Status Update 5-29-20

Today I completed reading Assassin’s Fate by Robin Hobb, and I admit to being very emotionally drained by the experience. I’m going to take a few days off from reading before I jump into Son of the Black Sword by Larry Correia. The Pages Read total for the year is 4730 (39% of goal). As I mentioned previously, I had fallen a bit behind goal, but completing Assassin’s Fate by the end of May has put me back in a good spot.

I’m still working on a post for the 2019 Hippogriff Awards, and my review for The Gutter Prayer is almost finished.

An Interview With Gareth Hanrahan

delta green

Gareth Hanrahan, from Cork, Ireland, is the author of The Gutter Prayer and The Shadow Saint, the first two books in the Black Iron Legacy series. He has also written short stories for a few different anthologies (such as the Cthulhu-based Delta Green anthology, Extraordinary Renditions), but prior to his work as a novelist, Gareth was known for his game designing. Initially a computer programmer, he decided to turn to writing and never looked back.

 

cthulhu

He wrote Mongoose’s fifth RuneQuest setting, Hawkmoon: The Roleplaying Game, as well as the Traveller Core Rulebook (2008), which managed to outsell RuneQuest and become Mongoose’s new #1 game. Later, after a mountain of work for various publishers (that included Middle Earth, Doctor Who, and Warhammer Fantasy environments), Gareth became a full-time writer for Pelgrane Press, producing incredibly imaginative material for Trail of Cthulhu (Lovecraftian RPG),  13th Age (epic story-based RPG), and Night’s Black Agents (espionage and vampire RPG). He has recently developed an RPG adventure that takes place in his Black Iron Legacy setting.

Mr. Hanrahan was very gracious in accepting my request for an interview. I tried to avoid spoilers, especially when referring to The Shadow Saint…I tended to ask more generalized questions about it. The timing of the interview is perfect, as I’m currently working on a review of The Gutter Prayer.

My questions are in bold and referenced as “HA”, while Gar’s answers are represented by “GH”.

 

INTERVIEW

HA: According to other interviews I’ve read, Lovecraft, Tolkien, Dungeons and Dragons, the UK House of Cards, the comic book V for Vendetta, and even the video game Thief are all influences on your writing, and elements of these are identifiable in your work. Monsters, thieves, gods, alchemy, and political intrigue abound. Is there any influence or aspect that you *haven’t* worked into your stories yet, but that you want to explore?

GH: Arguably the biggest is humour; I used to write a lot more funny stuff. There are a few jokes in the Black Iron Legacy, but it’s a pretty grim place, and while it does sometimes descend into farce, it’s usually more “oh god, everything’s exploding and six different people are betraying me simultaneously.” Douglas Adams and PG Wodehouse don’t quite fit into Guerdon – although Wodehouse does sneak in a little.

 

 

HA: Did you have anyone close to you read and critique The Gutter Prayer? How much re-editing did you do before publishing? How long had you been working on it?

GH: A few friends read various drafts of The Gutter Prayer, and gave different degrees of feedback. The biggest influencing factor there, of course, was my wife’s insistence that I actually finish the manuscript instead of junking it and moving onto another shiny idea.

Later, when I signed with John Jarrold, he did a full edit of the manuscript before he started shopping it around to publishers. It didn’t change that much in editing – it was mostly polishing and tightening. I started working on it in… November 2014, I think, and it was done by the start of 2016 or so.

 

gutter prayer
HA: What was your publishing experience like? Did you have to shop your book around a lot? How did you end up with Orbit?

GH: Once I finished the MS, I sent it in to a couple of open calls. I didn’t even try to get an agent, because some friends of mine had complained about how hellish and exhausting the process could be. So, I thought I’d bypass it and go straight for the open calls.

As far as I can tell, I made it to the later stages of all three open calls, but didn’t get any requests for a full manuscript. I also wasted far, far too much time trying to read tea leaves on twitter, hitting refresh on my inbox, and generally obsessing over a process I had no control over.

When the last open call announced they were done, I thought I’d try self-publishing – while I haven’t really self-published anything, I have a lot of experience to draw on from working for years in tabletop roleplaying publishing, so I have a vague idea of the process. My plan was to wait and save up some cash to pay for good cover art, then run a kickstarter.

While waiting, another friend mentioned that his agent was always open to submissions. I sent it off without much thought – as I said, my impression was that finding an agent was a demoralising grind, and I’d already worn my nerves out with the open calls.

But John Jarrold liked it, offered to represent me… and within a few months, there was a great deal on the table. So, from one perspective, the publishing experience was all totally painless and easy – but it took me a long time to get there.

