My favourite audio-book narrators

The Amulet of Samarkand audio-book on my iPod using the Audible app.I had always enjoyed audio-books but until recent years had not really listened to that many, always preferring print over audio. But when life left me with less and less reading time, then took me off the train and put me behind the wheel of a car, I found that I had on average two hours every single day that the car radio and music albums couldn’t satisfactorily fill. And so I turned to audio-books and it has now become a source of entertainment that I simply cannot now live without. The earliest audio-book I can remember listening to was Watership Down by Roy Dotrice (who currently reads George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books) and I found it a wonderful – but abridged – reading (on cassette) of Richard Adams’ classic tale and I have since managed to get hold of it in mp3 format and it will always remain very special to me. I then purchased the BBC radio adaptations of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which are both very good, but I had still not yet listened to a full, unabridged reading of a novel. But this was soon remedied and a quick glance at my Audible library shows I now have more than 130 titles and the vast majority of them are excellent. The audio-book that initially converted me fully to the charms of the format was Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, read by the wonderful Simon Prebble. It was a book I liked but was finding it a bit of a struggle to read at a healthy pace as it is as a bit of a daunting read to be honest. But thanks to Prebble’s amazing array of voice talent I was suddenly having this book brought to life and read to me for over two hours a day and I loved every minute of it. I didn’t just listen to it on my commute, I listened to it at lunch, for a sly five minutes here and there during the work day, while I was washing up and last thing at night (of course using the 15 minutes timer so I wouldn’t be lost in the morning). And from this time I have since listened to some of the very best audio-books in the fantasy and fiction genres and this is what this page is all about. I’ve learnt a few important things along the way, like how epic/high fantasy can be problematic in audio-format due to the amount of invented names and places (the Wheel of Time, Sword of Truth and Shannara books being three good examples) and that urban fantasy is often a much better bet. Unabridged is always best, the only exception being The Bartimaeus Trilogy, which was abridged but did not appear to lose anything. So here are the narrators that have impressed me the most over the years. They have of course been gifted wonderful source material by some very talented authors but still, what they have done with it is truly memorable.

I would love for visitors to make more narrator recommendations do please use the comment box at the bottom of this page to do so.

Frank Muller

Frank MullerFrank Muller, who sadly died in 2008, was a classically trained actor whose background included many years on the New York stage at the Riverside Shakespeare Company, the Roundabout Theater, and the New York Shakespeare Festival. His numerous awards include the Audio Publishers Association’s 1996 Consumer’s Choice Audie Award for Best Unabridged Fiction, the 1997 Best Unabridged Fiction Audie Award, and nine AudioFile Magazine Earphones Awards. His finest moment came in 1999 when he was awarded the top achievement in audiobook narration, the AudioFile Lifetime Achievement Award.

I first heard Frank Muller read on the second book in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, The Drawing of the Three. I was stunned, he had managed to recreate the voice of Roland Deschain, the last gunslinger, from within my own mind and he had managed to take Stephen King’s magnum opus and make it even better to listen to than it was to read, which is no mean achievement. King and Muller are perfect together (I believe Muller was always King’s narrator of choice) and their collaborations together are must-listens for all fantasy audio-book lovers.

Recommended audio-books read by Frank Muller:

  • Dark Tower II: Drawing of the Three (Stephen King)
  • Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands (Stephen King)
  • Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass (Stephen King)
  • The Green Mile (Stephen King)
  • The Talisman (Stephen King and Peter Straub)

John Chancer

John ChancerJohn Chancer is an award-winning narrator of many audio books who has a long association with the theatre on both sides of the Atlantic. He has also been heard on many radio dramas, documentaries and cartoons in Britain and US.

I don’t know if John Chancer is British or American – and this is as big a complement as I can give. I first came across Chancer when listening to the excellent Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, a classic of the dystopian genre that he reads magnificently. And so I had absolutely no hesitation in then downloading the Haruki Murakami book Norwegian Wood when I saw he was the man doing the reading. Chancer is very fine narrator indeed.

Recommended audio-books read by John Chancer:

  • Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood)
  • Norwegian Wood (Haruki Murakami)
  • The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck) – non fantasy but I would still like to recommend

George Guidall

George GuidallGeorge Guidall has recorded over 900 (yes, nine hundred – I’m not sure I’ve read that many books) unabridged novels, bringing a consistent artistry to his readings and delighting listeners for over 20 years. His recordings have garnered uniformly excellent reviews from Audiofile, Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, and a variety of national newspapers and magazines. Guidall received an Audie Award for best unabridged narration of a novel for his recording of John Irving’s A Widow For One Year, an honor he captured again for his rendition of Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True. He holds the record for the most “Earphone” awards (over 70) given by the magazine to any narrator for excellence in narration.

As with Frank Muller, I first encountered George Guidall thanks to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. He reads the first book, The Gunslinger and then returned to complete the series by reading books six and seven. But it was on Neil Gaiman’s American Gods that I found him at his very best, bringing the award-winning story to life with brilliant portrayals of the large cast. I would not hesitate to listen to any book read by Guidall.

Neil Gaiman's American Gods within the Audible iPad app.

Recommended audio-books read by George Guidall:

  • Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger (Stephen King)
  • Dark Tower VI: Song of Susannah (Stephen King)
  • Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower (Stephen King)
  • American Gods (Neil Gaiman)

Sean Barrett

Sean Barrett As a child Sean Barrett appeared on BBC children’s television and in films such as Bang! You’re Dead, War and Peace, The Genie and Four Sided Triangle. Then, in the early 1980s, Barrett went on to voice acting and subsequently performed many voices including Tik-Tok in Return to Oz, a Goblin in Labyrinth and UrSu the Dying Master and UrZah the Ritual-Guardian in The Dark Crystal.

Rumour also has it that Barrett appears on the cover of a single by The Smiths… I think that Sean Barrett is probably my favourite voice actor/narrator because he creates such a wonderful atmosphere, has such a powerful, yet soothing voice and brings across the humour of any book extremely well. By way of a compliment I will happily admit that I would probably not have finished Paul Hoffman’s Left Hand of God trilogy but for the excellence of his readings. Indeed, I was so impressed by Barrett that I went looking for other works read by him and I was led to Kafka on the Shore, which is now by far my favourite Murakami novel and one that Barrett reads brilliantly. I was also introduced to Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole crime thrillers through Barrett, which he reads with such relish. If you see Sean Barrett’s name alongside a book you like, do not think twice and begin listening immediately.

