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Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Interview with M.L. Wang (Interview by David Stewart)



Official Author Website
Read FBC's Review of The Sword of Kaigen

M. L. Wang was born in Wisconsin in 1992, decided she wanted to be an author at the age of nine, and never grew up. She currently splits her time between writing fantasy books and working at a martial arts school in her home city of Madison.

When she isn’t building worlds on the page, she builds them in her aquarium full of small, smart fish that love to explore castles and don’t make noise during writing time.

[Q] Hello M.L.! Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic and thank you so much for taking some time to chat with us. Your book is making quite a splash in this year's SPFBO, and you certainly have made some fans within this blog. Could you tell us a bit about yourself? What do you do when you aren't writing fantasy books?

[ML] Thank you so much for having me! The Sword of Kaigen is the first adult fantasy book I’ve ever written, so it’s been kind of a shock how people have taken to it. A good kind of shock. Happy shockwaves.

In high school, when people asked about my hobbies, I would always say writing and martial arts. In the intervening years, both of those turned into jobs, so now I just sound like a loser with no hobbies. Maybe that’s not completely true. Other than writing stuff and kicking stuff, I enjoy walking along bodies of water, getting too into TV shows, and doing amateur art projects that are too bad to be shared online.

[Q] Why do you write fantasy books? Or if that phrasing is too pointed, why do you write? Do you have any formal training?

[ML] Writing has always been my way of processing the world. That might sound like a recipe for contemporary or non-fiction, but I only ever write speculative fiction (of my own will, anyway; obviously, in my youth, there was the odd school assignment). For me, a lot of the fun of fictionalizing the human experience is in the grandiosity, which in my published books takes the form of emotionally charged superpowers. You don’t have to take a microscope to an emotion if you can blow it up to the size of a dragon.

I have little formal training mainly because every creative writing class that’s ever been available to me has centered on writing short stories, a medium I despise. Not short stories by other people, I love those. They’re perfect for my slippery attention span. But as a writer, I prefer working on the kind of expansive worlds, serial adventures, and slow-burn character arcs that don’t fit in a few thousand words.

[Q] What made you decide to enter the SPFBO? Had you entered previously? To add to that, why have you taken the self-publishing route over traditional?

[ML] This is my first SPFBO entry. Petrik Leo, who was one of the first people to review The Sword of Kaigen over at Novel Notions, recommended that I enter. Prior to that, I had only heard about the competition through Kitty G’s SPFBO 4 videos and hadn’t thought of entering myself. Petrik and JC Kang both (separately) made sure that I marked the competition on my calendar and knew when to enter, so big thanks to them!

[Q] The Sword of Kaigen is such a melting pot of cultures, what would you say your primary cultural fonts are? Does your own background integrate into these inspirations?

[ML] Ninety percent of my world-building research has been devoted to the Mande of West Africa. This is because the Mande are the primary inspiration for the dominant people on Planet Duna, called the Yammankalu (those dark-skinned fire elementals who show up very briefly in The Sword of Kaigen). Theonite explores that larger African-dominated world, while The Sword of Kaigen focuses on a little corner of it that is loosely based on Japan. Even in backwater Kaigen, you’ll find the West African influence in their occupational caste system, facets of their religion, and some of their terms of address.

As the name Wang might suggest, I am neither West African nor Japanese. My mom is American and my dad is from Jiangsu, China. For those unfamiliar with Eastern World War II history, Jiangsu is the province where the Nanjing Massacre happened. Growing up, I had a weird relationship with Japan—basically trying to reconcile my fondness for modern Japanese culture and people with the genocide that affected the previous generation of my family and left a scar on the collective Chinese psyche.

Earlier in the year, I wrote this long meditation on how my experience of being a biracial kid trying to communicate across cultural lines drove me to create an ‘upside down’ version of our world. I won’t dump all that baggage here, but the underlying premise of Planet Duna is that it takes the racial hierarchies of our own history and flips them, giving the reader a chance to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. In Theonite, ‘Europeans’ (Hadeans) have been colonized by ‘West Africans’ (Yammankalu). In The Sword of Kaigen, the ‘Chinese’ (Ranganese) do some genocide in a ‘Japan’ (Shirojima, Kaigen) ruled by an Imperial ‘Korea’ (Jungsan, Kaigen). You get the idea. Like I said above, fiction is the way I process reality. This was all a coping mechanism of my teenage brain.

[Q] Your decision to set The Sword of Kaigen in a modern setting is an interesting one. Had you considered setting it in a historical setting, or was modern-with-ancient techniques always the goal?

[ML] I never thought of the modern setting as an interesting decision—though maybe that’s because it wasn’t really a decision at all. The central conflict of The Sword of Kaigen was cemented into the larger Theonite timeline long before I ever thought to write a spin-off novel about it, so it wasn’t like changing the era was on the table. I suppose, if I had really wanted to tell a traditional fantasy story, I could have gone back to Shirojima, Kaigen’s age of founding heroes, but that would have robbed Planet Duna of its underlying function, which is to explore contemporary realities.

All Theonite stories are really about modern people in the modern world. And to me, one of the most interesting things about the modern world is the interplay between traditional lifestyles and new technology. Some of the Japanese officers who shot at my relatives during World War II carried katanas. I’ve been to mountain villages in central Africa where men headed out to hunt with spears in their hands and iPhones in their back pockets. The mutual exclusivity some people imagine between swords and cell phone towers is a product of genre, not reality. And that bums me out. Genre fiction is supposed to expand the imagination, not narrow it. This answer got away from me a bit. Sorry.

[Q] Tangents are always appreciated, and I happen to agree with you. There’s a lot of what you could term narrow fantasy out there that’s basically comfort food – sometimes necessary but not always useful.

[ML] Most of my favorite sci-fi and fantasy mixes genres in weird ways—and I include the pioneers like Tolkien and Shelley in that; they were so weird people had to invent genres around them.

