Taming the TBR

So, things have been a little quiet lately. I don’t want to get into why, but I thought it worth talking about one of the things that I’ve come to realise lately: the massive TBR is both a blessing and a curse, and I needed to get it under control.

For those that don’t know, TBR is shorthand for “To Be Read [Pile]”, and can either be a real stack or virtual list – or, probably, both – of books waiting for you to read them. For myself and other readers whose intentions outpace their actual reading, these TBRs can stretch to hundreds of books, and usually grow over time as books are added at a faster rate than they are read (easily done, for most of us).

Social media certainly doesn’t help, with suggestions around every virtual corner, or announcements by authors you have read or keep meaning to read of their shiny new books, all of which sound so good. Then there’s Goodreads, which makes it so easy just to add books to an infinite “To Read” list with just one click. Compounding this is the ebook; with it’s one-click ordering and frequent 99p sales, the number of books you own can skyrocket, let alone all those you want to read but haven’t bought yet.

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But, you say, how could this be a bad thing? Books are great! The more the merrier!

When you love books this much, it can be comforting to have a huge TBR pile. You are stockpiling books for a rainy day, each full of potential enjoyment and escape, or challenging ideas and mind-expanding information. I certainly know people who are jealous of my reading list, since they read so fast (and rather narrowly, to boot) that they regularly run out of books (the horror!).

But for me, reading books became an obsession in reducing the pile, and finishing books – instead of being a pleasure at both concluding one great story and getting to start another – meant confronting that massive TBR pile (real, electronic, virtual). It all turned into another source of stress and anxiety, not escape and enjoyment.

So, I was probably doing it wrong, and needed a change. But how did we get to here?

Several things contributed to my growing TBR, the first of which I’ve already mentioned: social media. Not only had I immersed myself in (fantasy) bookish Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Goodreads, and Reddit (not Instagram, sorry), but it was as more than just a fan, as well. I started down the social media rabbit hole more as a prospective author, which led me into contact of hundreds of other authors (both published and aspiring). This means that quite apart from getting recommendations of great books, I was getting asked to read books for friends and contacts as favours, sometimes even generously given free copies. Knowing how important exposure, buzz, and reviews are to any author, I felt guilty when I simply couldn’t keep up.

The other side of trying to be a writer, was that I felt the need to read certain books out of more than pure enjoyment. I wanted to stretch myself, learn different styles of storytelling, experience different perspectives – none of which are bad reasons to read, but when you start to treat your leisure activity more like work, it inevitably becomes a chore rather than a joy (I’ve always been bad at assigned reading). That’s not to say I haven’t really enjoyed a lot of the books I “assigned myself”. I have some new favourite authors, in fact. But as the TBR grew ever higher, I started to resent this self-imposed “work”.

So, step one has obviously been to scale back a bit, reset, and try to rediscover my love of reading with the books I’ve been looking forward to the most. I’ve also had a small clear-out of the TBR, getting rid of a number of books I would only probably have read if I won the lottery and moved to a desert island. Parting with books is never easy, and I probably should have cleared twice as many (or more!), but it’s a start.

The second step has been to choose the books I really, really want to read most, just for pure enjoyment, and put those to the top of the list. Even if, in this case, it was two books I didn’t even own yet, and they would be leap-frogging hundreds of others waiting patiently for years, in some cases. Oh well, books keep!

I’m still not out of the woods, however, because I’ve found it’s not that easy to read for enjoyment anymore, even when I want to. When you spend years learning about the writing craft, analysing what you value most in stories, reading endless advice of what to do and what not to do, it’s hard to read a book and not notice a hundred little things here and there.

Of course, if the book is really good, it will be easier, but even in really good books, you can find flaws if you want to. And some part of my brain clearly wants to, a green-eyed little critic that says, “How come he gets away with this ridiculous error and still gets published?” or “How come nobody sees through how derivative this character or that plotline are?” But you realise that you’ve been in too deep, you know too much, that 99% of readers aren’t going to even notice, let alone care. You start to worry that you’ve ruined books for yourself forever, but of course, these things just take time – and a few good books!

Who knows, I may one day even be able to write again?

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Hidden Gems: Two Too Soon?

