Reflections on fantasy, SF, writing, music, technology, life…

Which are the best fantasy series?

My daughter, Holly, who is a fellow fantasy fan, has just pointed me at Paste Magazine‘s list of “The 30 Best Fantasy Book Series of All Time”.

I am currently reading Holly’s Christmas present to me: Joe Abercrombie’s “First Law” trilogy. I am on the final book and thoroughly enjoying the characterisation and each PoV’s distinctive “voice” so am pleased to see this is deservedly on the list. If you have not read it yet – it is strongly recommended.

Looking at the rest of the list, it is good to see Ursula Le Guin’s “Earthsea cycle” on there, as well as Anne McCaffery’s “Dragonriders of Pern” (long a personal favourite) and Robin Hobb’s “Realm of the Elderlings” (which I discovered and enjoyed last year) alongside the expected entries such as LOTR, Harry Potter and Discworld.

I am more ambiguous about George RR Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” now. I really enjoyed the first three books but by the fifth never found the energy to finish it as it seemed too sprawling and, by leaving out half the parallel story lines, I missed some of the more interesting characters.

There were some series I would not have included (such as “Narnia” and “Thomas Covenant” in particular) but these lists are always about personal choices and not everyone’s taste is the same.

The really good thing about such a list is that it also showed a number of series I have thought about reading but have yet to delve into (Stephen King’s “Dark Tower”, Brandon Sanderson’s “Mistborn”, Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time”, Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files”) and it is difficult to decide where to start!

Then there are those I have no sense of yet… “The Gentleman Bastard Sequence” by Scott Lynch caught my eye, as did “The Kingkiller Chronicle” by Patrick Rothfuss, “Malazan Book of the Fallen” by Steven Erikson and “The Night Angel Trilogy” by Brent Weeks.

Then there’s a decision as to whether I try yet another Arthurian cycle with Stephen R. Lawhead’s “The Pendragon Cycle”. I really enjoyed Arthurian works when I was much younger but felt I had overdosed on them and have not sought them out for many a year yet this series gets a good recommendation.

Help! Any advice on priorities? Any opinions on what you think are best?

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Review: “Self-editing for Fiction Writers”

Late last year I made the decision to undertake a proper edit of my first novel, “Rose In Winter”, which has waited in the twilight zone between second or third draft for over a year. To help me tackle this, my family gave me two books on editing for Christmas. The first, reviewed here, is “Self-editing for Fiction Writers – How to edit yourself into print” by Renni Browne and Dave King, both professional editors.

I think it is fair to say I have learnt something useful from each chapter. These are:

    Show and Tell
    Characterisation and Exposition
    Point of View
    Dialogue Mechanics
    See How it Sounds
    Interior Monologue
    Easy Beats
    Breaking Up is Easy to Do
    Once is Usually Enough

As someone who has struggled with writing natural sounding dialogue and with finding the unique voice for the different characters, I suspect those two sections will be the most useful but the tips and all the chapter summaries have proved their value already.

Strongly recommended if you are having problems with editing!

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Review: “Snuff Tag 9” by Jude Hardin

This crime / thriller is the third in a series about an ex-musician turned private eye / security consultant called Nicholas Colt. I picked it up through a Kindle offer as I thought the idea intriguing: someone turns a computer survival game called “Snuff Tag 9” into a real-life challenge to survive. However, I was sadly disappointed by the end result. I am reviewing more as an analysis of why it did not work.

The story set-up is straight-forward. Nicholas Colt, the protagonist, dismisses the threat in a letter brought to him by a new client but, for the money, checks out the invitation to participate in the game (with dire threats if not accepted). He finds his client killed and himself substituted to participate. The main problem with this is that the story is told in first person from his point of view so the reader knows he will survive, dampening a lot of the effect, and being about how, not if, he will survive.

The antagonist is a bored billionaire who refers to himself as Freeze, the ultimate control character in the game. However, rather than interesting he is just a two-dimensional selfish psychopath with too much money and who never comes alive as a character, instead wavering between stereotype and caricature.

The late-entering ninth character in the game, we are told, is someone significant to at least one of the players. Given Colt is a late substitute and the weakest player in the line-up, not expected by Freeze to survive the first day, why are both candidates for the role people close to him? Because the plot needs it, I guess and strikes as lazy writing.

While Colt’s back story is well brought in for readers like me entering part-way through the series, the same points about his past are brought up several times in the story. This is another irritant with the story: the repetition is not just back story either. As one reads this novel whole paragraphs are rephrased and re-used sometimes back-to-back. To repeat the point as laboriously as the author, he says the same thing a different way without adding new information. Why? It is more lazy writing, as if Hardin is padding the story to reach a word count. Given this is professionally published novel, what happened to the editor? Given the repetition is worse and more noticeable the further one gets through the story, it is as if the editor was under time pressure and skipped or got fed up at eliminating it.

