Monthly Archives:: September 2015

Fantasy review: ‘The Fuller’s Apprentice’ by Angela Holder

September 29, 2015 Review 1

I absolutely loved the author’s previous book, ‘White Blood’, so naturally I couldn’t resist this one. Unlike the previous one, it’s the first part of a trilogy, but there are similarities, too, in particular, an interesting magic system, closely allied to the religion of the country. Wizards can only use magic in association with an animal familiar, and only in certain limited ways: for healing, for making legal judgements by examining actual events of the past, and to move things (or prevent them moving). These are interesting restrictions, and, as with all fantasy, part of the enjoyment is seeing the multitude of different ways even a limited application of magic can be used.

The two main characters are Josiah, the titular fuller’s apprentice, a young man of reckless impulsiveness, and the rather serious journeyman wizard, Elkan. The two meet when Josiah is amusing himself by running backwards and forwards through the fulling machinery (a scene that reminded me somewhat of the chompers scene in Galaxy Quest!). When things go wrong, Josiah is saved by the quick-thinking wizard, who then offers him a job as his assistant when the Master Fuller wants to fire Josiah.

The two of them, together with Elkan’s familiar, Sar (a donkey), begin a slow amble through the scenery which goes on for chapter after chapter. There’s a great deal of detail here about how the magical healing process works, how the legal system works, and also the wizard’s role as a kind of priest (he officiates at a marriage at one point). We even get a description of waulking (a precursor to fulling as a way of preparing woven materials). This is not uninteresting, but it’s very, very slow, and action moments are few and far between. It’s very tempting for an author who’s worked out all the subtleties of her invented world to the umpteenth degree to squeeze all of it into the story, but it does make the pace glacial. The problem is compounded by dialogue of greetings, detailed explanations of medical conditions, and so forth, which could easily have been condensed or skipped altogether.

Apart from the magic, the world-building is nothing earth-shattering. The population is largely agricultural, with all adults assigned to craft guilds, and trained in one or other craft, even if, in practice, they might be doing a variety of other tasks. This leads rather interestingly to the idea that children are named for their parents’ craft and their own, rather than taking a family name. Thus, Elkan is known as Elkan Farmerkin Wizard. Machinery is limited to simple mechanical devices (like the fulling mill), sailing ships, and the like.

The plot – well, there really isn’t much of a plot. Elkan and Josiah move about healing, judging and conducting religious ceremonies. There’s a sub-plot with bandits, who wander into the story from time to time causing trouble, but mainly the focus is on a variety of challenges for Elkan and his companion-in-magic, Sar the donkey. This makes the story very choppy and episodic. Every few chapters, there’s a new town or village, a new medical condition described in disconcertingly modern terms, followed by a cure, or a long discussion about why it can’t be done.

Of the characters, the conflicted and quite complex Elkan is the most interesting. At first he seems rather dull, happy in his work and disapproving of Josiah’s impulsiveness. But later, as we learn more about him, he becomes a little more nuanced. Josiah does some pretty stupid things, but he does learn to see things in less black and white terms. I’d have liked to know more about Sar the donkey, but perhaps that will come in future books. The other characters are mostly too numerous to be more than hastily-drawn sketches. Some effort is made to give the bandits some depth, but ultimately all these minor characters are either good guys or bad guys. The only character whose behaviour stretched my credulity was Meira. Her actions felt like plot-drivers, rather than something which would arise naturally. But it was a minor point.

But as the book goes on, the happy healer and fixer aspect is increasingly mired in difficult choices, and this is where the book really shines. It’s impossible not to share the grief when people die, despite the wizard’s best endeavours. How do you explain to simple folk that some things just can’t be fixed, even with magic? And when there’s a disaster, with many people needing help, how do you choose? And is it possible to give so much yet ask for nothing in return, not even personal happiness? All these questions and more are addressed by the end of the book, as well as the important one: the issue of free will. And although the characters don’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary, they still got under my skin so that I cared very much what happened to them.

The ending gave me a complete side-swipe. That was really NOT how I saw this going. But it all followed completely logically from the developments up to that point – one of those oh-of-course moments, not wait-what? And then everything is nicely set up for book 2.

A very readable book, well written and nicely thought out. It was terribly slow moving, and I often found myself muttering: yes, yes, but get on with it. Even so, I found myself thinking about aspects of the story while I was doing other things, and always picked it up again with pleasure. That’s the sign of a good book. I shall certainly be watching out for the next in the series. Recommended for the characters, the setting and the interesting magic system, rather than action. Four stars.

