Sunday, December 1, 2013

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey is the first entry in the Sandman Slim series published by Harper Voyager. A synopsis can be found here. Kadrey has produced something unique. Slim is wonderful exploration of the grotesque and beautiful aspects of humanity told in a sensual and harsh prose dripping with a yearning nostalgia for West Coast Americana. It come with a few warts, but they generally add to the allure of the book. Gritty has been the toast of the SFF scene for sometime. Slim isn’t gritty; it’s grimy.

Kadrey lays down a fantastic foundation for a new series. It is fantastic in the sense that it is a delight to read and fantastic in the sense that the setting is unreal. Slim takes place in an LA where magic is a thing. Vampires, demons, and other equally unpleasant non-humans roam the street. Hell is a real place, and Slim is fresh from it. In fact, the novel opens with Slim’s arrival from Hell. The rotting heap of garbage he lands on seems fresh compared to Hell, creating one of the best opening sequences in my experience as a reader. It sets the perfect tone.

Slim is a male teenage fantasy if a teenager had the collective life experience of a hard working, chain smoking, whiskey drinking, blue-collar worker. Slim is full of angst, pain, and poor decision- making skills that are eminently familiar to anyone who survived their teenage years. Mixed in between these poor decisions is smoking, drinking, fighting, and a love of things that go fast.

Tying all of this together is Kadrey’s wonderful authorial voice. Every scene is written through Kadrey’s love of cinema, music, LA, and Americana. If writing had an Instragram app, I would vote ‘Kadrey’ as one of the inaugural filters. Cementing these myriad influences is Kadrey’s grimey word choice and character POVs. In particular, the dialogue drips with an unholy fusion of sleazy and erudite banter that in context makes perfect sense but has no place in reality.

Slim’s plot and pacing stay fairly uptempo and chaotic. The narrative, like Slim, seems to lurch from one flashpoint to the next. Kadrey’s somehow manages to keep upping the surrealism, whether it be a brothel staffed by imprisoned Angels or a magical multi-dimensional key. The only constant is Slim’s desire for revenge and his tenuous grasp on humanity. Even so, the story isn’t exactly cohesive; it is more of a slowly unfolding nightmare.

I described Slim as a ‘male’ fantasy earlier for a specific reason. It is one of the novels few flaws, even if I think it is likely intentional. The female characters in Slim are very passive. They exist largely as objects to be managed by the more dynamic and active male characters. Allegra seems to function solely as a means for Slim to remember his humanity and failure to protect women (his girlfriend) in the past. Cherry’s role seems to be a measuring stick to prove how manly Slim is since Cherry literally, as in not figuratively, eats lesser men. A better female cast could have elevated the novel.

My last criticism has to do with Kadrey’s copious and incessant use of cultural trivia. The reader is bombarded with both obvious and arcane references to music, movies, and LA history. When these references work (i.e. the reader recognizes them), they greatly add to the flavor of the novel. When they don’t, they leave a bad taste in the mouth as you stop what you’re doing to perform some Google sleuthing. Kadrey leans too heavily on this tool. I think a better balance could have been made between description and the cultural name-dropping. That said, for readers who fall into Kadrey’s own demographic, they would likely view my opinion as nothing short of heresy.

Sandman Slim is a highly enjoyable read with a very unique voice. The world building may be a little unhinged, but that only adds to the allure. Especially impressive is how much growth seems to be left in the series. Very little is revealed of Slim himself, and I am eager to read more. I am very curious if Kadrey can keep up the constant cultural references without beginning to repeat himself. I definitely recommend Sandman Slim. While the SFF community continues to debate the place of ‘gritty’ fiction, Kadrey has taken it to the next level-- ‘grimy’.

Memorable Quotes:
"Otherwise, I might have crawled back into this world and ended up a charcoal briquette in my first five minutes home."
"She’s the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in eleven years. I want to have monster babies with her right here and now."
“'Hello, asshole.' I slam the bag shut."
Harper Voyager: Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey
Imagine Source: Harper Voyager
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN: 9780061999444

Monday, November 18, 2013

Battle for the Abyss by Ben Counter

Battle for the Abyss by Ben Counter is the eighth book in the Horus Heresy series published by the Black Library. A synopsis can be found here. Abyss is an ambitious novel that shifts away from planet-wide narrative scope and instead focuses heavily on a small, mixed Legion group of Loyalists. Abyss largely fails in this endeavor, resulting in a clunky book that fails to connect with the larger Horus Heresy series. Worst of all, it fails to capture the unique flavor of the Horus Heresy time period.

Abyss’ bright spot is the characterization of the Thousand Son, Mhotep, and the World Eater, Skraal. This is the first time individuals from either Legion have been covered in any detail. Mhotep in particular was very interesting. The inherent nobility and sense of sacrifice that is intrinsic to the Space Marine character was on full display. The tiny details of his preparation were a fascinating counterpoint to the traditional Space Marine preparation and really brought home the sorcerous nature of the Sons of Prospero.

The characterization of the Ultramarines and Space Wolves unfortunately falls flat. The core issue is that very little is done to differentiate the Horus Heresy era Ultramarines and Space Wolves from the 40K equivalents. It creates a cognitive dissonance that is a constant drag on the story. Compounding this issue is the tendency by Counter to tell and not show in regards to the loyalist character development. Cestus in particular falls afoul of this issue. The end result feels like 40K Space Marines have been transported back in time to the Horus Heresy. Lost is the chance to highlight the subtle differences between 30K Legions and 40K Chapters.

The low point of the novel's cast of characters is the Word Bearers. As the novel’s antagonist, they fail to add much to the story. The Furious Abyss itself is a better villain, and its sinister purpose remains the only effective sense of agency. The Word Bearers themselves are almost criminally inept and border on parody.

The greatest flaw of Abyss is its structure. In particular there is a nasty habit of breaking the narrative tension through deus ex machina moments, cutaway scenes, and abrupt plot changes. I am fairly tolerant of deus ex machina moments. But, there were a few in Abyss that were simply excessive. In particular Cestus, Brynngar, and Skraal miraculously reuniting at the closing moments of the story bordered on comical.

The cutaway scenes were particularly grating and excessive. The tendency to break the flow of key scenes was even worse. Just as various plot threads were reaching culmination, Counter would frequently break to a cutaway scene that I presume was meant to add depth via a metaphorical philosophical point. Instead of adding depth, it simply deflates the scene, draining it of its tension. The worst offence is when these cutaway scenes hide the death of key characters. Breaking the scene, killing a character out of frame, and then returning back to see the aftermath nearly caused me to put the book down it irritated me so much.

The novel’s greatest flaw is its puzzling and sudden breaks in plot. Just as events seem to be coming to a head, they suddenly fizzle out and transition to several chapters of tedious plot development. Whether it be the original assault on the Furious Abyss, the conflict at Bakka Triumveron, or the final warp passage, each build to a crescendo only to then abruptly stop. The novel feels like several short stories stitched together. The plot is wildly uneven in terms of pacing as a result. It also makes the novel feel repetitive and tedious as the plot essentially repeats itself several times. The protagonists attempt to board the Furious Abyss several times, fail, retreat, and try again.

The end result is an underwhelming novel. Battle for the Abyss attempted to present a change of pace, devoid of Primarchs, Chaos Gods, Emperors of Mankind, etc. In doing so, Abyss attempted to place the spotlight on a small group of Space Marines and how their actions changed the course of the Imperium. It is a very interesting premise. Yet, the novel fails to execute this vision. The novel’s structure and character development are simply insufficient to sustain it. Abyss’ bright points are few and far between. For die hard fans of the Warhammer 40K setting, the book is a worthwhile read simply due to its importance to the settings canon. For all other readers, skip it for the far superior Mechanicum by Graham McNeill.

