Indie Review: Sarvet’s Wanderyar by J. M. Ney-Grimm

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf the last book I read sated my taste for sword and sandal fantasy, Sarvet’s Wanderyar fits the bill for another craving: epic fantasy. J. M. Ney Grimm is a master at this genre, and I’ve been a fan of her work since the first paragraph I read; this book has been on my to-read list for quite a while, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Sarvet is a young woman who suffers from a sort of palsy in one leg. Because of this, she’s held back; she’s relegated to menial chores, coddled by an overbearing mother, and–she believes–prevented from achieving her dreams. Sarvet’s need to prove herself drives her to request a Wanderyar–a year of exploring the world on one’s own–which is reserved only for young men. She’s tenacious and determined from the start, so her coming of age isn’t something that happens to her so much as something she forges for herself. This gives her a certain strength of character that’s lacking in a lot of literature. It’s easy to cheer her on and revel in her journey.

Sarvet’s disability is introduced very nicely. Subtle hints before coming out and saying it makes for a reveal that’s not surprising, but not really expected either. A good set up for what will be an important plot point; she doesn’t beat you over the head with it, a sin that is far too easy to commit in writing. This also puts the focus more on her character and less on the disability, making for a nicely rounded heroine that’s easy to sympathize with. That, in turn, makes this much more than a run of the mill coming of age novel–it’s an entrancing story with a character you care about, and desperately want to succeed.

Sarvet, for all her determination and will, is also a tad naive. This serves the story well; it sets her up as a young woman who, despite her disability, doesn’t realize just how difficult life can sometimes be. Failure is a very real consequence for her, and it’s all the more tangible because of her adolescent exuberance. You get the feeling that if she falls, she’s going to fall hard–but even if she recovers there’s an “I told you so” in the wings. The lesson is not so much in learning to succeed on her own as that sometimes, a little control is necessary.
This leads into the mother, Paiam. She’s fiercely protective of Sarvet, and while this overbearance serves as her call to action, Ney-Grimm does a good job of tempering and justifying it. Paiam  isn’t just a controlling mother; Sarvet’s resistance is making that control seem more pronounced than it is. At first I saw Paiam as the clear antagonist, but I came to sympathize with her. This makes for a complex interaction between the two characters that rages almost completely in the subtext–very clever on Ney-Grimm’s part, and very effective. In fact, I sense that there’s a whole other story for Paiam, and I’d love to see her developed in another book.

Once the action gets moving, the reader is thrown into a wild set of circumstances that move further and further away from Sarvet’s familiar, tame world. It’s an escalation that nicely reflects the issues one faces in growing up; problems seem insurmountable until they’re not–and completely trivial in retrospect. There’s a certain shift in tone here as Sarvet goes from climbing  a mountain to living among pegasi, and it serves well to show the stark differences between youth and adulthood. The metaphor may not be subtle, but it fits.

(On a side note, one of my favourite things about Ney-Grimm’s work is her treatment of fantastical creatures. She definitely doesn’t disappoint here–the pegasi seem ethereal but remarkably wise and strong; gentle but fearsome; creatures of light and gauze that are somehow the most real things in the world.)

As usual, the worldbuilding in this book is quite well done. Ney-Grimm has built a cohesive “universe” in which most of her stories take place, and each book explores similar but unique facets. I was a bit confused by some of the terms early in the book–holidays referred to as “Other-joy” and “Lodge day”–but the meaning became apparent as I progressed through the story. After I finished the book, I read a post on Ney-Grimm’s blog that explains that this lack of background is intentional. I can see her point, and agree with it–the worst thing you can do in worldbuilding is to bog the reader down with details that are, to a point, window dressing.
Otherwise, the worldbuilding is handled very well. It’s subtle in the first few pages. There’s a lot of information presented in a laid back, almost conversational way. While it left some questions for me, there weren’t enough gaps that it hampered my understanding, and what questions I had were answered before I got halfway through. Readers less familiar with Ney-Grimm’s “world” may have more of a challenge, but it’s nothing that would impede.

The moral of the story–beyond the coming of age themes–seems almost Taoist: resistance can sometimes cause more problems than it solves. It’s okay to stand up for one’s principles, but it’s the stiff branch that breaks in the wind. On the other hand, flying with the wind allows you to master it. It’s a powerful lesson used to great effect.

In the end, I have nothing but good things to say about this book, and wonder why it took me so long to get to reading it. I’ve always enjoyed Ney-Grimm’s work, but I particularly like this book–it’s one I can imagine one day reading to my children at bed-time, a fantastical adventure with a strong moral lesson. Absolutely worth a read!