Recommended audio-books read by Sean Barrett:

  • The Snowman (Jo Nesbo)
  • The Left Hand of God (Paul Hoffman)
  • The Last Four Things (Paul Hoffman)
  • The Beating of His Wings (Paul Hoffman)
  • Kafka on the Shore (Haruki Murakami)

Roy Dotrice

Roy DotriceRoy Dotrice is an award-winning actor who has earned two places within the Guinness Book of Records. The first being for the greatest number of solo theatre performances (1,782), and the second for having recorded the highest number of character voices by a single actor in the first book in the series (A Game of Thrones, in which he voices a total of 224 characters).

I first encountered Roy Dotrice in the 1980s when my sister received the audiobook edition of Watership Down as a present. Before long ownership had passed to me by virtue of borrowing it and never giving it back. I have listened to Dotrice tell the stirring tale of Hazel, Bigwig, Fiver and company at least once a year for the past three decades. He managed to bring as much life and individuality to the characters that it was like listening to a full cast dramatisation. When I learned that Dotrice would be reading the A Song of Ice and Fire series I was delighted, and the verve and skill with which he delivers these large books is mightily impressive considering he has recently passed his ninetieth birthday. One of my favourite narrators.

Recommended audio-books by Roy Dotrice:

  • Watership Down (Richard Adams)
  • A Game of Thrones (George R. R. Martin)
  • A Clash of Kings (George R. R. Martin)
  • A Storm of Swords (George R. R. Martin)
  • A Feast of Crows (George R. R. Martin)
  • A Dance With Dragons (George R. R. Martin)

Karen Archer

Karen Archer.To all of her performances, Karen Archer brings a seamless fluidity and humanity combined with precision and attention to detail. These qualities have made her a familiar voice in the many documentaries she has recorded for National Geographic and Discovery Channel. Karen has made numerous broadcasts for BBC Radio, twice being a member of BBC Radio Drama Company. Her work in the theatre includes classics such as Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts and contemporary roles such as Annie Wilkes in an adaptation of Steven King’s novel Misery. Her extensive television work has included Assistant Chief Constable Anne Stewart in the police drama series The Chief and Queen Elizabeth I in David Starkey’s acclaimed historical series, Elizabeth. Karen has read a biography of Queen Elizabeth I for Naxos Audio Books. For Craftsman Audio Books she has recorded the complete Snow-Walker trilogy by Catherine Fisher and A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin.

The Earthsea books are amongst my very favourites. They are beautifully written, imbued with such a sense of calm and thoughtfulness that reading them can instil a feeling not unlike meditation. Karen Archer reads them perfectly, matching precisely Le Guin’s masterful prose. A must listen for all fantasy fans.

Recommended audio-books read by Karen Archer:

  • A Wizard of Earthsea (Ursula Le Guin)
  • The Tombs of Atuan (Ursula Le Guin)

Simon Vance

simon-vance-portraitSimon Vance caught the acting bug while attending the Brighton School of Music and Drama on Saturday mornings. He was given a reel-to-reel tape recorder and started recording funny voices and silly noises. In the 1970’s he began a broadcasting career at BBC Radio Brighton. In the 1980’s he became a newsreader and presenter for BBC Radio 4 where he discovered a knack for narrating audiobooks when working for the Talking Book Service of the Royal National Institute for the Blind. In the 1990’s he began doing audiobooks commercially for the first time and has since has received 7 Audie nominations and received 27 Earphone awards.

My first encounter with Simon Vance came when I began listening to  his reading of Tigana, one of my favourite books of all time, which he delivers perfectly, doing the book complete justice. And it is for the reading of Tigana that Simon Vance appears on this page and I look forward to listening to him read the story to me once again in the not to distant future.

Recommended audio-books read by Simon Vance:

  • Tigana (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  • The Fionavar Tapestry (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  • River of Stars (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  • Weaveworld (Clive Barker)
  • Bring Up the Bodies (Hilary Mantel) – non fantasy
  • Frankenstein (Mary Shelley)

Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana within the Audible iPad app.

Tom Stechschulte

Tom Stechshulte.Tom Stechschulte is a prolific audiobook reader, having read, amongst others: Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men and The Road, James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island.

I now associate Tom Stechschulte with the very best dystopian fiction, namely The Road by Cormac McCarthy and Swan Song by Robert McCammon. His reading voice is the very epitome of sonorous, the voice he uses for the Man from The Road and Joshua from Swan Song being absolutely perfect. I could – and will – listen to him narrate The Road every year, it is a perfect book read beautifully.

Recommended audio-books read by Tom Stechschulte:

  • Swan Song (Robert McCammon)
  • The Road (Cormac McCarthy)

Steven Pacey

Steven Pacey.Steven Pacey is a versatile actor and narrator who balances audiobook work with a busy theatre career. He is often recognized for his skill with characters and the scope of his talents in audiobooks for both adults and children. He is brilliant at bringing out the unusual British blend of suspense and humour in audiobooks for older children. His narration of Gentlemen & Players by Joanne Harris won an Earphones Award.

Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy is brilliant fantasy but also very, very funny, especially when read by Steven Pacey. His portrayal of the irascible djinni is a joy to listen to and he capture the sardonic wit to perfection. And a sign of his versatility is how comfortably he then turns to something far darker in John Lindqvist’s Let the Right One in, a modern take on the vampire novel set in a bleak Scandinavian setting. His reading of Gentlemen & Players is on my must-listen-to-next list.

Recommended audio-books read by Steven Pacey:

  • The Bartimaeus Trilogy (The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem’s Eye and Ptolemy’s Gate by Jonathan Stroud)
  • Let the Right One in (John Lindqvist)

Simon Prebble

Simon Prebble.British born performer Simon Prebble is a stage, film and television actor who has played everything from Soaps to Shakespeare. As a narrator of some 350 audio book titles he has received critical acclaim from both fans and peers. He is one of Audiofile’s ‘Golden Voices’ and Voices of the Century’, and has received over 24 ‘Earphone’ awards, 5 ‘Listen Up’ awards and has been nominated 11 times for the ‘Audies’, the industry’s own ‘Oscars’. In 2005 he was named ‘Narrator of the Year’ by Publisher’s Weekly.

Simon Prebble may well be the individual I have most to thank in regards to my conversion to the love of audiobooks. I was reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and while finding it a very good book I was having difficulty making much progress, often reading little more than 10 pages a night. It was a dense read (in a good way). So I downloaded the audiobook and from that moment on I listened to it at a rate of about 4 hours a day (about 120 pages) and so was finished in less than a week. And what a story it was, and what a feat of narration, to bring a large cast to life using brilliantly sounding, and authentic, voices. I was sorry when the reading finished and have since listened to it twice again. Prebble is also excellent at narrating the Sherlock Holmes stories. His Narrator of the Year award was well deserved.

