Friday 29 September 2017

Five More Books

Since people seemed to like reading a lot of short reviews, I'm giving the format another spin. This time the theme is modern fairy tales and Urban Fantasy - an unfair pairing, as the two have some distinct differences in terms of how well the protagonist can understand and face up directly to the legendary beings they face. I sometimes think fairy tales belong more in Horror than in Fantasy while UF is about coldcocking Horror and stealing its stuff. But hey, they're here together today. That's TGIF logic right there.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I doubt there’s too many out there still unaware of this book. A story of two young magicians, manipulating a circus of the incredible as part of a competition neither truly understands, it’s won a lot of awards and praise since being published in 2011. But maybe there’s a few on the fence, or who have forgotten the book and need their memory jogged, and will enjoy it if they take the plunge.

It is certainly incredibly enjoyable in places. The Night Circus rings with the simple power of the fairy tale and is told with an aesthete’s eye. The result are some genuinely wondrous and moving scenes, with the interactions of the two magicians with their mentors frequently hitting home. The natural comparison is with Gaiman and, with the exception of the fact that I prefer Gaiman’s ideas, Morgenstern stands well to the comparison. Its a shame she hasn’t published again.

Unfortunately  The Night Circus doesn’t always deliver on its promise; probably a result of shoving in twenty odd years and gods know how many plot arcs into a single book. Readers who want to see tight plotting may find this ruining their enjoyment of the book and so too might readers who want to get really deep in characters’ minds. But - despite loving both of those things - I liked the Night Circus a great deal. Its reputation is thoroughly deserved.

Waters And The Wild by Jo Zebedee

Good fairy tales provoke a sense of the unbelievable. Great fairy tales do so while being heavily rooted in human experience and emotions and if there’s one thing Zebedee brings to every book, it is a close look at the way people react to weighty events. In this case, the person is Amy, and the event is the fairies desire to steal her away back to their realm. Maybe.

The real stars of the show though are Amy’s family, each of them bearing the scars of Amy’s troubled childhood. Going through trauma is hard, but at least there’s some measure of control when you’re the person doing it, and in some ways its a lot harder to watch someone go through it, wishing there was something truly effective you could do. Waters And The Wild is at its best when it captures that feeling.

Plenty of the book is dedicated to Amy though as she travels through the wild Antrim glens and her own sanity alike. It is the perfect counter-balance to the scenes of ruined domesticity, by turns uneasy and enthralling, tied together by a brooding sense of place. If this book doesn’t work for you as a story, its got some legs as a travel guide. But I’m pretty sure most people will.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, Mike Carey, Glenn Fabry

Yup, that by list means this is a review of the comic rather than the book. I’ve yet to read the book but, in truth, I can’t really imagine doing so because the comic seems to be the perfect media format for this story. Neverwhere is the tale of Richard Mayhew, an ordinary unhappy businessman who one day discovers the bloodied body of Lady Door, a denizen of the fantastic London Below, and gets sucked into her quest for revenge.

Most of the story is set in London Below, a baroque-punk allegory of London, and Fabry’s portrayal of this realm is a solid half of why I love Neverwhere. His artwork does an awesome job of evoking that mix of unreality and human experience all in one. Props too, of course, to Gaiman for coming up with the initial idea. This is very much a typical Gaiman story - almost painfully ordinary reality taking a ninety degree turn straight into the heart of human mythos. 

Arguably this contains the typical flaws of a Gaiman story too - a passive protagonist and a certain amount of style over substance. These weren’t dealbreakers for me though; the characters are too charming and the style too vivid for that. And there is substance here too, in the way the characters process their losses. Neverwhere rarely seems to be the go to Gaiman recommendation, but right now, I feel maybe it should be.

The Black Alchemist by Andrew Collins

Okay, this is technically a true story rather than fiction, or at least its sold as one. And this does rather affect the writing of the book, which doesn’t have a slick plot and features clinical journalistic prose, but is able to take liberties with the oddities of character motivation. But it is a story, and it is urban fantasy. The two main protagonists drive around the countryside, drinking, smoking, and discovering evil occult secrets.

It also has something of the air of fairy tale in that neither truly comprehends what they are dealing with for much of the story. There’s something eerie about the picture of these two blokes, drinking their Guinness, trying to tune out the Hen Party at the bar, and wondering what the symbols on the spearhead means. There’s something very gripping too - this book is a better mystery than most stories intended to be one.

