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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Thieftaker - D.B. Jackson

Prior to reading D.B. Jackson's (aka: David B. Coe) most recent novel, my only exposure to the idea of a thieftaker, or a private individual hired to capture criminals, was Julian Sandar from Robert Jordan's iconic Wheel of Time. Interestingly, my only experience with pre-Revolution America in genre fiction also came by way of Robert Jordan in his Fallon Blood series written under the pseudonym Reagan O'Neal. Jackson's Thieftaker lifts both limitations, deftly blending historical fiction and urban fantasy to create a who-dun-it dressed up with tricorn hats and blood magic.

Set in 1765 in Boston, Massachusetts, during The Stamp Act riots, Thieftaker follows the exploits of Ethan Kaille, Jackson's protagonist and only point of view character. Making his living finding stolen goods, Ethan is also a speller, capable of turning organic material into magical energy. When he's asked to recover a necklace worn by the murdered daughter of a prominent royalist, he finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy to upset the delicate balance between Britain and her colonies.

As that summation suggest, Ethan is the narrative impetus, and the vehicle that Jackson uses to snare the reader. His history, power, and moral center held my interest despite a standard crime fiction plot structure that won't overwhelm anyone with its inventiveness. In particular, it's Ethan's back story and how conjurers interact in a world that reviles their existence which gives Thieftaker its unique flavor.
There were perhaps thirty other active conjurers in Boston. No doubt there were far more than that who had conjurers' blood in their veins, but many of his kind did all they could to avoid notice. People were still burned and hanged as witches throughout New England; fear of discovery ran deep among conjurers, and those who didn't have access to power tended to shun those who did.
It's a flavor that tickled my taste buds to the degree that I finished the novel in a single sitting. Jackson does a tremendous job at closing chapters in a way that satisfies, but also demands turning the page to the next. It's a skill I most closely associate with George R.R. Martin's work, and while Jackson's novel has little in common with Martin's, there is some similarity in the inability to put it down.

If there's any disappointment on my end it stems from two sources. The first is a fairly contrived ending that follows the patterns set down over scores of crime thrillers (i.e. - "Well hero, since you can't possibly escape my clutches, let me reveal my entire plan to you!") . Even then it's well executed, leaving my only other complaint to be Jackson's lack of exploration into the ethics of the Revolution.

Given the time period, and the frequent appearance of historical characters on either side of the debate, I felt Jackson gave Ethan a free pass, allowing him to wrestle with his tenuous position between the two factions, and occasionally reflecting on his own personal views, without ever reflecting on the credibility of either argument. That's not say the issue is ignored, just that Ethan is never forced to act on his beliefs as they relate to politics. It leads me to believe that future novels in the series will more firmly enmesh themselves in America's move toward independence. Or at least I sincerely hope they do.

These negatives are more a reflection of my own expectations and shouldn't necessarily be read as a criticism of the novel, which, while not exceptional in any particular way, is done with such deftness that the sum is greater than the parts. The writing is strong, but not so much that it will call attention to itself, nor is the plot so densely woven that it constantly surprises the reader. Rather D.B. Jackson has struck several different notes and struck them all well, combining just the right amount of historical veracity and magical alteration. I highly recommend it to fans of historical fiction, crime thrillers, urban fantasy, and anyone else looking for a great way to spend a weekend. Thieftaker is just a fantastically fun novel.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Interviewed by Another Blogger - What?

Mieneke from A Fantastical Librarian invited me to answer some questions about me, my interest in genre fiction, and blogging. I was all too happy to reply, because let's be honest, who doesn't like talking about themselves?

She asked a lot of questions, but the one I found most fascinating was, "How do you think blogs and reviewers fit in the book business?" I've written about the topic at some length before, but I think my answer sheds some more light on where I stand.
With the decline of the bookstore the vast majority of people moving forward will buy their books on-line. Decline in bookstores, means a decline in conversation between two people who love books. Ask anyone out there, what's the best way to sell books? Their answer is always, "Word of mouth." Well what happens when people stop running into each other in the stacks? When book store employees aren't there to recommend stuff? When book clubs stop meeting in person? The answer is blogs. Blogs are the new conversation. 
Did we ever imagine even ten years ago that on-line dating would be acceptable? That it would become one of the primary ways by which the modern single thirty something meets other modern single thirty somethings? No way! That shit was fringe! In that same way, I think publishers are slow to recognize the importance of blogs now and in the future. I don't think blogs today are a major reason in to whether or not a book is a success. But, that's changing. Moving forward their importance is only going to grow. Amazon and Goodreads will always be the Match.com of book conversation. But, if the publishers want the blogging equivalent of eHarmony, a network of people who target specific readers, they're going to need to start interacting with and treating blogs like major outlets. Because like it or not, we're the word of mouth in a digital age.
What do you think?

Read the interview in it's entirety at A Fantastical Librarian

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The Best SFF Novels of 2012 - First Half Edition

I was planning on writing this post for a few weeks then the Mad Hatter, Pornokitsch, the OF Blog, and a host of others beat me to it. Jerks. In any case, it's the halfway mark for the year. I've read 49 genre novels so far this year. Included below are very brief and very early looks at my best/worst of lists for the year.

***

Best Novel of 2012:
  1. The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett (Review)
  2. Year Zero by Rob Reid
  3. Faith by John Love (Review)
  4. The Killing Moon by NK Jemisin (Review)
  5. The King's Blood by Daniel Abraham (Review)
It should bear noticing that three of the novels are from Orbit, and the sixth would have been K.J. Parker's Sharps, yet another Orbit title. With Joe Abercrombie and Jesse Bullington both due out with novels later this year from Orbit, it appears to be a banner year for Hachette's genre imprint.

Faith, has been Night Shade's best debut novel from 2012. It's a shame it came out so early this year (January 3), as I worry it'll be forgotten by many come year's end. And while I haven't reviewed Year Zero yet on the blog (next week), I've been raving about it since I finished it back in April. It's the funniest book I've ever read, hands down.

Best Novel Not From 2012 (tie):
  • Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones (Review)
  • Devices and Desires by K.J. Parker

My review of Desert of Souls speaks for itself, I think. As for the first book in Parker's Engineer Trilogy,  it's amazing, as is nearly everything Parker writes. I don't plan on reviewing it until I finish the whole trilogy, but I already recommend it with great vigor.

Worst Novel (tie):
  • The Pillars of Hercules by David Constantine (Review)
  • Seven Princes by John R. Fultz (Review)
Orbit makes an appearance here as well and I'll never figure out how Seven Princes made it into the Orbit catalog. It doesn't seem to fit with the editorial perspective of the rest of the novels they've released this year. Nevertheless, there it is, in all its pulpy deus ex machina Mary Sue glory.

Pillars of Hercules, is just a jumbled mess. As I stated last week, Night Shade occasionally suffers from subpar "creative" editing. I think Constantine's novel might be the best example. The novel has a fascinating conceit, and Constantine seems a capable writer writer, but the whole novel is a confusing ping pong match of switching PoVs and unexplained occurrences. Total face plant as far as I'm concerned.

***

Be sure to check back in December for my Juice Box Awards where I'll recognize the Best Novel of 2012, the Best Debut of 2012, and a host of others.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Discount Miracles - Brand Gamblin

Around these parts I commit myself to (at least try) finishing everything I start. Why, you ask? Because I think it's important for me to help my readers make decisions about what they should buy and what they should avoid. If I only read things that I enjoy, how will I ever fulfill the second half of that commitment? I'm also loathe to spend 800 words eviscerating someone's baby. Thus, Cheryl was born. Cheryl is my imaginary personal assistant who helps me "review" novels I really did not like. Instead of just doggedly attacking a novel's failures, I try to have some fun with it and get some laughs. Hopefully it's taken the way I intend it.

