Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Spec Fic Writer's 101: World Building by Ken Scholes

Ken Scholes is, in my opinion, one of the most underrated writers in the industry, seamlessly combining disparate elements of both science fiction and fantasy in his epic fantasy series The Psalms of Isaak. His world building is sweepingly original but maintains a comfortable familiarity to long time readers of the genre. So when Ken agreed to take part in this series and asked what topic I'd like him to cover, world building was a no brainer. I found Ken's approach to both unexpected and intuitive and am sure you'll agree. Enjoy.

World-Building, Trailer Boy Style

I’m pleased and grateful that Matt asked me to participate in his series of guest posts on speculative fiction writing.  When he invited me, I asked which topic he’d like me to tackle and he suggested world-building.

Now, though I’ve created dozens of worlds over the years including the world in my series with Tor, The Psalms of Isaak, I don’t for a minute consider myself an expert on the subject of world-building.  I’m still learning as I go, having just recently finished my fourth novel, and I’m already seeing what I’d like to do differently the next time I tackle a multi-volume series.  Still, it’s a topic I have some experience with.
When I think about the world my stories take place in – whether it’s truly a world or a universe or just a room in a house – I think about it only in terms of doing what is necessary to suspend the disbelief and engage the imagination of my reader.  The setting I place my story in is as critical to that story’s success as the characters I place in that setting and the problems that they face.

The Psalms of Isaak was my first foray into creating a big world and my approach to it was actually rather sparse.  I didn’t start out with copious notes or a map or any of that.  I started out with telling the story and allowed the world to fill itself in as I wrote.  I don’t think I even had a map until I’d finished Lamentation. Most of the world lives in my head and in the pages of the books I’ve written.  Other than some map sketches, I don’t think there are any notes around about the Named Lands.  But I do have some other things.  Other stories from earlier in the history of that world – things referred to as myth or history in the series and now being expounded upon – that reveal more of the earlier times that produced the present.  But I also have bits of verse and snippets from imagined books.  And, throughout the series, references to events, artists, actors, leaders, beliefs, quotes, descriptions of meals all to make that world a place readers can imagine.

I try to think of the things that make our world feel plausible, real, believable and then layer them into my narrative about this other world.  But again, I try to keep it light so that my reader is using their own imagination to fill in the gaps.  I like to get them to do the heavy lifting.

The other thing I do in regards to my world-building is actually rooted in my characters.  I tend to be quite brutal about my third person limited POV and that also translates into how my characters interact with their world.  If they are in a familiar place they are not going to spend pages and pages on the texture of a leaf or how the banking system works.  They will have enough information in their head about those things to move through them but not enough to bog down the story into an info-dump about things that they would never pause to think about in the midst of their present activities.

POV can be a great tool – perhaps the greatest tool – for showing readers your world.  But not all at once in paragraph after paragraph of detail.  Instead, little bits of world revealed here and there as the characters move through it.  And a world is more than what a character sees – it is what they hear, smell, taste, touch – which gives a writer tons to work with.  And by layering in those details, spread out across an entire book, you build a sense of your character’s connection with their world that the reader then experiences vicariously.

So, distilled down to a few bullet points, here are my suggestions for world-building based on my own process (so your mileage may vary):

  • Less is more and patience is a virtue:  Layer your world into the book throughout the book.  Use small, minor details – like bits of history, reference to artists or other historical characters, important places -- so that by the end of the book, the reader feels like they visited a real place.
  • Engage your reader’s imagination for the heavy lifting:  Give enough to get them seeing what you see and then trust them to see it.  Resist the urge to overstate the world.
  • Stay faithfully in your character’s POV and show us what they see through all of our senses:  Again, less is more but when you’re layering it in from multiple sources, lightly, by the end of the book, the reader feels like they’ve experienced that character’s life, including the world they live in.

Again, big thanks to Matt for including me on his guest list.  You’re all welcome to follow my regular Saturday blog at Genreality.net, chase me down on Facebook, or find out more about me at www.kenscholes.com.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Spec Fic Writers 101: Research with Teresa Frohock

When I first started this project, I reached out to all of the authors I have interviewed since the blog started and asked them if they would like to contribute. But with that number being fairly low in comparison to the number of topics I'd hoped to cover, I also asked that they invite any other industry professionals that they thought might like to contribute. Stina Leicht was kind enough to connect me with not one but two other authors who had already made my 'to read' list. Teresa Frohock was one of those. With NaNoWriMo and various other projects and obligations kicking my butt at the moment it make take a while for me to get to Miserere: An Autumn Tale, but based on the sample chapters available on Night Shade's website and what an absolute pleasure Teresa was to work with on this project, I will definitely find the time sooner than later.

About the Author: Teresa Frohock is the author of Miserere: An Autumn Tale and is currently concluding work on a second novel, tentatively entitled THE GARDEN, which is unrelated to the Katharoi series. Teresa was raised in North Carolina, lived in Virginia and South Carolina before returning to the Piedmont, where she currently resides with her husband and daughter. Teresa has long been accused of telling stories, which is a southern colloquialism for lying.

With our author introduced and her bona fides established, lets see what Teresa has to say about the most seemingly mundane and often foolishly avoided  aspect of writing in speculative fiction; research.

A quick disclaimer: I know this is intended to be a 101 how-to; however, I’m going to assume you already know that you need to research things like how many miles a person can walk in a day or how fast a horse can run, etc. I’m not going to insult your intelligence (or mine) like that. Instead, I want to focus on research in a slightly different vein.

Story, characterization, and a strong plot are the true backbone of your work, a series of bold lines, if you will. Solid research gives your fiction a deeper pigmentation and enables you to show character development in order to intensify the realism of your fiction. The trick is not to bombard your reader with useless information.

If you can develop the knack for weaving your research into the story seamlessly, then a well-researched novel is going to give you an edge that others lack. So, how do you do that? Consider this exchange from Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind:

“I don’t want iron,” the innkeeper said. “A drab has too much carbon in it. It’s almost steel.”
“He’s right,” the smith’s prentice said. “Except it’s not carbon. You use coke to make steel.
Coke and lime.”
The innkeeper nodded deferentially to the boy. “You’d know best, young master. It’s your business after all.

This passage clicked with me because in my current novel, my protagonist Guillermo is a blacksmith. I originally intended a scene with Guillermo working in the forge, and in order to understand the process of making steel, I did quite a bit of research, whereupon I learned the following: steel is comprised of several alloys, carbon being the most important and coke is a fuel with a high carbon content.

Knowing these two things, I saw how Rothfuss divulged some important information about the innkeeper to any of his readers who also happened to know these facts.

First, the innkeeper is knowledgeable about process of making steel, something beyond most laymen in a medieval society. No two blacksmiths worked metal exactly alike and they guarded their processes jealously—think trade secrets and you’ve got the right idea. The smith’s apprentice, who should understand the process better than an innkeeper, knows that coke and lime make steel, but he doesn’t understand why (i.e. because coke produces carbon).

Because, like the innkeeper, I know these things, then I realize the smith’s apprentice is kind of dumb and the innkeeper is more than he seems.

Second, when the smith’s apprentice corrects the innkeeper, the innkeeper concedes the boy’s point and does not shame him by pointing out that coke has a high carbon content and is merely a fuel. This denotes graciousness on the part of the innkeeper. He doesn’t need to make the smith’s apprentice look the fool in front of the other men. The innkeeper knows he is right; however, he doesn’t need to pump his own ego at someone else’s expense.

See what Rothfuss did there?

The preceding analysis rolled through my mind in the few brief seconds that it took me to read the exchange between these two characters. For those in the know, that very tiny exchange rendered quite a bit of information about the innkeeper and the smith’s apprentice, but Rothfuss also took into account that many people wouldn’t know the carbon/coke references. For those people, the exchange was so brief as to be a quick side-trip in a very serious discussion.

