Thursday, 31 March 2016

A Worthy Winner "The Thief who pulled on Trouble's Braids" by Michael McClung

McClung and the SPFBO

Just over a year ago, Mark Lawrence launched his Self Published Fantasy Blog Off in which over 250 self-published novels were submitted in batches to ten volunteer bloggers in a two round competition.  Each blogger identified the favourite in their personal batch and then the ten batch winners were reviewed by all bloggers to identify an overall winner.

You can read more about it here.

Yesterday, on an impulse, I bought the overall winner "The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble's Braids" by Michael McClung.  Today I finished it and then discovered that Mark Lawrence had just announced the SPFBO #2 (posted here) and that makes this not simply a review of this very worthy winner of SPFBO #1 but also an opportunity to reflect on self-publishing in general and the SPFBO process in particular.

As a self-published author myself (and SPFBO #1 first round entrant) I have a natural sympathy towards self-published work and McClung himself wrote eloquently in Lawrence's blog (here) about his own motives for self-publishing. It was more to do with impatience and disappointment with the traditionally published route, than the blinkered narcissism that most of those who still look down on self-publising would assume.

I have read many self-published books, including three of the eight I have read so far in this (irritatingly busy) year.  There is a range in their quality just as there is in the quality of traditionally published books but, unsurprisingly, the range in self-published work is greater with authorial enthusiasm carrying some weaker works half-formed into the public domain.

However, there is a significant region of overlap where the best of the self-published works can put many a traditional piece to shame.  The SPFBO had a degree of randomness in the approaches of bloggers and the allocation of titles, but it is reassuring to find that the book which eventually  emerged victorious is a shining star in the self-published pantheon.

The Thief who pulled on Trouble's braids

This is a well crafted book about a thief called Amra setting out to avenge a friend. Its central mystery carries it through a series of intruiging plot developments and engaging new characters, while the high quality of the writing gives the reader many points at which to pause and smile in appreciation.

It reminds me of Daniel Polansky's Low Town series which had the cynical first person narrator "The Warden."  Amra, like the Warden, has carved out a successful career on the wrong side of the law yet preserves an inner morality that she would die rather than admit to.  There are touches of Scott Lynch's work "The Lies of locke Lamora" in a well developed sense of city and culture and a multiplicity of Gods, priests and temples none of them to be entirely trusted.  There is also a resonance with Lucas Thorn's (another self published novelist) work, the tales of the violent elf Nysta.  Like Nysta, Amra has a wide variety of bladed implements whose individual properties she is intimately aware of and very efficient at using.  Like Nysta, Amra also has a friend of the wizarding persuasion.    And, yet again I find myself enthralled by (or in thrall to) a feisty female who takes crap from absolutely no-one.

The world building is cleverly incidental. Asides that tell us Atan the Camlachan purveyor of cooked meat is from a fallen warrior race and "should have been handling a broadsword, not meat skewers."

Like all good cities Lucernis has its own version of the Shanghai Hilton, though I did wonder if Havelock prison was a homage to Pratchett's Patrician Vetinari.  The city is, if not quite a den of vice and iniquity, certainly no better than it should be.  "You can't just go walking around with a severed head in Lucernis. But you can, I discovered, walk around with a lumpy head-shaped item, wrapped in linen and dripping blood. I think it's just that nobody really wants to know you're walking around with a severed head, and are appreciative of the courtesy of leaving room for doubt."

McClung gives his heroine a sharp and distinctive voice, in describing her friend and ally she muses "Why he chose to live next to a field of bodies in various states of rot I'll never understand.  But I never asked him. I was afraid he might tell me."

The book is littered with economical but powerful descriptions which I always think are the mark of a great writer - making every word punch above its weight. Such as one grieving woman, "She sat rigid as ever, but one manicured hand was white-knuckled, throtting a silk napkin."  Or an old man whose "wrinkles had wrinkles and his hair was little more than a silver net across his spotted pate."

Amra is an entertaining and educational narrator, a skilled thief who speaks to the camera every so often, such as explaining why she wraps her grapnels in white cotton.

She meets and describes a variety of people and, while she is unlucky in her enemies, she can count herself fortunate in her friends who are loyal and/or powerful, though for Amra the relationship is often seen in simple terms "We put meat on each other's tables."

This is a short book in an age when fantasy fiction seems to require door stopping blockbusters filled with backstory.  McClung handles exposition by putting some of it in the mouth of a cussed priest of a dead god of knowledge. In most unpriestly but entertaining language he berates our heroine and fills her in - somewhat belatedly - on what she is up against.  Then, just for badness, there is an epilogue of said priest's rantings - far more enteraining than a dry appendix of info-dump.

