Monthly Archives:: September 2014

Fantasy Review: ‘Silvana The Greening’ by Belinda Mellor

September 30, 2014 Review 4

What a lovely book. Literate, elegant and charming, with a touch of whimsy, this is a story in the high fantasy style of Tolkien, although on a more domestic scale. It’s set in a world where tree spirits, Silvanii, reside in trees in the wildwood, living in harmony with men. Occasionally, a Silvana will choose to take a human husband, leaving her tree to take human form and live a different life.

The story focuses on Fabiom, son of the lord of Deepvale, following his life from age four through to maturity. Fabiom has always been drawn to the wildwood, and on the eve of his seventeenth birthday he determines to try to win a Silvana wife for himself. What happens that night and afterwards affects him and his family deeply, and changes his whole life, bringing conflict between his duties as lord and holder, and the needs of the Silvanii.

The backdrop to the story is a fascinating world, drawn with a deft but light hand. Fabiom’s society is Romanesque in many ways, with the house constructed around the central courtyard, and reclining on couches to eat formally. I liked the idea of the heart room, too, where everyone entering the house washes before entering the house proper. There are other cultures in existence, well-differentiated but very believable. I loved Fabiom’s shock at the idea of sitting on chairs to eat, grumbling that he found them very uncomfortable. Because of the influence of the woodland and the Silvanii, there is a great deal of detail about herbs and plantlife generally. The author has clearly done a great deal of research, but occasionally I could have done with less detailed herbology.

The characters are not the conflicted souls so common in fantasy these days. They mostly fall clearly into one or other camp, either good or bad, with the good characters paragons of honour and integrity, and the bad thoroughly devious, greedy and unscrupulous. Fabiom himself was a bit over-endowed with all the virtues, unselfishly doing his best for all parties, liked by everyone and never putting a foot wrong. It made him a bit dull at times. The other characters are more interesting in being somewhat more human (Silvanii and their woodmaids excepted, naturally). The woodmaids were a delight, and added a sprinkle of humour to the otherwise serious tone of the book.

The book was divided into a multitude of parts, with sometimes a big time jump between them. This enabled the story to cover a lot of ground, but it did sometimes feel very episodic, like a series of novellas glued together. There were some parts, particularly the campaign in Gerik, which seemed to serve no purpose other than to pass the time. Then, after a rousing crescendo, the last paragraphs of the book are pure setup for the next book in the series, which felt somewhat off to me.

I had a few credibility issues. The Silvanii objected violently to the stealing of the secret of silkmaking, imposing a horrible punishment on Fabiom and Casandrina. Yet they knew perfectly well that the mulberry trees won’t grow without their help, so there was no long-term risk at all. I didn’t find it convincing that they couldn’t distinguish between the betrayal of one individual and a betrayal by all of mankind. They themselves take on human form and live as humans, so they really should have a better understanding of human ways.

I also had a problem with the secrecy surrounding Casandrina. I could understand the reasoning behind not wanting to broadcast the news, but enough people knew who she was. It would have been impossible to keep it a secret for long. Yet it was a major plot point late in the book that her nature was unsuspected. Another point was that more than once a boy’s seventeenth birthday passes unnoticed. Other important dates seem to be remembered well enough, and given the significance of this particular date, the only time when a young man may try to win a Silvana wife, you would think it would have a big red ring around the date in the calendar.

I also had one or two clarity issues. The author is very good about not beating the reader over the head with world-building minutiae, and that’s generally a good thing, but the question of the daughter was dealt with too subtly, in my view. I would have liked a much clearer explanation of the seventeen year rule right from the start. As it was, a lot of important information was handed out in casual conversational asides, without further explanation, or mentioned as an already understood thing, leaving me sometimes trawling through the book looking for obscure hints that I’d missed first time round. As a personal preference, I also would have liked a little more explanation about the Silvanii reproductive system. Now I understand why the author chose not to dwell on it, but it seemed to be rare for a Silvana to take a human husband, and each marriage only produced one daughter and one son. Is this the only way Silvanii have offspring? Or is there an asexual method as well, producing cloned daughters? Why are Silvanii all female anyway? And the whole daughter business boggled my mind. Well, OK, that one can stay mysterious. But lots of questions raised.