All in all, a disappointing read but it must give hope to new writers that if this can get published professionally the barriers to entry are not as high as one expected!

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Review: “Darkspire Reaches” by C N Lesley

This novel is a delightful read – the sort one has to sneak back to read another chapter while knowing there are other things that one really should be doing!

I had the same feeling when I read this novel as I did when I first read “Dragonflight” by Anne McCaffrey many years ago. (A word of explanation: I see there are some parallels – the wyvern for the dragon; the fire-drake for the fire-lizard ; the strong, young, female protagonist is a girl treated initially as a drudge {Raven, Lessa} – BUT they are very different stories in very different milieu. Darkspire Reaches is a fantasy through and through, with magic and transformations, whereas Pern is an SF world.)

My point is that both are well-written and have excellent world-building and that is why I draw the link: within “Darkspire Reaches” I encountered a world I want to go back to, so I can find out more about the Angressi, their conflict with the First Born and the strange world of the Drakken. There is much hinted at, such as the rise of the Emperor Chactar or the Shangrove and Samara Maidens, that could be a story in itself and this adds to the richness of the story since one experiences this as part of a much larger environment not a flimsy theatre set constructed solely to carry this novel.

The story in Darkspire Reaches has a good plot and structure, starting out quiet and focused, in a country cottage with Margie, the local “witch”, and her fosterling, Raven. As Raven’s (and the reader’s) view of the world expands, we become aware of how different she is. The story moves swiftly from the local village and torments of its youngsters, on to the Emperor’s city and then for Raven to make contact with her own people. We see Raven propelled by fear, prejudice, manipulation and politics from a sheltered environment into what is a conflict between races where suspicion rules but help is found in unexpected places.

Raven learns to question friendship and the motivation of others as she starts to experience her world as it really is. This is an adult fantasy, which does not pull its punches.

Add to a strong plot and milieu a couple of very well-drawn ‘point of view’ characters whose misunderstandings of each other, and the mistrust this creates, lead to further confusion and conflict. With a number of other key characters – helping or hindering – met along the way we see good characterisation is another of the author’s strengths.

My one complaint with “Darkspire Reaches” is that I finished it too quickly and there is so much more I want to know about the world, the wyvern and the characters. This story is complete and stand-alone but I can see the potential for further stories filling in background, plus a sequel to Raven and Connor’s story. (After all, there is a good precedent: just look at how many Pern stories we ended up with!)

Highly recommended.

Note: “C N Lesley” is the pen name of Elizabeth Hull.
The book is published by Kristell Ink and is also available from Amazon for the Kindle.

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SF review: “To Die A Stranger” by Jilly Paddock

Jilly Paddock’s novel-length story has been on my “to read” list ever since I read her excellent “The Spook and the Spirit in the Stone”. The “spook” of that off-world crime thriller is a creepy “agent-pair”, an intriguing concept of a Terran spy with super-human psi powers. I wanted to know exactly what is an “agent-pair”?

“To Die A Stranger” provides the answer by taking us to near the start of the development on Earth of “agent-pairs” – the linking of humans with strong psi capabilities with AI units – at the Delany Computer Corporation, a manufacturer of advanced computers which is working on a secret programme for the Terran government.

All this is not really a spoiler, since this information comes out relatively early in following the life of Anna-Marie Delany, daughter of the owner of the Delany corporation, and who also lives a pretend life as Amaranth, a holo-drama actress. There is a nice teaser in the intro to Part 1: “…and this is the story of her death.” We then go into Anna-Marie’s first person narrative.

Based on “The Spook” and the intro I had been expecting another crime thriller but, while the story has some of these elements, this story is more an entertaining “space opera”. Following a horrific air-car crash, Anna-Marie, disfigured and with her acting alter-ego killed off, becomes linked to a recalcitrant AI manufactured by her father’s firm and the story becomes a chase thriller, with our protagonists hassled by a shadowy Earth Intelligence unit, full of dirty tricks. The pursuit then takes up most of the rest of the story, moving swiftly from Earth to planets in other parts of the galaxy.

The way the psi powers work and the easy interstellar travel combined with the whole traditional SF tone of the story reminds me of some of the SF romps from the 1950s and 1960s. Its style feels to me not as if written by Isaac Asimov but rather as in the tradition of stories by Eric Frank Russell, who had a light touch and more humour in his tales. This is not a criticism, I thoroughly enjoyed Russell’s work, which I consider to have been under-rated.

In conclusion, recommended as a light but good traditional escapist SF story. It is available for download through Amazon UK:
Jilly Paddock – To Die A Stranger
Or, in Amazon USA:
Jilly Paddock – To Die A Stranger

So now, having found out about Agent-Pairs, I’m waiting for the next Afton and Jerome story!

