The SPFBO Charges Onward

Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off is well underway, and several of the participating book bloggers have posted progress updates and reviews. Mark keeps a page on his own blog updated with all of the latest additions, so check that out and follow the hashtag #SPFBO on Twitter if you want to stay up to date.

Most recently, Sarah from Bookworm Blues has posted reviews for the first five of her assigned (27 or so) books. There are two awesome things about this.

First, Sarah is doing what she calls a mini-review (which really isn’t that mini) for every book she reads, which is going above and beyond the call of the Blog-Off: participating reviewers are only asked to select their favorite of the 25 or so books sent to them.  How they do that is up to them, and they aren’t required to finish every book, let alone review every book on their site.  So the fact that Sarah is taking the time to read and review each book shows an incredibly gracious and determined professionalism on her part, especially given the personal setbacks she’s had to deal with recently.  Hang in there, Sarah!  Thank you for your work and effort, and I think I speak for all of the authors involved when I say our thoughts and prayers are with you.

Second, Sarah’s first batch of reviews is overwhelmingly positive.  Bookworm Blues uses a five-star rating system.  Of the five books she’s read, four of them received four-star reviews, and one received a three-star review.  This speaks highly of the work submitted to the contest thus far, particularly given that she chose the first five books at random.

This may be the golden age of self-publishing, but self-published authors still face a significant hurdle in getting their work taken seriously; many reviewers and readers alike still presume that self-published fiction is generally of lower quality than its traditionally published counterparts.  The fact that so many book bloggers, who have become some of the most important book critics of this generation, are taking self-published work seriously enough to review it in the same manner they review fiction published by the Big Five is incredibly encouraging.

I wouldn’t have been any less enthusiastic about this contest if all of the reviews were negative, but it is wonderful to see self-published fiction being praised.

‘Exile’ in Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off

Exile AMZN-EPUBSo I’ve entered Exile: The Book of Ever into Mark Lawrence’s awesome Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, which I talked about here just a few days ago.  (Exile is free for Kindle through this Monday, by the way.)

My book got sent over to be reviewed by the excellent people at Fantasy Faction, which is very exciting for me, as I’ve been a reader of theirs for quite some time now.

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Mark Lawrence will be updating his post (linked above, and here) as reviews start to trickle in, and you can also check the individual blogs for updates as well.  If you happen to be talking about the Blog-Off on Twitter or another social media site, be sure to use the hashtags #SPFBO and #SelfPubFantasyBlogOff!

Mark Lawrence is Sponsoring a Self-Published Fantasy Reviewing Contest

mark-lawrence-authorMark Lawrence, renowned author of the excellent The Broken Empire series, starting with Prince of Thorns, has rounded up ten of the most popular fantasy book bloggers on the web and convinced them to participate in a review contest featuring exclusively self-published fantasy fiction.  You can read the details of the contest here, but it’s very simple: you submit your finished book, the bloggers get the chance to decide if they want to read it, and then they sponsor or “publish” it to the next round.  It’s essentially a bracket system, resulting in a final ten novels that will be reviewed by all ten bloggers.  This is an incredible opportunity if you’re a self-published fantasy author: a bestselling, traditionally published author is giving you the opportunity to get your work in front of a group of respected book reviewers.  As Mr. Lawrence said himself, “you can’t buy better publicity than that.”

The reviewers participating are:

1./ Sarah Chorn of Bookworm Blues
2./ Steve Diamond &co at the Hugo winning Elitist Book Reviews
3./ Mark Aplin &co of the award winning Fantasy-Faction
4./ Mihir Wanchoo of Fantasy Book Critic
5./ Lynn Williams of Lynn’s Books
6./ Milo of The Fictional Hangout
7./ Bob Milne of Beauty in Ruins
8./ Ria of Bibliotropic
9./ Tyson Mauermann of The Speculative Book Review
10./ The guys at Fantasy Book Review

If Mr. Lawrence and I lived on the same continent, and I swung that way, and it didn’t constitute criminal assault, I would kiss him for this.  As every self-published author knows, even in this, the golden age of self-publishing, it is still very, very hard to become accepted by the literary establishment.  Most respectable book bloggers aren’t interested in self-published work (usually for understandable reasons), to say nothing of getting your book noticed or reviewed by more traditional publications.  And traditionally published authors* tend to range from openly hostile to politely disinterested in self-published writing, so it’s incredibly spirit-lifting to find one who not only embraces self-publishing but wants to help.  Bravo, Mark Lawrence.  To quote Jorg Ancrath, “This is where it starts. When they write the legend, this will be the first page.”