This is my seventh installment of posts featuring Cheryl. If you enjoy this one, I suggest finding the Cheryl tag on the right sidebar for the others. This is the second time Cheryl has been deployed on a self published novel. While the previous incarnation was an abomination of fiction, Discount Miracles has some redeeming qualities. That said, it just isn't good enough for a wide audience.

***

I don't generally accept self-published titles for review. Seriously, I don't. Except sometimes I get an e-mail I can't say no to. Brand Gamblin's e-mail was one of those. He invoked the name of a mutual friend, happens to be a Washington DC Metro local, and didn't try to push a vampire werewolf paranormal romance on me. I also got a sick kick out of the author's last name as reading self-published work feels an awful like gambling.

I'm a sucker, aren't I?

Gamblin's novel, Discount Miracles, follows the crew of the space salvage ship JN3-0518 (or Jenny) that's crashed on a planet that's been out of touch with the rest of the galaxy for hundreds of years. In the midst of a superstitious dark age, the planet's denizens liken the Jenny's crew to witches, a fact they tend to reinforce by faking miracles. Things seem to be going swimmingly when they take a job to help a prince ascend to godhood. Easier said than done.

As I considered how I would write this review I went through several stages. First, I felt compelled to critique the novel as I would for someone asking me to look at an unpublished manuscript. There are a host of small changes I would suggest to Gamblin that would produce a better product. Of course, he didn't ask me to do that. Second, I felt like employing my fine assistant Cheryl to eviscerate the novel, but I couldn't find an angle worthy of Cheryl. Not to mention there aren't any typos or structural screw ups, which pretty much rules out my standard plan of attack for self-published work. Finally, I resolved to write what amounts to a pretty ho-hum piece that once again emphasizes the reason why many self-published authors self-publish. (Hint: Because they aren't very good writers.)

Before I get too far into the flaws in Gamblin's writing, let me say that I rather enjoy the novel's conceit. Motoring around a technologically backward planet in a spaceship that's incapable of leaving orbit, and leaving miracles behind, is fun to imagine. It opens up a host of questions, both in terms of science and morality, some of which Discount Miracles promises to address, but never really does.

Character wise the Jenny's crew behaves as crews have come to behave in the post Firefly era -- self interested, but ultimately honorable. Sadly, Gamblin never develops them much beyond their immediate interaction with the narrative. In a novel with such a simple plot, it's vital that the characters exist in three dimension. Unfortunately, Gamblin's crew is the science fictional equivalent of Flat Stanley....

Oh, who the hell am I kidding?

*buzz*

Cheryl: Mr. Landon, I can't believe you reviewed a self-published title before you'll even look at my manuscript.

Justin: No. Absolutely not. I'm not reviewing Tumescent Snake under any circumstances.

Cheryl: But, I've added magic and a space ship. It's slipstream paranormal romance!

Justin: Please don't say slipstream.

Cheryl: Why? Slipstream, slipstream, slipstream.

Justin: Argh! I just read Brand Gamblin's Discount Miracles. He calls it slipstream. I call it slipped and fell in a stream of uninspired writing.

Cheryl: Oh, here we go.

Justin: What? I could have easily made a urine joke there. I thought the final product showed a great deal of self restraint.

Cheryl: You're about as restrained as Katie Price at a melon smuggling convention. But, really... do tell. What makes Brand Gamblin... Jesus, is that his real name?

Justin: I'm assuming it's a pen name.

Cheryl: God, I hope so. Can you imagine meeting him in a bar? Hey beautiful, want to get Branded tonight? Place a wager, because it's time to start Gamblin. I can go on.

Justin: I think you've made your point. You were saying?

Cheryl: Right. *ahem* What makes his writing so... uninspired?

Justin: Would believe that in 200 pages of reading I don't recall a single metaphor? Gamblin writes clear prose, and he's obviously hired a copy editor to clean it up, but there's a complete lack of vitality. It's like reading the corpse of a novel. I have no idea what the Jenny looks like, or more importantly what it feels like, smells like, or evokes from the crew. I can tell you one of the crew members is short and stocky, one is female, one is a scrawny jerk, and the other is a stand-up captain dude. I don't know much more about them as people which is a complete failure of the author.

Cheryl: I bet the short guy is strong.

Justin: You guessed it. He's from a hi-G planet. How does he feel about being away from home? How did he end up on a ship in the middle of nowhere? Now that I mention it, why are any of these people on a ship together?

Cheryl: Sounds like a pretty shallow novel. Aren't most self published novels self indulgent rants that go on forever because the author can't parse it?

Justin: You know, that's a good point, Cheryl.

Cheryl: *beaming*

Justin: Don't let it go to your head. You're right though, Gamblin actually has what reads more like a bare bones first draft where he lays out the major plot points before laying down all the supports that make a novel. And truth be told if he had gone through and laid down that framework, my response to his work would be a great deal warmer.

Cheryl: Weird.

Justin: You're telling me.

Cheryl: So you're saying this the last time you're Gamblin on self-published work? God, I could use that pun until the cows come home.

Justin: Leave the comedy to me.

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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Some Personal News and Giveaway Winners

This has been a long week. My father-in-law was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a few weeks ago and this past Thursday he had surgery to remove it. Thankfully, the tumor was located in the head of the pancreas which allows for a surgical procedure known as the Whipple. Without boring everyone with the gory details, it's an amazing operation that basically rewires the entire digestive system removing parts of the pancreas, stomach, and small intestine. For patients lucky enough to catch the cancer before it spreads, the Whipple is a life saving operation.

From my daughter's Christening.
I've spent most of the last four days at Johns Hopkins. I can't explain how blessed we feel to live 45 minutes from the hospital where this surgery was perfected. Dr. John Cameron, the man responsible for it, has done 2,000 of them himself. For a cancer as rare as this, that's a mind numbing total. Considering my father-in-law's surgery took nearly eight hours from start to finish, you can appreciate how staggering that figure is.

The truth is we won't know how successful it was for some time, but the doctors are optimistic they were able to remove all the cancerous tissue. My father-in-law is already up and walking, doing his best to recover quickly. Nevertheless, he'll be undergoing chemotherapy and radiation starting in a month or so, to give him the best chance of winning the battle. 

He's sixty years old, relatively young in today's medical age. It seems so unfair to strike a man so fundamentally good. He immigrated from Colombia when he was 18. Worked two jobs most of his life to support his family and put both his children through college. He graduated from college himself two years ago. I don't know that I've been prouder of someone. He's been my daughter's primary caretaker since the end of my wife's maternity leave and he's teaching her to become as good a person as he is. Something she's already trying to pay him back for.

I write this mostly as an exercise in reminding others, and myself, of life's fragility. We don't have nearly long enough, and too often we don't say the things we need to say to those we love until it's too late. My own father is sixty himself, and I can't imagine losing him. It's hard to even write it. It's a sappy reason, but I think it's a good one.

I also write it to remind everyone of the importance of early detection. My mother is a breast cancer survivor largely because she never missed a mammogram (she was only 45 when diagnosed). And now my father-in-law has a chance to survive one of the deadliest forms of cancer because he went to see someone at the first sign of stomach pain. So let's all try to be a little better about never missing our annual exams. I can't spare the readers.


***

On a brighter note, as if anything wouldn't be brighter, I've got some giveaway winners to announce! Last month I hosted a giveaway for a copy of G.J. Koch's Alexander Outland: Space Pirate. I'm happy to announce the winner of that is:


Eric Schwartz, Kentucky, USA

I also have the winners from the awesome giveaway of two full sets of David Anthony Durham's Acacia Trilogy courtesy of Random House. The winners are:


 Susan Meek, Oklahoma, USA
Andrew Stewart, Virginia, USA

Thanks to everyone who participated. Stay tuned next month because I've got some huge stuff planned that's hopefully going to knock your socks off.

