The Swordsman’s Oath. ‘Oh, it’s not Livak telling the story!’ No, and here’s why.

Today sees the ebook publication of The Swordsman’s Oath, thanks to the dedication and endeavors of my partners in this project, Wizard’s Tower Press and Antimatter ePress.

I’ve decided to mark the occasion by considering the most frequent comment by people coming new to The Tales of Einarinn when they open The Thief’s Gamble’s sequel. So why didn’t I simply continue writing this unfolding narrative from Livak’s point of view? There are several interlocking answers.

As I devised the plot for The Swordsman’s Oath, I was conscious of the infamous Second Novel Hurdle. Having been disappointed as a reader when I’d found follow-ups to debut novels lacking, I really, really wanted to avoid retreading the same story. I wanted to go further, both in story and scope. Fortunately I had plenty of promising leads thanks to questions left unanswered at the end of The Thief’s Gamble. What exactly had happened in Tormalin recently, to prompt the noble D’Olbriot family’s suspicions? Come to that, what had really happened in the last days of the Old Tormalin Empire? How could anyone, wizard or thief, find the truth about events so long ago, lost in myth and chaos?

I already knew a good many answers, even before I wrote The Thief’s Gamble. I had been working on the background for the world of Einarinn for a good few years. I’d previously written a massively detailed heroic epic which I now refer to The Definitive Blockbuster Fantasy Masterwork, with irony as heavy as the laboriously dot-matrix-printed manuscript which went the rounds of agents and editors to garner a file of rejection slips. No one is more grateful than me that it never got published and I’m even more indebted for the professional feedback which showed me what I was doing wrong and how I could capitalize on the strengths elsewhere in my writing.

As I considered how to draw on that material for The Swordsman’s Oath, it soon became clear that telling the Tormalin side of this story from Livak’s point of view simply wouldn’t work. Having Ryshad tell her about events, recent and long past, would mean an awful lot of explanatory, static conversations which threatened to be as dull to write as they would be to read. That wasn’t the only problem. I’d already decided to tell the Old Tormalin story through someone directly involved, after blending two narratives together had proved so useful in The Thief’s Gamble. But Livak’s outlook simply wouldn’t mesh with the second viewpoint I had in mind. She’s an independent woman relying on her quick wits, with no allegiance beyond her close friends, whose motives for pursuing a quest are a world away from any clichéd epic fantasy battle between Dark and Light. The story of the Old Empire’s fall was going to focus on Temar who’d been the DBFM’s youthful protagonist; privileged, naïve and idealistic with the greatest tests of his character still to come.

But now I had Ryshad to work with, the confident, well-established swordsman who’d found himself caught up in Livak’s adventure. He would make an excellent counterpart to Temar while their common Tormalin heritage would give the overall story a far deeper coherence and unity. Better yet, I could now focus on Temar’s youthful inadequacies rather than trying to brush them aside; doing that had caused the most significant flaws in the DBFM. Between them, these two characters could uncover many more facets of being a hero, to further the exploration which I’d begun with Livak, a female hero rather than a heroine essentially defined by her relationships with men.

What sort of hero is Ryshad? He’s an honourable man with responsibilities and obligations which he is determined to abide by. So he’s definitely a good guy, and that’s a particularly interesting writing challenge. Villains and anti-heroes can be much easier for the author. The lure of the ‘bad boy’ is long established in fact and fiction while virtue is so often, unfortunately, rather dull. Consider Han Solo’s appeal compared to Luke Skywalker.

But was the anti-hero going too far, in the increasingly brutal protagonists I was seeing in film, books and TV? Is a man really a hero if his success depends simply on becoming more violent and more brutal than the bad guys? Some might let slip a troubled vulnerability afterwards, but that never stops them beating the next bad guy into a pulp. Then and now this rings false, set against my experiences of real life, in particular of the martial arts I’ve observed and studied. The strongest men I’ve met, physically and mentally, are comfortable in their own skins, much preferring to think their way through problems rather than battering opponents into submission. Such men only resort to violence when all other routes to a solution have been blocked, and then only use the necessary force, swiftly and efficiently. My bookshelves hold biographies and autobiographies telling plenty of such real-life heroes’ stories. These men are anything but dull, particularly under pressure and in peril. I wanted to offer readers a hero like that.

