Tag Archives: fantasy

Review: Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft

After stealing an airship at the end of Senlin Ascends, Thomas Senlin and his crew still have plenty of hardships to struggle through and places to explore on their journey to find Senlin’s vanished wife Marya. They encounter outcasts, people who live on the edges of society, and people who hide in the shadows, as they continue to work their way up the immense Tower of Babel, ultimately seeking out a mysterious figure known as the Sphinx to get help in their search.

Arm of the Sphinx is the second in the Books of Babel series by Josiah Bancroft.

The fantastic original cover by Ian Leino

Where Senlin Ascends kept to a single point of view, that of protagonist Thomas Senlin, its sequel branches out. Senlin himself remains the primary point of view, but there are also numerous scenes from the perspective of other members of his crew. While this dilutes the focus of the story, it feels like it fits: Senlin is now responsible for other people besides himself, and those people are engaged in parts of the story Senlin never sees.

This widening of the perspective meshes wonderfully with the wider view of the world of the Tower of Babel: where in the first book, Senlin was a newcomer learning about the Tower, now he is an experienced hand with it, a leader to others, still learning but now seeing deeper than the surface level. There is a greater sense of complexity to the world that parallels the wider complexities of a larger cast of point of view characters.

Bancroft has a wonderful talent for building a sense of menace. The more Senlin learns, and the more we learn, the greater the impression that there is a lot going on beneath the surface, a sense of strange occurrences, subversion, manipulation – that nothing is quite as it seems.

There’s also a strong feeling of mystery surrounding the Sphinx in particular, but other characters the crew encounters too. Even as Senlin learns more, there are plenty of questions left unanswered, drawing the reader onward.

Each of the point of view characters is given the space, in their scenes, for the reader to learn about their motivation, their goals and the things that are or have been holding them back. This is balanced beautifully with the action and more tense moments to create a compelling tale that kept me on the edge of my seat, and my finger hovering over the screen ready to turn to the page so not a second would be wasted.

Arm of the Sphinx is a solid second instalment to the quadrilogy*, with all the wonder and exploration of the first in the series and a stronger feeling of sinister undercurrents. It is a natural progression building on the foundations created by its predecessor and full of promise for the rest of the tale.

I rate Arm of the Sphinx 9/10; it is an enthralling, exciting read and I look forward to reading Bancroft’s next book.

See my review of Senlin Ascends here.

*A previous version of this review refered to the Books of Babel series as a trilogy. Mr Bancroft has confirmed here that it is planned to be a series of four, or “foursie” as he prefers to think of it.

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“Write what you know” and what it means to me right now

“Write what you know” is a popular piece of advice given to writers, and over the course of the many years I have been writing, I’ve interpreted it in a few different ways.

As a novice, I thought it meant sticking to what you’re already knowledgable about.

After that, I thought it meant putting in the work to do the research and become knowledgable about the topics you want to write about.

In forum posts I made in the last couple of years I’ve argued that it’s about putting personal feelings and experiences into what you write – drawing upon your emotional responses to events to inform the way you write characters.

These days I think it’s a combination of all three. Which is predominant depends on the needs of the scene in question.

Recently I’ve been working on “Fiarra Beginnings”, the latest version of my volcanic island survival fantasy story. It has undergone a lot of changes and seen a fair few restarts over the years, but this time I’ve been taking a different approach by taking it chapter by chapter: I start with notes about what I want from the chapter, look into the characters involved in the chapter and what their motivations are, find out what I need to know about to write convincingly on the topics covered in the chapter, develop a chapter outline, and then write the chapter. Then I move on to the next.

This approach has highlighted to me these different definitions of “write what you know”.

I had decided fairly early in the process that Fiarra’s background needed to be in a profession that becomes useless after the eruption of the volcano and evacuation of everyone who can get on board the ships in the harbour at the time. The setting in terms of technology is roughly equivalent to the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Britain, so I made her a glass-maker. In the aftermath of the eruption, there’s no call for glass when people are simply struggling to survive, and in any case it would be thought to be a pointless extravagance when there’s always the risk of another eruption that would rain down more rocks to smash windows, or shake the earth to knock bottles off shelves. So to get that right, I needed to do a lot of research into early glass-making, including raw materials and processes. I have to know what I’m writing about after all.

