Indie Review: Chains of a Dark Goddess by David Alastair Hayden

The more I get into Indie fiction, the more fantasy I find myself reading.  And there are some great fantasy writers out there–not the least of which is David Alastair Hayden. I previously reviewed Hayden’s Who Walks in Flame, and praised it for its uniqueness. As I was writing that review, I was reading Chains of a Dark Goddess–it’s past time to visit that book!

Chains opens with a delicious premise: Breskaro Varenni, Knight Champion of the goddess Seshalla, hero of crusades and greatest warrior of the age, is betrayed by his trusted allies and murdered. Then, he’s brought back from the dead to exact revenge at the behest of an evil goddess. Sounds like a great antihero type story, right?
Well it is, and it would be a perfectly enjoyable read if Hayden stopped there–but he doesn’t. As the protagonist, the reader is immediately set up to sympathise with Breskaro—but this actions through the book make it difficult. This is a good choice, as it eschews the tired cliché of the antihero. Breskaro is evil, no doubt about it, and driven in part by bare revenge as he is, his motives are questionable. But there are good things about him too, and every once in a while he drops his guard to show a tender side that suits him well. There’s a running implication that he’s as evil as he is because of what he endured in death, but I think he was a bit of a prick in life, too. He’s certainly not a man to admire, but that’s what makes him such a great character. As a nice counterpoint to Breskaro the character of Esha is a delight. She has a youthful exuberance that infects everyone around her, even our undead warrior—and in that, she gives him one of his few shreds of humanity. There’s something special about her that’s not addressed until the end of the book, and I have to say I was surprised at it.

The use of a death mask to cover Breskaro’s decaying features seems like an obvious choice—but is no less awesome for it. It’s a terrifying image, but it also does well to give some pathos to his character; he knows he’s repellent, and though he never says it, seems almost ashamed at his appearance. At the same time, this action gives him depth—he fully intends to use his frightening visage to manipulate others. He’s not a cut and dried superhero, and has faults like anyone else.

The world of Pawan Kor–as mentioned in my other review–is vibrant and creative. It’s one of those fantasy settings that seems like a place you could actually visit; it’s real enough without losing the elements that make it fantastical. There’s a detailed history, though a lot of it is implied or described in other books. I’d have liked to see more of that history explored, but there is a sense of mystery about the world because it isn’t…and enough of it is that it keeps you intrigued.
The way Hayden describes how magic works is especially fascinating. It is based on the power of an ancient race of wizards how have ascended to beings of energy, locking themselves in crystals called qavra. These crystals can be used by their descendants to wield powerful magic, resulting in almost a possession by the ancients. Those who are not direct descendants can still call on that power, though it’s weaker. Effectively, the crystals become an implement and a source of magic. It’s a clear and elegant explanation with an old school pulp fantasy flair that also explains why magic is uncommon.

The thing I like most about this book is the way it explores religion. Hayden treats this subject very well; he doesn’t beat you over the head with it, and it’s not even (really) the theme of the book. Instead it’s an undercurrent that sweeps the reader along, almost without them knowing it; if you pay attention to it, it adds an important dimension to the narrative, but if you don’t, the plot stands on its own.

The main idea here is that faith is different from dogma, though the two are seldom separated. The Church of Seshalla has completed three crusades and is about to start the fourth, all in the name of “converting the heathens,” and the devotees of the church follow the edicts of the Matriarch (leader of the church) blindly and absolutely. At the same time, it’s made clear that the dogma instituted by the Church—however well intentioned—isn’t necessarily in line with the teachings of their Goddess. It makes for an intriguing subplot that, as mentioned, hovers just enough below notice that if you disregard it, you lose nothing. Which is a prudent decision on the author’s part, religion being the inflammatory subject it often is.

On the other side of things, we spend most of the time in the book among the heathens, and they’re portrayed as such—liars, thieves, assassins and sorcerers. This is another masterful stroke of Hayden’s; by making the “bad guys” unpalatable, they, like our protagonist, are harder to sympathize with. But with the way the plot is set up, we can’t cheer for the Church either. The result is a complicated mess of grey—there’s no good guy or bad guy at all, just people with different interpretations of the truth.

Such a complex moral question can’t be answered—or, at least, you’ll get as many different answers as people you ask—which makes it somewhat universal. A reader can pick up on what they want in this book, and while we’re certainly meant to root for Breskaro against the Church, the Matriarch and those who wronged him, those antagonists are just as likable and even sympathetic in their own way. And that is the trick to creating great conflict, and a great story.

You can find Chains of a Dark Goddess at Amazon and Kobo. Also look for David Alastair Hayden on Twitter, Goodreads, or at his website. Hayden has several other books set in the world of Pawan Kor–be sure to check them out!

Chekov’s Neglected Gun

by ToastyKen c/o Flikr

Anton Chekov is the bane of many a theatre arts student. His plays are long, tedious, and famous for having little (apparent) movement in the plot. He relied less on overt conflict and more on what he termed a “theatre of mood,” resulting in little action with tons of subtext. It’s tough to wade through and analyse, but it’s thoroughly brilliant work.

But the thing I remember most of my studies of Chekov is his shotgun. To paraphrase, he urged writers to remove everything irrelevant from a story–if you have a shotgun on the wall in act one, someone better fire it in act three.