The book ends on something of a dull note for me - the ultimate sign that this is meant to be real life and not a fictional creation - but this doesn’t spoil a compelling ride. I often wish UF was more rooted in the real world than in Fantasy; this book is a fine antidote for that. If anyone reading this has some fictional recommendations that ape this sort of thing, by all means let me have them - I’d like to believe this subtler approach to fantasy could be every inch as successful as Dresden throwing fireballs.

Bedlam’s Bards series by Mercedes Lackey, Ellen Guon and Rosemary Edgehill

Everyone talks about remembering the first; well, Spirits White as Lightning was the first UF I read but I’m fairly this recommendation is more than nostalgic bias. I rarely see people talk about Lackey these days, which seems extraordinary for a writer who owned a ton of bookshop space when I was a kid. Maybe its because her adhesion to Good conquering Evil - if Noblebright means anything, it should mean Lackey - is out of fashion. Or maybe there’s not enough necking with vampires.

Either way, these books should be in fashion. Covering mainly the life of Eric Banyon, former child music prodigy who gets sucked into a war between the Sidhe and ends up becoming a magical Bard, these are good old fashioned romps where corporate money and old magic do dastardly things until the heroes step away from their soap operas and take one for the team. Lackey does this formula as well as anyone and unlike a lot of current names, does it without two extra spoonfuls of machismo. I love machismo, but I do also believe in a balanced diet.

Sadly, for a series recommendation, the first books are the most confused of the lot for my money - which might be another reason Badlam’s Bards goes unappreciated. It picks up a lot when Edgehill takes over from Guon as Lackey's co-author. But then there’s plenty out there where fans admit the first few books or so aren’t the best and its not like you can’t dip right into the middle of the series as I did - the books are semi-episodic to support that. Either way, worth a look for anyone short of a good UF.

Saturday 23 September 2017

Carpe Jugulum by Sir Terry Pratchett

(Warning - here be spoilers, mainly starting about seven paragraphs down)

There’s many things you can do when press-ganged into service by rogue germs as a snot factory, but one of the most sensible is to re-read an old and beloved favourite. It was with these thoughts in mind I picked up Carpe Jugulum and found myself doing far more thinking that I’d originally intended.

This is because Carpe Jugulum is a book about choices, power and wrong.

Its about a lot of other things too, not least of which is the actual story. But right at the heart of it, pumping through every vein, is that trinity. I'll be honest now. This is half-review, half half-baked mini-essay about the way Pratchett deals with these themes. I'll do the mostly review bit first but make no mistake - the use of theme here is as tight and deep as any of the works they made me study in school, and its about ten times more entertaining to boot.

Anyways. The story itself starts with a number of births in the mountain 'kingdom' of Lancre, a small and old-fashioned place populated by stolid rural folk and witches. It also has King Verence and Magrat, the ex-jester and ex-witch convinced by the need for modernity, which in this case manifests itself in inviting the vampiric de Magpyr family to their daughter's naming. Which worries the witches Agnes Nitt and Nanny Ogg no end, when they're not busy worrying about the Omnian priest Mightily Oats and the whereabouts of Granny Weatherwax.

Granny Weatherwax herself is busy at another far more humble birth and fretting about whether her time is done. After all, if Magrat's a mother, what does that mean for the traditional ordering of Maiden, Mother and the Other One? Meanwhile in the forests there's a third birth as Hodgesaargh the falconer tries his hand at catching an allegory.

Pratchett takes his time in introducing and establishing these different aspects of the story - not slow, per se, just not fast either - before they start to collide together. From there the plot moves briskly despite - or maybe because of -  the number of multiple strands involved. We are constantly cutting from conflict to conflict the moment one has reached a natural pause and while there's none of the mystery or twists that typify so many of the Discworld books, the result is a more action packed narrative, insofar as one considers arguing as action.

Personally I very much do, particularly with characters like these. One of Pratchett's greatest enduring qualities as a writer was the power of observation, particularly when it came to noting what words and actions could be used to suggest the most about a character. They're archetypes and individuals at the same time; Pratchett's characters are my favourite in the whole genre. Its hugely entertaining watching them snarl their anger out at each other, particularly given Pratchett's gifts as a humourist. I would add though that this book is more drama than comedy; a clash between the flawed proponents of two differing philosophies, filled with loud arguments, subtle magic and lots and lots of horror movie tropes. The laughs are just gravy here.