And that is precisely how to entwine research into your story to enhance characterization and deliver important information to your reader without pages of useless facts. Rothfuss uses his research to enrich his story, not overwhelm it.

So then the question becomes: How much information is too much information?
Here’s the deal: you’re telling a story, not writing a treatise. There is a big difference between these two things, and in fiction, it is necessary to relay a fact as expeditiously as possible.

The issue is to weave the facts into the story without breaking the rhythm of the prose. For me, this takes practice and numerous edits, but once I hit that right mix of prose and fact, the story simply sings. Your number one rule should be that any research that you relay to the reader should be tied directly into the immediate events in the story.

Research into Iberian military practices gave me the information I needed to construct the break between Tomás and Guillermo in THE GARDEN. By knowing that a strict table of fines and punishments were set out for soldiers’ infractions during a war, I could easily weave the fine of four hundred maravedís for killing a señor during a conflict into the discussion between Tomás and Guillermo.
My example:

“You’ve dishonored yourself.” Tomás’ whisper was a hiss. “And me.” The rain did not cause the water in the older man’s eyes.
Guillermo didn’t drop his gaze. “Vicente gave the insult.” Why, for once, couldn’t Tomás take his side?
“He was your superior! You think you are better than him? As good as him?” Tomás’ gauntleted fist struck Guillermo’s chest, just over his heart. The steel ripped his gambeson and tore into his flesh. “Why can’t you accept your place in this world?”
“Shut up. He’s dead, Guillermo. It is four hundred maravedís for killing a señor during a conflict! Do you have that money?”
“You know I don’t.” Neither of them had to articulate what would happen if the fine wasn’t met. Guillermo remembered the caballero’s shrieks as the lash had shorn his back into shreds.
"I can—”
“No!” Tomás’ eyes blazed. “You will let me handle this. I will talk to Don Flores. We can offer the smithy, but you must come back and accept responsibility. You can work the debt off in Vicente’s household. It’s a matter of honor, Guillermo.”

I don’t need to go into a great deal of detail about the rank of a royal señor or what is considered honorable conduct. Tomás lays it all out brilliantly for me, and Guillermo’s refusal to take responsibility for his actions gives me the impetus I need for Tomás to walk away from him. This exchange also enables me to show the reader that Guillermo has something of a superiority complex and I get to highlight the generational gap between Tomás, an older man who is a staunch royalist and good soldier, and Guillermo, someone who is looking out for number one.

I don’t have to lay out the entire table of military codes for the reader, or give the exchange rate on the maravedís. The reader can infer that four hundred maravedís is a lot of money, because Tomás is willing to put up his smithy in place of the money. The primary focus on this section is not the factual details, but the story: Guillermo has done a very bad thing, he is in way over his head, and Tomás is willing to give up his livelihood to save his life. The factual details—the murder of a royal señor, the maravedís, working the debt off in the family’s household—simply add layers and texture to the interplay between these two men.
So how do beginning writers know when you’ve got too much information? The best thing to do is write the scene or chapter with all the information embedded in the text. Sometimes I do that just to cement the details in my mind. Then wait a few days (or weeks) and go back and reread the section. If at any point, the explanations overshadow the story or the action—for example if you have three lines of dialogue followed by three paragraphs of exposition—then you’ll want to trim the exposition until you’ve whittled away the extraneous material. Once you’ve eliminated the superfluous information, start looking for places where you can work the facts into the dialogue and the action of a scene.

This is a definite case where less is always more. Two or three subtle facts—the texture of the clothing, the coinage, or even utilizing a colloquial term for a mundane object—can enhance the realism of a story. Start watching how other authors interweave their research in their stories and note when they do it well and when they don’t, then practice.

That is what all good storytelling is about—practice.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Announcement: Speculative Fiction Writer's 101

What do Ken Scholes, Myke Cole, Stina Leicht, Michael J. Sullivan, Courtney Schafer, Teresa Frohock and J.A. Pitts have in common? They are all taking part in my first series of guest posts; Speculative Fiction Writer's 101.

While debating whether of not to do NaNoWriMo this year. (I've started, but am pretty far behind.) I thought to myself, wouldn't it be cool to have a few of the authors I've interviewed spend a little time talking about the craft of writing, but not in response to an interview question. I envisioned them taking a single aspect of the process of writing a story and sharing their thoughts on it. So I drafted up a list of topics, and set out to see if I could make it happen.

It's taken a little while and I realized that I've left a few topics out.(I'm hoping I can manage to get someone to fill in a few of the more obvious blanks before the series ends) but I am finally pleased to announce that starting tomorrow, I'll be posting a guest post every Friday from one of the generous authors who've agreed to help me out with this little project.

So stay tuned, and tell your friends.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Review of the Week: Cycle of the Werewolf by Stephen King

With NaNoWriMo currently kicking my butt, I've found it hard to find the time to read let alone post a review. But since I promise one review a week, I went looking for something short to read and found something that I had been meaning to add to my collection for a while at a used book store while on a visit to Nashville. Stephen King has always been a favorite of mine, and I've read almost everything in his considerable body of work. Cycle of the Werewolf has been one of the holdouts, and I'm glad to report that despite its relatively short length, barely 100 pages, it's definitely worth the read. Adding to the presentation are the fantastic illustrations by Bernie Wrightson, best known for his work on DC Comics Swamp Thing.

Cycle of the Werewolf is the story of the small town of Tarker's Mills and the series of werewolf attacks that plague its citizens over the course of a year. King divides the larger story into twelve smaller short stories, one for each of the months of the year. It is reminiscent in structure to the much more popular The Green Mile, which was released in a similar format but with more significant content in each section of the story.

The first few chapters center on the victims, where King does an excellent job letting us slip into these characters' hearts and minds just moments before their grisly demise. These doomed townspeople are shown to be meaningful and at times you'll find yourself feeling sorry for the lives they have endured, or secretly pleased that they've gotten their just deserts.

We also learn about Tarker's Mills through the seemingly insignificant details scattered throughout the short chapters. King is a master of short stories, able to paint a vivid and meaningful scene in very little space. He wastes no words, often making phrases and descriptions pull double and triple duty addressing character, tone, and theme at the same time.

The werewolf meets his nemesis on July 4th in the form of a paraplegic boy, Marty Coslaw. Marty narrowly escapes being the monster's latest victim and is the first to confirm the rumors that a monster is terrorizing the town, rather than some deranged drifter or local psychopath. Not that anyone takes his account seriously, and he is left to fend for himself. When he discovers the creature is a well respected member of the community a few months later, he concocts a plan to rid Tarker's Mills of the monster for good.

Cycle of the Werewolf is not a complex story, the plot is basic and has very little of the twists and turns of King's longer works. But King's mastery of character and tone make it a work worth reading to anyone who enjoys a well crafted short story. Each 'month' chronicled in the larger arc has something to recommend it, and the way King builds tension, pathos, and setting layer by layer as we move closer to the inevitable confrontation between Coslow and the werewolf is a masterclass on how to do a lot with a little. The price is high, given the amount of actual content, but it is well worth picking up at a used bookstore. King has been awarded the prestigious Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and while Cycle of the Werewolf is not his most prestigious or familiar work, even in this more obscure and admittedly thin volume you can catch a glimpse at what makes him one of the most popular and celebrated authors in recent history.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Review of the Week: Spellwright by Blake Charlton

Blake Charlton has a rather unusual pedigree. From the author profile of his debut novel, Spellwright, we learn that he has served as an English teacher, a technical writer, a learning disabilities tutor, football coach and is a medical student at a prestigious university. Needless to say this is a group of somewhat disparate career choices, especially when considered under the light of his severe dyslexia. But, as with most writers, his varied life experiences have served him well in his latest career as a novelist.