These are relatively minor grumbles. This is a beautifully written, lyrical book, with a wonderful love story and an enchanting setting. Not for the grimdark or sword-and-sorcery fan, but for those who enjoy a more traditional tale in the literary style of Tolkien’s era, this is a delightful read. A good four stars.

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Kindle Unlimited

September 27, 2014 General 4

Back in mid-July, without any warning, Amazon launched a new subscription service: Kindle Unlimited. For a flat $9.99 monthly fee, subscribers could download and read as many books as they wanted from the 650,000 or so available (about a third of all Kindle books on Amazon). Now the same deal has started up in the UK: all you can read for £7.99 a month.

For a voracious reader, this can be a terrific deal. You don’t have to read many books a month, even at cheap prices, to cover the subscription cost. You can download a book, read a few pages, decide it’s not for you and get another one. You can experiment outside your comfort zone, trying new genres and authors. You don’t have to feel guilty about the number of books you read, and the price of a book is irrelevant. You can read the first of a series and, if you like it, immediately download the rest. It’s a great deal.

But there are some gotchas. The first is that you don’t get to keep the books. Unlike a book you buy, which can sit on your Kindle indefinitely, or can be redownloaded from the cloud at any time, a borrowed book is only temporary. You can download ten books at a time, but after that if you want another one, you lose one of the ten. And if your subscription lapses, all your borrowed books are zapped. Gone.

The other constraint is choice. There are a lot of books to choose from in the KU program, but most of the big-name publishers are missing. If that constitutes your regular reading, you may be disappointed. Then you may find yourself paying extra on top of your subscription to get your favourite authors. Two thirds of all Kindle books are not available in KU.

Will I be joining in? Probably not. I’m very selective about what I read, and I hate to be limited to just a subset of what’s out there. And if I’ve paid a monthly subscription, I’m not going to want to pay for extra books, apart from a small number of must-reads. Besides, I’m still struggling to reduce my backlog of books on my Kindle, books I’ve already bought and paid for.

But what does Kindle Unlimited look like from an author’s point of view? What do authors get out of it? A royalty for every borrow, that’s what (although the royalty only kicks in if the borrower reads at least 10% of the book; if they download and then delete it later – no royalty). In July, the first month, the royalty was $1.84 per borrow, and in August it was $1.54. And that’s a flat rate, regardless of the price of the book, so a $0.99 and a $7.99 book get exactly the same payout for each borrow. Amazon has full control of the royalty rate each month.

Whether an author sees that as a bonus, on top of sales, or regards borrows as stealing sales is a matter for the individual to decide. Some authors have had plenty of borrows with no loss of sales, but there’s a lot of variation, and it may be that some genres do better in KU than others.

The big catch is that in order to be in KU, an author has to sign up to Amazon’s KDP Select program, and that means exclusivity. The ebook can’t be available for sale or even for free download at any other retailer, or on the author’s website, or on reading sites like Wattpad. Signing up is only a 90 day commitment, but even so, authors making good sales at Google Play or iTunes will probably not want to consider it. The print version is excluded from all restrictions.

‘The Plains of Kallanash’ has been in KDP Select from the start, and not just for the borrows (there are other benefits, like free or discount days). While the price is $0.99 (which means a royalty of only $0.35 per sale), each borrow I’ve had racks up several times that rate. A borrow is worth at least 4 sales to me at the moment. So I’m quite happy with that, even though borrows have only been a fraction of sales. It will be interesting to see what effect there will be when I raise the price to a normal level of (probably) $3.99. My prediction is that sales will drop, but borrows will go up. But with this game, who knows what might happen?