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Friday, June 22, 2012

Osiris - E.J. Swift

It begins with the execution of Eirik 9968, rumored leader of the NWO. Vikram, his friend and sometime conspirator, watches from the crowd as the skadi carry out The Council's sentence. Not a Citizen and only recently released from prison himself, he's helpless to stop it. Also watching is Adelaide Mystik, daughter of a founding family, tabloid darling, and eternal disappointment. She can barely watch as Eirik drowns, chained to the bottom of a sealed tank. The Council hopes that Eirik's death will quell the uprisings in Osiris' western sector. They're wrong.

Osiris, E.J. Swift's debut novel, is a title pregnant with meaning. The Egyptian god of the afterlife and underworld, Osiris judges the dead, sending them on to their rewards, which for the elite of Egypt meant eternal life. Through the hope of new life after death Osiris also associates with nature, in particular the annual flooding of the Nile, and crops that spring from it. In Swift's world, the city of Osiris is the afterlife made real. The last bastion of human civilization -- surviving on the ocean and disconnected from land -- it is literally the life come after a world torn apart by climate change and resource wars. But, like most belief systems that preach a life beyond this one, Osiris also separates those judged worthy and those damned to an eternity of pain.

To Citizens of Osiris, life is good, echoing their Egyptian appellation who was often described as "He Who is Permanently Benign and Youthful". Created around sustainable principles, the city is self sufficient for those granted access.
"a shimmering metropolis sunk shin deep into the ocean. Before dawn, mist obscured the entire city, enveloping the thousands of pyramid skyscraper in its damp, arcane touch. It was noon now, and the fog had mostly dissipated. Deceptive sunshine polished the tapering structures of glass and metal, turning the bridges and shuttle lines that webbed them into silver threads. The solar skins of the towers greedily reaped this bounty of heat and light."
Unfortunately, the western sector is denied these things, reliant on the benevolence of the The Council to provide, an emotion rarely felt through the insulation wrapped around them. Crippled by food shortages, drug and human trafficking, and continual power failures, the west is not unlike a modern day war zone. Cut off from Osiris proper by a militarized border, people like Eirik and Vikram are the few willing to speak out against the injustice.

Structured around two points of view, Vikram and Adelaide, Osiris switches every chapter, often overlapping scenes to provide the perspective of each. As the novel begins, the pair could not be further apart, divorced by economics and geography, but also by incompatible world views. Vikram, looking at the Osiris elite wonders,
How could you trust the sadness of someone who had never seen that cold could kill? Who had never seen a gun fired, never been afraid to sleep?
It's a sentiment that resonates in the world today, where so much of the government represents a small subsection of the educated elite.

Despite the hurdles, Adelaide has more in common with Vikram than is readily apparent. With her twin brother missing, and a family seemingly unwilling to find him, she finds herself as willing as Vikram to bring change. Using each other to further their own ends, Osiris is at heart a fascinating character study of a have and a have-not in a world defined by the possession of food, water, and energy.  In short, a microcosm of the world we live in.

If I were writing this review with only mind toward the ideas behind the novel and the subtext that runs through it, I would call it a crowning achievement. It's unfortunate then that I won't be able to be quite so glowing. While Swift's writing is exceptional, vivid and compelling, Osiris lacks any sense of pace. Even from the opening pages, with a prologue written in an inaccessible voice and a first chapter that lacks any definable hook, Swift struggles to consistently demonstrate narrative purpose. It's too easy to put the novel down after every chapter and even easier to put it aside for a day or two in between "Parts" (there are four).

It could be argued, compellingly so I think, that these fits and starts reflect Vikram and Adelaide who themselves are full of misfired failures. Likewise, if Osiris is as much a glimpse into the future as a reflection of the world today, the novel's structure points to the notion, that flying in the face of scientific reality, finding a joint impetus to move forward is the most improbable of outcomes. If this is Swift's message, and it can be powerful, I'm not sure it excuses the inability to compel me forward in the narrative itself.

Part Waterworld, part 1984, E.J. Swift offers a new dialogue in Night Shade's conversation on climate change that began with Paolo Baciagalupi's The Windup Girl. Even in its most frustrating moments, I found Osiris to be a novel that deserves to be read. Swift's talent as a writer can't be questioned, and it's clear to me that there exists an intent behind her work. It lends a depth that helped me persevere, not only to finish, but to anticipate the sequel. I'm hopeful that other patient readers will take the time to find the beauty in it that I ultimately did.

***

It should be noted, that over the last eighteen months I've tended to heap the honors on Night Shade. I have believed, and still do, that in terms of editorial direction and a willingness to push the envelope of genre fiction, they are the premiere publisher today. But, I feel it necessary to point out that the problems I describe in Osiris are becoming all too commonplace in their novels. From God's War, to The Emperor's Knife, to The Winds of Khalakovo, Night Shade seems willing to accept a brilliance of ideas in the face of tedious structure.

It could be a result of the number of debut authors they've published, or the size of their editorial team (small), or the fact that they don't have the clout to compel authors to rewrite large sections of their manuscripts. Or it could be all of the above or none of the above. Nevertheless, it's a theme I'm noticing and one that gives me pause. Ideas and beautiful prose are, in and of themselves, not always enough to carry a novel, much less an entire line of them. I'm just one reader, but food for thought, perhaps.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Upcoming Night Shade, Angry Robot, Baen, Pyr and Releases - Fall/Winter

Now that we're at the halfway mark for the year, I thought it would appropriate to point out all the novels coming out from August-December that strike my fancy. I'll be breaking my posts down by publisher. Below are the novels coming this Fall and Winter from Night Shade, Angry Robot, Baen, and Pyr that will be must reads for me. I'll mention that there are likely some books from November and December here that aren't currently listed on the publisher's websites that I'll end up wanting (Anne Lyle's Merchant of Dreams is an example). Either way, I can't read them all. So I'll be looking forward to seeing what interests you.
Here's what caught my eye:

The Constantine Affliction by T. Aaron Payton (NSB - August)
1864. London is a city in transition. The Constantine Affliction–a strange malady that kills some of its victims and physically transforms others into the opposite sex–has spread scandal and upheaval throughout society. Scientific marvels and disasters, such as clockwork courtesans, the alchemical fires of Whitechapel, electric carriages, and acidic monsters lurking in the Thames, have forever altered the face of the city. 
Pembroke “Pimm” Hanover is an aristocrat with an interest in criminology, who uses his keen powers of observation to assist the police or private individuals–at least when he’s sober enough to do so. Ellie Skyler, who hides her gender behind the byline “E. Skye,” is an intrepid journalist driven by both passion and necessity to uncover the truth, no matter where it hides. 
When Pimm and Skye stumble onto a dark plot that links the city’s most notorious criminal overlord with the Queen’s new consort, famed scientist Sir Bertram Oswald, they soon find the forces of both high and low society arrayed against them. Can they save the city from the arcane machinations of one of history’s most monsters–and uncover the shocking origin of . . . THE CONSTANTINE AFFLICTION.
It seems like Victorian London is the new cat's pajamas. It's everywhere -- like herpes. What attracts me to this novel, and believe it or not it's not herpes, is the gender bending conceit. It just feels unique, something Night Shade has become adept at publishing.


