Making the Change (An Indie’s Transition into the Traditional World)

By BRIAN D ANDERSON

So you’ve written a few books, had them edited, paid for a cool cover, learned how to market, and as a result, had a great deal of success selling them online. You’ve even quit your day job. Maybe bought a house or a car…or both. Life’s coming up roses. You’ve achieved something special. Something spectacular. You are a professional novelist! Moreover, you’re an experienced indie, well qualified to pass on your wisdom to the never-ending river of up-and-comers dreaming of emulating your accomplishments.

That’s more or less how I felt a few months ago. For seven years, I have enjoyed a degree of professional success in indie fantasy. Not to say I was at the top of the heap. But I sure wasn’t at the bottom. I had an agent, had made a few significant audiobook deals, and been nominated for an award or two. But that’s where it stopped. I’d reached the limit of where I could go on my own. If I wanted to continue up the ladder, I had to find a way to break into traditional publishing.

My agent had submitted several times to the Big Five, without success. I was perfectly satisfied with my achievements as an indie, but the game was changing, and I was rapidly facing the possibility of fading away into obscurity. New indie talent was emerging, and they were hungry, energetic, and motivated. I’d been working at a feverish pace for seven years, and I’m not ashamed to say I was running low on steam. This new class of indies half my age could produce at a rate I simply could not keep up with. And their facility with social networking made me a horse and carriage to their self-driven car.

I decided that perhaps it was time to try something new with my stories, so I wrote The Vale, which is based on the tropes, plotting, and pace of RPG’s like Final Fantasy and Tales Of. I was aware of GameLit and LitRPG, but this was different in the sense that it read like a novelization of a game – no stats, no being sucked into the game world, no other criteria placed on the genre by its fans. I landed a substantial audio deal for the series, which basically crushed my chances to sell it to the Big Five. Still, my agent thought it was worth a shot.

As expected, they weren’t interested. However, an editor over at Tor (Macmillan) read it and liked it very much. And while unable to make an offer, asked that they be given first look at my next project. That alone sent me over the moon. By the way, I saw the lunar lander while I was up there. Take that, conspiracy theorists! I had a mountain of work to do, but I didn’t want to waste the opportunity. I had a new series in the beginning stages saved in a file, so I banged out the first few chapters along with a synopsis. Tor took a quick look and replied by saying that the complexity of the world was too much to make a decision without a complete manuscript.

So, defeated, I went back to my indie work and plodded on, forgetting all about Tor, the book, and transitioning to traditional publishing. Yeah, right! This is Tor we’re talking about. As a kid, most of the books I read came from Ballentine, Del Rey, or Tor. Becoming a Tor author would be the fulfillment of a childhood fantasy. So I shoved everything else aside and worked like my life depended on it.

After about eight weeks, The Bard’s Blade was finished. BEA (BookExpo America) was about a month away, and my agent contacted Tor, offering an exclusive look before shopping it to other publishers while she was in New York. Now, here’s where it gets weird…in a good way.

For anyone who has been through the submission process, you know how mind-numbingly, soul-suckingly, nail-bitingly long an ordeal it is. Aspiring writers can spend years finding an agent just to spend years more submitting to publishers. Tor seemed excited to read it and told us that they would have an answer ahead of the convention. While I wanted to believe this, I fully expected to hear back from them saying they couldn’t make a decision within the allotted time frame. I had mentally prepared for this likelihood so as not to drive myself nuts checking my inbox every five minutes.

Not only to my disbelief but to that of every traditionally published writer I know, this isn’t what happened. Tor received the manuscript on a Friday; on Monday they emailed my agent, stating they were interested and intended to make an offer. That alone had me grinning from ear to ear. I had three numbers in mind. What I would take; what I wanted; and the imaginary number that would not happen. There was, of course, the chance they would come back with a lowball figure that I would be forced to reject. That was the nightmare scenario. To turn down an offer from Tor would haunt me for the rest of my life.

But my astonishment increased when Wednesday arrived and my agent received a deal memo. It was to the dollar what I wanted. Sure, there was some tweaking pertaining to rights, but overall, I could not have expected better. It took a full day for me to absorb what had happened.

Once the contracts were signed, it was time for me to come to the realization that experienced as I was in the indie world, I had a lot to learn about working on a Big Five publication. To her credit as both a person and a professional, Lindsey Hall, Senior Editor at Tor, was understanding, and she bent over backwards to help me acclimate to new procedures and expectations. She was always available to talk and responded to my questions, no matter how silly.

After seven years of indie work, I’d ironed out a method of production that worked well for me. There is the first draft, of course, where I give little consideration to prose. This is for getting down the plot and fleshing out the characters. The second draft smooths out some of the rough edges. Then, depending on deadline constraints, one of two things happens. One: If pressed for time, the manuscript goes to my editor, with whom I’ve been working for five years. He knows my style intimately and can make additions and adjustment so close to the way I would write I can’t even pick them out. Or two: A third pass where I give it polish and pay close attention to detail. From there, I send it to my first editor.

Once I have it back, I give it a read through, then send it to my copy/line editor and proofreader. She’s fast, and has it back to me in a few days or a week at most. After another final read, I format it and then upload the manuscript to the online platforms.

During this period, I’m working with cover artists and interior designers for the paperback edition. I’m also busy on my social networking sites, getting the word out and prepping fans for the release. The details are many, and would take a book unto itself to explain. But from writing the first page to publication, I can produce a full length 100,000 word novel in roughly 4-5 months.

On the traditional front, though, things move at a different pace. The Bard’s Blade is not slated for release until January 2020. So the first thing I had to learn was patience. An indie making the transition must understand that this is not just a business – it’s a BIG business, with entire departments dedicated to aspects of publishing that an indie manages alone. Where I was the shot caller, now there were committees. Where I could make a choice and then act on it instantly, now even the discussions about making the decisions were scheduled months in advance. But this was not what had me screaming at my computer.

Switching to traditional publishing meant I was giving up the total dominion I’ve enjoyed over the content of my work. I was not the only one invested in the story and concerned about how it would be received by fans. There are good reasons editors pick some books and pass on others. They are there to pick winners. The books with which they are associated are closely watched by their superiors and the industry at large. How long will an editor keep their job after too many flops? In other words, my success is in a real way tied to my editor’s.

Knowing this did not make it any easier when I received the first round of revisions. Holy moly! I sat at my desk in a stupor for…I’m not sure how long. From my perspective, the entire book needed to be rewritten. Whole chapters – gone. New chapters needed.

But in the end, I set aside my ego and made the changes. And that’s really what it takes. When you make a success out of any endeavor, like I had with indie publishing, you begin to think you possess insights that you do not. You’re surrounded by people looking to you for answers on how they too can sell thousands of books and quit their day job. It makes you feel important; wise. Your association with other authors and the conversations you have can trick you into thinking it’s given you even greater perspective. But until you have experienced the pride-killing blow of being wrong about your own work; yelled at the comment box only to lose the imaginary argument; then looked at the end result and grudgingly admitted how much better it turned out, you really can’t know what it’s like.

That’s not to say my skill sets learned as an indie were wasted. I work fast as a necessity. When given a month, I’d only need a few days. When plot issues arose, I was three steps ahead with solutions. And it wasn’t as if Lindsey took over the book and changed what it was about. It felt a bit like that in the beginning, granted, but that was just a visceral reaction, like when an only child has to share a toy for the first time with a new sibling. I was still the one creating the plot points, shaping the characters, building the world. But now I had someone helping me stay on track who could see what I was too close to notice.

