For the last four years of so, I have been working away on Tor.com as a re-reader for the Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson. This was the year we completed reading the main series of ten novels, and these were my thoughts overall on the series.
I have no idea what to write. Seriously. I guess I shall tell you the story of this reread for me.
It’s that long ago that I don’t know if you remember this was originally supposed to be a reread for Bill and Stefan Raets - two people who had read the series a number of times and wanted to go through it again in depth for Tor.com. Bill, Stefan and I were all reviewers for Fantasyliterature.com at the time and, when Stefan unexpectedly had to drop out of the reread, Bill asked other Fanlit reviewers if they were interested in taking part.
At the time I was an upstart young book blogger, trying to make a name for myself and get involved in the community, and I said yes, without thinking about it. I knew it was a series of books I wanted to read and, honestly, how hard could it be? I also found out I would be paid for every post I made, and basically my day was made - being paid to read fantasy fiction? What a dream, right?
And then we started the reread.
And I (sorry, Steven, don’t look) HATED the first few chapters of Gardens of the Moon. I genuinely thought about pulling out of the reread, because how could I possibly engage with TEN novels of this dense, wordy, confusing writing that didn’t tell me ANYTHING. I didn’t know who these characters were, I had no idea what events we had fallen into, and what the hell were warrens?
I was a reader used to being handheld through fantasy, used to my authors not trusting me to make it on my own and giving me everything I needed to immerse myself. Suddenly I felt like I did when I first learnt to swim - terrified of drowning at every point.
But I didn’t drown then. And I didn’t drown in the reread either (thanks a great deal to Bill, and being able to read his wise commentary and summaries). I was nudged in the right direction when I got completely lost and sometimes allowed to splash merrily in the shallow end to help me get my confidence back up if I’d been through a troublesome section.
Also? I didn’t realise how much work it would take. Truly. For a normal chapter post, I will spend at least four hours on it. For a post where I have to do the summaries as well, it gets even longer. This was never easy - it was something I had to fit into my week all the time. And, as someone who soon took on a job as a slushpile reader and then as an editor, it meant my life involved a lot of activities that took up a lot of my time. But I’m not whinging. Because I know what Bill juggles, while still fitting this reread into his life. And he has been an absolute hero for taking on the bulk of the chapter summaries.
Anyway, partway through Gardens of the Moon, something changed for me. I wasn’t understanding it much better, but I was learning patience and trust. And that is the first point I want to make in terms of what I have taken out of this series: I now have a lot more patience when reading novels. I allow a story to unfold. I enjoy language for the sake of it. I appreciate the building blocks of story. Erikson gave me that.
I then discovered my affection was growing for certain characters. It’s Anomander Rake for me, back then and now, and forever. He became the character I waited to see on the page all the time. His first entry into the series still sends shivers down my spine. When we see him as the mighty dragon in the last convergence of Gardens of the Moon, I was beside myself with love. You know you always have that character who, no matter what else happens, never get displaced from your number one spot? He’s mine.
And that is pretty incredible to say in a series that has such dominant, memorable and fantastic characters. All written in shades of grey; all with realistic reactions and motivations; all with moments of humour and tragedy.
And so we eventually reached the end of Gardens of the Moon, and embarked on Deadhouse Gates, and I was lost to this series. I cried at a book for the first time in a long time. I recognised the sublime storytelling, that was building in layers. But before all of that, I was frustrated anew at Erikson - new characters? What about the old characters who I loved? Who are these new characters and how can I possibly love them as much as the ones from…. oh, I do love them. I love them hard. I am crying for their lives and what they achieved.
Personally, as an army brat, a lot of the military aspects of these novels absolutely resonated with me. I don’t think I’ve read soldiers written as accurately as I’ve seen here. When I was in the audience of a panel where Steve spoke about his favourite novels, it came as no surprise to hear that they were more military in focus, particularly books dealing with Vietnam.
The gallows humour of these soldiers; their frustrations with their commanding officers; their attitudes to children (protecting them above all) - all of it was something I’d experienced while living the military life over in Germany. For that reason, the novels became very special to me.
During the time we have worked on the reread, I took up the position of editor as Strange Chemistry and, more recently when that came to an end, become a freelance editor. And I can safely say that Erikson’s writing has helped me be a better editor. For one, it has allowed me to take a lighter touch when required in some edits. Or recognised that particular storylines might not seem to fit immediately into the novel, but that, when taken with another plotline, are absolutely crucial.
Over the years I’ve been reading Malazan, I have been to a number of conventions and been a panellist a few times, and it seems that, no matter the subject, I have been able to bore at a world class level on exactly how the Malazan novels achieve what other fantasy novels don’t touch on. I’m on a panel about how classic myths can be utilised in fantasy? Malazan. I’m on a panel about how sex is portrayed in fantasy? Malazan (with the added extra that rape is not used as a gratuitous method of punishment, but is considered, and the consequences are represented). On a panel about magic systems in fantasy, and how there never seems to be anything new? Malazan.
When on panels about the quality of writing, and choice of words, and challenges in reading - I hold up Malazan.
Worldbuilding. Writing technique. How history can be presented in fantasy novels. Subverting tropes. Grimdark AND nostalgic fantasy in one series? All of this happens with this stunning series of books.
Yes, I have bored many, many, many people with my passion for these books. I’ve quoted from them. I’ve told other people they HAVE to read them. And I’ve put down money for the Subterranean Press special editions. Why did I buy these special editions? Because the books are special. Because the reading experience is special. And because this re-read has been fucking special.
Yep, I come to our motley gang of commenters. Without you cheering us on, Bill and I would not have had the same fun. Without you arguing, and discussing, and shedding light, and presenting possible new theories, I would have been reading in a vacuum - and that would have been terrible when dealing with the Malazan books. They are made for book clubs, for discussion, for sharing, as far as I am concerned. So I thank you all for your contribution.
Lastly, a few favourites:
Favourite character: Anomander Rake
Favourite Bridgeburner: Fiddler
Favourite duo: Tehol and Bugg
Favourite funny character: Kruppe
Favourite tragic character: Beak
Favourite dragon: Silchas Ruin
Favourite god: Cotillion
Favourite frustrating dick: Quick Ben
What do you mean, that is just a cunning way to get a whole heap of favourite characters, rather than just having to pick one?? I can’t do favourites, I’m afraid. Just know I love every part of every one of these books.
Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts—and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must destroy the lives of others.
Ismae’s most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany—where she finds herself woefully under prepared—not only for the deadly games of intrigue and treason, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Death’s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?
Assassin nuns! What could go wrong?
Unfortunately, I'm here to report that I felt this novel was definitely concept over execution. The idea was fantastic, and the first couple of chapters made me sit up and think that I was onto something special, but it all melted away into something that felt so generic.
LaFevers managed to evoke a dark atmospheric start to the novel, with whispers about old gods and a girl who was promised in the service of Death. I wanted the whole novel to continue in this vein, but once Ismae reached the convent, Grave Mercy felt as if it could have been interchangable with many other YA novels out there.
The part that was most disappointing to me was seeing Ismae's assassin training swept away with the wave of an authorial hand into a couple of pages. You see, I like novels like Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce and The Magician's Guild by Trudi Canavan, where we actually watch our character develop into something new and powerful, thanks to various lessons. The lessons to become an assassin must be awesome, but all we see was a little bit of poison making.
I was also irked by the fact that a man turned out to be Ismae's deliverance and her reason for operating. As soon as he walked onto the page and the two characters started bickering, I gave a mental sigh because I knew exactly where their story would end up going. There were no surprises in this novel, in the end. And I find that almost unforgivable when you consider the world that LaFevers gives us, and these women who are guided by the hand of Death.
Final verdict? Grave Mercy could have been so much more.
(Where did I get this book? It was purchased by me on my first year at BEA, on a trip to a central New York Barnes & Noble!)
When we talk about the lack of female authors visible in epic fantasy, and the lack of strong female characters, I always feel as though one name is left off the list and that has started to bug me.
You see, in 2001 (hell, I was still at university then - it is a LOOONG time ago!) a lady author called Jacqueline Carey wrote a novel called Kushiel's Dart. And it is beyond superb. The lyrical and beautiful prose, the politics, the mystery, the quest, the characters... For a debut novel, it is astonishing how good it is, honestly.
But it is more than that, and I want to list out some reasons why:
1. Although it is based on a version of Europe, as most fantasies are, this novel and the rest in the series explore all manner of locations. Middle Eastern, African, versions of China. We see Greek and Roman representations, as well as Nordic countries. Carey takes her inspirations from all over the world.
2. There are openly gay and bisexual characters in the novels, and that is just fine. The tagline of the series and the words of one of the goddesses is 'Love As Thou Wilt', with no judgement and no reprimand. As long as you are consensual - and, sometimes, even when you're not (if that is your thing) sex is to be celebrated with whomever you might choose.
3. From top to bottom of the cast there are memorable female characters, and the men do not take the limelight. These are women who can operate without men, even within the confines of society. Indeed, the villain (I guess spoilers) is a woman called Melisandre. With motivations and complex reasons for her political actions. How often do you see that?
4. Relationships are examined in detail. Marriage is considered important, yes, but a consort is deemed just as important. A dalliance can be paid for or through love. All the facets of love, affection and emotion are considered and allowed time.
5. As well as relationships, there is one central and desperately important friendship between a man and a woman. Phèdre and Hyacinthe have been friends from childhood, and, although they do have dalliances (as is the way of their religion) the largest part of their relationship is friendship and trust. It is absolutely refreshing to see this happen in a novel.
6. The style of the story allows a great deal of discussion about religion, without enforcing stereotypes. We see societies with one god and societies with multiple gods. Some are pagan and some are based on ritual and more official worship.
7. My final point brings me to the title of my blog post and, for me, the strongest woman in fantasy fiction. Phèdre nó Delauney. This is a woman who is complex and sometimes difficult to understand, who has talents but shows wilful ignorance and rare innocence. She is not all about men. She learns politics and spy craft from a tender age, and uses her body at times to learn secrets, while at the same time respecting her goddess and the ways of a Servant of Naamah. She believes in the tenet that 'all knowledge is worth having'. And, most importantly for me, this quote from the series is how Phèdre lives: "that which yields is not always weak". You see, so many times a strong woman is one such as a warrior maiden, or one who can keep up with the men, or one that wields weapons and swears like a trooper. How many times in fantasy fiction have we seen women portrayed like that, and called strong. Whereas Phèdre's strength comes from her mind and her body, and how she is able to use them. She is astonishing to read about, and, even more surprising, was written before we really started examining the presence of female authors and characters in our epic fantasy. She has been taken to the hearts of so many readers and shows that acceptance of societies and relationships that aren't the norm has been alive and well since the publication of Kushiel's Dart.
And the success of Kushiel's Dart, and the other novels in the series, does beg the question - why is it taking so long to have this acceptance show in the publication of more thoughtful and female-dominated epic fantasy?
Today's Top Ten topic from The Broke and the Bookish is Ten Books that I Have Been Told to Read Time and Time Again. So I have adjusted it slightly to show the ten fantasy book fails that I think I have - books that everyone else seems to have read that I really ought to be getting to!
1) Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear
This book has been lauded by reviewers all over the place - this and the remaining two novels in the series. It seems like the type of book I would absolutely love, so I now have a copy and it's just a case of finding time in my reading schedule to get to it.
2) Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
Lots of talk from readers about how this fantasy takes readers away from a typical Western setting, so I would like to read it for this reason.
3) Any Brent Weeks novels
In particular, this series by Brent Weeks. From the sounds of it, Weeks' first series is quite generic, and this is where he really started stretching his writing chops. Definitely one to have a look at.
4) The Wild Hunt series by Elspeth Cooper
I was always very keen to read Elspeth's novels and woefully didn't read the first. There are now two more with the fourth coming pretty quickly as well, so it seems a good time to catch up and have a series binge.
5) Kristen Britain
I confess, this is all about the pretty covers. ALL ABOUT THE COVERS. Deep inside me there is a 14 year old girl who still wants to read horse books...
6) The Hammer by K J Parker
This could really be any K J Parker novel. A number of years ago I tried the series beginning with Colours in the Steel, and I found it rather dense and awkward to read. I have heard that this ended up being the weakest of Parker's work, so I'd like to give this author another try. Any recommendations on which novel to read?
