A few thoughts on reviews, the good, the bad, the unfavourable, and what to do about them

As of today, The Green Man’s Heir has reached 100 reviews on Amazon UK, and is similarly gathering favourable ratings and reviews on Goodreads and elsewhere, like this appreciation in F&SF. So first and foremost, my sincerest thanks to everyone who’s shared their enthusiasm for this book.

Regardless of algorithms and suchlike, knowing that readers appreciate what we do is what keeps us authors writing. It’s great to see, and to share, a positive review, whether that’s a closely detailed essay showing that this reader really understood what you are aiming for in the story, or if it’s an enthusiastic ‘Loved it, a really great read – five stars’. Either is fine, because good reviews are an uncomplicated delight. What to do about them is simple for an author: be grateful and if the opportunity arises, say thank you.

Of course, not all reviews are good… and just to be clear, I’m looking back over twenty years and sixteen novels, as well as a lot of other writing. I’ve plenty of experience here, which is why I make a distinction between bad reviews and unfavourable reviews.

A bad review is one that is pointless. One that says nothing about the book. ‘Don’t like the cover – one star’. ‘Didn’t realise this was the second book in a trilogy – one star’. ‘Was buying this as a gift, but Amazon delivered it too late – one star’. You know the sort of thing I mean. A waste of everyone’s time.

An unfavourable review is different. It engages with the book. It says what the reader didn’t like and hopefully, gives some idea why. Sometimes this says a whole lot more about the reviewer than about the actual book. Back in 1999, you could find a review of The Thief’s Gamble condemning me as a ball-breaking, man-hating feminist, and a few mouse-clicks away, another one equally insistent that I was a patriarchy-enabling betrayer of the Sisterhood. That was an early lesson for me, demonstrating that the author has no control over the assumptions a reader will bring to a book, or their ability to read into it what they want to see, and which the author never intended.

But unfavourable reviews can also engage with exactly what the writer hoped to convey. They absolutely get it, and they really don’t like it. For instance, in The Gambler’s Fortune, a fair few readers had a real problem with the character Jeirran, who is deeply flawed, seriously unpleasant, and the leader of an oppressed minority. Readers who felt that such a leader should be a heroic figure were badly jarred, and some were thrown out of the story completely. Ten books later, and Zurenne in Dangerous Waters divided readers again. A widow in a paternalistic, patriarchal society, Zurenne is utterly unable to cope when a devious, manipulative man exploits and abuses her for his own gain. Some readers found her passivity exasperating, and that really doesn’t make for an enjoyable book.

But here’s the thing. For everyone who wished Zurenne would just grow a backbone and stand up for herself, someone else would comment that her plight made them realise even a benevolent patriarchy is ultimately no good for women, because when the going gets tough, they have none of the skills they’ll need to cope. For everyone who hated Jeirran so much that he ruined the book for them, someone else was prompted to ask why do we make assumptions about ‘heroes’ and the potentially dangerous consequences of doing so. So I learned early on that unfavourable reviews must always be seen in their wider context. Some readers may well not like a particular aspect of a story. That doesn’t mean the author wasn’t making a valid point by including it.

Writers should remember they can’t please all of the people all of the time. What’s way too fast-paced for someone can be a plodding plot for someone else, while it’ll be just right for a whole lot of other readers. Views on what’s too much violence, or too little action, or too much politics, or not enough depth of background vary similarly. The author has no control over any of these reactions, any more than the three bears could anticipate what Goldilocks might want in a bed or a bowl of porridge.

Of course, that isn’t to say that a writer should just ignore unfavourable reviews. If the majority view is that some aspect isn’t working, that’s something to look at more closely, especially with regard to whatever you’re writing at the moment. This is how we increase our understanding of our craft, and develop our skills.

What else should a writer do? Once again, that’s easy. Nothing. There is nothing to be gained by arguing with, or even debating, bad or unfavourable reviews, whether that’s in person or on the Internet for all the world to see. As one best-selling author explained to me, early in my career, and well before social media. ‘It’s starting an arse-kicking contest with a porcupine. Even if you win, the cost to yourself will not be worth it.’

So when I see someone didn’t find The Green Man’s Heir to their personal liking, I privately wish them happy reading elsewhere, and move on. It’s not as if there’s a shortage of good books for all tastes, after all. Meantime, I shall continue working on the sequel for all those who have enjoyed Dan’s adventures thus far, all the more encouraged by to those who’ve found a few moments to say so. As I said at the outset, many thanks for that.

A Follycon comedy video and a podcast on The Green Man’s Heir.

I had a splendid weekend at Follycon, the Eastercon up in Harrogate. Listening to Guest of Honour Nnedi Okorafor in conversation with Tade Thompson was a particular highlight, among many excellent programme items. Listening to Professor Farah Mendlesohn’s presentation on Robert Heinlein makes me increasingly keen to read her forthcoming book on the author. My own contribution included panels on the ways economics is handled and mishandled in SF&F, and a discussion of employment, present and future. As has long been the case, I find SF&F conventions pretty much the best place these days to find informed social and political debate based on sound analytical thinking.

Alongside the serious stuff there was plenty of fun. Alongside estemeed authors Jaine Fenn and Jacey Bedford, with our glamourous token man Adrian Tchaikovsky, we tackled the thorny questions besieging Men in Science Fiction. For those of you who couldn’t be there to gain vital insights, this trenchant debate has been immortalised on YouTube.

