Category: good stuff from other authors
Diary updates and online links to panel discussions
In a couple of weeks, 7th – 10th April, I’ll be at Conversation, the 2023 Eastercon in Birmingham. I’ll have the tremendous pleasure of interviewing Guest of Honour, Kari Sperring, as well as discussing assorted aspects of the craft and business of writing fantasy and science fiction with interesting people. I will also be reading from my new novel, The Cleaving, and discussing Arthuriana in its various forms.
The Cleaving is officially published on 11th April 2023, but Books on the Hill should have advance copies at Eastercon. If you want to buy sets of the paperbacks of either The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution, or The Hadrumal Crisis trilogies, for the at-convention price of £5, email me – firstname.lastname@example.org . Then I’ll know how many books to stick in the boot of the car, and you can pay me at the Convention.
If you’re not at Eastercon, but you’re within striking distance of London, I’ll be at the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club on 11th April, celebrating the official publication day of The Cleaving, along with Anna Smith Spark, and Michael R Miller. This monthly event takes place as The Star of Kings pub near Kings Cross and I recommend you check it out regularly. We’ll give short readings from our upcoming books, and talk about writing, reading and well, whatever else comes up in conversation with everyone there. It’ll be a really fun evening.
In May, I’ll be at the Milford SF Writers Retreat in Trigonos, North Wales. As long as everything’s still going to plan, I’ll be polishing up this year’s Green Man book before sending the draft over to Editor Toby. No spoilers, but I am really pleased with how this one’s coming together…
Looking forward to 2nd – 4th June, I’ll be in Edinburgh for Cymera, Scotland’s festival of science-fiction, fantasy and horror writing, as a guest speaker. This will be my first time at this particular event, and everyone I know who’s been before has enthusiastically recommended it. It will also be great to visit Scotland again. We’ll take the opportunity to have a holiday there as well.
So I’ll be getting out and about. That’s not possible for everyone of course, and the SF&F genre is very fortunate in the range and variety of online events and podcasts that fans and creators now support. I’ve recorded a good few interviews and chats lately that will be coming your way over the next few months. I’ll post links when I have them.
Meantime, you can check out this year’s panels at TBRCon – there’s loads of good stuff. Scroll down and you’ll find me and others discussing ‘Slice of Life Fantasy’.
More recently, I joined children’s writer Abie Longstaff, poet Katrina Naomi, and crime writer Sam Blake in her everyday persona of Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin, to discuss making a living as a writer, as part of the Society of Authors’ ‘At Home’ programme of events. You can catch up with the video here. Again, there are a whole of of other videos available, and you don’t have to be a member of the Society to access any of this invaluable advice. (You might like to think about joining the Society, do take a look at what membership offers.)
Recent reading and an online interview
The ongoing Twitter fiasco makes it harder and harder for authors to connect with readers in the ways we – and publishers – have come to rely on. So please share your enthusiasm for recent books you’ve enjoyed on whatever social media you use. Whatever the route, word of mouth recommendations sell books and those sales keep writers writing.
Another response seems to be a revival in blogging. Not that it ever went away. I’ve had the opportunity to answer some interesting questions from The Big Bearded Bookseller and you can read that interview with a click here. Readers, writers and illustrators as well as booksellers should definitely be aware of this website which offers a wealth of information.
I will now do my bit with a review of The City Revealed by Juliet Kemp, published by Elsewhen Press. The hardback and ebook are out and the paperback is published on 20th February.
I can’t recall if I’ve ever reviewed the fourth book in a series without having read the others. Why do that now? Well, I find Juliet Kemp an interesting writer to talk to, and I’ve liked what I’ve seen of their work. So when they offered me an advance copy of their forthcoming novel I was quick to say yes. Obviously, I could have gone and read the previous ‘Marek’ books first – The Deep and Shining Dark, Shadow and Storm, and The Rising Flood, but I decided not to. One of the serious tests for an author writing the next book in a series, is not demanding a reread of what’s gone before. I’m pleased to report that Kemp more than meets this challenge with unobtrusive recap which reads as naturally as backstory in a first volume.
