The Tales of Einarinn – back in print!

The Tales of Einarinn – Wizard’s Tower Press edition

How’s this for a shelfie? I am thrilled to show you the new editions now available from Wizard’s Tower Press. We’ve been working on this for a while now, around our other commitments, and the plan was a (re)launch at this year’s UK Eastercon. So much for that… but hey, that means we can make them available a few weeks earlier now. So spread the word! All signal boosting will be very much appreciated.

We’ve given the source texts a thorough proof read – and then gone over them again. I printed them all out and sat down with a ruler and red pen to go over them the old school way, to check the formatting etc. Having done that we’ve also taken the opportunity to update the ebook versions to catch any remaining glitches, and to share the new cover design by Ben Baldwin, using Geoff Taylor‘s original artwork.

But wait, there’s more! Hardback versions are also in the pipeline – with an added bonus that you’ll find out about soon. So those of you who like a physical book rather than digital will have your choice of formats. One reason for doing this is conversations with readers who have been keen to have their own copies for their bookshelf – as well as chatting to second-hand booksellers who tell me how hard it is to find copies of my early books. Apparently readers who’ve bought them hang on to them – which I am naturally delighted to learn.

And finally… we’re taking the opportunity of this forced hiatus to put together some other things that we’ve had in the ‘when we get around to it’ folder for a while now. Not that Cheryl or I are short of other things to do. As freelancers who both work mostly from home, we’re already set up for remote working so a lot of that side of life is carrying on as usual for us. Anyway, there’ll be more news about what we’re up to in due course.

It was twenty years ago today – well, this month, anyway…

This January sees the twentieth anniversary of the first publication of The Thief’s Gamble. That’s quite some milestone, especially considering all the epic upheavals and changes that we’ve seen in publishing, book selling, and the SF&Fantasy genre over these past two decades. So I am tremendously grateful to all the enthusiastic fans who’ve enjoyed my books and spread the word that continues to bring new readers to the Tales of Einarinn. I’m also pleased, and proud, that these stories I devised so long ago stand up to readers’ expectations today.

The advent of ebooks, and an online environment that facilitates small presses, plays a huge part in enabling writers like me to keep our early books available. Accordingly, I’m very pleased indeed, that the digital VAT threshold that I helped campaign for, and secure, has come into force this month. This means that small presses can now sell their own ebooks direct to readers, free of DRM and with a choice of formats as they see fit, and without losing significant earnings for themselves and their authors as 3rd party platforms take 20% VAT straight off the retail price, followed by their own cut of over 50% (Google) and 30% (Amazon). When you’re considering a small press purchase, do check to see if it’s possible for you to buy direct. The cost to you will be the same, and the authors and publishers will benefit.

This change in the legislation means Wizard’s Tower Press has been able to re-open its online bookstore, and Cheryl and I have decided to mark this month’s anniversary with a special offer on all five Tales of Einarinn. From now until the end of January, the five novels are on sale. The prices are US$2.99, £2.35 and €2.99. You can also buy a fabulous omnibus edition that contains all five novels and the short story collection, A Few Further Tales of Einarinn. Until the end of January that’s just $9.99/£7.99.

These offers will also be available through Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Google, and Amazon, though apparently Amazon’s website is currently baulking at the omnibus thanks to the adds-on from their own file formatting. Hopefully that can be sorted out, and meantime, if you need a Kindle version you can buy it from the Wizard’s Tower Bookstore. As ever, I am indebted to Cheryl for tackling all these technical issues.

So now’s the ideal time to renew your acquaintance with the world of Einarinn, and to recommend the Tales to new readers. All signal boosting will be very much appreciated, naturally!

Writing about a wizard called Shiv, and understanding why representation matters.

A while ago I got an email from a Tales of Einarinn reader, enthusing about the wizard Shiv. This is not unusual; he’s a very popular character. Let me tell you a bit about him. As I’ve said many times since The Thief’s Gamble was published in 1999, I wanted to write a high fantasy adventure challenging the more tiresome clichés of the genre in the 80s and 90s.