Personally and professionally, the enthusiasm I found for The Green Man’s Heir gave me a real thrill. Copies in the Dealers Room sold out swiftly, while established pals and new acqaintances alike took the time to tell me how much they enjoyed it. Given the book is quite some departure from the epic fantasy I’m best known for, that’s all the more gratifying. Keen readers are already asking about a sequel… well, that’s one area where the facts of life are constant in publishing, from the multinationals to independents like Wizard’s Tower Press. Sequels stem from sales, so if you’d care to boost the signal with reviews on Amazon UK and US, and Goodreads, as you prefer, that will be very much appreciated.

Talking of The Green Man’s Heir, quite literally, before I went off to Follycon, I was able to have an enjoyable chat with Joel Cornah about the book, about the differences I found writing a novel set in this world, in the present day, and oh, all sorts of stuff. That’s now available as a special episode of the Writers of Fantasy podcast from the Scifi Fantasy Network.

Enjoy your viewing and listening.

The Green Man’s Heir – available now!

Purchase links – ebook edition
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Barnes & Noble – Nook (US only)
Google Play
Kobo

The paper edition is also available, though be prepared for the unaccountable delays that afflict small press books from Amazon that aren’t actually published through them. You should be able to order it from any bookstore and the ISBN is 978-1-908039-69-9. Do remember that ordering physical copies through actual bookshops does encourage them to stock small press books.

Provided we can sort out the logistics, there will be copies available for sale at Follycon, the UK Eastercon 2018. For other sales and availability information, see Wizard’s Tower Press.

In some ways, this book is very different from my previous novels. As I’ve learned from my own experience, and through advice from countless eminent authors, the best way to grow and develop as a novelist is to continually challenge yourself with something new. In other ways, it reflects many of the same interests as my previous writing, even if they’re examined from new angles here. The story also stems from the broad scope of my reading which has always gone well beyond epic, secondary world fantasy, across the whole spectrum of speculative fiction and into thriller, crime and mystery novels.

This is a modern fantasy, set in the readily identifiable Peak District in England, although the towns and villages in this story are all invented. It’s an area I know well, and love, thanks to frequent childhood holidays with relatives living in Chesterfield, and subsequent visits with my own family. The area has a fascinating history reflecting the centuries of change that rural communities have experienced, with impacts that are still being felt, as I know well from living in the Cotswolds. The Peak District also has a wealth of local myths and legends, like so much of the English countryside. I’ve always drawn on myth and history in my writing, so using these sources as the foundation for a story was familiar territory.

Setting events in the everyday world was a wholly new challenge however. I soon realised I had to factor in everything and anything from the Internet and modern media to police procedure and the economics of the contemporary English countryside. Every invented name and place had to be googled, to avoid inadvertent libel or misrepresentation.

Modern, urban fantasy so often explores the interaction of mythical beings with contemporary towns and cities. Since so many excellent writers have already done that, I was drawn to exploring the challenges for a modern mortal human encountering rural mythical creatures and their very different, deep rooted concerns. Meantime, he still has to deal with the everyday demands of work, money and relationships, romantic and otherwise. So in that sense, this story is like my previous novels where I’ve explored the impact and demands of classic high heroic events on ordinary people and their lives rather than focusing on rulers and princes.

On the other hand, exploring the themes and conventions of urban fantasy was a whole new challenge for me, including but by no means limited to surrounding a human man with powerful, sensual female mythical beings, as an alternative to writing about a modern woman interacting with super-masculine supernaturals. Along the way I realised I was reflecting on various aspects of modern ideas of masculinity.

I hope that new readers and existing fans of my work alike will find this a satisfying and exciting read.

The Green Man’s Heir – a modern fantasy rooted in the ancient myths and folklore of the British Isles.

Alongside this fabulous artwork by Ben Baldwin, I thought I’d share some of the inspiration underpinning this new novel from Wizard’s Tower Press.

I grew up with the folklore of the British Isles, by which I mean English, Welsh, Cornish, Irish and Scottish legends, from the Lowlands to the Highlands and Islands. These were stories of giants and witches and dragons and trolls and goblins and boggarts and serpents and will o’the wisps, to name but a few. There were all sorts of fascinating books in the library alongside The Hobbit and the Chronicles of Narnia. Publishers like Pan and Picador offered paperback collections of folktales, retelling the legends of Jack the Giant Killer, Jenny Greenteeth, the Lambton Wyrm and many, many more besides.

I saved up my pocket money and bought some of them; second-hand, dog-eared paperbacks that have somehow vanished over the years through umpteen house moves. That doesn’t matter. The stories have stayed with me and with the benefit of hindsight, I now realise those tales have had a lasting effect on my own writing. Most of them weren’t about heroes and princesses. They were about ordinary boys and girls finding themselves in extraordinary situations, and in very real danger. Getting out of potentially lethal trouble meant using your wits and courage to outfox and defy these mysterious supernatural beings. I still buy books on folklore, from scholarly examinations of the social and psychological underpinnings of stories of witches and fairies, to collections of local legends found in English Heritage, CADW, Heritage Ireland, and National Trust bookshops. I am still fascinated by that intersection between the everyday and the eerie that was part of everyone’s life for centuries.

So I suppose it was inevitable that when I found myself with an idea for an urban fantasy novel, it wasn’t going to be about vampires and werewolves. Those weren’t the creatures that lurked in the shadows outside the window when I was growing up. Similarly, the story wasn’t going to be any sort of urban fantasy, but a tale set in the countryside because that was where these legends took place, amid the forests, caves, rivers, stone circles and barrows that still link these islands to its mysterious past.

How might such ancient eeriness intersect with the modern world? I first started thinking about that when Patricia Bray and Joshua Palmatier invited me to write a story for an anthology they were editing, “The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity”. What would supernatural beings do in the 21st Century if, for instance, a local authority wanted to drive a new road through their grove or watermeadow? That made for a fun story. But the thing about authors is, once we start thinking about something like that, it can be very hard to stop…