Thursday, 30 July 2015

The Rotting Frontier, my spoiler free review

I bought this book as part of a six-pack, Realmwalker publications "The Portal." Although I had already read one of the six stories "Fae: The Wild Hunt" by Graham Austin-King (You can read my review of it here) five full novels for £5.13 still represented pretty good value.

The second story in the pack to catch my eye was book one of "The Rotting Frontier: The Hunger" by David Atwell and, as it is a separate novel I will review it separately, even if I didn't buy it that way. 

Atwell's story snagged my attention because of the setting.  As a child in the 70s I lived on a diet of cowboy films.  It seemed the wild west, in truth probably far shorter and less bloody than the films would have us believe, was the only thing anyone could make films about.  But in the 70s the cowboy meme was already fading from the cinema apart from comedic blips like "Blazing Saddles." Even Clint Eastwood's subsequent intermittent attempts at cardiac de-fibrillation with hits like "Pale Rider" and "Unforgiven," did little to fundamentally reanimate the corpse of a much loved but sadly expired genre.   How could majestic scenery and gritty unshaven gunslingers compete with CGI and space opera. 

But then I read "Those Poor, Poor Bastards" by Tim Marquitz, J.M.Martin and Kenny Soward. Here was another way in which the good old western was to be resurrected, ironically as a zombie apocalypse. I would say that Shane would be spinning in his grave at the idea, except that he wouldn't, he'd be crawling from it clabbered in grave rot and hungry for human flesh. So that experience gave me an itch to scratch, with other alternative history westerns.  I tried and enjoyed Elizabeth Bear's "Karen Memory" steampunk western which started in a bordello but never descended into crudity.

Which set me up nicely for Atwell's take on a different kind of cowboy story.  To be fair his is not really a zombie story.  The flesh eating human monsters have not died, though their bite does infect and condemn others to the same desperate hunger.  They also seem easy enough to kill provided the weight of numbers doesn't do for you.  In many ways their affliction is like the rage that consumes people in the films 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later. 

Atwell's unique take on this notion of infectious cannibalistic human monsters is to delay the onset of insanity. Provided the afflicted feed regularly on human flesh they can stave off the madness and continue to function as rational if somewhat psychopathic human beings.  I have seen this kind of motif - the rationality hijacked by a hunger it cannot deny - also used well in the eponymous hero of Glen Duncan's "The Last Werewolf."  

That then is the life Atwell breathes into the western format. It is not a spoiler for me to mention it because it emerges pretty early on in the story and in fact even before the story starts with an author's explanation of what it is like to have "The Hunger." 

And that is part of the oddity of this book.  There is a not quite polished enthusiasm which propels but sometimes encumbers the story.

There is front-matter which might better be placed as back-matter, a note from the author a dedication which reads like acknowledgements, a list of the dramatis personae and the early reveal (pre-reveal) of the nature of the sickness.  To me these pages were merely gossameer curtains of distraction to be brushed aside in my desire (hunger?!) to get to the story.  

 The story proper begins with a wagon carrying Thomas Hutton and his family to a new life in the West. They and their eldest sons bear with them differing traumas from the recently concluded civil war.  I was worried at first that Thomas and his wife Beth's penchant for giving all five children names beginning with "A" might cause me a little confusion, but their characters separated out well enough with the two eldest boys, Axel and Amos, a nice juxtaposition of ruthless survivor and na├»ve idealist.

The family stumble upon an abandoned settlement where all that seems to threaten their peaceful rest are coyotes who would prey upon their oxen.  But then the rotters arrive and survival becomes distinctly more difficult.

I don't like to give spoilers.  Suffice to say that the Huttons gain help from a surprisingly well concealed community of other survivors including a remarkably resilient blacksmith and part-time pastor. The main engine of the story is the conflict that inevitably occurs when circumstance forces people together in despite of all notions of personal space and under severe external threat.  Just as the little community in Anne Frank's attic suffered from mundane tensions in the shadow of horror, so too the Vatt's Crossing crowd face simple real human perils and desires. Notwithstanding the collapse of society around them, prejudice, greed and misplaced morality still drive selfish actions. Foolish choices threaten the survival of everyone and in particular those the perpetrators most profess to love.