7) The Demon Cycle novels by Peter V Brett
Surprisingly, considering the great success of this series, I haven't read any of them. I have, of course, collected all of them with every intention of reading them, but, once again, I just need to find time.
8) The Stormlight Archives by Brandon Sanderson
I sincerely want to read this series (and it would be my first Sanderson novels that weren't associated with the Wheel of Time). I am a little wary about it though because it is an ongoing and absolutely massive series, which means a lot of waiting between books.
9) Days of Blood and Starlight and Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor
I read the first in this series when it first came out and LOVED it. I am very keen to finish reading the trilogy now that it is complete.
10) Touchstone by Melanie Rawn
I know that Rawn is more famous for her Dragon Prince series of novels, which I have fancied reading. However, this newer series feels more to my tastes. I have seen it a few times in Waterstones so far and it won't be much longer before it somehow tumbles into my bag and comes home with me (I will buy it - I just realised that sounded a little like shoplifting).
So those are some of my book fails - novels I really need to start reading. Let me know yours in the comments!
World War Terminus has been and gone, leaving an Earth where radioactive dust keeps the few survivors who haven't emigrated inside for parts of the day; an Earth where real animals are now status symbols; an Earth where renegade androids are 'retired' by bounty hunters.
In the first chapter we meet Rick Deckard, one of these bounty hunters, as he argues with his wife before work about which setting to put their mood organs on. He then tends to his electric sheep and dreams of owning a real animal. Immediately, we are introduced to one of the main themes of this novel: that of reality. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Philip K. Dick explores thoroughly the concept of reality - by showing us androids who could almost pass for human if not for a lack of empathy; and a whole business set-up to provide for electric animals; and the theory of Mercerism.
I was struck by the bleak tone, and the fact that Mercerism - a pseudo-religion - is one of the few aspects of life to give people hope, since this could be said to be a false hope. At one point Deckard thinks the following: "This rehearsal will end, the performance will end, the singers will die. Eventually the last score of the music will be destroyed in one way or another, finally the name 'Mozart' will vanish, the dust will have won" and this idea that the world is gradually crumbling shows us why people cling to Mercerism, and the status of owning animals as a way to make it through each day.
I have to confess that I was somewhat reluctant to pick up both my first SF Masterwork and my first Philip K. Dick novel, I don't quite know why. Perhaps because the story is so well-known thanks to Bladerunner; perhaps because I have always been reluctant to pick up the classics of the genre, out of a fear that they would be extremely dry and unreadable. I'm happy to report that the reverse is true - Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was extremely readable, at times very tense and atmospheric. There was a particular scene later in the book where an android coldly mutilates a spider and observes its ability to run that made me literally shudder. I was surprised that this novel still has such power and intensity after such a long while of being published.
I really enjoyed the absurd humour that provided such a difference in tone to the bleak hopelessness that prevails throughout most of the rest of the novel. The fact that Isidore was unable to tell the difference between a real cat and an electric animal made me squirm a little with discomfort, but I also appreciated the dark humour. The whole presence of the electric animals was amusing, and yet somehow sad and desolate.
PKD's writing is compulsive and spare, but at times it does meander into somewhat melancholic psychedelia, where PKD becomes more rambling and less punchy. There were a couple of passages that I felt could have been removed entirely to make the novel read better.
Altogether, though, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a science fiction triumph, and certainly deserves its place in the Masterworks list. It can be read on so many different levels - purely as a psychological thriller or as a social commentary about what defines a human being. It is definitely worth multiple reads to fully enjoy the experience. Recommended.
That is a rather obtuse title, but it's something I have been considering for the past few days.
I adored Guardians of the Galaxy - I mean, I loved it to little pieces, and couldn't find fault with it.
Right up until I read tweets and blog posts and Facebook statuses talking about where the movie falls down in terms of diversity, in terms of POC and the way that women are represented. And I realised that they were all right. The movie DOES have faults.
And then I wondered why I wasn't able to see these issues.
It isn't the first time this has happened either. When reading epic fantasy, it has taken me a long time to realise that female characters are treated badly. I took ages to think about the impact of women warriors being represented on covers with boob armour. Often it takes thoughtful feminist posts by such commentators as Kameron Hurley to encourage me to view the world as it should be - rich and diverse, and deserving of multiple viewpoints being represented in our entertainment.
It's weird because, while commissioning novels for Strange Chemistry, I ensured a tapestry of different characters were represented - obviously the most prominent is Micah Grey from Laura Lam's Pantomime and Shadowplay, an intersex character (it took Laura's quiet reproving correction before I moved away from the term hermaphrodite), but also included gay characters, a Chinese protagonist represented on the book cover, POC, an ADHD character, and Mexican protagonists.
I have argued passionately about the need for teens to see diverse characters represented in their fiction, and yet I was taught a lesson by Cassandra Rose Clarke in The Assassin's Curse and The Pirate's Wish, where I automatically assumed that a key female character was in love with a man when she talked about the love she had lost. We are shown that, in fact, it is a lesbian relationship, and all my preconceptions were turned on my head.
Am I sexist? Am I racist? Am I against diversity?
I wouldn't say I am, but then it often takes someone else pointing out problems with books and films for me to take on board those same issues.
I think I genuinely compartmentalize my brain when watching films like Guardians of the Galaxy, and reading books like the Wheel of Time. I don't activate the part that thinks about true representation - the part that was activated when acquiring novels for teens. I don't look out for problematic portrayals, or identify issues that may cause existing stereotypes to be continued and enforced.
And I think now that I need to open my mind properly. I need to be conscious of diversity and its lack, and need to join my voice to those talking about this issues. I need to stop compartmentalizing.
So I am planning a semi-regular feature where I read the novels of David Gemmell, and here is the first of those examinations, featuring the novel Legend.
1) Long before Joe Abercrombie came along, and the word ‘grimdark’ was coined, there was this talented male fantasy author who wrote excellent gritty fantasy, who used characters that were all shades of grey and not just black and white. And this was his first book. Legend has legacy, man!