For the secondary protagonist, Macky, I had a similar requirement: his background needed to be in the service of the Governor, but not in direct contact. I needed him to feel betrayed by the Governor specifically as part of his motivation. Initially I felt a gardener position would be fine, but I wanted a bit more prestige and a bit more of a sense of dedication and hard work, so I made him a beekeeper. I have been researching the history of beekeeping this summer, in particular in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, and my Dad keeps bees, so I have plenty of knowledge on this already, from the kinds of hives that might have been used, to the ways to prevent and treat stings. In this I am writing on a topic that I know about in depth already.

And as for drawing upon personal experience, that’s always an easy one once you have enough of it. I have drawn upon my personal experiences in work, after experiencing loss, after major life changes, in personal relationships with the people around me, and more.

Still, there’s always more to learn, more to know – and more to write about.

Review: Red Sister by Mark Lawrence

Red Sister is Mark Lawrence’s seventh published novel and the seventh I have reviewed, so regular readers may already have some inkling of what to expect from this review. Released in April 2017, Red Sister is the first book in the Book of the Ancestor series. It follows Nona, a young girl from a tiny village, taken in my the sisters of Sweet Mercy Convent – which is no ordinary Earth-style convent, but one which trains girls as fighters and magic users, according to their abilities. Alongside Nona, we are plunged into a world of strange powers and nuanced intrigues.

Red Sister’s striking UK cover

Where his previous two trilogies were set in the world of the Broken Empire, in Red Sister Lawrence has created a new world, and one which is magnificent in its originality and allure. It is a difficult, grim world, where the fight for survival is immediate and constant, and the threat looms quite literally on the horizon. But it is also a beautiful world, painted with icy landscapes, glowing magic and strange architecture. Each new element of it is revealed organically, as Nona becomes aware of it, so that there is never the feeling of exposition but rather a sense of revelation that pulled me forward to learn more with just as much power as did the plot and characters.

Red Sister’s gorgeous US cover

Nona is a fantastic protagonist for this story, perfectly crafted to meet the needs of the story and of the reader. She is self-possessed if inexperienced, confident and private. The path of her growth and development feels natural and intensely sympathetic. Her relationships with the other characters are nuanced, changing over time as she becomes more knowledgable and more confident in her role at the Convent, in a way that demonstrates her increasing maturity as time passes.

It’s hard not to think of the plot overall from a writer’s perspective, so in blunt terms I will mention that it has a solid structure, with a series of well-placed story beats that lead logically through the events, giving a satisfying ending that has a strong sense of where it came from. But that doesn’t do it justice: it is a crafted, woven, elegant plot, with action in all the right places (and that action of the “badass” variety), subtleties and hints beaded into the fabric. All of these little elements – the magic, the setting, the different characters’ roles within the convent, Nona’s skills and approaches – all come together to build something unstoppable and remarkable.

Though not a short book, there is nothing superfluous, nothing that does not have a place in the story; but also no holes for confusion to dwell in, just enough information for the reader to have a full understanding without hand-holding. There is space for the reader’s imagination, but not for ambiguity; a perfect pitch.

I have made no secret, in my previous reviews of Mark Lawrence’s books, that I am definitely a fan. It is, I assure you, well-earned praise, and none more so than for Red Sister. It is a whole and complete book, aware of its position at the beginning of the trilogy but also very much with a full story of its own to tell, and that told brilliantly. I try to avoid giving books a rating of ten, as I feel this should be reserved only for the very best fiction the world has to offer, but in this case I have no reservations: Red Sister gets 10/10.

My previous reviews of Mark Lawrence’s books:

Review: Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft

Thomas Senlin is the quiet headmaster of a small town’s modest school, recently married to the spirited Marya. For their honeymoon, they travel to the famed Tower of Babel, the centre of civilisation – but are separated in the crowded marketplace at the Tower’s base. In his attempts to find Marya, Senlin meets a cast of rogues and mysterious figures, survives strange experiences, and rises through the enigmatic, immense Tower.

The gorgeous cover of Senlin Ascends is by artist Ian Leino.

Senlin Ascends is Bancroft’s first novel, published in 2013.

One of the real strengths of Bancroft’s prose, which I noticed early in the book, was how he used it to reveal Senlin’s personality. On the very first page there is a metaphor comparing shale hills to shattered blackboards, imagery that reveals that Senlin is a teacher even before his name is mentioned in the text. The book sparkles with these allusions, bringing its protagonist to life – and subtly revealing the changes he undergoes as a result of his experiences.