J.M. Ney Grimm writes fantasy with a Norse twist. You can find Sarvet’s Wanderyar and other books of hers on Amazon, Kobo. iTunes, and B&N. She’s also on Twitter, and keeps a blog on writing (and often cooking!).

Indie Review: Wrath of the White Tigress by David Alastair Hayden

One of my favourite genres to read is fantasy, and I’m partial to a certain sub-genre: sword and sandal. I love the Conan stories, and so I’ve been looking forward to a book that has a similar flavour: Wrath of the White Tigress by Davaid Alastair Hayden. Hayden has a unique flair for fantasy that’s pulpy in all the right ways. These are tales of sword and sorcery you would have found in Weird Tales or other magazines from the days of yore.

I don’t usually pull quotes from a book in a review, but I’ll do so here because it reflect the story so succinctly. It’s a conversation between the main character, Jaska, and his saviour.

“I’m thoroughly corrupt. I don’t deserve life.”
“You did evil, that’s true, but you weren’t in control of your actions, weren’t you?”
He shook his head. “I should have been.”

Jaska is a Palymphar, a sort of knightly order that ostensibly stands for right and honour–but which has become decadent, violent, and corrupt. Jaska is the worst of them, and his…indulgences…are legendary. As the book opens he’s sent by his master, Salahn, to capture the temple of the White Tigress, a powerful goddess which Salahn wishes to imprison. Jaska is waylaid by the high priestess of the temple, Zyrella. After an altercation with the White Tigress herself, Jaska is converted to the cause of rescuing her.

What follows is an adventurous romp involving a sea battle, spoiled cities, wolven creatures, oracles and prophecies, and lots of bloody battles. This book is just fun–but it’s also pretty hardcore. Hayden writes a series of young adult novels that take place in the same world, but White Tigress is certainly rated M for mature. There’s sex, blood and gore galore, and the book makes no apologies for it. But at the same time, I wouldn’t say it’s gratuitous–it fits in with the tropes of the genre (without the flagrant sexism of the Conan stories).

One thing that really stuck me about this book–and Hayden’s writing in general–is the amount of research that’s been put into it. It’s obvious that he has an affinity for Eastern culture, and things such as weaponry and meditation techniques feel authentic to the book, while serving as a respectful nod to the cultures that inspired them. Quite a lot went into the world building, (something I’ll touch on in an upcoming interview), and it comes through as a well thought out and vibrant setting. It lends a unique aura to the book; it’s not Persian or Indian or Chinese, but a cohesive combination of them all.

Also impressive is the way magic is presented. As I’ve mentioned before, Hayden uses an intriguing system of magic: spirits of  a long dead race have been captures in stones called Qarvra, which allow the wielder to command powerful spells. Some are more adept than others, and this gives a nice range of powers that can be tapped into. It’s an elegant system; all too often magic is used as a deus ex machina, but not here. It adds a crucial element to the book without becoming center stage.
Alongside the use of Qarvra is another system: Star magic. This is shown only once or twice, and it’s enticing–I certainly want to see more. Nalsyrra (who also appears in Hayden’s Chains of a Dark Goddess,) is Ojaka’ari, a mysterious creature who is granted extreme power by the Star Spirits. She’s in the service of Salahn, but her fealty is to the Star Spirits, who grant her the gift of prophecy. She’s a compelling character, and I wish she had been explored more fully, but what we have of her is tantalizing. But, to go into her story any further would have taken away from the book’s plot, and we couldn’t have that!

The characters are, by and large, great. Jaska is well written and the anguish over the choices he’s made in the past is a clear call to action; Zyrella is a sensual and strong woman who serves as a great foil for him; Ohzikar, a templar devoted to Zyerella, has a wonderful arc in his dealings with Jaska. Even characters with small roles like the oarsman who befriends Jaska or Nalsyrra’s lover are well developed and interesting.
There are some flaws, however. Salahn, despite being a great villain, is rather flat. He’s totally evil, and besides on small passage that shows a bit of redemption for him, he’s single minded. He’s easy to hate (good in a bad guy), but he’s not complicated. This is especially apparent because Jaska is such a wonderfully drawn and complex character.
There are also quite a lot of characters in the book. That’s to be expected for a story of this scale, but by the end of the book I found myself wanting to know more about interesting figures for which there’s little time for development.

The only other real issue I had was that at some points, the Point of View changed rather regularly within a chapter. This didn’t happen too often through the book, but when it did it was jarring; sometimes I wasn’t sure who was “leading” the story, and found myself going back a page or two. It doesn’t really disrupt the narrative, though, and if such passages were separated by some sort of divider it would have been crystal clear.