2) I love the fact that this book takes the idea of a man who has been everywhere and seen it all, and is now waiting to die when he hears about Dros Delnoch and saddles up for one last adventure. The idea of age and of not being able to do everything you want to is a great one to explore in fantasy fiction, especially the fact that warriors might rather go out in a blaze of glory than slowly become forgotten and decrepit.
3) Gemmell’s prose is not pretty and certainly doesn’t linger on description. Rather the strength in his writing comes from dealing with his characters, and their reactions to events. Legend is a simple and driving narrative. Anyone hoping for the depth of Abraham or the epic sweeping tale of Martin or the vivid and beautiful prose of Erikson might do well to look elsewhere.
4) Druss is an absolute legend (yep, the title is perfectly fitting!) This is a character larger than life – one who swears, pisses, grunts, kills, but is immensely likeable and carries the story with him. The secondary characters lose out a little when weighed against him. He is the character in a film who chews up the scenery!
5) Because of the period of his life during which Gemmell wrote this book, there is a weighty underlying discussion about the way in which we choose to live our lives. Do we choose a short, heroic, legendary life? Do we allow life to pass us by? What makes us heroic – the choices we take in life? The way we face what happens to us? What does it mean to die well, and live well? All of these questions and more are explored in the course of the narrative.
6) The worldbuilding is skimpy at best. There is this big old fortress, right? A Drenai fortress? And the Nadir, newly united under one leader, are trying to capture it and invade Drenai. That’s about all the worldbuilding you get. Plus, some of the standard fantasy tropes are ever-present: marauding, unending numbers of horsemen (Mongols) go up against valiant faux-European types. Of course, since Gemmell was writing this book a long time before others came along, it is questionable as to whether he is using tropes or creating something new!
7) Female characters? Not handled *that* badly, but certainly not the nuanced and entertaining ladies we see in more modern fantasy. Again, this might be more a product of the boys-own nature of the novel and the time in which it was written, when strong female characters were not demanded from fantasy authors in the same way they are now.
8) Linked to that, the romance is lacking. So there are these two characters and they fall in love. This is all we really get to see of their courtship and developing relationship. First they are not in love. A few pages later they are in love. Whirlwind romance doesn’t cover it.
9) A novel I might recommend for reluctant teen boy readers, actually. The writing is simplistic enough, but the story is gripping and has a number of fist-pumping moments that will engage with most boy teens.
10) Sterling battle scenes. Quiet moments of heroism. Fantastic edge-of-the-seat page-turning. This is what you get from Legend. It is an absolute gem of the heroic fantasy strand, and required reading for anyone who wants to understand part of where the fantasy fiction field has developed from.
I don't think it is a huge secret that I have suffered from depression for a long time now, on and off. I try to be open about it, because I know it has helped me to know that other people are sufferers. One thing I didn't think about when I first started to put my words out onto the Internet - or, indeed, when I took the job at Strange Chemistry - was how my depression would affect my blogging and my work in the industry.
Depression often leaves me with a feeling of worthlessness, that everything I say means nothing and people are fed up with hearing my words. It can make blogging a real trial, for sure. I post articles and reviews with my heart in my mouth, waiting for people to say 'what do you know?' or 'why do you think we want to hear your views?' It sometimes makes it incredibly hard to send out edits to authors, or wait to hear their response about edits - were my points really valid? What right did I have to tell an author - a creative - how to better their novel?
It takes a lot of work to get through this. To sit and try and think about the nice words people have given me. To know that authors agreed with my edit suggestions.
But in the hard times, I lie on my bed and wonder what I am doing.
Being an editor means you really should feel cool about talking on the phone to agents and authors, that you should feel happy about face to face meetings, that conventions are your bread and butter in terms of making new contacts. But depression often keeps me feeling incredibly nervous. I hate arriving at a convention on my own, and often sit in the hotel room until I know that someone who is familiar with me is in the bar and waiting for me to arrive. Approaching new people feels almost impossible. Talking on panels - especially moderating - leaves my palms sweating and me feeling like a complete fraud. Arranging meetings at book fairs with agents and authors was something I had to have someone else do so that I actually made and kept those meetings. Being invited to writing conferences made me wonder if people had the right person, or if they meant to contact someone else.
3. Loss of Interest
One of the worst parts of depression is when you go through periods of listlessness and not feeling interested in anything. Publishing is such an all-encompassing job, where you have to remain passionate about reading and finding new voices, that depression can be utterly crippling. There were times when I had absolute piles of submissions to wade through and edits piling up, and I couldn't find any interest in the work. Not because I didn't love my job, and feel like the luckiest person alive, and adore the books I was working with, but because depression was forcing me into a black place.
4. Difficult to make decisions
Being an editor means making vital decisions about which novels to take to acquisitions. It means making decisions about how to frame edits and communicate to authors. When you are paralysed by indecision, it can stop all your work while you wonder whether you are making the right decisions for your imprint, your authors. It's so much easier to make no decisions than have to step up.
5. No enjoyment in life
I love blogging. I adore reading. For a time, I had the very best job in the world. But there were times when I couldn't get my brain on the same page. It would leave me lying in bed, tucked under my duvet and thinking that I just hated everything - mostly myself. I hated the stress of the job. I hated the review copies piling up and giving me pressure. I didn't want to pick up ANY book. And then I would descend in a cycle where I loathed myself for not constantly loving such an amazing job or people sending me free books. I had the best job, so why didn't I jump out of bed every single day, happy at the idea of going into work?
You know something? I'm sat here wondering why anyone would even want to read this post! My rational brain understands that this blog is my own space and therefore I am entitled to write whatever I like, and never mind whether anyone reads it or not. My depressed brain nags at me about wasting other people's time.
How to handle depression while blogging and publishing?
There are never any crystal-clear answers that will work for people, nothing you can pinpoint as a cure.
One that works for me is trying to be kind to myself when depression hits. Not forcing myself into anything that will make me worse. Trying to set myself little targets, so that I feel I have achieved at least something each day. Not piling up massive to-do lists that create massive amounts of pressure. Light exercise to generate the serotonin that makes me happier.
Taking on board the nice things that people have said about Floor to Ceiling and Strange Chemistry. Listing my achievements. Looking at photos of the novels I published on shelves and book review blogs.