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Fiction DNF Review: ‘The Virgin Soldiers’ by Leslie Thomas

September 26, 2014 Review 0

It’s the curse of the book group, isn’t it? Someone suggests a book, and you think: yes, that will be a light, fluffy read, something to make us laugh, a bit light-hearted and not too heavy or intellectual. Well, it wasn’t intellectual, sure, but light? Fluffy? A book about incompetent National Service conscripts sent off to fight in the jungles of Malaya?

There were a few laugh out loud moments, it’s true. And the book had some potential to be the comic novel it was billed as. Perhaps when it was first published in 1966 it resonated more harmoniously with the experiences of others who had served their time in the immediate post-war years. There was a risque element, too: the inexperienced ‘virgin’ soldiers (in the literal and metaphorical sense) whiling away dull moments in their two years by dreaming endlessly of finally losing their virginity, and finding willing helpers amongst the local prostitutes. In the newly unlaced sixties, that must have shifted a few copies.

But with the benefit of almost half a century of hindsight, the writing style is flat and emotionless, the characters are eccentric but not really interesting and the story is episodic and jumpy, hopping from near-farce to heavy war-zone experiences without the slightest change in tone. For me, it didn’t work at all, and I gave up at the 27% mark, looking up the rest of the plot on Wikipedia. One star for a DNF. Oh, and the rest of the book group didn’t much enjoy it, either, with the exception of one lady who went on to read the sequels with gusto.

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Urban Fantasy Review: ‘Vicious Grace’ by M L N Hanover

September 24, 2014 Review 0

This is the third of the ‘Black Sun’s Daughter’ series of urban fantasies, written under a pseudonym by Daniel Abraham. The first, ‘Unclean Spirits’, was a bit spotty, overfull of angst, shopping sprees and housecleaning, not to mention a certain amount of breathless sex. The second, ‘Darker Angels’, was a lot better in all respects, and this one picks up even more. The plot revolves around Jayné and sidekicks Ex, Chogyi Jake and Aubrey (yes, yes, the names are terrible, and what makes it worse is that the minor characters have perfectly normal names). Jayné has inherited a vast array of property from her nice uncle Eric, acquired during his career messing around with supernatural nasties, in particular ‘riders’, demons which inhabit human bodies. Jayné and pals have to continue his efforts, while not really knowing what he was up to.

The author expertly reprises the key events of the previous books, so even though it’s a while since I read book 2, and I usually have trouble remembering even something I read last week, I was never floundering in the slightest. That’s a skill that few authors can boast. This book involves a summons from Aubrey’s ex-wife Kim, and since he’s now Jayné’s boyfriend, a certain amount of romantic angsting ensues. There are some revelations about uncle Eric, too, who turns out to have been less than nice. Not at all nice, in fact.

For anyone who is put off by characters agonising over relationships and the distressing consequences of using magic to achieve your nefarious ends, this may not be the book for you. Personally, I found this aspect of the story compelling and emotionally charged, bringing some much-needed depth to the characters and their histories. Jayné has to face up to her situation and make some difficult decisions, and she grows up visibly during the course of the story. She’s come a long way from the shopaholic girl of book 1.

The action part of the story is a corker, too. Without giving too much away, it revolves around a vast hospital complex that conceals a dark secret in its basement, which causes some very disturbing things to happen. There’s a part where the hospital begins to change its very nature to counteract the evil within it which is trying to escape. The result is pure horror, very surreal and unearthly.

And then the ending is very dark. Anyone looking for a light, fluffy read should steer well away from this series. For anyone prepared to ponder the nature of friendship and love and sacrifice, willing or otherwise, this book is deeply rewarding. At the end, Jayné makes a decision which raises a whole otherworld of moral issues. It’s complex, very complex, and I salute the author for not shying away from the questions and not making things easy for Jayné.

This is the best yet in this series, with a compelling surface plot, some unexpected backstory, and hints about the meaning of the series title at last. The final line wasn’t too hard to predict, but it’s still an effective hook into the next book in the series. A very good four stars.