Misaki by Coralie Jubénot (Merwild)
[Q] We don't often get to see middle-aged mothers as our hero protagonists in fantasy fiction, much to the harm of the genre. Was there ever any fear that this would not land with readers? Spoilers - it lands.

[ML] I actually just published a guest post on how Misaki was never intended to be a protagonist and the series of accidents that led to her becoming one. To sum up that post here, Misaki originally features as a mentor figure in the Theonite books and was constructed accordingly. When I started writing The Sword of Kaigen, I thought a) that the whole story would be about half its current length and b) that Misaki would be a secondary point-of-view character to her more active, protagonist-y son, Mamoru. She wasn’t initially designed to be a main character, hence her protagonist-atypical characteristics, like her age and marital status.

It was as I ran into the unexpected complexities of her rage, grief and regret that she became a main character—at which point I wasn’t thinking ‘can readers handle this?’ as much as I was thinking ‘can I handle this?’ Misaki’s arc was one of the most challenging I’ve ever written, which makes it so meaningful to me that readers have managed to connect with her.

[Q] Your prior books are labeled as young adult, but The Sword of Kaigen is not. These are connected books, but how do they relate to one another in a series sense? Do you consider them vital to one another? Do they share any characters?

[ML] The Theonite books take place thirteen years after The Sword of Kaigen and follow a set of younger kids, including some of the tiny babies from The Sword of Kaigen (most prominently Robin’s son, Daniel, and Misaki’s youngest, Izumo) through their teenage years.

I wrote Theonite and The Sword of Kaigen to function as complete stories, independent of one other. Aside from my personal preference that a given story stand on its own, this approach was my only option from a marketing standpoint. A lot of parents don’t want their ten-year-olds who enjoy Theonite reading The Sword of Kaigen and a lot of readers who enjoy The Sword of Kaigen aren’t into YA, so I really did need the option to sell them separately.

[Q] Without spoiling things, The Sword of Kaigen seems ripe for a sequel, while at the same time telling such a complete story that it could easily stand on its own. Is that your plan? Is this a trilogy or series? How far have you planned?

[ML]The Sword of Kaigen will never have a direct sequel for a few reasons. First, I was very depressed when I wrote it and I’m glad the experience is behind me. Second, the book represents a tiny cross-section of a planet-wide story I’ve been plotting since I was a teenager, meaning that major events are set on an inflexible timeline. Holding to that timeline, there aren’t any novel-worthy developments on Mount Takayubi between The Sword of Kaigen and Theonite. This isn’t to say that the Matsuda family’s story is over—far from it—but their ongoing adventures will be tied up in the plot of the main series.

I have just started work on a newsletter serial called Rage and Whisper, which takes place nine years after The Sword of Kaigen. It isn’t a sequel per se but does feature some of the same characters. The Sword of Kaigen itself started out as a newsletter serial, so if people enjoy this project, I may end up publishing it as a book or novella down the road.

[Q] Follow up question that is somewhat repetitive, but will your further books also stick to YA, or do your characters, in essence, “grow up” in to adult fiction?

[ML] Theonite was originally modeled after Harry Potter, a series in which the tone and content age substantially with the protagonists, so yes, that is the plan.

[Q] Your book manages to create in-depth, authentic characters, an engrossing plot full of unknowns, and some of the best action scenes that I've ever read in any book. How do you balance this? Do you have literary priorities? 

[ML] First of all, it’s deeply flattering to hear that you liked the action scenes so much, since action certainly hasn’t always been my strong suit.

I’m a character-oriented writer before anything else. In my opinion, an otherwise beautiful story without strong character development is like a sexy car without an engine; cool, but what’s the point? This is why Shakespeare inventing ridiculous plot contrivances in order to push his characters to their emotional limits will always be stronger storytelling to me than a logical sequence of events that doesn’t challenge its characters.

When I write, everything—the plot, the magic, the religion, the martial arts—are negotiable based on the arcs of the main characters. I know that the action scenes in The Sword of Kaigen were satisfying to write because they served as expressions of the characters’ emotions, relationships, and personal growth. I think (at least, I hope) they’re satisfying to read for the same reason.

The Duel by Arielle Werthaim (arielle_the_merms)

[Q] Not a question, but that specific spouse duel later in the novel illustrates that point perfectly. I’m not sure I’ve ever read an action scene that was so necessarily narrative.

Speaking of fight scenes, what influences are you drawing from to plan them out? They have the feel of professionally choreographed sequences. Are there any particular martial arts movies you're drawn to, or does it all stem from your own experience (you know, fighting with ice swords)?

[ML] The influence of Avatar: The Last Airbender on my universe should be obvious, alongside kung-fu movies and lots of anime. Going into the project, I did take some sword courses in order to get a better feel for armed combat (my forte is traditional taekwondo, which is closer to the bad guys’ fighting style than the main characters’). Sadly, there were no swords made of ice.

[Q] And speaking of influences, do you have any fantasy or literary influences that particularly stand out? And tangentially to that, how would you say the experience of being an Asian-American fantasy author is in a world where Asian culture is only lately being properly represented in fantasy? 

[ML] Okay. Here’s the part where I have to admit that I don’t read much fantasy, or indeed much at all. I know that everyone and their mom insists that you need to read in your genre constantly in order to be a good writer, but that had better not be true because reading has never been part of my writing process. I very occasionally listen to fantasy audiobooks (my hands-down favorite in recent memory was Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings) but when I read with my eyeballs, it’s almost always history books.

The world is full of fantasy based on other fantasy, meanwhile, there are whole real-world cultures that go unexplored in modern SFF. I have a tragically limited attention span for reading—just ask any of my grade school teachers, I was the worst—so when I am able to read, I prefer to put that energy into the neglected histories of our own world. If these count as literature, I would cite the Kojiki, the Nihon Shoki, and The Tale of the Heike as influences for The Sword of Kaigen.

As for being an Asian-American author… all I can say is that I got lucky with my timing. I wish I could claim that I’m a sales genius who planned to release an Asian-inspired fantasy at exactly the time that books like The Poppy War were taking off in the traditional market, but I’m rarely that tuned in to the trends. JC Kang and Petrik were the ones who initially compared The Sword of Kaigen to The Poppy War and pointed me in the direction of that market, which I think played a role in getting the book off the ground.