Knowing that other people suffer from depression, that I'm not alone, also helps. Depression can feel like the loneliest place on earth.
At the moment the black dog is with me. He is bounding around me in a gleeful manner, because he knows that I am feeling at my most worthless. I am redundant for the first time in my adult life. I am finding it very hard to become gainfully employed. Every rejection, especially those after face to face interviews, feels like a personal rejection. The days feel very long and empty, even though I do have freelance work to keep me going. Nine Worlds was on at the weekend. I originally was supposed to be attending, but cancelled for various reasons. On reflection I am glad that I didn't go, because I am in such a dark place that I would have found it incredibly hard to be sociable and 'on'.
This is one of those posts that I read back and realise there is no real structure or direction to the piece, and that is, I guess, because there can be no magic resolution to depression. "Ta-da! I was depressed and now I'm not!" Instead, it's going to be a daily slog, a fight for meaning, an attempt to find joy in the small things.
And one of the small things today is re-reading this post, which articulates depression far better than I ever can. I hope I find my piece of corn soon.
As you all know, I was a book blogger for a few years before taking up a position in publishing, and so I went into the process of publishing novels with rather naive eyes. I learnt a lot. And I learnt quickly. And there were some things I learnt that I just had no idea about, so here I present them to you.
1. Sales numbers for books can be SHOCKING
You always acquire books with the intention that they will appeal to readers and sell. Secretly you hope for a breakaway success that brings the company (and author) super amounts of money that then allows you to be a bit more experimental with future acquisitions. Some books gather love and buzz - and sell like shit. It's just the way it goes. According to SF Signal there are over 220 novels being published this month in SF/F alone. People have a finite budget. Less people are buying books. Sometimes a book that sells just 12,000 copies in the whole of the States can be considered a success, depending on many factors. Sometimes books go into the wild and sell less than 1,000 copies. Sad, but true. And this is a reason for why the best support to an author, honestly, is just to buy the damn book.
2. Sales numbers might not be *everything*, but they count for a HUGE amount
When considering whether to take on a previously published author, or when deciding whether to offer an author a new contract, sales numbers will have to be analysed. This is not what the editor of the presented work wants to do - they want to be able to acquire all the books that appeal to them and that they believe have a place in the market. Unfortunately, to be a success, those novels have to be presented to bookstores with a finite amount of space, and previous sales figures are what they can be guided by. Will this author mean people come to my store and buy books? How many copies of novels has this person sold previously?
3. Good cover art costs money
It's true. An excellent cover artist, with a track record of working on novels that then sell like hot cakes, can charge a LOT of money for their work - and so they should! They should be amply rewarded for such a visible part of the novel, for taking an art brief and conversations with the art director and turning it into something stunning. For producing something that can sell the book on its own, without any access to what is within the novel. I think some self-published authors are now realising that good cover art does cost money - but is essential. And guess what? That money spent by the publisher on a cover happens whether or not the novel is print and ebook, or ebook only, so there is one of your reasons why ebooks are charged at a certain level.
4. Errors just creep in
So, yeah, we've all read published books and winced at the couple of typos we encounter over a 100,000 word novel and think 'Man, how did that ever creep in? Even I managed to spot it!' Well, those published novels have already been through a structural edit, a copy edit and a proofread - often done by two proofreaders, just in case one doesn't catch everything. Sometimes the editor or the author adds something necessary after the final proofread because they noticed a different error, and manage to insert a typo. It's so easily done. The publishing industry is populated by humans. Human error is a thing. Once we have massive computers doing everything and realising that, actually, the and to are both valid words, but one is correct and one isn't in a sentence, well, then we might have perfect books.
5. "This book hasn't been edited!"
Oh yeah? How do you know? I was so guilty of saying this as a book reviewer prior to publishing. I will never include it in a review again. The novel might not be to your tastes. The editor and author might not have managed to completely pull off the edit which allowed everything to fall into place. But you did not see the original manuscript. You have no idea about its original state, length, composition, character make-up, world building. Nothing. So, without knowing the starting point, how can you make an editing comment on the final point? The amount of work that went into that book is often completely invisible to the final reader.
6. Reviews help sales! Reviews hurt sales!
If a national magazine or paper, or a website with millions of hits per month, reviews a novel, it may have some effect. In most cases, reviews on blogs - I hate to say - don't make much of a difference (in most cases - there is always the exception that breaks the rule). I have purchased novels after blog reviews. I have also purchased novels thanks to Twitter recs, Subway advertising, books being face out in bookshops etc etc. You see, the regular reader, the faceless and voiceless person who buys most of the books, does not see the book reviews. They do not read blogs. My cousin is an avid book reader. She goes into a bookshop and buys books by authors she knows, and books that are compared to authors she knows, and has never read a book review blog in her life. These sorts of people make up the majority of book buyers and readers. Review because you love it and enjoy feeling part of a community, and maybe for those one or two sales that do come as a result of your reviews. The place where your reviews might make a difference (sadly)? Amazon. Posted there your review has an audience of millions and can directly affect sales. (I think that this was the point that made me most outraged when I moved from book blogging to publishing!)
7. Money breeds money
We all want to see copies of the novels we've acquired and edited piled up on tables in Waterstones or Barnes & Noble, marked as Book of the Month, or directly recommended by the bookseller. We want the books to be face out on the shelves. We want the book to go into supermarkets to reach a wider and more casual book reader. We want the books to be taken into airport bookshops for those last minute, impulse purchases. We want the novels to be chosen for things like Richard and Judy's Book Club or for the Radio 2 Drivetime Book Club. How does some of this happen? By providing money. By offering a further discount on the price of a book. By promising high spend on marketing and publicity. By making sure you can guarantee space on TV shows and in newspapers/magazines. This is how the bestsellers are often driven. By pushing money into the promotion. Which is then rewarded by money being spent on the novel, and the casual book buyer going in a picking it up having heard about it someplace else. This is why some books barely appear on bookshelves and are gone after a few stock rotations.
