Weekend reading recommendation. Fade to Black by Francis Knight.

This is a secondary world fantasy with the distinctive and imaginative twist of a post-feudal world where magic exists alongside early experiments in electricity and gunpowder – and that’s a very uneasy mix for a whole lot of reasons. And no, this isn’t a quasi-seventeenth century world but something entirely of itself, the action all set within a multi-level city, both in terms of geography and society.

The central character Rojan Dizon is doing the best he can down in the depths, trying not to fall any lower. He’s doing pretty well until he gets caught up in a crisis involving the family he’s grown apart from. Now he must find his way through a maze of manipulation and misdirection. Will doing his best be good enough?

I really enjoyed this – the story’s well paced and nicely structured, I engaged with the characters and the author doesn’t take easy options or duck hard questions.

And why am I reading this? Well, I’m on a panel next week at the World Fantasy Convention, looking at new female voices in fantasy and SF. Since my reading over the past two years has been dominated by the Arthur C Clarke Award, I soon realised I had some catching up to do. I’m very pleased to find there’s some extremely good reading out there from new women writers.

And since I’ve been flagging up the issues of visibility for women writers at the moment, I decided it’s time to put this blog where my mouth is, and start posting some short, non-spoilery reviews, to flag up books you might like to look out for. So watch this space.

– and adding a link to the author’s website would be a good idea, wouldn’t it? Find out more about Francis Knight and her writing here

Authors in the Digital Age – a few observations and reservations about an article worth reading regardless.

Just found an interesting article about writing and selling books in this new online reality – from a marketing guru so I read it with salt cellar to hand. Firstly, the guy seems blind to the fact that a talent for writing and a talent for selling yourself are not the same thing and a lot of folk do not have both skills sets. Also he seems to assume that every potential book-buyer is fully accessible online, and the more I talk to people, the more I think that’s a myth.

That said, among the most useful advice I had when setting out, was how important it was to understand the business of writing, as well as the craft of writing. Working for Ottakar’s for a couple of years brought that home to me like nothing else could have done – and made a crucial difference to me taking that step from hopeful writer with a file of ‘thanks but no thanks/good but not quite good enough’ letters from agents and editors, to getting that amazing phone call from the man who wanted to publish my book – in fact, let’s talk a two book deal…

In particular, there are some undeniable cold hard truths in this article which the sharks and charlatans of the ‘creative writing biz’ work so hard to hide. Namely misconceptions about writing.

* The publisher will do the selling for me (Those days are long gone).
* I’m a literary purist and selling is below me (Good luck making money off of snobbery).
* I’ll post a free e-book on Amazon and wait for everything to take care of itself (Enjoy the long wait).
* I don’t have time to write and sell my work (The problem isn’t time; it’s prioritizing your time)

Full article here.

Who Gets to Escape? Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manija Brown ask a fascinating question.

These two extremely talented authors are currently working on Kaleidoscope – an anthology of diverse contemporary YA fantasy. This is a crowd-funded project, or hopefully it soon will be. Click that link to get involved.

Meantime, Sherwood and Rachel have written a thought-provoking post considering the nature of protagonists in fantasy fiction, taking a quotation from Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” as a starting point.(Longer than my excerpt here)

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories . . . Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison walls?

The key word here is ‘he’…

As the post goes on to say –

While it is not difficult to find excellent novels about homophobia and coming out, it is much harder to find books in which, for example, a teenage, Hispanic lesbian discovers that she has inherited magical powers—a plot trope for which hundreds, if not thousands, of books exist for straight, white heroines. You can substitute any social minority in American society, and similar issues apply. If you’re not part of the ruling class, you don’t get to escape.

Furthermore –

…the male heroes of fantasy novels are not average people, and do not have average lives. They are not merely the heroes of the genre of fantasy, but heroes of fantasies—heroes of escapist imagination.

These male heroes were not written to be average examples of their demographic, and we’ve never seen anyone make the argument that they should be. But that argument is applied to female characters constantly, to make the case that they should be average and demographically representative. It is a case for denying women escapism while lavishing it on men.

I urge you to read the whole piece, and you’ll see why this has particularly struck me, especially at the moment when the focus on epic fantasy seems to be defaulting to male writers and male stories for no good reason at all. This has been particularly notable in some conversations I have had about The Hadrumal Crisis, a trilogy where two of the three main point of view characters are women and yet interviewers ask me about ‘the hero’ Corrain. While they recognise how flawed he is as a hero, that’s apparently still his default designation.