 

HA: I’m always curious how much a writer works their own personality into characters in the book. Do you feel like any of the characters reflect you in some way?

GH: I think that’s inescapable. Even if I set out to create a character who’s absolutely nothing like me, I’m drawing on the negative space of my personality. Certainly, all the main characters are either partly derived from my own thoughts and experiences, or are a commentary or reaction on them.

Is “reflect” the right word here? Maybe “refract” is more like it. Someone like Spar has bits of me in him, but a lot of the character is defined by their place in the world, by their own upbringing, by the needs of the plot.

The character who has the most me in them… might actually be the Spy, because he’s not defined by anything, so he’s going to take on more colour from the refraction, so to speak.

 

HA: When you started writing, what came first conceptually: your characters, Guerdon, or early plotting?

GH: Of those three, bits of Guerdon – I have some notes on elements of the city that go back years, although ‘concepts’ is probably overblown. It’s really just a list of evocative location names. I started writing without any real clue what was going on or who the characters were, grabbing names and ideas that had been swirling around my head for ages. Then, after about 20,000 words, I sat down and actually worked out something approaching an outline of a plot.

 

HA: What’s the most difficult thing about writing viewpoint characters from the opposite sex?

GH: Breaking down characters is always really tricky, at least for me. Systems and structures, in general, need to make sense. If you’ve got, say, a flying castle, then there has to be a reason it flies, or it needs to be in a setting where a flying castle is unremarkable – in which case, everything else in that setting needs to align with those assumptions. Guerdon’s a quasi-Victorian steam-punk-ish city in a setting full of mad gods and sorcerers, so everything there has to work under those constraints.

Characters, though… they’re their own little worlds, and they don’t have to make sense anywhere outside their own heads. Taking them apart tends to expose those contradictions and quirks. So, when I’m writing a woman – or a man, or a ghoul, or a psychotic candlestick or a god – their sex is only one part of their character, and trying to pick it out and analyse it in isolation wouldn’t not make sense. Would, say, Carillon be a different character if I wrote her a man? Yes, but I’m not sure how.

 

HA: You have said that in The Gutter Prayer you had written your characters into a tough spot and didn’t initially know how they would get out of it. Was it difficult to find that “way out”? Did you ever worry that you wouldn’t find a satisfactory conclusion?

GH: Nah. The glorious thing about writing is that you can go back and change stuff, and no-one will ever know. You can have a revelation about how they’ll escape, and then go back and add more material to justify that revelation, and then tweak everything until it’s a satisfactory conclusion. The rough shape of the ending was always there, I just needed to figure out the details.

 

shadow saint

HA: You started The Gutter Prayer as a standalone, but now The Shadow Saint is out, and I hear you’re working on a third book, and possibly a fourth or fifth. Despite starting with a standalone, in your mind, is there an overall arc that would tie the books together? Are you thinking that far ahead as far as a unifying concept?

GH: There’s definitely an arc, although I’m trying to tell a more-or-less complete story in each book. I wrote The Gutter Prayer as a standalone, but Orbit offered to buy a sequel – which meant unpacking some plot threads I’d intended to just leave as tantilising hints. And the sequel, similarly, leaves some threads open. I do intend to wrap the series up conclusively when the time comes.

 

HA: When did you start thinking about plot and characters in The Shadow Saint – or when did you start to conceive of it as a sequel?

GH: I’ve had bits of the plot and some of the characters in the back of my head for years, long before I wrote The Gutter Prayer. I don’t think you ever start a book from scratch – you’ve always got ideas that are just drifting around for years, waiting for the right place to take root. When I needed a sequel to The Gutter Prayer, I was able to slot those concepts in to the already-built world.

 

HA: What would you say are the biggest differences between The Gutter Prayer and The Shadow Saint, from not only a story perspective, but also in the writing process when crafting the two books? Did you feel any pressure when writing The Shadow Saint based on the success and positive feedback of The Gutter Prayer?

GH: Structurally, the two books are quite different. The Gutter Prayer was, at its core, a bunch of people trying to unravel a mystery. While the different protagonists each had hold of a different part of the elephant, they were all on the same side, more or less. In The Shadow Saint, the three main characters are each representing one side in a struggle for control of the city, and there’s a lot more intrigue and conspiring instead of investigation. The second book is also a little slower and more considered but that’s mainly because the main characters have different outlooks.

The Shadow Saint was more or less done before The Gutter Prayer came out, so there was no pressure or feedback to consider for that one. Book 3 is a different story…

 

HA: How much interaction do you have with readers/fans of your books?

