many fields of science, medicine and history and the book, like its hero strides sure-footedly across the panorama of discovery and conflict that was the twentieth century,   But, as all time travellers know, knowledge of the future is a dangerous power and Harry August is sensible, but others of his kind are not.

And therein lies the crux of this story a threat to the future, a crime that stretches sideways across parallel timelines, albeit ones that are experienced sequentially by Harry.  It turns out that even the deathless can be destroyed and that gives the book a visceral tension that kept me flicking through the screens on my kindle, relying on the screen's built in brightness rather than taking a few seconds to break off to turn on the light as a Sunday afternoon turned dark.

This book appealed to me on many levels.  Beautifully written, tightly plotted, toying with history, physics and dabbling with conceptual conundrums of spiraling timelines. How would any of us mere humans live such an alien lifestyle, how would we cope? what meaning would death have beyond the trauma of a repeated opportunity to stuff up adolescence?

Claire North introduces us to many of Harry's kind grappling with those questions, and they are all believable responses to their not quite so unique situation, as is Harry's response to each of those individuals.

I first picked this book of a shelf in Waterstones in Cambridge in the summer, appropriate since some of Harry's lives is set in Cambridge, another mark in its favour for me.   I bought it on kindle this weekend (forgive me bricks and mortar bookshop, but I have this weekend bought four other conventional books to set against the sin of physical window shopping for electronic purchases).

It may not fit others tastes so closely as it fitted mine, but for me this was a very easy five star winner.