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Milestone achieved: fifty sales

September 24, 2014 Publishing/marketing 7

When I pressed the ‘publish’ button for ‘The Plains of Kallanash’ twelve days ago, my expectations were realistic (read: low). First book, no platform, no horde of fans waiting anxiously. And no plan to promote the thing beyond telling people I know: hey, look, this book I’ve been wittering about? It’s out. So being realistic (read: pessimistic), I hoped to sell 15-20 copies to online friends, and thereafter perhaps a copy or so a week to random strangers. Maybe 50 copies in the first six months.

Today when I checked my sales stats I found a nice surprise: a sale in Germany which brought the total sales up to 50. My first milestone achieved already. It isn’t much of a milestone, but it’s more than I expected at this stage, which is pleasing. So ‘Danke’, random stranger in Germany. I hope you enjoy the book.

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Fantasy Review: ‘Rebellion’ by Rachel Cotterill

September 18, 2014 Review 0

This book was an unexpected pleasure. Unexpected, because it’s something that I picked up cheaply more than two years ago, when I was less careful about my purchases than I am now, and after a few disasters I’m a bit wary of anything that’s been lurking in a dusty corner of my Kindle for any length of time. And pleasure, because this was just a hugely enjoyable read. It started slowly and built very gradually, but it never sagged or got boring. Instead it wormed its way under my skin to become one of the best reads I’ve found this year.

In many ways, it’s a conventional fantasy, a coming of age with a quest, an unusual sort of school, an Empire and exotic countries beyond it, and swords and daggers and horse-drawn carts and market squares. And pirates! Bonus points for the pirates. And the young girl fighting to make her way in a male world isn’t particularly unusual. Even her chosen path of official assassin isn’t uncommon in fantasy.

But in other ways this is very different. There’s no magic, for one thing, and no fantastical animals or races. And main character Eleanor is both smart and independent, thinking her way out of trouble rather than resorting to fights. But she isn’t sickly sweet, either. She is, in many ways, quite an unlikeable character, ambitious and totally focused on her career, to the detriment, perhaps, of other elements of her life. She’s quite prepared to do what it takes to get to the top, and doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of other people. Her ruthlessness is what makes her so outstanding as a trainee assassin. So much fantasy tries to square the circle: to make the heroine the best at whatever she does, without ever losing her femininity and innocence. Here the author has addressed this issue head on, and doesn’t shy from the obvious truth: to be the best, you have to do a little trampling of rivals along the way.

One aspect I particularly liked was the world the story was set in. The Empire has some unusual policies. In particular, children are removed from their parents at birth and placed into single-sex schools. At seventeen, they are assigned a role in the Empire’s administration, their suitability determined by some obscure means. They will occupy that role for their whole lives, and there is no right of appeal. The idea of a society without families is an interesting one, and the author touches on the implications only lightly, but it’s refreshing to see a work of fantasy which doesn’t subscribe to the conventional social structures. Unfortunately, very little was done with the idea. Perhaps it becomes more significant in later books.

The book falls naturally into two halves, and the first part is, to my mind, a more cohesive story. Eleanor is offered a derisory position on graduation, which she chooses to reject, instead seeking out the almost legendary Academy where assassins are trained. Her journey becomes a classical quest, seeking clues both to the location of the Academy itself and also the secret of entering it. It’s not a place where applicants simply open a door and walk in. Along the way, Eleanor is forced to take work on a ship, is attacked by pirates, pursued by a vengeful victim of an early theft, and eventually is captured by foreign agents and tortured. This is rather a gruesome section of the book, which made me wonder about the age of intended readers. In many ways this is a classic YA coming of age story, but I wouldn’t recommend it for early teens. However, the puzzles she has to solve to gain admittance to the Academy are rather good, and I enjoyed these greatly.