Spellwright is the story of Nicodemus Weal, a young spellwright who was once thought to be a prophesied hero that would protect humanity against the return of an ancient and evil god. Spellwriting uses magical texts written by the caster in his own flesh to accomplish a variety of spell-like effects. Spellwrights can also create constructs akin to golems and gargoyles with the same magical scripts. Complicating Nicodemus' use of his magical talent is his cacography, a form of magical dyslexia that causes him "to misspell" not only the texts he creates, but any text he comes into contacts with, often to disastrous result. Nicodemus seems destined to remain an apprentice at the magical university at Starhaven for the rest of his life, or have his magic censored from his mind. His mentor, the blind Master Shannon, has other ideas believing that Nicodemus can overcome his disability. But when one of Shannon's rivals is killed and his mentor is investigated for the murder, Nicodemus finds himself at the center of a mystery with ties to prophesy, political intrigue, and the machinations of gods and demons alike. 

The hero of prophecy is definitely a familiar theme, especially to anyone who grew up reading the fantasy of the late eighties and nineties. While there is a resurgence of these themes in the works of authors such as Peter V. Brett, Michael J. Sullivan and Brandon Sanderson, Spellwright feels less like these more contemporary works and more like those of Eddings, Feist, and Tad Williams, largely due to very clear lines drawn between the heroes and their enemies. Those looking for a story populated by the morally gray characters found in George R.R. Martin or Joe Abercrombie's work should look elsewhere. Which is not to say that Charlton's characters are two dimensional because they are not, they are simply good or evil. 

One of the best things that Charlton does to differentiate Nicodemus from the glut of prophesied saviors so common in the genre is to make the use of his considerable magical gifts complicated by his cacography. The real heart of this story is about Nicodemus' coming to grips with and in some cases using his disability to his own advantage. Charlton's own personal experience with dyslexia give Nicodemus' struggles the weight of authenticity and make for a story significantly removed from the boy heroes of the novel's ancestors. Nicodemus wants to be free of his cacography and is willing to take foolish risks to do so, even though in his heart he knows that cacography is an important part of who he is. Nicodemus' journey to find his own identity and place in the world is more than engrossing enough to keep the reader turning pages, but Charlton also involves the character in an age old conflict with powerful demonic forces which provides for the action and intrigue elements necessary to move the plot forward. 

Fans of detailed magical systems that have a real impact on the world around them, like those of Brett and Sanderson, will find much to like in Spellwright. However, Charlton's system of spellwriting is far less intuitive and seems almost mathematically complex which requires a great deal of explanation early on in the novel. The weight of that exposition slows down the pace of the beginning of the novel and may take more than a little time to wrap your head around the concepts, but once that is accomplished, the pace improves dramatically. Spellwriting is very flexible and Charlton uses it in some very inventive and cinematic ways that allow for some excellent action sequences in the latter half of the novel. With the necessary explanation out of the way, I am confident that Charlton's subsequent novels will have a more fluid and organic pace. 

While Spellwright definitely has many of the earmarks of epic fantasy, the opening volume only hints at the grander scale of the genre. The cast of characters is small, the setting of Starhaven fairly closed, and the conflicts are fairly immediate and localized, but there are definite hints that the scope of the series will expand in the next volume. Charlton does an excellent job of hinting at the greater conflicts and the true scope of the world without taking long detours into things that only tangentially affect the main plot. As the story moves from the confines of Starhaven in the last third of the novel, the story gains speed and a sense of scope that is far from obvious from the rather confined beginnings. 

While there is a definite feeling of the author getting his balance, Spellwright has plenty to recommend itself. Its inventive magic system, truly likeable protagonist, and Charlton's willingness to breathe new life into old tropes should please all but the most jaded of fantasy readers. If you long for a return to the fantasy of your youth and want a hero you can pull for with zero reservations then you should definitely spend some time with Nicodemus Weal. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Review of the Week: Tomorrow the Killing by Daniel Polansky

The sophomore slump is a common term in the music world. Often an artist rushes a second album in an attempt to cash in on the success of a well-received debut. The rushed work is rarely as strong as its predecessor. Writers aren't immune to this phenomenon, though the longer production time usually prevents it from being as common. One need only look at reviews to the sequels of highly acclaimed debuts of such standout titles as Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind to prove my point. Daniel Polansky's debut, Low Town, left me hungry for more of his genre bending setting, his complex and troubled narrator Warden, and most of all for the gritty beauty of his prose. So when I received my review copy of Tomorrow the Killing, I will admit to feeling a mix of excitement and trepidation. What if Low Town was a fluke, a perfect storm of engaging premise and startling choice of protagonist? Now that the newness of the premise and characters has worn off, will this newest installment fall short of the high expectations of Polansky's debut?

Tomorrow the Killing answered all of my fears with a resounding no. Polansky more than avoids the sophomore slump, delivering a sequel that builds upon the strengths of its predecessor but delivers even an even more complex and engaging plot, more compelling character study, and a surprising amount of compelling back story about the protagonist, Warden, all delivered in Polansky's sparse yet elegant prose.

Set three years after the conclusion of Low Town, Tomorrow the Killing retains most of the elements of the previous story. Warden is still a low level crime lord and drug peddler with a penchant for sampling his own wares far more than is healthy. He still owns a half share of the Staggering Earl, with the even tempered war hero Adolphus, and still serves as a mentor of sorts to the former street urchin, Wren. When General Edwin Montgomery's daughter disappears into the slums of Low Town on a mission to find those responsible for the decade old murder of her brother, Roland., he knows there is only one person who can find and return his wayward child before she suffers the same fate as her brother. Having served with both the General and his son during his time as a soldier, Warden finds himself drawn into a confrontation between   powerful forces despite his numerous attempts to disengage from both the dangerous storm that is brewing in Rigus and his own inconvenient conscience.

Polanksy alternates between the present day story line of Warden's investigation into the whereabouts of General Montgomery's daughter and flashbacks to his time as soldier, fighting the Dren miles from his homeland. We learn more about the infancy of his friendship with Adolphus, and his relationship to the General's murdered son Roland, who was one of Warden's commanding officers. While the fleshing out of our protagonist's backstory is certainly more than welcome, it is absolutely not a matter of Polansky adding filler material. Warden's history informs the present day as it becomes apparent that the Veteran's Association, that Roland Montgomery championed before his untimely and mysterious death, is mobilizing its members to protest a tax on their hard earned benefits and may hold the key to the fate of missing Montgomery girl. Complicating matters is Adolphus' growing involvement with the leadership of the Veteran's Association who have asked him to take part in their protests against the crown. Even Wren is drawn into their web through his growing admiration of his adoptive father, complicating Warden's attempts to keep his growing magical abilities under control and far from the grasping hands of the Empire.

These flashback chapters are some of the best in the novel. Polansky paints a harrowing picture of war, with not an ounce of nostalgia or glorification. Incompetence, illness, and long hours spent cold in the rain and mud before the crash of arms are the order of the day. Warden is never painted as a hero, not in his own mind any way, and he even goes out of his way to avoid recognition for a moment of supposed heroism. This is in direct contrast with the self-aggrandizement and rose-colored memories of the Veteran's Association and Adolphus. This unflinching approach to one of the genres most utilized topics reminds me of nothing so much as Clint Eastwoods's masterful final word on the American western, Unforgiven. Lovers of Joe Abercrombie's or Glen Cook's novels should definitely give this book a look.

Various criminal elements as well as members of Warden's former employer, Black House, also make appearances. True to form, Warden shrewdly plays the various factions against each other, making him a target if his manipulations are discovered. The political machinations at work in the plot also give Tomorrow The Killing a much larger sense of scope as Warden is dealing not just with the problems of the his own neighborhood but those of the Empire. The stakes are higher, the enemies more numerous, and in some cases all but faceless. Warden is in over his head, and struggles against forces that tax his considerable intelligence and cunning to levels even he cannot imagine.

