Hidden Gems: Take me home, Caravan Road

So, I decided to do a series on books/series I consider under-appreciated, namely because they are among my favourites, yet I hear very little about them when out and about in the fantasy community. My first was on Mark T Barnes epic trilogy, Echoes of Empire. This one is about another series of books that have come from the margins to become some of my all-time favourites…

Books

There is a storyteller’s cycle of tales, and they begin like this:

I first noticed K V Johansen’s Blackdog because of its phenomenal Raymond Swanland cover. Obviously, covers don’t always lead one true – good books often hide behind bad covers, and vice versa – but once an evocative cover has caught my eye, I do find it very hard to ignore. This one promised exactly what the blurb backed up – a mysterious warrior, part demonic animal, surrounded by a raging conflict. The fact that one of my other favourite authors – Glen Cook – shared the same cover artist lent the book additional associative attraction. On top of all that it seemed to be standalone, and I do like a good standalone.

Clearly, here was a book meant for me.11282970

I may have sensed it right away, but it still took me a while to actually get my hands on it. Not being a big seller, it wasn’t widely available, and I contented myself with the promising sample section online. I have to admit, I was also slightly put off by a few not-so-glowing reviews (this was back when I had less of a social community and relied more on reviews from random strangers on Amazon or Goodreads). But it kept calling to me, and when I could no longer resist (and had some gift card balance), I finally ordered it. Finally, that gorgeous cover was mine, in all its extra-sized glory.

Obvoiusly, I loved it.

Apart from it being an excellent story set in a marvelously rich world – imaginatively anchored in our own history, but brimming with magic and mythology of its own – it delivered on the two things that originally attracted me – the promise of the cover and the stand-alone nature of the story. It even went so far as to remind me of Cook inside as well as out – that weighty sense of history, momentous events seen from the personal level, glimpses of powerful movers and living legends – everything you could want from fantasy. And moreover, it managed to get through the arc of what could have been an epic trilogy (with a bit of padding, and maybe a bit more time for some of the side-characters), in just one book. To have a book any more perfect for me, I’d have to write it myself

20697569However, celebrating the fact that it was a rare standalone doesn’t mean that I was in any way disappointed when I discovered sequels were being published. There was clearly a bigger story here, continuing from the world’s ancient past, happening in other faraway lands, and full of potential for the future. When it became clear that the next story would focus on Marakand, the enigmatic city in the middle of the Caravan Road that binds all these tales together, I couldn’t wait to read more. I was overjoyed to meet some familiar characters in The Leopard, along with some impressive and intriguing new ones, and to really get to know another full-realised setting (or two, actually). The cataclysmic climax in The Lady is a bit messy, but a few heroes still emerge at the end, and limp away down the caravan road to further adventures.

I knew at this point that some of these survivors would end up in Nabban, and I could hardly wait to read about their continuing adventures. So far, so very, very good…28587697

So, great books, but are these a series or standalone? The author has weighed in herself on the subject, but my short answer is that each could certainly be read as a standalone (counting the two-volume Marakand as one), but you get a fuller picture if you read them all, and in order. However, if you want to jump in on Gods of Nabban for whatever reason, go right ahead.

These are fantastic books which blend the myth, magic, and lore of classic fantasy with the complex characters, wider inspiration, and enriching diversity that makes modern fantasy great. You really should pick them up.

And whatever you do, just be aware:

Long ago, in the days of the first kings of the north – who were Viga Forkbeard, and Red Geir, and Hravnmod the Wise, as all but fools should know – there were seven wizards…and there were seven devils. If other singers tell you different, they know only the shadows of tales, and they lie.

Hidden Gems: Echoes of Empire

So, I’m not going to do a recap of 2016, because it wasn’t nearly as exciting as I hoped, for various reasons. And I’m not going to set out a series of goals for 2017 either, apart from resurrecting the blog a bit, of which this is step one. Neither can I really recap 2016 in books, because my reading is never particularly up to date, nor is there much I’m looking forward to reading in 2017 that’s actually from 2017 (I’m just way behind!).