So, the tricky thing with Hidden Gems is deciding if a book is sufficiently hidden. The gem part isn’t without controversy, either, because some people will probably argue that there are good reasons certain books are hidden. However, since this is my blog, I’m going to steamroller over those hypothetical objections. Subjective judgments of quality I’m more than comfortable with.

However, these two books may not have had sufficient time to be properly buried. Perhaps they are just bubbling under, still waiting to explode. Or they could actually be pretty popular and I just haven’t heard the buzz. It’s not like neither come up at all in discussions and blog posts, like some of my previous picks. And the few times they have come up, there have been a mix of positive and negative views, so there’s a chance I’m wrong (yeah, right).

But anyway, I’m talking about Adrian Selby’s brilliant 2016 debut, Snakewood, and Jeff Salyard’s radar-underflying Scourge of the Betrayer. They have a few things in common, a lot more not in common, and are both amazing.

If you haven’t already left to go pick them up, I guess I’ll say more below about why you should.

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First, that cover had me intrigued from the first moment I saw it. Covers do that to me. In fact, I probably knew I’d have to read it right then. Of course, the blurb about a legendary mercenary troop being hunted down did not make me regret my susceptibility to a pretty face.

And then it came out, and seemed to vanish. I saw it around, but heard very little. I’m never very good at getting things right away, and hearing nothing didn’t help keep it in mind. But eventually I did order a copy – might have seen a sale, that usually does it, but I think I was also curious as to why I hadn’t heard anything – and dived right in.

It was everything it promised, and more. Told in epistolary style, from a bunch of different points of view, it tells the quite grim and unforgiving story of Kailen’s Twenty, a mercenary company of drugged-up superheroes (well, not heroes). The drugs are in place of magic in this world, making for a very complex vocabulary of different plant derivatives that have various advantageous or deleterious effects. I’m not a big one for magic systems, but I quite enjoyed the pseudo-scientific aspect of the drugs and the careful way they were deployed.

The epistolary style was a brave decision as well, and made for a complex chronology where things were revealed or hidden depending on how the supposed collator of the different fragments had arranged them. Sometimes you seemed to be going down a side-road, and sometimes the odd detail would slip by, but overall I loved how the different voices came through, and how your perspective – and sympathies – shifted depending on who’s perspective you were reading.

So, it’s not an easy book to read in terms of complexity, and it’s definitely grimdark as well, but I got wrapped up and pulled along by the characters and their plight, all the way to the inevitable conclusion. I think I saw through a few of the twists, but that didn’t bother me, because it’s not about tricks (it’s about mystery).

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This one had been on my radar for a while, but it’s hard to find a copy in the UK (if you rely as much on serendipity as I do, at least). I’m so glad I finally got around to it, as I had a feeling it would be my kind of thing, but I didn’t know quite how much it would be.

Like Snakewood it’s a story about mercenaries related in first person, though there things start to diverge. The single narrator in this case is a rather naive young scribe, whose perspective on the exploits of the mysterious captain and his rough-and-ready crew helps introduce things in a slightly gentler way then Snakewood’s take-no-prisoners approach. The story is told more gradually, but you get a similar sense of unfolding mystery as Arki understands more and more about what he’s gotten himself into.

Attention to detail is the great strength of this book, for me. Whether that’s details of the grit and glory of a powerfully evoked medieval world, or the fully fleshed out characters that we get to know as the narrator does (spoiler alert, some die).  There’s humour and action and pathos and a somewhat convoluted plot, and the fact you are living and breathing almost every moment of it really works.

And it’s still a relatively short book because the action, though detailed, takes place over a relatively short space of time. This is not Epic Fantasy, this is almost Claustrophobic Fantasy, narrowly focused on a few key events and a few key people (well, one, really). The full scope of the stakes in play are only really hinted at, and I’d imagine further books expand on it a bit. You definitely get a sense that the job the mercenaries are doing in book is part of a much bigger wheel, but also that the captain has a personal agenda that may end up overshadowing it all.

Can’t wait to find out.

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While we’re here, I have to mention PriestI made a rule that Hidden Gems wouldn’t be about self-published books (which are hidden by their very nature, and I’ve done other posts about), but if you liked these two books, you might like that one. Much more overtly fantastical than either, but it shares their almost noirish pragmatism and character focus, and also has a great mystery at its heart. All three books show that you can do unusual and amazing things with fantasy, and I really hope you check them out.