The Tainted City by Courtney Schafer (NSB - October)
Dev is a desperate man. After narrowly surviving a smuggling job gone wrong, he’s now a prisoner of the Alathian Council, held hostage to ensure his friend Kiran — former apprentice to one of the most ruthless mages alive — does their bidding. 
But Kiran isn’t Dev’s only concern. Back in his home city of Ninavel, the child he once swore to protect faces a terrible fate if he can’t reach her in time, and the days are fast slipping away. So when the Council offers Dev freedom in exchange for his and Kiran’s assistance in a clandestine mission to Ninavel, he can’t refuse, no matter how much he distrusts their motives. 
Once in Ninavel the mission proves more treacherous than even Dev could have imagined. Betrayed by allies, forced to aid their enemies, he and Kiran must confront the darkest truths of their pasts if they hope to save those they love and survive their return to the Tainted City.
Schafer's debut novel, The Whitefire Crossing, was one of my favorite finds of last year. It came out of nowhere as one of the first novels released from Night Shade's New Voices Program. The story was a pretty straight forward travelogue from one city to another with the author's passion for mountaineering bleeding through on every page. I really can't wait to read this one.


Rapture by Kameron Hurley (NSB - November)
After years in exile, Nyxnissa so Dasheem is back in action in service to the bel dames, a sisterhood of elite government assassins tasked with eliminating deserters and traitors. The end of a centuries-long holy war between her country, Nasheen, and neighboring Chenja has flooded the streets of Nasheen with unemployed - and unemployable - soldiers whose frustrations have brought the nation to the brink of civil war.

Not everyone likes this tenuous and unpredictable "peace," however, and somebody has kidnapped a key politician whose death could trigger a bloody government takeover. With aliens in the sky and revolution on the ground, Nyx assembles a team of mad magicians, torturers, and mutant shape-shifters for an epic journey across a flesh-eating desert in search of a man she's not actually supposed to kill.
The only problem?

Killing is the only thing Nyx is good at. And she already left this man to die...
Kameron Hurley's first novel, God's War, has one of the more fascinating roads to publication. I won't go into it here, but the takeaway is that it's an incredibly difficult book to categorize and therefore to market. It's also fucking incredible. To quote a big-six fantasy author, the ideas in it are "China Miéville level". Sure, it suffered from some storytelling hiccups, but that wasn't enough to hold it back from being one of the best first novels of 2011 and maybe one of the best novels period.

Also released last year, was Hurley's second novel, Infidel, which I actually found even better than the first. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that I'm frothing to get my hands on Rapture. You should be too.


Knife Sworn by Mazarkis Williams (NSB - November)
After spending most of his life in captivity and solitude, Sarmin now sits upon the Petal Throne of Cerana. But his reign is an uneasy one. Ambitious generals and restless soldiers want war at any cost. An insidious foreign religion stirs fear among the people and the court. And the emperor’s own heart is torn between two very different women: Mesema, a Windreader princess of the northern plains, and Grada, a lowborn untouchable with whom Sarmin shares a unique bond. A natural-born mage, Sarmin also carries within him a throng of bodiless spirits whose conflicting memories and desires force him to wage a private battle for his sanity. 
In times past, a royal assassin known as the Emperor’s Knife served as the keen edge of justice, defending the throne from any and all menaces, but the last Knife has perished and his successor has yet to be named. For his own safety, and that of the empire, Sarmin must choose his own loyal death-dealer . . . .but upon whom can be he bestow the bloody burden of the Knife-Sworn?
Three sequels in a row from Night Shade! They really had a tremendous 2011. I haven't been as impressed with their 2012 debuts, a fact that should take nothing away from what they're doing as a publisher. Knife Sworn picks up where The Emperor's Knife left off.

In my read through of the first novel, I discovered that Mazarkis Williams writes an understated style that layers tension. My main criticism of it related to that subtleness in the lack of foreshadowing for the major reveal. I'm hoping Williams cranks up the volume a bit in this one.

*** 

Seven Wonders by Adam Christopher (AR - August)
Tony Prosdocimi lives in the bustling Metropolis of San Ventura – a city gripped in fear, a city under siege by the hooded supervillain, The Cowl. 
When Tony develops super-powers and acts to take down The Cowl, however, he finds that the local superhero team Seven Wonders aren’t as grateful as he assumed they’d be…
I didn't rave about Christopher's first novel, Empire State. It had some strong points, but really struggled to pull together a coherent conclusion. I'm hoping Seven Wonders has a clearer idea of where it's going. If so, Christopher's exceptional ability to work with setting and tone should make for a great read. 

Superheroes seem to be en vogue this year, with Prepare to Die! by Paul Tobin and Only Superhuman by Christopher Bennett also on the shelves.


The Corpse-Rat King by Lee Battersby (AR - August)
Marius dos Hellespont and his apprentice, Gerd, are professional looters of battlefields. When they stumble upon the corpse of the King of Scorby and Gerd is killed, Marius is mistaken for the monarch by one of the dead soldiers and is transported down to the Kingdom of the Dead. 
Just like the living citizens, the dead need a King — after all, the King is God’s representative, and someone needs to remind God where they are. 
And so it comes to pass that Marius is banished to the surface with one message: if he wants to recover his life he must find the dead a King. Which he fully intends to do.
Just as soon as he stops running away.
The blurb seems to be leaving some things out because immediately I'm asking, why don't they just keep the King they already have? I suppose it's possible Marius tells them he's not a King, but then why would he be able to find a King for them? I might be over analyzing this.

The idea of casting battlefield looters as main characters is great. These guys show up in every fantasy novel to one degree or another and it's time they got their due. I'm looking forward to seeing what Battersby does with it.

***

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen - November)
Captain Ivan Vorpatril is happy with his relatively uneventful bachelor’s life of a staff officer to a Barrayaran admiral. Ivan, cousin to Imperial troubleshooter Miles Vorkosigan, is not far down the hereditary list for the emperorship. Thankfully, new heirs have directed that headache elsewhere, leaving Ivan to enjoy his life on Komarr, far from the Byzantine court politics of his home system. But when an old friend in Barrayaran intelligence asks Ivan to protect an attractive young woman who may be on the hit list of a criminal syndicate, Ivan’s chivalrous nature takes over. It seems danger and adventure have once more found Captain Vorpatril. 
Tej Arqua and her half-sister and servant Rish are fleeing the violent overthrow of their clan on free-for-all planet Jackson’s Whole. Now it seems Tej may possess a hidden secret of which even she may not be aware. It’s a secret that could corrupt the heart of a highly regarded Barayarran family and provide the final advantage for the thugs who seek to overthrow Tej’s homeworld.

But none of Tej’s formidable adversaries have counted on Ivan Vorpatril. For behind Ivan’s facade of wry and self-effacing humor lies a true and cunning protector who will never leave a distressed lady in the lurch–up to and including making the ultimate sacrifice to keep her from harm: the treasured and hard-won freedom from his own fate as a scion of Barrayar.
My first, and only, Miles book was CryoBurn. I only read it because it was nominated for the Hugo. It impressed me with Bujold's deft use of drama and humor. Given the huge back story associated with Miles I've been hesitant to pick up any of the other books in the series. I'm excited that this new one appears to be departing from that main arc. Sign me up.

*** 

London Eye by Tim Lebbon (Pyr - October)
Two years after London is struck by a devastating terrorist attack, it is cut off from the world, protected by a military force known as Choppers. the rest of Britain believes that the city is now a toxic, uninhabited wasteland. 
But Jack and his friends—some of whom lost family on what has become known as Doomsday—know that the reality is very different. at great risk, they have been gathering evidence about what is really happening in London—and it is incredible. 
Because the handful of London’s survivors are changing. Developing strange, fantastic powers. Evolving. 
Upon discovering that his mother is still alive inside london, Jack, his sister, and their three friends sneak into a city in ruins. Vast swathes have been bombed flat. Choppers cruise the streets, looking for survivors to experiment upon. the toxic city is filled with wonders and dangers that will challenge Jack and his friends . . . and perhaps kill them. But Jack knows that the truth must be revealed to the outside world or every survivor will die.
Steven Erikson blurbed Lebbon's Echo City. That was enough for me to want to read him. Alas, I haven't gotten around to Echo City (for shame). I'm going to make sure I can't say the same about London Eye come next year. This is one of those books I'll be reading the second I get a copy.


