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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Libriomancer - Jim C. Hines

Before I talk about Jim C. Hines' newest novel Libriomancer, I wanted to briefly address his recent decision to withdraw from a Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) session with the Fantasy Subreddit community. The Fantasy Subreddit is made up of nearly 18,000 highly engaged readers. It's a wide ranging group of fans, some of a more literary bent and some Sandercrombiefuss fanboys of the highest order. I've been a member for a few months now and I've really enjoyed my experience there.

Hines backed out of his AMA when a thread, in an unrelated Subreddit, came to his attention. The thread was providing a forum for rapists to discuss their crime. It's a disturbing series of comments. So many comments when I can't imagine anyone being interested in reading it. In that way, I support Hines' decision; he's long been an advocate for the awareness of violence against women. His decision regarding the AMA is wholly consistent with his position. I'm also disappointed that the result of his decision was a loss for the Fantasy Subreddit, although I in no way begrudge it.

Putting that aside, I think the situation raises important questions. Questions that will only become more prevalent in an ever expanding on-line world. On a massive site like Reddit, which prides itself on providing an unfiltered mechanism for discussion, how do we hold separate units accountable? Do we punish users completely unrelated to the material we find offensive? How do we regulate it? Should we regulate it?

Read more »

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Monday, July 30, 2012

As Close to Investigative Reporting As I'll Ever Get

They say curiosity killed the cat. In this case, curiosity killed the tiny little part of me that still believed in humanity. That might be a little dramatic, but who doesn't love a little drama?

I recently visited eBay on a hunch. A few weeks back there were a metric shit-ton (that's a legit measurement) of books handed out to bloggers, booksellers, and readers at Book Expo America (BEA). One in particular caught my interest -- The Twelve, Justin Cronin's follow-up to the bestselling The Passage. I knew I probably wouldn't get a review copy from Random House since Cronin (obviously) doesn't need my help to get the word out. Given my interest, and the hordes of readers that made The Passage a New York Times Bestseller, I wondered if any of those free copies would show up on eBay.

The answer, of course, is yes. That alone doesn't shock or disturb me. I suppose there were probably dozens of people at BEA for that express purpose. With the number of freebies there, a motivated seller could make a couple hundred bucks reselling their swag. While I find that eminently annoying, I'm not offended by it. They're not part of the industry. They're bad actors, to borrow a political term. Unfortunately, my exploration of the underbelly of the advanced copy resale market unearthed something else that did shock me.

Read more »

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Friday, July 27, 2012

End of Debut Authorpalooza and Grand Prize Giveaway

For the last fourteen days this blog has been turned over to ten of the best debut authors 2011 (and one 2012) had to offer. I was honored to have them here, not only because I didn't have to write a post myself for two weeks, but because I believe supporting debut writers is the only sure pathway to continued growth in the field. Promoting and buying debut authors is how readers signal to publishers that they should continue to take risks on the unknown. I hope this event has been productive in that regard.

It's also been an enlightening experience. Too often, as a reader, it's easy to forget the blood, sweat, and tears that go into the creating works that are often devoured in a few days time. When a novel's done, it flows so effortlessly it becomes hard to imagine it any other way. I think Douglas Hulick's post illustrated that even authors fall into the trap of believing that's how it should always be. I dare anyone who's ever illegally downloaded a book to come read these posts and not feel a little guilt over that crime.

So I say to writers everywhere, thank you. Thank you for pouring your heart into your work. It's appreciated. Not just by me, but by the endless readers out there who are taken to new places every time they open a book. 

And to readers, never let a book's newness dissuade you. If you haven't read a debut author this year, do it. Seriously. Give it a try. If you hate it, well... remember that it was A Dribble of Ink who told you to read it.

I'm sure it's not gone unnoticed that there have been a lot of giveaways on the site this week. Nine to be exact, including lots of signed books. Well, it's not quite finished. As a thank you to everyone who's been following this series of posts, the authors have decided to do a...

Grand Prize Giveaway. 


Here's how it's going to work:
  • All entries from the previous nine giveaways will be rolled into the Grand Prize Giveaway. 
  • That means, there are a total of nine possible entries per person. 
  • There will be one winner, who will receive the entire Grand Prize Giveaway. 
  • You have until August 12 at 12:00 AM Eastern Standard Time to get your entries in.
  • So if you haven't entered all the previous giveaways this week, and you want to win the Grand Prize, click on this index of posts, and enter. 
  • I'll draw the winner of the Grand Prize on August 13, along with all the winners of the individual giveaways.

You might be asking, what's in the Grand Prize Giveaway?

To be honest, I don't even really know everything that's going to be in it. Generally speaking, all ten authors will be contributing things. Courtney Schafer is putting in a signed ARC of The Tainted City. Kameron Hurley is putting in a signed ARC of Rapture. Teresa Frohock is offering a 6,700 word crit of whatever (I would recommend not asking her to critique a shopping list). Anne Lyle will send an ARC of The Merchant of Dreams when it's ready. Mark Lawrence will pen a copy of King of Thorns for the winner. The list goes on. I'm even going to send the Grand Prize Winner something. In other words, you really want to win this.

Good luck and THANK YOU for reading this week.

***

Staffer's Book Review (and occasional musings) will return to regular programming Monday. I've got some great reviews (Libriomancer, King of Thorns), my Hugo vote breakdown, and a piece of investigative reporting I think everyone will find interesting.

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Guest Post | Douglas Hulick in the Trenches

Bringing up the rear, is Douglas Hulick, author of one of the most exciting novels of 2011, Among Thieves. I bought the novel electronically. After reading it, I was stunned to learn that it was limited to a mass market paperback. Similar to 2012 debut author Myke Cole's Control Point (also an Ace/Roc mass market paperback), Among Thieves became a success due almost entirely to word of mouth as opposed to the big-six marketing machine.

Hulick's novel adds a new chapter to the thief subgenre and it stands out as the best thing to happen to it since Scott Lynch's masterpiece, The Lies of Locke Lamora. It's also unique in the characterization of Drothe, Hulick's protagonist and narrator. Namely, he's not special. The result is a character that the reader can identify with in a personal way even while he accomplishes things way outside the purview of his natural ability.

Let's see what he has to say about writing his sequel, Sworn in Steel...

***

For the last post in this series about debut authors and their second novels, it seems only fitting that I come at the subject from a slightly different direction. Where all my predecessors have talked to you from the perspective of someone who's finished their sophomore effort, I'm going to talk to you from the trenches directly. See, I haven't finished my second novel. In fact, it's pretty damn late.

How damn late? Let's just say I was expecting to have my third book in the series done and turned in by now.

Of course, it's not like I planned for this to happen. As Mazarkis mentioned earlier this week, I was well aware of what was riding on the second book, not only for readers, but also for my reputation as a writer. Plus, I had the added advantage of being in a SF/F writer's group that can count over forty professionally published novels among its seven members. None of what was coming, be it deadlines or marketing distractions or the limits imposed by a previous book, were news to me. I had, through my fellows, seen it all before. There should have been no surprises.

And yet, here I sit, 18 months past deadline, still carving my way through the forest that is Book 2 (otherwise known as Sworn in Steel).

What happened?