Black Library: Battle for the Abyss by Ben Counter
Review Copy: Self Purchased
Image Source: The Black Library
ISBN: 9780857870339

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Fade to Black by Francis Knight

Fade to Black by Francis Knight is the first book in the Rojan Dizon series published by Orbit in the US. A synopsis can be found here. Black is a entertaining read full of wonderful wordbuilding that is held back by a predictable plot and unrealized potential. The book's plot largely revolves around the three main characters: Rojan, Jake, and Pasha in the fantastically realized city of Mahala.

Mahala is such a fascinating setting. It is a city that has grown vertically to great heights. The highest points are occupied by the powerful and wealthy and the lowest are occupied by the powerless and poor. As a narrative metaphor, it works perfectly. Especially given that the strength of the powerful is derived from the exploitation of the poor, which is a fact both central and critical to the plot. Another neat point is that the lowest levels of Mahala are blocked off, hidden from the ‘middle class’ section, referencing the hidden underbelly of the criminal world and human trafficking.

As the story progresses, Rojan descends. He descends into the bowels of Mahala in one sense and himself in another. As the secrets of Mahala are revealed, so are the secrets of Rojan. As Mahala is freed, so is Rojan. Mahala and Rojan are tightly linked. The reason isn't clear by the end of Black, and I hope it foreshadows interesting developments in book two and three of Rojan Dizon. At the end, Rojan is ‘reborn’ as he ascends from the depths to the heights. As a narrative device, I thought Knight used the setting of Mahala to great effect.

Other elements of the story were less well done. The first is the treatment of women. The rest of this paragraph will contain spoilers so please skip ahead to the next paragraph if you wish to avoid them. The central secret to Mahala is the exploitation of young girls to create Glow-- a magical substitute for electricity. These young women are systematically abused to harvest their ‘pain’ and then simply thrown away at the end of their usefulness. I did not feel there was a good explanation as to why it had to be young girls. My take was that this was an attempt to be very shocking and ensure the reader KNEW that the bad guy was EVIL. I think this is a sloppy shortcut that could have been handled differently.

The second thing that could have been handled better was the ending. It was simply too over the top and veered into the surreal. It feels as if every couple pages contains a major revelation. The characters undergo more change in the last few chapters than in the entire preceding book. While thrilling, I wish they had been spaced out more and integrated better into the story. With so much happening in the closing chapters, I feel it diluted the book's ultimate ending.

The biggest weakness of the novel was the unrealized potential of the three main characters: Rojan, Jake, and Pasha. I think Knight had a really interesting setup but was not able to excute it. Rojan is self-absorbed and rarely looks beyond satisfying his own needs. Jake is an abuse victim-- a very attractive one-- who has created an entirely new personality to deal with her trauma. Pasha is an empathic mage who desperately loves Jake. This relationship triangle has so much potential that is largely glossed over. Only in the closing chapters of the book does it start to shine. Abruptly, it's over. The highpoint is Rojan’s self-realization of his shallowness is embodied by his lust for Jake. If that highpoint would have been sustained over the whole novel, Black could have been amazing.

In summary, Fade to Black is a really good opening novel by a first time author. The inventive worldbuilding alone makes the book worthwhile to read. The low points I consider fixable as Knight grows in her craft. I am excited for the potential in the rest of the series and want to see if Knight call pull it off. I can’t strongly recommend the book, as it is uneven and not everyone wants to commit to a trilogy. However, it is a fun read I would recommend to anyone interested in something a little different. My opinion however may change when I finish the series; hopefully for the better.

Memorable Quotes:
"It smelled of ingenuity, something that seemed to ooze from Dwarf like other men oozed sweat."
"See, this is why I don't like other people relying on me, on responsibility. Because dislocating your own thumb to cast a spell really fucking hurts"
"'I'm sorry, I believed me too, and I should know better.'"
Image Source: Hachette
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN: 9780316217699

Monday, October 21, 2013

Control Point by Myke Cole

Control Point by Myke Cole is the first novel in the Shadow Ops series published by Ace. A synopsis can be found here. I found Control Point’s worldbuilding to be uneven but its thematic elements and Cole’s keen eye for action elevate the novel. The thematic elements in particular are arresting given the political importance of late (2013) to ‘whistleblowers’ and ‘traitors’. While this may simply serendipitous, it does highlight a central tension to the life of a soldier.

Control Point’s worldbuilding is an up and down affair. The structure and organization of of the Supernatural Operations Corps is fascinating and demonstrates Cole’s first hand knowledge. There is an inherent logic to the organization that forces a high level of rationalism onto the weak magic system. Thematically critical to the SoC’s structure (and novel) is the intelligence community’s need to control those who manifest. It makes sense. Without it, Oscar Britton’s character would lack agency.

The magic system is a lackluster affair at first glance. Cole creates a magic system that rests on a traditional earth, wind, fire, and water foundation. It is spiced up a bit with ‘prohibited schools’ of magic that are more purposed oriented; Oscar Britton’s claim to fame is that he is a Portamancer. All of the various schools are immediately familiar to even casual fans of fantasy of any variety: comic, movie, TV, or book. Taken at face value, the magic is mundane.

Cole’s professional background and skills as a writer elevate these mundane theoretical underpinnings to something much more interesting. How so? By tightly integrating magic into a functional military unit in a rational manner. Cole’s flair for the tactical aspects of supernatural abilities turns an otherwise flat magic system into something exciting. Visualizing ‘Portal-Fu’ is still a thrill.

Another weak point in the worldbuilding is the Source; the alien world where FOB Frontier is located. FOB Frontier can only be reached via portal which is what makes Portomancers, e.g. Oscar Britton, so valuable. The Source is simply not that exciting in Control Point. Part of the issue is that most of the action occurs at FOB Frontier. There is not much excitement to be had in describing a temporary military encampment.

When the action does showcase the Source and its denizens, it does little to break or improve existing tropes. The native goblinoids are a shamanistic, medieval-level race. Thrown in are a few examples of scary, magical fauna. Neither of these things will grab your attention much, especially against the creativity of the action scenes. Again, its hard to knock the Source too much because so much of the action occurs at FOB Frontier. As the series progresses, I expect more time to be devoted to the Source. Given Cole’s ability to elevate the magic system, I expect similar with the Source.

Somewhat surprising to me, especially given Oscar Britton’s character development, was the underdevelopment of the many supporting characters. Fitzy, Sarah, Harlequin, etc. are all one-dimensional characters. They seem to exist primarily to fill a plot role and to push Oscar’s development. This issue unfortunately weakens the book's conclusion as impact is robbed from what should have been satisfying resolutions to various plot threads.

The element that really elevates the book is the thematic push by Myke Cole. It is an issue I found especially resonates with me as a veteran. It is a theme that crops up in Myke Cole’s social media fingerprint as well.
Does the end justify the means? Is the SoC a friend or enemy? Am I doing the honorable thing? All of these questions are what drives Oscar Britton. Oscar’s struggles to answer them is what elevates the book. Whether via Oscar’s encounter with his father, to his rivalry with Harlequin, Control Point is about answering these questions. Scene by scene, Cole fashions encounters meant to force resolution to these questions.

Every time Oscar seems content to let things go, Cole applies the screws via another plot twist. Oscar often does the ‘wrong’ thing in these situations, sometimes to spectacular effect. Other reviews have called Oscar the anti-Mary Sue. It’s hard to argue that point given the competence that Myke Cole’s public persona exudes. Yet, failure is often the best teacher. Oscar’s failures allow Cole to more completely engage the reader by showing them exactly why Oscar failed. If Oscar had simply made the right choice every time, I doubt the book would be as interesting or tense.