(Mild spoilers imminent, although I'm trying to pussyfoot my way around).

If Pratchett's characters are my favourite in the whole genre, then Granny Weatherwax is possibly my favourite of Pratchett's. People cry out for female antiheroes; well, here one is. Maybe she is a bit too heroic for some, but the majority of her motivations and actions are very much of the wicked witch. Just she's one who won't let herself be bad. I love that contradiction, not to mention the way she gets so many good lines. And this is her finest hour. Never before is the difference between the tired doubting woman and the implacable force the rest of the world sees so examined. Never before is her magic quite so damned impressive. And never before does she get Mightily Oats as a sidekick.

He's not quite as fun as Nanny Ogg as company for Granny goes, but he is a better study in opposites. The young Oats finds himself unable to choose between anything and believes judging is best left to Om; Granny has spent her entire life choosing for others and knows that judging is human. What's more, where Nanny tends to go along with Granny's desires until she feels the need to ignore them, Mightily argues with her every step of the way. He constantly goes along with her though; he needs to do the right thing and he believes that Granny needs his aid, even if she will never, ever admit it out loud.

Which is in itself a manifestation of Granny's power. She knows her man here and what buttons to press. As long as she is weak, the priest feels compelled to help her. There's nothing unfeigned about Granny's weakness here, but she does understand how to turn it into power here. And Oats begins to understand how he can get Granny to accept his help by in turn presenting himself as the weak one. There is no power if one person is not weaker than the other, but power is not absolute and seeming weakness can in fact be the strength of commanding obligation, something also explored in Agnes' relationship with Vlad de Magpyr.

The de Magpyrs, of course, do not seem to understand such things. For them power comes through dominance, not limitation, as illustrated by their rejection of the old Count's sporting attitude to being hunted by angry mobs. And Count de Magpyr - the old Count's nephew, for those finding it unclear - craves power. He dresses it up in terms of progress and indeed he can show progress in terms of less random violence and civic work in his own homeland, but he is clearly no philanthropist. He seeks power by immunizing himself to a vampire's traditional weaknesses, and forces his children to do the same. Indeed, Count de Magpyr's attitude to choice can be perfectly seen in how little he allows for his children; as little as possible.

Which both conflicts and coincides with the witches' views of things. You only need to listen to Nanny Ogg commanding her numerous clan to show up for 'spontaneous' mob duty to see just how comfortable they can be with choosing for others. Yet we know from Granny's thoughts just how uncomfortable they can be too, and its clear that Nanny doesn't particularly enjoy having to take up Granny's leadership role either. Perhaps it is fair to say that witches believe in choosing for others when needed and not when not.

It seems a wise arrangement, but how do you trust someone to judge when that's needed without being tainted by self interest? As Magrat notes, some of Nanny's actions are definitely in her own interest. So much depends on the person chosen - or who chooses - to undertake that role. Granny's admonition "Don't trust the cannibal just because he's using a knife and fork" seems very stark here. For the system to work, humanity has to avoid picking its own monsters. Its very easy to see why the Omnian Church, tainted by its excesses of conviction back in Small Gods, finds it safer to argue among itself.

This probably isn't Pratchett's own favoured idea though. He presents a number of different viewpoints here but its hard to escape the idea he agrees most here with Granny Weatherwax, particularly when she declaims that "Sin is when you treat other people as things". The image of people and communities as dehumanised commodities is one he uses in a number of his books and never without total condemnation. There's an echo of this in Vlad's pursuit of Agnes - he is attracted to her not as a person, but as a thing he cannot understand; Agnes rejects him when she fully understands just how much the de Magpyrs treat other people as things.

I have to admit to a certain limited sympathy with the Count de Magpyr. Don't get me wrong - he's an arrogant elitist shit to put it kindly. But he's hardly alone there. That the ways of the old Count are romanticised while we hiss at the new Count because its by arrangement seems unfair. Most things that make civilisation are by arrangement and, while civilisation has its share of evil things, it beats the alternative. Of course, civilisation - usually - asks you first. But the new Count did. And the old Count doesn't. As already noted, the ways of the vampires and the way of the witches aren't that dissimilar either.

