Friday, September 28, 2012

You Should Be Reading: Michael J. Sullivan

Thomas Wolfe once famously wrote 'you can never go home again', and as readers that often holds far too true. Going back to the televisions shows and books of our childhood can be a painful experience, as our world view and standards of quality have grown over time. I know from re-watching TV shows like Voltron and The A-Team that nostalgia is best left as wistful remembrances, so you never have to hear "Daddy, this show sucks" from your nine year old only to discover you agree with him.

Books don't suffer as badly, at least in my experience. But they do suffer, especially now that fantasy and science fiction are big business that are targeted, not at children, but adults. Seventeen on the top grossing films of all time are directly tied to science fiction and fantasy in some fashion. (Eighteen, if you count The Passion of the Christ, but I'm not opening that can of worms.) It stands to reason, with that much money to be made, both the writers and readers of fantasy and science fiction have grown more sophisticated, making reading some of the earlier mainstays in the genre seem even more dated and passe on a second viewing. Readers of Weiss and Hickman's Dragonlance novels and David Edding's Belgariad and Mallorean series, would likely agree that while these series remain some of the most formative of our early years as fantasy readers, they are definitely not books we would rush to read again or recommend highly when authors like Rothfuss, Martin, and Abercrombie are dominating the charts.

So what does this all have to do with Michael J. Sullivan, author of the self-published and later commercially successful Riyria Revelation series?  Sullivan's return to the adventure rich, hopeful, and rollicking themes of those older novels, proves while you may not be able to go "home" again, nostalgia can be used to tell powerful and rewarding stories that don't necessarily fit into the more gritty and adult themed stories that make up the bulk of popular fantasy reading today.

The Riyria Revelation follows the adventures of the unlikely partnership of Hadrian Blackwater and Royce  Melbourne. Hadrian is an idealistic swordsman of uncommon skill, possessing the secrets of a legendary warrior caste, while Royce is a cynical thief whose demeanor is as dark as his occupation. If this sounds like a riff on Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, it's because it is. Sullivan doesn't bother to obscure his use of tropes at all. His thinking seems to be that these archetypes are popular for a reason, and his use of elements familiar to long time fantasy readers doesn't stop with his choice of protagonists. We have elves and dwarves, that are exactly what we expect them to be, an all powerful wizard, a princess that seems fated to fall for one of our heroes, a hidden heir to the throne and more. What makes Sullivan so successful is that he makes no attempt to hide what he is doing and embraces the universality of these elements with an intent to deliver a fast-paced story with likeable characters and nothing more. Focusing on the strength of the characters and knowing exactly what kind of story he intends to tell, gives Sullivan the ability to eliminate the  reams of exposition and meandering plot common in most door-stopper fantasy. Sullivan sets out to entertain and while his characters and settings may be all to familiar, he accomplishes his mission with a calculated light touch that is more common to episodic television than most of today's genre fantasy.

Some may criticize the limited scope of Hadrian and Royce's personalities, finding their relationship little more than a sword and sorcery riff on buddy-cop movies like the Lethal Weapon series. And they wouldn't be wrong, but Sullivan makes it work, allowing the effortless and often comedic nature of the relationship between the two to sell itself. We liked Riggs and Murtaugh, and I think that even the most accomplished and cynical fantasy reader will like Hadrian and Royce as well. They bicker and snipe at each other, but underneath is a grudging respect and love for one another that makes reading their adventures like visiting with old friends. More than anywhere else in the series, this is where Sullivan shines.

This is obviously Hadrian and Royce's story, so secondary characters often seem wooden by comparison. Later volumes allow other characters to step into the limelight, and they fair better then, though they never threaten the star status of either the warrior or the thief. Sullivan handles female characters well, when the spotlight focuses on them. Princess Arista and Thrace are standouts in this regard, though I felt that the end of both of their character arcs was predictable if ultimately satisfying.

The plot of the Riyria Revelations starts off simply. Hadrian and Royce accept a job that seems all too easy, to steal a sword from inside the castle of the king. Predictably, they succeed in acquiring the weapon but are caught red handed before they make their escape. The king has been murdered and our heroes are holding the murder weapon. The duo is placed in the dungeon awaiting trial and certain execution, when they are released by the princess Arista who knows they are innocent and frees them to find the true culprit, the only catch they must take her brother, the heir to the throne, with them. The plot grows in complexity from there, with Sullivan adding layers with each volume in the series, but fans of the labyrinthine plotting of Martin or Weeks will find this series all too simplistic if not predictable. But Sullivan's aim isn't to confound you with reversals, switchbacks and red herrings. He simply wants to tell a rousing tale of heroism and daring, not unlike a very well done campaign of Dungeons and Dragons. And he succeeds, Hadrian and Royce are heroic, almost always likeable, and ultimately successful through either their own considerable skills or sheer dumb luck and coincidence. Things progress quickly as the stakes rise and we see more of the world and the characters that populate it. The stakes rise and predictably so do our characters, leveling up to face the rising threat. But the progression makes sense and is ultimately satisfying as we want Royce and Hadrian to do well. Unlike George R. R. Martin, Sullivan gives readers what they want.

Sullivan's prose is as simple and comfortable as his characters and plot, and The Riyria Revelelations reads more like a episodic television show, than a multi-volume epic fantasy series. Given that Sullivan has stated that he writes with the intention of the writer being as invisible as possible, he should be applauded for never does a overly lengthy description or bit of poetic musing distract the reader from the easy, yet consistent  flow of the tale. This is Royce and Hadrian's tale and Sullivan never tries to make his own. Everything Sullivan does is in service to the story, and if the story is a throw back to simpler days where the heroes were undeniably heroes, the monsters were destined to be slain, and good is destined to triumph over evil, then Sullivan has more than achieved those ends. It may not be a reflection of the complex and often disappointing world we live in, but I would say that we as a people need fairy tales and Sullivan has provided us with one.

Wolfe was right, you never can go home again. But Micheal Sullivan certainly transports readers to a place so reminiscent of the idealistic adventures of our youth that we don't really mind the difference.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Interview: Stina Leicht

For those who have read my previous interviews, my interview with Campbell Award nominee, Stina Leicht will be a bit of a departure. Rather than simply send a list of questions for her to answer, Stina and I corresponded by email one question and answer at a time. I has a great time picking her brain and count the experience as one the best of my short blogging career. The resulting interview has a more conversational feel, and I believe does an excellent job of capturing Stina's charm, wit, and refreshingly down to earth take on the genre, writing and the challenges of success in the field. Enjoy.

52 Reviews: Of Blood and Honey is certainly an innovative and fresh take on urban fantasy. In fact, it reads much more like literary fiction with the fantastic taking a backseat to the unfolding drama of Liam's story. What led you to this unusual setting and its decidedly low key use of the supernatural elements compared to most of the books in the genre?

Stina Leight: To begin with, I tend to prefer old school Urban Fantasy like Charles de Lint's works and Emma Bull's War for the Oaks. I also like to write in a male point of view. That's just me.

Originally, the story you see today was only intended to be Liam's back story. When my agent asked me to rewrite and set Of Blood and Honey entirely in the 1970s I admit I was a bit terrified. The Troubles is not a light-hearted subject. War just isn't. The fact that it's a war that took place within living memory makes the subject even more complex. As a result, I knew I'd have to earn that setting. Above all, I wanted to be respectful of Northern Ireland, the politics, the war, and the people. I felt it was important as an outsider to be aware and be careful. In addition, most Americans know very little of the Troubles. I feel it's a topic we can learn a great deal from. So, education was one of the goals. We hear about terrorism so much these days. I feel it's important to understand the causes. In any case, I knew I couldn't just slop something together, drop in shape-shifters, wise-cracking bad asses, and call it fiction. That would've been insulting and callus. So, I had an overwhelming job ahead of me. I rolled up my sleeves and did the research. I did interviews. I had the text vetted by someone who lives in West Belfast and lived there during the 1970s. It took a great deal of effort -- three years, in fact, and I still didn't get everything dead perfect, but that's okay. I knew I wasn't going to get everything right, but I did my best anyway. That's all you can do. Now, the subsequent books will lean more in the fantasy direction because the ground work is done. That's why And Blue Skies from Pain is a bit different and contains more of the fantasy elements.