In the long run, I hope I’m not known as Asian author of Asian fantasy, since that isn’t my focus and I don’t plan on releasing any more Asian-centric stories. Asian cultures, martial arts, and characters will always be an important part of my work; you’re just unlikely to see anything as bluntly, homogenously Asian as The Sword of Kaigen from me again. Samurai have been done. They’re done all the time by writers more capable and better informed on the subject than myself. I’m going to try to devote the rest of my writing career to things you haven’t seen before.

[Q] What would you do if you won the SPFBO? 

I’m not sure. Run in circles like a toddler? Probably tell my parents, who will say “That’s great, honey,” and then move on with their lives. It’s not something I’ve planned for, though it would amazing. Another happy shockwave.



Monday, December 9, 2019

Heroes Wanted: A Fantasy Anthology Editor (Laura M. Hughes) & Authors Interview (by Mihir Wanchoo)


Download HEROES WANTED for FREE over HERE (USA) & over HERE (UK)

Just this past Thursday (12/6), The Fantasy Hive revealed the cover and line up of the newest anthology from the Terrible Ten author group. Today we are thrilled to have Laura M. Hughes, editor extraordinaire, Fantasy Hive’s brain-in-chief and all-round fab lady over to chat about the newest anthology as well as we get to hear from some of the authors themselves. 

So without further ado, checkout the smashing cover & be sure to download the newest anthology as it’s FREE on all platforms.

Q] Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic Laura, how are you and what has been keeping you busy?

LH: Thanks so much for having me here! ‘Busy’ is definitely the right word to describe the last twelve months or so. In addition to leading the SPFBO team on The Fantasy Hive (and the day-to-day running of the site itself), I also released my debut LitRPG novel (God Of Gnomes) under the pen name Demi Harper. And I’ve been lucky enough to edit some spectacular fantasy novels from some very talented authors over the last year - including a few of my anthology buddies!

Q] I’m a big fan of heroic fantasy since I first discovered David Gemmell. So when you told me about the “Heroes Wanted” anthology, I was very, very excited. What led to the inception of this specific project?

LH: A big part of fantasy’s appeal has always been that it offers escapism. While the grimdark genre has seen a huge rise in popularity over the last decade (deservedly so), I think many people are now once again seeking out more hopeful fantasy settings and traditional heroes - or, in many cases, non-traditional heroes who nonetheless exemplify the classic Gemmell-esque moral fortitude and a general desire to do the right thing. More succinctly, to quote David Benem’s response from later in this interview: “The tale of the “good guys” winning out over evil in the end is no doubt a trope, but one I think the vast majority of readers will always like to hear. The real world has too much of the opposite taking place.”

Many of my fellow anthology authors share this affinity for fantasy that’s less (not more) bleak than the real world, so when we first began throwing around ideas, the ‘Heroes Wanted’ theme was pretty much a no-brainer. (Fun fact: an early alternative title for the anthology was ‘I Need a Hero.’)


Q] This anthology is sort of a spiritual sequel to the Lost Lore anthology as it has many of the same authors in its line-up. Does this mean that there will be a third in the future?

LH: Quite possibly! There’s been talk of organising a Kickstarter to fund the next one, though I’d personally prefer us to keep putting them out for free (the ebooks, at least - as you might have noticed, Heroes Wanted is also available in paperback!). But we’ll see!

(Who am I kidding? There’ll almost certainly be a third anthology next year or the year after, though the theme is TBC. Suggestions welcome!)

Q] As a reader & reviewer yourself Laura, what are some of your favorite titles & heroes in the heroic fantasy sub-genre? (you can extend this to the whole of SFF if you prefer)

LH: Okay, so one of my favourite tropes in fiction is of the bad guys (or the ‘good’ guys!) seeing the error of their ways, even going so far as to team up with their former nemeses for the greater good. (Like Thor and Loki in every Marvel movie ever - or even the Malfoys abandoning Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It took them way too long to get to that point, and Lucius and Narcissa still remain terrible parents, but it counts for something that they made that decision while they still had the choice.)

That said, acts of heroism don’t necessarily make you a hero (*cough* Snape *cough*). By choosing to glorify characters who dramatically turn coat to save the day at the last minute - or even those who just happen to be strong enough to make a noticeable difference to the outcome in the short term - do we undermine those who’ve been toiling to do the right thing from the very beginning, no matter how ineffectually?

This is one of the reasons I love the characters in the Malazan Book of the Fallen. Trull Sengar, Onrack, Anomander Rake, Cotillion, Tavore, Kruppe, Bugg, and of course Tehol Beddict. The series is full of heroes of all shapes and sizes, many of whom quietly go about their business of making the world a better place without anyone knowing, and without any promise of a reward. However, many of these characters also happen to be skilled warriors or mages, and/or demigods, so in a way they can afford the ‘luxury’ of choosing to fight the good fight.

You mentioned Gemmell earlier, and his books are great (if outdated) examples of the opposite. In the classic Legend, Druss is ‘the hero’, yes, but so is every other soldier fighting to defend the walls of Dros Delnoch against impossible odds. Every effort counts, and not just the efforts of the warriors: the medics, staff, and civilians also play their part, as do the nobler among the nobility. Gemmell is great at showing (rather than telling) the reader what kind of people his characters are; he often provides little to no concrete information about their backgrounds, leaving it up to the reader to witness their actions and decide for themselves how they feel about each character.

This makes books like Legend and Waylander particularly interesting, since they feature characters whose reputation or situation would make them appear to be villains, yet whose actions in the moment define them otherwise, and vice versa. Gemmell’s characters feel like they exist independently of the reader, and we just happen to catch glimpses of them at certain points in their lives. We’re unaware of each character’s ‘normal’ behaviour: we simply see them as they are, and this makes our connection with them feel natural and unforced, our own choice rather than the author’s manipulation. This is the sort of thing we’re hoping to evoke within the anthology.

