Yearly Archives:: 2014

Fantasy Review: ‘The Healers’ Road’ by S E Robertson

December 25, 2014 Review 0

This is an unusual book. Yes, yes, I know I specialise in unusual books; not for me the dull old treadmill of mainstream popular works. I read stuff you’ve never heard of. But this book is special: I came across it on a forum where the author lamented that she’d only sold… no, let’s not put a number on it. Let’s just say: not very many. So this is a book that nobody has ever heard of.

So what’s it about? Well, let me tell you first what it’s not about. It’s not about saving the world. It’s not about finding the lost heir to the kingdom. There’s no quest, no named sword, no moustache-twirling villain, no prophecy. There are no orcs, dwarves, elves or goblins. No dragons, either, sadly (every fantasy book should have dragons, in my opinion, but there you go). There are no witches, werewolves, vampires.

OK, I hear you saying, so what the **** IS in it, then? People, that’s what. No, not characters, these are real, flesh-and-blood people, who happen to live in the pages of a book. They have histories and personalities, they have weaknesses and strengths, they have beliefs, hopes and dreams, fears and uncertainties. You know, just like everyone.

Here’s the premise. Agna is a young healer from a rich family in Nessiny, trained to use magic to heal. Sent to a foreign land to repay her training in service to others, she joins a caravan of merchants and craftspeople travelling through the towns and villages. Keifon is an army-trained medic from Yanwei, deeply religious but with his own demons, assigned to be her partner. She thinks he’s surly and rude. He thinks she’s a spoiled rich brat.

And herein lies the whole story: two very different people, from vastly different backgrounds, who have to learn not only to work together, as healers with diametrically opposed methods, but also to live together under the basic conditions of the caravan. It’s not so much what happens that’s interesting, but how: the almost imperceptible inching towards an accommodation, the delicate dance around each other.

If you’re looking for a book filled with action, or any action at all, you won’t find it here. There is perhaps only one moment that qualifies in the whole book. But if you’re looking for something deeper, a painting in words, if you like, where every tiny moment, every glance or touch or word is a perfectly nuanced brush-stroke, this is the book for you. If ever you wanted to know what literary fantasy looks like, this is it. A wonderful book. Five stars.


Ode to Amazon

December 24, 2014 General 0

Once upon a time, Christmas was easy. I didn’t even think about it until mid-December, and then I went out and bought three presents: one for my mother, one for my father and one for my older sister. Price wasn’t an issue, I bought whatever my pocket money could cover (yes, this is pre-history, folks).

Wind forward a few years, and there were husbands and children and in-laws and their children, and things got more complicated. The number of presents and Christmas cards multiplied geometrically, the list of Things To Be Done got longer and longer, and it all became rather fraught. There was one memorable year when I bought and wrapped and (mostly) parcelled up and shipped halfway round the world 56 separate presents. I hated Christmas.

I learned to cope. I started early, in October, making the Christmas cake, and making lists (lots of lists). I discovered mail order catalogues, so I ordered stuff without leaving the house. I still had to wrap and parcel and post, but it was better. Computer printed address labels helped with the cards. Some practical relatives said: we don’t need presents any more. But I still hated Christmas.

And then there was this year. This year was a problem, because I spent most of November in Australia (which was lovely; I highly recommend it). But – no chance to make an early start. So, emergency measures were called for. Sainsbury’s provided the Christmas cake (and delivered the rest of the food). For presents, I decided against the goat-in-Africa strategy, which is heartwarming but not quite as much fun to unwrap. Some relatives got hampers of Scottish food, which went down well. And for the rest – Amazon came galloping to the rescue. Vast choice, shipped the next day direct on Prime and gift-wrapped. What could possibly be easier?

And for the first time in – ooh, a very, very long time, Christmas was easy. No trudging endlessly round crowded shops, listening to Jingle Bells on repeat. No increasingly desperate search for that last, difficult present. No carting oddly shaped parcels to the post office and standing in a slowly snaking queue for an hour. I haven’t been to the post office once, not once this year.

It’s been lovely. I can actually enjoy Christmas again. So – thank you Amazon (and Sainsbury’s and Scottish Gourmet Hampers and – you know, the whole internet thing).

So a merry Christmas (or whatever you celebrate) to everyone out there. And to me, this year.


‘The Plains of Kallanash’: another promotion

December 16, 2014 Publishing/marketing, The Plains of Kallanash 0

With ‘The Plains of Kallanash’ nearing the end of its first 90-day run in Amazon’s KDP Select, I had three more free days to use up. I chose Wed to Fri 3rd/4th/5th December for no good reason, other than I’d picked a weekend last time, and it seemed a good idea to try something different.