The city of Marek faces multiple challenges. Declaring independence from the neighbouring ruling power hasn’t gone down well with those erstwhile overlords. Whose will now hold the highest authority in the city itself is hotly debated, and not only among the powerful Houses of the ruling Council. The Guilds are determined to have their say, while other factions in the wider population have plenty to say about the Guilds. There are different schools of thought on the different schools of magic which come with various limits and costs. When it comes to sorcery, what some see as opportunity, others see as threat. But magic is central to the city’s defences, and there’s every reason to expect an attack.
Marcia, House Fereno representative on the Council, is trying to handle all these things at once, while she’s in the final weeks of a pregnancy. She still has to work out how she’s going to co-parent the baby with her friend and sometime lover Andreas while sustaining her relationship with her girlfriend Reb. Just to make life that bit more complicated, Reb’s a sorcerer. This is one of a range of relationships among the characters, along with varied expressions of gender and sexuality. Why? Because that’s simply how life is in this particular fantasy world and it’s not the world we live in. This facet of the book shows how far epic fantasy has come since the days of white knights rescuing damsels in distress. Other aspects of Kemp’s world-building have moved on from such default settings. There are guns and broadsheets and the complexities of trade and geography, all conveyed with a deft touch.
At the same time, Kemp understands and shares the fascination with the core themes which have sustained this genre for so long. We see different characters’ responses to change and upheaval. We see tensions between moderates and radicals, and the struggles of those longing for progress with those who seek security in the status quo. Some people look for allies, others only want personal advantage. Others just want to shut their eyes and hope it all goes away. Kemp makes these people solidly believable, in their flaws as well as their strengths, through well-written dialogue and convincing interactions. Readers will care about these characters, even when some miscalculation leaves us wanting to shake someone till their teeth rattle. This makes for an eminently satisfying narrative where the personal, the political and the magical are multilayered and interlocked. A book – and a series – well worth checking out.
A Reading Recommendation – The Tangled Lands from Glenda Larke
A major plus of being an author is reading new work from other writers ahead of publication. I thoroughly enjoyed The Tangled Lands from Glenda Larke, published by Wizard’s Tower Press on January 26th 2023. The story starts with the birth of a royal heir to the realm of Talodic, but it’s clear the king has enemies who are hatching an audacious plan to force his hand to – do what, exactly? And who are these sorcerers the plotters hope will help them, and where have they come from?
Before we find out any of this, the story leaps forward eighteen years. We meet Taygen Hervan-Gariane, locked up in the King’s Keep, and awaiting execution for treason. King Edwild’s historian Lady Sianta has ordered him to write an account of his crimes. That’s quite a story, thanks to Taygen’s propensity to make bad choices for what seem like good reasons at the time. Since he’s quick-witted as well as quick on his feet, he mostly manages to outrun the consequences – until now. He finds himself facing no good outcomes. Worse, his family have become enmeshed in his misfortune and he brings down disaster on them.
Then – a different character entirely takes up the narrative; Haze, the wanderer whom Taygen unwisely befriended. We see events through very different eyes, enabling the reader to piece together more of the underlying mystery that swirls around Haze’s travelling companion Innata. Not even Haze knows this mature and alluring woman’s true identity, or her connection to the dreaded Red Weaver sorcerers.
Larke is a skilled and experienced author. Her characters are rounded and convincing, from the major players down to those who come and go in the course of a few pages. She balances supremely well-timed revelations with twists that throw up new questions. The highly inventive world building is as unobtrusive as it is coherent, giving readers crucial context before they realise they need it. As with all good fantasy, these people and places also hold up a magic mirror to our own world, giving the narrative depth and relevance, though always with a light touch.
The story takes classic epic fantasy ideas and turns them into a fresh new story that’s as uncompromising as it is satisfying. Dangers here are very real and so are deaths. What’s done cannot be undone, as long as Innata can stay a few paces ahead of her enemies at least. If not? All bets are off. The story gathers pace, with surprises right to the end. Though Larke always plays fair; everything that happens is rooted in what has gone before, even if only hindsight that reveals this.
If you’re an epic fantasy fan, you won’t want to miss this. If you’ve drifted away from the genre, finding stories becoming too predictable, take a look to be reminded just how powerful such tales can be when they’re this well crafted.