Q] I love the sleek cover art which focuses on some of the heroes within the story. Can you tell us more about who the artist/designer is? Did they come up with it on their own or did you give them an inkling about what you wished for?  
LH: Credit for the cover art goes entirely to the awesome Shane Cook, and I can’t praise him highly enough.

When we first started throwing ideas around for the Heroes Wanted cover, a few familiar names were mentioned, including Andreas Zafiratos (who did the art for Lost Lore’s cover) and Felix Ortiz. However, I felt a more ‘classic fantasy’ style would suit the theme better, and I also really wanted to commission a less well-known artist in order to shine a spotlight on hidden talent (which is, after all, one of the main purposes of anthologies like this one).

I first came across Shane’s work back when I was writing Malazan articles for Tor.com (we used some of his art to accompany my piece on Deadhouse Gates). When I approached him about the Heroes Wanted cover, he was just as excited about the concept as we were, and threw himself whole-heartedly into the art. After I sent him the Pinterest board I’d made, he sent back several sketches, which we then went back and forth on for a while before settling on the one we liked best. He was very open to all kinds of feedback, and always happy to explain why he’d made certain decisions during the design process. Even better, when the time came to flesh out the characters on the cover, Shane read the first drafts of the stories I sent him in order to better decide which heroes might be best suited to an intriguing cover. Honestly, the level of commitment and enthusiasm he showed made the whole process an absolute delight, and I would 100% work with him again.

It would be remiss of me to not mention the typography, which was done afterwards by the excellent Christian Bentulan. Like Shane, Christian was professional, enthusiastic, talented, friendly and communicative - the perfect combination, and exactly what any author or publishing company looks for in a service provider.

Can you tell I was really happy with my experience with both of them?

Q] The author lineup is very varied in terms of genre & writing styles. How did you approach them or was it a mutually agreed upon thing? Besides the Terrible Ten, how did the others get involved?

LH: Don’t tell anyone I told you this, but in actuality, the ‘Terrible Ten’ - a super-secret fantasy writers’ group/superhero team/cult - is more like the Terrible Thirty. Yes, that means all nineteen of our anthology authors belong to the Terrible Ten. No, it doesn’t make sense. What can I say? We make our own rules. :D

Q] In closing, do you have any parting thoughts or comments you’d like to share with our readers?

LH: BUY OUR BOOK! Please. It’s free!

Honestly, I’m really proud of this anthology, and of every author’s contribution. No matter what your preferred fantasy subgenre is, I can guarantee there’ll be a story - and a hero - in here for everyone.

But don’t just take my word for it…

QUESTIONS FOR ALL THE ANTHOLOGY AUTHORS:





Q] The tagline in the blurb says “What do you think a hero is? It’s just the right person in the right place making the right choice at the right time. Heroes aren’t born. They’re made.” Expounding on that meaty line, how did you interpret it vis-a-vis your story?

Laura Hughes: That quote is from Joe’s story, ‘Half-Breed’, and there’s a reason I picked it for the blurb. The idea that anyone - anyone - can take control of their life and become a hero (whatever their definition of the role may be) is one that I think has universal appeal. In fantasy especially, the age of destiny and the chosen one/secret heir to the kingdom is giving way to more stories about self-made (and circumstance-made) champions. Most importantly, I think it’s crucial for a genre with endless possibilities to allow for the exploration of characters who might not be regarded as ‘heroic’ in the traditional sense. A character’s worth in any situation should be determined by their actions and decisions - and this doesn’t always involve demonstrations of martial or magical prowess, or even a willingness to fling oneself heedlessly into danger. You don’t have to slay a dragon to be a hero. Most of the time it’s simply about making the right choices for the right reasons. The rest is a matter of perspective.

Matt Moss: In The Custodian, it’s fight or flight for Thomas. As a young man who finds himself inside of a castle that’s being ambushed by marauders, he has the option to run and hide, or stand up and fight. Despite his fear and the impossible odds that are stacked against him, he makes the choice to be a hero and rise to the occasion.

Michael J. Sullivan: Most of my fantasy stories revolve around unlikely heroes who are “made” by rising to the occasion to do the “right thing.” The Ashmoore Affair continues that tradition.

Ben Galley: In Ulroc’s Redemption, I explored how choices define a hero. It could be the choice to stand up for what’s right, to persevere, or it might be knowing when to run. It all boils down to making the difficult, extraordinary decisions when others can’t or won’t. The beauty of this definition means that anyone, if they so choose, can become a hero when the need arises. I also enjoy the idea that heroes can take any shape, and exist in many different contexts. Not all heroes take the shape of glorious, shining knights, for example. You can be a hero amongst thieves, for example. Even the opposing side in a war has their heroes.

Joe Jackson: The line comes about in Half-Breed because heroes rarely see themselves as such. In my writing, I generally try to shy away from Chosen One tropes and such. Everyone has the potential within them to be a hero on some level to someone. Doesn’t have to be the world or even a nation. You can be a hero to your neighbor, or a small animal. Nobody else even has to know; it doesn’t change the fact. All you have to do is make the right decision when that moment comes. And most of the heroes in my stories are “regular” people - many from broken homes/families - who just have that fiber to do the right thing when it matters most. As one of the characters in my main series says, “So it was with all the great heroes of the past. You stand up and you do what needs doing. That is really all that separates the heroes from the commoners. Try not to take the weight of the world upon your shoulders, but simply do what needs doing, follow where the gods lead you, and, if all else fails, set the example for the next generation to do the same.”

MD Presley: “Hero” is a rather nebulous term for me, which probably reflects my affection for anti-heroes. Wolverine always was the best X-Man after all. I’m a big fan of heroes in real life, those folks who do good for no other purpose than doing good. But, as Superman demonstrates, they’re kind of boring in a narrative sense. So in Is Dumb I wanted to play with the concept of hero and how it’s defined by perspective just as much as personal choice.