As someone who chose self-publishing not because there weren’t other options but because I thought it was the best choice for me at the time, I’m overwhelmingly grateful for this kind of effort to reach out to new writers.  It’s rare to find someone who is confident enough in his own accomplishments to be able to serve as a mentor, as a champion.  As a leader, if you will.  Because after all, “You got responsibilities when you’re a leader. You got a responsibility not to kill too many of your men. Or who’re you going to lead?”

You’d be downright dumb not to take advantage of this opportunity if you’ve got a fantasy book ready to submit.  I only wish Karthanas were ready to storm the gates!

* Obviously there are exceptions to this rule, including traditionally published authors who started out self-pub

Karthanas Goes to Dinner

I’ve been taking a break from my work on the sequel to Exile to work on an as-yet untitled epic fantasy novel that has been taking shape in my mind for some time now.  You can read an early version of its first chapters here, though it has evolved a lot sense these were written.  Eventually I’ll post the updated version.

This one’s darker, racier, and decidedly not for children, so if you’ve got a problem with sex and violence, it’s probably not for you.  Here’s a (PG-rated) taste.  If you like sword and sorcery, swordpunk, grimdark, Mark Lawrence, Joe Abercrombie, or Game of Thrones, I think you’ll like Karthanas the Lesser.

Karth took the seat at Louvhena’s right, next to Kornu and across the table from a man and a woman he didn’t know. The fact that they had not risen and their dress made them Peers, but not from neighboring fees. He supposed he should have acknowledged them before now, but between the confidence-sucking sight of Louvhena and the buttery spectacle that Kornu made at table, he hadn’t truly laid eyes on them yet.

The man was tall, almost of a height with Karth, with thinning gray hair and an impressive lantern jaw. He wore a thin circlet on his shiny pate, an affectation most Lanthean highlords had done away with decades ago, and a ribbed tunic in crushed velvet that looked stifling even in the relative cool of a spring night. The neckcloth tied at his throat was the color of old piss, and completely at odds with the rest of his attire.

His wife, or the woman Karth took to be his wife, was at least twenty suns his junior—hardly uncommon—but what was uncommon was the fact that she had the red hair of the barbarian tribes that peopled the northeastern part of Yora. Karth arched an eyebrow at that, but took in the sparkling green eyes and freckled bosom with undisguised interest. There’s something would be nice covered in butter.

Louvhena cleared her throat delicately, her glance like a quick cut with a rusty blade.

“Since you are late for dinner,” she said, smiling her most inviting, maternal smile at her strange guests, “allow me to introduce Lord Pevenish, Peer of Carobdown, and his lovely consort, the Lady Abraun.” No titles for the little lamb, Karth noticed. He’d pegged that one right. Louvhena seemed to realize it, too.

“Where was it that you were born, my dear?” Pevenish frowned slightly at this, taking the opportunity to cough a gob of phlegm into his linen napkin, but said nothing. The lack of titles was indication enough of her breeding, but asking after her birthplace so frankly was one step above inquiring whether the whore who’d pushed her into the world even knew the identity of her sire.

Abraun blushed, which only made her more delicious, and looked down at her folded hands.

“Carway, my lady,” she said. “I’m of the Cullisht tribe.” She answered like a young girl speaking to her governess.

“How lovely,” said Louvhena, cocking her head as if the girl had said she was heir to the Empyrean Throne and not a nameless whelp from a lawless territory unendowed with so much as Lanthean citizenship. Karth supposed she had gained that upon marrying Pevenish, but still….

“My lord,” Karth intoned, nodding his greeting. “It is my pleasure. And my lady.”

“My lord Karthanas,” Pevenish grumbled, as if Karth had kept him waiting. “I was just telling your lady mother how…pleased we are to be her guests.” He didn’t look pleased. Karth couldn’t blame him. An invitation of any kind from Louvhena was like pickled herring: you either loved it or saw it for the odorous bait that it was.

“Carobdown is in the southeast, is it not?” Karth had never heard of it, which meant it was one of the Scraps, the two dozen or so tiny fees in the southeast left after the last scion of the House of Kestren died without an heir and set every cousin, vassal, and country squire squabbling for their share of a suddenly untended feast of land. Kestren had been a great House in its day, with an eponymous fee in the form of a huge swath of arable land east of Lansium. After a couple of adjacent, powerful Houses took the opportunity to assert old claims over pieces of it, the lesser lords tore up the rest. Thus the Scraps, though the new “Houses” that grew out of the whole business hated the name.