And what experiences they are. The Tower of Babel is a marvel, a world as complex as any I have read, stuffed with strange technologies and bizarre entertainments, social nuances and odd rules. It is populated by predatory merchants, smooth talkers, bitter cynics, self-deluding hedonists and sinister figures. Everyone Senlin meets wants something from him, one way or another, and so he has a difficult path to navigate to avoid the numerous pitfalls laid out for such tourists as he is in the beginning.

Throughout the novel there are intriguing hints that there is something a lot bigger going on than a man in search of his wife. The Tower is a complex world populated by chess masters and manipulators such that Senlin was entirely unprepared for – as was I when I began reading. It drew me on, even as the core plot of Senlin’s search for Marya did.

I rate Senlin Ascends 9/10. It is an engaging adventure set in a wonderfully detailed world. I look forward to reading Arm of the Sphinx.

Camp NaNoWriMo April 2017: I restarted my story

On Monday I decided I wasn’t happy with what I’d written so far this month and scrapped it to start again (though I’m still counting my earlier wordcount towards the month’s total).

The main problem with the story as I’d written it was that my protagonist, Fiarra, wasn’t making the decisions. Things were happening, and she was reacting to them. Not just reacting, but reacting in a passive manner – watching and waiting, not deciding to take action. It made the story boring. It made her boring. And it created a contradiction in her character, because my goal at this stage of the story is to have her at odds with others in the group, and she was just getting on with her work while being disdainful about gossip and small talk.

If I’m honest, it was obvious that the story wasn’t working several days before I decided to restart. I attempted to make it work by giving her more decisions, but I’d already put her on a path of passivity and it was hard to get her off that.

So I went back to the start and thought about how things might have reached the stage they need to be at the start of the story to get where I want to go. One of the important aspects of Fiarra in the Pact – a coalition of about a hundred people who have secured territory in the abandoned town of Royal Newport in the aftermath of the eruptions and evacuation – was that she felt that she didn’t fit in. But if that’s the case, why is she there at all? Why has she joined this group? The original version had her living in a former inn, along with several other members of the Pact, and a friendship with Pact leader Embry that dated to after the Pact had been formed.

I scrapped this background, and decided that the Pact had begun in Fiarra’s street, right outside her own house, and that she had met Embry during the crisis. With Fiarra living in her own home, there’s a stronger contrast between the familiarity of the house and the street she grew up in, and the strangers that have arrived there to join the Pact, who have now moved into the homes of Fiarra’s deceased neighbours.

Her role in the origin of the Pact also enables me to give her an independent, even anti-authoritarian streak – not taking part in communal tasks or adhering to curfews – that Embry allows her a certain amount of leeway on. And that in turn means that when she hears rumours about someone she used to know, she can act upon them instead of sitting alone thinking about the nature of loss in the context of a volcano having killed almost everyone she knew only a few months earlier.

I wonder if this is evidence I didn’t do enough planning in the first place. I certainly didn’t plan for Fiarra to be passive in the first two chapters, but that’s how it turned out. I think perhaps the process of writing it enabled me to identify what the problem was and how best to fix it; if I had done more planning work back in March perhaps I would have noticed that Fiarra was too passive, but I don’t think I would have come up with the same solution, and I may have ended up with other problems instead.

As I continue to attempt to refine and improve my process for writing, this is something that I will have to consider.

Plotting for Camp NaNoWriMo

This week has been all about plotting. Last year when I was working on Horrible Monster, I was rather hands-off with plotting: I had a general idea of where I wanted things to go, and a few key scenes, but the rest was left to be worked out as I was writing.

The problem with that was that I slowed down hugely when I didn’t know where things were going, and on several occasions struck out pages and pages – days’ worth of writing – when I decided I didn’t like what I’d written. And now I’m left with a first draft that needs a mountain of work doing to it before it’s even close to completion.

For the Volcano Island project I’m working on this April for Camp NaNoWriMo, I’ve decided I need to do a lot more planning.

A few times over the last decade or so, I’ve attempted the Snowflake method. It’s a process of planning where you start with a very condensed summary of the story and the protagonist, and expand upon these summaries with every step, going from a sentence to a paragraph to a page by adding detail and nuance. In general, I’ve found it a bit rigid and stale when I’ve followed it exactly, but I think the general principle is sound.

With the Volcano Island project, I think I’ve got three stories there. Maybe more, but I can’t think that far in advance at the moment. I wrote very brief summaries of the three stories, and I have expanded upon the first by breaking the overall plot down into chapters and outlining those, as well as the protagonist’s personal journey, in about a paragraph each.