There are enemies and allies too beyond their community.  There is a militia consumed by hunger, sacrificing their humanity to stay sane.  They are led by a charismatic Colonel who would have thought the slaughter of native americans at Sand Creek was a humanitarian act. Indeed reading this quote from Colonel John Milton Chivington the Sand Creek commander

"Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! ... I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God's heaven to kill Indians. ... Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice."

It makes Atwell's Colonel Lexington Banks, far from being the caricature he first appears to be, into something approaching a faithful historical representation.

The Native Americans make credible allies. There is an earnest desire in Atwell to be fair to all groups, to have his characters show a respect for diversity which at times, to an untutored eye, appears more fitting to a modern context than contemporary with the period.  But then, Elizabeth Bear's "Karen Memory" had a refreshingly robust attitude to prejudice and why should an author not challenge prejudices and champion humanity while still telling a good story.

There are some acts of generosity and some macguffins of invention which stretch credulity a little.  If Tony Stark or  Emmett Brown had dropped into the settlement of Vatt's Crossing even they might raise an eye at the imaginative solutions to some insuperable problems, while the gift which set the Hutton's heading west could only be believed if there were some greedier motive of self-interest at work - and perhaps there was.      

However, the story is the thing, and the story rattles along at a good pace.   Bloody action is described in skull crushing detail and, while some of the plot kinks are foreshadowed a little too obviously and the prose could in parts be more polished, that doesn't make the ride any less enjoyable.  Our band of survivors prove a little better at surviving than the miscellaneous groups who gather in a George Romero film. That is to say, a surprisingly large number of them make it to the "final reel", but there are some significant fallers along the way and this is after all only book one. Plenty of life (or death) left in the story yet. 

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

A Great Book - a few spoilers as I review The Great Gatsby

Two people and one imperative made me read this book. The first was my daughter who had studied it for A'level and having watched the film wanted to discuss it.  The second was a colleague who quoted the book's final line at me when a decision of mine sent her department back to a high dudgeon within the building that they had a few years earlier and with some relief escaped. "And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." The imperative was my fast receding ambition of reading 42 books in this year and the Great Gatsby had the huge advantage of being a short (171 page)book more a novella really.

It turns out that my daughter had seen the film to completion but read bits and pieces of the novel, such is the cherry picking nature of A'level English literature these days, and even the Great Gatsby, consumed in a few days by the side of Lake Garda, could not put me back on reading track.

However it is a great book, one that deserves its tag of classic.  I have long felt that a measure of artistic genius is economy.  The great artist paints in a single brushstroke an image that draws you in.  The great writer in a few well-chosen words conjures a vivid scene within the hollow O of our heads. Another measure of artistic talent is whether something makes you think, whether the story stays with you turning over and over in your mind after you have put the book down, whether the picture captures your attention in a new and different way every time you look at it.

The Great Gatsby, passes both those tests.  Each scene is brief but necessary, events off stage are alluded to by the passage of time in which we can assume Gatsby's rekindled love affair with Daisy is proceeding as these things do while the narrator Nick Carraway tries to ingratiate himself with Jordan's senile aunt.  There is a sparseness to the dialogue, snatches of speech, isolated quotes which give the whole the genuine feel of a young man reminiscing, picking out key memories.

There is comedy too, deftly described. The scene where Gatsby contrives to coincidentally call on Carraway at a time when by scrupulous prior arrangement, Carraway has invited his cousin Daisy for dinner is a delight.  The transparency of Gatsby's angst, the gardener sent over in the pouring rain to cut Nick's lawn so it will be just right.  (Whoever cuts wet grass, let alone grass on which is actually raining?)  Gatsby with his hands his pockets, a desperate bit to quell his agitated fidgeting that reminded me of my own pose, hands clasped behind my back (in fact behind the chair) during one of many unsuccessful interviews.  (I must have looked like I was being interviewed by the Gestapo).  And the naivite of Gatsby who can tell it is not going well but needs Nick to tell him that Daisy is as embarrassed as he.

It is beautifully written and, in its way reminded me of another classic whose title seems particularly resonant.  Great Expectations, which I was forced to read for English O'Level long ago and from which my enduring impression was of Miss Havisham, the jilted bride still in her dotage wearing her wedding dress within the dusty remains of her forsaken wedding breakfast. What struck me there was the grand waste of such a life lived on a fragment of memory, trapped in the past like a fly in amber.  But there was a magnificence in that waste, and Gatsby carries a similar single minded obsession, an inability to move on from the past.