I’m still putting out indie books, and will be for some time. Tor, surprisingly, has encouraged this. But I intend to slow my pace considerably. Three novels a year for seven years has taken a toll. Now, thanks to Tor, I’m carrying more tools in the bag, and it’s making it easier for me to move forward. There’s still so much to learn; curtains to be pulled back.

And for the first time in a while, I’m eager to find out what’s next.

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“The Succeedinator”

written by Dark

It is a central principle of Buddhism that the source of suffering is desire, and the ultimate way to achieve enlightenment is to rid oneself of desires. Since most characters we meet in fiction however are not highly advanced Buddhist adepts, it is central to any story with a character, that the character has one or more goals or desires, and that a major part of that journey will involve trying to achieve those goals or fulfil those desires.

Also not being Buddhist adepts, it is equally true that characters will suffer in pursuit of those goals, particularly because in fiction at least, suffering literally builds character, especially suffering in pursuit of their goals or because they cannot fulfil their desires.

It doesn’t matter what the actual goals are, avoid death by monster, defeat the evil empire, find love or hell just survive, it is the pursuit of those goals that gives characters their motivations and makes them interesting, especially in that most important aspect of a story, character development, I.E taking a character from one place at the beginning of a story to another place at the end. Of course, this isn’t to say characters automatically should achieve all their desires in every story, indeed the better stories are those where characters are complex and have various desires, some of which they may achieve, some of which they may have to give up, some of which might be not the thing they desired at all.

After all, its far more interesting to read a story about a young man who is not the legitimate heir to a throne, who struggles to find a place for himself, who loves a young woman but fears court politics might be a danger to her so is forced to leave her, and who practices a forbidden form of mind magic in addition to learning assassin skills, than simply a story about a handsome prince who just wants to marry a beautiful girl, indeed complexity of desires is often the hallmark of both a good author, and a story intended for an older audience.

Just having desires isn’t enough though, your character must do something to fulfil them throughout the story, and this is unfortunately one area where many characters get stuck.

Fairness is a fundamental human principle, if a person is going to get something good, we generally want them to have to work to get it, people who get good things without having to work are people who get on our nerves, we call them spoiled, and lazy, and thieving, and bankers and international business tycoon’s and lots of other derogatory things.

In stories the principle is the same. If our character has a desire which is to be achieved (or not; depending upon the cruelty of the author), then we want them to work to have to achieve it, indeed often the amount of work or suffering a character goes through in their desire is directly proportional to the vicarious satisfaction we as readers get through seeing them achieve it, I doubt anyone would’ve been so thrilled at Indiana Jones exploits if he sat down at his computer and bought the holy grail off eBay.

Suffering can of course take many forms. A person might do the right thing despite a strong desire not to, a person might have to undergo great danger, a person might have to endure actual physical harm, or a person might have to give up something else they desire in order to achieve their goal. All of these forms of suffering can make for wonderfully tense story sequences which both increase the value of the desire, and increase our empathy for the character trying to attain that desire despite their suffering.

Sadly, there is one type of character who sometimes crops up in fiction who ignores all these rules, that is the succeedinator. A succeedinator is any character who automatically attains their desires too easily without the requisite amount of suffering, a succeedinator is in effect a spoiled brat of a character with the author as their overindulgent parent giving them whatever they want. The most perfect example of the succeedinator was Richy rich from the old cartoon series. Any problem? Money, and where money failed there was always the gadget of the week, or (just to be different), sometimes he’d use the money to buy the gadget of the weak instead.

Of course, succeedinators rarely crop up in stories where they simply sit around and are given success, usually the author attempts to include some degree of suffering or danger the succeedinator has to undergo. The problem however, and what turns a character from someone who is merely successful into a full blown succeedinator is the legitimacy of the suffering involved in attaining their goals (richy rich suffered nothing worse than the odd gadget explosion, and even those were usually easily remedied by his butler or robotic maid.

By “legitimacy” here, I simply mean that the suffering needs to feel as if it might have a real affect on the character or their future.
It doesn’t matter if Dan Mcdashing is having to run across the top of a speeding train whilst a fleet of flying saucers pelt him with utter destruction bombs, and rabid crabs take swings at him from beside the train tracks. If Dan is so amazingly competent that there is zero possibility of this business going wrong, then there is no danger, and thus no suffering, and so when Dan finally catches up to the Mcguffin thieves at the head of the train it is more a question of simple fate than any kind of achievement.

The same is true for other sorts of suffering. If I do not actively feel that the fear which Pauline is feeling might actually have a chance of paralysing her with inaction or causing her to fail in her confrontation with the big nasty, then I probably am not exactly going to be on tenterhooks whilst she explores the scary abandoned house.

Of course, being that this is a book and we frequently get inside characters heads, there are a lot of tools at an author’s disposal to ramp up the suffering their character goes through in pursuit of their goals.

One is what I have seen referred to as Chekhov’s skill. Similar to the eponymous gun, this is the facility of giving your character a requisite skill to achieve their desire by showing they have attained the skill previous to that desire’s occurrence in the plot. For example, if we already know that Pauline is a master thief and has spent years perfecting the art of unlocking, then when she picks the lock on the cellar of the haunted house we don’t have reason to believe she attained her goal without trying, especially if the author can give us an idea of the tortuous years Pauline spent practicing lock picking, and include the possibility that even though she possesses the skill she may still not be able to pick that particular lock.

This principle of showing the suffering and work inherent in character goes especially for occasions in which one character’s skills are tested against another’s.

Note, that this testing isn’t about the difficulty of the task itself, but the possibility of character failure.

It doesn’t matter if a character is fighting a thirty foot tall, fire breathing, zombie mecha dinosaur skeletal necromancer from hell, if we know simply because the main character happens to be the hero and thus the best fighter in literally the entire universe; or at least the universe the author has created, that they are bound to win.

Aside from physical or emotional conflict, another major form of suffering is conflicting desires. Duty or love, personal vengeance or letting go, one relationship over another, indeed sophisticated characters may hold our attention specifically because of the way they navigate these sorts of decisions, keeping us guessing which way they are going to jump. Here again however, if the author does not adequately give us a possibility that the character might choose one option, then the choice becomes no choice. After all, if there is absolutely no possibility Dan McDashing is actually not Going to relinquish the Mcguffin to Count Von Cloakenstache and let him slaughter innocent bystanders, Von Cloakenstache is hardly a credible threat and said innocent bystanders aren’t in much actual danger.

Of course, not all of a character’s success has to come directly from the character’s skills or determination. Sudden incites or even changes in luck are a twist on occasion, however if these happen too often, or a reader can always rely upon them happening, again we are steering too close to succeedinator territory.

This also goes into the phenomenon which my brother has dubbed “emo fire” in which emotional suffering is directly translated into an explody magical get out of trouble free card, especially if said emotional suffering doesn’t really feel like suffering at all since its chief affect on the main character is simply said blast of emo fire rather than the possibility of negative emotions having negative effects.

Of course, another major tool in an author’s arsenal in avoiding the succeedinator is writing style, that is using the rhythm, choice and flow of words in a poetic or evocative manner to increase the realism of their characters.

After all, there is a huge difference between just saying “your character is afraid”, and describing the fear in detail, the sudden starting at shadows, the dry mouth, the intensive clench of muscles etc. Style is the reason why one author’s description of a soldier finally conquering their fear to go into battle might fall utterly flat, and why another’s of a similar scene might be hailed as one of their finest moments.