You can purchase it from your preferred store through the links at the Wizard’s Tower Press website.
The Golden Rule – now available for pre-order
I’m delighted to be able to share the cover art and cover copy of the steampunk novella I’ve written for Newcon Press. The Golden Rule is my contribution to four independent stories which can be purchased individually or as a set, and which are linked by their cover art. The other titles are Under Pressure by Fabio Fernandes, The London Particular by George Mann, and The Visionary Pageant by Paul Di Filippo.
What is my story about? Here’s the link to order it, so you can see the full artwork for a start, and here’s what the cover will tell you…
It is the summer of 1887 and everyone is looking forward to Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Young police constable David Price’s greatest concern is how much drunken disorder he and his colleagues will have to deal with. This changes when he is part of a force sent to a Lascar hostel on the docks to break up a disturbance. The constables arrive to find that trouble hasn’t even started. Close to the scene, David discovers an intricate mechanical rat, which is taken from him by a mysterious woman. He discovers she is a socialite, a friend of the royal family, and the eldest daughter of an Indian rajah. Tracking the princess down to her Richmond home provides the young officer with some answers. Many more questions arise. He finds himself embroiled in a deadly plot to raise racial tensions, set to culminate in a major incident that will rock the capital. Worse, David realises some of his own colleagues are involved. He has no idea who he can trust…
This is just one of the projects that have been keeping me very busy this year. I am pleased to say that my Arthurian novel, The Cleaving, has been delivered to Angry Robot and I should have news on that to share soon. The next Green Man book is being edited at the moment, and the cover art is in hand. As soon as we have a date for publication, I’ll be sharing that and other details.
Meantime, I have an unexpected invitation to write a new short story for what promises to be a fascinating anthology…
Silver for Silence – a new Philocles story for a very good cause
Regular readers will recall me flagging up the Books on the Hill project last year, aiming to publish quick reads specifically intended for dyslexic adults, to encourage them to explore and enjoy the great range of fiction available these days. I wrote about that here.
I’m delighted to say the initiative has been a great success! Alistair and Chloe are running a second Kickstarter this year, offering another tremendous selection of stories to give readers a taste of different genres. You can find Open Dyslexia: The Sequel here. You will note that names from the bestseller lists and TV adaptations such as Bernard Cornwell and Peter James are supporting this splendid initiative. I was naturally most honoured when Alistair asked me – or rather, my alter ego JM Alvey – to write a short history mystery (12,000 words) for this year’s line-up.
What you may well not know – because I certainly didn’t, and yes, I am embarrassed by my ignorance – is that making a read dyslexia-friendly is a case of formatting and layout and similar. For an author, the writing process is exactly the same. I’m aiming to challenge, entertain and intrigue with this new Philocles short story in the same way that I do with anything I see published. The only difference is more people will be able to read it – and I love the thought of that.
This project really highlights how much new technologies can do to make books more accessible for people with dyslexia. And that makes the absence of such initiatives by the mass-market publishers glaringly obvious. The book trade needs to take a long hard look at this situation.
The J.R.R. Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature 2022
Last night’s thoughtful and thought-provoking JRR Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature by Rebecca F. Kuang is now available on the organisation’s YouTube channel – along with previous years’ talks from Pembroke College, Oxford, where Tolkien served as the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon from 1925-1945. All very well worth your time.
You can find out more about Rebecca and about the lecture series here.
Here’s the link to this year’s video.
I went into Oxford to be in the audience, and it was great to see established friends and to make new acquaintances. I used the Park & Ride – and on the way back, I really thought I was going to just miss the bus and have to wait half an hour in the rain for the next one. But no! There is a special place in heaven* for a bus driver who sees you start running as he’s driven past, and so waits at the next stop for you to get there, even though there are no other passengers waiting to board. (*or equivalent spiritual reward)
Recent reads – The Amber Crown by Jacey Bedford
I’ve enjoyed Jacey Bedford’s previous books; the SF Psi-Tech novels, and the Rowankind series. In both these trilogies, she shows a keen understanding of the core appeal of the tradition she’s working with, namely space opera on the one hand, and alternate-history-shapeshifter-fantasy, for want of a better term, on the other. Accordingly, I’m very interested to see what she offers readers in this epic fantasy with a slew of classic genre elements apparent in the cover copy. We have a dead king, a lost queen, magic users on the fringes of society, and a scheming usurper setting up an innocent man to take the blame. Not to mention an assassin.