  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke)
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle)
  • The Pickwick Papers (Charles Dickens)

Samuel West

Samuel WestSam West is a British narrator, actor and director. He has recorded over fifty audiobooks, among which are the Shakespeare plays All’s Well That Ends Well, Coriolanus, Henry V, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Richard II and Macbeth, the Wind on Fire trilogy by William Nicholson, the Arthur trilogy by Kevin Crossley-Holland, five books by Sebastian Faulks and two by George Orwell.

It was on John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids that I first heard Samuel West narrate and I was very impressed by how he managed to perfectly encapsulate the era in which the book was set. He told that story with such skill and aplomb that when I saw that he has also narrated George Orwell’s 1984, a book I had long wanted to read, I didn’t hesitate to download it straight away. And the book itself, and the reading, are just as magnificent as I hoped they would be. West read dystopia very, very well but judging from the list of the works he has also done he appears to be as comfortable and as skilled across all genres. If there was a book that appealed to me and it was available as an audiobook read by West I would not hesitate for one second to download it immediately.

  • 1984 (George Orwell)
  • The Day of the Triffids (John Wyndham)

Stephen Fry

Stephen FryStephen Fry is a comedian, actor, writer, presenter, and activist who needs little introduction, especially here in his native UK where he has achieved national treasure status. To me he is best known for his comedy work with Hugh Laurie, his long-running television series QI and for his roles in the ever-popular Blackadder comedy series.

His is also a narrator of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and boy does he do it justice. Not all actors have a varied array of voices and accents. In fact, in my experience, famous actors do not often make the best narrators due to their lack of vocal diversity but Stephen Fry does not fall into this category. His reading of the seven phenomenally successful novels is perfect, from his Harry, Ron and Hermoine through to his – in my opinion – fond homages to the great British actors from the film adaptations, namely Robbie Coltraine, Kenneth Branagh, Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson, this is a collection of audiobooks to, well, treasure.

  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (J. K. Rowling)
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (J. K. Rowling)
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (J. K. Rowling)
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (J. K. Rowling)
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (J. K. Rowling)
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (J. K. Rowling)
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (J. K. Rowling)

And so that brings to an end a list of the best narrators I have so far encountered. The criteria for inclusion is a minimum of two excellent readings and this has naturally led to the exclusion of several other fantastic narrators. So I have listed some other great fantasy audio-books and their readers below:

  • Robin Hobb’s Soldier Son Trilogy, read by Jonathan Barlow
  • The BBC adaptations of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings
  • Stephen King’s The Stand, read by Grover Gardner and Under the Dome, read by Raul Esparza
  • Gene Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer, read by Jonathan Davis
  • Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s The Strain, read by Ron Perlman
  • Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief, read by Allan Corduner
  • The Graveyard Book, read by the book’s author Neil Gaiman
  • Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, read by the author and full cast
  • J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, read by Martin Shaw
  • Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, read by Sir Ian McKellan
  • Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife, read by William Hope and Lauren Lefkow
  • Raymond E. Feist’s Magician, read by Peter Joyce

I am always on the look out for more audio-book recommendations so please let me know what else I should be listening to by leaving a comment below. I hope you have found this list useful.

Where Are All the Minorities?

Author photo of Lane Heymont.By Lane Heymont

I grew up reading classic literature, contemporary literature, philosophy, scientific books, and fantasy. A lot of fantasy. I must have read a thousand fantasy novels in my days, if not more. For the most part they all ignored my existence, or rather, represented only the existence of one culture: Western Europe, so much to the point that it was a running gag among my friends.

I remember saying, “So you’re telling me in a world of ogres, orcs, dragons, and hobbits, there’s no black people?”

To this day, the only people of color I’ve seen in a fantasy – taking place on a secondary world – is the Dragonlance series, and frankly, only one or two characters make appearances if I remember correctly. Neither of the characters could be considered the protagonist.

I have a major issue with this. Why? Because, when I read, and more importantly, write, I like to feel this magical, wondrous sense called “reality”. This is of the utmost importance, despite the notion of “suspension of disbelief” which is so critical to enjoying the fantasy genre; I have to somehow identify with it.

Cover image of The Freedman and the Pharaoh's Staff by Lane Heymont.While writing The Freedman and the Pharaoh’s Staff, my debut novel about the relationship between racism and a myriad of people – black and white – I faced a lot of criticism, rather, warnings from beta readers when I explained I was writing from the perspective of an African-American character. Ironically, the only people who objected were white people. However, it made me wonder if their protests were me writing about black characters, or from that point of view. Basically, having a minority/person of color protagonist was their issue.

On one level I can appreciate the trepidation some white or non-minority authors might feel, but to give in to that worry is to commit robbery. You rob the readers of a chance to see a fantasy novel based in reality where not only white characters are presented as heroes. You rob people of the chance to read about someone “who looks like them.”

I’ll repeat that: who looks like them. I’ve heard those words said a lot when it comes to the fantasy genre. A number of friends, who happen to people of color, have often said as a child they wondered why there were no heroes who looked like them. The appearance is less the issue, and more the feeling of being ignored. That’s a horrible feeling.

Why exactly are people of color so underrepresented in fantasy? There’s this concept of the Other, a prominent notion in continental philosophy, which is the idea that something unfamiliar to us, something outside our “known world” is different. By nature, humankind fears what is different – at best, misunderstands what is different.

Psychologically, this affects every interaction we have, or even think, in relation to the Other. So, it’s safe to say for white writers who may have limited experiences or relationships with those outside their race might consider writing from a minority perspective the Other.

The Freedman and the Pharaoh’s Staff relies heavily on the idea of the Other. Ku Klux Klan characters hate, attempt to enslave, and even murder African-American characters because, at its base, they are the Other. Narce, the most hateful and morally despicable character in my novel, is fuelled by hatred based on fear and ignorance. Sure, he’s evil, but despite his horribleness he’s still a human who functions as defined by human psychology.

So, it feels like white authors have an easier time, or are more comfortable, writing from the perspective of dragons, ghosts, elves, Minotaurs, and other non-humans than another human being. Seems ironically odd, don’t you think? And the writing suffers for it, as does the cause.

Stories, even fantasy stories and those that require the suspension of disbelief, need to be grounded in reality. What’s interesting in the real world is the myriad of human cultures, not ogres or hobbits or lizard people. Not to say lizard people should be compared with a real world culture, and frankly, I am not a fan of how many authors base a non-human race on a real world culture. That’s the definition of a culture thief.

Writing The Freedman and the Pharaoh’s Staff was invigorating and refreshing as a fantasy reader, because the genre had started to frustrate me. How many times can you read about dwarves, ghosts, fairys, and the like, without having them converge into this amorphous blob? Sure, one author’s vampire is different than another’s, but vampires are vampires.