Finally, the ending. No spoilers, I promise! I rather liked how everything was tied up by the end; there’s a certain amount of tradgedy I didn’t see coming, and it fits the world and tone of the book very well. Sometimes things don’t turn out the way you want them to, even if you are a hero. It’s a well placed surprise, and one that rounded out a very enjoyable story.

All in all, Wrath of the White Tigress is what I’ve come to expect of Hayden’s work–thoughtful, exciting, and filled with adventure. There are a lot of nice little bits of worldbuilding here and there that really put a stamp on his style and voice. And it’s just plain fun–the fight scenes are awesome. Check it out!

 

Wrath of the White Tigress is available on Kobo and Amazon, along with several other great tales from the same world. You can also find David A. Hayden on Twitter, or on his own blog

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: 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.

Indie Review: Emperor’s Edge

I’m going to cheat a bit today–this Indie Review features not one, but five books. And, as this is going to be something of an overview, I’ll probably revisit each of them in time. But seeing as Lindsay Buroker is a large part of why I got into the Indie Writer’s community in the first place, I thought it was high time to review some of her work in depth (though I’ve touched on one of her short stories before).

Last summer, I received a free book from Kobo: a collection of short stories and excerpts from Indie writers designed to entice people into their new Kobo Writing Life publishing program. Buroker’s Ice Cracker II was the second story, and was easily the most memorable of the bunch. I found that the first book in the Emperor’s Edge series was free, so I picked it up and gave it a read. Making this book free is a stroke of brilliance on her part–it does a great job of drawing you into the story, and clearly sets up the next book–which explains the fervor of her fans, who wait with baited breath for each new entry.

The series concerns Amaranthe Lockdon, an Enforcer for the empire of Turgonia who finds herself on the wrong side of the law–not by choice, but by circumstance. She spends the series trying not only to redeem herself, but the names of her rag-tag teammates–not an easy feat considering one of them is the legendary and universally feared assassin, Sicarius. This quest for redemption is the overall arc of the series, but each book of course has its own unique plot.
There’s a common enemy too, though I won’t go into too much detail for the sake of spoilers. They’re known as Forge, and Buroker is great at giving just enough information about them book to book to keep the reader guessing–and wondering when it will all be revealed. What’s more, there’s no let down when much of it is revealed in book five, Blood and Betrayal. In the hands of a lesser writer, the revelation would have fallen flat with such a drawn out buildup; here, it’s satisfying and actually left me wanting to know even more. Which won’t be a problem for the work-in-progress book six, as book five lays down some tantalizing clues for what comes next.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I don’t want to give a book-by-book blow-by-blow; suffice it to say that it’s a great series, and well worth reading. Buroker is one of those Indie Writers who serves as an example to others–she’s made a comfortable name for herself already, and her stock is only going up. She’s one that new Indie Writers should be looking up to.

Back to the series. There’s a lot to like about these books, though I find them difficult to define. Most people would tell you they’re Steampunk/fantasy, but there are a lot of elements of detective/crime, romance, sci-fi and pulp adventure (in a good way) as well. And yet despite the mixing of genres, they don’t seem piecemeal at all; in fact, this diversity is a strength for the books. It shows that Amaranthe and company are adept as many different situations, and that Buroker is good at not writing her characters into pigeon holes. They’re versatile and always fresh–as is her writing style–and this versatility is a hallmark of the series as a whole. If I hesitate to categorize these books into a genre, I can safely say that whether you’re a fan of sword and sorcery, rom-coms, or 1950’s pulp scifi/adventure, you’ll find something to like here.

The setting is decidedly Steampunk, and this is probably the easiest way to define the books if you want to do that. Turgonia is a militaristic empire with a long Imperial history of war and conquest, which has taken precedence over the arts, business, or scientific advancement. But that’s changing. A new Emperor–Sespian–has been crowned, and though he’s too young to officially take the throne, he’s established a new paradigm that many of the more conservative people of the Empire find hard to swallow. While this conflict isn’t really at the heart of the series, it plays a large part, and serves nicely as a sort of “dynamic backdrop.” It causes ripples that affect the characters indirectly, and as the series progresses, those ripples get larger–or, rather, we start to see the turbulence beneath the waves.
The science of Turgonia is based, of course, on steam; you have trolleys that require a furnace, mechanical beasts guarding enemy hideouts, and stream trains galore. There’s also a healthy helping of the other trimmings one would associate with steampunk; swashbuckling fops, a system of magic that borders on science, great costumes, urchins and aristocrats. And did I mention a kraken? In addition to this, there’s an undercurrent of a mysterious alien technology. All of it makes for a vibrant and simply fun setting.

