Monthly Archives:: June 2015

Fantasy review: ‘An Altered Fate’ by Claire Frank

June 27, 2015 Review 1

The second part of a series is always a difficult trick to pull off: have all the clever ideas been used up in the first part? Is the plot reduced to dull filler to bridge the gap before the finale? Do the nuances get lost in the rush to ramp up the action a notch? Well, all the answers here are a resounding no: this book is just as absorbing as the first.

In the first book, the villain, Nihil, was defeated, but the results of his experiments are still roaming the kingdom of Halthas. A number of Wielders (magic users) have been altered, rendering them very powerful but also unstable. Some of them have surrendered to the lure of that power, and have become wildly destructive. Others seem to be under better control. The focus of the story is how to manage the altered Wielders: should they be killed? Kept under lock and key for safety? Or helped to manage their powers?

Daro, one of the two main characters, is struggling to come to terms with his own altered powers, and not succeeding very well. But Daro is half Imaran, and the Imarans take him back to Imara to see if they can help him. Meanwhile, his wife Cecily is sympathetic to the plight of other altered Wielders, amongst them Pathius, the missing son of the previous king.

I loved Daro’s excursion to Imara. The first book stayed very much within the confines of Halthas, and much of the story took place in and around the city of Halthas itself, which wasn’t uninteresting but felt like a fairly standard fantasy city and kingdom. But Imara and its inhabitants are indubitably different, with a nicely conveyed sense of ‘otherness’ that I thoroughly enjoyed. There was no real tension to this part of the story, despite some initial hostility towards Daro and some interesting excursions, because I always felt that Daro would survive, but it was fascinating anyway. The Imaran’s home and way of life and the strange, but dangerous, forest they live in, were all equally delightful, but I especially loved their magic, the way they connect with the energy of the world around them.

Poor Cecily has a less interesting time. As in the first book, she seems to spend a disproportionate amount of time sitting chatting over cups of tea, explaining and planning and being terribly ladylike. Cecily is a very powerful Wielder, with some unusual abilities, and I love seeing her using them, but she rarely got the chance to shine. What she did do was to make some dubious decisions, trusting people more on ideological grounds rather than from any logical process. In fact, numerous other characters try to dissuade her, but she manages to convince them all. I’ll be honest, this makes her look soft and not as politically astute as I’d expect for someone of her rank.

Of all the characters, Pathius is the one who resonates the most with me. Cecily and Daro are almost too ‘good’, with few inner conflicts. But Pathius is a man who is truly conflicted, and that makes him interesting. As the heir of the previous king, deposed (in fact, murdered!) by Cecily, Daro and friends, he has the option to pursue the throne. Honestly, I wish he would. It seems to me he has every reason to follow that course. Or he could take the opportunity to reshape his life in a different way.

At the end of the first book, it was revealed that events during their captivity had left Daro and Pathius with a unique connection. Because of Daro’s Imaran bond with Cecily, Pathius is drawn to her, too. I found this a fascinating concept, with many possible plot ramifications. In the end, it didn’t have quite the dramatic effect I’d hoped for, but it still complicated the relationship between Cecily and Pathius, who spend much of the story travelling together, and it may be there are still aspects of this connection yet to be worked out.

The build-up and conclusion were appropriately nail-biting, although I got a bit cross with Daro for constantly trying to protect Cecily from harm and rushing off to tackle this or that problem single-handed. She’s perfectly capable, you know, and the two of you work better as a team. But I have to agree that Daro is quite awesome in full-on combat mode, and his final meeting with Pathius is spectacular, both the visual imagery and the ideas. Very enjoyable.

I do have a few logic issues with the story. For one thing, the altered Wielders now on the loose in Halthas. Some of them have gone to the bad, and have to be destroyed. Some (like Daro) are clearly unstable, but efforts are made to find a way to deal with that. And some are like Pathius and his pals, who appear to be perfectly rational and functional, but common sense suggests that things could change at any moment. Given all this, I found it hard to believe that Cecily would be allowed to wander round the countryside with them, and that no one stepped in to prevent it. It stretched credulity to the limits.