I note in passing that this is a standalone novel. I hope readers new to Bedford’s work are encouraged to give her writing a try by the reassurance that they’ll get a complete story with a beginning, a middle and an end.
This tale opens in Biela Miasto, the capital city of the insecure realm of Zavonia. King Konstantyn is dead and guardsman Valdas Zalecki must avoid being hanged for the murder while he hunts down his royal master’s killer. First he needs to find loyal allies which isn’t easy when so many of his friends have been executed on newly acclaimed King Gerhard’s orders. Meanwhile, far away, Mirza must claim her right to succeed her dead teacher’s place as the healer and witch of a Landstrider clan. That would be a lot easier if she wasn’t so unpopular with the clan, who would much rather have someone else. Lind the assassin just wants to be on his way out of the capital city with his payment. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done, with the new king’s vengeful advisor Kazimir sending men to turn the place upside down as they search for Valdas. Lind is glad to take on the mundane job of escorting a young mother-to-be to her family out in the countryside.
Readers will not be surprised to learn that these three narratives become intertwined. Bedford strikes a deft balance between hints and foreshadowing on the one hand, and unexpected twists and turns on the other. The scene-setting is equally assured, creating a world that’s very like but not quite our own, reminiscent of central Europe a few centuries ago. These similarities ground the narrative while the differences will keep readers guessing. The central characters and the supporting cast alike are satisfyingly three-dimensional, with their motivations and flaws stemming believably from their past experiences, good and bad. Crucially, Bedford’s portrayals are sympathetic without ever getting sentimental, so these people’s lives have realistic hard edges. Her villains are equally convincingly foul.
So far, so traditional, as far as epic fantasy goes. Bedford offers more to lift this story out of the genre’s well-worn ruts. As she works with classic themes and archetypes, she recognises where these have become outdated and even offensive, reshaping them to suit her story’s purpose. Newcomers to the genre will find a story with an up-to-date perspective. Those who have been reading these tales for decades with find a thoughtful contribution to the ongoing evolution of epic fantasy.
As I say, this is a standalone, and I am content to leave this story and these characters at their hard-won conclusion. That said, the rich potential of this milieu means I’d happily read another adventure set in this world.
Guest post – Jacey Bedford on writing epic fantasy for modern readers
As a fan of her SF and her alternate-history-shapeshifter-fantasy, I was very interested to learn that Jacey Bedford’s new novel is a standalone epic fantasy. So I invited her to share a few thoughts on her approach to writing this sort of story for modern readers.
Writing Epic Fantasy for a Modern Audience by Jacey Bedford
You are what you eat, or should that be, you write what you read?
The Amber Crown is set in a historical fantasy version of the Baltic countries, in the imaginary kingdom of Zavonia.I have robbed history for the details.
I got into fantasy a little late in life, not reading the Narnia books until I was at least nine years old. Of course I’d been primed for fantasy from an early age with traditional fairy tales, the watered down Disneyfied versions, not the gory Grimm versions with the cutting off of heels – they came later. I somehow missed Tolkien in my teen years, being more into science fiction and then in my early twenties I discovered Andre Norton, especially her Witch World books. That was it, I fell in love.
This was before the advent of easy internet access, Google, Amazon and Abe Books, so when I first travelled to Canada in 1995 I thought I’d landed in heaven when a friend introduced me to (what was then) Bakka – Toronto’s specialist SF/.F book store (now Bakka-Phoenix). I bought so many books, many of them Andre Nortons, (then unavailable in the UK) that I shipped half of them home, and bought a new suitcase for the other half which then cost me $100 in excess baggage. It was worth every cent.
I loved Andre Norton’s Witch World with a deep passion, though not blindly. They were generally much shorter than a lot of SF/F today. Her dialogue was always a little stilted as though she was trying to mimic older patterns of speech, and there was romance, but no sex. It didn’t matter, I loved them unconditionally, but when I started writing my own stories, I didn’t necessarily want to emulate them.