One important question of course, is why is the succeedinator actually bad? After all we often live in a world where our desires are not directly achieved, where we must struggle and suffer to get what we want and rarely get it, so what is wrong with seeing a character tramp unstoppably onwards getting everything with ease?

For me at least, the two very major problems I have with the succeedinator are tension and identification.

If I know someone will succeed in attain their desires, I have no vested interest in waiting to see whether they will succeed or not.

In the TNG episode “the game” (otherwise a cute story with a genuinely appealing guest star), the main part of the action ends with an Enterprise full of crew members enslaved to an alien game. Though Data is able to knock out the bridge crew Picard simply explains in a log entry that “doctor Crusher was able to restore us with her usual skill”

This is probably the best example of a tension killer I’ve seen. We know the episode is over, we know the Enterprise crew must go back to status quo for next week’s instalment so Picard simply tells us that everything resolved.

It is a credit to the writing of episodic TV shows like TNG that they actually managed to achieve any tension at all on occasion despite us knowing that status quo is king and things are probably not going to change unless an actor wants to alter their contract.

The Succeedinator is very much like this style of episodic tv. We know they will always succeed, especially if the conflicts they’re going through in achieving their desires are so obviously formulaic ones (see my previous article). Maybe for some people this for knowledge of success is comforting, to me however, it’s quite the opposite, something which makes me actively lose interest in a character’s fate.

The second reason I do not like succeedinator characters, is lack of identification. As I said previously, we have all sorts of horrible names for people in real life who succeed without trying, and usually the less we’ve succeeded ourselves, the more we dislike these sorts of people, especially if their success also comes with a snobbish or arrogant attitude.

I have encountered some characters who succeed so much that frankly I spend most of the book wanting them to fail just to learn a little humility.

For myself, the characters I am interested in, and those who I feel a real connection with are the precise opposite of the succeedinator, those who must struggle, and suffer, and frequently don’t get what they want, since it is in seeing those characters succeed that I feel hope for myself, and the rest of us none succeedinators out there, since if a person who is as human, fallible and prone to failure as we are can succeed, or even be heroic in their endeavours, well we just might be too.

Addendum, the Mary Sue.

People might have noticed that my concept of “the succeedinator” bares some resemblance to that of that much maligned lady Mary sue, and her lesser known brother Garry stew.

The problem though, is that the term “mary sue” has become more loaded than a fully loaded load of breach loading rifles loaded onto a front end Loader.

The debate usually runs something like this:

Person A: I think that such and such a character is a Mary sue.

Person B: How dare you say that! Don’t you know the term Mary Sue is sexist! Its sexist to call anyone a Mary sue, so begone with you you great big sexist!

Person A: I was not being sexist! I just meant this character is a Mary sue. Why do you have to be so sensitive you idiotic marshmallow!

Person b: Marshmallow is it! You only call me a marshmallow because you are sexist! Don’t you know that calling someone a marshmallow is sexist you great huge sexist!

Person A: Why is calling someone a marshmallow sexist? That doesn’t even make sense!

Person B: How dare you not know why calling someone a marshmallow is sexist! This just shows how sexist you are!

And so on and so forth, and thus any discussion of the actual merits or flaws of a given character are entirely lost in a storm of accusations and sweeties.

Was Mary sue a sexist term in the past? Quite possibly.

Is Mary sue a sexist term now? I do not know, I certainly wouldn’t use it that way, and I have heard other people who do not, but there might well be people out there who do.

Is describing a character (especially a female one), as a Mary Sue a sexist dismissal of that character? Well again, it may well have been in the past, but these days, maybe not, or at least certainly not all of the time, after all when I use the phrase “my wife” I simply use it to refer to the wonderful woman whom I am married to, but when someone else uses the phrase “My wife” they use it in the sense of “the wife that I own”

The difference here is the attitude of the speakers, not an inherent problem in the word “Wife”

This is the reason I suggest, in best philosophical tradition, that we drop the term “Mary Sue” as one with far too much cultural baggage to be of valid use, and instead employ a similar term, my proposed “succeedinator” which can essentially fulfil the same function without any specific gender bias, rather the way “stewardess” on airlines has been replaced with the gender neutral “flight attendant”

I’ll also say, in my own experience I’ve run into not a few Succeedinators of both genders, so the concept, if not the term seems to be pretty gender independent, which is another reason why a gender neutral term of critique might be helpful here, since unfortunately with an ever increasing amount of corporate storytelling and committee thinking with little creativity behind it these days, (especially in cinema), Succeedinators are now more common than ever, so having a term to identify them whenever they rear their ugly heads seems like a good idea.

-Dark

SPINNING SILK excerpt

We are proud to showcase an exceprt from T. Cook’s latest novel, SPINNING SILK, available now.

Synopsis:

A brilliant weaver; a conscience stricken gardener; and a journey through deadly ancestral secrets.

An orphan’s weaving genius ignites the envy of her peers, the possessiveness of her mill, and the hopes of an unborn nation. 

Furi knows she was born to create, but the fabric of her life otherwise weaves mysteries. These things are more than they appear: 

Shin, the gardener, with his unlikely power over life and death;
A mysterious illness with a selective death route; 
Kitsuke artist Madame Sato who would fashion Furi into a reincarnation of her own dead daughter; 
A superstitious overlord with a fist of iron; 
The princess of a figurehead emperor, who has strange loyalties to a humble gardener; and
The vaporous rumor of war with no apparent aggressor. 

Spinning Silk is a light novel with a second generation twist on Japan’s traditional Tanabata tale.

EXCERPT:

LEGENDS SPEAK OF the language of the bones. They tell how all we ever do or say or think is etched like script on a tablet in the dark cavities of our own mortal frames. Mysteries of life and death and love, which cannot be understood by mortal minds, are known, deep down in the marrow. My life, my work, and all of my doings combine into a puzzle of impossible reckoning, but my bones know it, and if you incline toward me, your own frame may hear and answer the song of its telling.


It was a white night, clear and luminous, as only the first night following heavy rains can be. The thrumming song of the cicadas and the percussion of the bullfrogs rose above the sound of our movements between the furrows.

“Careful with that one,” Shin whispered and I started when his giant hand covered mine. He lifted a heavy leaf and revealed a large orb spider crouched below. “You were about to disturb one of my best workers.”

I released a quiet gasp, and peered upward, studying Shin’s eyes. How had he even noticed the spider? Shin seemed to know the placement of every mysterious thing. His movements were quick, yet perceiving. He was gentle, distant, and exquisitely restrained. Here was a man of no rank, no wealth, and yet, somehow…Again, I remembered Tatsuo’s suspicions of his immortality, and I could not look away from him.

When we finished in the garden, I sank low into a parting bow, but before I retreated a step, Shin’s hand caught my shoulder. “I can’t let you go inside like that.”

I glanced down at my cotton robe. “Damp earth stained the hem and the area where I had knelt on the ground. I had also managed to soil my hands and knees and could not return directly to the house.

“It will be hard to wash the robe and yourself without anyone’s notice.”

I instantly understood he was right.

“Wash at the spring, and I’ll take your clothing and return it clean.”

I nodded, and followed him to the spring deep inside the garden. Shadows of the sculpted trees cast strange shapes across Shin’s face, hiding his eyes, but I could feel his gaze upon me notwithstanding. Surrounding the milky mineral pool, my mother-of-pearl tile work shone under the moonlight like lightning, and seemed to ignite me with an electric current that I was sure I couldn’t long withstand.

“Your work?” Shin said.

I gave a shy nod.