Shiv and Livak, art by Andrew Hepworth

So Shiv’s a wizard, and he’s a talented one, but not a pontificating greybeard who never actually does much magic. He’s got a sense of humour, he’s not afraid of a fight, and he’s ready to roll up his sleeves and get the job done by whatever means might be necessary. He’s alert, intelligent and a loyal friend.

Oh, and incidentally, he’s gay. That’s because I encountered a conundrum in the story I wanted to tell. I was determined to avoid all those fantasy romance clichés of Our Heroine doing all her brave deeds for the love of A Good Man. I was much more interested in friendship and mutual respect as motivation. So Livak and Shiv were never going to fall into bed together. However, I did want Livak to have a sex life that wasn’t yet another romantic cliché. The thing was though, given the choice between Shiv and the alternatives…?

Okay, I thought, that’s not an issue if Shiv is gay. I’ve always had gay and lesbian friends, and I was aiming to make Einarinn a realistic world, so no problem there. Could I think of other gay characters in SF&F back then? Bear in mind I was writing the first draft of this book twenty one years ago. Not many and all too often that sexuality was coupled with unpleasant character flaws. So that was definitely an ill-thought-out and over-used cliché that deserved a kicking.

Okay but… how, as a straight mother of two, could I write an honest and emotionally realistic gay character without leaving my gay and lesbian friends wincing or giggling? As it happened, I was at a crime and mystery fiction conference in Oxford when I was writing the first draft of Thief, and the crime writer Val McDermid was there. Val happens to be gay. We’d both been going to this conference for a couple of years and became friends, so I asked her advice back then.

She said ‘make no more of this character’s sexuality than you would of any other character’s.’ Which is one of those things that’s so blindingly obvious when someone says it, but until someone says it, it’s can be very hard to see! It was the key to writing Shiv for me.

Since then, I’ve discovered he’s a character who’s had far more impact on people’s lives than I ever expected. Since The Thief’s Gamble was first published, I’ve had letters and now emails from readers, telling me just how much they have valued encountering a positive example of a likeable, loyal, quick-witted, and when necessary bad-ass man who happens to also be gay. Far more younger male readers than I could have imagined, found reading about Shiv offered them a helping hand as they came to terms with their own sexuality, amid all the other complexities of teenage life.

Then there are the others, far fewer but also significant. Young men who’d been raised with unthinking homophobia, who were prompted to rethink those ideas after encountering Shiv. Young men who decided to leave such prejudices behind, as they concluded someone’s positive personal qualities are what really counts.

This is intensely rewarding as an author and also genuinely humbling because I never set out to Do Good in my writing, but merely to write honestly about emotionally realistic people caught up in fantastic events. But that’s the thing. This isn’t about me. A book is never only about the writer.

Readers see all sorts of things in fiction’s magic mirror which the author never expected or intended. All sorts of readers should see themselves reflected there. This is why diversity and representation in fiction matters. This is why what I’ve learned thanks to Shiv continues to inform my own work.

1st Chapter Friday – The Assassin’s Edge

Yes, I know I’m early with this but I’m off on a train to Durham tomorrow, and very much looking forward to the Nerd East convention at the university on Saturday.

If you’re around at the event, feel free to ask me any questions you might have about the opening chapter of The Assassin’s Edge!

When I get back, now that I’ve got a significant and tedious tranche of seasonal administrivia off my desk this week, I should have a chance to write a few more interesting blog posts.

1st Chapter Friday – The Warrior’s Bond

Here we are again, and here’s the first chapter of The Warrior’s Bond, the fourth Tale of Einarinn. Enjoy.

This was a fun book to write. One of the things I was determined to do in this first series, was to never rewrite the book I’d just written, if that makes sense. I can’t remember if it was one of the editorial team at Orbit who offered that as advice to me as a new writer, or a fellow author, given that was twenty years or so ago. Either way, it made perfect sense, as I recall, then and now, my own disappointment when a much-loved book is followed by far too much of the same.

So when I was looking at the plot ideas stemming from the previous Tales, I searched for the ones which offered me a chance to do something different and challenging. Here this meant writing a novel where all the action happens essentially over five days, in an epic fantasy kingdom’s capital city. There’s no endless trekking over wilderness here. Instead, you’ll learn all about the mean streets of Toremal.