52 Reviews: Your mention of Charles De Lint and Emma Bull reminded me that when I first read them both that Urban Fantasy was much more of a niche category on the genre shelves. And having consumed much of DeLint's earlier work as a teenager, I can honestly say that Of Blood and Honey fits the old-school label fantastically. Do you think having had the opportunity to be mentored by Mr. De Lint has led you to follow in his footsteps so to speak, or was your writing style already firmly set based on your reading preferences and other factors?

Stina Leight: Actually, I'm not a big believer in slavishly following the style of other authors unless it's an exercise designed to study in detail what works and how it works. (In which case, it's not the final product.) In art school we learned the methods of the old masters by copying famous paintings. By doing this--by following in a master's brush strokes, students learned in detail about painting styles and techniques, how to work with tones, color and so forth. When you actually follow along you learn on a visceral level. Writing is an art form too, and you can do the same thing with literature. However, in the end an author must develop their individual voice. Otherwise, why bother reading someone's work who is merely a pale copy of another? We already have Dickens, Conrad, Shelley,  Woolf and Kafka. We already have Butcher, Rowling, and Meyer too. That's one thing I'll never understand about mimics. Mimicry is a method for learning. It's a step in being a better writer. It isn't the ultimate goal. Don't cheat yourself. Be yourself.

So, Charles de Lint isn't the only author whose work I admire and study. Understand, I came to Urban Fantasy much later than you did. When I was a teen I read epic fantasy--as much as I could get my hands on. J.R.R. Tolkien was my favorite. Then one day it all became so formulaic that I no longer wanted to read it. I switched to horror, and spent years with the genre. Stephen King is a big influence. I must admit. I enjoy the psychological side of horror, and King does that very, very well. (The Shining is a brilliant study of addiction, for example.) Shirley Jackson is another amazing author. Her prose is intense and impactful. She's also wonderfully creepy. Then there's Neil Gaiman who bridges fantasy and horror. I adored his characters, his simple means of blending reality with fantasy--must like Stephen King does. I adored Neil Gaiman's quiet humor. To be honest, I didn't return home to fantasy until my husband insisted I read Terry Pratchett. Pratchett is a genius. There is no other word for it. He's also a writer's writer. He has a nimble grace with word play that I haven't seen from anyone. He uses humor to cut deeper into humanity and then shows us the mirror. He makes me think hard about why things are the way they are. He makes me cry and laugh out loud too. No other author has ever done that to me before, and I want more than anything to do that to my readers. At the same time, I discovered Holly Black who is simply amazing. Her characters are terrific, and she's deft at making the unsympathetic, sympathetic. Valiant was a great book. And then there's Ray Bradbury whose gift with poetic prose is breath-taking. Lastly, while writing Of Blood and Honey and And Blue Skies from Pain I studied Northern Irish crime writers. Among them, Adrian McKinty is my favorite. He's gory and brutal and violent and profane as hell. He's also a master at making all these things glisten like a stained glass window in a cathedral on a sunny day.

Do you see the pattern? De Lint, as wonderful as he is, isn't my only teacher. And although he was one of the authors who gave me encouragement when I needed it most and although he is an influence -- he isn't the only one. No mentor can be, and more importantly, no great mentor would want to be. I also read extensively outside my chosen genre and find influences there. Good authors do this. If you don't, you begin to regurgitate things that have already done over and over until they become tropes, and it becomes very difficult to bring in anything new. This is why sub-genres grow stale over time. I'm also a big believer in not doing things by accident. If you use a trope, know you're doing it and employ it for your own purposes. Don't thoughtlessly follow along.

52 Reviews: I find it very interesting that you mention employing tropes to your own purposes. Did you intentionally follows the common tropes about the Fey's vulnerability to iron and being bound to their promises so that you could use that built in knowledge to make it possible to avoid most of the exposition about the supernatural elements of the story? I found the subtlety of your hinting at the effects of iron while Liam is unaware of his heritage to be some of the most impressive examples of "showing not telling" I've seen in genre fiction in a long time.

Stina Leicht: Yes, I did. For one thing, I felt that the setting alone meant that readers would have a lot of unfamiliar subjects to deal with. Northern Ireland is an alien place for most Americans, and Irish is not the same thing as American born Irish. So, I wanted to provide aspects of the story which would be familiar to readers. The fey reaction to iron being one of them. At the same time, I wanted to drop in my own ideas of what that was about and where it came from. (You find out why they have that reaction to iron in the next book.) As for being bound to promises, my understanding of the word "geas" is that it's an oath. Honor features heavily in the old stories of the Fianna. A member of the Fianna didn't break their word -- particularly if that word was given to a woman of power, not without a lot of consequences.

I believe in making the reader feel smart. Too much media these days talks down to viewers and readers. It's as if we're supposed to believe that the average person is stupid. I disagree. Most of my friends are smarter than I am. Now, they aren't average, mind you. Most attended schools for the gifted. However, I didn't attend a school for the gifted. I'm average. Hell, I flunked grammar in High School. (I have dyslexia.) Still, I loathe being treated like an idiot. So, I show respect to my readers by giving them enough information to work certain things out for themselves. It's rewarding being in the know. I also snuck in a few other things under the radar that Americans probably won't pick up on but someone from Ireland probably would. For example, the moth in Mary Kate's hospital room. It doesn't take away from the story to not know the reference. However, it does add to it, if you do.

In addition, giving the reader more information than the characters works well as a hook. It creates tension. I like when readers tell me that they screamed at Liam not to do this or that thing. A well-rounded protagonist isn't perfect. They make mistakes because human beings make mistakes. The trick is to have them make mistakes that aren't so stupid that the reader stops sympathizing with the protagonist.

52 Reviews: From the sheer amount of research you put into Of Blood and Honey it seems that you are firmly in the camp of "knowing what you are writing", which is the reverse of the old saw of "write what you know". Could you tell us a little about how you approach that old adage? What parts of your personality and life experience are hidden in this tale of Liam and friends?

Stina Leicht: Elizabeth Moon once told me that the saying is really, "Write what you love." not "Write what you know." because you honestly can't love something until you know it. Therefore, I think having passion for your work is vital. Readers can sense when a writer feels strongly about their story, and some of that passion bleeds off the page. (I also think that explains why some stories are genuinely adored by their audience even if they aren't very well written.)

My husband likes to joke that I'm a Method Writer because I use real life experiences. For example: since Liam was  a wheelman, I figured I needed to know how to drive well in adverse conditions. The closest thing I could think of was rally racing. Therefore, I took rally racing lessons. (That was so much fun, I must say.) Since that was my approach it made sense that Liam would get involved in rally racing too. He'd take his responsibility seriously because others rely on him--which I can relate to. I also gave him my love of fast street cars. (I adore '60s era muscle cars.) And personally, I'm not big on beer. (But I had to come up with a really good reason why Liam would hate it.) I borrowed some small moments from when my mother in law died in the hospital as well as a friend's death on the street in a car wreck. (He died a couple hundred feet away from where I was living. My ex-boyfriend and I were first on the scene.) I also used experiences from car accidents that I've lived through. I've shot guns in order to get to know what they're like. I gave Liam my dyslexia but made it much worse. Sometimes I use tidbits from friends' stories about certain experiences and extrapolate from there. Things like that. At the same time, there's a great deal of what Liam does experience that I never have and never will. (Like heroin or being in prison.) So, I had to rely on outside sources and my imagination. Fiction is always a combination of the truth and the lie. The goal is to get enough truth into the story to make the lie seem real.