Instead, I want to talk about a few series that I think are criminally under-appreciated in the fantasy fandom community, as far as I can tell at least. They may not come as a surprise to readers of this blog or those that follow me elsewhere, but after reading yet another hugely popular and widely praised book and getting very little from it, I am even more mystified how these are overlooked.

I know I have odd taste, rarely coinciding with the mainstream for whatever reason, which I’ve mentioned before on here. In some respects, my not liking something is a better indication of its success than the other way round. Still, I can’t believe these books wouldn’t be loved by more people, if only they knew about them.

And, because I ended up writing so much about the first series, it looks like this will be a series of blogs, not just one. Lucky you!

(I don’t think they will be about my favourite self-published books – if you want those, go here.)

Books

This is just my standard pretty-cover border, though I will no doubt cover some of these…

First, Mark T. Barnes’ epic “Echoes of Empire” trilogy, from a few years ago. Now, it didn’t go completely unnoticed at the time  – the first book was a Gemmell Morningstar Award finalist – but it’s sank swiftly out of sight and the author hasn’t found a publisher for any follow-up work. Obviously, I think this is a shame, because this series restored my faith in modern fantasy and reminded me what the genre is capable of at its best.

To start with, the author throws just about everything into this book – complex societies drawing inspiration outside medieval Europe, new races (including Lion-men and near-immortals; almost no-one in the books is actually human), a few types of magic, physics, philosophy, politics, a touch of lurking Lovecraftian horror, some steampunk elements (flying boats, ghost-souled-automata, the odd gun), a lot of made-up words, romance, betrayal, revenge – you get the gist. It’s as if he packed a lifetime of ideas into his first trilogy, which makes a lot of sense, but is not always the case.

17046606Clearly, this staggering creativity could have got out of hand, especially for a debuting writer, and I don’t suppose it would work for everyone. Frankly, I’m not sure it would have worked for me had I known everything going in, but as it was I picked the book up on a Kindle deal largely on the strength of the cover and a sense that it was something different. And I certainly think it works – especially as, from what I can remember, the author doesn’t info-dump all this massive complexity on you at once. In fact, a bit like another series, the name of which I dare not speak aloud, it takes you a while to understand the various layers of what’s going on, and some things are left tantalisingly unexplored.

What gets the reader through, I think, is the disciplined structure of character POV, and the three chosen characters for it. I’m not usually one for sprawling epics with a cast of thousands – especially if more than a handful of them have POV parts. Here, the author rotates neatly between three: the main character, the main villain, and the warrior caught between the two – lover of the first, daughter to the second. It’s a fairly classic triangle, in a way, but it works really well here, with each having their own journey, and their own momentous choices to make.

For me, the villain, Corajidin, steals the show a bit, like a more Machiavellian MacBeth, tragic in many ways but with nobody to blame but himself in the end. Indris, our hero, has been (not unfairly) criticised as being a bit too powerful, but, like Achilles, it is his personal struggle and the demons within which are his most debilitating adversaries. Mari’s story is the most personal, and while she is the least powerful of the three, she has a more human strength (though she’s not – remember, almost no-one is) and her choices are often the most difficult, the bravest (in part, due to her comparative weakness), and the most admirable.

And the focus on these three characters doesn’t mean there aren’t many, many other memorable ones. Indris has a loyal band of diverse sidekicks, including a rare human, and the aforementioned ghost-automaton; Corajidin has his own retinue of dastardly advisers, assassins, witches, concubines, and, eventually, some eldritch allies even he is unsure of; and there are plenty of powerful people outside both “sides” as well, working to their own ends. 17779549

For me, the most impressive thing (besides the kitchen-sink worldbuilding), was the way politics and war was portrayed within a stable and complex system. There is no all-out conquest here, nor really a full-blown civil war – almost everything is and has to be done within the boundaries of the society’s stratified social and political structures. Corajidin isn’t trying to usurp the rightful king or conquer a noble neighbouring nation, he’s just trying to get elected.