Polansky seems to be taking steps to make Warden a somewhat more sympathetic protagonist this time around. While his gallows humor and propensity for violence and cruel sarcasm are very much intact, his drug use, while still present, is far less prevalent. A growing focus on his personal relationships particularly with Adolphus, also paint him in a more favorable light than the more introspective narrative of Low Town. While Warden may not view himself as redeemable, feeling the weight of his past sins and current situation are too vast for any hope at redemption, the readers may catch glimpses of the inherent goodness of his character that he drowns with drugs, violence, and risk taking.

As in Low Town, Warden often misjudges his enemies capabilities and suffers for his arrogance, adding high stakes and even higher tension to the latter half of the novel. The reversal at the end of the novel is far better than the one at the end of Lowtown. While there are plenty of reasons for readers to suspect things are not as they seem, Polansky manages not to telegraph his intentions, resulting in a far more satisfying ending.

Polansky's writing is top notch, as expected. The pacing is tight, keeping the reader engaged despite the frequent detours into the past. In fact, the flashbacks provide readers a chance to catch their breath and always furthers the plot in some way. The prose remains packed with the weary wit and bitter sarcasm that makes Warden such a memorable protagonist. Underneath is a stark beauty hinting that some part of our narrator has managed to stay untouched by his life of savagery and disappointment. I have small hope that Warden may eventually find peace if not happiness at the end of the Low Town tales, but my hopes for Polansky's future in the genre are anything but small.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Coming Attractions: The Tyrant's Law by Daniel Abraham

Daniel Abraham is one of the most prolific writers in speculative fiction. His partnership with Ty Franck under the pseudonym James S.A. Corey has produced the widely acclaimed Leviathan Wakes and Caliban's War, with the third volume Abaddon's Gates coming soon. The duo also have an upcoming Star Wars novel featuring Han Solo in the works as well. For those of you who prefer fantasy to science fiction, Abraham has The Dagger and the Coin series, which has been one of the best received new fantasy series in recent years. The cover and blurb for the third installment in this excellent series has just been released with a projected publication date of May 2013.

And here's the blurb:

The great war cannot be stopped. 
The tyrant Geder Palliako begins a conquest aimed at bringing peace to the world, though his resources are stretched too thin. When things go poorly, he finds a convenient target among the thirteen races and sparks a genocide. 
Clara Kalliam, freed by having fallen from grace, remakes herself as a "loyal traitor" and starts building an underground resistance movement that seeks to undermine Geder through those closest to him. 
Cithrin bel Sarcour is apprenticing in a city that's taken over by Antea, and uses her status as Geder's one-time lover to cover up an underground railroad smuggling refugees to safety. 
And Marcus Wester and Master Kit race against time and Geder Palliako's soldiers in an attempt to awaken a force that could change the fate of the world.

I haven't read The King's Blood yet, but this blurb is going to have me waiting at the mailbox for its arrival. It looks like 2013 might be Daniel Abraham's best year yet.

An Interview with Michael J Sullivan

Fresh off the announcement of his upcoming Riyria Chronicles and my review of the preceding Riyria Revelations, I contacted Michael J. Sullivan about doing an interview. After choosing to answer questions one by one in a conversational format much like I used in my interview with Stina Leicht, we got down to business. The following interview took some time to finish, largely due to some health issues in my family, but I am very pleased with the final product. Michael was a pleasure to work with, and his answers leave no doubt as to why he has been so successful. 

52 Reviews: As an author's whose biggest success story seems to be your rise from writing stories that you had no intention of publishing, to self-publishing phenomenon, and finally as a well recognized author with books in every major bookseller across the country, which step in the process was the most rewarding and why?

Michael J. Sullivan: Good question. I think it is probably the knowledge that my early writing years weren’t a complete waste of time. I’m not sure how many people know this, but I wrote twelve novels over the course of a decade. While I knew most of those books were simply throwaways (work done to teach myself how to write), I thought the last three of four were of publishable quality. After years of rejection, I started feeling like Linus from the Peanuts waiting for the Great Pumpkin. I had seen my friends develop respected careers while I accomplished absolutely nothing. This caused me to quit writing altogether.

As you already mentioned, I started again (a decade later) but only on the condition that I wouldn’t publish. I had already concluded that way led to frustration, pain, and despair. If my wife hadn’t insisted on getting my Riyria Revelations “out there,” I would have died regretting not making better use of that time. Because I finally “made it,” all those hours magically transformed from a complete waste to necessary prerequisites…my contribution to Gladwell’s 10,000 hours if you will.

52 Reviews: Do you think that writing with the condition to not seek publication allowed you a freedom to write without expectation? If so, do you think that contributed to the success of the resulting work?

Michael J. Sullivan: In some respects, every first-time writer has freedom from expectation. It’s only once you’re known for something that that comes into play. For me, the main byproduct of writing without publication as a goal was that I had an extremely narrow audience to please…myself. Given how dark and gritty fantasy had become over the years, if I had wanted to seek publication, I would have followed that trend. Instead, I wrote what I wanted to read: a fast-paced adventure with a couple of guys I wanted to hang out with.

As to success, well I think the jury is still out on that. Don’t get me wrong, I’m really pleased with how the books have been received so far, but I think there is still a very long road ahead. Whether it runs out of steam and fades into obscurity, or gains momentum and finds a place in the fantasy landscape, is just too foggy a future to predict. When readers mention my books along with the likes of Sanderson or Rothfuss, I find it a bit surreal. In many ways I feel like a freshman at a new high school, watching the “cool kids” chatting at the “big boys” table. Sure I’d like to be invited to sit down, but it’s still way too soon to even consider such a notion.

52 Reviews: Speaking of the trend of darker, grittier stories in modern fantasy, do you believe that the last decade with it's nearly continuous wars, financial insecurity, and political back biting has contributed to this trend? And if so, do you think that part of the success of the Riyia Revelations is due to its focus on characters who for all their flaws are obviously noble and heroic and the generally more hopeful tone of the storyline?

Michael J. Sullivan: I’m not sure the “social climate” was a factor, but I don’t study such things, and could be dead wrong. I think it has more to do with a constantly swinging pendulum. There was a time when fantasy was too idealistic with shiny heroes and happily-ever-afters. I think a few authors started bucking the trend, and it breathed new life into the genre. Publishing, being what it is, saw that this “new style” was selling, so a lot of acquisitions editors started looking for more of that. Given the pervasiveness of the dark-and-gritty I wouldn’t be surprised to see the pendulum swing back again.

Your assessment on my own characters is pretty accurate in that they are flawed, complicated, and have their own demons to run from, but they are aspiring to do the right thing and will rise to the occasion. To be honest I wasn’t trying to “buck a trend.” I was just writing the type of fantasy I enjoy to read. I do prefer my reading to be escapist, especially given the social conditions you mentioned, and I want to feel better after reading then when I start. One of the criteria that draws me to a work is characters that I enjoy and would like to know in real life. I do hear A LOT of comments from people saying things like, “This is the type of story that reminds me why I fell in love with fantasy in the first place.” And I must say that I get a certain amount of pleasure out of that. But I wasn’t trying to “time the market in any way.” In fact, at the time I started thinking/writing the series it was before the transition occurred…so I guess for me it was good that it took so long to reach the market. A case of “what’s old” is new again.

52 Reviews: You mentioned readers commenting on the similarity between Riyria and the stories that led them to a life long love of the genre in the first place. What books and authors served as gateways into the genre for you personally? Are there other authors in the market today who are also writing more 'escapist' fantasy that you would recommend to your readers?