GH: I live on twitter. I lurk on goodreads and reddit. I’m cautious of too much interaction, though, because my instincts were honed by tabletop gaming, so my initial reaction to comments is often to give advice or suggest tweaks. That works for a tabletop game, but not for a novel.

 

HA: Are there any “Easter eggs” in your books, things that maybe only you or your friends/family might recognize, or small things you’ve hidden in The Shadow Saint that pay homage to The Gutter Prayer?

GH: Oh, yes. Most of the locations in the books are inspired by places in Cork, as are some of the names. There are some roleplaying in-jokes in there, too. There are lots of little connections between the books – I’m not sure if they count as Easter eggs, but a big theme of the series is the connection between past and present, how places get repurposed and history gets layered on and reinterpreted. So, the same locations get used in several books but for different purposes and from different perspectives.

 

HA: If you had a chance to sit down and bounce ideas off of any author you’ve never met, alive or dead, who would you choose and why?

GH: Oh. I’m unsure how to choose. Off the top of my head, I wouldn’t mind having a chat with Robert Anton Wilson, of the Illuminatus! series. I adore his Masks of the Illuminati in particular. His was a fascinating mind.

 

dracula

HA: Bonus question: your Fall of Delta Green and Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops material sounds amazing. Could you ever see that material making its way into a novel?

GH: The Fall of Delta Green is based on the Delta Green property – there are a bunch of novels and short stories out there already (shameless plug – I have a story in Failed Anatomies).

As for Night’s Black Agents, I co-wrote a novel (sort-of) that ties into that, in the form of Dracula Unredacted.

I do have a few modern-day ideas for weird fiction lurking around, but nothing planned for the medium term…

***

Many thanks to Gareth for taking the time to answer my questions in an engaging manner – I was fascinated by his responses. The Gutter Prayer and The Shadow Saint are both currently available for purchase a most bookseller outlets. The third book in the series has a currently projected publishing date of January 2021.

For more about Gareth Hanrahan, you can check out his site at https://garhanrahan.com/

 

Status Update 5-2-20

Time for reading, much less writing reviews, is in short supply for me right now. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, my company was not only deemed essential, we also had to ramp production, as several of the parts we make go into medical equipment like respirators and ventilators. I’m working from home as much as I can,  but with a slow internet connection thanks to my rural location, it takes so much longer to maintain, much less exceed, my previous productivity. Which means longer hours spent working. Add a not-so-fun water leak in the house that required tearing walls open, and it’s very frustrating. Still, I can’t imagine how much worse it must be for those who have lost jobs or loved ones…to those who have, I’m truly sorry for your loss.

Today I finally completed reading For the Killing of Kings by Howard Andrew Jones. The Pages Read total for the year is 3883 (32% of goal). Next up is the last book in The Fitz and the Fool Trilogy, Assassin’s Fate by Robin Hobb. I’ve fallen a bit behind goal, but if I can complete Assassin’s Fate by the end of May, I’ll be back on track.

I’ll start working on a post for the 2019 Hippogriff Awards soon. I’ve been working sporadically on a review for The Gutter Prayer, so hopefully I can wrap that up by next weekend.

Status Update 4-5-20

Today I (finally) completed reading Reaper’s Gale by Steven Erikson. The Pages Read total for the year is 3531 (29% of goal). Next up is the first book in The Ring-Sworn Trilogy, For the Killing of Kings by Howard Andrew Jones.

I’m continuing to hold off on posting the 2019 Hippogriff Awards until after I read For the Killing of Kings. I’ve also started working on a review for The Gutter Prayer.

Book Review: Ravine of Blood and Shadow by D.P. Prior

ravine blood shadowFormat:  signed hard cover, 2019

Pages:  235

Reading Time:  about 5.5 hours

One Sentence Synopsis:  When the strange traveler Aristodeus arrives with troubling news, and strange events begin to happen in Arx Gravis, Carn’s world slowly descends into a nightmare that he can’t wake from.

 

Since this is the first book in the series, which I picked up without any preconceptions, and I couldn’t find any guest reviews, I’m going to jump right in to the review. Ravine of Blood and Shadow is the first book in the Annals of the Nameless Dwarf series. The origins of the Nameless Dwarf started as a short story that D.P. Prior wrote back in 2009 for Pulp Empire. That turned into 5 novellas, which were in turn published as an omnibus, and then another full length novel followed that. Looking to tie all the stories together in a cohesive arc, Prior approached publishing houses who were complementary of his work but stated that “dwarves don’t sell.” Prior decided to self-publish the books as Legend of the Nameless Dwarf, which went on to sell over 600,000 copies, as well as a successful (but complaint-generating) audio book. Prior decided to reboot the series, both in hard cover and in a new audio book, as Annals of the Nameless Dwarf. It became a major re-write, according to Prior:

Scenes were axed (characters too); scenes were added. Big words were ditched in favor of simpler ones. Names were changed, again to make them easier for the reader. Whole passages of prose were trimmed, and many thousands of words were cut.