It’s a simple concept, and seems quite obvious–why introduce a character or MacGuffin if you don’t intend to use it?–but it’s shocking how often it’s ignored. Not intentionally, I’m sure, but literature, TV and film is rife with examples of neglected firearms. A lot of the time, they show themselves as plot holes and hanging threads–things the author fully intended to resolve, but for some reason didn’t. (I suspect that it sometimes comes with editing–changing a certain scene without realising that the change has repercussions elsewhere.)

I think this is one of the cardinal sins of writing, and it’s an easy trap to fall into. I’ve been guilty of it myself. Sometimes in describing a scene or setting a mood, I’ll introduce elements that I have no intention of revisiting, because mood or description is their only purpose. To an extent, that’s okay, but it’s a slippery slope. Adding a brief mention of some exotic fruit that only exists on a single island can create a sense of wonder or alienness…but spend too much time describing it to the reader, and they’ll assume it’s an important plot point.

The big risk, in my opinion, comes with World Building. When you’re building a world for you characters to play in, it’s crucial to have a lot of detail: everything from social customs to geography to how that world works. When a writer does that much work on a story, it’s easy to want to reveal it to the reader–and the more little things you reveal, the more complete your world appears. But there’s a fine line here, as your readers will expect you to follow up on those small details.

Lost was a horrible example of this. It was obvious from the pilot that the writers wanted to instil a sense of mystery about the show, and I’m sure there were things they never intended to disclose. On the one hand, it worked–while it was running, fans had a rabid passion for developing theories explaining what the writers left unexplained, creating a wake of obsessed viewers(myself among them). On the other hand, the finale was a letdown because of all the loose ends–that sense of mystery was created, but it backfired, leaving many viewers frustrated (myself among them).

But it’s not always this simple. There are ways in which leaving that gun on the wall can actually work pretty well. One great example is the film Midnight in Paris, about a writer disillusioned about his present, longing to live in a bygone era. What could have turned out to be a relatively mundane exploration of wistfulness was made a terrific movie with a simple conceit: at midnight, he always finds a car that transports him to 1920s Paris where he can hobnob his literary heroes. The time travel angle is very important to the story, but it’s never explained–it’s hardly acknowledged. Beyond a couple mentions here and there, it’s simply accepted and left there, hanging on the wall.

But it works. It doesn’t need to be explained, because it’s nothing more than a conceit. The time travel itself doesn’t matter at all of the story, except as a plot device–the story is really about learning to appreciate your present and stop looking backward. It’s a shotgun, but we don’t care that it’s not used because doing so would almost contradict the very theme of the film–or, at the least, it would greatly reduce the impact. And here we come full circle to Chekov–the film uses this conceit not to move the plot forward, but to create a mood that suits the film.

Still, this isn’t an easy thing to pull off. It’s much easier to take that shotgun off the wall, load it, and fire. Or cut it entirely.

What are your favourite (or most frustrating) shotguns? I’d love to hear your comments!

Indie Review: Of Ants and Dinosaurs by Cixin Liu

I love dinosaurs.

I wouldn’t consider palaeontology a hobby, and I can’t say I do a lot of research into it–but still, dinosaurs are cool. I love the child-like wonder that comes with them, and the sheer majesty of these enormous creatures.
I’m also fascinated by ants. They have an incredibly complex social structure, have developed a sort of culture, and even a rudimentary “collective intelligence.” Remarkable creatures–so when I came across Of Ants and Dinosaurs by Cixin Liu, a story that threw ants and dinosaurs into a symbiotic relationship in a fantasy/science fiction tale, I couldn’t say no. Nor was I disappointed.

The very premise of this novella–a society of ants and dinosaurs that cooperate symbiotically–was enough for me to put down the $0.97 for it. I expected a light hearted story, a fanciful tale of imagination like something out of Jules Verne. It is that, but the story is also a succinct allegory of cooperation, trust, and suspicion. It would present well to young adult readers, but the message works just as well for adults.
The story begins with a tyrannosaur enjoying lunch…until he gets a blob of meat stuck in his teeth. A colony of ants sees the problem and helps him dislodge it–they actually stream into his mouth to pick it apart while the dinosaur holds his lip back with a claw, how awesome is that?–setting the foundation of an alliance. Over the centuries, this partnership grows as both societies thrive, fitting into their own niches. Ants are masters of micro-circuitry, creating a technological infrastructure the dinosaurs couldn’t hope to because of their size. Meanwhile, the terrible lizards build huge machines of travel and industry, alongside a complicated political structure. The ants have fine motor skills and hard science; the dinosaurs have imagination and ambition. Held apart, neither would get very far, but put together they are more than the sum of their parts.
That in itself would make for a nice story about the value in sharing skills, but it’s when their alliance breaks down that we get some real meaning and conflict. There’s a nice contrast between two dinosaur societies as they develop nuclear weapons (and something even more powerful), causing an arms race and cold war that could only end in mutually assured destruction. But this is only a reflection of the real conflict, as the ants and dinosaurs do the same to each other.

It becomes a cautionary tale, begging the question of how far one should blindly trust, and when it’s appropriate to act in your own best interests. As presented, there are no easy answers. Both races seem doomed from the start because of their attitude towards one another, and I kept saying to myself “if only they could set aside their differences and listen…” Which is exactly the author’s intent, I think. The novella is a well presented moral lesson, one as common as common sense: it’s out there, but nobody seems to pay attention to it.