Daniel Potter: A dictionary definition of a Hero is someone who is admired for courage, high achievements or noble qualities. Yet, a person can have all these things and never be a hero. And they can have none of these things and still be hailed as a hero. To be a hero you have to be in a position to affect the outcome of the wider world and use that opportunity for what you believe to be the greater good. Of course that doesn’t mean that every heroic action has the intended heroic results.

Dyrk Ashton: There are many kinds of heroes, from the perfect knight to the neighborhood person who helps feed the poor and the everyday decent mom and dad. In many ways, just a small act of kindness can be heroic, and even more so depending on any number of circumstances.

JC Kang: I think heroism takes many forms, but the kind I focus on in this particular story is when an otherwise obedient soldier disobeys questionable orders.

Andy Peloquin: For me, it's all about how one person stands up at the right time to make a difference. Especially if they're not your typical "hero". They may not have the skill, training, experience, knowledge, or strength to do it, but as long as they are willing to do what needs doing, that makes them a hero in my books.

Jeramy Goble: In The Dwarven Dragon, I wanted to explore what I thought it might mean for a person to be their own hero; and not just in the traditional sense of saving yourself or others from danger, but exploring how someone faces adversity and loss. I found that by choosing to face down those personal challenges, one can often-times become a hero to others as a byproduct of taking care of yourself.

Jeffrey Hall: In Small Teachers, I wanted to try to explore the opposite of what the typical idea of a hero is; a big, burly warrior swooping into save the day, when in fact, I believe heroism is the act of showing up and not giving up despite a thousand reasons why one should. Often times heroes are made when they are taught by others what a hero actually looks like, and those teachers, just like heroes, can come in all shapes and sizes.

Mike Shel: I think I’m still trying to decide who the hero/heroes) is/are in Final Word. Much depends on your definition of the term, and what might happen after the story is over could change your conclusions.

K.S. Villoso: Fresh Off the Boat revolves around a young man who goes to a strange new land to reunite with a wife he hasn't seen in years. I took a familiar, everyday tale of Filipino diaspora: of voluntary separation from loved ones in the quest for a better life, and transported it into a fantasy world. The "hero" interpretation is two-sided: I see it in the men and women who dare to venture out into the unknown, braving discomfort and hardships for the sake of their families. I also see the potential to become a hero in just about anyone, even in simple people just trying to survive. Even if you have no power, you can still make a difference.

David Benem: My story, What Needs to Be Done, is a tale of a man who’s lost someone close to him, and who’s trying to do what he can to heal the pain of that loss by doing what he knows to be the right—and necessary—thing. He’s not some paragon of heroism, but rather a regular guy in a dark world doing what he thinks is his part toward the greater good. It’s a story of confronting fear and loss and darkness and trying to find redemption it doing what one knows ought to be done.

Q] Please tell us about your individual story & what inspired you to write about your specific hero?

Matt Moss: I know what it feels like to be stuck in life; to feel like there’s no way out. That you just have to play the hand that you were dealt in life. That’s not the way it is… not the way it has to be. We all have the choice to rise up. We all have the opportunity to be legendary.

Laura Hughes: I’ve always been drawn to underdogs. Not the ‘talented chosen one facing overwhelming odds’ kind of underdog, but rather the kind who are just normal people, stepping up out of necessity or because it’s the right thing to do (think Neville rather than Harry - or Frodo and Sam rather than Aragorn and Gandalf). In other words, people who choose to save the world, rather than those who are fated to do so. Similarly to Matt, I wanted to write a character who’s so downtrodden he has no idea where he belongs in the world (my protagonist, Ori, is an outcast ratman who’s been conscripted as a necromancer by the forces of darkness) so that I could present him with an opportunity to rise up - a choice to make the most of his existence, to follow his instincts, and to live.

Michael J. Sullivan: I didn’t create new heroes for this story. Instead, I wanted to give my existing fans some time to hang out with their old friends Royce and Hadrian. And for people who haven’t been introduced yet, I hope this little tale gives them a taste of my writing style in the hopes they want to spend some more time with the pair.

Ben Galley: Ulroc’s Redemption is about a fallen-from-grace half-orc boxer trying to live out his days in peace and quiet. Like Matt and Laura, I too am fond of the underdog rising to a challenge. Ulroc’s a past champion, so he’s not lacking in speed, power or wits, but he is lacking in means. When a high-born man offers him a chance at redemption through larcenous means, his motivations are self-serving, but they are also a rebellion against the downtrodden life he’s been forced to live. Ulroc refuses to settle for his lot, and accepts the challenge to rise up and save not just himself, but his newly found comrades, too. Otherwise, the story was inspired by the simple excuse to toy with a setting I’ve admired for some time: 1930’s, Prohibition-esque fantasy.

Joe Jackson: Half-Breed” is about exactly that, a half-demon teenager just trying to make his way in a city that doesn’t much care about him. But everything leads him to the first of many defining moments in his life, where he’s forced to choose between returning evil for evil or rising above. The story serves as an origin tale for the character, Eli, who becomes one of the more prominent protagonists in my Eve of Redemption series. This will give his fans a chance to see how he came to meet the people with whom he forged his path to destiny…

MD Presley: I haven’t had the time to play a video game in at least a decade, but boy-howdy did I log in some hours (and missed classes) on Diablo. And when I did, I always wondered about the dungeons’ monsters. I mean, here they are watching my hero hack and slash a bloody swath through them dozens at a time, yet they kept charging when the only sensible option would be to run. This is a core dynamic to the dungeon crawler, but it makes absolutely no sense for them as individuals (also, where these naked monsters hide all their loot has also kept me up at night). So in Is Dumb I reframed the story from the monsters’ perspective to provide them a bit more motivation. And now that I think more about it, is it bad that I identify with monsters so much?

Daniel Potter: Dranis is a protagonist for a book that has yet to be written. The Altar serves as his origin story. A story that is growing from the seed, what if you saved the devil’s life?