“Yes,” said Pevenish, “one of the descendant fees of Kestren, of course.” He was phlegmatic enough about it for Karth to pin him as one of the less prickly of the Scraplords, whose sensitivity over the youth and inconsequentiality of their titles had led to more than a few border disputes that had threatened to become a region-wide problem.  But the Senat had stamped them down, as it always did; open contention among the Peerage was not tolerated. Not the kind with swords, at least.

Pevenish was clearly used to having to explain the location and history of his lands, and as he didn’t seem terribly put out by doing so, Karth went on.

“Carobdown,” he said. “Named for…?”

“Its chief trade good,” Pevenish responded.

Karth raised his eyebrows.

“Carob,” Pevenish explained, his patience wavering. “We grow carob.”

“Ahh,” said Karth. “A worthy nomenclature, my lord. A personal favorite of mine.” Karth despised the stuff. Vinerran’s head cook called it poor man’s chocolate, as the peasantry used it as substitute for that delicacy, which was beyond the means of many middling Peers. Chalky and sweet, peasants stuffed the pulp from the tree’s seedpods into pastries and breads. He couldn’t think of anything else to talk about with the man, so he determined to get him talking about his bread and butter.

“Indeed,” said Pevenish, more lively now, “a most wonderful plant. So many uses! The obvious ones of course, as flour and flavoring for pastry, but also the farmers make of it a sweet liquor….”

Karth stopped listening. It was enough to get the man talking, make him feel like he was at all interested in anything he had to say. Part of a host’s duties, and all that. He looked at Louvhena and found her watching him with wry approval. She knew what he was doing, and liked it. Damn woman. Whatever stratagem she had in mind for this bumpkin lord had nothing to do with the internal trade of foul-tasting commodities. Karth almost pitied the man: Louvhena collected sycophants, and most of them eventually realized that a gilded collar was still a collar.

The Broken Empire

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Mark Lawrence writes grimdark epic fantasy the way Wes Anderson writes dialogue: with a wink and a nod.  The wink is intense and the nod grave, bespeaking a hideous sense of irony underlying the story.  It keeps you turning pages.  This isn’t to say that he can’t be deadly serious–the three novels of The Broken Empire trilogy are some of the darkest, goriest fantasy I’ve read–or that he takes his subject matter lightly–his work questions the very nature of humanity and its tendency toward violence, drags its characters through the latrine pits of the human condition, and brings them out with all the baggage you’d expect.  The horror might be knowing and darkly funny, but it’s never absurd.  Absurdity connotes uselessness, and everything that happens in these books is useful to someone, if only someone’s inner demon.  But for every horrific act his protagonist, Jorg Ancrath, commits, there’s an unspoken meta-textual question.  Dare I? the author asks.  (He dares.)  Do you want me to, dear reader? (NO!  Don’t!  Yes yes yes yes yes do it, please do it.)

The first two books of the trilogy, Prince of Thorns and King of Thorns, end with explicit challenges from the narrator, who tells the story in the first person: you want reasons, come take them.  You don’t like what I’m doing, come stop me.  It’s a powerful bit of dialogue, almost Socratic in its directness.  Jorg Ancrath is the ultimate antihero–the villain, set not only on revenge but on acquiring power for its own sake, whom you root for even when he’s committing atrocities.  For every person that stopped reading one of Lawrence’s books because they were too graphic or shocking, there were three others who found themselves inevitably drawn in by the sheer, bold humanity of Jorg’s voice.  Evil is much more challenging to us when it’s self-aware: Jorg knows he’s a sinner, knows he’ll always take blood and chaos over peace and order whenever the choice is presented to him, sometimes because it’s necessary and sometimes simply because it’s his nature.

One thing that makes it all so much fun is the fact that Lawrence’s prose proves more than equal to the task at hand: these are some of the most quotable books I’ve read in recent memory.  How can you not love a man who can write “The biggest lies we save for ourselves,” or:

“I’ll tell you now. That silence almost beat me. It’s the silence that scares me. It’s the blank page on which I can write my own fears. The spirits of the dead have nothing on it. The dead one tried to show me hell, but it was a pale imitation of the horror I can paint on the darkness in a quiet moment.”