52 Reviews: How did you approach world building for Of Blood and Honey? While you seem to have relied on copious amounts of research to get the historical setting of 1970's Ireland as close to reality as possible, how was the process of structuring the more fantastic elements of the novel different? Will we be seeing that aspect of Liam's tale come more to the forefront in And Blue Skies From Pain?

Stina Leicht: I can't take credit for the world building. The world building is already done in a realistic setting. The most difficult task is in presenting a complex, foreign setting in a way that doesn't confuse the reader. As for setting up the magical elements--I can't really take credit for that either. In my books, the fey are being portrayed in their place of origin. Of course, they're going to fit in seamlessly. Think about it. In a way, that's like remarking on how well 1930s bungalows fit in the background of a 1930s setting. Ireland is a foreign country. Here in the United States, we've a great deal of separation between the past and present. Our buildings are only a couple hundred years old at the most. In most of Ireland, their new buildings tend to be older than that. Here, christianity arrived at the same time as the fabled pilgrims. Our myths--those associated with mainstream culture--aren't that old, nor are there that many. (Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, and John Henry and that's about it.) So, we have a cultural separation from myth that the Irish don't, not like we do--at least that's my theory. In a lot of ways, I feel that Urban Fantasy is the American way of creating a place for myth in modern society. Humanity needs myth. It's an important part of who we are psychologically. When we lack it, we create it. Think about the similarities between alien abduction stories and changeling stories of old, and you'll see what I mean. Space is our "ancient, dark, mysterious forest filled with the unknown." Aliens are our fairies.

And Blue Skies from Pain does contain more of the magical elements. Per usual, I kept to the original myth as much as I could but then gave it my own twist. It's a lot of fun thinking about myth that way. I enjoy building off the original rather than just using what has been already done more recently. As Vizzini in The Princess Bride would say, when the job goes wrong you have to go back to the beginning.

52 Reviews: With world building being so widely derived from both history and myth, what other aspect of the novel was your main focus? Was it characterization, plotting, pacing, theme, or the beauty of the prose itself? Or is there some super secret formula we can attribute the glowing success of your debut novel?

Stina Leicht: I like character driven stories. So, I tend to focus on the characters. I want to understand them -- what makes them think and act as they do. I try to make them as real as I can. My philosophy is that reading is like a amusement park ride. The more realistic I make the ride, the more of a thrill the reader gets. Whether that has anything to do with success, I've no idea, frankly. I don't think there's a super secret formula for success. If such a thing existed, then it would've been discovered, sold for a profit many times over by now, every piece written would follow that formula, and every writer would be a success. Yet, as formulaic as Hollywood is, not everything that comes out of Hollywood is a grand success is it?

52 Reviews: As a author who is focused primarily on character, have any of your characters dictated their own story? I have heard more than one author who says that at a certain point the story takes on a life of its own and they are more a less just recording what the characters tell them to. Is there any truth to that in your experience? If so tell us a little bit about one of those moments?

Stina Leicht: There are authors who will vehemently oppose this point of view because it makes writers sound like a) holy prophets chosen by God or b) complete nutters. Although I've never been one to get upset, I get it. This thought perpetuates the Myth of the Suffering Artist(tm). (REAL Artists must suffer and starve. Artists are addicts or alcoholics, and/or crazy. No truly great creative work gets done unless this suffering happens -- as if creative types are some form of masochistic brownie that vanishes upon being given a living wage. Pardon my Texan, but I call horse shit. With that out of the way, let's address what an author is really saying when they claim the story took off on its own.

Writing requires a vivid imagination. I know it sounds like I'm stating the obvious here but think about what that means. My experience of writing a new story and even rewriting one that is already sketched out is like daydreaming -- only I do my daydreaming in front of a computer screen. Sometimes I even close my eyes to type out what I imagine. Naturally, this process taps into the subconscious. (All art does on some level.) There's nothing magical about it. Everyone has an imagination. Everyone has used this process to make up stories when they were kids. Everyone has the ability. However, just like programming or nursing or managing a business... some people are better at it than others. So, there you are. No more mystery. I think a lot of the reason why it takes so long to get good at writing is we have to learn how to work with our subconscious consistently and productively. That's not as easy as it sounds. Everyone is a little different.

Do my stories take on a life of their own? Yes. Do my characters willfully take off in directions I haven't planned for them? Oh, hell yes. That's the fun. It's a signal that the story is working and my subconscious is engaged. One of those moments was while writing the scene where Father Murray drives Liam and Mary Kate to the hospital. Mary Kate kept apologizing for losing the baby, over and over and wouldn't stop. I was stuck. I knew from experience to not force the story forward. I had to listen to the characters (my subconscious.) So, I stopped typing and thought, "What do you have to apologize for, Mary Kate? You didn't do anything. None of this is your fault." And then it came to me that she wasn't apologizing for losing the baby -- well, not *that* one. There'd been another baby, one before this one. A baby that Liam didn't know about. WHAM! Hit me like a ton of bricks. "Holy shit. That's why you were sick! And Father Murray took you away to... Holy crap, Mary Kate!" So, I backtracked and cleaned things up a bit.

52 Reviews: What a interesting way of looking at dealing with your muse. Could you tell us a little about your personal journey to learn how to work with your subconscious? Did you learn anything during the process of writing Of Blood and Honey that made writing the sequel even easier?

Stina Leicht: I hate to tell you this, but the second book is actually *more difficult* to write than the first. We're all used to failure. We know what to do afterward. We have a lot of practice with failure. It's success that's tough because it's more rare. Isn't that odd? But that's the truth. It's why so many creative types crash after their first success. So when Of Blood and Honey was successful, it was hard not to think that it was the best book I'd ever create. I also worried that readers wouldn't like Blue Skies. The two books are very different, after all. However, I hope to always improve and grow as a writer, and I want to do something new with every novel. I suspect that when writing becomes easy and formulaic it's a signal that you aren't stretching yourself as a writer. You aren't doing your best. So, what helped me write the second book? All in all, I'd have to say experience and perseverance helped more than anything -- also the deadline, my agent and then there was my husband. He knows my process almost better than I do.

52 Reviews: As a writer who has received quite a bit of acclaim for her debut novel, what effect has this had on your writing? What are the best and worst parts of success for you?

Stina Leicht: I could answer the last question with one word: anticipation. Living with the fear that no one will read your work is quite different from dealing with the fear that you'll disappoint those who read them. I deeply appreciate my readers. I want to do my best for them. I want to improve as a writer for myself. I don't want to let either of us down. So, in some ways it's given me more confidence. At the same time, it's also slowed down my production and given me less confidence. Creativity is funny that way. It requires a sense of playfulness. It also requires a safe environment for mistakes. I think you see where I'm going with this. Just like the saying goes... the best way to dance is to imagine no one is watching. So is the best way to draw, or sing or even write.  

52 Reviews: What one piece of advice do you wish you would have been given before embarking on your career as a writer. And what one piece of advice would you give to aspiring authors after such successes in your own career?

Stina Leicht: I think if me now were to talk to me then... I'd tell her not to take the set backs quite so personally, and keep working just as hard. Oh, and to remember that everything is a lesson worth learning from -- so stay positive. (That's not always easy to remember.)

As for others... I'd say don't give up on your dream. Be both patient and persistent. Remember it took me more than ten years to get where I am now -- actually, eleven years, and I'm only a new author. I've my whole career ahead of me. (One hopes.) If your dream is to be published by a publisher, understand that it's totally possible - no matter how far away it might seem. It takes time to get good. No one is born the perfect writer--not even Stephen King. Time is going to pass anyway. You might as well invest it in learning to be the best writer you can be. Don't cheat yourself with short cuts. Short cuts don't do anyone any good... well, except the person *selling* the short cut. 