I could give you a blow by blow of my progress and stumbles and discoveries, but really, it all comes down to one thing: I forgot how to write. Or, to be more precise, I forgot how I write.

For a long while, I kept blaming my delay on my method of plotting. I was always a pantser, meaning that, beyond a general character and story arc, and maybe a bit of plot, I didn't plan a whole lot. After all, I'd taken over a decade to get my first book on paper: surely it was my meandering about the page, following characters who at times seemed to be under the influence of too many tequila shooters, that had caused my delay. Couldn't I point at my earlier process for my current downfall?

But then I looked at my legal pad, heavy with outline and plot points; at what I had of my first draft, directed and, if not tight, still arguably endowed with strong forward momentum. No, I couldn't lay it at plot's door.

How about speed, then? Lord knew I'd always been a slow writer. Doubling my daily word count after my first book had initially involved going from 250 words a day to 500. (That may not seem like much, but please understand that I have, on average, four hours a day to write, five days a week, nine months out of the year. So, yeah, sloooow.) If it wasn't plot, then it had to be my sheer glacial pace.

Except, at the end of a year's worth of work on Sworn in Steel I had generated almost 200,000 words in total. That was a full 75,000 above and beyond my target. And while not all words are good words, still...come on. 200K? It wasn't lack of production.

So what was it? Blind alleys in the story? Too much verbiage? Too easily distra---oh, look a penny!

All were problems, yes, but none could explain the key issue I was having. None gave me a reason for my inability to *finish the damn book.*

And then, it hit me. In all the preparation, all the planning, all the daily word counts and plot points, I'd forgotten how I'd written the first (and my only, to date) book. In my attempt to get Sworn in Steel done, to get it ready to be handed over to my editor, I kept looking to the final version my first book, Among Thieves, as a guide post. That was the mistake.

Even though Among Thieves wasn't on the bookstore shelves when I started Sworn in Steel, it was still a polished piece of work. It had gone through innumerable rewrites on my end before being submitted, and then edited and copyedited as well. The only problem was, this had taken place over the course of years--years which conveniently fell out of my memory. All I saw was the final product--the tightly plotted, fast-paced novel that had secured me a three book contract with a Big Six publisher. And that's what I set out to write.

In short, what tripped me up was that I tried to write the final draft as my first draft. And while that probably sounds bad enough on its own, add on the fact that I tend to be a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to my work (“a bit”? I can hear my wife saying, along with peals of sarcastic laughter), and, well, you can see where things went off the rails.

So, have I learned anything? Looking at the above, yeah, I think I can say that I have. (I damn well better have, or Book 3 is gonna kill me!) But even more than the nuts & bolts stuff, I realized that, as much as we may beat ourselves up as new authors, there are people who are still rooting for us (even when we're horribly late). Editors, agents, and especially readers (oh, BLESS the readers, who have been unfailingly polite, not to mention the first ones to tell me to “take as long as you need”) who honestly want to see us and our books succeed. Fellow writers who nod and worry and call in the middle of the afternoon to say, “Dude, are you alright? You've gone missing for, like, three weeks....” Family and friends who grit their teeth and put up with us as we try to navigate this new career and all the stresses it can entail.

The second book is, in many ways, a much more lonely, terrifying, and frustrating slog than the freshman effort. It is our first real exposure to what it means to be a professional writer. And, as we've seen these last two weeks, it's a different experience for each of us. But it's also very much that same, in that we each learn not only how to push and stretch and believe in ourselves, but also how much we aren't alone in this after all.

***

You can find Douglas Hulick on the web and Twitter. Be sure to visit the former to learn more about the Tales of the Kin series. Hulick is a 17th century Italian rapier combat (in the tradition of Ridolfo Capoferro) hobbyist. Come to WorldCon and watch him teach it!

Unfortunately, because Sworn in Steel is deep in the editorial process, there won't be an excerpt later today. I'm sobbing too. It's ok. Instead, I'll be announcing a huge grand prize giveaway to commemorate the end of Debut Authorpalooza 2012. Stay tuned.

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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Excerpt from The Merchant of Dreams by Anne Lyle (giveaway)


THE MERCHANT OF DREAMS

by Anne Lyle 


Chapter I 

Mal leant over the ship’s rail, scanning the shore for any sign of a wreck. The mistral had swept the sky bare, leaving the coast etched in hard lines by the cold clear light of a January morn.

“There,” he said at last, pointing to a dark shape on the beach.

Coby joined him at the rail. “Are you sure it’s the skrayling carrack, sir? Those timbers could belong to any ship.”

“You still don’t believe me.”

“I—‘ Her head drooped, expression hidden by the hood of her cloak. “It’s been more than a year, sir. I thought…I thought all that was over.”

It’ll never be over, he wanted to tell her. Not whilst I have this thing inside me.

Read more »

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Guest Post | Anne Lyle, Tearing It Down to Build It Back Up

As far as covers go, there's one style that's nearly guaranteed to do well in the fantasy world and Anne Lyle's debut novel, The Alchemist of Souls, nailed it. Intensely character driven, with a hint of action and a dash of mystery, it sent all the right signals to readers. Even better, Lyle completely delivered on that promise with an excellently paced historical fantasy full of plot twists.

With a cross-dressing female, several gay men, and a Catholic, Lyle's characters are all poorly suited to surviving life in Elizabethan England. Lyle does an incredible job of merging these progressive characters with the setting, never making them feel anachronistic (can people be anachronistic?). They're also just a ton of fun to read about too, making Alchemist of Souls my favorite Angry Robot novel since Zoo City.

All the way from the Cambridge, Anne Lyle...

***

In spring 2011 I signed a contract with Angry Robot for a historical fantasy trilogy, having submitted a finished manuscript of one book, The Alchemist of Souls, and the synopsis for a second. Although I had a rough draft of a sequel on which to base that synopsis, there was one small problem. Well, quite a big one actually. The second book was written way back in 2007, when I was still learning how to write novels, and on top of that Angry Robot had asked for major changes to the first book, specifically to add more magic. Since there was even less magic in the sequel, a simple revise and polish was out of the question; in fact I had to plan and write a new book pretty much from scratch. In under a year.

Fortunately I’m no stranger to pulling a manuscript apart and rebuilding it from the ground up, having done a five-month online course focusing on just that*. Of course I was able to keep the principal characters from the first book, since I had to maintain series continuity, and I kept the setting—the city of Venice—because I love it and thought it would keep the series fresh if I moved my heroes to a new location. I was even able to keep quite a few of the story elements, albeit demoted to a subplot. I then took some of the other Venetian characters, tweaked them a bit and wove a new plot around them. I also made sure that the skraylings—my invented creatures from the New World—were in the thick of things, because based on enthusiastic early reviews I knew my readers would want to learn more about them.

Read more »

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Excerpt from The Straits of Galahesh by Bradley P. Beaulieu (giveaway)

THE STRAITS OF GALAHESH

By Bradley P. Beaulieu

***

The akhoz galloped more than ran, their long limbs loping over the ground faster than it appeared they could. Their lips were drawn back, their dark tongues hidden behind blackened teeth, making them appear vengeful and ravenous.