My other big issue concerns history. Much was made in this story of Pathius’ claim to the throne, and whether the nobles would rise up to support him. But this is treason, various characters declared in ringing tones. Well, yes, plotting to depose the current king is indeed treason. Yet this is exactly what Cecily, Daro and pals did a few years back, desposing Pathius’ father, and putting Rogan on the throne instead. It makes me uneasy that I’m rooting for the guys who are traitors themselves (and I am rooting for them, make no mistake). I know the victors write the history books, but still, I hope this issue is dealt with more fully in the next book. In fact, I can’t help secretly wishing that Rogan would fall under a metaphorical bus, and Pathius would end up taking back the throne. Not very likely, I know, but there would be a certain symmetry to it.

And this is the proof of a good story: that I end up wondering where the author will take it next, and what will become of these characters I’ve grown so attached to (yes, even Isley!). And as with book 1, there’s a perfect lead-in to the next part of the story. I can’t wait! A well-written book with a great magic system and some tense combat scenes. The minor issues knock a little off the rating, for me, but it’s still a very good four stars. I highly recommend the series.

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Archive review: ‘The Folding Knife’ by K J Parker

June 27, 2015 Archive, Review 0

I read this book in January 2011, when I was only just finding my feet with reviewing. I mention below that it’s unlike anything else I’ve read, and four years later that’s still true. A strange but (for me) compelling book. As fantasy, it has no magic at all – or has it? I gave it four stars, and I still think that’s the right rating for me.


 

I loved this book. I had no expectations going in, and had never read anything by this author before, but it was mentioned as a good fantasy book, I sampled it on the Kindle, and liked it, although it’s totally unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It is a slow book to get into, but there came a point about a third of the way in where I stopped trying to follow the details of the plot (they’re not relevant) and simply sat back and enjoyed the ride.

The protagonist, Basso, is essentially a businessman who ends up running his country on business principles – everything is about commodities and loans and making sure everyone makes a profit. If this sounds dull, it isn’t at all, so long as you don’t agonise over the minutiae. This is actually the funniest book I’ve read in ages. How Basso contrives his deals, and turns even potentially disastrous situations into winning moves is where all the entertainment comes from.

As a fantasy novel, the book is unconventional, to say the least. There is no magic in evidence at all, unless you count Basso’s exceptional (and unexplained) degree of luck, there are no heroes or demons, and the wars are mostly a matter of logistics. But the world in the background, while sketchily described and not wholly convincing, is certainly not any known historical backdrop, despite its superficial resemblance to classical Roman times.

One point which still puzzles me is the title. The folding knife, an artifact which arrived in Basso’s life the day he was born, and has a role in the defining event of his life, does not appear to be significant in any other way. I’m not sure whether it’s meant to be symbolic of his weathy, upper class life, or represents the baggage from his family, or whether it’s no more than a convenient hook on which to hang the plot. Either way, it seems a flimsy construct.

The ending is slightly ambiguous. It seems like Basso’s extraordinary luck has finally run out, and everything comes crashing down around his ears. On the other hand, in the midst of catastrophe, he manages to escape the city without incident. Given that he is the most famous man around (his head is on the coins, after all), and half the city wants his head on a pike, this is nothing short of miraculous. Only two people recognise him, and the second offers him an anonymous job in a neighbouring country – a perfect escape.

So I’m inclined to believe that his luck is holding, and in fact the whole disaster is actually the best possible outcome for Basso, by releasing him from his past, the ties of family and always doing what was expected of him. Perhaps this is a necessary step for him to be truly free. There is possibly another book in this – after Basso the Magnificent, Basso the clerk. But until the author writes it, the reader is left to choose his or her own ending – Basso lived out his days blamelessly as a clerk, Basso became head of the Auxentine Empire… Either would work.

This book wouldn’t suit everyone, both the writing style and plot are unconventional, to put it mildly, but I enjoyed it hugely.

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The power of promotion

June 14, 2015 Publishing/marketing 6

It’s now a month since my third book, The Mages of Bennamore, was published, so this is a good time to look at the state of play.

The previous book, The Fire Mages, was released in January with a long (13 day) promotion campaign, and it’s been selling well for four months. I’m signed up for Amazon’s exclusive Select program, which means readers in the Kindle Unlimited subscription service can borrow the books for free, and that’s kept things ticking over. However, sales + borrows had dropped to around 4 per day, and just 1 per day of my first book, The Plains of Kallanash.