As a reader I wanted something different and as a writer I needed something different. At the time I began The Freedman and the Pharaoh’s Staff I was enrolled in an African-American Literature class. It inspired me, and I ran with the story of Jeb – a former slave and freedman, and his brother-in-law Crispus who must defend their town from the Klan.

As soon as I put my finger to the keyboard I knew where I was going. Magic? Of course, it’s a fantasy, but like in all good stories, the system of magic needs to be consistent and make sense. I chose Voodoo magic because it’s one of the most defined systems, since it’s a religion interlaced with real laws of magic. It works if you believe it.

So my plea with authors is to provide us with more minority protagonists—strong, honourable, realistic characters and there will be no issue. Overcome your anxiety of offending people by writing from a place of honesty and most importantly, respect.

Lane Heymont was born in Pennsylvania. He earned a BA in Liberal Arts with a focus on literature and history. He also holds a double minor in psychology and business. After college, Lane turned his focus back to writing. He has several short stories published, one of which was recommended for a 2012 Bram Stoker Award. The Freedman and the Pharaoh’s staff is his debut novel from Sunbury Press.

In Search of the Perfect Fantasy TV Show

Fantasy Island 1978 show.Is this even possible? I mean, were there any fantasy TV shows before, like, the 90’s? Come with me then, dear traveller, and let us investigate this mystery. If you were kind enough to read my previous article, wittily called In Search of the Perfect Fantasy Movie, you will have an inkling as to what I am looking for  – it needs big swordfights, a range of fantasy creatures,  good dialogue, magic and bad men in helmets. I know, right? This should be easy!

I would argue that TV has had a much longer and more comfortable relationship with fantasy than cinema has, I don’t know why but TV was pushing out successful fantasy and sci-fi shows since the late 60s. Considering the budget constraints, this seems surprising, but they made up for it by concentrating on story and character rather than the visual aspect. I‘m not going to discuss sci-fi here for obvious reasons.

1970's show Monkey.I’ll admit that there wasn’t much in terms of hardcore fantasy output before the 80’s and if there was it was often left in the realm of kids TV – not to belittle it, I was a small kid once (as opposed to the big one now) -  and the occasional mad foreign import. Yes, Monkey! I loved that show, based on the ancient text Journey to the West, it used to be on at a mad time – like 6pm on BBC2 – and it was amazing. The dialogue, the voices, the huge fights when Monkey would summon his army by blowing on his chest hair and the amazing fx! It was bonkers but brilliant. I got some of the videos released in the 90s and watched them again – I could spot the wires now but it was still fun for all of that. If anything, I could appreciate the wit and mickey taking of the dubbing actors more. You know, I think this show is ripe for a western make-over and it should star Nathan Fillion. Not that I’m in any way biased.

Knightmare.The 1980’s were still a bit bereft of any good fantasy. It was the time of Fighting Fantasy and the rise of Games Workshop, so I wasn’t surprised to see Knightmare on ITV. It was the fantasy equivalent of the awesome Adventure Game. I always felt for the sprog whose job it was to walk around in the helmet, in what was in reality big empty room. Livin’ the dream, huh.

There was something on called Robin of Sherwood with a dreamy, folksy soundtrack by Clannad. Starring Michael Praed, then Jason Connery, it was actually pretty gritty and kinda cool with a good supporting cast (Ray Winstone for example). It tried to place itself in an actual historical context but had fantasy elements such as sorcery. It was cancelled after three seasons.

Come the 90s, things started to pick up due in no small part to Sam Raimi and his cohorts of terror. They kicked off with the long running Hercules starring Kevin Sorbo and then the spin off Xena, Warrior princess. Based on Greek legends, with the gods of Olympus pitching up to meddle in things, the show branched out to include other elements of ancient lore. They also had the good sense to base themselves in the heart of fantasydom on Earth – New Zealand. Both shows had decent runs and were good fun. They also had the secret weapons of Bruce Campbell and Ted Raimi as recurring characters.

Apparently there was a Conan series. It didn’t last long and the bloke looked silly,

Worth a mention is a British show called Dark Knight which ran for two seasons at the turn of the century on Channel 5. It played on the Ivanhoe myth and was created by the man who came up with Hawk the Slayer and even had the guy (Peter O’Farrel) who played the dwarf in Hawk, playing a dwarf in this. It is very reminiscent of The Legend of the Seeker (more of that in a moment). The stories had some good fantasy fare going on but the effects were sometimes no better than what they used in Knightmare.

Legend of the Seeker.Later, in 2008, came Legend of the Seeker – shoot in New Zealand (tick), based on the Terry Goodkind novels (tick) with red-leather wearing, bisexual, phallus truncheon wielding, dominatrix warrior women called Mord Sith (TICK). This show took a little time to find its feet and get over the LOTR comparisons but it was getting really interesting when it got cancelled after season two, which was a real shame. It had a good cast, likeable male/female leads – great support from Bruce Spence as the wizard Zed (who actually did shoot fireballs from his finger-tips) and a brilliant villainous turn from genre fave Craig Parker, perhaps better known as the elf Haldir from LOTR.

Also starting that year was the British-made show – Merlin. As the title suggests, it was a retread of the Arthur legend but focussing on Merlin’s early years. Now into its fifth season, this show has benefited from having a strong central cast and an excellent dynamic between Arthur and Merlin as they bicker and spar off each other. Whilst there are many standalone episodes, there have always been season arc plots which move the story towards what we know is an inevitable set of events. As the show has matured so have the scripts and storyline. I could go on but I have to front up and say that as I am currently writing for Merlin the Game anything I say could be construed as blatant self-interest…cough…

Camelot – another retread aired in 2010. It depicted a vision of what might actually have happened and placed itself as historical fiction rather than fantasy although Merlin (a good Joseph Fiennes) was a genuine wizard and employed magic as did Morgan le Fay. The look and feel of the show was pretty good and ramping up the adult nature of it was no bad thing but unfortunately, the central character was a bit naff and the whole thing never really fired the imagination – cancelled after season one.

2011/2012 saw some new entrants. Grimm and Once Upon A Time, both riffing off of fairy tale characters, they have clever premises. I like the concept of Grimms being monster hunters and this being a sort of police procedural show. Once Upon a Time’s fantasy/reality cross over is a good idea although OUAT’s fantasy settings do strike me as a little twee – but I suppose it is a fairy tale. Both have been commissioned for second series.