Nasim’s sandals scraped over the ancient stone. His nerves willed him to flee. But he would not. This girl, this very girl, was the first of the akhoz. There was little that remained of Yadhan, but he recognized her by the shape and tilt of her head, her delicate features, and the small scar at the nape of her neck.

And he’d also felt in his memories that a connection had been made to each of the akhoz that Khamal had created. In the nights that followed, Khamal had gone on to perform the ritual again and again, sacrificing more and more children to the grisly fate that awaited them. And they had held a bond with him, a loyalty. Surely part of this was borne from the piece of the Atalayina Nasim had found, but it was also a bond to Khamal, and if Nasim were right, that bond would still exist with him. It must—Khamal wouldn’t have allowed it to happen any other way—but that didn’t stop Nasim’s heart from beating like a blacksmith’s hammer.

The akhoz were nearly on him when Nasim spread his arms wide. It was a gesture of supplication that Aramahn gave to hezhan before they communed.

Read more »

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Guest Post | Bradley P. Beaulieu Says "Lose Yourself" Quoting Eminem?

I tried to read Winds of Khalakovo three times before it finally hooked me. I figure that was for two reasons. One, I tried reading the trade paperback first, and that damn thing was more akin to Clue murder weapon than novel. Being a big "in bed" reader, it wasn't easy to hold up. Once I made the switch to the electronic version, I was able to really tuck into it. Second, Beaulieu doesn't take a lot of time to ease the reader into things, jumping quickly into the main narrative.

All that goes to say that Winds takes some investment, both of time and mental capacity. It's an investment well worth making. In my review I called it the merging of Russian literary tradition with the epic fantasy, making it unique in a field often characterized by its sameness.

Coasting in on a airship of his own making, Bradley P. Beaulieu...

***

By the time the first book in my series, The Winds of Khalakovo, came out in April of 2011, I was already well on the way to finishing the first draft of The Straits of Galahesh. I didn't yet have the fear in me that I do now. Fear, you say? Yes, the fear that your book is out of your control when it hits the streets. (Actually, it's out of your control a good bit before that, but that's a story for another post.) I was writing as if I were an unpublished writer. Sure, I was mindful about my deadlines, but I'd already developed a steady writing rhythm. I'd planned out the writing of the book almost down to the day, so I wasn't worried about that.

Everything changed, however, as my new reality sunk in and I realized just how much control I was giving up. Not only could I not change Book 1 at all, the very fact that Book 1 was locked down meant my options with respect to Book 2 were now more limited. I could no longer go back and tweak or adjust for some new idea I'd come up with. Book 1 had suddenly become backstory, and that changed the way I wrote. I was much more careful (or tried to be) about teasing out the story threads from Book 1 and into Book 2, and also about looking ahead to set up Book 3 over the course of Book 2.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Excerpt from Knifesworn by Mazarkis Williams (and giveaway)


KNIFESWORN

By Mazarkis Williams

§

Thrashing churned the water, white foam, tinged brown with river mud. Grada knelt on a broad stone bedded in the shoreline, her arms elbow deep, wringing as she had wrung out the robes of the wealthy many times before.

Muscles bunched across her shoulders. Jenna had always said she was strong. Ox-strong, head-strong.

Further out the river slid past, green-brown, placid. Somewhere a widderil called out its three-note song with all its heart.

§

They had come from the thickness of the pomegranate grove, two of them sticky with sweat, laying down their pruning hooks as they saw her. Both of them old enough for wives, young enough for wickedness, stripped to loincloth and sandals, white-orange blossom from the second crop clinging to their chests and arms. The men had angled Grada’s way as she walked in the shade at the margins, where trees gave way to the river road.

‘Hey, girl!’ The taller of the two, both of them wiry with white teeth behind their grins.

Read more »

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Guest Post | Mazarkis Williams Says Writing is Writing

The Emperor's Knife is one of the several titles released over the last twelve months that fit into Paul Weimer's designation of silkroad fantasy. That is to say, it's a fantasy novel that wraps itself in the cultural texture of the Middle East and the Eurasian Steppe. Williams' novel succeeds most often when Sarmin is on screen, a mentally unstable prince capable of anything, including manipulating the pattern, an abstract magic that I still only barely grasp.

It's a complex world Williams has created, and the plot woven through it is equally layered. There are some ups and downs in relation to narrative pacing and some overly opaque foreshadowing, but all told it's a novel I can strongly recommend and promises to be a memorable series. I should also point out the wonderful cover for Williams second book, Knifesworn, which depicts a covered female figure, a welcome departure from the poses so often associated with genre.

Let's give a big round of mouse clicks to Mazarkis Williams...

***

Writing is always the same job no matter what your status, but to the people around you, there is a tremendous difference between published and not published. A few years ago, whenever people asked, I would tell them, “I write,” followed inevitably just a few seconds later with, “No, I haven’t published anything.” People pitied me, scorned me, or were just confused how to act when they heard I was unpublished. After all, it looks like a failure – everyone else can produce satisfied clients, paychecks, or some other tangible result of their labor.

Once I crossed that publishing hurdle, I learned to my surprise that I am actually an interesting person. It turns out I am more witty and talented than I had believed. Everyone wants to talk about the next book, ask how many copies I’ve sold (don’t know), or learn more about the publishing world (so do I). But I’m still the same person. I continue to write the same, slow way and face the same issues. And for years I’ve been internalizing those strange, pitying looks, those incredulous smiles. You’re a writer? Yeah, right.

Read more »

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Monday, July 23, 2012

Excerpt from The Garden by Teresa Frohock (Giveaway)

I'm not a talented writer; the words don't gush from my mind onto the page. I have a tendency to bite off more than I can handle, so I wind up crafting my novels relentlessly, reading them, re-reading them, shaving a word here and adding a scene there.

The chapter that Justin is going to post here at Staffer's Book Review is much like Guillermo, Diago, and Miquel in that it’s been through many incarnations. The chapter may have a few left to go before The Garden sees publication. I'm okay with that.

You're going to meet Guillermo at the start of his journey. Portions of the chapter are graphic and there is profanity.

You've been warned.

Welcome to the Garden ...


***

THE GARDEN

By Teresa Frohock



The Iberian Peninsula, Épila, Aragón, July 21, 1348



Hush,” she said. “It’s the moon.”



Chapter One


Cloaked in a haze of smoke and dust, the sun went down on the city of Épila. The clamor barely settled over the battlefield when the royal señors ordered the King’s caballeros to search for survivors and plunder. No one held much hope for either. Unlike the sun, Épila would not rise at dawn.

Guillermo reined his skittish horse to a halt midway down the alley and scanned the smoldering buildings for any sign of movement. Smoke wisped across the ground where bits of pottery and scattered furniture laid discarded and broken.

Several yards ahead, the street opened to a field that led to a vineyard. The Unionists had set fire to their own crops and the homes on the outskirts of Épila in an effort to force the King’s army into the open, but their strategies failed. The laborers couldn’t withstand the experienced caballeros of King Pedro’s Aragonese nobles and the Castilian mercenaries who rode with them. The King ordered Épila to be razed; it was rumored that he intended to sow the ground with salt until his councilors stayed his hand.