The Creative Fire by Brenda Cooper (Pyr - November)
Nothing can match the power of a single voice. . . . 
Ruby Martin expects to spend her days repairing robots while avoiding the dangerous peacekeeping forces that roam the corridors of the generation ship the Creative Fire. The social structure of the ship is rigidly divided, with Ruby and her friends on the bottom. Then a shipwide accident gives Ruby a chance to fight for the freedom she craves. Her enemies are numerous, well armed, and knowledgeable. Her weapons are a fabulous voice, a quick mind, and a deep stubbornness. Complicating it all—an unreliable AI and an enigmatic man she met—and kissed—exactly once—who may hold the key to her success. If ruby can’t transform from a rebellious teen to the leader of a revolution, she and all her friends will lose all say in their future. 
Like the historical evita Peron, ruby rises from the dregs of society to hold incredible popularity and power. Her story is about love and lust and need and a thirst for knowledge and influence so deep that it burns.
I first encountered Brenda Cooper's work in Lou Anders's first Fast Forward anthology. From what I understand her fiction always connects to music in some way. It's an interesting point of view and something I'd like to explore a little bit more. I can't say for sure that I'm going to enjoy Creative Fire. It doesn't really seem like my bag, but I'm intrigued enough by the concept to find out.


The Lazarus Machine by Paul Crilley (Pyr - November)
An alternate 1895. . . a world where Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace perfected the Difference engine. Where steam and tesla-powered computers are everywhere. Where automatons powered by human souls venture out into the sprawling London streets. Where the Ministry, a secretive government agency, seeks to control everything in the name of the Queen. 
It is in this claustrophobic, paranoid city that seventeen-year-old Sebastian tweed and his conman father struggle to eke out a living. 
But all is not well. . .  
A murderous, masked gang has moved into London, spreading terror through the criminal ranks as they take over the underworld. as the gang carves up more and more of the city, a single name comes to be uttered in fearful whispers. 
Professor Moriarty.  
When tweed’s father is kidnapped by Moriarty, he is forced to team up with information broker Octavia Nightingale to track him down. But he soon realizes that his father’s disappearance is just a tiny piece of a political conspiracy that could destroy the British Empire and plunge the world into a horrific war.
What?! Victorian London, again? It seems like a combination of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Who, The Prestige, and Guy Fawkes. If it's solely a pastiche of those things, it can't be bad, right?

***

Anything catch your eye? Anything else from these imprints that I didn't mention for the second half of the year? 

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Monday, June 18, 2012

Amped - Daniel H. Wilson

I was so amped to read Amped. I'm sorry. I couldn't resist.

In reality, I was moderately interested in Daniel H. Wilson's follow up to his New York Times bestelling debut Robopocalypse. His first novel was an entertaining page turner that garnered far better press than it rightly deserved, but it demonstrated that Wilson was a capable story teller who would improve in future novels.

With that frame of mind I went into Amped hopeful that it would meet expectation. It did not. I finished it more convinced that Robopocalypse's success had more to do with the formula (borrowed from World War Z) and marketing push than any inherent quality of the novel itself. It left me wondering whether the definition of a summer read has become wholly reflective of the summer blockbuster film -- form over substance, effects over plot.

Wilson's strength is in the merging of science and reality to create a believable future. He did this in Robopacalypse and does so again in Amped. Instead of predicting widespread reliance on robotics, Amped focuses on the augmentation of the human body through technology. Specifically, the enhancement of the brain by linking it to minature on board computers.

In Wilson's imagination, these implants can be used to cure all sorts of mental deficiencies from epilepsy to ADHD or even link the brain to prosthetic limbs. The unintended consequence is that this modification also leaves the enhanced individual far beyond a regular human. Applying a tiny bit of imagination, the military application of such technology becomes obvious. Throw in a dash of the religious right, some bigotry, a belief that might makes right, and there you have the entirety of what Amped has to offer. It's a strong idea, but if the execution sounds an awful lot like Magneto versus Professor X, it's because it is.

Before I get too far into what's wrong with the novel, let me first say there are several things Amped does right. As I mention above, Wilson does a great job coming up with a technological MacGuffin, implanting it into his reality, and crafting a story around it. I want to know more about the implants and how they work from the first page to the last. He also writes with great clarity, and a sense of purpose with where he's headed in the narrative. Unfortunately, that's the extent to which I can offer praise.

Told in first person from the perspective of Owen Gray, a school teacher implanted as a child to overcome epilepsy, the novel progresses at an erratic pace. Painfully slow at times and then quickly racing, Wilson does a poor job of building tension. Using the present tense, he attempts to give the reader the sensation of riding along in Owen's head as opposed to listening to him tell his story. I agree with the choice, but not the result.

Far too often exposition comes through Owen's thoughts, breaking the narration and my investment in what's happening "on screen". Emphasizing the point, every chapter ends with a news clip that expands the scope of world events. Instead of relying on these enders to fill in the scientific holes, he uses these cutaways to offer more narrative. Had these been reversed I can't help but wonder if Owen would have been freed to interact in a more natural way.

It's difficult to go deeper into the reasons why Amped fails without giving away too much. Suffice to say the main character demonstrates very little agency, making him terribly uninteresting to me as a reader. Likewise, the characters that surround him are cardboard cutouts that never demonstrate any depth beyond the pale drawings Wilson offers when they're first introduced. This lack of character and poor narrative voice, make Amped one of the most uninspired pieces of fiction I've read since this blog began. It isn't catastrophically flawed, as most novels I negatively review are, it's just boring.

As a result, even to a reader merely looking for a light popcorn style novel, I can't recommend Amped. In fact, I strongly suggest you give it a pass.

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Friday, June 15, 2012

Giveaway - The Acacia Trilogy by David Anthony Durham

This week I turned my blog into David Anthony Durham central. Why did I do it? In short, because his Acacia Trilogy is one of the best completed series of the last ten years. I'm a huge fan. His books reintroduced me to fantasy. Below are links to my review and a tremendous interview:


Not only did I want to share that with all the people who read this blog, I also wanted to call attention to the fact that Durham and Anchor have reissued the entire series in trade paperback with a blurb from George R.R. Martin. I think the blurb is the main reason for the reissue, but Durham took the opportunity to do some edits, cutting 14,000 words from the first volume. I applaud the effort.

On that note, to celebrate my D.A.D Week (get it? Cause it's Father's Day on Sunday and Durham's initials are D.A.D. So clever), I have two full sets of the reissued trade paperback Acacia Trilogy to give away to two lucky winners.


The giveaway is open to US residents only. Two winners will receive one copy of each book in the trilogy. You must be 18 years of age or older to participate. Void where prohibited by law. Giveaway rules are subject to change.  

How to participate:
  • To enter the giveaway, e-mail me at staffersmusings@gmail.com, with the subject ACACIA and declare intention to participate.
    • You must include a valid mailing address(US) in the e-mail. Failure to do so will result in disqualification.
    • One entry per person, or face disqualification.
    • Entries accepted until 11:59pm ET on June 22, 2012
    • Winners will be chosen by random sorting entries, and then using a random number generator.
    • There will be 2 winners who will receive 3 books each.
    Although not required, it sure would be nice if you:

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    Thursday, June 14, 2012

    Upcoming Tor Releases - Fall/Winter

    Now that we're at the halfway mark for the year, I thought it would appropriate to point out all the novels coming out from August-December that strike my fancy. I'll be breaking my posts down by publisher. Below are the novels coming this Fall and Winter from Tor that will be must reads for me. The truth is though, I can't read them all. So I'll be looking forward to seeing what interests you.