At the same time, reader and reviewer reactions to Lady Zurenne, a woman whose story is driven by the fact that she cannot escape, are varied to say the least. Patrick Mahon’s joint review of Dangerous Waters and Darkening Skies in the latest BSFA’s ‘Vector’ magazine describes her as ‘manipulative and calculating’. Just to be clear, I’m not arguing with this review – it’s a thorough and thoughtful analysis of those books which I’m delighted to see – and he’s not wrong. He also sees why she acts as she does, going on to say ‘- although this is to some extent understandable, given her need to secure the future of her two daughters…’

The thing is though, I’ve spoken to readers and seen comments from men and women alike who have even less sympathy for Zurenne, while they’re able to give Corrain much more leeway when his attempts at manly heroics don’t succeed. And again, just to be clear, I’m not arguing with those readers’ reactions. I don’t get to dictate those, writer or not and none of those folk I’ve spoken to are making unfounded assumptions based on anything other than the story in hand. From the books as written, that is an entirely valid response.

Yes, I’ve been a little surprised, since that’s not what I expected – but it doesn’t bother me, since there are plenty of other readers with immense sympathy for Zurenne. I am certainly intrigued though, wondering why this might be so. And I think this question ‘Who Gets To Escape?’ may well hold some element of the answer.

Definitely something to think on.

How your choice of good books and new authors to discover is going to shrink and shrink

So, this week, Waterstones announced they’re expanding their range of kids and teens toys for 2014.

Er, were they not watching Borders’ demise? What part of ‘bookseller’ are they struggling to understand?

It seems other business minds are none too impressed by their current strategies.

“…so many copies of the latest Jamie Oliver and Sharon Osbourne there will be no room for the newest upcoming authors; Waterstones seems to have decided it is in competition with WH Smith and Tesco.

Recently one of my top authors went to his local branch to see how sales of his novel were doing: there were no copies left, they had sold out, and he asked if they’d be getting any more in. No, he was told, they wouldn’t. In what other business do you sell out of a product then not bother to re-stock what’s obviously popular?

Not to mention those of us who might like to point out the flaw in their reasoning that male SFF writers (sold at discount in the front of the store) outperform female authors (sold at full price, at the back/upstairs/behind signs saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’) More on that from Cheryl Morgan.

Not that things are any better in the US, now that Barnes & Noble are the sole book chain. As this sorry tale from Mindy Klasky makes clear.

Yes, I have a dog in this fight. I’m an author who’s seeing her income eroded year on year by changes in the industry I can do nothing about.

But if – or as looks increasingly likely, when – the day comes when I simply have to quit because it makes no financial sense for me to carry on – I will still be a reader.

And I don’t want to be a reader offered a narrow, impoverished, pre-selected by electronic sales figures morass of pap!

Farewell to a faithful feline friend

Our lovely, and beloved, cat Buzz collapsed and died last night. He’s been unwell for a while, with a digestive upset that’s defied diagnosis, despite our excellent vets’ best efforts. So the last month’s seen a succession of tests and treatments which have ruled things out rather than solved the problem. But he’s not been suffering and we had no reason to expect yesterday’s abrupt decline.

The sons are taking it particularly hard- Buzz, and Sable who died two years ago this month, were their childhood pets. Husband and I have at least been through this hateful business more than once before, not that it gets any easier.

So we’re all very shocked and sad today.

RIP-Buzz

Unexpected Journeys – Editing an Anthology for the British Fantasy Society

This has been a whole new experience for me. I’m used to reading my fellow authors’ published work for review purposes, and I’m used to reading submissions from aspiring writers when I’ve been teaching. But putting on the Editor Hat and discussing work in draft from my professional equals? That’s not something I’ve done before…

Why have I been doing this? Well, I’ve been going to FantasyCon, the British Fantasy Society’s annual UK convention for the past decade or so and last year, Lee Harris, the current Chair asked me to edit a new anthology for the BFS with a particular focus on epic fantasy. I understood what he was asking and why. The BFS is a fan-run organisation with a focus on speculative fiction from horror to epic fantasy. It so happens most of the volunteers, who do all the very hard work without which such organisations simply cannot exist, have been personally more inclined towards the horror end of the spectrum and this taste has been reflected in the society’s publications – one of those unintended consequences.

Meantime, the growing attendance at FantasyCon (an event open to all, not just BFS members) has shown the keen appetite for epic fantasy among those attendees, not least in the packed-out rooms for the fantasy-discussion panels and the interviews with Guests of Honour such as (but not limited to) Raymond Feist, Gail Z Martin and Brent Weeks. So this year sees two anthologies from the BFS, one horror-themed, and one specifically epic fantasy, to cater to all tastes.