Somewhere in the distance, a wail pierced the air. The cry ceased almost as soon as it began. Guillermo looked over his shoulder when hooves beat on the hard-packed earth behind him. His hand strayed to his sword hilt, but he didn’t draw his blade. He doubted the riders were Unionists. The last of the Union army already fled to the rear lines to protect their pretender, the infante Ferdinand.

Read more »

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Guest Post | Teresa Frohock Throws Down the Gauntlet to Herself

Miserere: An Autumn Tale was one of the most unexpected delights of 2011. I called it one of the five best debuts of 2011, and I stand by that ranking. It's a beautiful book of redemption and loss, hope and forgiveness. I can't recommend it enough, even for those readers perhaps skeptical of a fantasy novel couched in Christian myth.

Looking forward, I was surprised to learn that Frohock's contract didn't call for a second novel, at least not immediately. Instead, she began work on an unrelated work titled The Garden that seems to play on a similar premise of holy and not. Although unconnected to Miserere, I can't wait to read it. I'll be posting the first chapter later today, and I hope everyone enjoys it as much as I did.

In the meantime though, let's hear what Teresa Frohock has to say about writing her second novel...

***

I’ve always been a bit ambitious when it comes to my work. In college, I took a world history class; our assignment was simple, we were to write a seven page paper, no more, no less. Seven was to be the number of pages, and the number of pages was to be seven. Period. We were allowed to pick our own topic, and the topic had to be approved by the instructor.

I titled my paper: “Christian Dogma from the Classical Period through the Reformation: Paving the Way to Christian Apathy during the Holocaust.”

My instructor looked at the topic and to this day I swear he smirked, just a little. He said, “Go ahead. I want to see you pull that off in seven pages.”

The gauntlet was thrown, and I love nothing better than a challenge.

I spent an entire semester buried in research. The hard part, of course, was not the research. The difficulty rested in presenting the information in a linear tale of the often acrimonious split between the Jews and Christians. I traced the theological and political dividing lines between the two groups, discussed the writings of Justin Martyr, then tracked the Christian split from Judaism to Martin Luther and from Martin Luther to the Nazi ascent, and I did it in seven pages, seven was the number of pages. No more, no less.

Read more »

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Friday, July 20, 2012

Excerpt from and Blues Skies from Pain by Stina Leicht (Giveaway)

AND BLUE SKIES FROM PAIN

By Stina Leicht

“Keep your hands where I can see them,” Ned McCoy said, pulling a pistol from his pocket. Something in his voice said he almost regretted the request.

Liam left his hands on the steering wheel of the idling RS, and attempted to hide his nerves behind his balaclava. He wasn’t sure how successful he was. However, he supposed a certain amount of anxiety would be expected in anyone facing the business end of a gun. “Am thinking of having a cig. Is that all right with you?”

“Go ahead.”

Liam didn’t move to fish the cigarettes Frankie had given him from the jacket’s inside pocket, not yet. “Will you have one?”

Ned paused. “I will at that.”

Reaching inside Conor’s jacket, Liam grabbed the cigarettes and offered one to Ned. Afterward, Liam glanced at the watch he wore turned so he could see the face on the inside of his wrist. Eight o’clock. Although the moon was nearly full, it was dark in the alley. He pulled his lighter out of his blue jeans pocket in order to offer Ned a light.

Read more »

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Guest Post | Stina Leicht has Trouble with the Troubles

Of all the first novels involved in this event, Stina Leicht's Of Blood and Honey was the only I hadn't finished yet prior to agreeing to host them. I was about halfway through, having seen enough to recommend it, but not really knowing how high it would rank. As I finished it last weekend it became pretty clear that any doubts I had about my ability to trumpet it were foolish. It's an amazing blend of historical fiction, urban fantasy, and magical realism that captures the wonder of fantasy and the authenticity of history.

Leicht hit on a fascinating time in history, a period of ethno-political conflict in Northern Ireland known as The Troubles. Reading her novel I was as drawn into the setting as I was to Liam's story. The end result is a perfect marrying of the two and a novel I strongly suggest everyone read. It's certainly worthy of the recognition Leicht has received as a 2012 nominee for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

Stina Leicht on trouble with The Troubles...

***

Hi!

I'm Stina Leicht -- SF and F writer, reader, history nut, martial artist, muscle car enthusiast, music freak, and dabbler in paint, photography, and er… baking. Oh, and I travel as much as I can. And Blue Skies from Pain (second in the Fey and the Fallen series) is my second published novel. I was short-listed for a 2012 Crawford Award, and I'm a nominee for the 2012 Campbell Award for Best New Author.

What was it like to write And Blue Skies from Pain versus Of Blood and Honey (my first published novel)?

Read more »

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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Chapter One of The Tainted City by Courtney Schafer (Giveaway)



THE TAINTED CITY

Chapter One

(Dev)

I wedged my fingers higher in the crack snaking up the boulder’s overhanging face. A push of a foot, a twist of my body, and the overhang’s lip was nearly within reach. Good thing, since I had to finish this little warm-up climb fast, or risk a whipping if the shift bell rang before I got to the mine. Dawn’s light already streaked the gorge rim far above me with gold, though it’d be mid-morning before the sun rose high enough to touch the reedy mudflats here in the gorge’s depths. Beyond my boulder, clumps of men in grime-streaked coveralls trudged toward the yawning black mouth at the base of the cliffs. Lights bobbed in jerky rhythms within the tunnel as the night haulers hurried to finish sacking their quota of coal.

“Spend one instant longer crawling up that rock instead of joining your crew, boy, and I’ll choke you blind.”

The torc around my neck heated in warning as overseer Gedavar spoke. I jerked my fingers free of the crack and dropped to land in the mud at the boulder’s base. Sudden sweat laced my palms. What in Shaikar’s hells had brought Gedavar sniffing around? With the day shift soon to start, he should be relaying the minemaster’s orders to the crew chiefs, not skulking about behind the prisoners’ barracks. The thin copper disc of the stolen glowlight charm hidden beneath my sock cuff felt large as a wagon wheel.
Read more »

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Ask Me Anything - Debut Authorpalooza


Tonight at 7:00 PM CST, the ten authors from the Debut Authorpalooza event will be on Reddit for an Ask Me Anything! It should be a ton of fun, and I hope people will literally ask anything. Some examples might be...

  • Curious where Mark Lawrence gets his clothes dry cleaned? ASK HIM
  • Is Mazarkis Williams a descendant of the Invisible Man? ASK HIM.. er.. HER.. er.. HIM
  • Teresa Frohock, does working in a library remove the urge to pee often brought on by the smell of books? ASK HER!
  • Stina Leicht, did people tease you in middle school by called you Stina Licked? ASK HER, but duck.
  • How do you balance a beer bottle on your head Kameron Hurley? ASK HER (and make her do it)
  • Is Bradley Beaulieu a French spy? ASK HIM, but use a voice changer
  • Is there any truth to the rumor that it was Doug Hulick inside the Chewbacca suit in Star Wars? RAWR!
  • I read Whitefire Crossing, what's a scree? ASK HER
  • Did Elspeth Cooper have to license Songs of the Earth from the Jack Vance anthology tribute Songs of a Dying Earth? ASK HER
  • All these authors debuted in 2011, except you Anne Lyle, what do you have to say for yourself?! ASK HER
Link to the AMA: http://www.reddit.com/r/Fantasy/comments/wtjev/we_are_2011_debut_novelists_t_frohock_m_williams/

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Guest Post | Courtney Schafer Holding onto Joy

There will always be a special place in my heart for Courtney Schafer's The Whitefire Crossing. It's the first book I reviewed as a blogger that felt like discovery. I was the first blogger to review it (I think), and I absolutely adored it. Complete with a setting that shines in Schafer's experienced mountain climber hands, Whitefire is a charming chase novel that promises a much deeper plot in future novels.

