Articles from April 2014



My Eastercon Schedule at Satellite 4

I’m really looking forward to this weekend, and not only because I’ll be a Guest of Honour alongside John Meaney, Jim Burns, Alice and Steve Lawson and Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell. The convention programme opens at 2pm on Friday, after the Committee and the Guests of Honour have had the privilege of meeting the city’s Lord Provost.

At 3pm Friday, I’ll be discussing how to find new authors to read and how best to get hold of their books, with Gillian Redfearn, Kris Black, Ian Whates and Joshua Bilmes.

At 5pm Friday, myself, Dame Jocelyn, Christine Davidson, Clare Boothby and Stephanie Saulter will be discussing the professional challenges that face women scientists and women writers, looking for overlap and shared solutions.

On Saturday morning, I’m running the first of two workshops on using visual references in your writing. These are sign-up items, so make your interest known at registration. You don’t have to bring any work, just a willingness to share your thoughts as we look at a selection of pictures and discuss how and where writers can find inspiration. Saturday’s looking at people, for character development, and Sunday’s looking at places, for scene-setting and building atmosphere.

And there’s a Kaffeeklatsch at 1pm on Saturday as well, if you fancy coming and having a chat.

Kari Sperring has kindly agreed to interview me so we’ll be talking about my work and probably a whole lot of other things around writing epic fantasy in this day and age from 4pm on Saturday.

Then at 7pm I compete with the other Guests of Honour Jim and John, to consign objects of hatred to oblivion in Room 101 I’ll be interested to see how the audience respond to one of my suggestions…

Sunday morning’s my second workshop and then at 1pm, I’m discussing politics in SF&Fantasy with Ken MacLeod, Nicholas Whyte, Traci Whitehead and Farah Mendelsohn.

Then at 5.30, I’ll join Paul Van Oven, John Meaney and Steve Lawson in celebrating Terry Pratchett’s work, under the sage tutelage of Edward James.

Now you can see why I cannot possibly pick a favourite item out of that programme.

Monday’s more relaxed, in the sense that John Meaney and I will be demonstrating our respective martial arts from 10am, so if you want to pick up some tips about writing realistic hand to hand/sword/knife fight scenes – or if you’re just curious – do come along.

Then there’s talk of a quiz in the afternoon… so I will try not to drop John on his head in the morning and if I’ve managed to get enough sleep thus far, I may even have a few answers myself.

This is of course, merely a fraction of the full, excellent programme. You can find full details here where I predict you’ll soon find you’ll be spoiled for choice.

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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Reviews, Reviewing, Reviewers and Gender

I got the latest British Science Fiction Association mailing this week and flipped through their critical journal Vector to see what books were being reviewed. Then I went back and checked the listing – which confirmed my initial impression, which I’d told myself surely must be wrong.

But no. Of the nineteen authors featured in this issue, seventeen are men. There’s one non-fiction title by a woman writer discussed and one piece of fiction. That fiction review is not a positive one. Now, just to be clear, I have no quarrel with that review per se; I haven’t read the book but the review reads as a fair assessment of a book that really did not work for that particular reviewer.

But I do question the editorial decision to include only one review of fiction by a woman when that assessment is a negative one. Would readers not be better served by using that limited space to recommend something worth reading?

As I said on Twitter “really @BSFA? Really? Of 19 authors reviewed in the latest Vector, only 2 are women? REALLY?” Unsurprisingly a good number of folk picked up on that, which prompted some things I’d like to flag up.

Firstly, representatives of the BSFA pointed out that overall, the gender balance in Vector reviews is around 35% for female authors, 65% for male authors annually. Not ideal but better than some and this is something they are aware of. So that’s good to know. Mind you, this particular issue’s going to put a hell of dent in this year’s figures unless there’s some concerted effort to redress the balance.

Secondly, the BFSA folk pointed out they have fewer female reviewers in proportion to their membership – and are looking to address this, having put out a call for more women reviewers recently. Once again, good to know.

Thirdly, apparently, they get sent fewer books by women writers from publishers. An issue they intend to address. Okay.

But someone, or several someones, still thought it would be okay for this particular issue to go out, with such a dreadfully unrepresentative selection of reviews. I really do hope that’s discussed between the BSFA and its membership. I very definitely want to see positive action from the top down to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

For the moment, let’s look at the wider issues all this raises.

How easily will the BSFA – or any badly gender-skewed publication – be able to break the all too familiar Catch-22 situation I’m seeing there? How willing will female reviewers be to step forward, to contribute to a magazine or website that on the face of it, simply does not cover either the authors or the style of writing that they’re interested in?

How willing will publicists be to spend hard cash sending out hard copy books when the odds of them getting reviewed seem so slim? Yes, ebooks help with the costs issue but publishers still have to know who to send them to…

This is where positive editorial action to overcome the cultural inertia of the status quo is essential if anything is going to change. Anything approaching a shrug and ‘well if women don’t like it, it’s up to them to fix it,’ is not acceptable.