Granted, he’s allowed to do a bit more than most current politicians to get there, and there’s plenty of bloodshed, but there’s a certain weighty (and uncomfortable) realism in the realpolitik of it. Even when his depredations and questionable alliances become more obvious, he still finds support, and the actions of both sides are still limited by tradition, law, and political considerations. Looking back in light of recent events, the way in which the established system accepts and accedes to the creep of corruption it is all too real…

Of course, it’s still fantasy, and fairly High and Epic fantasy at that, with the stakes raising to saving-the-world level sure enough. It’s gritty without being too grim, possibly because it’s set in this advanced, cultured, long-lived empire rather than the chainmail-and-shit take on medieval times so popular elsewhere. Again, this is one of the things that makes it stand out, for me, demonstrating another way to write compelling fantasy: that you could throw a kitchen-sink of high-fantasy concepts into a unique and novel world yet retain a sense of gritty realism, not just by making everyone backstabbing arseholes (though they exist, to be sure), but by making everything have consequences, and limits.

And by making the characters human. (Even if their aren’t.)

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If you’ve read them, I’d love to hear from you. If you haven’t, what are you waiting for?

Political Problems

No, this isn’t going to be about the Real World, as much as I’d love to rant about it. Then again, it actually is, in a way. What I really want to tackle, hopefully in brief, is why we get so worked up about politics in our fantasy,  and – more often – why we don’t.

I think everyone is aware of the first part – outrage, puppies, SJWs, diversity, awards agendas, sexism and racism, and the rest. For one, I’m glad these battles are being fought, both in wider society and in fantasy literature. I know fantasy is supposed to be escapist, but that doesn’t mean it should be devoid of responsibility. Those trying to maintain fantasy as a safe space (ha, see what I did there?) to escape from so-called political correctness really need to take a long look in the mirror. (Science fiction has always been overtly political, so they have even fewer legs to stand on there.)

I do wonder, however, if we don’t hold up enough of a mirror to the fantasy we write. Fantasy, almost by definition, is a very conservative genre. It almost always involves some sort of gaze into the past (or, at least, environments resembling our past), often without too much criticism. Hereditary monarchy is a Good Thing as long as the right people are in charge. Some people are better than others by accident of birth and/or innate ability. Whole races of creature or peoples are irredeemably evil just because of who/what they are. Religion is bad except where it’s the True Faith in the right gods. War, murder, rape, banditry, feudalism, slavery, and other horrible and violent things are a matter of course.

Is this really the sort of world we want to escape to?

BooksOf course, there are plenty of works that approach many of these issues critically, and some which either tackle them head-on or leave them out entirely. However, there are many more which just accept them, in part or in whole, without comment or criticism. In a lot of cases, even propagating some of the common tropes seems problematic enough. This can be excused somewhat if the intention is to set out some sort of dystopia – post-apocalyptic or grimdark are both very popular, and are clearly no-ones idea of an ideal. And I’m not saying fantasy should just ignore these gritty, real-world issues that accurately reflect human nature, warts and all.

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Yep, conservative.

However, there are a large number of fantasy works that present a lot of these outdated tropes, beliefs, and prejudices as if they are indeed components of some long-lost utopia. The Good King as rightful ruler, worshiping the right gods (not the evil ones), keeping the simple folk and dependent women safe from the Others on the borders with the help of violent, entitled elites (and the occasional murderer-of-the-right-people). I can see why this is an attractive escapist fantasy for some people…it just isn’t one that I like the sound of in the Real World.

So why am I accepting of it in my books?

I suppose you can argue that these tropes are the in the very genes of fantasy, and to shrug them off would render the genre label unrecognisable and somewhat meaningless. After all, what would be the point of a fantasy without long-lost kings, noble warriors, princesses to be rescued, evil adversaries to slay, castles and dungeons and brothels and back-alleys to explore, and all the rest?

Ok, some would argue you could leave all that out and write a damn good fantasy, and there are certainly some tropes I’m tired of and more than a little uneasy about. But I’m not going to argue for some Whitehouse-style cleansing of our genre tropes, because I think fantasy would be a sadder place without (most of) them. However, if we are to accept that every choice we make in our books is in some way political, it’s worth examining them critically and making sure they are the sort of statements we are happy to back up.