When I agreed to take this on, I had quite a few decisions to make. Some were easy. At the project’s outset, I was doing my second stint as a judge for the Arthur C Clarke Award and was Chair of the forthcoming Eastercon, EightSquared, scheduled for the last weekend in March 2013. So there was simply no way I could declare this an open-submissions anthology and give the necessary, critical attention to however many hopeful stories might land in my inbox. I just wouldn’t have the time. This was going to have to be an invitation-only anthology.

What sort of stories would I include? I decided I wanted tales which appreciate the core strengths of epic fantasy; compelling heroes (male and female), battles with swords and sorcery, facing down evil both intentional and accidental, a sense of myth and mystery. I also wanted to celebrate the way our beloved genre is currently flourishing with so much more than simple tales of high adventure or the concerns of kings and wizards. Epic fantasy now offers complex stories of personal growth, of mature reflection, exploration of the rights and wrongs of power. These novels feature people and places from hovels to palaces, enriched by so many more cultures and history than the genre’s original quasi-European inspiration. All threaded through with magic, danger and wonder.

But who to invite? This really was the hardest decision of all, because the collection was only going to have eight stories. I could so easily list a couple of dozen excellent authors currently writing the sort of stories I wanted without pausing for thought. So I have done my best to find writers with different styles and approaches spanning the current breadth and depth of epic fantasy. Hopefully there will be something to satisfy each reader’s particular enthusiasms alongside something they haven’t encountered in their reading thus far, whetting their appetite for more.

The stories are –

A Thief in the Night by Anne Lyle
Seeds by Benjamin Tate
Steer a Pale Course by Gail Z Martin
The Groppler’s Harvest by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Oak, Broom and Meadowsweet by Liz Williams
The Sin Eater by Stephen Deas
King Harvest Has Surely Come by Chaz Brenchley
The Queen’s Garden by Kate Elliott

Reading these in draft was definitely a new experience. I’m used to being edited myself but now I was the one looking to nit-pick and ask awkward questions as I put myself in the place of the reader unfamiliar with this author and their work. Fortunately, working with talented professionals, there wasn’t too much of that to do, and our discussions were very amiable. Then I had to pick up my red pen and copy-edit, looking at the fine detail of the actual word-smithing. Actually the main thing I had to do was put my red pen down and sit on my hands, to make very sure I was only highlighting things which needed to be changed for clarity and flow. The temptation for me as an author, to think how I might have written a sentence differently, had to be sternly resisted. Otherwise I risked overlaying the rhythm and character of another writer’s prose with elements of my own writing style. That’s most definitely not an editor’s job.

Then I had to find some cover art. ‘Oh… help…’ was my initial reaction – swiftly followed by ‘thank goodness for the Internet!’ I began browsing various genre artists’ websites and discovered that, as well as their published covers and other art, some were displaying pieces of work which had been commissioned but for some reason or other, had never been used. These were available to be licensed. So I began hunting in earnest for such a picture which would somehow simultaneously manage to reflect the very different stories now gathered together. You can imagine how thrilled I was to find ‘Soldier and Sword’ by Geoff Taylor – one of epic fantasy’s most enduring and admired artists (among his other work – if you haven’t seen his wildlife art, do check out his website).

And now we’ve been doing the final proof-reading and the book is due to go to print. That’s both a relief, as the job’s finally done, and unexpectedly nerve-wracking, as I must wait to find out how far readers think I’ve succeeded in my aims. In the first instance, those readers will be current BFS members and those who join in the forthcoming months. Obviously, the authors retain the rights to their stories and they will doubtless appear elsewhere to delight their fans. For the moment though, this book is a gift from the British Fantasy Society to those who support it and I am very pleased to have been a part of the project.

soldier_and_sword-geofftaylor4
Soldier and Sword by Geoff Taylor

My very first Science Fiction short story has just been published! Wait… what?

Let me explain. Yes, of course, I’ve had a good number of short stories published since I began writing professionally. Not nearly as many as some writers but then I’m not an instinctive short story writer. My natural length is the novel – and it’s been said – with justification, especially about my early short work – that my short stories often read like extracts from a longer tale. Less so as I’ve gone on writing, since my appreciation and understanding of the differences between various writing lengths and styles has grown.

But almost all of my short fiction has been fantasy – some lighter, some darker, a few even verging on horror. Apart from that I’ve had a crack at steampunk a couple of times and I’ve written a few media tie-ins, for Doctor Who, Torchwood and Warhammer 40K. There’s a sort-of-time-travel one waiting for the relevant anthology to be published as well.