I have now started writing longer chapter summaries, one page each in my A5 notebook (so roughly 100-130 words per chapter), and I think this will be as far as I go for plot. For character, though, I might go to three or four A5 pages, at least for Fiarra, the protagonist, and Macky, the second most important character, plus a page each for another five or six characters.

Striking a balance with planning is important to me. I’ve done too little in the past; but when I do too much I soon tire of the project. I’m hoping this level of planning will be just right to give me the structure I need without sapping my passion for the project.

Attempting Camp NaNoWriMo

In April I will be attempting Camp NaNoWriMo. I’ve signed up, added my novel details and set my cabin preferences. My target is 30,000 words and the story I’ll be working on is a fresh attempt at the Penal Colony story I was working on way back in 2013.

There’s still a lot to do before April 1st, though. In the past I’ve tried to “pants” various NaNoWriMo challenges – to write with minimal preparation, flying by the seat of my pants (or trousers, since I’m British). It doesn’t work for me; I get so far and don’t know where to go next, and end up dithering around with long conversations between characters, or meaningless sequences of events that I later delete once I’ve made a decision about the direction I want to go. That was the downfall of Kell’s Adventures and Kell & Atoni: no direction and no plan.

But I’ve also not found much success with an outlining-heavy approach. I get bored of going over the minutiae of characters or the world, or I feel I’ve covered the plot in so much detail in the plan that I don’t need or want to write it anymore because there’s nothing more I can add. It becomes a chore. There’s no exploration, no discovery, no fun to it. And what’s the point if it’s not fun to write, at least some of the time?

With Horrible Monster, I took a middle ground. It was, perhaps, rather too much on the pantsing side of the scale – there were passages thousands of words long, covering multiple scenes, which I removed, and started again from a point I’d written a week or longer earlier. As for the ending, I hadn’t made a decision about that until literally a week before I finished the novel.

So with this story I’ll be doing more planning than I did for Horrible Monster, including working out the ending and writing chapter summaries. In order to distinguish this version from the 2013 version in my file system, I’ll be using a new working title – Volcano Island. A huge amount has changed, including most of the key characters (though I’ve kept the protagonist and a couple of other characters) and the plot. I see the original Penal Colony plot as being potentially the foundation for a sequel, if I get that far, but it’s not the story I want to tell right now, and the story I do want to tell needs to happen earlier in the chronology.

On my to-do list for the rest of this month, I have:

  • Draw maps showing the islands before and after the major eruptions – while the story takes place after most of the eruptions, I want an idea of where there used to be land, towns, ports and other features as my characters will encounter buried buildings and so on. I’m also considering having an eruption during the story, so I’d like to map out how that changes the islands too.
  • Create characters lists to draw upon when needing to use less developed/important characters – I’ve decided on the names and a few characteristics of my main cast, but there will be other characters involved too. I’ll need to sort them into groups, create short descriptions of them and have them ready to put into action when I need them so I don’t have to make this stuff up when I’m writing, and potentially lose flow.
  • Create a more detailed chapter-by-chapter summary. I’ve already got a very brief chapter outline, with about 2 lines of text per chapter describing the main events. I want to expand this into about 150-200 words per chapter, plus a list of the immediate goals and motives of the characters in the chapter to help me with interactions.

There’s plenty to be getting on with, but not so much it can’t be done by the end of March.

Review: The Second God by Pauline M Ross

The Second God is the seventh book in Pauline M Ross’s richly fantastical Brightmoon world, and serves as a sequel to The Fire Mages’ Daughter. Five years after a devastating war with the Blood Clans, Drina, her lover Arran and her husband, Ly-haam the living god of the Blood Clans, have settled into a routine, but when a second living god appears in the Clanlands and a mysterious golden army attacks Bennamore’s neighbours in the east, Drina, Arran and Ly must bring all their powers to bear, united as one, to protect Bennamore and aid its allies.

the-second-god

One characteristic held by many good books, I think, is to want to keep reading it after you’ve already finished it. That is how I felt last night as I climbed into bed – “just one chapter, maybe two, then I’ll go to sleep,” I thought, before remembering I’d already finished reading it. That’s not to say the book felt incomplete – far from it, it ended brilliantly – but that I could easily continue reading more in that world, and in Ross’s style, if there were more to read.

Ross has a great strength in her style of prose. It’s engaging, well-paced and eminently readable. She has the skill to know when plain language is needed, but the vocabulary to expand when the scene calls for it.