Suspension of disbelief is a required part of science fiction/fantasy, and in a book written for a younger audience it’s more forgiving. For most of this novella, it’s not a problem–my active imagination not only accepts that ants and dinosaurs could be friends, it does an animated happy dance at the very thought–but there were parts that I found challenging. Mostly, the problem lies in the numbers; the main story takes place some 50,000 years after the “primitive” ant colony and dinosaurs meet. A handful of millennia is an incredibly short time for sentient creatures to evolve into the kind of society presented here–and while it sounds like I’m nitpicking, it’s something that gnawed at the back of my head for the duration. I suspect Liu did this to avoid an “alternate history” book where ants and dinosaurs become the dominant species instead of humans, but I think  (personally) that might have been a better way to go with the story. Still, it’s a tiny criticism–really, the only one–of an otherwise excellent story.

The crafting of the story is well done. At times, it’s a bit heavy handed–there are points where the “show, don’t tell” adage is thrown out the window–and there were some bits that seemed difficult to swallow, even given the not-too-serious tone. Dialogue is a bit too expository at points. But I wouldn’t say that any of this is Liu’s fault–it was written for a Chinese audience–or that of his translator Holger Nahm; those languages being as complex as they are, something is doubtlessly lost in the translation. There are probably thousands of translations of the Tao te Ching, but no single one of them really touches on the nuances of the work. Taking that into account, I’m impressed by this book. I found it refreshing because it doesn’t take itself too seriously, while at the same time presenting a very serious message.

This is the kind of book I’d read to children; the sheer fun of it would make the message easy to pick up on. Of Ants and Dinosaurs is, in short, a wonderfully fun book to read.  Liu has a series of other books available, and each of them looks intriguing and original. I’m eager to read more!

Cixin Liu’s books can be found at Amazon.com. You can also reach him on Twitter

Women in Fiction, Part Two

On Monday, I posted an interview with one of my favourite Indie authors, Lindsay Buroker. The focus was women in fiction, and when I first wrote up the post, I thought of dividing it into two posts so I could comment on it without making it too long. But Buroker was so great I didn’t want to break it up–so we’ll discuss the ideas today instead.

There were some great comments in the last post, so let’s look at those first. The common theme was that Buroker’s lead character, Amaranthe, is able to stand out as a strong woman despite being surrounded by men. In fact, there are fewer female characters in the series compared to men, which is reflective of the society/World Buroker has built.
I’m of two minds about this: on the one hand, being surrounded by men and rising above them as a natural leader helps make Amaranthe a strong character. There’s a juxtaposition that works very well to highlight her qualities, and it’s mentioned several times that she lives in a male dominated society (though it’s obviously changing). In this sense, having a strong female character means something more–she’s strong in the face of patriarchy, in spite of it.
The flip side is that this juxtaposition only works because of the generally male oriented society in which we live. Amaranthe stands out so well because we don’t always expect a strong female character. In a real world example, it’s often news when a woman is elected to public office, because it’s normally men who fill that role. But the fact that it’s news is bothersome to an extent, and shows the inequality of the system. Highlighting a woman’s strength of character because one would normally expect a man in that role betrays a certain prejudice–we shouldn’t need that opposition to celebrate a woman’s strength. But it’s a double edged sword: if we don’t highlight that comparison, people won’t necessarily take note of it, and nothing changes.

I don’t mean this as a critique of Buroker’s characterisation of Amaranthe, of course–it’s not the author’s fault, and as noted in Monday’s interview, the character wasn’t written as an explicit feminist commentary. And, really, this is where Buroker should be applauded most: Amaranthe isn’t a strong female character because that’s a statement the author wanted to make–she’s strong because that’s who she is. I think that is the kind of strong female character we need in fiction–books, movies or otherwise. Strong women who are written that way without pretence, who are paragons just because they are. I think there’s a certain “societal expectation” sometimes that women should be  vulnerable or emotional and that men should be stoic and heroic, but those are imaginary lines that should be crossed more often.

Another great example of this kind of characterisation is J. M. Ney-Grimm. Her Norse-flavoured tales feature many strong women, and in fact the main culture portrayed in the books is a matriarchy. Again, it’s obvious that this isn’t done to make some sort of feminist statement, but because that’s what Ney-Grimm wanted to write. The genuine intent for both authors was to write the story they wanted to tell, and the fact that they end up with such strong female characters is just icing on the cake.

I think this is the kind of characterisation of women we need more of in literature and entertainment. Which brings me to my next point: the way women are generally portrayed in fiction. As Buroker says in the interview, strong characters often come off as bossy or super-heroic–there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground. The polar opposite–as seen in the new Star Trek movie–are women who are ostensibly powerful or intelligent, but end up needing to be saved by the male protagonists. Or, worse, women treated as sex symbols. There’s a particularly gratuitous scene in Star Trek where Carol Marcus is shown in her underwear for no reason (except to demonstrate that Kirk is a lascivious womaniser). J. J. Abrams has admitted that the scene was unnecessary, attempting to defend it by pointing out that Kirk is shown barely clothed as well. The missed point is that this contributes to Kirk’s character, while it does nothing at all for Marcus. This kind of sexualisation “for the sake of it” is rampant in entertainment, enough that it’s not always seen as a problem. Of course, this is a generalisation, but I don’t think it’s too far off the mark.

In the end, this is a very large issue with many layers and ramifications. I’m by no means an expert, and couldn’t pretend to come to any conclusion here–but I think it’s certainly worth the discussion. I think that writers like Buroker and Ney-Grimm are well on track in the way they represent women, and should be seen as examples to follow. And, really, that attitude should extend to homosexuality, race, age, and what have you–people are as they are, and their differences shouldn’t be the reason for their character, nor exploited as a statement. Of course, it’s a lot more complex than that, but it’s a start.

