Blog Archive

View My Stats
Sunday, October 4, 2015

GUEST POST: On Building A World by Matt Karlov

Sometimes I think we fantasy authors are crazy. We sit down to write a story, and we think: the world, well, it's not bad. There are parts of it I quite like. But it's not quite right for my story. How will I solve this problem? I know! I will invent a whole other world.

I mean -- what? Me and my tiny meat-brain? Create a whole world? It's insane, right? And yet, it's not. We've seen other people do it, and we've connected with some of those worlds and stories in a way that we've rarely connected with anything else in our lives. And some of us think: maybe I can do that too.

I've always loved fantasy. When I started to consider writing The Unbound Man, it went without saying that it would be fantasy. Because, crazy as it might be, an invented world allows you to tell stories that simply can't be told anywhere else. Anything is possible. All you have to do is put in the work to make it believable.

Sounds great in theory. But it turns out that going from 'anything' to 'this specific thing' takes even more work than you might imagine.

I don't know how other fantasy novelists build their worlds. I suspect that, like Tolstoy's unhappy families, each of us is crazy in our own way. If you're thinking of building a fantasy world of your own, I can't tell you how you should approach it. But I can tell you a little about how I built mine.

See that dot next to the squiggle?

One of the very first things I did was make a map. Maps are great because they're not just about geography -- they reflect history, politics, culture, and more. Nothing fires the imagination like a good map. So I began to draw, and I asked myself questions as I went. Start, perhaps, by marking off a small section of land and optimistically labelling it the Kharjik Empire. Delusions of grandeur, or the last remnant of a much greater realm? Call another section the Free Cities, but note that it was formerly known as Coridon. What prompted the change: a rebellion, a war, something else? Why are those plains in the middle not claimed by anyone? How do those people in the Jervian Protectorates feel about being 'protected'? What's up with those islands to the east and west? And so on.

Much, much later, I would hire the wonderfully talented Maxime Plasse to turn my rough sketch into the map you see here. At the time, I just kept adding to the map and to my notes until one day I looked at what I'd drawn and thought: Yes. This looks like a place where interesting things could happen.

It's all about the story!

The thing about building a world for a fantasy novel is that the world isn't really the point. The point is the story you want to tell. So, once I'd developed a suitably inspiring map, I dived into the characters and the plot, adding to the world as I went. I already had some ideas about what this particular story would be, but it still took a lot of thinking and several false starts before I arrived at an outline I was happy with.

Several things gradually became clear. The main character had a particular hatred of coercion and an unusual obsession with freedom. Placing the story in the so-called Free Cities would make for an interesting thematic counterpoint, and would give me the kind of sophisticated urban backdrop that the narrative required. The presence of (nominally) non-political factions was also looming large: merchant companies, groups of sorcerers and scholars, and other organizations would wield as much influence in this part of the world as city governments.

Regional infrastructure would be a blend of convenience and messiness: the region's recent unification as Coridon would give its cities a shared currency, for example, while message services between cities would largely consist of merchant courier networks, most of which would also deliver private letters for an appropriate fee. And hovering over it all would be the shadow of a long-dead empire and the relics it had left behind.

You can do what, how?

I'd always planned to set The Unbound Man in an world with early Renaissance-level technology. I'm far from the first to write that sort of fantasy world, but at the time I hadn't read the likes of Joe Abercrombie or Scott Lynch, and the idea felt fresh and exciting. I gradually worked through the specifics of what the technology would look like. There would be gunpowder in the form of cannons, but few if any personal firearms. The printing press would have arrived, but it would not yet have made hand-scribed documents obsolete; a significant portion of the population would still be illiterate. And the culture would be experiencing more subtle shifts as well. For one, people would be starting to pay attention to clocks -- indeed, a table clock for one's own home would be quite the fashionable purchase.

Equally important, and vital to any fantasy setting, was how to approach magic. I knew I wanted my magic system to stand somewhere between the extremes of being utterly inexplicable and completely systematized: it needed enough structure to be understandable, but not so much as to strip away the mystery. Sorcery, perhaps, could be built in a manner roughly comparable to a physical device, and grounded in some physical substance.

It would be rare enough to be special, but still readily available for those who could afford it. Groups of sorcerers would sell ensorcelled items, from relatively cheap sparkers (used to light lamps) to the rather more expensive chill-chests (whose refrigeration properties would require constant refreshment). Certain particularly distrustful people would have developed a way to nullify a sorcerer's powers -- this would be even more expensive, but would provide an important brake on sorcery. And this model of magic would also fit well with the story, the plot of which was by now becoming increasingly clear.

The fun stuff!

With some of the bigger decisions made, it was time to start writing the actual story. And with that came a whole new set of opportunities to flesh out the details of the world and the characters' experience of living in it.

I particularly enjoy reading fantasy novels in which the world bears some marks of an intellectual and artistic history. Many fantasy novels make a point of highlighting great kings and generals from their world's past -- their Julius Caesar, you might say, or their Alexander the Great. It's less common to hear about that world's Plato, or Herodotus, or Michaelangelo. Less common, but certainly not unknown: Steven Erikson and R. Scott Bakker are two who do this in different ways, and who not coincidentally are two of my favourite authors. I decided to follow in their footsteps and sprinkle The Unbound Man with small examples of the intellectual life of the world -- historians, fabulists, prophets, skeptics, and others -- and the more entertaining or thought-provoking, the better. These would also offer opportunities for thematic resonance and counterpoint, not to mention humour!