    Here's what caught my eye:

    Black Bottle by Anthony Huso (August)
    Tabloids sold in the Duchy of Stonehold claim that the High King, Caliph Howl, has been raised from the dead. His consort, Sena Iilool, both blamed and celebrated for this act, finds that a macabre cult has sprung up around her.
    As this news spreads, Stonehold—long considered unimportant—comes to the attention of the emperors in the southern countries. They have learned that the seed of Sena’s immense power lies in an occult book, and they are eager to claim it for their own.
    Desparate to protect his people from the southern threat, Caliph is drawn into a summit of the world’s leaders despite the knowledge that it is a trap. As Sena’s bizarre actions threaten to unravel the summit, Caliph watches her slip through his fingers into madness.
     
    But is it really madness? Sena is playing a dangerous game of strategy and deceit as she attempts to outwit a force that has spent millennia preparing for this day. Caliph is the only connection left to her former life, but it’s his blood that Sena needs to see her plans through to their explosive finish.
    I read Last Page, Huso's first novel, when it came out in 2010. I found it fascinating, but would have a hard time recommending it. If I were comparing it to another author I would say it was China Miéville level when it comes to ideas. Unfortunately, the plot was overly cryptic, which led to a great deal of confusion for me as a reader. That said, I have high hopes for Black Bottle. If Huso can get his narrative a little more under control, his work is going to really take off. I already have an early galley of this one and plan to get to it soon.


    The Forge of Darkness by Steven Erikson (September)
    Steven Erikson entered the pantheon of great fantasy writers with his debut Gardens of the Moon. Now Erikson returns with a trilogy that takes place millennia before the events of the Malazan Book of the Fallen.The Forge of Darkness introduces readers to Kurald Galain, the warren of Darkness, and tells an epic tale of a realm whose fate plays a crucial role in shaping the world of the Malazan Empire.
    It's a conflicted time in Kurald Galain, the realm of Darkness, where Mother Dark reigns. But this ancient land was once home to many a power… and even death is not quite eternal. The commoners' great hero, Vatha Urusander, is being promoted by his followers to take Mother Dark's hand in marriage, but her Consort, Lord Draconus, stands in the way of such ambitions. The impending clash sends fissures throughout the realm, and as the rumors of civil war burn through the masses, an ancient power emerges from the long dead seas. Caught in the middle of it all are the First Sons of Darkness, Anomander, Andarist, and Silchas Ruin of the Purake Hold.
    I would put anything Erikson writes, particularly in the Malazan universe, in the no-shit-I'm-reading-this category. I include it in this post because I'm sure there are a lot of people out there who haven't read Erikson yet who find the ten book Malazan Book of the Fallen series daunting. Forge of Darkness is a brand new series and I hope will be a nice place for people to start finding out what the hype is about.


    The Fractal Prince by Hannu Rajaniemi (September)
    A physicist receives a mysterious paper. The ideas in it are far, far ahead of current thinking and quite, quite terrifying. In a city of “fast ones,” shadow players, and jinni, two sisters contemplate a revolution. 
    And on the edges of reality a thief, helped by a sardonic ship, is trying to break into a Schrödinger box for his patron. In the box is his freedom. Or not. 
    Jean de Flambeur is back. And he’s running out of time.
    In Hannu Rajaniemi’s sparkling follow-up to the critically-acclaimed international sensation The Quantum Thief, he returns to his awe-inspiring vision of the universe…and we discover what the future held for Earth. 
    Like Huso's Black Bottle, Fractal Prince is the sequel to a novel from 2010 (in the UK) that excelled for its vision. Quantum Thief was well received by some and loathed by others. Hard science fiction merged with detective noir, the whole plot was layered in murk. Time shifting, identity shifting, and gobs of neologisms make it a mind bending read. Damn me if I didn't love it. I'm looking forward to Rajaniemi's second book even if it doesn't cut through some of the crap. But, if it does... award winner.


    Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow (October)
    Trent McCauley is sixteen, brilliant, and obsessed with one thing: making movies on his computer by reassembling footage from popular films he downloads from the net. In the dystopian near-future Britain where Trent is growing up, this is more illegal than ever; the punishment for being caught three times is that your entire household’s access to the internet is cut off for a year, with no appeal. 
    Trent's too clever for that too happen. Except it does, and it nearly destroys his family. Shamed and shattered, Trent runs away to London, where he slowly he learns the ways of staying alive on the streets. This brings him in touch with a demimonde of artists and activists who are trying to fight a new bill that will criminalize even more harmless internet creativity, making felons of millions of British citizens at a stroke.

    Things look bad. Parliament is in power of a few wealthy media conglomerates. But the powers-that-be haven’t entirely reckoned with the power of a gripping movie to change people’s minds….
    If I'm being honest, the only reason I'm interested in Pirate Cinema is because Doctorow wrote it. And I'm only interested in Doctorow because I've never read him. His books don't really make me want to read them, but a lot of people seem to love his work. As a blogger, I feel compelled to see what's going on behind the curtain, so to speak.


    Only Superhuman by Christopher L. Bennett (October)

    2107 AD: A generation ago, Earth and the cislunar colonies banned genetic and cybernetic modifications. But out in the Asteroid Belt, anything goes. Dozens of flourishing space habitats are spawning exotic new societies and strange new varieties of humans. It’s a volatile situation that threatens the peace and stability of the entire solar system. 
    Emerald Blair is a Troubleshooter. Inspired by the classic superhero comics of the twentieth century, she’s joined with other mods to try to police the unruly Asteroid Belt. But her loyalties are tested when she finds herself torn between rival factions of superhumans with very different agendas. Emerald wants to put her special abilities to good use, but what do you do when you can’t tell the heroes from the villains? 
    Only Superhuman is a rollicking hard-sf adventure set in a complex and fascinating future.
    Bennett has written quite a few tie-in novels related to Star Trek and Marvel Comics. I've never read him or heard of him, but damn if this blurb and that cover don't tickle my fancy. With that cover I bet you were thinking I was going to say something else, didn't you?


    Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone
    A tale of intrigue, a murdered god, and the business of necromancy: an urban fantasy set in an alternate reality 
    A god has died, and it’s up to Tara, first-year associate in the international necromantic firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao, to bring Him back to life before His city falls apart. 
    Her client is Kos, recently deceased fire god of the city of Alt Coulumb. Without Him, the metropolis’s steam generators will shut down, its trains will cease running, and its four million citizens will riot. 
    Tara’s job: resurrect Kos before chaos sets in. Her only help: Abelard, a chain-smoking priest of the dead god, who’s having an understandable crisis of faith. 
    When Tara and Abelard discover that Kos was murdered, they have to make a case in Alt Coulumb’s courts—and their quest for the truth endangers their partnership, their lives, and Alt Coulumb’s slim hope of survival. 
    Set in a phenomenally built world in which justice is a collective force bestowed on a few, craftsmen fly on lightning bolts, and gargoyles can rule cities, Three Parts Dead introduces readers to an ethical landscape in which the line between right and wrong blurs.
    This is probably my most anticipated debut of the year. The color is absolutely tremendous and not just the art. I love the type setting and the location of everything. It's perfect. Read that blurb too, it sounds like an acid trip of awesome ideas. I'm in.