Thanks again to Stina for taking part in my interview experiment. I think the results would qualify this as success. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Review of the Week: Low Town by Daniel Polansky

I owe Myke Cole a drink, should I ever get the chance to meet him. It'll be a high dollar one too, no PBR for Mr. Cole. Not because I am a gushing fanboy (though that probably has some truth to it) but because of a tweet that led me to Daniel Polansky's fantastic debut novel, Low Town. When I saw Cole's assertion that he would buy Polansky's grocery lists, should he ever decide to publish them, I was intrigued. A quick glance at the synopsis, and I was set to go.

Right-click here to download pictures. To help protect your privacy, Outlook prevented automatic download of this picture from the Internet.

Describing Low Town in simple terms is more difficult than most fantasy novels. Imagine that Quentin Tarantino, possessed by the ghost of J.R.R. Tolkien, did an eight-ball of cocaine and wrote a novel to be read by the late Johnny Cash. Low Town is something like that, only better. I've heard it called noir fantasy. I suppose if you have to put a label on it that one will do. I just call it a trope-breaking tour-de-force with the elegant savagery of a rusted switchblade. But you can take your pick.   

The book's back copy does an excellent job of setting the stage, so I'll leave it to the professionals this time. 
Rigus is the greatest city in the Thirteen Lands, a glittering metropolis of crystalline citadels and sumptuous manors, where gentlewomen hide delicate smiles behind silken sleeves and bored nobles settle affairs of honor with cold steel. But light casts shadow, and in the darkness of the spires the baseborn struggle, eking out an existence amidst the cast-offs of their betters. This is Low Town, a sprawling warren of side streets and back alleys, of boarded up windows and false storefronts. Here the corner boys do a steady trade to the dead eyed and despairing, and a life can be bought with a clipped copper penny.
Low Town is an ugly place, and its champion is an ugly man. A former war hero and intelligence agent, now a crime lord addicted to cheap violence and expensive narcotics, the Warden spends his days hustling for customers and protecting his turf, until the chance discovery of a murdered child sets him on a collision course with the life he'd left behind. As bodies bloat in the canal and winter buries the city, he plays a desperate game of deception, pitting the underworld powers against his former colleagues in the secret police, hoping to find the source of the evil before it consumes him, and perhaps the city itself.
But virtue is rarely repaid in kind, and Low Town is no place for the righteous.
Sounds pretty awesome, right? Like other standouts in the sub-genre of fantasy with less than heroic protagonists, such as The Lies of Locke Lamora and Among ThievesLow Town limits the setting to a narrow, but well realized area. The squalor and grit of Low Town is a tangible presence and Polanski milks it in every description, making the setting the most omnipresent character in the novel. Readers can almost feel the dirt collecting under their fingernails as they read and smell arcane sounding narcotics like dreamvine seem to linger in the air.

Polansky chooses an ugly man to tell an equally ugly story of drugs, foul sorcery, and murder. Warden's first person narrative is moody, tense, and unflinchingly honest. Readers may not like the drug addicted crime lord much, but Polansky makes sure they'll understand the path he's trod to become so broken. There is a filthy sort of poetry to Warden's voice as he riffs on the slum of his birth, his time spent in the military and as member of the feared intelligence agency, Black House. Warden is a broken addict with few real friends who sees no hope for redemption. He has no purpose other than to carve out a life of crime in between vials of pixie's breath and smoking dreamvine, until he is pulled into investigating a string murdered children that endangers not only his life but his callous and unfeeling existence.

Readers hoping for a story of redemption and real change in the character will find themselves disappointed though. Polanky seems to understand that, like in real life, addiction and recovery aren't easy and Warden's story arc, while showing glimmers of redemption and subtle character growth, reflect that reality. While it is easy to pull for Warden to get to the bottom of the mystery of the slaughtered children, hoping for Warden to return to the life he led before his addiction derailed his life is much harder. Nonetheless, Warden is a sympathetic and likeable narrator, largely because Polansky shows his admirable qualities through his interactions with the denizens of LowTown. Each character gets their moment to shine, either in action or by impacting our narrator in some significant way. A moment where the usually mild tempered and motherly Adeline gives Warden the sharp end of her tongue and the flat of her hand is a definite standout.

Of particular interests are Warden's interactions with Wren, a street urchin who is pulled into the former intelligence agent's wake through a chance encounter. The adolescent serves as a reflection of Warden's childhood living on the streets, more street tough and petty thief than precocious child. Though our protagonist takes great pains to appear to be more than comfortable letting Wren fend for himself, there is a glimmer of parental instinct and protectiveness that may be the fragile core of Warden's possible redemption. Rounding out the cast of Warden's extended and only family are Adolphos and his wife, Adeline, who tend the inn that Warden calls his home, and the patron sorcerer of Low Town, The Blue Crane and his apprentice, Celia, who figure heavily in Warden's childhood years. The Crane and Celia get more face time than their more common counterparts, but Polansky does an admirable job making all of these secondary characters have agendas and personalities that never seem created simply to toss the irascible Warden against.

The antagonists fair just as well. The heretic Ling Chi, with his insistence on courtly manners and maddening indirect way of speaking, was a standout, even if he is only marginally important to the main plotline. Lord Beaconfield, the principle antagonist, is gleefully unafraid of Warden's brutal reputation and is his equal not only in intelligence but in his taste for violence. Even conversations between the two read like a well orchestrated fight scene, with parries and ripostes that ring like invisible blades. We get to see Warden's former boss, the head of Black House. While he serves as a driving force for Warden's investigation and growing sense of peril, Polansky seems poised to use him to greater effect as the series continues.

The plot is fast paced with as many blind turns and reversals as the landscape of Low Town itself. The chases and battles are swift and packed with tension. Warden is a man who kills without rage, wrapped in a merciless practicality that life in Low Town demands. Polansky manages to inject enough of Warden's backstory to further flesh out his protagonist without slowing the plot in any noticeable way, leaving the reader without any excuse to stop reading. Polansky concludes with a twist ending that I suspected, though the telegraphing was fairly slight. That said, it was set up brilliantly and looses no points from me. In fact, it seems to be the only fitting end, as much as I wanted something else.

But for me the biggest selling point is Polansky's prose itself. Warden's narration is as dense a first person narration as I've ever seen. Every line of dialogue, exposition, and description seems to serve multiple masters; informing, suggesting, and adding to the mood of the novel. This tightness and attention to utility coupled with the obvious love for language gives Low Town a distinctive voice that, when blended with the weary cynicism of Warden's voice, marks Polansky as an author that genre fans would do well to watch. I've not been this excited about a new voice of fantasy since Patrick Rothfuss. Let's hope that the next Low Town novel, Tomorrow the Killing fares better than The Wise Man's Fear. 

Coming Attractions: The Crown Tower by Michael J. Sullivan

One of the more recent authors to be added to must read list is Michael J. Sullivan. His Riyria Revelations series published last year by Orbit was such a page turner that I finished all three volumes (which actually were omnibuses containing two novels each) in a two week spree. Sullivan's style of accessible sword and sorcery recalls all the best bits of genre legends like the late David Eddings while borrowing heavilly from the structure of genre television standouts like Battlestar Gallactica and Babylon 5. The Crown Tower begins a prequel cycle featuring the protagonists of The Riyria Revelations. I've missed Hadrian and Royce and can't wait to read them again.

And here's the blurb from the publisher:

Two men who hate each other. One impossible mission. A legend in the making.
Hadrian, a warrior with nothing to fight for is paired with a thieving assassin, Royce, with nothing to lose. Together they must steal a treasure that no one can reach. The Crown Tower is the impregnable remains of the grandest fortress ever built and home to the realm’s most prized possessions. But it isn’t gold or jewels that the old wizard is after, and if he can just keep them from killing each other, they just might do it.

August of 2013 can't get here soon enough.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Interview: Hugh Howey

I am finding that my favorite part of blogging is interviews. I like to know about the people who create the stories that occupy so much of my head space. Thus far I have found the authors I have corresponded with to be intelligent, articulate, engaging, and generally the kind of people that I would gladly share a drink or two with while discussing any and every thing that came to mind. It took a little bit of nerve to get started asking for interviews, but almost every author I've asked has been gracious with their time and generally very encouraging to work with. Hugh Howey is no exception.