Gatsby's greatness lies not in his wealth, his entertaining, his shady dealings, or even his self-invention.  Gatsby's greatness is in the focus with which he brings all his considerable resources to bear in a bid to recapture a butterfly moment of happiness in his past.  A belief that you can not just revisit but also recreate the past.

There are modern resonances too.  Since first "friends reunited" and then "Facebook" came along social media has been a means by which to find not just new friends but old loves.  How far would Gatsby have pursued the easy option of a sending Daisy a facebook friend request if that had been available to him?

My eldest daughter who, unlike the A'level English literature student, had read the whole book did not like it.  The reason she gave was that there were too many unlikeable characters and indeed there are deep flaws in almost everyone we meet.  Fitzgerald paints a picture of decadence, arrogance and self-interest.  Gatsby is flawed, fatally flawed.  But the other central characters, Tom and Daisy are far from virtuous.

While Tom's bristling arrogance in the way he treats others is clear through his infidelity and the simple fact that he breaks Myrtle's nose, Daisy's flaws are less obvious.  At first we might think her the victim in a loveless marriage, but it is one she walked into of her own accord lured by money such as Gatsby never seemed likely to possess.  The money insulates her from real life in a way whch enables her to play at everything, at marriage at parenthood at friendship, at love, yet always thinking that they can be dropped at an instant.  In this she shares more with her husband than with Gatsby and that, in the end is why she cannot leave him. It is Carraway who must play the part of Nanny and take her lover away, just as her briefly glimpsed well behaved daughter is taken away to the more parental support of her Nanny.

And Gatsby, for all the perfection he imagines in her, still tries to lure her to him with an ostentatious display of wealth and entertainment. He knows money counts for her and that is all right by him it is part of her charm rather than a shallow weakness. She is not just the perfect complement to the lifestyle he has carved out for himself, she is the keystone that completes it.  Or rather, the person he imagines her to be is that keystone.  A cynic once said that "The person one loves never really exists but is simply a fantasy of the heart focussed through the lens of the imagination onto the screen which it fits with least distortion."  So too Gatsby strains for a perfection that is certainly not in the present, and may not even have been in the past.

And that is the central theme that Fitzgerald alludes to in the final line of the book, that desperate magnificent struggle to recapture a love that never really existed to burrow into the past as those facebook ex's pursue each other, viewing it all with spectacles so rose-tinted they are almost puce.

One wonders too at the timing of the book, written in the 20s when the Great War still cast a long shadow.   A war too that Gatsby himself lived through and, in reputation at least, prospered by. How far did Gatsby's infatuation with the memory of Daisy reflect the world's yearning for the innocence of the pre-war days, when everything was at is was assumed it should be and always would be.  However, in pursuing the old love affair Gatsby's struggle reminds me of the title of a child's book about a Dinosaur a Dragon who discussed their different origins and summarised themselves as "No Now and Never Was." That seems to describe the love Gatsby imagined Daisy had for him, but it is his single minded pursuit of that vision which earns him his epithet of Great, an adjective which the book also richly deserves.


Tuesday, 28 July 2015

An Anthology for all Seasons - my review of Fantasy-Faction's first Anthology.

I missed the chance to pick up a hard copy of Fantasy Faction's anthology back in 2013 at the second Grim Gathering, when Marc Aplin was giving them out to those organised enough to have ordered copies.   So I leapt at the chance when it appeared in kindle form, so convenient for a holiday read.

I had understood that the anthology was born out of a desire, a need even, to support the fast growing fantasy-faction website.   That faint whiff of the charitable about its birth might give a buyer pause for thought. It might stay the purchasing hand, baulking at a book suspected of being a means for fantasy-faction friends and family to show their support, rather than being a damn good read in its own right.  However, to think like that is to do this book a profound injustice.

It took a long time for the team to put together because they had nearly 1700 submissions of which less than 20 made it into the final anthology.  All submissions were evaluated with the same rigorous attention to detail which characterises the popular and expanding website.  When you take any stack of submissions and cream off the top 1% you're bound to have something that bears up well in the harshly competitive world of fantasy fiction. 