The first 2 free days, back in October, were a modest success, with almost 800 downloads with only one paid promotion site (Bknights, $20), although resulting in no additional sales or reviews. This time, I thought I would experiment by paying a little more to promotion sites, and see if the combined effect helps. Each promotion site features the book on a combination of bulk emails to subscribers, websites and Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and so on. My expectations weren’t high; I hoped for 2,000 downloads overall.

Here’s what I booked:

Day 1: BKnights ($20), BookButterfly ($35)

Day 2: Genre Pulse ($30), PixelScroll ($15)

Day 3: PixelScroll (free extra day), Ereader News Today (ENT) ($15)

Total cost: $115


Day 1: 1,041

Day 2: 731

Day 3: 2,650

Total: 4,422

Wow, that worked well! All the promotions produced noticeable bumps in downloads when the email went out or the website ad went live, but Bknights and ENT were particularly impressive and long-lasting. Day 3 was also helped by the fact that the book was picked up for promotion on FreeBooksy, something I’d have had to pay $100 for otherwise. Lots of sites and email lists will do this: mention a free or discounted book that they think will interest their subscribers, but some of these unsolicited mentions produce more dramatic effects than others.

All those downloads got me to #65 in the free bestseller list on, to #2 in free epic fantasy, #3 in free swords and sorcery and (most amusingly) #5 in the fantasy sub-genre of romance, so for a while ‘The Plains of Kallanash’ mingled self-consciously amongst a swathe of cover images of werewolves and shirtless men.

So what is the value of giving away books for free? The main objective is to get the book into the hands of readers, of course. For new authors, this is vitally important. Hopefully, some of them will read it and perhaps leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads, or tell their friends about it.

What I didn’t expect was that the day after the free promotion, there would be a whole heap of sales of the full-price book. Presumably, lots of people read their emails a day late and clicked to buy without realising that the book was no longer free. A few returned it later, but not as many as I’d expected. The following day produced a few more sales (and borrows). The book ended up ranked at around 6,000 overall in the paid Kindle store for a while, and in the top 100 of a couple of sub-genres, having been ranked at 660,000 before the promotion.

Other side effects: some new reviews, Goodreads readers and ratings, and my very first ever fan email: “Thank you for the wonderful read”. Awww. And the rush of sales blasted me past my second milestone: 100 sales. The increased rate of sales and borrows, while slower now almost two weeks later, is still above pre-promotion levels.

So the take-home message is: promotion pays, even when you’re giving the book away, but only when you get into the thousands of downloads. And the unexpected rush of paid sales actually covered the cost of the promotion. For anyone with multiple books to sell, a modest promotion, whether free or discounted, should more than pay for itself.


‘The Fire Mages’: Chapters 1-5

December 16, 2014 The Fire Mages 0

1: Refusal

I was fourteen when the Kellon’s Steward first came for me.

Well, blow that. I had my life all planned out, and the Kellon had no part in it, I was sure of that. Still, the Steward was waiting for me, and the question had to be asked before it could be refused. Head high, I crossed the tiny hallway of the cottage, my boots clumping on the wooden floor, and strode into the parlour. Read more »


‘The Fire Mages’: ARCs available

December 13, 2014 Publishing/marketing, The Fire Mages 3

‘The Fire Mages’ is all set for publication on January 9th. I now have ARCs available, so if anyone out there would like a copy to read for review, please email me. I have both mobi, epub and pdf formats available (sorry, no print copies yet). Reviews can be posted immediately on Goodreads or your blog, and on Amazon after publication.

‘The Fire Mages’ is an epic fantasy coming of age adventure with (naturally!) a bit of a romance. Here’s the blurb:

Kyra has always been drawn to the magic of spellpages. She is determined to leave her small village far behind and become a scribe, wielding the power of magic through her pen. Halfway through her training, she has a mage as patron and her ambitions are within her grasp. But a simple favour for her sister goes disastrously awry, destroying Kyra’s dreams in an instant.

Devastated, she accepts an offer from a stranger to help her find out what went wrong. The young man sees growing power within Kyra, potentially stronger than spellpages or any living mage. The answers to unlocking that power may lie within the glowing walls of the Imperial City, but its magic is strong and the unwary vanish without trace on its streets. Thirsty for knowledge and desperate to avoid another accident, she feels compelled to risk it.

While she focuses on controlling her abilities, a storm of greed and ambition boils up around her. Kyra is a pawn in the struggle for dominance between unscrupulous factions vying for rule of her country. Trusting the wrong side could get her killed–or worse, the potent magic she barely understands could be put to unthinkable evil.


Fantasy Romance Review: ‘Urdaisunia’ by Kyra Halland

December 9, 2014 Review 0

Kyra Halland is one of those rare authors capable of creating a deeply realistic fantasy world, with an equally realistic romance embedded within it. Too many fantasy authors tack the romance on as an afterthought, or else the romance is all-important and the fantasy elements are hurled randomly into the mix, as if it doesn’t matter whether the obstacles keeping our pair of lovers apart are meaningful or not.