So, what do you think?

Women in Fiction, with Lindsay Buroker

So, I’m a huge Star trek fan–and of course, I loved the new movie. I thought they did a clever job with the material, the characters…but this isn’t a review. I wanted to touch on an issue that several blogs have picked up on: the way women are presented in the movie.
Star Trek has always had (relatively) strong female characters–Uhura is an excellent example. But although the two female leads in the new film have a decent amount of screen time–and they’re set up to be strong and confident–they come off as “damsels in distress” (to quote the above articles). It’s unsettling…and it got me thinking.

When I saw the film, I was reading Lindsay Buroker’s Beneath the Surface (reviewed last week). Buroker has always impressed me with her strong female characters; it’s refreshing to see women portrayed on the same level as men, something you don’t see in a lot of fiction. Generally–and yes, this is a generalisation, and likely a controversial one–it’s my experience that women in fiction tend to be represented as people to be saved, helped, or pursued. Even strong women characters like Uhura or Beatrice from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing* tend to play second string when a strong male character comes along. We could debate the whys and hows of this, but it’s an enormous topic–and I’ll freely admit that I’m not well versed in it. But I did want to get Buroker’s perspective, so we had a brief interview. My questions are in bold:

Your books tend to have very strong female lead characters, something not exactly typical in popular fiction. Was this an intentional choice (i.e. filling a perceived gap), or did it grow organically (it’s just the way you like to write)?
Thank you. I’m glad they come across that way. 🙂

I didn’t set out to make any statements or try to say, “This is how you write strong women, peeps–pay attention!” For the most part, I just like to write protagonists who drive the action. Even if my heroines are kidnapped and tied up in an enemy warship bound for who knows where, they’re going to try and take charge of their destiny rather than simply waiting to see what the world drops in their laps. I think those wilful types of people who make things happen have a tendency to be seen as strong characters. They’re naturally leaders instead of followers.
It is something of a challenge to make those kinds of people likeable–women in leadership roles are often seen as bossy or bitchy, even by their own sex–but by being in the character’s head, it’s possible to show all their vulnerabilities as well as their strengths. That goes a long way toward humanizing someone, and it’s a shame we can’t look into people’s heads that way in real life to see where they’re coming from.What would you suggest in ways to improve the way women are represented in fiction?

I actually think there are quite a few people writing “strong women” for television, books, and movies, but what gets to me is that these are often one-dimensional Xena-like-characters with superhuman abilities to kick everybody’s butts. I don’t know about you, but I know plenty of strong women and none of them do that. 😀
A lady I know always comes to mind for me during these types of discussions. She’s the middle child of 8 or 10 kids, paid her own way through school, built up a successful business from scratch in a male dominated field, ran a marathon after kicking breast cancer’s butt, and is fair and generous with everybody. That’s the kind of “strong woman” I’d like to see more of in fiction, and I think these are the kinds of role models young women need when they’re growing up.

I tend to see stronger female characters in Indie Fiction than I do with traditionally published books and entertainment (in general). Is this your experience, and if so, why do you think this is?
I have to confess that I haven’t read nearly as much independent fiction as I should have (I’m getting most of my “reading” done via audiobooks these days, and it’s still mostly traditionally published authors on Audible), so I’ll take your word on that. I’d guess, though, that indies don’t have to get past gatekeepers who tend to play it safe by buying more books like the ones that are already selling. Hey, those urban fantasy novels with the warrior women kicking vampire butts sell. Let’s print 50 more this year!

Can you point to other writers/artists that serve as an example of strong female characters in fiction that were inspirational? 
Lois McMaster Bujold always has strong female characters, and they’re rarely those brawny butt-kickers either. 😉 (I am realizing that I’ve used variations of kicking butt at least four times in this short interview… I assure you that such words rarely come up in my fantasy novels–maybe that’s why I’m unleashing them so often here!)
On TV (warning: I am a geek who has many SF series on DVD), I was always fond of Samantha Carter from Stargate SG-1. Sure, she’s a Mary Sue, but I loved that she was an astrophysicist and that her smarts were often critical to plot (I confess that one of my pet peeves revolves around characters who are described as smart but who never actually do anything smart :P).Thanks, Lindsay!

I’d considered breaking this interview into two posts, but thought better of it and posted the whole thing. I’d like to follow up with some discussion and thoughts on Wednesday, and I’d welcome your input–leave your thoughts in the comments!
In the meantime, I’ll invite you to check our Buroker’s work–it’s a great example of how women should be presented in fiction. And they’re just plain good books! Find them here on Amazon, and on Kobo. You can also check out her blog, Facebook and Twitter.
*Edited to correct my own mistake–I got the wrong play!

Indie Review: Beneath the Surface by Lindsay Buroker

Someone posted a quote on twitter recently–sorry, I can’t remember who or where it came from!–that said the measure of a good book was dreading to read the last chapter, because you know it’s going to end. I’ve come across many Indie books that had this effect on me–and generally, it’s the same authors who do it time and again.
With Lindsay Buroker, it’s gotten to the point where I’ll put off reading her books, just because I burn through them so quickly. I’ve held onto Beneath the Surface for months, knowing that it’s shorter than most of her work–it’s a sort of “interlude” between books five and six of Buroker’s Emperor’s Edge series–but as book six was recently released, I thought it was time to dive in.