8. Publishing works WAAAY in advance
By the time a novel was coming out, I was editing a novel that wouldn't be out for ten months or so, and was acquiring novels for the year after that. You do have to judge trends. You do have to poke a finger in the air and try hard to imagine what readers might want in two years' time. This is sometimes why publishers will stick with tried and tested - it means, hopefully, that they'll have at least one solid seller in a month where maybe they did try something new. If your publishing house has a distributor, they often will require covers and sales information up to sixteen months in advance of on-sale date. If you are, for whatever reason, unable to provide this, then your novels might not be sold into bookstores as fervently and emphatically as those novels that did have the information required. That is a tough part of the business.
9. Editors are project managers
This has been said so many times, but I guess I just didn't realise when editors from publishing companies were taking time to talk to this upstart book reviewer - editors work tirelessly on behalf of all of their authors, and try to share themselves around each of them. For me, that meant sharing myself across twenty-seven authors at one point! They acquire, negotiate contracts, deal with agents, talk to authors (sometimes talk them down from the ledge!). They edit, they assist with book cover design, they talk to bloggers, they do interviews, they take time out for conventions and go on panels. They talk about book production, they jiggle around publication schedules, they liaise with publicity and marketing departments. They travel for their job. They go to book fairs and trade shows. Yes, they have an absolutely awesome job, but, by God, they work for it. They are probably underpaid for the sheer amount of hours they put in for the love of reading, the love of introducing new stories to the world, the love of working with authors. Their work/life balance is usually shit. They'll often have partners or spouses who have to be THE most understanding people (well, except for those who actually marry authors themselves!)
10. Publishing can hurt
I think this is the one I never expected. I imagined that it would be such a wonderful environment. In most cases, it really is! I mean, you have this fantastic book reading community around you. You have colleagues who are just as invested in your books as you are. You work with such talented individuals. But you have to develop such a thick skin. A lot of the words given to authors should be given to fledgling editors as well. When one of the first novels you commissioned is utterly eviscerated in a review, you have to tell yourself over and over again that just one review won't hurt sales - even though it has hurt you to the quick. Not just your author, but you. When you have to have those difficult phonecalls, make those difficult decisions, like when an author is not having a contract renewed - you will have fought tooth and claw for that book, you will have believed in it, but it isn't going to see the light of day. That hurts. That really hurts. That's when you want to say 'Fuck the sales numbers, fuck the bottom line, I just want to publish this book.' And don't ever, ever engage with what is being said about your authors, your books or your company unless it is to correct factual errors. Publishing is still a business, at the end of the day.
There is never one single moment that I will regret my time with Strange Chemistry - it was amazing, and astonishing, and rewarding, and still the best decision I ever made. I would never tell anyone not to go into publishing; you will love it so, so much of the time. But I will tell you that there are always surprises in this business, always things that you might not know going on behind the scenes. Hopefully you enjoyed hearing about just a few of them.
Troubled young Fawn Bluefield seeks a life beyond her family's farm. Enroute to the city, she encounters a patrol of Lakewalkers. The necromancers armed with human bone knives fight "malices", immortal entities that draw out life, enslaving humans and animals. Dag saves Fawn from a malice - at a devastating cost. Their fates are now bound in a remarkable journey.
Lois McMaster Bujold is an incredibly well-known SF/F author and the winner of multiple awards, but so far I have only picked up her fantasy novels - this is the third I have read. Based on my enjoyment of her writing, I absolutely should embark on her Vorkosigan SF series.
Beguilement is the first novel in a quartet of four, and features a group called the Lakewalkers, who patrol to keep the land safe for farmers from malices - something that farmers think is a tall story. In fact, they downright don't trust Lakewalkers, and believe that they eat their dead.
So it turns out Fawn has a lot to learn when she is rescued from bandits by Dag, a Lakewalker patrolman.
On Goodreads, where we can offer ratings, I gave this novel 4 out of 5 stars, but, now that I come to think on the book, it's hard to verbalise exactly why. It's rather a simple tale, with very slight evidence of mysterious past happenings, but is pretty light on developing the world. It is far more character driven, somewhat like Sharon Shinn's work. In fact, I would say that if you've enjoyed any Shinn, you should be running out to buy this series immediately because it offers a similar kind of fantasy.
The characters are built simply wonderfully, with inflections on speech, mannerisms being developed, motivations communicated effectively. From the moment that you meet both Dag and Fawn, you are interested to see how their tale will develop.
I was particularly charmed by Fawn. This is a female character who shows strength not through physical ability - she is, in fact, a tiny slip of a thing - but through mental agility. She is shown to ask questions and be curious about everything, has an affinity with people because of her natural charm. She is warm and, above all, incredibly realistic. For this reason, I adored her. And I did love the fact that Dag was drawn to her because of her intelligence. Just perfect.
Dag, himself, is a fascinating character - someone who has had to come to terms with a physical injury, the loss of a hand. How this affects his character and what he is able to do really adds to this lovely tale.
Also, a shout out to the fact that Bujold clearly has had some experience with horses - they're rested, they're looked after, they have characters of their own, and they are not just treated as 'vehicles' to get from one point to another.
So why not a 5 star read? For me, it evoked nostalgic feelings of fantasy I read in my teens. There is no grimness here, there is only a very slight story to accompany the beautiful character building. It reminds me of Tamora Pierce, Shinn and Eddings - lovely prose that draws you in and has you utterly engrossed. It is a book that I thoroughly enjoyed and I shall eagerly read the other three novels in the series, but it definitely won't appeal to everyone and is not a book that particularly challenged me or made me think. Gorgeous nonetheless!
In the acquisitions meeting for The Mirror Empire, I argued very strongly for us to take on Kameron’s novel. I thought it was incredibly clever, complex and challenging to the reader. And I also thought, “Good luck to the person who is editing the novel!” Then I found out it was me...
The reason I wished good luck to the editor? Because of the task involved in ensuring that The Mirror Empire was not *too* challenging, while still retaining all of the flavour and the authorial voice, and allowing Kameron’s ambitious vision to be realised.
Because I am the editor of this novel, I cannot provide a review of The Mirror Empire, so instead I am going to tell you about the experience of editing it.
On a personal level, I would say sincerely that, were it not for my experience with analysing the Malazan series for Tor.com, I would not have been able to edit The Mirror Empire. That series taught me patience in waiting for reveals, trusting the author to know where they were taking plotlines, and recognising that every now and then we, as readers, do need to be faced by a work that makes us think and expands our horizons.