The result: a much faster, more succinct, and focused read. It’s not only improved the series, but in essence it has created something new.

I somehow stumbled across the series on Amazon, intrigued by the gorgeous cover art, and a trip to the author’s website revealed that he was selling signed hard covers. Putting money directly into an author’s hands is always an easy decision for me, so I reached out to Prior, sent him some money, and soon I had received a signed hard cover.

Ravine of Blood and Shadow (which was previously titled Carnifex: A Portent of Blood before the major re-write) follows the story of Carnifex (Carn), a high level Ravine Guard, whose mother died in childbirth. But Carn has his brother, the studious Lukar, and his friends Kal, Thumil and Cordy, as well as his father, Droom. Characters are so well-defined that it is impossible to mistake one for another or get confused about who is who. Prior does an excellent job in fleshing out each character…their likes and dislikes, their hopes and fears, their mannerisms and motivations. Even certain members of the Council and their right hand, the Black Cloaks, come off like self-serving jerks rather than actual villains. And then there’s the mysterious Aristodeus, a Gandalf-like character who brings dire warnings of a being of ancient evil known as Mananoc, as well as the faen, his magic-wielding servants. And of dark visions and prophecies.

The use of prophesy in fantasy has always been problematic. Since a prophesy foretells what will happen, it essentially robs a story of tension, since the outcome is already known. Furthermore, it implies acceptance of the concept of fate – that the future is written and cannot be changed, so that any choices or the concept of free will are made meaningless. Prior takes a bit of a different approach here. Early hints in the story suggest there are dark times ahead and that Carn will play an instrumental role. Aristodeus is the primary hint-dropper, with statements like “I’ve already said too much”. Prior introduces prophesy and vision, but immediately counters it with Aristodeus trying to convince himself that “the future is not set”, implying that it perhaps the prophesy can be changed. Which then begs the question: if it can be changed, should it? Let’s say there are two paths the future could take: a) the hero rises from tragedy to challenge evil or b) the hero is told of the tragedy, chooses a different path and spells doom for everyone. Is Option B really the best one? Furthermore, if there are two paths, how does someone know which path is the path their enemy wants them to take? I felt like Prior did a good job in conceptualizing and presenting this.

The dwarven society and the city of Arx Gravis are intricate and well-described. From dwarven histories and legends, to laws, political structuring, and policing, to mining and leisure aspects…all are believable and make sense. Even the floor of the ravine, where the destitute, law-breakers and non-conformers live, has it’s own sub-culture full of street vendors, crime, and brutal gladiatorial combat. There are two great maps at the front of the book: the continent of Medryn-Tha, which has no bearing on the story, and Arx Gravis, which is very effective in helping to conceptualize the unique layout of the dwarven city.

Action sequences are well-done, and there are plenty of them for such a short book. Amazon and Goodread reviewers mention violence and gore, but to me it was no worse than other books I’ve read lately such as The True Bastards or God of Broken Things. If I had to stylize the content, I’d say this: take some Dragonlance or Dungeons and Dragons, the tragic swords and sorcery tales of Elric, James Silke’s Death Dealer, and add a slight influence from The Hobbit, and throw them all in a blender…that’s what Ravine of Blood and Shadow feels like to me. Prior’s pacing is excellent; there were concerns about this in Carnifex: A Portent of Blood but I’d say those concerns have been corrected in the re-write. His writing style is also easy to follow, a welcome relief and change of pace from some of the intense door-stoppers I’ve endured. And for a self-published novel, I found no grammatical issues.

Something potential readers might find problematic are hints at other lands and other peoples, but this setting contains only dwarves and dwarven society. This is necessary due to the fact that this is an “origin story”, but it is rather limiting. However, I think I prefer this as opposed to starting with book 2 and presenting this material as flashbacks, so I wouldn’t take this as a negative – it simply sets the stage for the second book which will move away from the dwarven setting. One critique I have of Ravine of Blood and Shadow is that it is too short. At 235 pages it is the shortest book I’ve read since early 2018, and it feels like it ends when it’s just getting started…I can see the attractiveness of an omnibus. Also, for some reason I found the central mystery – the missing and then returned book of the dwarven “Chronicles” – confusing. Somehow I missed the significance of this act and the importance it played in the story…I thought Prior could have handled it a bit better, with more clarity. The final criticism I have of the book is that it doesn’t do a lot to dispel the stereotypes of fantasy dwarven characters that publishers seem to object to. Beards, beer-swilling, fighting and mining are dwarven staples, and aside from an exception or two, such as the scholarly Lukar, Prior stays the course.