The first thing I love about Buroker’s work is that it’s character driven. I got into the Emperor’s Edge series because of the steampunk flair, but the people really made the book for me. The series features Amaranthe Lokdon, an erstwhile officer of the peace (Enforcer) who’s found herself on the bad side of the law for all the right reasons. She gathers about her a motley band of heroes (including fan favourite Sicarius, deadliest assassin in the realm) in an effort to clear her name. Each of these characters is vibrant and exciting–and despite the large cast, Buroker deftly avoids the all-too-familiar author’s trap of developing one or two at the expense of the rest. All of them are distinctly unique, and insanely likeable. Yes, even the cold-as-ice, dagger-at-your-throat assassin. Actually, especially him.
The second thing I love about these books is that Buroker has chosen to use each one as a focus for one of the main characters. This allows for some dedicated character development as the series progresses, and is part of why each of her characters are so fully fleshed out. Beneath the Surface deals with a newcomer to the group–Evrial Yara, also an Enforcer–as she wrestles with the fact that she’s gotten tied up with these outlaws. At the same time, she finds herself alone with the company fop Maldynaldo, who is pursuing her relentlessly with amorous advances–which she may or may not want to return.

Yara is a wonderful character because she’s a reflection of Amaranthe. Both are well written, strong leading women, but they’re not perfect. They each have doubts and weaknesses, and neither of them realizes just how strong they are. They both come from a “means to and end” mentality–though Yara is longer to come to that conclusion–and honestly just want the best for the Empire and their friends. And both struggle with a “maybe-romance” that is unspoken or unwanted, but too delicious to resist. In many ways, Yara is a “proto-Amaranthe,” and it’s great to watch the group’s leader gently mentor the newcomer. It gives Amaranthe yet another dimension to her character, and it’s even better for the reader as we watch Yara come to some conclusions about life that she otherwise wouldn’t have, but that always lingered beneath the surface.

The plot of this novella concrns some magical artefacts that will destroy millions of lives if the Emperor’s Edge doesn’t deal with them first–and of course, in the process, the group ends up looking like the bad guys. But that’s not really what Beneath the Surface is about. It’s about the things we leave unsaid, the feelings we won’t admit to ourselves until it’s to late, the road less travelled. At first blush, it’s a fun adventure for the crew to keep fans entertained until the next book in the series, but the real treasure is between the lines. There’s more character development and growth in this novella than in other books, and it’s so successful because a lot of it is implied. Buroker has done such a great job over the series of getting readers attached to her characters that we feel 100% invested in what they feel, even if it’s not voiced aloud.

And of course, it’s not just about Yara and Amaranthe. The relationships between Maldynaldo and Books (the group’s picked-on researcher) and Sicarius and the once-Emperor are touched upon as well. Not everything is revealed; in fact some important points are left unspoken. It’s very touching, and almost bittersweet. I have to wonder if, in the next instalment, some of the characters will find that it’s too late to say what should have been said. Which makes me anxious for the next book, but also very excited–it’s the kind of risk that takes a book from simply fun to instant classic.

You can find Beneath the Surface, as well as the rest of the Emperor’s Edge novels, at Kobo and Amazon. The first one’s free! Buroker also keeps an informative blog, and is very active on Twitter.

Indie Review: The Painting by Ryan Casey

The-Painting-Final-600I like to group the horror genre into two categories: Lovecraft and King. Lovecraftian horror is weird, often relies on creatures of a sort, and is terrifying because Lovecraft was a master at “between the frames” writing–he leaves just enough open to interpretation that the reader fills in the blanks, ending up with a story tailor made to the reader’s own fears. Kingsian horror is often weird too–sometimes really out there–but more often than not is rooted in a believable and extremely detailed setting, with natural dialogue and organic characters. It’s effective because it feels so real. In my experience, most horror falls somewhere under one or the other of these categories, but it’s rare that a book does both. Speaking to the Eyes Indie favourite Ryan Casey manages to pull it off with his newest offering, The Painting (The Watching).

King and Lovecraft had very different styles of writing, and The Painting works as well as it does because Casey is able to emulate both while retaining his own unique voice. It’s essentially divided into two parts, which I’ll term the House and the Quest.
The House, consisting of the beginning and ending of the book, the main character–Donny–is set up as a writer desperate to get his creative juices flowing. He’s stagnated on his current book, and comes to an abandoned house in an effort to find some real inspiration. In the house he finds a painting–a painting featuring six mysterious figures who seem to moving closer and closer…and who are definitely watching him.
This part of the book has a delightfully gothic flavour–it reminded me a lot of Poe in the way it’s set up, though it had a nice conversational feel to it rather than that author’s usual stuffy prose. This is an opportunity for Casey to show off–I’ve said before that’s he’s got real talent for creating tension, and it pays off in spades here. It’s creepy, atmospheric, and (in parts) disturbing. In a good way, of course.