Something else I love about this particular book is the way two different artists illustrated the very same scene from the story in the UK and the US. Comparing them is fascinating, with intriguing hints to the different traditions each artist chose to draw on. That was Geoff Taylor in the UK, and thanks to an online pal with the hardcover edition, I now know the US artist is Matt Stawicki. (He’s not credited in the paperback I have here.)

Artwork – Geoff Taylor

Artwork – Matt Stawicki

First Chapter Friday, and other links

Let’s get away from politics for a bit. First up, a reminder for those wondering where to start with my books, that the first chapters are available for reading for free.

You can find the opening chapter of The Thief’s Gamble here, and more about the book and what inspired me to write it here.

incidentally, I’ve mentioned this idea to various writerly pals, so do look out for First Chapter Friday posts on Facebook and Twitter, and share/RT to boost the signal.

Secondly, last week saw the fifth JRR Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Fiction given by Susan Cooper, thanks to Pembroke College MCR in Oxford. You can see the video of the lecture here, and it’s also downloadable as a podcast. Previous years’ lectures are also available as well as other Tolkien-related stuff. I recommend you go and browse. Once again, please boost the signal, to support this wonderful series of talks.

Thirdly, this one’s for upcoming writerly pals in Scotland. The Scottish Book Trust’s New Writers Awards 2018 are currently open for applications. Find out more here, and yes, please spread the word.

And what am I doing just at the moment? I’m working on reworking one novel, pitching another one to agents, revising some short fiction for a couple of anthologies, and looking forward to getting all that done and dusted so I can start work on a River Kingdom novel.

“Journeys”, “The Road to Hadrumal”, and a story’s journey

Today sees the publication of an anthology which I’m very pleased to be part of: Journeys (from Woodbridge Press) offers fourteen epic fantasy stories of daring, death and glory from an array of talented and interesting authors. To be precise, there are tales from John Gwynne, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Gail Z. Martin, me, Julia Knight, Juliana Spink Mills, Jacob Cooper, Samanda R Primeau, Steven Poore, Davis Ashura, Dan Jones, Charlie Pulsipher, Anna Dickinson, and Thaddeus White.

My own story? Well, I may not be writing novels set in Einarinn at the moment but that world is still very much in my thoughts, both in terms of what’s going on with all the characters we know and also, I find I reflect now and then, on key moments in that world’s history. The Road to Hadrumal picks up on some hints dropped throughout those books, from The Thief’s Gamble all the way to The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy, about the origins of wizardry’s organisation. I thought I’d look a little more closely at Trydek, the very first Archmage. Who was he, before he became the revered father of magic? Before he made his way to Hadrumal? What prompted him to make that particular journey? What sent elemental magic down the path that’s lead to its power and influence in Einarinn’s present day?

Well, you can read the story to find out. What I want to talk about here is how writing this particular story enabled me to show a group of aspiring SF&Fantasy writers the journey that a piece of fiction takes, whether you’re just starting out, or whether you’re someone like me with fifteen novels and umpteen short stories to your credit. More than that, I’m convinced that every story must take this journey if it’s going to be worth reading.

Last December I was teaching on a residential course at Moniack Mhor, the Scottish Creative Writing Centre, up near Inverness. As part of my preparation, I had submissions from the students to critique. This means I arrived a folder of pages extensively marked up with red pen… Now, getting your work back covered in queries, suggestions and corrections is not necessarily an easy thing to handle. Writing’s such an intensely personal thing and we invest so much time and effort in it, that seeing it criticized can really sting. I know that full well myself. So what could I offer these keen writers, to ease that impact?

I realised I could show them the editorial notes that I had been sent for this particular story. As it happened, that was a page’s worth. Now, Teresa Edgerton knows what she’s doing. She started off by telling me what she particularly liked in the story, highlighting original angles that had caught her eye and complimenting me on my clean prose. That was about three or four lines worth.