Sinbad debuted in 2012 – another British production – it looks lavish and has good production values but right now, I feel a little cold about it. The crew just aren’t making me happy right now – they just aren’t like the gang from the good ship Serenity…

Game of Thrones.Okay, I’ll mention it now. Game of Thrones. Brutal, sexy, visually stunning and a great cast and story. Yes. This is the biggest boldest work of television fantasy ever. A completely realised fantasy world that we know is going to get larger and more fantastical as the story develops. Made by HBO who have set the standard for grown-up television, I can’t help but compare it to LOTR due to the sheer size, scope, care and attention that this show has been given. I am intrigued to see how they handle Martin’s later novels in the series and also how the viewers deal with an ever expanding cast of characters and storylines.

Something I’m sure you have noticed is the particular theme running through the shows I have mentioned. All of them, (bar Knightmare which doesn’t really count) have been based on either myths,legends or books. Not one of them has been an original piece of work. I find that interesting. Yes, movies have done that too, but a lot of them haven’t. Why do television production companies choose this path? Perhaps because they know they cannot compete on budgets and cannot make event style television so instead they rely on appealing to public awareness and understanding of the material they are relating. Of course, Game of Thrones production values have been excellent and arguably, whilst GRRM has a large following, they certainly couldn’t have generated enough audience appeal by themselves.

It is clear that there is a hunger for quality, adult, genre entertainment that isn’t just about horny vampires and werewolves. So thank goodness for HBO. I wonder what will happen next? No doubt we’ll still get the usual run of glossier vanilla fantasy fare, bet let’s up the ante a little. Something that takes the marker placed by GoT and develops a world with many races and tensions and magic. Hell, Sci-Fi’s already done it (Star Trek , Battlestar, Babylon 5 par example) so why can’t Fantasy – how about doing something with Feist? That would work very nicely. Or Gemmell. Or Cook. Or Abercrombie. Or Erikson? Or just think up something original? It’s okay, it can steal from all the above, I really don’t mind!

Where is the fantasy genre going?

The many sub-genres of fantasy.By Jasper de Joode

Where is the fantasy book genre going? A short article on past and current fantasy themes based on personal experiences

Can you still remember the first fantasy book that you ever read? For me, the introduction started when I was 16 with Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. Not your typical starter some might say. This was eight years ago but these books were already written before I was even born. This is the beauty of books – however old they get you can always find a copy of them somewhere. In the last four years my reading has picked up speed, and even more since I started reviewing for Fantasy Book Review.

The fantasy book genre is divided in many sub-genres with epic/high, urban, alternate, sword & sorcery, science fiction and steampunk being just a few. Reflecting, I think that the major work that has promoted fantasy in itself is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings; it is seen as a standard in Epic/High Fantasy.

Another large inspiration, mainly for the children/young adult audience, would be The Chronicles of Narnia from C.S. Lewis.

But this was all some time ago, and now comes the question: has the fantasy genre grown or has it remained stagnant in all the years since Lord of the Rings? Is living up to the standards of Tolkien and Lewis impossible?

I will try to make a comparison between the early works (for me) from about 1980 – 2000 and 2000 and onwards, as well as look at the current trends in fantasy.

The books I have read that were first published in the 1980 – 2000 era are from authors like Robin Hobb (The Farseer Trilogy), Tad Williams (Memory, Sorrow and Thorn), Robert Jordan (Wheel of Time), Celia S Friedman (The Coldfire Trilogy), Raymond E. Feist (Magician Series) and let’s not forget about Roald Dahl (I had double the pleasure growing up with the Dutch translated books and then getting to read them in English again!).

I do not know if it’s pure coincidence, but almost all of these books fall within the same High and Epic Fantasy category. It is not a bad genre at all, it can actually be quite grand and ambitious and I was indeed impressed with each and every novel (though I still have to finish Wheel of Time series). But I think that in the early years these were the authors that took the first step delving into the world of fantasy, and more often than not these books are classified as heavy weights.

What I think caused the majority of the earlier works to fall into the High and Epic Fantasy category is that it was a category that had been proven to work. High Fantasy is rock solid, the ingredients are simple, and it will probably always sell. Veering of this track and pioneering into new things is risky, and often it can be a wild guess whether or not a book like this will be liked by a major audience.

But I found one author ambitious enough to veer away from this trend early on – Stephen King with his Dark Tower series. Although it falls under the same category, Epic/High Fantasy, it also has many other features i.e the travelling in between worlds (with hints of science fiction) and King also wove many of his other written works into the plot  line of this series. This offered, for me at least, more diversity earlier on.

From the early 2000 till now there is more diversity in the fantasy genre. I’m of the opinion that with the advent of TV, movies, computer games, the whole fantasy genre was challenged to step up their game. Trying to grab people with a book can be more difficult than a TV show or movie.

Some authors that for me showed an  unexplored or hardly explored path into fantasy were Tad Williams (War of the Flowers) and Neil Gaiman (American Gods). Both showed new perspectives in the ways of combining fictional elements with non-fictional elements. And of course one series that set the trend for me was Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen (yes I know Garden of the Moon was published in 1999). This series really showed many virtues, a great plot line maintained over several volumes, world building to the maximum, character building, development throughout the series, and storytelling through multiple points of view. Also, when compared to the Wheel of Time series, the plot lines and dialogue are much more understandable and more engaging.

Another series that was noteworthy in, yes, also 1999 was J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series. This is for me one of the best young adult fantasy series, next to the Chronicles of Narnia.

So coming back, yes I think the fantasy genre has evolved tremendously, and it needs to continue to develop. Not with more genres per se, but by using them in ways to lift the standard of the genres even higher; raising the bar.

China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station and The Scar were both masterpieces. I’d read steampunk before but not in that way. Wow. Each Bas Lag novel added much to the current repertoire of steampunk. Similarly, the books of Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn), Scott Lynch (The Lies of Locke Lamora), Joe Abercrombie (First Law), Kate Griffin (A Madness of Angels), and Brent Weeks (The Black Prism) also gave much more insight into what authors are capable of now days. These authors all combine great writing style with even greater ideas.

However it is not only the genres which makes the books great, it also the writing style which is important. The writing style used in books today — of course dependent on the author –  is more loose, feels more natural, and is of this time. Even in High fantasy to some degree. Writing styles can either make or break a book. Lord of the Rings is known to be heavy in material mainly due to the use of words and the phrasing of sentences unlike what is normally seen now  a days. This makes Lord of the Rings in no way less magical, but with the current writers I do notice a shift to a more understandable, everyday phrasing with writing styles. With these styles I find most of the stories more engaging.

What is the current trend nowadays in 2012?

Looking at the publishing schedules of some of the major publishing houses, more and more books fall under the genre of Urban Fantasy; it draws a wide target audience, young and old, male and female. I think that most of the new authors use this theme for their debut novels since it is easier to start a series and get known. Again a combination of both TV and film has led to the increase in this genre. Urban Fantasy: Vampire, Werewolves, Urban Magicians. What’s not to like? Authors can exploit these themes to the fullest, and every book can be unique. I have to admit I am not a huge fan of Twilight and such, but the Urban Fantasy theme has still proven to be fruitful for me.