I enjoyed Control Point a lot. The book had a number of weaknesses. It also had many strengths. Critically, its strengths relate to Cole’s writing ability. This gives me hope that as the Shadow Ops series progresses, the books will get stronger and stronger as Cole’s experience grows. I can only hope that Cole keeps the thematic elements in place as well. Why? Because when I set the book down, I not only enjoyed it, but it made me think and question. That is valuable and rare and to me, encapsulates the real power of fiction. I would recommend Control Point to any reader.

Ace: Control Point by Myke Cole
Image Source: Myke Cole
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN: 9781101554395

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb is the first book in the Farseer Trilogy published by Voyager. A synopsis of it can be found here. Apprentice, published in 1996, is often cited as a source of inspiration for many modern authors I enjoy. I have not read any of Hobb’s work and thought now would be a good time to fill in such an important gap in my reading. Hobb presents a slow-burning tale that straddles the past and the future of fantasy. I found it enjoyable if occasionally frustrating to read.

The novel centers around Fitz, the bastard son of the heir to the throne. This a classic trope, one that normally leads to the protagonists displaying enormous skill and instantly fitting into the existing social structures. Hobb nips that right in the bud. Fitz is special, but for all the wrong reasons. Fitz is a bastard. His very existence sends his father into exile, which relegates him to a hated outcast by all who should love him. Fitz’s salvation is being noticed by the King, who decides to turn Fitz into a tool--a tool kept under close watch so that none but the King may wield it. In this way, Hobb presages a more modern handling of heros by creating character growth through suffering and adverse conditions.

The highlight of Apprentice is the relationships between characters. Hobb has an almost maniacal focus on character interaction. The result is a complex weave of political brinksmanship, murder, revenge, and greed, centered around a lonely boy wanting nothing more than to fit in. The motivations are all very elemental and very real. Regal’s venality and puff-up sense of self worth is palpable. Burrich’s taciturn nature and loyalty to Chivalry, Fitz’s father, struggle to find balance while raising a child, Fitz, who has turned his life upside down. Lastly, Fitz wants nothing more than to belong. He is given a miserable lot, yet he soldiers on never really knowing why he is destined to suffer so.

Hobb’s pacing has been described by some as plodding. I would describe as it as lingering and bereft of action. Hobb gravitates towards the personal drama of a scene, shunning action and bloodshed. He also has a tendency to linger on each scene which results in a bit more dialogue than perhaps needed. The few scenes of action are short, blunt, and deal more with the horror of the participants than any sense of glorious combat. In this way, Hobb keeps the focus more on the characters and less on the events. The events merely prod the characters along-- a silent conductor to the unfolding drama. Overall, Hobb’s prose has a more stately quality, reflective of earlier fantasy rather than the more kinetic feel of modern fantasy.

The most common source of my frustration with Apprentice is the world building. For all the detailed work devoted to character building, the world of Apprentice feels remarkably sketched in. A lot of the world has an ‘over there’ quality which seems tenebrous. I also found the prose to be frustrating. While very well written, the prose was twee in regard to world building. The descriptions of things-- various mannerisms, cultures, and most importantly names-- were occasionally off-putting.

Overall, I enjoyed Assassin’s Apprentice. I understand why Hobb is so often cited as a source of inspiration. Apprentice is a book with a foot in the past and a foot in the future. The more modern elements of Apprentice are the most enjoyable, while the classical elements feel affected. I look forward to reading the rest of the Farseer Trilogy and to see if Hobb steps more firmly into the future. Assassin’s Apprentice is a good book on its own, but I also recommend that all fans of fantasy read it to understand how much it has influenced the genre.

Memorable Quote:
“Take it all. I would die anyway. And you were always good to me when I was young.”
Voyager: Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb
Image Source: NPR
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN: 9780007374038

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Emperor's Knife by Mazarkis Williams

Emperor’s Knife by Mazarkis Williams is the first book of The Tower and Knife trilogy published by Night Shade Books in the US and Jo Fletcher in the UK. A synopsis can be found here. Knife is a complicated, ambitious, and ultimately successful stand alone novel in a planned trilogy from a first time author. Resonant in Williams' creation are themes of isolation, growth, and destiny with each of the main characters; Sarmin, Eyul, and Masema travel a fascinating path of discovery, both internal and external.

What I found particularly fascinating is how Williams' created three very different characters in Sarmin, Eyul, and Masema and yet links them together through their isolation, sacrifices, and origin stories. The three main characters are different in nearly every way: culture, gender, age, etc. However, each of them shares a crushing sense of isolation and imprisonment. Each share a sense of compassion. Each shares an origin story rooted in the selfishness of others. These common threads allow the reader to see the world from multiple viewpoints, shaded by age, experience, gender, etc. but still keep the reader well-grounded in the narrative. I feel that this structural choice is essential to anchoring the narrative and keeping the complexity of the story within the reader’s grasp.

The growth exhibited by each of the main characters is remarkable within the confines of a single book. While none are children, they are each naive and slaves to their roles. In the course of the narrative, they begin to question these assumptions. Eventually, they break free of their self-imposed shackles and begin to chart their own paths. This narrative arc provides a lot of the tension in the story. It gives Knife a vitality and imbues the characters with a relatable agency.

Another interesting element of the narrative is how Williams' toys with the idea of destiny via the Pattern and social roles. Eyul, Sarmin, and Masema all feel imprisoned by their destiny whether it be the result of tradition, expectations, or the Pattern Master’s machinations that lock them on their perceived pre-ordained path. Yet, it feels like Williams' is thumbing hens nose at common uses and perceptions of destiny-- especially during the sequence where the Pattern Master reveals the grandeur of his design to Sarim, demoralizing him completely. Ultimately, each character's eyes are opened, literally in Eyul’s case, to the fact that they control their own fate.

Lastly, I enjoyed Mazarkis Williams’ voice. Williams’ has a stately and dramatic voice that occasionally veers to the florid. It brings a heaviness to the text that complements the sense of isolation experienced by the main characters. Most impressive however, is how Williams’ is able to alter hens tone appropriately in the dialogue. Eyul’s common tongue isn’t burdened with the more stately voice of the narrator, for example. This contrast provides the text an added layer of texture that I found very pleasant.

I did have some misgivings with the book. Primarily I had issues with Williams’ treatment of women. Nearly every female character is a victim -- usually at the hands of man -- although some, such as Lapella, suffer at the hands of other women. As the text progresses, women becoming increasingly impotent. Amalya’s character arc was particularly irritating in that regard. Sarmin’s relationship with Grada is another sequence I wish had been handled differently. I often wondered while reading the text if that relationship would have worked if Grada had been a man rather than a woman.

While this makes sense culturally in Knife's world, I was frustrated that Williams didn’t provide an exception to create a sense of contrast or demonstrate female agency. This is keenly felt with Masema, who as an outsider, was a logical choice to create a strong, independent female lead. Yet for most of the book, Masema is handed off from one man to the next, intent on bearing this indignity nobly. Only at the end of the book does she begin to show some independence, but she is still bound by her unequal relationship with Sarmin. Hopefully, this changes during the course of the next entry in The Tower and Knife trilogy; I can see the groundwork Williams is laying to strengthen Masema’s character, and I hope this extends to other female characters. However, within the scope of Emperor’s Knife, I felt Williams’ treatment of women to be the novel’s biggest negative.

Emperor’s Knife as a whole is a great read; Mazarkis Williams is an exciting new voice in fantasy. The story is complex and ambitious, but Williams not only manages it -- she pushes it to excellence. Spicing things up is a refreshing, dynamic setting that sets it apart from most recent fantasy releases. At its heart however, Emperor’s Knife explores familiar themes of self worth, friendship, and change. I look forward to the rest of The Tower and Knife series.

