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
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.
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.
I usually log off on Christmas Eve with a bit of a retrospective on the year just gone. Then I pick up social media after the New Year by looking ahead. This year? I was very busy on Christmas Eve – but could I have found the time? Possibly, but I found I didn’t know what to say.
It’s been another year of uncertainty and stress for us all – and that looks likely to continue for some time to come – but what’s the point in stating the painfully obvious? And compared to so very many others, we have nothing much to complain of hereabouts. We are all still healthy, all still in work, and if we still haven’t had a proper holiday since November 2019, that’s because we have chosen not to risk the hassles and unpredictability of trying to go away anywhere, even in the UK. We still miss our aikido training, but that just can’t be helped.
On the plus side, I have had another new book out, and The Green Man’s Challenge has been very enthusiastically received by satisfied readers. That’s encouraging me as I gather ideas for the next one. I’ve also worked on three other interesting projects which have yet to be announced, so I’ll have assorted news to share pretty soon. I went to two conventions in person in the autumn, and did other events online through the year, all of which were great fun and kept me connected with readers, writers, and friends old and new. I’ve also been elected to the Society of Authors Management Committee.
So that’s showing me what to focus on, going forward. I’ll work with the SoA to support writers through these difficult days. I’ll concentrate on my own work, share good things from other authors, and share thoughts on the writing process and business. That will mean making a definite effort to read more for relaxation alongside the reading I do for work. I’ve been sitting down with my Christmas-present books this week, and that’s forcefully reminded me of the benefits of getting out of my own head on a regular basis.
Making time for that will mean cutting back on the doomscrolling and that can only be a good thing. I’ve not reached the point of ditching social media like a good few others I’ve seen, but I’ve felt the benefits of keeping Twitter in particular more at arm’s length over the last month or so.
So here we are. That’s what I have to say for the moment anyway. Let’s hope for a happier and healthier year ahead for us all.
Today’s big news is that I have been elected to the Society of Authors Management Committee for a three year term. I joined the Society in 1997, when I was offered my first publishing contract and benefited immediately from expert advice. I have found membership invaluable ever since in dealing with the vagaries of this business through decades of constant change.
Experience has shown me the importance of writers staying informed about changes in publishing and bookselling. It’s vital to keep up-to-date with new technologies which offer us new options when publishers’ and retailers’ decisions serve their own interests but adversely affect authors. The VATMOSS/VATMESS saga also showed me it is essential for authors to advocate for themselves at the very highest levels, and taught me effective ways to do that.
I look forward to working with everyone else on the committee and in the Society in the interests of writers of all genres in these intensely challenging times. If you voted for me, thank you! You may rest assured that I’m mindful of the trust that those SFFH authors who gave me their vote have placed in me. Something I’m particularly keen to explore is the Society’s relationship with the writers who work primarily with small and genre presses.
And overall, what’s good for writers should benefit readers as well. That’s certainly my aim. It’s going to be an interesting next few years
Readers on Amazon and Goodreads are really enjoying Dan’s latest adventure, as you will see if you take a look. If you’ve posted a rating or review, thank you! Yes, these things boost visibility and that’s important, but most of all they boost author morale and that’s absolutely invaluable.
Amid the reviews and comments in various places, some readers have noted the background presence of the pandemic. As I’ve mentioned previously, I have been wondering how people would feel about this, since a writer can never know how a reader’s personal situation will colour their response to a book. Only one reader who has mentioned this seems to have found it a major deterrent, and I am genuinely sorry for that – in the sense that I really hope they have not had some dire experience that I have inadvertently made worse.
Other commenters have certainly been surprised to a greater or lesser extent. Thankfully, once they’ve got past that, they have decided that I made the right call/found the right balance. I am pleased and relieved, as it was an aspect of the story that I thought long and hard about, and where I took a great deal of care in the writing.
Since I’m currently writing contemporary fantasy, I’m very interested to see what other authors are doing with the genre’s themes and ideas. When I see a new novel with great cover quotes from writers whose work I enjoy, I definitely want to know more. So I’m delighted to host this post by David, and I’ll be reading the book with added insights.
My New Supernatural Thriller
David B. Coe
DeDe Mercer is a Radiant who can control other people’s thoughts, make them do what she wants. For years she’s controlled her power, keeping her secret, never using it on anyone—until the day she had no choice.
Now the government is after her, after her brother, too, because he’ll come into his power before long. The Department of Energy, the Defense Intelligence Agency, Homeland Security — they all want her, and they’re willing to do anything, hurt anyone, kill if necessary, to make her their weapon.
But DeDe has had enough. They think she’s a weapon? Fine. They’re about to find out how right they are.
That’s the jacket copy for my new supernatural thriller, Radiants, which comes out from Belle Books this coming Friday, October 15. I like the blurb — wrote it myself — and I LOVE the book. Wrote that myself, too . . .
