An Interview with Alec Hutson

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Alec Hutson is the author of The Crimson Queen, and the forthcoming sequel, The Shadow King. He was the Spirit Award winner for Carleton College at the 2002 Ultimate Frisbee College National Championships. He has watched the sun set over the dead city of Bagan and rise over the living ruins of Angkor Wat. He grew up in a geodesic dome and a bookstore, and currently lives in Shanghai, China. His other books are The Manticore’s Soiree and Twilight’s End. His official website is authoralcehutson.com.

Alec was able to field my questions and answer them immediately, so I’m pleased to be able to publish the interview sooner than expected, despite a forgotten question I had to follow up with later. And don’t worry, my questions regarding The Shadow King are mostly spoiler free, but I did get a detail or two out of Alec.

My questions are in bold and referenced as “HA”, while Alec’s answers are represented by “AH”. Together we are AH HA!

 

INTERVIEW

HA: Let’s get started with some personal stuff. I’ve read some of your other interviews…how you grew up in a Massachusetts town (like someplace right out of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories), how your aunt owned a bookstore, and that you thought you might become a lawyer before you started to think about writing…until a girlfriend convinced you to go to China. How hard was it to make the decision to immerse yourself in a different culture, where English isn’t widespread? What was that experience like? What kind of struggles did you go through early on? Is Keilan’s journey akin in any way to your own at that time in your life?

AH: At the time I really embraced the opportunity to live abroad. I had just graduated college in Minnesota and before that, as you said, had grown up in New England. Two wonderful places, but not the most exotic. Perhaps that was part of the reason I read so much speculative fiction growing up – on some subconscious level I was yearning to experience something different, perhaps to have an adventure in an antique land. I’ve always wondered what my life would have been like if I took the other path in the woods and went to law school or got my MFA (I had been accepted into a program just before I decided to go to China), but I can’t say I’m unhappy with how things have unfolded.

My biggest regret might be that I didn’t write for my first ten years in China. Asia – particularly the mega cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai – can be sensory overloads. There’s always so much swirling around that it can be really hard to find the head space necessary to write, or do anything creative. I wonder if I was in some more sedate US city or suburb if I would have thrown myself into writing earlier . . . but perhaps my experiences in Shanghai have enriched my writing and made it better than it otherwise would have been.

I never had a difficult adjustment period. From my first day in Shanghai I felt really comfortable in the city – far more comfortable than I do in, say, New York.

That’s a really interesting point about Keilan and whether his journey mirrors my own. I think, though, that having a character like Keilan is important for most fantasy books, as it is helpful to have a point of view that is discovering the world along with the reader. The young, coming of age perspective emerging into the larger story is an effective way to present the history and cultures of the setting fairly naturally. Fantasy is all about summoning up that sense of wonder, and experiencing the world through characters like Keilan – no matter if it is tropey – is a very effective way to instill this feeling in the readers.

 

Angkor-Wat

HA: I see you have visited Angkor Wat – a magnificent place that gives one a feeling of connection to an ancient past. What other awe-inspiring places have you been to since you moved to China – perhaps the Great Wall or the Forbidden City – what were your favorites, and do you think they make their way into your writings?

AH: I’ve always loved ruins. To walk among towering monoliths or peer down crumbling passages and imagine how splendid it must have been a thousand years in the past. I love the mystery and romanticism of these places. To keep with Shelley, we may not despair when we look upon their shattered visages, but we do feel something deep inside. Or at least I do.

The weight of history presses down on China and shapes the character of its people, but a lot of the physical manifestations of its rich past were purged after the communists came to power. I’ve been to the Potala Palace in Lhasa and the Forbidden City and the Great Wall and these are all impressive places, but for me, Angkor in Cambodia and Bagan in Myanmar are more magical.

And they definitely make their way into my writings. Keilan’s adventures in Uthmala in The Crimson Queen was a homage to my love of ruins. I was imagining Angkor when I wrote my descriptions of that city. It was also a paean to D&D style adventuring – exploring ancient ruins, fighting monsters, returning with treasure and ancient knowledge.

 

HA: You’re a big China Mieville fan. What other writers would you say are your favorite or most inspirational and why is that?

AH: George RR Martin absolutely changed my conception of what fantasy was capable of being. I was 16 or 17 and I randomly found Game of Thrones on the shelf at my bookstore. I’d read Jordan and Goodkind and Salvatore, and I loved those authors, but when I entered Westeros it was like something clicked inside me. I was evangelical about those books before almost anyone else, I think. I remember attending the Odyssey fantasy writer’s retreat soon after and telling everyone that Martin was the harbinger of a new age in fantasy fiction, and they all just shrugged and rolled their eyes.

For prose, I love the rich language of Lucius Shepard, R. Scott Bakker, Josiah Bancroft and David Mitchell. Some writers give me this sense of tingling, dreamlike unreality when I’m reading them, which is another feeling I’m chasing when I crack a fantasy book – the short stories of Kelly Link and the novel The Etched City by KJ Bishop are good examples of this.

Other favorite writers include Guy Gavriel Kay, Iain Banks, Dan Simmons, Elizabeth Bear, Roger Zelazny, Jeff Vandermeer, and Alistair Reynolds. The best fantasy book I read last year (or at least the one I most enjoyed) was Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames.

 

HA: Can you give us an idea about what it is like to self-publish…how did you do it, what obstacles did you face, marketing efforts – were you able to steer people towards The Crimson Queen, and how much of a boost came from the SPFBO?

AH: It was really quite simple. I wrote the book, paid for a cover and editing, and put it up on Amazon. No marketing, no plan. It did well right out of the gate, and I think I was around 1500 in the Kindle store when it somehow got in the hands of the excellent indie writer Will Wight. He read it, loved it, and recommended it to his fans. That pushed my book up into the top 800 or so for about 4 months.