Promotion plan

So I planned a similar, although shorter, promotion for the new release – just 7 days this time, including sites that have done well for me in the past, like BargainBooksy, EreaderCafe, OHFB and ENT. I set the price to $0.99 worldwide for the duration of the campaign. I also set up a $0.99 discount promotion (an Amazon Countdown) for The Plains of Kallanash to start a week after the launch campaign finished, again using some of my most reliable sites from previous promotions. And on impulse I set The Fire Mages free for the final day of the launch campaign. With only two days’ notice, there was no time to set up any promotion for that, so I just blogged and tweeted and whatnot. But I had a piece of luck, and it was picked up by the semi-legendary Pixel of Ink. Result – an astonishing 4,000 downloads in one day, and a big bump in sales the next day. I booked two more free days, with some low-cost ads to coincide with the end of the countdown (and gave away another 1,000+ copies).

Results

Week 0: 5 sales/borrows per day over 2 books [pre-release of book 3]

Week 1: 52 sales/borrows per day, over all 3 books [launch promo week]

Week 2: 50 sales/borrows per day [but sales are down, borrows are up]

Week 3: 79 sales/borrows per day [countdown promo accounts for 34, so actually 45]

Week 4: 53 sales/borrows per day

Costs

Launch promo: $245

Free day: $0

Countdown: $139

2 more free days: $13

Total: $397

Conclusions

The results have far exceeded my expectations. I had my first ever day with more than 100 sales, which was truly exciting, and the ‘tail’ from the promotion (higher sales after it ends) is excellent. Even better, the sales were spread over all three books. This is partly because they’ve all had their time in the promotion spotlight this past month, but also because they are connected stand-alones, independent stories but all set in the same world. That makes it easy for a reader who enjoys one book to hop over to the others. I’ve had several reviews that said explicitly that they planned to do that.

The royalties received during the promotions themselves didn’t quite cover the cost of the advertising, since the books were discounted, but a few days of higher sales at full price ($3.99) has more than made up for that. I’m still in the red for the cost of publishing the books (I paid for professional cover design and proofreading, amongst other things), but this last month has gone a long way towards paying off those costs.

The free days have been interesting. It’s the first time The Fire Mages has been free, and giving away 5,000+ books in a short time results in an influx of new readers, new mailing list signups and new reviews. And not all those new readers are a good fit for my writing. So, a few of those reviewing plain didn’t like the book. And although that makes me sad, it’s absolutely fine. People look for different things in a book, and you can’t please everyone. Those reviews will be helpful for other readers trying to decide whether to buy or not.

One interesting factor is that borrows have taken a lurch upwards. Almost as soon as the launch promotion ended, as sales dropped, I saw a matching uptick in borrows. I have absolutely no explanation for this, but it’s been sustained for three weeks now. Borrows can outnumber sales by anything up to 9 to 1 (more typically 3-5 to 1). I guess it’s price-related: high sales when the books are discounted, high borrows when they’re at full price. Whatever, I’m very happy to be in KU.

The bottom line is that promotion pays. It probably isn’t necessary to do quite as much as I did, and I got a bit dizzy keeping up with it all at times, but it’s been fun as well as surprisingly successful. Well, it surprised me, anyway. There are signs that things are beginning to tail off now, and the books are beginning to drop in the rankings, but it was nice while it lasted.

ETA: One point I should mention is that with each successive book, sales have ramped up quite dramatically. With just one book out, selling 50 in a week was cause for celebration. With 3 books, I’m selling 50 a day in the post-promotion flurry. So it really does help to have several books out.

For anyone interested in the blow-by-blow results of the promotions, and sales numbers produced by each site, it’s all in the first post of this thread at the Kboards Writers’ Cafe (no registration needed).

 

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Mystery/thriller review: ‘Low Tide’ by Dawn Lee McKenna

June 7, 2015 Review 0

LowTideI loved the author’s debut work, ‘See You’, regarding it as one of the finest books I’ve read in recent years. So this opener for a new series was a must for me. The author very kindly sent me a copy in advance of release day, so I could be one of the first to read it – thank you very much!

This is a very different book, a thriller built around thirty-something police lieutenant Maggie Redmond, divorced with two children. Maggie’s a very likable, very normal person, doing her job, raising her kids, not exactly struggling to get by but (like most of us) stuck in a bit of a rut. But Maggie has a secret in her past, and when ne’er-do-well Gregory Boudreaux turns up dead in an apparent suicide, her life threatens to unravel. She’s thrown into the path of Gregory’s uncle, the town’s rather charming chief crook. And then there’s the teenage girl ensnared by a local drug dealer, trying to look after his kids and her own baby, whom Maggie takes under her wing.