On another personal level, I had edited YA novels mostly to this point and the idea of tackling well over 700 Word pages of manuscript was like a personal Everest!
And finally on yet another personal level, I was starstruck. Yep, I still get this way with authors I admire. How can I possibly tell an author who is such an effective wordsmith that they can improve their work?
Well, that is the role of an editor! To take the novel in front of you and consider what is going to make it better. How is the pacing? Is the author effectively carrying their reader with them? Is every scene necessary to drive forward the plot?
With The Mirror Empire, I felt that, in the form it originally came to me, the start of the novel was confusing in how each storyline related to each other, and the timeline involved. So my first request was to have some scenes switched around in order to have the reader invested from the word go, and not to spend too much time asking questions like ‘How, why, who?’
My next key issue was with the agency of the character Lilia. Although she was a young character, and therefore probably more inclined to follow adult reasoning and decisions rather than making up her own mind, I felt that she was incredibly passive. She needed more agency and work on her storyline to ensure that readers would engage with her.
It didn’t take me more than a few pages before I wanted a map. And, when Kameron suggested the idea of a glossary, I leapt all over that as well. It IS a hard novel, and anything that assists the reader in understanding locations and terms rather than having to spend time puzzling them out, hence removing them from their immersion in the novel, is welcome.
The gender aspect of The Mirror Empire is obviously a key part of what makes it so seminal in the fantasy genre – the understanding that characters do not fit into boxes, or onto a very black and white spectrum. I had dual concerns about this that I felt Kameron should address. One was that it felt as though the gender aspect was rather dropped in after a number of chapters, so felt a little bit whiplash. I wanted to see it introduced more gracefully and gradually. The second point was ensuring that, at no point, did it feel as though the genders/relationships described were there simply to play with gender – they had to feel organic within the world.
My key style of editing is to always try and approach a novel as though I were a fresh reader – someone who has no idea of the ultimate direction of the story, and who is starting this novel with absolutely no preconceptions. Because of this, the manuscript that I returned to Kameron had lots of questions: ‘I don’t understand why this character is acting in this way?’, ‘How would we know that this had occurred without seeing more of it at an earlier stage?’ I acted like a reader who needed to have a really good grasp on all the world and the characters in order to enjoy the novel, and so asked the questions I felt needed answering in order to improve the experience.
I also suggested gently that Kameron reduce the novel by between 10,000 and 20,000 words. It is a beast of a novel, and was even longer when I received it. Some scenes felt a little filler, so I marked out what I felt could be removed and still keep the novel focused.
I guess every editor is apprehensive when they send their editorial letter and the marked-up manuscript to their author. Obviously, WE think that we are making good suggestions, but there is always a fear that the author may disagree, or feels as though you are changing the ultimate nature of the novel. I think that we just have to be as diplomatic as possible, and always let the author know that we are editing the novel because we acquired it, which means we LOVE it. All of the suggestions come from a position of partnership, rather than criticism.
My final point is to refer to the reviews that I read of The Mirror Empire. Yes, I’ve been reading them! I’m so very glad that people are enjoying this novel and, indeed, finding it clever, complex and challenging. But please do not fool yourself that when I read something that suggests this section is too difficult, or that scene feels surplus, or this, or that, or the other, that I don’t kick myself and wonder if it’s something that I should have picked up as Kameron’s editor. I wanted this novel to be the very best it could be, and I think I helped somewhat, so it feels like a personal failure if readers then fail to engage. Even when it is just one reader. Editors, as well as authors, sometimes read reviews and have to bite their tongue or take a deep breath and accept valid criticism!
Thank you for reading this insight into how I edited The Mirror Empire, and I sincerely hope that you enjoy the novel when you choose to read it.
Hmm, that's a clumsy title, non? But this week's Top Ten Tuesday is really to list the authors I support the most, I guess!
1. Charles de Lint
I now own forty-seven books by this gentleman - novels, novellas, limited editions, story collections, picture books. One day I'll own them all! I have really had to make an effort to collect his books, since they need to be imported, or found on rare book sites (since quite a few of them were produced by Subterranean Press in the US). Every time I travel to the States I go in search of more of them.
Now the more shameful part - how many have I actually read? Three. Yep. Woeful. Do you know why? I have Charles de Lint as my rainy day author, the person I know I can go to in order to read stunning stories and beautiful prose. But those rainy days are too far apart, it seems.
2. David Gemmell
I own thirty-one novels by this author, which is pretty much all of them, I believe! And, amazingly, I have read all of them too. And reread most of them at least once. Most of this reading happened in my teens, when I first discovered Gemmell - my first novel of his was Knights of Dark Renown. Despite my efforts, I've not yet found heroic fantasy that entertains me as much as these books do.
3. Fiona Walker
This delightful chick lit/bonkbuster author has penned fourteen awesome and clever novels. Of them, I have read nine, so I am due a big catch up!
4. Sharon Shinn
I own fifteen novels by Shinn, which is far from all the work she has produced. Of them, my favourites are still her Samaria series about the Archangels, but I am coming to love her other novels as well. I own fifteen novels, but still need to read nine of them!
5. Sharon Penman
This wonderful historical novelist has penned thirteen novels. I own all but the latest, which is King's Ransom (published this year). I have read seven and cannot wait to dive into the ones that I haven't tackled yet. I often say that The Sunne in Splendour is my favourite novel of all time, and this is a great showcase of her talents.
6. Tamora Pierce
I own sixteen novels by this fantastically prolific YA author. I've been reading her since I was twelve years old and have, without exception, loved all her books. I haven't yet read any of the novels featuring the Circle of Magic series - I've been a devotee of Tortall and Alanna.
7. Freya North
I own twelve and have read seven. I first read this author in my early twenties, and liked her style then, but have reread some of the novels lately and find them less appealing. She does have a warm chatty style of writing that definitely isn't for everyone!
8. David Eddings
Another big hitter on the fantasy scene, and I own a massive twenty-six novels by this author, even some of his non-fantasy works like High Hunt and Regina's Song. I found that Eddings worked to the law of diminishing returns - his earlier novels were his best, and the latter felt more like rehashed efforts - but nostalgia has me owning most of those he published.