But the real character of the book comes through in the Quest. (That’s a bit of a misnomer, but the closest thing I could think of to describe this part without spoiling it.) Donny finds himself is an unusual situation, and needs to find his way out. He elicits help, but the odds are stacked against him–especially since he’s not clear on what exactly is going on. The tension is prevalent here, but in a different way; it’s a sense of foreboding panic that rises to a perfect climax. It’s a great middle to this narrative, and Casey does a great job in making sure that the built up tension doesn’t release too slowly so that it carries through into the last part of the book.
The great thing about the Quest is that it’s very different from the rest of the book. A lesser author would run into some trouble here–it could seem jumbled or incoherent. Instead, the juxtaposition works in Casey’s favour, and acts to strengthen the story as a whole. One of the conceits in this story is that Donny is continually unsure as to what’s happening around him–he questions the things he sees, ascribes it to an over-active imagination, even convincing himself he’s been lost in his own narrative. The differences in tone reinforce that theme.

But here’s the thing: the Quest part of the book is completely different. It’s jarring, and a bit weird–but it actually feels more sane than the rest of the book. This is closer to Kingsian horror. The characters and setting are vibrant, living things, and one has no trouble getting invested in what’s happening. Whereas Donny spends the previous couple dozen pages frightened and trembling (and rightly so), he seems more in control during this part. And yet, he shouldn’t–for reasons I can’t give without spoiling. This juxtaposition, in my mind, is the best thing about this story. It brings the story from a good horror tale to something completely unique–something I’ve come to expect from Casey’s writing.

I think Casey has struck a delicate balance here. If the ‘flavours’ were reversed (King sandwiching Lovecraft), it wouldn’t work; the middle would seem like a fever-dream that’s so out there that the reader can just suspend their disbelief (and connection to the character) until things “get real” again. (Something like Lovecraft’s “Dream Cycle” stories, which never really sat well with me.) By giving us instead a potentially unstable character who finds a bit of stability, we question how authentic that stability is–giving an immense amount of depth to the character. It’s really very well done.

There’s only one thing I can really say against The Painting: there are parts of it that aren’t explained as much as I may have liked. Now, on the one hand, you want horror stories to leave something to the reader’s imagination–that’s why Lovecraft was such a genius. And I’m pretty sure that if the menacing shapes in the painting were explained, it would drain the magic out of the story. In point of fact, the mystery is as it should be, and there are bits that shouldn’t be explained. If I think something’s missing, it’s only because I want to learn more about the world Casey has created. This story left me with questions about what’s really going on, despite the execution and resolution of the plot.

Fortunately, this is only part one of three. The other instalments are coming–keep an eye out for the other instalments of The Watching. I have no doubt the rest will be as gripping as the first.

You can find Ryan Casey online at his blog, and on Twitter. Visit the Amazon and Kobo stores for some excellent reading material. 

Traditionally Published Authors a Step Closer to Indies?

One of my favourite “traditionally published authors,” Kevin J Anderson, recently posted about what he called a ground breaking change in the publishing industry: a new service called Cunable, which allows authors to sell their published works as eBooks without going through a major distributor. You can read it here. It is indeed a big change, but what does it mean for the Indie Publishing Community?

There are those in the community who are much better versed in how Cunable will affect self-publishing, if it will at all–but I wanted to comment on it. I’ve started to see Anderson as a champion for the eBook format; he’s released a lot of his back catalogue as eBooks on his own website, and seems eager to encourage e-reading. It helps that he’s a major voice in the sci-fi and fantasy genres–he gives exposure to the format.

And now, he’s embarking on this experiment with Cunable. The creator of this service, John Grace, describes it as “Self Retailing for the Published Author,” and it seems very close to how Indie writers are publishing and selling their books.

Basically, Grace is concerned with putting money into the hands of authors, insteads of publishers. In an interview on Kirin Design, he points out that an author doesn’t get a lot of the revenue from their own work, and that this is something that can change. It’s part of what motivates the Indie Community, which gets a large percentage of sales compared to going through one of the Big Five publishers (if you can get there at all). Indeed, Grace admits that he was inspired by the “growth and success” of the self-publishing model, and sees it as a way for published author to “eliminate the retailer channel.”
Of course, Indies see another (and more important) benefit to self-publishing–we get our work out directly to those who want to read it, and can communicate with our network of readers. I think Cunable will fulfil this goal too, though Grace doesn’t explicitly reference it.

Grace would like to see the Big Five sign on with his service so he can distribute published works through his website, or allow authors to distribute through theirs. Anderson says that the 30-35% cut that publishers normally get from sales would instead be split between Cunable and the author–I’m not sure how happy publishers would be about that, but it does sound like a good idea for people who just want to write for a living. Really, it’s about taking the publisher out of the picture; getting the book directly from the author, no middleman, no fuss. Another reason Indies do what they do. I’m glad a person like Anderson is involved in this,  as he could give Cunable some real momentum. It will be interesting to see where they go.

But what does this all mean? The first thing that popped into my mind when I read the blog was that published authors are going to start flooding the market. Anderson has already dipped his toe in, and I could see others following him. And that’s good on one hand, because it gives even more credence to self-publishing and to the eBook format. But on the other hand, I don’t think self-publishing needs more credence–and the system itself could potentially change.

The funny thing about Community is that it’s (ironically) exclusionary. A community of like minded people will either exclude those who aren’t of “like mind,” or change its own definition to welcome them. I see the latter happening here; if Cunable takes off and traditionally published authors start joining the ranks of the self-published, the Indie Community changes. It may not be a bad change–maybe the traditionalists will join the ranks of Indies, something that’s already been happening for some time. This could only strengthen the community.
But–and this is the thing that I really wonder about–it could also mean greater competition. One of the hardest things about self-publishing is that the marketing is all up to you. It’s challenging, and I think it takes a special type of motivation to get it done right. But put those people up against someone who has an established name, and the competition gets a lot more fierce. I loved Anderson’s Captain Nemo, for example, but I think Lindsey Buroker’s Emperor’s Edge novels are better. An uninitiated reader given the choice between them might go with the name they recognise (though I have to give props to Buroker, arguably one of the most recognisable names in self-publishing). I’m not saying this is a good or a bad thing–but it’s something to watch as it develops.