But the real strength of these books are the characters. Amaranthe is the perfect example of the type of female hero so desperately needed in fiction. She’s not helpless eye candy always in need of rescue, and she doesn’t depend on the male figures for her strength; in fact, the men in the books look to her for guidance, without her asking for such reverence. It’s simply earned, because she’s a strong, intelligent presence, and she knows what she’s doing. She has her faults, too, but even these turn into strengths in terms of the way she’s written. She’s impulsive, takes unneeded risks, and has been known to let her emotions get in the way of the mission. But none of these faults are because she’s a woman, like so many other women in fiction–they’re because she’s human. I have a lot of respect for Buroker for writing such a strong female character, and I hope to see a lot of writers follow in her footsteps.
Amaranthe’s counterpoint is the brooding and dangerous Sicarius, long ago the Emperor’s personal assassin, but now exiled with the coming of the new regime. He, too, is looking for redemption, though he doesn’t know it until Amaranthe comes along–or at least doesn’t believe it’s possible. Their relationship–and yes, there’s a certain romantic spark–is convoluted, mostly because Sicarius is so reluctant to express himself. He comes across as a cold, unfeeling killing machine, but the scenes he shares in private with Amaranthe are touching and sweet. The great thing about Sicarius is that he’s a well textured character–but only Amaranthe and the reader know it. He’s easily my favourite character in the series because of this, and I delight in every snippet of information we’re tossed as readers. The mystery is what drives his character, and that’s something I always enjoy–but there’s another layer here because despite the mystery, we get a clearer view of him than the other characters.

On a side note, I can’t help but imagine Sicarius as Wesley/The Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride. Which, I suppose, would make Basilard the giant Fezzik, with Maldynaldo cast as Inigo Montoya.

Which brings me to Amaranthe’s band of misfit teammates. As supporting characters, they’re remarkably well rounded, and they serve as a further counterpoint to Amaranthe and Sicarius. Akstyr is a young street kid with a criminal past who’s teaching himself the “mental sciences” (magic); Books is the…uh, bookish librarian who excels at research, but not so much in fighting; Maldynaldo is an unapologetic womanizing fop with a heart of gold (and knows it); and Bassilard is the mute muscle, erstwhile bouncer, and surprisingly good chef. There are other companions introduced in later books, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. All of them make a great team; they’re diverse enough that they stand well enough alone, but together their skills combine in surprising ways to get the job done.
The best part is how they relate to one another–Bassilard is a friend to all, though he distrusts Sicarius more than some; Maldynaldo makes a show of teasing everyone, including Amaranthe, though he’s not as shallow as he puts on; Akstyr refuses to show how much he cares, or how much he appreciates that others care, but hides it so poorly that everyone can see through him; and Books always seems uncomfortable, though you can tell there’s no place he’d rather be than at Amaranthe’s side. It’s a wonderful cast, and reading about them bickering or teasing or performing mundane tasks is half the fun of the series.
One of the things I like most about this series is that each book centers on one of these secondary characters, sharing the Point of View with Amaranthe. In their featured book, we get to see into that character’s thoughts and background in a much more intimate way, elevating them from secondary character to front runner. This has the result of making all of them seem like fully realized main characters, which is no small feat. It’s rare (George R. R. Martin and Stephen King being the only examples that come to mind) that a writer can have so many compelling characters sharing the spotlight without any of them seeming washed out. Characterization is certainly one of Buroker’s great strengths as a writer.

There’s an added bonus to these books–Buroker has started a second series based in the same “world,” 20 years earlier. I’ve only read the first book, Encrypted, which is about Tikaya Komitopis, a cryptographer (and another strong female character) who is sent on a mission to decrypt an alien artifact. This one focuses a bit more on romance, but there’s a fair amount of action and fun in the same vein as the Emperor’s Edge novels. And, a certain young assassin makes an appearance as well. Recently another novella–Enigma–was published in this series, and a sequel to Encrypted is coming soon.
I love it when writers visit their world through different characters and viewpoints because it gives the reader a much more rounded view of the setting. Any story has to concentrate on something “world changing,” otherwise it’s not worth telling–but this can throw a pair of blinders on the reader as they concentrate on the only story being told. When a writer examines the other side of the story, the world suddenly becomes much more real. David Alastair Hayden and J. M. Ney-Grimm are other examples of writers who do this well.

So there you have it. It’s only touching the surface of these wonderful books, but as I said, I hope to revisit them individually here for a more thoughtful review. In the meantime, I hope this serves as a decent overview, enough at least to convince you to check them out if you haven’t already.

You can find Lindsay Buroker at her blog, or on Twitter. Her books are on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords,  and Kobo–and the first book, The Emperor’s Edge, is free!