I also recognize, though, that someone familiar with urban fantasy and speculative fiction thrillers might read this brief description with a jaded eye, thinking “mind control powers, government bad guys pursuing our hero: nothing new to see here.”
It won’t surprise you to learn that I would argue with that assessment. Radiants, and its sequel, Invasives, which will be out early next year, might be my favorites among all the books I’ve written. And they have far more to them than a jacket blurb can capture.
DeDe’s ability, as well as the various talents wielded by the community of Radiants, are powered by planetary energy systems — the dynamics that keep the earth and moon in orbit, and that maintain the earth’s rotation. Those who seek to turn DeDe’s ability to their purposes also hope to create an army of Radiants, all of them drawing on those systems. DeDe’s father, who died under odd circumstances when she was young, feared overuse of Radiant power would alter earth’s orbit and rotation, placing in peril all life on the planet.
DeDe’s decision to use her power, which sets in motion all the action in the novel, comes after a grave injustice perpetrated against her closest friend (and crush), Kyle, who is genderqueer.
And as the agents of the various agencies close in on DeDe and her brother, Miles, who will soon come into his power, they manage to kidnap DeDe’s mother, splitting their family, and driving DeDe and Miles to fight back.
An allegory for global warming. A story of gender identity and bigotry. A narrative that includes government agents resorting to the separation of families.
This novel is entertaining — filled with action, suspense, emotion — but it also touches on issues that are central to who we are as a society, a nation, and a world community.
Ultimately, however, like all good novels, Radiants is about the people who populate its pages. DeDe is strong, stubborn, whip-smart, passionate and compassionate. She starts out afraid, but proves to herself, and those around her, that she is more than the sum of her fears. She relies on her wits and her courage, and she is driven always by love — love for Kyle, love for her brother and mom, love for people who help her along the way as she seeks to thread a path to a new life, shaped inevitably by her developing supernatural abilities, but also as close as possible to the life she has known.
Again and again as I wrote her story, I was inspired by my own daughters, who are also strong and stubborn, intelligent and courageous, passionate and caring. They don’t have mind powers (at least not that I know, although they do always seem to get their way . . .) and they are both now past their teen years. But there is a lot of them in DeDe. They animate her, bringing her to life, making her leap off the page and, I hope, into your heart. There is also a lot of their dynamic with each other in DeDe’s relationship with Miles.
And I believe this is why the novel works as it does. I have found again and again throughout my career that my best stories tend to be about family — people protecting their loved ones, people in extraordinary circumstances seeking to create something akin to the families they have known. I believe — no, I am certain — that I do this because my family has been so important to my life, to my success as a writer, to my happiness.
So in the end DeDe’s story is about much more than mind control and mean government agents. It is about a planet in peril. It is about queer teens fighting for their right to live and love as they choose. It is about one amazing young woman’s determination to protect the people she loves most.
I hope you enjoy it.
Many thanks to Juliet for hosting me!
David B. Coe is the award-winning author of more than two dozen novels and as many short stories. He has written epic fantasy — including the Crawford Award-winning LonTobyn Chronicle — urban fantasy, and media tie-ins, and is now expanding into supernatural thrillers with Radiants and its sequels. In addition, he has co-edited several anthologies for the Zombies Need Brains imprint.
As D.B. Jackson, he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical urban fantasy set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. He has also written the Islevale Cycle, a time travel epic fantasy series that includes Time’s Children, Time’s Demon, and Time’s Assassin
David has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Stanford University. His books have been translated into a dozen languages. He and his family live on the Cumberland Plateau. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.
I was in Birmingham this past weekend for the British Fantasy Society’s annual convention. I don’t mind saying, it was a rather strange feeling to be travelling up there. What was meeting up in person for the first time in so long going to be like? As it turned out, it was lovely. It was also rather a relief to find the event was smaller and quieter than some past years’ events, so we could all ease ourselves back into the convention routine. I must have had that conversation independently with at least half a dozen people through the weekend.
This is absolutely no criticism of the convention organisers, to be crystal clear. Putting on any event in the current circumstances is an achievement in itself, and putting on one that was so friendly and sociable, with a varied and interesting programme is a triumph. I was particularly pleased to find myself talking to a good few people attending their first convention, and delighted to hear that they were having a really good time. That bodes well for the Society’s future, along with the Committee’s energetic determination to take the BFS onward and upward.
I very much enjoyed the panels and talks I sat in on, and the panels I was part of went with a swing. We discussed genre-splicing and explored the ways in which mixing and matching different ideas gleaned from wide-ranging reading is a great way to create something new and exciting. I was also part of a discussion about writing as a business. That could have been a tricky one as there’s a lot of outdated and misguided advice out there that needs correcting – but none of us on the panel wanted to crush new writers’ hopes and dreams. Judging from the positive feedback I got all weekend, we struck the right balance.