For starters my books are relatively hefty. The Amber Crown is 469 pages, that’s 160,000 words. Luckily my editor said she doesn’t mind a lot of words, as long as they are good words.
Dialogue is so important. It not only moves the plot forward but it says a lot about character and emotion. I try to avoid the kind of dialogue that screams, ‘Prithee, sirrah, I am writing a story set in ye past.’ (OK, I’ve never quite come across that kind of dialogue but you know what I mean.) At the same time I try to avoid more modern slang words. When Valdas curses he often uses, “God’s ballocks!” – religious curses being more likely than sexual ones.
I avoid longwinded descriptions. I haven’t a clue what colour Valdas’s eyes are, but I do know that he shaved off his drooping moustache so it wouldn’t identify him as a renegade army officer. I do know that Lind has golden curls when he lets his hair grow out, and that he was pretty as a boy apprentice, which is what earned him the trouble which has clouded his life ever since. I needed these bits of description to advance the plot.
Pacing is so important for a modern audience; less infodumping and more dripfeeding of background information as the story progresses. My books are long, so I try to make every word count.
With The Amber Crown I wanted to write something that was, if not pacier, at least racier. I’ve never shied away from writing sex in my books (to the consternation of my son, though not my daughter). Can you imagine if Tolkien had written sex scenes in Lord of the Rings? No? Me neither. And any sex in Witch World books happened tastefully off the page, though it must have happened or how else did Simon and Jaelithe produce triplets?
I decided not to be coy about it. The Amber Crown has got plenty of sex in it, though it’s there to drive the plot, not to titillate. My three main viewpoint characters have vastly different attitudes towards sex. Valdas loves and respects women, every part of them, fat, thin, young, old, pretty or plain. He likes what’s between their ears as well as what’s between their legs, and he’ll take no for an answer. When the book opens, he’s captain of the King’s High Guard, responsible for the king’s safety which means he spends a lot of his time at court and in the palace, but he’s sensible enough not to form liaisons with court ladies, or even palace servants. He takes his pleasure in the whorehouses of the Low Town, often with his favourite, Aniela. Occasionally whores are smuggled into the palace by the turning of a blind eye by one brother officer for another. This becomes a plot point later in the book, as does Valdas’s relationship with Aniela. But I’m getting ahead of myself, Valdas’s life changes in an instant when his king is assassinated. I’m not giving away spoilers, it happens on the first page.
Mirza is the shulam (witch-healer) of the Bakaishans, a Landstrider band of travellers. She’s loved and feared in equal measure for her ability to walk the spirit world, and her scolding tongue. She has a port wine stain on her face and neck which the band thinks is a witchmark, and the men firmly believe that if they bed her their kok and stones will shrivel and fall off. Unsurprisingly she’s a virgin, and so approaches sex as a voyage of discovery. Other issues arise further into the book and, again sex drives one aspect of the plot, but if I told you, I’d have to shoot you.
Lind is the clever assassin who worms his way into the palace kitchens as the fishmonger’s delivery man. He was a fascinating character to write. He has more hangups than a closet full of coats. Due to an appalling history of childhood abuse, he can’t bear being touched and the last thing he wants is sex. He rents a room in a whorehouse because it’s a place he feels safe. He reasons that the whores only want sex if he pays them, and since he’s not going to do that, they’ll leave him alone, which is largely true.
I try to write honestly about sex. It’s part of life and it’s part of the plot – but only part. So, what else to expect in The Amber Crown? Political machinations, strong female characters who play an active part in the story, dark magic, natural magic, a cranky horse called Donkey, a missing queen, bandits, betrayals, diverse characters (white, black, brown, straight, gay, asexual), an epic sword fight, and an unexpected villain. I hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
The Amber Crown is out today, Tuesday 11th January 2022, published by DAW
Do check your own preferred retailers as well
Recent reads – Dust Up at the Crater School by Chaz Brenchley
This is the second novel set in a girls’ boarding school on an engaging version of Old Mars, which is to say, the planet imagined by early SF writers, with a breathable atmosphere, canals and alien creatures which this British Empire’s colonists must step very warily around. It’s the start of a new term for the Crater girls, with Christmas ahead at the end of it. Of course, the Martian year doesn’t align with the Earth year but traditions must be observed.