One reason I decided to self publish and not pursue trad was that it seemed to me that the big publishers were not publishing traditional epic fantasy anymore, at least not unless it had a very dark edge. But it looked to me that that style of fantasy was still immensely popular, as evinced by the indie books selling incredibly well online (think Dawn of Wonder, Benjamin Ashwood, Path of Flames, etc). That’s one of the big benefits of this new era in publishing – massively popular subgenres like military sci-fi or epic fantasy that have essentially been abandoned by the big houses can now be serviced by indie writers.

SPFBO has been interesting. I’m glad I did it, but I’m not sure how big its reach actually is. I think there are a few hundred people very invested in the contest, but it’s largely an insular and self-contained community. The blogs and major personalities involved also lean heavily towards one particular style of fantasy (gritty, violent, and dark) and that’s reflected in the scores given out and the finalists chosen. But I don’t think that’s the most popular representation of the genre.

 

HA: The Crimson Queen and Alyanna were in earlier iterations of your story. Where did Keilan’s character spring from as a late addition, and why did you decide to make him a prominent POV character?

AH: The initial conflict was always between Cein and Alyanna. They’ve always been very distinct characters in my mind, and I find them both intriguing. Keilan was eventually added to the story because – as I mentioned earlier – having a coming of age hero makes the discovery of the world and its history seem more natural. Also, it’s helpful to have a character that readers can identify with. Young and confused is something everyone has experienced – sorcerous queens and courtesans not so much.

 

HA: Did your world-building come first, or did the plot come first and the world-building evolved from that?

AH: The characters of Alyanna and Cein came first. And then Jan. Demian was a relatively late addition, and Senacus became a larger character as I wrote the book because I liked him so much. I had the broad strokes of the world outlined, but a lot of the details were filled in as I explored the story.

 

HA: The Crimson Queen is the first book of The Raveling. Do you have a series arc lined up already, or is the story evolving organically as you write and your ending is not yet set in stone?

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AH: The arc is set, and I know how it all ends. I tend to have a few major plot points and the end very clearly realized when I start writing, and the journey from plot point to plot point sort of unfolds naturally as I go along. That’s not to say that there aren’t major revisions that occur – one of the reasons The Shadow King was so delayed was that I wrote about 60k words with a new character joining Nel and Keilan on their POV thread, and I suddenly realized it would make much more sense for the story to bring back a character I liked from Queen. So I basically started over and re-wrote everything after this epiphany.

 

HA: What would you say are the biggest differences between The Crimson Queen and The Shadow King, from not only a story perspective (sharing whatever generalities you can while avoiding spoilers), but also your perspective in the writing process when crafting the two books?

AH: Hmm. I would say that a big difference is what’s driving the plot. The Crimson Queen was a little like the court intrigues of Game of Thrones, as you had several selfish players competing with others or are perhaps more principled for power and control. The main villain was Alyanna, who could be likened to Cersei. Evil, but still perhaps a bit sympathetic at times. In The Shadow King the threat shifts to become more global. My version of the Others start to work their will in the world.

In terms of the process, it was a bit harder to write simply because I knew I had to do it. With Queen it was a labor of love, bits and pieces written without pressure on holidays and weekends. With King I knew I had to produce something (and it still took me too long).

 

HA: Did you feel any pressure when writing The Shadow King…I mean, is there a conscious part of you that knows people are anticipating the release, and after the hundredth time of “when will it be ready?” (the equivalent of “are we there yet?”) do you feel pressure to finish? If so, how do you keep from buckling under that pressure or avoid rushing things just to meet some kind of self-imposed deadline?

AH: Certainly. The success of Queen took me really by surprise, and the thought that there are many readers out there anticipating the second is a bit daunting. I really wanted to meet their expectations, though, so I never gave any thought of rushing through the sequel to capitalize on Queen’s popularity. I’d rather release a book I’m proud of and have it sell a tenth of the copies than throw something half-baked out there nine months too early. And I’m happy with it. Some threads turned out better than my expectation, and some threads didn’t quite come together like I had hoped, but I think that’s part of being a writer.

 

crimson queen

HA: Do you have artwork chosen for the cover of The Shadow King? What does it represent? How did you go about getting the artwork for your books?

AH: With the art for my first book I found a thread on kboards (ground zero for self-publishing) from an artist I liked and commissioned him to draw Uthmala. It didn’t quite come together like I hoped, but it’s pretty cool so I stuck with it. Now 18 months later I have a much better lay of the land and I’ve commissioned an artist I really like to redo Queen and do King. He’s working on the artwork – I haven’t seen it yet but the scene is going to include the Chosen, the demon-children from the first book (they are the bigger ‘global’ threat in the second) and they are facing off against a sorceress from the second book. The artist doing the covers is John Anthony di Giovanni. He does great stuff.

 

HA: Would you stop at a trilogy, or do you think the series will go beyond three books? Do you have other stories not related to The Raveling that you are considering publishing in the future?

AH: I will probably return to the world with other books, though I might take a break and write something different. Still probably fantasy, though. I’ve got a few ideas gestating.

 

 

HA: Bonus question: You’ve played Ultimate Frisbee for years and are passionate about it. What do you find appealing about it and how did that translate into a “Spirit” award? What is a Spirit award? Did you ever consider a way to work a similar game into your books using some kind of magical item or arena contest? 😉

AH: Haha. Okay, so Ultimate Frisbee is a self-refereed sport. At the recreational level, it’s pretty easy to stay honest and not use the rules to your advantage. But the more competitive you get, the harder it becomes to stay objective. It’s pretty amazing, actually, how well players comport themselves when they are responsible for playing fair. Can you imagine if fouls in soccer and basketball were called by the players? It’s a really remarkable concept. Anyway, the Spirit award isn’t just given for an adherence to fair play, but also for being a good teammate. Ultimate Frisbee – along with speculative fiction – are the two great non-organic loves of my life, so receiving this award from an incredible team of amazing people is still one of the proudest moments of my life.

