Posts By: PaulineMRoss

‘The Plains of Kallanash’: the first month

October 16, 2014 Publishing/marketing, The Plains of Kallanash 2

A month ago, my first fantasy novel went live on Amazon. This is a status report of what’s happened to it since.

Marketing strategy

Erm… what marketing strategy? Experienced authors publishing their umpteenth book plan the launch with meticulous attention to detail, organising street teams to post reviews and spread the word, scheduling promotional campaigns with military precision and adjusting on a daily or even hourly basis if sales and rankings underperform. I didn’t do any of that. The received wisdom is that sales can’t be expected to take off until the third book at least, and even then only in popular, high-turnover genres like romance and YA, and when the books are arranged into a neat series. I write stand-alones, loosely linked but not in a series, in epic fantasy with added romance (sort of). So a big promotional push would almost certainly be a waste of money.

My sole plan was to announce the book’s existence to online friends via my blogs, Twitter, Google+ and the writerly forums where I hang out. The price was set nice and cheap ($0.99) initially to allow those who know me to pick up a copy without breaking the bank, and I opted into Amazon’s Select program to take advantage of the free days later. Since Amazon allowed pre-orders for everyone shortly before release day, it seemed good to give that a whirl. I sent out a few ARCs a couple of weeks beforehand.

Once I got some print copies ordered, I started a Goodreads Giveaway (which won’t allow ebooks). I’m only offering two books, so the total cost will be the cost of the books plus postage. I also found a nice little promotions list on Kboards geared to new and undiscovered books (low rankings and/or few reviews). It’s only $15, so it’s worth a shot.

Expectations

I’m a realist (read: pessimist). Or perhaps it comes from studying statistics in the past. I know the chances of a big take-up are vanishingly small, so my expectations were correspondingly low. I reckoned I could sell 15-20 copies to online friends, and thereafter perhaps 1-2 copies a week to random strangers. So somewhere between 50 and 100 copies in the first six months. With reviews, I thought maybe 3-4 initially from online friends and ARCs, and then odd ones here and there. I couldn’t estimate borrows at all. Some people seem to get loads, some none at all. The Kindle Unlimited program is too new for me to guess how it might affect me.

Results: Sales

I had 12 pre-orders, then two good days of 10 and 9 sales apiece. After that things slowed to a trickle, averaging roughly one sale per day for a while and then dwindling. There were 3 returns. Total sales 58, of which 42 were from the US, 12 from the UK, and 4 from the rest of the world. So expectations exceeded.

Results: Borrows

7 borrows. I noticed quite a few spikes in rankings unrelated to sales, so I’m guessing those were from borrow downloads which may (or may not) turn out to be actual reads later (a reader has to get to the 10% mark to trigger an entry on the report, and therefore a payment).

Results: Reviews

Here’s where everything fell flat on its face. I got one review on UK Amazon a couple of days after publication, and a deliciously complimentary 5* review on Amazon.com after a couple of weeks (thank you, random stranger!), but otherwise, nothing.

Results: Promotions

The Goodreads giveaway resulted in more than five hundred signups, about half of whom added the book to their to-read shelf. It also gave me a few ratings on Goodreads: 3 at 4*, 4 at 3*, with one 2*, with an average of 3.25. No reviews attached (apart from a repeat of an Amazon one), but I assume the ratings came from people who have bought and read the book. The objective of raising awareness of the book was achieved, as well as a few sales (and it still has a couple of weeks to run). The Kboards Discovery Day promotion, which cost me $15, resulted in zippo. However, a Twitter account called KU Spotlight (@KUSpotlight) has been tweeting about books in Kindle Unlimited, including mine, and that’s resulted in a couple of mini-spikes of sales/borrows (although nothing since: the law of diminishing returns).

Conclusions

This is pretty much in line with my expectations. Perhaps a little better, although things tailed off quicker than I’d hoped. It was fun to watch the early sales come in and see my Amazon rankings shoot up after a sale and then meander down again.

Why am I telling you all this? Most self-published authors don’t talk about sales figures or rankings (unless they have something special to boast about). I certainly don’t have any results worth boasting about, that’s for sure. But that’s exactly the point: this is a book by a debut author that’s not in a hot genre and hasn’t had any hype or promotional push; low sales are exactly what would be expected. Too many new authors publish their first book and expect the world to fall at their feet. For a very, very small number of people, that does happen. For most people, no.

Books don’t just sell themselves. The first book sells to the author’s friends and family, with only a sprinkling of random sales to strangers. It takes several books (typically three, but it could be many more) to gain some traction and sell in reasonable numbers. Even then, sales drop off without constant promotion. Bestselling author Hugh Howey said recently that his sales were a quarter of what they used to be, because he hasn’t put out a new full-length novel since January.

So, for all aspiring and published authors out there, here are my numbers for your edification or amusement. Sometimes it seems as if all you hear about is the outliers, the hugely successful breakout hits. This is a reminder of what’s normal for self-publishers.

Future plans

For the future, I have some promotion to take advantage of because of KDP Select. I’ve chosen to go for the five free days. The Countdown option runs for longer, brings in actual money and impacts on sales rankings, whereas the free days only affect ranking in the free charts. However, free days are likely to shift more copies, and at the moment I feel it’s more important to get the book out there and (possibly) read than to make any money from it.