Why I read: it’s a Mystery!

So, I came to a realisation when reading the book I just finished (Jen Williams’ excellent Ninth Rain, if you must know) that the one thing that keeps me going above all else these days, is mystery. I’m not necessarily talking a whodunit, just some sort of riddle that you know won’t be revealed until the last page, yet will have clues along the way that give you a chance to figure it out yourself.

29758013Ninth Rain had this in spades – and, to my delight, I was right about a lot of my deductions. Even better, enough remained to provide a satisfying ending with a few stunning twists, one that introduced new mysteries to fuel the second (and third) book. Just perfect. Another great mystery read recently was Priest, which is a whodunit, but with subsidiary mysteries galore. The brilliant Snakewood was another.

Sometimes, a book can be too enigmatic, like the intriguing-yet-frustrating Jaeth’s Eye. In that one, you are given few clues, too little context, and for most of the story the major mystery is unknown to the main characters, or at least solving it is not their goal. The mystery that kept me going was more “what the hell’s going on?” than “I wonder what this nefarious plot is all about”. To be fair to the author, this was mostly by design, and the ending just about pulled it all together – but that relies on readers getting that far!

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Other times, you can have way too little mystery, like in another indie book I picked up recently which gave away the central twist almost immediately (or seemed to, anyway – I didn’t hang around to see if there was more too it!). Often this can be a case of seeing tropes or plots I’ve encountered many times before, and not feeling like the book has much left to reveal. If a book doesn’t sell me on the mystery soon enough, any interesting stuff that may be there may come too late to snag a wary reader like me.

I suppose one use for the much-maligned prologue is to establish a bigger mystery that can then be drip-fed into a story that seems to be about something else at first. A lot of epic fantasy takes this format, showing you the shadowy antagonists that our heroes will eventually have to confront, before re-setting to their humble and unwitting origins. Even then, I still prefer the mystery front and centre, and a bit more complex than “how will the prophecy about this farmboy play out?”.

 

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I’m not saying I need originality in all things, but there needs to be something worth finding out. I’m a sucker for the slow reveal, and I don’t mind having questions go unanswered, or having to put things together myself. You might loose me if it stretches out for Malazan lengths of time, but I can probably hang with ambiguity longer than the average reader (at least judging by posts on fora).

That’s not to say I need mystery in all books, because I’ve certainly enjoyed some books where the mystery element was pretty low (some no more than “how are these heroes going to get themselves out of this situation and/or save the world?”). But books that I devour, books that stew in my head in-between reading sessions and long after, well, I think I’ve figured out what sets those apart.

So, why don’t I just read detective fiction? (Because I don’t, very much – though I do watch mystery shows.) I suppose it’s because that’s not the mystery I’m really after – as I said, it doesn’t have to be a whodunit. What fantasy gives you the scope for is a puzzle with truly novel answers, ones that would not be possible in any other book set in any other world (let alone our world).

At the end of the day, unravelling those enigmas is why I take such comfort in my floor-to-ceiling pile of unread fantasy books – each one a new mystery.

Hidden Gems: Villains Before They Were Cool

If there ever is a book that defines “Hidden Gem” for me, it’s Eve Forward’s wonderful fantasy pastiche, Villians by Necessity. Published in limited numbers in 1995, the book is a trope-fuelled bonfire of the cliches of the era. We meet halfling thieves, guilded assassins, black knights, nature-loving druids, vampish sorceresses, barbarians…you get the idea (though farmboys are conspicuously absent). But, unlike the derivative, by-the-numbers epics that have given late 20th C fantasy a bad name, this book turns the standard formula on its head, plays with tropes and assumptions, and all while weaving together an excellent adventure quest that would have any D&D party rubbing their Cheeto-stained* hands with glee.

The twist is, of course, that the heroes of the story are villains – those characters that would occupy the bottom row of the D&D alignment table, that are often there to stall Our Heroes in their quests, that are usually only out for themselves and certainly not interested in saving the world, thank you very much. Yet that is exactly what they are recruited to do (by a True Neutral).220px-villains_by_necessity

Of course, they pale somewhat in comparison to the dark antiheroes of modern standards. And assassins and thieves have always been popular fantasy heroes or sidekicks, and are usually portrayed with scruples and regulations that preclude them being truly evil. Even the cannibalistic dark-elf-like sorceress is mostly de-fanged and largely behaves herself.