The Jury’s Inn was a good venue – with the usual allowances to be made for bar staff who’ve never encountered SF and fantasy fans before, plus added pandemic allowances. Conrunners might like to bear it in mind, and there were a range of other hotels within sight of my room for anyone considering a bigger event. As a city centre venue, there are a good range of food options within easy walking distance as well. Granted, driving in was a challenge for my satnav, which ended up having conniptions, but random streets being closed so that tramlines can be laid will only be a temporary state of affairs.
We launched The Green Man’s Challenge, and with Cheryl running the Wizard’s Tower Press table in the dealer’s room, I signed a whole load of other books as well. It was particularly lovely to learn that readers were buying a copy of The Green Man’s Heir, or another title from the series, because they’d enjoyed it so much in ebook they wanted a copy for their shelf.
Next up is Octocon – 1st-3rd October – and that’s a virtual event this year. It’s also free, so I heartily recommend you check it out. I’ll be discussing the resurgence of fantasy on TV, as well as writing fight scenes. I’ll also be doing a reading, so those of you who weren’t at Fantasycon will be able to get a taste of The Green Man’s Challenge online.
On the 30th October, I’ll be heading down the M4 for Bristolcon – an in-person event – which promises to be another step on the road to a new normal after these strange and unpleasant months. It will be lovely to see established pals and to make new friends. As ever, I have no doubt that the convention programme will be excellent.
If I don’t see you at one of these events, let’s hope our paths cross in real life or online real soon.
So what’s the new book about? Well, Daniel Mackmain has been seeing out these strange and stressful months on his own at Blithehurst, the stately home where he works. That’s not a big part of the story*, but after a good deal of thought, I decided I had to keep Dan in the same timeline as the rest of us. Anything else simply wouldn’t be playing fair by Dan or his readers.
As this story opens, it seems the Green Man expects Dan to resolve another potential clash between those mysterious beings who dwell unseen in wild places and the ordinary people who have no idea what’s out there. Dan’s wondering what exactly this particular threat might be, when he hears from his girlfriend, Fin. She thinks she’s seen a giant in the Wiltshire twilight, high up on the chalk downs. What myths and folk tales can they find that might be useful? Not nearly enough…
If these were anything like normal times, I would now be telling you about the interesting places and local museums I visited as I researched the background for this story. Since these are far from normal times, other than visiting Uffington, I’ve had to do most of my research from my desk. Thank goodness for the Internet. Firstly for the second-hand and specialist booksellers online who were able to provide the books I decided I needed. Secondly, for the local history and folklore enthusiasts whose websites and podcasts who have given me a whole lot more, often wholly unexpected material. Lastly, and by no means least, I’m hugely grateful to the ramblers and walkers who’ve posted photos that gave me visual references for things I couldn’t go and see for myself.
I’m also truly thankful for the SF&Fantasy community of readers, reviewers and bloggers who have shared their enthusiasm for these stories far and wide. Books succeed thanks to word of mouth recommendation, whether that’s in person or via social media in its many forms. Amid all the current upheavals, that remains unchanged. And of course, this great community of ours first introduced me to the people without whom none of these books would have happened: Toby Selwyn, who’s now editing my work as a professional after reading my books as a fan for so many years; Ian Whates who recommended the fabulously talented Ben Baldwin to me when I needed an artist for my Aldabreshin series; Cheryl Morgan, who set up Wizard’s Tower Press specifically to help authors like me get our backlists out as ebooks – and who agreed to take that first leap into the unknown by publishing The Green Man’s Heir. Go Team!
*There is a bonus short story that does address one aspect of the impact of the lockdown on Blithehurst. I had to work out what was going on there while Dan is busy elsewhere. The answer turned out to be very entertaining to write, not least because this particular tale is told by Eleanor Beauchene. It was fun seeing events – and Dan – through her eyes.
Wizard’s Tower Press is also now doing online mail order for paperbacks and hardbacks (with bonus ebook included) – and not only for my books. Do check out the growing list of new titles.
You can now pre-order the book from your preferred retailer as follows –
If you want to go through your local bookshop, these are the ISBNs
If you will be at FantasyCon you can order paper editions for pick-up there.
The first early reviews are in from satisfied readers, I’m very pleased to say.
The Middle Shelf – followed by a Q&A with mild spoilers, consider yourselves warned…
Jacey Bedford – do look up her books as well
What’s that you say? Didn’t I mention the bonus short story earlier? Well, having decided to keep Dan’s adventures in the same timeline as the rest of us, I had some fairly major questions about what months of shut-down would mean for Blithehurst, the stately home where he works. I soon had some entertaining answers, but there was no place for that particular thread in the story Dan has to tell here. But I was pretty sure established readers would be wondering the same things as me, so I decided to let Eleanor explain that ‘Luck Is Where You Find It’.