Telling the story from Ryshad’s point of view also set me the challenge of writing in an authentically masculine first-person voice, and keeping that voice and perspective distinctly different to Livak’s outlook. It also offered me the opportunity to see Livak herself from another person’s perspective, along with Ryshad’s opinions of her friends and allies like Halice. Wasn’t that an intriguing prospect? It’s hard to be certain, fifteen years down the road, but I think that may have been the clincher. I can be quite sure that he was definitely the right choice.

Some thoughts on debut novels, mine 14 years ago, and others today.

This morning I am particularly taken with this review of The Thief’s Gamble over at Fantasy Review Barn. Not because it’s a gushing outpouring of praise – it gives the book three and a half stars. Fair enough, everyone’s entitled to their opinion and the reviewer here has read the book thoroughly and thoughtfully.

What really makes me smile is reading “I was fine with the generic feel of it, but be aware that no new ground was broken here.” and ” It hits all the nice fantasy tropes, and doesn’t see any reason to bend them, break them, or subvert them.”

Okay, that’s the view of this book by a new reader in 2013. Back in 1999, the reviews said things like “pleasing to find a female lead who’s properly representative rather than the usual tepid mix of heroine and victim.” and ” a beautifully drawn world with a rich history, interesting and realistic characters and a plot that drags you along at breakneck speed.”, “What’s different and interesting about this book is what Ms McKenna does with it.” And more besides.

So why am I smiling? Because this shows just how far the epic fantasy genre has grown and developed in this past decade and more. Readers are used to so much more in terms of realism and depth of plot and characterisation, more complex themes and subtext.

Not that this should come as any particular surprise to fans of our genre. I’m currently assessing four debut novels for my next Albedo One review column. To be specific, I’m reading The Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed, The Heir of Night by Helen Lowe, Earth Girl by Janet Edwards and Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl by David Barnett. Time and again, while reading, I have noted down some instance of an interesting new take on what have become standard, even over-worn plot or character elements since I started writing myself.

I think this is really great.

Right, I had better get on with some writing on my current projects.

(Meantime of course, if you’re curious to read The Thief’s Gamble for yourself, you can now get it in your preferred ebook format from your ebook retailer of choice. This message brought to you by the Jules Convention Travel Fund)

The Thief’s Gamble is now an ebook!

You can find it at The Wizard’s Tower Bookstore in mobi and epub formats, as you prefer. We’ll be rolling it out to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo etc, next week. The prices will be the same but buying from Wizard’s Tower puts more pennies in my pocket, just so you know.

There’s a brief intro to the book there and a link to the first chapter for you to read by way of a taster. You can also find out a lot more about the book and this series by clicking through on The Tales of Einarinn link in the right-hand column here.

For all those of you who’ve been waiting so patiently, thank you for your, er, patience. For those of you curious as to why it’s taken so long, the first blog of a three-part explanation of the complexities of ebooking a backlist can be found here. One final delaying factor has been preparing my latest book, Defiant Peaks, to go to print, so I’ve been head down and concentrating on copyediting and proofreading over the past few weeks.

This means that my first book, written in 1997, and my fifteenth written in 2012, are going to be available as ebooks within a month or so of each other. I have an interesting sense of things coming full circle since key elements of The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy’s storylines go all the way back to The Thief’s Gamble. Most notably, that was where I first explained why wizards don’t get involved in warfare. Back then, that was simply to draw a line under one possible ‘but why don’t they…?’ question from test readers. Through the intervening books, I’ve explored more reasons why that principle is so solidly enshrined in Einarinn’s wizardly edicts. I certainly didn’t expect to find it… what’s the right phrase here? Being tested to destruction? Proving the rule? I’m not sure. You’ll have to read Defiant Peaks and make up your own minds. Either way, this is a prime example of the way casual elements of world-building continue to inspire fantasy writers long after the immediate need for something in a particular story.

I’ve found myself revisiting characters from that very first book in this latest one, particularly Archmage Planir and other senior mages, like Kalion and Troanna, in the wizard city. As I wrote The Thief’s Gamble, like most debut novelists, I didn’t really think much beyond that first story. Getting one novel published was the summit of my ambition a decade and a half ago. As a consequence, while writing that first book’s climax, I committed myself and these wizards to some awesome demonstrations of magic. So I’ve just spent the last couple of years working through all the implications of precisely how and why wizards might do such things and what everyone else outside Hadrumal is going to think. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that if you’re actually living in a world where magic of that magnitude is possible, rather than just reading about it, your first reaction really isn’t going to be ‘whoa, cool!’