They are different of course. That much is made clear in Granny's speech on addiction. Witches will wield power because they have to. Vampires do it because they're addicted to it. Yet power corrupts and at some point, power can and will catch up to you (as Granny's own thoughts in numerous of the books makes clear). How much of a difference does their starting points make when the journeys lead them on similar paths? In this book, a lot. In general, maybe not so much. Incidentally, this book is quite striking in terms of addiction in its own right, or at least according to a recovering addict I know. I wish I had time and knowledge to speak of this, but this post is getting ridiculous is, so back to the Count.

He is also the invader and aggressor here, which counts heavily against him in this instance or not in a comparison of systems. Or does it? Does his system, his lack of regard for the individual, make him more likely to be an aggressor? Possible. Besides, the Nac Mac Feegle are also invaders, and their presence is calmly accepted. Why? Part of that - the majority maybe - is that the Nac Mac Feegle can help with the Vampires. But to a certain extent, it also seems to be that Nanny Ogg likes them and dislikes Vampires. Possibly  because the Nac Mac Feegle don't expect anything from you while Vampires demand your obedience. Which isn't a completely unreasonable reason for basing your likes on but not maybe not wholly reasonable either.

If these questions weren't here, the book wouldn't be nearly as interesting. If choices were never questioned, if they always satisfied everyone, they wouldn't be choices at all. Exploring the idea that Pratchett's own biases affect the choices made and the presentation of them doesn't invalidate what Pratchett is saying in general. But it does show what may be considered the weakness in laying the stress of moral choice on the individual's judgement. What happens when a harmful person goes about their business with the sure belief only their choice matters?

We live in a world where right now a lot of people seem to believe that only their moral choice matters and that is licence enough to do great violence, both metaphorical and literal. Respect for external moral codes - such as the law, or human decency, or the debates of the Church of Om - seem very low. I think of Grant Morrison's The Invisibles and it stress on the idea that we are all human beings and that violence stains all equally, and I think that maybe we need more of this spirit than Pratchett's judging right now. Certainly, I think we need more of the spirit shown by the following exchange:

King Mob: D'you think we can stop bastards like us telling everybody how to live their lives - without killing them?
Jack: You just gotta make friends with 'em. 

But at the same time, if we're just trying to make friends with them, we run the risk of the cannibal running wild. We run the risk of sitting there and debating endlessly instead of going out there and making a great light in the darkness. There is a time for prayer and a time for axes, and you know that if you sit there and mind your manners someone else will seize the day. Or your throat. And as Pratchett makes it clear, there's nothing good or sane about simply giving into someone else's ordering of your life. Or, to borrow another quote from the Invisibles:

Jack: My mate Elfayed told me something when I was little and wanking about twenty times a day: "We made gods and jailers because we felt small and alone," he said. "We let them try us and judge us and, like lambs to the slaughter, we allowed ourselves to be... sentenced. See! Now! Our sentence is up."

Carpe Jugulum ends with a relief of sentence for the people of Lancre and Escrow all thanks to people waking up and judging. And at the end, for all her doubts and earlier words about fire and belief, Granny ends up choosing with mercy. And that's what I reckon we should do - choose to judge people as people, and judge them with mercy without trusting the cannibal.

Also, if in doubt, read a good book. On the very off-chance anyone who hasn't read this before had read all the way to the end - this is one of the best.

Friday 15 September 2017

Five Books I haven't Mentioned Before

I've currently got a cold and am therefore running on even less brainpower than usual so I can't come up with anything particularly thought provoking. So I thought I'd talk about a bunch of books I like and reckon more people should like yeah. So here we go.

1)  Angel's Truth by AJ Grimmelhaus

The reason you want to read this book is that its an old school fantasy adventure with a lot of charm. Its like going down your local and watching a really tight covers band kick out a bunch of your favourite 80s tracks. You mightn't feel enrichened afterwards, but my god you had fun.

The story is about a young man named Tol with a weighty heritage who has to run for it, precious secret in tow, when the forces of evil wreck his young life. Yes, that does sound very familiar. Partly that's because I'm trying to avoid spoilers and thereby reducing things to very bare bones. But it is very familiar. 

