We went to the Earth Trust/Dig Ventures festival of discovery on Sunday. We listened to two talks by teams of young, enthusiastic archaeologists discussing the finds from digs around Wittenham Clumps. One was on everyday objects, and the other was on ancient animals. In between, we had a very nice lunch, strolled around the local landscape, and went to the pop-up museum where a small selection of the thousands of finds was on display.
I expect many of us have seen Roman tiles with cat and dog prints left when the clay was still wet. This is the first time I’ve seen a fox leave its mark.
Then there were the mystery objects, such as this. I always ask Husband what he thinks. After studying it for a few moments, he proposed a use that one of the archaeologists confirmed is their experts’ current best guess.
Apparently a feature of Bronze Age sites is ‘pots in pits’, and there’s much discussion about what deliberate deposits of selected items might mean. Rituals linked to ‘end of use’ are generally proposed, though it’s impossible to know whether these marked, for example, a death, the demolition of a dwelling, or moving away from an area. One such pit here is particularly interesting as the objects deposited are a well-used, smashed pot, broken loom weights and a 4 year old sheep. When swords and other weapons are deposited in water or pits, they are deliberately broken to put them beyond use. Is this a similar ritual involving objects associated with textile production? Sheep for meat were usually slaughtered by the end of their second year. Beyond that, they were primarily kept for wool. What does this tell us about spinning and weaving and those who did it? That these women and their skills were respected with such rituals? What does that tell us about these ancient people and their society? Maybe it wasn’t all mighty-thewed warlords defending helpless women and children?
Another speaker observed that ‘hillfort’ is increasingly considered a misnomer for enclosures ringed with ditches and banks, as modern archaeology increasingly indicates they weren’t built for defence, not primarily at least. People could retreat into them at need, but for most people, most of the time, these appear to be trading and gathering centres, possibly seats of power for tribal leaders. Where did the people come from to trade and meet? DNA work on burials on this site is still pending, but at least two skeletons have been interpreted by bone experts as likely of African heritage.
This got me thinking about where that term ‘hillfort’ had come from. Field archaeology pioneers from the 1850s onwards started surveying and excavating these landscapes. The British Empire was at war with someone or other through most decades of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. How much did that background noise of perpetual conflict influence these men to see such earthworks as military and defensive? What assumptions followed? You only build defences when there’s an enemy out there. Therefore anyone new must be an invader! But what if that initial assumption is wrong? The the whole framework collapses. Finds that have been interpreted to fit that world view should be reassessed. This is just one reason why I find current archaeology so fascinating.
Since one of my personal lenses for viewing history is its use in world-building for fantasy writers, it’s apt that the next creative writing article from my archive is on this very topic.
The Uses of History in Fantasy
It’s always worth taking a look at the novels long- and shortlisted for genre awards – even if you’re not a member of organisations like the BSFA, the BFS, or SFWA. Likewise, it doesn’t matter if you’re eligible or not to vote for awards linked to conventions such as the Hugos. These are books that have appealed to a solid number of well-read SF&F fans. The juries who pick the winners for accolades such as the Arthur C Clarke Award and the World Fantasy Awards are fans first and foremost, and assess all submissions diligently. Not every book is for every reader, but there’s every chance you’ll find something to your particular taste that you haven’t come across before.
Then there are the short stories, the novellas, the non-fiction and related works. The odds are good that these lists will offer you unfamiliar names whose writing you’ll want to check out, both of authors currently published and of authors being written about. There’ll be discussions about aspects of the genre which you may very well find of interest. When something on any of these lists comes from a small press you haven’t previously encountered, it’s definitely worth seeing what else they’re publishing. And don’t forget the art awards, which invariably illustrate the breadth and depth of skill enhancing SF&F stories these days.
Why am I mentioning this now? Because the BSFA long lists have just been announced, and yes, I have an interest to declare because The Green Man’s Quarry is among the nominations for best novel. Will it be shortlisted? Who knows? At the moment, knowing enough readers enjoyed Dan Mackmain’s latest to nominate the book gives me a nice, warm feeling on this chilly wintry day.