Here everything is carefully thought out. Rashali is a simple village woman, struggling to survive in an Urdaisunia now conquered by neighbouring Sazars. Eruz is a Sazar prince, treading a careful path between his father the king, his vicious, squabbling brothers and his own conscience. When chance throws Rashali into his path, he is forced to face up to the consequences of his father’s rule. And then, delightfully, the gods take an interest in matters and start poking around in the affairs of men for their own not particularly altruistic reasons.

I’m not usually a big fan of having gods as active participants in a story, but here it works really well. It took me a while to overcome my resistance to miraculous events that just happen to carry the plot in the right direction. Here, of course, that’s the whole point, the gods are interfering and causing all sorts of things, good and bad, to afflict our heroine. Once I stopped worrying about the realism (or otherwise) of it, however, the story swept me up and carried me along beautifully, and I really enjoyed that aspect of the story. The gods are not at all as you’d expect, and their little squabbles and rivalries are great fun.

There is a little (non-god-related) magic in this world, and one rather clever communication contrivance that weaves into the plot very well. The world itself is a simple one, with just a few neighbouring societies: apart from the Urdai and Sazar, there are the Sangh, the Kai-Kalle and the Xaxan. Urdaisunia, the focus of conflict between these various countries, has two major rivers but (because of a quarrel in the god-world) they are on the brink of drying up, leading to major tensions. The political differences, particularly between the Urdai and the Sazars, form the backdrop to the whole story.

If I have a grumble, it’s that the characters tend to fall neatly into the good or bad side of the equation. The king, Eruz’s father, in particular, was a little too stupid for my taste. Even when Eruz brought evidence of his brothers’ treachery, the king made no effort to investigate, simply believing the brothers. His dislike of Eruz, who was an excellent army commander, seemed somewhat irrational. Kings really have to be better judges of character than that, if they’re to survive long in power. They also have to be pragmatic, and not allow their personal feelings to interfere with political decisions, although I suppose having a son and heir who constantly says, “Yes, but…” might get rather trying.

My only other complaint is that I found the names difficult. Eruz and his brothers, for instance, are Eruzasharbat, Hazramatanarg and Teshtarganazad, and all the rest of the family, army commanders and the like, have similar jaw-breakers. Fortunately they were often shortened. But that’s a minor point.

This is a refreshingly different fantasy, with writing that brings the world vividly to life (I swear I could feel the sand between my toes as Rashali walked through the desert) and a clever balance between the earthly world and the realm of the gods. A very enjoyable four stars.


Fantasy Review: ‘Bones of the Fair’ by Andrea K Host

December 6, 2014 Review 0

The first book in the Darest sequence, ‘The Champion of the Rose’, is one of my favourite fantasies of all time. Who, after all, could fail to love a book which stars a malign rose bush at its heart? With an intriguing setting, some great characters and a difficult but brilliantly realised romance, it ticked all the boxes for me. This one – not so much.

On the positive side, we have another array of awesome characters, albeit with a couple of disappointments. Aristide, a stunningly ambiguous fellow in book 1, is here a little more ordinary. No matter how many times we’re told about his glittering coldness and incisive intellect, he’s too straightforward a character here to raise the goosebumps. Gentian is too much a plot device to shine properly. The real star of the show this time is Aspen, a wonderfully over-the-top character, always focused on the next bed-partner. Since this world is one where both genders can (and do) take partners of either gender, this is vastly entertaining, as he trails round after one or other potential lover. Beyond these is an array of royal and/or magically talented individuals, each more gloriously larger than life than the next, with centuries of tension between their various countries.

The world-building is another plus. I absolutely adore a story which tosses aside conventional gender roles and substitutes something very different. Here we not only have any-gender coupling, but also any-gender marriages, so that a marriage might comprise two men and one woman or (as here) two women, whose children call them ‘blood-mother’ and ‘heart-mother’; isn’t that lovely? Combine this with an uneasy accord with the Fae, themes of identity with the land, and magical gardening, and there’s real depth to the setting.

On the negative side, the plot hinged on (amongst other things) the delicate political balance between Darest and its immediate neighbours, and to be honest, most of this whizzed over my head. There were just too many countries, royal houses, succession battles and (frankly) characters for my poor brain to keep up with. If you like your politics complex and devious, this won’t bother you, however.

The magic was another aspect that I couldn’t quite keep up with. The characters seemed to be able to do an inordinate amount of clever stuff (flying, even!), and even those times when they said: ooh, this is tricky, we haven’t the power for this, somehow a way was (usually) found. But so much flexibility meant that I could never predict how a problem would be solved, so very often the solution seemed to come out of left field. Probably if I’d paid more attention, it would have been more understandable, but I’m a reader of very little brain, I like things kept relatively simple.