There are of course the heavy hitters in the piece, the authors who have already carved out a deserved public name for themselves.  We have stories from Mark Lawrence, Myke Cole and Michael J Sullivan, each just as good as you would expect from writers of such skill and talent. These are not throw-away scribbles to do a friend a favour, but carefully crafted and captivating tales that could stand shoulder to shoulder with the rest of those authors' collected works.

However, the other contributors with less illustrious credentials, nonetheless stand toe to toe with the big names and punch out quality prose that does not suffer one wit in the comparison. There are works of stunning imagination and brilliant style here which make this an eminently worthwhile purchase, even without the alluring trio of Lawrence, Cole and Sullivan to draw out your cash.   

There is a great variety in the stories. There is comedy and tragedy, there is futuristic and medieval, there is demonic horror and epic fantasy.  So much so that diversity is the most singular defining feature of the anthology. The risk is always that such a broad spectrum cannot appeal equally to everyone and there were stories that worked better for me than others, but there were enough that really appealed to be worthy of the purchase price alone, while those that did not quite hit the same high mark nonetheless entertained and kept me turning pages to the end.

If I were to pick out my favourites to rank right up there with Lawrence's "The Dream Taker's Apprentice,"  Cole's "Cazar el Muerto" and Sullivan's "The Autumn Mist" then it would be these.

Oasis by Edmund Wells -

There are echoes of Steven King's The Gunslinger, in that it features a gunslinger in a post-apocalyptic desert, held  in thrall to demons and a slave to his own frail hope.  The story grew on me, much as the central relationship grew and developed.  A cynical grizzled protagonist kept alive by a tenuous promise of the future, while his own heart grows cold and dead.  And an innocent who holds up as only the innocent can a mirror to show the man what he has become.  The two of them are given an authentic voice that makes the scenario and their dilemma credible and engrossing

Misericordia by Rene Sears -

Like Oasis, this story is carried by the voice of its narrator, an Italian apprentice in a town gripped by plague. The story is a little odd in some ways, driven by and featuring feats of imagination, a power of clockwork that had me thinking of Lawrence's the Liar's Key which I had finished the previous day.  But it is so beautifully written, spare but evocative prose, I felt as though I were in Italy (well actually I was at the time - but that's beside the point.)

The House on the Old Cliffs by Adrian Tchaikovsky. 

A disparate collection of desperate investigators are  unleashed on a mysterious disappearance by a lawyer working for clients who care little about the quarry's fate and more for their own unspecified interests.  Despite the entertaining conflict within the team, there is still that moment when they approach the ghostly house on the clifftop when the reader is tempted to shout "Don't go in the house!" But they do and things go in various permutations of pear shaped.  Again, the story is sustained by credible narration from a night club bouncer who knows his strengths and weaknesses and tells the tale with a few wistful teasing hints at the benefit of hindsight.

The Dealer by Miah Sonnel.

We have read of humans making deals with demons and devils, trading an eternity of damnation in the afterlife, for a moment of material fortune in the present.  But Sonnel takes that thought one step further, if there are deals then there must be dealers, middle-men who broker the trade, and so we meet  Mr Grossman. By day a purveyor of sea-side bric-a-brac, by night an inhuman trader in demonic pacts. There is again such a deliciously dreadful credibility to the voice of Mr Grossman that the story is not just carried but soars on the charm of his smooth heartless villainy.

Sprinkled through the stories are articles of advice and guidance to would-be writers. All of them illuminating digressions, sorbets to cleanse the palette, before diving into another varied course of enticing fantasy fiction. 

Marc Aplin's own introduction is interesting, you might call it birth of a fantasy reader, telling how the cover (yes covers sell books!) of Trudi Canavan's "The Magician's Guild" drew him in and on into the world of fantasy until, in the desire to discuss and share his newly discovered passion, fantasy-faction was born.  Marc would be an atypical fantasy reader, save only that I don't think there are typical fantasy readers, anymore than there are typical people.    Still, there aren't many other mixed-martial-arts champions stalking the fantasy-blogs and steering so magnificent a website as fantasy-faction.