None of this is particularly unusual, but the background takes it out of the ordinary. Set on the Florida panhandle coast, every page oozes local colour and (even to a Brit like me) southern charm. There were quite a few references I didn’t get, but who could resist a town with a single traffic light, and a grocery story called a Piggly-Wiggly? I could almost small the salty tang of the air, hear the slap of waves against the side of the boat, and feel the sweat trickling between my shoulder blades. Although… oysters? Nah, you can keep the oysters.

The plot develops at a stately, Southern pace most of the time, with much of the tension arising from fabulous, subtext-laden conversations where nothing is said explicitly, but boy, are there undercurrents swirling beneath the surface. But, being a thriller, the pace ramps up dramatically at the end, with far less contrivance than is often found in books of this type. And I liked that no one takes such dramatic events lightly.

If I have a complaint, it’s that many of the characters seemed to be a little too nice to be inhabiting a thriller. Not just Maggie herself, but her normal, well-adjusted kids, her loving parents, and her almost-love-interest, fellow cop Wyatt (especially Wyatt, who can woo me any time). Even her ex-husband, divorced for very sound reasons, comes across in his few appearances as a pleasant, sensible and reliable man. In addition, the two plots are not well connected, so sometimes things seemed a little disjointed.

But overall an absorbing, enjoyable read. This is a great start to the series, with the author’s trademark wonderfully drawn characters, southern charm and plenty of humour. But there’s a darker tone in there as well. This is not the weepy-fest that ‘See You’ was, but I shed a few tears all the same. Looking forward to the rest of the series. A good four stars.

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Writing update

June 6, 2015 Current writings, The Fire Mages, The Fire Mages' Daughter, The Mages of Bennamore, The Magic Mines of Asharim, The Plains of Kallanash 0

There seems to have been a lot going on lately, what with the launch of The Mages of Bennamore, various other promotions, and the ongoing projects of the next book, and the one after that. So here’s a quick rundown on the state of play.

Weekend promotions

This weekend (6th and 7th June) two of my three books are specially priced. The Plains of Kallanash is at $0.99 (US/UK Amazons only, sadly) and The Fire Mages is free in all Amazons worldwide. This is a great opportunity to complete your collection if you haven’t already got all three books. Click the links to take you to your local Amazon to buy.

The Mages of Bennamore

Release date was 15th May, with 34 pre-orders and a nice little surge of sales to get things underway. Then I had a week of promotion set up – paid advertising every day, with the price staying at $0.99 for the duration. This resulted in a grand total of 274 sales, and set the book up quite well for the rise back to its usual price of $3.99. There are still only 3 reviews on Amazon, and I would love some more, so if you’ve read it but haven’t yet reviewed it, a few lines would be very much appreciated.

The Fire Mages

This is my best seller by far, but it was a bit short on reviews, so I decided to use my free days (the bonus for being exclusive to Amazon) to try to gain a few more readers. The book was free on 24th May, with no paid promotion. I did some blogging and tweeting, mentioned it to the avid fantasy fans on Reddit and then had a piece of luck – the book was picked up for a free advert by Pixel of Ink, with the result that more than 4,000 copies were downloaded in the 24 hour free period! It also brought in several more reviews. As mentioned above, it’s free again this weekend (6-7 June) and will be free on 27-28 June as well, but I haven’t booked much advertising, so I don’t expect to give away more than a few hundred copies this time.

The Plains of Kallanash

Poor old Kallanash has always lagged behind its younger sisters in the sales department, but the release of The Mages of Bennamore put a bit of life into it, and this week I’ve been offering it for $0.99 in an Amazon countdown promotion (again, a benefit of being exclusive to Amazon). This has produced over 100 additional sales, with a couple of days still to go. Hopefully, a few new reviews will filter through, in time. It’s always lovely to have genuine reader feedback, so reviews are always welcome, whether the reader enjoyed the book or not.