I should mention that Schafer took a real risk with Whitefire's narration, swapping between first and third person depending on the point of view. It's a tough thing to do for any author, especially an author in her debut, but Schafer pulls it off with aplomb, further evidence to the fact that she'll be in this business for a long time. I hope anyone who reads this post will give her a shot.

Here's Courtney Schafer...

***

I’ve heard some authors say their second published novel came easier than their first. To which I say: you lucky, lucky bastards! But since I’ve already talked elsewhere about why carving the Taj Mahal out of marble with my fingernails might’ve been easier than writing The Tainted City, I won’t rehash the details here. I’ll just say that I think many of the difficulties of writing a second novel can be summed up with this: before publication, writing is an escape from stress. After publication, writing becomes a source of stress. Learning to manage the stress while maintaining the joy is a different process for every author, and the solution isn’t always easy to find.

Anyway, now that The Tainted City is in copyedits and about to leave my hands at last, I don’t want to focus on the authorial agonies of getting here. I’d much rather celebrate the good parts of the process! So here are three lessons I learned that helped me hold onto the fun of writing even on days when finishing the book felt as impossible as summiting K2 in the dead of winter.

Read more »

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Excerpt from Trinity Rising by Elspeth Cooper (Giveaway)


TRINITY RISING

By Elspeth Cooper

It was almost Ninth when Sorchal ambled along the covered walk at the side of the practice yard, his coat over his shoulder and his shirt untucked. Gair turned from first position and propped his sword point-down in the dust in front of him, leaning on the pommel. This was the third time this week the Elethrainian had let him down.

‘Good afternoon,’ he said dryly.

Grinning, Sorchal swept him a florid bow. ‘Good morrow, sir Knight! Goddess’s blessings to you on this fine morning.’ He staggered as he straightened up, which rather spoiled the effect.

‘Are you still drunk?’

‘Very probably.’

Read more »

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Guest Post | Elspeth Cooper Tries to Write One Book at a Time (and fails)

Unlike the others books in this event, Songs of the Earth was released months earlier in the UK than it was here in the States. It made me a little grumpy. I don't like to wait. I resisted the urge to pester my favorite UK publicist, Jon Weir, and waited until it came to Tor in early 2012. When I finally cracked the novel I was quickly transported to a world steeped in superstitious tradition, unwilling to recognize the unraveling of reality around it. Cooper's plot follows a coming-of-age format, but interweaves others' stories to create a lush narrative.

One of those stories is Aysha, the shapeshifting university professor and love interest for Cooper's protagonist. She's also one of the best portrayals of disability I've ever read in genre and I'd recommend the book just for her scenes even if the rest was no good. Thankfully, the rest is good too.  Songs is a wonderful first novel that demonstrates Cooper's talent and promises a long writing career.

Let's welcome Elspeth Cooper...

***

I discovered something about myself recently: I have a distressing tendency to try to write two books at once. Some writers can do this, switching effortlessly between different projects and somehow keeping both of them on the straight and narrow. Such writers have my undying admiration, but such writers are not me.

You see, I’m what they call a pantser. I don’t write chapter plans, or paper the wall above my desk with character summaries on 3x5 index cards. I have a beginning, a few high points to hit along the way, and fly by the seat of my pants for the rest. It’s exciting; I love being led onwards by my characters, but sometimes they get impatient, the scamps, and I end up writing bits that belong in the box marked “Not yet, dammit!” – only I don’t always realise it straight away.

Read more »

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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The First Chapter from Rapture by Kameron Hurley (Giveaway)


RAPTURE

By Kameron Hurley


“Then We which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall We ever be with the Lord.” Bible, Thessalonians 4:16-17


"Whoever works righteousness, man or woman, and has faith, verily, to them will We give a new Life, a life that is good and pure, and We will bestow on such their reward according to the best of their actions." Quran, Chapter 16, Verse 97


1. 

Every time Nyx thought she’d gotten out of the business of killing boys, she shot another one.
 
He lay bleeding at her feet as the spectators for the weekly fights streamed past, muddying the dusty street with his blood. She had not meant to shoot him, but she was drunk, a common condition during her exile. The boy had grabbed clumsily at the knot of her dhoti where she kept her currency. Her response had been unthinking, like breathing. She had pulled the scattergun from her hip and shot him in the chest. It was the only weapon she carried, these days, because she was generally such a poor shot. After nearly seven years in exile without incident, she hadn’t expected she’d ever use it. What a boy his age was doing on the street instead of at the front, she didn’t know. He was likely a deserter anyway.

Read more »

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Guest Post | Kameron Hurley Says Don't Lose Your Edge

God's War was a sneaky title. First under contract with Random House, then cut loose, Night Shade Books picked it up, and released it in early 2011. It released to little fanfare, but through word of mouth, and a few influencers, it grew into one of the most buzzed about novels anywhere. By year's end Hurley was nominated for a Nebula Award, and won the Kitschy Award for best debut novel. 

Along with its sequel Infidel, God's War is touted to be about “Bugs. Blood. Brutal women.” Unlike a lot catch phrases, those three ideas capture Hurley's style perfectly. Comparisons between authors is difficult, but if I had to compare Hurley to anyone, I would call her the love child of Joe Abercrombie and China Miéville, sans the Britishness and baldness (Miéville only... so far), with a stronger sense for the female character. I'm eagerly awaiting Rapture, the third (and final?) book in the Bel Dame Apocrypha.  

And now, ladies and gentlemen, I give you, Kameron Hurley...

***

I’m one of those writers who reads all their reviews. When you try to tackle complex issues in your fiction – race, class, gender, religion, war, colonialism – it’s good to keep an eye on how other people are reading what you’ve written. One wrong word can completely ruin a book for somebody; one lazy assumption can destroy a reader’s confidence in not only your story, but in you as a storyteller.

I’d heard that reading too many reviews could cripple you as a writer, especially as a first time novelist writing your second book. With great power – or, in this case, expectations – comes great responsibility. But I got lucky when I started writing my second book – the contract for my first book, God's War, was canceled, so instead of looking at a lot of reviews, I spent all that time finishing up the second book while my agent shopped it around to the next publisher. 

Read more »

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Monday, July 16, 2012

An Excerpt from King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence (Giveaway)

The following short passage is extracted from deep within King of Thorns and I hope gives something of the book’s flavour.
Mark Lawrence

I took myself to the courtyard where my levies, subjects, and bannermen waited, crowded rank upon rank before the gatehouse. Knights from Morrow to the left of the portcullis, armour gleaming, swords in hand. To the right more knights, plate- armoured, the noblest sons of Hodd Town, my capital down in the valleys to the north. No doubt they had come to win the king’s favour and honour for their houses. Young men in the main, soft with gold and more used to lance and tourney than blood and ruin. I saw Sir Elmar of Golden among them, his armour radiant as his name implied. A warrior, that one, despite his finery.