    Peace by Gene Wolfe
    Originally published in 1975, Peace is a spellbinding, brilliant tour de force of the imagination. The melancholy memoir of Alden Dennis Weer, an embittered old man living out his last days in a small midwestern town, the novel reveals a miraculous dimension as the narrative unfolds. For Weer’s imagination has the power to obliterate time and reshape reality, transcending even death itself. Powerfully moving and uncompromisingly honest, Peace ranks alongside the finest literary works of our time. 
    Hailed as “one of the literary giants of SF” by the Denver Post, Gene Wolfe has repeatedly won the field’s highest honors, including the Nebula, the Hugo, and the World Fantasy awards. Peace is Gene Wolfe’s first full-length novel, a work that shows the genius that later flourished in such acclaimed works as The Fifth Head of Cerberus and The Book of The New Sun.

    I haven't read enough Gene Wolfe. Have you? Neil Gaiman also wrote a foreword for this addition.

    ***
    Anything catch your eye? Anything else from the Penguin imprints that I didn't mention for the second half of the year?

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    Wednesday, June 13, 2012

    A Look at the Blogger/Publisher Relationship

    Following the coverage of last week's Book Expo America Bloggers Conference left me a little frustrated with how the publishing industry views blogging. For the record, in all the time I've been blogging I've never been pressured by a publisher to do anything untoward. They've never asked me to write a review a certain way or threaten to take away future copies of books. In fact, the only request I've ever had from a publisher is to hold a review until a certain date. What gets my goat is the implication that bloggers exist to help sell books, an assertion that seems to have been echoed again and again at the Bloggers Conference.

    I first became aware of this perspective via the infamous William Morrow letter which stated, "Your job is simply to review the book within a month of receiving it and post your thoughts on your blog or site." A poor choice of words, but one that seems to be resonating among those in the book business as expressed on the Book Smuggler review of the Conference. I've never thought of myself that way. It bothers me that those in the business of selling books would think of me that way. I consider myself to be an arbiter of taste. My role, as I see it, is to help readers make informed choices about how they spend their money. If I sell some books as a result, that's fine, but not my ultimate goal.

    I could go on about how the blogger conference might have been better run, or what topics would have been more appropriate to discuss. I'm not sure what purpose that serves other than to be nuisance. Instead, I want to talk about the current relationship between blogger and publicist and how it could be improved. Based on a thread at the Westeros Forums, I suspect the public at large (and publishing professionals apparently) have some misconceptions.

    The truth is every publisher does it differently. There's "Don't Call Us We'll Call You", "We'll Send You Anything You Ask For", "What The Hell Here's Everything We Publish", "You're Not Begging Hard Enough", "We'll Send It If You Promise to Review It", and everything in between. Most of the genre imprints fall into the category of "Ask and You Shall Receive Within Reason". I've never been rejected by a publisher for a review copy even in the early days, although I have occasionally been met with defeaning silence.

    That said, with dozens of books being released every week, how in the world can a blogger keep up with requesting the books he wants to review? Furthermore, how is a publisher doing their job marketing their authors if all they do is send books people ask for? The result would be every blog covering only the most popular authors. Therefore, it's the publicists job to introduce less popular or new authors to the reading public. Blogs have become one of the primary outlets for that, especially in genre fiction.

    This is accomplished by exposing reviewers to books they don't know they want. The lazy ones just send books blind. Given enough time and consistency a blogger will soon begin receiving far more books than he can ever read. I'm starting to reach that critical mass now. I've received over a dozen review copies since June 1, many of which are sequels to first books I haven't read and don't even own. What a waste. I'll end up running a giveaway for half of them where hopefully they'll go to a loving home, be read, and recommended to others. For most bloggers they just end up getting donated to a local library. Somehow I don't think that's what the publicist had in mind when it was sent to me.

    The better ones dialogue with bloggers. For example, Pyr e-mailed me a few days ago, "Please let me know if you would like a print or PDF ARC of The Skybound Sea - The Aeons' Gate Book Three by Sam Sykes. A press release is below!"

    Orbit sends a monthly e-mail of the next month's releases, a link to an electronic galley, and a line that reads, "If you would like a printed copy of the book, please let me know!" Angry Robot does something similar.

    Unfortunately, these are the exceptions, not the rule. Random House, for example, has never reached out to me as a blogger (although they've been perfectly nice when I reach out to them). Penguin and Macmillan are very pro-active, but along with Random House it's almost impossible to figure out who's the publicist for which title, leading to an occasional endless runaround.

    The bad ones don't do either. They just wait for someone to e-mail them, asking for a book to which they do or do not respond. For bloggers, these publishers can be trying.

    Beginning with the William Morrow cluster fuck last year, and continuing to the BEA Blogger Conference, publishers have begun questioning this relationship. What's the return on investment? How do the publishers, struggling with an ever shrinking profit margin, justify sending books into the ether hoping against hope that someone reviews them? William Morrow's answer was to require reviews and use giveaway copies as carrots, intimating that bloggers work for publishers.

    I wonder if Angry Robot's policy will be the wave of the future. If they send a hard copy book, they expect a review. Failing to do so results in the discontinuation of the relationship. I'm sure this is a decision based solely on the cost of sending a book and getting nothing back for it. Angry Robot has one of the most robust eGalley systems and they attach no such strings to reviewers who download. It's a pretty good model as far as such things go. For a small imprint it makes perfect sense. While I may not love the notion of requiring a review of a book I may not want to finish, I can respect their need to cut costs.

    Unfortunately, there are still many authors who don't get coverage. If no one's reviewing it, no one is talking about it, and word of mouth is still the best way to sell books. This absence can be particularly noticeable in the echo chamber of the on-line reviewing community. The loudest and most obnoxious are typically the self-published authors feeling slighted by the reviewing community. In that cacophony, it's easy to forget that there are many authors from major houses, lacking the undivided attention of their publisher who likewise fall through the reviewer cracks. Not every big-six author is John Scalzi or Charlaine Harris or Justin Cronin. For every one of them there fifteen Kelly McCulloughs.

    When McCullough's last last book came out, Broken Blade, I heard nothing about it prior to release. Nor do I know anyone who received a review copy, myself included. I would point out its sequel, Bared Blade, is due out on June 26 and again... I've heard nothing. Despite piquing my interest, it was never raised in my consciousness to the point where I would go out and buy it. I suspect this was true for a lot of people, bloggers and readers alike.

    Strangely, Doug Hulick's Among Thieves, and Myke Cole's Control Point were published in mass market paperback from Ace/Roc just like McCullough's novel. Both received broad coverage throughout the blogosphere while McCullough did not. Why was Broken Blade met with a resounding echo of a pin dropping? And whose fault is it?

    I don't know the answer. Some authors have gone so far to hire freelance publicists to supplement the work done by their publisher, especially when it comes to on-line outlets. I can't say I blame them. Sometimes it isn't a publicist at all who reaches out to me, but the author. Myke Cole e-mailed me out of the blue last year with a nice note, demonstrating he'd actually read my blog. He recognized that a publicity department isn't always interested or equipped to reach out to bloggers personally so he took some of that burden on himself. It worked. It's very rare that I get this kind of e-mail from a publicist, a fact that remains perplexing to me.

    Last month, I downloaded an electronic galley of David Brin's Existence. A few days ago, I received an unsolicited hard copy of the novel. My point is I don't think publishers have any idea how to best interact with bloggers. I think they're guessing. Wasting opportunities like the BEA Bloggers Conference is only further undermining their efforts. When they should be asking for blogger input, they choose instead to push swag. I'm not sure if they're understaffed or just lacking the appropriate tools necessary to track books, reviewers' tastes, and blogs' niches. Either way, the answer isn't creating some cockamamie bureaucracy to hold bloggers accountable, or codify some quid pro quo that will only serve to taint blogger integrity. The answer is increasing the publishers access to the community and the community's access to them.