What makes it work though is the characters and their dynamics. They're likeable. There's just the right ratios of snark to nobility, boneheaded loyalty to genuine sense. The world too has just enough little details to feel mainly fresh, with the representation of the angels being particularly enjoyable. And that's the right word for this book. Enjoyable. Anyone wanting to simply escape into a familiar world of adventure should check in righ here.

2) Heart of Granite by James Barclay

From one light-hearted adventure with just enough heft to work to another - but there's nothing familiar about Heart of Granite. That is, unless you read a lot of Science-Fantasy books in which alien DNA is used to replace fighter jets with dragons and make mahossive dinosaur like things as massive moving fortresses. I don't, but maybe I should.

Anyway, the book centres around Max Halloran, a flippantly arrogant fighter jock who's the best there is at what he does, which is mainly get into trouble. In this particular case, the trouble is a secret about the true nature of things, which is wise as all the best Military stories covers the enemies within that they can't shoot as well as the poor bastards who are merely on the wrong side.

The result is some particularly nice character development. Max will never stop being a Snark Commander of the Honourable Order of Jackasses but the threats to his deeper emotional connections brings out the best of him. And that's what gives this book the heft needed to make it the perfect popcorn fantasy.

3) The Horse Lord by Peter Morwood

Now this is an old book. I found it in a second hand book shop on the Isle of Wight and have never quite forgotten. Its the story of a young warrior called Aldric whose family and birthright is destroyed by a dastardly sorcerer, and who has to go to some rather extreme measures to get restitution. 

The thing I've always liked about this book - other than it being highly enjoyable - is that Aldric has a fairly plausible feeling of a young man who has been brought up to believe violence is a very acceptable answer to a lot of problems. One of the things that I've often thought goes missing in a lot of fantasies is we see all these warrior societies but nobody really delves into what that entails. I mean, good grief, most people I know who've been to an all boys school have a more accepting attitude to casual fisticuffs as a solution than a lot of fantasy heroes.

Anyway, I digress. Its a fun adventure with some spectecular set-pieces, intriguing set characters, and a very cool foster-filial relationship between Aldric and one of the characters. The whole parental or near-parental thing is one of the relationships fantasy sometimes misses out on. A series I should really finish some day.

4) The Woven Ring by MD Presley

Its funny how some books grow on you. When I first read this book, I found the prose a little too stiff to fall in love with. But the story has stuck in my mind. There is a certain quality which reminds me of the Korean film Oldboy, the way moss grows on a wooden block that has got wet. It is the story of a life being ruined for no ostensible reason, and the revenge and redemption that follows.

The setting builds loosely on the American Civil War and features a spy and magician (I use that term very, very loosely) named Marta, stuck down on her luck when given one simple seeming job. The job is - surprise! - not that simple and lands her with a small and very motley crew. Some fantasy adventuring groups are fun because of the banter and the way they bounce off each other. Some are fun because of the way they splat on each other, like a flightless bird shoved out of a second floor window.

I tend to prefer the former but the latter often stick longer in the memory. As has happened here. For those who prefer to look at the more abrasive - but still sympathetic - characters, the Woven Ring would be a fine place to go.

5) The Ninth Rain by Jen Williams

I should have said at the start of the article that these are all fun adventure books.  That's certainly what this is. It features an ensemble cast, but main billing probably goes to Vintage, a middle aged explorer and scholar who takes an affectionately vexed view on the world. Some characters I would pay simply to hear about their everyday life in their own words; Vintage may well be one of them.

The story - actually I am far too braindead right now to describe the story without going into spoiler territories. After a peek at the Goodreads blurb, I feel safe telling you that there's some bad muddafuddas returning to the world and our poor heroes end up right in the firing line. The book has been described as Epic Fantasy by the author, but to me its got a modern Sword & Sorcery feeling to it; go to interesting places, wonder what the hell was wrong with the people who made the things you found there, escape with your lives. Almost horror without the powerlessness. There's an appealingly effed up sense to the magic too which reminds me of S&S.

So that's what The Ninth Rain is. Your favourite mad auntie going adventuring in a baroque Sword & Sorcery world with a sexy vampire elf swordsman (that's a close to verbatim quote from the author) and a traumatised fire witch. I'd buy that again.