Read more »

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Guest Post | Mark Lawrence on Scary Shit

Prince of Thorns was one of those books I had to buy. For a book reviewer, who gets plenty of free reading options, that's a significant factoid -- especially for a debut author. But, Mark Lawrence's debut had such an incredible amount of buzz it demanded my attention.

Reading him for the first time left a strange taste in my mouth. His protagonist is completely unlikeable, loathsome even. And yet... two words that demonstrate the kind of talent Lawrence possesses as a writer. Despite all of Jorg Ancrath's despicable qualities I want so much to know his story. If you haven't given Prince of Thorns a try, or you're on the fence about reading King of Thorns (my review will be done soon), hopefully this post will set you on the righteous path, a direction wantonly ignored by Lawrence's boy king.

Mark Lawrence leads off Debut Authorpalooza 2012.

***

Writing book two is some scary shit!

It would have been much worse if I were writing it now after seeing the reception that Prince of Thorns received. Firstly I would feel all those fans of book one at my shoulder, wanting book two to blow their minds. Secondly I would have had a vociferous minority of critical voices nagging at me, scratching away at the back of my thoughts, and quite possibly cramping my style. Most likely by me going out of my way to irk them further!

Read more »

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Friday, July 13, 2012

Debut Authorpalooza (2012)

I have two tenets I will not violate on this blog. First, every review is my honest opinion and I don't pull punches. Two, I'll never run an interview, giveaway, or guest post from an author that I can't personally endorse. It was with some trepidation then when I heard from Courtney Schafer, author of 2011 debut novel The Whitefire Crossing, that a group of recent debut authors wanted to do an event celebrating the completion of their second novel and they wanted me to host it. Given my self enforced rules, my first question was obviously, who?

Before I get to that, I should mention that I read a lot of debut authors (around 30 last year). I even went so far as to recognize Night Shade Books for their tremendous commitment to developing new voices in the field with my 2011 Juice Box Award for Best Editor. See, I love discovering new things. While it's phenomenal to get my hands on the new George R.R. Martin book or a the latest Joe Abercrombie, there's a special feeling that comes reading a new author. There's an allure in finding unexpected brilliance -- to be the first person to the party. I read for that feeling. It turns out each of the authors wanting to come to my blog gave me that feeling. When I saw the list, I accepted and immediately began trying to come with a ridiculous name for the event.

So what is Debut Authorpalooza?



For the next two weeks, starting on Monday July 16, I'm turning my blog over to ten of my favorite recent debut authors from 2011 (and one for 2012, we won't hold it against her). Every weekday for two weeks there will be a guest post in the morning, with the author discussing his or her experiences writing that dreaded second book. Every afternoon there will be an excerpt (most of them for the first time anywhere) from the forthcoming (or in two cases, recently released) novel in question.

Oh, did I mention that everyday we'll be giving away a bunch of signed books? At the end of the two weeks I'll be rolling all the individual entries from the two weeks (maximum of ten entries possible) into a grand prize giveaway that's going to knock someone's socks off (we're still adding up all the things that'll be in it). And just because this is such a great group, it looks like all the giveaways will be open worldwide. I'll be posting the rules for the giveaways as they come.



Without further ado, here are the authors I'm turning my blog over to:


Week 1:

7/16: Mark Lawrence - Prince of Thorns, King of Thorns (Forthcoming)
7/17: Kameron Hurley - God's War, Infidel, Rapture (Forthcoming)
7/18: Elspeth Cooper - Songs of the Earth, Trinity Rising (Forthcoming)
7/19: Courtney Schafer - The Whitefire Crossing, The Tainted City (Forthcoming)
7/20: Stina Leicht - Of Blood and Honey, And Blue Skies From Pain

Week 2:

7/23: Teresa Frohock - Miserere: An Autumn Tale, The Garden (Forthcoming)
7/24: Mazarkis Williams - The Emperor's Knife, Knifesworn (Forthcoming)
7/25: Bradley Beaulieu - The Winds of Khalakovo, The Straits of Galahesh
7/26: Anne Lyle - The Alchemist of Souls, Merchant of Dreams (Forthcoming)
7/27: Doug Hulick - Among Thieves, Sworn in Steel (Forthcoming)

I hope this is as fun for my readers as it was for me to put together. All ten authors will also be participating in a Reddit AMA on July 19 that I'll be helping with. If you have any questions for these brilliant writers be sure to show up for it. I'll be posting more about it next week.

Next up: Mark Lawrence!

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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Peter V. Brett Says Some Stuff

Peter V. Brett wrote an interesting blog post about several things. The point that came through clearest for me was the fact that even as a New York Times Bestseller, he's still a huge fan who loves nothing more than a new book showing up on his doorstep.
'...every time I get a package, there is a little thrill. Has another of my international children come home in the form of some translation of a Demon Cycle book? It is the new Joe Abercrombie book? A manuscript version of the NEXT BIG THING writer? There is no wrong answer.'
Brett also talks about Shawn Speakman's forthcoming anthology and his need to get get more exercise to keep his life insurance premiums down. While discussing the latter, he mentioned listening to a podcast,
'...with The Functional Nerds interviewing Justin Landon (@jdiddyesquire) and Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin). I’ve run into Justin at a couple of conventions this year, and am convinced he is brilliant, as well as a great guy. His review site, Staffer’s Musings, has some of the best written reviews out there. Landon has read literally EVERYTHING, and remembers it all, plus he has something of a journalism background, and it really shows in his writing and general professionalism.'
Well, that's nice, isn't it? And before anyone calls me out, yes, I am a blatant self promoter. 

Oh, and only six months or so to go until The Daylight War hits shelves. I'm stoked. How about you?

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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Three Short (Not)Reviews - Continuing Series Edition

I tend to write long reviews for everything I read, but I've found that difficult, particularly with second and third book in a series. From time to time I'm going to do posts like this one where I bundle a bunch of reviews together. Most of them will be part of a series, but occasionally I'll throw a standalone in as well. I'll also write up novels in this space that I didn't finish (very rare) and I'll try to explain why without actually reviewing it. Enjoy!

***

Suited by Jo Anderton

Last year's Debris was a fascinating debut novel. In it, Anderton developed a world that reminded me of Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn, particularly in the mystery surrounding the world's mechanics. Her main character was a powerful woman, cast down from the heights of society to work in the dreary underbelly of a city literally falling apart. The second novel, Suited, picks up soon after the end of the first, suffering from middle book syndrome and falling short of its predecessor by a reasonable margin.

Far more action oriented, having already built the mystery of the world and plot in Debris, Suited is the story of Anderton's protagonist taking control of her life and new found abilities. Despite the increased agency, and the illusion of activity, there doesn't seem to be a ton of progress to the overall plot. Instead, it sets up a final show down in a third book and a reveal of the villain behind it all.

However, it's my understanding that Anderton isn't under contract for the third book. I always find that disquieting in cases where the story is so clearly unfinished. I'd certainly like to see what happens in the series conclusion, but I don't know if I'll be writing letters to Angry Robot HQ demanding it.