The other article that particularly pricked my interest, purely on personal preference, was James Barclay's article on the Preservation and Evolution of Elves.  This is not least because I like elves in exactly the haughty, superior but also flawed mode which he describes.  "A race that will not just knee you in the groin but kill you with a certain splendour...  We need elves."  Also, the observation, so true now I reflect on it, that Mr Spock is an elf in all but name (haughty, superior, powerful - hell you hardly even need the pointy ears!).

So, magnificent testament as this anthology is to the website that is fantasy-faction, it is also an incredibly powerful collection of writing in its own right. 

Monday, 27 July 2015

A Key to fit All Hearts - A spoiler free review of "The Liar's Key" by Mark Lawrence

It would be true but also very misleading to say that part of me went to sleep while I was finishing the book two of the Red Queen's War.  The part was my leg which, compressed against a plastic garden chair in an Italian campsite, went quite numb as I sat perfectly still racing through the last 10% or so of Mark Lawrence's latest masterpiece.  Jalan Kendeth's continuing oddessy is an odd kind of quest, a most unconventional road movie, mainly because it is not a movie, involves a lot of sea, no cars and very few roads.

However, like "Rainman" or "Thelma and Louise" it features two contrasting characters with very different hopes and fears travelling towards an uncertain destiny on a journey where they acquire a variety of more or less permanent hangers on and adversaries.

It is Mark Lawrence's longest book to date. It is also a book where I, like many of his fans, can feel a real sense of personal contribution.  This is a book title that we got to vote on!  - and yes "The Liar's Key" was the one I put my mark against. 

The Liar's Key continues the elements we have seen in all of Mark's work to date.  There is an inventiveness that underpins everything, the writing, the characters, the plots, sub-plots and side-plots.  The rich soil of the fantasy genre is a perfect ground on which to sow seeds of such imagination. Jalan carries us smoothly from tragedy to comedy and back again, describing the worlds and the peoples with such a vibrant voice that the reader has to forgive him his cowardice, his greed, his faithlessness, his immorality, his cruelty to his rivals and his utter self-centredness, .

Well it is perhaps a little unfair to suggest that Jal is completely without redeeming features (Is blond a redeeming feature?) However, blood is thicker than water and travelling alongside Jal we discover, much as and when he discovers it, that there is a buried past to him and to his family.  There is a particular charm in watching him revisit the innocence of his own youth and the guilt of his grandmother's.  The weaving of the past and the present timelines is deftly done and exposes the nature of The Red Queen's War, you might call it the ultimate war.

Mark's writing remains as brilliant as ever. A few deft brushstrokes of words that paint a picture more completely than many a writer might manage in several pages. And then there are the descriptions that stretch out the mundane with a poetic lyricism.  What might in one book be, "The land gradually disappeared over the horizon" in Mark's hands becomes,

"I hung at the Errensa's stern, watching Norseheim diminish behind us, compressed between sea and sky into a dark and serrated line.  Then just a line. Then imagination. And finally memory."

Jal has his moments of pure comedy, a sex scene rendered in evocative but not explicit prose which quickly highlights some of the perils of love in a cold climate.  Then there are the many enemies who Jal so carelessly offends and whose clutches he struggles to elude leading to an abortive duel scene which reminded me of Sir Andrew Aguecheek's ineffective sword twirling in Twelfth Night.

The plot swirls and reforms around the central artefact, the liar's key, which can open any door (provided you can find the door) and which carries a curse such that even those who yearn for it, fear to steal it.   Occasionally some old friends and enemies from the Broken Empire trilogy fall into Jal's orbit, like comets sending out a brilliant tail and then flying off to be hidden in the greater darkness of Jorg's story.

There are references to the world of the builders, a world we might recognise as our own, with plasteek and fones on which bishops attempt to talk to God, though I reckon the signal strength might be less than I enjoyed on an Italian campsite. The object intended to test their faith also promised a rather extreme form of excommunication should they succumb to its temptation. I also liked the motif that even a gifted seer can either foresee the future or change it, but cannot do both.  The idea appealed to the physicist in me stirring resonances with Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, or even the simple fact that so often taking a measurement changes the measurement. And having read Mark's Jorg short story "Select Mode" I was delighted to see a builder's world effect from that make its presence felt in this book.