***

Many thanks to Alec for graciously accepting my interview request and taking the time to answer my questions in an entertaining manner. Look for The Shadow King to be released very soon…

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Alec Hutson Interview Request

crimson queenBack in January I posted a review of Alec Hutson’s The Crimson Queen; that book and Josiah Bancroft’s Senlin Ascends are the best books I’ve read this year so far. Alec stopped by and left a comment, thanking me for the kind review. Big mistake, Alec! I have managed to rope him into an interview and am working up some questions now, which I will post a transcript of once the interview is complete.

 

You can check out Alec’s website here. He says that The Shadow King, the sequel to the The Crimson Queen, is currently under review by his editor, and a late June/early July release is expected barring major revisions. Another book that will be added to the queue…as soon as I can get my hands on it!

Stay tuned for my interview with Alec in the near future…

Book Review: Witch Wraith by Terry Brooks

witch wraith

Format:  hard cover, first edition, 2013

Pages:  415

Reading Time:  about 10 hours

One Sentence Synopsis: As Aphenglow and Arlingfant struggle to complete the Bloodfire quest, Railing returns from his own quest to seek Grianne, in order to help rescue his brother Redden from the Straken Lord’s captivity.

 

By now you know the story of how my struggles with reviewing Bloodfire Quest got the better of me and I left the book blogging world for a few years. After my return to this blog, in my review of Bloodfire Quest I talked about the opinion that Aiden of A Dribble of Ink had regarding Witch Wraith and the several preceding volumes:

“It’s better to consider the ‘trilogy’ to be the story told across all nine of the books, beginning with Ilse Witch and ending with Witch Wraith. Let’s call this the Ilse Witch Trilogy, for lack of an official name…Just by existing, Witch Wraith and The Dark Legacy of Shannara change the nature of the first two volumes of The Ilse Witch trilogy and take them from being footnotes in Brooks’ career to a cornerstone.”

So after completing Witch Wraith do I agree with that assessment? Read on to find out, but I’m warning you ahead of time that there are massive spoilers throughout this review about the events and ending of Witch Wraith, as well as the entire Dark Legacy of Shannara series.

 

What else did Aiden have to say? “That all said, it’s with no small amount of surprise that I have nothing but praise to heap upon Witch Wraith, as a conclusion to The Dark Legacy of Shannara and the Ilse Witch Trilogy, is as satisfying and grandiose as anything Brooks has written. Does it recycle the ending to The Elfstones of Shannara? Absolutely. In fact, it’s almost exactly the same (uhh… spoiler warning?), but it’s not any less emotionally affecting…Witch Wraith makes the books before it stronger by giving weight to the decisions, sacrifices and conflicts that at first seemed pointless. Hollow. What did Grianne change by making the decision she did at the end of Straken? What did the voyage in The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara mean for the world at large? We get our answers in Witch Wraith and the pieces have been falling into place since the final pages of The Elfstones of Shannara…The ending of Witch Wraith is bitter-sweet, but Brooks’ none-too-kind treatment of Grianne is a refreshing and somewhat shocking turn for the Shannara series. Her decisions, her struggles, conflicts, flaws and strengths are the beating heart of Brooks’ work. There’s genuine sadness in her story and she’s well deserving of this nine-volume arc.

Drew at Raging Biblioholism states: “Mostly, I just can’t understand why Terry has been unable to shake almost literally the same plot lines for the last… really the last three trilogies…And this third book in the “Dark Legacy” trilogy ends up feeling like a mashup of everything from really every Shannara series/novel so far. You want to try to find other Elfstones? Done. Time in the Forbidding? Done. Invasion from the Forbidding? Check. Ohmsfords at the center of things? Yep. Even the idea of going back to the tanequil and attempting to retrieve Grianne… it is simply a different version of the same plot as the last series. And not in the way that “there are only six plots in the whole world” or whatever but in that “we’re going to do the exact same mission but more compressed and with a few details changed around” way. It’s just lazy, to be honest…Indeed, much of this book felt… simultaneously rushed and lazy. As though the compressed writing schedule (all three books within one 12-month!) both forced him to write with more pace but to also then rely on old plots to keep up said pace.

Lighthearted Librarian explains: “As much as I love Terry Brooks, I have to admit, I was disappointed this time…Brooks hinted at the whole “is any race wholly good or evil?” question again as Redden considered Tesla and what life had been like for the Jarka Ruus, but again it was just a blip. And by the way, how did other creatures like the Grimpond get to remain in the Four Lands? If the elves were intent on locking away all evil creatures of Faerie, they certainly missed a few. How does the magic of the Ellcrys snatch away Tesla but leave the Grimpond…I hated the resolution of the Redden/Railing/Mirai storyline — it was too easy. I suppose it doesn’t help that I wasn’t all that fond of either Redden or Railing. I also hated the Grianne storyline but in a good way. It did take things up a notch. It made sense in that even heroes make mistakes, sometimes tragic ones…Despite my disappointment with this installment, I do love the world of Shannara and I’m already looking forward to the next journey. At 25+ titles, however, I’d like to see a few new twists introduced to the series. I’m okay with the fact that we can always look forward to a quest involving the Ohmsfords, the Leahs, and the Ellesedils. I’d just like to see new quests, or new complications.