I also wanted to play in a few areas that had been somewhat neglected by the traditional school of Euro-centric fantasy. I live in Australia, so the plants and wildlife I'm most familiar with are Australian. Well, no problem! The world of The Unbound Man soon had an abundance of eucalypts and lorikeets. But not exclusively so -- I also wanted to set aside space for some North African-inspired cuisine: flatbreads, tagines, and the like. And I was tired of every second fantasy world possessing some variation of coffee, so I decided that my characters would drink chocol -- a luxury beverage, imported at some expense from across the sea.

But what about...?

There's more, of course. I haven't even mentioned race or class. I've barely touched on religion. Some of these have a significant presence in The Unbound Man; others, less so. But there comes a time when you have to step back from the setting and tell the tale you've come to tell. A world is huge, and even the biggest, fattest fantasy novel is tiny by comparison. And a novel is neither an atlas nor an encyclopedia. It's a story. When all is said and done, the world is just a place for the story to happen.

Or maybe not. In fantasy -- in every genre, really -- the world is an essential part of the story. In a way, stories are like each of us: individual, yes, but shaped more than we can imagine by the world in which we live. Trying to separate a story from its world would be like trying to separate you or me from 21st century Earth. Without a world to live in, a story -- or a person -- would be just an idea.

Which means that maybe this crazy idea that I can sit down and build a world isn't so crazy after all. Maybe this is actually a gift that the real world gives us, one that goes some way towards making up for so many of its frustrations and shortcomings.

Here, in this place we all share, there's always room for one more world.


Official Author Website
Order The Unbound Man HERE

Like every child, Matt Karlov was raised on stories of the impossible, from the good parts of Sesame Street, to The Hobbit, to Watership Down and beyond. As Matt grew older, he had the good fortune to retain his taste for the fantastic, which soon developed into a deep love of speculative fiction in its many guises. He has been struggling to make room on his shelves for new books ever since.

Matt has been a software designer, a web developer, and a business analyst. He lives in Sydney, Australia. The Unbound Man is his first novel.

NOTE: All maps courtesy of Maxime Plasse and Matt Karlov.
Saturday, October 3, 2015

"Spelled" by Betsy Schow (Reviewed by Cindy Hannikman)

OVERVIEW: Fairy Tale Survival Rule #32: If you find yourself at the mercy of a wicked witch, sing a romantic ballad and wait for your Prince Charming to save the day.

Yeah, no thanks. Dorthea is completely princed out. Sure being the crown princess of Emerald has its perks—like Glenda Original ball gowns and Hans Christian Louboutin heels. But a forced marriage to the brooding prince Kato is so not what Dorthea had in mind for her enchanted future.

Talk about unhappily ever after.

Trying to fix her prince problem by wishing on a (cursed) star royally backfires, leaving the kingdom in chaos and her parents stuck in some place called "Kansas." Now it's up to Dorthea and her pixed off prince to find the mysterious Wizard of Oz and undo the curse...before it releases the wickedest witch of all and spells The End for the world of Story

FORMAT: Spelled is the first novel in a series of books. It is a YA novel that is a mish-mash of fairy tales, romance, and adventure. It stands at 352 pages and was published June 2, 2015 by Sourcebooks Fire.

ANALYSIS: All too often when we see the worlds 'fairy tale retelling' it is simply an author taking the same old story – say Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty – and tweaking it just a little bit. Essentially, these authors are adding a tiny twist to make it their own, but the story is the same.

Spelled by Betsy Schow is a fairy tale retelling that breaks that trend. But whether or not that is a good thing will depend on what type of reader you are and what styles of writing you enjoy.

Before I even begin to analyze Spelled, I want to note that this is not a book that is for everyone. Spelled is like a YA version of Ever After High. It has cute little nicknames for things that represent the fairy tale world's version of things, such as a band that is very similar to One Direction or a cellphone that looks and acts just like an iPhone.

In addition to the cute little nicknames, the characters also constantly curse, but they do so in fairy tale style. For example, the characters will constantly say "Well pix me" or "Mother of Grimm". These sayings are cute the first few times they are done, but they are overdone. The overuse of these cute phrases/cursing may be just enough to turn off most readers.

If the fairy tale cursing and cutesy nicknames didn't turn you away from the novel, there is the writing style. Spelled is written in a sassy, extremely causal style that includes a lot of clich├ęs, side comments, and attitude. Readers expecting a straightforward, no-nonsense novel probably won't make it through the first few chapters.

That being said, if you can make it through the sass, the nicknames, and the fairy tale cussing, there is an interesting novel awaiting you. Betsy Schow has taken a little bit of everything from all the Wizard of Oz novels and sort of thrown them together to form a hodgepodge of a story. Longtime fans of Wizard of Oz will certainly see the similarities between some characters and their original counterparts, but for the most part Spelled is its own novel in both character development and plot elements. Think of Wizard of Oz and other fairy tales as more of a guidebook for the story.

I will admit, I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this mishmash of characters and stories. I appreciate what Schow was trying to achieve and I think it is absolutely wonderful that she went outside of the box, but I don't feel there was enough here to judge. Here's the problem, I found the first half of the book a bit annoying and very, very slow. Just when I went to set it down, it picked up and I really enjoyed the last half of the book. The enjoyment could be because the best character – Hydra – was introduced and she really made the novel.