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New release! ‘The Magic Mines of Asharim’

September 26, 2015 Publishing/marketing, The Magic Mines of Asharim 0

Yes, The Magic Mines of Asharim is out, the fourth book in the Brightmoon Annals. Once again, it’s a stand-alone book, with a new set of characters and a new part of the world to explore, this time the northern end of the Plains of Kallanash, where the two great rivers from the Sky Mountains and the Crested Mountains make their way to the sea.

Thank you to everyone who pre-ordered! I hope the book arrived safely in your Kindle or device, and that you enjoy the read.

If you haven’t picked up a copy yet, it’s still at a special introductory price of just $0.99 (or equivalent) for the next week or so. For those who have Kindle Unlimited or Prime, you can download and read absolutely FREE. The paperback is already available, priced at $12.99 (or equivalent), and if you buy the paperback, you can download the ebook completely free (I don’t believe anyone should pay twice for the same product).

To buy or download: click here and you’ll be taken to your local Amazon.

When you’ve finished reading, please consider posting a review on Amazon, Goodreads or your blog, to help other readers decide if they would enjoy the book.

Here’s what one reviewer wrote about The Magic Mines of Asharim:

“This is a great book. it falls into postapocalyptic fantasy like all of the Brightmoon series which by itself is a fairly unique genre.
Things I love about this book:
The protagonist. She’s not always likeable, but I never hate her. She’s often selfish, but she’s called out on it. She’s very human to me, rather than perfect.
The supporting characters -varied and also very human.
I highly recommend all of these books!”

Here’s the description of the book:

A fallen empire. A woman with dark secrets. A strange magical weapon.

The glorious Akk’asharan Empire was torn apart by treachery two hundred years ago, its water supply cut off. Now its people are enslaved and humiliated, but they have never forgotten the past, and dream of one day restoring their former greatness.

Allandra’s dreams are more immediate: how to control the powerful magical abilities that are ruining her life. After a disastrous outbreak of power, she’s desperate to escape from justice and find a place to grieve and recover. Perhaps the hidden mines of Asharim can provide a safe haven.

The mines can provide much more than that: not only a way to control her dangerous magic, but a magical weapon that might even restore the fallen empire to its rightful place. But with enemies on her trail, and powerful factions who will do anything to stop her, she will only get one chance. If she fails, the empire’s last hope will be lost forever.

From the magic mines of Asharim, no one emerges unchanged.

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Fiction Review: ‘The Sense of an Ending’ by Julian Barnes

September 25, 2015 Review 1

My book group makes me nervous. Very often the choice of book is something I just can’t get through, despite being well written (Wolf Hall), or it’s something I would have enjoyed a few years ago but find boring now (The Mayor of Casterbridge), or I find it completely unbelievable (The Neon Rain), or I think it’s pretentious nonsense (most of them). In return, I inflict dragons and gender-bending aliens on them, so I suppose it evens out in the end. But occasionally, it’s an unreservedly enjoyable read, as here.

This is probably not a book I would have picked up voluntarily (in my experience, anything within hailing distance of the Man Booker prizes is to be avoided at all costs), but I found it a pleasant, easy read. Tony is an elderly man looking back to his youth and certain events there, and he seems a nice enough, if ordinary, bloke. He hasn’t done much with his life, but he’s contented enough, gets on well with his ex-wife and his daughter, doesn’t have too many regrets. And then, out of the blue, he’s left some money and a letter in the will of someone he can’t even remember. And this opens up a whole can of worms for him, relating to the girlfriend of his youth and a schoolfriend who killed himself.

Since the book is written is the first person, there’s the issue of Tony being an unreliable narrator, but even so, there are some events which he blithely sails past in his recital which any normal person would have remembered in a bit more detail than that. Could he seriously have forgotten what he said and did? Even though it was decades ago, and self-preservation blurs the edges considerably, it’s hard to believe.

The revelations at the end are not particularly original, or even interesting, and, to be honest, the author has to jump through hoops to keep some facts hidden until the very end, and this makes the characters behave in quite incredible ways. Veronica, for instance, the former girlfriend – why on earth would she not simply tell Tony what had happened, instead of expecting him to divine it, somehow? So the plot went off the rails at this point. Nevertheless, it was still an enjoyable read, and there’s plenty of thought-provoking depth in there for those who like that sort of thing. Four stars.