If you want to mark your calendars: Kallanash will be free on 25/26 Oct (to coincide with the end of the Goodreads giveaway), and again on 3/4/5 Dec (for no particular reason). I’ve booked a cheap promotion for the 25 Oct, so I hope to shift a few copies then. If you’ve already got a copy (thank you!), please tell your friends about the free days so that as many people as possible can take advantage.

Looking further ahead, the next book, ‘The Fire Mages’, will be published probably in early January, and the third, ‘The Mages of Bennamore’, around May or so. That will be the point at which I will start thinking seriously about promotion.

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A new review of ‘The Plains of Kallanash’

October 15, 2014 Publishing/marketing 0

There haven’t been many reviews yet – one on Amazon, one on the UK Amazon also posted to Goodreads – so every extra one is much appreciated. Today marks the first review by a book blogger, although, to be fair, Anachronist is an online friend of some years’ standing, and also my fellow contributor over at book review site Fantasy Review Barn. She also beta read Kallanash for me, so not quite a random stranger.

Here’s a snippet from the review:

However you know what I liked the best? Like in real life there were no baddies rotten to the core, no really. Or rather I should say the baddies were so three-dimensional and complicated that, after a while, you didn’t perceive them as completely negative characters.

You can read the full review (and many other great book reviews) at Anachronist’s blog here. And watch out for her interview with me, too. [ETA: You can read it here. Some interesting and unusual questions in there.]

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Fantasy Romance Review: ‘The Lost Book of Anggird’ by Kyra Halland

October 10, 2014 Review 0

This is exactly the sort of book I love: a well-conceived fantasy world with an intriguing magic system; some great characters who behave in a believable way; a plot that’s driven more by the background and characters than the need for relentless action; and a strong, satisfying romance. Why can’t all fantasy be like this?

Let’s start with the characters. Perarre (no, I don’t know how it’s pronounced) is a woman determined to make a success of her career in a male-dominated world. After a wild phase, she’s settled down to an academic life as a translator of old books, aided by her ability to magically ‘read’ the intent of the author (and haven’t we all read books where we could have used a talent like that?). Roric is the buttoned-up and demanding professor she ends up working for, a man hiding a surprising past. He’s given the task of finding out why the ‘magica’, the tricky to manage magic system, is no longer easy to balance. Something has gone wrong, but finding out what has happened and whether it can be fixed means taking big risks.

As the two investigate, they naturally start to see each other as more than working colleagues. This part of the book is exceptionally well-written, as they circle round each other and gradually set aside their prejudices and inch towards an understanding. The romance builds slowly, right up until the point where they hurtle headlong into a passionate affair. The change felt a little bit abrupt, but given their personalities (Perarre’s wild-child past and Roric’s obsessively constrained behaviour), it was believable and I can go along with it.

From this point onwards, the pace accelerates to become a breathless ride from one end of the country to the other, and back again, multiple times. I was quite relieved that later journeys were condensed to ‘After a month of travel…’. Nevertheless, the various locations where the pair end up, whether the sophisticated and political big city, the village or small farming community, the isolated woodsman’s hut or the very different society of the nomadic steppe clans, are beautifully described. I never had any trouble visualising the settings and understanding the prevailing customs.

Both Perarre and Roric have to leave their old ways behind and open their minds to other cultures (quite literally, in fact). I found it fascinating to watch Roric in particular shed the thick shell he’d built to protect himself from hurt, and face up to both his own heritage and a future very different from anything he’d ever envisaged. This is where the rock-solid love between the two is absolutely critical. And yet he never changes his inner self, and never loses his scientific spirit of seeking the truth, regardless of the cost.

There were moments in the second half of the book where I began to feel that the pace was sagging a little, and wondered whether I was being fed a certain amount of filler. But then things would veer sharply off in a completely unexpected direction. I do love it when a book surprises me, and this one has several such moments, much to my delight. The ending is less unexpected, and (to my mind) falls slightly flat, and I wasn’t totally convinced by the oh-so-convenient way the population of the capital city falls into line, but it isn’t a major stumbling block. A very enjoyable read. Highly recommended. Four stars.

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‘The Fire Mages’: beta readers wanted

October 8, 2014 Publishing/marketing, The Fire Mages 4

Another book, another step on the road to publication. Yes, ‘The Fire Mages’ is critiqued and revised, and now it’s ready for beta readers. But here’s the problem: only two people have read it from beginning to end so far, and they both loved it. My daughter loved it so much that when I told her I was revising it, she said: ‘No! Don’t change anything.’

So now I’m looking for readers who will tear it to shreds and tell me everything that’s wrong with it. I want people who will find the plot-holes, the implausibilities, the continuity errors. Because nothing’s perfect, right?

‘The Fire Mages’ is quite different from ‘The Plains of Kallanash’, being a much more conventional fantasy work. It’s about a young girl with an unusual ability, a coming-of-age story. If I knew how to define the YA genre, it might be that, too. There’s plenty of action but also a strong romantic element. It’s a stand-alone work, with no connection to the previous book except that they are both set in the same world.

If you’d like to help, all you have to do is read the book and let me know what you thought worked and what didn’t work. It’s about 150,000 words (approximately 450 pages), and I can supply it in mobi, epub or pdf format. If you’d like to beta read it, email me.

Here’s the detail:

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.

 

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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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