I feel as if Schow started to find her footing and pacing in the last half of the novel. This redeemed Spelled for me and makes me actually consider reading the second novel. Unfortunately, it might be too little, too late. Most readers are either going to have abandoned the novel before it got good. This is unfortunate as it started to turn into a halfway decent novel.

Overall, I really feel Spelled is a book you have to try for yourself. Either you are going to like it or you aren't. There really isn't going to be an in between. I think those going into the novel thinking it is a 100% retelling of the Wizard of Oz will be disappointed, but those that know it isn't like that may be able to have the open minded thinking that could make this an enjoyable book.  
Friday, October 2, 2015

Esoterrorism by C. T. Phipps (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order Esoterrorism HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: C.T. Phipps is a lifelong student of horror, science fiction, and fantasy. An avid tabletop gamer, he discovered this passion led him to write and turned him into a lifelong geek. He is a regular blogger, reviewer for The Bookie Monster, and recently signed a deal with Ragnarok Publications to produce the urban fantasy series, The Red Room. C.T. Phipps is also the author of The Supervillainy Saga, the first book of which, The Rules of Supervillainy, was released this June.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: There are no good guys in the world of shadows...but maybe some bad men are better than others.

Derek Hawthorne was born to be an agent of the Red Room. Literally. Raised in a conspiracy which has protected the world from the supernatural for centuries, he's never been anything other than a servant of their agenda. Times are changing, though, and it may not be long before their existence is exposed.

When a routine mission uncovers the latest plan of the magical terrorist, the Wazir, Derek finds himself saddled with a new partner. Who is the mysterious but deadly Shannon O'Reilly? What is her agenda? Couple this with the discovery the Red Room has a mole seeking to frame Derek for treason and you have a plot which might bring down a millennium-old organization. Can he stop the Wazir's mission to expose the supernatural? And should he?

FORMAT/INFO: Esoterrorism is 456 pages long divided into forty-two chapters and a prologue. The narration is in the first-person via Derek Hawthorne exclusively. This book is the first volume in the The Secret Files Of The Red Room. Cover art is provided by Eloise J. Knapp.

July 4th, 2015 marked the e-book and paperback publication of Esoterrorism by Ragnarok Publications.

CLASSIFICATION: Esoterrorism  is James Bond meets Hellboy meets The Dresden Files.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Esoterrorism by Charles T. Phipps caught my eye for two solid reasons, one it was a urban fantasy thriller that promised mayhem and magic in a startling mix and secondly it was published by the Ragnarok folks whom I know to have a special eye for dark stories in any genre.

The story is seen entirely through our protagonist Derek Hawthrone, an agent for the organization known as The Red Room. It’s an organization that is massive and is very family-oriented (literally). However their family dealings are more akin to those of the Borgias and their sole intent is to keep the non-magical populace of Earth unaware of the supernatural creatures, races and their shenanigans. Derek is an agent who has been initiated into the organization since a long time and has had quite many capers. Most of them have led to the dissolution of his marriage, deaths of his partners and friends and lastly left him with a cynical but funny worldview. His newest partner Shannon O’Reilly turns out to be more than he thought she would be and she’s definitely off the Human charts both in physical appearance and magical prowess.

Their mission is to track down the Wazir, a terrorist magical caster whose notions about humanity and magic tend to run counter with those of The Red Room. He’s however slippery than a wet eel and doubly dangerous. Derek and Shannon have to figure whether they can trust the other person, who’s the mole in The Red Room organization (because in stories like these, there’s always a mole) and hopefully save the world. As far as spy thrillers go, this is the normal route. What adds extra spice to the story is the presence of magic and the entire paranormal creature spectrum and how the author focuses the story through Derek who can give Frank Trigg a run for his money with his corny jokes, ribald wit and thorny attitude.

Here’s why I enjoyed this story, Charles T. Phipps go all out with his story tropes and manages to subvert them just about to make this story fresh while also giving nods to the fantastic stories that have come before. He also sets the story within the prism of urban fantasy which adds nuance to the story as we come across a myriad cast of creatures and forms of magic. The author has to be lauded for his pan-continental use of magical creatures and oddities. He truly makes it feel like a chaotic world akin to our one with the additional feature of magic that shakes the equilibrium. Avoiding the use of vampires and by focusing on rarely mentioned creatures such as the Lillin, Rakshasas, etc made this story stand out for me.

The pace of the story is another positive factor, beginning from the first couple of chapters; the author takes the readers by their lapels and races them though a story that has a decent number of twists and has a whole lot of action. The story is meant for fun and it goes all out for making sure that readers experience it to the fullest. For those interested the author has spoken as to how he tried to deconstruct the world-weary hero and femme fatale tropes, and he’s done it in a way that doesn’t obstruct the story in its premise. The pace of the story never slackens and we are constantly on the move to find out what happens in the climax and who’s the person pulling the strings.

For things that didn’t quite work for me, some of the world history and background setting are scarcely mentioned but never quite revealed. I don’t know if this was intentional on the author’s part (so as to save it for later volumes) or simply sacrifices made for not slackening the pace. I felt that the world and magic system could have been better fleshed out. There’s also in the middle when the story does get a tad slow wherein the main characters are trying to figure out another character’s possible betrayal. I thought that could have been due to the fast pace of the story before and after, which made that section seem slower.