The story is more discursive than the first, with successive episodes focusing on different characters, some new and some already established. This broadens our understanding of this strange new world and offers hints at the history that brought the British here. What exactly happened in the Great Triplanetary War though? Plenty of questions remain; enough to tantalise but not so many as to frustrate. That’s because the focus remains very much on the characters and their differing viewpoints and priorities. Seeing the school and its environs through these various eyes brings immersive breadth and depth to the narrative.
Among other things along the way, we are reminded that bygone attitudes weren’t all bad in the good old days. As a couple of the girls explore their gender identities, the tolerant responses of those around them mirror what can readily be found in the English literature of the 1920s and 1930s. Talking of literature, the language is a particular delight. Brenchley’s familiarity with the traditions he draws on means his prose is note and pitch perfect, without ever showing off his knowledge with tedious or pedantic obscurity. That simply wouldn’t be the done thing, would it?
There is plenty of action as well, as Brenchley draws on modern knowledge of Mars alongside SF tradition. A Martian dust storm can be very dangerous indeed, for the Mars-born and newer arrivals alike. Then there’s the lurking tension with the Russian Empire that was established in the first book. Not every threat is external though. As we should recall if we’re being honest with ourselves, teenagers can do spectacularly stupid things. So can adults, particularly if they’re putting their own selfish interests above a child’s welfare. All these elements will keep those pages turning.
The story concludes with these threads deftly plaited together. The various resolutions are highly satisfying, as well as offering the promise of more adventures to come. I look forward to the next instalment with eager anticipation.
Recent reads – Nectar for the God by Patrick Samphire
In keeping with my previous post, I shall attempt to remember to post a few thoughts about books I’ve enjoyed.
This second novel featuring reluctant wizard Mennik Thorne is an excellent follow-up to Shadow of a Dead God. You don’t have to have read that first story by any means, but I’m confident you’ll want to. Patrick Samphire offers long-standing and more recent readers alike an epic fantasy tale that’s grounded in the genre’s core appeal while avoiding ‘classic’ elements and cliches that have become increasingly outdated and potentially even offensive. The writing and plotting are fast and fluent, so you won’t necessarily notice he’s doing this unless you’ve been reading swords and sorcery for decades like me, but it’s worth mentioning.
As a minor mage, Mennick is an unwilling pawn in the power games of his city’s two great wizards. Not playing simply isn’t an option, so he has to work hard to avoid falling foul of either faction because the consequences won’t only be dire for him. There is genuine danger here, for Mennik and for those he cares about. That threat’s unacceptable, as far as he’s concerned, though doing something about it is less easy. Mennik’s fiercely loyal to his friends, perhaps to a fault, but as we learn more about his actual family, that becomes understandable.
His upbringing also helps explain his dogged determination to unravel the mystery that lies behind an apparently inexplicable murder. A distraught widower knocking on his door may start him on this quest, but this violent death and its consequences are no mere plot convenience. This man’s grief matters to Mennik as he follows a trail of clues and red herrings to find far more lurking trouble than anyone expected. That ensures the story will matter to readers as well.
Mennik’s an engaging central character, not without his blind spots and flaws which make him all the more believable. Supporting characters are well-observed, drawn with a light touch and a sense of humour. The city of Agatos is an equally well-rounded creation. Samphire understands how to create an immersive atmosphere and a convincing depth of history without getting buried in world-building. He also draws on some of the less obvious antecedents of the epic fantasy tradition for this particular story which offers added interest for readers like me. Not that you need to spot any of those elements for the well-crafted plot to deliver a solidly satisfying read.
All told, epic fantasy fans should enjoy this story whether they’ve recently discovered the genre, or if they’ve been reading it for decades. These books are definitely worth a look if you used to read epic fantasy, but drifted away because what you found on offer was beginning to feel stale and repetitive. Samphire is one of a cohort of writers currently reinvigorating epic fantasy is all sorts of interesting ways.