The second part of the book is spottier. Some elements are drawn out to great length – Eleanor’s choosing of designs for her weapons, for instance, which seems to have no significance and could have been summarised in a sentence or two – while some of the challenges she undertakes were skipped over quite quickly, and I would have preferred a bit more detail. This section also focuses less on Eleanor’s individual problem-solving, and more on her interactions with others and this was (for me) the weakest aspect of the book. The budding romance from the first part is never addressed in any depth, and I found some implausibility in this. Eleanor is the only girl in the establishment, yet there’s no mention at all of sex, which would surely have been an issue, and the putative boyfriend is remarkably low-key throughout. Their given ages were late teens/early twenties, yet they both acted like early teenagers, happy with a platonic relationship. I don’t even recall a proper kiss. This may be the result of separating the sexes at birth and the lack of a family upbringing, but I would have thought that sex was enough of a biological imperative to overcome that handicap.

Another problem I had was with the rather vague sense of ethics. At one point, a contest is won in a way that I, at least, regarded as outright cheating, and although this is discussed, nothing ever comes of it. And then in the climactic challenge, there’s the opposite: an accusation of cheating that I couldn’t understand at all. It would have helped if the rules were made clearer: either contestants are allowed to do whatever it takes to win, or there need to be clearly defined limitations.

The ending, after all the build-up, felt oddly rushed, despite the great length of the book, and then it was straight into the setup for the second book. I would have liked a more resonant finale and some emotional resolution, especially with the boyfriend and the rivals in the contests. Nevertheless, this was an enjoyable book which kept me turning the pages, with only a few jarring moments along the way and Eleanor is an unusual and intriguing character. A good four stars.

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A fangirl moment…

September 17, 2014 General 2

Excuse me while I squeeee for a while… Michael J Sullivan is one of my favourite fantasy authors, and he’s currently hosting a giveaway for advance printings of his new series. You can sign up at Goodreads and a couple of other places. Full details here.

But that’s not really what got me all excited. Take a look at this…

Isn’t that just the most amazing artwork? It’s by Andres Rocha.

One day, when I’m rich and famous (ha!), I’m going to get cover art for ‘The Plains of Kallanash’ that looks as awesome as this: the sweeping vista, with maybe the Ring of Bonnegar and the spires and domes of Kashinor. Sigh. One day…

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First review of ‘The Plains of Kallanash’

September 16, 2014 Uncategorized 2

The first Amazon review for ‘The Plains of Kallanash’ is up, and it’s a positive one.

“This is a grand, ambitious tale full of thought-provoking ideas and surreal circumstances that somehow manage to strike a balance between the real and the fantastical. I was hooked from the start…”

Read the rest at Amazon.co.uk.

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Urban Fantasy DNF: ‘Fated’ by Benedict Jacka

September 14, 2014 Review 2

So there’s this guy who lives in London and has a magic shop, and he’s not really a mage but he has a really cool magely power: he can see into the future. Not the future, but all possible futures, which gives him a bit of a clue sometimes, not just that stuff is going to happen, but what makes it happen and therefore how to facilitate it or evade it. So whenever he gets into a tight spot (which seems to happen quite often), all he has to do to get out of trouble is to peek into some of those many possible futures and see which ones have him escaping, and work out how that comes about. And for a while I just thought: that’s a neat idea.

But when he’s able to use that ability over and over, it becomes both repetitive and, frankly, too easy. I like magic that has costs and rules and isn’t just a get-out-of-jail-free card for any slightly sticky occasion. And given that he also has a sort-of invisibility cloak and a helpful air elemental who whisks him about at great speed as needed – sorry, but that’s just not an interesting use of magic, to me. The worst moment, I felt, was where he had to evade a a warded door, and the author says cheerily: well, when you know what will trigger it, you also know how to avoid it, adding smugly: think about it. And it never is explained, because the next thing, our hero is on the other side of the untriggered alarm. To my mind, that’s just lazy writing. [Caveat: maybe it gets explained later in the book, who knows.]