Anyway, I hope that gave some of you some reading ideas, or if not ideas of what to avoid. I'll sneeze on you if you didn't. Have a good weekend people.

Tuesday 12 September 2017

"Exploring the Dark Side": An Interview with Anna Stephens

 Ever since I first heard about it on, Godblind has been in my nebulous mental TBR pile. So when Anna Stephens agreed to talk to me about her book, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss...

PL: What gave you the inspiration for Godblind and its characters?

AS: Godblind has been a long work in progress; I wrote the first draft more than a decade ago. I originally wanted to write a high fantasy like the ones I enjoyed reading so much, but I soon learnt that I’m not meant to write fantasy like that. It just doesn’t work when I put it on the page – it’s too overblown, too melodramatic, and not real enough.

What I can write pretty well are characters who have both light and dark in them. Characters with fears and jealousies and petty irritations, who hold grudges and take revenge and betray. But that’s not all they do. They’re also capable of great love and compassion, of courage and comradeship, self-sacrifice and a willingness to take the hard road when necessary.

It’s important to me to write characters that I feel are as rounded as possible – none of them are purely good or purely evil. Even Gilda, the old high priestess of the Dancer and the Fox God, is happy to punch an enemy in the face now and then.

I also wanted very much to write about things I’m passionate about – gender and sexual equality, diversity of sexual orientation, strength in women and weakness in men, all without making a big deal out of it. By the end of Godblind, Dom is in a terrible place, physically, mentally and emotionally. That doesn’t make him any less of a man. Tara can be a stone-cold, practical, ruthless killer when she needs to be. That doesn’t make her any less of a woman. We are all of us these things and so much more. Why wouldn’t anyone incorporate that into their work?

Godblind is the story of a bunch of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances – there are no superheroes here, no ‘Mary Sues’ (I hate that term and all it implies) and no ‘easy to hate’ bad guys. When the world is going to hell in a handcart, you can try and slow it down or you can jump in and enjoy the ride. Godblind has characters that do both, some who do neither. And a couple who’d blow up the handcart just to see it burn.  

PL: I'm sure that handcart had it coming - can't ask you about that though, might be some spoilers there! What I can ask you about is your characters. It sounds like you put a lot of thought and love into your characters - are there any particularly favourites among them? Any you're particularly looking forwards to seeing how readers react to them?

AS: Yes, I do put a huge amount of effort into my characters. For me, it’s about the people first and the plot second – how they react to events rather than events for the sake of it. So the infamous hammer scene in Godblind was more about how Galtas and Lanta and Crys and Rivil behaved, rather than what was being done to Janis. Don’t get me wrong, that was a fun scene to write from a gross-out perspective, but it was more about how it haunted Crys afterwards and made Galtas realise exactly what it was they’d committed to that was important.

And speaking of Crys and Galtas, they’re one of my favourites and my most hated character respectively. Crys has been with me a long time; he was one of the first to appear after the initial trio of characters existed (which was Dom, Rillirin and Rivil). Back in the mists of time, in the first and second drafts, Rillirin was a princess and was actually Rivil’s sister, one of the heirs to the throne of Rilpor. You may have noticed a lot of names beginning “Ri-“ – that was deliberate. It was to show Rivil and Rillirin were born to rule Rilpor. When I realised the fundamental flaw of that design – mainly that Rillirin was in no way, shape or form a pampered princess – I changed her story but couldn’t bear to change her name. She was, and always will be, Rillirin.

So then Crys popped up, initially in a cameo role that he proceeded to grab with both hands and refuse to let go. He insisted on being in scene after scene and became a major – and then a favourite – character really quickly. Both he and Rillirin go on huge journeys of self-discovery at the same time as their physical journeys, and I found the juxtaposition of the two to be fascinating. Rillirin, in particular, in embarking on her inner journey of discovery and building of courage, deliberately agrees to put herself in harm’s way in her physical journey as a result of what she learns about herself.

Galtas, however. Well, Galtas makes my skin crawl, quite frankly. Readers might not quite understand how much I loathe him because I had to tone down a couple of his scenes, but what I hate the most is his undeniable, if oily, charm. He’s so cocksure that despite the murders, rapes and assassinations, he knows people like him. He makes people like him. And that sets my teeth on edge. We talk about characters we love to hate; Galtas is a character I hate to love. 