What’s in a Name?

by Alan O’Rourke, c/o Flikr

Holden Caulfield. Romeo, Desdemona and Falstaff. James Tiberius Kirk. There are certain names in fiction that just stand out. They become more than just a name; they share an identity with the character, add an air of personality of mystery, or even imply a metaphor that evokes a deeper meaning to the character. They’re crucial in good fiction–a good character name might computer a reader’s attention, but a great name will capture their imagination.

I was thinking this week about fellow Indie Writers, and the names they use for their characters. There are tons of great examples.
Ryan Casey’s main character in What We Saw is named Liam, a common enough name for its English setting. To a Canadian like myself, it was just different enough from what I’m used to that it stood out, even above the other very English characters. Liam is familiar, but sufficiently unique to be set apart from the others in the book–just as it should be for a main character.
Lindsay Buroker has a litany of great character names; Sicarius, Maldynado, Amaranthe and Basilard are really colourful names that each evoke their separate personalities. When you read the Emperor’s Edge books and first come across these characters, you get the impression that they couldn’t be named anything else.
In Brian Rathbone’s Call of the Herald, we come across Catrin Volker. It’s a name that seems common and ordinary–but there’s an almost thrumming power beneath it, and it’s just different enough from ‘Catherine’ that it sounds exotic; fitting for a fantasy novel set in a world like ours, but only just.
David Alastair Hayden’s Chains of a Dark Goddess has some wonderfully exotic names that have a very Latin feel. There’s no doubt that the world of Pawan Kor is a fantastical one, but giving the names a Roman theme gives the book a firm military feel. In a way, the names are as much a part of the World Building than his description of how magic works.
Some of my favourite character names come from J.M. Ney-Grimm. Her books have a mythic Norse feel to them, and the names are evocative of that. Just like Hayden, her names are a part of the World Building. When you come across names like Sarvet, Elspeth, and Gefnen, you know what you’re getting into.

But why do these names work? I think the prime point is choosing a name that describes your character, to a point. Buroker’s Sicarius is a case in the point: Sicarius is Latin for Assassin, his role in the story. Yet that’s something that most readers wouldn’t know, or wouldn’t think to look up; it stands as a great name because even when a reader does figure it out, it only adds to the character. Caitrin is another good example–you can almost parse out her name and use it as a rough character sketch. She’s a common girl who’s rather suddenly (and unexpectedly) granted enormous power; Catrin is an unassuming name, but Volker sounds important, almost virile.

When I try to think of character names, I often start with a character sketch, and pick one or two words that sum up their personality, or their role in the story. One of my first major characters was Sojo (the “j” pronounced as a soft “y”). He was a nomad, never settling in one place–a sojourner. I think it’s a bit obvious now and have put him aside in favour of a new protagonist, Tobias Osir. Tobias is a character taken from the Apocryphal Book of Tobit, where we walks with the Archangel Raphael in a spiritual journey–much like Osir will in Tapestry. Alkut (my main protagonist) and Ahbinzur (another protagonist) are taken from the Kabbalah; Malkuth is the Kingdom of Earth, the beginning of the spiritual journey where one is concerned more with worldly things than enlightenment. Binah is Understanding, or a special kind of insight. As represented by the Queen of Swords in the Tarot, Ahbinzur fits that bill pretty well.

But having a name that means something isn’t enough. It has to be catchy, memorable, and most of all, easy to pronounce. J. M. Ney-Grimm makes a good point:

It’s a good thing to keep in mind: if your reader can’t pronounce the name after seeing it a few times, chances are they’ll give up and gloss over it from then on–and this can cause them to distance from the character. Or, at the least, not to get as invested as they could have been. Even worse, a dedicated reader might stop and figure out how to pronounce it whenever they come across it; until they get it, they’re taking themselves out of the world of the book, and that’s a bane for a writer.

Most of the examples here are fantasy books, and there’s more leeway as mentioned above. But you don’t want to make them too exotic. Once again, if a reader can’t relate to the characters’ name, they’re not going to relate with the character–that goes for place names as well. A name should always be something at least vaguely recognizable, so there’s an inherent connection to the reader. George R. R. Martin is a master at this; almost all of his character names are subtle variations of names we’re familiar with–recognizable, but just different enough that we know he’s not writing in our world.

So where do you find names?

Scrivener has a name app built into the program; you give it a certain number of parameters, and it’ll cough out a bunch of names. As much as I love the program, I’ve personally never found this feature useful–but then, I like names that mean something, so Scrivener isn’t going to give me anything I’ll like anyway. J. M. Ney-Grimm suggests looking up lists of foreign names, and this can work well too. You’ll likely come up with something your reader isn’t familiar with, and that’s a name that will stick out. Just keep in mind that those names may be foreign to you, but they won’t be foreign to all readers.
I also like to use Google Translate and the Anagram Server at Wordsmith.org. If you want a certain cultural feel, Translate is great; pick a few choice words, punch them through to a different language, and play with the results. The Anagram Server is a bit less useful, as it will only give you real words–still, it can spur your creative juices. That’s where I came up with Ahbinzur (the “zur” is a suffix given to mages of a certain caste in my World).
Another great source, of course, are baby name books. There are scores of websites that give baby name lists, so I won’t even begin to list them here. For the same reasons noted above, this isn’t my favourite source, but it’s useful.