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Fantasy review: ‘White Blood’ by Angela Holder

September 21, 2015 Review 0

I loved this book. Completely adored it, from the first moment we meet Maryn, curled up in bed beside her husband, feeding their new baby, through the tragedies and challenges that follow, right to the end. I loved Maryn, and loved, too, reading about one of the great unsung heroines of past times, the wet nurse. It’s a fascinating profession, one that takes a lowly born woman and plonks her down right in the midst of a great and powerful family. And it’s perfect for fantasy, as here, because Maryn ends up as wet nurse to the newest heir to the kingdom, baby Barilan.

The pace is slow initially, and the world-building isn’t anything out of the ordinary, although the magic system, based on blood use, is clever. The physicality of it means that magic can be felt, like a buzzing in the bones, as well as being seen through sweeps of blue light. I liked that different cultures have hedged magic round with all sorts of rituals and superstitions, subtly different from each other, so that it blends seamlessly into religion.

The characters leap from the page, fully formed and totally real. Maryn herself is wonderful, just a lowly-born woman, humble and grateful for her new job, while never forgetting all that she’s lost. The first part of the book, as she adjusts to her changed circumstances, is a wonderful evocation of royal life, as seen by one of its most junior inhabitants. It’s fascinating, and totally believable, that the royals simply don’t see Maryn, so they talk state secrets in front of her, as well as ascribing the baby’s good health and size to his inheritance rather than her plentiful milk! At every point Maryn’s reactions felt exactly right, to me. In fact, all the characters responded in realistic ways to the difficulties facing them. Sometimes things went badly wrong, too, so that it felt as if Maryn was taking three steps forward and one back. But again, this makes it all the more believable.

At about the 40% mark, the plot dives headlong off a cliff, leaving behind the comfortable world of servant life, and thrusting Maryn into a situation that’s life-threatening both for her and for the baby. From then on, the pace is frenetic, and doesn’t let up for an instant, right up to the dramatic confrontation at the end. There were times when I could have done with a respite from the constant tension, just to catch my breath!

The ending is very elegant, and although I anticipated some elements of it (I was actually shouting ‘Use the [X]!’ at my Kindle at one stage), there were one or two twists I didn’t foresee, as well. And then some lovely moments at the end that had me sighing with pleasure.

You can tell I enjoyed this book, a lot. Books are enjoyable for any number of reasons, but just occasionally I come across one that I feel might almost have been written specially for me. This is one of those books that just resonates with me. But a word of warning: there is a lot – a whole lot – of detail about breastfeeding and babies and diapers and cracked nipples in here. I loved it all, but for anyone who’s less than enthralled by such matters, best pass on by. But for me – a perfect five stars.

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Fantasy romance review: ‘Dragon’s Rival’ by H L Burke

September 17, 2015 Review 0

This is the third in the series The Dragon and the Scholar, and the story is blossoming now. It’s focused more on the personal elements than the background plot, but I found this more interesting anyway. The on-again off-again sort-of romance between dragon-prince Ewan and scholar Shannon has reached a critical point, and Ewan’s rival Ryan, another prince, is there waiting for Shannon when things fall apart. Everything depends on Ewan: will he admit his love for Shannon or deny it all to give her a chance of happiness with Ryan?

I’m not generally a big fan of characters who say and do things to protect another character ‘for their own good’. It’s presumptuous and disrespectful not to allow them to make their own decision. But in this case, Ewan has been enchanted (or cursed, perhaps) by an evil sorceress, now dead, to take the form of a dragon permanently. If Shannon chooses to be with Ewan, she gives up all possibility of a sexual relationship and children. There’s also the problem that dragons live longer lives than humans. That’s a heavy price to pay, and Ewan’s actions to push her towards Ryan are very understandable in that context. The tragedy of Ewan’s situation adds a darker shade to an otherwise rather lighthearted story.

The background plot is nothing wildly original, just the usual conspiracy to take over the kingdom. One of the weaknesses of this series, to my mind, is that the characters fall too neatly into the good guy/bad guy boxes. I really like a hero with foibles, or a villain who has some redeeming qualities. That’s how people are in real life, and it makes the story so much more realistic if the characters aren’t simple black or white, but have at least some hint of grey about them. But that’s a personal preference, not a major criticism.

Fortunately, the background shenanigans never come close to overwhelming the story, which focuses firmly on the two principle characters and their troubled romance. A reader would have to have a heart of stone not to root for these two likable characters to get back together, and the author elegantly contrives to ensure that Ryan isn’t left too broken-hearted, either. Very nicely done. Four stars.

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A year of self-publishing

September 12, 2015 Publishing/marketing 0

Today it’s exactly one year since I published my very first book. There was cake, there was champagne, there were little sausages on sticks, there was jubilation throughout the land— erm, Ross household. And I was terrified. I’d like to laugh at myself, and say that those days are behind me now, I’m an accomplished self-pubber who can publish without fear, but nope. Still terrified with every book. That one went OK – phew! – but maybe this one will flop? It never gets less than nerve-shredding.