But I suppose that’s why we call them “villains” rather than “evil”, because it’s a label put upon them by society, rather than who they are. When contrasted with the Heroes that are supposed to be on the side of Good, Forward makes it very clear that no-one can be painted as simplistically as that, and that everyone is somewhere along the spectrum of grey (as if the 21st C ever had sole license on that).

The problem facing this world – as represented by the six suspiciously regular and appropriately named lands that we visit – is that the forces of Good have triumphed to such a degree that Darkness has been banished for all time. And without the choice between Good and Evil, the sentient creatures of the land are robbed of free will (often violently so). Not only does that make the world a pretty boring place, but it means it is heading for a white-out – not just stagnation but complete stasis.

This isn’t a million miles from Moorcock’s premise in his Eternal Champion books that Chaos and Law need to be kept in balance or the world will either perish through complete entropy or total rigidity. Still, his champions usually end up fighting a rising tide of evil (if occasionally with chaotic help) rather than having to worry about the complete victory of Law. And yet, this victory is the end-point of most classic Epic Fantasy series, and also where our story begins (take that, Sanderson and Morgan).

The story itself is a rip-roaring adventure across six lands, questing after a series of tests that will allow the villains to return Darkness to the world. There isn’t a whole lot of realism here. Despite the point that’s being made about the unrealistic conventions of D&D-style fantasy, Forward still plays mostly within its lines. There are plenty of convenient healing potions and magic tricks to get our protagonists out of scrapes they shouldn’t survive – but such is fantasy adventure, after all, only this time it’s the forces of Good that constantly fail (though they aren’t ever incompetent, being Heroes).

I’m still not sure the libertarian premise completely works – it may work fine for these villains-with-hearts-of-gold, but what about the children devoured by monsters or orphaned by wars? What about the true psychopaths out there, are they necessary for the survival of free willed life? A laissez-faire attitude is all well and good for the competent and the strong, but shouldn’t a society look after the weak, and aren’t they better off in a world where “Darkness” is largely suppressed? Something for the sequel, perhaps…

Anyway, Villains by Necessity isn’t a philosophical treatise, it’s a unique fantasy adventure novel, and a damn fine one at that. Track a copy down, if you can!

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The one time I think Darrel K Sweet works perfectly.

* Sorry, had to.

My Favourite Fantasy Covers

So, we all know we aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover. Which is, of course, a lie – because why else would they have cover art but to attract and entice the would-be reader? And fantasy is perhaps the genre where covers matter most, have the greatest variety, and offer the most scope to delight and disgust.

There are a lot of classic Science Fiction covers out there, and I’d happily have framed copies of my favourites on my walls. However, as much as I like Chris Foss and co., there are an awful lot of books where the gorgeous spaceship on the cover really bears no resemblance to the ones inside, if there even are any. So, as enticing as they are, they don’t seem to me to have to do as particular a job as fantasy covers do.

And other genres do even less work, signifying genre and little else. Romance covers all look basically the same, though I’ve heard there’s some coded information in the particulars of pose and (un)dress. Crime fiction and thrillers just have to have a weapon or a body or a grainy scene (perhaps with crime tape). Chick lit has pastel colours and cutesy art, often with flowers or bows. And while I suppose you get a range in “literary” fiction, it’s often abstract or minimalist or just plain boring.

But fantasy covers…wow. Sure, some of them can be a bit cringe-worthy, especially from certain eras, and some of it can be a bit lacklustre, but on the whole there’s such huge variety of styles and approaches from so many talented artists, that it can turn the fantasy shelves into an art gallery of wonder.

For my taste, I’ve always preferred the evocative fantasy landscape to the character close-up or the more symbolic or abstract cover – with a few exceptions, of course. There are covers I love (and hate) from almost every era of fantasy right up to today. Without further ado, here are a few of my favourites.

Raymond Swanland

I’d be remiss not to start with this modern master, an artist whose covers are about the only character-centred ones that I like. They have a wonderful dark beauty, and are abstract enough to somehow capture the emotion and atmosphere of a book as well as portray the characters irresistibly.