CONCLUSION: Overall I very much enjoyed Esoterrorism as it was written with few things in mind, if you are looking for a fast-paced, action heavy thriller, then Esoterrorism will hit the bullseye. If you are looking for a change from the usual urban fantasy smorgasbord then Esoterrorism might do it for you. As for me, I was looking to read something new and exciting and Charles T. Phipps provided that in spades. I can’t wait to read the sequel volumes Eldritch Ops, and Operation: Otherworld. Give this book a try, I’m sure you will be hooked as well.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

GUEST POST: Epic Fantasy: Dinosaur or dynamo? by Erin Lindsey

Game of Thrones won twelve Emmys last week, shattering the record for most trophies in a single year. Pretty extraordinary, when you think about it. Fantasy hasn’t staged a coup like that since The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2004. The ever-building momentum of HBO’s juggernaut proves, if extra proof was needed, that fantasy has stormed the mainstream.

It’s a phenomenon that’s been building for a while now and shows no sign of slowing down. Television is positively bursting with speculative fiction, a trend that’s largely matched in Hollywood. What’s particularly interesting about it, though, is that while much of this exuberant growth is distinctively modern – post-apocalyptic, contemporary and urban fantasy, superheroes created by mutations and technology gone awry – the heavy hitters are still pretty traditional. Take Game of Thrones. The vast majority of SFF shows on television today are sci-fi, contemporary fantasy, and comic book adaptations, and yet none of them comes close to the commercial and critical heft of Game of Thrones.

In this modern world of ours, one show rules them all, and it’s the epic fantasy of the bunch. Same goes for movies: in the more than ten years since The Return of the King, we have yet to see anything that rivals The Lord of the Rings trilogy for sheer impact. Meanwhile, many of the biggest names in fantasy literature are churning out epic fantasy as their bread-and-butter and enjoying tremendous success in doing so. In other words, when it comes to that most amorphous and precious of currencies – cred – epic fantasy is still the big name on campus, to such an extent that many hardcore SFF fans seem to think it’s the only genre that qualifies as “serious” fantasy.

This has caused a certain amount of consternation among those who see epic fantasy as something of a dinosaur, an essentially conservative branch of genre fiction that never really evolves. And I get that – insofar as you consider “epic fantasy” and “traditional fantasy” to be synonymous. But the thing is, they aren’t. Epic fantasy needn’t be traditional. It can evolve; it is evolving. Epic fantasy shouldn’t be caught in the crossfire of a debate about “traditional” vs. “progressive”, because it can be both of those things – or neither. “Epic” isn’t a point along the spectrum of “old school” to “contemporary”; it’s merely a question of narrative scope. It’s perfectly possible to put a modern twist on epic fantasy – to offer, in the words of blogger Jared Shurin, “all the high fantasy comfort we love, but with fresh, high quality ingredients and contemporary presentation”.

Not only is it possible, it’s happening. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least four ways epic fantasy is evolving:

1) Diversity - Depending on how you define it, the list could stop right here. For the purposes of this post, though, I’m referring to diversity in protagonists. Granted, we haven’t come nearly as far as we ought to on this, but I sometimes feel that we don’t sufficiently recognize the progress we have made (which actually does a disservice to the cause overall, since it’s dismissive of the pioneers). There are loads of wonderful epic fantasies with females at the helm, and increasingly persons of colour and LGBT characters too. Not only that, some books are taking a refreshing angle on gender itself by showcasing very different gender roles. Again, we’re not nearly where we should be on this, and epic fantasy is admittedly behind the curve compared to many other genres, but we’re moving in the right direction. That means we should keep up the pressure – and recognize the progress that’s been made.

2) Non-European cultural reference points - Another generalization we hear a lot: epic fantasy is rooted in medieval Europe. Well, no. The Epic of Gilgamesh, seen by many as the first great work of literature (period), is from the Middle East. The Egyptians and Indians got in on the fun way before the Greeks showed up, and by the time Beowulf arrived on the scene, the battlefield was already littered with bodies. There is nothing especially European, let alone medieval, in the pedigree of epic fantasy. Okay, you say, epic fantasy might not be rooted in medieval Europe, but it’s certainly mired in it. To some extent, maybe, but that’s changing. From Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven to Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy to Bradley Beaulieu’s Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, different cultural reference points are cropping up all over epic fantasy. If you haven’t found them, maybe you haven’t been looking hard enough.

3) Subverting classic tropes - Plenty of epic fantasy still boils down to some variation on the hero’s journey. And there’s nothing wrong with that. As I’ve argued elsewhere, “trope” isn’t a dirty word; these things are classics for a reason. But sometimes the books you think are reveling in old tropes are actually subverting them in new and refreshing ways. I’m not going to get specific for fear of spoilers (in case there’s anybody left out there who hasn’t read Mistborn or A Song of Ice and Fire), but some of the biggest epic fantasy series of recent years have played mercilessly with our expectations, capitalizing on years of tradition to lead us to a very specific place – before dropping an anvil on our heads. Whether you go in for that sort of thing or not, it’s undeniably part of the dialectic pushing the conversation forward.

4) Contemporary themes - The best example I can think of here is The Hunger Games, with its unflattering and essentially antagonistic portrayal of the media as manipulator of the public, manipulated by the ruling class, and thus a powerful tool of oppression. It’s not strictly new, but it’s contemporary in the sense that it’s so very characteristic of our time, a fear that resonates with a broad audience in ways that it wouldn’t have even a couple of decades ago. Another example, just off the top of my head: The Traitor Baru Cormorant, a book about an accountant trying to overthrow an empire from within. Epic, certainly. Traditional, not so much.