Michael J. Sullivan: While it’s not very original, and I feel like I should make up some inventive story so I seem more interesting, but it was The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings That got me started. My brother was reading them and would wake me up in the middle of the night to tell me what had happened.

A few years later, I found the books and then devoured them for myself. Prior to that I had read only a single book (and hated that one). Directly after reading Tolkien, I started writing my first story, because I wanted to make up my own world and characters. At the time there really wasn’t a lot of other fantasy for me to choose from especially after I finished C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles and Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy. They say necessity is the mother of invention, and for me boredom is the mother of creativity. When I didn’t find much else to read that’s when I really started devoting time to writing so I could get “exactly” what I liked. Eventually Eddings and Feist came along and I had something to read again.

As to “modern writers” the two I’ve enjoyed the most in recent memory are Sanderson’s Mistborn, and Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind. I keep trying the names that I hear often (Martin, Weeks, Lynch, Abercrombie, Cook) and while I can appreciate their storytelling ability and the craft of their writing, I don’t particularly want to escape to their worlds or pal around with their characters. For the most part it has been some of the young adult stuff that I’ve had to turn to for that: Rowling’s Harry Potter, Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy, and even works for young readers such as Jacques’ Redwall.

52 Reviews: In talking about Riyria with friends, I've found the same responses come up over and over again about the series. Royce and Hadrian seem to be the driving force of the series popularity. I personally find the back and forth between the pair to be the heart of the series, bringing to mind the best buddy-cop movies only in a different setting. Did Royce and Hadrian come to you as a pair, or was one the starting point with the other created as a foil?

Michael J. Sullivan: They’ve always been a pair, and doing so has allowed me to explore multiple aspects through their differences. From time to time someone mentions one of them as a “sidekick” of the other, which I find it interesting because to me they have always been equal partners. A lot of people think I drew inspiration from Lieber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, but I’ve never read any of those books, and in fact didn’t even know they existed until after my series was completed. I think the real inspirations come from two sources, one conscious and the other subliminal. The conscious one was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid one of the first movies I saw and really enjoyed (yes this dates me). The second dates me even further, and it’s a television series called I Spy, starring Bill Cosby and Robert Culp. It was only recently that I happened upon them again while channel surfing and said to myself, “Hey, they’re a lot like Royce and Hadrian.” I’m sure the years of exposure to them had an impression. Oh, and there was also Sam Becket and Al Calavicci from Quantum Leap, still old but at least some of your readers might know who they are.

52 Reviews: Since you had the luxury of having most of the series completed before publication, I find it hard to decipher whether you are a discovery writer or if you plotted the entire series before you started. Which camp do you fall in, and what can you tell us about your writing process for a series with so many volumes?

Michael J. Sullivan: Actually, I’m a little of both. I pretty much thought of The Riyria Revelations as one long tale, divided into separate episodes, and had an outline for both each book as sell as one for the entire series. But these would change as the writing process went along. A lot of times it’s like navigating a ship at sea. I know where I started and where I’ll end up, but at each compass check I might adjust course. If I find something particularly interesting, it may change the destination completely, but I never adjust the sails until I know that the new course is definitely the way I want to go.

Many times when I get done with each book, I’ll let it “simmer” for a few weeks and I’ll constantly challenge myself to see if there are ways I can ramp it up a few notches. Usually there will be something really juicy that was lurking at my subconscious level that will bubble to the top, and a few minor adjustments will really make a big difference. For instance, in The Emerald Storm I took great care to show the meticulous planning capabilities of Merrick Marius but I was able to take that to a whole new level by going back and tweaking a few things to really punctuate that point. It provided a “surprise ending” that surprised even me because it wasn’t planned consciously from day one. It must have been there all along, because it only took a bit of adjustment to make all the pieces fit.

The ending of the series is interesting because at various stages I would trade one good ending for a better one. As I was finishing the fifth book I had two or three ways I could conclude the series, all of which were very satisfying, but I knew I had not quite found “it.” I was missing something. It’s like looking at a puzzle and seeing there is something recognizable but not being able to put my finger on it. One day, during a torrential rainstorm while I was picking my daughter up from work, the pieces finally slipped into place…and the ending was…dare I say, perfect. This required me to go back and adjust threads earlier in the books. I even had to add a character or two, but I “knew” this was the ending I had been setting up all along.

52 Reviews: Many of your secondary characters grow into much more important roles in the story becoming almost as important as Royce and Hadrian. Was there ever a time where one of your characters stood up and told you where they wanted to go?

Michael J. Sullivan: Oh that happens all the time, and I’ve learned that it is best to listen to them when they defy my original intentions. There are also characters that get more “screen time” because they turn out to be so entertaining. I know that many people see these books as Royce and Hadrian’s tales, and there are good reasons for this, but for me I’ve always considered this series to have four main characters: Royce, Hadrian, Arista, and Thrace/Modina. By the end of the series it becomes apparent that the women stand toe-to-toe with the men, but early on Arista and Modina are given secondary status by design as I wanted to show their growth. Much of what makes Royce and Hadrian who they are occurs in the past, and we see the results in their “current” bonds of friendship. But Arista and Modina are put to the anvil through events as they occur. We get to see me pound their metal into stronger stuff. Their stories really start to come into the spotlight with the third book, Nyphron Rising. Those who stop after the first pair will never get exposed to the full effect, but it’s a technique where the payoff is worth the risk.

The best example of my characters refusing to submit to my will came in the sixth book. A party rides out from Aquesta (the capital of the current empire) on their way to Percepliquis (the ruins of the original empire). Along the way they wanted to stop and spend the night in Ratibor (a nearby town that was the setting for much of the third book). I REALLY didn’t want to go there. It’s a place that I’ve already visited, and I was anxious to get to the party to the “really good stuff,” which was entering Percepliquis. But it was cold, and snowy, and they insisted in staying at an inn. So I let them go. This resulted is some of my favorite scenes in the book. As I was writing I realized that there were all kinds of opportunities that could be fulfilled by that one night stay in Ratibor, and I’m grateful that they refused to follow my initial directions.

52 Reviews: One of the things I like best about the Riyria Revelations is the way you slowly details about the setting often only showing a single larger piece per novel. This allows for a more subtle way of inserting exposition and detail. I've read that you prefer to write with a light touch, trying to remain nearly invisible to your readers so as not to distract them from the story. Was the slow reveal of the setting, part of that effort? What else can you tell us about "writing lightly"?

Michael J. Sullivan: I actually see two things here. The first is slow reveals, which is a pretty non-conventional approach, particularly in traditional publishing. Because I wasn’t planning on releasing any of the books, I didn’t concern myself with “front loading” character background and world building. I wanted to reveal this information slowly over the course of the entire series. When traditionally published, a book has to make it through the gauntlet of agents and acquisition editors, and to do that it must be packed with all the choice cuts. I think this is why some series start out strong and end weak, because all the “good stuff” was in the first book. My Riyria Revelations is just the opposite. Because my readership was myself, my immediate family, and a few friends, I knew my audience would read it in its entirety, so I concentrated on a big finish. I wrote the series so that each book escalated and the reader got more details the deeper they journeyed. My intention was to make each subsequent book “better” than the one before. This makes the earlier books, by definition, the weakest of the set. It’s a dangerous practice, because some who reads the first book might feel there is too little substance and the logical conclusion would be to attribute any deficiencies they see as lack of writing skill. They have no way to know that it was a planned approach. I’ve no qualms with people who judge my work as lacking, but when that occurs before the end of the series, I also realize they saw only a piece of the entire tapestry.