The bond that tied Snorri and Jal together is a little looser in this book than its predecessor and so we see less of Snorri than we might. Prince of Fools in some ways resembled a story of two convicts on the run, handcuffed together by a force they could not break. In the Liar's Key they are more able to separate and spend time apart and, as Jal at times loses sight of Snorri, so do we. But Jal is an entertaining companion in his own right, finding scrapes he must extract himself from without the benefit of Snorri's muscular forearms.

With Jal so often in the driving seat of his own life you can be sure that things will run far from smoothly and certainly not like clockwork! 

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Belated Happy Self-Publishing Day to me.

On the 11th June 2013 I launched Lady of the Helm, first book in my Bloodline trilogy.  In December this was followed by book two, Wrath of the Medusa and in June 2014 I reviewed my first year's experience in a blog post here.

I am now a month overdue for a second state of the nation review. So apologies to those who, having made my previous annual review my second most popular blog page, might have expected a more timely follow up.  In my defence it has been an eventful year both in my fantasy writing life and the real world life of work at a job that pays the bills and presents its own challenges and opportunities.

The Books

As you will see, the trilogy was completed in November 2014 when Volume Three "Master of the Planes" hit the kindle shelves, nearly 12 months since Book Two made its debut.

My experience of books has been something like my experience of baby daughters, in that they have got bigger as they went on.
  • Lady of the Helm 130,000 words, daughter number one 8lbs 3 oz
  • Wrath of the Medusa 170,000 words, daughter number two 9lbs 7 oz
  • Master of the Planes 255,000 words, daughter number three 11 lbs

There is an undeniable satisfaction in having completed the trilogy, bringing the disparate story arcs to a definitive conclusion.  While my current work in progress revisits that world and some of its characters in a epilogue that seems set to grow to two books, the story of Niarmit and Maelgrum has been wrestled to its conclusion.  It has been nearly two decades since the first germs of the ideas at the heart of Niarmit's tale began to form in my mind as I paced serried rows of desks in exam invigilation.

I am still satisfied with my decision to self-publish.  A mixture of expediency and control motivated me down that path and the demands and remuneration available through my day job make it unlikely that my writing will graduate from hobby to (main) career anytime soon.

Nonetheless, there is still no thrill quite like getting feedback from an excited reader's positive review, or watching spikes in sales and a climbing ranking.

Never mind that - tell us about the sales.

I have sold more books than many, and a lot less than others.  I have, just about earned more money than I have spent but we are talking here about a few meals out not a holiday in the Bahamas still less a new house or car.  There is a kind of logarithmic scale to author sales where relative success rates are best compared in powers of ten.  Selling 10 times more than one person might make me seem relatively successful, but then I have sold 10s, hundreds, thousands times less than the better sellers.

As at the time of writing

In addition for much of the second year the books have been enrolled in the Kindle Unlimited programme with another 360 "borrows."  Given the modest prices, and even more modest royalty returns that I have set, the amount each of these borrows have earned is comparable to what a sale earns, so in my mind I think of them as sales.

Those who know me well will be unsurprised when a spreadsheet chart makes its appearance here

You will notice the spectacular peak around Christmas 2014 and that since then things have been a little quiet.  As a soldier on dawn guard duty in a war film might say, "It's too damn quiet."  There is doubtless some seasonality at work and also there is the curve in the life cycle of any book, but at some point I will try to put a little more effort into promotion.

There will be those who will find those figures risable, and others who find them enviable, such is the broad logarithmic spectrum of indie book sales. 

While the books are all now available in hard copy through create space, the figures there are drops in the ocean.  Handfuls bought by me for onward distribution, or family, or the occasional devoted reader who hankers for the reality of paper pages.  However, I am "in a school library", my youngest daughter having struck up a conversation with the librarian and got a set of my books on a Belfast school shelf.

The Changing Landscape of Amazon.

I have kept my books not just with Amazon, but in their Kindle Direct Programme.  I know others have eschewed the media behemoth and fair play to those pursuing a range of indie paths.  Seek out B&N and Kobo and push your books as hard and as wide as you can.

For myself though, convenience and expediency rule.  I simply have not found the time to pursue those other possibilities.  I have still made little use of the KDP offers - kindle countdown deals, or even free book promotions or the amazon adverts.  But for the last few months my kindle unlimited borrows - only available through KDP select programme - have been nearly as numerous as the sales so I have been loath to part with them.