I asked Hugh if he would be interested in doing an interview just a few days ago, and got an almost immediate affirmative. I spent a few hours doing research and sent the questions out fairly late in the evening. I expected it to take at least a week for him to get back to me with his responses. He's a busy guy after all and it would give me time to promote the interview a bit. I was shocked to wake up the next day to find his answers waiting in my inbox. And let me tell you, he didn't phone it in at all. His generosity and willingness to interact with fans is likely a large portion of his success, and I am no longer at all surprised that my review of Wool is still the most viewed post in the blog's history. I hope you enjoy your time getting to know Hugh as much as I did.

52 Reviews: First of all, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to do this interview. I have to admit, before I stumbled upon Wool via recommendation of Amazon, I'd never heard of your work but was amazed by the high-quality of your writing, especially in comparison to the few self-published titles that I'd purchased previously. Do you think that there is a larger need to write well in order to succeed in comparison to those writers who follow the more traditional route of agents and publishing houses?

Hugh Howey: We live in the most literate age in the history of mankind. I know that seems hard to believe, but several studies have borne this out, including one from Stanford that set out to prove the opposite. But what researchers are finding is that we are reading and writing at an unprecedented clip. What we’re reading, of course, is changing. Now it’s Facebook posts, Tweets, text messages, blogs, and websites. We read all day long. And because we’re being so prolific, my advice to everyone is to learn to do it well. If we’re doing it more than anyone ever has before, let’s try and be good at it.

Authors bear a heavier burden in that they are expected to write perfectly. This requires a team. Almost no one can write a book by their lonesome. I recommend a lot of eyeballs before you publish. Get as much feedback as you can from as many people as possible. Trade manuscripts with other writers. Beg for beta readers. Do favors for family members. And when you think the book is ready, assume it isn’t and go over it two more times.

52 Reviews: Moving on to Wool. When it comes to genre-fiction, I tend to avoid science fiction, especially “hard sci-fi” largely due to an absolute disinterest in the particulars of how and why things work. With that said, I loved that Wool was so character driven and that the science-fiction elements seemed far less important to the story than the inner-workings of the characters and the gradual revealing of information. Was this a conscious decision to pare down the trappings of genre and tell a story that could connect to readers beyond those typically found within it?

Hugh Howey: Absolutely. Very few people care about how the gizmos work. Literary fiction is full of technology, but its operation goes unexplored. Which is the right way to go about things. We don’t say: “Susan pulled out her interpersonal wireless communication device and pressed the shatterproof screen. Haptic feedback pulsed through her fingertips as she dialed the man’s number. A signal leapt from the machine’s tiny and invisible internal antenna and raced at the speed of light to the nearest communications tower. From there, the signal zoomed heavenward toward blinking satellites…”

I imagine there are some people who would enjoy this style, but not me. I want to get to the part where Susan tells the stranger that she’s pregnant, and it’s his child. Science fiction is an excellent outlet for exploring the human condition by altering our environment, by stressing certain facets of our nature and exaggerating them for effect. I enjoy creating worlds, but only to give my characters room to roam.

52 Reviews: Speaking of character driven story telling, I like to ask every author I interview whether or not they find their characters taking over the story and moving it in unexpected directions. Did any of the characters in Wool take on a life of their own, or were you in complete control of the story's direction at all times?

Hugh Howey: I always feel a mixture of both. I lay out the path the characters will take, but the things they say and do along that path are completely up to them. It just happens. They chatter and make decisions that I don’t see coming.

In Wool, the biggest surprise was Lukas. He wasn’t even supposed to be there at first! As I went through the first draft of the third part of Wool, I realized something was missing, something I would need for the next two books. It’s like he was screaming at me for inclusion.

52 Reviews: One of my favorite things about Wool is that, unlike most science-fiction tales, your characters cannot rely on cutting edge technology or even in most cases weapons that are common in this day and age. They face the harrowing circumstances of their dystopian existence with nothing more than the strength of their character. Given that lack of 'flashy' weapons and technological marvels, how did you go about infusing a sense of wonder in a genre that so often hangs its proverbial hat on the things we build far more than the things that build us?

Hugh Howey: Oh, I think this is the Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson allure. Part of the magic of post apocalyptic fiction is the characters patching things together, making do, playing MacGyver. There’s this whole steampunk mythology being formed right now, and I think it’s motivated by our love of craft -- of one-offs and home-built machinery -- and also by our wariness of all the new and shiny gadgets we’re forming a symbiotic relationship with.

The sense of wonder in Wool comes from the dire setting, the claustrophobia of living underground, all the secrets, intrigues, and lies. Around every corner, there’s a new discovery. And as we build toward the third and final act of the series, we’ll learn that there’s plenty of “hard” science fiction at the core of the story, but I believe it’s better told if we don’t bog ourselves down with it but rather peel the layers back like an onion.

52 Reviews: What made you choose to publish Wool as a serial? Was this simply a matter of a tale growing in the telling, or was the full plot something you had worked out in your head prior to starting Sheriff Holston's walk to the holding cell?

Hugh Howey: I wrote the first book as a standalone. It wasn’t until the reviews began pouring in, asking for more, that I outlined the rest of the story. I kept the entries short at first because that’s what seemed to work for the first book. I later combined them into the Omnibus to save readers time and money. It was a very organic process. There was no master plan behind any of it.

52 Reviews: The second chapter of Wool was my favorite, largely due to the subtle love story between Mayor Jahns and Deputy Marnes. I once read that all good fiction needs to engage all aspects of the human experience and love is certainly a large part of that. Sadly, many genre authors seem to have trouble writing romance authentically. What methods have you discovered for adding believability to these very important sequences?

Hugh Howey: I’m glad you enjoyed the second entry so much. It’s one of my favorites as well. I think the genre readers find this one to be the slowest. Non-genre readers are really pulled in by the story. Part of the secret is that I don’t read in the genres that I write in. I mostly read non-fiction, histories, biographies, science, and psychology. When I do read fiction, it’s usually literary fiction. I’m interested in writing about people, so that’s what I study.

My ideas on romance are informed by my life experiences. I’ve been a sap for most of my life. I filled notebooks full of poetry when I was younger and cried a lot. Later, I had a lot of fiery romances, broke some hearts, had mine shattered over and over. More recently, I’ve enjoyed ten years of domestic bliss with my wife. Each of these phases taught me something about the power of emotions and relationships. I believe these feelings are universal, and so I write about them assuming my readers will have some response.
52 Reviews: Dystopian settings are all the rage lately, but I found Wool infinitely more satisfying than many other recent entries into the genre. Were there classic dystopian novels that influenced your writing?

Hugh Howey: I haven’t read a lot of dystopian novels, to be honest. I think Brave New World and 1984 influenced the way I discuss class struggles and crowd control. I’ve had many readers point out the similarity of setting to the Fallout videogames, though this connection was a complete surprise to me when I first heard about it. When I’m writing, I don’t think about what I’ve seen and done that might be influencing the genesis of a story. I just dive into a world and describe what’s going on from the character’s perspective.

52 Reviews: During my research, I discovered that you have more stories coming out in the Wool setting. Could you tell us a little about the future of Jules, and Lukas and the rest of the people living in the Silo?

Hugh Howey: We won’t get to the characters from the Omnibus until the third act. If you take the Wool stories as a single book, it’s the first in a trilogy. The second act is a series of prequels that tell how the world got this way. The first part of this prequel is already out. It’s called First Shift, and in many ways I think it’s an even more riveting story than Wool. After two more “Shift” books, we’ll bring all the characters together for the finale: The Silo Wars.

52 Reviews: Recently, I read an article you did about the importance of story telling in creating popular fiction in which you said “Plot is king and prose is pawn.” I loved the article and certainly recommend it to any aspiring writer, but could you talk a little more about this topic as it relates to your own writing specifically?