To return to that issue of Vector, folk asked about the gender balance of reviewers overall. In related comments, a couple of genuinely concerned chaps raised their own doubts about offering to review, wondering if more male voices would merely make the problem of women’s opinions being drowned out even worse? That’s a valid point for discussion, for reasons beyond the obvious.

There are a handful of women reviewing titles by men in this particular magazine and indeed the female non-fiction title was thoughtfully reviewed by a man. This is both positive and important because we absolutely need books by women writers reviewed by men and books by male writers reviewed by women. The issues around gender equality of visibility aren’t helped in the least if we end up with a situation where there’s an equal number of male and female reviewers covering an equal number of books by men and women writers – but where the chaps are all discussing epic fantasy written by chaps, while the girls are all focused on urban fantasy written by other girls.

This was brought home to me personally very forcefully when I was mocking up bookshop displays a few weeks ago. I had the books to hand to compose two different photos of books by women writers – but when I wanted to do a table of recent SF&F by men who are not the Usual Suspects on any GRRM-alike table, I found I couldn’t. Oh, the books assuredly exist, by the likes of Stephen Deas, Tom Lloyd, MD Lachlan, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Aiden Harte, Mark Charan Newton, and more besides – but I don’t have copies of them here. Because my reaction to the bookshop focus on blokes in cloaks written by blokes has been to specifically seek out epic fantasy written by women and to promote that. So I’m actually badly under-read in recent fantasy fiction by men. That’s something I’ll aim to rectify but there are only so many hours in the week I can devote to reading…

This matters because while, yes, overall, every reader and reviewer will be different, irrespective of gender, there are definitely some things which male and female readers will notice differently. Two of the titles reviewed in this edition of Vector are SF novels I have read, where the female characters play into long-standing and unhelpful stereotypes and those women all lack agency to a greater or lesser extent. Neither male reviewer mentioned this aspect, either because they didn’t notice or because they didn’t consider it significant. It’s significant to me, particularly when there are fine SF writers out there, male and female, who manage to write convincingly independent women characters who initiate action and avoid such dated roles within a story. So any review of either novel which I wrote would be very different.

And this is absolutely not about Feminism Smiting the Evil Patriarchy. This all works both ways. From my own experience, looking at comments on my Hadrumal Crisis trilogy, I’ve seen male readers offer thoughtful analysis of one particular female character’s role, where a lot of women readers don’t go beyond exasperation at her inability to cope with her circumstances. Now, all those interpretations and reactions to that character are equally valid. I have no quarrel as the author with either viewpoint, not least because I know that reaction will be informed by the reader’s own life experiences. What matters to me is that folk reading reviews of that series have a chance to see a range of viewpoints that might make them stop and think about their own likely response to the books.

And this absolutely matters in the broader sense because the ongoing inequality of review coverage and other opportunities for visibility directly affects the income, career-longevity and morale of women writers.

For my previous pieces on gender balance in reviewing and on inequalities in visibility for women writers, see

Fantasy Cafe 2013 – Inequality in Visibility for Women Writers

SFX Magazine 2011 – Everyone can promote Equality in Genre Writing

Yes, I wrote that SFX piece in 2011. Yet in 2014 we see a publication that purports to be engaged with contemporary SF&F fandom as badly skewed as this latest issue of Vector. It may be explicable but it remains indefensible.

Westeros Is Not The Only Realm…

Ah, Game of Thrones! We’re planning on heading round to some friends who have subscription TV on Monday evening, to catch the opening of Season Four. Meantime I’ve now read the books as far as they correspond (mostly) to the end of Season Three. One of the things I enjoy most about watching the series is I don’t know what’s going to happen! So I read a chunk of the books after each season, to fill in the omissions and alternations necessary when adapting from text to screen. So yes, I am a fan.

However… I see yet again that bookstore fantasy fiction promotions remain focused on Westeros and a narrow selection of fantasy books by pretty much the same few authors as last year and the year before that and the year before that. Don’t get me wrong – these chaps work hard, I’ve met a good number of them in person and they’re excellent company, interesting writers and absolutely deserve their success.

However… there are so many other fine fantasy worlds out there that deserve their share of attention. I’ve just written my Spring review column for Albedo One magazine, and I really was spoiled for choice. The books I picked to review were Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen, Drakenfeld by Mark Charan Newton, Irenicon by Aiden Harte and Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper. All well worth seeking out.

I could just have easily reviewed the latest books by Freya Robertson, Helen Lowe, Stephen Deas, Gail Z Martin, Evie Manieri, Tom Lloyd, M.D.Lachlan… and many more besides.

So what are your favourite fantasy worlds you’d like introduce new folk to?

Old or new. For instance I’m delighted to see Barbara Hambly’s back list is now available in ebook. If you’ve never read The Darwath Trilogy do check it out. any other classics of the genre you’d care to recommend?