 

Summer Holiday: Morrowind

So, I didn’t take an actual summer holiday this year, and at the time everybody was taking theirs around me at the real-world job, all I would have really wanted was a few weeks off to sit in my writing chair and finish my latest draft of the everlasting WIP. (This is all I ever want, most of the time.) Still, I managed to just about do that anyway, and in any case it has gone off to the latest round of Beta Readers, so I figured I should take a break.

Breaks are tricky for writers, especially those for whom it’s not a real, let-alone full-time job. You always end up feeling guilty, even though the only person you are beholden to at this stage is yourself. Perversely, I think that if I had editors, agents, or readers giving me set deadlines and work packages, then I would be able to take time off with less guilt. In that case, I would, at least, know what was expected and when it was due, rather than the current system of trying to do everything all the time just to get it done as soon as possible.

Of course, every writing knows that without external input, done is an illusion. That’s why sending something to beta readers provides some blessed respite (though also, much anxiety). No point making more changes while you are waiting for feedback on the previous version. And I do find that every 6-8 months I need to step back from the coal face and do something entirely different for a while – in most cases, that seems to be gaming.

Gaming and writing certainly have an interesting relationship. I know a lot of writers who are also gamers, and I think imaginative types are attracted to games. They provide a similar escape to books, in that you can go live somewhere else for a while. In the case of games, this other place is very much shaped around you, rather than some other author’s character(s). You (well, your digital surrogate) get to be the centre of the story, and you shape how you approach the game.

Of course, games can be a huge time-sink, which a writer can ill afford. They do, I think, keep your creative, storytelling brain ticking over a bit, though the tasks are much more reactive than in writing. This is why they can be such a good mental break, for those times when your brain really won’t spit words on the page (or at least, not decent ones). And, for a fantasy or science-fiction author, the plethora of titles in these genres can help explore the ideas and worlds that you want to write about.

Role-playing games obviously have the most scope for writers, especially the more open-ended variety you get these days. Yes, sometimes you are playing as a defined hero, with a storyline on rails you can’t deviate from, so that customisation amounts to a few weapon or party choices. Other games are so open-ended you can get lost in them, especially if you have a few compulsive personality traits (gotta catch ’em all!) and access to exhaustive internet guides.

Which brings us to Elder Scrolls, my personal favourite series. Everybody knows Skyrim is awesome, a lot of people enjoyed Oblivion (despite it’s one fatal flaw), but for me, Morrowind was the first place I got really lost in. It was exactly what I’d always wanted in a game, even if I didn’t realise this at first. I thought wanted a game where I could play as a dwarf, for starters, preferably in Middle Earth. It soon won me over, however, with its truly alien setting, its almost endless customisation, its huge open world.

When I did get games where I could play as a dwarf, I found them very much wanting in comparison. Some of that was down to the gameplay – the Elder Scrolls system of not having XP like D&D, but gaining ability in skills you specifically use, is magic (if occasionally frustrating). Some of it was down to the open world, and perhaps more specifically the way they entice you to undertake the storylines rather than force you. And, in the end, a lot of it was down to the world, which is nothing like the Middle Earth I thought I wanted.

And what a world! Despite a somewhat similarly eclectic approach, it puts the Forgotten Realms (where I’d spent a lot of game time) to shame. I even prefer it to the Middle Earth interpretations I’ve visited, and this made me realise that interpretation is the problem. Forgotten Realms appropriates a lot of its hodge-podge, and I’ve never found it really compelling. Tolkien didn’t write enough to make an open-world game out of (or, apparently, a feature film), so people adapting him have to make changes that, most of the time, don’t work for me either. Even the later Elder Scrolls games had too much of the familiar in them, straying dangerously close to the generic fantasy world of everyone’s nightmares (well, mine anyway).

Which is why, after all these years, I’ve chosen to take a few weeks’ holiday in Morrowind again.