 

Two of the three reviews above express disappointment, and while I think I too was disappointed in places, I was also entertained. There are definitely things to like about Witch Wraith – the siege of Arishaig was well-done, the final attempt to acquire the elfstones was fun, and any scene with Grianne in it was intriguing. In fact, I got a few chills from some of the scenes with Grianne, especially during the showdown with Tael Riverine, although this ended much too quickly for me. Some other things that I think Brooks did well here addressed my criticisms from the first two books. The first is that often the heroes are only the focus and regular people are nothing more than angry crowds or invisible, not seen or heard…what makes them worth saving? Brooks has several examples of the average, everyday person – soldiers fighting for their lives on the walls of Arishaig, elven soldiers befriending and sparring with dwarves, a human woman in the first book who I believed was self-serving but ultimately turned out to be innocent – it feels like Brooks got the message and I thought these moments were compelling. I found myself actually caring about what would happen to the Federation soldiers, which I never thought would happen. Also, I had many questions from the first books that I thought would go unanswered, but Brooks addresses them all (save for one or two) in this third volume, almost like he made a checklist from my questions and checked them off one by one. So a big hand to Brooks for taking the time to plug these holes.

The reviews above address specific criticisms with regard to recycled material…and let’s face it, that’s a long-standing criticism…as well as how the elfstones and Tesla Dart are resolved. And Railing’s character – yuck! Probably the most whiny, self-centered, entitled emo character that Brooks has ever created…I was outright rooting against him and hoped he would fail. But where I really have a problem (and you might want to skip ahead now to the last paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers), is with the pacing and plot. Usually I complain when the pacing slows to a crawl, but I have the opposite complaint here – the story feels rushed, as if the six month publishing date between books caused some issues. To tell his tale, Brooks needs the three main story lines to converge, but the likelihood of them doing so at the same time is improbable. Yet it all comes together near the end in a neatly tied up package. The ending is wrapped up far too quickly, and focuses only on what happens to the Ohmsford twins. What about the other characters? Some just disappear after a sentence or two, some have a couple paragraphs devoted to them, but the biggest travesty is the Aphenglow/Arlingfant relationship, which ends in characters discussing it but I would have like to have seen more physical moments leading to emotional responses.

However, the biggest criticism I have involves the plot. In addition to the character convergence I mentioned above, there are two gaping holes. One is that the biggest threat to the Straken army isn’t Arishaig – elves and Federation people could care less about each other, so there was no way Tael Riverine had anything to fear from Arishaig – the biggest threat to his army is the Ellcrys. So why didn’t the Straken army march to Arborlon and attempt to destroy the Ellcrys? Yes, that didn’t work in the past but does Tael Riverine really care about what happened hundreds of years ago? I mean, he could have flown his dragon right to the tree and torched it, and the elves would have been unlikely to stop him even with their airships. Tael Riverine attacking Arishaig is simply a forced plot device to buy time for the characters to converge.

Going a step further, then, is the fact that as long as Aphen and Arling succeeded, it didn’t really matter what anyone else did, the other characters simply had to buy time. Of course, those people fighting the battles didn’t know this – no wait, they actually did – so this has the effect of robbing the story of tension, other than who lives or dies, and thus the actions of other characters don’t matter too much, because Aphen and Arling are the deus ex machina that can render everything else moot.

And following that to its logical conclusion, Grianne wasn’t necessary to the plot at all. She was acquired in order to battle Tael Riverine and get Redden back. But in the end, she simply takes over the Straken Army and gets stuck back in the Forbidding. Aiden’s premise that the return of Grianne makes this series a cornerstone and that it serves to “give strength to some of Brooks’ earlier works just by virtue of existing“…in my opinion this falls flat. She made no difference in the outcome of the book. If Grianne’s return had made the difference in delaying the Straken army long enough for the Bloodfire quest to succeed – else all would have been lost – that would have made her appearance key to the plot. The plot, however, didn’t turn out that way. The Straken army hadn’t taken the eastern pass of the Valley of the Rhenn, let alone the western pass which was even more formidable. They weren’t at the gates of Arborlon with the fall of the city imminent. Tael Riverine was riding a crippled dragon and was not making much progress. Probably the only difference Grianne’s return made was that some elven soldiers’ lives were saved in the 30 minutes (if that) it took for Arling to reach the Ellcrys when Grianne stepped out to face Tael Raverine. That’s hardly what I would define as a cornerstone to the previous two series. I loved Grianne’s character in this book…I just don’t think it was handled appropriately in order to have the impact that Aiden suggests.

So in the end I leave Shannara with mixed feelings. Questions were answered, I cared about the ancillary characters, and I loved (almost) every moment of the re-appearance of Grianne. At the same time, the book felt rushed, the plot shows holes big enough to drive a truck through, Grianne didn’t have the impact I had hoped for, and the ending felt incomplete. I guess I won’t say I’ll never read the stand-alone sequels to Witch Wraith, but with so many books in the queue and several works from promising new authors, it certainly feels like this is goodbye for Shannara and I.

New Arrivals and Orders 5-16-18

The following books have arrived on my doorstep and will eventually make their way to the queue:

death of dulgath

After I finished the Rose and the Thorn, The Death of Dulgath was a no-brainer. That led into…

theft of swords

rise of empire

heir of novron

I was surprised by the heftiness of these volumes, for some reason the page counts didn’t register in my pea brain and they are much, much meatier than the books in the Riyria Chronicles.

 

midnight tides

return crimson guard

A couple of Malazan novels added to the growing collection. RotCG is impossible to find in hard cover for a reasonable price and will probably only get worse.

 

king of thorns

I’m curious to see where Mark Lawrence takes this series. I’m holding off on purchasing Emperor of Thorns until I can fairly assess King of Thorns.

 

fools quest

I was going to get this anyway but I included it to reach the free shipping plateau when I was ordering some other stuff from Amazon…

 

Ordered but not yet received:

arm of sphinx

Book Review: Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft

SenlinAscendsFormat:  oversized paperback, first trade paperback edition, 2018

Pages: 389

Reading Time: about 8 hours

One Sentence Synopsis: A school teacher takes his new bride on a honeymoon to the tourist destination of The Tower of Babel, but when they become separated he must ascend up the tower into a dark and strange world in an attempt to find her again.