The writing lightly aspect has to do with focusing on the story rather than the prose. I selected an unadorned style for Riyria so that the focus was squarely on the plot. I’ve written literary fiction as well, and in that case I do just the opposite. In that type of writing the challenge isn’t in the spinning of the tale, but rather selecting just the right word and creating sentences that make the reader pause and reflect. I have mental pictures for the readers when employing each of these styles. For the literary work I imagine someone sipping wine and slowly savoring the book. My hope and intention is that they would pause at a particularly well constructed sentence before moving on. For Riyria, I imagine the reader eating popcorn. Their eyes are glued to the page and there’s an unconscious hand to mouth action delivering the snack, and it’s not until they find the bowl empty that they realize just how much time went by. While writing simply and lightly” may sound like less work than constructing eloquent prose it really is quite difficult to do. I’ve killed off many sentences that I absolutely loved, because of a fear of breaking the spell I was weaving. My approach in this kind of writing is to have the words vanish from the page, and instead have the reader see a movie playing in their mind. I don’t want them to even notice the writing.

52 Reviews: Also you make very effective use of common fantasy tropes in a way that plays to fantasy readers expectations, resisting the temptation of trying to invent whole new races and systems of magic. I felt this allowed the focus of the story to remain firmly with the characters, which seems to be what you have become most known for. What more can you tell us about your approach to world building?

Michael J. Sullivan: My intention with Riyria was first and foremost to entertain, and as such there is a lot of focus on comfort. I wanted the series to feel like your favorite pair of well-worn shoes, so having settings and archetypes that have been well received in the past, helped to set that stage. One of the things that I think makes fantasy difficult for some readers is what I call the Wall of Information. Most fantasy writers have extensive worlds that they have spent years, or decades, creating. It’s natural for them to want to show that off, but for me it can also be a barrier between the reader and the story. Of the three pillars in writing (plot, character, and setting), The Riyria Revelations sacrifices setting in favor of the other two. Yes, my world has an extensive history (going back 8,000 years), but I employ the iceberg technique of exposing only a small fraction of it to the readers. Bottom line is if it doesn’t propel the plot, or have some baring on the conflicts and challenges of the characters, then it remains offstage.

52 Reviews: I would be remiss if I didn't mention self-publishing. As an author who has enjoyed commercial success in both self-publishing and more traditional routes, what advice can you give aspiring authors who may be considering which method works best for them. What does it take to be successful in self-publishing, other than having a sellable product? How did you make your books stand out above the crowd of similar titles? And on the flip side, what do you perceive the benefits of the traditional publication model?

Michael J. Sullivan: Wow, that’s a great deal to cover, but I’ll do my best to be concise. There is a lot of partisan rhetoric between the self and traditional publishing camps. I think there is no right choice because it all depends on the goals of the individual author. Some really love the freedom of total control that comes with self-publishing. Others won’t feel like they are “a real writer” unless someone else vets them. These are both legitimate concerns that lead to different paths. I just want people to be educated on the pluses and minus of both and choose what is best for them. So my best advice it to make a list of the aspects of publishing that are important to you, and based on those your path should be pretty clear.

I’ve said it before, and it’s worth repeating, that success in self-publishing is exactly the same as in traditional. You need to write a good book, get it in front of a core group of people (who wind up loving it), then let word-of-mouth do the rest. After that, the author’s primary responsibility is to continue producing more books to keep the hungry readers well-fed. Some authors think that going traditional means you can relinquish all the marketing work to their publisher, but this is a dangerous fallacy. Each release calendar, the marketing department must juggle dozens(or sometimes hundreds) of titles and there simply aren’t enough resources to go around. I feel that the savvy author will take responsibility for building their audience regardless of which path they take.

So the real difference between self and traditional comes down to the production of the book. Whether the self-published author hires cover artists and editors, or goes the do-it-yourself route, they MUST produce a high quality product that would stand toe-to-toe with works released by a major publisher. In general, a self-published book must be twice as good to get half the credit.

The two biggest venues I used for getting the word out when self-published are the same ones I would recommend to traditionally published authors: book bloggers and Goodreads. Yes, I have a website, Facebook pages, and twitter accounts, but I see these as conduits for interacting with existing readers.

For discovery purposes, I think bloggers and Goodreads is a better choice. Bloggers do a tremendous service in uniting readers and writers so I always treat them as the god-like beings that they are, or at least that’s how I think of them. They’ve done so much for my career in the way of validation by sharing their enthusiasm for my books. When it comes to interacting with other readers, you can’t beat Goodreads. The secret to that site, and all social networking sites in general, is that you have to be a contributing member of the community first and foremost and treat any mention of your books as an aside.

As for traditional publishing it does indeed have many advantages that are closed to self-published authors: bookstore sales, library acquisitions, full production capabilities including audio, print, and ebook. Also you have a full team working on your behalf instead of having to do it all yourself: marketing, public relations, channel sales, editors, cover designers, layout people, each one’s efforts give me more time to write. Also traditional publishing extends the author’s reach. I had some small foreign translation sales as self-published, but once the Orbit deal was announced, I was able to get more lucrative contracts with bigger countries that sell a lot more books. Also, there are still a lot of people who would never consider reading a self-published book no matter how many recommendations they’ve heard. The stigma is not as bad as it once was, but there is a certain amount of benefit an author receives by getting the traditional publishing house’s seal of approval.

52 Reviews: With the Riyria Revelations completed, what can we expect from you in the future? Readers of this blog are likely familiar with duo of Riyria prequel novels due out next year, and I for one am anxious to read more about Royce and Hadrian's early days. Do you intend to continue expanding the world of Riyria beyond those novels, or can we expect to see something completely different?

Michael J. Sullivan: As I write this I actually have four completed novels, another at 60%, and a new series in the developmental stage. Two of the books are indeed already accepted and as you mentioned will explore the forming of Riyria. The Crown Tower is being released in Aug 2013 and The Rose and the Thorn the following month. These are part of what I’m titling The Riyria Chronicles, which means that Royce and Hadrian will be featured. If there will be other Chronicle books is impossible to say, as it really depends on the readers. I have more stories in my head then I’ll ever be able to write in my lifetime, so I don’t want to spend time writing more Royce and Hadrian if no one cares. The Chronicles came into existence because so many people expressed they REALLY wanted more. Unlike Revelations, which was a single divided tale, the Chronicle stories are more standalone. I did this so I can stop them at any point. But demand alone isn’t enough to keep the series going. I’m very protective of Riyria and we’ve all seen television or book series that have gone on way past their prime. I won’t let this happen. If I feel that I’m not providing something fresh and entertaining, or find myself running out of momentum, then I’ll stop no matter how great the demand.

The other projects do branch out into different areas. I have Antithesis, an urban fantasy where the world is kept in balance by the opposing forces of two individuals who each wield powerful magic. At the time of the story, one half of this pair must give the power to an unsuspecting by-stander because their apprentice isn’t present as they die. The person who receives this power has no idea how to use it, the consequences of having it, or that his polar opposite is planning on killing him off. This book is currently with Orbit for consideration.

My current work in process is Hollow World, a science fiction novel that wasn’t even on my radar to write, but inspiration struck when I was writing a short story for an anthology. It basically shows a future that resembles the attributes expressed in John Lennon’s song,Imagine. In my future, I portray a place where there is no war, hunger, religion, countries, and people basically have all their needs provided for. But is such a future a utopia or does freedom from want and a world where everyone is truly equal create a homogenous morass where passion ceases to exist?

The literary piece I spoke about earlier in the interview, A Burden to the Earth, is still one of my favorite stories but I just have to figure out how best to get it “out there.” I don’t think self-publishing is a good venue for literary fiction and as Orbit only represents fantasy and science fiction, I’ll have to get my act together someday soon and get it on the traditional query-go-round track.