More and more, epic fantasy is broadening its horizons in new and exciting ways. It’s evolving. For it to evolve further, we certainly need more diversity – and here I’m using the word in its broader sense, to encompass characters, worlds, themes, etc. But diversity is already out there, and that’s something to celebrate. It’s also tremendously reassuring, because it proves just how versatile the genre can be, how much exploring is left to do.

Sure, some dinosaurs still roam the earth. But plenty of others have sprouted wings, and they’re taking us along for the ride.


Official Author Website
Order The Bloodbound HERE
Order The Bloodforged HERE
Read "Five Things I've Learned About War" by Erin Lindsey (Guest Post)

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Erin Lindsey is on an epic quest to write the perfect vacation novel for fantasy lovers. THE BLOODFORGED, Book 2 of the Bloodbound trilogy, releases on September 29. She also writes fantasy mystery as E.L. Tettensor. You can find her on her website, or on Twitter @etettensor.

NOTE: Game Of Thrones cast picture courtesy of M. Blake and Reuters. A Song Of Ice And Fire cover montage by Matt Roeser.
Monday, September 28, 2015

GUEST POST: Genesis of The Spider in the Laurel by Michael Pogach

I didn’t come up with the title of this article. My publisher’s Publicity Coordinator emailed me and wrote: “Fantasy Book Critic would love a post about the Genesis of The Spider in the Laurel.” Here’s the thing. She had no idea just how perfect a title that is for a piece on the origins of this novel.

In the beginning, I was a short story writer. Not genre. Literary fiction. Cerebral stuff mostly. Almost all of the action in the protagonist’s head as he or she deals with whatever conflict is there, be it relationships, war, life, death, whatever. So when I decided to try my hand at a novel (a decision which I’ve tried to recall numerous times without any success; I truly have no idea what made me finally say, “That’s it. I‘m writing a novel”) I wanted to get physical. It was going to be an Indiana Jones styled adventure.

The first draft went untitled for about half a year. As it neared completion the need for a title grew, so one night my writers group and I kicked around ideas over pizza and drinks. The winning title was: Genesis Lied. The premise of the novel, at that time, was wrapped up in a linguistic quirk of the Book of Genesis which says, “Let Us make humankind in Our image.” I seized upon the plural “Us” and “Our” to posit that there had once been two Gods. But one had overthrown the other and presented Himself as the only God in Heaven.

Yeah, I know. I’m going to piss off some people with this.

Anyway, I got to liking the title Genesis Lied. And I focused my first revisions on strengthening that thematic focus. In time, I even began querying the book as Genesis Lied. It didn’t sell. But I did get a handful of generous and blunt personalized responses. The idea of the book was well received. The pacing of the action was good, they said. But the main characters didn’t carry the novel.

Back to the drawing board. And the pizza and alcohol. I spent another year revising. The word count went from 80,000 to 103,000. The scope of the novel’s reinterpretation of religion was scaled back. The main characters were redefined. Their relationship became central to the book. The storyline came alive. Only after this did I go back at the religious background. I broke out of Genesis. I sought out older mythologies which influenced the Bible. I invented and reinvented new evolutions of belief. I developed an entirely new view of ancient man’s relationship with the gods. Finally, I changed history.

In tomorrow’s America, belief is the new enemy. That’s the catch-phrase for the book. But I needed a reason for my future America to be secular. A reason for it to have outlawed all faiths and expressions thereof. I looked for times in US history that the nation had been united in a goal. The two best examples were after Pearl Harbor and after September 11, 2001. I chose the latter.

The timeline I built from that day forward involved an America with a singular purpose in the early 2000’s. Eliminate all fundamentalists. And if that meant eliminating all religion, so be it. There was, of course, a war. The secularists won. And out of the darkness of terrorism and extremism, was born the beacon of the Citizens Republic of America.

Raise your hand if you know what happens in fiction when a new government takes over on the promise to build a perfect, harmonious future. That’s right: dystopia!

The book’s new focus in hand, I needed a new title. The Spider in the Laurel is actually a line from a Herman Melville poem titled “The Ravaged Villa.” I’d found the poem while building the story’s new mythos. Part of the thread the heroes follow is an obscure fairytale I invented which features a devilish little golden spider hiding in a laurel crown and whispering into the princess’s ear that it can grant her greatest wish. We all know how that’s going to go, don’t we?

Well, the fairy tale had already taken its name from the poem. And when I made a list of potential new titles for the novel, the fairytale’s title was the most striking of the bunch. Genesis Lied became The Spider in the Laurel.

I started out trying to write an Indiana Jones adventure. And somewhere along the way, I developed a whole new world that was part V for Vendetta and part American Gods. And at the heart of it is a historian who is being forced to destroy the relics of history, and a believer who has trouble believing in anything but herself and her guns. Whatever the title, I hope you’ll read a few pages. Then maybe some more. And, with a little luck, find yourself drawn in.


Official Author Website
Order The Spider In The Laurel HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Michael Pogach began writing stories in grade school. He doesn’t remember these early masterpieces, but his parents tell him everyone in them died. He’s gained some humanity since then, even occasionally allowing characters to escape his stories alive. Michael lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and daughter. The Spider in the Laurel is his first novel.