But Science Fiction? A modern-day setting with y’know, actual Science at the heart of the story? Not before this one. Yes, I was surprised as well. And I wasn’t at all sure I would be able to come up with a decent idea when Mahiri Simpson got in touch and asked if I’d like to offer a story about women designing the perfect man.

A fascinating premise… So what would I personally like to see… What are some personally memorable moments for me, in the ongoing battle of the sexes? Well, there was that famous tennis match, wasn’t there, between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King… And I keep reading news stories about women working in science having to fight for respect…

Well, if you want to find out where that sort of thinking led me, you can read my story, Game, Set and Match? in Tales of Eve (ebooks via Wizards Tower Bookshop), published by, and available in a range of formats from Fox Spirit books.

Alongside stories by Paul Weimer, Alasdair Stuart, Fran Terminiello, Colum Paget, Andrew Reid, Rob Haines, Ren Warom, Suzanne McLeod and Adrian Tchaikovsky

Will I write more SF? I think that will depend if someone offers me a concept that intrigued and inspired me as much as this one!

Convention programming, inclusiveness and diversity.

I see the programming at the recent WorldCon and for the upcoming World Fantasy Con is being widely discussed, most particularly concerning perceived lack of fairness/relevance of the topics under discussion to anyone other than comfortably-off, mature, white men.

Panel parity is a very good way to address the very real problem of cultural inertia in fandom, as we discovered at UK’s Eastercon this year. Because panel parity is NOT about giving poor inadequate girlies/others a place on platforms which they cannot otherwise win on merit.

It’s about expecting convention/event organisers to offer the best possible breadth and depth of current viewpoints & opinions that they can muster from their programme volunteers.

The whole event will benefit by way of more interesting and varied debate – because a homogeneous panel of four white men (or women or any other group) will be far, far more inclined to only offer four variations of the same viewpoint or to debate the pros and cons of a single argument based on generally the same experience.

Looking forward, hopefully seeing that inclusiveness will encourage other folk from under-represented groups within fandom to volunteer in future.

Provided they don’t see bombastic white men talking over and dismissing any one else’s contribution – which apparently did happen at WorldCon. That’s something else con-organisers/panel moderators need to come down on hard.

For those who haven’t already seen them, here are the related bloposts before and after our event.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, Mary Robinette Kowal has posted an online survey to get some actual data on the current state of fandom. Please do go and complete it and then read the current results – quite an eye-opener! Her blog post and link to the survey are here

Is lack of a genre-reading-culture at home a factor in the low number of SF writers of colour?

Let me explain – and then please let’s share as many perspectives as possible in comments. I was at a crime and mystery fiction conference this weekend, where the future of that genre was discussed. The lack of black and Asian writers among up-and-coming writers was noted, and regretted, not least given the importance of new perspectives in encouraging a genre’s development for everyone’s benefit.

A comment from the floor was particularly interesting. A keen crime reader recounted a conversation with a male, Muslim, British Asian colleague at work. He explained that crime fiction wasn’t something that would ever be read in his household and among his wider family since its focus on death and violence would be considered unwholesome and negative on cultural and religious grounds. Not ‘forbidden’ in any heavy-handed or dogmatic fashion but simply because, well, why would people want to read something like that, as opposed to more positive, uplifting fiction?

This is one story. As we all know, the plural of anecdote is not data. However, given my interest in the complexities of systems leading to unintended negative outcomes, as opposed to simplistic answers like ‘publishing is sexist/racist/ableist/other-ist’, I’m really curious to know more about this, in the UK, in the US and from as many other places and religious and cultural perspectives as possible.

I know I became a fantasy writer in no small part thanks to being raised reading Tolkien, CS Lewis, Alan Garner, Edith Nesbit, Diana Wynne Jones – during a childhood spent in markedly non-multicultural areas of the UK in the 1960s/70s. I have absolutely no clue what my contemporaries from a black and Asian background might have been reading at the time.

Come to that, I don’t know what kids in Birmingham, London, Leicester, Bristol and other culturally diverse areas of the UK are reading at the moment – though I do know that writers such as Malorie Blackman are being read and enjoyed in schools here in the Cotswolds – where it can still entirely possible to count the visible ethnic minority kids on the fingers of both hands in schools with over a thousand enrolled. So that much (and more) has changed for the better.

Okay, folks, over to you. Let’s see what where this discussion might lead us.