“I bathe here in your mother-of-pearl bath often.” A small smile touched his lips. “You’ve ruined me for scrubbing over a bucket for the rest of my life.”

I smiled at this. It seemed to me that my ambition to attract the gods had been realized after all, but I had never imagined myself bathing among them, and the thought of it froze the breath in my lungs.

The pool was small and deep, fed by an underground current. It was unsuitable for drinking, but although not quite warm, it made quite a good home bath.

I stole a last glance at Shin, who stood silently by. There was wisdom, and not seduction motivating the bath proposal, I knew. And yet, Shin was a man unlike any I had ever seen, and we were alone.

Had the time now come? Would he make his request of me now? If so, I told myself I was prepared to answer him. I ducked behind a juniper, shivered as I dropped my soiled garments, then slipped into the pool, gasping as I submerged my warm skin up to the neck. My gaze searched to the pool’s edge, where Shin stood.

The poolside was vacant.

I scanned all around. Shin had disappeared.

I waited some minutes, scrubbing my knees and hands with a handful of green maple leaves, but Shin never reappeared.

I checked myself against the disappointment that gripped my stomach. Wasn’t Shin an immortal? Would he make an illicit request? I trembled with the realization that he wouldn’t. After all, it was against his character. His every action had always been protective—yes, towards me, but he had reserved an uneasy distance for himself and something made me uncertain it was for my sake alone.

Floating on my back, I peered into the night sky. The iridescent glow of the abalone shells lent the bath a dream like quality. I almost thought I could have been dreaming. Had my creative genius fabricated Shin? I had dreamt of him before, and recently, my dreams had been so vivid.

I closed my eyes against the real possibility of my own madness, blinked, and flinched. One shaku from my face, stretched between two low hanging branches of the nearby maple, spread the silken threads of an enormous spider’s web. In the center crouched an orb spider, identical to the one I had saved from Cook several weeks before. He seemed to watch me with the same intensity reserved for a flailing moth.

“Don’t look at me like that,” I said, speaking aloud. “I saved your life…or that of a family member. You owe me a debt of gratitude.” I paddled slowly backwards toward the pool’s edge. The spider’s eyes seemed to follow me. As I peered back, a mysterious voice flooded my mind with breathtaking force.

You did save me. And I will never forget it.

—–

T. Cook’s SPINNING SILK ebook is now available on Amazon for $2.99

— Adam Weller (@swiff)

SPFBO4: Semi-finalist Selections & Eliminations

This is my first year as a SPFBO judge, and I’m grateful to Mark Lawrence and the FantasyBookReview team for letting me voice my opinions on their forums. I’m especially grateful to all of the incredibly talented authors that have submitted their work for this contest. Regardless of who wins, I hope everyone who participates walks away with something positive — whether it be more readers, new writing ideas, or new contacts in the fantasy community.

I was given a batch of ten random books and agreed to select two to move onto the semi-finals. This process was much more challenging than I had predicted. Several of the eliminated books could have easily been swapped into a semi-finalist position, and I would still be happy with the results. My final decisions were drawn from a combination of personal enjoyment, originality, and lasting appeal, along with a few other factors. Although the following books have been eliminated, I truly believe there’s a large audience that would enjoy many of these selections. If any of them sound interesting, I encourage you to give them a shot!

Below are mini-reviews of each of the seven eliminated books. I have also linked their full reviews if they exist.

Vincent, Survivor

Vincent, Survivor by O. L. Eggert
This story is an apocalyptic urban fantasy/horror novel about a family dealing with a race of minotaurs that have appeared on Earth with plans to decimate the land and annihilate mankind. The titular Vincent and his ex-con brother Dante team up with their grandmother and a newly-discovered relative to discover why our world is suddenly going to Hell. This book started off intriguing, but as I progressed, two main issues irked me: the characters were completely unlikeable and quite dense, and there were too many confusing plot points that broke the narrative. The mind-numbing choices that the characters kept making became too frustrating to read, and the dialogue was oddly mean-spirited. I’m not sure if it was intentional sarcasm that flew over my head, but the family members kept weirdly insulting each other as they traipsed through their neighborhood’s genocide. The tone shifts were odd, the plot holes kept getting bigger, and I didn’t find myself wanting to root for any of the protagonists. So, this is one of the few books that I didn’t finish.

Mabus

Mabus by Dean Rencraft
I am struggling to come up with something positive to say about Mabus. The plot follows David, an orphan of potentially mythical circumstances, who has been accepted to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) along with his foster brother. They immediately treat all women as sexual conquests and refer to them as “stalkers” and “bitches.” May I remind you that these boys are MIT students? David eventually starts working with his professor to develop a new, powerful artifical intelligence, but the dialogue between these apparently genius minds was unconvincing, and I found myself struggling to stay interested. There were no female characters of any agency, and the behavior of its male characters left a bad taste in my mouth. This was an uncomfortable read, so I decided not to finish it.

A Season of Pure Light

A Season of Pure Light by CJ Erick
The prologue of this story reeled me in immediately: a brother and sister are attempting to emigrate from an oppressive, fascist-like planet to a new world with “golden opportunities.” The siblings experience a harrowing ordeal that sees them barely make the escape ship as they head toward the newly-settled planet, but they must face various conflicts, both domestic and alien, in order to survive. Erick’s writing is gripping and intense, and the story hums with tension right out of the gate. Unfortunately, I had to eliminate this book from contention because it is purely science fiction, and this contest is for fantasy novels only. I would like to return to this book, as I think Erick is a promising writer and I’m curious how the story will continue. This is a book I’m quite comfortable recommending to fans of adult science fiction. It has gleaned many high marks from reviewers on both Amazon and Goodreads.

Angel of Destruction

Angel of Destruction by Virgil Debique
This story is about a human assassin with selective amnesia who is trying exact revenge on a rogue Angel who is responsible for various tragedies in the assassin’s past. The book incorporates multiple planes of existence, faeries, dwarves, elves, battle arenas, disturbing pleasure houses, cloud kingdoms, and other fantastical elements both familiar and new. Although this book was well-plotted, it needed some (any?) female characters with agency. All females either needed to be saved, or their sacrifice served as a plot device to further the goals of a man. This book in its current form is also in dire need of editing. Spelling and grammatical errors adorn every page, and it made some passages difficult to interpret. I wasn’t quite sure what the author was trying to say when parts of the sentences repeated itself, or it trailed off into something unrelated. I do think that there are the bones of a good story here, but I can’t recommend it unless it undergoes another revision.
Full review:
http://www.fantasybookreview.co.uk/Virgil-Debique/Angel-Of-Destruction.html

Scrooge and Marley, Deceased: A Haunted Man

Scrooge and Marley, Deceased: A Haunted Man by Jonathan Green
A short but engaging sequel to Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” picking up a year after the original ended. Ebenezer Scrooge reunites with the spirit on his dead accounting partner Marley on Christmas Eve, but this time, Marley wants Scrooge to help him grant peace to the wronged spirits that haunt London’s snowy streets. They immediately find themselves embroiled in a murder mystery, with a culprit that borrows heavily from another famous 19th century tale of gothic horror. Green does a remarkable job of emulating Dickensian prose, which is no small feat. This story felt like a natural continuation of “A Christmas Carol” and Green impressed me with his ability to paint the London setting and its various characters with familiar detail. The driving mystery of the story, and its resolution, came very quickly and a bit too conveniently. However, this is a very short read, clocking in at under 70 pages. Anyone curious to read a modern take on “Dickensian fan-fic” with a horror-crossover twist would certainly appreciate this story. Although it initially seemed like this book would be outside my wheelhouse, it ended up being a wondeful read. I strongly recommend it, though its brevity and niche subject matter prevented me from pushing it forward to the next round.
Full review:
http://www.fantasybookreview.co.uk/Jonathan-Green/Scrooge-and-Marley-Deceased-A-Haunted-Man.html

