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 amazon.co.uk  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.


  1. Sorry if this double posts, I seem to have lost it and nothing is ever a good when you re-write it.
    I linked to your review through a tweet by Thorn.

    Wow, there is some breadth to this review/post. I generally agree with you, especially about the ratings. I notice you don't use them. I don't either. I find people ignore the review if I do.

    The 'men with tits' issue is actually a hot point for me and one I dinged Thorn for in my own review. The problem I have with it is that it suggests that only recognisably male behaviours are strong and relegates more traditionally female behaviours as weak. It's like a modern office setting, where if a woman wants to succeed she often has to adopt a brash, aggressive persona, i.e. act like a man. Because to do otherwise is seen as ineffective, even if it isn't in and of itself, the fact that others see it as so means its never given a chance. Similarly, the fact that strong female warriors almost always have to be broken in some fashion (usually rape) before they can become said strong warriors drives me absolutely batty, as if a woman can't just be naturally badass. She has to give up her pure womanhood first. Bah!

    Anyhow, great review and interesting thoughts.

    1. Thanks for your comments, they're much appreciated.

      I had a look at your review of the same book and it looks like we found similar issues - the same book seen from slightly different angles! I haven't written as many reviews as I'd like, time to read and/or write is always at a premium.

      But, the issue of fantasy heroines continues to vex me. My first trilogy had four leading females,

      Niarmit - the priestess and princess turned outlaw and orphan
      Hepdida - the servant girl finding her mundane worries and petty crushes turned on their heads by disaster on an epic scale
      Dema - the medusa, who made a fateful bargain and is determined to embrace the opportunities and the opprobrium it has brought her
      Quintala - the half-elf, who has lived with two and half centuries of prejudice, shunned by one ancestry and barely tolerated by the other

      I got some nice reviews, and people seem to find Dema the most interesting of the four, but I am never that sure how convincingly or compellingly I managed to convey my quartet of heroines.

      Still, it hasn't stopped me writing another female lead, a different kind of heroine in my current work in progress!