Friday, September 25, 2015

"Rules of Ascension: Winds of the Forelands Book 1" by David B. Coe (Reviewed by Cindy Hannikman)

Visit David B. Coe's Official Site Here

OVERVIEW: For 900 years, since the Qirsi War, the Forelands have enjoyed relative peace. The Qirsi leaders, Weavers whose powerful magic could bend to their will not only the elements but also the thoughts of others, were all killed. The rest of the pale-skinned Qirsi were scattered throughout the realm. They were no longer a threat without their multi-talented leaders.

But though most Qirsi live normal lives, and some even serve lords as advisors, all is not well in the realm. There is a Weaver in the Forelands again, secretly sowing seeds of rebellion against the physically hardier but unmagical Eandi.

Lord Tavis of Curgh, raised to succeed his father as duke, and engaged to the beautiful Lady Brienne of Kentigern, seems bound for greatness. But just as his life seems complete, he is accused of a horrific act. Little can Tavis know that the Weaver is using him as a pawn in a vast plot.

Now, only a Qirsi gleaner can help Tavis survive his doom, reclaim his good name, and prevent a devastating civil war in the Forelands.

FORMAT: Rules of Ascension is the first book in the Winds of the Forelands quartet. It is a high fantasy novel that contains elements of political intrigue, magic, a murder mystery, conspiracies, a little romance, and some battles.

Rules of Ascension was first published in 2002 by Tor Books. It stands at 672 pages.

ANALYSIS: Sometimes we get so caught up in reading and reviewing newly released books that some oldie but goodies get overlooked. These classic fantasy novels tend to be pushed to the back burner because everyone thinks that they should have already read them and know about them.

Every year I try to make an effort to read some of the "older" fantasy and sci-fi novels. I have been reluctant to review them based off of their publication dates, but I want to share my love and enthusiasm for some of these novels. As long as the book is available in some format for purchase, I will highlight it.

I am featuring David B. Coe's Rules of Ascension novel as the first novel in this featurette. Rules of Ascension is the first novel in the epic fantasy series Winds of the Forelands. This first novel starts the series off with a bang. There is pretty much everything in here that you could imagine – political intrigue, who-done-it murder mystery, conspiracies, warring kingdoms, evil villains, magic, and detailed, relatable characters. There is even a small smidgen of battles and fight scenes thrown in, but not too much.

Rules of Ascension, for me, started off slowly. It wasn't a painfully slow pace, but Coe definitely takes his time developing not only the world in which we are a part of, but the characters that are involved with the story. I never got to a point where I wanted to give up on the novel, but if you are looking for a series that immediately starts off running; this is probably not the novel for you.

It wasn't until maybe the 25% mark that things really started picking up. Once I was comfortable with the world, understood a bit about the magic, and there was a solid plot established, the novel just seemed to fly right on by. I was easily able to read 100 to 120 pages in one sitting and when I had to stop, I just wanted to jump back into the novel and see what was happening.

There are two major things that made Rules of Ascension stand out to me. First, was the complex nature of the characters. Every character was extremely detailed. They have their own quirks, their own powers, and their own agenda regarding certain things. Of course, the bad guys appear evil, but there are layers to them and they aren't just doing things because they are bad.

The detailed nature of the characters really helped to draw readers into the story. No one was back or white, good or bad. There were shades of gray. I enjoyed this aspect because it made it more lifelike. I was able to feel like I knew these characters their entire life and wasn't just being thrown an abridged version of who they are and how they react to certain things.

Another aspect that I enjoyed was the amount of detail Coe goes into regarding the history of the land and even the people who live in that land. Things weren't just dumped on readers with a 'here accept it' mentality. We were guided through important aspects of history and explained how and why things were happened.

That being said, the history parts didn't seem like they were info dumps. Yes, there is a lot to learn about everything, but it wasn't presented in long, drawn out ways that would bore you. It was more of a fun, learn while action is going on type format. In my experience, that made it a win-win.

Even though I absolutely adored Rules of Ascension, there were a few things that could make it a confusing read for some readers. The major problem would be with the amount of characters involved. There are dozens of different characters throughout the novel that we – the readers – encounter. This could easily become overwhelming for some individuals because you aren't just following Character A or Character B, but you are following a ton of other people who all play major and minor roles in the plot.

It becomes easier to follow who characters are and what they are doing as the novel goes on, and you become more familiar with the characters. But it could be a bit disorienting at first. If you can hold on, you are in for a definite treat. And it does get easier. Ideally, an index or something would be helpful to help readers, but I understand why that is not possible.

Overall, I loved Rules of Ascension, even more than I really thought I would. Once I hit a groove with the novel, it was smooth sailing and I hated having to put the book down for any reason. I really feel this is an overlooked series – at least from the first book. If the other books are anywhere near as good as this one, it will quickly become one of my top favorite series in fantasy.  
Wednesday, September 23, 2015

GUESTPOST: "Men With Breasts Or Women With Agency?" by T. O. Munro

There is a 1997 film called “As Good as it Gets” where Jack Nicholson plays a celebrated but misanthropic author with severe obsessive compulsive disorder. Nicholson has a talent for playing the obnoxious and the arrogant with total conviction, but there is one particular exchange which stuck in my mind. A female fan is gushing enthusiasm at Nicholson’s irritable character and asks

How do you write women so well?”