Then there’s the romance. After the complicated and (frankly) traumatic romance of ‘The Champion of the Rose’, this is a much more muted and simple affair, which somehow didn’t set me on fire. In some ways it felt bolted on as an afterthought, too perfunctory to be believable. Although the resolution was lovely.

Despite these minor grumbles, the plot raced along from one crisis to the next, and I loved the strange place our heroes found themselves trapped in, struggling to understand what was going on, and the consequences. I generally didn’t have a clue what would happen next, but that kept me turning the pages compulsively. There were some lovely moments along the way, revealing unexpected aspects of the characters, and it was great fun watching the large number of royals coping with simple tasks like cooking and getting the toilets working again.

A slight let-down after the awesomeness of book 1, but still a very readable, enjoyable book. The battle with the water fae was a highlight. And Aspen, of course, the ever delightful Aspen. For me personally, the many little niggles keep it to three stars, but it’s still a well-written book I can recommend.


Fantasy Review: ‘Tooth And Claw’ by Jo Walton

December 5, 2014 Review 0

So having read (and loved) the very weird ‘Among Others’, I went straight on to read another of Jo Walton’s books, which is, if that’s possible, even weirder. Imagine a Victorian melodrama, complete with disgraced virgins, wives who die in childbirth, a rigidly structured class system with hints of radical reform, and a focus on proper behaviour and keeping up appearances. And now imagine it populated with dragons, and there you have ‘Tooth and Claw’.

This is one of those off-the-wall ideas that must have looked brilliant in outline. Make some general points about civilisation and gender roles and class and race, while covering everything with a fantasy veneer. And to some extent it worked. I galloped through the book to find out how it all turned out, anyway.

But somehow it never quite felt right. No matter how many times the author wrote ‘claw’ for hands, and had the dragons sitting on their haunches, they never quite felt like dragons, to me. Nor did they feel like substitute people. To be honest, the characters never truly came to life for me, and I never became so immersed in the story that I could forget the uneasy juxtaposition of human traits with dragon ones. The author had thought everything through and the details were all there, but for me it was all just too weird for words. Three stars.



Fantasy Review: ‘Among Others’ by Jo Walton

November 30, 2014 Review 0

I have no idea what to make of this. Anyone who’s read it will understand when I say that I’ve never read anything like it. It’s so far out to left field that it probably meets itself coming the other way. And yet I loved it.

Here’s the premise: Morwenna is a fifteen-year-old girl with eccentric family life, who is, after a dramatic family implosion, under the care of her long-absent father, and starting at a girls’ boarding school. Retreating into a shell of leave-me-alone-ness, she finds consolation in reading – inhaling, almost – every sci-fi and fantasy book she can get her hands on. That’s a fairly bald summary of a story that involves a witchy mother, fairies and magic (possibly), a family for whom the word weird just doesn’t come close, as well as the banal details of school life and an array of glorious asides on the books she’s reading.

The story is set in 1979, primarily, I suspect, to allow the author to describe as new some of the iconic SF works of that era. It’s always easier to toss out comments about these books from a distance of several decades. Most of the historical details rang true to me (it’s set in Britain, on the Welsh border), but there were a few issues that jumped out at me. For instance, I simply can’t believe that any doctor of the era would routinely prescribe the pill for a fifteen-year-old (ie below the age of consent). There were a few bent medics who asked no questions, but generally speaking you needed to be at least engaged, and preferably married, before you could even mention contraception to a doctor. Then there’s the casual way Morwenna deals with the idea of incest, which seemed off to me. However, she’s a strange girl in multiple ways: incest is shrugged off, but she agonises at length over the ethics of using magic for personal benefit, such as making a bus arrive just when she needs it, and the knock-on effects on scores of other individuals who might be inconvenienced by that. Which was quite funny.

The plot… well, what plot? Morwenna goes to school, Morwenna reads books, Morwenna deals with her family, Morwenna makes friends. Apart from an overly melodramatic finale, nothing terribly exciting happens, except that the reader gradually finds out what happened when Morwenna’s twin died. Oh yes, and Morwenna talks to fairies and does magicky things when they tell her to. And here the book is actually very clever, because everything is equally interpretable as the product of an over-active imagination. An imagination, moreover, steeped in fantastical worlds. Is Morwenna really seeing fairies and using magic, or does she just think she is? Since the story is told through her eyes, it’s left to the reader to decide. The whole book is equally understandable either way.

So what is the book really about? It’s about reality and fantasy, about what you see and what you believe, it’s about the blurring of the lines between worlds, and most of all it’s about magic: what is magic, after all? Is it real, if you only believe in it hard enough? Is it always there, except we’re mostly oblivious? Or is the real magic going on only in our heads, in the other worlds we inhabit there? Your guess is as good as mine.

A fine, thought-provoking book, which I don’t profess to understand beyond a superficial level, but which I loved, nevertheless. Five stars.