What’s helped more than anything else is the willingness of other self-pubbers to help out with advice and support. When I say I couldn’t have done this without that support, I mean that literally. I’ve made friends on Scribophile, Mythic Scribes and the Kboards Writers’ Cafe who have been consistently generous with their time and advice, and there are innumerable others, authors and bloggers, whose words have informed, encouraged and inspired me. Thank you to all of you.

And now, the obligatory list of Stuff I Learned:

  • – Books don’t sell without promotion (dur, right?).
  • – Promos are fun! And addictive! And sometimes I even make money from them!
  • – Two books sell more than one, and three sell more than two.
  • – Two books make more work than one, and three makes more than two.
  • – Not to panic. This is a long game.

I’ve seen others post numbers from their first year’s sales, and I’d like to do something similar. First the lifetime stuff:

  • Sales: 2,630
  • Borrows: 2,022 (up to June 30th)
  • Pages read: 359K (from July 1st; equivalent to around 400 complete reads)

Monthly sales and revenues are very up and down, but here’s my way of looking at how things are improving. These are my average daily sales/borrows/royalties, split by number of books out:

  • 1 book out: 1 sale/day, <1 borrow/day, $2/day
  • 2 books out: 9 sales/day, 6 borrows/day, $20/day
  • 3 books out: 11 sales/day, 25 borrows/day, 5K pages/day, $46/day

I discovered the virtues of promotion shortly before the release of book 2, as you can probably tell. If anyone still needs convincing that writing more books (and promo!) is the best way to go, here it is. It would be lovely to think that this progression will continue indefinitely, but probably not. (10 books out: $10,000/day! Yay! Er, no…)

And now, on to the next year. And the year after that…

PS To celebrate my first anniversary, all my books are priced at just $0.99 (or equivalent) for the weekend (up to and including September 13th). That’s a worldwide offer from all Amazons. You can also pre-order the next book at the same price. Click the Buy! button up above to link to your local Amazon.

 

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Fantasy review: ‘The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ by N K Jemisin

September 11, 2015 Review 0

Right from the start I had trouble with this book. The story is told by Yeine, in a chatty but disjointed style, which hops here and there, jumping back from the here-and-now to fill in some backstory, sometimes abandoning the diversion. I can live with the erratic timelines, although it seems more of an authorial conceit than anything else, but the odd tone is grating. A slightly formal construction will be disrupted by a seemingly modern word, like ‘savvy’ or ‘sicced’. It’s very jarring, and rocks me out of the story at frequent intervals.

And then Yeine herself is an odd sort of character. Her mother, from the ruling Arameri family, married into the northern family of Darr, so-called barbarians, although it isn’t obvious what they do that is any more barbaric than Arameri ways. But when Yeine is summoned to Sky, the seat of the Arameri family, and made an heir and told to fight the other heirs to the death to become ruler herself, she… well, she just seems to shrug and accept it. And in her interactions with other characters, she veers from diplomatic silence to open rudeness, and from violence to meek submission. I couldn’t make her out at all.

The Arameri family have four gods at their command, and they, too, take an interest in Yeine. Again, she simply accepts everything they do. She seems oddly passive for a barbarian girl. And ignorant. She seems to know nothing at all about Sky or its occupants. Did her mother tell her nothing? Do they have no books or other means of education in the barbaric north? Didn’t she want to know?

The big attraction here is the presence of the four captured gods. Jemisin makes them very alien and ‘other’, and I’m a sucker for that kind of skill. The father, Nahadoth, is frightening-alien. Man-child Sieh is creepy-alien. With these two, the male gods, there are strong sexual undertones to their dealings with Yeine right from the start. The two female gods, Zhakkarn and Kurue, are less well-developed initially, although they become more important later.

The plot is minimalist. New heir, finding her way around the city, steering through the choppy waters of family politics, and finding out who killed her mother and why. So lots of ambling around, chatting to this or that courtier or cousin, just happening to stumble onto secrets (yeah, right) and avoiding the amorous intentions of Nahadoth.

I haven’t read as widely in the genre as many reviewers, but even so I found resonances of familiar books here. The three heirs fighting to the death for the right to rule is reminiscent of Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet. The gods embodied but captive, living amongst mortals, reminded me of Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker. And the whole business of the orphan who becomes heir, transposed into a new environment, discovering family secrets, feels like one giant fantasy trope.