The other genres have remained stable over the last few years; the majority of the authors stick to their favourites, and many series are yet to be finished. In here in find Brandon Sanderson a prime example. Picking up The Wheel of Time series is no small feat. There will be a lot of weight hanging on his shoulders with the release of A Memory of Light. His other books all have the Epic/High Fantasy themes but he manages each time to write a brilliant book with his fresh ideas. We need these types of authors who each time try to better themselves with fresher and newer takes on the proven fantasy genres!

In short, the trends from the early 90s till now have changed, not through an increase in the amount of fantasy fiction genres, but through the writing style of the authors. Diversity and change is needed in the world of books to keep them appealing and engaging. Often times my friends say “why read the book when you can watch the series or movie?” I then reply: “Reading is magical and nothing can beat my own imagination” and they stare at me with blank expressions.

I’m happy to see that fantasy fiction genres are developing, with more and more authors writing non-standard stories with plenty of fresh ideas to keep my book shelves filled. But what are your experiences with the fantasy genre? Do you think the genre has become stagnant? Or does this genre continue to grow from strength to strength? And… what was the first fantasy book you read?

Fantasy, Imagination, and The Ordinary World

By Thaisa Frank

Where Do Stories Come from?

A portrait image of author Thaisa Frank.Readers often ask me where my stories come from and in truth the imagination is mysterious to me—I never know where it begins or ends because the seeds of my stories have a “given” quality and I can’t really will them to happen. It’s almost as though there’s a pneumatic tube of the imagination and I hang out there when other writers are occupied so I get weird and cryptic assignments: It could be a title, like The Loneliness of the Midwestern Vampire. Or the image of an enchanted man. If I play with the assignment long enough, characters appear and they make the image or title earthbound. My characters have to adhere to the laws of gravity and deal with an ordinary world. It interests me most when one fantastic thing enters the ordinary world. Everything gets a little tilted yet life has to go on according to ordinary laws. You might say that real time and space have been invaded by one alien thing–a Midwestern vampire, an enchanted man, the presence of an angel.

It sometimes takes a long time to find the link between the cryptic image or title and characters who are grounded in the mundane world. For example, the title story of Enchantment began when I had an image of a woman on her porch getting a UPS delivery of an enchanted man. She’d ordered him from an online site and he came with instructions to mist him twice a day. I started the story many times and couldn’t figure out how to move it forward. But when her sullen teen-aged kids appeared, I realized the heart of the story was about the woman hiding the enchanted man from her family.

And the title The Loneliness of the Midwestern Vampire appeared with such urgency that I knew I had to write the story. All I knew about this vampire is that he lived in the Midwest and was terribly lonely. But when a judge in the small Midwestern town bothers him about getting citizenship, I knew that he had to bend to life in the heartlands.

In these stories, a girl has feet that can see, a man is indirectly introduced to an angel who has lived his life, and two circus-performers turn themselves into piece of two-ply thread to go through the eye of a needle.

Not all of my stories are triggered by surreal images. I’m fascinated by people, relationships and obsessions. Enchantment has a story about a character who wants to get a piercing (I did all my research online!), a woman who visits an old boyfriend, a cat that acts as a comforter, and two people who think they are soul mates. It also has two semi-autobiographical novellas with roots in my own life. These were hard stories to write because I had to invent and surprise myself to discover a universal element (Once more the use of the imagination!). After I finished, I felt as if I’d dived into a shipwreck and come up having lived a slightly different life.

Whether I write about what’s apparently “real,” or something more surrealistic, I have to feel captivated and enchanted myself or I don’t feel motivated to write the story. As a kid I had a viewer that held discs so you could look inside and see three-dimensional scenes. I remember looking at Little Red Riding Hood, poised in the dark forest with her basket. I could feel the quiet of the woods and she seemed real, alive in another realm. I wanted to find a way to reach her. So when I talk about feeling enchanted, I’m talking about a feeling that started when I was very young. Perhaps all resonance to fantasy and what seems impossible happens when we’re young. If this is the case, part of fantasy fiction isn’t an escape at all, but a return to a time when we dreamt and imagined more freely.

Enchantment: New and Selected Stories by Thaisa Frank cover image.This guest post by Thaisa coincides with the publication of Enchantment: New and Selected Stories. Her short fiction has captivated readers for two decades, and now many of those pieces are collected in one volume, along with several new stories. In the title story, a lonely mother and housewife orders an enchanted man from a website called The Wondrous Traveler, who arrives with instructions for use and a list of frequently asked questions about enchantment. In "Thread," two circus performers who pass through the eye of a needle become undone by a complicated love triangle. In "Henna," a young writing teacher must contend with an exotic student who will not write, her hands covered in dye and her fingers "sprouting innumerable gardens." And in "The Loneliness of the Midwestern Vampire," the undead descend upon the heartland of the country and become accustomed to its friendlier way of life, attending barn raisings and feasting on cattle in an attempt to normalize their darker passions.

These are vibrant, compelling stories that examine the distance between imagination and reality, and how characters bridge that gap in their attempt to reach one another.

Enchantment is available in both paperback and Kindle format.

Read our review of Heidegger’s Glasses by Thaisa Frank

Finishing the Book of the Fallen: Immediacy

There comes a time in all of our lives when we will experience the loss of a loved one. Upon that loss, we will probably go through what is commonly known as the Five Stages of Grief; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It is a hard time.

For me, I have found that when I finish a particularly brilliant book or series I experience similar feelings of grief. I’m emotionally exhausted, bereft, and feeling upset that there are no more books to come. My favourite characters are gone, forever. There is nothing so contrived as the Five Stages of Literary Grief; I don’t deny the book is ended or get angry, or any of those tropes. But I think there can still be a benefit from talking about the experience.

That’s what I’ll be doing here upon finally having completed Steven Erikson’s masterpiece, ‘The Malazan Book of the Fallen’.

Caveat: I am well aware there are more books coming, and there are even more books coming from his partner in the series, Ian C Esselmont.

Malazan books: Garden of the Moon up to Toll the Hounds.

There is something distressing in that moment when you flip onto the last page, seeing how the text doesn’t reach to the bottom of the page and, more often than not these days, seeing a different font-size alerting you to the fact you have finished the series. It’s bad enough with a trilogy. Finishing Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series I was left wanting more. So what hope did I have reaching the concluding pages of a series which had run into ten thick, thick books?