Servant of Rage

Servant of Rage (Bloodrage #1) by A.Z. Anthony
This is another book that just missed the cut. I described it as “Highlander meets the Dothraki.” When a god-like immortal decides to end his own life, his terrible lightning-based power is divided up across the world amongst various horse lords, nomads, and all sorts of dangerous warriors. ‘There can be only one,’ as the last survivor of these gifted warriors will reap the power’s full benefits. But as each challenger falls, the rage that resides within the remaining heirs grows stronger, and harder to control. Is ultimate power worth the sacrifice of your humanity? Anthony keeps this entertaining and violent story moving at a breakneck pace, setting up the long game early in the story and jumping right into it with both feet. There’s not a ton of nuance or deep characterization of the supporting cast, but if you enjoy fights to the death, quickly-evolving magical abilities, and more than a touch of the ole’ ultraviolence, this book is a ton of fun. I’ll be checking out the sequel.
Full review:
http://www.fantasybookreview.co.uk/A-Z-Anthony/Servant-of-Rage.html

Dragonshade

Dragonshade (The Secret Chronicles of Lost Magic #2) by Aderyn Wood
I’m more than bit sad to eliminate Dragonshade. This book is exquisitely detailed, with rich characters and a fully-realized setting. Clocking in at 864 pages, Wood takes her time in describing family histories, cultural developments, warrior clans, enemy kingdoms, cutthroat politics, royal hierarchies, prophetic dreams… and even a full chapter dedicated to duck farming. While I enjoyed reading this epic, high fantasy story about several kingdoms teetering on the precipice of war, I found that its progression unfolded very slowly. Wood is a skilled writer and it’s easy to see how much love and care she has put into this book, but I think its plot could have benefitted from a bit more focus and efficiency. At times, the relentless dearth of information, expansive world-building, and huge cast of characters felt like too much to digest. I enjoyed the plot, and Wood has some wonderful and original ideas, but ultimately this came down to just liking a couple of other books a bit better. However, if you enjoy epic standalone stories that are immersive, and you have the patience for it to blossom, then this is story you will likely enjoy. This book was a strong contender for a semi-finalist spot, and it would not surprise me if other reviewers would have chosen this to advance in my stead. Out of all the books eliminated, I believe this one to be the most impressive.

—————–

And now, the winners! Since there were so many excellent entries, I decided to select three semi-finalists instead of two. My three semi-finalists are:

City of Shards

City of Shards (Spellgiver #1), by Steve Rodgers
This was the first book I randomly selected to start my SPFBO4 reading journey, and it took me by complete surprise. It is a book that focuses primarily on a boy who is forced to choose between two awful fates for his country, while attempting to survive in a city that is slowly being taken over by a disturbing religious sect. There are wonderful, lifelike supporting characters and an imaginative race of ‘others.’ This is a sweeping epic of a story that has all the right elements. The world-building is intense from the get-go, so be prepared to highlight passages for later referencing. But there’s an excellent balance of action, mystery, and lore that kept the chapters flying by. Chapter 12 in particular is still stuck in my head, many months later. I had to pause my reading schedule to immediately dive into the sequel after finishing this book.
Full review:
http://www.fantasybookreview.co.uk/Steve-Rodgers/City-of-Shards.html

Revenant Winds

Revenant Winds (The Tainted Cabal #1), by Mitchell Hogan
In my full review, I called this book “an impressive and intriguing start to a series that deftly weaves magic, religion, and demonic vengeance into a story about seeking your identity and true purpose in life.” This is a grim yet compelling tale that tells a story through three interesting protagonists: a conflicted yet dedicated warrior-priest-healer-sorcerer (whew!), a near-immortal mercenary who wants to transcend to godhood so he can fulfill his love for his goddess, and a runaway noble’s daughter who is a gifted thief-for-hire. These characters find themselves inextricably bound to seek out an ancient cave for very different reasons. What they find could save or doom their world. My money’s on “doom.” This series has excellent potential, and Hogan is one of self-publishing’s rising stars.
Full review:
http://www.fantasybookreview.co.uk/Mitchell-Hogan/Revenant-Winds.html

The Endless Ocean

The Endless Ocean (The Inner Sea Cycle #1), by Toby Bennett
A thrilling and imaginative tale that weaves pirate battles, Earthen mythology, multiple realities, hive-mind witches, and so much more into something truly unique. Brother and sister orphans are gifted students, learning telekinesis and sea navigation, when they are pulled into a series of terrifying confrontations that are linked to an ancient, rising evil. I think it best for the reader to discover each development on her own, so I’ll leave the remaining plot description sparse. While the character development is overall a bit on the shallow side, the story makes up for it with its originality, thrilling set pieces, and engaging mysteries. This book is constantly pushing new ideas, shifting environments, and compelling story arcs with each chapter. It has a certain “wow” factor that has struck a lasting chord with me. I believe this to be one of the first published novels of Bennett’s writing career, and he has since written a sequel that I will be reading in the very near future.
Full review:
http://www.fantasybookreview.co.uk/Toby-Bennett/The-Endless-Ocean.html

—————-

Congratulations to Steve Rodgers, Mitchell Hogan, and Toby Bennett! I’m excited to share these books with the rest of the FBR review team. Why not buy copies for yourself and tell us what you think?

— Adam Weller (@swiff)

COVER REVEAL: Ben Galley’s CHASING GRAVES: Book One of the Chasing Graves Trilogy

We at FantasyBookReview are thrilled to announce the start of a new trilogy by resident favorite Ben Galley, and we’re able to share its cover today.

Presenting CHASING GRAVES, coming December 7th, 2018 (eBook and paperback.)

PREORDER now available!

Chasing Graves cover by Ben Galley

Blurb:

Meet Caltro Basalt. He’s a master locksmith, a selfish bastard, and as of his first night in Araxes, stone cold dead.

They call it the City of Countless Souls, the colossal jewel of the Arctian Empire, and all it takes to rule is to own more ghosts than any other. For in Araxes, the dead do not rest in peace in the afterlife, but live on as slaves for the rich.

While Caltro struggles to survive, those around him strive for the emperor’s throne in Araxes’ cutthroat game of power. The dead gods whisper from corpses, a soulstealer seeks to make a name for himself with the help of an ancient cult, a princess plots to purge the emperor from his armoured Sanctuary, and a murderer drags a body across the desert, intent on reaching Araxes no matter the cost.

Only one thing is certain in Araxes: death is only the beginning.

Cover Art: Chris Cold (https://chriscold.artstation.com)

Cover Design: Shawn King (http://www.stkkreations.com)

Website and more info: www.bengalley.com

Twitter: www.twitter.com/bengalley

Facebook: www.facebook.com/bengalleyauthor

Keep on the lookout for an official review in the coming weeks. I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

– Adam Weller

Fantasy Book Review Revisits A Trial of Blood and Steel

As I slowly climb into my mid-30s I’ve begun to take stock of my life. For over ten years I’ve been reviewing fantasy books, and this year marks my tenth year reviewing with Fantasy Book Review. The first book I ever reviewed for Lee (FBR’s editor in chief) was Brisingr by Christopher Paolini (please, don’t go back and read that review). I’ve tried valiantly over that time to keep up to date with the newest and best new books that have come across my doorstep or my email inbox.