Memorable Quotes:
“And Kashim fell silent,...”
“The Pattern Master had made his push, and the tiles were falling.”
“‘I am Carried.’”
Jo Fletcher: The Emperor’s Knife by Mazarkis Williams
Image Source: Jo Fletcher
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN: 9781597803854

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

God's War by Kameron Hurley

God’s War by Kameron Hurley is the first entry in the Bel Dame Apocrypha series published by Night Shade Books. A synopsis can be found here (non-affiliate link). God’s War is a singular and searing story told in an utterly unique voice. God’s War takes place on Umayma-- an inhospitable world inimical to human life. On this unwelcome rock, mankind has plunged itself into unremitting holy war. Using this crucible as her backdrop, Hurley slowly pulls her characters apart and presents them to the reader piece by piece. What is revealed under the nihilistic, cancerous surface is a careful study on the human condition. It is a wonderful, if disjointed, tale.

As God’s War is unremittingly brutal to its character, it is also unapologetically difficult to its readers. Hurley does not coddle the reader with background information or gentle introductions; rather, she opens with a brutal and memorable first line:
“Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.”
From there, it is up to the reader to keep up. Jargon and slang are thrown about by the narrative’s characters that will have no meaning to the reader; the details are only made clear later. While this may be off-putting to some, I found it incredibly refreshing. It makes the opening of the novel direct and straight-to-the-chase. It creates a sense of mystery and forces the reader to come to grips with the narrative on its own terms-- not the reader’s terms.

God’s War also peddles in a number of familiar themes: violence, religion, destiny. While the story is brutal and uncompromising, the influx of such titles in the genre has inured many readers to such things. Yet, Hurley finds a way to get under the reader’s skin, figuratively, by centering the ‘magic’ system on insects. So while readers may have become habituated to the horrors of war, many are still unsettled by bugs. In this way, Hurley gives her story an edge, a sense of otherness, that is increasingly difficult to find.

Hurley’s greatest achievement in her world-building is creating a believable means to deconstruct and tinker with gender roles and social structures. Central to the narrative is the centuries long holy war between Nasheen and Chenja. The societies of Nasheen and Chenja have adapted in face of the brutalities of war. Nasheen has pursued a path of eugenics and forced conscription of women; Chenja embraced polygamy. Each creates societal repercussions. In Nasheen, men become expendable commodities while women become priceless breeding machines and leaders. In Chenja nearly the reverse happens.

Why is this so important? It creates a cognitive dissonance in the reader. Within this mental gap, Hurley thrusts her character development, breaking past stereotypes and cultural norms, and letting the reader experience the heart of the characters. Without this, Nyx could easily have been dismissed as a woman playing the tough guy role. Yet, with the careful world building you have to acknowledge there is no ‘tough guy’. Nyx is something unique to the setting that must be experienced and appreciated on her own terms.

At the heart of God’s War is Nyx-- Hurley has crafted a simply amazing character in her. While the narrative may be disjointed in telling its story, it is perfect for the careful, steady reveal of Nyx’s character. The story of God’s War is distinctly secondary to the experience of discovering Nyx.

Much ink has been spilled in discussing strong characters. What is it that makes a character strong? Too often the response is male-centered due to cultural dictates, and those cultural contagions infect our stories. Hurley has inoculated her story and crafted a response to the question with Nyx. Nyx is a strong character, yet she isn’t physically strong, faster, of special birth, or any other traditional identifiers of “strength.”

Nyx is strong because of her unbending will and desire to control her own destiny. Nyx is a character who stared nihilism in the face and forced it to retreat. Her faith in everything has been broken, beaten, and betrayed. In the face of ultimate rejection, she refused to be a victim and declared ownership of herself. While she may wander, she is not lost.

Providing balance to Nyx, and preventing her from becoming a caricature of the hardboiled anti-hero, is her relationship with Rhys. Via this relationship Hurley humanizes Nyx. What is truly amazing is how Hurley manages this without turning Nyx and Rhys into a sexual relationship. Instead, their relationship is a delicate and ephemeral thing centered on Rhys calming voice, gentle hands, and mannerisms. Scenes where Nyx is paralyzed by fear and indecision, only to be soothed by Rhys reading her to sleep are heart touching.

The only real negative to God’s War is the actual story. It is disjointed at best, insensible at worst. So while there are hints of a larger meta-plot, none of them really make sense until the very end of the book when a few clearer hints are dropped. The narrative frequently jumps around both in time and physical location within the narrative accomplishing little beyond confusing the reader for a few paragraphs. Various side plots crop up concerning the various characters’ back stories but rarely lead anywhere. But, as the opening of God’s War was challenging to the reader, I am hoping the overall plot of the Bel Dame Apocrypha follows the same pattern and becomes clearer in the subsequent novels.

God’s War is amazing. It is a singular and unique read. Kameron Hurley’s voice throbs with a brutal honesty that rocks the reader from scenes of hyper violence, shotgun decapitation, to touching gentleness: Rhys taping Nyx’s hands. In amongst the violence, nihilism, and insanity of Umayma, Hurley skillfully guides the reader along a path to the center of her characters, forcing the reader to question the human condition. God’s War is a success on so many levels; I cannot recommend the book enough.

Memorable Quotes:
"Boys either came home at forty or came home in a bag. No exceptions.
"They were godless women who murdered men and bred like flies."
"He suddenly wanted this strong, capable woman to hold him, Nasheenian or not. He wanted her strength, her certainty."
"I judged myself."
"Nyx went on."
Kobo: God's War by Kameron Hurley (non-affiliate links)
Image Source: Kameron Hurley
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN: 9781597803007

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Goals for 2013

To help motivate myself, I wanted to set a few modest goals for my blog in the coming year.
  • I want to post twenty-five reviews I have written.
  • I want to post five reviews of independent authors.
  • I want to consistently post two reviews a month.
  • I want to consistently post at least three articles per month.
  • I want to cross 450,000 pageviews.
  • I want to perform one author interview.
Out of all of these goals, I am most nervous about performing an author interview. Such a thing is a complete unknown to me so it will be a growth opportunity.

Image Source: WordTipping

Saturday, March 30, 2013

eBook Publishing Part 2: Data, Discoverability, and Diversification

When you look at ebook publishing long enough you realize something curious; Amazon is consistently swimming against the current. When publishers and all other retailers zig, Amazon zags. It is reminiscent of Warren Buffet’s investment moves. In my opinion, Amazon is consistently making the correct moves while publishers and other retailers are making the wrong moves.

Amazon keeps their focus on three core points: data, discoverability, and diversification. All other competitors are routinely missing these points or are simply unable to execute on them. Amazon has done a number of things very well in the ebook space, and I believe that drives not only their market dominance but also sustains it. Publishers in particular need to steal from Amazon’s playbook and not continue their current course of propping up old distribution models, e.g. Pearson’s investment in Barnes and Nobles, or focus on top down editorial curation, e.g. Bookish.

The single most valuable asset publishers possess is their catalog. While I am sure many would argue that their editorial staff is their best asset, it is neither scalable nor unique. What is unique is the publishers huge trove of publishing rights and data found in their catalog. Publishers need to leverage this-- turn it into a platform as Amazon has done with their Kindle platform--and make it an open platform rather than a closed one. In doing so, I think publishers can address, if not solve, the problems of data, discoverability, and diversification.

How would an open platform with a solid API aid the publishers? First, it lets you attack the issue of diversification. At present, ebooks are consolidated down to less than handful of retailers. Amazon is 50-70% of the market with Barnes and Nobles, Apple, Kobo, and Google Play Books divvying up the rest. This shifts all of the power to the retailer. Much ink has been spilled in bemoaning the loss of independent bookstores. An open platform providing access to the treasure trove of catalog data would allow every app developer, social network, etc turn into an independent bookstore on an agency model via in-app purchasing. Much as Amazon provides their Amazon Associates platform to allow everyone to become a reseller, so too can publishers.