If you are eligible to vote, but haven’t read this latest in the series yet, this is great timing, as the ebook is currently a Kindle UK limited time deal for the bargain price of 99p – and so are a good few other BSFA longlisted titles. Amazon have a wide-ranging SF&Fantasy offer on at the moment. That’s well worth checking out whether or not you’re interested in voting for any awards at all.
Time flies when you’re busy! What have I been doing? First and foremost, I am very pleased to report that this year’s Green Man book is currently being honed and polished with the invaluable input of Editor Toby.
My next major task will be reviewing twenty-plus years of my short fiction to choose the stories for a collection to be published by NewCon Press, as part of their new Polestars series. I am tremendously honoured to be invited to be part of this, as you will see from the list of authors involved. The first three volumes are now available.
My Arthurian novel, The Cleaving, is being very well received, and I’ve written a couple of pieces about my thinking as I wrote this female-centered take on the classic myth. Sarah Ash will host the first of those on her blog tomorrow, and the second will be my contribution to the Fantasy Hive’s Women in Fantasy Month – where you’ll find all sorts of fascinating posts. This makes the Kindle offer on the ebook very timely. Until 14th July you can snap that up at a bargain price – £0.79 UK, €0.79 Fr, $1.99 US, $1.99 CAN, and I believe there are comparable discounts elsewhere. Check your local store.
The last couple of months haven’t all been work. I took a day off yesterday to see the Labyrinth exhibition at the Ashmolean museum in Oxford. This is about Crete, Knossos, the Minotaur and such. The Ashmolean and the Bodleian Library have lots of stuff about Arthur Evans and his excavations to share, as well as exhibits looking at the Minotaur and the Labyrinth as cultural images and ideas through the ages.
These include a video installation from Ubisoft showing a character going into the ruins of Knossos in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey with a written commentary track highlighting the research they did into the site, the archaeology, and the classical literary references to the Minotaur in their monster concept. I think this is very cool.
Then there the little ceramic figures of what are reckoned to be priestesses in ornate headdresses doing some sort of snake ritual. The card earnestly told us that while a cat had been found buried where these figures were found, it’s not believed that the ritual was actually conducted with a cat sitting on someone’s head. Personally, thinking of some cats I’ve known, let’s not be so hasty…
This time next week, The Cleaving will be published. The Angry Robot team are doing splendid work spreading the word – Caroline and Amy are absolute stars.
Over at Lithub, Natalie Zutter includes The Cleaving in her recommendations for some spring reading, alongside books from Peter S Beagle, Emily Tesh, Fonda Lee, Vivian Shaw, Andrea Stewart, TJ Klune, and Catherynne M Valente.
“Juliet E. McKenna retells the familiar Arthuriana epic through the eyes of enchantress Nimue, who possesses the same magic as Merlin but has more scruples than he does about interfering in mortal lives. So while Merlin helps Uther Pendragon trick the lady Ygraine into conceiving Arthur, Nimue is by Ygraine’s side, disguised as her handmaiden.
While the saga’s familiar male characters—Merlin, Uther, Arthur, Lancelot, Mordred—make their big moves through the rhythms of war, The Cleaving focuses on the women’s work and equally vital intrigues back at court. When Arthur’s half-sister Morgana and future wife Guinevere are brought into the mix, Nimue’s interactions with each provide additional context as to why both women make such dangerous choices that will eventually spell the fall of Camelot.”
I’ve mentioned the various interesting and enjoyable podcast chats I’ve had recently, and you can now listen to a couple of those conversations at the following places.
And here’s where you can find me in person over the next little while.
It’s all go at the moment, and in the best way. This coming Saturday 18th February, I’ll be taking part in the British Fantasy Society’s online February event. I’ll be on a panel at 1.45pm GMT discussing Hard vs Soft Magic Systems, with LR Lam and Steve McHugh.
Before that, at 1.30 I’m on the Author Readings schedule when I’ll be reading from The Cleaving for the very first time anywhere.