Closing the back cover down on the end of ‘The Crippled God’ was surreal. Finishing the Malazan Book of the Fallen was a different experience for me. It was like that moment after Lord of the Rings when it all became apparent just how different this particular piece of fiction was. It became apparent that there is a need for a label beyond fiction so that we can categorise what we’ve just experienced. Schindler’s List is not the same movie as Bad Boys, despite their respective merits. The latter is done for entertainment, the former is done to educate; to tap into a different part of the human mind and prod the sedentary thought process of a lazy population.

Steven Erikson sets you up for that feeling at the very beginning. In the Preface to the Gardens of the Moon redux, he writes thus: "In writing Gardens, I quickly discovered that ‘back story’ was going to be a problem no matter how far back I went. And I realized that, unless I spoon-fed my potential readers (something I refused to do, having railed often enough at writers of fantasy epics treating us readers as if we were idiots), unless I ‘simplified’, unless I slipped down into the well-worn tracks of what’s gone before, I was going to leave readers floundering. And not just readers, but editors, publishers, agents…"

Start reading ‘Gardens of the Moon’ and you’re already lost. Who are the Malazan’s? How’d they get to Pale and, hang on, where’s Pale?! What’s a High Fist and why does he only have Onearm? And what on earth – if Earth it be – is Burn’s Sleep?

This was history. Fiction unlike anything we’d ever encountered. Sure, Glen Cook had gone before and done something similar, and decades earlier than that J. R. R. Tolkien had come along and given us a complete world, languages and archaeology included. But Erikson went that one step further. He took what he’d learnt from both Cook and Tolkien, and then ran with it, bringing along moral inquisitiveness and a mirror to humanity as he went.

So what happens when you finish all of that?

The same thing that should happen when you finish reading an account of the Battle of the Somme, or the African-American Civil Rights Movement. You should have learned something. You should be changed! There must be a shift in your perception of reality, at least a portion of it. Fair enough; maybe Erikson’s work doesn’t touch on every aspect of the human condition – and certainly not the fragility of life that Glen Cook reflects in his ‘Black Company’ series – but Erikson sure as hell brings you close to the edge of what it means to be human, and then leaps across the gap and shows you everything in full relief.

How does it make you feel, really, to consider the sheer frequency with which we set to killing one another over something so trivial as where our imaginary border-line is placed? What is your reaction to the death of children left to fend for themselves?

Without a doubt, this is a fantasy novel and, as a result, has taken these examples to the extreme. But, then you have to start thinking … how far are we from the extreme? How are the wars depicted in the Malazan Book of the Fallen at all different from those we have fought ourselves? In what manner is The Snake different to the thousands of children left starving and defenceless throughout Africa and Asia?

Close a novel. Bring that back cover to rest for the last time on top of near a thousand pages of story. Breathe in. If you aren’t thinking, if you aren’t one-hundred percent focused on what you have learned, then you’ve missed the point entirely.

Senescence by David Rudden (winner of the FBRSSC*)

And so dear friends we come to the day that marks the end of the 2011 *Fantasy Book Review Short Story Competition. After 8 months and hundreds of great little stories we can now proudly publish the winning entry, the simply wonderful Senescence by David Rudden.

Frank P Ryan, who made the final judgements on the submissions, said of David’s story:

“An outstanding piece of short fiction for such a relatively young author.  Rudden creates an entirely believable word, edgy and threatened, yet leavened by a sense of community and compassion. The raw power of the characterisation and the subtlety and poetic earthiness of the language is as good as I’ve seen in short stories in any genre.  It reads as if Seamus Heaney had written a fantasy short story.”

An illustration, by Mark Salwowski, from the PDF of Senescence by David Rudden.

You can read this winning entry now, for which the author received an Apple iPad, by clicking on this link – Senescence by David Rudden – or by clicking on the images above and below. The magnificent artwork in the PDF template is the work of Mark Salwowski (, the illustrator who worked with Frank P Ryan on his fantasy novel, The Snowmelt River. Read and enjoy.

We also caught up with David and asked him about her entry and writing in general:

FBR: Was this your first short story competition?

DR: I’d entered a couple of competitions in school but the Fantasy Book Review competition is my first as an adult writer.

FBR: What was the inspiration for your short story? Where did the idea come from?

DL: This, like most stories I write, came from a half-formed idea and a couple of lines I knew the story would revolve around. I’ve always had a fascination with the old trades, the notion of master and apprentice and the idea of… not exactly secret knowledge, but specialised knowledge, the person in the community who knew things that others didn’t and so was given that little bit more importance.

This is one of the few stories where I’ve drawn heavily on my own experiences for material. I’m from a miniscule village myself (albeit without an arcane wasteland a few miles north) and after finding out that my own father (a woodwork and construction studies teacher) served his apprenticeship making coffins, the opening line popped into my head and proceeded to bounce around for a couple of years before taking shape. Carpentry is all about knowing the strength of materials, their breaking points, how much they will yield and how much they’ll resist. For a village right on the cusp of where things start to fray and break apart, knowing those things is important.

Text taken from the PDF of Senescence by David Rudden.

FBR: How long did your short story take to write? Was the writing experience a pleasant one or did you experience difficulties?

DL: Surprisingly it actually rattled along quite easily! Sometimes I have to walk away from a story for a few weeks and then attack it from another angle, but Senescence came together fairly rapidly. I started with a loose plan that organised what would happen and when, and then wrote it over the course of about a week. I’m lucky that I have a informal writing group that are very good for telling me when I’m writing nonsense or if I should keep going.

The ending completely changed in the writing though. I had a strange moment of ‘am I allowed do that?’ and then decided that if it made sense in the writing I’d keep it, and if not things would go a very different way. I like to think it worked out, though.

FBR: Were you happy with the finished story? Or would you have liked a little bit more time?

DL: I try my best not to fidget with a story when I’ve finished it. I usually put it aside for a few days and occupy my mind with something else as much as possible, then go back with a fresh set of eyes. There was a little bit of polishing to be done, especially towards the end of the story, but nothing that required more than a slight rework.

All here at Fantasy Book Review would like to congratulate David, thank him for his truly exceptional entry and wish him all the best with his future writing. Our short story competition, which ran from April until November of this year and was kindly sponsored by Swift Publishers.

Coin-Operated Boys by Kirsty Logan (2nd place in the FBRSSC)

Following on from the publication yesterday of To Ashes by Kat Zantow, the short story that placed third in our short story competition, today sees the publication of the story that placed second, Coin-Operated Boys by Kirsty Logan.