Despite some of the minor flaws above, I liked Ravine of Blood and Shadow enough to purchase the second book. I found it a quick-moving, action-packed origin story that is needed to get the series off the ground and beyond dwarven society. If you don’t like Dragonlance or Dungeons and Dragons, Elric, The Hobbit, or dark violence all rolled into one, you probably won’t like this either, but as for myself I found it engaging. I’m looking forward to the second book, Mountain of Madness, to see where Prior takes this story…

Status Update 3-30-20

It’s been awhile since I posted, so I thought I’d just do a quick post to let those who follow this blog know that I’m still alive and well. These past few weeks have been nerve-wracking and dramatic and I feel like April’s going to be worse. Washington State, and mainly the Seattle area, was the initial epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, although New York has since become the hardest hit. I’m only 3 hours away from Seattle, and for awhile it seemed like my county might get lucky despite the proximity to the Puget Sound area; however, cases are now accelerating in my locality.

I’ve been working from home as much as possible, with once-a-week trips to the office. Working from home brings its own challenges, from pet distractions to lagging internet over VPN. I’m fairly well-stocked when it comes to food and supplies – too many episodes of watching the Walking Dead have been embedded into my subconscious – but occasionally I have to go out to re-purchase goods that don’t last forever such as milk and eggs. I live in a rural area so social distancing is easy for me, except for the aforementioned trips to work. Despite a state-wide stay-at-home order, my company is deemed essential, since some of our products go into medical equipment such as ventilators, as well as telecommunications and defense.

I’m not so much worried about myself – I’m generally pretty healthy, although there are no guarantees with this virus – I’m more worried about my retired roommate, who is asthmatic, and his 85 year old father, who also lives on the property. They are able to stay at home, but my greatest fear is contracting the virus at work or at a supermarket and bringing it home. An infection for them is likely a death sentence.

So right now it’s tough to be able to focus on the blog and reviews, although that’s what people who are stuck at home need at this moment. I’ll see what I can do. I am able to snatch some brief reading moments here and there, though Reaper’s Gale is more challenging than I thought it would be and I’m only 60% through it after a month of reading. It’s starting to sink my reading goal for the year, but that seems inconsequential during these difficult times. The pace is picking up a bit, so hopefully I’ll finish it in the next couple of weeks.

Enough about COVID-19. I’ll keep working on reviews and reading whenever I get the chance. Take care, everyone!

New Acquisitions 03-11-20

I tried to write this post yesterday but my WordPress refused to upload images or save my post, and then failed again earlier today, so I’m trying once more.

This past weekend I found myself in a Goodwill thrift store once again to tag along with a friend. I stumbled across some hard covers and decided to pick them up despite knowing nothing about them:

new additions

I have heard Cecilia Dart-Thornton’s name but never read her work. My newly acquired copy of the Ill-Made Mute was published in 2001. While some reviews suggest that pace and plot are in issue, other describe her writing style as beautifully lyrical and descriptive. One of the big draws for me are references to Seelie and Unseelie creatures. As a big fan of White Wolf’s vintage Changling role-playing game and Arcadia collectible card game, I was intrigued to see how Dart-Thornton uses these terms.

The Historian immediately hooked me when I opened this 2005 hard cover and found a map of Europe inside with synopsis of a story inspired by Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Reviews are mixed but are overall positive.

Children of Blood and Bone was a difficult choice and I almost put it back. Published in 2018, it’s a Young Adult novel, over-hyped with a massive 7 figure book and movie deals, and containing some standard fantasy tropes. Normally those three strikes would be enough for me to shy away from. However, it is told in first person narrative, the setting is inspired by West African lore and culture, and reviews are (mostly) positive. The sequel, Children of Virtue and Vengeance, came out in late 2019. The negative reviews talk about abandonment of the emphasis on the world-building that was superb in the first book, a plot that feels like it was rushed under great pressure, and a dearth of character development, including too much angst, selfishness and immaturity. Positive reviews are brief and generic, which is not a good sign. I’ll probably just stick to this first book and approach it as a stand-alone novel…