The story develops rapidly with the twists and turns enough to satisfy an afficianado of both fantasy and murder mysteries (which may explain its dual appeal to me.)  In  so doing McClung lays the seeds (if I have read my runes correctly) for seven more sequels in Amra's troubled life.  In book one we have got to know her and her most significant allies.  If there is character development (as opposed to revelation) then I guess it lies in Amra discovering not so much that "the only thing to fear is fear itself" (there are plenty of really scary things well worth fearing in Amra's world) as that "the only thing to hate is hate itself."  Which, by the way is not a bad message in the troubled contemporary times in which we live.

What other Self published works might learn from McClung's success ?

The Thief who Pulled on Troubled Braids, more so than other self-published works I have read, is one that could easily take its place within the higher echelons of  traditionally published fantasy.

I read H.G.Wells "The Time Machine" recently and was interested to discover that it was Wells' early big idea, rushed out without the time he felt it deserved for the fuller development.  For many self-published authors there is that same enthusiasm for a single big idea, a theme, or style, or perspective that makes their story unique.  But, the big idea is not enough, the craft and the mastery of basics are essential and that is what McClung has achieved.

In my youth I used to play cricket at a fairly low grade level. I bowled and I, and other bowlers I played with would strive for that same unique specialness in our bowling that so many authors aspire to in their writing.  We dreamed of that special delivery, the unplayable ball, the one that was as fast as a rocket, that spun like a top, that did stuff no batsman could predict. But the truly successful sportsman, like the truly successful writer, is not the one with the isolated flashes of innovative brilliance. It is the one with the control of craft to deliver consistently high quality performance. It is within such a disciplined environment that brilliance can be most properly and effectvely expressed.

McClung maintains that quality and control - getting the basics consistently right, and it is that foundation which, for me deservedly lifts a good story into the truly professional bracket. 

What impact has the SPFBO victory had for McClung?

Even with SPFBO success there does not appear to have been a clear or immediate translation into Anthony Ryan or Michael J Sullivan style success

At this moment on Amazon, "The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble's Braids" ranks as follows 75,537 Paid in Kindle Store  and 15 reviews 69,884 Paid in Kindle Store and 74 reviews 

For comparison

My own "Lady of the Helm" which did not make it past the first round sort for SPFBO and (which has had minimal marketing due to work pressures) ranks as follows 86,797 Paid in Kindle Store and 19 reviews 254,768 Paid in Kindle Store and 14 reviews

I would hypothesise that critical acclaim is of itself not enough (I guess no surprise there).  To get success a book needs
a) luck and
b) a well mobilised and vociferous fan base spreading the word

and that b) is something every author needs to work on - and fans need to support.

McClung's book is a really good book - it deserves a wider audience than it seems to have got so far.

Maybe SPFBO as a competition needs to find ways to spreading its own message more widely, so that this great winner shall succeed beyond the competition, with countless readers clamouring for copies! 

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Pulling all the right strings a spoiler free review of "The Prince and the Puppet Affair" by G.W. Renshaw

This is the second in G.W. Rewnshaw's Calgary set series about Veronica Chandler, a feisty young private eye whose escapades challenge the expectations of age, gender and indeed genre.

I reviewed the first of them here The Stable Vices Affair The second had languished on my kindle for some months, waiting for the various clouds of work, family and other commitments to lift and - on a not exactly bright easter day I finally found the time to return to Veronica's increasingly bizarre world.

It is a testament to the story and the writing that I consumed it in a single day - and at 287 pages this is far more than a novella.

Renshaw's tale is sustained by his heroine, an engaging and resouceful young woman given a credble voice.  The kind of nineteen year old who likes to pretend "that there's only one seven o'clock per day: the one right after supper." A misapprehension that those of us wh have ever tried to awaken teenage daughters will certainly recognise.

The second book is set a year after the first and, for Veronica, the intervening months have been filled with a succession of reassuringly ordinary cases quite unlike the bizarre events of book one and a being claimining to be demon with an interest in dressage fetish. However, all good things must come to an end. The marital woes of Alyssa Blakeway ("She was not one of those people who can cry prettily") set Veronica off again mixing her own brand of police procedural (we learn how to climb telegraph poles safely - and repeatedly) with all manner of occult happenings.

Renshaw's writing is unobtrusively good. It rattles along with many flashes of wise-cracking (and self-deprecating) humour from the heroine.  "This guy was so dense he made lead look like a souffle" The descriptions are ecnomical and easy on the mind's eye such as this sunrise "A graded wash of orange faded upwards until it met a band of clouds that also turned a deep orange."