By doing so, you provide the entire book ecosystem a solid alternative to Amazon. Publishers can also dictate the terms. The crown jewel would be data sharing. Amazon and others are notoriously picking about sharing data back to publishers. By providing a platform to developers, publishers can also demand access to more data. Better yet, they would have access to highly-specialized data. By allowing open access to a platform API, publishers encourage the organic growth of niche applications and communities and from them highly-detailed data sets. Amazon is currently destroying all competition when it comes to data collection. Amazon Associate links turn every blog into a data collection source. Amazon’s website and purchase history is a massive source of data. Finally, Amazon’s purchase of multiple social networks, including Goodreads, is another source of high-quality data. No one else is even close to Amazon when it comes to data collection. By providing an open platform API, publishers will nurture new sources of high quality data.

What good does all this data do? Data is the key to driving discoverability. Retail is still king when it comes to discoverability. Online retailers have not yet cracked the code to replicating the success of shelves filled with high quality cover art and potent back cover sales copy. Amazon is getting close and is much further ahead than their competition. But, by providing an open platform, publishers can harness the power of the book community. This gives access to data that helps to better market books, but it also harnesses the creativity of countless entrepreneurs as they seek to make money from selling books. So even if publishers don’t crack the code, someone utilizing their platform will. It also fosters a bottom-up editorial system by encouraging niche communities around apps, blogs, etc. These niche communities are the front lines of genre development and critical to understanding where consumers’ tastes are heading.

In my previous article in this series, I highlighted how publishers could embrace ebooks as a new medium not limited by the rules of traditional publishing. In this article, I am attempting to highlight how publishers and retailers need to adapt their business models in the face of the tidal wave of distribution disruption that is the internet. This is the more pressing issue of the two. Amazon has shown that they are the only competitor at present with both the means, desire, and skill to be the market leader. Amazon’s competitors lack the desire (Apple and Google), skill (Barnes and Nobles) and/or means (Kobo) to be a serious competitor. Publishers’ can fight back by taking control of their catalog, fostering a new wave of online independent bookstores, and capitalizing on the flow of data. I think having a strong, diverse marketplace will ultimately be more beneficial to readers than a benevolent dominance from Amazon.

Image Source: AllThingsD

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed is the first book in The Crescent Moon Kingdoms series published by DAW. A synopsis can be found here. Throne is a sword and sorcery tale centered on an unlikely hero-- a sextagenarian holy man in the twilight of his career as a ghul hunter-- Doctor Adoulla Makhslood. The good Doctor’s thoughts of retirement are rudely disrupted when a danger greater than anything he has ever faced threatens his beloved city of Dhamsawaat. Gathering his allies, Doctor Makhslood embarks on a quest to save his city and Kingdom that cradles it.

Throne may be a familiar tale, but Ahmed presents it in an unfamiliar way and with uncanny skill. Doctor Makhslood is a dynamic and endearing character, noble of heart and world weary under the burden of his calling. The Doctor is the engine that drives the narrative, and Ahmed brings him to life through a wonderful mix of dialogue and inner monologue. Yet, most important element of his character development is his interaction with the supporting cast.

Through the supporting cast, the Doctor is truly brought to life. Each of the characters complement the Doctor in some way. Raseed’s youth and naivety is a source of constant irritation to the experienced Doctor. Zamia’s nomadic roots contrasts sharply with Adoulla’s educated and urbane existence. Lastly, Dawood and Litaz’s marriage and companionship reveals a missing element of Doctor Makhslood otherwise full life; it reminds him of what he has sacrificed. Yet for all of their differences, the characters are bound by a desire to do God’s work. Out of this arrangement springs the novel’s wonderful dialogue.

The novel’s antagonists are also presented in a nuanced and complementary manner. Orshado is the primary villain, and he typifies his role beautifully. Orshado is a vile man in both mien and manner. Accentuating his aura of evil is the fact that he does not speak, instead leaving this to his supernatural minion Mouw Awa. Orshado is evil’s evil-- alien in motivation to the masses of humanity. Providing contrast to the simplicity of Orshado are the dueling characters of the Khalif and the Falcon Prince. The Khalif is amoral and selfish; his people suffer under his self-indulgent tyranny. Opposing him is the Falcon Prince. He is a man of the people who is filled with righteous fury-- willing to kill, murder and steal in the name of the greater good.

Ahmed’s world-building in Thone is equally fantastic. To simply call it Arabian would be dismissive and overly reductive. Ahmed has brought to bear a studied knowledge of peoples and cultures stretching from Cordoba to Mumbai. Drawing together these threads of inspiration, Ahmed has woven a tapestry whose milieu is both familiar and unique. The setting also integrates into the dialogue with atypical phraseology such as the useage of Auntie and Uncle. All in all, the world-building is well done and refreshing.

Lastly, you cannot ignore Ahmed’s skillful writing. Throne is impeccably crafted. You can feel the obsessive focus on the characters and the plot. There are few extraneous words and even fewer extraneous passages. The pacing is very uptempo and is never derailed by obnoxious info dumps or side stories. The novel isn’t simply all action either; Ahmed deftly layers questions of duty, honor, sacrifice, and faith within the narrative. Gluing everything together is the wonderful dialogue. Each character speaks with a unique voice-- which is a feat given the diverse cast.

There were a few things I disliked about Throne. My biggest complaint lies with the under-utilization of Zamia. I wish Ahmed would have given her more attention, especially after the attack by Mouw Awa. Instead, too much of her interaction seem to happen off scene. Whereas Raseed had his errand for the crimson quicksilver and his accompaniment of Litaz to Yaseer to add nuance to his character. Without a comparable narrative sequence, I feel that Zamia’s character remains underdeveloped. I am hoping this is fixed in the second novel in The Crescent Moon Kingdoms.

Throne of the Crescent Moon is a brilliant debut novel and a great novel by any standard. Above all, Throne is incredibly well written. Saladin Ahmed presents a familiar tale but makes it his own with an unfamiliar setting and protagonist. In addition, Ahmed elevates the traditional sword and sorcery format by weaving in social observations, moral quandaries  and emotional costs to the story’s characters. Throne of the Crescent Moon is a great novel, and I highly recommend it.

Memorable Quotes:
"Instead of a blissful marriage, he had monstrosities on his mind and a pile of “should haves” pressing down upon his soul."
"No doubt the dervish was twisting himself in knots trying to square the circle of his pious oaths with a young man’s natural reactions, and only half aware he was doing so."
“'Patience, little moon, is a warrior’s virtue,' he would say. 'Your strength alone is not enough. You must have knowledge, too, little rose. And judgment. And, as I say, little emerald, patience.'”
"Matters of state were about hypocrisy as much as anything else."
"Then Doctor Adoulla Makhslood got down on his knees, touched his forehead to the ground, and wept before the woman he would wed."
Image Source: Penguin
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN: 9781101572405

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Blood's Pride by Evie Manieri

Blood’s Pride by Evie Manieri is the first book in The Shattered Kingdoms series published by Tor; a synopsis can be found here. Manieri is an exciting new voice in the fantasy genre-- unafraid to break free from the shackles of rational world building. Instead, Pride is a passionate allegorical tale of romance set against a bloody slave uprising. Pride’s characters must come to terms with their present, the hidden lies of their past and, most importantly, their future.

Eschewing the intensive rational world building that dominates modern fantasy, Manieri opts for a potent allegory to drive Pride’s setting and characters. Some aspects that make little logical sense (such as the Norlander’s chill, the transformative properties of Shadari breast milk, and so forth) are actually potent literary devices. Those expecting a clear and rational fantasy setting may be challenged by that.

Blood’s Pride is centered on the Shadar, a coastal, temperate equatorial region inhabited by the Shadari. The Shadari are enslaved by the Norlanders who come from the frozen North. The South is occupied by the Nomas, who are nomadic desert merchants. The allegory is found within this setting. The Norlanders are bound by tradition and prize purity and control. They are pallid and cold in appearance and mien. The Nomas are free spirited, traveling to and fro with little care to tradition or lineage. They are lively in appearance, ruddy and golden, and their behavior is ebullient and welcoming. The North and South occupy polar-opposite belief systems. Between them are the Shadar, caught between tradition and change just as they are caught between the land and the sea. Conflict is inevitable.