Dyrk Ashton: I knew I wanted to set the story in the history of the world of my The Paternus Trilogy, which if chock full of classic heroes and villains (gods and monsters, angels and demons, etc.), and became intrigued with the idea of who these characters might consider a hero, and maybe even be surprised by their own answer. It was a lot of fun to come up with someone both a true hero and a true villain would choose - and that being the same person. Who they choose is also someone who is very young and has no intention to be heroic, but leaves a lasting impression on these two ancient and powerful beings.

JC Kang: Tian belongs to a clan of imperial assassins. When he finds out his assigned target is a boy, he has second thoughts. He’s a character I’ve written about quite extensively, and I wanted to show a formative incident in his life, where his own sense of morality clashes with his loyalty to his clan.

Andy Peloquin: Enwan is the name of an acclaimed hero in my Heirs of Destiny series, and his actions in the Battle of Fortune's Pass changed the history of his city. Not because he personally won an important battle, but because he proved that even the lowest castes could produce true warriors and heroes. I wanted to dive into what kind of man he would be, what would make him stand up and throw himself into danger--what ultimately makes him the revered hero.

Jeramy Goble: Most of the ideas that I get excited to write about center around the nooks and crannies of fantasy or sci-fi, or types of characters not frequently featured. The Dwarven Dragon is no different. The main character of this stand-alone story, a young female dwarf, popped into my head fairly quickly when I considered how fun it might be to juxtapose her against a massive, metal dragon of her own making.

Jeffrey Hall: Liddle came to be as I thought about how the idea of heroism pervades culture and is often celebrated, but how often times the heroes we hear about are built to be larger than life people who seem impossible to live up to. I wanted to explore a character stuck with that cultural push of being a hero despite the ability to fit into that “heroic” form and have to find his own way to save the day… with a little help from a few, phlegm-spewing friends.

Mike Shel: Lumari was a character in my debut novel, Aching God whose history and motivations I wanted to explore further and set up some events in the third book of a trilogy I’m in the middle of.

K.S. Villoso: The idea for Fresh Off The Boat came to me after meeting new friends who'd only been in Canada a few months. Most of my books are in a shared universe, and I thought about writing a story from the point of view of an immigrant who left Jin-Sayeng (where my series Chronicles of the Bitch Queen mostly takes place, and where magic is outlawed) to settle in the Empire of Dageis to the north, where magic is an everyday thing.

David Benem: Brendall Hane is a man fighting demons, both inner ones and ones that are very real and very deadly. He’s a man dealing with loss and a sense of shame, and seeks redemption in doing the right thing.

Q] Who are some of your favorites in the heroic fantasy sub-genre? Any particular titles & authors you would like to give a shout out to?

Michael J. Sullivan: Call me old school, but I was inspired by Tolkien to start writing fantasy and later by Rowling, who got me to pick up the pen after vowing never to write creatively again. Both of them write fantastic heroes: People who you want to emulate because they make a stand when the odds seem impossibly stacked against them.

Laura Hughes: Yeah, Tolkien and Rowling are big influences for me too. As I mentioned above, Frodo is the ultimate underdog - he’s no ‘chosen one.’ Instead he’s a regular nobody stepping up to do the right thing. But the greatest heroes never stand alone. Frodo has Sam and the rest of the Fellowship; and The Boy Who Lived would have become The Boy Who Failed Spectacularly at the First Hurdle if it weren’t for Ron and Hermione.



Of course there are other authors (apart from the aforementioned David Gemmell) who write awesome heroic fantasy with the same sort of themes. Jen Williams is especially great at the ‘rag-tag team stepping up to defend the world because no one else can or will’ thing, as are Teresa Frohock, Alec Hutson, Anthony Ryan, Nick Eames, T.O. Munro, Adrian Tchaikovsky, D.M. Murray, Daniel Abraham, and Phil Tucker (whose Godsblood trilogy is criminally under-read and underrated). Plenty of LitRPG also falls into the ‘heroic fantasy’ subgenre; the Stonehaven League series by Carrie Summers is especially brilliant at emphasizing that no matter how strong or determined you are, you can’t do everything on your own. It’s all very well and noble to shoulder the responsibility of saving the world alone, but you’re more likely to succeed if you share the load (share the load… the loooad… share the l-o-o-a-a-d etc.).

Joe Jackson: I got hooked on fantasy by the early Drizzt books by RA Salvatore, and later moved into Tad Williams’ “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn” trilogy, followed by almost all of Raymond E. Feist’s work. And, of course, Lord of the Rings serves as the major backdrop to all of it. More recently, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Alec Hutson’s “The Raveling” series, and am looking forward to the next release in that. It amuses me to see my fellow authors of this anthology mentioning Harry Potter, because in modern days, who else would come up as a prime example of a hero? Yet while people think of his adventures, fantastic battles, and overcoming odds to save the day, Harry is one of the biggest heroes in my mind for saving one person, the person he had the least reason to ever save - Draco Malfoy.

MD Presley: I’m beginning to suspect this interview is going to be exhibit A in the trial deeming me a sociopath. I mean, I read Tolkien, Lewis, and Brooks as a kid, but never really cottoned to all those lofty characters. Honestly, the first time I saw someone I really identified with in a fantasy story was Raistlin from Dragonlance. He was an underdog whose talent was matched only by his ambition. I mean, the gall to challenge the goddess of darkness, not to defeat her but unseat her, is something I outright admired in my youth. Yet for all his ambition and plotting, he made the decision I considered admirable in the end. And it’s those hard choices that inspired me more than any of the other obvious, high-minded heroes. Also, and Wolverine. Obvs.

Dyrk Ashton: I have to echo what some of the others have said. Bilbo and Frodo, Gandalf and Aragorn for certain. I have to include Conan as well, and John Carter, but also comic book characters like Superman, Spiderman, Ironman, etc. Many of mine come from mythology as much, if not more, than fantasy or comics, though.

JC Kang: I am a big fan of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance series. It has reluctant heroes, anti-heroes, and glory seekers who fail to become heroes.