Hugh Howey: I think as authors that we put too much stress on writing and not enough on storytelling. A great story can suffer poor writing while the most perfect prose does nothing if it isn’t telling us something interesting. So I advise aspiring authors to spend more time dreaming up incredible plots and less time stressing about grammar. Grammar is what you clean up in the process I described up above, the reason you get extra eyeballs on a story to point out awkward phrases and mistakes.

There have been some amazing success stories coming from strange places lately. Twilight fan fiction has dominated the bestseller lists. A series of posts on Reddit about how a modern military platoon would fare against a Roman legion (I think it was) got picked up by a Hollywood studio. Readers, publishers, and filmmakers are desperate for great stories. There are far fewer of those out there than we realize. What’s rare to find these days are people with great story ideas who also have the time and inclination to commit them to paper. And so, if you do have that energy to write to completion, I urge you to dream up a thousand stories and pick the very best. Don’t just write because you’re able to. Write because you have some plot that compels you to write.

52 Reviews: Take a moment to play P.T. Barnum and pitch some of your other work that readers may not have heard about. Which of your other projects is your favorite and why?

Hugh Howey: I have two other short stories that I really enjoyed writing, both of which cost a mere dollar. One is called The Plagiarist. It’s about a guy whose side job entails entering virtual worlds to steal the artwork its digital denizens create. They don’t know they’re not real. Things go sideways when he falls in love with a girl in this world. He has a physical relationship with this digital person while back in the real world he has an online relationship with a woman he’s never met in person.

The other short is a new Kindle Single called The Walk up Nameless Ridge. It’s a mountaineering expedition up the tallest peak of an alien world. For me, it was a chance to explore the fear that comes from success, the danger of losing sight of who we are as we struggle to achieve great things. It’s one of my most powerful stories, I believe. One that benefits from multiple readings.

52 Reviews: While talking about your experiences as a self-publishing phenomenon could easily make up an entire interview by themselves, could you sum up your thoughts on what it takes to be successful in the virtual slush pile of self-published authors? In your opinion, what does it take to duplicate even a small measure of your astounding success?

Hugh Howey: I don’t have a magic recipe for what’s happened with me as it’s not something I can even reproduce with all of my works. There’s a lot of luck involved, and I have no problem admitting that. But there are three things I can glean from what’s happened that I think played a part in my success.

First, write a lot. I had eight or nine books available before one took off. Included in this advice is the need to write a wide variety of stories across several genres. You don’t know what you’ll do best or what readers will want the most. Don’t assume that by writing the same story over and over you’ll eventually have a different level of success. Write long and short works. Write lyrical and action-packed works. Write whatever sustains your interest.

Secondly, give your works away. We are competing with all kinds of “free” entertainment. People can surf Facebook all day, laughing and crying at the variety of posts and comments. They can watch TV. They can listen to free music on Pandora. TV and internet aren’t quite “free,” but since practically everyone owns them, their content might as well be. That means we need to compete by offering fascinating stories at a similar price. Post short stories on a website and link to them. Price your works as low as you can until you develop a readership.

Finally, Write because you love it, because you’re passionate about it, not because you want fame and fortune. If you view it as a hobby rather than as a potential escape from a dreary job, you can’t lose. Most everyone has a hobby. Very few of these hobbies produce something you can make available to the entire world, forever. That’s what writing does. You set something down, and you can offer it to the entire world, and it will never go away. The best part is that it’s completely free, this hobby. It’s not like woodworking or fishing or knitting where there’s a ton of upfront costs. But it is like these hobbies in that the hours you pour in need to be hours you enjoy. The sweater you just knit will never be worth enough to pay back the cost of materials and the hours of work. That fish you caught cost you $200 in fuel for your boat. Writing is the same way. You might put a thousand hours into a novel that ten people read and enjoy. If you’re like me, those ten happy readers are payment enough. If you’re not like me, you may be sorely disappointed.

52 Reviews: And lastly, just because the fan-boy in me has to ask. Since Wool has been option for the big screen, who would your dream casting choices be?

Hugh Howey: I lean two different ways with this. There’s my dream cast of known names, like Natalie Portman as Jules, Michael Sera as Lukas, Robin Williams as Walker, and Sam Elliot as Marnes. But I’d honestly rather seen complete unknowns cast into these roles. I find it distracting when super famous people are playing complete strangers. And it would fit in with the entire indie spirit of the process to give someone else a shot to make it big, to maybe get as damn lucky as I have.

Coming Attractions: NOS4R2 by Joe Hill

Joe Hill is one of my favorite authors who isn't specifically a fantasy author. His novels Heart Shaped Box and Horns are both astonishingly visceral and thought-provoking reads. His soon to be completed series of graphic novels Locke and Key are second only to Neil Gaiman's legendary Sandman series. So when I saw the cover art for his upcoming novel NOS4R2, I had to share. So take a peek, and if you aren't reading Joe Hill yet, go directly to your local book seller and give him a shot.

Coming Attractions: The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson

If you mash steampunk, young adult fiction, and the incredible imagination of Brandon Sanderson what do you get? Apparently you get Sanderson's next full length novel due for release some time in 2013. Brandon's publisher, Tor has released the following cover art and blurb for what sounds like something completely different for the epic fantasy mainstay. 

"The Rithmatist is an epic fantasy set in an alternate version of our world—a world in which life in the American Isles is threatened by the attacks of mysterious creatures known as Wild Chalklings. Chalklings are two-dimensional drawings that can be infused with life by Rithmatists and it is the job of the Rithmatists to keep the Wild Chalkings at bay. 

You may wonder how a two-dimensional drawing could possibly be a threat. Here’s the answer: Wild Chalklings scurry across the ground like scorpions or land piranhas, and bite chunks out of your feet. At which point you fall to the ground and they swarm you. Enough said.

The Rithmatist is about a 14-year-old kid named Joel who wants desperately to be a Rithmatist. But he wasn’t Chosen, so he doesn’t have the ability to bring chalklings or Rithmatic lines to life. All he can do is watch as The Rithmatist students at Armedius Academy learn the mystical art that he would give anything to practice. Then Rithmatist students start disappearing, kidnapped from their rooms at night, leaving only trails of blood. Joel’s professor asks him to help investigate—putting Joel and his friend Melody on the trail of a discovery that could change Rithmatics—and their world—forever…."

Are you intrigued enough by the concept to delve into this story? Or is Sanderson's track record for excellent enough to guarantee your purchase. I know, I'll be checking it out.

Interview with Andrea from Little Red Reviewer

I connected with Andrea from Little Red Reviewer on Twitter not long ago. After a little while of sharing each others posts, she suggested we interview one another. I was apprehensive at first, but decided what the hell publicity is publicity. Andrea is a veteran blogger with reviews spanning over two years. Her reviews are personable, intelligent and I definitely am going to spend more time on her blog in the future. Do yourself a favor and check out her recent review of Cory Doctorow's Pirate Cinema and her post on the works of Tim Powers. You won't be sorry you did. Since I know you'll be following Little Red Reviewer, go ahead and do it now, the interview isn't going anywhere.

Now that you're connected, enjoy the interview.

52 Reviews: There are countless people out there who love to read, but most of them stay largely silent about their reading habits. What made you decide to start sharing your opinions about the books you read in the first place?

Little Red Reviewer: I've always been a big reader, but learned quickly that most of my real life friends were asking "whatcha readin'?" out of politeness and not because they were remotely interested in galactic empires or orphaned magicians or robots or alternate history. But like all hobbyists, I wanted to talk about the things I was passionate about with people who shared my same passions, and truly, the internet to the rescue. I became active on some scifi-fantasy forums that posted user reviews, wrote some reviews for some e-zines, and went from there.  
52 Reviews: Your blog has been around for several years and is obviously quite popular. What can you tell us about the early days of the blog when you were less well know? 