The fact that the Hundred Kingdoms are presented as a far-future, post-apocalyptic version of future Europe, set a thousand years after a massive nuclear war, only serves to underline the point Lawrence seems to be making.  Men are violent, apt to destroy themselves.  Destruction comes in cycles.  Sometimes it takes a violent man to end a destructive cycle.

To focus too much on the violence of the story would be to miss the point, however: the final choice Jorg makes in Emperor of Thorns, however violent in its own way, is fundamentally different from all of the others.  It’s just as self-aware, but entirely unselfish.  And it’s what ultimately makes him a hero, despite his tarnished soul.

I loved these books, loved the twisted future they portray, loved the extremity of the characters and the surprising magics they wield, loved the ghosts that haunt them and unchanging humanity at the heart of it all.  Read them.  I dare you.

Don’t Drown the Meat: Worldbuilding and Mark Lawrence

Fantasy writers (and science fiction writers, to a lesser extent, since they are less often in the position of starting entirely from scratch) worry a lot about worldbuilding.  It’s really the most unique thing about writing in this genre.  In addition to crafting character, plot, theme, and all of the other various parts that make up a novel, you’re in the position of actually creating an entirely new world.

The problem lies in building your world while also preserving the quality of your story and your prose–introducing the reader to the exotic while still focusing on what’s really important: character.  In the end, the world must serve the characters, or you’re doing it wrong.  As much as we’d all like to self-indulgently nerd out over the details of our world’s history or the intricacies of our super-creative, ultra-unique new magic system, ultimately it’s all for naught if the story and the characters that drive it get lost in the confusion.

I just finished reading Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence, the first novel of a fantasy trilogy in which the author accomplishes the task of balancing worldbuilding with character and story quite well–which is to say, the former is used quite conservatively, and only when it adds flavor to the latter.

By necessity, I’m going to have to go into some spoilers here, so if you don’t want to know, stop reading here.  Otherwise, see you after the jump.

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Just Finished, Reading, Want to Read

I tend to read a number of books at any given time, mostly because I prefer variety and because I’m often reading non-fiction for research in addition to whatever fiction I might be reading.  Or sometimes, if a novel just isn’t holding my interest, I’ll start reading something else while I decide whether or not I want to go back to it.  So what have I just finished, what am I reading, and what do I want to read?

Just Finished

The Martian by Andy Weir.  For the most part, as good as it’s cracked up to be, though if you’re not into hard science fiction then some of the math and engineering of Mark Watley’s survival on Mars might run a little long for you.  That said, Weir manages to take the very precise, grueling, often boring details about what life might be like for an astronaut stranded on Mars and turn them into an engaging fight for survival.  The fact that the main character’s a bit of a ham helps a lot as well, as there’s a lot of wry humor to break up the more technical bits.

Reading

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson.  Book Two of the Stormlight Archive.  This one’s a doorstop, like all of Sanderson’s books these days, and as much as I enjoyed The Way of Kings I’m finding that this one tends to plod.  The problems are plot and pacing.  Plot-wise, it’s asking a lot of the reader that all of the main characters are still stuck in the Shattered Plains, with no signs of leaving any time soon (Shallan, in fact, has just shown up, and seems comfortably ensconced).  As far as the pacing, I’m about a third of the way through and, although a few important things have happened, there’s a very quotidian feel to the story-telling.  The characters feel like they’re going through the motions.  Perhaps it’s a matter of motivation: Kaladin lacks the anger and vengeance he relied on in his Bridge Four days in this book, while Shallan’s “I’m learning to be clever and saucy” storyline just feels hackneyed and boring.  Mild spoilers (highlight to read): There is a relatively major death that happens early on, but I didn’t feel invested enough in the character to really give a damn.  The character most affected by this death also seems to get over it fairly quickly, and ultimately it just hasn’t affected the plot very much so far.

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence.  Finally got around to reading this, which I bought during a lull in Words of Radiance, and I’m loving it.  Gets you from the start.  It deserves its grimdark reputation, and though I’m not that far into it, it’s already managed to one-up Abercrombie in sheer nihilism.

The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud by Sigmund Freud.  This is a collection of some of Freud’s most famous writing.  Because, you know, characterization and psychology, and stuff.

Want to Read

Theft of Swords, by Michael J. Sullivan.  I was recently told I needed to read me some Michael Sullivan over at reddit.com/r/fantasy, so I’m going to.