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Finally got a screenshot (complete with mudcrab and scamp!)

The Wheel Turns: Beta Readers, Again

So, I finally finished the latest round of tinkering with my long-standing work-in-progress, The Winter Warrior. This is the book that I intended to publish several years ago, have done a ‘final edit’ on more times than I can count, have written two other books in the meantime, and keep having new ideas about on an almost daily basis. Hence calling it ‘tinkering’ rather than ‘editing’ at this point, as if I know I’ll never finish it. However, there is cause for optimism.

First, I have sent it out to some lovely beta readers. I have done this before, several times, and it’s been productive but also frustrating. Some of the frustration is that you just want them to tell you that it’s the best book ever and it should be published immediately, as-is, which they are never going to do. The more reasonable frustration is the fact that every reader is going to read your book differently, and therefore you never know how useful their reaction is going to be.

I got some comments last time that we really helpful and made me think pretty hard about some aspects of the story. In the end, I didn’t go with all the suggestions or address all of the comments, but I did make some pretty big changes. I also put it down for a while, then came back and did a re-appraisal that ended up scrapping the whole beginning of the book in favour of (another) new opening. Most of this was my own reaction, but I did have some of that beta reader critique in the back of my mind.

Now that I’ve sent it out to new readers, unaware of the previous opening, I’ll be especially interested to hear if it works. If it doesn’t, I’m not sure where I’ll go!

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The other cause for optimism is that I’ve set myself a deadline, coincidental with an external event (which means I can’t arbitrarily change it) – but I’m not telling when (which means I still can). What I do with the book at that deadline depends, again, on the beta readers. I’m still torn between the various routes to publication, and I may even have to consider the nuclear option of just setting it down – maybe for good – and finally getting to work on these other stories that need editing.

Seriously, one thing they don’t tell you about writing is that writing is the easy part, and the quickest part. At least, that’s what it’s been for me. After all this editing, I long for the opportunity to just write a book again. With three whole books written but still not finished, I don’t know when that will be. I have to start getting things out the door just for closure, or pretty soon I’m going to have ten unpublished novels lying around and nothing to show for it.

For now, it’s just me and the beta readers.

Musings, Part 3: Diminishing Returns

Okay, so there’s big gap between my last post and this. Lots has been happening in the real world (i.e. politics) that made all this seem insignificant, and so I retreated into my writing life. This was good for my productivity, both writing and reading, though I did spend too much time on Reddit when the urge to discuss all the things took hold.

Now I have a few ideas again, and some news to build up to (perhaps), I’ll try to resurrect this once more. There’s been a bit of random traffic ’round here recently, so it’s a shame they had nothing new to read (or maybe not?). Anyway, as I always like to challenge conventional wisdom, largely because I seem to have unconventional predilections, this next subject seemed a good idea at the time…

In this last whimsical screed, I ponder the diminishing returns of series writing. Possibly with diminishing returns of my own…

Apparently, and unsurprisingly, many more people read a book one than a book two, and the sales keep declining with each volume (though probably not as dramatically). Sure, if you can hook readers into a long series, you’ve got guaranteed fans and sales for as long as you can make it last, but you also close yourself off to new readers. By writing short series or standalones, surely you have multiple entry points for that big first-book spike, while still having the chance of recruiting fans of your writing who want to pick up another book.

The difference is, instead of one book doing all of the recruitment work, you have several, widening your net. Of course, the compulsion to read another of your books may not be as great, and many fantasy fans prefer and expect traditional series, so you may miss out on those. Still, Book One in a series is usually the first one written, and maybe not your best. Why waste your improving skill on book four, five or six when only those already sold on your writing will read them?

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Entry- and exit-point?

Assuming your first book, whether series or not, sells X copies because you make it shiny and attractive. X people read it and half like it (enough to keep reading, anyway), half don’t (maybe more?). When Book Two comes out, you then have X/2 sales, maximum. But, with a new standalone, you have X/2 fans of your writing, PLUS however many new people you can attract to a new story about different things that may interest them more. This seems better to me, in a back-of-the-envelope way.