However, over that time I have not often been able to re-read any of those books that I fell in love with the first time through. I’ve occasionally re-read a book, here and there, but I’ve never had the opportunity to re-read entire series’ and have rarely had the chance to just read for my own pleasure, without also having to critique the book as I go.

So, sometime earlier this year I decided that I would try and refocus my reading habits a bit – spending as much time re-reading as I spend reading new books.

Joel ShepherdThere were two contenders for what I would re-read first, and in the end Australian author Joel Shepherd won out with his four-book series ‘A Trial of Blood and Steel’. The first book in the series, Sasha, was originally published all the way back in 2007, and I was immediately hooked (though not as in love as I would soon come to be). The series has sat on my shelves since he finished his quartet in 2010, and I have often included Joel Shepherd as one of my favourite authors. So much so, in fact, that I recently began reading his sci-fi series, ‘The Spiral Wars’, which started off with the first book in 2015, Renegade.

In other words, I’ve been reading Joel Shepherds work, on and off, for almost a decade (I reviewed Sasha in 2009, and the final three books in 2012). I’ve now read him in my early-20s and in my early-30s; I’ve read him writing fantasy and science fiction.

And this most recent re-read of his ‘A Trial of Blood and Steel’ only confirmed my belief that Joel Shepherd is one of the most underrated talents currently writing.

Note: Spoilers will follow for the entire series. If you don’t want spoilers, read the original reviews before reading the books.

The Importance of Family

One of the first things you’ll notice about the eponymous character of Sasha is her loyalty to those around her over that of her blood relatives. At first this might seem odd, but the story quickly begins to reveal a family dysfunction the likes of which Jerry Springer could only have hoped to encounter. Those that Sasha considers family are obviously those of the town of Baerlyn, and the larger community of Goeren-Yai. Conversely, internal politicking and differing world views mar the relationships her blood family – as well as the death of their oldest brother, Krystoff – and familial bonds are broken asunder.

This, however, is not the whole of it. Shepherd does not create a family situation as a helpful character trait which occasionally affects Sasha’s decision-making.  It’s not the answer to a character biography sheet: “Family status – it’s complicated.” Rather, the relationships between her family – both between her and her father and siblings, as well as the relationships between her siblings and father towards one another – are integral to the entire quartet of books, and do not rely on any constant expression of said relationship. There is no simple answer that neatly divides family members into different camps.

Of course, the most obvious contention is between Sasha and her older brother Koenyg. This continues, in one form or another, throughout the entire series. Wylfred is absent the entire series, and only occasionally referenced – the excuse being that he is training for the priesthood. This leaves four other siblings – Damon, Alythia, Sofy, and the youngest brother, Myklas.

What follows over four books is some of the most realistic and captivating family drama that you will encounter in fiction. There are no absolutes and no obviously bad or good people. Each family member is given their own time and space to grow and to express themselves, and as a reader it is up to us to make our own judgements regarding who is right or wrong in any given situation. In one book Damon might be the principal sibling to interact with Sasha, or it might be Alythia or Sofy. Admittedly, Koenyg and Myklas do play particular roles and, as such, do not get as much “screen time”, but this only solidifies Shepherd’s authorial control over the situation.

Because, no matter what your long-held opinions about the siblings by the time you reach the final pages of the books – no matter how much you like Sasha or dislike Koenyg – nothing prepares you for Koenyg’s final words of the book. It is a literary masterstroke, reshaping the reader’s entire perception of an entire character in the context of his final words. Very few characters in fantasy literature can affect the reader’s assumptions of them retroactively, but Shepherd manages to weave the royal family of Lenayin in such a way as to remove any chance of simple answers.

As the author explains in my interview with him, “Koenyg remains entirely consistent to his worldview,” in that final scene. And while Koenyg’s worldview is clearly shown throughout the book, the character’s motivations are not as clear-cut, and are only really clarified in his final moments.

A Fighting Retreat

Another aspect of A Trial of Blood and Steel worth noting is the overall style with which the entire series is told. By this I do not mean the literary genre or how the author strung his sentences together. Rather, I’m referring to the overall scope of the series, which I describe as a large-scale fighting retreat. Each book puts the defenders more and more on the back foot, and by the fourth book of the series, Haven, everything is on the line.

But the fighting retreat starts much earlier and looks much more like victory than it will inevitably be revealed to be. The events of Sasha would appear, for all intents and purposes, to be a significant and great victory for the forces of good – in this case, “good” being defined as the cause of the Goeren-Yai, the Udalyn, Sasha, and her allies, while the “bad” is pretty much everyone else, in this particular instance. But by the time the book ends – and especially as you re-read the series – Joel Shepherd leaves the impression that not all is as it seems to be, and we’re left uncertain exactly what Kessligh has been up to and what he has accomplished.

As Petrodor starts out, it would appear that he has accomplished little – and it only goes downhill from there. At every stage of Petrodor it seems, for a moment at a time, that the “good guys” get the upper hand only to have it ripped out from underneath them – often with devastating consequences and bloody body counts. While things do not go well for the good guys for the majority of Tracato or Haven, I still feel as if Petrodor was the book that left me feeling most like they were fighting a losing battle. Every step in the right direction is almost immediately undermined and before long the entire hillside is aflame with fighting, giving the scenes a very Spanish-style Les Misérables vibe to it.

I was particularly moved (and, subsequently as a reviewer, impressed) by the relationship between Sasha and Rhillian, the enigmatic serrin – Joel Shepherds version of elves, but so far removed from the idea of fantasy elves that there are more dissimilarities than there are similarities. The immediate friendship that sparks between the human and serrin does not have the ring of authorial contrivance to it, rather, it seems to echo a meeting of minds, a connecting of two souls eternally intended for friendship. Their inherent differences – where they come from and their individual world views – only deepen the bond and make its severance all the worse.

That Shepherd doesn’t allow this relationship to stagnate – to rely on a single paradigm – is again proof of the author’s willingness never to allow things to remain the same lest they grow stale. And exploding out of every interaction between the two characters from then on is a palpable tension that leaves the reader feeling as heartsick as Sasha and Rhillian are portrayed to be. Their reunion in the opening sections of Haven is made all the more emotional because it was not hurried, not drawn forward to cosy readers, or given short-shrift in the moment.

But this emotional peak is immediately put into perspective – like a hiker surmounting a peak, only to reveal the greater heights beyond. What is assuredly a massive turning point is revealed to be less momentous and game-changing than the books’ participants may have hoped for. The initial victory is again turned into a harried and hurried return to the long fighting retreat which will eventually account for about two whole books in length.

The whole series plays out as one long, seemingly-unending fighting retreat. Nothing is ever as it seems, and even the final confrontation is left with strings dangling.

An End That’s Not An End

Fantasy authors (and fans alike) are renowned for never wanting their series to end. At times this can be so pervasive and obvious that it starts to detract from the story and past accomplishments.

Joel Shepherd obviously left some doors open when he finished writing Haven, the final book in the series, and you could theoretically mark him down for that. I don’t know why you would want to – anyone who made it to book four is most likely already a fan and wants more. Even the way that Shepherd closes out the last pages of the book have the air of someone planning to dig deeper someday. Point-of-view narrative is swapped for hindsight narrative and there are definitely some open-ended questions left unanswered.

But having read Joel Shepherd elsewhere, specifically in his The Spiral Wars, I can’t mark this against him. As I said, I simply want to read more of Sasha and her friends and countrymen, and I want to know more about the world. The serrin navy is apparently formidable, but they never get a chance to show it. The entire series takes place on a single continent – surely there’s more, right? And what happens to Lenayin in the aftermath, because the North are surely unhappy with how things turned out.

