So, if you’ve read my previous update, you’ll know I’ve been reading through the free fantasy ebooks I’ve been hoarding on my kindle over the past few years. Most of these I picked up, not just because they were free, but because they also had something that caught my attention. That means I rejected a whole bunch of books with generic, badly-written, and/or derivative blurbs, but still only took a chance on them because they were free.
Free is obviously a popular marketing strategy from indie authors (and, actually, I’ve picked up a few e-copies of older traditionally published books recently as well), hoping to get their work to new readers in hopes of reviews and future sales. While this does work, especially if the freebie is the first in a long series, the sheer volume of free books means that a lot of them are collected and never read, and that they must be affecting sales of non-free books of similar quality.
My conclusion from the first batch was that, while mostly perfectly decent books, only a few of them had the extra elements that hold a reader’s attention (or mine, at least). The first is voice – a confident, unique style that works – and the second is a hook – an early signpost in the plot that piques your interest and hints at what to expect. These are things every editor or agent will be looking for, too, so part of why I’m doing this is to examine what works and what doesn’t (for me) in these books.
So here’s the next group:
Fire & Ice – Patty Jansen – Still reading!
Why I picked it up: I think this is from Twitter, and at the time I believed the author was hybrid, but now I’m not sure.
Verdict: Straight away, this books smacks you with authoritative voice. There is none of the wordy exposition or muddled pacing I found in other books. The world is also quite unique, with intriguing characters and immediate, obvious peril. This just about constitutes an effective hook, though the immediacy of it maybe means the reader won’t yet care about the characters enough – though they will certainly be curious. I may put it down for now for the sake of the project, and also because it is not exactly my sub-genre (on that point, I have no idea why the cover has a medieval sword!), but it definitely has me hooked!
On the downside: Fans of post-apocalyptic sci-fantasy (Wolfe, etc.) should definitely check it out, but the world may be a bit to brutal (especially sexually) for some judging by early hints.
Red Axe, Black Sun – Michael Karner – 51% (a while ago, before I started this blog series)
Why I picked it up: The blurb made it seem interesting, the cover was arresting.
Verdict: The writing is a bit clunky, the plot is very confused and the setting is vague and generic (with some shocking anachronisms!). The presence of stock characters and factions, combined with the way the action unfolds, makes it feel like a transcribed RPG – and not in a good way. I pushed on with it because it did seem to be going somewhere, but more and more issues cropped up, and things just got more confusing, not less.
On the plus side: Plenty of action and the promise of more, with a functional hook.
The Dreamer and the Deceiver – Alex Villavasso – 21% (it’s short)
Why I picked it up: Sounded a bit trope-y, but liked idea of the revenge tale.
Verdict: Really, two prologues? Prologues can either work as a hook, promising the larger conflict that an otherwise slow start works up to, or just serve to confuse. In this case, it was more the latter, and the clunky start to the actual book proved the turn off. Odd choice of adjectives also, which a Goodreads reviewer described as “having a thesaurus but not a dictionary”.
On the plus side: Not sure I read long enough to find any, I’m afraid.
Why I picked it up: Said it was “no fairy tale”.
Verdict: Potentially interesting elements let down by clunky, improbable dialogue and too much telling in between.
On the plus side: Could get better if you can get on with the prose.
Why I picked it up: Teenage boy and princess had me worried, but dragon and assassin gave me a bit of hope.
Verdict: Another farmboy in another rustic village, no doubt with special powers. Even more cliche is the wordy language, improbable dialogue and pace-killing exposition. Even the dragon didn’t save it, never got to the assassin.
On the plus side: There was an attempt at a hook…but it turned out to be a dream..
Why I picked it up: Arresting cover, hints of Robin Hood and a female protagonist.
Verdict: A voice at last! First person is compelling, and the pace is good, but events are somewhat unbelievable – the MC has very thick “plot armour” already and that turned me off. (Also, people are “hanged” not “hung”.)
On the plus side: Not quite Robin Hood, but has potential in that direction, and you can see why it has quite a large following/readership.
Why I picked it up: Rogues-in-cities yarns can go two ways, but I liked the sound of the revenge angle as well as the secrets/mystery promised.
Verdict: It’s actually got a decent hook, but lacks the mature voice of some of the others. Also, the magic is a bit…lame as introduced so far, and the POV shifts so much I’m not sure who the book is about. No sign of any women so far, either.
On the plus side: The hook is pretty effective, promising more action and adventure.
The Last Priestess – Elizabeth Baxter – still reading!
Why I picked it up: Had read a short story/novella by the author and found the blurb of this compelling.
Verdict: Compelling indeed, and with a confident voice and style. At first it felt like a very generic medieval world (with some French flavours) but before long you are hit with a complex and intriguing cosmology/theology and powerful magic. Suitably enigmatic characters and plenty of potential threats on the horizon promise mystery and adventure. Despite it not really matching my preferences, I didn’t want to stop reading. And I’m partial to POV discipline, so this two-hander was great.
On the down side: The story is already set up for an “unexpected” romance, if you dislike that trope. The author has a predilection for onomatopoeia as well, which you don’t often see – I found it quite fun in the end.
What I’ve learned
Well, I did find a few more hooks here, and a few books I would recommend, but also some more of what I’ve come to expect – generic, unpolished, not-quite-there books. Along with this, there is often an acceptance of traditional gender roles and flawed assumptions about historic realism. This occurs even in published work, but I’d like to think self-publishing was a chance to challenge and break the moulds that traditional publishing is unwilling to. Instead, I suppose a lot of these would not be traditionally published because they are not unique enough – though there’s clearly a market for the comfortable tropes and familiar stories that almost define the genre.
For example, I kept coming across is rape or threats of rape quite. I know a lot of people have strong feelings about the often off-hand use of rape in genre, especially (but not always) from the male gaze. After reading a few of these, I’m starting to see their point. It often seems that the only fate for women is sex – whether rape, marriage or seduction (and the latter two are often basically rape due to the power dynamics involved) – and I’m at a point where I want to read something more imaginative than that. That’s not to say books can’t have sex – sex that might shock modern readers is key to Fire & Ice, but it’s by no means gratuitous – but I suppose I’m quite sensitive about how it’s used. Who knew?
Already read (see Update 1):
Enchantment’s Reach – Martin Ash – 20% so far
Still to read:
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
The Weight of the Crown – Tavish Kaeden (also in the SPFBO)
Stormsinger – Stephanie A Cain – not medieval but not punk, so ok.
Skip – Perrin Briar – Clockpunk? We’ll see…
The Kinshield Legacy – K C May
A Dance of Dragons – Kaitlyn Davis
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
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.