 

Senlin Ascends made it into the reading queue after it was featured on Mark Lawrence’s Self Published Fantasy Blog Off of 2016. Unfortunately for the book and author Josiah Bancroft, it didn’t quite capture enough interest from review site Pornokitsch to be one of their top 4 picks, and so did not make it past the first round of the SPFBO. It might have continued to wallow in relative obscurity, except for the fact that Pornokitsch did give it a good review, and then Mark Lawrence (and subsequently others) raved about it. In fact, Lawrence declared it one of his favorite books of all time. It moved from a self-published digital story, to being picked up by Orbit and published in paperback. As a history buff, I was intrigued by the Babylonian setting and a hint of steampunk elements, and with Lawrence’s hefty recommendation, I decided to take a chance. Was it worth the gamble? Read on to find out, and as always, be alert to the presence of spoilers…

First, a look as some other reviews from basements, baths, and other mysterious places around the Web…

 

Joe Gordon at Forbidden Planet says: “Except Senlin is as far from anyone’s idea of a capable hero as you can imagine. Trusting in his guidebook soon proves to be a mistake – this is no reliable Baedeker, beloved of Victorian adventurers in exotic lands, it seems like an act of total fiction. Senlin is going to have to learn how to adapt if he is to survive. He’s the proverbial fish out of water, in fact he is often so damned wet you almost feel the urge to slap him and tell him to get with the programme, he’s the blundering idiot abroad, totally unprepared, no idea what he is getting into, no idea what the local customs are, how things work here and it doesn’t look like he has what it takes. The unlikely hero is not a new idea in fantasy, but here Bancroft handles that trope extremely skilfully. Senlin meets people, has encounters, and they slowly start to change him through the hardest of lessons. But he doesn’t transform into some great hero, he’s still Tom Senlin, the village school teacher. But he’s learning. And even from the raw beginning, even at his weakest, Senlin does show one spark of backbone – he will not walk away without his new wife, no matter what…It’s a world that feels like a mix of different parts of our own history – nice little details like people visiting from Ur, for example – and myth, and yet it is also so clearly not our world, and again this allows much scope for metaphor…And then there is the style of writing – Bancroft has a remarkable way with words; workers in their faded finery for a night out have “collars the colour of cigar smoke”, while dancers have “mouths lurid as mashed cherries.” It put me in mind of those wonderfully evocative descriptive phrases in the Philip Marlowe novels, making Bancroft the fantasy equivalent of Raymond Chandler; I was not surprised to find out after finishing the book that he is also a poet.

Writer Dan of Elitist Book Reviews states: “It took no more than a single paragraph for me to realize that this author had some chops. I love finding books like that, which instantly immerse me in language where I can forget about everything else around me and just enjoy the proffered story. Rich detail and intelligent prose that is absolutely chock-full of character pulled me into the story and the mentality of Tom Senlin and the world surrounding him…Senlin himself is a mild-mannered, studious man. He’s used to having things go his way, as they often do in the school room. He teaches what he knows and knows what he teaches. Although he can seem standoffish and even prude at times, it is his hesitation and thoughtfulness that helped me to really find his character likable and engaging. And his sense of humor and sarcasm was directly in line with that of my own. There was this scene at the beginning of Chapter 14–a flashback no less!–about flying a kite, that so absolutely and brilliantly captured the character and motivation of Senlin for me that I never once doubted him again. Likely some of the most powerful and affecting two pages of story that I’ve read in as many decades…I also made the statement that THE GREY BASTARDS stood head and shoulders above any of the others in the final SPFBO group, but the fact of the matter is that for me, SENLIN ASCENDS was even one step better than that. I sooooo wish that SENLIN ASCENDS had been passed along to the final group, as it would definitely have been my vote for the best of the contest, but the simple truth is that it wasn’t…Absolutely a book to read, to own, and to love. Couldn’t recommend it more.

Jared at Pornokitsch opines: “It takes a while to warm to the snobbish, provincial Senlin, and it isn’t until he stops being overwhelmed by his surroundings and starts taking responsibility for his actions that the reader goes from following him to empathising with him….Everything happens for a reason; everything exists for a reason, and part of the oddness is simply that Senlin is a flustered and passive character at the start. When Senlin, well, ascends (in every sense) – and graduates from tourist to ‘native’ – that the world goes from being curious to genuinely immersive…Senlin’s spent his life studying the Tower and the first thing it does is betray him. These prominent emotional hooks carry us through the first part of the book, and, given the oddness of his adventures, that empathy is important…It is also worth noting that Senlin is absolutely and terrifically unexceptional. He’s not a Chosen One, nor does he have any secret magic skills that come to the forefront. He is smart, educated (if naive), hard-working and dedicated. He commits to his quest with neither destiny nor prophesy on his side, and faces overwhelming odds without the barest hint of cosmic assistance. As far as the traditions of epic fantasy are concerned, he couldn’t be any more of an underdog, making his adventure all the more exciting…A terrific, free-ranging fantasy that ranges from Kafkaesque horror to heist thriller, all tied together by themes of agency and ascension. What begins as a disconnected series of curious vignettes turns into an exciting and cunningly-constructed epic. Senlin is that rare fantasy protagonist that succeeds solely through intelligence and hard work, making his progress (such as it is) all the more impressive. This book is bonkers, entertaining, clever and – quite possibly – unique.