Caliban's War by James S.A. Corey

Caliban, one of the antagonists in William Shakespeare's The Tempest, and also a moon of Uranus, is a word that never occurs in the text of Caliban's War. Instead, the title is an acknowledgement to the Shakespeare character, defined as a once controllable monster who turns on its master. In this case, the monster is the alien protomolecule. Loose on the Martian moon Ganymede, Captain James Holden and his crew are tasked with trying to stop it.

Much more a space opera than the noir horror that personified Leviathan Wakes, Corey's sequel moves at a slower pace. The protomolecule remains the MacGuffin, but the conflict in the novel is between humans as the different political factions come to grips with a seemingly all-powerful presence in their midst. The result is a far more nuanced story that will call to mind the skills Daniel Abraham (part of the James S.A. Corey writing team) honed in his Long Price Quartet series.

Caliban's War is the natural next step from Leviathan Wakes, superior in almost every facet. I suspect mileage may vary for readers who will pine for the Detective Miller chapters and their noir sensibility.

Roughly eleven months to go until the next installment. I can't wait.



The Wanderers by Paula Brandon

I began Paula Brandon's Veiled Isles Trilogy last year with The Traitor's Daughter. Mocked up like a historical romance, the novel offered far more than appeared on the surface. Putting aside the hatchet job Random House did on marketing, I said,
'Brandon's debut is high fantasy with a sprawling plot, political machinations, complex systems of magic, all of which manifest themselves in themes that both men and women will very much enjoy. To someone looking for romance they're going to be sorely disappointed.'
It had me very excited to read the second book in the series, The Ruined City, which continued some of the promise from the first, while simultaneously descending into a somewhat tedious travelogue. The central female character, Jianna, also fell into the 'hopeless female' trap that sapped my investment in her half of the narrative. I held out hope that The Wanderers would return to form. Sadly, it did not. Continuing at pace until the final chapters, Brandon's plot unravels into a neatly arranged conclusion that lacks any tension, topped by one of the more blatant examples of deus ex machina I've seen.

As I read the final volume I found myself comparing it in my head to some odd combination of KJ Parker's characters and Diana Gabaldon's style. Unfortunately, neither of those two glowing comparisons hold water when the plot fails to carry any of its own.

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Monday, July 9, 2012

Subterranean Press Magazine: SUMMER 2012


Subterranean Magazine has just published their summer issue including novellas from K.J. Parker, Ian R. MacLeod, Mike Resnick, and Robert Jackson Bennett. I'm a huge fan of both Parker and Bennett whose novellas are titled Let Maps to Others and To Be Read Upon Your Waking, respectively.

Parker's story is first person, about a scholar searching for a place no one else believes exists. It's classic Parker with a stark prose that's as simple as it is evocative. Never a word misplaced and dialogue that always reads authentic. It's excellent.

I haven't gotten around to Bennett's yet, but I hope to dig into it soon. Go check it...

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Friday, July 6, 2012

A Response to a Response

Pauline Ross, an independent reviewer and active forum participant on Westeros, wrote an essay responding (in part) to my thoughts on the blogger/publisher relationship. Those who read me frequently know I've had some strong thoughts on the subject in recent days. Interestingly, Ross begins with the blogger/reader relationship, discussing the publishing houses only tangentially while lobbing a few gentle grenades at bloggers,
...I certainly don't question their integrity; undoubtedly they write their honest opinion of every book they review. But (and it's a significant but) if they don't enjoy a book, or don't finish it, they generally don't review it. When they give ratings, they tend to use a skewed scale such that even a relatively poor review merits 6 or 7 out of 10. They tend to chase big name or hot books. They tend not to review self-published works. 
Obviously, Ross is painting with a broad brush, something she recognizes and accepts. It's a dangerous activity to engage though. For example, this blogger finishes everything he starts, he reviews everything he finishes, he doesn't use a ratings scale at all. And while he certainly enjoys a big name or hot release, he also reads smaller presses and even the occasional self-published work. She goes on to say, 
Now there are many review blogs out there which stay focused on the original objective of reviewing books the blogger likes to read, and are not much concerned beyond that. But for many established bloggers, and nowadays for many startup bloggers too, the reviews become subsumed into the greater enterprise of maintaining and growing the blog. With a little advertising, paid-for content or tie-in marketing, it can even pay for itself and enable the blogger to give up the day job.  
First off, I'm not aware of any book bloggers who've been able to make a full time living out of it. There are few enough authors who've accomplished that feat. As for me, I have no interest in selling ads, and paid for content, by and large, is anathma to credibility. I know some of the larger blogs like The Book Smugglers sell advertising, and that's a choice although one I'm not likely to make for myself. 

She goes on to compare the idea of generating readership as tantamount to "selling out",
Then the emphasis switches to aggressively selling the blog by linking to it from as many places as possible, guest blogging on other blogs, actively touting for author interviews and the like, or even deliberately provoking controversy to get a buzz going. 
I don't see quite how selling a blog and desiring a readership should be problematic as it relates to credibility. Whether I'm in a publisher's pocket or not, I want people to read me, that's the point is it not? To generate new readers I guest post , I do interviews, and I absolutely provoke discussion. If no one is reading me, why am I spending time writing?

Switching topics slightly, one of the impetuses behind Ross' post stemmed from my view of the relationship between bloggers and publishers. In my original post, I commented on the increasing concern publishers have about how to interact with the blogging community. My suggestion read,
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.
Ross misinterpreted me when she replied,
I'm not sure that journalism is quite the analogy he wants here; journalists are paid directly by their industry, do what they're told and write to precise order.
Journalism is exactly the analogy I wanted. Because Ross is absolutely right. Journalists are paid by their industry. My industry is blogging and I write my own checks. I am independent, beholden to no entity other than my own interests and code of ethics (which again, is entirely open to my readers to evaluate). I reiterate, I am not a publicity arm. I recognize publishers will use me as such, but what's important is how I use myself. I won't run an interview, giveaway (sans my bookshelf dump giveaways), or guest post from an author I can't recommend. Nor do I link to anywhere that sells books. I'm not a book seller, and I never want to be.

Even in the face of that, Ross would suggest that receipt of review copies somehow impugns my credibility,
Publishers are prepared to dish out free books (and interviews and other stuff), and they don't want reviewers to be seen to be in their pockets, so keeping a certain distance is part of the game. Reviewers, on the other hand, want the free stuff, sure, they want the big-name authors, they want to be the first with the hot new book, because that's what their readers want, but they also value their independence, and don't want to be poodles for the industry.
I admit, I receive review copies from publishers (large and small and "indie"). I don't apologize for it. Nor do I believe it impacts the fairness of my reviews or commentary. I also admit that if I stopped receiving them it would absolutely change what this blog covers. I wouldn't read small presses, independents, short story collections, and a host of other things because I wouldn't even know they exist. That's just the truth. I am exposed to so much material as a result of my relationship with publishing, and thus I have the opportunity to make others aware of it. 

Does that compromise me? I don't think so. But, that's my readers' decision to make, not mine. If you trust me, read me, value my opinion, and consider it when deciding what to read. If you don't... don't. I'm fine with that. Ultimately, it's my readers who will determine the value of this blog. I can't help but wonder if Ross isn't selling them all a little short.