There are also little asides in deference to pop-culture that appeal to me but are subtle enough not to irk those who may be too young (or old) to get them.  Miss Blakeway's "gallifreyan" handbag, a car named "binky" and a pythonesque reference to potentially being turned into a newt with the proviso "you'd get better."

For all the demons' demonic power (sufficient to confound a whole alphabet of plans starting with Plan A) I could not help rooting for them, they seemed so much nicer than some of the humans.  As Mercedes M Yardley's own feisty heroine Luna Masterson found in Nameless (my first book of 2016 reviewed here), your status living with demons is best described as "complicated."  And even demons move with the the times -as Veronica reflects "See, Collin, even demons don't give a rat's ass about virginity. Welcome to the 21st century."

This is an entertaining read again illustrated by the author's own particular expertise in martial arts and cooking - even knee deep in criminal demonic invocations we write best when we write about what we know.  

Veronica carries the story but with excellent support from friends - if not always lovers. However, bargains have to be struck and fascinations fuelled which means that Veronica's demons (the internal and the external) have certainly not finished with her. Indeed like a close coupled binary star system, they seem fated to spiral into an even closer embrace in the books ahead.

I can hardly wait!

Monday, 28 March 2016

A good read by a well read author, my spoiler free review of "The Red Plains" by G.R.Matthews

G.R.Matthews has created and sustained a unique world in this trilogy that takes what we thought we knew about Imperial China and re-imagines it in a way that feels both different and authentic.

In this concluding installment of the forbidden list trilogy, a struggle that began (In the Stone Road) as a dispute between two city states and their rival dukes has escalated to a conflict that threatens to consume not just the Empire, but the whole of creation.

Matthews keeps that epic scale firmly grounded through the same approach seen in the first two books. The reader follows two key participants in a series of alternating Point of View chapters.  There is Zhou, the diplomat, who through the trauma of losing his wife and child discovered the raw power of the spirit realm and his link as a wu to the primal spirit of the Panther.  There is Haung, the soldier trained in two forms of warrior magic and elevated like Zhou to the forbidden list, those servants of the Emperor to whom no-one may offer any let, hinderance or harm as they serve his majesty.

In some ways Zhou and Huang are unlikely protaganists of this tale, there are others with greater powers and higher stakes. At times Matthews' heroes serve as the readers' eyes and ears, witnesses to the power of greater beings. Jeff Salyards in his Blooodsounder Arc trilogy had the scribe Arkimondos tell the tale of intrigue and warfare from a worm's eye view. While Zhou and Haung are far more formidable than Akimondos ever could be, their own development - attending as guests at the table of power (like hobbits at the council of Elrond) - means Matthews can and does use them effectively to guide the reader through his incredibly complex world of multiple realms and ancient conflicts.

In his afterward and elsewhere, Matthews has written of his great hatred for info-dumps - those long chapters of exposition, those prologues of pretend history - in which some authors have unwisely indulged. Epic fantasy must have a backstory of course, and the author must know it - know it all, but like seven eights of an iceberg (or a building's foundations) most of it should be hidden from view, not thrust down the reader's throat.

So Matthew's story builds through the experiences and observations of Zhou and Huang as they follow very different paths.  Battles are fought, friendships forged, heroes discovered and secrets revealed all in an entertaining way and at a lively pace. The use of chinese terms and names lends a sense of immersion in a different world without going to the extremes of unpronouncable invented names with a muliplicity of apostrophes.

Plot seeds laid in the earlier books get to sprout and flower here in surprising ways and at the heart of this tale there is a theme of family.  Not just the family that Zhou lost, or the family that Huang has vowed to protect, but other families who must resolve their differences or else the Jade Emperor and the world as they know it will fail.


A Spoiler Free Review of "The Second Death" by T.Frohock

This is the third novella in Frohock's Los Nefilim trilogy.  You can see my reviews of the others  here In Midnight's Silence and here Without Light or Guide.

In reviewing "The Second Death" there will be some spoilers for the first two books, so you have been warned!

The story that was begun in "In Midnight's Silence" is carried forward as the daimon Moloch and his idea for a bomb again becomes a cause that angels would go to war over.  We also find out more about how Frohock's world - or rather universe of daimons, angels and mortals is organised.

The question in my last review as to whether Guillermo is leader of all the worlds Nefilim is answered as we meet Die Nephilim of Germany and realise that the nations of the world mirror and are shaped by the nations of the angels and their respective bands of nephilim. Struggles and warfare  in our world reflect clashes within heaven itself and the fate of a war yet to be fought is resolved in an spanish asylum where an angel might fear to tread. 