The Second God is a well-balanced adventure. Drina’s position within society, as the Drashona’s heir, lends itself to the political elements of the plot well, and Ross skillfully avoids the pitfall of making the political elements dry or uneventful, masterfully weaving in these parts of the story with the more hands-on aspects of Drina’s role: flying about the world on the back of a giant eagle to observe, discuss, fight or learn.

Whenever I read books by Pauline M Ross I am delighted to explore more of her world. It is an abundantly complex world about which there is always more to discover. Its magic is enchanting and it is filled with cultures whose development and society are influenced in different ways by that magic and its various facets, as well as geography and history. The beauty of the world is enhanced by the optimism with which Ross writes – even when circumstances are dire and threats loom, there is still a sense of joy and hope which brings a refreshing contrast to the gloomier outlooks of a lot of modern fiction.

As with all of Ross’s works, The Second God explores romantic relationships within different social frameworks to those found in Western Earth cultures, and this time takes it a step further than The Fire Mages’ Daughter by adding a new magical component. But as always, the romance is perfectly integrated into the plot, an essential element of it. As someone who tends not to read the Romance genre, I felt it was handled well.

The Second God is an exciting, captivating read showcasing Ross’s signature positivity, unconventional romance and inspired worldbuilding, with a strong plot and enjoyable characters. I rate it 9/10, and eagerly await the next one.

I received a free ARC in exchange for a review; and can only apologise that the review was so late.

Review: Empire Games by Charles Stross

Empire Games continues the Merchant Princes series, following on 17 years after the events of the earlier books. While the previous books’ protagonist, Miriam, continues as a major character, Empire Games introduces a new protagonist, Rita Douglas, a freelance actor living in a high-security America that’s aware of parallel timelines and extremely paranoid about terrorist attacks from world-walkers. Recruited by the Department of Homeland Security because of her world-walker genes, Rita finds herself railroaded into the role of a world-walking spy. But there’s a lot more going on in the parallel timeline than the US government anticipated.

empire games cover

Continue reading Review: Empire Games by Charles Stross

Progress Report: One Million Words, Autumn 2016

I’ve been a bit lax on updates lately, but I’m here to catch up now.

My current total is 307,504/1,000,000, or 30.8%. So I’m nearly a third of the way there now. Since my last update some time ago, I have written:

  • September: 13,776 words
  • October: 14,822 words
  • November: 15,812 words
  • December until the 10th: 3,195 words

The Story

Over the last three and a bit months, I’ve worked on a range of stories, including time travel fanfiction (that’s not a typo where I missed a comma, that’s a fanfiction involving a time travelling character from the modern world ending up on a British naval hired vessel in 1813; followers of my reading updates can guess exactly which ship that might have been), preparatory stories to help me get into the world and characters of Kell and Atoni, and my NaNoWriMo project, Kell & Atoni.

It is this latter which I wish to talk about.

It’s crap. I restarted it in the middle of November (don’t worry, I still counted the words I’d written). And I’m not happy with the restart either. I’ve been trying to work out why that might be today, and I think I have an answer: lack of preparation. Or at least, the right kind of preparation. I’ve got no outline, no theme, no goal for this story except to write a fantasy story in the same stylistic tradition as the Aubrey-Maturin novels, with a friendship much like that model at its core.

But it’s clear I need a more structured approach than I have been using. For now, I’m putting the project aside while I develop not only that structure, but also a deeper understanding of what I want from the story and the source material I wish to emulate. I also need to better develop the characters. At the moment they are barely distinguishable from any protagonist I’ve ever written, and it’s clear to me now that I have a significant weakness in that area.

Moving forward

I’ve got a short project planned in response to a challenge on /r/fantasywriters, so I’ll be working on that for at least a few days this month. The challenge is to use a stone age setting, which is something I’ve played with for a while but never quite got anything working (including one story in which Kell discovered a stone circle used by mammoths as scratching posts). So if nothing else I’ll have fun.

Beyond that, I need to work on exercises that enable me to develop the characters of Kell and Atoni and practice writing their voices.

I’m feeling rather lost with my writing at the moment, but it’s about time I got back on track so I’ll be working hard in the near future to move forward. Funny, I always seem more motivated with hobbies when I have less time for them, and the same is true now – I’ve got a temp job that just started which is full time, in addition to my existing part time job, and of course with Christmas fast approaching I’ve got a lot to sort out in the way of gifts and cards and decorations. So we’ll see how that goes.