But in the end, there’s one overwhelming reason to choose one name over another, especially for your main characters: they have to be simple. They have to roll off the tongue, stick in your reader’s memory. You want a name, like those at the beginning of this article–not only memorable, but evocative of your story as a whole. If your character’s name can’t be separated from the story, your readers won’t forget either.

Next week, look for another Indie Writer Review–this time of David Alastair Hayden’s Who Walks in Flame!

Roll a D20 for Inspiration

d20 by Janetgalore, c/o Flikr

Last week, I talked about how I like to draw on roleplaying games for inspiration in creating characters, so I thought it would be fun to follow up this week with the other end of things–the Game Master.

For those of you who haven’t played an RPG, the Game Master (or Dungeon Master in D&D parlance) is the one who runs the adventure for the players. Their job is to build encounters with enemies to fight, scatter treasure for the players to find, and develop a plot for them to follow. You can see where this is going: the GM is, essentially, a storyteller weaving a compelling story for the players to play through. You can see why this is appealing for a writer.

This past weekend, I had the chance to sit down with a group I used to play D&D with. I haven’t had a lot of time to play with them lately, but had a free evening on Saturday, so I dropped in. The GM whipped up a One Shot so I could play without disrupting the overall arc of their story, came up with a nice plot hook for my character to be thrown into the action, and we were off.

The story was quite clever: my character Arranis was frantically wandering through the forest trying to collect herbs for a potion that would help heal a young boy. I ran into the other adventurers, who came back with me to the village, where we discovered that the boy–Timothy–was ill because their family couldn’t afford proper medical care. The town they were living in was controlled by a tyranical man who was taxing them to death, and cared for nothing but himself. When we tried to confront him, we were intercepted by a ghost in heavy chains who told us our villain–Abanezer–would be visited by three spirits hoping to convince him to change his ways; our job was to make sure the good spirits could do their job without interference, and we spent the evening fighting off foes who wanted Abanezer to stay as evil as he was.

Sound familiar?

This is what I enjoy so much about role playing. Even a well known story can provide a fun backdrop for adventure. Some of you may have seen the recent episode of The Big Bang Theory or read the Penny Arcade comics of the past weeks, and it’s the same idea. Take a story, spin it into an adventure, and hack/slash away. Our GM was able to lead us through a compelling plot, and we, as players, were able to affect the story through our actions.

Game Mastering is a particular skill, but it’s closely related to writing. You want to have Plot Hooks for your characters, motivations for them to want to move the plot forward, tension and action to keep them interested, and–most importantly–a backup plan in case your characters go widely off the path you’ve set out. Most of you know all too well what happens when a character or plot gets out of control and you need to write yourself out of a corner. Usually, it leads the plot into wonderful territory you never considered, and (for me anyway) that’s part of the magic of writing.

I once ran a solo game for someone who wanted to learn the World of Darkness system. It’s a game that focuses on horror and supernatural elements in a “real world” setting, so it has a much more tangible feel to it. We had a great time playing what amounted to a short piece of fiction–effectively, we were living out the story, I as the narrator, and he as the protagonist. This specific game is actually part of what got me back into writing after a (too) long hiatus, and (with the player’s permission) I’ve started work on it as a novella called The Road to Hell. Look for it to be released sometime in 2013.

I can’t say that I’m an experienced Game Master–I’ve really only dipped my toe–but the games I ran did make me a better writer. And, I like to think, vice versa. It’s all about weaving a story, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that a lot of writers would be good at running an RPG–or that GMs or players would find they’re good at writing. The people I played with last weekend are a great example–one of the players (who was actually the first DM I played with) had a successful turn at NaNoWriMo this year, in fact.

RPGs certainly aren’t for everyone. For some people they seem downright silly. But if you’re a writer, I’d urge you to at least give it a shot–you might be surprised with what you find. And if you’re a DM who stumbled upon this post and have never written a word–try it. You never know.