And now the way borrows are calculated and paid has changed in a way which works particularly to my benefit.   You see my books are long, 400, 500 and 725 pages and in the past borrows of my books were getting the same (slightly variable) flat rate of just over $1 as short 38 page pamphlets were getting.  But now Amazon will pay by the page read and even if it is only 1/2 a cent a page I'll be paid between $2 and $3.13 for a read of my books, which is more than I get by selling them.

Also, my Amazon Dashboard now deals in "big numbers"  which always feels exciting. Not the handful of books a day I am used to (and that would be a good day), now we deal in literally hundreds, even thousands (of pages)

So Jeff Bezos has lured me in for a few more months at least.


The Highs  -

"Reviews! Always the Reviews!"

Every time a reader says "I don't believe in reviews" somewhere a self-published author dies.  Well, o.k. I exaggerate. But it is hard to underestimate how in their solitary toil an author can crave the feedback, the endorsement, the validation even, of a review.  Especially we love to see if the effects we sought to create did have the impact we hoped on our readers.

I met Joe Abercrombie doing book signings at a Grim Gathering in Bristol and fell to talking about his book Half the World. I commented how I liked the way the book started as it ended with a sword practice session on a sandy beach, an interesting motif to bracket the story.  I think he was pleased that I had noticed as he went on to say he did that a lot in his books. In the excitement he forgot to add his signature to my name in the dedication of the book I had brought to him.  (Here are links to  my account of the The Grim Gathering II, and my reviews of Joe's books  Half a King, and  Half the World )

I always aimed to write a story that, while having some familiar tropes (dammit I like elves and Dark Lords) would nonetheless take the reader down some very unexpected pathways.  Generally the reviews -  averaging around and above 4 stars for all the books - suggest that I succeeded.  For example, this one


It is always a delight to interact with a vibrant online community of authors and readers.

In particular it was a privilege to get invited as a judge in another short story competition.  "The Liar's Key" flash fiction competition run on the website.  Seeing great writing, exchanging views with great authors, and finding a huge convergence of opinion about what constituted a real quality effort was fascinating.

It was also great to have the chance to put my own book forward for Mark Lawrence's self-published fantasy blog-off with over 250 titles submitted to ten busy fantasy bloggers in a bid to unearth a potential gem.  It is a long task for those ten volunteers, and I speak as one who is way off track for my personal target to read 42 books in a whole year.

I am curious as to how it turns out for Lady of the Helm, but I know my book is not to everyone's tastes. I am just glad it has fascinated as many people as it has.

The Lows - Hard Lessons.

Alongside the general positivity, less favourable reviews can hurt.  To return to my earlier analogy, an author's books are like our children. Sure we know they have imperfections. Those flaws which we are, if not wilfully blind to, at least minded to overlook.  Having them thrown into harsh relief by an unfavourable review, either pithy in its disparagement, or surgically detailed in its criticism is like being told "Jeez, but your kid's ugly." 

Nonetheless they are instructive.  Even in the negative reviews I still recognise the book they are describing, it is simply that the reviewers attach a different weight to certain features in building their overall impression of the book.

For some the tropes were too familiar, the variations insufficiently distinctive. 

This may have been more an issue for those voracious consumers of large volumes of fantasy for whom a certain trope ennui is understandable. I might be disappointed that they did not see the twists in the same way that others did, but no book works for everyone. This trilogy's genesis lay in my own desire to develop and tell a story on a traditional epic fantasy scale.  That won't be to every reader's taste, nor will it describe every book I write, as my sources of inspiration change. Reader and author must I guess merely accept that and move on.

For another the dispensability of apparently main characters was too bleak.

While some reviewers made complimentary references to a GRRM like ruthlessness, one other stopped reading in belief that there was too little hope of a happy ending.  That's partly how the story had to be set up from the start and - like a medieval parent in an age of high infant mortality - it is unwise for the reader of this trilogy to form deep attachments to characters too early in the scheme of things.  It is not that I am averse to (some) characters enjoying a (sort of) happy ending.  It's just that a story should change a character, otherwise what's the point.  Even Frodo did not escape the war of the ring unscathed.