So I gave up quite quickly. It’s a shame, because to be honest there’s nothing wrong with the book at all in other ways: it’s well written, with some good action scenes (mage battles!), interesting characters with potential and some nice humour. And it’s probably my fault for being way too serious about this and it’s all intended as jolly, light-hearted fun, which maybe those less critical or grumpy than me will appreciate. Plus, it’s said to be similar to the Dresden Files. Now, I may be the only person left on the planet who hasn’t read the Dresden Files, so odd references in this book to wizards in Chicago just whizzed right over my head. But if you like The Dresden Files, this book might be just your cup of tea (or possibly the similarities might irritate the hell out of you). But this wasn’t for me. I got to the 19% point before giving up. One star for a DNF.

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Fantasy Romance Review: ‘Bound’ by Kate Sparkes

September 13, 2014 Review 1

This is a cracking story. Fantasy romance is a tricky format. It can veer from straight fantasy with a little romance on the side, through to outright romance with a little arm-wavy magic or the occasional dragon thrown in for light relief. This book leans more to the relationship side of the equation, but there’s some solid world-building underpinning it.

Many elements of the story are quite conventional. Rowan is the teenage girl expected to do her duty and marry well, producing the babies in unexpectedly short supply in her country, Darmid. But she’s fascinated by magic, even though it’s illegal, and why does she have strange headaches? Aren is the royal from the neighbouring country, Tyrea, a powerful sorcerer whose even more powerful older brother now rules. When Aren is sent to capture a sorcerer from magic-less Darmid for experimentation, he meets Rowan and… Well, we can see where this is going, can’t we?

Despite the well-worn plotlines, the opening chapters draw the world and characters with deft brushwork, and if Rowan is a little too quick to help the injured Aren, and Aren is a little too easily drawn to Rowan, I can let that go for the depth of world-building below the surface. There are some nice details here: like the idea that eliminating magic in Darmid acts to weaken the magic in next door Tyrea, too. And women in Darmid are only fertile once a year. No wonder they have so much trouble producing babies. The author cleverly follows this through in logical ways: sex before marriage is positively encouraged, because it just might result in a successful pregnancy.

The middle part of the book sags somewhat, becoming a slightly dull travelogue, with various threats leaping out of the scenery to liven things up. In between dealing with these events, the two main characters angst about what they’re doing, and each other, and the future. The story is told from both Rowan’s and Aren’s point of view, in first person. Occasionally I found this confusing, but it did help to get under the skin of both characters. Both of them are smart and behaved sensibly, but Aren I found particularly fascinating. His background and history, his suppressed anger, his status as a loner and outsider despite his family connections – all made him far more interesting to me than Rowan, whose life was far more settled.

Aren’s history also made the romance difficulties work well. It’s a convention in a romance story that although the main characters are irresistibly drawn to each other, something prevents them from being together. And when one of them is a professional assassin and ruthless fixer-upper? Yes, I can see why Rowan might have second thoughts about a man like that.

The plot rolls along quite nicely, until… Look, I’m going to rant for a minute here, so you can skip ahead to the next paragraph if you want. So we have our plucky hero and heroine racing to escape a fate worse than death, chased by evil villains here, there and everywhere, things getting fraught, building nicely to a climax, and then what happens? There’s a ball, that’s what. Well, a party, anyway, with fancy frocks, and dancing, and general merriment. Guys, there are people out there wanting to kill you, probably painfully and very, very slowly – get a sense of urgency, for goodness sake. No, I get it, I really do, the two main characters have to have their Big Romantic Moment, but I do struggle with credibility here. As it happens, it was a particularly good BRM, so that’s fine, but please, authors, skip the frocks and dancing, OK?

The climax is a suitably dramatic confrontation with a fairly long-drawn-out post-dust-up scenario, which managed to bring some emotional resonance to bear without sacrificing common sense or betraying the characters of the principals involved. And needless to say, there are enough loose threads to continue the story into the next book. This is a particularly well written and well plotted fantasy romance, which finds a good balance between the two elements and has unusually strong characterisation. A good four stars.

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