Little Red Reviewer: "Obviously quite popular"?  I'm blushing!  it's been a lot of work to get it there. The blog is a labor of love, that's for sure. Back in the day I cheered and jumped up and down every time I got a comment. The first time I got more than 10 hits in one day I celebrated. I trepidaciously e-mailed some other bloggers and asked what their secrets to success were. Their friendly and helpful responses were my first step towards feeling like "a blogger", instead of just a person with a blog.
52 Reviews: What have been your greatest success as a blogger? In other words, give us your highlight reel. 

Little Red Reviewer: A ton of authors are on Twitter these days, and it's really cool when an author retweets your review of their work, or thanks you for a blog post you wrote about them. I wrote a fairly emotional blog post about a character created by Steven Brust, and he retweeted it with an unbelievably kind comment that left me speechless. I'm a huge Catherynne Valente fan, and I nearly hit the ceiling last year when I bought her novel The Folded World to see that I had been blurbed for my review of The Habitation of the Blessed. I got an e-mail from an author I love, and the author thanked me for liking their stuff and writing such nice reviews. I went to my very first scifi/fantasy convention last year, and met a bunch of authors that I idolize.

That's my highlight reel, the things that made me grin like a crazy person. and I'm not special. Anyone can do this stuff, you just have to jump on, and grab hold.
52 Reviews: As a veteran blogger, what advice would you give to those new to blogging or considering it for the first time?
Little Red Reviewer: I'm going to pass on the advice a famous blogger gave me, when I asked her the same question a couple of years ago. Her answer focused on content, community, and planning.  Content - have a lot of quality content, and variety is good too. People will want to see something new and interesting nearly every time they visit your blog.  Not every post has to be long and complicated, you can link to other people's posts, write a few paragraphs about an author you like, participate in a weekly meme, ask a random question, post a random photo, anything. Community - spend a few hours a week being active in the blogging community by posting on other people's blogs or being on twitter. People can't visit you if they can't find you. If you comment on someone else's interesting blog post, they will visit you back. Sounds cheesy, but it's true. and Planning.  plan ahead what your blog will focus on. If you have time, write a bunch of posts and schedule them to post at different times. A few well spent hours on a rainy Saturday means you've got 3 posts ready and scheduled to hit during the week, so it's less weekday stress on you.
52 Reviews: What is the best book you've read this year? And why should all of us go buy it?

Little Red Reviewer: I can't pick just one!   First prize goes to Faith, by John Love.  It's a very dark space opera, with the most unique twist at the end. The bones of the premise is that we've realized that dangerous people make great protectors because they are vicious and unpredictable to our enemies. A ship crewed by such rays of sunshine are tasked with facing a mysterious enemy. Known as "Faith", the alien ship destroys everything in her path, and she's headed right for our home solar system. For taking place in outer space, this book feels more like a claustrophobic submarine thriller. You like darker scifi? go read this.

Second prize goes to Of Blood and Honey, by Stina Leicht. Taking place in 1970s Ireland, Leicht uses her knowledge of the The Troubles of that place and time to terrorize her main character, Liam, a young man who finally meets his father, who is a fey creature.  Leicht completely spoiled me on urban fantasy. I read her stuff, and suddenly so much of the other urban fantasy out there looks kinda meh.
52 Reviews: Lets look into the future, what are your goals for your blog in 2013?
Little Red Reviewer: In January of 2012 I did a month focused on Vintage science fiction, and it was a blast, so I'm looking forward to doing that again.  I've recently gotten involved in yet another internet project, The Bookstore Bookblogger Connection, so I'm hoping that takes off and becomes something groundbreaking and amazing.  forget work/life balance, I think I'm on the road to needing a blog/life balance!

Thanks for answering my questions Andrea and for making the time to advise and assist a rookie like me. I promise I'll pay it forward. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Win a Free Copy of Terry Brooks' Wards of Faerie

Due to my own ineptitude in keeping up with my commitment to the Science Fiction Book Club, I find myself in possession of a copy of Terry Brooks' Wards of Faerie. I freely admit, while very aware of Mr. Brooks' contributions to the genre, I am not a big fan of his work. Since it is very doubtful that I will read Wards of Faerie, I'd like to give it a new home. So I am going to have my very first giveaway. The rules are as follows:

For every reader who follows me here or on Twitter, I will add your name to the drawing. If you follow in both places, you get two entries. In addition please email me at the52reviewblog at gmail with your physical mailing address to ensure my ability to deliver the prize in the event that you win. After two weeks, I will choose a winner, by use of a random number generator. I'll announce the winner here and mail out the book the same day.

Good luck.  

Friday, September 21, 2012

Engraved on the Eye by Saladin Ahmed

One of the most unique new voices in the genre belongs to Saladin Ahmed. His debut novel Throne of the Crescent Moon was the very first debut novel I reviewed. So when I heard that Ridan Publishing was releasing a collection of Ahmed's short fiction, I was understandably excited. With a low price and an immediate release date, I snatched it up and blocked out some quality time with the e-reader.

Fans of Throne of the Crescent Moon will be pleased to know that Ahmed chooses to open this collection with another story of Dr. Adoulla Mahkslood and Raseed bas Raseed. Where Virtue Lives tells the tale of the venerable ghul hunter's first meeting and subsequent adventure with the young dervish. Ahmed does an excellent job of showcasing the vastly different world views of these two signature characters while demonstrating the wisdom of their partnership. Fans of the series will be right at home, but Ahmed also provides just enough background detail to reveal the rich setting that is Dhamsawaat. As always, Ahmed has a moral in mind. Raseed's revelation that the virtue he prizes so highly might come from unexpected sources is the heart of this glimpse into the early days of our heroes.

The collection continues with two more stories set in the world of The Throne of the Crescent Moon. The first, Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela tells the story of a court physiker who is temporarily exiled from the Caliph's court to the backwaters of the kingdom because of his own impertinence. While in Beit Zujaaj, he hears of a hermit of questionable parentage who lives on the outskirts of the village and is the subject of all manner of small town suspicion and gossip. When he is called upon to help the hermit's ailing wife he is faced with something out of nightmare that promises him his heart's desire and a return to court besides. This entry reads like a fairy tale, and is rich with Ahmed's signature style. He definitely adds a new layer to the flavor of his most famous setting. 

The final tale in a familiar setting is the excellent Judgement of Swords and Souls. Set in the Lodge of God, home of the blue garbed Dervishes, this story tells the tale of Layla bas Layla. She has come into conflict with many of the Shaykhs due to her choice to wear a red scarf handed down by her deceased mother against the traditions of her adopted family. Layla is caught in a power struggle between the current head of the order and those who would weaken his position, but chooses to stick by her oath to wear the scarf despite the objections of those who would persecute her for breaking an unwritten and obscure dictum. The clash that follows changes both the direction of the Lodge and the path of Layla's life and I, for one, hope that this character makes an appearance in the sequel to Throne of the Crescent Moon. Ahmed's choice to reveal more detail about the organization that shaped Raseed bas Raseed was inspired, giving us an insight into a beloved character while adding yet another layer of depth to the setting and hopefully another character as well. 

The rest of the collection are unconnected to the world that has brought Ahmed such critical acclaim, but were all published previously. Some were even contenders for both the Nebula and Campbell awards. These accolades are well earned. These stories, perhaps more than Throne of the Crescent Moon, reveal more about the author and his thoughts on his place as an Arab-American dealing with a society that preaches acceptance on one hand and yet is so full of judgement and prejudice on the other. In Doctor Diablo Goes Through The Motions, Ahmed tells the story of a super-powered criminal who's observations on his fellows and adversaries is full of equal parts razor-sharp sarcasm and astute commentary on racial stereotypes and the criminal justice system. While I doubt this character could support a longer story, I found myself loving his wit and weariness and was saddened by the necessary brevity of his tale. 

