“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.

Audiobook review – Alien: Out of the Shadows

The audio dramatisation of Tim Lebbon’s Alien: Out of the Shadows is great fun, both eerie and atmospheric while staying mostly true to the Alien legend we know and love. Laurel Lefkow voices Ripley but at times you’ll be forgiven for thinking it’s Sigourney Weaver herself as it is such a great impersonation, and one that I think works perfectly.

But before the review – here’s the synopsis of the story that unfolds over four and a half hours:

As a child, Chris Hooper dreamed of monsters. But in deep space, he found only darkness and isolation. Then, on planet LV178, he and his fellow miners discovered a storm-scoured, sand-blasted hell – and trimonite, the hardest material known to man.

When a shuttle crashes into the mining ship Marion, the miners learn that there was more than trimonite deep in the caverns. There was evil, hibernating and waiting for suitable prey. Hoop and his associates uncover a nest of Xenomorphs, and hell takes on a new meaning. Quickly they discover that their only hope lies with the unlikeliest of saviors….

Ellen Ripley, the last human survivor of the salvage ship Nostromo.

Alien: Out of the Shadow audiobook cover

This is an adrenaline-fuelled story and once it has picked up the pace it never slows down. The cast are excellent, with special mention to Lefkow again plus Rutger Hauer and Corey Johnson. The production values are very high (no doubt thanks to the classy Dirk Maggs) and the sound effects really make you jump and are superb are raising the tension to unbearable levels.

There are many, many positive elements. But there are also a few negatives – the story can feel a little unlikely in places and sometimes a little lessening of the pace and some character and location building would have been preferable, in my opinion. I guess the shortened nature of an audio dramatisation is that there is a lot to fit into a relatively small amount of time. I think a lot of listeners will wish it was longer, which is a complement.

But overall this is a triumph and fans of the great radio adaptations such as The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy and the BBC’s Lord of the Rings will love what they find here. I’d give it 8.5/10.

Alien: Out of the Shadows: An Audible Original Drama
Written by: Tim Lebbon, Dirk Maggs
Narrated by: Rutger Hauer, Corey Johnson, Matthew Lewis, Kathryn Drysdale, Laurel Lefkow, Andrea Deck, Mac McDonald
Length: 4 hrs and 31 mins
Performance
Release Date:26/04/2016
Publisher: Audible Studios

Alien: Out of Shadows is only available from Audible

Disability in fantasy

Susannah Dean (Dark Tower books)

A post by Peter Newman, author of The Vagrant and The Malice

Although The Vagrant is known for having a silent protagonist I’m going to talk about someone else in the series today, a character known as Tough Call.

Tough Call is the rebel leader of Verdigris, who sets up her group headquarters underneath the city when it is overrun by demons. A child of the old administration, she opts to fight rather than bend the knee. Moreover when she comes into contact with one of the demons, she elects to cut off her own arm rather than succumb to the taint. The taint, in case you’re wondering, is something that surrounds the demons and can alter any human, animal or plant that it comes into prolonged contact with, mutating them into strange half-breed creatures. At the lowest end of the spectrum this could mean the loss or gain of nails and hair. At the highest, it could mean growth spurts, shifts in skeletal structure, loss of emotional control, organ failure, additional strength, additional limbs, or death.

Rather than gamble, Tough Call elects to remove the arm entirely before the taint can spread. In doing so, she becomes a symbol for the resistance.

In Tough Call’s case, her disability is a badge of pride, a tribute to her strength of will rather than something to be pitied or hidden. It’s never the focus in the scenes she’s in and it certainly isn’t the primary thing about her. When we first meet Tough Call she’s in a difficult position, fighting a virtually un-winnable war and making some dubious choices in order to survive and keep her people safe. She also happens to be a middle-aged woman with one arm. That’s it.

When I was writing The Vagrant and The Malice, I didn’t set out to include characters with disabilities, they just appeared as I was writing. There are three prominent characters that suffer from a physical disability which, given the number of people in the books and the kind of world it is, seems like quite a low number.

It got me trying to think about other characters in fantasy with disabilities, and the majority that come to mind are villains. Chances are if a character has a scar, a missing eye, or a hook for a hand they’re against the heroes rather than with them. And if the hero does have a scar, it’s often a ‘sexy’ scar to demonstrate toughness without disfiguring too much, or one that is located on their back or thigh, easily hidden beneath clothing. In film, we often have a shot of the (usually male) hero’s back which is covered in aesthetically placed scars, but most of the time these marks are out of sight and out of mind.

In fact I really struggled to think of any disabled protagonists in the fantasy I’d read recently (with the exception of Bran in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and Xinian in Jen Williams’ Copper Cat books) though this may be more an indictment of my memory or lack of reading than the genre as a whole.

Feel free to set me straight in the comments as I’d hope there are a lot more positive examples out there, though please don’t include characters with magic or technology that renders their disability irrelevant. The classic example being blind characters that have such advanced other senses that they aren’t disadvantaged all.