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Thursday, July 5, 2012

Sharps - K.J. Parker (with mini-interview)

KJ Parker has a new novel. May the heavens part and the angels rejoice. In novels past Parker has given readers stories about "...economics, alchemy, blacksmithing, armor-proofing, bow-making (and fletching, and archery in general...), siege equipment, volcanoes, charcoal and buttons", to quote Pornokitsch. In Sharps, fencing is the name of the game, with a side order of détente. It's a wholly engrossing addition to the Parker library, providing a tremendous entry point for new readers, while falling just short of Parker's best.

An uneasy truce has been called between Permia and Scheria, two neighboring kingdoms with four decades of bad blood between them. The war has been long and brutal, punctuated by the wholesale flooding of a major city courtesy of a Scherian General subsequently dubbed the Irrigator. With a legitimate chance for peace, it's time for an olive branch, a coming together of two countries over a shared passion -- fencing. In this way, Sharps reflects real world history, namely the end of World War II and the following rise and fall of tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.

I suspect that the forty year mark for the war between Permia and Scheria was hardly coincidence for Parker, as the same number of years characterizes the length of the Cold War. Likewise, some of the tensest moments occurred every four years at the Summer Olympics. It seems an odd spark, but not all countries saw the Olympics as a place for competition, instead favoring it as a validation of an ideology. Sharps take this notion and exploits it.

Fencing, in Scheria, is an art form, a sporting duel with blunted instruments. Thanks to the Irrigator they won the war and with it a belief in their superiority. When they form a team of fencers to send into Permia for the "peace tour" it's with an absolute belief in victory. So much so that it's viewed as an exhibition of Scherian supremacy, not a genuine competition. Reflecting that, the Scherian team isn't exactly the cream of the crop as it relates to fencing, including a alcoholic fencing champion, a murdering nobleman, the lesser son of the Irrigator, a woman who refuses to marry, and coached by an aging fencer turned businessman who's in so far over his head he can't tell which way is up.

A grosse messer.

The Permians fight with sharpened blades to first blood. Rather than favoring the elegant art form of fencing, they prefer the messer, a short bladed weapon whose only purpose is raw aggression. In short, the narrative that the Scherians hoped to create falls hopelessly short in the face of reality -- true war between equally committed parties assures only mutual destruction.

These kinds of extended metaphors are Parker's money-maker, so to speak. It's the hallmark of a Parker novel, abstracting complex ideas from the most mundane of activities. Unique from previous novels, Sharps uses an activity that resonates with fantasy readers more so that any other, sword fights. For once, describing a Parker novel doesn't involve selling the reader on reading on lathes or mortars and pestles. This makes it Parker's most marketable novel to date, and potentially the novel that propels the author into the upper echelons genredom.

That said, Sharps isn't Parker's best novel, an opinion driven largely by a lack of clarity as to the motivations behind many of the characters actions. Perhaps a commentary on the nature of war and conflict, or the "invisible hand" to steal an economics term, I found it more frustrating than intriguing. I could see many new readers coming to the novel for the sex appeal (swords) and find themselves a tad perplexed by a very twisty web of political machination. I suspect that Parker's exceptional characterizations and perfectly precise prose will overcome those difficulties for most, but even this dedicated fan could have done with a bit more of Parker's typical directness that's been so prevalent in previous works.

I still consider Sharps to be one of the better novels I read this year, just not the best KJ Parker novel I've read this year (Devices and Desires holds the latter distinction). Parker is a magnificent writer and one I insist everyone try to read as soon as possible. Sharps is a good place to start for new fans, but I wouldn't hesitate to start with The Folding Knife or any of the previous trilogies as well. In other words, just start reading. Please.

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Below is a mini-interview from a series of questions I sent to KJ Parker via Orbit Books. Only a few of my questions were answered, but it's my understanding several other blogs will be running answers to questions as well and Orbit will be collecting them at weeks end. Keep your eyes peeled.


Justin: In an article you wrote for Subterranean, “Cutting Edge Technology: The Life and Sad Times of the Western Sword,” you talk quite a bit about how swords have evolved, and why. In Sharps there are four types of sword used by the fencers – the longsword, smallsword, rapier, and messer. The first three are mentioned in your essay, but not the last. Yet it is the weapon most intertwined with the narrative. Where does the messer fit in the history of the sword?

KJP: The messer doesn’t really have a place in the aristocratic family tree of the Western sword. It was a farm tool. Messer is just the German for ‘knife’. The grosse messer was a large version of the everyday utility knife. A modern analogy would be the Nepalese khukuri, or the bowie knife on the American frontier. Humans being as they are, they tended to turn their cutting tools on each other in moments of stress. As with the khukuri or the bowie, the messer doesn’t naturally lend itself to defensive plays – it was designed to cut things, not to ward off blows or be hidden behind, unlike the purpose-designed weapons of the upper classes, whose design is all about still being alive at the end of the fight. Because a purely intuitive fight with messers would inevitably be short and lead to mutually assured destruction, extremely complex and sophisticated combat techniques evolved to enable messer fighters to survive encounters (if you get no help from the weapon, you have to try harder). A considerable literature on the messer survives from 15th century Germany – there’s a complete manual illustrated by Albrecht Durer, no less. I stole the line “Here they fight with messers; God help them” from Talhofer’s manual; it was that line that gave me the idea for the book. For me, the messer stands for functional savagery, the desire to actually hurt people, as against the more civilized weapons, which represent a desire to win (you can’t be said to have won if you’re dead or in bits) I guess that’s why Addo, who deliberately loses at chess, starts off as a complete no-hoper with the messer, and then evolves a way of subverting it to achieve victory with the minimum of slaughter.

Justin: I've found inherent self-interest to be one of the hallmark traits of characters throughout your different novels. From Vaatzes in the Engineer Trilogy to Basso in The Folding Knife to The Irrigator in Sharps. All of these individuals will do almost anything to someone opposing their ambition/desire. It rings true to me. What attracts you to writing these kinds of characters? Do you believe in altruism?

KJP: I believe in altruism; to acknowledge its existence isn’t necessarily the same thing as approving of it unreservedly. Altruism, like most good intentions, has a nasty habit of being transmuted by the law of unintended consequences into an instrument of havoc and misery. A fair proportion of the Conquistadors and the 19th century Imperialists were sincere altruists, honestly believing that they had a duty to save heathen souls from the everlasting bonfire.

True unalloyed altruism is also quite rare. I’m rather more interested in alloyed motivations, driving conflicted characters operating in the Demilitarised Zone between good and evil.

Justin: Having read quite a bit of your past work, Sharps seems to be the novel that most clearly indicates that your novels are set in the same world. Can you confirm that?

Parker: “Set in the same world” – hm. If so (which is not admitted), there’s no intention to create a coherent historical narrative in the manner of, say, Asimov’s Foundation (which is something I would rather like to do, at some stage). If it is the same world, then each sequence of events is separated from the others by several centuries; the Mezentine rapiers in Sharps are irreplaceable antiques, rather as a Byzantine-made artifact would’ve been in the seventeenth century.

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