My next series, which I was supposed to start this fall, but Hollow World jumped in front of it, will be another epic fantasy but not Riyria related. I’m hoping to do what I did with Revelations, which is write all three books before publishing any of them. This will probably mean two and half years of writing, so my hope is that Chronicles, Hollow World, Antithesis, and Burden can keep the readers well-fed and provide me the runway to follow that course. If Chronicles is well received, I’ll pause the new series when I’m between books to put out a Royce and Hadrian story. Those can be done fairly quickly because I already have the outlines, the setting, and, of course, already know most of the characters pretty intimately.

52 Reviews: I imagine that many of your fans dream of one day becoming authors themselves. What advice would give your fans with literary aspirations?

Michael J. Sullivan: Two things come to mind. First, I’d like to make sure they know what they are signing up for. The media loves to tell the story of “overnight successes” but for the vast majority of writers they will have a very long road ahead. In his book The Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell puts forth the proposition that it takes 10,000 hours of doing a task to become successful. If you write two hours a day that’s 5,000 days of effort or 13.7 years. In his own book On Writing, Stephen King puts forth a similar theory but he expresses it in word count. He believes the first 1,000,000 words are basically practice. Assuming most novels are 80,000 to 100,000 words that’s 10 – 12.5 novels. Those numbers align pretty well with my own experience. I wrote twelve novels over the course of ten years where I would generally write three to four hours a day. So the key take away here is that writing is a marathon not a sprint, and you have to be willing to dedicate yourself to putting in those hours. You may be born with a natural talent to conceive and spin a great tale, but the skill required to translate that into the written word has to be learned by doing.

The second relates to the first, and it is that you need to write “for the love of writing” and not for the expectation of financial gain. Again the vast majority of writers will earn nothing, or very little, so your motivation must come from the enjoyment you receive from the creation process. It just might be the only reward you will ever receive. You need to focus on making the journey one of joy and be less concerned about the final destination. After all, if you are going to spend decades doing something, you damn well better enjoy it. If you find writing a chore, or make statements like, “It’s hard for me to put my butt in the seat and write,” or “Whenever I sit down to write, I get distracted by the Internet and don’t actually get anything written,” then you may be infatuated with the idea of being a writer, which is a much different thing than having a desire to write.

Today, there are more opportunities than ever for getting your work “out there,” but forget about shortcuts or the dreams of being an overnight sensation. If you are dedicated, constantly working on improving your skills, and keep producing then you are on the right track. Celebrate each accomplishment, but continue to push yourself to a higher level, and above all enjoy the ride. Life is short, and if you are fortunate enough to find your passion then pursue it with unbounded enthusiasm. Then, no matter the outcome, you’ll have lived your dream.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Review of the Week: Two Raven and One Crow by Kevin Hearne

Life's been pretty hectic lately, and my reading time has been greatly diminished for the last few weeks. So while I am still working on some longer works, like Kameron Hurley's God's War and Tomorrow the Killing by Daniel Polansky, I read a few novellas to give me something to review. I'll start with the best of the lot, Kevin Hearne's Two Ravens and One Crow.

Hearne's novella bridges the gap between Tricked and Trapped, the fourth and fifth novels in his Iron Druid Chronicles. Fans of the series will find plenty to enjoy in this novella, as Hearne wisely plays to the strengths of the series with plenty of over the top action, interesting takes on mythology, and plenty of side splitting humor.

What really makes Two Ravens and One Crow stand out is that it never feels like a throw away story. It ties directly to the plot of the series as a whole, and actually addresses the characters in meaningful ways in the process. More importantly, it's just plain fun.

Atticus O'Sullivan has a penchant for making powerful enemies. His successful assault on Asgard left a string of dead gods, including Thor, in its wake. Understandably, Odin is pissed off. Atticus has been on the run ever since, trying to complete his apprentice, Granuaile's training while keeping as far away from vengeful Norse deities. But Atticus can never avoid trouble for long, so when the Morrigan appears to sweep him away for a meeting with Odin, he has no choice but to accompany the Chooser of the Slain. The alliance that follows is unexpected and action packed and sets the stakes high for the impending Ragnarok.

As always, Hearne;s characterizations and sense of humor are the highlights of the story. While most of the story centers around Atticus and his dealings with the Morrigan and the antagonistic Norse gods, we see just enough of Granuaile and Oberon to make sure that the funny is brought in classic Iron Druid style. Hearne also addresses the stresses between Atticus and Granuaile and those readers eager for a romance between the two, will not want to miss this installment.

The Morrigan, gets the most face time of the supporting cast and Hearne takes the opportunity to delve into the Chooser of the Slain more deeply than he ever has in the past. If anything, he manages to make her far more human than she's been depicted thus far, often with surprisingly humorous results. But make no mistake, this is merely a aspect of the character that exists beneath her usual cruelly cunning exterior. I found this aspect of the story to be the most compelling, as it added a level of sympathy to an otherwise unrelateable character. I'm looking forward to seeing where Hearne takes this new development.

In addition, readers are also treated to some history. As a 200 year old druid, Atticus' back story is extensive, and Hearne has layered bits of that tale into the previous volumes in the series, reflecting on events that are relevant to the present day plotlines. Two Ravens and One Crow is no exception to the pattern, giving us a glimpse into Atticus' earliest days, an area that has remained largely a mystery up until now. We learn more about the origins of Atticus' unnaturally long life span in a flashback sequence that is as entertaining as it is informative.

Which brings us to the main thrust of the novella, the repercussions of Atticus' assault on Asgard in Hammered. While Atticus has certainly taken drastic measures to avoid the wrath of the slain thunder god's family, he has not really been forced to deal with the aftermath of his actions. In many ways Tricked, which directly follows those events, skirts the issue of the Norse pantheon's vendetta almost entirely, but Two Ravens and One Crow goes the other route confronting them directly. And while, it seems to be resolved in a fairly simple manner with the Norse accepting Atticus as an ally, there is no mistaking the animosity of Odin and the other Aesir. I have no doubt, that things will get far messier in the recently released Trapped as  our hero is forced to make good on the alliance made in these pages.

Kevin Hearne has crafted a fine example of how a novella can have a lasting impact on a series, rather than serving as a mere way to wring a few more sales out of a popular setting and its characters. Far from a throw away piece, Two Ravens and One Crow is an essential part to both the story and mythos of Atticus O'Sullivan. Fans of The Iron Druid Chronicles should consider this novella a must read.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Coming Attractions: Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan

Orbit has just released a first look at one of my most anticipated debuts of 2013. Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan is just the sort of tale that I am always on the prowl for. McClellan's novel has interesting premise, a mash-up of  firearms and sorcery, with a hearty dash of political intrigue and mystery. Add in the fantastic cover art, with an interesting twist on a genre trope and I'm practically salivating. With a blurb from Brent Weeks, whose The Blinding Knife has been my favorite release this year, I really have no choice but to give Promise of Blood a pass to the top of my most anticipated debut list. Check out the cover and blurb below. I've included Week's endorsement as well.

Field Marshal Tamas has staged a coup against the king of Adro. His powder mages have slaughtered the king’s Privileged cabal of sorcerers and the nobility has been rounded up to face the guillotine with their king. Tamas has brought revolution to his country in one bloody night to save his people and right the wrongs caused by the old regime. Yet his actions have far-reaching consequences of which no reasonable man could have conceived, and the king will prove the easiest obstacle to overcome in his quest to free Adro.
Captain Taniel Two-shot is a powder mage of considerable skill. Gunpowder makes him stronger and faster than other men. He can manipulate its properties to shoot out a man’s eye at twice the length of a battlefield. It makes him perfect for killing the old Privileged sorcerers with their destructive magic. One of those Privileged has escaped Tamas’ cull. The problem is, she’s stronger than any sorcerer Taniel has ever seen, and the mercenaries sent to help him track her are of dubious reliability.
When Adamat is summoned to the palace in the middle of the night, the last thing the veteran investigator expects is to arrive during a regime change. His new employer is none other than the man responsible for overthrowing the current government and he has some unfinished business with the king’s sorcerers. The dying Privileged cabal has left the Field Marshal with a riddle. It could be nothing, but Tamas does not like loose ends. Adamat knows from long experience that one doesn’t ask questions unless one is willing to learn–and believe–the answers. To add to his problems, the Field Marshal isn’t the only one interested in the answer to the dying sorcerers’ riddle. As enemies emerge from the shadows and the investigation takes a disturbing turn, Adamat must decide where his loyalties lie.