    It doesn't mean spending more money, just spending it smarter. Rather than casting out wasted review copies that never get read, invest in getting to know reviewers and what they like. Give them exclusive coverage. Be pro-active. Don't expect free books to be a tool by which they can be controlled. In short, treat them like journalists. I'm not sure publishing has any desire to do so. To this point they've shown little interest in understanding electronic media at all. So I ask, how can an industry expect to sell something to a group of people they don't understand? The answer...

    They can't.

    Wouldn't it be nice if there was an event where bloggers and publishers could come together and discuss the industry? Wait a second...

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    David Anthony Durham Interview (Part 2)

    Justin: Some commentators out there, myself not included (obviously), say that War with the Mein didn't do it for them. It wasn't until the second book that the series caught them. I wonder if it's because the first novel is couched in traditional epic high fantasy, where the second and third go to some new places, literally and figuratively. Was starting in the expected and going to the unexpected part of the plan?

    Durham: I don’t think that the first book was really couched in traditional epic high fantasy. I do think the first book appeared to be traditional in many aspects. I set up familiar elements in order to subvert them. The benevolent empire of the protagonists isn’t at all benevolent. The invading hordes from the hinterlands are fighting legitimate injustices that pretty much anyone in the empire could agree with. The obvious hero of the book suffers gravely for believing the myth of himself. An apparently shallow character is revealed, eventually, as the most cunning actor in the mix. The triumph of the ending has a lot of menace in it - enough to make it unclear if it really was a triumph. I cast a large cast of ethnically diverse characters - which seemed more unusual when I wrote it than it does now. And the two arguably strongest characters - both in martial matters and in political prowess - are women.

    Seems pretty different than the Tolkien template to me.

    I did feel that the first book’s pacing wasn’t as quick as it should’ve been. I was working a lot of stuff out about the world as I wrote. Not all of it needed to stay in the finished book. That’s why I made some cuts for the trade paperback edition. No changes in plot or anything. Just a lot of small trims. I think readers will find that the first part moves a bit faster, gets to the good stuff a little sooner.

    Justin: I'm intrigued to see how the edits are received. To jump to a wholly different topic, where do you come down on the whole 'magic should be unknowable and mysterious' vs. 'magic should have rules and logic' debate? I would judge your magic in Acacia to be somewhere in the middle.

    Durham: I’m not into completely “unknowable and mysterious”. It feels wishy-washy. I’m mostly down with “rules and logic” to it, but I’d say I stand by magic having “costs and consequences”. That’s how it is in Acacia. It’s power, but it’s hard to know how using it is going to come back at you.

    Justin: For me, I always feel like magic should serve a purpose beyond the 'that's cool' factor. I think yours does that, but rather than talk about what purpose I think it serves, I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.

    Durham: It’s fun that it’s cool, of course, but in Acacia magic is a bit like nuclear power. A historical game changer. Incredibly useful. So much potential to be used in productive ways, but… It creates a power discrepancy. It’s hard not to misuse. And it leaves a toxic residue that causes lots of problems. This being a fantasy, the residual effects of magic aren’t cancer and birth defects. Instead we get enormous crossbred baboon/gazelles, mountain-sized ravenous fish and dragons, to name a few.

    Justin: Speaking of unintended consequences, I'm not sure if you've caught any of the kerfuffle over the Hunger Games and the ethnicity of the kids in the film. I remember back on the Acacia forums you used to run on your website, there was a casting thread where the vast majority of the actors suggested were white. Most of your characters aren't white. Do you just wave your hand at that and move on, or is this a problem we need to get at?

    Durham: I mostly wave my hand and move on. It can seem a bit strange to me that some readers don’t picture my characters the way I describe them. It’s an old story, though. Ursula K LeGuin has been dealing with it for decades. Over and over again she describes her characters as “dark” and “brown” and “coppered”. Hollywood (or Japan) hasn’t yet seen fit to respect her descriptions in film, though.

    It’s not a fantasy problem, though. We’ve been miscasting characters ethnicity in all sorts of films for a long time. We’ve decided that ancient Greeks or Romans weren’t actually Greek or Italian. They weren’t even olive-skinned. Instead, they’re English or Scottish or Irish - at least in terms of the actors Hollywood picks to play them. It’s ridiculous. I’d love to see an ancient war film where Greek characters are played by Greeks, or Italians play Romans.

    Justin: Your historical fiction work tackles race head on. I think Acacia does too, although in a much more roundabout way. Do you agree with that?

    Durham: I wanted a world as diverse as ours, familiarly so. On the other hand I wanted to chop up the world map and move things around. I definitely didn't want to replicate the particular racial history of our world. So there are nations that seem pretty African, but that doesn't mean they’re destined to be slaves. There are European-like people that are fiercely proud, but it wouldn't occur to them to feel racially superior. Culturally superior perhaps, but not with the pseudo-science/religious nonsense that justified racial suppression in our world. The races exist, but not necessarily the baggage our history attaches to them.

    Justin: There's a lot more non-western fantasy being written now. N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, and Saladin Ahmed, are three that come to mind off the top of my head. What do you think's driving this?

    Durham: It’s wonderful. They’ve added things to the genre that can’t be ignored anymore. I knew Nnedi early in her career, and Nora and Saladin before they were even published. They were hard-core fantasy fans, very active in the community, always at cons, etc. They knew they’re stuff, but as writers they were intent on not just replicating the European stories they’d grown up reading. They wanted to honor their own origins as well - and those of others.

    I think they’re succeeding because they’re writing strong, commercially viable books. Publishers may not have seen non-European fantasy as a strong market before, but clearly that’s changed.

    I’d like to think I helped with that a little bit. The Acacia Trilogy was published by Doubleday, a mainstream publisher. I’d done three books with them before proposing The War With The Mein. We were on good enough terms that they were willing to shrug and say, “Sure, give it a try.” I’m not sure how readily genre publishers would’ve done that if I’d approached them.

    Justin: Now that Acacia is done, I believe you're working on a Spartacus era historical fiction novel. Any plans to come back to fantasy in the future?

    Durham: Absolutely. I’ve already written another fantasy novel, though it’s for a different audience. My first middle grade fantasy is called The Shadow Prince. It’s a kids book set in ancient Egypt. It’s full-on fantasy, with lots of demon fighting and shape-shifting gods and kids saving the world from eternal darkness - that sort of stuff. It was great fun to write, and if we get a publisher for it I hope to write a whole series of them!

    In terms of grown-up stuff, I’m continuing to write for George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards books. I’d love to return to the world of Acacia as well. There’s a lot more to explore. I’m interested in what the next generation of Acacians make of the world they inherited at the end of The Sacred Band. I’d love to spin the globe a bit more also - to get a look at what’s on the other side.

    Justin: Thanks again for doing this and thanks for writing such a great series. Good luck with your next project.

    Durham: Thank you.

    ***

    David Anthony Durham is the author of six novels, all published by Doubleday and/or Anchor Books. 

    His first novel, Gabriel's Story, is a historical novel set in the American West, featuring black homesteaders and cowboys. He followed it with Walk Through Darkness, telling the tale of a runaway slave and the Scottish immigrant hired to track him. Continuing with historical fiction, he published his third novel, Pride of Carthage, a fictional exploration of the Second Punic War between Carthage and the early Roman Republic.

    More recently, he's published a fantasy trilogy including: Acacia: The War With The MeinThe Other Lands, and The Sacred Band. Three of his novels, including The War With the Mein have been optioned for development as feature films. 

    Durham currently teaches Popular Fiction at the Stonecoast Low-Residency MFA Program.

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