These are some of the most thoughtful and articulate reviews I have possibly ever read about a fantasy novel. I agree with what has been said above, to a degree. However, my own spin on the book is a little different, so let me do my best to explain. Books have always been important in my life. Going back to my childhood, I think about the Charlie Brown Dictionary that I carried under my little arms everywhere I went. Stories such as Alexander and the Magic Mouse, The Golden Phoenix, Where the Wild Things Are…and as I grew older, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, A Wrinkle in Time, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nihm, Treasure Island, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Where the Red Fern Grows, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and so many more…. When I was young, it seemed like all these books had been written for me. It was as if each author had sat down and said, “I’m going to write this story just for Brian. I know he’ll really like it!” Somehow the author had reached into my mind and pulled out the most amazing, imaginative stories that connected with me on the deepest level possible. When you’re young, your mind is not yet full of science and math, work and stress, relationships and commitments, cynicism and ego, and laden with filters…at that age, your mind is an empty treasure vault, waiting to be filled with new wonders. Each book I read as a child was an amazing new wonder added to that vault. And though I still love reading books to this day and I’ve enjoyed them thoroughly, I don’t think I’ve ever felt, as an adult, a deep connection to any book like the way I did when I was young.

Until now.

As I read through Senlin Ascends, I was completely entranced. Unable to capture what I was feeling until I sat down to write this review, I now realize that this book connected to me on a deep, deep level – that childhood-deep level that I described above. The story unfolded before me in a way that reminds me of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Alice in Wonderland, only, it did so on an adult level. The book was described by author Pearce Brown as “a modern book that feels like a timeless classic“, and I think that description is spot on. Much of this feeling I attribute to the world-building. The Tower is a vertical world, with its “ringdoms” each containing its own type of citizens, rules and rulers, economy, and ecosystem. The true intent of The Tower is to trap people at specific levels, which is what makes Thomas Senlin’s ascension through these ringdoms notable. Early on I was able to figure out how the ringdoms interconnect – indeed, how The Tower itself functions – due to my fascination with all things steampunk that provided me with some insight.

Another contributing factory to the story’s charm is Bancroft’s prose. It is elegant and wonderfully descriptive, and I believe this is where the “timeless classic” feeling comes from. Here are a few of my many favorite descriptive passages:

The bundle of women’s underwear that had been resting on his lap fluttered open. Hosiery, bloomers, and camisoles flew into the crowd of the public square, alighting everywhere like doves in a park.

He sat at the bottom of a well. There was a point of light far above him. At the bottom of the well, a piercing note rang in his ears. It reminded him vaguely of a finger playing a wineglass.

“‘Spring is gray and miserable and rainy for three or four weeks while the snow melts. The ditches turn into creeks, and everything you own is clammy as a frog belly. Then one morning, you walk outside and the sun is out and the clover has grown over the ditches and the trees are pointed with leaves, like ten thousand green arrowheads, and the air smells like’ – and here he had to fumble for phrase – ‘like a roomful of stately ladies and one wet dog.‘”

Her short hair appeared to have been cut by a blind man weilding a sickle and was the color of ashes.

My apartment smells like a cave where generations of cheese makers cultured their wheels.

Bancroft, who is a self-admitted poet, is a master of analogous descriptive phrasing. It allows him to completely populate his world with people, places, and interesting things, without the story bogging down in the details. It leads to a perfect pace and an imaginative setting. There is a point where Senlin is hired to perform work, and after a brief switch to a first person narrative, it returns to third person and starts to bog down a bit. The final 30 pages finally break the story out of this lull and are packed profusely with swashbuckling action, where the pace picks up furiously.

One of the criticisms of the book focused on Senlin meeting people again that he met earlier in the story; that in a place as large as The Tower it shouldn’t be possible. I thought Bancroft handled this deftly, as part was by design, and one random reunion happens because of the port he is at, where smugglers “have” to land at because they wouldn’t be able to land at the nicer ports. The only real issue is with a floozy that seems tied lockstep to Senlin for the purpose of the plot, but it really wasn’t impossible to happen that way – unlikely, maybe, but not impossible.

Another criticism states that Senlin doesn’t give the impression that he is clever enough to pull off elaborate heists. I will say that there is a little merit to that criticism, as Senlin is initially portrayed as socially challenged – to a degree. What we discover about his character is that as a teacher, he has managed all sorts of personalities in his classroom, including bullies, and this experience, combined with the realization that he would do anything to get his wife back, makes him desperate. It also allows him to tap into abilities like inner cunning and identifying weaknesses in others, which he is able to bring into play. It’s important to note that Senlin isn’t perfect, and makes several mistakes along the way. However, one other facet of his personality that is admirable and useful (and has largely gone unrecognized in other reviews), is his general decency and willingness to trust others, even though he has been advised not to. This decency and trust pays him back in spades in The Tower, where such things just do not happen. Senlin is a force that not only allows himself to change and grow within, in order to find his wife, but he also changes others around him for the better.

If I have any criticisms of the book, it is that we only get to see Senlin’s wife Marya briefly at the very beginning and then later in flashbacks, although those flashbacks are very powerful as Writer Dan notes above. Those flashbacks only serve to heighten my wish to see more of Marya as a main character, as she is so wonderfully written – she sees in Senlin what others in his small town overlook, which means she is special. My other criticism is my disappointment with where the story ends…it is not exactly a cliffhanger, but it stops in a place of uncertainty and raises many more questions about how the story will turn out. In other words, it left me wanting more, so I guess Bancroft has done his job well!

Senlin Ascends is one of the best books, if not the best book, I’ve read in a long, long time. That’s high praise, and I understand that other readers may not find the same experience, because as I stated above, this book made a personal connection to me, and it won’t make that same impression on most other people. The beautiful lyrical language, the character that persists in spite of his imperfections and against all odds, and the imaginative setting of The Tower of Babel – all contribute to a story that made me feel a child-like wonder, a story I could place in the empty treasure vault of my mind, and for that I am truly grateful to Mr. Bancroft. I will be ordering the sequel, The Arm of the Sphinx soon, and it will be entered into the queue, where I hope to discover more of that child-like wonder…

Why I Don’t Review On Goodreads Or Amazon

There are a lot of things to like about Goodreads. It is a diverse community and there are many benefits to belonging – finding reviews and recommendations, tracking statistics on your reading, notifications of new releases, a strong author presence – among other things. But there are two gigantic reason why my reviews aren’t found on Goodreads:

  1. I dont like the review system
  2. And, the comments found in those reviews

Most of you who read my reviews know that I don’t use a scoring system. Why is that? Because a scoring system, unless extremely detailed, doesn’t offer any flexibility in assigning book scores. And even if you design in some measure of flexibility – such as a score of 1 to 100, or scoring using multiple categories – defining criteria for a scoring system is difficult to implement consistently. Books must either be compared against other books, or they must be compared against your own internal means of measure, which may be as simple as “I liked it this much”, or it must check off certain boxes to achieve a score.