“Promise of Blood is a hugely promising debut. Guns, swords, and magic together? What more could you want? How about tense action, memorable characters, rising stakes, and cool, cool magic? Not only the finest flintlock fantasy I’ve read, but also the most fun. Brian McClellan is the real thing.”

–Brent Weeks, author of the Night Angel Trilogy

So who do I have to kill to get a review copy of this one?

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Coming Attractions: Star Wars Universe

At New York Comic Con, Del Rey announced two new projects in the Star Wars universe. The first will tell a story that was first mentioned in A New Hope, but has remained a mystery ever since. The second sees a writer responsible for one of the most popular science fiction books released in recent years.
John Jackson Miller will tackle Kenobi, which details the Jedi’s master's life following  events of  Revenge of the Sith. Miller had the following to say about the project:
Kenobi is a sweeping story that’s part epic western, part high-stakes drama, part romance — but it’s all Star Wars, taking place in the early days of Obi-Wan’s exile to Tatooine. I’ve been working on this concept for years and the basics are pretty simple. The greatest hero in the galaxy faces his toughest challenge yet: He must stop being Obi-Wan — and learn to live as Ben.

The release date for Kenobi is  set for late 2013.
In other news, the third book in the upcoming “Rebels” standalone novels,  focusing on the principle characters in the original trilogy set between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, will feature Han Solo. The tale will be penned by James S. A. Corey, otherwise known as the writing duo of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. Corey's immensely popular space opera novels Leviathan Wakes and Caliban's War leave little doubt that this project will be one to watch for. 
Which of these upcoming additions to the mountain of Star Wars titles are you most looking forward to? 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Review of the Week: Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff

Jay Kristoff's debut novel Stormdancer, entered the market on a cloud of positive buzz, helped by a fantastic premise and a cover blurb by none other than Patrick Rothfuss. It was the strength of both that prompted my purchase, and I am certain I am not alone. An endorsement from one of the most highly regarded new voices in the genre in the last decade carries a lot of weight. Sadly, I was left wondering if Rothfuss actually read the entirety of the novel.

The premise of Stormdancer is definitely unique. Kristoff's Shima is Japanese flavored steampunk full of chain-saw katanas, a power mad emperor, samurai wearing mechanized armor, airships and did I mention a griffin. The excitement surrounding this novel is no surprise at all. It seemed almost guaranteed greatness. While it has, no doubt, sold very well, critical reception has been very mixed. This seems to be one of those you love it or you hate it books. Casual readers will likely enjoy the engaging world and characters that populate Stormdancer. Readers with a more critical bent, may have a drastically different experience.

I fell into the latter category. For as many things as Stormdancer has going for it, it has just as many problems. Strength of premise and a fantastic pre-release buzz were just not enough to elevate this story beyond the myriad of problems I encountered. Stormdancer is flawed on so many levels that I was unable to enjoy the story Kristoff was trying to tell. Between the uneven pacing, inconsistent world building, unbelievable character development, and cultural appropriation I had a really hard time even finishing it. Which is sad, because I really wanted to like Stormdancer. 

The uneven pacing seems to be the most telling of the early flaws in the novel. Kristoff starts with an action packed sequence, showing us not only our protagonist, Yukiko, but the arashitora or thunder tiger fighting a pair of demons. The action is tight and flows well, and there are just enough hints to make us wonder about how this sixteen year old girl ended up fighting side by side with a mythological beast. If the following chapters were written half as well as the first chapter, Kristoff wouldn't be facing the torrent of criticism that seems to surround Stormdancer. But he doesn't, rewinding the story and launching into chapter after chapter of exposition with very little exciting forward movement. I slogged through the first 120 pages or so. After that, things pick up speed, but there is no gradual ratcheting up of the pace here. We go from coasting along to breakneck speed, and things never really slow down until we are at the final pages.

This causes problems, because character arcs are shortened, keeping them from developing naturally. The two most egregious examples are the relationship between Yukiko and Buruu, the aforementioned arashitora. When Yukiko's father captures Buruu, he cuts off the arashitora's flight feathers in an attempt to break the beast's spirit. Through Yukiko's link with the creature, we are privy to its thoughts. Understandably, they are not charitable at all. But it takes no time at all for Buruu to learn to trust and even love Yukiko though their psychic bond. Kristoff isn't so foolish as to make it a complete about face, but he spends so little time working through the process that the relationship seems contrived and this caused it to ring false at least for me. The second instance that I found particularly off-putting was Yukiko's relationship with the Hiro, the samurai with the green eyes. I'll talk more about the eye color later, but having Yukiko who seems to swoon over this non-character for reasons that are more juvenile than can be attributed to this otherwise resourceful and competent young woman. The relationship like Yukiko's relationship with Buruu moves too quickly and seems to only be there to set up a love triangle and to tell us repeatedly how our heroine knows she is being a foolish girl before continuing to moon over the green-eyed samurai. Given more time these relationships could have been more believable and meaningful, but at the pace Kristoff is setting they come off as shallow and uneven.

The world building in Stormdancer is equally haphazard. While Kristoff has said in interviews that Shima is not Japan, his statements hold no water with me. The language(when he gets it right), cultural norms, weapons, clothing, food, and all of the creatures we encounter(with the exception of the arashitora) are all taken straight from Japan. I'm not an expert on Japanese culture, but with twenty years served as an instructor and student of Japanese martial traditions, I think I am more than qualified to say that if Kristoff wanted this to be Japanese inspired rather than a Japan that never was, he should have tried harder. With that said, the non Japanese elements contained in the story are jarring because the setting is so richly infused with all things Japanese. There are pandas in Shima, and characters use Chinese phrases and a lot of British slang to name but a few of the standouts. These elements stand out so much that they ripped me out of the story and left me scratching my head. In a barely three hundred page novel, these things detract for more than they might have spread out over more pages. Packed so closely together, they just make the writer look lazy.  

Which brings me to the issue that seems to be the biggest sticking point with reviewers, cultural appropriation. As I've stated above, there is little use in denying that Kristoff has borrowed or appropriated most of the elements of his setting from Japan. It stands to reason that it is important to treat the borrowed culture with respect, and try to portray it as accurately as possible. I know it's a fantasy story, but if you want to run rough shod over a culture, invent your own.  Kristoff seems to pay little attention to accuracy in the language especially in the correct use of honorific terms. In other passages, he has characters translate their own language into English in the midst of internal dialogue. His treatment of women and the caste system of Japanese society is uneven, he uses the correct approach only when it suits him. For example, women are portrayed as subservient to men in almost every setting in the book, except when dealing our protagonist or members of her family. Yukiko is also obviously a member of the samurai caste, given her families long service to the Emperor, yet she seems to be not allowed to wear the swords that would be her birthright. And then there is the green-eyed samurai. Native Japanese do not have such eye color, and to use such a feature to make him somehow more desirable is an insult to the culture that Kristoff owes his entire setting to. It's sloppy writing and with all of the other flaws made Stormdancer a major disappointment, especially given the hype and possibilities of it's premise.

I'm certain Stormdancer will sell plenty of copies, and there will be countless casual readers who will eagerly gobble up anything else Kristoff publishes in this series. And that's okay, I won't be one of them until I see evidence that he's found a way to balance the cool of the story with a whole lot more craft.