Alas, some characters from The Thief’s Gamble and the other Tales of Einarinn are only getting a brief mention in Defiant Peaks, even though I’ve worked out where they are now and what they’re doing, while thinking through where those who have come back are now and what’s happened in the intervening years. I would have dearly loved to go off on a few tangents to tell those particular stories. Unfortunately, their points of view would have been all wrong and those digressions would have badly slowed and disrupted the narrative flow in The Hadrumal Crisis. Very frustrating.

So now I’m looking forward at the 2013 calendar and trying to find some time where I could write up those episodes as short stories, for an ebook supplementary anthology for Defiant Peaks. NO PROMISES. More immediately to the point, looking back, I didn’t have the least idea that the people I was creating for The Thief’s Gamble would take on such depth and substance that I’d be so eager to be writing about them again, fifteen years on. Perhaps that was a bit dumb of me. Part of epic fantasy’s appeal for me is the on-going relationship I develop with characters as a reader. I should have realised the same would be true for me as a writer.

Characters from intervening books have also re-appeared as I’ve considered who the Archmage might call on as he needs something in particular doing or seeks out information from somewhere problematic like the Aldabreshin Archipelago. This has presented some interesting writing challenges. For the purposes of The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy, these are new characters and their previous exploits are simply back story, in the same way that Livak’s early life was back story in The Thief’s Gamble. But referring back to Livak’s previous adventures didn’t risk spoilers for other books. I’ve worked hard to make sure that all four of my series can be read independently of each other, regardless of the ongoing timeline. So working out how people might mention significant events in The Thief’s Gamble or Southern Fire without giving away something crucial has been tricky as well as fun.

Because it’s been an eventful decade in Einarinn. Although I’ve been writing these books for fifteen years, I didn’t realise until I was checking some timeline issues, a full ten years have passed for these characters from The Thief’s Gamble. So I’ve been thinking how I pictured them while writing that first book and how I picture them now. As a rule I’ve always been content to admire the artists like Geoff Taylor who’ve done such wonderful covers for me over the years, without envying their skills, each to their own etc. Just at the moment though, I would dearly love to be able to sketch these characters as I see them in my mind’s eye, then and now.

So these are a few thoughts as I consider what this ebook release means to me. What it means to you will depend on what else you’ve read of my writing. If you picked up Southern Fire or Irons in the Fire or Dangerous Waters, here’s your chance to go back and see where it all began. If this offers you an affordable and convenient opportunity to revisit Livak and her adventures, enjoy! Meantime, together with my invaluable partners, Wizards’ Tower Books and Antimatter ePress, we’ll press on with preparing the ebook of The Swordsman’s Oath.

The Thief’s Gamble – ebook edition – artist Geoff Taylor

A Few Further Tales of Einarinn – now available!

Yes, today’s the day! You can now buy my very first ‘independent’ ebook from Wizard’s Tower Press, in the format of your choice, worldwide without DRM.

Listings on Amazon and Barnes & Noble will follow shortly, as you prefer.

I am so excited about this on so many levels. It’s great to think that fans of the Tales of Einarinn have a further chance to read these stories, now available so much more widely than before. I’m also hoping the book will serve as an introduction to my writing and to this world for new readers. Finally, I really am thrilled to be including the splendid artwork first commissioned for The Wedding Gift portfolio project.

To recap, the stories are:

Win Some, Lose Some tells the story of that first encounter with Arle Cordainer which Livak mentions from time to time in the Tales. Find out why she’s intent on revenge.
A Spark in the Darkness sees Halice, Livak, Sorgrad and Gren coping with Halice’s injury between The Thief’s Gamble and The Swordsman’s Oath – tricky, when someone wants them all dead.
Absent Friends details Livak’s first introduction to Ryshad’s family, and what followed – this story’s first publication Why the Pied Crow Always Sounds Disappointed explains why Sorgrad and Gren were in Solura before The Assassin’s Edge – and why leaving them to their own devices is seldom a good idea.
The Wedding Gift sees Livak and Halice looking forward to the future, just as long as they can tidy up a few loose ends from their old lives.

And when I say ‘independent’, do please note that this project would never have happened without the invaluable assistance of Wizard’s Tower Press and Antimatter ePress.

Enjoy – and spread the word!