The Gambler’s Fortune – Livak’s back on the road with old friends and new enemies.

By the end of The Swordsman’s Oath, it was apparent that now the initial mystery of those eerie artefacts had been solved, people were going to want to know a lot more about the ancient magic, Artifice, which had created them. People meaning both readers and the characters in this unfolding narrative; the Archmage and the Tormalin nobility in particular. Livak certainly wouldn’t pass up the chance for whatever profit was to be made doing this. Ryshad on the other hand, would surely be recalled to serve his sworn master’s interests. Was there a way they could do both together? Or would it be more interesting to have them go their separate ways, not least to discover whether the lure of their former lives would be stronger than their attraction to each other? I decided that would be much more interesting, for the readers and for me as a writer.

So where would Livak find some ancient lore that learned wizards and scholars in a mighty prince’s pay would overlook? One thing that’s long interested me is the way odd fragments of knowledge are carried down through the generations in oral traditions, from Homer to English folk songs. Since I’d already mentioned Livak’s father was a travelling minstrel, that was a plausible thing for her to notice – while mages and Tormalin archivists would doubtless dismiss the idea as readily as former generations of Oxford dons. Furthermore, this would give me an opportunity to look more closely at the Forest Folk, to challenge some unrealistic conventions of epic fantasy about merry life in the greenwood, and to explore Livak’s relationship with her father’s people. Would she be accepted if she found them, or was she going to be caught between the two sides of her heritage, neither one nor the other?

Would she set out on this quest alone? Hardly. While Livak is determinedly independent, she has never been a loner, relying on a network of friends and allies across Einarinn. So who would she call on now that Halice isn’t at her side? The obvious choice was Sorgrad and his brother Sorgren (commonly called ‘Gren to avoid confusion and a lifelong lesson to authors not to give characters inconveniently similar names in a throwaway line in a debut novel). For one thing, as Mountain Men themselves, they would be the ideal people to introduce her to the upland culture. For another, exploring why the two of them had left their homeland behind would add another level to this story.

They’re also interesting characters in themselves, and yes, like Livak herself, Sorgrad and ‘Gren had been adventuring in our D&D group long before The Thief’s Gamble was written. My husband Steve played them both with a cheerful amorality which I’m thankful to say he keeps strictly for the gaming table. He and I had a good many long conversations about adapting those characters into the far more complex personalities required for a book. As we did so, I realised the brothers offered me the chance to look at male heroes from a sideways perspective, in much the same way that I was reimagining female roles in epic fantasy through Livak. They are mercenaries, so let’s look at all the implications of that lifestyle. Sorgrad enjoys making money by whatever means necessary while Gren genuinely relishes the violence that goes with robbery and dishonesty. When push comes to shove, they can both be utterly ruthless. That’s not very nice, is it? So how come they’re friends with Livak? It’s because on a personal level, they are great company, loyal allies and skilled fighters. Exploring those tensions in the notion of an epic hero (and Livak’s blind spots about her friends) offered all sorts of possibilities.

So far, so good, but I still didn’t think that would take this story far enough. What more did it need? Well, conflict is the essence of drama but setting up someone to oppose Livak’s new quest directly would essentially repeat the plot of The Thief’s Gamble. Okay, what else could I pull out of the Big Bag of Writerly Inspiration? How about the tragedy of good men in opposition? That was a useful starting point but I’d just been writing from a good man’s point of view in The Swordsman’s Oath, and I already knew I’d be doing that again in The Warrior’s Bond. Besides, looking at Sorgrad and ‘Gren got me thinking about contradictory characters. How about considering an epic fantasy hero who really had feet of clay? A man leading an unquestionably noble cause whose personal character is reprehensible? Enter Jeirran, who divides opinion among my readers more sharply than any other individual in my writing…

Weaving Livak’s quest into the inherent conflict between uplanders and lowlanders with very different aspirations gave me exactly what this story needed – especially once I’d added in this new (old) magic. I’d already established how the Archmage’s authority governs elemental magic. With this story focusing on aetheric magic’s potential, now I could explore this very different power’s potential uses, the restrictions on its use and how and why someone might be tempted to abuse such enchantments… and what happens then…

Okay, that’s about as far as I can go without risking spoilers for new readers – and it’s about as much as I can recall of my thinking back in 1999 when I was actually writing this story. Now I’m eager to learn what those coming new to the tale make of it!

So head on over to Wizard’s Tower Books to buy it in your preferred format, DRM-free Purchasing for Kindle, Nook etc will come online in a few days.

GF-ecover