There’s a whole roster of great writers reading through the day, plus another panel on approaches to world-building, and an interview with Adrian Tchaikovsky, who is always worth listening to. You can find out full details and more besides on the BFS News page – click here.
On 14th March, I’m on a panel for the Society of Authors At Home event, discussing making a living from writing with children’s author Abie Longstaff and poet Katrina Naomi, chaired by Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin (also known as the crime writer Sam Blake). This will be a reprise of our very successful event at last year’s London Book Fair where we lay out the realities of the book business and suggest ways to maximise your earning opportunities. Full details here – and like all online SoA events (apart from the AGM) this will be open to members and non-members alike.
I’m also having a lot of fun recording some interviews this week, with the Fantasy Fellowship for their YouTube channel, and for the Read Write podcast. I’ll post links when those are available for you to enjoy.
And there’s more to come!
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.
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.
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.
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)
The Society of Authors and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain have published a joint report looking into companies that charge writers for publication. You will not be surprised to learn there are a lot of shady goings-on in this area of the book business. For one thing, the sharks and charlatans like to muddy the waters with terms like ‘hybrid’ and ‘indie’ publishing. They’re able to do this because these terms mean different things to different people.
‘Hybrid’ originally meant authors self-publishing alongside working with a mainstream publisher. ‘Indie’ used to mean small independent presses not owned by one of the multinational conglomerates. These days, ‘indie’ has been co-opted by self-publishers (not with any underhand intent), while what used to be called ‘vanity’ presses would have you believe that ‘hybrid’ now means the author putting in money up front for a project, as well as the (alleged) publisher.
Now, there are currently a whole lot of different ways to work with a publisher. At the moment, I have five separate agreements on the go, and the details of each contract are different. For one, I have chosen to commission and pay for editorial input and artwork myself and to then supply the complete package to the publisher rather than have them undertake this part of the publishing process. These choices I have made are reflected in the royalty rate I receive. All of this information is readily available to me, the whole process is transparent, and at no point am I paying the publisher for anything. This is a legitimate way to do business.
Compare and contrast the sharks and charlatans. When I’ve been judging genre prizes and books come in from a publisher I don’t know, I go and check who I’m dealing with. Legitimate small presses I just haven’t come across before are easy to identify , but when it comes to vanity presses, the tell-tale info is often very deliberately and well hidden on websites. There are weasel words like ‘contributory’ and ‘partnership’ as well as hideous rights grabs buried under layers of obfuscation, just in case they are handed some real gem.
Though that is unlikely. When it comes to the books, vanity presses are almost always horribly, wretchedly obvious. I mean 99.99% of the time at least! I recall one first person narrative which included the detailed description of a knife that had just stabbed our heroine in the back where she couldn’t reach it. So… how could she see it then? The whole book – okay, the 65 pages I read before I quit – was full of these basic creative writing errors. There had been no meaningful editorial input at all – though I bet the author had paid well above the going rate for that, from what I read on the website. Things like this might be funny, except these authors sometimes contact prize judges, wondering why they haven’t been short-listed (yes, really) and it’s painfully clear they’ve been fed wholly unreal expectations by, well, con-artists. It’s awful to be the person trying to explain what’s happened to them.
So it comes as absolutely no surprise to me at all to see from this report –
• 94% of respondents lost money, typically in the thousands.
• The average loss was £1,861 with some writers reporting losses as high as £9,900.
• The median cost of publication was £2,000.
• A median of only 67 books were sold per deal, resulting in royalties of only £68.
• 59% of writers said their book was not available to buy in retail outlets
Do spread the word, and bookmark the info, in case you come across another writer in danger of being bamboozled.
The British Fantasy Society is 50 years old this year! There’s going to be a day of celebration online on Saturday 26th February, and I’m delighted to say that I will be having fun discussing fantastical creatures with Anna Smith Spark and R J Barker at 10.15 am.
There’s a great programme of readings, panels etc soon to be revealed, so mark your diaries. You can find more details here.