If you’re a writer reading this and, like me, you’d like to include more characters on the disabled spectrum, there’s a great post by Elsa S. Henry on Chuck Wendig’s Terribleminds blog about writing blind characters, and this one by Elspeth Cooper on the Bookworm Blues blog about disability in fantasy is interesting too.

© Peter Newman, May 2016
www.runpetewrite.com

The Malice is available from May 19, 2016. Review coming soon…

Snippet from the front cover of Peter Newman's The Malice

In the south, the Breach stirs.

Gamma’s sword, the Malice, wakes, calling to be taken to battle once more.

But the Vagrant has found a home now, made a life and so he turns his back, ignoring its call.

The sword cries out, frustrated, until another answers.

Her name is Vesper.

Purchase on Amazon

If you have any comments to make on this topic, please leave using the form below.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, read by Stephen Fry

Sometimes books and narrators are perfectly matched. Stephen King’s Dark Tower series and the voices of George Guidall and Frank Muller is one example, Guy Gavriel Kay’s works and Simon Vance another. And we also have Stephen Fry and Harry Potter, which is a match made in heaven.

It’s surprising to find that the first book in J. K. Rowling’s series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, will celebrate its nineteenth anniversary this year so a review of the audiobook in 2016 may seem a little odd. But there is a good reason, and that is that all seven audiobooks are finally available on Audible.co.uk, with whom I have a yearly membership.

One thing I will say before the review itself is that a good narrator can make an average book better and a poor narrator can make a good book seem average. This is why reviewing audiobooks is often so difficult. But this audiobook review is easy as the first Harry Potter book is excellent and Stephen Fry nails it.

There’s not much you can really say about Harry Potter that has not already been said. I’ve always found it a delightful book, wish-fulfillment of the highest order and written with great energy and humour. The children (and the millions of adults like myself) that found themselves spellbound by this book didn’t just want to read about Hogwarts, they wanted to go there. It is the Hobbiton of its generation. Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone is a lovely story which draws on the elements I have always enjoyed – we have the young, unsuspecting hero in a horrible situation with horrible people (the unforgettable Dursleys) discovering that he is not quite as ordinary as he believed. And in short order he finds himself at the most wonderful school of magic with friends (for life), a brilliant assortment of teachers and more adventure, thrills and danger than you could shake a wand at.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone audiobook cover

But what makes this audiobook so wonderful is that it is a wonderful story read to you by a simply wonderful story-teller. I’m old enough to have followed Stephen Fry through the decades and have seen pretty much everything he has been involved in. I have seen him on screen with Robbie Coltraine (Hagrid), Emma Thompson (Miss Trelawney), Kenneth Branagh (Gilderoy Lockhart) and I find it charming to think that he is doing impersonations of close friends when he voices these characters. He also produces excellent voices for Harry, Ron and Hermione, who are the most important of all as they feature is what must be every chapter of the book. Harry’s Uncle Vernon, Dumbledore and Miss McGonagall are other great voices that stand out. There is simply no weak link in Fry’s narration and to create such unique and rich voices for what, over seven books, becomes a very large cast indeed, is a remarkable achievement.

Audiobooks simply don’t come much better than this. If Harry Potter is not your thing then fair enough, this won’t change that, but if Harry Potter is your thing and you want someone to read it to you while you drift off to sleep, wash the dishes, go on a run or drive to work (which is where I did my listening), then this reading is simply sublime.

Don’t believe me? Then head over to Audible.co.uk and listen to a 5 minute sample.

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.

Spotlight: Dawn of Wonder by Jonathan Renshaw

Dawn of Wonder (The Wakening: Book 1)

Winner 2015 CIPA EVVY awards for Fiction/Fantasy
Current finalist 2015 Writer’s Digest Self Published Book Awards for Genre Fiction
#1 Bestseller in Epic, Historical and Coming of Age Fantasy

Dawn of Wonder by Jonathan Renshaw

When a high-ranking officer gallops into the quiet Mistyvales, he brings a warning that shakes the countryfolk to their roots. But for Aedan, a scruffy young adventurer with veins full of fire and a head full of ideas, this officer is not what he seems.

The events that follow propel Aedan on a journey that only the foolhardy or desperate would risk, leading him to the gates of the nation’s royal academy – a whole world of secrets in itself.

But this is only the beginning of his discoveries. Something is stirring in the land, something more ominous than the rising threat of hostile nations. Fearful travellers whisper of an ancient power breathing over Thirna, changing it, waking it. In the very heart of these stirrings, Aedan encounters that which defies belief, leaving him speechless with terror – and wonder.

You can purchase Dawn of Wonder from Amazon:

Jonathan Renshaw is a former high school English teacher and music producer who now writes full time. He is currently working on the epic fantasy series, The Wakening, launched in May 2015.

For more information on Jonathan Renshaw and his work, visit www.jrenshaw.com