To which he replies “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.”

While no-one I know of could seriously adopt such a stance, the quote highlights questions which have scratched at my conscience for the last few years now.

How does a man write women well?” and “What does it mean to be a well written female character in the context of epic fantasy?”

It is perhaps a little late for me still to be considering these questions. I am a man and I finished my epic fantasy trilogy last October. The bloodline books feature a number of leading female characters whose point of view I have portrayed in the throes of both joy and despair, facing triumph and disaster (though this being a dark and epic fantasy the balance is not exactly 50:50). Half a million words in, I should probably be more confident of having answered my own questions, but then, like my leading lady Niarmit I am forever tortured by duty and self-doubt.

As a father of four daughters and with a sister who has soared to quite exalted success in the world of international banking, it is natural for me to want to give women their rightful place at the table of power and influence in my books. While only one of my daughters has enough of a liking for epic fantasy to have read my books, that hasn’t stifled discussion with the others about the representation of women in film and books.

It was my eldest daughter who first objected to my use of a relatively popular phrase “strong female characters” To use that adjective, when one would not so naturally use it for a male, implies a default representation of women as weak characters. To be complicit in a convention that they are usually mere straws blown by the wind of other (male) personalities. So, Niarmit, Dema, Hepdida and Quintala are my leading female characters, (Giseanne, Elise, Marvenna and Persapha also have their parts to play in key point of view scenes).

It was the same daughter who told me of the Bechdel test on the equality of representation of women in films and indeed in books. It’s a simple three part question. Does the work feature:

• At least two named women,

• who talk to each other,

• about something other than a man?

It is a test which many of my second daughter’s favourite Avengers movies rather comprehensively fail, even though research has shown that films which pass the Bechdel test are higher grossing, lower costing than those that fail it. My own books do pass the test, though they do so incidentally rather than by design; writing must always be driven by the stories and the characters rather than by any notion of meeting a politically correct formula.

At the same time, the stories any author wants to write will be shaped by their own beliefs and experiences. I loved Lord of the Rings – still do – but found it left me wanting more in three key ways,

• A great weapon whose power was not vaguely awesome but was revealed to the reader in precise detail

• A big bad guy who was not merely a malevolent influence at the periphery of vision but had a real presence, personality and distinctive voice

• More female characters in the front line of the story – Eowyns and Galadriels aplenty seizing the centre stage.

But beneath that commitment to roles for women lurks the undeniable fact that I am not a woman (Though one internet personality quiz did give me a rather high score for femininity). There is a sense of presumption in setting out to accurately portray a female point of view and a constant fear that I may have done it wrong.

There are, for me at least, two dimensions to this dilemma.

The first of which is what role do the female characters fulfil – the question “Are they men with breasts or women with agency?” That is to say does one write a host of Eowyns riding into battle out-men-ing the men at their own game and crying out “Begone foul dwimmerlaik” as they scythe down the great captains of evil. Or is it better to populate your pages with the likes of the historical Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of two kings, mother of three and an absolute political and historical heavyweight despite never having “come between a nazgul and his prey”?

There is a validity to both approaches. In contemporary life we are used to the notion of career ladders segregated by glass ceilings for women, so why should a women not be the kick ass sword wielding demon. I recently saw and shared a facebook post on the six intrepid female archaeologists who went caving down a seven inch rock tube lined with shark tooth edges in order to recover remains of a previously unknown hominid species from a place so dangerously inaccessible no man could reach it. There is a need to challenge every stereotype of what is the preserve of men and of what women can do. But at the same time there is a risk in portraying women’s only access to success as being by out-manning the men.

Equality of representation operates across a continuum not at a point. The sword wielding demons are at one end of that spectrum – and right out on point is Nysta – the heroine of Lucas Thorn’s Revenge of the Elf. They are those who succeed inspite of being a woman. At the other end there are those who succeed because of being a woman – those who out-woman the men. And in between there are blends of both approaches.

It is a spectrum that runs:

•   from George R. R. Martin’s Arya to Sansa in A Song of Fire and Ice,

•   from Joe Abercrombie’s Thorn Bakhu to the young Queen Skara in the Shattered Sea Trilogy,

•   from Mark Lawrence’s eagerly anticipated Red Sister to Katherine ap Scorron.

•  from Mazarkis WilliamsGrada the knifesworn assassin to Mesema partner to two emperors.

In my own work, while Niarmit, Dema and Quintala all kick butt to varying degrees, Hepdida, Giseanne, Rohdra and Elise exert influence of a more subtle kind.

It is the existence of that continuum which may lead some to say there is no issue with writing women. We just write people some of whom happen to be of the female persuasion, but who can nonetheless be all things to all men and women. This is a line Mark Lawrence takes in his blogspot on the completion of his “Red Sister” and in particular a question he asked of his beta readers.

I asked, if I changed every she to a he, every convent to monastery, every abbess to abbot ... would it now ring false? Would my boy characters now seem 'girly'?"

"There was some talk about girls and women being 'more about relationships' and 'interpreting more levels in a conversation' but at the end of the answer was 'no' - if I swapped everything around my convincing girls would be convincing boys.”

This brings me to the second dimension in my dilemma of being a man writing women. How far can or should the character’s gender show in their actions and their words? If one swopped the pronouns and masculinised the names as Mark Lawrence hypothesised would the story still read as well. If a character’s every “she” became a “he” if Hepdida became Hepdidus would their words and actions still work?