The Norlanders enslave the Shadari both in body and in spirit; they represent the chains of tradition and the past. In the South, a mercenary known as “the Mongrel” promises to deliver the Shadari from enslavement and give them freedom. The Mongrel represents freedom, change and the promise of the future. The Shadari embody the present, torn between the dueling forces of past and future.

Within this allegory, Manieri creates an arresting tale of romance, friendship and family. The Shadari rebellion, so heavy marketed by Tor, is little more than a catalyst for events and fades into the background. The relationships between the characters tell the true story. The three core romances are between Daryan (Shadari) and Isa (Norlander), Eofar (Norlander) and Harotha (Shadari), and Jachad (Nomas) and Meiran (Spoiler). Each relationship is a classic tale of star-crossed lovers, designed to maximize the effect of the allegory. As the story advances, each of the characters must face his or her past and overcome it. Each must navigate and survive the future while clinging to love. And finally, each must decide what future he or she wants. Will the character throw away her past and chart a new course; abandoning her people and responsibility? Or, will she honor her past and endanger their love, so hard won? The tension is captivating.

The most compelling aspect of this struggle are the secrets of the past. Each of the main characters is defined by a great lie that they have told themselves or the ones they love. Whereas the world is an external allegory, the lies are an internal allegory. Each lie is a keystone to the character. It is a secret of the past that defines the present and will determine the future. How the characters struggle and overcome these lies is at the center of the narrative.

A number of fascinating flourishes that hammer home the allegory; primary among them are the various languages. The Norlanders utilize a psychic language that conveys thoughts and emotions. Control over emotions is paramount. The Nomas use a traditional verbal language but can also learn the Norlander language. The Shadari use a verbal language but, for reasons unknown, cannot learn the Norlander language.

This creates a series of intriguing conflicts. The Norlanders hate sound due to their psychic means of speaking. Yet they are forced to speak to their slaves the Shadari, surrendering control and submitting to aural discomfort. The Norlanders are also un-used to expressing their emotions verbally. This creates some neat friction and interplay between the Norlander and Shadari couples.

The differences in body temperature are also fascinating. The Norlanders are cold to the touch while the Shadari and Nomas are hot. The Shadari and Nomas will physically burn and cause pain to the Norlanders if they touch. Yet, by some means, the romantic couples can touch each other. The burning pain becomes passion instead. It’s a neat flourish that really amps up the romantic interplay.

Lastly, it was deeply satisfying to see the realistic cost to relationships-- romantic, familial and fraternal. There are no truly happy endings. Every character pays a price, and Manieri uses the narrative to hammers home the reality and value of love. The small victories are hard won and ever the sweeter. The fleeting moments are treasured; the future is planned. It deepens the narrative in a way that saccharine wording could never attain.

There was not much I disliked about Blood’s Pride. I think the prose had a few uneven spots in wording and structure, but it rarely hurt the story. Given that I am reviewing and ARC, these issues may have already been addressed. My greatest concern is for the remaining installments of The Shattered Kingdoms. So much of my enjoyment depends on the allegorical setting; how will Manieri extend the world, but preserve this potent tool? I think the transition into book two could be difficult. However, that is not a qualified critique of Pride so much as a baseless critique of an unknown future.

Blood’s Pride is such a wonderful book. It is complex and rich and brings to the fantasy genre something sorely missed from a major release: romance and freedom from magical realism. I admire the trust Manieri and Tor must have in fantasy readers to publish such a book. I wish this were a more frequent occurrence. There is much to love about Pride, and I have left a lot undiscussed. I look forward to the remainder of The Shattered Kingdoms series. I highly recommend Blood’s Pride and I fully expect it to be in my best of 2013 list. Blood’s Pride burns with a passion fueled by bold prose and an evocative allegory. Read it.

Memorable Quotes:
"Dramash was waving goodbye."
"There was something on the other side of that burning pain, and she wanted it."
"She felt the screams in her sore and swollen heart and she squeezed that too, burying the treacherous organ under layers after layer of ice so strong that it choked off every pulse; she kept piling it on, letting all of her senses slide away so that nothing -- not the soldiers' embarrassment not Frea's disdain, not the sunlight's piercing rays, not the memory of her mother's screams, not the deadly pull of the city below -- could get near her."
"It wasn't enough that they belonged to each other: he was a king, whether she liked it or not -- and she was afraid she a was already loosing him."
"She opened her fist and let it go."
"<But the water's getting in,> Frea whimpered."
"<Maybe we were both tied to too many other things. Maybe neither of us could let go of the past.>"
"Lahlil looked over her should and into his sea-blue eyes. 'I think I'm happy.'"
Macillan: Blood's Pride by Evie Manieri
Image Source: Mcmillan
Review Copy: Netgalley Digital Galley
ISBN: 978-1-4299-5995-7

Monday, January 28, 2013

eBook Publishing Part 1: The Black Libary

I have often shared my frustrations with the ebook marketplace. Many of them deal with the lack of innovation with the ebook format and the distribution of ebooks. Ebooks are simply shoehorned into traditional publishing models in order to protect the current model or to avoid investing into future models. I think publishers have a golden opportunity to capitalize on this moment of transition, and I am frustrated that they either squandering the opportunity or, in some cases, actively opposing it. In Part 1 of this opinion piece, I want to discuss The Black Library as an example of a publisher who understands the ebook market. In Part 2, I will discuss where I think the ebook market should be heading.

Ebooks provide number of key advantages that I believe are largely ignored. However, there are a few publishers who embrace them and none more so than The Black Library. While I do not think The Black Library is perfect, they are quickly innovating their business model and are moving in the right direction. I think they succeed in a few key areas: leveraging technology, monetizing their IP, and marketing.

The Black Library has clearly embraced technology and the internet. The clearest evidence is their shift to direct sales and the way they own the customer relationship. Not only do they engender loyalty, but they also gain access to customer data. Right now, Amazon and others are notoriously tight-fisted about this data to ensure that their customers are loyal to Amazon first and the publishers a distant second. The Black Library’s access to customer data, buying habits, credit card information, etc. is an invaluable tool for developing new marketing strategies. It also allows quicker access to performance data and helps them to adjust their strategies accordingly.

Technology has allowed the Black Library to become more flexible and experimental with their product offerings. Instead of being limited to standard novels, The Black Library now offers short stories, monthly magazines, audio dramas, and exclusive time-limited, print-on-demand titles. In addition, by shifting to a digital first outlook, their offerings can be quickly repackaged. Short stories that appear in their monthly Hammer and Bolter offering can be re-sold individually or bundled into a coherent collection at a later date.

Perhaps the most aggressive move to embrace technology is by The Black Library’s parent company, Games Workshop. Games Workshop now offers their core rulebooks in the iBook 3 format, creating an extremely convenient interactive and auto-updating product. They also regularly post rule clarifications and updates to their core rulebooks. Normally this would become cumbersome to the customer over time. By embracing technology, Games Workshop has created a better product and a satisfied customer base.

Technology has also provided The Black Library the means to more effectively monetize their intellectual property. After all, everyone wants to get paid for their work. The greatest sin of publishing are the hard price points of hardcovers, trade paperbacks, and mass market paperbacks. I feel that this leaves entirely too much money on the table, and it doesn’t even address the entire available market. Some fans are willing to spend much more money on their products (e.g. collector’s and limited editions) while some fans only have enough money to purchase products at an entry-level point.