The three winning entries were chosen by bestselling author Frank P Ryan, who said of Coin-Operated Boys, “Elodie Selkirk, with her hooked nose and missing pinkie finger, is not interested in a regular suitor. What she fancies is a coin-operated boy. Ingenious, stylish, witty – I loved the basic idea, which plays on the whim of an excessively fashion conscious lady to have the perfect escort. Excellent play on sexual jealousy and a highly amusing twist in the tail.”

An illustration by Mark Salwowski from Kirsty Logan's Coin-Operated Boys.

You can read this winning entry now, for which the author received an Amazon Kindle, by clicking on this link – Coin-Operated Boy by Kirsty Logan – or by clicking on the images above and below. The magnificent artwork in the PDF template is the work of Mark Salwowski (, the illustrator who worked with Frank P Ryan on his fantasy novel, The Snowmelt River. Read and enjoy.

We also caught up with Kirsty and asked her about her entry and writing in general:

FBR: Was this your first short story competition?

KL: Not the first, but the first time I’ve won a Kindle! I won third place in the Bridport Prize last year for a story called Underskirts. That one was great fun because, oddly enough, PJ Harvey was at the prize ceremony. It was lovely to meet her but I was so nervous that all I could do was talk about the weather.

FBR: What was the inspiration for your story?

KL: The Dresden Dolls song, ‘Coin-Operated Boy’. I love the band’s aesthetic of Victoriana and dark cabaret, and I wanted to get that feel in the story. I also seem to have an obsession with clockwork body-parts and love substitutes – I’ve written about hearts that can be hired and returned, and a woman who makes a man out of paper.

An extract of text from Kirsty Logan's Coin-Operated Boys.

FBR: How long did your short story take to write? Was the writing experience a pleasant one or did you encounter difficulties?

KL: The first draft took a few weeks. I ran it by both of my workshop groups, and then it was perhaps another week to edit and rewrite it. I didn’t have any difficulties because the story had been bumping around my brain for a while before I wrote it down. I wrote it in the break between finishing my first novel, Little Dead Boys, and starting on my second, Rust and Stardust. I’m also working on a short story collection, The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales, and as I’m used to writing short fiction I find it difficult to be stuck in one narrative with one set of characters for the many months it takes to write a novel. By the time I’d finished the first novel, I was buzzing with ideas for fresh stories. I recently finished the first draft of the second novel, so I’m excited to write short stories again.

FBR: Were you happy with the finished story? Or would you have liked a little more time?

KL: I’m very happy with it. I wanted it to be sexy and creepy and a bit sad, and I hope I managed that. I didn’t ask permission from Amanda Palmer or Brian Viglione of the Dresden Dolls before writing the story, but I like to think they’d be flattered!

To see The Dresden Dolls perform Coin-Operated Boys, follow this YouTube link

All here at Fantasy Book Review would like to congratulate Kirsty, thank her for her excellent entry and wish her all the best with her future writing. Our short story competition, which ran from April until November of this year and was kindly sponsored by Swift Publishers.

To Ashes by Kat Zantow (3rd place in the FBRSSC)

Over the following three days we will be publishing the three winning entries from our short story competition, which ran from April until November of this year and was kindly sponsored by Swift Publishers.

The winning entries were chosen by bestselling author Frank P Ryan, who said that Kat Zantow’s To Ashes, which placed third, was “a sparkling fantasy thriller, with unremitting tension, and many twists and turns. The writing is devious, pacey and clever. Ashes is actually an eponymous city that has been reduced to rubble. But a deadly menace still lurks there, in an elastic confabulation of time and place. There’s the feeling we are actually somewhere within a much longer story. Indeed To Ashes naturally lends itself to being extended to a full novel.”

An illustration from To Ashes by Zantow, drawn by Mark Salwowski.

You can read this winning entry now, for which the author received an Amazon Kindle, by clicking on this link – To Ashes by Kat Zantow – or by clicking on the images above and below. The magnificent artwork in the PDF template is the work of Mark Salwowski (, the illustrator who worked with Frank P Ryan on his fantasy novel, The Snowmelt River. Read and enjoy.

We also caught up with Kat and asked her about her entry and writing in general:

FBR: Was this your first short story competition?

KZ: Yes. Well, sort of… This is the first short story competition I have intentionally entered. In college, I tied for first in the prose category of a literary magazine – it was all very confusing since they had never mentioned a contest. But I was excited to enter this one. It gave me a reason to write a short story, and a fantasy story, which is always a good thing.

FBR: What was the inspiration for your story?

KZ: A few months ago, I spent three hours driving between cities to visit some friends. As I drove into the fog-white mountains, the rain started. In the softened landscape, where the mist looked like an army of ghosts, the rain made me think of ashes falling slowly. It occurred to me that it would be hard to walk through a ghostly burnt out city. A place where scraps of memories stay lodged in the ashes. What if each time the ashes touch your skin, you find a different impression – a crime, a kiss, a color, a feeling?

Someone would quarantine the area, if they could. But there would be others who would seek to find new ways of interacting with the ashes. Perhaps some would hold dust in the palm of their hand, others might taste it, and the truly dedicated would have it tattooed under their skin. I liked the image. Getting the characters to cooperate was the hard part.

An image of the text of the To Ashes story.

FBR: How long did your short story take to write? Was the writing experience a pleasant one or did you encounter difficulties?

KZ: My first draft mostly consisted of a much longer café dialogue, a brief tattoo scene, and an abrupt end. Due to frustration, this story sat in an unfinished state for something like a month and a half. I spent a couple days working on it at a time, but the story ideas kept branching out into novel-arcs. I realized pretty early on that I could not cram the plot of a novel into 5000 words, but that didn’t stop me from trying.

Fact: I cannot think in short stories. I was bogged down working out the mechanisms of the dust and the histories of the characters. In an effort to get the novel-length idea out of my system, I wrote two outlines for the events of novels that could fit both before and after the story. Shockingly, that did not help me keep the short story short. Only after I vented about the story at my dad, the great sounding board, did I manage to cut down the character histories and limit the story to a contained episode.

FBR: Were you happy with the finished story? Or would you have liked a little more time?

KZ: I am happy with some parts of the story, which is really all I can ever say. I changed things up until the deadline and the editing was not as high gloss as I would have liked. However, I don’t think it would have improved much over a couple extra days. Now, with a month or so to put the story away again, and another week to mull over it, I could probably have made it better. If I tried to work on the story again today, some aspects would fill me with hate, and the red pen might do some good.

Then again, if I had more time to work on it, I would keep working on it. Since I spent the short story writing process trying to fight the urge to write a longer story, I am better off working on the sequel to Shadowing.

I’m very glad that the contest ended and took the story out of my hands.

We would like to congratulate Kat and thank her for her excellent entry and wish her all the best with her future writing. A review of her novella, Shadowing: A Henchman’s Tale, can be read here.