In a way, I’d be perfectly content if Shepherd doesn’t return to Lenay. I get to read his work in The Spiral Wars which, in my opinion, is giving A Trial of Blood and Steel a run for its money in terms of class and skill. They are completely different while at the same time being obviously written by the same author. You can tell! There is that same melancholy perception of the world or universe around characters that comes from overthinking one’s worldview, or the worldview of those around you. It’s a fantastic theme that is strong, but not heavy-handed, in A Trial of Blood and Steel, and subtle, but not invisible in The Spiral Wars.

In the end, though, what I really want is more writing by Joel Shepherd. I’ll take it wherever I can get it, because I honestly think that he’s one of the best writers going around at the moment. He absolutely doesn’t get the credit he deserves, and I really hope that more readers discover him soon. Whether you’re a fantasy fan, a sci-fi fan, or just a fan of beautifully crafted words strung together in an amazingly tended world, Joel Shepherd is one of the most inventive and captivating writers of the 21st Century.

Review: The Official A Game Of Thrones Colouring Book

A Game of Thrones interior illustration

When my Mum informed me that she needed to borrow some of my Derwent colouring pencils, I was a bit surprised. Turns out, however, that adult colouring has taken the world by storm. Bookstores all over the world are now selling colouring books for adults, with themes from intricately drawn flower mandalas to cats.

And A Game of Thrones.

The Official A Game Of Thrones Colouring Book is an marvellous selection of intricate drawings that will keep any adult colouring extraordinaire busy for hours (and the rest of us for days).

Done very much in the style of decades’ worth of fan and professional art inspired by a fantasy book series – including art by the world-famous John Howe, who is renowned for his The Lord of the Rings artwork, and his subsequent heavy-involvement with The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movie trilogies – the nearly-50 original black and white drawings found inside cover everything from House crests, dragons, wolves, battles, and your favourite characters.

Even if you are just starting out into the world of adult colouring, this book will be an absolute blast – and all the more fun if you are a fan of A Game of Thrones.

Fantasy Book Review Short Story Competition winner and runner-ups

UPDATE: We are currently working on publishing the three winning entries, the work which includes the design of three individual, specially-designed PDF templates and comment on the winning entries from Frank P Ryan and the winning authors themselves. Thank you for your patience.

I am delighted to announce the winner and two runner-ups of our inaugural short story competition. After very careful deliberation Frank P Ryan selected three stories from our shortlist of nine:

In third place is Kat Zantow for the well-written classical fantasy / science fiction tale To Ashes.

“I was twenty miles from the city of ashes when my eyes started sliding shut of their own volition. My body demanded coffee, and I obligingly cut off a honking sedan to make the exit. I followed the ramp to a small string of shops sandwiched between a church and a motel. The café looked familiar, so I parked out front. I hadn’t been to this place since I had escaped the City on the Hill with—

Leigh. My stomach twisted, and I wondered if I could make it to my car before she realized I had arrived. I hadn’t recognized her pull. She was always so good at sliding her intentions naturally into my thoughts.

I spotted her through the window. Her back was to the glass and there was nothing familiar in the sheet of purple hair, but I knew her at once, as I always know her. My hand throbbed with the tempo of her heartbeat, and I could feel, in sharp detail, every point in the pattern she had tattooed into my knuckles those years ago.”
An excerpt from To Ashes

In second place is Kirsty Logan for the very stylish and witty Coin-operated Boys.

“That August, Elodie Selkirk became the latest lady in Paris to order a coin-operated boy. Despite her hooked nose and missing pinkie finger, Elodie was suffering from a rash of suitors; unfortunately for them, she was in no need of a gentleman. Elodie glanced down the hall to make sure that the maid was still safely in her room, as instructed – it was best to keep the boy a secret until she could check him over. She straightened the silk bow at her throat and opened the door.

Her apartment was close to the busiest shopping street in Paris, and all of the city’s ephemera were passing by, their feet at eye-level. A parade of life, from the glittering right down to the groaning: whispering petticoats dirtied at the hem, leather shoes shinier than pennies, wheels ticking on cobblestones, snatches of scandal… Usually, Elodie could not stand the racket, but it all slipped out of focus the moment she saw the boy. From the calm angles of his cheeks to the ruled lines of his cravat, the boy was a mathematical sum. He added up perfectly.

‘Mademoiselle Selkirk? I am pleased to meet you.’ His voice was as clean as dew, but Elodie would not forget her manners.

‘Do come in, sir. There is tea in the parlour.’ She swept her arm to clarify, fingers carefully curled to hide the missing pinkie. The boy bowed as he passed her. His pinstriped boater seemed to tilt; Elodie looked away from the imperfection as she closed the door, and by the time she walked to the parlour he was sitting at a perfect right angle to the chaise longue.”
An excerpt from Coin-operated Boys

And the winner is David Rudden for the poetic and simply outstanding Senescence.

“My father built coffins for our village’s dead.

He was a small man, his eyes two nail marks in an umber mass of beard and sun-darkened skin, his hands gnarled masses of knuckle and nail. When he worked, old scars shone white under sweat, a nonsense-scribble of forgotten wounds. As a child, my world was made up of things that he built; the walls of our cottage, the wide, low bed that we shared, the simple toys he had carved.

My mornings would be broken by the sound of saws, the hacking cough of mallet on chisel. Sunlight would pool on the earthen floor as I swept sweet-scented pine shavings into neat piles, brought tools to the whetstone to be sharpened, or brought jugs of water to him when the sun turned the air to ripples of choking heat. He would split green wood and leave it to season, weighted by stone so that the wood would not warp. When the moisture dried creaking from under grain he would stack it and wrap it with canvas in the corner of his workshop, the ends painted with acrid-smelling sealer he made from the berries that grew above the graves on the hill.

At night he inked the symbols on his arms for the thousandth time, and waited for a body to build around.

Our village lay in that curve of forest that spread from Winter’s Edge to Farcal Rise, one of the few settlements this far north. Just a few hundred farmers and hunters, a village so small it did not have a name or a reason to exist beyond people desiring people, cottages huddling together out of necessity, a bulwark against lonely night. A few hundred metres from our cottage door, the world devolved to the cracked clay and wiregrass of the true north, the wasteland scoured by wind and roofed by storms.”
An excerpt from Senescence

I would just like to offer my congratulations to David, Kirsty and Kat, whose submissions were wonderful examples of high-quality short-fiction. The winning stories will be published in their entirety on Fantasy Book Review and Swift Publishers in seven days time (November 8, 2011).

The winner, David Rudden, will receive an Apple iPad, while Kat Zantow and Kirsty Logan will receive an Amazon Kindle each.

Thank you to all who entered the competition.

Shortlist of 9 for Fantasy Book Review Short Story Competition

10 days ago I published a longlist of 22 entries for our short-story competition. After careful deliberation we have now shortened the list to 9 and I would just like to offer my commiserations to the 13 authors that have been lost from the longlist and sincerely hope that they were happy to know just how highly we rated their stories.

So here are the 9 stories that have made the shortlist, in alphabetical order, with the first paragraph of their story.