The Black Library’s approach has been to create a wide spectrum of goods at multiple price points. At the low end, there are $2-$4 short stories and the monthly subscription to Hammer and Bolter that allows readers to sample new authors and new settings. It also gives collectors another place to spend their money. At the high end, there are The Black Library’s exclusive collector’s editions which sell for $50 or more. In between, there are novellas, ebooks and audio dramas. Even here, prices vary with products such as enhanced ebooks which may contain exclusive artwork or premium formating.

Extending this publishing model even further, The Black Library monetizes non-traditional offerings. For example, they offer fans a way to purchase the excellent cover art commissioned by The Black Library. Instead of giving it away as promotional material or not offering it for sale, The Black Library sells oversized poster formats in digital and physical forms. Another example of their non-traditional offerings are the scripts for their audio dramas. Rather than simply sell an audio product, The Black Library cleans up the scripts and sells them as premium hard cover collectibles.

The Black Library is also brilliant in their use of exclusive content. Most of their catalog is offered on their website several months in advance of other retail partners. These products are sold at full list price. Mixed in are niche products that might not be received well at retail but become exclusive offerings on The Black Library’s website.

All these examples simply highlight how The Black Library works to expand their market and give their biggest fans more ways to spend money by reusing and repackaging the content it has already produced. It creates additional revenue streams and higher profit margins while satisfying their best customers and attracting new ones.

The Black Library is also very savvy in their marketing. In particular, I feel they have avoided the biggest mistake publishers make-- creating a community portal. While the work produced by and Suvudu is first class, it also directly competes with the publishers’ biggest fans. Now, fan-created sites such as Dragonmount and have to vie with the publishers for traffic. While the relationship between these sites and the publisher may be cordial, their visitors’ time isn’t infinite and the competition can negatively affect ad revenue.

Instead, The Black Library has made their website dedicated selling product rather than hosting a community. This enables The Black Library to focus more on their books, rather than creating editorial content or community features that might not translate into sales. The Black Library engages and encourages their fandom by promoting reviews and coverage that are already being produced by fans.

The Black Library has also been innovative in creating ways to entice customers to return to their website. One means of doing this is the top-notch newsletters they produce. Not content to send simple text-based missives, they instead sends a newsletter that is well-formatted, informative, and full of great artwork. The Black Library is also careful not to flood your mailbox by carefully coordinating their marketing campaigns. The campaigns are varied, but they have a few staples such as ebook Mondays when they release new short stories. More complex campaigns are carried out during the holidays. For example, during the Advent Calendar event, a new short story is released every day leading up to Christmas. All of these events help drive traffic to their site.

The Black Library is also successful with their targeted campaigns in preparation for big releases (e.g. a new Horus Heresy novel). But their best work is reserved for their exclusive collector’s editions. During the build up to a release date, The Black Library will preview new artwork, interviews, and video trailers. While none of this is particularly shocking or revolutionary, the overall quality of their marketing is so impressive that it is effective at generating interest.

The surprising aspect of this marketing is that it continues after the sale of the book. With the time-limited collectibles, there can be up to eight weeks between the order date and delivery date. The Black Library wisely finds a way to engage the customer in this window of time by sending out status updates on the production process, wallpapers, story excerpts, etc. All of these updates not only keep the customer excited while they wait for the arrival of their order, but they also keep the customer returning to the site and generating traffic.

The Black Library’s marketing success isn’t limited to great newsletters, smart marketing, or promoting web traffic either. They are great at branding their product lines. While there is a clear distinction between Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40,000, these two categories are still rather broad. The Black Library wisely breaks them down even further-- particularly with Warhammer 40,000K. In this universe, they have grouped titles under series titles such as The Horus Heresy, Space Marines Battles, and Lords of the Space Marines. Within each of these categories, The Black Library maintains a specific tone and subject matter. In this way, they provides a neat structure to their catalog, allowing their customers to more easily find what they want.

Wrapping everything up in a tidy bow is The Black Library’s website. It is easy to navigate, great to look at, and updated frequently. The Black Library doesn’t have much of an option in this regard; by engaging in direct sales with the customer, their website has to be top notch. Frustration would mean lost sales. It seems like common sense that locating a product and buying it should be a seamless process, but at many publishers’ websites, this simply isn’t so. The Black Library nails it.

The Black Library isn’t perfect but they are clearly working hard at it. They are leveraging technology to engage their audience with a variety of efficiently produced products. They find creative ways to monetize all aspects of their intellectual property, allowing them to be more creative and adventurous in their catalog. Finally, they engage in high-quality marketing by drawing their customers in and keeping them. The Black Library trusts their customers, providing DRM-free ebooks and a pragmatic, easy-to-read usage license.

Overall, The Black Library has been most successful at increasing the value of their product. While publishers routinely bemoan the devaluing of books due to self-publishing and ebooks, The Black Library has managed to not only hold the line, but to actually advance. They give nothing away. I think there is something that other publishers can learn from The Black Library and their methods. I am very excited to see how they continue to evolve in the coming years. In the meantime, I will continue to buy their books -- direct.

In Part 2 of this series, I will discuss what I envision as the future of selling ebooks.

Image Source: The Black Library

Monday, January 14, 2013

Thief's Covenant by Ari Marmell

Thief’s Covenant by Ari Marmell is the first book in the Widdershins Adventure series published by Pyr. Covenant is presented in an interesting dual narrative with an irreverent tone that softens the darker elements of the story. Marmell’s character, Adrienne Satti (a.k.a. Widdershins), is an interesting and fun character with a love of snark and sarcasm. Marmell’s emphasis on humor occasionally threatens to derail the story but rarely crosses the line.

Covenant is the origin story of the novel’s protagonist, Adrienne Satti-- a young woman whose early life is very much a roller coaster. By the time of the story’s introduction, she has lost her parents, survived as a street urchin, adopted by a noble, framed for murder, and become a thief. When she becomes a thief, Adrienne adopts the name Widdershins to leave her past behind, or so she thinks. The murder is the central mystery of the story and her primary agency.

The narrative itself is composed of two linear storylines. The primary thread is set in the present, and the secondary thread starts in the past. The primary thread begins with the gruesome murder of a secret religious cult’s followers; Adrienne Satti is a member and the only survivor. The secondary thread begins with the death of Adrienne’s parents. It is interesting that Marmell chooses to begin both threads with murder because both tragedies cause Adrienne to be reborn from the destruction of her old life. This narrative element also foreshadows the novel’s end.

Marmell executes Covenant’s the novel’s structure with great success. The parallel nature of the story helps break up the narrative. By alternating between threads, Marmell creates a nice ebb and flow to the story and keeps the pacing brisk. It also provides a means to develop Widdershins’ character quickly. Widdershins is an assumed identity meant to hide her past and her life as Adrienne Satti. It also hides her from the reader. The second thread, set in Widdershins’ past, reveals the girl hiding behind the mask of Widdershins. In this way, Marmell is able to neatly reveal the whole character to the reader.

The most interesting aspect of the narrative is how it places the slaughter of the cult at the center of the story. Widdershins’ tried to flee and hide from these events, but her past will not stay hidden and catches up to her. In the present, Widdershins is drawn into a conspiracy-- one that she discovers is somehow linked to the opening massacre. During the flashback sequences, the links between the two are slowly revealed. By the novel's end, she solves the present day mystery and also comes to understand why her cult was murdered. In this way, Adrienne as a character is made whole again. Structurally, the novel resembles an Ouroboros.

Widdershins is a fun character, which is a good thing since the narrative revolves around her. Her life has been one of constant upheaval, and she has had to largely rely on her own skill and cunning. It also means she has been alone. As a result, Widdershins is a brilliant thief who has poor interpersonal skills and uses sarcasm to keep people at arm’s length. Widdershins is a wonderful and complex character who is easy to cheer.