Andy Peloquin: Brandon Sanderson is probably my go-to author for heroic fantasy. Not because his characters are heroic to start off--Vin is a thief, Wayne is a PTSD-suffering con artist and gunslinger, Kaladin is a branded prisoner--but because they become heroes through their choices and actions.

Jeramy Goble: Druss from Gemmell’s LEGEND is my immediate thought. I first read it when I was about 7 or 8, but I didn’t fully understand or appreciate what Druss did until I re-read it in my teens. Despite being told that what he was about to do would lead to his death, Druss stepped up and defended the Drenai anyway. Doesn’t get much more heroic than that.

Jeffrey Hall: Richard Mayhew from Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Richard starts off as the typical person, a businessman going about his normal, tedious life and then is suddenly thrust into this amazing world where he has to be more than what he is. I loved this character because he is so relatable, and even though Neverwhere’s setting isn’t as grand as Middle-Earth or Arrakis, it is weird enough to test the mettle of the everyday man that is Richard and see if he is capable of being the hero of his own life.

Mike Shel: Elric, Corum and Hawkmoon were my gateway to heroic fantasy as a teenager, followed quickly by Fahfrd and Grey Mouser, then Conan. Glen Cook’s Black Company is a more recent favorite.

K.S. Villoso: I think just about everyone else has mentioned Tolkien. Maybe an unconventional answer, but I've always loved Sparrowhawk (Ged) from the Earthsea series by Ursula K. Le Guin, because that series approached him not just as a hero who goes on quests and becomes powerful, but as a hero who has to live with the consequences of his actions and learns to temper his power with humility and responsibility.

David Benem: Heroic fantasy is precisely what made me fall in love with the fantasy genre in the first place. It started with Lloyd Alexander and his Chronicles of Prydain, and just went bonkers from there. I believe David Eddings was next, soon followed by Tolkien, Weis and Hickman, Tad Williams, and on and on. My own series, A Requiem for Heroes, is a take on heroic fantasy, albeit a darker one. The tale of the “good guys” winning out over evil in the end is no doubt a trope, but one I think the vast majority of readers will always like to hear. The real world has too much of the opposite taking place.
Tuesday, December 3, 2019

SPFBO 2019 (Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off) finalists and our approach


As avid fantasy readers, we love discovering new voices and hidden gems. SPFBO contest gives us such possibility and we’re thrilled to participate in it for the fifth time. The first stage of the contest has just ended.

After five months of a bloodbath, ten bloggers have chosen their champions. We’re excited to read all of them and would love to encourage you to do the same.

Our approach

Each of us (David, Justine, Łukasz, Mihir) will read all the books from cover to cover. If it sounds lame and obvious allow me to rephrase it by using numbers - each of us will read 4509 pages and, approximately, 1 239 975 words! Almost one million two hundred fourty thousand words. Not too shabby, right?

Reviews

We plan to start posting reviews of SPFBO finalists in January. If you decide to read along with us, consider dropping your review on Goodreads, Amazon or Barnes & Noble. For an indie author trying to draw attention to their recently published book, reviews are hugely beneficial. Help us to spread the word about the books you love.

And now, let's take a look at SPFBO 2019 finalists listed in alphabetical order.

A SEA OF BROKEN GLASS by Sonya M. Black
392 pages, published on March 29, 2019, Order it here


Secrets have a price.


After enduring weeks of torture and being convicted of witchery, Ris escapes, only to discover the Darkness and the Lady are hunting her. They need the magic that sings within her.

Creator of all, the imprisoned Lady needs Ris, her last vessel, to find the Heart of Creation. The Darkness seeks to corrupt the vessel and retain his hold on the Lady, and with it, the world.

Ris finds help from a pair of Paladins of Light who aid her in cleansing the evil taint from the lands. As her power grows, so do her questions. How can she restore balance to the world and free the Lady? Should the Lady be trusted or is she as much at fault for the evil in the world as the Darkness? With powerful demons War, Ruin, and Plague at her heels, Ris struggles to stay alive as she tries to unravel the secrets hidden within her before it's too late.

Secrets that may cost Ris her soul even if she does succeed.


A TALE OF STARS AND SHADOW by Lisa Cassidy
502 pages, published on May 18th, 2019, Order it here



Can a broken warrior and a lost criminal find hope in a world of darkness?


Dumnorix princess and born warrior, Talyn Dynan was the finest fighter of her generation. With her Callanan partner at her side, she was invincible, reckless, a death-knell to their enemies. But after her partner is torn away from her, Talyn is left broken, wracked with guilt and unable to regain the confidence she once had. Could an unexpected mission to the mysterious country of Mithranar, home of the magical winged folk, be the thing that saves her? Or will the danger and secrets she finds there finally break her completely?

The Shadowhawk lives a life in the shadows. Constantly hunted for his criminal exploits, yet desperate to help the human folk of Mithranar who are oppressed by their winged folk rulers, he haunts the streets of Dock City. The arrival of a foreign warrior threatens to upset the carefully balanced life he leads, but when she begins to offer a hope for the humans he’s only ever dreamed of, can he risk trusting her?

And unbeknownst to both, a mysterious foe stalks the dark corners of Dock City. One that answers to a single purpose…

Vengeance.

BEGGAR'S REBELLION by Levi Jacobs
368 pages, published on February 17th, 2019, Order it here



The Councilate controls everything except the truth. I have nothing save my discovery—but with this shall I destroy an empire.


Tai Kulga lost the rebellion and his best friend on the same day, stripping him of his will to live even as a strange power flooded his bones. When the friend returns as a spirit guide, it feels like a second chance—but his friend is not who he was, and the Councilate is not done oppressing his people. When trouble with lawkeepers lands Tai’s surviving friends in a prison camp, he must go underground to find the last of the rebels and convince them to break his friends free.

Along the way he meets Ellumia Aygla, runaway Councilate daughter posing as an accountant to escape her family and the avarice of the capital. Curious about the link between spirit guides and magic, her insights earn her a place among the rebels, and along with Tai’s power help turn the tide against the colonialists.