  • Coin-Operated Boys by Kirsty Logan
    That August, Elodie Selkirk became the latest lady in Paris to order a coin-operated boy. Despite her hooked nose and missing pinkie finger, Elodie was suffering from a rash of suitors; unfortunately for them, she was in no need of a gentleman. Elodie glanced down the hall to make sure that the maid was still safely in her room, as instructed – it was best to keep the boy a secret until she could check him over. She straightened the silk bow at her throat and opened the door.
  • For All Time by Jean Marino
    Sage watched the Heron skim the trees before its slow descent to the nearby marsh. When it dipped out of site, a shadowy mass in a maple tree caught her eye. Her dog growled, his silver scruff rising. Her initial trepidation waned, and she drew nearer, urged by her curiosity. A soft gasp escaped at the sight of a man dangling from the branches. Was he dead? As if in answer, his body twitched, sending her dog into a barking frenzy.
  • Howl by Rheanna-Marie Hall
    The fast moving mass of cloak and steel converged upon the hillside, a black spot against the dirty green of marshland scrub. Progress became slow as the riders snaked left to right in search of sturdier ground, their steeds’ hooves sinking into bog. Heavy armour only added to the difficulty.
  • Scholar’s Reprisal by Thomas Dipple
    “Scholar! If you stop that horse one more time I’ll let them kill you! Now ride!” Pursa felt the horse bolt as Carden slapped its rear with the flat of his sword blade. The beast charged on through the forest and Pursa cried out as his face was whipped by low hanging leaves and twigs.
  • Senescence by David Rudden
    My father built coffins for our village’s dead. He was a small man, his eyes two nail marks in an umber mass of beard and sun-darkened skin, his hands gnarled masses of knuckle and nail. When he worked, old scars shone white under sweat, a nonsense-scribble of forgotten wounds. As a child, my world was made up of things that he built; the walls of our cottage, the wide, low bed that we shared, the simple toys he had carved.
  • The Dwarf by George Poles
    Now it was the fashion in that state for beauty to seat itself by ugliness. How could the splendour of the graceful palaces of the rich truly be appreciated without placing them within sight of the poorest slums?  How could the elegant lines and delicate colouring of the finest artists be understood without the contrast of the rude sketches that were placed next to them?  Most of all how could the shining faces, slim bodies and gorgeous dresses of the young ladies of fashion truly be seen without the darkness of the malformed and misshapen beside them to reveal their light?
  • The Hearing by Mark Torrender
    The courtroom smelled of cedar and wood polish. Exactly what Jack Deacon expected. I bet all courtrooms smell this way, he thought as he straightened his Sean John gold paisley tie which he hoped would make an impression on the judge, daft as he knew that sounded. Jack had never been to court before – hadn’t even done jury duty – but here he was now fighting for justice. No one had ever done what he was attempting to do, and if it meant emoting blood, he’d emote blood.
  • The Price of Envy by Stephie Hall
    I distinctly remember that as a child the forest was a welcoming place. In my mind, it held a Narnian lamp-post, shining brightly with a welcoming yellow glow through the wintry storms. It was a place to play, where crisp new snow lay undisturbed by the rowdiness of my playmates. My secret place, where I could withdraw and dream up stories that were, in my mind, equal to those of the venerable Mr Lewis. I would hold out in hope, praying earnestly, in the way that small children do – how God must smile to hear the sweet, sincere prayers of those still untouched by the cynicism of Life – that a faun, brown coated and cloven hoofed, would come and invite me for tea. And my faun would be far superior to Lucy’s because in the forest of my mind there was no great evil, no Lilleth to bring her icy coach and tear us away to an evil place.
  • To Ashes by Kat Zantow
    I was twenty miles from the city of ashes when my eyes started sliding shut of their own volition. My body demanded coffee, and I obligingly cut off a honking sedan to make the exit. I followed the ramp to a small string of shops sandwiched between a church and a motel. The café looked familiar, so I parked out front. I hadn’t been to this place since I had escaped the City on the Hill with—

The above 9 stories are all now with Frank P Ryan, who will be selecting a winner and 2 runner-ups which we will announce on Tuesday (November 1, 2011) and published exactly a week later.

Congratulations to all who made the shortlist.

Please note: Although all short-stories have now been read not all may have, as of yet, received their free ebook. Over the coming days and weeks I will be cross-checking all submissions to ensure that all have had their details sent through to Swift Publishers. (Please feel free to leave a comment on this page if you have not received your free book.)

Nostalgia Lane #1: Ladyhawke by Joan D Vinge

In the late 1980s I came across a book that really enchanted me. It made a strong and lasting impression on my adolescent mind and I’m sure it played no small part in forging an everlasting love for the fantasy genre. The book was Ladyhawke and its author was Joan D Vinge. So, more than twenty years on, I thought I would revisit it and see if the magic was still there.

Back then, should anybody mention the film Ladyhawke, I would be compelled to say “Ah, but you should read the book, it is much better” or “The film just doesn’t do the book justice”. On re-read I find that these comments are at best ill-judged (at worst idiotic) as I found the book to be an expansion on the screenplay. The difference then was my imagination created vivid settings and characters that no film would ever match, hence the reasons I thought the two so different.

I’m sure that you can already tell that the experience second time around was not quite as fulfilling, but such is the curse of nostalgia. But I still found Ladyhawke to be a fun read and the core elements of the story are just as excellent as ever. For those unfamiliar with the story, here is  brief synopsis:

No one ever escapes the dungeons of Aquila… But Philippe Gaston did. The thief known as the Mouse escaped through the cracks where the rats couldn’t run. Running for his life and pursued by the Bishop’s guards, he was saved by the sword-arm of the dark rider on a great black horse… Who was this fearsome warrior, silhouetted against the darkening skyline with the strange and beautiful hunting hawk on his fist… And why did he so fear the black fall of night? Together they must journey towards a day of destiny… A day without light and a night without darkness, when the Bishop of Aquila must face the lovers he has cursed and the Evil One can claim his own…

And it is the curse laid upon the two lovers that made the book so special for me. The curse meant that he, Navarre, was by day a man, by night a wolf. It also meant that she, Isobelle, was by day a hawk, by night a woman. Never could they be together in human form, other than for a split second at dawn and dusk. I’m sure you will all agree that it is a great basis for a story, classic fantasy, and the pain, suffering and hopelessness of Navarre and Isobelle is brought clearly to the page by Vinge’s clever writing.

ladyhawke

Picture: In 1982 Richard Donner produced a directed the film Ladyhawke, starring Rutger Hauer, Michelle Pfeiffer and Matthew Broderick.

Vinge, best known for her Hugo Award-winning novel The Snow Queen and its sequels, already had a fine pedigree in movie serialisations with Star Wars: Return of the Jedi – The Storybook (1983), The Dune Storybook (1984), Return to Oz (1985), Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) Santa Claus: The Movie (1985) and Lost in Space (1998) to her name. And she did a sound a thoroughly professional job with Ladyhawke. It is a poignant and moving novel, with a simplicity of narrative that is refreshing.

Did it read as well second time around? Not quite. Although still a very enjoyable story with a great plot it does read more like a screenplay than a story. I would still recommend it though, particularly to young adults and those who like a large slice of romance in their fantasy. As for me, Ladyhawke will always have a fond place on my bookshelf and in my heart.

On March 2, 2002, Vinge was severely injured in a car accident that left her with “minor but debilitating” brain damage that, along with her fibromyalgia, left her unable to write. She recovered to the point of being able to resume writing around the beginning of 2007. At the time of her accident in 2002, she had been working on a new, independent novel called Ladysmith, set in Bronze Age Europe; she resumed writing Ladysmith once she was able to begin writing again in 2007.

I’m pleased to say that Ladysmith will be available in paperback in November 2012.