I understand why people rave over this book. The writing is confident, the plot is not entirely trope-bound and several of the characters are compelling – Nahadoth, for instance, and Dekarta, the current ruler. But so many aspects failed to work for me. The world-building is sparse, for one thing (what are these Hundred Thousand Kingdoms anyway, apart from a striking title?), the disjointed writing style and the contrived seepage of information is irritating, and having gods conveniently to hand means that the magic has virtually no limitations. You want to nip to the other side of the continent for a quick chat with someone? No problem. Worst of all, none of it convinced me.

Yeine herself, drooping her way through her new life, manipulated by everyone and rarely even bothering to put up a fight, was just too stupid for words. And how many times did she find out (too late!) some crucial piece of information that a few simple questions might have unearthed. So basically, the book failed on that point alone: the plot would simply have unravelled like a ball of wool if the characters had just talked to each other. Add in a hefty dollop of tearful angst, villains without a single redeeming feature and a bad-boy love interest who’s quite deliciously dangerous, and this boil down to nothing more or less than a standard romance. It’s very well-written romance, and there are some interesting ideas here, but a little bit of gratuitous torture doesn’t make it any less of a romance.

I didn’t mind the romantic elements at all; Nahadoth was a thoroughly compelling character, and the sexual tension was nicely done. I also loved Sieh. But I hated the overwrought villains, the implausibly violent world, the contrived drip-feed of information, the silly murder-of-the-mother mystery, the eye-rollingly over-the-top god-sex and the ease with which problems could be solved with limitless magic. And despite the difficulty of her situation, Yeine never really sprang to life for me. She was just too placid to be interesting. I really wanted to love this book, but it made me cross too many times. It rates three stars because, despite all the irritations, I kept turning the pages.

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Mystery review: ‘The Treasure at Poldarrow Point’ by Clara Benson

September 9, 2015 Review 0

This is the third in the Angela Marchmont series of cozies, and, seriously, I had a whale of a time with this book. It’s got smuggling, a secret room, mysterious tunnels, a missing diamond necklace and anonymous letters, not to mention a number of characters behaving in suspiciously odd ways. The plot is completely preposterous, of course, but the most amazing fun, and a great leap forward from the first two books in the series.

The character of Angela herself is really beginning to shine, now. She’s turning into a wonderful heroine, intelligent and self-confident, with a relaxed approach to her investigations. Angela’s god-daughter, Barbara, is a magnificent side-kick. She’s twelve years old, and has that gung-ho let’s-have-a-go attitude that reminded me strongly of the Famous Five. While Angela is sedately looking stuff up in the library, Barbara is crawling through tunnels, picking locks, hiding in cupboards and creeping round in the middle of night. And it’s so refreshing to see that Angela doesn’t fret about her, having the quaintly old-fashioned idea that children are capable, sensible human beings, perfectly well able to look after themselves.

For anyone with an eye for detail, it probably doesn’t pay to look too closely at the logistics of the plot. There are a number of too-convenient contrivances, and some of the mysteries were very easy to solve. But it was all jolly good fun, a thoroughly enjoyable read from start to finish. And I do hope that a certain character reappears in future books as a romantic focus for Angela. Four stars.

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‘The Magic Mines of Asharim’: ARCs available

September 1, 2015 Publishing/marketing, The Magic Mines of Asharim 0

I’m looking for volunteers to read and review  The Magic Mines of Asharim, due out Sep 25th. It features a young woman running away from her past mistakes, two very different men, and a dangerous and ambitious plan. With plenty of magic, as always!

One beta reader said: “LOVED IT. The plot was excellent, and I was hooked from the middle of chapter 1 all the way through. ”

It’s 410 pages long.  If you’re interested, email me with your preferred format: mobi, epub or pdf.

Here’s the blurb:

A fallen empire. A woman with dark secrets. A strange magical weapon.

The glorious Akk’asharan Empire was torn apart by treachery two hundred years ago, its water supply cut off. Now its people are enslaved and humiliated, but they have never forgotten the past, and dream of one day restoring their former greatness.

Allandra’s dreams are more immediate: how to control the powerful magical abilities that are ruining her life. After a disastrous outbreak of power, she’s desperate to escape from justice and find a place to grieve and recover. Perhaps the hidden mines of Asharim can provide a safe haven.

The mines can provide much more than that: not only a way to control her dangerous magic, but a magical weapon that might even restore the fallen empire to its rightful place. But with enemies on her trail, and powerful factions who will do anything to stop her, she will only get one chance. If she fails, the empire’s last hope will be lost forever.

From the magic mines of Asharim, no one emerges unchanged.

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