And then… she highlighted the things which I needed to address in that final draft story. Points where the pace needed looking at. Points where character motivations and their reactions needed further consideration. Points where what I had written might challenge reader engagement. She offered a few thoughts on possible routes to pursue, though of course, as all good editors agree, deciding what to do was up to me. It’s my story after all.

Those notes filled the rest of the page. Did this mean this was a bad story? Did this mean I was kidding myself calling myself a writer? Did it mean that I’d learned nothing over those fifteen novels and however many stories? Not at all. I’m an experienced author and I’ve learned to demand a high standard of myself. (Go and read some of these free stories if you want to check.)

But every story needs fresh eyes. In this particular instance, Teresa’s viewpoint was invaluable and all the more so because she’s not an established reader of my Einarinn books. Her comments made me realise that I had been subconsciously writing for people with a far greater knowledge of my existing work than was either fair or desirable in a story like this. Among other things, I was presuming background knowledge that would generate tension that wasn’t there on the page. I was including additional details to tweak tantalizing loose threads from the novels which played no direct part in these events.

Was I thrilled to learn this? No, of course I wasn’t, not initially. I told you that feedback can sting, even now, even just a little bit. Surely my story was perfect? I must have grumbled into my coffee for oh, at least two minutes…

Then I told myself that was more than enough self-indulgence and got to work. Because on my personal journey as a writer over nearly twenty years now, I’ve learned that this is how writing good fiction works. So I sat and thought and then I tightened things up here and there. I cut and trimmed elsewhere, and clarified this and that. It wasn’t a great deal of work but now that I had seen this story through Teresa’s eyes, I had a whole new, sharper focus.

So that’s the story of this particular tale’s journey. Enjoy!

Oh, and those aspiring writers at Moniack Mhor? They worked with me so positively on my feedback that I have great hopes of their future success.

“Journeys” on Amazon UK

“Journeys” on Amazon US

Light and Shade in Epic Fantasy Fiction versus Grimdark

The ebook of The Assassin’s Edge sees The Tales of Einarinn series finally completed for e-readers. Preparing these editions has been interesting for many reasons. It’s been fascinating to revisit what I was writing a decade and more ago. I honestly had forgotten quite how gruesome, violent and downright spine-chilling some of the events in Assassin are. But even then, and even though the term wasn’t in general usage in those days, I don’t think the book can ever be labelled Grimdark. That’s true of the other epic fantasies I was reading at the time. Because there’s so much else in the Tales and other such series.

More than that, when I compare Assassin and its contemporaries to the epic fantasy novels I’ve been reading recently for review, the more convinced I’m becoming that Grimdark is devolving into a narrowing focus that’s stifling creativity in our genre. The more the current visibility bias in bookshops drives sales towards downbeat stories dominated by moody blokes in cloaks, the worse this will get.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating fluffy feel-good tales where everyone gets a happy ending and even the villains are redeemed with hugs and kisses. I’m all for hard edges in epic fantasy. Those were definitely a feature of books such as Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane and The Darwath Trilogy, Elizabeth Moon’s The Deed of Paksennarion and Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince and Dragon Star trilogies, all of which enthralled me as I turned to writing seriously myself. I vividly recall the visceral impact of reading David Gemmell’s Legend for the first time, swiftly followed by The King Beyond the Gate and Waylander.

These writers were absolutely what epic fantasy needed to stop the genre trundling down an equally stultifying path towards naive, consolatory fiction. I can assuredly see the value and appeal of tales where characters learn in the hardest possible way that life isn’t fair, virtue isn’t necessarily rewarded and you just have to get through hard luck as best you can. These are all aspects of real life and as I’ve said so often, realism is essential to give fantasy fiction a solid foundation.

That’s my first problem with Grimdark. Unrelenting and universal misery in a story is so often as unrealistic as non-stop rainbows and kittens. Unless there’s sufficient context within the world-building to explain why brutes behave as they do, all this violence becomes merely nasty set-dressing. Without some degree of exploration of what underpins it, Grimdark slides far too easily into tacky exploitation.

Yes, we can readily point to historical and contemporary real-world examples of innocent people living utterly wretched lives, but whole societies based on such brutality have always been an exception and rarely endure. More than that, even amid such horrors, individuals emerge time and again in whom the human spirit strives towards hope, altruism and defiance.