PL: Ten years is a long time to have a story bubbling away inside your head. How have you changed as a writer in that time? Has your approach to making the story seen any drastic alterations?

AS: Ten years is a very long time! Some other writers have said they’d have given up by then, produced something new, but for me, it always had to be this story first. If I was going to be published, Godblind would be the first book deal I got. I don’t know why; it’s just how it was.

So because of that, I always wanted to improve – as a writer, a plotter, a moulder of characters. At the time it was probably painful, but looking back now, I love the world and the characters so much that I was happy to reread, revise, rewrite after every round of rejections.

I can safely say there’s nothing in Godblind that was in the original draft except for the names – Dom, Lim, Rillirin, Rivil, Rilpor. That’s the sum total of similarities. As I mentioned, Rillirin was a pampered princess of Rilpor, sister to Rivil. Dom and Lim were ‘sword masters’ tasked with her protection, and it was just high-blown rubbish, absolutely melodramatic and utterly unpublishable.

So I have definitely learnt a lot over the intervening decade – I learnt that I can’t write high fantasy, but I can write gritty. I can’t write traditional fantasy tropes but I can write war and graphic killing. I can’t write purely good and purely evil characters, but I can write real people with a mix of light and dark within them.

My writing style has changed utterly, and for the better. It’s a lot sparser these days, without long segments of description of place or person. Some people don’t like that, and that’s fine, and maybe it’s something I’ll experiment with incorporating at some point, but I like to keep things pared down to focus on the action and the inner monologue. What a character is feeling is just as – if not more – important to me as the environment in which they move. As I favour multiple close points of view, sticking in grand descriptions of sweeping vistas as well would just cloud the issue further – who is seeing this vista? What do they care, they’re about to be stabbed?

I think my next project after the Godblind trilogy, whatever it may be, will always veer closer to the dark and the gruelling. I’m not a depressive person who only ever sees the bad in people – I’ve actually got a rather sunny disposition – but these are the themes I’m drawn to. I enjoy exploring the dark side (Star Wars pun totally intended) even though I wouldn’t want to live there. 

How can you not buy a book with a cover like that?

PL: See, that's how I feel about Florida... enjoy exploring but wouldn't want to live there!

Okay, back to seriousness. What's the best and worst bits of writing advice you've ever received?
AS: I think in this respect I’ve actually been quite lucky, in that I haven’t really been told how to do my job by non-writers so there hasn’t been a lot of bad advice.

Because I never really talked about being a writer to anyone other than family and close friends, it wasn’t until I signed with my agent that colleagues and acquaintances really knew about it. Then when they did, it was more a case of them asking me questions, usually “where do you get your ideas” – yes, that old chestnut – or asking where I found the time to write. They all seemed quite surprised when I told them before work, after work, evenings and weekends.

As for the best advice, a lot of that probably came from reading On Writing by Stephen King, which is the single best guide to writing I know of. Also, some advice from my agent and editor along the lines of “you don’t have to explain everything to everyone. Don’t assume your readers are stupid and need everything spelling out – mystery and misdirection can be really effective”. So I took that to heart as well. 

PL: What was the process of getting an agent and then working with a pro editor like for you? There seems to be a lot of mystique about that part of the business among would-be authors, so I thought it made sense to ask someone who's been through it pretty recently how it worked.

AS: Getting an agent is always the hard part, I think. That’s what takes the time. You need to pick someone who is actively looking for your genre, actively has space on their client list to take you on, and actively likes your work! That’s a lot of coincidences and chances that need to all come together at one point.

And there’s always the question that once you’ve submitted to an agent and been rejected, at what point can you submit again? The short answer to that is if you are planning to re-submit the same manuscript, it needs to have had extensive work done to it. You’re best to acknowledge that you submitted to them before and explain in detail what you’ve changed and why.

But it’s also not a one-way street – it’s not just about the agent liking your work and you. You have to like your agent as well. There has to be a strong connection between you, because this is the person who is going to represent you, sell your work, promote you. If you have any doubts about their ability to do that, or about them doing everything possible in your best interests, then the relationship may never work.