I could talk at length about RPGs…and might do more posts on the topic as related to writing. In the meantime, I’ll let others speak for me. Here’s a few links for you:

  • Critical Hit: A terrific podcast by the folks at Major Spoilers. It’s an ongoing game that started as a great tutorial for one player, and got even more awesome from there. Really, go listen–you can find them on iTunes.
  • Dragon’s Temple: Julio Nicolini is a writer and fellow player from Myth Weavers who has his own blog. He talks about RPGs and writing, and often posts excerpts of his work.
  • Penny Arcade: These guys talk about video games, comics, RPGs and all things GeekTheir comic often deals with Dungeons and Dragons, and the crew gets together with Wizards of the Coast once a year to play a game with the indomitable Wil Wheton–which you can also find on iTunes.
  • Myth Weavers: This is a “Play by Post” site where you can play a variety of RPGs online. It’s a great community, and very friendly to newcomers.
  • Wizards of the Coast:Makers of Dungeons and Dragons and other games.
  • White Wolf Publishing: Makers of the World of Darkness game, and others–including Vampire, Werewolf and Mage.

Thanks everyone for reading along these past few months. With the holiday season fast upon us, I won’t be posting here again until January–next week will be a bit busy. So Happy Holidays and New Year!

Scrivener Templates

Scrivener Templates: making creating easier.

I don’t have a whole lot of time today to post, but in the interest of keeping my schedule, I promised myself I’d write something. So I’ve got a quick idea I’ve wanted to talk about for a while, but never found the right space for it: Scrivener Templates.

If you’re not using Scrivener for your writing, check it out. It’s amazing. It’s basically a more powerful version of your word processor–not only can you write in it, it will help you organize your thoughts, plot out your story, and convert everything into a manuscript or eBook at the end. It’s an extremely versatile program.

One of the things I like most about Scrivener is the way it helps you organize your work. Whether you’re writing a short story or a trilogy of novels, Scrivener can help you keep everything in one place. Along the left side of the program is the Binder, a collection of collapsible folders which is the backbone of your project. You have your manuscript (divided into scenes), notes for characters and places, and all your research.

 

Binder Closeup

What I want to touch on today is the Templates. At the bottom of your binder is a folder that has some templates. You can right click to duplicate one, and save it as a character or place. Then, just fill in the details and you have a succinct sketch of your characters and places. Easy.

I used to write as I went–by which I mean I let my characters develop as I wrote, without having decided ahead of time too much about them. This still works for me to a point–I love being surprised when my characters do something I didn’t plan for–but for the most part, you want to have all of that laid out in front of you when you’re starting a new project. It’s fine to have a general idea, but the deeper your characters are when you start writing, the easier you’ll find it to create three dimensional characters. And, to use an old writer’s cliche, places should be characters in your stories too–so treat them the same way.

Here I’ve filled out the template with the basics for Ahbinzur, one of my main characters. She’s a complex one, so I definitely wanted to have something down before I wrote too much of her. As you can see, the template is pretty straight forward: give the name, a physical description, personality traits, and so on. Something I found really helpful was an entry on Internal and External conflicts, one of the most important ways to make a fully fleshed out character. The things the template asks you to think about seem redundant–why should I have to write down what she looks like? I already know that–but they’re also easy to miss.

Doing a Place template is much the same. Far beyond what the setting looks like, you’ll think about what the sights, sounds and smells are, any special features you want to include, an so on. Getting it all out on paper makes inventing a living, breathing setting so much simpler.

Well, there you are. It’s a simple tool–really, it’s nothing more than a form you’re filling out–but oh so important. Something like this should go without saying, but missing these details will squash your book flatter than pancake–so hy not take advantage of it? As usual, Scrivener is taking the guesswork out of your project for you–all you have to do is hammer out the details, then sit back and write.

 

Tapestry–A New Project, and a Sample

All Sizes

Image by shutterhacks

While I’m in the midst of planning the marketing and production of my upcoming collection–The Astrologers and Other Stories–I’m also continuing to write. I have a file on the memo app on my phone that teems with story ideas, and one of them is particularly exciting for me.

Those of you who read The Astrologers (which you can find here, here, and here), will have an idea about the World of this project. The setting is one I created many years ago, but my planned novel never got finished. The Astrologers is a stand alone story I wrote partly in the hopes of rejuvenating that world–and it worked. The ideas started flooding in, and now I’ve pencilled out an outline for a large project.

It starts two hundred years before the time of my planned novel–which I still plan to write one day–and The Astrologers. I wanted to explore the backstory of my World, and in the process, help build it. I’m also planning on featuring a favourite character of mine, the Prophet Osir–a character that never appears in the aforementioned novel, but is a significant figure in its mythology. Now, I get to tell his story.

The project–tentatively titles Tapestry–will be written in three phases. Phase one is a collection of sixteen short stories, each working as character studies; they will be released in four sets, each between 8000 and 10,000 words long

Phase two will consist of four novellas, each following the story revealed through the earlier character studies. These stories are interrelated, and some scenes from Phase one will be revisited from other viewpoints, or otherwise expanded upon.