It’s now hard to separate his artwork from the books of two of my favourite authors – one of whom I probably would never have discovered if not for Swanland’s work. I can’t imagine any other artist on the cover of a Glen Cook fantasy now, which makes up for the pretty terrible covers Cook got in the 80s…

Richard Anderson

Another modern master, who seems to be everywhere these days (well, moreso in the US market), his distinct digital style capable of both abstract landscapes, vibrant action, or evocative character studies. He’s pretty much the “face” of modern fantasy right now, and I’m not complaining. (Check out this Tor.com article for more.)

Geoff Taylor

I was going to make this about the 80s covers that I liked, and then I realised a lot of them were by the same artist. Taylor is evidently a master of the evocative landscape often with figures facing away from us, drawing us in. His use of colour is also much more to my taste than some of the more garish 80s/90s covers (looking at you, Darrell K Sweet!). Check out the full paintings which are even more spectacular.

Ian Miller

Another 80s cover set which will, regardless of what else the artist did (and he did plenty), will put him amongst the greats, for me.

Others:

I can’t do a post on covers without including this one by Bruce Pennington, which immediately sold me the book (and therefore series, since it’s book two), and of which I now have two different sets…

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And I also have a fondness for this 1960s craziness (artist unknown):

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And there’s a lot more out there as well, some of which is elsewhere on this blog. I might have to do another one of these sometime…

Hidden Gems: James Branch Cabell

So, I’ve probably reached the end of the line (for the moment) with this Hidden Gems series. It’s been a fun ride, but there are only so many books out there that a) I’ve read and b) I think are underappreciated. No doubt I’ll update it as and when I unearth another one.

Before I go, however, I thought it worth mentioning James Branch Cabell. Never heard of him? Not really a surprise. Cabell was a contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft, but wrote comic fantasies before fantasy was really a genre. As such, though apparently widely admired (and made notorious by trials and scandals), he’s been largely forgotten by a fantasy tradition to which he never really belonged.

Having read some of his work (of which there is a lot), I think this is a shame. Just because his fantasies are comedies, they are by no means fluff to be dismissed. Obviously, they aren’t going to satisfy a craving for Sword & Sorcery or Grimdarkness, and they aren’t Epic in the sense we’ve come to know. However, the characters do go on epic adventures through fantastic lands full of peril, strange creatures, gods, devils, and other recognisable trappings of the genre.1110887

However, whereas Terry Pratchett had a wealth of well-known tropes to spoof, Cabell mainly had the romantic legends to draw on – Arthurian, Ancient Greek, etc. From what have read, his books also have a deep melancholy at the core of the comedy. His flawed heroes crave adventure but are probably better off without it, their wanderlust never quite leading them where they wanted.

The heroes I’m talking about are Jurgen – the titular monstrously clever fellow of his most famous book – and Dom Manuel, the protagonist of the 25-volume “Biography” which Cabell spent 23 years writing (obviously, I haven’t read it all). Both feel quite similar due to Cabell’s voice, but of the two Jurgen seems more cheeky, Dom Manuel (at least, in Figures of Earth) more earnest. Both have an astounding weakness for a pretty face; in fact, Jurgen puts James Bond to shame both in conquest and double entendres.

These double entendres were the reason for the aforementioned obscenity trial (which he won), but they are very tame by today’s standards. In fact, due to the old-fashioned prose, it took a while before I was sure they were even there – it was much funnier afterwards. Even without them, there’s still enough of an adventure (though more philosophical than action-oriented), but the “monstrous” character of Jurgen is what sets it apart.

figures-of-earth1Dom Manuel is a more considered fantasy, less of a humorous comedy. The world-building is a bit more consistent, but the fantasy-land in Cabell’s head is closer to the mythical Albion of Arthurian tales than anything post-Tokien (or Eddison). The series is confusing as well, without a clear chronology as far as I can tell – though this does make it easier to read without collecting all twenty-five volumes.

So, why are these hidden gems? For me, it’s because they are a window onto a different era of fantasy, but proof that people were already having fun with the genre, such as it was, both deconstructing the mythological epic, and also using fantasy to make points about human existence (even while laughing).