There will always be those who fight to light a candle instead of yielding to curse the darkness. It’s exactly that light and shade which makes for a far more realistic reading experience as far as I am concerned. Take a look at the works of Robin Hobb or Kate Elliott, among many others. They don’t shy away from the worst that humanity can do but they aren’t labelled Grimdark, even when their work includes toe-curlingly shocking events. Indeed, the impact of such brutality is heightened by the contrast of such darkness with the glimmers of hope and warm light of happiness elsewhere in their characters’ lives.

Which brings me to my next problem when books have an endless supply of shit, literal and metaphorical, for everyone to wade through. Pain and poo have their place among trials and tribulations which test and reveal character but the story overall must sustain and justify that. If there’s no narrative progression – and I don’t just mean some simplistic triumph over adversity, but some sense that events shape and drive the story – what’s the point? Grimdark too easily becomes a series of increasing misfortunes bombarding passive or at best reactive individuals who never take any initiative to change their own fate.

Why should a reader bother engaging with such a character or investing emotion in their fate when the unfolding narrative so clearly indicates that everything is going to go horribly wrong time and again? If any hint of light at the end of the tunnel is only ever an oncoming train, I find myself progressively distanced from the characters and their predicaments. This becomes even more pronounced when the central characters themselves are grim and brutal. When a reader can’t identify with, or simply doesn’t much care about, such people, the impact of their suffering is drastically reduced, further lessening engagement.

And incidentally, just in case anyone thinks I’m making a gendered argument here, the most recent striking example for me of all that I personally dislike in Grimdark is Rebecca Levene’s Smiler’s Fair. But this debate really isn’t about any one book or any single writer.

Epic fantasy needs light and shade to give it three dimensions. Detail and colour get lost in unremitting gloom. Thankfully there are plenty of current epic fantasy writers who understand this; Sam Sykes, Helen Lowe, Aidan Harte and Elspeth Cooper are just a few such authors whose books I can see on my shelves as I write this. Please feel free to flag up more in comments.

And equally, do feel free to speak up in favour of those authors who are most often labelled Grimdark; to explore different perspectives on such reading. I’m curious to know if, how and why you’re getting something rewarding that I’m missing.

But I’m still concerned about the artificial skewing of the market towards the Grimdark tendency, when a narrowing selection of books increasingly gets the bulk of promotion and front-of-bookstore presence. Not bad books by any means; I have found undoubted merits in novels that have exemplified the worst of Grimdark for me personally, yes, including Smiler’s Fair where I see plenty that’s positive in the book with regard to diversity, inclusivity and pacing. Even when the grimdarkery still kills that particular title for me. Though I have no problem with other folk reading and enjoying such books if they wish. Tastes vary after all.

But if disproportionate visibility means Grimdark increasingly dominates sales then retailers and publishers alike will look first and foremost for more of the same. That’s how the book business works. Then those of us with other tastes in reading will lose out if the authors we enjoy simply can’t sustain a writing career. If competition for that remaining market then sees Grimdark authors striving to outdo each other with ever increasing nastiness, ultimately those fans will lose out too, as epic fantasy hurtles towards that creative dead end. Just look at the way the serial killer narrative has devolved so far towards unredeemed ghastliness in a lot of recent crime fiction.

Thankfully we’re not there yet. So let’s do all we can to avoid taking that particular path by celebrating and promoting the full breadth and depth of epic fantasy fiction, past and present.

Heroes are hard to write – and The Warrior’s Bond has two of them…

I’m delighted to let you know that The Warrior’s Bond is now out in ebook! Just in time for Eastercon!

Huge thanks as ever to Elizabeth and Cheryl, and check out the left hand scroll bar for the click to purchase links. The roll-out to other outlets, Kindle, Nook etc, will happen over the next few days as usual.

Meantime? As with each of these ebook releases, I’ve been thinking back to the challenges of writing each particular story and here, the problem was heroes.