9. Maeve Binchy
I own twenty books by this warm-hearted author, most of those she has published. I like to save her novels for when I need comfort reading, because it's like sitting in a huge armchair with a hot chocolate, getting to know her characters.
10. The Malazan novels
I own the ten novels in the main Malazan series, the six published by Ian Cameron Esslemont, the five novellas in the Bauchelain and Korbal Broach series, and new start of the Kharkanas work. Plus, I have the three stunning special editions from Subterranean Press that have been published so far. I only wish I had the money to carry on buying these!
Over to you now - which authors are those that you own the most books for?
On 19th August two rather famous authors are having an evening chatting to each other in the Freemasons' Hall in London. These authors are George R R Martin and Robin Hobb, two authors who I have read and absolutely loved. All sound good so far? Did to me as well, until I realised that the event was being charged at £45. On a personal level, I cannot afford that amount, but I know that that isn't going to worry the publisher or authors, considering that my Twitter timeline is full of people stating that they've already brought their tickets.
I think that £45 is too much for an author event, no matter how famous the authors are or how many spoilers George *might* reveal about The Winds of Winter. I had a look and, for the same price, you can get a day pass to Nine Worlds, which would allow you to see many authors in conversation - and, I'm sure, if you take along books by those authors, you would be able to get them signed.
For absolute free, Fantasy Faction are hosting the Grim Gathering, an evening with Peter V Brett, Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence and Myke Cole. For free! Why, therefore, are we being charged to see £45 to see two authors?
One person suggested that this is now how publishers/authors will make their money - like bands now have to tour in order to make money because they are certainly not making money from selling music in these days of downloading and piracy. We've often asked how exactly authors make any money, and maybe now we have the answer.
Or perhaps the high fee is to pay for the location which is, frankly, gorgeous:
Just to add in another book event for discussion (one that is much cheaper), let's look at the Gollancz Festival. Here we have authorial powerhouses such as Joe Hill and Patrick Rothfuss. The cost? £6. For a whole evening of fun, and several organised panels.
So, I do ask, would you pay £45? Why? What makes this event so special, compared to the others I mention? Just the presence of GRRM?
What if the life you wanted, and the woman you fell in love with, belonged to someone else?
Chris and Claire Canton’s marriage is on life support. Downsized during the recession and out of work for a year, Chris copes by retreating to a dark place where no one can reach him, not even Claire. When he’s offered a position that will keep him away from home four nights a week, he dismisses Claire’s concern that time apart could be the one thing their fragile union can’t weather. Their suburban life may look idyllic on the outside, but Claire has never felt so disconnected from Chris, or so lonely.
Local police officer Daniel Rush used to have it all, but now he goes home to an empty house every night. He pulls Claire over during a routine traffic stop, and they run into each other again at the 4th of July parade. When Claire is hired to do some graphic design work for the police department, her friendship with Daniel grows, and soon they’re spending hours together.
Claire loves the way Daniel makes her feel, and the way his face lights up when she walks into the room. Daniel knows that Claire’s marital status means their relationship will never be anything other than platonic. But it doesn’t take long before Claire and Daniel are in way over their heads, and skating close to the line that Claire has sworn she’ll never cross.
Tracey Garvis Graves shows us in her second novel that On the Island was no fluke, and she knows how to write a good story about love and relationships. Covet is a quiet examination of suburban life, with a wife who feels lonely enough to make friends with a man who is not her husband.
I particularly liked the different storytelling techniques that were demonstrated here - multiple viewpoints, short chapters, and flashbacks that enabled us to see the relationship between Claire and Chris before they were afflicted by difficult life situations.
What I liked less is that this was a very slight book, considering the interesting characters that moved through Claire's life with their own troubles and subplots. I would have liked more character development - people like Elisa and Julia were paper-thin, presented like sweeping watercolour snapshots rather than carefully inked-in portraits. We were given enough to be intrigued about them, but never enough to be truly drawn in.
In addition to this, Tracey Garvis Graves has an 'and then' style of writing, where everything is described - even a stomach bug suffered by three members of the family where we got to see each vomiting episode. It's too much, and leads to more telling, and less showing.
In conclusion, a read that entertained but didn't ultimately satisfy and will be forgotten within a month or so. Unlike On the Island, which stayed in the mind because of the controversial and provocative subject matter, Covet is a light read that is good for the beach in the summer.
Edward the Third stands in the burnt ruin of an English church. He is beset on all sides. He needs a victory against the French to rescue his Kingship. Or he will die trying.
Philip of Valois can put 50,000 men in the field. He has sent his priests to summon the very Angels themselves to fight for France. Edward could call on God for aid but he is an usurper. What if God truly is on the side of the French?
But for a price, Edward could open the gates of Hell and take an unholy war to France...
I have now read three novels by this author - Girlfriend 44 by Mark Barrowcliffe, Wolfsangel by M D Lachlan, and now this, Son of the Morning by Mark Alder (I don't think he'll mind the reveal of his pseudonyms - he's pretty open about it!) Out of the three, this is undisputedly, and by a long way, the best.
It is a fantasy novel embedded within historical events and, while I've seen this done before, I don't think I've seen a world built so realistically within fantastical terms. Honestly, it makes you believe that angels did indeed fight on the side of righteous kings. Although I sometimes got my devils and demons mixed up - they are very different entities in this novel - I was gripped from the beginning and found myself utterly engrossed in the world of high and lowborn men, affected by their worship of either God, Lucifer or Satan.
With astonishing battle scenes and some truly lovely prose - especially during the materialisation of the angels into their chapels - Mark Alder has achieved a rich tapestry of a novel. So why not a five star read?
For me personally, I find that Mark (in all his authorial guises) writes very entertaining and three dimensional characters, and yet somehow I'm not drawn to them. I feel as though there is a veil between the reader and the character that prevents them being completely engaging. They are rather clinical instead of being warm, and I felt the lack. Although Montagu, Edward, Osbert, Charles and Dowzabel had moments of dignity and honour, ridicule and humour, there was little of the emotion behind the character, in my opinion.
Despite this, I eagerly read to the end of this beast of a novel, and would very much welcome more in this world. Definitely recommended.