On the one hand, one might argue that it should still work – that women are people after all, that we are writing characters not genders, that each gender is equally capable of the full range of human emotion and motivation. But on the other hand you could argue that, if swapping pronouns and names makes no difference, then how can we claim to have written a woman well, rather than say writing a person well. How can we claim to have written a woman at all?

Let us be honest, men and women are different. Sure it is a fractional genetic deficiency that makes a man rather than a women. (That old Y-chromsome is just an X-chromosome with one leg missing – which is why, in my science teaching days I could honestly tell classes that girls were genetically more complex than boys.) But that difference shapes more than just shape.

My second daughter will ring us when she’s walking home from university, she doesn’t like to appear alone or out of contact when walking the streets. There is a vulnerability to being a woman which men can easily forget. The closest I can get to it is imagining my days as a small school boy walking home past the local comprehensive, trying hard not to cause offence or draw attention with a misplaced look. I only got hit a couple of times but that sense of everyday vulnerability lingers on into adulthood for many maybe even all women.

As a teacher I noticed a yawning gulf in confidence (arrogance even) between the girls and boys in my science class. I crudely summarised it at one parents’ evening as “A boy can understand 10% of something and think he knows everything, a girl can understand 90% of something and think she knows nothing.” It is a difference in attitude that I saw perpetuated into senior management as a deputy head in a girls’ school which shared a sixth form and a close working relationship with the co-located boys’ school. While there was rarely more than a cigarette paper’s width difference in the outcomes the two schools achieved with the brothers and sisters from the same families, there was a robust confidence in the leadership of the boys school a focus on what had been achieved, while at the girls’ school we were more keenly aware of what had yet to be accomplished.

For all the significant overlap between the genders there is a difference and while the French may celebrate it with the phrase “Vive la difference” there is still the question of how does one faithfully show it or “Montrez la difference.” Mark Lawrence was asked if he would ever refer to menstruation given the female lead in his new work and his view was that he would no more do that he would write about other bodily functions which, while they undoubtedly existed and were attended to, had no part in moving the story forward. That said, I do recall one reference to Jalan dangling his backside off the side of a boat and rueing the fact this was not the best attitude in which to woo the attractive young woman sitting in the sternsheets.

Joe Abercrombie, in contrast, was lambasted by one reader for explicitly mentioning menstruation in “Half the World” when Thorn in a midnight search for the necessities to attend to her feminine hygiene needs stumbles across a conspiracy in process.

However the depiction of women by men has to go deeper than acknowledging the biological differences of form and function. It has to go further than striving to prove women are “as good as” men because they can do all the jobs and roles that men traditionally held in fantasy fiction. It has to show them not just as credible people but credible women too. In the planning of my books Niarmit was always female, as was Hepdida and – for reasons that will be obvious to a reader – so too was Dema. In an earlier iteration of the story Quintala the half-elf was Quintor and in her character at least there is perhaps still a degree of the “his/her” androgyneity that Mark Lawrence referred to. I hope the others are convincingly and unmistakeably unswitchably female, but I am a man and I don’t know. In the context of this article it is a little ironic perhaps that the catastrophic accident which befell Dema was in answer to the question, “What would a determined woman do to succeed in man’s world?”

You could ask at this point (or indeed at any point) do female writers either agonise or get challenged to the same degree in their portrayal of their male characters? I am a male reader of female authors who write about men, but the flipside of the question I torture myself with has never even occurred to me.

Can a woman write a convincing male character? Mazarkis Williams, Theresa Frohock, Elizabeth Bear, Mercedes M Yardley, Claire North (and, if she would only get on and finish and publish it – Agnes Mezsaros) all create credible male characters who never trigger so much as a moment’s doubt in me as to their authenticity. Some might say that I am inappropriately highlighting a non-problem, that I am whipping up a non-existant issue (and furthermore that for the sake of emphasis I am tautologically saying the same thing twice!). Why do I ask of myself and my fellow male authors a question I would not ask of women?

Well, we live in a world of inequality. Education is a constant battle to address inequality, remove disadvantage, and even up access. I see a dominance of male authors, of male power, of male perspectives in many aspects of life and the world. Where there is such imbalance there is an obligation on those who have or personify that advantage, to scrutinize their own actions so as to ensure they offer no contribution or endorsement of that disadvantage. I will and do defend every author’s right to write the story they want to tell. I am not saying social forces and political agendas should shape a story, but they should shape an author and in so doing shape how and what those authors want to write.

So, I came here with questions and I still have them. If you have read my books – and according to my kindle self-publishing reports there are a few thousand of you out there who have – I would love to know what you thought. In the meantime I should return to my work in progress and a kitchen in Salicia where two women armed only with a baby are arguing their way out of arrest by the local secret police.


Official Author Website
Order Lady Of The Helm HERE
Order Wrath Of The Medusa HERE
Order Master Of The Planes HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: T.O.Munro works in education and relocated from Kent to Belfast in 2014. He started writing naval novels in the Hornblower tradition when he was 13 and has graduated through murder mysteries to writing epic fantasy. Having completed his bloodline trilogy he is now working on a two volume extended epilogue in a more sword and sorcery vein. He once helped catch two bank robbers in a London street but hasn’t yet worked out how to work that experience into a fantasy novel.


Click here to find out more about “Book Scavenger”
Review HERE