So, I decided to make a start on my virtual pile of free ebooks as-and-when I could rather than all at once. I must admit, it was hard to know which one to pick up without anything to base it on beyond the cover, title, and the knowledge that I’d “bought” them at some point because something caught my interest. And I know it’s different picking something up like this rather than reading with anticipation and excitement already stoked by recommendation or reputation, but I suppose that’s what a slush pile is like, and what all of us who operate on the margins have to contend with.
So, in no roughly the order I tried them, here are the first tranche of ebooks and how I found them:
Twisted Fate – Jeremy Laszlo – 16% (must be quite short)
Why I picked it up: It’s about orcs, which is unusual, and it had a few good reviews.
Verdict: Unfortunately, I found the wordy prose lacked a necessary spark. The almost-exclusive use of “was” meant too much telling, too little showing, and this may have been the reason for lack of a compelling hook, despite action. In the end, some sloppy astronomy and anachronism turned me off, and the subsequent episode with the bear-ball lost me…
On the plus side: It’s a bit like Conan with an Orc, which could work for someone.
Why I picked it up: Premise seemed more original than most.
Verdict: The writing is competent but, as with the below, often wordy and expository, lets down the interesting worldbuilding (largely explained in the Glossary at the beginning – not always a good sign). Unfortunately, two dudes leering at all the women is a trope I’m not into anymore (even if women also ogle men), and along with the fact that people can die both by having and not having sex, I thought perhaps it was going in a direction I was no longer interested in.
On the plus side: Those who like dangerous sex/magic and fantastic cities might find this up their street.
Why I picked it up: The blurb.
Verdict: A promising start: the clear voice from the blurb, a style I happen to like, and action that moved along well for a while. I could bear with the offhand acceptance of slavery, but I became somewhat frustrated by the historical vagueness (coal, armour, books, ~18th C manners, Roman flavours, and one anachronism – back burner). The protagonist is charming but hard to like, perhaps because he is incredibly selfish and privileged. This would be okay if there was any signal the book was going to deliver his comeuppance and force him to be a better person. However, when the former layabout simply discards his former self and starts cheerfully raising an army I began to fear the Gary Stu. Also, the exposition started to drag, crossing the line from wordy asides in keeping with the style to extraneous detail. Shame.
On the plus side: The writing is engaging, and I may yet press on to find if there are bumps in the road – it just took a different direction than I was hoping from the start.
Why I picked it up: Despite suspicions it could be a bit YA for me, I’ve enjoyed the outsider-at-court intrigue before.
Verdict: Waif becomes assassin but it’s no Farseer (and I found the start of that slow). Even for a first-person account, there was still too much “telling”, and even for a YA some elements are too simplistic.
On the plus side: One of the few books on the list not about dudes.
Why I picked it up: I recognised the cover from another book and found the promise of Norse-influenced adventure appealing.
Verdict: Whores, check. Bard, check. Bastard, check. Foaming mead…um, what? Made it three pages through this trope-fest and knew it was not for me.
On the plus side: If you miss Skyrim, this may be for you.
Why I picked it up: There are lots of memorable books about fairies and fae…
Verdict: …but this is not one of them. Of all these books, this had the poorest prose, with descriptions I would expect to find in romance writing and constant point-of-view shifts within paragraphs, which bothers me. Overall seemed very confused and generic, not sure what it wanted to be or how to pull it off.
On the plus side: Definitely not a cute fairy-tale, plenty of blood and betrayal to start. And, somewhat ironically, this is about the only one that has established a plot up front!
Enchantment’s Reach – Martin Ash – Finished!
Why I picked it up: Probably the blurb, which doesn’t really prepare you for what it actually is (though the title and cover made me slightly suspicious).
Verdict: A stylistic throw-back to the very early days of fantasy and adventure, recalling E R Eddison or Dunsany in the way Vance’s Lyonesse and others have tried. Though not quite reaching those heights of authenticity (and with a bit more ogling), it’s a pretty good effort, and even with the antiquated approach manages to get in just enough tension and mystery to be considered a hook. I will probably keep reading this one for a while longer…
Update: Almost bounced off the first (somewhat graphic) sex scene. Feminists, turn away…
On the plus side: Once you get into the style, very readable, and will find a (small) market.
Why I picked it up: Strong, original theology looked intriguing.
Verdict: Quite a generic, familiar beginning – children of mysterious outcast grow up in tranquil farming village – which took a while to distinguish itself. Slightly disappointing that while the boy is looking forward to choosing a profession, the girl is looking forward to choosing…a husband. Still searching for the hook…
Update: Read the first quarter in the end, which built up pretty well to a climax I just couldn’t get on with at all, so that’s where I’ll stop I’m afraid. To say more would be spoiling, but it wasn’t what happened, but how and why…
On the plus side: Strong, natural voice; mixed-race protagonists; and an arresting prologue – I could certainly see this appealing to plenty of folks.
What I’ve learned so far…
As you might expect, most of the books so far have lacked that captivating spark of either originality or voice. They all present something intriguing (which is why I downloaded them), but struggle to deliver on it (up front, anyway). Quite a few fall into familiar tropes – bro-buddy books featuring whoring or wenching; obsession with shapely busts or buttocks; orphans destined for great things; generic, imprecise worldbuilding. Tropes have their place, but at this point I’m looking for something a bit different, and too many familiar signposts early on turn me off.
On the plus side, the quality of writing was quite competent with only a few proofing errors. However, many slipped into the trap of heavy exposition which bogged down the pacing. I might well have kept reading some of them if I had heard good things from recommendations or reviews, but without that added boost they just did not do enough to hook me (and again, I’ll emphasize the “me” in that). It’s telling that, even 20% through some of them, in most cases I have no idea what the central conflict of the plot is!
Also, people writing fantasy seem to think a certain ornamented, wordy style is required. If you look at the published fantasy these days, that is not the case – and may give a clue why these books are not traditionally published. Ironically, the ones I liked best were the ones that wholly embraced this Edwardian style, and just about pulled it off. However, if it’s only a few awkward archaic phrases here and there, or a fancy word for something mundane, then it’s not going to work, I reckon.
The remaining list:
Glimmer Vale – Michael Kingswood
When Women Were Warriors Book I: The Warrior’s Path – Catherine M Wilson
The Seventh Horse: Shader Origins – D. P. Prior
Fire & Ice – Patty Jansen (trad published also?)
Chronicles of Den’dra: A Land Torn – Spencer Johnson
The Weight of the Crown – Tavish Kaeden (also in the SPFBO)
Stormsinger – Stephanie A Cain – not medieval but not punk, so ok.
Magic of Thieves – C Greenwood
The Key – Jennifer Anne Davis – too YA
Skip – Perrin Briar – Clockpunk? We’ll see…
The Kinshield Legacy – K C May
The Last Priestess – Elizabeth Baxter
The Dreamer and the Deceiver – Alex Villavasso
A Dance of Dragons – Kaitlyn Davis
Red Axe, Black Sun – Michael Karner
The Unwilling Adventurer – Heidi Willard
New World: A Frontier Fantasy Novel – Steven W White
The Book of Deacon – Joseph Lallo – big seller, this one
Firehurler – J S Morin
City of Rogues – Ty Johnston
Sorcerer’s Code – Christopher Kellen
The White Tree – Edward W Robertson – another bigger indie name
Dawn of War – Tim Marquitz – and another, associated with Ragnarok Pub.