The one big difference I’m seeing, though, is pricing. Anderson’s prices haven’t changed since partnering with Cunable. His current Zombie PI series Dan Shamble is selling for around $13 a book–most Indie books hover between $1 and $5, and given some of the great percentages Indies get, both can potentially earn about the same from each sale. But–and this is a big but–given a choice between a $5 eBook and a $13 eBook, many will choose the lower price. For Cunable, I think this is inescapable–they’re still distributing books that are under a publisher’s contract. But for a company moving into the self-publishing model, it’s an interesting complication.

At any rate, as I said above, there are those better versed in the self-publishing model who can comment on this development more eloquently than I…but it’s a very interesting development, and I’m excited to see where it leads. I applaud Anderson for getting on board, and my big hope is that this will encourage the continued paradigm shift for publishing. At the very least, it helps with distribution and accessibility–and in the end, getting more books into the hands of readers is what it’s all about.

Indie Review: Troll Magic by J. M. Ney-Grimm

Troll MagicIt’s no secret on this blog that I have favourite writers. J. M. Ney-Grimm is one of them, and with good reason–her writing style is unique, and engrossing. Up to now, I’d only read her shorter works; I’ve been holding onto Troll Magic for some time, eager to start but wanting to give it my full attention. And it did not disappoint.

On the surface, we have the simple story of lovers trying to overcome the obstacles that keep them apart, but it’s more than that. Troll Magic is a cunning exploration of a very human question: how does one follow their dreams, knowing all the risks that entails and without any promise of the outcome? And more importantly, when should we sacrifice our own dreams for those of someone else? It’s a big question, and one I won’t pretend to be able to answer. You’ll just have to read the book.

There are really three stories going on here: the Trolls (characters who suffer from Troll-Disease), the Family (Lorelin, our main character, as she come of age) and the Court (where Gabris and Panos try to find a cure for Troll-Disease). The meat of the story is taken up by the first two, as Lorelin is recruited by a man named Kellor to help him break free of a curse. It’s a clever reinterpretation of the original Beauty and the Beast tale, though it’s more complicated than that. It’s an exploration of how each of them have their dreams and fears, overlapping at times and always in concert, even when they don’t realize it. There’s a sub-plot here with Helaina (an unwitting and invisible servant in Kellor’s household) and her family, which follows a similar path.
The Court is almost an entirely separate story, to the point where I wondered if it would be best placed in another novel. The experiments of Gabris and Panos are interesting, but don’t seem to have a direct impact on the rest of the story–instead, they provide a sort of foundation that explains why Troll Disease is such a problem. But by the end of the book, the reason for this became apparent; it is a sort of running commentary on the issues of the book. It’s far enough away from the main plot that it gives the reader an objective view of the situation, and it works well enough that I wondered if it needed to be integrated with the rest of the stories after all–although bringing everyone together in the epilogue is a nice way to end the book.
With these three stories come many different characters. While the core cast is manageably small, there are a lot of secondary and tertiary characters. For an author, this can be daunting–it’s all too easy for some to become one sided and underdeveloped–but Ney-Grimm pulls it off nicely. Each character feels like they’ve got their own personality and quirks and the result is a world that feels large and well populated.

Where this book really excels is the presentation. I’ve described Ney-Grimm’s writing style as effervescent, and it’s still the best word I can come up with. There’s a light and lilting tone to the prose that doesn’t diminish from the importance of the story, and gives the whole book a very pastoral feel. It’s evident from her other stories that Ney-Grimm takes a lot of inspiration from Norse culture, which has a rich oral tradition, so it’s not surprising that her books have this sort of voice. Troll Magic feels like a book that should be read aloud at bedtime, or around a campfire. It’s very approachable, and because of that it does a great job of putting across the ideas presented.

Hand in hand with the voice of the book is its pacing. This was, for me, the most interesting feature of the book, and I’m still not sure how to describe it exactly. The best word I can offer is “ponderous,” though I don’t mean it with any of the negative connotations that word can carry. It’s far from a plodding or meandering book–the plot lines and character arcs are followed in nice progressions that take as long as they need to. Instead, the books feels like it’s in no great rush to get where it’s going, while wholeheartedly promising to get you there. As a reader, I felt like I was being led around the story by a guide; sometimes we’d stop so she could tell me about something of interest, sometimes we’d simply linger in a setting to enjoy it for it’s own sake, and sometimes she’d point and whisper “you’re going to like this, pay attention.” It feels welcoming and relaxed.

In fact, the pacing of this book reminds me in a lot of ways to The Lord of the Rings. That is an absolute tome of a book, but for fans of that kind of literature, it’s not daunting at all. Tolkein was a master at filling in details about his world in a way that doesn’t interfere with the story–but if you were to remove those details, the story would be much less than it is. It’s a long book, but the pacing just feels right. As it does in Troll Magic.