Given recent events on the global stage, I found General Akmed's Revenge? to be the most thought provoking tale in the collection. This story explores the dichotomy of an immigrant's love/hate relationship with his adopted home, shining a spotlight on the prejudices and stereotyping that is all too present in American society. As a Southerner, I'm all too familiar with the themes of this story. While I certainly don't share the reprehensible traits presented, the stark focus of this story made me more than a little uncomfortable. And that is the true strength of this story, which deftly balances commentary with unexpected humor. More than anything else contained in this volume, General Akmed's Revenge? begs to be read. 

My favorite story of the collection was the surprising mash-up of Arab flavor and the Old West, Mister Hadj's Sunset RideReminiscent of the Charles Bronson flick, Red Sun, Ahmed tells the story of a bounty hunter from 'Araby' and his young partner who is on the trail of a trio of deadly outlaws who hide their villainy behind a thin facade of Jesus-loving clap-trap. It wouldn't surprise me at all if this story didn't inspire the adventures of Raseed and Abdoulla. And like its more famous cousin, this story is full of magic, menace, and monsters. I was left wanting much more of this setting. 

The final two stories in the collection, The Faithful Soldier, Prompted and Iron Eyes and the Watered Down World, center around devotion and importance of family. The Faithful Soldier, Prompted is the story of man who believes he is being led to a cure for his ailing lover by a long obsolete piece of in-bedded technology from his youth in the military. Besides being an interesting take on the 'ghost in the machine' concept, this story is at its heart a tale of the lengths one man will go to to protect the love of his life. Ahmed explores prejudice again here but takes a different tack, zeroing in on the bigotry that exists within racial bounds. This didn't impact me as much as the previous story, but is nonetheless right on the money. 

Ahmed ends with a ghost story wrapped in an intriguing fantasy setting in Iron Eyes and the Watered Down World. This story follows a trio of adventurers as they try to recover a stolen memento from the world weary widower who is the wounded heart of their band. While the intensity of the protagonist's need to recover his cherished possession is all too understandable, the motivation for the theft seems arbitrary until the very end, where Ahmed wraps it all up nicely with a life changing revelation. After the hard-edged, thought provoking subject matter of the proceeding stories, it was a welcome relief.  

All in all, I have rarely read a collection of shorts that was as well polished and satisfying as Engraved on the Eye. Both fans of Throne of the Crescent Moon and those unfamiliar with Saladin Ahmed would be doing themselves a disservice in passing up on this engaging and thought-provoking collection from one of the rising stars of the genre. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Review of the Week: The Blinding Knife by Brent Weeks

Obviously, I read a lot. I'm at fifty two books so far this year. And this year hasn't been a year with a string of mediocre fiction. 2012 has been the year of Ready Player One, Control Point, The Night Circus, Wool and World War Z. I'll just come out and say it, The Blinding Knife is the best book I've read this year.

I've not been bashful about my love for Brent Weeks' books. My original intention was to write a You Should Be Reading post about him before reviewing The Blinding Knife. But this book was too good to wait even a week to review. Justin over at the excellent Staffer's Musings has this to say:

"I've read all five of Brent Weeks' published novels and it's a certainty that he's evolving with every book. With The Blinding Knife, I believe he's entered a new stratosphere and one that puts him on par with anyone who's written these kinds of stories. It isn't only the best book he's written; I consider it one of the best epic fantasies I've read."  

I couldn't agree more. Like Justin, I've read all of Weeks' fiction, and it's all been excellent. The Night Angel trilogy was excellent and is often a feeder series I recommend to friends unfamiliar with the genre. The Black Prism, which starts the Lightbringer series that The Blinding Knife continues, has one of the best plot twists that I can recall in any book I've read. I often compare that reveal to the end of The Sixth Sense when describing the book to friends. So yeah, I'm a fan. But I felt like Weeks' was either holding back or getting ready for something even better, and boy was I right. The Blinding Knife is a masterwork of a novel (I know at least eighty percent of you get the reference) full of exquisitely drawn and believable characters, a surprisingly intricate magical system, break-neck pacing and more "no he didn't" moments than Rush Limbaugh's entire career.

Since The Blinding Knife is the second installment in a series, I'll start with some background information. The Lightbringer series is set in the Seven Satrapies loosely reminiscent of the Mediterranean. The Satrapies are ruled by two part government consisting of the more secular Prism and the White, a religious leader not unlike the Pope. The Black Prism spends a lot of time explaining the intricacies and history of the setting as well as explaining the magical system of drafting different colors of light into varying types of matter. Drafting impacts society on almost every level. Architecture, religion, and education are all effected and Weeks lays the groundwork well, even if it is understandably a bit long winded at points. With all of the groundwork established, The Blinding Knife jumps right in assuming the readers are more than familiar with the premise and all of its considerable detail. Even though I didn't remember every nuance of the magic system or setting, Weeks layers reminders though out the plot in a fashion that never felt forced and in no time at all, the mechanical bits faded into the background allowing me to fully engage in the gripping tale of Weeks' cast of characters.

Weeks' created a truly extraordinary magical system. With drafters able to create virtually anything through drafting the portion of the spectrum that they can control, Weeks' would seem to be in danger of falling into Green Lantern territory. But he sidesteps any but the most superficial comparison because of the depth of detail built into the magic system. The material created through drafting, called luxin, has physical properties that change depending on its color. Adding even more depth is the psychological implications of drafting, each color exerts a different influence on the drafter. Some make the user more impulsive and others more emotionally detached. Weeks uses all of these details to good effect through the course of the novel, giving drafters unwanted side effects to using their magic. I love this system of magic, finding it on par with the creations of other industry heavyweights such as Brandon Sanderson and the late Robert Jordan.

As deft as Weeks' magic system and setting are, what sets The Blinding Knife apart from the many excellent novels I've read this year is Weeks' gift for characterization. Weeks continues with the adventures of the cast from The Black Prism; Gavin, Kip, Karris, and Liv adding a handful of other characters along the way. His handling of Kip and Liv impressed me the most, as both adolescents struggle to find where their true identity separates from the people their station and circumstances dictate that they should be. Their voyages couldn't be more dissimilar by the end of the novel, but the common thread of facing the consequences of their own mistakes binds them together to form the heart of the book for me. Weeks embodies them both with the foolishness and vulnerability of youth in a way that makes the reader cringe when they choose poorly against all sense, and cheer when they triumph not only against those who would attempt to control them. The other characters, including the secondary ones are equally conflicted while faced with their own moral and ethical dilemmas. This is a novel about choices, and Weeks' characters don't hesitate to make mistakes and the price is often dearer coin that they ever expected.

Weeks does wonders with the antagonists in The Blinding Knife, particularly with Gavin's father Andross Guile, member of the Spectrum who rules the Seven Satrapies under the guidance of the White and the Prism. Every scene that Andross appears in positively drips with menace even though their is little to no threat of actual violence. Andross is a puller of strings, a master of working from the shadows and much like our characters I started to see his skeletal hand everywhere. I found myself looking forward to his meetings with the other members of the Guile family more than any scene with the more obvious threat of the Color Prince who was moving to invade the Seven Satrapies at the head of a nearly unstoppable army of drafters. If you love to hate Lord Littlefinger in George R. R.Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, you should do yourself a favor and get to know Andross Guile right away.

Another standout aspect of The Blinding Knife is the pacing. This book reads more like a James Patterson thriller (one of the good ones, anyway) than Frodo's adventures in Middle Earth. There are over a hundred chapters in six hundred and twenty-five pages. Readers will have a hard time putting this book down to sleep, work, or spend time with their families. The plot is intricate with plenty of twists and turns and Weeks surprised me over and over again to the point that I was almost weary with the shock. Amazingly enough, even with the exhausting pace and metric ton of twists I never saw coming, I could have easily have read for another hundred chapters. To tell it true, I would have read this book until my eyes bled and called it a joy.

I think that in a few years readers will look back at The Blinding Knife as the point where Brent Weeks went from being an up-and-comer to an author whose name belongs next to stalwarts of the genre like Martin, Jordan, and Brooks. Run, don't walk and get this book. You won't regret it.