But as the rebels begin to repeat the Councilate’s mistakes, Tai and Ellumia must confront their own pasts and prejudices, before the brewing war turns them into the monsters they fight.


BLADE'S EDGE by Virginia McClain
314 pages, Published on January 23rd, 2015, Order it here



Mishi and Taka live each day of their lives with the shadow of death lurking behind them. The struggle to hide the elemental powers that mark the two girls as Kisōshi separates them from the other orphans, yet forges a deep bond between them.


When Mishi is dragged from the orphanage at the age of eight, the girls are unsure if or when they will find each other again. While their powers grow with each season-cycle, the girls must come to terms with their true selves--Mishi as a warrior, Taka as a healer--as they forge separate paths which lead to the same horrifying discovery.

The Rōjū council’s dark secret is one that it has spent centuries killing to keep, and Mishi and Taka know too much. The two young women have overcome desperate odds in a society where their very existence is a crime, but now that they know the Rōjū’s secret they find themselves fighting for much more than their own survival.


BLOOD OF HEIRS by Alicia Wanstall-Burke 
323 pages, published on October 23rd, 2018, Order it here



Lidan Tolak is the fiercest of her father’s daughters; more than capable of one day leading her clan. But caught between her warring parents, Lidan’s world begins to unravel when another of her father’s wives falls pregnant. Before she has time to consider the threat of a brother, a bloody swathe is cut through the heart of the clan and Lidan must fight, not only to prove her worth, but simply to survive.


Ranoth Olseta wants nothing more than to be a worthy successor to his father’s throne. When his home is threatened by the aggressive Woaden Empire, Ran becomes his city’s saviour, but powers within him are revealed by the enemy and he is condemned to death. Confused and betrayed, Ran is forced to flee his homeland, vowing to reclaim what he has lost, even if it kills him.

Facing an unknown future, and battling forces both familiar and foreign, can Lidan and Ran overcome the odds threatening to drag them into inescapable darkness?



FORTUNE'S FOOL by Angela Boord
737 pages, published on May 18th, 2019, Order it here



A secret affair. A disfiguring punishment. A burning need for revenge.


Kyrra d’Aliente has a bad reputation and an arm made of metal.

Cast out of the safe and luxurious world of silk to which she was born, played as a pawn in a game of feuding Houses, Kyrra navigates a dangerous world of mercenaries, spies, and smugglers while disguising herself as a man.

War destroyed her family and the man she loved.

Vengeance is within her grasp.

But is she willing to pay its price?

KALANON'S RISING by Darian Smith
424 pages, published on October 15th, 2016, Order it here



Solve the murder. Stop the war. Save the world.

Sir Brannon Kesh spent years building a new life as a physician, leaving the name Bloodhawk and the war that spawned it behind. But when the King's cousin is murdered, duty calls him back. The crime scene suggests dark magic and the evidence points to the ambassador of Nilar, an alluring woman with secrets of her own, who sees Bloodhawk as little more than a war criminal.

As bodies pile up and political ramifications escalate, Brannon must join forces with a vain mage, a socially awkward priest, and a corpse animating shaman to solve the murders and prevent another war. But who can he trust when the phases of a bigger plan take shape?

The Risen are the greatest danger Brannon has ever faced. If he and his team cannot stop the killer then all of Kalanon - and the world - will descend into darkness.

NEVER DIE by Rob J. Hayes
274 pages, published on January 29th, 2019, Order it here


Ein is on a mission from God. A God of Death.


Time is up for the Emperor of Ten Kings and it falls to a murdered eight year old boy to render the judgement of a God. Ein knows he can't do it alone, but the empire is rife with heroes. The only problem; in order to serve, they must first die.

Ein has four legendary heroes in mind, names from story books read to him by his father. Now he must find them and kill them, so he can bring them back to fight the Reaper's war.





SPARK CITY by Robert J. Power
421 pages, published on March 1st, 2018Order it here




Erroh has a plan. A simple plan. It’ll never work.


Despite his family's warrior pedigree, he'd rather gamble and drink while living from one tavern to the next. But when his wanderings bring him upon a gruesome slaughter of innocents he is torn from carefree ways.

Spark City is on the horizon and with it the mysterious trials of The Cull. After a life spent rejecting his birth right, the time has come to pick up his sword and accept his destiny.

With an army marching forward, and unlikely companions buy his side, does Erroh have what it takes to stop the coming war?

Spark City is the gripping first novel in Robert J Power’s new epic fantasy series. If you like spectacular combat, unlikely heroes, and slow burn romance, you’ll love this thrilling tale.
THE SWORD OF KAIGEN by M.L.Wang
651 pages, published on February 17th, 2019, Order it here


A mother struggling to repress her violent past, a son struggling to grasp his violent future, a father blind to the danger that threatens them all.


When the winds of war reach their peninsula, will the Matsuda family have the strength to defend their empire? Or will they tear each other apart before the true enemies even reach their shores?

High on a mountainside at the edge of the Kaigenese Empire live the most powerful warriors in the world, superhumans capable of raising the sea and wielding blades of ice. For hundreds of years, the fighters of the Kusanagi Peninsula have held the Empire’s enemies at bay, earning their frozen spit of land the name ‘The Sword of Kaigen.’

Born into Kusanagi’s legendary Matsuda family, fourteen-year-old Mamoru has always known his purpose: to master his family’s fighting techniques and defend his homeland. But when an outsider arrives and pulls back the curtain on Kaigen’s alleged age of peace, Mamoru realizes that he might not have much time to become the fighter he was bred to be. Worse, the empire he was bred to defend may stand on a foundation of lies.

Misaki told herself that she left the passions of her youth behind when she married into the Matsuda house. Determined to be a good housewife and mother, she hid away her sword, along with everything from her days as a fighter in a faraway country. But with her growing son asking questions about the outside world, the threat of an impending invasion looming across the sea, and her frigid husband grating on her nerves, Misaki finds the fighter in her clawing its way back to the surface.











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