Frohock's story juxtaposes simple family scenes with moments of great terror as Miquel and Diago strive to both be good fathers to Rafael and good Nefilim for Guillermo. All three of the closeknit nuclear family take their turn in the Point of View spotlight with writing that effectively conveys  disparate voices ranging from a five year old child to an immortal.

However, in Frohock's world immortality is not something to be taken for granted - as the title suggests, there is more than one kind of death.  With Frohock's Daimons and Angels as with Claire North's kalachakra in the First Fifteen lives of Harry August (reviewed here) even perpetual reincarnation must have limits. At the same time there are tempting reminders that this is Diago's second incarnation, that he and his fellow nefilim have shared a previous existance from which both lessons and prejudices leak into the one he knows now. There may be a backstory novella in there.

Frohock paints her story with a colourful palette, language that conjures a vivid sense of the world her characters inhabit in all its tones. 

"The humid air was tinted in sallow shades of yellow and green.  Tornados dropped from skies like these."

The overall effect is of writing with the smoothness of southern comfort wrapped around a plot with the kick of a single malt.

A spoilery review of "The Time Machine" by H.G.Wells

This review will contain spoilers because, for me, the books greatest curiosity was what its plot set about the time in which it was written and indeed what any book says about the time in which it was written.

Reflecting back on this his early work from the lofty heights of his later success, H.G.Wells also gives an interesting insight into the process of authorship.  The Time Machine was "the big idea" lurking in his head and waiting for the moment when he could give the theme the time (no pun intended) that it deserved. Yet, financial pressures forced him to rush the story through and preciptously out into the world like Shakepseare's Richard III
"Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up" 

Who amongst us writers has not feared that the big idea would be squandered in a work that would not do it justice and Well's experience shoudl reassure us at least that there will be other big ideas to follow.  We all have more than the apocryphal "one novel" in us and the big ideas are like the "magic penny" of love that my wife used to make primary school children sing.

"love is like a magic penny, hold it tight and you won't have any, lend it spend it and you'll have so many they will roll all over the floor."

That writing breeds ideas which breeds writing in one of the few natural positive feedback loops.

Anyway, what about the book itself?

Well, written at the end of the ninteenth century it was a time of great social and scientific change

The industrial revolution was in full swing with Blake writing of the "dark satanic mills"
Darwin's theory of evolution was still relatively new.
Einstein and others were pondering the nature of time and space.
Oscar Wilde was writing witty plays poking fun at the rigidities of manners in an intensely class bound system.

H.G.Wells flung those ideas into the authorial melting pot and the melded them into a tale that told as much about his present as our future.  In the first place he had his collection of gentleman identifed by profession rather than name, discuss the concept of time as a dimension through which one travelled.

Then he flung his eponymous hero hundreds of thousands of years into the future to see what evolution had done to human kind and the species had bifurcated.

The industrial workers had evolved into the Morlocks, disappearing underground to maintain machinery whose purpose they had long since lost sight of (indeed Wells himself offers no clue as to its function).

On the surface dwell the eloi, in some way descendants of Wells upper classes (or the farming classes or both). The technology has made work neither necessary nor relevant and they have lost the impetus of leadership and become pleasant but feeble minded pleasure seekers fed but not challenged with their intellect withering in consequence.

And in this twisted world the morlocks rise from the deeps to feed on the eloi in what cannot quite be cannibalism since they are clearly no longer the same species.

It is funny how we all of us live in the moment, how we assume a permanence to the culture and technology of the time in which we live.  Our imagination of the future projects those themes forward and my own germ of a science fiction idea is built around our mdoern challenges of global warming, population growth and sea level rises.  Maybe someday I will get the time to give that big idea its proper treatment.

At the same time we assume our own present - in its culture, attitudes, system of government - has some perfection and permanence. Those who might criticise one religion for its demeaning attitudes towards women forget that a couple of centuries earlier their own religion espoused discriminatory views as its own orthdoxy. Those who berate the intolerance of  sexual difference in countries forget how recently their own countries repealed laws that made homsexuality illegal. Which is of course, not to say we were right then and wrong now, but just to be aware that we are all (as nations and individuals) travelling through time and being changed by the journey and should be mindful of that before we try to claim we stand on some unique peak of moral high ground.

Wells projected the issues of his own time forward and what had been a class divide became not just a racial divide but a species divide as technological advances spared all from the need to work.   That was - in essence - the big idea and one is mildly curious to see how Wells might have developed it if he had given the bigger fuller treatment he originally intended.