In a system where the only rating options are 1 to 5 stars, there is a distinct lack of flexibility in assigning a rating. Furthermore, a rating is not an opinion; it is simply a score. There is no context within a score to give the value meaning. Let me use an example I have relied on in the past. Forsaken Kingdom has a total rating of 4.16 on Goodreads, while The Wise Man’s Fear has a total rating of 4.58. Those total scores, however, are disingenuous to my own rating, because I can only leave a score of 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 in my own review. The Wise Man’s Fear has its flaws and is not a perfect book – I don’t equate it to my “cream of the crop” novels, so let’s say I gave it a 4. Forsaken Kingdom is a novel that plays it safe and doesn’t come close to attempting the depth and lyrical beauty of The Wise Man’s Fear, but isn’t terrible. So that means I should rank it lower but not too low, perhaps a 3. Now along comes The Crown Tower. I feel that it is better than Forsaken Kingdom but not as good as The Wise Man’s Fear. Yet my only scoring options are to make The Crown Tower equal in score to either Forsaken Kingdom or The Wise Man’s Fear, instead of somewhere in between.

This is the problem I have with the “star” scoring system – it allows zero flexibility when scoring books. And let’s face it, the score of a book can often influence its success or failure. Whoever set up the 5 star scoring methodology on Goodreads did the reading community a poor service. Amazon uses the same scoring system. This is primarily the reason why I won’t review on Goodreads or Amazon – I refuse to use that type of a scoring system. Yet on both sites, if I want to leave a review, I must use that system.

The other reason I won’t leave a review on Goodreads has to do with the social media aspect regarding comments on reviews. If I were to post a review, I would expect that like many social media sites where anyone and everyone can leave an opinion, the comments section would degenerate into arguments and name-calling. One need look no further than the reviews of Prince of Thorns. There are so many angry comments about rape, and also people saying things like “I can’t stand to follow a murderous character like Jorg” or “I don’t understand how a fifteen year old boy can be good at all these things.” I can see their viewpoint, and I respect it. I would never try to argue with them that what they are feeling isn’t right. That is their opinion.

Yet in the comments section, arguments and name-calling ensue. To me it seems that many of the reviews or comments missed the entire plot of the book – this boy was merely a tool used by a wizard and had little to no control over his actions. It changes the entire context of the story, yet it is as if none of these people actually read the book, or at least came away with an understanding. It’s far too easy to simply deride and shout down differing opinions, and it’s something I want no part of. At least here on WordPress I can moderate comments and ensure that type of thing doesn’t happen to me.

It’s a shame, because there are a lot of thoughtful and wonderful people on Goodreads that have interesting things to say, and aside from the scoring system, the site has some great features. Yet it is the baseness in the comments section that ruins it for me. If that was the only reason to avoid Goodreads, I could probably overcome it. But added to the scoring system, the site just isn’t a good fit for me. Perhaps one day I will reconsider, but for now I’m happy to stay exclusively right where I’m at.

Book Review: The Rose and the Thorn by Michael J. Sullivan

rose and thornFormat:  oversized paperback, first edition, 2013

Pages:  347 (not counting glossary and extras)

Reading Time:  about 6.5 hours

One Sentence Synopsis: Royce and Hadrian return to Medford after a year’s absence, only to become embroiled in politics, royal assassination attempts, challenges from the local thieves guild, and revenge.

 

In my review of Michael J. Sullivan’s The Crown Tower, I had decided to “kick the can down the road” – or in other words, the determination as to whether I would continue to purchase more Riyria novels would be based on how I felt about The Rose and Thorn. The Crown Tower had enough positive to outweigh the negative for me to order and read The Rose and Thorn. Now that I’ve finished The Rose and Thorn, what is my decision? Read on to discover my choice, and as always, expect some minor spoilers.

 

But first, let’s look at some other reviews around the ‘net. Matt Gilliard of 52 Book Reviews says: “While not as satisfying as the previous effort, The Rose and the Thorn is still packed with all of the things that made Sullivan such a powerhouse in the genre. There are banter and battle in equal measure, a touch of romance, sharply drawn characters, and the wonderful blend of nostalgic sword and sorcery that hearkens back to the books that led many thirty and forty-something readers to the genre in the first place….The plot is nothing groundbreaking, it is Sullivan doing what he does best. High stakes, frequent reversals, and a deeply layered sense of the world in the smallest of schemes. There is no doubt that there are larger forces in play here, and readers of the Riyria Revelations will see the beginnings of larger plot lines and that information, while unnecessary to the main plot line, definitely sweetens the pot for faithful readers. And that’s the real genius in the way that Sullivan has approached this return to the property that brought him so much acclaim. He’s crafted a story that hits all the same notes as the preceding novels while filling in the back stories of beloved characters all while telling these early tales in such a way that is accessible and rewarding for new readers.

Shadowhawk of The Founding Fields opines: “But this time, we see the wider cast of the original series make their appearance. It was fun to see all of them at such an earlier point in their lives, as much as it was seeing the formation of Riyria in the previous novel and this one. Each character adds something different to the overall story. But there was one who really stood. Hilfred, the royal Sergeant who was Arista’s bodyguard in the original series. More than any of the Essendons, he is the star of this novel as far as the story is concerned. The Rose and The Thorn is his origin story, and quite a painful one it is too, knowing what we do from the original novels….However, thing is that there are far too many characters here for Michael to juggle properly and give each his or her due. Michael does well to tell a really intense story that works in the entire cast, and lay the groundwork for the original series, but it all felt like an overload. Particularly because Gwen got the short shrift here. The motivation for everything that Royce does in this novel comes back to Gwen and how she is treated by a noble, but curiously, we get very little of her in the novel. It stands in contrast to the previous novel where she was one of the protagonists.