The Magic Mines of Asharim

Ah, the next book in the Brightmoon world! This is scheduled for release sometime in the autumn. It’s finished but not yet edited, but before I set off for France last weekend, I popped it onto my Kindle so that I could read it through. It holds up quite well, I’m pleased to say, although naturally it needs a bit of tidying up before it goes off to beta readers. I’ll be starting the editing process very soon – not something I enjoy much (writing the first draft is always more fun), but very necessary to put a bit of polish onto the book.

The Fire Mages’ Daughter

The current work in progress takes a generational leap from the end of The Fire Mages, returning to Bennamore for another clash with the neighbours, this time the mysterious Blood Clans to the west. The clans have discovered a boy god in their midst, but will it lead to war with Bennamore? There will be some familiar characters returning to the story, but the main character is Axandrina, a potential ruler who only wants to return home to her family. I’ve written 60,000 words so far (perhaps half of it), so a way to go yet, but I’m enjoying the way the story is taking shape.

And after that…?

Who knows! But there’s plenty more of the Brightmoon world to discover yet. If you want to hear about all the new releases, don’t forget to sign up for the mailing list (click the Sign up! button up above).

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Sci-Fi Review: ‘Ambassador 1: Seeing Red’ by Patty Jansen

June 6, 2015 Review 0

This was a serendipitous find, since science fiction isn’t my usual fare. But having tripped over it, I started reading and was instantly hooked. The book starts with a bang – literally, since almost the first thing that happens is a massive explosion which seriously injures the Nations of Earth President, during a meeting with our hero, Cory Wilson, the ambassador of the title. Cory is about to take up a position as Earth’s ambassador to the united non-Earth nations (gamra) who control interstellar travel. Now, everything is in disarray, his gamra partner has been arrested, and Cory himself is under suspicion. And from here on, the pace is relentless, without a moment for Cory (or the reader!) to catch his breath.

This is as much political thriller as scifi, with various factions chasing after Cory or offering him aid, with the usual problem of who to trust. Cory’s own allegiance is in doubt, as well: is he loyal to Earth, or is he more aligned now with his gamra colleagues? And what did happen to his predecessor, the previous ambassador? Cory’s a likeable character, though, always willing to do what it takes, and never browbeaten into submission. He takes a lot of punishment during the course of the book, but it never seems to stop him going out and doing whatever he feels needs to be done. There were times when I just wanted him to slow down for a moment and recover from one set of injuries before exposing himself to another dangerous situation, but no, that’s not his way at all. So be prepared for near-constant action.

The most interesting aspect, for me, was the distinctive non-Earth races. The Coldi, in particular, were fascinating, with not just different physiology, but very different customs and beliefs. Cory’s relationships with the two Coldi assigned as his partners (zhayma) – Nicha, who is imprisoned early on, and Thayu, his replacement – are wonderfully complex, but also totally believable. The Coldi have the interesting concept of doing everything in pairs, so everyone has a zhayma (a relationship described as like marriage only without the sex). But the mental connection the two share makes it much closer than that. I loved the language differences, too – the Coldi have a multitude of different pronouns for all occasions, and beware the foreigner who gets one wrong! Cory is forever mentally chiding himself for using a slightly offensive one, or, occasionally, deliberately choosing an aggressive one. This is such great detail, which added a whole layer of complexity to Cory’s interactions with the Coldi.

Apart from the Coldi, there are the mysterious Aghyrians, who I first encountered in ‘Watcher’s Web’, and here they are again, with a little bit of history revealed and potential conflict exposed. But the nuances of these non-Earth races are beautifully drawn. The author doesn’t stop to explain anything, you just have to work everything out as you read, but I prefer that kind of immersion. There were times when I didn’t get a reference, but it rarely mattered.

This is an excellent, fast-paced read, with the sci-fi elements perfectly blended with a political thriller and just a touch of romance to produce a terrific page-turner. Great entertainment. A good four stars.

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Hi folks – I’m back!

June 5, 2015 General 0

Yep, I’ve been away on holiday for a while, driving the campervan the length of Britain and through the channel tunnel (on the train!) to France for a weekend motorcycle event at Dijon. Then driving back again. Three solid days of driving in each direction, then parking in a field. But everything went well, the weather was not too horrible, French campsites and motorways turned out to be very civilised and we made it back home safely.

So the blog will be getting back to business soon, with a review of Patty Jansen’s sci-fi Ambassador 1: Seeing Red, and an update on my own books.

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