What I may be not accounting for is the boost for Book One when each subsequent book comes out, as people are reminded that you are for real (because, hey, you have a series out there!), and convinced to start your saga. And the drop off between Book Two and Book Three is probably much smaller, if you don’t screw it up. Endings can divide audiences, but at that point, at least they’ve bought the book.

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The lesser-spotted standalone.

Still, it seems a compelling argument to me, though I’m obviously a voice in the wilderness here. Long series with a single entry point might close off their potential audience, but they do reward their loyal fans. Fantasy fans are used to this, too, so you may be disappointing the series-addicts by not following the traditional model. The prevailing self-publishing models are often heavily series-centric, dangling the free first book out there hoping to hook readers for the long haul. I do wonder what the conversion rate really is, and what you do if you are an indie who doesn’t write series?

Obviously, a lot of it depends on the author and what they like to write. Some authors out there spend whole careers on a single world, usually writing several series that tie together into one long chronology, leading to endless fan debates about where to start. Others finish one series and jump into something completely different – often another sub-genre or genre. A precious few never write two books about the same characters and locations.

Me, I love standalones and rarely finish series, though I’m also partial to worlds explored from different perspectives in sequels, as long as each one stands on its own. So, unsurprisingly, that’s what I’m currently working on

Musings, Part 2: Spike the Canon!

In this second musing, I’ll ramble somewhat coherently about reading old books and cannon. (This is somewhat related to Part One, which was a discussion of influences.)

Award season made me realise two things. First, I’m never up-to-date enough with my reading to have much opinion on the long- or short-lists. I’ve got books from the previous hundred years to get to before I can think of this year or even last! I don’t want to give those books up just to stay on the pulse, and anyway there are too many new books out every year to even dream of keeping up with. Moreover, I like books that stand the test of time, books that not only give you a window on a different fantasy world, but on the different real world in which they were written. (See, already letting my personal taste cloud things!)

The other thing awards bring up is the concept of “best” and the implicit development of a recommended “canon”, as if either can be objective. Sure, there’s a minimum standard of quality most of us would agree on – grammar, structure, spelling, consistency – but even then some readers won’t care, and any attempt to agree criteria above that minimum will not even approach consensus. Just look at the puppies nonsense, or read recommendation threads on internet forums. No matter how many opinions are on one side or the other, your own is the only one that really matters in the end.

BooksOn the other hand, I feel quite strongly about the books I’ve really liked (as most of us do), and will fight for their reputation. I also often read “major” works of the genre more out of obligation and curiosity than personal taste. And yes, some of this has been out of a desire to complete a sort of “canon” of central, important works so that I could feel like a true fantasy fan (whatever that means), or, at least, a knowledgeable one (again, a personal motivation). The more I’ve read, however, the more I’ve accepted that there is no single canon of fantasy literature, and nor should there be.

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Very popular, but essential?

I think it’s good for fans to read some popular or influential works that may not immediately appeal to them. This allows them to feel included in discussion, share touchstones across differing perspectives, and be exposed to things they might not otherwise read. And of course I still especially recommend those older books that laid the groundwork for modern fantasy, and which are often neglected. I also think it’s important for writers to read widely, as I’ve discussed time and again. But I’m not going to call any particular book “essential” anymore, not even Lord of the Rings.

I also try to refrain from un-recommending books these days. In the past, I may have got a bee in my bonnet about a particular “terrible” book and wanted the world to know it should never have been published. Now I’ve seen examples of how every book can make an impact on the right reader, and also appreciate just how difficult it is to write a whole book. I may still give a negative review, but I’ll try to frame it in less objective terms at least. After all, good and bad are relative, reading is personal, and taste is subjective.

At the end of the day, read as much as you can, don’t limit yourself, but don’t feel obligated to read any particular thing. As much as I’ve believe in the benefit of perspective, and love reading the classics myself, all I really want is for people to be aware of relevant books so they can make their mind up. No required reading, just a huge list of recommendations.