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Review: “Bruno: Chief of Police” by Martin Walker

This novel, the first of a series, is set in the Dordogne area of South west France, the next major river valley north of where my family lives. The book itself was recommended to me by a local English friend and I had been hoping to find a great new series to read, based in an area I know well.

The first book in the series is only £1.80 for a Kindle download from Amazon so it was a good way to sample without splashing £7 on a paperback. I was even able to start reading on the Sunday it was recommended to me, deep in South West France. The internet is a wonderful tool for instant gratification.

To the story, which I went to read WANTING to like, yet I came away disappointed.

Probably the most important thing in a crime novel is the plot, and this works so I was able to read this through to the end. It is the story of a typical sleeping rural town, where there is a murder that appears to be a hate crime. Of course, nothing is that simple and the investigation unfolds down through a number of twists and turns, relatively conventional but to a clear conclusion.

Martin Walker, a Guardian journalist, lives part of the year in the Dordogne so I assumed the research and setting would be up to scratch. It is, but in a way that makes it one of two weaknesses of the novel; the other being the characterisation. Had I not known that Walker had published a previous novel I would have assumed this is a first novel, with the associated faults and weaknesses.

The two main problems go hand in hand. The best way I can describe them is to say this story is “murder in ‘A Year In Provence'”. There are lots of colourful French characters but they verge on or move into caricature. Most irritating is the new head of the Gendamerie for the Commune, who does not develop and is merely there to be a persistent hurdle the protagonist, Bruno Courrèges, must overcome at every step of the investigation. I did like Bruno, Chief of Police because he is the only local policeman in the town, but most of the villagers who appear as characters were two-dimensional.

The setting itself is a typical rural town in the area but rather than letting it unfold naturally, with French terminology the reader can look up if they don’t recognise it, every time a new term is introduced it is explained, interrupting the flow and making it feel like one is reading a travel guide not a novel.

It is true I have an advantage over many readers in that I am familiar with the local structures and political complexities and rivalries between the various police forces in France but many of the target audience could have a passing knowledge from news and holidays in France. Description and information should not be at the cost of the flow of the story and to the level where it is intrusive and irritating.

Another irritant was the black-and-white antipathy of the villagers to Government bureaucracy in Paris and Brussels. It felt like we were being treated to the author’s prejudices rather than a rounded view. After all, the rural farmers expressing their ire are the same French small farmers who do so very nicely out of the EU agricultural support mechanisms – yet that never had a mention. The few English characters, well-to-do and single – one becomes the ‘love interest’, seem to be there more for an English audience than because they serve a really necessary part of the story.

So, all in all, disappointing. A rating of 3 out of 5 – I finished it. But with the rest of the series all being over a fiver on Kindle download I will not be investing in more of the series. A shame because, as I said, I really wanted to like this.

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Review: “2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love” by Rachel Aaron

This brief (novella length) e-Book has to be the most useful “how to write” book I have read in a long time. Written by fantasy author Rachel Aaron, it is clear, straightforward and pretty easy to follow as a writing method.

Having struggled to wrangle the first draft of my first novel into shape all I can say is I wish I had read it before starting writing… but I’m glad I have now read it before starting on another novel!

The author shows how she went from writing 2k to 10k words a day while producing a five volume fantasy epic. Part 1 focuses on the triangle of knowledge, time and enthusiasm. While the word-count levels Rachel achieves sounded high to me initially the book reveals the amount of preparation, planning and working out that goes in beforehand – knowledge of what one will write. These are word counts while actually writing the novel rather than something achieved every day. That is not to diminish what she achieves but to highlight that her method is to be well-prepared by working out plot outline, character sketches, time-line and setting before starting to write. This approach avoids meandering off and ensures focus while writing. Good time management supports this, as does enthusiasm – if the writer is not enjoying what they are writing why are they doing it? What is the likelihood their readers will enjoy the final product?

Part 2 is longer and gives a chapter by chapter focus on the topics of plot, characters who write their own story, structure, making each scene count and, finally, editing. Each chapter gave me ideas on how better to approach my next writing project. How to edit more effectively also gives me hope for also being able to salvage my first novel!

Rachel Aaron’s method is very structured throughout so may not appeal to all writers. In the chapter looking at the three act structure she refers to herself as a “story architect” (rather than a “whimsical artist”). However, even those looking for a looser approach will, I believe, find value in this book, if not during the story creation then during the editing stage.

It is nice to see that the author is also an advocate of Scrivener, my favourite writing tool. She provides some tips to use it more effectively within her method. For me, it has changed how I use the outliner mode to make use of chapter word counts and the synopsis feature as a scene map.

At an Amazon UK price of just 77 pence (or 99 cents in US) this e-book is ridiculously cheap – if you own a Kindle and want to write (any genre not just fantasy and SF) then I strongly recommend it.

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