For me, Harry and I got on really well from the start. We met for lunch before I signed the contract, and he’d already got some ideas about how to improve Godblind, and I suppose that could have gone one of two ways – I could’ve been outraged that he had OPINIONS, or I could think: now this is someone who knows what he likes and wants to make it even better. Fortunately, I took the latter attitude.

So Harry and I tightened up the plot and the prose further, and then we got the Harper Voyager deal, and at that point I was thinking it was pretty much done. Sit back and let the money flow in.... boy, was I wrong.

Getting a publishing deal is only the first step. Because it turned out that Natasha also had OPINIONS on Godblind – and a whole lot of them. I think the biggest thing for people looking for a deal to realise is that an agent and an editor will never, NEVER tell you to rewrite or edit your book in a way that will make it worse. A lot of people think that suggested edits are criticisms and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Some people think that the editor can never know your book as well as you do, and that’s correct – but that’s also not a bad thing. A step removed from a precious manuscript is often the best place to be – you can see the big picture, see past favourite scenes or characters, to the actual story.

The editor is there to improve your book. You may not agree with their improvements, but you have to realise that now you’re in a partnership that is designed to make money. And that may mean that certain elements of your novel, your plot, your characters need to change to better tap into the market. Some authors can’t handle that. They freak out at the suggestion of changing a name or a line or a plot point. And if it’s going to affect you that badly, then you need to return your advance and cancel your contract, because there does come a point when artistic integrity and business sense collide.

For me, I found it difficult to lose some of my POV characters, but I trusted in the process – and not because of the money, either – and I found that Godblind is a much better book because of that input. It was hard to do, but I’m glad I did it. I want to write the best books I can, and that means having someone I trust point out the flaws and working with me to correct them. 

If you think I've done an insufficient job of grilling Anna, turn up to this and do some more, I hear authors love that...

PL: Do you think the whole process will make/has made writing your next book easier? What can you tell us about your future writing plans anyway?

AS: I’ve learnt a huge amount from the editorial and publishing process so far, and this definitely did make writing book 2 easier – and harder, in one specific way. When I was waiting for the last round of edits to come back for Godblind, I started drafting Darksoul and then at the last minute we made the decision to alter the ending quite significantly. This meant that of the 100,000 words I’d already written of Darksoul, about 15,000 of them were useable. In the end, it was easier to scrap the entire draft, finish editing Godblind, and then start again.

That was ... distressing.

I’m currently awaiting the first editorial letter and suggestions for Darksoul, which should drop any day now, so we’ll have to wait for those to see whether I’ve learnt as much as I think I have! I had a very reduced timescale to write book 2 after all those changes got scrapped, so it was a very different experience writing to a deadline that couldn’t be changed. I had to sit and get the words down no matter what. But it was great to exercise that self-discipline and come up with a manuscript that, while it isn’t perfect, is, I think, a very good starting point and something we can work on together to perfect for publication.

Other than Darksoul, which should be published in May 2018, I’m working on an anthology submission and a short story, batting around ideas for a brand new trilogy, and trying not to worry too much about my impending edits! 

PL: Ouch. I mean... ouch. But, yes, that does sound like a good lesson.

Okay one final question! If you had to pick one scene from Godblind to sell it to prospective readers and really show what the book is about, which one would you pick?

AS: OK, so you saved the most difficult question to last, I see! Only one? ARGHH.

Alright, I think the one that gives a sense of two of the three factions within the world – Mireces, Watchers/Wolves and Rilporians – is the scene where Corvus leads his Mireces army to the Wolf village in the foothills in pursuit of the escaped slave Rillirin, who he thinks witnessed the murder of the previous king and who he wants to question. Rillirin has been captured – or saved, depending on your point of view – by the Wolves, the civilian warriors guarding the border of Rilpor. They have elected to fight to defend her, rather than fleeing or giving her back up to the Mireces.

The scene shows the Mireces’s viciousness – they’re there to kill everyone who isn’t Rillirin – and the honour and duty of the Wolves, who fight and die in defence of a stranger.

It not only gives you the general impression of the two peoples – though only general, of course – but it hints at the importance Rillirin has to play to both parties. The Mireces have led a raiding party in her pursuit, and the Wolves are prepared to die for her. 

Thanks to Anna for her time (and sticking to only one scene!). Godblind is out now in kindle and paperback. To hear more from Anna, visit her website or seek her out at the Fantasy Faction Grim Gathering.