At the Grim Gathering in Bristol, Joe Abercrombie was asked if he ever felt so engaged with one of his characters that he changed his story to spare them from a planned fate.  His reply was illuminating, to the effect that his characters were simply the tools with which he tormented his readers. Their purpose was to evince a reaction in the reader, their long planned fate, simply an opportunity for Joe to fetch a fresh and exciting tool from his box of characters.

Certainly my approach in the trilogy had a similarly brutal streak.  As one early reviewer commented
"The characters are well developed and serve their time well until their usefulness to the plot expires – at which point they tend to follow suit."
There are a few characters who owe their survival to the intervention of my youngest daughter and beta reader who refused to let me kill them off as I read the developing work to her at bedtime. To be fair, their survival certainly enabled me to enrich later parts of the story.

I read a fellow self-published author's work a while back and met that same disconcerting effect of a character in whom the author and reader had invested time and effort suddenly dying - and indeed doing so off stage.  That and those reviews have minded me to be a little less cavalier with my own darlings. After all, death is not the only peril a character can face, mere survival is not the only challenge.  I've got a long way into my current work in progress without having to kill anyone off - however I'm sure it won't last.

The short sharp changes in scene and numerous POV characters bewildered one reader

There were always going to be multiple points of view. I originally conceived of the book in vaguely cinematic terms with parallel storylines portrayed through flip-flopping scenes showing a sequence of events occurring simultaneously for different characters.  It's a motif that I stuck with through the trilogy, but I must admit when I was looking at a print run proof copy and seeing some scenes that are less than a page long I did think, "Maybe that's a bit too choppy and changy."  I mean as the author I always knew what was going on and could see the logic in the juxtaposition of scenes.  But then I'm writing for the reader not for me. 

So the scenes did get longer as the trilogy went on, and in my work in progress several of them are almost long enough to be called chapters, while I have limited myself to three major and one minor PoV characters.  This was partly in the (so far vain) hope that this would keep the word count at the lower end of the epic scale.

Does Editting realy matter?

I was a year and a half into my self-published adventure before any review mentioned poor quality of editing as an issue and then two did in quick succession and it stung.  In particular the question being raised as to whether there had been any editing at all.  Now, my books were not perfect, but certainly they were repeatedly subjected to self-editing.  I figured, English is my native language, my colleagues at work think I'm a fairly literate fellow, I write reports and letters and manage to avoid offending with any grammatical faux pas.  Sure I can manage this.  And I did check and re-check, so the suggestion that there had been no effort at all at editing was right up there with the "Your child's pig ugly" comment on the hurt scale.

For most readers the editing was not an issue, but when mistakes are pointed out you do start to think "Oh crap!" and hang your head a little. We're talking here about the odd typo.  There was the occasional name misspelled or in one mortifying case, not changed from an earlier completely different iteration of the story when Odestus was called Olwen.  There was also a particular grammatical issue over capitalisation within quote marks.  I've seen a lot worse edited self-published books and I've seen similar errors in some traditionally published books - just fewer of them.  But the fact of the matter is that you do need a second pair of eyes, and ideally a trained pair to take a look at it.  And those people who notice these things, really notice these things. 

Given the margins and sale volumes that most self published books work on, professional editing will wipe out whatever potential profit margin exists for many of those books.  However, I am keen to explore what difference it can make, so my next book will get a professional edit - I'll call it an investment in my hobby.  In the meantime, the joy of e-books and createspace print on demand publishing is that necessary corrections can be made and can go live instantly.

The Surprises

The story changed and developed over many years.  It is hard to think back and recall when certain points of the story got pinned down.
  • Quintala the half-elf lady was originally Quintor the half-elf man.
  • I really can't remember when I decided who was sharing Bishop Udecht's bed, but it must have been early on.  
  • I knew some key plot devices like how the great weapon worked very early on, but I still had no idea how that would help defeat the Dark Lord.
  • The throwaway character in a single scene in book two suddenly became a pivotal player in book three, to the point that I was somewhat embarrassed his name was so similar to  well known grimdark icon and tried to disguise the similarity with a nickname.

But I suppose the biggest surprise is how far the readers warmed to Dema, the Medusa.  Even the critics thought her the most intriguing person in the story.  Much as I liked writing her, I never thought she would be the trilogy's unique selling point.  But then again, how many other fantasy epics can boast a medusa!