Phase three will be a longer novel that concentrates on Tobias Osir, a young soldier in the army who is caught in the middle of a religious and political war. Osir is forced to question his faith and his place in the world. It will follow him from his naive beginnings to…well, you’ll just have to read it.

In the end, we’ll have nine separate stories, each interrelated and connected to each other: a true literary tapestry. There’s a specific structure behind this–but we’ll talk about that another time. In the meantime, here’s a sample: the opening of the series. Let me know what you think in the comments!

 

Garden

Lamplight flickered, and shadows danced on the wall. Verdant silence filled the halls, and the only movement was the opening of the door to the Empress’s chambers. A dark form slipped out and closed the door behind him with a soft click. Alkut stopped for a moment, listening; content that he was alone, he sneaked quietly away. He did not notice her son, Ohmelus, General  of the Court, watching him.

****

Metedre fell upon the door as it closed, resting her forehead on the rough wood. A heavy sigh shook her shoulders, and yet she wore a faint smile; these encounters were always bittersweet. She bit a lip. More sweet than bitter tonight.
But the guilt would come. It haunted the dark, sang refrains in her mind as she held court with her Emperor. She never ceased to marvel that he didn’t know—or if he did know, that he didn’t care. She would be naïve to think that it was as well a kept secret as she wished, and that thought kept her continually on edge.
And yet she would not deny herself. Tauri was cold, distant—he had an empire to rule, and had no time for her. She had known that even before they were married. She had but one role as Empress: continue the line. That she had, with Ohmelus, and though more heirs would be welcome, her function had been served. Tauri had little to do with her, nor should he. His eyes were on the governance of the realm.
When Alkut’s footsteps receded out of earshot, she stepped away from the door and padded her way, barefoot, to the window overlooking her garden. A small marble bench sat by the sill, and she wrapped her robe more tightly around herself as she sat. For once, the breeze was cool tonight. The soft caress was welcome.
She did not love him, and he had as much as admitted that he had no love for her. Their…arrangement was mutually beneficial, and that was all. Occasionally, she revelled in the thought that all she need do was give the word, and he—and his temptations—would be removed. She need not expend any further thought on the matter, and no one would dare ask questions, even tell the Emperor if she bade them not to. Her quandary would be erased. But then, Alkut served not only to warm her bed. He was critical to the Empire’s survival.
The breeze wafted through the window and brought with it a scent of jasmine. They had been imported from Tornum at her request—and no little expense—and had become one of her greatest pleasures. It was a slave for an overwrought mind, and always served to bring her back down to earth.
Tauri had acted interested when she asked for the flowers, and the Court did as they always did, applauding his decision despite the cost. In the end, it had been to him little more than an opportunity; he’d had the flowers planted all through Ais for the populace to enjoy, and spoke at length about the benefits of bringing such beauty to the normally hot and dry city. Indeed, the white blooms had infested the city, and everyone praised the wisdom of the Emperor for bringing such life to their veritable desert. Not a word was spoken about her own involvement, but that was immaterial. She relished in the people’s enjoyment, and was happy that her own request had benefited them.
Still, she was the only one in Ais with a full garden. Many of the richer caste had flowers in their yard, even grass and fountains—but not a real garden like hers. It was a great indulgence in a realm with more sands than people, and the resources it took to cultivate and maintain the plants was considerable, but nobody begrudged her. Occasionally she held lavish public parties in her garden, welcoming everyone, regardless of caste or wealth. The people often called her The Jasmine Empress because of it, and celebrated her generosity. No regent of the Empire had ever done this for the people, and she knew she would be remembered for it long after she turned to dust. It was a legacy that gave her more pleasure than that of the Tauri line ever could.
The parties were becoming more frequent, and more necessary. Her people had fallen on difficult times; populations grew while resources grew thin, and there seemed to be more problems than pleasures. Her garden had become a bastion of peace, a refuge where people could forget their cares, if even for a short time. Something about the verdant growth entrances the Ozym; they felt grounded in her garden, rooted. She liked to think that being connected to the land gave them a new perspective of their problems—that they were fleeting, however taxing, that these blossoms, properly tended, would outlast all of their problems. She wanted this garden to become a symbol for her people, a sign that the problems of their material world mattered much less than the wonders of the world around them. This garden, she hoped, would continue thriving long after all of them had turned to dust.
She smiled at the thought, her indiscretions of the evening almost forgotten. Then, gazing dreamily out the window, she caught a flutter of movement in her garden, and a small gnomish figure stepped out of a copse of trees. Metedre stood at once, and fled to the door. The Crone had news.