Let’s face it; virtue is assuredly admirable but it can all too often be rather dull. A good man in a story really can struggle to rise above that single, defining characteristic. Be honest; who’s more interesting; Superman or Batman? Consider Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. Luke’s story is as straight-forward as his personality and both of these things make him increasingly predictable as the first three (and only worthwhile) Star Wars films unfold. Yes, he faces trials and tribulations, with a noteworthy performance from Mark Hamill, but Luke’s done nothing to deserve any of this, good or bad, beyond being born. Consequently our emotional reactions to his story are likely to be just as straight-forward.

Han Solo? He’s unpredictable from start to finish (as Greedo discovers when Han shoots first) and that’s merely one aspect of his appeal. His back story is full of secrets and misadventures with lingering consequences that can and do come back to bite him. Our reactions are consequently complex. Yes, we’re anguished for him but honestly, Han, you do bring these things on yourself… As a result his story is a many-layered one of challenge and redemption and overall that’s so much more interesting, isn’t it?

I sometimes wonder how influential Star Wars was on my generation of fantasy writers. Is this one of the reasons why epic secondary worlds seem currently mired in grimdark, with characters displaying an infinite number of shades of grey rather than seeing heroes ride into battle on their white horses to face off against the black hooded menace of Tolkien’s day? Though this cuts both ways. We see a convincing complexity within evil now and that’s definitely a good thing. Motiveless malignity just doesn’t convince anyone these days. But I digress.

So where did thinking about heroes in these terms leave me, when I realised that the unfolding logic of the Tales of Einarinn would see Ryshad and Temar working together in Toremal, searching for the remaining artefacts needed to restore the lost colony of Kellarin. Oh, I had the framework of the plot, with any number of difficulties and puzzles to test them as they face treachery and rival ambitions determined to frustrate them.

But I knew that wouldn’t be enough. Both men’s personalities had to be integral to the story’s resolution and we had to see the effects of success and failure on their individual characters, from the start through to the end of the book. There had to be metaphorical journeys for both men, driven by intense, fast paced events, with The Warrior’s Bond unfolding almost entirely within the city of Toremal over the course of five days.

Well, as with so many aspects of writing, it’s always worth considering what other authors have done, when looking for a starting point. For instance, Jack Aubrey is an interesting hero, in Patrick O’Brien’s tales of Napoleonic sea-faring from Master and Commander onwards. Jack’s definitely a good guy but he’s what I’ve seen defined as a mono-competent hero, as opposed to the omni-competent hero; one in the Captain American mould. Jack Aubrey is second to none when it comes to fighting a naval battle, but when he has to deal with everyday life ashore? He is, to coin a phrase, all at sea. This gives him vulnerabilities and challenges which add complexity and interest to his story, by prompting actions and reactions which reveal more depth to his character.

So I looked to put both of this story’s heroes on a shaky footing. That was readily done with Temar because he’s a man out of his time. He cannot necessarily rely on what he thinks he knows about this place and how it works, while every day brings harsh reminders of what he has lost. He has to depend on what people are telling him, aware that they’re likely to have their own agenda but without the background knowledge to tell him what their personal interests might be and how far they might be shading the truth. Unlike Captain America (a very interesting current portrayal of a hero incidentally), he doesn’t have an Einarinn Internet to help him work through a list of things he finds to check out. Add to that Temar’s comparatively young, and as readers of The Swordsman’s Oath will know, he has been known to make ill-considered decisions with less than ideal results.

Ryshad is older and wiser and well used to thinking things through, as we have seen in The Thief’s Gamble and The Swordsman’s Oath. So how could I throw him off balance? Well, if an anti-hero struggles to reconcile the noble and selfish sides of his character, a good man can be pulled in two different directions by conflicting loyalties. As Ryshad returns to Toremal, he discovers he’s increasingly a man out of place. His travels and his experiences, including but by no means limited to falling in love with Livak, have changed him. But his old life and duty cannot easily be discarded. Given his age and life experience, the one thing he simply won’t do is make a rash choice and consider everything else well lost for love. But his relationship with Livak isn’t some casual rush of lust either. He’s absolutely not about to give her up.

So now I had my heroes each with one metaphorical hand tied behind their backs. Now we could see if the bond between them would enable the pair to overcome the challenges they were about to face…

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