Providing balance to Widdershins character is the god Olgun, who was the focus of her cult’s worship. When his followers were slaughtered, Olgun hid inside Widdershins. So, while Widdershins may be bereft of human companionship, she has a god hiding in her head. Olgun helps protect Widdershins and lends her a hand during her thieving activities. The most important function of Olgun is to be Widdershins’ friend and conversation partner.

The pairing of Widdershins and Olgun is important because it allows the narrative to have dialogue when it otherwise would not. When Widdershins is alone, she can maintain a running conversation with Olgun. This allows Marmell to explore the environment, crack jokes, and advance the narrative without a lot of awkward inner monologue from Widdershins. The humor would have been very difficult to pull off without making Widdershins appear as an unhinged sociopath constantly cracking jokes to herself.

The humor in Covenant is a two-edged sword and an area where Marmell occasionally stumbles. It functions best when it is irreverent and droll, helping to soften the dark imagery and topics. Covenant’s humor is at its weakest when it veers too sharply toward slapstick or the author’s voice intrudes too much with the sarcastic observations. When this happens, it threatens to trivialize the narrative and break the reader’s sense of immersion. The humor is generally spot on and is one of Covenant’s defining qualities, but the sarcasm may make it off-putting to some readers.

Widdershins was a wonderfully developed character, but some of the secondary characters were lacking. Most of this can be attributed to word count and a worldview where Widdershins dominates the story. As a result, the supporting cast was underdeveloped. Thief Henri Roubet and guardsman Julien Bouniard particularly suffered from underdevelopment. They were interesting and had potential but struggled to break away from basic stereotypes. I look forward to seeing how they develop throughout the series. Yet the character that frustrated me the most was Widdershins’ friend, Genevieve. Ultimately, she felt like little more than a plot device to help wrap up the novel’s ending.

The greatest weakness of Covenant was the beginning. Covenant is an origin story, and a lot of time was spent establishing the setting and characters. As a result, it was not until the middle part of the novel that the story starts to take off. That is not to say the first half is slow or boring; it just doesn't have an apparent direction. Things are happening but there doesn't seem to be a reason. Some readers may find this frustrating. By the second half of the novel, the narrative gained significant momentum and became especially gripping. I hope that this momentum continues into the subsequent Widdershins Adventure novels.

There is a lot to like about Thief’s Covenant. It is a great story that that is well told with a solid sense of humor. Widdershins is a wonderful character with a well- balanced blend of capability and vulnerability. The setting and supporting characters, while a bit flat, have great potential as the series progresses. If you don’t mind the humor and have the patience for the slow start, Thief’s Covenant is a great read that I can easily recommend to all fans of fantasy.

Memorable Quotes:
"'Oh, what?' 'Figs.' 'That's my girl.' The door clicked shut."
"Julien's frown grew even deeper, a feat of true muscle contortion that threatened to flip his entire face upside down on the front of his head."
"The sound of tiny splinters being gouged from the wood snuck through the chamber and went to go lurk in the corner, where it occasionally bounced back at them as an echo."
"'That doesn't remotely alter the fact that I think you're mad as a syphilitic hatter.'"
"'I intend to drug you, and force you to be my guide.'"
Pyr: Thief's Covenant by Ari Marmell
Image Source: Pyr
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN: 978-1-61614-547-7

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Favorite Reads of 2012

I read thirty two novels in the fantasy and science fiction genres in 2012. It is not a huge pool to select from and not all of the novels were published in 2012, hence the "read in" and not "released in." That said, I did read a few novels that I feel stand out from the rest.

Top 3:

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence was my clear favorite for 2012. There was a lot of like about this book but eventually all discussion leads back to the polarizing central character, Jorg. Simply put, he makes or breaks the book for most readers. If you like Mark Lawrence’s vision for Jorg, then the rest of the book will fall into place, providing a gripping and entertaining read. Read my review here: Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence.

Scourge of the Betrayer by Jeff Salyards is the most unexpected entry on this list. His book came out of left field as I was neither familiar with Salyards nor his publisher Night Shade Books. To find such an unexpected gem is a real treat. Salyards presents a ribald tale of military fantasy with great dialog and smart characterization. Read my review here: Scourge of the Betrayer by Jeff Salyards.

Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan is a throwback to classic adventure fantasy; a vanishing genre often relegated to self published works. Sullivan’s novel follows the adventures of the odd couple duo, Royce and Hadrian, as they are drawn into a conspiracy of massive proportions. The plot is full of twists and turns. The dialog is engaging. Royce and Hadrian are memorable and fun. Read my review here: Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan.
Honorable Mention:

Fulgrim by Graham McNeill is an honorable mention as it is the best entry I have read thus far in the Horus Heresy series. McNeill presents the clearest and most compelling narrative yet on the fall of a Space Marine Legion. While Horus’ fall was largely driven by ego, Fulgrim was based on his insecurities which presented a much more personal story. Read my review here: Fulgrim by Graham McNeill.

Penguin: Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
Image Source: Harper Collins
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 978-0441020324

Night Shade Books: Scourge of the Betrayer by Jeff Salyards
Image Source: Night Shade Books
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN: 9781597804073

Hachette: Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan
Image Source: Hachette
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 9780316200714

The Black Library: Fulgrim by Graham McNeill
Image Source: The Black Library
Review Copy: Self purchased mass market paperback
ISBN-13: 9781849703383

Friday, January 4, 2013

2012 in Review

The year 2012 was a big year for my blog. I posted more consistently and saw a lot more traffic as a result. I was excited to pass 250,000 page views, and I narrowly missed hitting 300,000.

Yet there are other reasons why it was a big year for my blog. Early in 2012, I was in a funk, and I was not exactly sure what I wanted to do with my blog. It had been a bit of a hobby since 2008, but it lacked direction. I stopped posting for awhile so I could decide what to do.

After some time, I realized that I wanted to keep blogging but to narrow my focus. Part of my problem was that I was trying to do too many different things. Over the course of the year, I made a number of strategic changes to the blog.

First, I decided I wanted to focus solely on long-“ish” form articles. Specifically I wanted to write 1,000 word reviews and opinions. I felt that re-blogging had become a distraction and was cluttering my blog. Worse, re-blogging buried the most valuable content I produce: reviews. To facilitate this new focus, I deleted all of the short-form articles. I decided that Twitter and Google+ posts were better suited for any shorter form content.

Second, I wanted my blog to be more professional. I identified a few key areas of my blog to improve. I decided to remove all ads, “associate” links, properly source images and review copies. I also decided to provide credible links and develop a consistent style.

Over the course of approximately six months I have accomplished these goals. I went through each post and removed all ads and Amazon Associate links. This was the first task I approached, as I wanted to remove any potential conflict of interest. I also wanted to remove any desire to produce “link bait” traffic for monetary gain.

I thought it would be important to properly source images and review copies. As a result, I went through every post and added a link to the original image source. If I could not locate the original source, I removed the image and replaced it with one I could source. As much as possible, I have tried to use the art supplied by publishers via their websites. I have also identified in each of my reviews the source of my review copies. The majority are self-purchased, but I do have a few ARCs I have received from various sources.

If you follow my Twitter or Google+ accounts, you will be aware I have been critical of publishers. In order to bring my blog in line with my criticisms, I felt that I needed to provide credible links for each of my reviews. To meet this goal, I removed all links to Amazon. Instead, I have provided links to the appropriate product listing on the US publishers’ websites. I feel this satisfies two goals: it drives traffic to the publisher, and provides my readers multiple options for acquiring a copy of the book. In both cases, I receive no monetary compensation.

Lastly, I wanted to develop a more consistent style. To do this, I wrote out a “business” plan for my blog. I detailed out my tag structure, image editing style, where I post my reviews, my review format, and a few other details. Each time I post, I check against this plan and verify I am meeting it.

I am happy with the end result. I think my blog is better now that I have met my goals. It is more professional in appearance and, hopefully, useful to my readers.

Image Source: WordTipping