Also, they are just a lot of fun.

NB: Cabell apparently rhymes with “rabble”. Now you can sound smart!

 

Hidden Gems: The Sunset Warrior

So, I’m going back to the obscure in my efforts to unearth hidden gems for the discerning fantasy reader. I read this series a while ago, and it’s so obscure I wonder about bringing it up at all. However, it’s definitely got some things to offer that you may not find elsewhere.

Eric Van Lustbader is known better for his thrillers – he’s written about a dozen Bourne sequels, continuing from Ludlum’s originals, as well many more in his own series. However, the former music journalist’s first published novel was the post-apocalyptic fantasy The Sunset Warrior in 1977, followed soon after by Shallows of Night and Dai-san to complete the trilogy. In what is a recurring theme with me, it turns out it’s not actually a trilogy, but a five-book sequence, though the fifth, Dragons of the Sea of Night, was added almost two decades after the fourth, Beneath an Opal Moon.9780352306753-uk-300

I’ll admit to only reading the trilogy that I thought it was, but what a trilogy! The first book is almost pure post-apocalyptic scifi, taking place in an underground bunker city (a distant forerunner of the Silo sub-genre). The claustrophobia and forgotten-history aspects are well done, and we get to know our hero. It’s not a spoiler to say he eventually breaks out, and things start getting pretty wild from there. The second and third books are almost pure fantasy, with just a hint of the original far future concept, but they aren’t your normal fantasy either.

Lustbader is a clear fan of East Asia (one of his thriller series features ninjas), and the fantasy world discovered outside the bunker is definitely Asian-inspired. This alone sets it apart from the tired faux-medieval-Europes of its contemporaries. A lot of this comes across in the embracement of Eastern martial arts and a bit of the philosophy/mysticism that often goes along with it. I can’t comment on the accuracy of this, but the action is convincing, and it seems more respectful than the Sean-Connery-in-Rising Sun style oriental fascination that developed in the ’80s.

The refreshing setting also, to my mind, carries hints of similarly-far-future-fantasy greats like Moorcock’s  Runestaff series and Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. There is the same dazzling vibrancy overridden with a sense of decline and decay. Perhaps it is the nature of post-apocalypse fantasy to have a sense of fragility, knowing that however permanent the current societies and empires may seem, they are built on the ruins of others that vanished in the blink of an eye.

Another 9780352306777-us-300aspect shared with these series is the archetypal hero, the bluntly named Ronin. He is definitely a chosen one in the classic mould, a trope many of us have since tired of. He’s also, from what I can tell, a white man starring in an Asian story, another tired trope that has come in for recent criticism. That aside, he’s neither a callow youth nor a reluctant anti-hero, just a normal, pragmatic type stuck in a fantastic adventure, driven by his own need to explore and caught up in larger events. There are doses of classic tragedy in his journey as well, as you’d expect, and the future thriller writer keeps up an almost constant tension and threat throughout, especially in the claustrophobic first book.

So, the books are a mix of a lot of elements, some of which could be seen as problematic and other which can be got in other classics. What then sets these apart? It’s a hard question, because I recall these so fondly largely, I suspect, because my enjoyment was completely unexpected. I knew nothing about them when I picked them up at a bargain book warehouse, and, though I was intrigued about this self-titled Ronin, I was taking a leap of faith in reading them. This seems especially strange nowadays, when my TBR pile is chock-full of books I *know* are good and need to be read ASAP.

Of course, the reason I picked them up was the captivating (UK) cover of the second book, by the famed Bruce Pennington. The other two are equally awesome, in their own way, but there was something about the driven red splash of the sail-powered ice-boat amongst the icy blue of the frozen seascape that conjured up fantastic adventures I wanted to be part of. Anyone who knows me or follows this blog should be surprised I bought books just for the covers, but in this case – and many others – what was underneath lived up to the promise on the outside.shallowsofnight

If I’d found the US covers first, I would *never* have read them, I guarantee that. YMMV.

However, I hope I’ve given you reassurance that these books are worth a look, whatever the cover. They are certainly not going to be for everyone, but if you like a stoic hero with a sword striding (or stumbling) through a fantastic (and rather unique) world that you discover as he does, you can do far worse than these hidden gems.