Finally, Wendell of Book Wraiths states: “And as Mr. Sullivan slowly reveals all these amazing plots, his rare, writing brilliance becomes clear to see, for each of those lovely, individual stories begin to mesh together, creating a single, overarching tale. A yarn that not only encompasses this novel and the Riyria Chronicles but also the Riyria Revelations as well….And somehow while juggling plot lines, Mr. Sullivan also finds time to gift each character with his or her own unique personality. There are no cookie cutter characters in this novel. Each character is well rounded, having their own unique history, problems, hopes, and fears that foreshadow their future selves but does not lock them into a particular role. Indeed, even those characters a longtime reader knows will one day be revealed as “evil” are so life like that you will find yourself hoping that somehow they will see the error of their ways and change before their fate closes around them….Overall, this is a wonderful, entertaining fantasy, worthy of inclusion into the ranks of the best novels of 2013. While some readers call Hadrian and Royce and their adventures simple, uncomplicated fantasy, if this is an example of “simple fantasy” novels then I would label it simply brilliant and ask every writer out there to begin to emulate it. It quite frankly is just that enjoyable to read.

 

So as I sat down to formulate how I should approach this review, I started to think about the unique opportunity I had to review this book as someone who has never read the Riyria Revelations series. Shadowhawk makes an interesting statement at the end of his review: “I must admit that I am quite jealous of anyone who goes into this not having read The Crown Tower or any of the originals. It would be a fascinating viewpoint I think.” It only confirmed to me that I should take that approach (although I did read The Crown Tower), and that my take will be different from almost every other review written about The Rose and the Thorn. I will make some comparisons to The Crown Tower, since it directly proceeded this book.

I’ll start the review with a look at pacing and style. Sullivan keeps things moving at a brisk pace. There’s very little down time spent in describing excruciating details or of pages and pages of character angst and introspection. Sullivan wants to get a certain place by the end of the book and he only has 347 pages to get there, while also needing to develop several new characters and their backstories or personalities. Under those constraints, there’s little time for fluff. This makes for a fast-paced read…in fact, I was surprised by how quickly the story was over.

This pace also has a downside, however. Characterization veers towards the shallow side. Royce and Hadrian actually get a significant reduction in “page time” compared to what they received in The Crown Tower, as the focus shifts to Reuben, the royals, Albert, and Rose, and Gwen’s character has a much reduced role, as Shadowhawk points out. There simply isn’t enough time to devote to multiple viewpoints, motivations, or in depth character studies. However, there is enough detail to get by from the lesser characters, and Reuben and Albert get some significant development considering they are new. Royce finds out that not every problem can be solved by killing people, while Hadrian learns that naivete and showing mercy to an opponent can unravel all his good intentions. Each realizes they have something to learn either from each other, or from their experiences. There is a scene where Royce recalls a former mentor and tries to think of how that mentor would handle a difficult situation. He makes the right play and is surprised at how well the results turn out. Now that is some great character development!

The plot of this book is where Sullivan really shines, and this is where I can differentiate my review from others. Since I didn’t know what would happen in the Riyria Revelations, I didn’t know who would live or die except for Royce and Hadrian. For me, this created an extreme amount of tension in the story, especially when one character central to the plot has their throat slit, one dies in a fire, one is killed in a swordfight, and another is flayed by Royce. By giving other characters like Reuben, Albert, King Amrath, Princess Arista, Top Hat, and others such prominent roles, with Royce and Hadrian taking somewhat of a back seat, I had no idea what would happen to them all. It is a brilliant move that for someone like me, reading in chronological order with no future knowledge of events, made the book very exciting.

Furthermore, this sentiment applies not only to which characters live and die, but also to the direction of the story. Think of Sullivan’s plot threads as strands in a spiderweb. Royce embarks on a revenge mission, Hadian follows Rose and Reuben’s father while at the same time high constable Exeter has a manhunt on for her, royals scatter in multiple directions, a fire breaks out, a conspiracy to kill the royal family is in play, and Reuben makes some difficult choices…there are so many ways that the story could have gone – so many strands in the spiderweb to follow – it was impossible for me to predict what would happen. That means that every twist and turn in the book was, if not totally a surprise, leading to yet another strand of possibilities. This also lent a great deal of excitement to The Rose and the Thorn.

Most of the problems I had with The Crown Tower are non-existent here. There’s no predictions from Rose or intervention from a god-like being that undermine the plot and remove tension; conversations feel more natural and less awkward; and more woman appear in the story in various roles – royals and nobles, a healer – although prostitutes are still the most prominent. I feel that The Rose and Thorn is better than its predecessor in every way. Also, the title of the book makes sense…it comes from a bittersweet moment near the end that encapsulates much of the book’s theme – from out of bad can come good, but the cost incurred is not forgotten.

In conclusion I would say that my reading situation, as detailed above, gave me a more unique, and dare I say, better, reading experience than those reading in publishing order probably found. I read in other reviews (like Matt’s above) that readers who had read Riyria Revelations first, and then read these prequels later, liked seeing the backstories of familiar characters, and were able to recognize the development of subsequent plot lines. However, I think not knowing what would happen in the Riyria Revelations made this book far more exciting for me than it would to those readers. I’m definitely moving ahead with purchasing The Death of Dulgath, as well as the entire Riyria Revelations series, and possibly Sullivan’s Legends of the First Empire series as well. Sullivan has just picked up a major new fan – me!