Another fascinating thing about this book is the way magic is explained. It’s very similar to certain Eastern traditions: energy is carried along lines in the body to verticies, through which it can be drawn to conduct magic. Troll disease results when too much energy is drawn through these vertices, pushing them off point. This isn’t very far off the idea of meridians in Chinese Traditional Medicine, and it’s natural fit for the world that’s been created. The antophoners (those who practise magic) even use a series of moving meditations to align and fortify their verticies–not unlike Qi Gong or Tai Chi. I find this fascinating because I’ve done quite a bit of research on these systems, and practice Qi Gong occasionally myself. I can attest that it’s both relaxing and energizing, so it’s not a huge stretch for the imagination that such a system could be magical in nature. And yet despite the comparison, this system feels unique to Ney-Grimm’s world, and fits so well that it seems the only possible explanation.

In the end, all I can say is that this is a book you’ll need to read  in order to truly appreciate. I have lots more to say about it, but nothing that can’t be better said by reading it yourself. I’d certainly recommend it. Troll Magic is a book to be savoured and enjoyed.

J. M. Ney-Grimm can be found on twitter, her own blog, and of course at the Kobo and Amazon stores. Ney-Grimm also have a handy reference for all her main characters here.

Reach for the Stars…but Don’t

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about ambition. Reaching for the stars. Going the distance and going for broke. Manifesting your own destiny.

Biting off more than you can chew.

This is going to be a more philosophical post than normal, so I hope you’re bear with me. I don’t have the answer to the question I’m going to ask, but I’ll invite you to offer your own answers in the comments. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong here–or even a thin line between them. But it’s something hanging around in the back of my mind for some time, and it’s nothing I can ignore any longer.

The question is: how much ambition is too much?

It’s all very well and good to reach for the stars, and I’d never encourage someone to not follow their dreams. But the pragmatist in me has to ask: when do you overreach your grasp? It’s pretty easy to do that–I do it on a regular basis, and I’m only now starting to recognize it. And I think it’s a pretty crucial question to ask. You see, I’m the kind of person who often bites off more than he can chew. I do it because I love to challenge myself, to think big, to dream. But there’s also a very large part of myself that is practical to the point of stagnation–that is, I tend to work very hard at convincing myself that dreams are just that, and to not pursue them if there’s too much risk.

I guess that’s part of the crux of this issue. If there’s no risk, the payoff can’t be that great–but the greater the risk, the more frightening it can be. In the case of this blog and my writing, the risk is accountability. I haven’t been keeping myself accountable for what I’ve set out to do. Faithful readers may remember a very detailed schedule I set myself to in finishing my Tapestry project, which has since stalled. A larger issue is my promise to review three Indie books a month, something I have, in all honestly, had a difficult time keeping up with. My recent lapse in posts of any kind is evidence enough of that.

So I’ve bitten off more than I can chew–I can admit that, and I can live with it. But what to do about it? Here’s the real question: when should one stop dreaming? Where’s the line between “impossible” and “I’ll try anyway,” and most importantly, when should you cross that line?

I know a lot of Indie writers who crossed that line, and I admire them for it. It reminds me that I can do the same–but at some point, I have to remind myself that I can only handle so much–which leads me to another self realization: I’m a fixer. Or try to be.

This means I like to approach a challenge and find a way to solve it–but it also means that I often take on more than I can handle by myself. To once again quote Dan Pallotta, it’s “altruistic martyrdom.” Being a martyr for a cause that doesn’t require it, simply because you believe so much in that cause. But in the end, it doesn’t get you anywhere, just leaving you with a feeling that you didn’t do enough, or could have done more.

So what does this all mean in terms of following your dreams? I feel stuck between a rock and a hard place; I want to think big and follow those dreams wherever they go–but I also want to live and walk in the “real world.” I want to reach for the stars, but I want my feet on the ground while I do it–and to some extent, it makes me wonder if the two are compatible at all. The easy answer is that dreams can be ephemeral; they’ll slip through your fingers if you let them, so don’t let them. On the other side of the coin, if you want security and stability in your life, you have to make choices that create that stability for you–it can’t be left to chance.

There is a happy medium here, I’m sure. You can follow your dreams and be practical about it–in fact, having a practical plan can be a sure fire way to ensure your dreams come true–but it’s important to have some self realization. As much as I’d love to be able to read three or four Indie books a month, it’s an unrealistic expectation at certain times of year because of my career. Devoting all of my free time to writing might seem like a good way to actually finish my projects and make them as good as they can be–but I need and want to make room for family. I think you can reach for the stars with your feet on the ground–but I can’t say I’ve found that balance yet.

You may see where some of this is going–a change in my blog schedule. I do read a lot of books, but keeping up with three Indie books a month (on top of ‘real life,’ other reading and hobbies) is challenging. I’ve actually found myself skewing toward short stories, which isn’t fair to the Indies who have written wonderful full length novels. So I’m going to make another change.

I still intend to review Indie works, but will cut it down to one or two reviews a month. I intend one to be a novel; the other either a novel or short story, depending on my available time. I’ll still blog on other issues related to Self Publishing, and will work “behind the screen” to build a bank of reviews for when I’m too busy to pound out a blog post. Hopefully, I’ll have fewer lapses in activity here, if not no lapses at all.

In the meantime, I’m going to continue to ponder the philosophy of ambition. It’s all very well and good to say that one should follow their dreams with abandon, but at some point you have to wonder what you’ve lost because of that single minded determination. I don’t want to stop dreaming. But neither do I want to turn off my life for the sake of my dreams. I guess, in the end, the most important thing to remember is that whichever choice you make is a choice you makeand the consequences, either way, are yours alone.